Alien PurgatoryMary Margaret Branning / Actions & Adventure / Science Fiction
Book Two of the Alien Something Trilogy
Mary Margaret Branning
Copyright 2010 Mary Margaret Branning
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever including Internet usage, without written permission of the author.
eBook formatting by www.gopublished.com
Big Fat Thank You page:
My Sincerest Gratitude belongs to:
Detective Mark Burgess of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department for his help with the car accident logistics, for providing me with an organizational chart which helped me understand ranking in the Sheriff’s Department, and for his explanation of the Attempt to Locate. Any misinterpretations or outright mistakes are entirely his. I mean mine.
Readers: Cheryl, Sean Kane, Patsy, and Charlie. Your insights were invaluable.
Nina Davies and her Autocrit software, without which this book would have been even messier than it currently is.
Astigmatic One Eye Typographic Institute for Yellowtail Font via 1001fonts.com.
Denis Masharov for Tenor Sans Font via 1001fonts.com.
Maureen Cutajar for expert formatting and kind instructions.
Graphic Artist Toshi Simon of Allegra Print, Sign, and Design in the White Mountains of Arizona, for his excellent work making the book cover look less like my pencil drawing and more like a professional work of art.
Magann (Markus Gann) for the purple iris, via fotolia.com.
Everything for “Beautiful sand and sea” via Shutterstock.
Paul Rommer for “London skyline in watercolor splatters” via Shutterstock.
My Mother, who has floated my boat since the car accident. If it wasn’t for your support, I never would have gotten this done.
My Father, for his kind, thoughtful, intelligent example. I greatly miss his quiet qualities.
When I wrote A.P., it didn’t seem to me that much was going on in the areas of women’s rights. My main character, Carol, made comments in Part One of this story regarding this perceived state of stagnation. Discussion of these issues seems to have resurged, or perhaps my attention has been drawn to them. Either is an excellent development, but I decided not to change the story. Perhaps we can simply think of those lines in an historical context. This story was written during the winter of 2008-2009, and set in 2008, so I believe the context remains appropriate.
Part One: Betrayed
Part Two: Betrayer
Part Three: Redemption
Part Four: Justice
Part One: Betrayed
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
The Golden Rule
In college I studied horticulture and pest control, but I learned, among many other things, that the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. Someone said this to me once, a professor, I think. Much later I heard that this little ditty is Socratic.
I have learned, from my working life, that many people are ignorant regarding darn near everything, but believe they know it all. They’re so smart, these ignorants; they seem to spend every working moment trying to prove their perceived intelligence to me, usually by lying about me, influencing others’ opinions of me in an unflattering manner, and inciting those others to say and do enough nasty things to me to cause me to run off the job in a screaming fit. This always works, because I do not, can not, and will not tolerate slanderers. Therefore, I’m usually broke and unemployed.
In my opinion, the world is divided into those who know they know not, but strive to behave with kindness and humility, and those who know not that they know not, and are deceitful, spiteful, and malicious.
This story is about such deceit.
After the car accident I tried to go back to work at Freda’s Home Emporium, one of those everything-you-want-for-your-home warehouses. Freda’s carried products ranging from plumbing elbows to vanity mirrors to paper towels to rebar and everything in between.
I started as a cashier, which is a hard job and not the best choice for a gal with chronic back pain. Cashiers stand all shift long. Often the head cashiers forgot to relieve us for breaks or else didn’t have enough people to cover. God forbid I should sit on the counter to rest my aching back and feet; I would get fired for sitting down on the job. I didn’t much care; I sat on the counters anyway, especially when I worked in Building Materials, which occupied the whole north side of the warehouse. Security cameras covered the entire warehouse interior, and head cashiers could sneak up on me, but, well, I just didn’t care. Hours standing at the register hurts. The counters in the Garden section made good seats, too, way over on the south end. Of course, while working Returns, Self Check, Customer Service (aargh!), or the regular registers, I couldn’t sit, because everyone was concentrated there, in the middle of the store. This included the HR manager - I’ll rename him Pat, the Operations manager, whom I’ll call him Dave, and the duty managers will hereafter be referred to as “The Three Stooges”: Larry, Curly, and Moe. The Big Giant Head Manager I’ll refer to as Calvin, to protect the guilty, after all.
They tried to keep up with corporate standards, I’ll give them that. Of course, in my opinion, they were woefully under qualified. Then again, corporations, well, you know.
I put on a happy face every day and enjoyed the work, for the most part. Some customers were funny, lovely people, others, complete jerks. Other shoppers hurried to supply their jobs. On the weekends many folks bought for their home projects and liked to chit chat. Humor usually worked to get the customers out the door happy even if an employee on the sales floor had marred their experience. I felt my job included getting them out of the store quickly and in a better mood than they had come to the register in. I succeeded a lot, and believed myself to be a valuable member of the Freda’s team.
