Third NaNoWriMo entry. Second part of Extant.
Foreign Land Tour
I don't see how I was surprised to find the black orb eyes surrounding my sleep cubicle when I awoke. My first instinct told me to shy away from them, to shy away from the eyes that surrounded the casing, but I realized I wasn't in the museum anymore. I sat up and the Bartok pulled back, still fixated.
“Food eat Human day, no?”
I squinted as all of the lights were turned on, a wave of burning yellow heat that spread to every corner of my weary mind. The young ones continually proved to be the only ones curious enough to touch without prejudice, without stereotype, without unfair speculation.
“Humans eat during the day, yes,” I replied. The slime blanket was dropping in temperature the closer I huddled it around my body but I couldn't figure out why.
“How many Human eat?”
I honestly didn't know. After being moved to the expendable ward, there was one set meal – lunch – and other dining times that the kitchen was in service. Even if I had remembered all of the times we had been and made some sort of calculation... I shook my head. It was throbbing even thinking about it.
“Four times a day... maybe.”
“Four? Human eat Four day?”
“Why? How many times do the Bartoks eat each day?”
The leader and his mate fizzled into a silence that I took to be angry. I didn't know that what I had said would be offensive. Asking questions of these people, I surmised, when I was the oddity, was a definite no. I ducked my head in what I hoped was shame and apology.
“Human say what?” The leader's antennae sparked against my skin, searching for the answer.
“I have trouble speaking,” I explained as slowly and precisely as possible. “I did not mean to say something that offended you-”
“Areme! Esk Human sore butha kimbit.”
“Human like child, yes?”
I involuntarily glanced down at my body. The last I remember, I was but a nursery infant, but now as I looked, my body was long and tall, molded into strange and unfamiliar curves as my eyes glided down. I didn't like the prospect that the aliens had already seen all of me before I even had.
“Maybe... I-I don't know,” I shrugged helplessly.
“Human Dee-Dray like Bartok Kumali?”
Kumali extricated itself from the arms of the smallest Bartok and stepped forward. I couldn't determine the gender of the selected one of his offspring just by looking. Kumali was decorated with black and red splotches on the back of his or her shell, purple extended antennae that stood still at attention, and brown stick-like arms, two pairs of them like I had grown to expect. Against all the others, it was clear Kumali was the oldest. The other three shrunk back as miniature replicas. If Kumali hadn't on that first day been categorized with the children, I would surely have mistaken him or her for a third parental unit.
“I'm most like Kumali, yes,” I admitted as I took closer observation of the oldest Bartok offspring. As the chest ridges rippled and heaved, I noticed for the first time a resemblance in the lower segments to udders on cows, cows I had only seen through my parents' amateur sketches and stories. Kumali, I decided, was an adolescent girl much like myself.
“Good. Est rec maa-ny got lusren adre Dee-Dray, Kumali.”
I was looking at her, but I didn't have time to recognize the initial emotions flickering in her eyes before she curtained herself and turned to me. “Me Human take tour, yes?”
I supposed so, so I nodded. Kumali scuttled off out of the dome house and disappeared up into a strange, mist-coated light. I had to run to catch up to her.
Kumali had taken me almost everywhere within the small Bartok community, yet I still found myself running. She showed me this structure, walked me through this building, but I knew nothing of what any of it meant.
“Asheh rumen atik val core bonts eek...”
“Kumali? I'm sorry, I don't understand any of this.”
She ignored me, only twitching her antennae in my direction to show she had acknowledged that I had spoken and had chosen not to respond to it. “Kare bonk eet semenal uri lante crok. Essen rul a someny epsh cann sera... Sera omp eshre latae sure bele ik.”
It was clearer to me that Kumali didn't like me. But the reasons remained shrouded in darkness. I waited for a moment Kumali really wasn't looking, and drifted out of her vicinity. She didn't notice, and if she had noticed she wouldn't have made a huge fuss out of it.
I wandered the halls of what looked to me like a government center. I peered into what were likely the rooms of the officials and viewed political documents. Up close, the handwriting of the Bartok resembled words to me as much as my father's inscriptions had all the years ago when I had read them. Crazy, stilted lines that formed angles and marks, dancing from page edge to page edge. A curly, circular inscription marked the bottom, filling the entire space of sheet.
I exited the building and was taken aback by the stars above my head. Multitudes and multitudes, uncountable. Unaccounted for. I shivered, holding the coat tighter against my still-bare skin. How alone it would be to hang up in the sky, a decoration for all to see, but no purpose of your own.
As soon as my eyes adjusted to the natural light around the outside of the building I realized, not surprisingly, that I was lost. I knew from a bit of experience that wandering often led you to your destination, ultimately, but it was unlikely those circumstances would hold true in this mysterious land, bombarded by alien plants, away from anyone I knew. There was no beacon to guide me home among these waters.
I sat down on the ground, hidden among the foreign and frightening brush, and curled within my coat of flesh, anchoring against the cold.
I wasn't very surprised to wake up back in the museum, though I should have been. I would have done more adventuring; I would have walked to the ends of this earth, but somewhere in my sleep, clawed arms grabbed me unlawfully and strung me back up in the place I was before. If I waited long enough, Deshen and Serrea would find me again. At least, I hoped.
I did not swing fiercely from their wrist cuffs. I did not angrily stomp against their ankle bands. I stayed as still as was possible, feeling all their eyes go by.
I gasped through a mouthful of reeds as I slid headlong into icy waters. Waking up, my hopes of reaching home darkened. If that had been the dream, none of the rest of this was.
I stood up in the swampy stream, shaking slime and mud off my legs. I tilted my body to get a view through overhead leaves and branches. I recognized the mist, the mist that blocked the light that would be too much for black orb eyes to bear at first glimpse. Morning time it must have been. I had never been accustomed to growing light as the day rose.
I clambered out of the stream, dragging my muck-covered coat along with me. Even when it disgusted me, it reminded me of a small kindness in this big place – likely with more than one person like Kumali – far, far away from the only home I had ever known.
I surprised myself with the thought that this could also be a home, if I so chose. “Home is where you make it,” I tried murmuring, startled at the sudden clarity of my own spoken words. Quiet, purposeful phrases made it out without a fight. That was something I would need to keep in mind.
After a minor slip in the sludge, I picked myself up again, and, dragging the coat of kindness, I cautiously made my way out of the forest of dark, dark trees.
I trudged through that knee-high gook for I don't know how long when I heard a strange noise. Singing, it could have been, I guess, though it sounded very strange. Thumping of some kind. Rumbling voices. This couldn't have been the Bartok. Even to me they didn't seem capable.
I should have followed my instincts and hid, but my curiosity led me deeper through the next cluster of trees. Humming, thumping, rumbling – and then I saw something to go along with all of that. Orange, sparkling air in dance to the tune of the vibrations. I didn't believe a thing I saw but I still drew closer and closer.
WHAM! A huge ka-thunk and then it stopped, all except the dancing orange that still licked the air in its wretched hunger. I ducked at the sound, flinching away from the inevitable danger, but slowly rose up to catch a better glimpse of these people and what they were doing.
Stranger still than the Bartok. Bodies big and small, with pairs of arms above and below a giant, furry face with deep craters of void for the eyes. At least, I had thought until the face was lifted up and off one of the participants and I recognized Kumali.