A crust of dried tears pulled at my eyelashes. I batted them open and rubbed the residue away. My bed and hair were finally dry, my shelter remade—except the wall of the toilet—and the pile of day-old biscuits was replaced with one that was freshly dispensed. For a moment, I took all of this in, sitting in a stupor, until I sighed and lifted myself off the bed. My bare feet touched familiar wooden floor. I shuffled over to the toilet.
The fact that my shelter had been reconstructed overnight didn’t even faze me, though I began to suspect the biscuits they gave me at night contained a sedative, as people kept coming into my shelter at night to change things. But as I stood again and saw the fake morning sunlight contrast with the dim lighting of the artificial cave-like hall outside, I did notice the lack of gawking people on the other side of my invisible wall. Even more curious, my bow drill was still intact, propped up in an artful display towards the front of the enclosure.
“Huh,” I uttered bemusedly, before deciding with certainty that yesterday’s performance of using tools must have been popular enough for Boss to encourage the activity—so long as I didn’t hurt myself, I supposed. But clearly, today was not a day for such an exhibition. Was the attraction closed?
I felt a wave of relief at that thought, but hardly had time to revel in such a fantasy before a swift, shifting noise gave me whiplash.
A door had appeared on the far right of my enclosure, a crisp outline of gray in the opaque curve of the side wall. But the sudden door was not the only new thing in sight.
A man was inside my solitary world. A tall man with slate skin and solid black eyes.
I looked closely, calling upon all of my observed differences between individuals, and determined that I had never seen this person before. He was young—my age, or perhaps a year or two younger. His face was a chiseled diamond, with high cheekbones and hollowed cheeks, a bony nose, and a narrow jaw, but his eyes were round as if he wished to encompass the entire universe within his vision.
He took a slow step towards me. I tensed. He took another step, and I ran to the pile of tools and grabbed the hefty hearth board, which I had purposefully made longer than was necessary for just such a hoped-for opportunity as this.
The man stopped, hairless eyebrow ridges raised. I held up the board, brandishing it like a baseball bat, ready to swing if he took another step. He didn’t. I was almost disappointed by his refrain.
“What do you want?” I demanded.
He gently lowered his arms and turned his palms upward, undeniably a supplicating gesture. I twitched with a suspicious frown, but he only stood there, looking at me with searching eyes. I raised my shoulders, lifted my stick higher. His posture sank, submissive.
Slowly, he reached into a fold of his black clothing; he wore a similar long robe to Boss’ brown one, but this man’s was less elegant, the cloth hardier and a little worn, his arms exposed from the elbows down. I watched his hand as it emerged from the pocket. He held a biscuit. He extended it slowly forward.
I laughed. My stick swung loosely in my grip like a debutante’s fan as I gave into delirious hilarity. I was starving and sleep-deprived, and the fact that this man was offering me food as if I were an aggressive dog that could be so easily placated was apparently enough to send me over the edge of sanity.
The man seemed taken aback by my reaction. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but his head twitched instead, and his eyes flickered sideways. I followed his glance. Boss was outside the enclosure. He spoke, his voice muffled to my ears, but the man before me seemed to be listening with perfect clarity. I looked closely and saw a small, gleaming device on his ear and saw another on the ear of Boss.
They were talking to each other, or at least Boss was talking. His crossed arms were tighter to his chest than usual as he barked clipped words. His tone was as condescending as ever, but this time, part of his belittling seemed to extend to the man in my enclosure.
The man’s attention had never left me, but now the reflection of the light above us shifted fully towards me in the gloss of his black eyes. Then he spoke.
His voice was quiet, careful, caring. His expression matched; his eyes were soft, his stance gentle. I glanced again at Boss, whose lips were pursed with impatience and skepticism, and I realized that it was possible this man was here to help me. And there was that door, still visible, in the far end of my wall.
With a breath of resolve, I set my club on the ground at my feet, still within easy reach. The man nodded with encouragement and took a quiet breath of relief through his nose.
He stepped closer, his shoulders still low and hands held visible, and I allowed it. Even in submission, the current of his movements was as strong as a smooth river on the cusp of a flood. Then the current lapped against the shore as he sat casually down, crossing his legs beneath the loose fabric of his robe.
I frowned, waiting for more. He smiled mildly, lips closed, and gestured to the spot across from him. I glanced again at Boss mistrustfully. He still looked impatient. Who knew how long that patience would last?
I crept cautiously forward and stopped a few feet from the seated man. I knelt in a twisted position that covered all but the top of the black hair between my legs and shifted uncomfortably, fighting the urge to cover my breasts with my hands. It was bad enough being naked in front of a group of people separated by a wall; it was a whole other matter being exposed only feet away from a man who made no effort to look away from the areas of my body I clearly desired to be private.
But his round eyes squinted thoughtfully as he considered my stance, and then his head turned deliberately towards the shelter. He eyed the uncovered bed and the missing wall from the toilet, and he gave a subtle nod of affirmation.
“Yeah, noticed that, did you?” I said dryly.
He perked up at my words, shoulders a little straighter, chin higher, and his gaze now touched nothing but my face. My eyes widened as my lips parted with surprise. He was acknowledging my need for respect, a viewpoint I had not seen since my abduction.
