History remembers the victors: the men and women who rose up and shaped the world. The rebels, the conquerors, the winners.
It doesn’t mention the losers.
We had never understood the skies. Our history, our culture, and our literature were littered with intrigue and fear of the stars. We had always feared the monsters in the dark, those spawned on distant worlds under strange suns. Our stories were full of the space explorers we aspired to be. Some stories ended in intergalactic warfare with fanged, winged, or clawed creatures. Others ended in peaceful coexistence with intelligent, gentle beings.
The stories with war were more popular.
Some thought the stars would bring new opportunities, new medicines, new technologies. They were hopeful and dreamy about the stars. They wanted to walk under different skies, fly between the galaxies. Meet the aliens.
Oh, we had launched our expeditions. They moved beyond the small trips to our own moon, beyond the probes and the satellites we launched. We conquered our solar system, even built colonies on neighboring planets. We mined asteroids for raw minerals. We pumped chemical liquids from moons and planets, selling them to the highest bidder.
But we always knew the reality of what we could find out there among those celestial bodies: a new war to fight. So we prepared for it. After arming our ships and training our soldiers, we thought we were strong. We thought we were ready.
We found them in a system not far from our own. A race reaching for the stars, like we were.
Some rejoiced. New cultures, new technology, new ideas, they thought. New friends. But as we learned of them, the logical saw them for what they truly were.
The attack began with centers of power, swift and without warning. Shielded spaceships blasted capitol buildings and command centers. The Presidential Palace in China. The Palace of Westminster in England. The Pentagon in the United States. The Mogamma in Egypt. And many more.
It was a strategic attack, demoralizing and disruptive. Governments were thrown into disarray as they scrambled to establish chains of command in the wake of the attacks.
The United Nations called for a nuclear strike as fleets of warships were launched into the sky. Just like that, the entire planet was at war with an enemy it didn’t understand.
We manned weapons we had only ever fired in training, flew ships through battles when before we had only ever piloted them through obstacle courses. The bigger ships served as in-space hospitals, missile launchers, and carriers for fleets of smaller, more agile craft. They were floating cities stocked with thousands of lives: drafted soldiers and volunteers, doctors and nurses, generals and privates.
I was a mechanic. I never wanted to be a soldier. But I found myself on a ship with machines I had never seen, a simple private. I had never even killed an animal before. Now I watched as scores of people died, even as they killed thousands more of the enemy.
We were months into the war when they brought the first prisoners. One of the enemy ships had been damaged in the attack rather than completely destroyed. With the amount of firepower both sides employed, the losing side was usually left obliterated. But not this time. We had boarded and invaded the disabled ship. I had been one of the foot soldiers. I can still smell the strange atmosphere, feel the gun in my grip, hear the screams.
The prisoners were transferred to my ship while scientists and engineers tore apart the alien ship, studying the technology.
I was given guard duty.
The prisoners gasped and choked in our thinner atmosphere. We had no idea what they ate, or even if they did, so we could not feed them. Some were injured and lay listlessly on the cold metal floors of the cells, while their comrades tried to tend them. Others were angry, screaming and screeching in strange noises that either flowed together like water or diced against each other like breaking glass. A few of the very foolish even tried to escape.
Those were dragged away for testing first.
No one was so naive as to believe that “testing” meant anything more than vivisection.
I didn’t like to think about that.
The two months after the prisoners’ capture were strangely quiet on the war front. Rumors came of skirmishes between smaller ships, but the No Man’s Space between the two fleets went largely undisturbed. Meanwhile, I spent every day standing outside a cell block at attention, escorting prisoners to the lab, or shouting meaninglessly at them when they grew especially restless. Eventually, we learned what they needed for survival and were able to provide them with the barest of nutrition and care. But it mattered little. At the end of two months, there were only two left under my supervision. These I decided I could watch with less rigor and more curiosity.
I had learned a little of them through rumors from the lab, but the most I had learned came from observation. They showed kindness to each other, clearly not believing only the strongest should survive for the good of the many. On the first day, there had been one that was injured. The others ripped up their own uniforms to wrap his wounds. They were fiercely protective of one another, to the point of risking their own lives for that of a comrade. Two had been shot when they tried to prevent us from taking another away.
These weren’t barbarians or cannibals, or worse, animals, as I had heard them described by disparaging, low-ranking soldiers. Their technology alone would show their innate intellect, but their treatment of one another? These were proud, courageous, compassionate people, not very different from us.
Could they not see how similar we were to them?
Could we not see it?