Of course, there were the jerks. I didn’t appreciate how management handled them. A case-in-point was the Jerk who came in to Building Materials, locked on to me at the register, and proceeded to verbally abuse me about the lack of employees to serve him. He went on and on, and he was right, in this case, because the only other employee besides me working in the department was busy helping another customer pick out what she needed. The Jerk couldn’t find anyone to assist him and he looked pissed. I took his abuse while explaining about our short handedness (a shortage of employees being business as usual). We should have more people on to help customers like him, he bitched.
Well, duh! Don’t tell me. Staffing the place is not my responsibility. I don’t have anything to do with scheduling!
This is one problem with being a cashier. You’re chained to the register, i.e. the money, and when a shopper needs directions or, say, someone to abuse, they make for you like a laser weapon.
So I called the duty manager, which happened to be Curly. I told him I had a customer who wanted to talk to a manager. I put some stress in my voice, trying to get the point across regarding the aggravated man. I needed help. I couldn’t say to Curly, because the customer was standing right there, “Hey, I have a jerk getting in my face, he’s escalating, I’m working by myself and feeling very uncomfortable, and will you get your beer gut down here and deal with this man before he takes my head off?!!!
Curly said, “Why are you calling me? Get a lumber guy to take care of it.”
I replied in a pleasant but firm voice, “Curly, there is no one else. Jake’s with a customer.”
“Okay, I’ll be right down,” Curly sighed as he hung up.
He arrived with Sally, a head cashier, and honest to Socrates, they took this jerk into the aisles and catered to him for about thirty minutes. They even called Jake over to pull the stock and load the materials on a cart, because, God forbid, the managers should do manual labor. Of course this left Jake’s customer, the pleasant woman, abandoned. She ended up leaving without any supplies.
I don’t blame her. Had I been a pleasant shopper getting some help and found myself on my own after the Jerk came in and threw his fit because he wanted ALL THE ATTENTION RIGHT NOW, I would have departed the store without making a purchase as well. I’d also have called Freda’s Corporate and complained, but then, that’s me.
After the Jerk received his metaphorical massage and blow job from Curly and Sally, Sally came to me and pointed out to me the items to be discounted. So the Jerk got personal service from the managers and discounts for being a jerk! Unbelievably, after Sally left he informed me I was to discount his entire purchase! No, I’m not kidding. Apparently the whole show had been a scam to save a few bucks.
Had I been the manager I’d have told the guy not to abuse my associates (they called us “associates” at Freda’s) or he’d be asked to leave until he succeeded in improving his civility. Yes, I would have said, we should schedule more employees to help with your needs, but I can’t keep enough staff on since customers like you abuse them. I would have fought with Corporate, even jeopardized my job over the issue, because the jerks number one in fifty or so, and shouldn’t be tolerated. Of course, the jerk rate varied depending on which employee you talked to about them at any given moment, and the amount of abuse they’d suffered. In other words, how many jerks had abused them during their shift, the week, the month, that year, or the course of their lives. Some days everyone seemed like a jerk, but my observation caused me to think bad customers didn’t consist of such a large proportion of the profit pie, certainly not as big as losing employees and continually training new ones. So, in my opinion, the abusive shoppers should be ordered to leave. That’s my idea of good management. But I’m a cashier, and cashiers don’t usually manage. In too many lousy jobs the lowest cogs in the machine aren’t allowed to critique, even though we staff the front lines, so to speak. We could relate problems to our supervisors which, if solved, would increase efficiency and please the customers. More sales and happy employees should be the goal of Management, but they don’t seem to view us as worthwhile resources or try to make this happen.
Later, Jake came by and I said to him, “Geez, I was close to walking away from that guy.”
“I don’t think it would’ve done you any good. He’d have followed you.”
The Jerk had been scary. I shouldn’t have had to deal with him. Management’s handling of the situation made me wary and unhappy. I questioned their competence.
I enjoy questioning and even pointing out management and corporate idiocy. Personally, I had the option of standing up for myself if I felt the need. I was able to walk off a job when I couldn’t tolerate the games anymore, because unlike most employees, I didn’t have children to support. This could be both positive and negative. Bringing attention to lousy conditions can be good, since people who can’t stand up to Corporate and Management idiocy need someone like me. Walking off the job in a snit is bad, because when you can walk away, you don’t have to work out the problems and find solutions to them. I imagine one learns plenty of lessons by working things through. I’m not sure what those things are, but I suspect the information might help me not leave a job because of other peoples’ stupidity. Not walking away teaches you to not walk away. How ironic is this paradox of my funny old life?
I had always walked away. I would handle this, yet another, horrible job situation, the same way. Afterwards, everything changed because I ended up in circumstances where that behavior wasn’t an option, but we’ll get to that in due time.
Not long after I’d first started working at Freda’s one of the head cashiers, Lara, told me to go work in Returns, so I did. She stayed in Customer Service, separated from Returns by a four foot cubicle-type wall. After a few minutes I heard her bark, “Carol”. I turned to face her, because Carol’s my name. She stomped up to the separation and glared right up into my face.
