Peter wasn’t sure why he was following Mark. True, his mission was to observe the humans and learn about their patterns, but outright stalking one of them would arouse suspicion. Peter didn’t even have a plan for what he would do when he caught up with Mark. As he walked, he wracked his brain for a good excuse, but wasn’t sure what would be believable. All he knew was that he was intrigued by the little human drama brewing among his “friends”, and he couldn’t stand to leave it alone, unfinished.
The footsteps above and ahead of him, echoing down the stairwell, were interrupted by the sound of a door being shoved open and then slamming. Then it was quiet. Afraid Mark had exited on one of the floors, Peter surged ahead, abandoning his slow, silent gait, stopping on every floor to open the door and peer into the hallways.
Nothing. Floor after floor was empty, deserted. Peter didn’t know which apartment was Mark’s, even which floor he lived on, so he had no idea if Mark could conceivably disappear that fast. As he approached the final door, the one that granted roof access, Peter’s stomach – actually a sac in which a population of a mutually-beneficial, moss-like symbiotic species lived – sank.
He pushed the door open, almost sure Mark wouldn’t be there. For a moment he didn’t seem him as he stood near the door, scanning the rooftop. Finally he noticed Mark, slumped against the waist-high brick wall that rimmed the roof, sitting on the ground. A thin white rod was wedged between his fingers, a wisp of grey smoke curling from it up into the air. One of the bundles of dried leaves and paper the humans like to set on fire and inhale, Peter thought.
Peter closed the door behind him and strode over to where Mark sat. “Hey, Mark. What’s up?”
“Oh, hey, Peter,” Mark answered as Peter pulled up one of the cheap aluminum chairs and sat.
“It’s a good place to think up here, isn’t it?”
Mark rolled his eyes. “What, man, you want to put me on the clock?” he asked.
His incredibly sensitive chemo-sensors detecting that the substance in Mark’s hand was not tobacco, Peter decided that, were he simply a fellow human, he would be concerned. “What the hell’s that?” he demanded, pointing at the joint.
Mark grinned. “You want some?” he offered. “It’s good, bro.”
“You know I don’t smoke that stuff,” Peter chided. He had an extensive series of protocols for how to modify his behaviour should it appear that his hologram had ingested any kind of drug, but he’d found it was too much of a bother, despite the fact that it gained the trust of certain humans.
Mark sighed, a long stream of smoke exploding from his lips, and then took another deep breath from the joint. He let this one slowly trickle from his lungs.
“You look depressed,” Peter observed.
“I got this sick feeling in my stomach, man,” Mark replied with a shake of his head. “I did something awful. I don’t think I can forgive myself.”
“Tell me about it,” Peter urged, standing.
Like he weighted a thousand pounds, Mark heaved himself to his feet, pacing the rooftop. “I just feel like running,” he started, taking another toke, “Killing myself. Or something crazy like that.” His words were burdened, as if Mark was exhausted.
“Why are you smoking that crap?” Peter pleaded with Mark, watching him bring the joint to his mouth again. “It’s no wonder you can’t think straight. It’s going to screw with your head.”
Mark turned. “It’s none of your business, man. You think you know everything.” Stalking around Peter, Mark’s eyes burned. “You don’t know shit.”
“Wait a second,” Peter stopped him, grabbing Mark’s elbow and whirling him around to face him. “Who do you think you are?” he demanded. “You’re acting like a kid! Just grow up.”
“Man, who are you calling kid?” With unexpected strength brought on by the haze of reefer making its way through his body, Mark grabbed Peter by his lapels, shaking him hard enough to make the hologram’s pain sensors go off. “Fuck you.”
“Well just chill out, Mark,” Peter held up his hands in surrender, trying to wiggle out of Mark’s grip. “I’m just trying to help.” The tension went out of Mark’s hands as Peter paused, thinking. His databanks told him that the drug coursing through Mark should be making him calm, not aggressive – this emotional response was a result of deep, pervasive stress. Perhaps the married woman he was involved with was the cause? Humans did seem exponentially more likely to do something if it was particularly stupid. A thought occurred to him. “You’re having an affair with Lisa, aren’t you?”
“What?” Mark said slowly, colour draining from his face. His knuckles whitened too, as he tightened his fists, grasping and shaking Peter again. “What?” he demanded, louder, inches from Peter’s face. Rage twisted his features.
Peter’s neck was wrenched as he was yanked to the side of the building, to the waist-high wall that penned in the roof. The hologram gritted its teeth as its elbow was rammed into the brickwork and pinned. He struggled, but his analytic programs told him he couldn’t win – not that he wasn’t able to, but that he simply couldn’t. The hologram had quite a few tricks for neutralizing or silencing any of the humans surrounding it, and if it was bested, it was only a projection that could be recalled at any time only to reappear anywhere else. But, barring a catastrophic situation, realistic limits had been imposed on the force the hologram could use, and right now, Mark was using more force than Peter was allowed to counter.
