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Extant: Part Two
Author's note: Third NaNoWriMo entry. Second part of Extant.
The first thing that I can recall from my life is being taken from the only people I'd ever known. Not my parents, no: the teachers and nurses who had been assigned my nursery among their rounds. I remember the day like nothing else. I had been calmly playing on the floor of my room when my teacher came in, and in a soothing voice told me there were some people I was going to meet. I understood her perfectly well, but she thought I was completely uncomprehending when she was able to carry me out without a word. The baby I shared the room with stood up in her crib and reached an arm out to me through the bars, but by that point I had already been swept through the open door.
I clutched to my teacher's shirt without a sound. She took this as a sign that I was afraid, and she cradled me and hummed assorted lullabies to me. I closed my eyes just enough so that I wouldn't have to see whoever it was I was going to meet, but I heard them well enough. I heard a gasp and my teacher put me down on the ground, upon my feet that I was so unaccustomed to walking on.
They were a man and a woman, both so tall from my viewpoint, and the man ran to me with the most disbelieving and hopeful grin on his face and gathered me into his arms. His speech was quick and too excited for me to make out. I was touched with chills and I observed him with some trepidation.
Then it was the woman's turn to hold me. I remember exactly how she smelled – like warmth and cinnamon. I wasn't afraid of her at all. She reined in her excitement and anticipation, whereas the man did nothing to withhold his. Was he the more caring of the two? Did he have some work that incorporated more direct involvement?
The nurse's words stopped their every action.
“We're only letting you see her because... Well, you know.”
“We know what?” The man was suddenly tense.
“Your daughter is an expendable.”
I had heard the word spoken often enough in my association, but I never pinpointed its exact meaning. It was a bad connotation, clearly, by the fear in the eyes of the people I had been brought to meet. My parents. The words didn't feel right; I didn't feel right sitting with them as their own blood. I put up a fight to release myself from the man's – my father's – grip and I returned to the safety and familiarity of my teacher's hold. I pressed my face into her, and in the darkness I could suck my thumb and my parents wouldn't see.
My teacher didn't return me to the nursery. She walked me down long, forbidding corridors until we reached a ward that was too shiny, too clean and kept to be a real living place. She laid me down in an oversized and unfamiliar sleep cubicle in a dark hole of a room, and left without goodbye.
I was not the child to cry. I was not the child to run to the door and whimper for who I had lost. I saw her walk out without a word to me and realized all along that she had been a phony. She never had any feelings for me as a maternal figure. I now had to depend on the two people I hadn't seen in my life to nurture me, as good as or better than I had been taken care of for the past year.
My father was the first to enter the room after I had been locked within it hours earlier. I held still in my position, though everything inside of me wanted to run from him as fast as I could. He proved not to hold such unpredictability in him, and he was a calm figure that helped me sleep through that first night.
I met my mother again at lunch the next day. She seemed jumpy, unaccustomed to my presence, though if anyone were to act as she was for the reasons she was acting as such, it should've been me. She watched me without speaking words, and I tried my best not to let the crawly feeling get to me.
She only really started to grasp my interest when she produced an unusual-looking package and slid it across the table, intended for my father. He thanked her for it, his voice tired and stance haggard. I reached for the flat box, but my arms proved too short and I slapped them frustratedly upon the mysterious package's surface.
My father opened it with the offer of letting me copy inscriptions – the reason for the box. Thin sheets folded over and over until he reached a space of blank white. I took the pen he gave me, grasped it in my hands, and drew without knowing art, wrote without knowing words.
However, this box of sheets was quickly hidden when the nurse arrived, apparently with more bad news. My parents seemed distraught after she left, and they tried to engage me in play but their eyes were too hollow and sad for me to let them pretend for my sake.
My mother spent the next night with me. She was very wise despite the image she portrayed as being isolated and reticent. Without my father beside her she opened to me as being a very caring figure that had lost so much when I was taken away. I knew nothing of this, and so sat transfixed and listened to her tale.
She stayed up the whole night long and made funny inscriptions in the pages of her own sheet-box. I woke up often during the night and would peer over the edge of the cubicle and watch her stare off into space between moments of intense concentration on the pages in the box.
We caught up with my father that day at lunch, and so alternated for the next days. I couldn't count. Time seemed infinite to me. However, my parents did nothing but mark the passing of days. I grew to adore the people who had jumped back into their rightful place as my caretakers, and taught them to put time aside and live in the moments. They never questioned it, never questioned a supposedly mentally disabled two-year-old's stand on how to live life.
That was another thing I remembered. Not as clearly as the introduction of my parents into my life, but I vaguely remember it as the undertone for the early years. The words were thrown around often enough. “Spinal deformity,” “mental disability,” “expendable.” All of the opposite words that children were supposed to hear. Not children in the airship, apparently.
I wasn't disabled at all. Indeed, I had had a spinal deformity when I was born, but a series of surgeries in the first weeks of my life – things they talked about later when they thought I wasn't listening – reversed it as much as possible. True, I walked with a noticeable right-favoring slant, but as I grew, and of course under the new nurturing environment I was put into, it lessened considerably. I never cried to my parents about back pain they couldn't see was there. I learned to walk as straight as the other airship inhabitants. My only disability was my incapability of speaking comprehensible language. “Low linguistic development” was another term they threw about amongst themselves. Besides that, my mind was so far beyond those of the other children I met in the nursery ward. I guess it was my advanced intellect that led them to demove me, my advanced intellect trapped inside of a body incapable of speech. I was somehow a threat to them, a threat before I could have even been explained any of what they were afraid of losing due to me.
I had no clue that being an expendable eventually meant that I would lose everything. Of course I wouldn't. Of course they didn't think I would have known. But I for sure knew that the first night away from my parents meant something terribly wrong was happening outside the boundaries of my awareness.
The next day when the both of them reappeared, I couldn't rein in the joy I felt. I was so exultant I reached the skies. The only way I could safely release my pent-up energy was to run, as freely as any child. That day, I proved to my parents how I wasn't any different than the other kids, than the kid I could have been. I walked as straight as a pole, I forced my tongue around the words I held inside for them. I was also sad, though. My intuition clued me in that this still wasn't the happiest situation. I frequently ran up to either of them and hugged their knees fiercely, saying to them how much I missed them even if they couldn't understand me. Even when my mind wandered from their physical bodies, my heart still held on to their soul. They were there even though they disappeared again that night, neither of the two of them present to cradle me in their understanding arms, neither of them to explain the mystery of the boxes they pondered over night and day, neither of them to feel any of the childishly spoken words I ached so desperately to tell to them.
They didn't reappear the next day. I looked everywhere for them, my heart pounding as I peeked around every corner and looked under every table, hoping they were just hiding as part of a game and would jump out with a hug to dispel all of my fears.
They didn't appear. I didn't find them. They were not playing a game. One of my nurses appeared, and by the look in her eyes, the way she walked, her overall mien, I picked up on some indirect clues and knew that she was to blame. My parents weren't gone; they had just been kept from me.
While she was resetting some gauges and configuring heart valve monitors and other such things, I slipped out of the open door and made my way to the door leading out of the expendable ward. I didn't know where to go. I had no idea where my parents would be. I ran through dark halls, ducking under the arms of inattentive guards, and I had slipped and fallen right on my backside when I saw them peering out of a doorway.
I must have been screaming for them the whole time. They ran to me as they had the first day, and my mother picked me up and I smothered my tears into her chest. I heard my parents sniffle back tears of their own. When I heard the nurse appear down the hall behind me, I confirmed that she was in on this elaborate plot.
“Your daughter is a crafty one.” I was plucked from their arms without struggle in my elated torpor, but as soon as the cold, antiseptic lab-coated arms of the nurse held me, I howled. My parents looked so badly like they wanted to reach out to me. I threw my arms towards them and let the pain torrent out. Screams and screams. The nurse did nothing to stop them; my parents could do nothing to ease them. I was carried right back to the prison of the expendable ward, hooked up to various machines, and stabbed with a needle that sent me into darkness.
Those are the things I remember. I do not remember the life I lived – or was kept from living – within the shuttlepod. I do not remember the wandering dreams I ran through while my body was frozen in position. I do not remember awaking soon after the shot and finding myself encapsulated in a metal tube. I do not remember words my parents wrote; I do not remember words my parents told me. I do not remember what they called me, the nurses or my biological caretakers. I do not remember that I lost a valuable decade of my life to nothing.
All I remember now is the incredible impact of crashing, the splitting open of a metal cocoon I had been trapped inside, the cold whoosh of the night air, and a hundred million eyes, all peering down at me from up in the stars.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.”
Before I could even vaguely sense the misty light encompassing the world and the Bartok people, I was vigorously shaken awake by one of High Bartok Deshen's younger offspring. My eyes opened and the child's red and orange tentacles were prodding me in my stomach. Once the child realized I was awake, it went around and began prodding my back, up and up until I crouched around myself and yawned and stretched.
“Gishesh! Burel tika bur qep seec vae!”
With a laugh the child ran off, but I didn't get whatever joke may have been pinned on me. I rose and followed in the general direction the child had disappeared, and stepped into a very medical looking room and saw everyone hooking up to syringes embedded in the walls.
“I'm sorry,” I said quickly, and backed out. I felt like an intrusion to their private moment, but Deshen reacted before I had left the room entirely.
“No Human apologize. Human food scanner-drawer.”
The youngest child, Porwe, zoomed past me to the designated storage place and pressed a tentacle into the lock. The drawer slid open and I saw it was full of the same turnip-radish-root-vegetables.
I guessed that I was going to have to start liking them.
By the time it was light out, Porwe, Basen, Uheng, Kumali and I were halfway to school. Kumali was only traveling with us to give the impression (or so I understood) because none of her siblings knew anything about the Lichen-Botten. Once she disappeared into the “eskele martoke(school for mature learners)”, the two middle children Basen and Uheng walked into the “eskele ukere(school for intermediate learners)”, and Porwe and I walked the rest of the way to the “eskele parate(school for beginning learners).”
“Karae bora notke serun tule man.”
Porwe giggled in amusement. “Human hair funny.” But she quieted thoughtfully. “Like it, though. I no have.”
We were ushered by a school official into one of the first classrooms off the hall, and I was met by pairs upon pairs of curious eyes.
“Eskeleas, shean purete fur noq ee werj uak vee: Deirdre,” the teacher explained, introducing me.
“Akale Deirdre,” a chorus of voices followed.
“Deirdre, sit back classroom.”
I followed the direction in which her clawed foot was pointing, and I myself was shadowed by about twelve pairs of eyes, still wondering of my presence here. After I sat in the chair, a soft gelatin mold, the teacher directed the students' attention to the front. A virtual screen was positioned at the head of the classroom, and with a swipe of her antennae the same spiked letters which I had viewed upon the government documents were arranged in rows, big paired with small.
“Akalake sure qerb sea bute lit. Barba cerae unti polang xez.”
The children around tapped the screens of their desks with their antennae and began scrawling imitations of the characters on the main board. I sat away off in the back corner, uncomprehending of any of it.
“Deirdre, open desk – tap corner finger. Copy words on screen here.”
I followed her orders and reached a blank screen, only marked with black as my finger touched the virtual page. I looked at the screen up front, marked with foreign symbols, and attempted the first pair. I meticulously copied the scraggly curves that were halved by a definitive diagonal line, and then made it again smaller. When my finger slid too far or faltered any way in writing, I erased what I wrote in determined frustration and started again. Several tries it took for me to finally complete the first letter, where the other children in the class alongside me had already reached the second or third row. I didn't let their being ahead sway me in my determination to complete my first-ever school assignment, and I traced my finger carefully to accurately delineate the more professional models on the board.
I was stopped in that exercise and moved to a game of play with the younger Bartok children, but when the teacher even hinted at a free time, I rushed back to the desk and attempted the symbols again. My discovery of this element of the Bartok language – even if I had no ties to its meaning or creation – was an opening closer to the Bartok world. Being more like them would require them to treat me as an equal – all that I had ever yearned for and never received.
Porwe jumped around eagerly at my side when the children were allowed outdoors, at which point the Bartok child I had been escorted with dashed off to familiar and welcome friends and raced back to me, giving a rapid introduction that I did not understand and running after the other children in chase. She tugged at my arm often, pouting for me to play with them. I did, grudgingly; I was a bit disappointed at all the free time and down time that I was allowed when there was so much that needed to be practiced, so much that needed to be learned and taught.
While all of the other students romped around through the trees just outside the curtain of leaves, I sat at my desk and diligently drew every symbol on the board over and over again in my own virtual representation. The teacher came over and remarked with a light antennae tap to my head, “Human known work hard, yes?” and she laughed without awaiting my answer, gliding out to round up the remainder of her class.
That day we returned home the same way we had arrived, receiving Uheng and Basen into our wings first and catching up with Kumali as the last entrant to the group. We arrived into the house and immediately High Bartok Deshen approached me with curiously wandering antennae searching my skin.
“How like Human Bartok school?”
“I like it very much,” I replied. Deshen's eyes glinted.
“Glad like Human Bartok school. Human food?”
“Need food Human?” he asked again, gesturing and walking towards the sliding drawer. As hungry as I was from not eating at school while the other kids ate, I was too absorbed by the symbols I had drawn again and again, and wouldn't be able to understand it all with pairs of eyes clinging to my every move, my every breath and blink.
“No, I'm okay. I'll have food tomorrow.”
I nodded. “Yes, please. And thank you.”
“Welcome Human, why?”
“Thank you for deciding that I go to school,” I said, and Deshen's antennae fizzled approvingly. The rest of the family left the room and alone with the orange of the heat lamp and the words emblazoned on the inside of my eyelids, I could sleep.
I started awake in the middle of the night. A noise had caught my attention, light tapping and scuttling across the sheen of floor. Squinting through the darkness I just saw the last slivers of light as the door slid silently shut behind someone who had left.
Immediately I threw off the smotheringly hot layer of the flesh blanket and scurried after her. I couldn't have said what initially propelled me to go. Was it irritation at being left out? Was it a need to find out everything that Kumali wasn't telling me? Was it my desire to expel all crime and evil from the Bartok community? Or was it just that I was the alien, the foreigner, the human, and being the one-in-a-billion oddity I was bound to have curiosity that could lead me into possibly life-threatening situations?
My instincts, whatever they were, led me into the woods after Kumali. Being there twice – and in the dark once – I figured that I would have a relatively easy time finding my way to the Lichen-Botten meeting place. My assumption – unsurprisingly – was wrong. I walked in circles around the dome that was High Bartok Deshen's house several times before I remembered which direction to go.
After bushwhacking for a little while I heard their rumbly song and thumping dance accompaniment from within the fronds. Following the noise and leading myself to it by sound alone, I ended up in the fringes of the clearing, and hidden by brush I could look on in secret admiration and wonder.
What I took notice of first were the two shadowy figures that stood away from the rest of the group. Edging closer to them through the bushes I recognized Qewri and Kumali, and by the rapid motion of their antennae they seemed angry and in a quarrel.
“Eseki umlat kesn roteq vi? Akea?”
“Supe nauren elemet aleq keman!”
“Rute rute... Simole job? Xefuset!”
I was so startled by the voice and touch of antennae on my bare skin that I jumped, falling from my precarious perch – balanced on up-stretched feet – and tumbling to the ground, entangling myself in vines.
Both the antennae and the voice approached me again. “Human Lichen-Botten?”
I sat up, trying to snap the vines curled around my legs as quietly as possible. The Bartok who had spoken, the one who was curiously tracking my not-so-stealthy moves crept into the light cast by the communal flames of orange.
“I'm not part of the Lichen-Botten,” I whispered, but my words wilted as soon as they were spoken; upon seeing the Bartok yet again I recognized Qewri... in two places at once? Or had my human eyes not yet grown able to discern the faces and eyes of the Bartok people? “Who are you?” I asked, slowly and warily.
“I Zorren,” the Bartok said, then added, “brother Qewri.”
As soon as I managed to raise myself to a standing position, Zorren reached out and tapped the top of my head with an antenna: a gesture of welcome and introduction. Deferring to the traditions of the culture, I clumsily curled my arm and touched my fingers to his head, which I found to be layered with a tuft of feather-soft baby hair. Zorren laughed quietly, a full and rich vibration starting at the roots of his feelers.
“Human watch Bartok argue?”
A blush of embarrassment rose to my cheeks. “I was looking for Kumali,” I said.
