Shazia had been hiding in the barn for two days. She knew that soon she would have to leave, for her backpack had run out of food and the hunger was becoming painful. The only possible exit was a small hole in the back wall, the same one she’d squeezed through to get in. Whenever Shazia crept over to it and peered out, however, she found herself unable to take the next step. She knew that it was possible, that it would be so very simple to duck down, crawl through the opening and leave the barn behind. She simply couldn’t do it. Her brain collided with an immovable obstacle, her legs locked in place beneath her. She simply stood at the hole, looking out at the world beyond. It seemed so horribly vast from the enclosed safety of the barn.
There was another way out, through the barn door, but that was where the Martian was. It was lying lopsidedly, its face angled towards the door. Its great bulk quivered every time Shazia looked over at it. She knew it was dying. Its breathing was ragged and painful, cut through with hissing and whining. Every time it entered her field of vision she willed it to be done with, for the creature to die and leave her alone. She’d estimated what must be its line of sight and kept out of that, kept as quiet as possible when she moved around. She spent a lot of her time huddled in a corner, coat pulled close around her, trying to pretend the Martian wasn’t there.
The barn was dimly lit, with only a few rays of light spilling in through cracks in the walls. Shazia skirted around these, keeping in darkness where she could. An observer, placing their eye to the crack, would surely find her frozen in the light, petrified and vulnerable. To be seen was to die, to be seen was to die, she repeated the words to herself constantly. They could kill quicker than a finger snapping, quicker than thought had time to register. She panicked when she contemplated that, felt like her heart was tearing itself apart. The thought of not knowing frightened her more than anything, though she breathed deeply and told herself it was irrational.
It was on the third day that the Martian spoke to her.
“I know that you are there,” it said.
Shazia stared at it. She’d been crouched in a tight ball, mind somewhere else. When its voice came to her, all thoughts crystallised at once in her head, became immobile. There was a lightness in her chest, like it was hollow, like she was made of air.
The voice had a tinny quality to it, sounded like it was coming from beyond a wall. Shazia didn’t reply. She remained perfectly still. Maybe if she didn’t move, didn’t talk, then it would stop, then everything would stop.
“I will not harm you. I only wish to speak with you.”
Another minute passed. Shazia focused on the Martian’s agonised breaths, matched her own breathing to its gasps for air. She managed to transmute a little of her fear to anger. Fragile, sharp-edged, painful anger.
“You’re dying,” she managed to say.
“I am. Come a little closer.”
Shazia shook her head, squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the Martian to do something. Perhaps it would haul itself around, fix its eyes upon her and that would be it. To be seen was to die, to be seen was to die.
After a while, when nothing had happened, Shazia opened her eyes and stared at the Martian’s back. Then she got unsteadily to her feet. Her legs were weak beneath her after days of immobility. She took a few hobbling steps towards the Martian, came nearer than she had ever done. Still she was careful to remain out of the creature’s eyeline. Lying on the ground in front of the Martian was a little black box she hadn’t noticed before. The Martian had reached out with its tentacles and the tips danced across the sides of the device. As they did it spoke with the Martian’s metallic voice.
“If you remain here, you too will die. You will starve to death. You must leave.”
“I can’t,” she said.
“You must,” the Martian hissed, “you must survive.”
“No,” Shazia shook her head, “no.”
“No! I can’t!” Shazia dug her nails into the palms of her hands. “If I go out there, there’s those things, there’s the machines, your machines. They’ll see me. I know, I know they’ll see me. I can’t do it. I can’t go. I can’t. No.”
She closed her eyes. She didn’t have a clear image of them, knew them as indistinct shapes only. She often saw them striding along in the distance, or one just standing motionless as a great cloud of black smoke issued from its underside. She had a patchy memory of a shadow falling over her as she fled through empty streets. Every time she focused on it she felt like she was looking at something far away, something hidden at the end of a long corridor. She found didn’t want to draw any closer to it.
“They’re out there,” she whispered, “it’s a trick. There’s one out there right now.”
“This is no deception.”
Shazia felt a sudden urge to hurt the Martian. It was motionless, vulnerable, in pain. How satisfying it would be to go over and hit its great, heaving mass. Strike it and kick at it and claw at it. Taking a few more steps towards it, Shazia curled her hands into fists. Then tiredness dragged her arms down, dragged her whole body down. She sat down in the dust next to the Martian.
