If you’re reading this, I want to say that I’m sorry. I wish I could’ve done more to help you. To say something that you don’t already know about the value of your freedom or how quickly it slips away would be impossible, but I need you to know that wherever I am now, I’ll support you, always.
You’re probably wondering why of all places in the universe I chose Silwad, a small village in Palestine to make my escape to. If I said it was the rolling hillside, salted with sandstone-block homes for miles and millennia-old rocks jutting out from the dry, bushy terrain or the occasional donkey standing beside the neatly-packed dirt roads, I would be lying. Though I must say these are equally inviting. To be honest, I didn’t know anything of the outside world except for those brief moments when I’d accompany the Machine on the Encounters. Instead, I made the decision to leave home based solely on the last Encounter with Amir.
Before I get to Amir, I should probably come clean about who I am and where I came from. My name isn’t Nasser, or at least it wasn’t before I came here. We don’t have names where I come from. We’ve no need for them anymore, I guess. I know it’s helpful for you people to assign names to people and I like the idea of having an identity of my own, so for now you can call me Nasser.
For those who knew the real Nasser, I didn’t mean to take anyone’s identity, and I won’t pretend to think I have half the potential that he did, but just know he was already gone by the time I got here. I did what I had to do to keep us both alive. Let me just start at the beginning.
See, until a few months ago I was living a normal life as what some would call an “alien.” This isn’t my preferred term, since I’ve come to understand it is used by certain groups of people against certain other groups of people here. And I should explain that I’m not a Martian either—I’m not from Mars. Not that I have anything against it, but it’s not my home. I’m from Mercury.
Mercury, a topographically rocky planet much like your moon, is nicer than you’d think, and we want to keep it that way. That’s how the idea of the Encounters began. The Council, which was originally made up of our elders, decided that all efforts should be channeled towards thwarting space exploration in our direction. I know what you’re thinking. We’ve seen Mercury and there’s no life there. Wrong. There isn’t life as you know it, which frankly isn’t saying much. Back to the Council. The elders decided that in order to buy time before the space trips from Earth and inevitable colonization, we needed to “scare the shit out of them.” Seriously, you should have seen the papers:
Z087BZLUL C93PPE ZHR CM WZL LU ZHQP Z Z922002WPUL 230XXUL. Which translates to: OPERATION SCARE THE SHIT OUT OF THEM A RESOUNDING SUCCESS
Named after the inevitable result of the Encounters, Operation STSOOT started with occasional nighttime abductions. Usually it’d involve simple things, like putting our faces up real close to people as they awakened in our ships just to scare them, stuff like that, before placing them back onto Earth. Some of us even got to flex our surgical skills, but then something changed. The evolution of technology soon eclipsed that of other life, relegating us to the peripheries. We were no longer the drivers of doing, of change, but the ones left to aid the Machines in their ultimate tasks. Even our participation in the abductions became more or less perfunctory when the Machines took over. Now that I’ve been to Earth, I know you see it starting here too.
It begins with something simple, a tool to help you do your job, something that feels freeing: the steam engine, cotton gin. . . . Next thing you know, the position’s been automated, and you have to find some other way to commodify yourself. The Council eventually resigned itself into an AI-run body, like everything else until everyone became some version of support staff, all working at the behest of the Machines. My role as a surgeon devolved into something of an observer and occasional mechanic, at times servicing and always serving the Machines.
Can you even imagine it? Being a shapeless, aqueous blob—the life that you apparently don’t recognize on your planet—and cosplaying in what you people define as a recognizable alien uniform, your mass forced into limb shapes for a bunch of would-be conquerors and you don’t even get the opportunity to implant an undetectable tracker, much less insert a probe or two. No, after the Machine takeover, my role—like the rest—was reduced to observing and being present in case the Machine needed some kind of maintenance. Night after night of this monotony does something to a Mercurian, and I began to long for a time when life meant something. That’s when I encountered Amir.
It started off like any other night shift in Operation STSOOT. I zipped myself into a greyish latex suit, forcing my otherwise shapeless body into the mold of human-like limbs with long, narrow fingers. Two big black eyes and a small, closed mouth that were all otherwise nonfunctional, meant to disguise our true forms from the humans we’d abduct. The Machine did all the technical work, as they do now. Being overseen by the best mechanic in all of Mercury, the Encounter was proceeding as expected, but something happened.