“When I say to go to Returns and tell the person working there to come to me for reassignment, you do what I say!”
“Okay,” I said. I turned around and told the gal in Returns with me to go talk to Lara.
I wasn’t happy about Lara’s tone, so I decided to keep my eyes and ears on her because she was obviously an outstanding bitch. She hadn’t told me to tell anyone anything. And who says ‘reassignment’ anyway?
Not too much later I worked the night shift. We closed at nine in the evening, so at about eight o’clock we all started sweeping up, changing trash bags, taking returns back to the departments they came from, bringing the grills and lawnmowers in from the outside displays, and cleaning the restrooms.
I walked by Jenny, another cashier, who had a foul look on her face. I asked her what was wrong and she said Lara and Elva were making her clean the bathrooms because she didn’t like to. She complained, “They’re picking on me, I know it. They always do this to me. Every time I work nights they make me do the toilets.”
I sympathized with her, but I let her complaint go because, well hell, I’m never too fond of cleaning public restrooms either. We all had to take a turn. One afternoon a guy practically exploded in the men’s room. Afterwards, some misguided person poured a whole bottle of bleach in there, which didn’t cover the stench. It only added another offensive layer. At closing, poor Diana had to clean the nasty mess up, and you know, she just did. She’s older, like me, not young like Jenny. I thought Jenny’s age and lack of work experience might be part of the reason for her distress. The inexperienced women got grossed out; we old gals just did what needed to be done.
A few days later I overheard Lara and Elva talking about Jenny. They snickered and mocked Jenny. She’d been right, they didn’t like her. Lara said, “She’s working tonight.” Elva murmured, “Well, I guess she’s cleaning the restrooms.”
So I did a stupid thing. I asked, “What are you gals doing? There aren’t enough cashiers here anyway, and you’re running her off.”
Lara’s face briefly showed a little surprise. She looked at Elva, turned back to the paperwork she had in her hand, and said, “I don’t care.”
Elva did her best not to speak to me during the rest of my time at Freda’s, though she did say something to me on my last day that put me over the edge. Lara had to talk to me, as she was my supervisor, but she wasn’t unpleasant to me anymore. I’ll give her credit for keeping her nastiness in check. In hindsight, this might have been because she knew I would get mine.
Around this same time one of the gals I’d trained with, Terry, came over to me while I worked Returns. She appeared agitated. I’d gotten pretty good at Returns and spent many of my working hours processing them. Terry told me how Deena was leaving her alone to teach herself her new position. Deena waited to catch a mistake and bitched at Terry every time she did something wrong. Terry’s husband had been disabled from stroke and she needed the job.
Deena had worked at the local hospital for a long time as a lead cook, and when it had been purchased, the new management sent her packing. After Freda’s opened up she got a position as a head cashier. She’d moved out of that position and into the department Terry worked in and was supposed to be teaching Terry. I didn’t understand the job; it didn’t sound like anything I would want to do.
Sometimes, the reason people act like Deena did is due to the fact that they don’t comprehend the work and are faking it. Fakers can’t teach anyone else work they can’t do themselves. When Terry did something wrong, Deena didn’t show her the right way because she couldn’t. Revealing her ignorance regarding either teaching or the performing might cost her, so Deena abused Terry instead. This behavior is typical for a certain kind of woman.
Alternatively, employees who behave as Deena did are envious and greedy, and after they learn something, they won’t share their new knowledge because they want to be the only ones who can do it. They tell the Powers-that-be a story similar to this: All these other women are just so stupid, and aren’t you glad you have me? There’s some deep-seated self-preservation at work here. Being a team player doesn’t have any appeal to people like Deena, and simply getting better at what they do to therefore become more valuable doesn’t suffice. No, they enjoy ignoring, abusing, and slandering those around them whom they dislike. They talk themselves up in order to be desirable to the people who matter: the managers in control who aren’t paying attention to the real game being played. Those who follow the Deenas of the world can be friends of a sort with them, but anyone who isn’t a sycophant is a potential enemy. Deenas are destructive in any organization, yet organizations don’t seem to recognize them as troublemakers. The ignorance never ceases to amaze me.
Deena told me one day, “These machines are idiot-proof,” as she patted a register. I guess I was supposed to figure out the myriad DOS based procedures for setting up deliveries, retrieving special order sales and installed sales, for taking cash, credit cards, personal and traveler’s checks, employee discount cards, various and sundry coupons, and more, all by my little lonesome. If I couldn’t, then I must be an idiot. This bad attitude came from a woman who had started as a head cashier and who presumably had trained or at least influenced the others. No wonder they kept losing recent hires, and yet the managers couldn’t figure out why they experienced such a high attrition rate! Management’s ignorance was a bad sign. Have I told you the head cashiers were responsible for training the new ones?