I took a breath, processing this new situation. We sat opposite one another in perfect silence. His proximity was the closest I had ever been to one of these beings when not swamped with anger and fear, and our silence was unexpectedly companionable.
After a moment, he reached his hand again into his pocket. I trained my eyes on the object he removed from its depths.
A pop of color was in his hands—mottled pink and red skin over a plump sphere. A faint, peachy smell confirmed my suspicions as to its delectable nature.
He must have noticed the involuntary nibble of my bottom lip, for I heard him expel a quiet breath, both relief and expectation evident. His free hand ventured once more into his deep pocket, but every tendon in my body went taut at the sight of what he brought out.
A silver knife was in his hand. He stopped at my reaction. His eyeridges raised slightly, a small, vertical crease forming between them as his eyes grew softer. He then swiftly sliced the fruit in his hand and drew the knife to his chest to try to communicate that he had no other intention for the blade. He carefully extended the piece of fruit.
I stared at it, not ignoring the glint of the knife beyond, but unable to look away from the juicy, orange flesh of the foreign fruit. When I failed to reach forward, he sliced another piece, a deft, one-handed feat, and lifted the fruit-wielding knife to his teeth. I noticed the wink of not one, but two sets of small canines at the sides of his otherwise flat bicuspids before he took a rich bite. A juicy orange drop ran down his chiseled, gray-blue chin.
He laughed lightly and rubbed the back of his hand across the rivulet. I suppressed a smile that seemed determined to peek through my ire.
His dark eyes lit up at my twitching lips, and he again stretched his hand out in the small space between us, offering me a piece of the fresh fruit. The smell drifted upwards to my nose, and my hollow stomach grumbled at the promise of something other than the hard, disgusting biscuits from the dispenser.
I reached out, and then in one quick movement, snatched the fruit from his hand. I caught a smile on his lips that he was clearly trying to stop from cracking. I sniffed the fruit; its scent was pungently sweet, but promised a refreshing experience.
I took a bite. I closed my eyes and savored the soft texture, the thin fibers tickling my tongue as I slowly chewed and swallowed. I finished the piece with relish, but was then distracted by another glint of the shifting knife.
A weapon like that would be far more effective than my hearth board.
His gaze flickered between me and the knife. I hurried to rub my empty hands on the grass to wipe off the sticky juice. He watched me with concentrated curiosity, colored by an amused sparkle as he lifted the blade into the air. I leaned back, muscles tight, but he only turned the blade to one side. The sunlight flashed at me from its sleek surface.
He smiled at the vibrant reflection and looked down at me expectantly. Clearly, he thought I would be impressed by the luminescent display.
I huffed with indignation. “I’m not a cat with a laser pointer,” I said tersely.
I almost got up, but his frown of confusion was backed by such intrigue that I settled back down. His eyes darted around. Finding his little trick had failed to please me, he seemed to want to learn what would.
My anger turned to bitter regret as my shoulders dropped. Really, to a point, were his expectations so unfounded? I nearly laughed aloud again as I thought back to that damned blue light outside of El Paso. A trap, laid for a curious creature like tin foil for a raccoon.
The man flicked his right hand, and a lit image suddenly flashed from a thin metal band around the base of his middle finger. It was a sheer rectangle, projected as a flat surface across his palm. His eyes kept glancing up at me as he tapped the fingers of his left hand upon the rectangle, which, although it looked like a projected screen, was evidently quite solid to the touch. What looked like a foreign alphabet appeared; I could see the letters through the back, visible between his fingers.
It was an advanced sort of tablet, a smaller version of the screen I had seen the woman on the transport using to analyze me during my first moments in captivity. I felt the lines of my face furrow deeply as I glared at the offending tablet containing words I couldn’t read. I should have known. He wasn’t just playing nice. He was here to study me.
The man looked up from his notes. His fingers immediately halted their tap dance. His eyes widened, and he blinked a few times, an interesting display as I had never seen an eyelid bat without lashes before. He looked again at his tablet almost as warily as I did, and then back up at me with dubious uncertainty. I set my chin into a stiff frown and straightened my spine, glaring at him with all the commanding strength I could muster.
“I am not an experiment,” I said. “Put that thing away.”
I could see working thought behind those solid black eyes. I was beginning to grow quite perceptive at detecting the subtle shifts in light that depicted not only which direction these beings were looking, but also what emotions were held within. A sudden idea seemed to strike his—a quick flick of light, followed by a stiffened posture. He sat back, and his eyes landed on the piece of wood that still rested beside me.
A quiet breath swelled his chest beneath black fabric. When it fell again, he picked up the knife from its place on his knee, squeezed it with a firm grip, and then shifted it to rest on his open palm. I watched it with keen interest, the taut band of my body ready to act, though I was unsure what my action would be. Should I ready myself for defense from attack? Or could I take it, use him as a hostage, and fight my way out of this place—stab Boss while I was at it?
And then go where? I had no idea where I was, but I very much doubted I was still in Texas.
The man tapped his fingers against the back of the projected screen, and in one smooth movement, the rectangle disengaged from hovering above his palm. He now held it in his hand as a separate, solid device. My eyes traced the triangle of the man, the tablet, and the knife. Carefully, with a serious, masked expression, the man lowered both the knife and the tablet to the ground and released them.