Zorren's antennae trembled in amusement. “Human no excuse,” he said. “I come watch fight too. Human come fire? Kumali mad but no can talk.”
“Oh no, I probably shouldn't-”
“Human want Kumali chase you or just see? Chase make more mad...”
I smiled involuntarily, having run right into his trap. “Thank you for inviting me,” I murmured as he led me into the camp.
Zorren's antennae froze, giving away his surprise at my response. “Bartok always want Human.” I couldn't help laughing as soon as he said it. “Always want talk Human,” he corrected quickly, but not quick enough to erase his obvious slip in translation.
I sat cross-legged next to Zorren around the fire, ignoring the sudden scuttle as the already arranged Lichen-Botten rose and moved away from where I had positioned myself.
A few awkwardly silent moments later, Kumali and Qewri reemerged from the darkness, and angry as Kumali was upon seeing me intrude on her secret organization, her one private sanctuary to hold on to yet again, she made no remarks on my behalf – not in English anyhow.
In the time before first light, a few of the Bartok began departing, Kumali included. I knew she would waste no time waiting, and so rose in immediate reaction to follow.
I stopped and Zorren came up behind me, brushing an antenna briefly across the soft skin of my wrist before disappearing as quickly as a shadow in the light.
The next day at school Porwe dragged me outside during our free time and insisted, this time in English, that I play with her and her friends.
“It game tag, kind of. Teams sides, hide slime flags. Other team our side, tag in jail. Our team other side, try get flag.”
“I don't know... It doesn't really make sense to me.”
“We teach you!” she said excitedly. “Shamme hule tik.”
“Play with us!”
I was elected to be on Porwe's team. Out in the forest, the divide between the team territory was a thin stream no wider than my hand. Porwe ran with me deep into our side and gestured to where I should hang the flag. Then a little boy came running over to guard it and Porwe grabbed my arm and raced with me back to the team division line.
“Now,” she whispered, “try get flag.”
“What?” I was shocked. I thought that getting the other team's flag was the most dangerous task within the game.
“I come too. If tag, both in jail. Play antennae-tap to jail-break.”
We snuck out of sight of the border guards and made our way through the forest until we caught sight of a strip of blue-gray fluttering in the breeze. Porwe sprinted to it, but out of the shadows one of the other children jumped and tagged her, then ran over and tagged me. We were escorted to an area of trees marked as the “prison” in the game, and as we sat Porwe tried to explain to me the rules of a game called “antennae-tap”.
Once we returned to the classroom, we were given a new collection of symbols to copy on our desk screens, and again I spent much of the day perfecting my set, and once I was satisfied I spent some time reviewing the characters from last class.
At the end of the day when everyone had left, I still sat, writing the symbols again and again. The teacher, Eskele Bartok Humeya, came over and viewed my work.
“Deirdre want symbols tomorrow?”
I assumed she was asking if I wanted them to copy on my own as opposed to stating the obvious. “Yes, please, Eskele Bartok Humeya.”
She walked to a drawer like the one where the vegetables I ate were stored at home and came back with a flat pad that had a sleek glass face.
“Like desk school, but can carry.”
“When should I bring it back?”
I clutched it to my chest in hopeful surprise. “Really? Thank you so much Eskele Bartok Humeya.”
“Welcome Deirdre. Study hard.”
“I will,” I promised, and holding the pad tighter than a life raft, I ran through the trees toward home.
I spent a good amount of time that night learning the controls of the portable desk screen, but as soon as Deshen left to retire to the sleep pods in the back of the house, I tucked the pad into the folds of my new, too-sterile-to-adapt-to slime coat and ducked out the door after Kumali.
Finding my way alone through the dark was much easier the second time around, and when I was met with the sounds of their ritual singing, I did not pause and duck into the bushes or turn and survey the shadows behind me to confirm I wasn't being followed. I heard their music and I walked into the clearing, searching the many clawed toes to try and seek out the welcome face in the crowd behind the intimidating furry masks.
“Werenta sumi polapola gosh nee. Appe non quma xet cala zeek ir bol.”
“Kueye sunte fere juu finte moko jube gre hi.”
“Dere man te aole zurpe gee.”
“Ai-ke. Zuret ne gon.”
Their rituals of song were interspersed with phrases of spiritual awakening. It was not something I had ever really been exposed to back on the airship, but seeing it first-hand I knew inside of me instantly that that was what their words were about, what their words were hoping for and expressing.
The masks were removed, and one by one, as their vision was restored, the Lichen-Botten noticed my presence at the fringes of their circle. I knew which one was Zorren by the friendly waving of his antennae atop his head.
“Dee-Dray break ceremony more?” Kumali hissed, and Qewri, the sentinel insect shell at her side, only reacted with a flick of an antenna.
“Dee-Dray?” Zorren's antennae wandered the air until they were aimed in my direction. “Human name Dee-Dray?”
“Deirdre,” I corrected quietly, but let my voice willingly warp under the weight of my tongue.
“Human Deirdre not Lichen-Botten. Ever.”
“Erema! Pusheke cole dosem. Deirdre, I want give chance be Lichen-Botten.”
“But I can't,” I mumbled self-consciously under the smothering weight of their eyes, which were now expertly fixed on me. Kumali must have been mad, then, because she was the leader of this group. “I'm a human.”
“Why?” Zorren challenged. “Why Human not Lichen-Botten?”
“Sdrese wreqa dumt jex aa. Coreman supre tal!”
Approaching me by walking around the congregated circle, he lightly touched one of his head-whiskers to my neck. “Need know words. Kumali no want Human Lichen-Botten; Deshen adopt Human into family. Yes?”
He wasn't saying it, as most of them did, to degrade me into rudimentary understanding. He was genuinely uncertain of the facts and wanted a confirmation. “Yes, I suppose he adopted me into his family.”
Somehow, with lack of eyelashes and eyebrows and a nose and mouth and wrinkles to convey emotion, Zorren adopted a thoughtful composure. I was beginning to be able to read their emotions solely on the positions of their antennae in the air. I hoped it would only be a short matter of time before I could myself speak their strange flickering tongues.
“Deshen name High Bartok Deshen; all Bartok call title. Deshen leader organization. Lichen-Botten against government. Lichen-Botten really clan under Botten Grandere. Botten Grandere big group, no law rules. Deshen have army, Curlal; times just Deshen army. Kumali think Deshen adopt you to have advantage, on his side. If Human become Lichen-Botten, Botten Grandere have on their side. Lichen-Botten no even want war.”
“A war?” I said. “S-since when has there been a war?”
“No war yet, but soon. You came, war no start. Now not so new, war start again.”
“But... I don't understand,” I admitted finally. “Why are the Curlal and Botten Grandere fighting in the first place?”
“Botten Grandere no want law, Deshen army make law. Botten Grandere still under law. Try not have it; put away prison. Botten Grandere want freedom; Deshen law no let them.”
I inadvertently glanced Kumali's way. Her antennae were sticking straight up and twitching furiously; she didn't agree to having her every thought and opinion translated for my benefit. After all, I was just a token, some gem that each side of the war wanted to have or didn't want to have – in her mind, anyway. I hoped that not every Bartok saw me that way.
“But... no want talk war. Come circle, listen song. No need understand words – can feel in heart.”
I settled myself comfortably in a soft patch of leaves and soil just out of the vicinity of the group around the fire. Zorren saw and gestured for me to congregate with the rest of the group, but I smiled and shook my head. I preferred to experience the magic of the Lichen-Botten rituals as the outsider that I was.
The Botten Grandere continued to puzzle me the whole night through. An army at war with Deshen – after all the nice things he had done? And what had Zorren meant by Deshen only wanting to have me on his side as a battle advantage? I was baffled but I hoped that my learning – both at school and at home – would clear the fog that blotted my view.
I had learned enough characters to write my query in the search box on my pad, but I did not understand enough to read the information I had found. I erased the page when Deshen came up behind me because I felt that he would be upset with me for knowing about these things. Porwe was so quiet in her approach that I never heard her come up behind me.
“What you doing?”
I quickly pulled up a screen of written characters, clumsily trying to cover up my tracks.
“Practicing my writing, that's all.”
“Can play antennae-tap?”
I shook my head ruefully. “Sorry, Porwe. I'm a little busy right now.”
She looked a bit disappointed that I had refused her, but she quickly rebounded and ran off to find one of her brothers.
Although Kumali's stand on the conflict was murky, I sought her out, pad in hand.
“No Human. I no speak anything want know.” Her antennae bent sharply and sparked up their length of purple.
“Why?” I asked, my voice diving to a whisper. “Why can't I know?”
“Fine,” she snapped, her antennae making a pop. “Human really want know?”
This might have been the only chance I got to hear the story from a primary source – there was no room for uncertainty or second-guessing. “I do,” I said.
Kumali gestured for me to enter another room, and once we were both inside she touched an antenna to the security pad on the interior of the door and slid it shut.
“History of Botten Grandere: Botten brother Deshen. Leader rivalry. Deshen lead organization. Botten lead woods clan. Botten want new generation live natural life. Deshen want new generation fast smart with technology.”
“But... why am I the determining factor?”
Kumali scoffed – a quick ripple of her antenna, and it made not a sound. “Human no determine. Human only stall battle.”
“Why did Zorren say you think I'm a pawn if I don't determine anything?”
“Exactly. Human pawn only extra piece. Deshen want prove law technology upbringing more beneficial. Teaching you in organization school show Botten his theory wrong, but no help war.”
“I still don't understand how the Botten Grandere got started in the first place,” I said.
“Rivalry. When both in beginner school, Deshen smarter Botten. Tease him. One day, Botten disappear recess. Everyone thought dead. Then one day intermediate school, Botten return. Ask Bartok join in back to woods. Deshen no know why Botten wild now. Botten tell Deshen children better chances woods. Technology bring unrightful rank. In woods no Bartok better another. After mature school, Deshen work in government house many years. Gain high ranking. Campaign and become whole ruler. New name High Bartok Deshen. After children me, Basen, Uheng, Porwe, Botten reappear. Group giant army; wood clan name Shire-Botten, Botten-Bleua, Keleke-Botten-Qez, Derete-Botten. Big sub-clan names. Botten claim Deshen killing generation future. Ready planning attack Deshen home, but you spacecraft pause conflict. Botten no more surprised Human, quick plan new attack.”
I was stupefied at, for one thing, the fact that Kumali had willingly told me everything, but I was also startled by the secrets she had spilled. “W-when did Botten plan the next attack?”
“Twenty past first-light.”
Kumali now looked scared, as if she had turned her own weapon on herself.
“Deshen doesn't know?”
“No. I no even supposed know, but Lichen-Botten told by messenger Botten-Bleua clan. Ordered fight war, but we refuse. Lichen-Botten clan create against conflict. Deshen no know clan exist. If know, we put prison even though neutral group. Deshen try arrange army – that why be mad see me against him. Though not really.”
Kumali's antennae stood still, and she started to turn to leave the room when I called out, “Wait!” She looked back to me with her head-whiskers curled inquisitively in my direction.
“Why don't you like me then, Kumali?”
Her antennae dipped and undulated outward – a weary smile. “I no like Human try live both worlds and not know. But now... possibly different. And – no tell High Bartok Deshen or other in school. Right?”
I nodded. “Right.” Kumali slid open the door and scuttled out, leaving me behind, the bag of knowledge heavy in my feeble human grasp.
Over a few days, both in and out of school, I felt that I had mastered the entire set of Bartok characters given to me – explained to me to be the written language, called Vrestik. After being brought to the school leader to sit through a discussion between her and Eskele Bartok Humeya, I was approved to be prematurely promoted to the next grade level. I had only been sitting with my new class for a few moments before understanding that I would learn Bartok speech. I had entered toward the end of the day, though, and was not rewarded with any lessons – and first glancing at my teacher I wasn't feeling any necessity to approach him and request the next day's lesson plans.
Deshen was ecstatic to discover my intellectual advances. “Human celebrate good thing?”
I honestly didn't know. The only “celebrating” I had ever really been exposed to was when my parents and I were reunited.
“I can't recall. But I don't want you guys to break your backs over me – likely one of your own children will do something much greater than what I've done, and you should be there to celebrate that, High Bartok Deshen.”
Deshen's antennae stood straight up in his surprise at my wordy response, but I just gave him a quick parting smile and disappeared to my sleep pod.
Later that night, Kumali came to my sleep pod and shook me awake to come to the Lichen-Botten meeting.
“Only if you want go,” Kumali whispered. I slipped out from under the flesh blanket and tucked my pad within its folds.
“I want to go,” I confirmed quickly, and I heard a hint of her laughter as we slid out of the door.
Reaching the Lichen-Botten in the firelit clearing, I was greeted by a few pairs of curious eyes and Zorren's enthusiastically flailing antennae. He gestured for me to sit next to him by sticking his feelers out in a V shape and then curling the tips down toward each other until they touched in a point.
“What is he doing?” I asked Kumali. She touched a head-whisker to my shoulder and replied, “You have to say back same thing shaping tentacles over your head and then sit by him.” I followed her orders, curling my arms awkwardly over my head and then making my way toward him. Only when I heard everyone snickering out of my view did I think back and recall the symbol Zorren had created: a heart. The meaning caught up to me and I sat hard on the ground next to him, my face erupting into flame. The only reason Kumali and the others were being nice to me was so they could make me into another one of their private jokes.
“I sorry; I no think,” Zorren said sheepishly. “No mean laugh you.”
“I neither,” Kumali added. “Never see Human laugh. Want be friends – why we make joke.”
“Oh,” I said. I was still embarrassed and now even more so. “I didn't know.”
“We teach you; then you know,” Zorren remarked cheerfully.
After a little while of just talking, the Lichen-Botten began their ritual of singing and dancing. I noted that Zorren didn't join in with wonder and confusion. He sat beside me, watching, with one antenna touching the top of my head.
“Why are you reading me?” I asked. I had learned in the eskele parate that their strange touch-sensory-comprehension was referred to as reading.
Zorren's dark eyes reflected the dancing orange flames when he turned to look at me. “Then I know thoughts,” he murmured, explaining with such conviction that I had to laugh quietly to myself, even if I didn't completely understand the meaning of his acts.
The night went on, spiraling through the Lichen-Botten's melodic song and rhythmic dance patterns. I watched in bewilderment, marveling at the heart and expression of the alien people inhabiting the planet on which I had landed. Zorren was right – even though I could not directly translate the words they sang, the lilts their voices took to hit me with much deeper weapons.
Once again the mist-light hovered, ready to return to the skies once more. As the Lichen-Botten scattered back to their proper dwelling-places, Zorren tickled the dimple of my inner elbow as a last remark and goodbye. He never bade farewell with words that I could hear, which puzzled me. This I presented to Kumali on our journey home.
“Zorren? Zorren probably like you. Bartok only touch no words if shy. No Bartok around you shy.”
I pondered the words until I fell asleep, shivering a little bit at the thoughts they conjured.
The next day at school I was opened up to my first proper lesson on the spoken Bartok language, which was referred to as Vrestian. The teacher, Eskele Bartok Corpweja, was much stricter than Eskele Bartok Humeya, and constantly criticized misspoken words. Unfortunately for me, I had no experience speaking Vrestian while every other student had at least been brought up with the words spoken around their heads. Corpweja would constantly approach my seat, order me to stand, and have me recite as much of the Vrestian alphabet as I could (properly) before he would snap an antenna in the air near my ear and command me to start again. Luckily that night I found a program to help with Bartok speech, and I was able to catch up to the level of comprehension that the class required before the next day of lessons.
Deshen constantly recorded my remarkably fast progress, sometimes inviting over the scientists from back at the lab or just sending them long-distance messages through the satellite wires strung through their antennae. After a few days of Eskele Bartok Corpweja's sharp, firm teaching, I was able to speak the whole alphabet – the Vrestik characters as they were expressed in verbal terms – and understand the basic words from Vrestian as it was spoken normally in conversation. A couple days past that and I was sputtering my own clumsy imitation of Vrestian and requesting for anyone who spoke to me leave their words untranslated for my learning benefit.
I became more familiar with the people and rituals of the Lichen-Botten clan over those days as well, as I attended the meetings as often as they were held – which was nightly. Zorren was the one stubborn Bartok who still would not address me out of my native tongue. I thought it unreasonably kind of him – as well as a bit cute – that he chose to translate to a broken English dialect instead of sticking with the language he knew and I was learning. He only explained himself by saying that, “when you ready, you speak fluid Vrestian. But I help speak English for now.”
