Third NaNoWriMo entry. Second part of Extant.
I wasn't stupid enough to run towards the very person who would have kicked me away in response, but to me it seemed like what she was doing was prohibited. Feared. Forbidden. Dancing around in masks with the strange forest folk when you were the daughter of the highest leader of a technological alien society would likely have consequences, and those would not be positive. However, I figured that when the time of the light drew near again she would begin to head home, and since she was my ticket back to any sort of security and safety, I would have to follow her.
“Hkaba iden ralae shom make na.”
I huddled against the ground, made up of freezing cold layers of mud, and peered through the leaves and brush to watch them. Kumali was conversing with another Bartok who still chose to leave its mask on. I saw the mystery Bartok's antennae shiver over the top of the fake fuzzy head it wore.
“Khharen lute make make shonn rale bott lingon.”
“Iske re malete suoere geet ra lam?”
“Huseh con laet fei lok co eih.”
Watching and hearing a conversation that I understood not a single word of was not quite my idea of a good time. It wasn't too long afterward that I lost interest and let my mind drift, anchoring myself by watching the two speakers intently. I pondered the light, how it got there and where it came from. I thought about Deshen and Serrea. It was ridiculous, but had they worried at all about me? Or was time here different, on a two-to-one ratio with the airship time, but the Bartok didn't know the Human sleep schedule? Did Bartok even sleep?
There was a slight rustle, but in the silence it was as prominent as a siren. I stopped my train of thought and gave my whole mind to the forest, watching, listening, waiting. Leaning back where I had a clear view to Kumali, I saw that her eyes were now turned this way, and the other Bartok had removed its headdress and was also looking my way.
Instinct told me to run, so I scrambled up, grasping to get a foothold on the wet and slippery ground, and ran. Stumbled, more like. Tripped and faltered and skipped and fell and clambered, but not ran. If I had been able to run, Kumali and the other Bartok wouldn't have sounded like they were getting closer with every passing moment.
My heart was beating wildly in my ears, the pulse running rampant through the veins under my skin. I heard scuttling claw footsteps against the vines that stretched and patterned the earth, and an abnormally thick tendril caught my bare toes and sent me sprawling into the spikes and shadows of the brush. Overhead leaves rattled and shook in the breeze. I didn't know where Kumali was by this point, if she had passed my current location or had stopped to look.
I waited for a few moments of silence before I rose. My slime-coat caught on branches, but the stretchy, fleshy yellow-green material resisted any tears, and it would still keep me safely hidden. I resumed trudging through the swampy murk in the direction in which I had already been headed.
That is, until two flying masses came out of nowhere and knocked me to the ground, on my back. I heard my breath shoot out of my lungs with a smoky puff. Kumali's large dark eyes searched me, unforgivingly.
“Keshesh shubai rumal iy kana sure? Gerfa noht a mane sempe liq ve nocht!”
I had no idea what she was saying, only that she was angry. Perhaps only so because my disappearance would lead to her downfall.
“Asheng, tyba lufa req.”
The other Bartok, identified as “Asheng”, came closer to me and wrestled me into its grasp, twisting my arms and legs together. I held back a scream behind my teeth as I was mercilessly tossed onto the alien's back and the two Bartok – Kumali and Asheng – raced off through the trees to their hidden, secret, and likely forbidden meeting place.
Once the pair stopped their scuttling I was dropped onto the hard, cracked surface of dust near to the past location of the flames. Untwisting myself out of a pretzel shape, I curled up on the ground, aching and knowing I could renew myself to my original state that happened to lack the twisted, mistreated limbs.
“Keshe beshe rok te seenh?”
“Urang le fle balle port nu dal.”
“Sea sea rosh?”
“Sdrei marke luten qer... Hureng-ehy fraz ma du.”
I was touched by a sticky, unwelcome tentacle. “The Outsider.”
I sat up as if jerked awake by a poorly aimed electrical shock. The word began circulating in the air around me. “Outsider.” “The Outsider.” There were about twenty Bartok surrounding me, dark eyes glittering against an even darker sky. Some of them held the obscene masks in their clawed feet, but their attention was not on disguising themselves, not now.
“Human meet Lichen-Botten.”
“Lichen-Botten?” I reached up and rubbed raw forest slime from my face, much different than the manufactured skin I dragged around for security. “W-What?”
“Bartok live woods call Lichen-Botten. Society secret. Human no speak Lichen-Botten, yes?”
I nodded without comprehension of a single word they were uttering, no matter if it was in poor English or not.
“Human safe woods. Bartok Kumali watch Human, no?”
My chin shook in the cold, and the Bartok mistook it for a nod. I didn't trust Kumali. I didn't have a good feeling about the ill-will in her orb eyes. I wouldn't feel any safer stuffed in the farthest corner of the planet with a group of secret rebels than I would in a glass display case in the museum.
“You won't leave while I sleep?”
“Bartok no leave Human sleep.”
I nodded warily and lay back down within my makeshift sleep cubicle of my slime-coat, leaves, branches and vines and strange tufts of fur or cotton that dropped from the highest reaches of the trees. Soft within that cocoon, I didn't feel I needed to worry about being left in the middle of the night. All I was worried about was ridding my legs of the awful burnt-and-broken feeling, and washing my mind with pure, iridescent black.
I awoke to a misty light and the smell of fire. Of course it was more of a desperate crawl out of the darkness. When my eyes opened I was sparked by bright orange smoke, but ironically I didn't know what it was.
“Bartok no leave Human sleep, yes?”