Now you understand the reason so many employees left before their probationary period ended.
The pervasive culture of insults, neglect, and persecution of those just beginning to work at my place of employment made for a sink-or-swim situation.
This was a shame because the registers had a training mode, which of course, had not been programmed with educational scenarios like they were supposed to be. Deena, Lara, and Elva had terrible attitudes. Elva didn’t even cashier, though she sure as hell managed to put her twelve cents in a lot, her being one of the bitches and all. Training on the floor was a nightmare, so most of the new trainees quit. The managers figured our town didn’t have quality workers, which was true in a sense. Mostly, however, the good employees wouldn’t stick around to be treated badly by Deena and her posse and ignored by management.
Deena always bolstered the idea that the gals who left weren’t good enough. She knew her game absolutely could not be found out. She understood, way down inside, she would be the one to lose her job if leadership got wise to her. She had to keep her badness a deep dark secret. And yet, I guess at some level maybe she actually believed us to be useless and stupid because we weren’t like her.
Ignorance and arrogance vied for supremacy in Deena.
The little cabal consisted of Deena, Lara, and Elva. I later met Sherry, who worked mostly unseen in the cash office. I learned she backstabbed, too, when she came out to tell Lara about the “stupid mistake” a new cashier had made. These women were so spiteful, mean, and nasty. They ran off quite a few recent hires during the short time I worked there, and eventually they harassed me off the job, too. Like I said, I just cannot tolerate slanderers, and when the Management can’t figure out what’s going wrong and goes along with the status quo - meaning, the backstabbers – then I know I’m in hell, and I must get out. In this kind of situation, the Deenas always seem to win. It looks bad on my resume, shrinks my bank account, and blackens my reputation. Oh well. This was the fight I picked.
A few weeks before they managed to run me off, I wrote a one page letter to Calvin in an attempt to educate the poor moron. I’d already brazenly told Calvin, “I don’t tolerate bullshit” during my interview, and he’d said he didn’t either, which turned out to be bullshit. He did say the good old boys’ club wasn’t tolerated at Freda’s. He failed to recognize the good old girls’ club. Not many men do.
My letter described Lara’s and Elva’s treatment of Jenny, and Deena’s conduct toward Terry, and recommended he get the abuse under control in order to reduce the high attrition rate among new hires. I told him about my little tiff with Lara and asked him not to put me in jeopardy with these women if he talked to them. I didn’t go to college for seven years for nothing.
Between the letter and the time I walked away from Freda’s forever, these mean women bitched another decent employee off the job. Betty had been a good head cashier, and a nice person to boot. Therein lay the problem. Like me, she wasn’t one of them. Lara yelled at her just as she’d done to me. My new friend complained to the clueless Calvin, who didn’t act with kindness toward her. On top of this abuse Betty was pregnant, and her father had medical problems. She decided to quit her job. She left crying.
Fortunately, Lara had already been warned, so Lara got her notice, spent a couple weeks moping around, and then she disappeared to a different life with her new husband. Poor guy.
I didn’t receive an invitation to the wedding. Go figure.
Somehow Deena and her pal Elva put two and two together, probably because of the stupid remark I’d made to Lara and Elva about running Jenny off the job, and therefore the fate of my employment at Freda’s was sealed.
The shift started the same as always. I clocked in at an unused register and found out where they wanted me. Building Materials. Great.
Yet another shift in the most understaffed department in the store. I had trouble keeping my attitude positive. In fact by the end I was downright pissed off.
The time crawled past two in the afternoon on a Monday. By three o’clock the atmosphere had already gotten nasty. As usual, nobody was working with me, and almost every customer wanted help, so, they came to me. By five that afternoon I’d been abused by no less than eight customers because nobody helped them lift their plywood, 2x6x12s, cement, blocks, bricks, backerboards, whatever, onto their carts and into their vehicles. Of course, this was my fault. I paged code thirty, which means, “I need help”, six times trying to get ‘associates’ from other departments to come and assist, and every request went ignored.
Eventually, Lorne came over to lend a hand. Lorne had back injuries like myself and shouldn’t have done any lifting either, but he did. He was the department manager and a nice guy, too - too nice because he ended up handling a lot of material. So on top of the abuse I handled, I worried about Lorne herniating a disc or twelve. Terrific.
At one point there were, thankfully, no customers and Lorne walked over to the register. “Lorne,” I said, “I’m a little tired of working down here without help. Five people should have been on in this department all the time. I’m going to talk to Calvin.”
“I don’t think that’ll make any difference,” he answered. “Saturday they pulled people from Garden to work down here, and when I showed up for my shift they all left. Calvin and the managers disappeared too, and I worked by myself with one cashier all evening.”
“I ran a business…” I began.
“I own my own business,” Lorne said.
“…and this is not how you do it,” I finished.
“No,” Lorne agreed.