There were physical differences, but they were very few. In form, we were alike: two legs, two arms, one head. It was the details where we differed.
Their skin tones varied from person to person. One of the two in my block had skin that was a light brown while the other had skin that was almost black. Their skin was soft and stretched taut over muscular flesh. Their eyes were ringed: white to brown to a black center. Then there were the strangle...bristles, all over their bodies. It was sparse on their arms, but covered their heads. It seemed to grow, as these two now had it thickly covering their lower faces.
And their blood was red.
Two nurses came from the lab. I recognized them immediately.
“Just one more. We don’t want to waste the last of the specimens.”
I nodded, raising my gun. I turned to the prisoners. I had been fitted with a translator so I could give them instructions. It was crude, but communication was possible. “Humans. Away from bars.”
They yelled a garbled mess of words at me that even the translator could not hope to understand. I was pretty sure they were expletives. I couldn’t blame them. I’d be swearing, too.
“Away! Away!” I gestured with my gun. They growled deep in their throats, backing away from the bars. I keyed in the code to the lock. The nurses advanced.
One human fought, but the nurses shocked him with a taser. It had been one of the first discoveries they made, the humans’ susceptibility to blasts of electricity.
The other prisoner surged forward to protect his comrade. I stepped into the cell, pointing the gun at his torso. The nurses dragged the unconscious one away. I backed slowly out of the cell and punched the code for the bars to close.
The second human continued to yell. My translator finally began to pick up on the words.
“Monsters! Let him go! Let him go, you…” It fizzled out as the human screamed. “What you do with him?” The translator shrilled.
I couldn’t bring myself to answer. I had seen other guards tormenting the humans, but I found no joy in these creatures’ pain. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to be fighting them. Perhaps I was a coward. These people could destroy us. They were vicious people. Our scans and surveillance had seen that. We had monitored their communications, hacked into their satellites and their databases of information. We hadn’t seen much, but it had been enough.
They were a suicidal, genocidal people. Their history of discovering new peoples and cultures, even of their own race, traditionally ended in enslavement, subjugation, or worse, annihilation. So when we found them in our wanderings, when we learned of their history...we struck first in a war some had never really thought we would have to fight. There were no attempts at diplomacy, for we had seen that these people would not respond to it. And after we leveled their major cities, they would not have accepted a peace treaty even if we had offered it.
The motivation for war had always made me uncomfortable. We had found them. We attacked first before they had even met us face to face. But we saw their ships reaching out, closer and closer to our system. A race such as they would not come peacefully if they found our homeworld. They were conquerors, and many civilians would die should war ignite closer to our home. Cities, colonies would be destroyed. Children would die. Our preemptive war, where we were clearly stronger, was surely the best option. We would destroy the monsters from the stars before they could smell our blood.
But...as I stood looking at the human in the cell, raging at the bars, liquid falling from his eyes in his distress...I did not see a monster.
I saw a person.
A person we had broken.
“Why?” The translator in my ear asked, echoing the human’s question in my own language. “What we do to you?”
It wasn’t the first time I had heard that question. I turned towards the bars, staring into his ringed eyes. How strange to have eyes that were more than one color.
“You threaten our home.” I waited for the translator built into my mask to repeat the words to him. “You would kill our people, if given the chance.”
He stared at me, skin wrinkling above his eyes. “You attack us!”
“So you wouldn’t find us. You are killers, conquerors. We will not be your slaves.”
“We not know you existed!”
“You would find us. One day.”
The human slammed his fists against the floor. “You gave us no chance! You attacked! You did not try!”
I looked away. He wasn’t wrong.
I turned back. The human had pulled something from inside his torn uniform. It bore an image of a smaller human - a female, by her longer bristles. She looked...young.
“My sister! She died. In your attack!”
I swallowed hard.
“What she do to you! What did any one do?” He collapsed back against the wall. Fluid was streaming thicker from his eyes, and his lungs seemed to have trouble taking in air.
I could see my daughter, waiting light years away. I hadn’t seen her in two years. Because I was protecting her. Defending her.
When my shift ended, I went to my bunk. I skipped a meal, wanting to sleep. To forget. To ignore the guilt telling me that something about this was very, very wrong.
“Hey! Clean up, you smell like human.”
I barely glanced at my bunkmate. He made the same joke every day.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Just tired.” I removed my mask, frowning against the beginnings of a familiar, burning pain behind my eyes.
“Tired of what, standing in front of a door all day?”
I rolled my eyes. He was in rare form today. “Tired of thinking. Something you wouldn’t be familiar with.”