I stared, unsure what he wanted me to do, unsure of what I wanted to do. He was watching me with a concerned and steadfast gaze, and I tried to speed through the possibilities of what was going through his mind.
He thought me an animal. A beast far below his own level of intelligence and understanding. Is that why he was so shocked at my reaction to the tablet? I thought of the reaction an animal might have to such a device. Fear of the unknown, perhaps. A bolder creature might show pure curiosity, but neither response would be to the words on the screen, only to the physical object itself. An animal would not show the deep, angry mistrust I had displayed. An animal would not have shown recognition of the man’s use of such a device.
I had no doubts the man could see that I viewed his note-taking as dangerous. Perhaps as dangerous as I had viewed the knife.
Was that what he was testing? Which would cause me to recoil with more fear? Yet he wasn’t using them offensively—he was offering me both.
My thoughts were on using the knife, and I felt a strong pull to do so as it sat so near to my eager hands.
So, was his test, instead, what I might choose to use against him? Either way, the question was the same: which object held more power?
The silence between us built. I could hear the muffled tirade of Boss from beyond the wall, but the man in front of me was completely ignoring the words streaming into his ear. He was waiting for me to choose.
I raised my eyes from the two objects and met his gaze, this man who had willingly made himself vulnerable to attack. I narrowed my eyes and took a deliberate breath. Slowly, I lifted my hand. I pointed at his face.
He blinked away from the intrusion of my finger, his brow creased in the smallest of frowns. I turned my finger around and pointed it at my own face. I let it drop to my lap.
I saw a thin trickle of recognition of my behavior in his eyes, then they widened as his chest swelled with quiet shock.
Well. Now that I had his attention.
Before he could stop me, I reached down and scooped up the tablet. It was as light as paper, but as stiff as any electronic tablet I had held before. Its screen was still sheer, but the words he had contrived upon its surface were gone.
“Don’t want me interfering with your observations?” I sneered, but then held the screen in front of me and pursed my lips in concentration. I did not want to appear foolish, in fact, my life and freedom might depend on it, but I also had no idea how to use the screen.
As my fingertip ran over a rounded corner, one of the man’s fingers twitched off his knee, and then his hand froze in midair, as if he couldn’t decide which was more important—the wellbeing of whatever crucial information might be stored on this device, or watching me explore its contents, consequences be damned.
Then he reached out and lightly took the tablet from my hands.
“Hey!” I argued, not sure what I expected to prove by randomly swiping a screen full of words I couldn’t read, but angry at not having the chance to try.
He said a short word in answer, “Wait.”
The screen lit up at his touch. He pushed a couple of icons, and then a sudden blossom of color erupted on the screen.
My eyes widened, and he smiled a full smile, his white teeth showing. He then immediately closed his mouth and went halfway submissive again. I echoed his caution, and after a moment of confusion on both sides, he straightened a little and tentatively touched the corners of his mouth. He smiled again, close-mouthed this time. Then he lifted his upper lip and tapped his teeth with one finger.
I was nonplussed. The colorful tablet was sitting between us, waiting for something, and here he was, pointing at his teeth with a round-eyed, placating expression.
He resumed his slow, open manner that effectively communicated harmlessness, and, pointing to his lips, opened his mouth into another wide, toothy grin. He then lifted his eyeridges, as if asking me if his action was acceptable.
He looked so silly, I felt a little bit of true mirth spring into my tumultuous state of emotions, a storm soon fueled by understanding, and then released in a burst of laughter, with a wide display of my own pearly whites.
The vast majority of the animal kingdom only bared their teeth in displays of aggression. He was afraid I didn’t know how to smile.
His relief that I had not taken his grin as a threat caused him to laugh again, but the sound was light with amazement. He returned his attention eagerly to the tablet. At a touch of his finger, a happy ditty leapt into our ears, and, to my surprise, a trio of three-dimensional blocks of different colored lights jumped from the screen. I started back, but watched him as he picked one up and embarked on a likely explanation of what I should do with the curious objects.
I picked one up, a red cylinder. I studied it in fascination. The object felt as solid as the tablet, but it hummed with a subtle energy as if it were a filament of light...yet not light. I sat back and resisted my urge to throw away the substance that I had once fervently wished to touch. It was a subdued form of the material with which my captors had spun their web.
My eyes darted again to the tablet. A yellow cube rested there, and a blue triangular prism was in the man’s hand. Below the blocks, three mismatched, yet corresponding holes waited to be filled.
I shoved the red cylinder into the circular hole. Its luminescent material disappeared into the ether. I grabbed the yellow cube and pushed it into the square hole. Then with a glare of vehemence, I snatched the blue prism from the shocked man’s hand and, looking him straight in the eye as I held it aloft between thumb and forefinger, dropped it neatly into the triangular hole.
A happy jingle and a burst of sunshine applauded my performance.
The man sat there for a moment, seemingly stunned by my feat of skill, not to mention my fury, the combination of which seemed to unhinge some previously closed door within his mind. I watched that door’s progress in silence, and when it cleared the threshold, his face furrowed.
He picked up the tablet and quickly brought up a new program. The setup was similar, but the shapes were smaller, and many.
“A puzzle,” I observed when he handed it over. I formed a neat square with the pieces with ease. He swiped a determined finger across the screen, and a new puzzle presented itself.
