The stream was overflowing with rainwater. Andreas wasn't entirely sure where this water had come from, but he had it on good authority where it went: to the outside. Away from this compound, where the alien occupiers gave little choice in work. If you refused to work on the rocket, you were imprisoned, or worse—and Bactarans were quite skilled at "worse". Andreas stepped one foot, clad in a ragged boot, gingerly into the water; it was neither hot nor cold, but his foot slipped slightly on the rock beneath it, slick with some sort of plant growth. Catching his footing, he leaned over the ditch and peered down the path it cut through the jungle, the ferns and bushes leaving just a few feet of space over the water. The stream was straighter than most, as had been described by the disembodied voice on the other end of the ham radio.
He removed a small folded paper from his pocket and unfurled it. His notes confirmed the path went along this stream, several kilometers. He was on the right track. If he could make it to the resistance home base by tonight, they'd be able to stop the launch with the information he could provide them.
Andreas folded away his note, pulled his foot from the water, and began walking downstream along the bank. Somewhere along the path of the stream was a wall, and a short tunnel that had been dug under part of this wall so that the stream's path would not overflow and damage it. Bactaran culture was famously obsessive over its walls, and apparently their custom had dictated that this stream was to go under the wall, and not through it. According to the voice, the tunnel once had a grate blocking it, but the grate had been removed by the resistance. He hoped that that had been accurate.
Diego gripped the branch above him, and gave it a few tugs to test its sturdiness. When it didn't give, he used it to pull himself up a little higher into the tree, gripping the base of the next highest branch as he did. He took a quick look around, then repeated the process again to elevate himself a few feet higher. With the next glance around, he saw what he was hoping for: a gap in the leaves, allowing a clear view of the surroundings. At this point, the tree was beginning to sway with his weight, so it was just as well that he didn't climb any further.
For months now, Diego had been sneaking out of his quarters in El Asilo—the sanctuary created by the Bactarans—on his rare days off. It was a risk, but not the biggest one he routinely took. If he didn't do this, he'd go crazy.
He settled into a moderately comfortable position, nestled into the crook of the branch he was on. He swung his leather shoulder pack around his left side and unbuttoned it, producing a wire-bound pad of heavy paper and a pencil. He returned the pack to his side and set up the pad on his thigh. The gap in the leaves formed a natural frame, outlining the Colombian woods beyond. Diego began sketching what he could see through the gap. He started with the lines of the mountains on the horizon, then worked his way downward to outline the distant trees. As he sketched, he noted the line traced through the jungle by the wall. The wall ran around the border of the Bactarans' slave compound. It wasn't the first time he'd seen the wall, but it was the closest he'd gotten to it since beginning these excursions.
Not for the first time, he wondered what the other side of the wall held. He had never seriously considered escape a possibility, but then, he had never had this view of the wall before. From here, he could not only see the layout of the wall, but also what was next to it. It looked like the trees near the wall had once been trimmed to some distance—presumably half a decade ago when the wall was built—but had since been growing back, unimpeded. In the jungles of Colombia, this regrowth was taking place at a respectable pace. The trees might be the answer, Diego mused as he sketched. Could they permit him to get over the wall here? Where would he go from there if he succeeded?
Suddenly, a deep voice boomed from behind him. "¿Por qué estás aquí?"
Andreas followed the stream downhill until he saw it take a sudden turn to the left up ahead. He checked his note again, as dictated by the voice on the radio, which marked this bend as the halfway point of his path. At the same time as he reached the bend, he found an impassable thicket of bushes on his side of the stream. He didn't have a machete to help him cut through, and without that he'd have to go all the way around, however large it was. He appraised the situation, noting that the stream here, even with the flooding from the rains, would be easily crossed. The jungle on the other side of the stream seemed fairly open. Andreas walked up to the edge of the stream and then jumped onto a stone in the middle of the stream, catching his balance and preparing to make his second leap. Though narrower, the stream was deeper and rushing faster here at the bend; if he slipped here, the rushing water could easily lead to a twisted ankle or a broken foot, making his path to come far more difficult to navigate. He braced to take his leap to the other side, when he caught sight of a figure and froze.