Amir, the human we picked up that night, was not like any of the others. We found him in a field, crouched behind a tuft of bushes, not tucked away in his bed like most of the others. But that’s not what made him different. What stood out was his reaction to being taken. Sometimes the people we abducted would pass out in fear, others would scream their heads off or try to fight back, but Amir did not. He looked square into my non-eyes, studying the contours of my uniform as if he knew it was all for show and cracked a smile. I knew right then that I needed to understand the origins of that smile.
When Amir was being lowered back onto the Earth, I removed my uniform, camouflaging myself with the surroundings, and quickly dripped down onto the rocky terrain. Under the limited light of a crescent moon, I saw a badly beaten boy lying on the ground. A hundred or so yards away an army-green jeep was parked, with what appeared to be three teenage soldiers standing by. If I had to recount their conversation, it went something like this:
“What should we do with him?”, asked one of the soldiers.
“Leave it. No one will know it was us. Maybe he’ll wake up in the morning with a headache, maybe he won’t wake up at all,” suggested another.
“Why don’t we just tell the truth,” said the third soldier, the others looking at him as if he was the alien. “He tried to ram us with his car, so we followed him. When he ran away, he hit his head on one of these rocks. You know, like the last one we brought to the jail.”
All three of them laughed, signaling agreement with the plan.
Their faces must have been as shocked as those of the people we’d pick up for the Encounters when they went back for the boy and nothing was there. I would have loved to stay and see for myself, but it was my chance to settle into my new human skin.
Once I slipped into Nasser’s body, I was able to repair the damage that the soldiers had done. Using my skill as a surgeon, I repaired his punctured spleen, his internal bleeding, his broken eye sockets, everything. His body was fixed from the inside out. I’d like the Council to see if the Machines could do that.
Healthy as ever, I crawled off the roadside and into the bushes where we’d left Amir. Having missed the bulk of the beating, he was relieved but not too surprised to see me—well, not me, but his brother, Nasser, now animated by me. We used the cover of night to our advantage, allowing us to run home before anyone else could see us.
The next day, I was excited to see what human life was like and wondered what I’d do with my newfound freedom. Um Amir made us some kind of mixture of potatoes and eggs, in addition to fresh figs and other fruit from the orchard behind our house. We had hummus topped with pieces of meat that mom drizzled with olive oil freshly pressed from the olive trees in town.
We then got dressed and headed to school in Ramallah. An impressive city, especially in comparison to the size and relative lack of urbanization in the nearby towns, to which the journey, likely only a few miles, took us just under an hour. Amir said the direct route was closed by the soldiers, so we had to take the long way. I didn’t mind, as I was just getting to really see the details of this planet for the first time.
Aside from the train of cars built up ahead and behind us, what I remember most were the rolling hills. Dancing over the curvature of the Earth, they extended as far as the human eye could see. Reminding me of home, I think of them most days now.
As we pulled up to what I now know as the checkpoint, Amir looked to me as a soldier approached each side of our car. A sort of small office appeared some 20 yards or so off in the distance. A few soldiers, all strapped with machine guns and the same olive-green uniform with leather combat boots, were standing around inside. I noticed the cameras pointing down overhead in various directions.
“Come on, ya hamar,” said Amir, pointing to the glove compartment. “Get our papers.”
Not sure what to do, I opened the glove box and grabbed the little green booklets. Amir, now visibly annoyed, tore them from my hand and rolled down the window. He passed them to the soldiers, who, also appearing annoyed, looked closely at the writing, then at us, then at the writing again before handing the documents back and allowing us to pass.
Giving the booklets back for me to stow away, Amir shook his head. “Man, what is wrong with you today?”
“Nothing, just a little tired,” I said, hoping not to raise too much suspicion from my older brother. It’s funny to me now that I said this because Mercurians don’t actually replenish ourselves through sleep.
We pressed on to school, where I just tried my best to keep quiet so as not to draw attention to myself. I was still trying to figure out this place, and who I was supposed to be in it. Amir, naturally, was the opposite. A carefree soul who liked to joke and laugh with his friends, he was much different than the humans we were told were coming to invade our planet. I just knew that Nasser looked up to him.
