Third NaNoWriMo entry. Second part of Extant.
High Bartok Deshen
Kumali woke me up with a claw prick into the soft flesh of my middle and without warning started scurrying off without a glance back in my direction. I scrambled to my feet and followed her, stubbornly dragging the filthy slime-coat along the ground behind me as I ran. Kumali didn't seem to be having any trouble going the speed she was going, and I was baffled only for a moment before I realized she must have had a lot of practice running through the dark-before-morning to make it home early enough so as not to warrant excessive inquisitions.
I tripped more often than not, and almost lost sight of Kumali many times. When we finally reached the silver dome that was her living quarters, she stopped me at the door and had this to say to me.
“Human speak no word of Lichen-Botten. Human speak no word of Bartok Qewri explanation. Human speak tour, no else. Yes?”
I nodded, but her hard orb eyes were still penetrating me. “Yes, Bartok Kumali.”
Her antennae flicked at my poor attempt to mimic the proper name addressing of the culture, but other than that my response was ignored. Kumali pressed one of her head tentacles into a notch in the door and it soundlessly slid open. Kumali ushered me impatiently to the bed I had taken underneath the heat lamp and I was about to snuggle in with the slime-coat when Kumali noticed its filth.
“Human no keep skin. Bartok replace. No keep this skin. Now, Human act sleep.”
I figured that protesting an already decided action would have no results except a harsh scolding in an alien tongue, but when she yanked the coat out from where I had molded it into a comfortable padding, my skin was raw. I had grown accustomed to its gelatin quality and mutant warmth. But I understood, at least, that by discarding it she greatly lessened her chances of being discovered as part of the Lichen-Botten.
I don't know how she was fast enough to make a disappearance into one of the pods away from the heat lamp, because I had barely been able to blink when I saw Deshen appear before me. He noted my eyes squinting away from the abnormal levels of heated light from the lamp above and surmised that I was just waking up.
“Human Dee-Dray back sleep? How like Human tour?”
I stretched arms that were still sore from having been twisted. “I liked it a lot. There is so much to know about the Bartok and Kumali was a really helpful tour guide...”
Deshen's antennae sparked and twirled. “Bartok glad like Human tour.”
Serrea came out into the room as well, staring at me as she always did but not directing her words my way. “Eshe kon oble tun sea se hue fredqe sompte xi.”
The head Bartok spun his antennae in thought. “Kahsend qrel. Human like Bartok school, yes?”
“The Bartok school?”
Deshen nodded. “On tour, Bartok school. Bartok Kumali no show Human school?”
“I... I don't remember being shown a school...”
I felt hissing waves from Kumali's pod, four away from mine, but I tucked my arms against myself and ignored them.
This was the instant that Deshen noticed my lack of slime blanket. “Where Human blanket?”
I shrugged, trying unsuccessfully to act as if it was no big deal. “I might have lost it on the tour.”
Deshen flicked his antennae against Serrea's and she scuttled off, out of view, coming back with another blanket of skin, thin and a more translucent shade of blue-gray. Shooting a quick sideways glance at the other sleep pods, I saw the blankets tucked within them were also this same color; the green one must have been for the officials.
“Take this good care, Human,” Serrea ordered, and I nodded quickly to show that I understood – and to escape the burning gaze of her fiery orb eyes.
“Bartok decide Human go school with children. Human go school before, yes?”
“My parents taught me some things, but I didn't go to school.”
“Human parents? Where Human parents? Where Human home?”
I gestured to the sky, but within the building the Bartok did not understand my signaling the ceiling as where I came from. One of the Bartok children clarified for the parents, stepping through the front door and saying in awe, “She kesh isn Human bweq.”
“Human came sky?”
I had sort of been expecting them to start asking these questions, but I would have thought they had already asked enough to their satisfaction. Clearly I was wrong. “I was born on an airship,” I said, and the second my words were translated all of the children gathered around, even Kumali, though grudgingly.