The figure must have been behind the thicket he was bypassing, and was staring right at him. He didn't seem to have been out here very long, judging from the still-clean tan vest he wore over a pair of waders. The man adjusted his bucket hat to get a better view of Andreas, who suddenly felt particularly vulnerable in this position, perched on a stone in the stream. As he did so, Andreas got a better look at the stranger's face, smooth-shaven and round-jawed. His body was thin, but fit. Andreas's eyes wandered down the man's shoulders and chest, where the top buttons of his shirt were opened, revealing a hint of his chest hair.
"You're not supposed to be here," the stranger observed, speaking in the Spanish that both evidently had as their native tongue.
"Neither are you," Andreas replied, still perched on the stone in the middle of the stream.
"What makes you say that?"
"Little close to the wall for a Human, aren't you?"
The stranger craned his neck to look around behind him, at which point Andreas felt safe enough completing his jump to the other bank of the stream. The crackle of sticks under his feet as he landed drew the stranger's attention back to him.
"Nah, we're plenty safe here. The wall helps keep out the pollutants and such."
"Yeah, you know. All the chemicals and stuff that the Bactarans tried to warn us about when they got here—the stuff they built the walls to keep out."
"You know, nobody actually believes that," Andreas scoffed as he slowly walked along the bank.
"It's true," the man retorted. "I've seen what that stuff does. People going crazy, hallucinating, fighting each other. We don't have that in El Asilo."
"You've seen it?" Andreas was surprised. "I mean, you're saying you've been outside?"
Diego jumped at the voice behind him, nearly losing his place on the branch, and scrambling slightly to regain it. In his panic, he dropped his pencil, and it vanished into the woods far below. Finally stable again, Diego finally turned to look at who had almost gotten him killed, and nearly fell a second time when he saw a Bactaran there, perched in a nearby tree, about fifteen feet lower than he was. He had only seen Bactarans a few times before, but never before had he seen one alone. He had also only ever seen Bactarans in uniform, which was very much not the case here. This one was wearing an unearthly garment in earthy tones—clearly meant for camouflage, but whether it was another uniform or casual clothing, Diego had no idea. The Bactaran's head spikes were fully exposed, and their eyes were at such an angle to the sun that Diego could clearly see the rainbow pattern reflecting out of them.
Their stiff, expressionless face spoke again, emitting the stilted Spanish one word at a time. "Why are you here?" they asked again.
"I'm... I'm drawing," Diego stammered out. Another first: he had never before heard a Bactaran speaking a Human language, though he knew that some of them could understand it. Their mouth couldn't quite form all of the consonant sounds, but it was close enough to be clearly understood. He realized that almost subconsciously, his sketch had taken on the resemblance of a tactical map of the wall more than a picturesque view of the forest. He quickly used his finger to smudge a few of the details he had drawn at the base of the wall, then turned the pad around, showing the illustration to the Bactaran.
Small parts of the Bactaran's face moved strangely as they leaned in towards the pad, seemingly to get a better view. The tree they were on swayed under the Bactaran's weight as they moved, noticeably more than Diego's tree had been moving.
"I have never seen a Human drawing," the Bactaran said. "This is very different from our art."
Diego had no idea why the Bactaran was just carrying on in conversation rather than taking him into custody or killing him, but he wasn't about to rock that boat. "It isn't finished," he said.
"Show me closer," the Bactaran commanded. They gestured towards the ground, clarifying their meaning. Diego felt he had no choice but to comply.
"I'll climb down," he said as he put the pad back into his pack. He and the Bactaran both started descending their respective trees. Diego reached the ground first, and seriously considered running for it. His mind raced, wondering if he could outrun the Bactaran, wondering if the Bactaran would seek punishment if he got caught, wondering if they would even be able to pick him out of a crowd if he managed to get back to El Asilo. He was still pondering all these things when the Bactaran finally hit dirt, and began to close the distance between them.