“Why do you want me to survive?” She asked.
There came a great rattling exhalation. Shazia winced, shut her eyes, prayed that it had given up the ghost. Then the box spoke again.
“I do not know.”
Shazia pressed her hand to her forehead. She had questions that she wanted to ask but they were fleeing her. This close to the Martian her hands were trembling in her lap, she had to make a conscious effort to breath.
A red light started to flash on the side of the box. The Martian stroked a tentacle along it, almost as if soothing a child. The light flicked off. The box spoke again.
“A tripod is passing nearby. I have informed the pilot that this area is clear of human life. Do you see now that I am not lying to you? Soon it will be gone, then you too must depart. You must find food and shelter elsewhere. You must survive.”
“All this time you could talk with us.” Shazia hadn’t listened to what the Martian had said.
She’d managed to catch hold of a thought. “You could talk if you wanted.”
“It was agreed that there would be no communication with humanity.” The Martian replied. Its voice was more muted. It might even have been regretful. “Mars could not permit itself mercy. Mercy was to be considered a weakness. We could not afford to admit any weakness.”
“So instead you burn.”
Shazia gritted her teeth. The thought was painful. It was made out of fire. Out of the fire swam images of blazing people, caught in Martian heat rays. They burned like candles did.
“Yes.” The box blared, suddenly loud, “Yes! We burn! We burn because we must! We conquer because we must! We must survive! Earth must be the new Mars, or else we die. We die and we are nothing. We must survive!”
The voice cut off as the Martian was racked with coughs, its body convulsing. Shazia waited until it had finished but it didn’t speak again. Glancing over, she saw that the box had been knocked forward and fallen just out of reach of the Martian’s tentacles. In vain it reached for it. For a minute, Shazia watched it struggle. When it grew too agonising she stood and, stepping in front of the creature, nudged the cube back into its reach. It looked up at her with its dinner-plate eyes as its tentacles stretched out and caressed the box once more. They were huge, those eyes, and they glimmered with intensity. To be seen was to die, to be seen was to die. The words crowded her, yet she did not die.
“Thank you,” the Martian murmured.
Shazia sat again, facing it.
“Was there a time when you didn’t care about survival?” She asked.
“Perhaps,” the Martian said, “I don’t recall.”
“Yeah,” Shazia nodded, “me neither.”
They regarded each other for a while in silence. The Martian’s V-shaped mouth was quivering, dripping saliva. Its eyes were struggling to focus, Shazia could tell. She thought maybe she saw fear there. The light on the box flashed again, briefly on then off.
“The tripod has passed by.” The Martian said. It was strange to hear it speak, now that she could see its mouth didn’t move. “You must go.”
“How long do you have left?”
“Do you want to be alone?”
There was a beat.
“Fine.” Shazia looked over at the door behind her. She took a deep breath, which shook at the edges. “When it’s done, I’ll leave. I promise.”
“Is there anything I can do?” It occurred to Shazia only after she’d spoken how absurd it was that she was saying this to a Martian.
“What you have done already is sufficient.”
For a while they returned to just looking at each other. When the Martian spoke again, the movements of the tentacles on the sides of the box were weaker and its voice sounded fainter. It was almost like it was delirious.
“I am only a voice in a box. When you break the box, where does the voice go?”
The tentacles fell away from the box, then. The Martian’s breathing got more laboured, flecks of spittle flew from its mouth, its eyes rolled back in its head. Shazia stared at it, paralysed. She thought she might reach out and put a hand on it, try to comfort it, try to say something to it. She couldn’t do it. She watched the Martian as its body shook. Then its breathing slowed, its eyes fell shut. It stopped moving entirely.
Shazia didn’t wait. She rose, went and found her things in the corner she’d been hiding in. She slipped on her backpack, walked back around the Martian’s body to the barn door. Sliding it open, she shaded her eyes with her hand as the sun’s radiance spilled in. She glanced back, saw the dead Martian caught in the glare. In front of it, the little black box glinted. The red light was flashing. Shazia hurried back over to it, raised her foot and stamped on the box, which crumpled beneath her foot. She’d thought it would be sturdier but it collapsed in on itself like it was made of cardboard. The light went off.
Turning, Shazia left the barn.