A woman is trapped inside a prison cell with tiny, adorable aliens.
|My name is Freya Savitri, and I have just awoken from a dreamless sleep.
Sleep in english. Dormir in Spanish. Yuzu in Azerbaijani. Neend in Hindi. Spat in Russian. Somnum in Latin. Sen in Polish. Usingizi in Swahili. Moe in Maori. Tunku in Tamil. Somni in Catalan. My body was still and my right hand stung in multiple places along the index finger and over the knuckles. Do you know what it feels like when skin thin enough to press directly against a bone goes numb? You can feel that rubbery scratching noise when you flex the fingers, almost as if the inside of your hand were abrasive. Things weren’t bleeding anymore, but it doesn’t need to bleed in order to hurt.
With nothing much else to do I spread my blanket out over the floor, one half covering the tiles while the other half I loped over myself into a burrito shape. There wasn’t actually any pillow, but if you bunch up enough of the cloth around your head there doesn’t need to be.
The gesshru was awake. What day was this for him?
I slept for roughly eight hours, but a gesshru only needs four. I counted days in intervals of twenty-four, but for him each sleep cycle was twelve. Assuming he’d gone to bed at a reasonable hour he’d be going to sleep soon once more, and would find me awake for what he’d consider an entire day.
It wasn’t their sun’s positioning or night and day that mattered, the Gesshru didn’t quite adhere to a strict day and night cycle. To that end ‘day’ doesn’t entirely translate with the same meaning and connotations. Sleeps was a better word. Day was the period of time when at least one of their suns were shining, roughly twenty two or twenty five hours, and also called a light. I haven’t counted exactly and the duration seems to vary depending on the time of year and the phases of their lunar cycle. Roughly twenty-five hours of daylight, to a corresponding twelve hours of darkness. Give or take.
Twice during the light, they sleep for about four hours. And once during the darkness, they sleep for another four hours. And of course they measure time spent in sleep cycles, being notably more accurate across the species than their inconsistent and variable planetary motions.
Toris would have some theory to explain this, and could go off into great detail about the motions of this planet around it’s binary star system and large twin moons, the interaction between one orbit and the nearest gas giant, the way meteor impacts might have influenced the planets tilt. Long and passionate exchanges about celestial happenings were his hobby, his life’s dream. He was the astrology expert.
Loren, if given the chance, would dive into theories and discussions about what impact this has on a society and just what differences that might make, how it affects the perception of time as something hazy and nebulous, something that isn’t entirely exact but is generally approximate enough to work with. Examining the dual nature of using the daylight hours for outside work and making extensive use of the light, while darkness was a time to work inside, either playing with friends and family or focusing on hand-held craft. The rodent’s eyes being even worse at peering through the shadows than a human’s eyesight.
He was the anthropologist, though with these Gesshru and their cities and armies, wars and laws, families and dreams, it wasn’t all that hard to project human qualities onto their behavior.
Kell would probably have some analysis on how the daylight period being over twice as long as the nighttime period would influence their tactics and training, how does military engagement change with the sporadic time schedules. If it even changes at all.
Me? I’m the linguist. And the only reason I know as much about other aspects of expertise as I did is because I had to explain, I had to translate. Taking note of the fact a word with strong associations and frequent use denoting the passage of time was also phonemically similar to the word indicating rest or shutting down. On the basic level at least, each day on earth was two sleeps to the Gesshru. And each planetary rotation of this world was three Gesshru sleep cycles.
Being the expertly trained linguist that I was, the task of utmost timing and awareness soon approached. Requiring subtle command over the squeaky tones and hidden meanings, portraying exactly the right emotion fitted to the scene before my eyes.
“You look like crap.” I groaned, sitting up with a heavy yawn. The poor thing hadn’t moved from his spot the entire time. Wait … no actually he was a few inches to the left, and I could see a spot in the far corner that a wet yellow stain. Poor guy probably couldn’t get the lid off my chamber pot. Still better off than the three so far, who’ve had the misfortune to fall in while I slept.
“Core, that it way too loud.” He muttered, turning to face me while keeping curled up into a ball with his tail between his legs. “Such huge teeth. Such sharp teeth. Strong Expletive if that thing’s going to kill me just get it over with.”
That word again. Maybe if I get him to curse enough I can catch enough of the context to translate it.
Once more I rolled my eyes. Cupping my hands for a drink of water, running the chilled dampness over my face to wake up, and finally tiptoeing back to the blanket.
“I’ve never seen anyone try to escape through the feeding tubes, but if you want to try I can probably help.” Though I spoke the words, it was as useless as always.
“Gnashing. Tearing. Groaning. Ugh those sounds when her liquid splashes around, I can hear it. That stuff still inside her. Core what I wouldn’t give for a DakeNut seed right about now. Or Fillbug meat. Oooohhh if only I could find some Caffburgers.”