He opened his pack again to pull out the pad, and held it out to them. Now that they were both on even footing, Diego was struck by how much taller the Bactaran was. He had only seen Bactarans at a distance before, and while he had seen that they were a bit taller than Humans, he hadn't realized how intimidating that extra height would be up close.
"Tell me, Humano," the Bactaran spoke as they took the pad, "Do you think I do not know you were planning to cross the wall?"
Diego's heart leapt into his throat. "I... I wasn't trying to—"
"The wall here for twenty kilometers in either direction is well watched by..." the Bactaran searched for the word "...by cameras. You will never get past this wall undetected."
"What? I am not trying to get out."
"It seems like you Humans are always trying to violate the wall. I do not understand."
"I would not try to escape. I've seen what happens to people who try." People like poor Nevada Mármol. Diego hadn't been able to get the image of Nevada's twisted, dying face out of his mind ever since he'd seen it.
"But why would you even want to? This oasis is all that remains of your world. Out there, more than a few kilometers away, it is all poison, pollution, and death. You can see it for yourself, from the tops of some trees."
"Is that why you're out here? Are you looking out at the outside?"
"I just like to climb the trees," they replied, as their head-spikes shivered in some kind of emotional expression. "We have nothing like these in my homeland. Our plants are tall, but thin and frail."
"You're out here for fun?" Diego asked, bewildered.
"Are you not?"
Halfway through his conversation with the stranger, Andreas felt safe enough to let his guard down and sat on a rock on the bank, almost directly across from a stump on the stranger's side that seemed to have been worn down to form a seat. Andreas figured that if the stranger was going to turn him in, he surely would have done it by now. They talked for quite some time about Andreas's situation in El Asilo.
"So you're trying to tell me," he asked incredulously, "That you're out this far into the woods, and you're not planning on leaving?"
"Maybe I'm just out here to meet someone nice," Andreas dodged the question with a wink in the stranger's direction.
The stranger looked intensely at him. "I bet you got a signal, didn't you?"
Andreas stopped cold. How could the stranger have known about that? "A signal?"
"I'm right, I knew it!" he exclaimed, slapping his knee and laughing. "Someone sent you a signal."
"How did you know?"
Andreas detected a slight twinkle in the stranger's eye. "I can tell you, but you'll need to come over here first."
He stood up and stepped towards the bank, offering a hand—mostly symbolically, as at that point the stream was wide enough that his hand reached only a fraction of the way across. Andreas hesitated, but found himself drawn towards the man. He found some footing on rocks protruding from the rushing water, and skipped across them, catching the stranger's hand on the last step. He had a solid grip, but Andreas could sense a deftness in the grasp. They stood there for a few moments, just looking at each other, until Andreas released the man's hand and broke the silence.
"So. What is the big secret?"
"The secret," the man said, smiling, "Is that the signal was fake. It's broadcast by agents of the Bactarans. I know the woman that set up the broadcast."
Andreas's heart sank as he considered the possibility. "But why?"
"It's a test," he replied. "The Bactarans like to know who responds to these signals and how. Some people follow it, and try to leave El Asilo. Some people report it to the Bactarans, and the Bactarans reward those people with a little freedom and trust."
"And the people that try to leave?"
"Obviously whatever path that the voice on the radio sent you on will be monitored."
"And you don't hear from them again."
"This looks like the view from above to you?" the Bactaran asked of Diego.
"Well, it's a sketch," he said. "Just look at the lines and the shapes, not the color."
"Is this how your photographs work, as well?"
"What do you mean?"
"When I see images created by your Human computers, they do not look to us like what objects look like in reality. The shapes match, but the color is entirely different."
"Well, no..." Diego puzzled for a moment. "You mean that even images taken by cameras don't look right?"
"To you, they do?" the Bactaran asked.
"Yes, on a good screen at least."
"Odd," the Bactaran wagged their hands—perhaps a gesture of exasperation? Confusion?
"So what does look like the real thing? How do Bactarans create images?"
"In our art, we sample substances similar to what we wish to depict. If we wish to show that tree, for example, we would form shapes on the..." They struggled to think of the appropriate words in Spanish, then gestured towards Diego's pad.