“Yes!” I said, nodding and looking up at him in earnest. Knowing actions spoke louder than words, I hastily returned my attention to the puzzle and completed it soon after.
The tests continued, increasingly difficult, but always accompanied by the bright colors and obnoxious songs that made it clear it was a children’s program. I wondered when he would realize that I was beyond such things and get to the real tests, but as the games progressed, I began to experience much more difficulty in completing them. Half an hour in, I stared at the screen, still covered in bright colors, but the sing-song was grating and whatever task the shapes and grids wanted me to accomplish was incomprehensible.
After an inordinate amount of time, the man’s pale slate finger reached out to trace lightly over the screen, bringing up another test. This one was no easier than the first, and I grumbled in frustration and squeezed the tablet tight.
He spoke a word, something soft. I looked up, and he wore a half-smile on a face filled with amazement, curiosity, and a trace of disappointment. I knotted my brow, not sure what I could say to express my exhausted state of mind, or the worry that what I had accomplished was not enough.
A tinny voice sounded in the silence, mirroring the muffled voice of Boss through the barrier, which I had long ago tuned out in my concentration on the games. The man in front of me sighed. He lifted the discarded metal device from his shoulder and hooked it neatly back onto the outer curve of his ear. He closed his eyes tiresomely as he listened to the words.
“You have to tell him,” I said. The man’s eyes popped open; intensity was building in their depths as he continued to listen to Boss. “Please,” I begged. “Let me go.”
The man spoke harshly, a few short words that were markedly different from what I’d heard before. I stiffened, but his eyes had left me and shifted to the barrier; his words were aimed at Boss. I felt a surge of hope, but it was promptly dashed when he let out a short expulsion of air and grabbed the tablet and the knife, which I had forgotten was so close, and stood.
“No,” I said, my voice shaking as I followed him to his feet. “No, don’t leave!”
He tensed at my command; his posture straightened, his strong shoulders widened, and he became instantly dominant in some way that was so subtle I almost didn’t realize the power had shifted. He took the biscuit from his pocket again and used it to gesture to the dispenser behind me. He said something and, despite his powerful stance, his tone communicated a respectful request for an action I could guess.
I glared, suddenly determined to do just the opposite and ignore all food, as I had been doing.
He frowned and his head twitched, clearly frustrated by my silent answer, but he argued no further. He backed away, keeping eye contact as he approached the door. I drew a breath, ready to tear after him and push my way past him out of this hell or die trying. But he gestured to himself, and then to me and the surrounding enclosure. Could I really trust that he would come back?
He turned sideways towards the knob-less door, with his hand outstretched, but he paused. I heard a low hum. The sound rose and fell in pitch, slow and calm, soothing.
My lips parted. He was humming my mother’s lullaby. I had fallen asleep to its mnemonic tune the night before. I didn’t know I had been singing aloud.
I felt a swelling in my chest and took a shaky breath. He met my tear-filled eyes with an uncertain expression, then turned his back to me and slipped through the shifting door. It faded from existence as soon as he disappeared.
* * *
“Oh, for the love of...”
I lifted my hips to confirm the smear of blood on the grass below. I scowled, and then whined in pathetic frustration as I did my best to stand unobtrusively and walk away from my day’s first audience to the toilet, which now had a wall for privacy following my encounter with the man I had decided to tentatively call, “Companion”. Though he would have to do a lot better than a private toilet to fulfill the title.
It had given me a shred of hope, however, and I had behaved since he came, suffering my countless visitors in silence. But it had been days already with no sign of him, and my body’s current condition revealed it had been nearly a month since my capture in the desert. No end in sight.
I heard a short gasp and a muffled murmur of distress from behind me. I glanced back. A young woman outside my wall was pointing at my lower extremities and patting a man’s shoulder beside her. She succeeded in garnering his attention, and soon they, and a couple of other visitors nearby, were in a worried discussion about what they saw.
I looked down at the thin red rivulet making its way down my leg. “Damnit,” I muttered, and with another glare and a flare of embarrassment, I slipped behind the toilet partition. I slammed my fist against the back wall, and then sighed and reached for the light cloths that served as toilet paper. The cloth had barely stained red when the soft shift of the enclosure’s invisible door reached my ears, followed by a rush of footsteps caused by more than two feet. I dropped the cloth and looked around for my hearth board club; I found it by the bed.
Not one to be cornered, I stepped boldly from the shelter, weapon raised. My stance slowed the two men in my enclosure, and I raised my stick higher when I recognized them as the two rough handlers who had put me here in the first place.
“Stay away from me, or I’ll knock off that pretty blue head of yours,” I threatened as the one on the right stepped closer. The one on the left looked surprised, and as my gaze shifted to him, I caught sight of the wall. It was solid gray, with no visibility of the hall or people beyond.
“Don’t touch me,” I reiterated, gripping my stick tighter. I didn’t know what was happening, but I didn’t want to find out.
The one on the right took another step, while the one on the left spoke to me with an effort to be as placating as Companion had been, but failing considerably. Then, he pointed at my crotch.
I huffed and glanced down. Is that why they were here? If they wanted to give me a tampon, they could have just dispensed it with a goddamn biscuit.
But clearly their intentions were otherwise.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Get away!”
The one on the right kept walking closer, undeterred by my shouts, or my weapon that I clung to as I readied myself to swing. I might only have one chance.