I didn't know if Kumali's earlier words were right, but Zorren seemed to be getting more shy while also becoming more talkative – if it was even possible. During the quiet moments of group sessions where everyone would break off and do as they pleased for a time before preparation for another song, Zorren would only brush my skin or make funny gestures with his antennae, but not speak. He only spoke when there was an overtone of noise to cover his words – or perhaps to dispel the timidity he felt from being so open with me. Even though he refused to speak Vrestian in my presence, he related by saying he had once had Eskele Bartok Corpweja, and so began the mini study sessions with the Lichen-Botten. I would practice inscribing the characters as I murmured the spoken equivalent aloud, and everyone in the group, at some point, would throw out the correct answer if I was struggling, would sit by me and guide me through the writing if I faltered, would teach me a phrase of their ritual song so that I could join in. Kumali and Qewri never snuck off into the woods to throw daggers at each other anymore. The other Lichen-Botten I had categorized as couples would approach me as a pair and teach me a fact about the Botten Grandere that I didn't know. Out in the forest with them, I'm pretty sure I learned so much more than what any government/organization school could have taught me.
They now considered me part of the clan, and so I was let in on the details of Botten's attack plans as the Lichen-Botten received them from the Botten-Bleua messengers.
“Now his attack is only nine days away marked by first-light,” Qewri informed us one night while we were sitting around the fire. I had picked up fairly quickly on the fact that Kumali and Qewri were “together” as mates and led this woods sub-clan – it got its name from the name of Qewri and Zorren's father, Lichen, which carried through to the children as a surname.
“Is every Botten sub-group fighting?” I asked.
One of the burly males in the group, Antok, nodded gravely in my direction. “Except for us, of course. Perhaps Kumali explained why?”
I nodded my head, partly fueled by the chill in the black-night air. “Your sub-group congregated against the war as a neutral zone.”
“The question is what we do to engage in the war indirectly. Well, not so much engage as bring to a stop.”
“But how do we go about doing that?”
No one had an answer. Clearly this was what they had yet to discuss and plan.
“Botten is holding a grand gathering two past first-light. Every clan in the Botten Grandere that plans on fighting is required to go, but we may attend as well. He will present his battle plans and outline his attack strategies. Perhaps after learning we will be able to demise our own plan.”
“Need that we find way stop,” Zorren uttered beside me. I looked at him and the determination in his eyes, sparked by fear of the demise of his civilization, was immeasurable and dominated his every word.
Being around the Lichen-Botten every night I advanced very quickly in Vrestian. Eskele Bartok Corpweja was surprised at my sudden surge of intellect, but did not allow any such complaints to reach my ears. I was given an oral examination to accurately determine the range of my newfound knowledge, and after another intervention in the office of the school organizer, I was allowed promotion to the next grade in the eskele parate. The school official promised that if she saw me enter her office once more under the same circumstances as prior, I would be personally tutored so that the education taught to me would meet my personal needs as they were exposed.
The third class level in the eskele parate was devoted to mathematics. Here Vrestik was expanded upon to accompany letters and algebraic symbols, and I gained an understanding from where the Bartokian numerical phrases had come. I was familiar with the names of numbers, but writing them and combining them in various equations and expressions in arithmetic and algebra was a new and pleasantly challenging obstacle for me to overcome.
I only spent a couple days in that class before I was “evaluated,” and upon seeing the school director once more – Eskele Bartok Esha Kurela – I was assigned to meet Eskele Bartok Ushken in his wing of the eskele martoke for as many days as it took for me to reach the level of my Bartok age-equivalent student in school.
Every time Deshen offered to congratulate my advances with a celebration, I brushed him off with a startlingly eloquent refusal and went on my way. During those days and through those nights, I held my worry solely for the Botten Grandere and the oncoming attack on the Curlal.
Two days after the first break of misty light over the horizon following our convention we huddled for a brief tally of attendants before heading off through the long and dark woods towards the Botten Grandere chief headquarters. Grouped together against the wet and slush, we scurried through mud-trodden vines and brush, stepping through the garrisons of the smaller camps more interior to the main deck when we stepped out onto the ledge of a basin born of light and sound. Antennae blew against the air in trembling waves of tentacles, vibrations rose above the wind in raucous song. Our band, the only Botten sub-group feeling out of place, edged along the ledge of the basin until we reached a lip from which we could slide down into the mass of crowd that burbled below.
I had not expected that there were so many sub-groups, or that the more dominant names would have so many followers in their clans. Once we descended into the mass of Bartok, I lost sight of all of the members of the Lichen-Botten, but I didn't fear becoming abandoned. After all, I was the one-in-a-billion oddity that no one would resist pointing out.
All of a sudden a high, piercing whistle broke through the murmur of vibration, silencing the crowd in a fearsome, authoritative wave. Every antennae stood at attention and angled in the direction of Botten as he walked out to the ledge of the crater basin. Even though he was the brother of Deshen, I would not have guessed so in a million years that they were even related. Whereas Deshen was tall and bulkily massive, Botten was thin as a rail, and long. He was his own walking tentacle with a shell and antennae. His eyes were a dull silver color – startling enough to be commanding, even if they were abnormal – and the color of his skin was a mix of brown, green and black, earth tones likely triggered in the molecules under his skin to blend with the forest. He had a sick look to him; something about his overall appearance and physical demeanor gave me the impression that while on the outside, he was the ferocious leader of a rebellious attack, on the inside something was crumbling and dying, breathing its last breaths.
“Welcome all!” he greeted, a dark rumble reverberating into the silence. “Tonight we gather here in preparation for a fight!”
A roar erupted among the Botten Grandere; I couldn't see him now for the fanatically waving antennae all above my head.
The basin fell to quiet and Botten started speaking again. “You may have asked, why do we fight? Why do we sink as low as the organization? I'll tell you now. It's for the future of our children and grandchildren and the offspring of the next generations! If we do not reform how our children are reared now, we will not see any new generations in the coming decades!”
His words jarred more cheers from the devout audience over which he looked. I ducked under the clawed, insect legs of the Bartok, through tie-dyed, multicolor shells until I found someone from the Lichen-Botten that I recognized and stayed in their vicinity.
“Out in the forest, the Bartok children are given a fair and equal start void of bias, unreasonable expectation and unjust competition. Out there in the government schools, our kids are raised to be the quickest thinkers, raised to be the best analyzers and counters, raised to be the next best in the society. But here with the Grandere, we raise children to the highest standards of moral fiber!
“Most of us remember what it was like going to the organization schools. They had you stand and recite the spoken alphabet in any order they so chose. They always had you evaluated and promoted during the year, so that the children making the least progress would be judged and marked by the officials as 'dumb' or 'slow' or 'ineligible' or 'unnecessary.' I can't speak for everyone, but I distinctly remember being labeled as one of those people.”
A wave of concordance rushed all around me. Hearing his words, almost accusatory, I felt he knew I was there. I could almost sense that he knew the prime experiment of the organization lingered in his throngs.
“Labels. Often these things are what bring us down. In the case of my brother, Deshen, he got lucky. But, let's face it. Only he did. Only the smallest of the smallest percentages even become anything great. The labels that the officials create they only really create for the lowest of the low. They only create labels so that they can feel better standing as the minority. Are you with me?”
The Botten Grandere rippled with cheer. I couldn't see Botten – probably just as well; I wasn't too keen on having to watch his insides implode while hearing him cover it up with a glamorous speech as rebellion leader – but his words thrummed in the air around me like water.
“And now the majority has spoken for themselves. What we want for our children is the natural-reared life, not their crooked establishment teachings!”
“No more establishment! Launch the war! No more establishment! Launch the war! No more establishment! Launch the war!”
“Launch the war? Why indeed we will – come eight nights past the breaking of first-light we will sabotage the house of the government leader. We all need to teach High Bartok Deshen a little lesson about his ridiculous titles and labels!”
“Yeah, knock him off his high horse!”
“Bring him down!”
“Keep the future generations at peace!”
“Hold on, my people,” Botten interjected, silencing the crowd with a gesture of his claw feet. “We must first discuss our plan of attack.
“I have assigned the Shire-Botten to monitor the area and send feedback to everyone else. The Botten-Bleua are on the first wave of attack. How it has been planned is every member of the clan take to aiming yourself at a weak spot of the house, and then throw your weapons and yourself through the walls. Before Deshen will have a chance to react and call upon his army, the Keleke-Botten-Qez will have acted as the second wave, attacking and conquering whoever the Botten-Bleua do not. The Derete-Botten, since they are the largest clan among us, will arrange in different points outside of a seventy-six luten radius from the object of attack to be on the ready for when Deshen's army finally start coming in as defense.”
I was amazed at the battle strategies he had planned out but also bewildered at how he seemed so sure that his plan was how things would be the night of the attack. Had he factored in Deshen's plans? What about the size of the opposing army? Would they be arranged around ready to attack anyone threatening the boundary of the High Bartok's home? None of the Bartok around me contained these doubts which poisoned my mind. None of them had enough disbelief to think that the other team would even have a good enough tactic. They believed the people had spoken; therefore they believed “the minority” was exempt from having any advantageous part in their battle plans.
I had been still in standing, patient and complacent when suddenly the antennae on the heads of the Bartok in front of me stood directly on end, then started angling backward toward where I stood. I slowly took steps backward, all the while wincing at the words they said.
“The Human is among us – I can sense it.”
“The weapon of the other side? Come here to what? Take our secrets and spread them to the High Bartok?”
“If I see that creature anywhere around here, I will not hesitate to wring its neck.”
“No! We could bring it to Botten as an addition to his schemes.”
I scuttled out of range of their wandering head-tentacles and their crude thoughts. Botten continued explaining the plans more in detail, but I fell back into the English mode of language in my brain and tuned him out. I would rather find my fellow Lichen-Botten than be swarmed by the obliviously destructive thoughts of the warrior clans.
In my ducking and swerving, I unintentionally ran right into the person I was looking for. He stood with Qewri and Kumali, and when he turned to meet my gaze, I felt my insides warp and twist. Within his galaxy eyes he had trapped me in the simple orbital rhythm of his breathing and his heartbeat.
“We have to get out of here,” I said to him, finding my tongue stopping my words like a traffic guard yet again. If Zorren was surprised to have me address him in English, he didn't show it.
“Why? What is matter?”
“We have to leave. If any of the Grandere find me here, I'm toast.”
“What you hear?” he asked, antennae ducked low to reach my words through the surge of Vrestian swirling around in the basin.
“I just- Nothing in particular; I just don't think that-”
“Tell me you hear,” he commanded softly, and somehow through the coaxing will of his linguistic vibration patterns I was compelled to obey him.
“Back by some others from the larger clans, I heard them saying that they had heard I was here, and that if they found me, I would be the bait to lure the Curlal with-”
Zorren touched my lower arm with an antenna, briefly jolting me with a static shock. “I get others leave too-”
I shook my head. “There's no time. Some of them may very well have seen me, but they weren't going to come after me until some point during the speeches...”
Zorren's antennae wobbled – an understanding nod. “We go alone then.”
We scurried around the fringes of the crowd, Zorren sidling along the crowd to block me from their eyes. Reaching the lip through which we had entered, we scrambled up the sandy slope up to the protective curtain of forest. But our escape had taken too long, for angry voices raised in a wave behind me, intent on their prize. No matter how fast I tried to run, I feared the Bartok's legs were faster. As I settled my mind back into Vrestian I caught some of what they were shouting.
“Get the human!”
“The traitor among us come to spoil our plans!”
“Capture it before it spreads the news!”
I sprinted on clumsy legs unused to running, not worrying about the slant my back took over long periods of solid movement. Motion was key, even though my long fleshy legs proved to be no match for their quick, scuttling claws. Zorren was some ways ahead of me, but he turned around and raced back for me, grabbing me up in his dual pairs of skeletal insect arms and shuttling back off in the opposite direction.
The voices. While my feet had skimmed the ground unsuccessfully trying to ward them off their angry ululations had hovered right around my shoulders, but now, as I was bounced in the spindly arms of the Bartok who had come back to save me, the voices were no more. Zorren slowed and I enjoyed the natural sounds of the forest before he set me down on my own feet again.
“They gone now,” he remarked, twirling his antennae in relief. I panted, letting the heat in my cheeks pull in and out like ocean tides. We were now completely isolated in the forest, away from both camps and Lichen-Botten.
“I think camp's back that way,” I said, gesturing towards where I could smell the aroma of the espret plant, and we half-walked, half-stumbled our way through the vegetable patches until we reached the clearing again, lit by the embers of the communal fire that had burned earlier on in the night.
The site was more desolate without the rest of the Lichen-Botten there to fill it, but it was also quieter and more peaceful. Zorren was idly wandering around the fire, retrieving runaway embers and tossing them back into the pit. I felt a bit hollow watching him, with the relief of his having saved possibly my entire existence.
I stopped him in his vacant pacing by stepping in his path. He looked up, eyes filled with wonder and night.
“Thank you, Zorren,” I said, and without even giving it a preliminary thought, I leaned forward and brushed my lips to the bare stretch of skin under his eyes. Where my skin had come into contact with his, the flesh blushed purple and pink and his antennae bent at wild and inconceivable angles.
“What you do?” he asked, baffled and bewildered – and perhaps flustered.
“Showing my gratitude,” I explained. Zorren's antennae twisted in his confusion, but the matter was quickly put to rest when the remainder of the Lichen-Botten clan emerged into the clearing from the forest, quickly out of the gathering at the warning of our possible danger. The remainder of the night I felt his antennae sparking in my direction, but I did not give them my attention. The rest of our meeting was devoted to war-stopping plans.
After the grand gathering, our small group didn't hear much more regarding the Botten Grandere's battle plans. Our anti-war plans were the ones that took precedence during our meetings. With the Grandere's big attack hovering only seven days away, we had little time to demise our own clever strategies.
However, it wasn't only the Grandere's plans that I was exposed to. I very often heard Deshen speaking to other government officials and arranging his own soldiers. I didn't get good feelings knowing that I knew he was going to be sabotaged before he even had the chance to create a secure army around himself.
“This is ridiculous,” I heard him remark once while I sat in my sleep pod, studying the more advanced math and science symbols my tutor had given me to learn. “I don't see how Botten can even think- It's just preposterous. Technology has become an essential part of the Bartok culture, and if he doesn't want to accept that, he is very well allowed to live in the forest as he pleases.” There was a pause as the official he was talking to laid down his or her response. “But starting a war over it! I mean, honestly, what problems are there with giving our kids some healthy competition early on in life? It's only natural, and if they don't encounter it then, they're bound to run into it at some point.” Another pause stalled him in his tirade. “He knows very well that I am the rightful leader and that I earned this position fair and square. Every decision that needs to be made, I choose a fair and just option. He knows that. Or, he would if he wasn't out in the woods living under a rock.”
Deshen did not directly talk to me about the war, but he still referred to it in my presence as if I was fully informed. Of course I was, but if, based on his perception, I was only at the eskele ukere level six grade and completely left out of political discussions, I really would have no idea of a war even happening behind my back.
“The Botten Grandere will have to fall back in shame when they see how well the Human has thrived on the upbringing of the government school,” Deshen proclaimed after the feasting time of the family.
“I can only agree. The Grandere would be fools if they saw Dee-Dray and didn't admit her brightness, intelligence and versatility,” Deshen's eldest son Uheng remarked with conviction.
“It's Deirdre, actually,” I corrected, but my murmurs were only acknowledged by Kumali's brief antenna-tilt in my direction.
“Obviously that would prove to be a disadvantage for them if ever they did meet her,” Serrea said, and the group broke into whispery hissing laughter.
“What would be done, though, if the Grandere do know things about Deirdre?”
Everyone fell silent, stunned a bit at Kumali's question.
“It's a reasonable inquiry,” she retorted. “So, what are you planning if they do know about her, if they do know her advancing intelligence? How do you plan on surprising them then?”
Deshen grew very angry – we could all see from the flushing of his antennae, green to red. Suddenly he got up from his seat, walked across and shocked her on her head with a zap of his antenna. Kumali jumped a bit, eyes narrowing in anger, but Deshen had returned to his seat and was already immersed back in the prior topic of conversation. I shot Kumali a sympathetic look, but either she had yet to understand the human's expressions of emotions or she ignored it purposely.
