Extant: Part Two
Author's note: Third NaNoWriMo entry. Second part of Extant.
The BartokI peeled my eyes open, releasing myself from a cold and blackened sleep, to find myself in a dark pod. I reached out and brushed my fingers against the icy interior that felt like metal, but was malleable like clay.
I closed my eyes again, willing myself back to the place in which I had fallen asleep. I knew that this was all a complicated dream, some trick of the wires the nurse had hooked up to me. I knew that if I closed my eyes tight enough and blinked them open again, I would be back in my dorm in the expendable ward. Maybe my parents would visit me today. Maybe I could sneak out again, but without being captured. Maybe -
I opened my eyes. I was still cold. I was still in the dream.
I lay within that metal tubing for what felt like hours when it was opened. A silver mist wafted into my eyes, making me squint away from the intruding light.
The people who greeted me upon my arrival were not people I recognized. In fact, I don't think they were people at all. The first thing I noticed were their faces. Their eyes, more specifically. Giant black orbs positioned in the center of their brightly colored spherical skulls. After that, it was their antennae. Or something like that. Two long wiry pieces stood straight up on their head, extending nearly a meter into the air. There were a few creatures present in the room, but my eyes couldn't see to count. They turned their seeing black orbs to each other, twitching their antennae like whiskers in the frigid air, then turned them back on me. I didn't let myself fall into the depths of their eyes. They tried to hold me there, but in their bewilderment they lost their control.
They had no mouths. That was another thing I noticed. Huge black orbs that dominated, but no mouth or nose. I could hear them speaking, but they had no mouths with which they spoke.
“Karra kara lu boch e kon.”
“Huyel semka ech e ju?”
They looked at me again. I watched their antennae-whiskers flail.
“Zzet a cara bucc lik see.”
“Kly hum asre pop.”
The voiced stopped. They came around and checked their gauges, gauges monitoring my blood flow and heart rate. I recognized the similarities in technology well enough. All of a sudden my back was hurting again, though, and I didn't think these... creatures had been informed.
“My back hurts,” I said, except it came out more like, “Mym backe hurr.”
One of them froze. It was the taller one. I noticed the fleshy ridges of his interior shell bristle.
“Hasan gere lig?”
“Husehem kjil lop handd.”
They turned their dark orbs on me. Even though the black stones seemed emotionless, I caught the confusion and wonder in them as they stared at me. It didn't give me any good feelings.
The shorter one shook its head. Its antennae swung around. “Nushe kale bom.”
The taller one nodded pensively. I picked up quickly on the meaning. My misspoken English words had been mistaken for a phrase in their language.
I sat up even though the nerves in my lower back were firing and going haywire. A petite alien, who seemed to me female though I wouldn't have known, approached me and pressed me back into a lying position by my shoulders. My head began to throb as the pain shot up my spine. The moment a moan escaped my lips they all turned back to me.
“Ese kendu grava conla ysh,” the one who reminded me of a nurse – a kind nurse – said.
The other few in the room paused a moment. “Sher rume koll bonte deen.”
They all stepped closer. I wanted to flinch back but the wires snaking through my arms and plastered to my head were taut.
“Gele rushe ben.”
Antennae descended down upon me, the cold and finger-like tips wandering the skin of my body, probing, violating. They did not note my writhing, my squirming, my wrenching away.
They all stepped back. “Heremna,” the tallest one uttered. I didn't understand how I was hearing them, if they were speaking through their strange head-whiskers.
A slightly rounder assistant came up to me again, and I felt the brush of an antennae on my arm. The black orb eyes grew very fixated and serious.
“We take you-”
I sat up abruptly. The other creatures in their room waved their antennae in now-silent conference.
“We take you museum, yes?”
I watched them warily. They grew worried. I could tell by the low buzzing their strange whiskers made as they collided and sparked.
They fell silent, and the buzzing didn't ensue for many minutes. They stepped out of the room to discuss their findings of me, the strange alien girl, but the nurse one stayed. She touched her antennae to my hand, and it reminded me so much of my parents back on the airship that I had to gasp a little bit.
“Sleep now child,” she commanded, and I closed my eyes and obeyed.
When I awoke this time, I found myself in a light, warm place. Strange. Another incomprehensible aspect to this mysterious dream within which I was still trapped.
I was pinned, but this time in a standing position. A splayed standing position. I moved my eyes around the new encasing I was in to find that it was mirrored plexiglass formed into a wide-sitting tube. I was held up by my wrists and tied down my by ankles. I squirmed against the bindings that molded to my skin like leather, but which I knew couldn't possibly be. No matter which way I turned, all I saw was my own face reflected back at me from all angles: a face that no matter how familiar, I still didn't recognize. Long dark waves hung down to the middle of my back, obscuring my vision. I shook them away as best I could and looked into hauntingly familiar eyes, eyes from somewhere in my recorded past.
My mother's eyes.