The wood splintered. I stared at the remains in my hand, a little dazed as the shivers of my stick’s impact with the man’s shoulder jolted through my arm. He grunted with annoyance, and during the second I was contemplating how such a heavy blow hadn’t knocked him on his ass, the one on the left sprang forward and yanked my arms backwards, tossing my half stick to the side. Then, an electric wave pulsed from his hands and loosened every muscle in my body, stunning my brain, and I went slack.
A flood of incoherent sensations assailed me for an indeterminate frame of time. I recognized that somehow I had wound up back in the medical ward, strapped to the hard platform beneath an angled screen. Uncomfortable attention had been paid to my nether regions, the last of which involved a staunching of blood and a disturbing slither of orange, gel-like bandages. My doctors seemed to think twice about that, and after more confusing flashes and swirls of colors on the screen above me, the orange slithered back out and was replaced by simple cloth padding.
“I’m fine,” I murmured as I found my voice. “I’m fine. Let go of me.” I strained at the cuffs around me, my voice growing in volume. The two people nearby—the woman, “Doctor”, and her male assistant—ignored me. They looked instead at a three-dimensional projection of what I recognized as my uterus. It then zoomed in to what appeared to be a microscopic level, and Doctor’s finger leapt forward and pointed to a small, round dot that lit up with glowing white highlight as soon as she did so. It traveled a small, downward path, and the image zoomed out to reveal it was tracing its way through my cervix and vagina.
“God,” I muttered. They were in fervent discussion, and soon the nurse came over and removed the bloody padding from between my legs. I growled at him, but he ignored me and excitedly brought the cloth to some sort of machine that looked more like testing equipment than a trash receptacle.
“It’s normal,” I said loudly and slowly, as if talking to children. “I’m not injured.”
Doctor placed fresh padding between my legs and spoke to me in a tone that did not expect a reply.
“This is ridiculous,” I said, unable to rationalize the absurdity around me, and closed my eyes.
* * *
They kept me in medical for days. Their demeanor had calmed; they seemed to accept that this was a normal process, but the electronic monitors tracked my every breath twenty-four/seven. Though I had begun to seriously question if twenty-four hours a day was still an applicable ratio as the light outside a small window by my bed brightened and dimmed in quick succession
One morning I awoke earlier than usual, judging by the light, and I blinked curiously out the window. I raised my head as best I could, given my restraints. My breath stopped. A round orb rested on a soft, tree-lined horizon. It was huge, yellow, and bright.
The sun. The actual, real sun watched me through that window. The habitat outside of the window was the real world.
I strained harder against my restraints, my abs burning with the effort to lift myself off the platform. I grunted and groaned as I pulled and twisted in an endless struggle that got me nowhere. The enormous sun mocked me as I gave up with heavy breaths. It rose steadily higher, finally blinding me with its triumphant torch aloft, and I was forced to look away.
A soft shifting sound made me squint to the left. My eyes widened. Companion stood in the doorway, his own eyes wide with worry. I lifted my head, the motion causing another dull burn in my lower abs.
He hurried over, his eyes tracing my body, which was covered, for once, by a thin cloth blanket, presumably for warmth as opposed to privacy. Satisfied I was uninjured, he took a lightweight chair in hand from the corner and brought it to my bedside.
He asked me a question.
“Yes,” I snapped. “I’m fine.”
He looked at me doubtfully. Murmured a word.
I took a deep breath and turned my head. I looked at the window for as long as I could before the brightness of the sun made me look away.
“Get me out,” I said, flicking my eyes to the window and back again. “Get me out,” I repeated. “Help me.”
His face fell with sympathy, and he reached out to touch me. I stiffened. His hand stroked my forehead, and two of his firm fingers pushed lightly against my skin. I closed my eyes in surprise. A subtle pulse emanated from his fingers, and the muscles of my forehead smoothed. The pulse continued in a low, comforting wave of soothing euphoria. I blinked a few times as I waded through the brief experience.
He removed his hand. His black eyes were consoling and carried a promise.
“Are you going to get me out?” I whispered, testing his supposed resolve. I felt the smoothed muscles of my forehead twitch back into being, and the furrows reformed as I waited for him to answer.
He looked down, and then gave a nod to the floor, as if confirming something in his own head. He flicked his wrist. The sheer tablet glowed into being over his right palm. He swiped and tapped a few places, and then shifted his hand so the tablet disengaged itself, and he rested it on his lap. Its surface contained a few empty rectangles and nothing more. My eyes shifted back to his face.
He said something to me, pointing to my mouth. My eyebrows drew together. He said something else, and his hands revolved in mid-air, coaxing.
He was prompting me to speak. And speak I did.
“I can talk,” I started off, stubbornly. He nodded vigorously and waved his hand again. “I’m not just parroting words as some party trick. I do understand that they mean something. If I could just find a word to show you, construct some sentence that shows you I can understand...”
I looked around, seeking inspiration, and caught the tail end of a flash of amber on the tablet screen. I looked at it curiously, but the man spoke, encouraging me to continue.
“What is this place?” I asked, pensively staring at the tablet. More splashes of amber crossed the screen within one of the otherwise empty rectangles, corresponding in peaks and valleys with the cadence of my voice.