Deshen's plans were relatively simple considering the circumstances under which the war was taking place. Uheng and Basen would gather up any available young males from their grades and above and gather them into an army, collaborating with the children and friends of the other organization officials. Once everyone had been marked as a participant, they would move in shifts on guarding all of the federal buildings and Deshen's own household. Listening to his plans, I almost would have believed what he had arranged would work, until I heard the date for which he scheduled these things to start. Too late. Two days after Botten planned his attack would not have good results for his side of the field.
They all continued talking about my successes then. I had been eating the turnip-radish tuber, called a wtayi, but as they started remarking upon my intellectual advances and the quickness with which I adapted to a new language and culture, I quickly lost my appetite and started to feel an angry burbling in my stomach. They continued, only fueling the internal fire more. I hadn't realized I was so mad as to explode, but it started to get to my head. How dare they hang me up on display yet again!
And then it happened. The burbling in my stomach rose up my throat and spewed out my mouth in an acidic mess with chunks of wtayi. All of the Bartok looked up at the strange noise and matter my retching had created, only intrigued more by my new behaviors. Again the food I had eaten rose from its grave, attacking me in its vengeance. It was some time before they comprehended that I was sick and my immune system had given a negative reaction. I refused that they shuttle me over to the hospital yet again, but they insisted. I spent only a few hours there before I could come back to the house. Upon my return I was none too surprised to witness Deshen pacing around the perimeter of the gathering room, connecting with one of his officials via satellite while the rest of the family sat around him in a circle, anxiously following his every impatient step. Although it was dark, I looked at Kumali and understood that tonight we would have to miss the most important meeting before the Grandere's attack.
That night I slept the whole night through, the first I had in days, possibly weeks. My sleep was plagued with visions of Botten's blue-printed schemes – the Botten-Bleua as they laid waste to Deshen's home and the Keleke-Botten-Qez running in to add to the disaster. I saw the Derete-Botten as they hid in the shadows, and after days had passed Deshen's army raced in to take their positions but were savagely brought down and massacred by the Grandere that had laid in wait.
I tossed and turned in my sleep pod, never waking from the endless stream of gore running through my head. But through it all one clip stuck with me. Somehow I saw a scene on the airship, a figure I recognized – much older, but still the same person – sitting on a bland and dreary cot, leaning over and writing in a book. The pages were the same ones I had viewed as a small child, and my heart paused with a sigh to reminisce of all the old memories.
The view was zoomed, right to the pages of the book as the person was writing them. Even though I was learned in Vrestik, I made out the English words clearly and quickly.
My beautiful, incredible, heart-breaking Deirdre:
Wherever you are, I hope you find the lights.
During my tutoring session the next day, Eskele Bartok Ushken surprised me with an evaluation. I was made to analyze chemical formulas and solve algebraic equations, as well as define the meanings of many random words in Vrestian. I slaved over that desk screen for many hours before I was finally finished, but the reaction my tutor presented me with did not give me any positive feelings.
“Deirdre,” he sighed, almost in frustration, “meet in the office of Eskele Bartok Esha Kurela tomorrow morning.”
“Why, sir?” I asked nervously.
His antennae wilted in disappointment. “That test was not meant to take as long as it took you, and, just looking at it now I don't see very many answers that are even close to correct. I don't understand. You've been such a bright pupil, but this makes me wonder about things.”
I left his room feeling ashamed of myself, but it only lasted a moment. It wasn't that my intelligence was decreasing or that my capacity for the Bartok knowledge was disappearing. With the threat of a war lurking around our shoulders, I honestly didn't think that my priorities would lie with my learning.
Deshen wouldn't be home if I decided to head that way, but Serrea would certainly poke her finger and ask questions and hold me out as a example of failure, demanding that I be sent back to the museum or the science labs to spare the family of the shame my name would bring. Instead, I chose to walk through one of the paths out into the forest. I didn't know if the Lichen-Botten met during the day, or what they did if they didn't meet, but I wouldn't be at quite so much of a loss if I didn't find them, for I had my own plan for action.
Emerging into the clearing, I was none too surprised to see a few of the Lichen-Botten sitting around the empty, dry fire pit. They, however, did not reel in their bewilderment at my presence.
“What are you doing here?”
“Is it something at school?”
“If you really want to know, it's an evaluation I didn't pass. But, I came here because I think I have an idea for our movement.”
The Bartok silenced in their inquiries and tilted their antennae toward me. “Pray tell,” Antok rumbled.
I don't know why I was suddenly so nervous to tell them of my intentions. “I think we need – I need – to talk to Botten directly.”
I was met with a haunting void of silence. Xemita looked at me like I was insane; Asheng looked like he wanted to accompany me to pound Botten's skull in; Fazze sat with confusedly curling antennae; Zorren looked like he was ready to jump up and fiercely snatch and whisk me away from all of my insane notions.
“That is the stupidest idea I ever heard,” Luvren declared finally.
“There is a chance that I could at least reason with him-”
“You're not going.”
I met Zorren's gaze, which was hard with finality. “Why?” I challenged him.
“He's likely to kill you rather than 'have you reason with him,'” he said, mocking my earlier words. I scowled.
“How do you know there's not even a chance?”
“I'm sorry, but you were the one who ran from the gathering a few nights ago. So you tell me about chances of reasoning.”
The other Bartok looked my way at Zorren's statement and I felt my cheeks go hot.
“And wh-what right do you h-have to k-keep me from going?” I said, my stutter returning in my anger.
“Oh, I can't just be concerned with your safety? There has to be a reason now?”
“C-concerned, are you?” His words were piercing me right through, every one of them, and I would have had to swim my way through resentful tears to keep receiving his arrows. I chose to remain behind the water to protect myself. “Concerned w-with making me f-feel welcome and then sh-shattering it? C-concerned with, oh, I d-don't know, being too shy to ever say g-goodbye to me and whatever else... I'm going, w-whether you like it or n-not.” I turned to look at the blurry representations of the other Lichen-Botten in my vision, but everyone averted their eyes, ashamed to be caught watching my private social conflict.
“I'm sorry I'm late; I had some things to catch up on back at home...” Kumali trailed off when she saw Zorren and I in the center of the clearing, poised as if for a duel. “What happened?”
Zorren gestured to me with traces of rancor in his eyes. It tore away at my insides, how one moment he could be so benevolent and completely turn the tables on me in the next. “Deirdre thinks it would be a good idea to reason directly with Botten to hold off the war.”
Kumali looked over at me for a moment. “And?”
“It's insane,” Xemita spat. “She expects to waltz over there and be able to patch up all of the wounds between Deshen and Botten – like it's ever that easy.”
“Hold on,” Kumali said. She turned back to me and gently skimmed my skin with an antenna. “What's wrong?” she asked me.
I shook my head, ashamed to be seen in my state in front of the person who had made me feel as such. “It's n-nothing.”
Her eyes met with mine and I felt a burden lift when I saw that she understood without my explaining. “It's Zorren, isn't it?” she said in the barest whisper. I let my head dip infinitesimally to deem her statement true and Kumali turned back to the Lichen-Botten.
“I know Deshen, and Botten's mind is relatively similar in how it works and plans things. While Deshen is easily reasoned with, I can't say his brother is the same way. If a number of us accompany Deirdre, she is less susceptible to danger because she will have back-up. Now, if none of you want to go,” she continued, shooting Zorren a hard glance, “that is just as well, but your leader will be gone and you will be left here defenseless.”
“You don't have to do this,” I retorted, but Kumali dipped her antennae in insistence.
“Even if this doesn't work, we still have the other plans,” she said. “But it's worth a shot. And we'll likely need some strong males to accompany us, in case of Botten's premature attack on the neutral field.”
There were a few moments of silence before the brothers Antok and Asheng stood up. “We'll go,” Asheng said.
“Great. We're off as soon as we've eaten.”
As soon as the Lichen-Botten had gotten their fill of artificial, injected nutrients, our small band set off. However, it didn't stay at the small count of four. Although there hadn't been many Lichen-Botten at today's brief meeting to begin with, we were soon doubled in size, but I still saw no sign of Zorren among our throngs.
I recognized certain landmarks and nearly-empty clan clearings as we mucked our way through the forest, which may have been lit by the mist-light of the day, but was still forbidding as ever. While Xemita kept muttering about the idiocy of it all, Fazze shocked her and got her to shut up, leaving the forest silent save for the sounds of vines colliding in the air and the scurrying of the planet's other creatures under the brush.
I couldn't refrain from gasping at the shock of finding myself on the ledge of the basin again. It always seemed to appear out of thin air; you were calmly walking along when all of a sudden your foot knocked some soil and you had almost fallen off the edge. Luvren led the way around the lip of the crater to the side directly opposite and we were once again bushwhacking through the fronds.
“Are we almost there?” Xemita whisper-shouted from her position at the back of the group.
Luvren's antennae bent out in a V and then returned to parallel lines in the air – a shrug. “I don't know. No one really knows where his headquarters are. All anyone's ever heard are rumors-”
All of a sudden, our train of people fell into a sequential, domino collision as we arrived in a bright, open clearing centered around a shelter crafted of soil and vine. We picked ourselves up from out of the mud and staggered forward a few paces in our surprise. The grand hovel stood before us, goading us to enter the prohibited paradise.
“All right; Antok and Asheng will enter first, and I will be following. Deirdre, you walk behind me, and everyone else arrange in pairs at the end of the line,” Kumali ordered. We filed into line based on her arrangements and headed around the shelter to the entrance.
We embarrassingly circumnavigated the building a few times before finding the coveted entrance of leaves and vines. Walking in, the building was much larger. Walls stretched up meters to a ceiling open to the light of day. As I filed in, safely sandwiched between my Lichen-Botten counterparts, I was shadowed by pairs of eyes: Botten's guards as they lined the path to his high seat of honor.
“Who are my visitors this evening?” Botten questioned, his voice a deep croon reverberating against the round walls of his dwelling. The guards at his sides took a few steps back, as did my Bartok body-shield. Suddenly I was staring right into the silver-gray eyes of the rebellion leader.
Botten sat up from his chair in surprise at my presence, and staggering down the pair of steps at his feet he approached me and touched my face with disbelieving antennae. The strange, gravitational power of the Bartok's orb eyes returned to me and I found myself trapped within the silver barriers of light. Every time I looked into them, I felt that something was eating me from the inside out. The color wasn't so nauseating as to make me vomit – it was just so out-of-place and striking there was clearly something wrong. A parasite? A virus? Cancer? Cataracts? After he had gotten his fill of speculating me, he staggered back to his seat and collapsed into the gelatin cushions.
“What can all of this be about? The neutral group has finally decided to fight?”
“I can assure you that our decision is set and final – we have no intentions of fighting,” Kumali explained.
Botten shifted in his seat, his eyes growing bored. “Then what can it possibly be that has brought you here?”
The cavernous interior of his abode grew hauntingly quiet. Asheng stepped up at my left shoulder, nudging me supportively. I felt my stutter coming back before I had even opened my mouth to speak.
“I-I urge you to h-hold off the at-attack,” I stammered. Botten was only surprised for a moment at the fact that I was speaking in the tongues of his people, but his expression darkened considerably once he comprehended my words.
“Excuse me?” He rose up a bit from his chair, but the weakness in his limbs did not sway me in my position.
“I urge that y-you hold off the attack on the Curlal,” I repeated with more clarity.
“What is this? The one neutral stronghold decides to bring in the Curlal's weapon to use against me?” He stared down at me, grasping hold of me with his dull charcoal gaze. “How dare you speak to me that way,” he hissed.
Inside of me, I felt my insides gurgle and churn in anxiety. “May I request one thing of you?” I mumbled meekly.
Botten's antennae swirled in the air. “That's more like it. Go on, and speak up.”
“Why are you planning the attack?” I stared at his irregular claw-feet as I said it, no longer having the stomach to have his eyes take me on a tour through his disintegrating body.
I nodded, never looking up.
“What a ridiculous question that I have no obligation to answer. Send her out.”
It was only when the claw-fingers of his guards grabbed me up off the ground that I finally got the courage to speak in front of him. “You do have an obligation to tell me!” I called, and Botten gestured for the guards to stop with curiosity in his eyes.
“What would that be, then?” he asked, condescendingly. I squirmed out of the vices of the Bartok's fingers and fell to my knees on the floor, heated by the primitive desire to hold the superior position in the verbal battle.
“I live with your brother, Deshen,” I informed him, and Botten winced as I emphasized the relation between him and his dreaded rival.
“As everyone knows,” he spat. “What's that got to do with anything now?”
“I know all of your battle plans,” I threatened, helping myself to my feet. “If you don't tell me the why that only you know, I will go to the government headquarters and have everyone know of your intentions.”
“Alright you little sprite. I could have you killed like that,” he demonstrated with a flick of his antenna.
“That doesn't do much for your side,” I challenged. I had long since felt the disappearance of Asheng's tentacle from my shoulder, but I was not of enough awareness to be able to map out exactly where in spacial parameters the Lichen-Botten stood. I could only hope they remained true to their earlier spoken word.
Botten made an attempt to rise from his seat and storm closer to me, but he slipped on a stair and was caught under his arms by guards that stood sentinel at either side of his chair. Angrily he refrained himself from attack and grudgingly sunk back in his reclined position.
“I'll have you know that this was not of my will,” he warned, sending me back in my confidence and leaving me to warily stand before him and hear of his story.
“Many, many moon-cycles past, Deshen and I attended the primary school. Deshen was advancing quite a bit faster than I was, and while my parents sang his praises, they ridiculed me every chance they had. 'Why can't you be like your brother?' 'We're so ashamed to have a slow Bartok under our family name.' 'You were always a failure.' My brother would only add to it, going to school and rounding up all his friends from the higher grades to publicly humiliate me. I decided in an instant to disappear, to run away.
“Out in the forest I met the crazy elders, the Grandere, who taught me about the moon and stars and light and sound and air. I spent a good number of years there before I made any decision of going back. When I returned, I acted as a prophet for the undermined people of the Grandere. I persuaded many of the Bartok I knew to go, including Deshen's interest. Deshen was surprised to see me back, but there was no happiness anywhere in his expression. He asked me what had happened, as if I had intentionally slipped guaya into my food syringes. I told him of the wonders of the forest, the tastes of citrus and flowers, the sounds of wildlife and water, the smells of growth and life. Deshen would not be prodded to go, but I was none too surprised or upset.
“I took my followers into the woods, taught them everything the Grandere had taught me, and soon had enough followers and offspring to constitute my own civilization. Each tribe took their own name and settled in their own camp under my pleasant rule. However, it wasn't too long before people from the establishment, under my brother's rule, started intruding into the forest to claim resources, and when they discovered underground clans living outside of the government, they captured my citizens and imprisoned them. I was able to gather an army and wipe out the small groups that continued to take my people. Deshen was not pleased with this eye-for-an-eye arrangement we had started, and so stopped sending gatherers but did not release the imprisoned forest people. I managed to seize some of our captives by secret missions into the Curlal territory, but in the processes we also lost some of our most important sub-group leaders. To add to that, Deshen's repulsive government officials forced the captives to breed with them and give up their children to the organization or send their imprisoned offspring to establishment schools and families. It has already been proven time and again the benefits of the natural life, but the sick establishment fiends only go out of their way to smother our faces into the antiseptic earth with their primitive ways.”
I sat silent. The backstory wasn't unfamiliar in its telling, but the horrid acts of the government upon the tribal people drove home the reasons why Kumali detested her father and his position and why the Grandere had blueprinted such a vicious and out-of-the-blue attack.
“But, I don't understand. All this time Deshen's been so nice to me,” I blurted in disbelief.
“It's in his nature to be kind to strangers, but he's always hidden some dark, untold secrets.” Botten stared out at nothing, eyes frozen in time. Even though his antennae were moving and gesturing silently, I couldn't understand whatever they were saying.
Behind me, someone stepped close enough to transmit the heat from their head-tentacles. Whoever it was, I could tell they were annoyed that my plan wasn't going at all how I had promised that it would. Despite their lack of encouragement – more like abundance of discouragement and ridicule – I held my own and tried my best to feel where the fine line between demand and pleading was. I surprised myself by what I did say.
“And... what happened to you out here in the forest?”
Botten understood quite well what I was asking him to reveal and for a moment he looked too exposed to need to tell me with words. “I contracted the Wezexn barnacle some time ago during an air attack by the Curlal. They'll do anything to wipe us out; that's why we've got to make the first move. We have a number disadvantage but we have heart behind our warriors.”
“Is it incurable?”