“I don’t need this job…” Uh oh. Where was I going with this? “…and I don’t like working this way.” I didn’t want to stick around until Lorne broke his back lifting cement bags or I got punched in the face by some jerk.
“I don’t like it either,” he said.
A customer came up so I rang her quickly through and Lorne went out to help her load.
I called Sally who told me Larry was the Duty Manager. I called Larry.
“Larry,” I asked, “who’s on code thirty?”
“No one,” Larry said.
“No one,” I repeated. “Lorne and I are down here alone and we’re both cripples and no one has answered the code thirties and I’ve had eight people who needed help loading…”
I heard Larry turn away from the phone to talk to the other duty manager who was apparently standing next to him. Why hadn’t either of these doofuses answered my code thirties?
“Moe, how many people do you have in building materials today?” Larry asked him.
“I don’t know,” Moe replied unhelpfully.
“What do you need to load?” Larry asked me.
“Nothing right now, but we need help loading down here.”
“The department head should be handling that. He should pull people from other areas to help load.” Larry sounded annoyed.
“What people? There are no people,” I said, annoyed.
“OK, I’ll talk to Lorne,” Larry said, and he hung up.
Oh, great, I’d just gotten Lorne into trouble.
“Hey Lorne, heads up. Larry says you should pull people from other departments to help load,” I warned him.
“What people?” he asked. “I’ve got one person each in Tools, Hardware, and Milling and they’re spelling each other for breaks.”
“I know, Lorne,” I sighed.
There wasn’t anything else to say.
Later that evening Sally came down to show me how to complete some new training on the computer and of course when she showed up the area had cleared of customers. I tried to look busy by sweeping the floor.
“You’re not being picked on, Carol,” she said.
Oh, I suddenly saw so clearly how they were playing me. I complained because management wasn’t staffing the department adequately. Therefore, instead of populating Building Materials properly with workers and thereby solving the problem, the managers were completely ignoring my code thirties, and stabbing me in the back by talking to each other about how I thought I was being picked on. This couldn’t end well for me. I clearly saw the writing on the wall.
In college, I took classes in Agricultural Biology. The coursework consisted of plenty of entomology, mammalogy, biology, plant pathology, and crop ecology. I’d learned to identify insects and taken courses in subjects like weeds, soil science, chemistry, and even farm and greenhouse management. I’d earned two degrees and, believe this or not, I’d spent several years afterward trying to find a position in my fields that I could enjoy and dig in to. That never occurred, because while studying these sciences was meat and potatoes for me, working in them left a lot to be desired.
I’d been enjoying a job I’d found as a pest control technician on the day the accident happened. I was the passenger in the work truck on the way back to the office when the idiot who was driving began dialing his cell phone while going seventy miles an hour on the freeway. We’d drifted over the breakdown lane and hit the guard rail. I was disabled. He was fine.
Since I’d herniated discs and damaged nerve roots, surgery didn’t help. Well, to be fair, the operation had repaired the structural damage and kept me from becoming paralyzed, but it did nothing to alleviate the constant pain. I developed bone spurs, arthritis, and degenerative disc disease too. I spent my time thereafter gauging the amount of pain I was experiencing at any given moment, and what kind of work I would be able to do and for how long before I had to stop and treat the pain and recover. I sampled every treatment I heard of. I resorted to medications. I applied the tried and true icepack and heating pad method. I stretched and rested. When everything failed, I went to a nearby clinic if it was open, or the E.R., to receive an anti-inflammatory injection and a new prescription. As the years passed, I experienced slightly less pain overall, but not by much. Not enough to make it so I could rake the yard and do the laundry, shopping, dust and vacuum all on the same day as I’d been used to doing on my weekends before the accident. No, I was lucky to be able to do just one of those chores in a day after I was injured. Sometimes one chore took several days. I usually had to medicate, stretch, ice, and rest after each small effort. If you haven’t been there, you can’t understand, and I hope you never do, ever.
When I’d hired on at Freda’s I’d been, oh, so happy to be a productive member of society again. Five and a half years of being on the dole had taken its toll. No one could understand my joy, but I did try to spread it around. It’s sad there are so many hateful, nasty spoilers on Earth.
Two months later, what remained of my joy was spoiled. The pain had been building up and my tolerance for nonsense had shriveled like meat in a dehydrator. I felt like meat in a dehydrator.
Andy, one of the nasties, took a bite out of my joy without any warning at all.
She seemed competent enough on the registers, although whenever she worked I didn’t see much of her. I think she was a hider. Have you noticed those people who hide from work on the job?
Though only in her early twenties, Andy was hugely fat. She sported one of the biggest butts I’d ever seen. I couldn’t imagine what hauling all that weight around did to her skeleton. She had a pretty face and nice, healthy blond hair, but geesh what a mind!
One day she told me she would be getting married to some guy she’d found on the internet. She hadn’t even met him yet. She assured me she’d checked him out good, but didn’t give me any details about how she’d accomplished this.