If my eyes could have been stones they would never have gathered moss, this time twirling my bite-marked finger on my way to the bowl of nutriment paste. A steady dip as I scooped out a mere drop of the bland tasting mush, had no trouble at all resisting that light urge to have a taste myself, and walked with purpose toward the subject.
“Right on schedule then, while I can’t give comment as to the ta- … HEY!” he didn’t even let me finish talking before bolting up from that spot and making a mad dash across the room.
“Don’t let it catch me, by the Core PLEASE don’t let that thing catch me!” he whimpered, now on his feet, casting his eyes left and right. He was crouched, but held his front paws about an inch off the floor, a classic fighting stance. He planned to use that stringy mobility those legs afforded and just play a game of keep away.
I bent my knees and flexed my knuckles in preparation to ‘play’ in return.
“There’s only one way this goes down, rodent. Either I catch you now, or I wait twelve hours and snatch you up when you’re too lethargic to move. What’s it going to be?”
He stared back and gave no real response.
Stepping forward, the small drop of food still on my left hand, I now bent down and tried to scoop at him with my right hand. The tiny thing downright back-flipped into the wall behind him, my fingers scooping around air, and then leapt off just over my first. The cheeky rat-thing was already hopping away toward my blanket by the time I could stand back up, and was hiding within the folds before I could properly track his movements.
An annoyed tsk sound, I decided now was a good enough time to lick the paste off my finger. Stalking toward the utterly terrified rodent who made that all too childish mistake of assuming ‘under the bed’ was an acceptable hiding place, I bent down to grip the edge, lifted up, and saw …
Well I saw tiled floors at least. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what he was playing at, and so I opted to simply unfold the blanket and wrap it around my shoulders like a jacket. Waited. Nothing yet. I settled down, ever so slowly and gently lest I unwittingly squish the passenger, and propped my back against the wall.
I didn’t have to wait too much longer before feeling warmth and fur drop onto my lap, the little guy’s feet jabbing into my thighs while his face was somewhere against my abs. I reached down to grab, as gently as possible, and felt my already injured fingers close between his legs. Mostly. I think two fingers were between his legs, one was under his armpit, and my thumb was circled around his neck.
“Ack!” predictable exclamation, but no swearing to my surprise.
He may have assumed that clinging to the blankets as I lifted it up would just make me forget about him and assume he’d disappeared, but I’ve seen that trick play out in film. And I know enough to tell when I should be looking up.
“Okay, now before you get any bright ideas.” I squeaked, holding the awkward bundle of fuzz close to my face, watching his ears fall back with every breath. “You don’t like me, and I find you adorable. I don’t care how miserable you’re going to be at some point nor how miserable you are now, if you don’t eat something then you’re going to die of starvation long before you can unravel my blanket and use the strings as a rope to pull yourself up. Don’t give me that look! I know you were thinking it! And so like it or not you are getting a twice daily reminder that food exists.”
My free hand reaches over to the food bowl, scoops out another dollop, and this time I hold it toward the Gesshru’s mouth.
“That was the longest roar I’ve ever heard.” He deadpans, twitching within my grasp. My reactionary sigh blows even his horns back, and I think he had to turn away and cough at the obnoxious breath. What I wouldn’t give for a toothbrush right about now.
Relaxing my grip so he was more a squishy bundle of limbs and fur resting on my palm instead of clenched tightly against it, I made sure to hold him up while presenting a single finger toward his mouth. He stared at me, looking as if I’d sprouted tentacles and began to dance the Macarena, entirely refusing to comprehend the gesture.
I shoved the dollop closer, now rubbing it against his cheeks. He tried to back away, only for my fingers to close around his waist.
“Am I going to have to spoonfeed you?”
“Okay! Okay! I’ll accept the gift, Expletive. Just don’t eat me alright?” he opened up his mouth. Extended his tongue out in an exaggerated lull while leaning forward. I could see his lips close around air, while he mimed chewing, one hand moving to rub his stomach as his other hand shoved my finger aside. “Mmmhmm mhm mhm. Tasty stuff right there, yep! Totally appreciate the offer, but uh, now I’m just so completely full I couldn’t eat another bite.”
“The fact your people consistently believe I’m little more than a mindless beast is remarkably vexing. Yeah I’ll bet you’re full.” Relenting in the fact he’s at least grasped that I want him to eat, I held my finger back over the edge of the food bowl and tried to scrape the paste off. Bringing it toward my own mouth and sucking to clean off the final bit of flavor. Well, almost flavor. I think it might have once been called flavor in some bygone era.