Botten laughed suddenly, a metallic, grating sound that rippled and deflated the ridges on his chest. “It's impossible to know for certain if one has it for about a year, even though symptoms appear almost instantly. It is treatable, but only the experienced shamans of the tribes know what plants cure it.”
“You sent them to retrieve the captives,” I realized.
He nodded gravely. “I knew that our people who had been captured would be sick in the unfamiliar environment of antiseptics and antibiotics, so I sent a few of the medics. They were the ones who hadn't been taken in the previous sabotages by the Curlal.” He exuberated more ironically destroyed laughs. “We had no idea. It was something we had been prepared for, but not fully. Once they had captured all of ours, they launched the air attacks. Shots of metallic water into the air. We thought we had been blessed with a rare rainfall, but I took the precaution of drinking it first, and upon learning of my symptoms the other people were stopped from consuming it themselves.”
The more he revealed about his background and that of the Grandere, the less I thought I would be able to dissuade him from attacking. “You aren't going to plan any more rescue missions?”
He scoffed. “I lose more people through rescue missions than I would in an atomic air attack.”
I was very quickly running out of options in convincing him. “What the Curlal have subjected your people to is indescribably unjustified, but – is attack really the answer?”
Botten sighed, but not so much in defeat as in frustration at my lack of understanding of his dilemma. “I feel that the only way to retrieve our imprisoned captives and to gain widespread rule over the Bartok people is to conquer the Curlal. If there was another way, wouldn't I have tried?”
After standing in the presence of the previously forbidding leader of the Grandere, I was softened by his stories and his character. My plans were now focused on deterring the Curlal from their crude and inhumane ways. Doing so, I knew, would expose both me and Kumali as traitors to the establishment movement, but my severely over-confident and superbly flawed human determination had already mentally prepared me for the possibly dangerous challenge that I would face.
By the time we returned to the camp, the mist-light that clouded out the stars was starting to bleed the sky orange – which was about the normal time that I returned from my tutoring sessions with the other kids. Kumali and I quickly rushed through the forest and exited through the entrance of the eskele martoke to meet up with Uheng, Basen and Porwe on their way home for the scheduled evening meal.
Walking into the house, I was taken off-guard to see Deshen home before us, and even more startled by the expression he projected through the distressed twirling of his antennae.
“Deirdre,” he addressed me, in a low and frighteningly stern voice, “I need to see you in the eatery privately.”
I walked into the room with wall-pods and nutrient syringes after Deshen, head down and my long, dark, tangled hair concealing my eyes from the Bartok's all-knowing black orbs.
“Eskele Bartok Ushken contacted me as soon as you left,” Deshen said. “What is the meaning of this? A failed evaluation? After all of the incredible progress you've been making? Well, I certainly don't know what to make of this news.”
I was torn between hanging my head in shame and spitting my newfound knowledge of his villainous dark side right in his face. On the one hand, he had been the first of all the Bartok to grant me shelter and a family, and for that I was grateful beyond words. But holding me up as a model of experimentation to smother in the face of his prisoners the leadership he had and would maintain without mercy? I felt disgusted, angered, moved against him, and most of all betrayed. Was all of his hospitality for nothing? Was he only ever using me as a pawn in his games against his inferior brother, who deserved a position as ruler just as much as or more than Deshen did? Had I meant nothing to him and his family all this time?
And Zorren. The wretched feeling of betrayal moved me to my argument with the only Bartok who I had felt I could love as a brother, friend and possibly something more. Had his benevolence all been a ruse? What gain could he possibly get from a war he refused to even be a part of? Every time I even saw his obdurate eyes cross my vision through memory, heard his fluid and acrimonious Vrestian foam through the air once more, I felt the arrows penetrate me again and again. Had none of what I had felt from any of the Bartok been real? What was I to them really if not a friend or member of their families?
“I was distracted,” I muttered in my excuse.
“How so? Were you not feeling well? Have you been ill? Must we find you a different food to eat?”
“No, Deshen, it's none of those things.” I whispered through clenched teeth in my exasperation and ire.
Deshen's antennae sparked and looked to start to unravel, but it was just a trick to my human eyes. “High Bartok Deshen,” he growled in a low tone.
“High Bartok Deshen,” I repeated automatically, though my faux pas had been intended. With his utterance I knew his hospitality was all for show; all that mattered to him was his high position and superior rank and title. I felt sick to my stomach.
“Well then? What is it?”
He was reminding me of his brother in reverse. While Botten shielded his open and vulnerable interior with a snappy and rigorous shell, Deshen was curling his false niceness into an outward-facing cocoon of self-righteousness and greed.
“I was distracted. That's all there is to it. Perhaps I've been occupied and I was thinking about things that are far more important than useless mathematical formulas and scientific equations.”
Deshen stepped forward but I wasn't impelled to fall back in fear. There was no desire in my mind to show deference to this devious torture-king any longer.
“What do you know about the war?” he hissed.
“I never said the war,” I retorted, holding my hands up in surrender. “But... You did just make me remember something.”
“And what is that, child?”
If those same words had been spoken months earlier they would not have bared such naked iciness.
“For one thing, you've reminded me of just that. I'm no longer a child. I've made 'such progress,' and I've actually learned about love and friendship over the weeks.” Not from you, I added in my head. If I wanted any chance of reasoning with this new, untarnished and untamed beast, I would definitely have to cut the sarcastic attitude. “But you've reminded me of something I know about. There is a big, awful disaster that will descend upon the Curlal and it is soon to be upon you. However, I must ask that you hold off your defense team.”
“Don't try to play games with me,” Deshen warned. “Tell me all that you know.”
“On one condition,” I reasoned.
Deshen reached out and grabbed me with fierce claws, forcing me backward on my feet until I collided with one of the eating pods. “I do not make bargains with tricksters.”
“I have no obligation to tell you unless you agree to my request.”
“And what is this request of which you speak?”
“Release the Grandere that you've imprisoned.”
“Excuse me?” Deshen's antennae unfurled rapidly from their spiral twisted position – he was offended by my words.
“Release them. And return their children to them when they go.”
“Where have you been hearing these lies?”
“Your very own flesh and blood.”
“Do not relate that sick monster to my family line!” He released me, though, and retreated a few steps backward. “Traitor. Filthy traitor. I'll imprison you and that wretched rebel daughter of mine before I'll ever rescind the sentence I laid down for those fiends.”
I swallowed down whatever words I would have spoken and for some reason followed him as he left the room. Porwe ran out into the room and threw her arms around Kumali's legs, but Deshen quickly pulled her away and set her aside before he caught sight of me. He spun around and grabbed me in one claw, catching Kumali in the other and dragging us both to the door, where available prison guards received us and led us the rest of the way into darkness.
Kumali and I had crouched together in the dark cell for many silent hours before I decided to bring it up. “You're probably hating me right now, right?”
“I wouldn't say hate,” Kumali sighed frustratedly. “And actually, no. Deshen needed to be taught a lesson sometime, and I had always been expecting imprisonment. I just never expected it to be at the hands of the resident alien.” Her antennae glowed at the top and sent me a weary smile through the murky darkness.
“We're not going to get out now; not before the war anyway.”
“Oh, I have some ideas.”
“What? You can't blame me for having a back-up plan.” Her antennae fizzled at the top and her collar of wire sparked, sending a stream of light up through to the tops of her antennae. I watched the impressive light show with total ignorance of what she was actually doing.
“Yeah?” The strings of light that were spiraling into the air paused and sparkled away into the dimness.
“What exactly are you doing?”
I felt her smirk. “Saving the world is what I'm doing.”
I decided it was best if I didn't ask. I was glad that she was joking with me, though. That gave me some confidence in some of the Bartok I had met and grown to like.
After some time the strings of light dancing in the air starting traveling in the opposite direction. Through her glowing appendages I read every silent word she spoke out into the quiet air. Imprisonment. Escape. Rescue. War. Deshen. I didn't know who she was talking to, but I knew very well from watching Deshen message government officials that Kumali was talking through satellite communications in the antennae and neck-coils.
“Who's coming for us?” I whispered. Kumali angled an antenna towards me to pause me in my inquiry and to catch the remaining words of whatever message she was receiving via satellite.
“Qewri and someone else. Likely not Zorren, though. And they can't come tonight – the surveillance on our cell is too great the first night of imprisonment.”
I stared up through the dark, trying to gauge where the ceiling – and exit – hung above us. The cells were well concealed, square pits dug in the ground with concrete trapdoors camouflaged with the surrounding soil and plants to disguise its location. All of the government officials and prison watch guards knew where they were, though. Obviously, if they went down into them time and again and did the awful things they did to the Grandere prisoners-
“What are we going to do until then?” I asked.
Kumali's antennae stretched. “You kidding? We sleep – the way the Grandere would have slept.”
“Oh, one question.”
“Do the Bartok even sleep?”
Her antennae shivered with facetiously mocking laughter. “Of course we do. And clearly you do, too, so, let's get to it then.”
At her invitation I curled closer to the ground and buried myself into the soft, warm soil, quickly being washed over with the dark, burbling waters of my subconscious.
It was a small noise, but an important one all the same that woke me from my bland and boring sleep in the hard ground of soil. My eyes still detected no light, and I glanced blindly around in the air toward where the sound had come from. Kumali, after only a few moments, arose from her slumber as well. The noise was bare, and I could have mistaken it for anything, but I was pretty sure that it was the departing footsteps of our cell guard, and I confirmed it when Kumali and I met eyes in the darkness – a connection I felt through a minimal spark across my skin rather than sight.
“How much longer do you think?” I questioned.
“Still several hours... They probably can't risk helping us escape in broad daylight.”
I crawled over to one of the walls of the pit. “Sorry I got you into this,” I murmured apologetically.
Kumali's antennae glowed dully and angled to one side while remaining parallel. “It's not your fault, Deirdre. Well, okay, maybe partially.” I let a little smile paint my invisible face. “It was bound to happen at some point. Botten had always been planning his attack to rescue his clan-mates, so it was inevitable that I would be exposed as a 'traitor' and captured. Which,” she sighed, “would have been made so much easier considering we were the one sub-group not fighting.”
“Why did you join the Lichen-Botten?”
Kumali's head-whiskers stretched up into the blackness. “Don't you know already?”
“Not really. Qewri said that everyone has a reason for joining. You've never really told me yours.”
There was an expectant pause. “You likely already know most of it, though.”
“Well, I know that Deshen hasn't earned your respect for all of the things he's done out back of the eyes of the public.”
“I kind of had the same situation as my uncle. I was advancing in school, but it wasn't at a rate pleasing enough to my parents. I started to be labeled by peers. You know, that whole thing.” Her antennae flicked in a sarcastic eye-roll. “And I also went as a peer-pressure thing. Xemita and I were friends, and, well, Qewri was my interest back then and I would have followed him anywhere to have a chance at being his mate.”
“Motivated by love,” I mused thoughtfully, already sinking into a reverie of thought and fantasy.
Kumali chuckled. “Unrequited love is more like it. Qewri just thought I was some stalker kid for a while before Xemita and Antok clued him in. Eventually I reached a more mature level of intellect and warranted his interest.”
“What was Zorren like? Back then, I mean.”
“It wasn't so long ago, you know,” she informed me teasingly. Once her memory lens refocused and caught up to her, her antennae bent out and back in a shrug. “He was quiet. A mere shadow of his brother. Twins, can you believe? Those two were – are – nothing alike. He seemed really young. Lost. Confused. Everyone treated him like he was our personal errand boy. Until he met you, anyway.”
“Well, screwed that one up, didn't I?” I said, and we shared in a laugh before Kumali spoke her response.
“It's not irreparable. Likely if you admit you were wrong to do what you did and if he sweeps you off your feet in an act of heroism, things will mend themselves.”
I stared through the darkness, trying to feel my gaze on my cold feet. “What do you really think I should do?” I murmured quietly.
Kumali's antennae got just a bare amount brighter at their tips. “I think we should wait until we've escaped from here, and once Zorren learns what happened but that he held no part in solving your crisis, he'll come to his senses and apologize for everything he said – I heard from Xemita on the way to see Botten. He'll realize what he said and hate himself for hurting you and he'll apologize. He will. You're his interest and he won't want to lose that. I don't think there's anything you should do; you did nothing wrong.”
I arranged myself horizontally in the soil, uplifted to have some advice. “Thanks, Kumali.”
Kumali's antennae glowed a rosy color and knitted themselves together. “Welcome Dee-Dray,” she joked quietly, and I smiled into the sand before diving under once more.
I was removed from my cozy slumber by Kumali's urgent claws gripping and shaking my shoulder.
“Wake up,” she whispered. “They're here to get us out.”
I snapped my eyes open instantly as my mind recognized the meager light draining in, and I crawled up to where I saw welcoming claws ready to pull us out. I was carefully lifted out of the pit to ground level, and my breath caught in my throat as I met Zorren's eyes in the dimness.
“Deirdre... Oh, Uka, I was so worried,” he murmured. I shivered in my relief and delight that what Kumali had prophesied was true.
“Come on, we have to leave, quick!” Qewri urged, and I quickly scrambled into a run after the two leaders, Zorren shadowing me at my side.
We sprinted through the reeds and fronds of the forest for quite some time before I recognized where we were and knew how we would get back to the camp. A few moments later, we broke into the clearing and were met by several pairs of eyes that shifted from worried to relieved at the sight of us, free and out of prison.
“Kumali!” Xemita, who I now knew had a couple years' history with Kumali, zipped across the clearing and eagerly twined her antennae with her friend's. I hadn't seen the gesture all that often, but I understood quickly that it was a hug. The other Lichen-Botten gathered around their clan leader, bubbling with concern and relief and excitement. After confirming that Kumali was not harmed in any way, a few of them meandered my way and ran their tentacles curiously through my hair, asking that I give them every detail of what had happened the past few nights. Kumali quickly called the small clan gathering to order, thankfully relieving me of the curious and nosy Bartok hanging off me.
Kumali's entrance speech had only barely been completed when Zorren tapped my arm and with worried and pleading eyes led me away from the circle. Some distance into the forest we stopped, and he turned to me with an almost regretful-sounding sigh.
“I- I'm sorry, Deirdre. For what I said before you left.” His eyes were their own galaxies, the pleading in them having their own gravitational power. Although I had typically resisted the whirlpool, there was nothing in me that wanted to refuse Zorren. “I didn't want to lose you. I would've said anything to keep you back and out of danger, and I did and I shouldn't have.” As he spoke his antenna hovered over my wrist and I felt my pulse there strongly, a predictably accelerating beat of blood and warmth. “I was scared. You were right when you said I was only concerned with never saying goodbye. I was-” He ducked his head, antennae coiling nervously. “I felt it would be better if I showed you in a way you would understand. My broken human speech wouldn't have said all that I had wanted to tell you.”
I surveyed the Bartok standing before me with a new clarity. My perspective had now been elucidated by Zorren's confession. I understood better the anxious gestures of his head-whiskers, the mysterious grasp his eyes had on me, the wandering clasp of his claw hands as they gripped empty air. I was now able to shamelessly appreciate and adore his dark patterned shell, blue and red antennae and the patch of fuzz on his head that resembled hair. I was not mad that he had dropped his scrambled English tongues, for I could hold and understand his every word in Vrestian. He was justified to be mad at me, to worry about my stepping into the path of danger, and he had come to rectify the misled words he had shot at me that night. While the wounds still remained, appearing at the cell with Qewri to retrieve us did a good job in stitching the gaps. Other than that, it was only time that could mend them completely.
“'If a being be perfect, that being had not tried,'” I quoted, following up the famous Grandere proverb with a bare touch of my fingers to his cheek before turning around and going back into the clearing, where the Lichen-Botten had their heads dipped in silent spiritual communication. I alighted between Fazze and Ruandi on the ground and ducked my head, letting my hair create my own confessional booth, but Ruandi jabbed me and giggled under her breath as Zorren reemerged in the clearing. All of the Lichen-Botten knew. The only embarrassment I felt splashed up in my cheeks as a pleasantly uncomfortable warmth spreading over my face.
That night felt like the longest night, especially since, at daybreak, we did not have to – and could not have even if we wanted to – return home in a rush to “wake” at dawn to attend school. Kumali and I watched sleepily as each of the Lichen-Botten arose at some point before the mist-light painted the whole sky and disappeared through the woods. I was not surprised to see Qewri and Zorren as the last pair to leave, and I was uplifted when Zorren came over to my sleeping-space and took a seat beside me in the soil.