Another time I heard about her marriage. She said her ex-husband had beaten her several times, the last beating sent her to the hospital with a broken arm. Then he’d filed charges on her because she’d fought back. I’m guessing it was mutual.
I pondered her judgment. Okay, so she’d been married to a man who turned out to be a wife-beater. Some guys are real fun and charming until they break your nose. I understand. But to then agree to marry someone she hadn’t even been in the same room with seemed pretty stupid to me. What if the way he smelled wasn’t appealing to her? I think when someone I’m attracted to can’t kiss well or be taught to, well, I don’t want him. A good kisser who’s unaccomplished in the sack and won’t train up to my satisfaction - forget it. We’re talking about a lifetime of togetherness here. I’m not going to spend my life with someone who I can’t enjoy sexually, but that’s just me. If she wasn’t interested in auditioning her man, well it was no skin off my mud flaps. I didn’t exactly discuss all this with her, though somehow one of our conversations got to the point where she’d declared, “No sex until marriage!” Yikes. What a self-imposed set up for disappointment.
Oh well, she and her mistakes weren’t my problem, until one day I walked into the break room and there stood Andy, looking agitated, talking to Sophia, who worked in Garden. Sophia looked uncomfortable. I took a seat near her at the end of the table.
Andy bawled about how her brother ridiculed her for wanting to marry this guy she’d found on the internet. Apparently this affronted her judgment, which she didn’t appreciate. Of course, I sided with her sibling, but I was smart enough, for once, not to say so. She was pissed off and in a mood to rant, and I imagined she could inflict a lot of pain on me if she so desired. It’s best to let people vent when they need to, without interruption. Otherwise, they turn on you.
During this one-sided conversation in the lunchroom, Andy responded to her brother’s comments. Of course, this meant she hadn’t confronted him, because had she discussed her grievances with him, she wouldn’t have needed to rant. She questioned his inference by stating disdainfully that he’d married a woman who had chosen her career over having children. The wife’s choice had pitched both her brother and his wife in Andy’s bad judgment department. Therefore, she dismissed his concern for her, which she’d taken solely as an insult.
Now, as usually happens in a new job, people had asked questions of me and I had of them, in the manner of getting to know each other. In the course of this initial questioning I’d learned of their families, and they’d discovered I’d never been married and had no kids. When asked why, I said I hadn’t wanted children. There wasn’t a reason for marriage since I wasn’t interested in having children. So I didn’t.
I know it’s “normal” for most people to want kids. I’d met many women and men who loved their children and were willing to make personal sacrifices to see they had everything they needed to succeed. Some, however, have told me that if they’d known about the total commitment making a family required, they might have made another choice, or at least waited a while until their finances were better and they more mature.
As a teenager I’d fantasized about what it would be like to have babies and make my own family. I had a great imagination. I’d decided that life was not for me. This attitude hadn’t change for a quarter of a century. There are quite a few of us childless singles around, mostly, though, you just don’t notice us. If you ponder for a second the increasing population of this planet and its dwindling resources, you’d think those of us who’ve decided not to procreate would, oh I don’t know, get a reward or something.
Hmmm. Andy dismissed me as she did the brother and sister-in–law. She looked right at me when she said it, in that judgmental manner of hers, like I was just wrong, stupid, and so not worth bothering with. I hadn’t told Andy I didn’t have children and if I recalled correctly, she hadn’t been in the room when I discussed this with others. Apparently people were talking about me and not necessarily in flattering terms.
I thought I might ask her if she’d settled on a date for her marriage yet, and whether she was uncomfortable marrying a guy she hadn’t even smelled or kissed. I remembered Sally telling me, “You’re not being picked on, Carol.” She and The Three Stooges apparently discussed how I, in their opinion, was feeling harassed. I considered my letter to Calvin and about Lara and those backstabbers, Deena and Elva. If they put two and two together, they’d want to hurt me for trying to break up their coven of control over who could work at Freda’s and who couldn’t. I recalled Andy had been one of the original crew, with Lara, Deena, Elva, and Sherry.
This all flashed through my mind in a few seconds, in the amount of time it took me to look from Sophie to Andy. Then I looked at the clock, got up, and walked out. Break was over.
At this point I think a little cultural illumination about this pocket of America is necessary.
Arizona at the time was a conservative, mostly Republican state. In northeastern Arizona a large proportion of the population believed, as Andy apparently did, that a woman married, took care of the house, the kids, and the husband, and if money was tight, she worked. That’s an admirable choice in my opinion, one most women would gladly make. But in Northeastern Arizona those who chose a different path were ridiculed and shunned for their decision. I’d chosen not to have children, and I hadn’t married. Also I was a college graduate. People in the area had insecurities which resolved into a baseless hatred of college educated people because they believed these people looked down on them for their lack of education. The irony is that in reality, the uneducated are prejudiced against the educated. All this made me a prime target. Obviously, there was something wrong with me in their view. I had idiotically valued a career over family and I’d never married. I wasn’t looking for a husband, so therefore, in their opinions, I must have psychological problems, I was a lesbian, just a plain stupid, or all of or some combination of the above.