That's when I heard it. The laughing. It wasn't quite like laughing, though. It was a strange, high-pitched shrieking, like when an engine in the boiler room downstairs of the expendable ward sprung an air leak. I heard small thumps to go along with it, thumps against the glass I was encased in. The meaning of the alien's words and where I was suddenly hit me.
The shrieking laughter grew louder, expanding around the outside of the bubble. I fumbled around the restraints, trying to cleverly find a loophole within their machinations. More and more thumps ensued, and I had finally spun to a position where I could see a sliver of see-through glass. Antennae. Antennae they pressed up against the glass, maybe to see me, maybe to hear me, maybe to read my mind, maybe to send messages to each other much as my headset had allowed me.
It repeated itself so predictably that the melody of it lulled me into state of sleep. I fought the oncoming darkness, but my eyelids betrayed me, and I slipped under.
The same pattern that had sent me to the subconscious void brought me out of it again. I twisted and turned, forgetting the strength of their restraints on me, the intensity of their black-hole eyes watching me where I couldn't see.
I don't know how long I hung in that position before my judgment caught up to me in my current situation. They were watching, watching without justification or purpose. I hadn't chosen this. They had no right to their blatant speculation. They had no right to hang me up like a specimen and examine me. The intrusive nature of it all sent my self-consciousness rising to levels I'd never known existed, but once that passed, all that remained was pure, enraged fury.
“Stop!” I shrieked, my tongue only relenting enough for me to say that one-minded word. The thumps ceased. The laughing died. I was left with silence. “Stop, okay? I'm not some circus freak for you to-”
Murmurs outside of the tubing diverted my attention. The horde of creatures, still shocking and unfamiliar to my human eyes, was bubbling with curiosity and interest. They were held back from touching the glass case by a leading voice. A commander of some sort, or a museum director. I couldn't hear their words any longer but the vibrations sounded clear to my ears.
There was a click and the reflective sheen painting the interior of the glass tubing disappeared. I stared wide-eyed down at the crowd of foreign beings gathered around, ridiculously inclined by the unknown nature of my existence to come here and spectate. I had to have looked odd among them, but it wasn't any reason to lock me up against my will for public speculation.
The leader, the tall one I recognized from my time in what must have been a hospital-type ward, gently laid an antennae down against the glass. “We Bartok. No hurt you. Only know species.”
I had not a clue what they were saying, but I was glad they were making the effort to translate to the language I knew. “You Bartok,” I started. “No hurt me. Only know species?”
“Want know species,” it corrected, understanding quickly that I hadn't picked up on its words.
“Human,” I answered, almost questioningly. They were the ones who didn't know.
“Bartok, Human. Human, Bartok.”
The alien removed its appendage from the glass and returned to its kind, conversing, discussing. The Bartok, perhaps the whole species of them, lay just outside of this glass bubble. I was the alien in the foreign land. Demovement. None of it added up to an understandable equation.
“Human safe. We no watch bad.”
The glass tube opened into two cylindrical halves and two of the creatures quickly stepped in and released my bindings. My bare wrists and ankles were marked with the misunderstandings of the Bartok, but I was thrown a fleshy, stretchy skin to mask my insecurities. I curled their offering around my body, shivering outside of the warmth of the museum display case and cocooning myself in the leafy-scented quilt.
“Thank you, Bartok,” I stuttered as precisely as I could. A gelatin appendage reached out to grasp onto my words, to translate them and understand them in their own heart. “Thank you for letting me go.”
They pulled away once again to converse in their silent huddles. Smaller models of the species scurried over. The people, close up, looked like some sort of skeletal insects. Their backs carried a hard shell, whereas their chest was made up of soft, fleshy ridges that rippled with their breathing. They had two arms, fitted with strange claws at the end, near the top of their body, another pair of arms halfway down their torso, and two legs they walked on. Their necks were fitted with electrical wires woven into a band and satellite receivers poked out of the tops of the antennae on their head. Their whisker murmurs were strange, vibrant whispers. The young ones were not afraid to touch me. Their eyes believed everything they saw, and they craved for more of this truth.
“Bartok share home Human. Human sleep home with Bartok.”
“Ibn al coli far sot?”
“Gree den werlii ock nes. Please sleep Bartok home.”
“You'll share your home with me?” Even though I was currently winning the battle with my tongue, my words still came out funny.
“Share Bartok home Human. Come.”
I questioned nothing of what they were offering me. I followed the Bartok leader as it scuttled out of the domed building of the museum and lead me to its living space.
The Bartok were a funny-looking people, but they even managed to put my staring to shame. The leader led me to its house. Inside, there were several smaller replicas of itself and a smaller living companion. I assumed the leader to be of male gender, and his companion a female.
They sat me down into another tube and I was injected with a fiercely stinging needle. It was searing hot, and the syringe plunged into my bloodstream, filling my body with strange chemical compounds.