“Don’t you see?” I asked, indicating the tablet with a twitch of my restrained wrist as I met his eyes. “Your instincts are right, if you’re doing what I think you’re doing. I can speak, like you do, a complicated language that means more than just the basics of hunger, of aggression, of fear... Ha!” I uttered, which made him twitch in surprise. “I can speak two!”
I immediately switched to Spanish. “¿No puede oír lo que estoy haciendo? ¡Ver algún animal hacer eso!” Can’t you hear what I’m doing? Watch some animal do that!
A beep sounded from the tablet. We both looked at it, and the man frowned. He picked it up, concentrated on it for a moment, and then put it back down.
“What? ¿No le gusta español?” I asked, becoming amused as I teased the tablet for not finding Spanish agreeable. “How about English again?”
It beeped again, with a confused splotch of red overlaying the amber. But Companion wasn’t watching the screen; he was watching me.
“So, you don’t need a screen to tell your ears what they hear,” I said sardonically. “I was beginning to wonder if it should be you in a cage.”
I tried to fathom how he could possibly not understand that I spoke sophisticated languages simply by listening to my voice. Both of my fluent tongues had large vocabularies and their own sets of complex grammar structures. Or could he recognize that it was a language I spoke, but one he believed could not communicate ideas as complex or meaningful as his own?
I began to speak faster, offering constant translations of my speech as I switched from one language to the next. His screen was working overtime. The confused splotches of red and amber continued, but flashes of white light appeared, matching certain patterns that it seemed to recognize matched both languages, seemingly struggling to combine the two. I grew more exhilarated by the moment. It was analyzing the grammar structures, and Companion was focused on every piece of information it gave him.
When I was in the middle of an increasingly speedy tirade in Spanish, which had something to do with complaints about Boss, he held up a hand in the air to stop me.
“¡No he terminado!” I barked indignantly. “Yo— “
He stiffened his hand, emphasizing his motion, and I silenced with a last, annoyed, “Tch.”
His black eyes were full of something, and as he took me in, a crease between his eyeridges deepened. Within moments, his entire face was a powerful expression of fierce determination.
I felt my every muscle draw back in subtle wariness, eyes wide. Then I jerked with surprise when the door shifted open again.
Companion snapped to attention and flicked the screen back into the ring on his finger. He then rose to his feet as the voice of Boss slipped into the silence.
Companion tensed and turned around. He replied calmly, but his broad shoulders remained stiff. Doctor stepped into the room behind Boss and sidled around Companion towards me. She checked some of the monitors, and then eyed my wrist as if she were visually counting each miniscule pulse of my veins.
Companion’s harsh voice startled both me and Doctor; Boss looked appalled. I strained my neck again, wondering what he could have possibly said. I felt an empathetic ounce of victory as I watched subtle anger spark in Companion’s eyes. Doctor hurried over, now ignoring me, and offered an upturned palm to Companion, with a stern and urgent suggestion he take it.
He twitched at the sight of her hands. He exhaled through his nostrils and returned his attention to Boss, visibly calmer, but Doctor pursed her lips in disapproval at his rebuff.
“Listen to him!” I shouted, making everyone in the already tense room jump. “I don’t belong here! I’m a person. I’m not a fucking animal!”
Boss nodded to Doctor, who swept to my side, but Companion reached me first. He laid two of his fingers flat against my forehead, held together so they felt as one. I again experienced the sudden relaxation of my brow’s thin muscles and the soft, brief comfort that came with it. He spoke to me, a request to calm down.
I almost rebelled, furious he expected me to be calm in this situation when he, too, was clearly angry, but the proximity of Doctor, poised to touch me with a much firmer grip, stopped me.
I realized the small, soothing pulse Companion had delivered with his fingers was a simpler version of the massive pulse that had stunned me on several previous occasions at the handlers’ touch as they hoisted me in and out of containment. Not wanting to be out of my head, I nodded at him. He held out a placating hand to Doctor. She looked skeptical, but took a step back.
Boss laughed, and then spoke a firm command. Companion stood straight, swallowed, and met my eyes. Then he turned and followed Boss from the room, leaving me to Doctor, who, at my fierce glare, apparently thought stunning me seemed like a good idea after all.
* * *
My reprieve in medical from watchful eyes was short-lived. When Doctor and her nurse decided my bleeding had stopped for good, they delivered me into the handlers’ stunning hands, and I found myself on the grassy lawn of my enclosure.
The gray wall blinked into translucence, and not long after, a steady stream of onlookers passed me by after gawking pauses.
The now sunless sky grew dimmer as evening drew near, and I was alone once more. I heard the thump of the biscuit dispenser and heaved myself off the ground. No amount of boosted spring to my step could make me feel any lighter as my spirit sagged.
A shift of the door lifted my eyes.
Companion surged into the room. I jumped back, startled by his speed. Within an instant, his quick stride brought him mere inches from me, and suddenly his hand was in my hair. I cried out in surprise and then pain as he grasped my scalp in a firm hold. A glint of silver shifted from his other hand to my ear, and I felt a sudden cold pressure behind it.
“What—” My sentence was interrupted by a jarring numbness of my skin beneath the metal’s point of contact. I grunted and tried to pull away from my assailant’s tight hold as an uncomfortable digging sensation burrowed into my brain.