In the coming months, I spent the days trying to become the person I thought Nasser was, and the nights learning more about my new home, wondering how I could help. As far as I could tell, Nasser was a doting little brother, a just above-average student, and a young man who was still learning to navigate the world, given the many complications that began to bear down on me with each new discovery. Between the presence of soldiers, the system of checkpoints, and the almost constant surveillance, I wonder if he had the strength of his older brother by the time of his passing.
One night, after settling into our beds and gearing up for another long night spent reading, writing, and admiring the state of the moon, I asked Amir what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“President of all of Palestine,” he said, miming the shape of a rainbow with his hand, the smirk I’d grown to love on his face. “Now go to sleep habibi so you can dream about voting for me.” Looking back, I think he was only half kidding.
That night, while I was out on the stone-tiled veranda overlooking the town and inspecting what I now believe was a waxing gibbous moon, I noticed a couple of army jeeps in the distance. As they neared the town, I wondered what they could want at this time of night when we’d normally be plucking unsuspecting humans from their beds. When it became clear they were en route to our home, I quietly slipped back into my bed, not wanting to disturb Amir or alert anyone else to my nighttime activities.
That was the last time I saw my brother. The soldiers forced open the gate to our home, appearing at once in our doorway and pushing their way upstairs to our room. While one of them rifled through the dresser drawers, leaving a trail of unfolded clothes, video games, and comic books that we must have not looked at since we were kids, the soldiers said they were looking for me.
“You just come in here, break the door down, destroy our home,” mom protested. “Now you want to take my son! He hasn’t done anything!”
Whatever she said, it didn’t matter. They forced my hands closed, tightly zip-tying my wrists together. Dragging me by my hands, they fastened a red bandana over my eyes before marching me out to the street and into their military jeep.
When my eyes were finally uncovered, I found myself in what I learned was an “administrative detention” center—a fancy name for a jail. I was surrounded by other kids like me. Many didn’t know why they were there either or when they would be allowed to go home. They told me about the profiles that the military keeps on all of us. Not just us at the jail—everyone. I thought back to my homeland, what it was like to be watched by a web of Machines, and realized they must have seen me.
Now that I realize the soldiers know what I did, I might as well get it out in the open so they can’t twist the story once I’m gone. See, the afternoon before I was abducted, I was walking to get a snack, and because I was sick of having to take the long way for no reason, I decided to take a shortcut through the field by the settlement fence. Maybe I got too close, but I heard some buzzing and looked up to see a drone with some kind of shooting contraption attached to it. I got my phone out of my pocket and took a picture, so I could compare it with the ones in the article about automated weapons and surveillance systems that I was reading. I shoved the phone back into my pocket and quickly made my way home without thinking of who may be watching. As I walked, I thought about what had happened on my planet, how once the Machines no longer needed the cooperation of living beings, they totally controlled us.
They tried to get me to confess, not to that specifically, but to trying to overthrow the State, to terrorism, to more things than you can ever imagine. They even knew about that night by the road when I supposedly tried to ram them with the car. They said I was a fugitive of the State. When I refused to give them the confession they wanted, the soldiers forced me into a room by myself. Sometimes it was just for the night, other times it felt it could be months, years, eternity. Who knows. I’ve spent more time alone in a windowless box than even I know. The room itself is frigid, the floor hard, but the worst part of all is the helplessness, and so I’ve decided it’s time for me to go.
After they bring my dinner tonight, they won’t be around to check again until morning. I am going to tear myself open, slipping out of this body and under the crack of the door until I reach safety. By the time they find Nasser, I’ll be long gone. I don’t want you to be sad or to think your dreams aren’t worthwhile. They are, and they’re bigger than saving your country—it’s saving your planet. I want to help, but I can’t do that here, waiting for a release that may never come. Goodbye for now.
The car ride home from the jail, otherwise silent to this point, becomes increasingly heavier with the solemn reality that Nasser is really gone. Closing the notebook and quietly tucking it under the stack of Nasser’s jailhouse belongings, Amir looks up, pressing his lips together in something just shy of a smile.
“What is it?” asks the boys’ father.
“You know what they say happens when they put you in solitary for years,” says Amir, tears now welling into the upturned corners of his lips. “People just lose it and end up saying all kinds of crazy stuff.”