“And?” Deshen laid an antenna down upon my leg, carefully covered by the flesh skin. The children came around and touched their antennae to my skin, eager and curious.
“And I was kept in the nursery when I was young, but they thought I was mentally disabled so I was labeled useless to the mission. I was kept away in the expendable ward and I got to meet my parents for the first time but they were taken away because I was an expendable and I had reached my D-day. I remember being injected with a needle and then crashing on the Bartok planet a long time after.”
“How Human born airship?”
I shrugged. “I don't know. It's the only life I know – I don't remember.”
Kumali's feelers swirled with jealousy and she surreptitiously removed herself from the giant circle around me. Deshen removed his antenna from my leg but still had this to say:
“Next day, first light, Human go Bartok school with children. Yes?”
I nodded. “Yes, Bartok Deshen.”
I didn't realize Kumali was behind me. “High Bartok Deshen,” she hissed into my ear, tapping me with her antennae.
“Yes, High Bartok Deshen.”
Deshen's antennae vibrated approvingly. “School next day, first light.” He scuttled out of the room, Serrea and the children following, and Kumali cued me to leave with an antennae wiggle in my direction as she headed for the door.
I figured I was going to wonder about it for a while if I didn't get it off my chest, so I decided to just ask. “Kumali, why is he referred to as High Bartok Deshen?”
Kumali's antennae curled and I didn't get a response for a while as we hurried through the trees. I had just noticed all of the wildlife, though I was passing it by so quickly I didn't have even the briefest chance to marvel at it. Small, fluttering birds with rounded orange chests and black feathered backs; fast crawling worms in neon gelatin colors; dark furry one-eyed mammals that burrowed under vines and earth.
“High Bartok Deshen lead community. Lead people. Most old Bartok alive. Think know everything. Yes?”
I assumed that that was all I would get from Kumali, but perhaps I could ask Qewri. He seemed to be an open storehouse of knowledge where Kumali was a corked-up bottle. “Yes,” I said, following her diligently without another prying word.
We emerged into the clearing, which at this time of day was empty with only bare and minuscule traces of the Lichen-Botten's presence: there were embers scattered in the soil and an empty syringe rolled against a rock, propelled by the breeze. I sat down on the ground and unearthed my spiral vegetable – I noted that Kumali had called it an espret – not hesitating or taking dainty bites. My hunger was starting to unearth me, and if I waited any longer I would be as good as the crawling neon worms.
“Eat fast. Me take Human school. Late tour.”
I nodded, staring out through space at nothing. The vegetable was strange, more like a green bean than its visually identical carrot twin. I ate the whole one, though, and stashed another one inside of my new flesh blanket to nibble on on the tour – though I highly doubted Kumali would even consider going slow enough to give me time to do anything, much less eat.
The school was a wonder: encased in the shell of translucent metal walls were rooms brightened with windows patterned in the ceiling. Rows of desks with dark, sleek faces paired with gelatin seats aligned in neat columns, and a large screen marked the front of the classroom. Stepping through the halls and hearing the abruptly truncated echo I was reminded of the airship. Antiseptic wafted from every corner, but it was a subtle, invisible mist that reached up to my nose. Such a place for learning it was. I hadn't had much experience with school, but I felt in an instant that learning here would remind me of what I hadn't had a chance to do on the airship. Though lonely, it was a pleasant thought. A bare smile tinged my features.
“School tomorrow. High Bartok Deshen said, yes?”
“Human go Young Bartok Porwe. Porwe start school. Human start school, too.”
“How far are you in school?”
Kumali's antennae snapped like ropes, flicking hard against the air and making a loud smack. “Lichen-Botten no go school,” she hissed. I quieted, knowing that she did not like to talk about the Lichen-Botten.
After some time but before we had reached the house again, I asked, “How does one become part of the Lichen-Botten?”
Kumali laughed, an undertone of a shriek. Waves of high-pitched ringing sound bounced in and off and through my ears. “Human not one Lichen-Botten. Never.”