“Sh, shh, sh,” Companion said, keeping his hold, clicking his tongue a little in another sound of attempted comfort. Both of his hands were in my hair now, his thumbs stroking my temples, trying to halt my jerking body. The digging sensation subsided, and my muscles smoothed beneath his thumbs. I looked up at him, eyes wide.
“What the hell?” I whispered, unable to find a louder voice. His black eyes grew bigger. He pulled back a little, roving the back of my ear with his fingers. My skin was still numb, but I felt the hard pressure, and heard a light tink of metal as one of his fingernails scraped a piece of whatever object he had attached to my head.
I was also aware of an unaccountable difference in my speech. My sentence had sounded normal, but the word “hell” stood out, though I could not at first identify how.
“Does it hurt at all?” Companion asked.
I stared at him. He was worried, hopeful, waiting for a response.
“No,” I said, reaching up to touch the small place behind my left ear. My fingers jerked back when they met the cold, metal implement, a flat, tiny crescent streaking across a curve of my skull.
“Can you understand me?” I whispered.
Companion let out a breath it appeared he had been holding for a while.
“Yes,” he answered. His cheeks were flushed a deep gray with excitement, but his mouth made a determined line. He took hold of a thick wave of my hair and placed it hurriedly over my ear, hiding the device from sight.
He glanced around furtively and moved his hands to my arms.
“Sit,” he said. “Please. Act like nothing’s changed.” He gestured to my ear and brought me out onto the open lawn. Then he remedied his statement, as if unsure if the ability for artifice was in my skill set. “Try to ignore it’s there.”
He guided me to sit down and let go of my arms, taking his place across from me.
“They won’t see what I just did,” he said. “That’s why I had to place it on you so quickly, while I had the chance. I’m sorry I frightened you.”
“What—is this some sort of translator device?” I asked, trying to sort through the logic of what had just occurred.
“Yes,” he said, nodding, and then swallowed, as if a torrent of words was threatening to pour from his mouth if he did not stop it. He swayed, a little heady, in fact, downright giddy with amazement at my ability to speak his language. “I wasn’t sure if you were...intelligent enough to use it, but...” he laughed slightly, but stopped when my expression turned sharp.
“Of course, I’m intelligent enough.” I wanted to add, “damnit”, but some synapse of my brain clenched, and I seemed unable to speak the word. It clicked somehow in my head that if I were to say the equivalent in Companion’s language, it would sound utterly absurd.
His placating expression returned, one that he was infuriatingly good at.
“I am sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t sure. You were brought here as a curio, as an animal. It was assumed you were of significantly lower intelligence than us.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“A curio?” I asked, disbelieving. “Something to stare at, an animal? Why?” I demanded.
The harshness of my final word startled him, and then his eyes shifted as he struggled for an answer. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. I suspected he had never had to explain to a curio why it was here against its will.
“To be part of the Museum,” he said rather lamely. “It’s...what we do. Procurers go exploring and bring back curios for people to see. It’s just...”
“Brutal?” I provided. “Inhumane?” The second word came out English, no direct translation whatsoever. I paused at that, a sudden thud in my chest.
“It’s not brutal,” he defended. “It’s just not ever meant to be—” He gestured to me helplessly. “They’re not supposed to bring back...they’re supposed to avoid...”
I glared, my jaw taut with suppressed anger and fearful suspicion.
“Where are we?” I then asked with trepidation.
He paused. The confidence he had displayed so well during our first interactions was gone. Now that I was a person, the animal behaviorist didn’t know how to behave.
“Do you know what planets are?” he asked.
The tight ball in my chest dropped to my stomach.
“Yes,” I answered.
“And...do you have a conception of solar systems?”
I nodded, unable to speak, despite my new translator.
“Good,” he said, like a teacher would to a child who gave a surprisingly accurate answer in class.
“So?” I asked, growing irritable.
He hesitated. He seemed both relieved and nervous with each step he took on the stones of our shared knowledge. Now, his anxiety seemed to take precedence.
“You are in a different one,” he said.
I blinked. “A different what?” I clarified.
“A different solar system. You are on a different planet than your own.”
I sat very still, and I must have been in shock because my reply was very simple.
He looked at me with uncertainty, but seemed encouraged by my quiet acceptance of his truth.
“What’s your name?” he asked tentatively. “Is there something people call you? Just you?”
“Carmen,” I answered, quite calmly. “Carmen O’Dwyer.”
He raised his eyeridges lightly. He repeated my name, testing out the words that my translator had allowed me to say with precision. Once again, there must have been no equivalent words in his language. And then I laughed. Of course, there weren’t. I was on a different planet.
His eyes widened at my laughter, which I had to admit sounded a little unhinged.
“Are you alright?” he asked. “Carmen. I’m sorry. I—this was never supposed to happen. Not ever.” He shook his head a little in disbelief.
“What?” I asked, still recovering from laughter. “Kidnapping a member of an intelligent species from their home planet and putting them in a cage for amusement? That’s not supposed to happen?”
I giggled again at the absurdity of my statement, finally encasing my face in my hands. I stayed that way, staring into my den of darkness, until a warm, unyielding fingertip brushed mine.
I took a breath and lowered my hands, meeting the eyes of a slate-skinned, hairless man, with solid black eyes, who gazed at me with sympathy.
“I am sorry,” he murmured.