Still enraged, Mark forced Peter’s head out over the eight story drop at the side of the building, nothing but air between him and the pavement below. Mark tugged, slowly but surely hauling Peter up onto the guard wall, readying to fling him to his apparent death.
“What are you, nuts?” Peter exclaimed. It was a bizarre turn of events, the alien reflected, and it distressed him even though he wasn’t in any danger. Killing another of your kind was a taboo in nearly every known intelligent species. Even if Mark hadn’t had a purported friendship with Peter, the willingness to risk imprisonment was confusing.
Maybe, Peter thought, maybe this is a unique research opportunity. Mark was clearly suffering some kind of episode, and the effects of such an unstable element within his small, close-knit group of friends promised to be interested. Unfortunately, if Mark thought he had killed the Peter hologram, he would have to observe it from afar.
Suddenly unwilling to abandon the project, to leave the tiny lives of the creatures whose lives he had entered, Peter overrode the imposed limits just enough to fight back. Added strength surging through him, he pressed a palm into Mark’s chest, shoving him away. Mark flew backwards from the force of the push, stumbling halfway across the rooftop before he found his footing.
Mark drew himself to his full height. Watching the man stalk towards him, Peter did the same. He had no reason to be intimidated now. With the controls overridden, he could overpower Mark with little effort.
“I’m sorry,” Mark apologised for the attempted murder. “I’m sorry, man. Are you okay?”
Thrown off by Mark’s mood swings, Peter shook his head. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he spat. “Let’s just talk about your problem.”
Mark searched Peter’s face, surprised by Peter’s insistent return to Mark’s issues despite what had just happened. He could only hope that Peter was simply the most forgiving person ever, and that he didn’t have some ulterior motive. The last thing Mark wanted to happen was for word that he was losing his mind to get back to the San Francisco Police Department. For all he knew, Peter’s concern could be a tactic to gather evidence against him, but there was nothing he could do. He had to play along, do everything he could to appease Peter. He needed his good will. “You’re sure you’re okay?” he asked uncertainly.
Peter motioned at the two patio chairs. With a sigh, Mark trudged towards them, but he had no intention of sitting. He kicked the top off the table, feeling some grim satisfaction at the clang of the aluminum hitting the concrete, the sound echoing across the rooftop, before he booted one of the chairs out of his way, watching it clatter against the brickwork. Leaning against the wall beyond the cheap patio set, he sulked, peering at the long drop to the pavement below him.
After a moment’s contemplation, Mark turned and started pacing. “Damn, man, fuck,” he hissed under his breath before turning on Peter. “Why do you want to know my secret, man?” he demanded. “Well, you’re right. It’s Lisa.” Mark shook his head. “I don’t know what to do, man. I’m so depressed. It’s all her fault. She’s such a manipulative bitch!” The words exploded out of Mark, held back for so long that they could barely be contained.
“How did you let this happen?” Peter chided with an inquisitive tilt of his head. Still reeling from what he had said, Mark swore to himself as Peter spoke. “You know this is going to ruin your friendship with Johnny. What were you thinking?”
The question was asked in earnest. Peter had no idea what kind of thought process went into much of the decision-making that humans performed. This particular instance was a shining example, where even Peter knew that the cons far outweighed the pros.
Mark didn’t answer. His eyes stared off into the distance.
“Alright, you want my advice?” Peter finally offered. He thrust his hands deep into his pockets. “Sometimes, life can get complicated,” he started, since there was no way for Mark to know this was the same advice he had given Johnny, “And you’ve got to be responsible. So you don’t see Lisa again, and you definitely don’t sleep with her again.”
Mark nodded. The advice was sound, obvious and exactly what he knew he needed to do. It was also something he knew he didn’t have the strength to follow, not if Lisa called again, her voice in his ear, telling him all the things he wanted to hear, asking him to come over. Mark could only argue with her for so long.
Peter had to understand that, Mark thought. He had to know what it was like when a gorgeous woman told a man what she wanted, and all questions, all protests disappeared. Abandoning responsibilities at that point wasn’t a choice that could be made, it was an inevitability. A woman showing a man her boobies instantly absolved him of all responsibility for his actions, making everything he did the woman’s fault, everyone knew that.
“Just…” Peter was continuing, interrupting Mark’s deep, profound thoughts. “Find yourself another girl. She’s a sociopath!” he declared, in direct opposition to his refusal to believe Lisa could cheat on Johnny just minutes before. “She only cares about herself. She can’t love anyone!”
This was not something Mark could believe, mostly because of the aforementioned boob-magic. “Whatever, Peter,” he growled. “Come on,” he said, stalking off the rooftop, his hand on Peter’s shoulder as they walked together.