Jeff, my childhood friend, and I left Earth because we hated our lives. He was a resort sales agent, and I worked for a microchip manufacturer. We were both married, without children, in our forties, and we were miserable. My first husband, Alan, liked to use his fists to get his message across; he also liked to put me down and make me feel guilty about our inability to have children. I worked for the both of us, I did all the cleaning, I cooked, I washed, I paid the bills. My married life on Earth was like living in a prison, with a very tight schedule, a loathsome task succeeding to another, and then another. Twice a week, I had a few hours of recess. It was when Alan was out with his friends, on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Invariably, I met with Jeff, who was living in his own prison in his equally dreadful marriage.
When we were kids, instead of joining the other kids to play football in the rain, Jeff and I used to stay in and watch movies together. We watched anything, except prison movies. Jeff hated them. He used to say that ‘prison movies were too easy’. They were tearjerkers, pity baits. Little did we know then, as kids, that we would spend most of our life on Earth living in a prison. As we became adults, tears and anxiety attacks replaced the laughter provoked by classic movies of our youth. And it got worse, year after year after year. We both reached a point where we were so wretched that we found ourselves with only two outcomes, suicide or emancipation. We chose freedom.
For four years, we planned our escape. We read all about the stories of the common people sailing across the Galaxy to start a new life in the New West as gunslingers. Becoming gunslingers became our hope, our reason for living, our strength under the blows and the constant moral abuse of our respective partners. We took gun shooting and sword fighting lessons on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and we saved up to buy ourselves a gunblaster each. On a drunken night, we booked our passage to Valeran, the first port of call to the New West. We left without even saying goodbye to Alan or Sandra, Jeff’s wife.
When we landed on the planet Assanga, we had a week of discovery, aimlessly hanging around, battling to feed ourselves, not knowing what the future held for us. We looked for any kind of work where our gunblasters would be at use, but this first impression of the New West was nothing like we had heard on Earth. There were no duels in open streets, no monsters to fend off, no local zigmut to protect, no signs of those huuri or the cyken or the Red Fleet. There were only zigmut, living modest lives out of ranching, trading and artisanship. This first week on this alien planet did nothing but dampen our eagerness for adventure.
We needed to eat and a roof to sleep, so I found ourselves a job on a zigmut ranch in the highlands, three hours outside of town by horse, one of those three-legged zigmut animals. The zigmut on the ranch welcomed us with open arms. They treated us as equals and put a roof over our head. Our days of total freedom were over. Life on the ranch required a strict routine. There was a set time for everything and although we were free to do as we pleased, we had no interest in acting differently from the other ranchers, even if they were all aliens. The zigmut only eat ten times a week, ergo they only cook ten times a week, thus we made sure we were never late for lunch. Some nights, when it was unusually warm, Jeff and I slept under the stars. We would reminisce about our life back in Cuckfield, in England, until we would fall asleep. And then… sex.
There were twelve hundred cattle on the ranch and about forty zigmut, and only us two humans. Most of those zigmut were men, and they were… tasty. You haven’t known tenderness until you have been in the arms of a zigmut in love. Unfortunately for Jeff, human males cannot have sex with zigmut, male or women. The zigmut have a thick skin but extremely feeble internal organs, they cannot be penetrated by a human organ without risking a deadly hemorrhage. And so, whilst I had half of the ranch under my sheets, Jeff survived nearly a full year without tenderness.
I guess all these months I knew, or at least suspected, that Jeff wanted more. Often, he took his gunblaster out to practice his shooting, whilst I never touched my gunblaster. I watched him come and go around the farm, a smile on his face, a happier Jeff than I had seen for decades, yet… an incomplete man. I watched him looking at the sky with stars in his eyes, as he watched me disappearing at all hours of the day with my latest zigmut love affair. I was… happy, fulfilled, satisfied to have become subservient to a new the system, a prison more to my liking. I had no more expectations than living out the rest of my life on this ranch, free from harm, under this strict work routine and with Jeff on my side.
But as the months passed by, lustful dreams materialized into anchors at Jeff’s ankles, who, although voicing no concerns, would work with less enthusiasm and energy than he was capable of and had previously shown on the ranch. Whilst I settled with my first zigmut husband, Xihhian, I had less time for Jeff. Instead of forming platonic bonds with zigmut on the ranch, Jeff became taciturn and spent almost all of his free time alone, often outside the ranch, out on the open fields.
I think I knew Jeff would leave us to embrace thegunslinger life we had signed up for before Jeff knew it himself. His problem was that he was happy. Happy yet unfulfilled, that was his dilemma. He didn’t want to leave the ranch because he was afraid to spoil his good fortune, afraid to fall back into the same trap we both had been living in most of our adult life on Earth.
After being friends for forty-four years, I realized we were at last very different people. His turmoil forced me to reflect on myself, and my reasons for following him to this pocket of the Galaxy. I didn’t leave Earth to be free. I left the prison I was living in, and our getaway was the New West. On the other hand, Jeff didn’t leave a bad marriage to become a happy rancher. He broke free of his prison to be free, to never leave under rule ever again, to break free from all social and financial expectations. He wanted to live by the gun. He wanted to live the grand life of a gunslinger, at fifty-one-year-old, one last chance at a glorious life, one shot at freedom. And so, one morning, after breakfast, he took that shot. He left the ranch, and when he did, he wore the widest and the most sincere smile I had ever seen on any human being. It was prompted by the elation of freedom, at last.