"Yes, the canvas. We form shapes on the canvas out of the materials that are similar to the object we depict. That is the only way to make the colors look the same."
Diego looked up at the tree in question, then knelt to the ground and grabbed a few leaves and a stick. He held them up in front of the tree, looking from one to the other. "So, you'd put this leaf on the canvas, and that's the right color?
"That leaf, no. That looks nothing like what is on the tree. Now this one," the Bactaran picked up a different leaf from the ground, "This one, this is correct."
Diego furrowed his brow. The two looked to be exactly the same shade, as far as he could tell.
"We see the world differently, I think," the Bactaran said. "And it is not only in the colors."
"You're talking about the outside?"
"There is a reason we have called this place El Asilo, the Asylum," the Bactaran continued. "It is the only haven still safe for your kind. But I have been out there, and seen the problems. The sickness, the pollution, the madness. It is a miracle we have been able to preserve even part of your world safely in this place."
Diego shook his head, not sure whether he should admit his disbelief to the Bactaran. After a moment's consideration, he decided to play along. "I suppose we should be thanking you, then."
"We can thank each other, friend," the Bactaran said. "The work your people are doing is vital in helping bring our resources to full strength. With it, we may be able to help more of your people in the future, from orbit."
"You're doing this just to help us?"
"We hope that Humanity will be a valued ally when all is finished. That alone is worth the effort here."
They both sat in silence for a time. The Bactaran eventually broke it. "My name is Thosorm," they said, making three syllable out of the name, Tho-so-rum.
"I am called Diego," he replied. "It's my pleasure to meet you."
"I must be returning to my station. You should do the same."
Diego shrugged. "I can do that. It has been an eventful day."
They started to walk their separate ways, until Thosorm stopped and turned around. "I would be interested in seeing more of your Human art," they said. "Perhaps we could continue these conversations into the future."
"I'm not sure I would be comfortable doing that."
"You would be rewarded."
Diego paused at this, and turned slowly. "Rewarded how?"
Andreas paced around the area where the man sat on his tree stump.
"How did you know it was the radio signal I was following?"
"Hmm?" the man looked up inquisitively.
"How did you know I wasn't just out for a walk?"
"You passed by here," he answered. "The path the signal sends people on always comes past here. Like I said, I know the lady who set this up, and she set it up to come past this spot. And you're not the only one I've come across. But you are the first one I've told the whole story to."
Andreas puzzled at that. "Why have you told me?"
The man reached out, taking Andreas's hand. "I'm allowed to like someone, aren't I?"
Andreas allowed a hint of a smile to escape. He looked down the stream, then back the way he came. He pulled his folded notes from his pocket and read over them. "So you're telling me there's no tunnel under the wall with a grate missing?"
"At least not one that leads to the outside," he shook his head.
Andreas crumpled the note and angrily flung it into the stream. The current caught it and began to carry it out of sight.
"It's the right call, friend," the man said. "The Bactarans reward loyalty. If you tell them of the signal, and act like you still believe it is genuine, they will reward you for choosing them. Who knows—they may assign you somewhere we can work together."
"I'd like that," Andreas smiled a little more fully.
"I could even put in a good word for you. I'd have to know your name, though."
"My name is Andreas," he answered. "And yours?"
"That's only fair. I am called Diego. It's my pleasure to meet you."
The crumpled paper floated along the surface of the stream. It bounced off of a series of stones, and at one point got briefly stuck to a branch that dipped into the water. The turbulence of the stream soon freed it again to continue bouncing downstream. After a while, the paper fell under a dark shadow as it entered a tunnel. The tunnel was brief, and halfway through it, the paper caught on a bit of metal. The metal had been cut—at one point, it had been a part of a grate that covered the entire cross section of the tunnel. Now, there was a hole in the grate easily large enough for a man to pass through. The note was again freed from its catch by the turbulent water, continuing to the end of the tunnel and outside the wall that surrounded El Asilo, never to be seen by the occupants again.