“It’s not your fault,” I answered pragmatically. “You weren’t the one who took me.” I gave him a commanding stare. “You’re the one who can get me home.”
He sat back, eyeridges raised in surprise. Then, they swiftly fell.
“No, Carmen. I can’t.”
“Why. Not?” I asked steadily through gritted teeth.
“It would take...the number of pods of energy it would take would be enormous,” he answered.
“They got me here,” I interrupted.
“Yes,” he conceded, “but your solar system is extraordinarily far away. I’m not sure why the procurers even ventured that way to begin with, especially since they said your planet is the only one with life, or any interesting minerals, really...”
“But they can get me back,” I insisted, growing more panicked by the second. “If they picked me up, they can take me back.”
“They’re already off somewhere else,” he waved to oblivion. “And whenever they come back, like I said, the negative energy required would...they would never waste that much on—” He stopped and swallowed as if he could eat his own words.
“On an animal like me?” I finished. “A curio? Is that the term you used? Something to collect?”
He sighed, at a loss.
“A curio, yes,” he answered. “You were picked up by a curio ship and brought here with a few other life forms and minerals from neighboring systems. We collect these sorts of things for scientific study and,” he sighed again, “entertainment.” He made a fruitless gesture towards the empty hall. “I am sorry,” he said again.
“You’re sorry?” I echoed. “And why does that matter? Who are you? Does it change anything that you’re sorry?”
“No,” he said, frustrated. “No, it doesn’t. But I’m trying.” He glanced around again, reminded that there was opposition to his endeavor. For now, we remained alone, although I wondered just how alone we were; this man had made it clear from his hum of my mother’s song that at least he had been watching me, or recorded images of me, without my knowledge.
Then it occurred to me that his frantic rush to give me the translator, with a force akin to pilling a cat, may have been because he had tampered with the recording device and had a limited window with which to act.
So, he was trying. I stifled my anger and gave a noncommittal twitch of acknowledgement.
“I guess I’ve got to call you something,” I muttered after a moment of silence in which neither of us seemed to know what to say. “If we’re going to be talking again?”
His expression held a mixture of hope and sympathy, no doubt having heard the anxiety slipping through my casual question.
“Inquieto,” he said.
I frowned. “What?”
“My name,” he said, “is Inquieto.”
“Inquieto,” I repeated. “But that’s...”
It was a Spanish word. Restless. But why would this alien man, who spoke a language that, through my translator, I was vaguely aware sounded very different from any I had ever heard before on Earth, have a Spanish word for a name?
“Inquieto,” I said again. “Your name, it...means ’restless’?”
I paused in surprise, a pause he filled with a confused statement.
“My name is Inquieto.”
I opened my mouth, my eyes flicking downward as I tried to process what was happening. His name sounded Spanish to my ears, both when he spoke it and when I said it aloud. Yet, when I asked him if his name meant “restless”, the word had translated to English in my head, but with background knowledge I had actually spoken the word in his foreign language, a fact emphasized by his statement. As jumbled as the words were in my head, to him, it all sounded the same.
“Is something wrong with your translator?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” I answered, but neither of us was able to elaborate on the subject. Inquieto jerked upright, his eyes flashing towards the far end of the outer room.
I followed his gaze, and my face twisted into a deep glare. Boss entered the hall, casually suspicious.
“I didn’t know you were coming in today,” he said, his tenor voice muffled through the barrier.
“Only a follow-up, Justo,” Inquieto said.
Justo. Just. I huffed an incredulous laugh at Boss’ real name, a Spanish word with a meaning far different from the truth of his disposition.
Inquieto sent me a subtle warning look. I obeyed his suggestion and quieted.
“What more of a follow-up do you need?” Justo drawled. “You fixed its behavior as best you could. It’s eating again and not injuring itself, tearing apart its shelter, or slinging mud at people; that’s all I cared about. Besides, I need you to look at the axbor. It’s scraping its wings against the barrier again; they’re down to the bone. The lifeist says it’s psychological.”
“Pensadora would be saved a lot of trouble if we tended to psychological ailments first, instead of as a last resort,” the man beside me replied, and although his tone and stance were calm, I saw his jaw tighten.
“No need to get worked up again, Inquieto,” Justo said condescendingly. “You know all of my curios are well cared for.”
“With a wealth of respect, Justo, there has been a decline in their care since you became head curator. Alegre chose to consult me far earlier in the adjustment process and continued to do so in the case of each and every curio on a regular basis.” Inquieto’s words were increasingly fast, but his volume and tone were even, far more than mine would have been.
“Perhaps the curios are not the only ones that need a behaviorist,” Justo said coldly, and Inquieto flinched. He took a deep breath, nearly glanced at me, but resumed his forward gaze at the last second.
“I think the three of us need to sit down and have a discussion on the matter,” Inquieto said calmly. I felt a surge of hope and started to rise, but Inquieto turned aside, not noticing.
Justo nodded, conciliatory, and gestured towards the door of my enclosure with a false smile. Inquieto headed towards it, and I realized “the three of us” meant themselves and the doctor, Pensadora. Why would it possibly include me?
I clenched my fists, ready to cry out and shout every word of outrage that came to mind, but Inquieto stopped at the door.
“I will be back,” he told me.
Justo scoffed, and then both were gone.