“Great. Now, ugh, seeing as I’m completely full but not nearly fat enough for your liking, how about you uh … let me go! And then we’ll do this dinner date thing some other time.”
“If you tell anyone this was a date I will personally hold you under a microscope and measure the exact length and diameter of your malehood, using you as a test study for the standard fitness from which Earth Force researchers judge the entirety of your race.”
I didn’t hesitate to set him back down though, the Gesshru visibly surprised when he found himself back on the floor just outside of my blanket’s warmth. If one were to guess he might have been off-put by my curling the edge around my toes and tightening over where the sides connected, ensuring there was no space to back inside.
His ears were still folded back, and with the points of his horns aimed directly at me it wasn’t hard to tell he was still nervous. I stuck my tongue out briefly to see him flinch, then buried my head into the covers.
“Hahaha, so now you’re trying to be cute?”
“I was always cute, you just need glasses.” I didn’t bother popping my head back out.
“Core, every time I say something to you I get the weirdest sounds back.”
“What can I say, American accent. If I start slipping into a southern drawl then I’m likely having a stroke.”
I could hear the padded flop as he sat down somewhere near my food bowl. Slowly, cautiously, I peek my head out to glance at him. I was met with the increasingly odd sight of a naked rodent leaning his head over the edge of that bowl, one hand reaching for the mush, while his face froze in abject horror at seeing I was watching. Almost like a child caught with his hand halfway down a cookie jar.
From amusing rodent to blackness, I buried my head back under the blanket. Showing him nothing more than the trim, military cut blond hair.
“You know, this almost reminds me of this old [Dog-related-Analogue] I used to have.” He squeaked, and I struggled to piece together the phonemes of a word I’ve never heard.
“While a part of me wishes to feel offended, the other part of me believes if you were to think of my behavior as that of a beloved animal you might grasp that I intend no direct harm.”
“Hehe. You see, my daughter kept trying to get old Scruffs to sing. So …” still deliberately looking at the inside of a blanket fort, I could only hear him settling to the rim of my bowl. “She kept talking to him, loud and distinct with words that weren’t really important. But whenever he made a sound back he got a treat.”
“If you suggest giving me my own nutriment paste as a treat for training purposes I can and I will bury you at the bottom of the bowl.” Factual statements aside, I couldn’t help but get a rise at allowing yet another Gesshru to ‘train’ me. Such a wealth of information both in how they teach themselves, how they feel the best way to learn can be accomplished, what values they ascribe as important in a companion, and potential differences in how the Gesshru treat simple minded creatures as opposed to those with more complex levels of abstraction. It was different each time, with each trainer offering subtle and new bits of data to compile, with yet more variation depending on country of origin and local environment.
“After hundreds of tries, standing in front of the poor little Scruffy with a bag full of treats, only handing out morsels when he barked, and only if the chirp was in response to her talking to him, he learned. He started doing it automatically. And then when she was ready, we got a recording device and had her sing Blue Birds to [Old Pet] while the [Dog-related-Analogue] chirped back.” The rodent sounded happy at first, then fading into sadness. I peeked out only long enough to see his ears were drooping, and his horns flayed to either side.
“I can sing with you. If that would make you feel better.”
“You know, sometimes I really … I really miss that kid. Makes me wonder what could have been, if this war didn’t …” he paused. “Now I wonder what scruffy would have done, if he were the size of a skyscraper. Sort of wonder how she’d react if you ever got your hands around her.”
“The reactions thus far have been highly variable, but a general range from anger, grief, fear, outright panic, or open hostilities. The most functional and yet still rational response is a mixture of fearful apprehension and light curiosity. As much as I’d prefer people not be afraid of me I must admit I do not wish to deal with people closely investigating the bottom of my foot at high velocity without my consent.”
“Core, I don’t even know why I’m talking to you.”
“Because I’m listening.”
“My name is Sotoral Wristwri. Born to the Eastern province of Scando.” There was a pause. “I don’t know if your handler or owner has a name for you, but I think you should have a name for yourself. A good name.”
“I think you’re talking because you want someone who listens. Because you’re afraid, and don’t know what to do.”
“Aheh, sadly the only names I can think of right now are, big. Bigger. Biggest of all. Massive. Wide load. Much too tall.”
I popped my head out immediately, stuck out my tongue, and produced a very rude sound in the subject’s general direction. Names were discarded, I didn’t want to think about names. Oh god he was going to die so soon, I don’t want to remember his name.
“Eeewwww, you made spit fly at me!” he complained loudly. “Ugh, why. WHY!?”
“I’m not sorry.” And once more my head was buried beneath a tattered cloth.