“I'm sorry,” he confessed again in a low tone, his antennae wobbling a bit in his insecurity. One of the appendages descended and skimmed my arm, lightly tracing a line from my elbow to my wrist. He met my eyes suddenly, making me catch my breath. “I'll see you tonight, yeah?” he said seriously.
“What's tonight?” I asked wonderingly.
“Our night of preparation. Botten's plans were not to be tampered with, and Deshen only arranged more defense against his brother. Our back-up plan has to be modified a little bit to be able to work now.”
“The fight's tomorrow, isn't it?” I breathed. Zorren nodded sullenly.
“Tomorrow. We don't know exactly when Botten's army will attack, but we've got to be prepared.” He rose at a gesture from his brother, now impatient at the edge of the clearing, but looked back at me for a few last words. “I haven't said I'm sorry for not being proud of you. You did a brave thing, standing up to Botten. He's incredibly powerful even if he's sick inside. And I'll commend you for back-talking Deshen,” he smiled slyly. “I'll agree with what I know Kumali's thinking and say that he really needed someone to put him in his place and expose him for the demon he was.” He departed with a feather-light antennae tap to my head and scuttled across the clearing to join his brother. “Goodbye, Deirdre!” he called as he was disappearing out of sight.
“Goodbye, Zorren!” I called back. I smiled with a shiver, wrapping my arms around my knees and beaming at the motionless brush.
When everyone returned to the clearing that night to plan our method of attack – anti-attack, more accurately – I was immersed in an ambience quite unfamiliar to me when hanging with the Lichen-Botten. Kumali and Qewri were intensely focused on the plans that Antok, Fazze, Vowpia and Ruandi had drawn up, making very critical remarks and ordering the editing of nearly every asset of their ideas. I watched the group with a feeling of detachment, like I was swimming in a bubble just outside where they were working and every second I feared that it would pop and they would discover my presence.
“Listen, Vowpia, it's not so simple that we can just jump in as the third wave and excavate all of the victims. That's too easy, and that's not how life goes.”
“It's just a thought,” Vowpia said in her defense. “Maybe there's a solution that can be built off that.”
“Oh yeah, that happens,” the feisty Bartok Imab said sarcastically.
“Everybody, quiet for a moment!” Qewri rumbled. “Gale Uka hson. I can't think over here.”
Zorren hovered at his brother's shoulder, glancing over the blueprints with the interest of a strategist. “I don't think there are many things we need to change. Most of this is doable.”
“I think it would be better if we were the first ones there,” I said, pricking the interior of my bubble with my timid comment.
All twenty pairs of eyes looked my way; the majority of them were questioning of my judgment.
“I don't mean to offend you or anything,” an intimidatingly burly female named Saliche started, “but the last time we listened to your idea, our leader was thrown in prison and Deshen's numbers increased. Under what circumstances would any of us take your advice again?”
“It's just a thought,” I said, repeating Vowpia's earlier defensive statement.
Zorren glanced at me thoughtfully – from our earlier experience he was thinking logically through my idea before judging it, and me. “Saliche, I think we could give her idea a chance; at least put it out on the table for consideration. Tell us more what you were thinking,” Zorren coaxed with his dark-as-night eyes.
“Well, I know we don't know when they're going to attack, but if we, um, confuse the Grandere a bit in their sabotage, perhaps they'll think we've joined in and have covered the first wave? So while they're still figuring out our trick, we go into Deshen's living quarters and tie him up and usher his family into hiding while we have some people knock out the guards with guaya and release the captive Grandere.”
I was met with silence. I figured Zorren wasn't speaking because he would allow an overprotective version of himself to jump out and oppose me, and that Kumali wasn't responding because of the risky step of holding Deshen hostage. Everyone else, though, I considered inexcusable for not responding. They either loved or detested my idea. I supposed that some of them were afraid of being defensively attacked for criticizing me by Zorren or Kumali, and so held their tongues – antennae – for fear of the reaction their response would prompt.
“That's not very advocating of peace, though,” Dadja remarked uncertainly.
“Yeah. And what benefit would tying up Deshen give us?” Viet wondered.
“It wouldn't be us benefiting from it. I figured it would help Botten and suppress his anger so that maybe he would give up the idea of attack.”
“I don't think that would be enough, though,” Guelen warned. “Botten would likely still attack Deshen to make him pay for the wrongs he did his captive people. They'll never recover from that, and there's no compensation large enough to erase it.”
“But it's a possibility. I know there's no compensation, but... maybe holding Deshen hostage and giving Botten provincial rule would be a solution.”
“A solution? For who?” Lantic scoffed, tossing an antenna in a quick and sarcastic twirl. “Maybe that would make for a better future for everyone, but Deshen's army is still a great deal larger than Botten's. Twice or even more. There's no way we can just hand Botten the baton, so to speak, and expect that, for one thing, he wouldn't die from returning to the ultra-antiseptic environment, and two, that the establishment people would suddenly be subdued in their anger at the Grandere.”
“Lantic, what makes you think your ideas are any better? Splitting the Lichen-Botten and sending each half to capture each of the leaders? What do you have to back up this plan?”
I continued to hold my breath until I was sure that their attention was completely deterred, when I took a step back from the crowd and let out a little sigh. I had wanted to be treated as an equal, but being excessively ridiculed over my past mistake – like an equal – wasn't exactly the example scenario I had had in mind.
I wandered out of the main circle of activity and settled myself in the soil near the warmth of the sparking fire, pulling out an espret – my choice vegetable over the wtayi, tainted in both flavor and reputation by the person who had given it to me – and nibbling down to the stem in contented thought. Peering up through the reaches of tree branches above my head, I could just make out the stars. Stars. I thought I would never see them. The little lights out in the universe were each winking at me, granting me safe passage in my life. As I thought of them as lights, I was reminded of the dream I had had several nights prior, visited by the pages of my parents' journals, focused on the words that had been written for me, written so I would see them at some future date when they would not be able to give them to me personally:
My beautiful, incredible, heart-breaking Deirdre:
Wherever you are, I hope you find the lights.
I gazed up at those flying balls of flame for a time before the meeting started to break up and the Bartok came back to settle in the clearing around the fire. Zorren came and sat next to me, his eyes tracing my gaze and following mine up to the galaxies miles and light-years above and away.
“What are you looking at the stars for?” he asked in a gently inquisitive whisper. I broke away and met his eyes, suddenly compelled by the reflections of the stars which I saw there.
I reached out and touched the skin under his eyes with tentatively wandering fingers. “I'm finding my family again,” I murmured in answer. Zorren's skin blushed red wherever my fingers had made contact, but his eyes, in retaliation, held up their stern and serious composure.
“I'm sure you never lost them to begin with,” Zorren replied. I let a smile break my face in its own dawn and Zorren curled his antennae until they sent their own content grin my way.
The regular rituals of the Lichen-Botten were completed that night in a hurried and foreboding way, as if the only comfort the Bartok could find before a war they didn't think they could stop was in song, dance and prayer. But even that didn't console them. They arranged themselves around the fire and spoke urgently, reviewing and going over their plans several times. The night was long, yet everything was rushed. My thoughts, however, weren't. If these were the last moments of peace that anyone would spend, I wanted to spend them with full knowledge and acceptance of every thought I pondered, action I initiated and word I spoke. I told Zorren everything I could remember about my past, thought up fantastical ways to express the small things that had happened to me on the ship, and met the eye of every member of the Lichen-Botten clan with apology, honesty and finality. I wanted each one of them to know the impact they had had on me, and I wanted to be able to have said my goodbyes correctly and with heart if this ended up being the last time we gathered together under the misty stars in the galaxy.
As the night began to wane, I realized wholly inside of me that these were the Bartok who had been true, and that I could trust them with every fiber of my being. I hoped I would be able to let go by tomorrow, for my fate now rested in the hands of something much greater than a scrambled Vrestik mess of battle plans crumpled and burning within the fire in sacrifice and hope of luck.
I don't remember falling asleep when I was shaken awake into the light of day by the sounds all around. I sat up as I heard them, and sitting up I very quickly comprehended them. At first it was just a low rumbling that stretched out through the peaceful quiet of the morning, a rumbling undertone of footsteps through the mist. But as it grew closer to where our camp was, I realized it was the Botten-Bleua approaching the home of Deshen in the first wave of the Grandere's attack.
I rose to my feet, scanning my eyes through the leaves. They would not come by this way, but likely we would see them as they found Deshen's house. I put a hand to my head and tried to remember which clan Botten had assigned to head there first as the watch team. Was it the Derete-Botten? No, they were assigned for defensive arrangement after the first two waves. What part did the small clans have? Of course I had left before figuring out the answer to that question.
As I wandered the periphery of the clearing the sound started disappearing, gradually diminishing until it was only a faint sound I heard in the distance. My curiosity led me to seek the source and to be able to define it with a visual component, and soon I was on the edge of the mesa overlooking the plains that Deshen's home stood on. The noises I had heard were that of the surveillance clan, which I still couldn't remember the name of. I couldn't find the members for a while until I looked to the trees, where the Grandere camouflaged themselves into the bark and brush of the undergrowth. Their antennae sent the barest whispers of messages – I could only tell because they didn't make so much movement.
I wondered how the sounds I had heard could have been these people. If they were supposed to be on silent watch, wouldn't their entrance also have been surreptitiously soundless? It didn't add up, yet the Bartok I saw were the ones my brain tied the audio component to.
I stepped out onto the edge of the mesa, only a few feet above the rolling flatlands of the establishment buildings, edging closer to the incognito Grandere as they laid in wait for Deshen's army to arrive. Suddenly, though, the sound reappeared, crescendoing quickly from a rumble into a roar, and before I could see the source of the incredible ruckus the Botten-Bleua swept past me on one side in a crowd, a mob that spread into a circle, heading for the High Bartok's headquarters.
Once the Botten-Bleua had surrounded his house they extracted their weapons, various poles of wood and iron fashioned into arrows, swords and harpoons. At the signal of the leading Bartok the clan moved forward in a singularly motivated ripple, smashing through the soft metal walls by any means possible. Screams and screeches reached my ears across the space of trees. Before I could comprehend exactly what the Bleua’s plans were the entire dome erupted into spontaneous flame, a magnificent bonfire that worked as a torch for miles in any direction.
It had escaped my attention that the attack snatched away my breath until I tried to make a sound and I had to gasp in inhalation.
My instincts caught up to me and shoved me back in the direction of the Lichen-Botten camp. I had to inform them of the attack which had already been launched. I was in the dark on what the plans of my clan-mates even were, but I was sure that having the attack occur in the morning wasn't going to have any advantages for our small band.
I clumsily crashed my way through the foliage for several meters, my mind boggled by the repetitive plants, when I stumbled into the open clearing of the camp. Some of the Lichen-Botten were just starting to awake from their slumber, stirred by the riot happening far out in the forest away from them.
Zorren approached me, reaching out an antenna and dabbing my forehead continually, eyes searching mine for an answer that he couldn't understand. “What’s happening? Why are you so worried?”
Everyone directed their attention to me, and those who were conscious turned and shook awake those who were not, knowing now that what I had to say was imperative to the whole of the clan.
I could barely find my voice I was so shaken. “The Botten-Bleua just attacked.”
Qewri and Kumali exchanged a glance in an infinitesimally brief moment before confirming their decision - whatever it may be. “Positions, everyone. Likely we can still make it before the second wave concludes the damage.”
Everyone rose and gathered themselves, moving in a unanimous sweep in the direction of Deshen's headquarters. I found myself being swept along by the crowd without warning or consent, yet I still was unaware of the positions people had taken, and why we needed to make it before the second wave. How would be able to reverse any of the damage I had just seen? Pitchforks and spears, stabbing the bubble-like exterior of Deshen's dome house without mercy. Flames gathering up into the sky and swallowing anything that remained in the wake of the weapons attack. How did Qewri and Kumali even think we had a chance of fixing any damage like that?
We ran the whole way, and so emerged on the edge of the mesa in only a few moments' time. Half of the clan scrambled down the steep decline after Kumali, disappearing into the brush down below. Qewri held the remaining Bartok back, watching out over the landscape with a worried, communicative twitching to the Lichen-Botten member with whom he shared the leadership position.
The destruction, though distant, was unbearable to witness. Pillars of smoke shot up through the smashed-glass windows in the deflated ceiling. Malleable metal bits were flung every which way. The pieces making up the interior of the home that I recognized and inside of which I had used to live were destroyed – pillaged, wrecked, mutilated, and burned.
I turned my sights back to Qewri in a last attempt to free my mind before the big breakthrough – whatever it happened to be – that the neutral zone had coming. He stared intently out into the forest for a time, and I counted and held my breath, waiting for him to give the signal.
His antenna snapped very slightly to one direction, but it was enough to set us running. I ran among the others, encapsulated by their knowledge and intent as a lone traveling freeloader. My mind raced with the pack as one, though, and I forgot all responsibility and let my thoughts lead me to where I needed to go.
On ground level, on a plain visually equal now to where my eyes met, the tension was much greater. I was crushed and shoved back and forth, drowned among the crazy things they were shouting to each other in Vrestian. Wreckage spewed from Deshen's home, chunks of metal propelled headlong through the lightened sky, and even though Deshen had caused me hurt and made me feel betrayed his home still had a special significance in my life as an honorary Bartok.
“Kushike A!” Qewri's voice rose above the madness with a frantic urgency. “Cell caps, now!”
“Cell caps?” I wondered aloud, but I reacted with a surge in the direction of the prison quarters and realized that the cell caps were the camouflaged covers for the jail pits. I felt a rise of hope in my body. Perhaps our only mission was to rescue the captive Grandere, though that obviously wouldn't erase the destruction inflicted upon the establishment and their community. I concluded that this was how the natural, tribal clans would retaliate and award themselves their long-deserved compensation for the cruelties inflicted upon their imprisoned brethren.
By the time we reached the “cell caps,” iron rain was already showering down from the skies. Ash and fire and metal and gasoline, all in a poison elixir, raining down like the promise of life. Every ashen snowflake that kissed my skin bit into it with a hot, acidic fire that left me seething in pain. The other Lichen-Botten – and Botten-Bleua and everybody else – were protected from this pollution by their chameleon-adaptive shells, but I had to duck and dodge my way away from every drop that seared the sky on its way down to the earth.
Viet and Bisco were digging at the ground above the calculated location of the cells, claws reaching into the underworld, yearning for a passageway to freedom. After much trial, ridicule, yelling from the leaders and stings from the heavens, the cover was lifted off and from the pit they lifted five individuals: a female Bartok and her four scared and wide-eyed offspring. Our half of the clan was assigned to extracting the prisoners while the other half raced them through the raining fire to our camp, the one marked safe haven during the attack.
Imab and I had started work digging at another trapdoor while Guelen and Lantic attempted another and everyone else jumped around anxiously, waiting to see the unfamiliar faces extracted from the soot and dark. The acid snow continued to come down in a barrage, attacking my bare back in continuous parades. As I dug, my nails ripped, tore and bled, and my fingers twisted and sprained away from the skeletal structure. The soil wormed its way into the open sores. The dirt was soft but it was deadly. I reached through and past the pains and luxuries until I felt the wood panels from underneath. My arms contorted painfully to brush them off and pull at their latches, but I was propelled by the need to hide from the air attacks raining down.
“Come on, hurry up!” Imab yelled over the commotion. I knotted my face in a grimace to deflect the aching and acute strikes I felt. My hand slipped and I stumbled from my position, twisting to slide the trapdoor off and release the captives underneath.
“Watch out – the guards!” someone shouted, and we only had just enough time to usher the Grandere family out under the hurrying arms of our clan-mates before they ran at us with fury and weapons.
I was only able to spin around once before I was knocked into and pummeled to the ground. While still feeling the bruises dotting my face, the guards picked me up from the ground, and in my anger I kicked out at them, puncturing the lung of one. He cried out in a screech of pain, and while the other one was briefly distracted I snatched the other guy's weapon and knocked him across the head with it, rendering him unconscious.
Nearby one of the guards had Juera in a choke hold, and she was gasping and scrambling to be freed. I charged over and with the weapon I had taken from the guard, I bashed it into the guy's head. His eyes went light and he slumped over, releasing his serpent-tight grasp on my clan-mate. Juera didn't even touch at her throat in disbelief. She nodded a salute of thanks my way before jumping in to untangle someone else from their brawl.