Once upon a time, I heard someone discussing the “good” old days. She’d said that in the past, before suffrage, civil rights, and feminism, if a man wanted to marry a young woman, a virgin usually, and she did not want to be his wife, then all he had to do was get her alone, rape, and impregnate her. The pregnancy would be her undoing. He’d deny the assault, if the subject even came up, and say she had been willing. Because of the moral norms of the day, she’d be forced to marry the rapist unless she could find another man who’d consent to wed a woman pregnant with another man’s child, hardly an easy task in any era. Her family could disown her because she had sinned; she’d fornicated outside of marriage. Her only other option would have been to beg on the streets with her baby, an outcast, and probably become a prostitute. The younger, more protected and naïve the young woman, and the more arrogant, greedy, and devious the man, the better were the chances of her being forced into marriage by rape.
I think feminism has been a double-edged sword. Women fought hard for the right to choose the directions of their own lives. But those who didn’t understand the enormous gift women’s liberation has been for us, who felt their values threatened, used their erroneous definitions as a cudgel to attempt to bring us in lock step with their views, or to humiliate us and cast us out if we refused to line up behind them.
Was I experiencing a time warp?
Strangely, people like Andy readily used the benefits of having cultural restrictions lessened or nullified in their own lives while they disdained the feminist: Andy worked, she chose her mate - however badly, she spoke her mind, she expected certain protections, and she could vote if she wanted to. She benefited from the work of feminists, yet she disdained us our choices because they weren’t like hers or the group she belonged to, which said women are for marriage, children, housework, and, if necessary, extra cash. She is to be a satellite in her husband’s orbit, his domestic support, while he goes out into the real world and does the work she has no business doing.
So much for progress.
Like I said, women getting to choose their own way of life is wonderful, but when a woman’s decision is a cultural mandate, and those who choose a different route are abused for their choice, well, that’s not so great.
I blame women’s organizations for not being pleasant and consistent in their public education on this issue, because great things have been born of feminism.
But this is just my opinion, which means fuck all in Shallow, Arizona.
At the time of this writing, a religion existed in Northeastern Arizona - in fact, in a large part of the Southwest - characterized by the adventures of one Prophet Joseph Smith, who, it’s said, went into the woods to dig up some gold tablets, the further words of God. These religionists believed the husband was literally the Lord of his household. Women have children. Someone told me Mormons have to have a certain number of offspring to get into heaven! But you know, people say a lot of things. After high school the boys went on interesting missions to other countries and continued their education or began their working life, and the girls married and started their large families. And the families were large. I believe they feared the brown people were outbreeding the whites. For myself, I think we’re all just different shades of brown.
Non-Mormon Christians in the region seemed to be of a fundamentalist bent as well. The groups hated each other in general, but not as much as they despised my type, of course, because after all I was a pervert, a loser, unmarried and childless, college educated and career oriented, although disabled now and underproductive. Obviously, I was a “feminazi”, a plain wrong fool, and a target. That was the atmosphere I went to work in every day.
Andy, a young version of Deena, just starting out and learning the ropes, would become like Deena. I call this kind of people “Broken Rulers”. Broken Rulers once upon a time asserted their opinions, and other Broken Rulers, usually their parents, family, and family’s friends, humiliated them. They learned not to Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You, but to Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto You. Broken Rulers become annoyed with anyone who doesn’t agree with their thinking or do as they dictate, anyone who dares to challenge them in any way. I did this when I complained about Lara, Elva, and Deena, and made the comment to Lara and Elva regarding running Jenny off the job. Broken Rulers are super vigilant to this sort of criticism because it undermines what they see as their authority, and it reveals the enemy within. Argument is considered a threat to their self-designated authority; disagreement is grounds for assault. In the time-dishonored tradition of Broken Rulers, they slander their target. They manipulate the opinions of others and direct prejudice toward her. They incite their followers to bully their enemy.
Strangely, most Broken Rulers all do this quietly, in secret whispered conversations. It’s as if somewhere deep inside of them, in the little child who once spoke her mind and experienced abuse for her unacceptable opinions, they understand what had been done to them and what they are doing and is wrong. Underneath their defensive masks, these bullies know the real perversion is theirs; they remember how they felt when someone hurt them like this.
Stranger still are all the people who swallow their objections and join in with the bullying. They aren’t really mean, but abuse the victim because they want to be part of the group and not its mark. The demand of the bullies is strong, and few choose to risk ostracism. Better to go along with abusers than be targeted by them. Cowards all.