“We went to a circus once.” He prodded while wiping away specks of slobber. “You’ve probably never heard of one, but it’s a place with these big, billowing tents. Just like your nest, but more colorful. And inside they have bouncers and performers, fire eaters and waterdrop jugglers. Then past that they have [Ferocious-Beast-Analogue+plural modifier], and these outrageously large [Aquatic-Mammal] tanks. They make that same noise you did, but they lift their tails up first.”
“Such a pleasure to hear that comparison, do mind me as I attempt to remember those names to pass on to my team’s biologist. I don’t suppose you’d be capable of going more in-depth with a description?” of course he didn’t.
“You wouldn’t have been impressed if you got to see one. My daughter wasn’t. You’re bigger than the tent. And even the largest of beasts you could hold against your chest and walk away with them.”
“I might be impressed by the dexterous performance of your entertainers, your size lends well to acrobatic endeavors. I’ve never seen someone juggle a drop of water before.”
“Eheh. You’re still probably going to eat me I’d bet. Even if you have mistaken me for some baby Max fresh from the egg.”
“We’ve gone over this rodent, don’t make me sit on you.”
“But I think I’m starting to come around. When your hidden and muffled its, well. It’s really hard to try and take you seriously when you’re hiding under a cloth sheet the way my kid used to do all the time. One time, when it rained really badly and there was the crackle of godbolts, and you could find their balls of energy drifting around the yard burning any flammables they touched, I found her hidden away in the bottom spiral. Soft toy against her chest, blanket over her head.”
“This is the part where I’d normally ask if you want a blanket to put over your own, but I’m not giving you mine. I need it, for uh. Personal reasons.” Hiding away and refusing to show eye contact worked. If I make myself appear meek and wimpy enough he’ll be too busy laughing to feel threatened.
“My daughter would have liked you, I just know it. She’d try and play peek-a-sneak. She’d be singing with you right now in a damn fine effort to keep me awake all night. She’d probably force you to hold your tentacle-limbs out so she can slide down the length. When you Max things are passive, I can see why the Gashn empire thought to give you a pilot.”
“For what it’s worth Gesshru subject, I would have enjoyed such a contact with your daughter as well.” Don’t think of his name. Forget his name. He’s just going to die in front of you, think of him as a nameless subject so it doesn’t hurt as much.
“I guess that’s what it’s sort of like with your pilot. A close bond, meeting with each other constantly, the shared love between rider and mount. Even if you had no family elsewhere, that has to be something like a family.”
“In the sense that you can’t choose your family and the person you’re stuck with is eternal until their grisly demise, yes. The analogy toward family appears to hold.” Then again talking to him did make me have pleasant daydreams about killing Tasgal, so that was something at least.
“I don’t want to be eaten alive, I want to see my family again at the core.” I could hear the yawn. I could almost feel him sliding down to the edge of the bowl and laying his head against the sides.
“You won’t be eaten alive, I promise.”
“My spirit, when I die my soul has to be un-tethered you see. I can’t be inside something living, otherwise I’ll be held up on this surface. But I need to be able to sink down. You … you understand, right max? I can’t see my family again unless I die a free man.”
My heart felt that pang, not for the first time.
“Already talk of dying? You could still get to the food dispenser. It’s on the wall over there.” I popped my head out to glance at the subject, then turned to the food nozzle and gave a mile long stare. Just as I suspected this rodent was starting to get tired, while I had only just woke up.
“I think you understand. I’d like to think you do. You seem like a good pet.”
It was all I could do not to roll my eyes again and aim for the bowling pins, but he wasn’t the first. I’m sure there’s Gesshru propaganda somewhere that’s saying all manner of horrible things about us humans.
With that blanket still around my shoulders I stood up. Swiftly, as defiantly as a woman who’d been wronged of her one chance, now having that gleaming moment to redeem herself.
When I extended my palm down the Gesshru flinched, at first trying to stand up and skitter out of the way, then simply relenting to the all encompassing might that was my fingers curling around his shoulders. I lifted the rodent up and held him tight against my chest, then went back to my previous seat and curled the blanket around us both. When peeking my head down under the covers I could see him staring back, my chest squishing into him from one side and my injured palm holding him from the other.
With his expression still wide eyed and mildly put-off by, I closed my eyes …
And began to hum.
Soft melody of sporadic tunes, a wordless song of calm amidst the world of turmoil. Every sound I produced resonates through the room until it sounds like a chorus of whispered hums. My lips closed to be certain there was no intimidating flash of teeth, my breath controlled and angled so as to keep the poor little prisoner from being ruffled by the breeze.
When I opened my eyes again I could see the way his expression changed. For the first time in many hours his pupils had actually contracted. He wasn’t terrified anymore, he no longer housed this nervous little wordless chattering in the background of every word.
So I kept humming.
Long and slow and relaxed and poised, an island of comfort in the sea of so much misery.