It had been some time since the first wave of attack, and I wondered where the Keleke-Botten-Qez were to take their place as the second wave. Qewri was beating down a guard, furiously smashing his head and shell with a piece of house that had fallen from the sky. When I finally managed to reach him through the throngs, he stood up over the bloody, battered body and with a resigned sigh looked back out at the wreckage of the Botten-Bleua.
“Why hasn't the second wave attacked yet?” I asked him. His antenna bent outward in an upside-down V and then shivered back into its natural position.
“Botten's changed his attack plans. The Keleke-Botten-Qez have been reassigned to the remaining government strongholds.” He looked at me, and I saw the fierce, defensive leader behind his eyes that I could never have found in his twin brother's. “Gather the others. We have to get over there as soon as possible.”
“W-What about the captives?” I inquired. “We c-can't just leave them.” I coughed, the smoke in the air painfully infiltrating my lungs.
“We'll come back for them. This war is far from over.” He gestured a silent command to those who had been at work digging the pits or extricating themselves from now-unconscious guards, and they gathered together and shot off like an arrow through the woods toward the other government buildings.
Qewri looked back at me, wondering why I had yet to follow his commands. “What are you doing? Go!”
I skidded on the gravelly slopes out of the woods and raced the long way around Deshen's back gate. Halfway through circumventing the entire circle I ran into them, knocking a few of them down as well as myself. We regained ourselves, though, and scrambled to our feet. The others looked worried at my presence.
“The second wave is going for the other government buildings instead. Qewri ordered us all to head there instead.” I coughed my words through the sooty air. The morning sky was now blotted and gray with smoke and ash. The acid rain had lessened to a bare sprinkle, but that was the least of my concerns at the moment.
Kumali's eyes grew hollow and wide with worry. “Let's go, then!” she shouted, and we stumbled through the metallic soil trying to get a footing and staggered through the smoky fog trying to get a glimpse ahead.
We were already well into the forest when we felt the next round of air attacks shoot down upon us. Some of the Lichen-Botten skidded and ducked from the falling fire. I didn't think it was able to reach me under the ceiling of leaves but when the smoke rings flew down in hissing fury and bit my skin and hair with hot and sizzling tongues, I fell to the ground in a roll and cried out for every burned and reddened circle marking its territory on my skin. One of the others - I couldn't be certain who for the smoke - came back and pulled me to my feet, dragging me along after them in a near-sprint headed toward the government buildings. I tripped in my hurry after them, my legs tired and pock-marked with circles of burnt ash.
Coming through the other side of the forest we froze at what we saw. It wasn't gore or mutiny or destruction. It was pure, unaltered silence, the silence of bodies as the dead members of the Keleke-Botten-Qez lay around, strewn carelessly as seeds in the wind.
A unanimous gasp passed through our crowd. Guelen and Luvren shot forward but Qewri held them back with a flick of an antenna. I wondered why until he explained.
“There's no evidence of physical wounds or blood. It's highly likely that Deshen sent a warning message to the other officials and they deflected the attack with a magnetic wave. Or radiation wave.”
I stepped closer to one of the bodies and instantly recognized the scraggly and unkempt features of Eskele Bartok Corpweja.
“These aren't the Keleke-Botten-Qez,” I realized warily, and right then we heard a scream come from inside of the federal headquarters.
It wound up the air as if it were twine, stretching it nearly to its breaking point. It approached us from afar and as it neared, we were fed the source. Two Bartok from the Botten Grandere walked stiffly side by side, and in between them they dragged a captive Bartok on her feet. She shrieked in protest, flailing and trying to fall upon the ground, and it wasn't until she had looked my way a few times that I realized it was Porwe they had sandwiched between them, Porwe that was trapped in their merciless grasp.
Qewri read Kumali's mind before she had even processed the thought. As she lunged forward, Qewri's strong arms held her back. She pummeled him and writhed in his grasp, but he held tight, a stoic and apathetic statue of a leader on the watch for every one of his clan-mates.
“Don't,” he hissed close to the roots of her antennae. “They've rigged the area. If you set foot out there and take any wrong steps, you're dead.”
“That's my sister out there!” Kumali cried, wriggling angrily to extricate herself from his grasp. He leaned in close again to give her more coaxing words, but Kumali retorted before he had even spoke, “If we don't stand behind our family, what are we even made of? What are you made of?”
Qewri was hardened enough by the response that Kumali was able to snap him hard with an antenna and race away from him, through the minefield of laser traps and barriers. In an instant I shot out after her, easily dodging the arms that reached out to capture me in restraint and sprinting after Kumali, clumsily tracing where her claws had skimmed the earth in my speed.
Out of nowhere, I was grabbed at from behind, as was Kumali, and after some squirming and attempts at freedom we recognized with resigned annoyance that the same Bartok who had tried to hold us back initially had run after us in chase. Zorren's claw-fingers angled so as not to further blemish my skin, but the grip his arms had on me was tight, almost suffocating. Even when I tried to fight, the results proved to be useless. The brothers were set in their decisions.
Porwe had quieted her pleas when she had seen us running to her, but now her voice cut the air with even more vigor when she saw us being dragged away. The Grandere guards holding her grabbed at and twisted her antennae into compact pretzels, quieting her complaints to a bare whistling whine that wafted to us over the invisible laser barriers.
“You sick monsters!” Kumali screamed around the obstacle of Qewri's protectively shielding body. “You have no right to harm her!”
One of the guards curled their antennae into a sickening smile – it made my insides drop even though it was a tacit gesture. “Your father, dear girl, had no right to rape our people of everything they were.”
“I'm nothing like that beast,” Kumali growled, now infuriated. Qewri, though the strongest in our midst, was losing his grasp and Kumali only aided his faltering. “And my sister isn't either!”
The other guard only coiled her antennae smugly, though she seemed bored with the whole ordeal. “We're only receiving our long-due payment for his crimes. That's all.”
“Take me!” I shouted without warning. All the sounds dropped to a silent hum that warbled just under my range of hearing. Zorren's arms fell away in his surprise and dismay at my words, and I threw myself forward toward them. “Not them. They've done nothing.”
“Why would we take you?” the first one asked with a condescending lilt of his head-feelers.
“I'm one of Deshen's most prized possessions,” I said weakly, but even as I admitted it I knew it was a lie that had broken from my lips.
“No longer, I'm afraid,” the female whispered mockingly. “With Deshen's own daughter – and his youngest at that, the one destined for hierarchy in the next generation of medicine – we're sure to lure him into our waiting jaws.” The both of them snickered over Porwe's now-rising wails.
“Wait-” someone called out, but her words were sliced off prematurely as our attention was directed once more to the sky. A deep, heavy and rapidly accelerating whistling was descending upon us, and looking to the sky which was only just clearing of smoke, we all forgot ourselves and forgot to think or breathe at the sight of the missile.
Deshen's last resort, I think I had heard from the Grandere at some point.
Before anyone could react the giant aircraft smashed through the roof of the federal complex, exploding and igniting everything in a twenty-meter radius in smoky red and black flame. The impact shot everyone standing along the fringes back several meters, but the people closer to the criss-crossed laser minefield took a heavier impact, shooting up into the air before crashing to their destination. The guards, Porwe, Kumali, Qewri, Zorren and I had been just close enough to feel the impact in its full force. When the missile crashed, I only barely felt the wave of energy traveling through the air before it smashed me head-on in the chest, throwing me backward meters from my original position. My spine cracked against a tree trunk and I slid to the ground, the skin of my back tearing as the bark sliced it with millions of individual wood splinters.
When my eyes opened again – I don't know how much time had passed from the missile impact – the sky was dark but the night was lit up with flames that reached the tops of the trees every direction I looked. I thought that I must have hit my head really hard or finally felt the side-effects of the wtayi kicking in or maybe I really had been mentally deformed when I was a kid, but after rising to a sitting position and surveying the area I realized this was no trick of the eye – not even my mind could be so cruel and vengeful.
My first thought was where the others had ended up. I struggled to stand with my messed-up back, but once I was on my feet my search became the only focus I had. Where had Kumali ended up? Qewri? Zorren? And Porwe – I had no words for the agony that already had the nerve to rise before I had concluded the results.
Right as I was about to call out to them through the darkness and fire residue, I stumbled on a body. My heart began to race as I leaned down and angled myself to see the best in the light. Qewri's body was contorted, incorrectly broken and bent, and my insides turned to liquid at the gruesomeness of it.
“Qewri?” I bent down and gently ran my fingers up the length of an antenna, feeling for any words out of the leader.
“Wh-what happened?” came his whispered response, and many strangled coughs followed.
“Deshen bombed us,” I replied, disbelieving of the words even though they were of my own tongue. “The Grandere guards had Porwe, and-”
Qewri broke into another severe coughing fit, and I saw that some of the ridges on his chest where punctured, some deflated, some streaked with blood. Qewri twisted in his neck-coils, struggling to get a breath.
“F-find Kumali,” he said hoarsely, but before I could ask why and for what purpose, he coughed, spraying blood across the forest floor and with a last, wheezing, gasping breath, fell limp and went silent.
I got up as quickly as my back would allow me, scrambling backwards and racing to search for Kumali. It wasn't that Qewri was diseased, or that I was suddenly revolted by his dead body – a strange sense of the paranormal spirit threatened to follow me if I stayed, and I raced away to fulfill his last wishes before I could be selected as a target by his ghost.
By the flickering light of the flames in the ruins of the urban government buildings, I made out another body crumpled among the trees, but the body was curled protectively and breathing in fright, and I raced toward it with hope making me soar on my clumsy human feet.
“Zorren!” I gasped, dropping to my knees in the burnt and bloody soil beside him. He uncurled himself and his eyes, which had first looked at me as dully as ash, brightened and he drew himself up into a sitting position. I touched my fingers to every place on his body, trying to work out any wounds or injuries. He watched me in a daze, but it was one I recognized, and after surveying and checking him, I concluded that Zorren had taken the least damage of all of us in the laser field.
“Where are the others?” he asked, worry creeping into his tone.
His eyes held mine as if with vices and I knew that even if I didn't speak it verbally, he would still uncover the words I despised to speak. I hated to hurt him, hated to crumble his world. But his eyes changed and I knew that he knew – it was too late to hide or make excuses.
“When did you find him?” he questioned.
“A few moments ago,” I whispered. “He was in pretty bad shape. It's- It's good that he didn't suffer for too long.”
Zorren adopted an upset look, a look full of anger and spite and hurt, but after some moments he nodded.
“Yes. I wouldn't have wanted him to suffer.”
He scrambled to his feet easily, the only visible effects of the missile being the soot he was caked in from antenna-tip to the ends of his claw toes. The flames only reflected in his eyes, orbs like flashlights that helped me find the way.
“We'll split up and try to find everyone,” he said, and I went in the direction I thought Kumali would be found and Zorren took off the opposite way. He had no fear of letting his voice be heard through the night. In his calling every bit of anguish he felt split the air, adding melancholy clouds to the sky that you could only hear.
I waded through the darkness until I spotted the next silhouette, already standing and physically proportioning itself to its surroundings. I approached it with a quicker and more purposeful speed and Kumali looked up and ran at me, dragging her own weights of distress and anxiety along with her.
“Bless Uka, you're okay,” she cried, her happiness weighed heavily by agonizing worry. “Have you seen any of the others?”
“Qewri and Zorren,” I said, “but Qewri was in pretty awful shape.”
Kumali's antennae whirled with distress. “Where is he?”
I gestured back through the woods. “If you go that way some meters.”
Kumali dashed off without another word for me, though she did consistently call her mate's name. I hadn't wanted to tell her, and it would likely be better if she found out on her own and had her time to mourn and grieve. She must have been too occupied if she had not read the answer in my eyes. But I didn't judge. The words she probably was looking for had to do with Porwe who I still hadn't caught any sight of.
I limp-ran out of the cover of the trees and easily found Zorren's figure shadowed against the flame. He was crouching over something, trying to release something that was trapping one of the Bartok underneath. I came over and lent my strength, if feeble, and pulling the heavy sheet of metal back we both drew in harsh and silent breaths upon uncovering Porwe's delicate body from the rubble. The metal had completely crushed her, killing her instantly but not leading to any visible damage.
Zorren very gently scooped her lifeless body into his arms, and as we turned around Kumali came running across the field of burning metallic wreckage. Her antennae bent and curled in hope and worry, but as her sister was slipped into her arms, she fell to the ground in realization. I didn't want to have to watch another reaction from a sibling, but Kumali only stared with dead eyes out from somewhere inside of her before getting up and walking to the remains of the school. Closing her eyes she knelt down and lay Porwe upon the ground in her favorite spot in the wrecked playground of the eskele parate. She knelt on the ground and looked to the sky, uttering a combination of words in Vrestian that completed a Lichen-Botten life ritual. I had heard them but only now did I really understand what they meant.
And all that which has come to pass
Has left this body and this earth.
I bless the sky for its eternal light
And lay my body down for sleep.
She rose and I could only then see her shuddering tears. Zorren reached out an antenna and blotted the sides of her eyes comfortingly. From the outside reaching into her eyes, all one saw was death and cold.
“Have you seen any of the others?” she asked, her voice monotone and flat.
Zorren and I both shook our heads. “They weren't as close to the impact,” I murmured quietly in the dark and smoke.
Kumali's antennae hung limp in the air for a few moments before they perked up a bit, forcing themselves to curl into a weary smile. “Then Xemita's still here. And everyone else.”
Kumali trudged off through the devastation, the burnt and ravaged bits of metal from both the complexes as well as the missile, which was half-buried in the ground while its end stood up in the air at a defeated tilt, smoke rising in a thin plume from somewhere inside of it.
“The people inside didn't make it, did they?” I asked Zorren.
He shook his head sullenly. “We saw what happened to Porwe, and that was only the external asset of the explosion.”
We trudged morosely through the wreckage, dodging the flames and sharp metal edges with a resigned weariness which had slipped into our bones, leaving us cold and miserable even on that sweltering night. Every time Kumali would stumble and fall back, Zorren and I would reach to pick her up again, helping her to her feet and walking alongside her encouragingly. She had lost her sister, and both her brothers had been at school during the attack, and Serrea had been trapped inside her home when it was ravaged and set aflame. I don't know if, even through all the rancor and resentment, she still held a spot for her father, who was nowhere in sight but had probably been at the government quarters when his missile hit.
I didn't want to anguish Kumali any more, but I wanted to know. “Why did Deshen launch the missile?”
Someone coughed, probably Kumali. “It was his last resort. They had his daughter and there was nowhere else he could go,” Zorren explained.
“But why would he bomb himself?” I whispered hoarsely, swallowing more smoke than I cared to even be exposed to.
“The guards said he'd come for her, and he did. He did it that way so he could take his children with him to whatever bogus place in the sky and make multitudes of other innocent Bartok suffer in the process,” Kumali muttered, bitterness only tainting her words slightly. She was too hurt by seeing two of the people she loved most dead to show much malice for her father.
We continued to walk through the trees and came out into the clearing where Deshen's home was. We were surprised to see the majestic dome punctured with the Grandere's weapons, smoked to a darker-than-black crisp and speared right through with another, smaller missile. But we were even more surprised – and possibly even elated – to encounter the rest of the Lichen-Botten in this clearing, gathered and praying profusely until they saw our trio. Kumali let herself be thrown around by them in their joy, but she sunk once again when she had to tell them of Qewri and Porwe. The small clan went silent, glancing furtively around at the bodies of the Grandere without words.
I was the only one who was hit with my memory before the bombing and sidled over to the cell caps. Perhaps being underground had given them a protective shield to deflect most of the impact. I fell to my hands and knees and dug frantically through the dirt, reaching a latch and opening the cover. A few small, huddled Bartok shuddered away from the light, but I peered in to coax them out. A few of the Lichen-Botten came over and helped me lift them out, after which I slid the cover back on and crawled around, searching for more.
The Grandere children were shivering with tears. “Our Daddy's gone,” they wailed, and they huddled into each other for comfort.
Kumali lifted her head briefly and bare traces of recognition crossed her gaze. “Hura? Maki? Jadlog?”
The children stared back at the unrecognizably battered figure that had spoken to them before they scrambled to regain their footing and raced over to Kumali. I watched after them, confused and squinting through the smoke to understand the fuss.
Uresch and Vowpia had come over to help me dig. They were only dumbfounded a moment before they put the pieces together.
“Those are Botten's youngest children,” Uresch explained. I sat for a moment before it clicked. Why exactly Botten was so desperate to get back his captives. It wasn't just that he was sick and all of the medics were imprisoned; his own wife and children had been taken in their raids.