“Feed Human, yes?”
The syringe emptied itself into my flesh, and the strange serum it was created of burned my body. The skin around the puncture where the needle had entered swelled and turned dark. The second they pulled me out of the tube, I stumbled, felt a rush of blood to my head and then collapsed. I did not emerge from that dark hovel for a long time, and when I did I recognized the hospital/science lab that I had found myself in some time before.
“Where am I?” I moaned in my pained stupor.
“Bartok food Human no eat.”
“We eat with our mouths, not syringes in our arms.” I glanced down and saw a bandage wrapped around my lower left arm, and I winced as it began to throb once more.
“Mouth?” They were stupefied at what had seemed, to me, a pretty obvious answer. To explain, I reached my free arm up and touched my fingers to my lips.
“What eat Human?”
Food wouldn't suffice as an answer, since they had just explained that my body type wasn't compatible with their edibles.
“Plants. Animals, too, I guess.”
Their eyes spread wide, horror striking them. “Bartok no eat animals.”
“Neither did most of the humans.”
A claw came up and scratched a face, puzzled. “Plant Human eat.”
“Bartok find plant Human eat. Human food plant, yes?”
I nodded. An assistant was shuttled out of the room to complete the leader's request. I watched as, over in the corner, one of the employees jammed himself in the arm with a portable syringe filled with a thick, murky fluid.
The leader's huge, dark eyes leaned over my cot. An antenna came down and brushed where my fingers had been moments ago.
“Mouth,” he repeated to himself with wonder. I still wasn't used to their antennae-probing, but I figured it was something I would be dealing with more often than not. I closed my eyes and let my brain map out the Bartok, let my mind weave them into its grounding fabrications.
I slept the whole night and through the next day. My dreams were a combination of the memory of the humiliation of being tied up in the glass case, the strange eyes of the Bartok peoples, and my parents.
I lingered on them the longest before awaking. I held onto the memories of them speaking to me, soothing words they ladled to me in mouthfuls I eagerly swallowed. Words were the only thing I couldn't remember and wanted to. I wanted to hear them speak. I needed to hear words I knew.
Among the stars and within the warm arms of my dreams, I heard my parents' name for me and I remembered it for the first time:
To me it was a strange name, but my dysfunctional tongue worked flawlessly around the word. Deirdre. Discovering my name was discovering a previously unknown part of my identity. Discovering my name, in this foreign and forbidding land, was unsheathing a security blanket. I held it close. I would cherish it. I would share it only to the most understanding of ears.
I awoke with the taste of french fries on my tongue, french fries I ate years ago. The leader extended a clawed foot and held out a sort of plant to me. It resembled a turnip or radish – I recognized it from my brief lessons in the garden and greenhouse. I took it from him and examined it. The leader's eyes watched me. I would rather have not eaten a vegetable raw – the airship taught us not to – but the way he and his assistants were staring at me prompted me to bite into it with the least hesitation.
Bitter with an apple crunch. I couldn't exactly determine what it was, but my throat wasn't closing up, my eyes weren't watering and my lips weren't swelling. I took a few more timid bites, ignoring the intent eyes that fixated upon me. Mouths and their part in the digestive process was as alien to them as injecting yourself with nutrients was to me.
I chewed down to the stem and the assistants eagerly removed the remains in my hands and presented me with another. Their eyes glittered exultantly. I didn't have the heart to consume another one of these strange tubers, but I did, and when they replaced that one with another one, I had to refuse. They would have gladly supplied and observed my consumption of them the whole night.
“I'm sorry. I won't eat this one right now. I'm full.” My words came out even more garbled if my mouth was wet. I kept the vegetable tucked against my side, within the slime coat they had given me some days before.
“Human eat mouth. Bartok find food day for Human eat. Yes?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Okay. Human go back Bartok home.”
I followed him back to his home, and now that I was fed, I could meet the family properly. The leader's name was Deshen, his mate Serrea, their offspring Kumali, Porwe, Basen, and Uheng. When they asked me my name, I felt a rush of pride that I was finally able to tell them.
They all paused for a long moment, then each of them nodded their heads. The spawn were whispering amongst themselves but the leader broke in and silenced them.
“Dee-Dray. Welcome Human Dee-Dray.”
The children echoed and I ducked my head, for a moment hating how much their eyes really saw.
“Thank you, Bartok Deshen, Serrea.”
I was led into a sleep pod that was the closest underneath the night heat-lamp. The children complained but their father shushed them.
“Warmest place Human, no?”
“Human get warm spot, no?”
I nodded. I took my slime coat into the pod and curled up on it. The kids' antennae brushed the edges of the protective sheet but their parents made sure to closely monitor them.
“Human night sleep?”
I nodded to myself, and the lights dropped to blackness in the room. The only thing I saw was the orange bottom of the heat-lamp, and its warmth fought me and drove me into the dark recesses of sleep.