The other Bartok grumbled a sort of agreement. Some began to extract syringes – dirty, filthy and not-sterile syringes – and inject nutrient mixtures inside their arms. I took this as a cue, and I reached into the interior of the coat... to find that the turnip-radish-root-vegetable was no more.
“Do you know if there are any... food-plants in the forest? Edible stems or anything like that?”
Confused and wary eyes turned on me. This time Kumali served as my go-to Bartok. “Bartok send Human woods with...” She glanced around her entourage, though her eyes grazing them was like a sting: they all ducked their heads down or fiddled their claw-toes out of view.
“Qewri. Take Human woods, yes?”
They only translated it for my benefit, because not a moment later Kumali had to speak the same words (or close to) in their comprehensible antennae-/whisker-waving language. The Bartok named Qewri stood silently, looming in its lankiness.
“Come Human,” it said, as if without translation, and I stood up and followed it timidly.
The woods stretched dark and forbiddingly as we walked farther ahead. I was thankful that this Qewri character was traveling at a speed I could keep up with, but his or her presence was not very comforting, no matter if this forest had been full of monsters or not.
I squinted through the shadows to see if I could find any of the strange tubers the Bartok had brought to me before. I caught sight of many strange looking stems in the ground, and crouching down and digging them up I discovered a different vegetable. It was long and blue and curled into a spiral, but a tentative lick to its soil-coated surface proved safe enough, so I dug up as many as I could find in the vicinity. Qewri said not a word regarding my animal-like actions, and only followed me as silently as a shadow when I turned to make my way back to the Lichen-Botten camp.
Kumali looked up when I emerged from the trees into the small clearing where the Lichen-Botten Bartok were gathered. “Good. Human found Food. But Human no take Food back home. Deshen know espret come from.”
I did not take much from what she said, but what I did understand was that Kumali was eventually taking me back and that she wasn't supposed to be here in the first place. “Why... why are we going back?” It wasn't that I didn't want to go back, but going back did present the issue of being shut up in a museum or being under constant surveillance. Here it wasn't any more comfortable, but I much rather preferred averted eyes. It drove home the very obvious point that I was quite visually different from the Bartok, but it didn't hold me up as some gross space phenomena that needed to be viciously stared at every second my head turned.
Kumali's antennae stood straight up then curled forward in what I took to be surprise and confusion. “Human can't no go back. Deshen discover Lichen-Botten.”
“The Lichen-Botten are an illegal group, then.”
“Lichen-Botten go against everything Deshen believe. Go against everything Deshen make law.”
“Why are you a part of it?” I asked, my voice a nearly inaudible murmur.
“I?” Kumali's antennae flicked irritably. “No need tell Human.”
I twisted my mouth shut. I had stupidly grown accustomed to Kumali's friendliness, but in an instant she shoved any of her amiability out the window. I didn't have a clue about her character, or anything really; only I was starting to get cold not wearing any clothes and coming to this definitive and conscious realization I also started to get self-conscious. The coat was nice to be able to pull around me, but it wasn't as adequate as the clothing I had worn and seen everyone else wear back on the airship.
The airship. That time seemed so far back that I almost didn't remember it as my own. Centuries ago it seemed like. I hadn't seen my parents in ages. I hadn't seen them in so long I had now forgotten their faces. They were still in my mind as a body, as a presence, as a voice, as a certain script and handwriting, but my mind was never so curious as to watch their face. I remember their eyes but not their faces. Alone here in a foreign world with a rebel group on an alien planet and I couldn't remember my parents' faces.
“Well, how did the Lichen-Botten even happen? Come to exist now, I mean.”
Kumali was now silent, irritated with all of my questions, likely. All of the other Bartok were quiet as well, fiddling with some stick or engaged in some silent conversation through vibrations. Finally, Qewri turned back to me, surprising everyone, especially Kumali and me.
“The Lichen-Botten... Us Bartok, here in forest, no follow law. Law oppressive. Law impossible. Law ridiculous. Long time back, Bartok ran out forest. Lived where no law. Now time, Bartok Kumali live forest no like dad. No like technology, media. Us Bartok all have different story. Bartok I came here so offspring no bad living conditions. Yes?”
This was their way of confirming that I understood. I nodded, but Qewri was finished speaking. Kumali shook her antennae angrily in the direction where Qewri had sat, but the Bartok who had spoken out about the underground community had no regrets of the words it had spoken. The comment implying want for children to have a better upbringing made me lean towards categorizing Qewri in the female gender, but glancing at the flesh ridges on their chest, I noted no similarities between Kumali and Qewri. Going around the group I was able to crudely determine who was female and who was male with my feeble human eyes.
Qewri's expression of concern for offspring that hadn't yet been created for their world yet reminded me of my father, distant and growing more so every moment in my memories. My father always gave me the impression of his eternal concern and protection of me. However, my father was incredibly sensitive as well. Any time the nurse or anyone brought him bad news, he bounced it off his hard-shell skin when the officials were present. But in the privacy of the closed doors, be they within a dorm or just in the cafeteria after they had left, he melted like a candle. He tried so hard to hold up the image of strength for Mom and me, but I could always see the crumbling facade just underneath.
“First light, Human take home.” Kumali's words, though physically unspoken, were sharp and biting. “Yes?”
I felt a strange tickling sensation crawling across my bare arms, and I looked over to catch the remainder of a glance that Qewri had directed my way. I was taken aback, though, by the difference in his eyes, curious and wondering instead of quietly dominant.