“Where's their mother then?” Vowpia asked, speaking exactly what had been poised on the tip of my own tongue.
“She must have been moved to another cell for the guards' advantage. There's only a few more that we haven't uncovered.”
More of the Lichen-Botten came over to help us dig. One of the cells proved empty and another held the body of a long-dead old man, but the third we opened unlocked Botten's wife and the children she had been forced to have for the establishment guards.
We helped her out and she peered through the smoke in fear. The children that she had had with her were tiny and clung helplessly to her legs.
“Gapea?” Kumali asked wonderingly.
“Kumali!” Gapea scooped her children into a pair of her arms and stumbled over to Kumali. “Bless Uka the raids are over. I haven't seen you in so long,” she confessed, tears rising in her tone. When she saw her other children they ran over and fiercely hugged her, even forgivingly hugging the smaller children who they had never seen in their lives.
She turned to the others then, and her eyes met mine, hollow with lack of hope. “Have you seen Botten? Was he harmed by the bombs?”
I honestly didn't know the current condition of the rebel leader, and by the glances the others exchanged with each other they didn't know either.
“He didn't engage in the attack himself,” Fazze said.
“As long as he stayed home, I'm sure he's fine,” Imab assured her.
“Oh, Uka, please let him be okay,” Gapea prayed, angling her antennae to the clouds. We all started off in the direction of Botten's headquarters, trudging wearily through the wreckage and bodies. The children were the only ones oblivious to the damage, the only ones uplifted after all of the war's effects had been laid on them.
We were either so slow or the path so long, but by the time we reached the basin that was the main landmark for being near to Botten's mighty shanty, the sky had started to freckle in pink and blue patches. Most everyone by this point was deadbeat, and dropped to the ground, curling up in sleep. Gapea continued on, lifting her smallest children and nudging along those too sleepy to stand on their own. I was led after them solely by the strength of my curiosity – like the children, I was stumbling along in a limp and wistful half-sleep.
There was no doubt we had reached the clearing – Botten's house still stood starkly in the center of it – but I felt my stomach twist numbly inside of me when I saw that it too had been hit with a missile. Calling it a last resort was bogus. If Deshen was going to go down, and if he was going to have to inflict his demise upon himself, it was only necessary that half of the population, including everyone he loved and despised, die alongside him.
Gapea cried out into the stillness of morning. Her children clung more tightly to her, frightened by her reaction and perhaps also by the sight of their home impaled through with a hateful ship of metal. She fell to her knees and wept, holding her smallest children tight against her. Her older kids looked back at me with wonder in their eyes, but I couldn't bear to shatter their newfound world, their newly opened dreams.
But I was wholly startled when I saw a hunched figure emerge from the rubble and smoke. Coughing and stumbling, they made their way out from the wreckage and miraculously regained their strength upon seeing the love of their life standing in front of them.
Botten. Botten had survived the attack somehow. He limped over to his mate as fast as he could and their antennae were intertwining and colliding so fast they were a blur. His children squealed and jumped upon him, and his antennae wilted in his joy at the reunion. He only wondered for a moment about the youngest who were not of his lineage, but he lifted them gingerly from the ground and embraced them in long overdue introduction.
I was tired, but their reunion gave me some fuel for a smile. Botten suddenly took notice of me and hobbled a few steps in my direction with his mate supporting him under his arms as he walked.
“Did you rescue my mate and children?” he asked, hope riding on his every word. I watched and felt my skin heat up as each pair of eyes was directed my way. I shrugged, ducking my head.
“It was, it was the Human!” Gapea declared, and she detached herself from her mate and approached me, kissing me all over my face with the tips of her antennae. “I cannot thank you enough for what you did. Your bravery brought me back to my mate again.”
I didn't know the proper way to deflect their appreciation; I already felt good enough about reuniting them, I didn't want to be followed around with a big badge proclaiming that I had done so.
“I'm glad you and Botten are together again,” I murmured, smiling faintly. Gapea's antennae curled into her own thankful smile and hints of tears shadowed her eyes. “I didn't know you were separated, and for so long...”
Botten sighed, but it was without anger. “When they captured people of the Grandere, my mate was one of the first to be taken.” As if he was back in the time of which he was speaking, he protectively stepped closer to Gapea. “I was taken off-guard by his captures. I hadn't been prepared when it happened. I had called some meeting, and as soon as it was over, I knew Deshen had taken my family away; my mate, my children.”
Gapea cocked her head and looked at me. “Stay with us,” she offered. Before I could open my mouth in response, she continued. “We'll be glad to take you under our wings, especially after all you've done for us. It's the least we can do.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but hesitated. “I have to consult with someone first,” I said, “well, a couple people, actually,” and Gapea nodded.
“Anything you need to do. The offer is always there even if you don't take it now.”
“Thank you,” I said, and turned around to return to where the other Lichen-Botten were camped at the edge of the crater-basin.
Zorren scrambled to his feet and met me halfway as soon as he saw me approaching. “Are they okay? Is everyone...?”
I nodded. “Botten made it through,” I laughed at the wonder of it. “Somehow the rebel always wins.”
Zorren brushed an antenna to my face in a half-smile. “And are you okay? You went through some pretty rough stuff – I haven't even asked to make sure everything's all right with you.” His eyes pouted pleadingly with me in their concern.
I smiled my answer. “I'm okay. Saw things, but I'll live.” As I stood I felt something in my back shift but as I took a step the minor pain that had lingered there vanished.
He lightly touched his antenna to my wrist. “Truly?”
I nodded. “Truly.” I was distracted by a noise from the rest of the clan and remembered the other Bartok I had to speak to. “I'll come back soon,” I whispered before ducking under his feelers and scurrying over to the majority of the group.
Kumali was one of the few not sleeping, but she was still in a trance, rocking monotonously back and forth and staring out at nothing. As I moved into her line of vision she ceased her motion and glanced up at me expectantly.
“How are they? Did Botten make it out okay?”
I nodded. “Botten made it out. They're all reunited now. But listen, Kumali, I have something to ask you.”
“They offered to take me in. Adopt me into their family. But I haven't said anything to it yet.”
“I wanted to ask if you wanted to come with me, be my foster sister again. Or whatever it is that we were.”
Her antennae curled in on each other in a weary, but sly half-smile. “Why would you ever want to be in the same house as me again?”
“It wouldn't be the same without you. You taught me more than I ever would have learned in any other circumstance. Following your rebellious lead-” At this Kumali managed a laugh. “-I learned about the real things in life. Friendship, love, devotion, determination. I wouldn't have become who I have without you. And your cursed interference,” I added jokingly. Kumali let out another little chuckle, but then sighed.
“I don't know. I don't know where I want to go now. But I can't refuse the hospitality of my elders, and especially my relatives.” She rose to her feet, brushing bits of leaves and vine off onto the ground. “All the Bartok proverbs, you know.”
I held my hope in a little jar in the palm of my hand, but I wouldn't release it until I had her definite consent. “You'll come?” I asked.
Kumali nodded. “I'll come,” she replied. I released my joy in a distorted hiss of laughter through my teeth and threw my arms around her. She froze, unaccustomed to the gesture, but curled her own double pairs of arms around and patted them on my back, tentatively imitating the act.
I ran back over to Zorren and now I was swimming in this strange joy that lingered on the surface of the melancholy like oil on water. He reached out to me and I caught him in an embrace, too, a swift motion that he didn't hesitate to reciprocate in kind even though he had not a clue the reason for my exuberance.
“What's this all about?” he wondered, eyes pulling me through the universe with his single glance. My toes felt weightless and my head spun, but my return gaze was the only thing that remained controlled.
“We're together,” I teased, “and I got things worked out. I have my family again.”
Zorren leaned in really close, antennae hovering over my tangled wisps of hair. “Your family was always there,” he mused, and I stepped into him, kissing him hard and feeling his return gesture of adoration as he brushed my wrist.
“We'll see each other tomorrow?” I whispered. Zorren nodded, his eyes swimming in the same desire that was constricting my voice.
“Tomorrow,” he replied, and I touched his cheek with my hand before racing off into the forest alongside Kumali, cued by the laughter of the children wafting through the woods.
The morning air was bitter and my breath condensed in a cloud of frost as I walked across the open stretch of field. Even after several years no one had wanted to go near the damage in the establishment center. The missile which had impaled the school had wilted to a forty-degree angle, and dew from the previous week's rain dripped from its smoked end. Shards of metal marked the ground at random intervals, a careless scatter of unintentional grave-markers. I myself hadn't walked the ground in I don't know how long, but my heart led the way even if my mind didn't know where to go.
A few weeks after the attack Kumali and I had returned and created a proper memorial for her fallen sister. Through the mist of dawn I could just make out the flower painstakingly crafted out of metal and inscribed with the words of the Lichen-Botten life ritual, which I discovered was a tradition of the original woods-dwellers.
As I approached the small memorial site, I descended to the ground in a kneel, closing my eyes for a moment and inhaling the sweet aroma of the soil after the rain. It was a wonderful thing, to me anyhow – the rain. The other Bartok had feared it in the first year it had happened, not knowing its origin. Vowpia, though ridiculed she had been so long ago, had gone back to school and advanced in the sciences, and concluded that the rain was a consequence of the disruptive missile impacts upon their planet.
I opened my eyes again and let my gaze wander across the scatter of objects commemorating Porwe: the bit of slime blanket she had always used in her forest team chase game; the accessories that had been added to her neck coils when she was an infant; her first grade report.
I touched my hand to the metallic pinwheel flower and closed my eyes again, briefly. Rising to my feet, I tapped my fingers to my head sequentially and looked to the sky in salute before walking back along the path from which I had arrived.
It was not too long after that when I heard the children's laughter and I knew I was almost late. I started to run until I saw the small cluster gathered in the clearing, squirming excitedly as I came into view.
“Sorry I'm late, class,” I said, out of breath. “Is anyone missing?” I quickly counted around the circle, touching my eyes briefly to each student and tallying them up on my memorized attendance list.
“Wentli,” Frasic noticed the instant I thought it.
“Yes, Wentli. Does anyone know where she is?”
“She was feeling sick yesterday,” Qaza admitted.
“Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Well, I hope she feels better by tomorrow. In the meantime, we have a lot of things to learn today. We'll start with our poetry lyric projects. Who wants to start us off?”
I wasn't surprised but I was still delighted that every student strained their arm skyward for a chance to be picked. “All right, all right. Let's see.” I covered my eyes with my hand and spun around in a few circles, spurring giggles from some of the students. When I was good and dizzy, I threw my arm out and pointed. “Whoever I'm pointing to...”
“Crytan!” two of the girls cried encouragingly. Crytan's cheeks went blue in embarrassment at their support but he stood and came up to the rock, stepping up upon its flat surface and nervously scratching an antenna in preparation. I circled around behind the rest of the class. The girls started giggling but I gently shushed them and expectantly turned to our presenter.
He looked down and took a deep breath before he began. “Waters waking on the dusty isle; my mind cannot begin to see the words that Uka had to speak, it's complicated to believe.”
Quickly he jumped down from the rock and scurried back to his seat in the half-circle of students, hunching his shoulders and curling his antennae around his cheeks against their applause.
“Wow, Crytan. Great job! That is a very beautiful poem you've composed.”
Crytan's antennae swirled a bit in a diffident smile. “Thank you Eskele Deirdre.”
The other kids whooped and clapped a few moments more before their hands shot up again. “Pick me!” “I'm ready!” “I want to go next!”
I laughed. “Hold on, we'll all get a chance to go.” I clamped my hand over my eyes again and spun around, pointing my finger.
For a brief moment, looking at him, I saw him as the small and frightened Bartok infant he had been so many years ago during the war, grasping at his mother's leg in fear, but I was quickly transported back to the present. Though I had grown under the shelter of his parents a few years, he had been too young to remember when I returned to school as a mentee to the newly designated teachers. He was strong now, a rapidly growing child with no memory of the circumstances of his birth.
“Halex! Halex! Halex!”
He scrambled to his feet and jokingly swaggered to the rock, prompting laughter from his peers before he ascended the stone and adopted an entirely serious composure.
“That which I do not recall is what has shaped my infancy. Traces found, left all around are still but unexplained. Sheltering – protective measures – yet all I seek is open ground, for that is where they've hidden my truth.”
He remained on the rock for one silent moment before he jumped down, and the cheers rose back into audible range. As he returned to his seat, his friend beside him clapped his shoulder and they chuckled with rapidly unfurling antennae.
“Great work, Halex! A very honest poem, I see.”
He looked at me, meeting my eye as if he was much older than his years. “Mom said to only write what you know.”
I nodded slowly. “Indeed. I agree. All right, who wants to go next?”
As all of the remaining hands were thrown to the sky, I closed my eyes and started to spin again, smiling at the giggles the children leaked through their happily twirling antennae.
“Goodbye Eskele Deirdre!”
“See you tomorrow!”
I waved to all of the students as they rose to their feet and ran in pairs back through the woods toward their homes. “Goodbye everyone! See you tomorrow!”
After all of the children had departed, I crouched at the rock and took a few minutes and wrote my schedule for the next day on my portable pad. When I was done, I tucked the sleek computer plate under my arm and started off for my own home. The hike was peaceful and quiet, and the day had grown warmer as the hours had passed.
It took just a bit longer than usual to reach home that day, but it made it all the more worthwhile to be swept into Zorren's anxious arms and pulled through space into the depths of his wondering eyes.
“How are you?” he asked, his antennae reaching to brush the tips of my hair.
“I'm great,” I smiled. “We are seeing Kumali today, right?”
His antennae tipped forward in a nod. “Of course. As soon as I get this done.” He gestured to the array of makeshift technological screens across the wall. Since Botten had stepped down from his previous leadership position over the chaos following the war, Kumali had risen in his place and designated Zorren as the archivist, following his previous status with the Lichen-Botten. The rest of our long-ago neutral group had spread out into the many fields of work that needed to be filled: medic, teacher, scientist, architect. Kumali had recently been very busy but insisted on seeing us.
I stepped outside and wandered into the forest, harvesting a few espret and several stems of the kuyheq plant. Coming back into the house, I entered the eatery and pureed the vegetables, making myself a spiral colored mush that I spooned into my mouth thoughtfully while I listened to Zorren send satellite messages and file the official records.
Just as the sky was starting to get dark, the lights coming from Zorren's office went dark and he came into the eatery. “Are we ready to go?”
I walked over to him. “We're ready.” I threaded my arm through his, and he skimmed the crown of my head affectionately with an antenna and we walked out, heading for Kumali's abode.
We reached her modest house a short time after night had fallen. The lights inside were on dimly, though, and the small gesture allowed us welcome passage into her home.
“Deirdre! You made it!” Kumali tapped my cheeks with her antennae in mock scolding. “How have you been? What have you been up to?”
“I've been well – we've been well. The kids are wonderfully bright and talented. Halex is really coming out of his shell, I've noticed.”
“That's wonderful. I always worried how the first months had shaped him.” She ducked her head, fiddling with her antennae. “I'm sorry; I brought you here but now I have nothing to talk to you about.”
“Oh, no, I don't mind,” I said. “It's good to see you in any case.”
She nodded. “I went to the memorials today.”
I tipped my head in agreement. “Me, too. Well, I went to Porwe's.”
She sighed. “I miss them, but only Uka holds them now.” She glanced up. “There's a ritual gathering in a few nights. Will you be going?”
I looked sideways at Zorren for confirmation before nodding. “Of course. If there's not too much work, that is.”
Kumali's antennae curled in a chuckle. “Don't worry – I won't load Zorren with too much work the next few days.”
“Good,” Zorren mused. I playfully hit him on the arm, but I understood that at times he had an exhausting amount of filing and organizing.
Kumali joined in the laughter for a few beats. “It is good to see you. Since we all split apart, you know.”
I ducked my head solemnly. “Yes. I haven't really caught up with any of the others, but it'll be good to see them at the gathering.”
Her antennae twirled. “Indeed. It's a great idea.”
“So we'll see you... How many days past first-light?”
“Two. And it's at night.”
“All right. We'll see you there.”
As we exited with farewell waves, Zorren steered us in a direction opposite to the way home.
“Where are we going?” I asked. He turned to me, shadows dancing across his face. His antennae dipped low to reach me.
“Star-gazing,” he whispered. I stretched out and brushed his cheek with the back of my hand.
“What are we looking for up in the stars?”
“Our family,” he murmured. “They're always watching over us from up there.”