“Ooh, someone’s in a mood.” He stuck his tongue out at me, mocking me.
“Do you ever get the feeling that we shouldn’t be here?” I didn’t know why I was asking. I knew the answer I’d get. But I had to talk about it with someone.
“You mean, other than every time I have to eat that engine scum they give us?”
“I’m trying to actually have a serious conversation with you.” I was almost growling now. It wasn’t the first time I was tired of his joking. I turned away, beginning to change out of my uniform.
He was silent for several minutes before he spoke. “Yes. I mean. I don’t know. We’re here for the betterment of our world, you know?”
“At the expense of theirs.”
He looked away. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess so.”
“They didn’t do anything. And we attack them because of what they might do?”
He turned back to me, expression annoyed. “You don’t actually believe that, right?”
I froze. “What?”
“Look, I’ve been on the survey teams. Studied the scans of the planet. It’s a geological money pit. Worth more than anything in our system, anything in this system.”
“It’s inhabited,” I protested.
“With a violent, potentially dangerous species. And this place...it could be the answer to the energy crisis back home. Could keep our world running for centuries. They’re not making the most of it, so…”
“So what, it’s a sham?”
“Oh, come on. It wouldn’t be the first time in our history we fought for a reason other than the advertised one.”
“Just like them,” I murmured.
“We’re just like them.” I spat through my pointed teeth.
He leaned back against the wall. “I don’t know that I’d go that far. And you have to admit, it will help our planet. It’ll help our people.”
I had never been so angry in my life. “At the cost of blood!” I shouted. “How many died? How many of our people are dead? How many of their people are dead?”
“Alright, hey, calm down!” He held up his hands.
I threw back on my uniform and left the room without another word. My body was shaking with anger. I felt taller, like I was floating and towering over everyone as I stormed down the hall.
I had never been impetuous. I was a rule follower. I was a private. A low-level, not-very-talented mechanic. A guard. I wasn’t the best, the brightest, or the most influential.
But I had morals.
And that gave me the courage to do something I never would have dreamed of before that moment.
Once I found a computer terminal, it took me four minutes to pull up files on the designs of every ship in the fleet. I downloaded them onto a chip. I was a mechanic by trade. My codes let me into the files. They’d think I was just studying, trying to move up the ranks, increase my expertise.
It wasn’t hard to lie to the other guard on duty. I knew him. He let me take his shift, swapped easily with me. Then came the hard part.
I opened the cell door.
When I walked in, the human lunged. I tasered him. I didn’t have time to fight him. I threw him over my shoulders, dropped my weapon. I was a guard for the science labs. I could have been carrying a body to the trash, a prisoner to the laboratory. No one questioned me. Not even when I walked into a deserted hangar, strapped him into a cockpit with the chip tucked inside his uniform, and slapped him to wake him up.
The translator garbled his first few words. Then he began to growl and shout when he saw me and realized where he was. I covered his mouth.
His skin crinkled as he fought against me.
He stilled. His eyes narrowed.
“Go. Home. Be safe.”
I didn’t know if he understood. But I could hear alarms ringing. I had enough access to get that point, but I had always known that was as far as I would get.
I set the autopilot, climbed out of the ship, watched it take off. Then I held my hands above my head and kneeled on the floor.
Now, I’m sitting in a cell that I used to guard. I really do stink of human now, I suppose. But even here, I’ve heard the news.
The tide of the battle has changed. My human got through the blockade, made it back to his people in the stolen ship. Two days later, the humans’ attacks were more precise, hitting the weakest parts of our ships. We’re being crippled, scrambling to recover. There’s already rumors that we’ll start retreating. That we’re considering surrender. That we’re losing.
And it’s all my fault.
My execution is scheduled for an hour from now. Treason, of course. I’ve been given paper to write my last words. I don’t know if anyone will ever read them. I know I’ve caused the death of so many people.
But I hope I’ve saved the lives of more.
Our war was wrong. Whether it was a preemptive strike or a war over resources or a racial slaughter, it was wrong. The humans did nothing to deserve the death we rained down on them. We weren’t protecting ourselves.
We were the monsters from the stars - the ones we always feared.
My people will lose this war. I’ll lose my life in the process. The humans don’t even know who I am. They will probably never know. But they’ll survive, and my people will stop shedding innocent blood.
I’d like to think my family would be proud of me, if they knew the truth. I chose what was right. They may never know the truth. History won’t remember me kindly, if it remembers me at all. But I am satisfied with that.
I’ll be on the losing side if it means I will not be a monster from the stars.
Because I suppose all victors are monsters to someone.