The religionist influence in this community could be seen in this cliquishness. After I first moved here I learned that twenty years before, if you didn’t belong to the Church of Latter Day Saints, you couldn’t get a job. By the time I’d arrived, when you started a local business, you had to tithe to their church or they wouldn’t let their members shop at your store. You didn’t have to become a Mormon; you only had to give up ten percent of your profit to them. This sounds like extortion to me. Again, though, people do say a lot of things.
This was the situation in which I found myself, in this red heart of a red state. I felt surrounded and overwhelmed by Broken Rulers. I became somewhat fearful because, in their righteousness and secretiveness, they would go so very far in their abusiveness. I often wondered where all the Golden Rulers hung out, and why they didn’t band together to turn against the Broken Rulers and keep them from slandering good people and running us off? We Golden Rulers should organize ourselves and others to turn against the Broken Rulers, but I never observed this happening. The Broken Rulers’ real strength lies in the Golden Rulers’ failure to band together and fight against them.
In 2008, the year I died, I’d believed Broken Rulers outnumbered Golden Rulers. Much later I learned that at the beginning of 2009 the pendulum had indeed begun to swing the other way. The Broken Rulers were being outed from their secret deviances by their own actions and by the attention of the Golden Rulers. The weight of their collective numbers and their abusive ways pulled them into public scrutiny, and once again the Golden Rulers would become dominant. Of course, eventually, the pendulum could swing back again, if the vigilance ceased.
Such are the opinions of a murdered woman, but you’ll have to wait just a little longer for that part of the story.
I woke up feeling my last day at Freda’s was most likely today. I very much didn’t prefer the attitudes which seemed to prevail there, and even though I’d met a few people I did like, and would have enjoyed as friends, they too had complained regarding the same things I had, and those problems weren’t being corrected. One switched departments because the gal working with her had been mean to her. Another thought about quitting to take care of her dad, and several had already quit because of the nastiness.
I contemplated writing another note to Calvin but I didn’t want to spend my valuable time outside of work dealing with the job. Calvin failed to understand the dynamic, or couldn’t care less, or lacked the ability to staff his store with the kind of people who worked well together. The customers and the good workers knew it, and both suffered from the inadequate staffing. The ignorant and the meanies remained in control. Freda should be training Calvin, not me, if indeed he could even be trained. Apparently Freda had gone vacationing in Barbados, or more likely, Corporate just couldn’t comprehend what the hell was going on. If they knew, they didn’t care, or maybe were unable to figure out what to do. I’d lost respect for Freda’s.
For example, one day I had a problem with one of the guys working in Tools. A couple of shoppers became tired of waiting and asked me to help them. I told them I didn’t know anything about the power nail gun they wanted to discuss, but I would find someone who did. Two isles down stood an employee in his yellow Freda’s vest, holding a clipboard, doing inventory or such, completely ignoring them. While returning some tools to the Hardware desk, I passed him and mentioned the customers. He smiled at me and nodded. I returned the items, and as I walked back to my register, I saw he hadn’t moved. I thought maybe he hadn’t heard me. Had I spoken too softly? So I stopped and smiled and again mentioned the shoppers who wanted some information about a nail gun. I pointed to them and they grinned at me. He nodded and said, “Okay,” and I went back to the register.
The customers watched the employee with his clipboard, two short isles away, ignore them. They looked at me. I shrugged. They looked at him. He ignored them. They looked at me again. I made a sympathetic face. This went on for twenty minutes. I’d say they were fairly patient. I swept the floors. When they left they said to me, “I guess if you don’t want to help us we’re going to Jerry’s Hardware across the street.”
Jerry was Freda’s arch enemy. A rumor informed us that Jerry and Freda had once been married and now only screwed each other by competing in business. Jerry’s always went up across the street from Freda’s. I wasn’t sure whether a Jerry or a Freda actually existed.
I said, “Okay, have a nice evening.”
I couldn’t tell if the employee with the clipboard snubbed me because of all the apparent slanderous backstabbing going on, just didn’t give a shit about the customers, or cared less about doing his job properly. This was par for the course at Freda’s, though, and I had a choice to make: continue working with these horrible people, for this ridiculous company, or walk away from my meager paycheck.
I made the decision the next day. I woke up experiencing no tolerance for bullshit of any kind because I was finally full to the brim. I hoped there wouldn’t be any. Of course, I was disappointed.
I got stuck on fourteen, the Customer Service register (aargh!). I wasn’t fully trained in the position because as I mentioned, the Head Cashiers had abdicated their responsibilities. “Call me if you need me” just doesn’t count as training. Obviously I was too stupid to figure it out for myself; therefore I was too stupid to work at Freda’s.
Three customers came up, one after another. All had different problems, none of which I’d been trained to handle. Each time, I asked someone to step in and take over. They did. I wondered, what the hell am I doing here? I didn’t understand how to do the things I was supposed to do, and no one was willing to teach me. So of course I experienced instantaneous fury when Elva stepped up with a customer and told me to do a bunch of stuff I wasn’t trained to do. When I said in frustration, “I don’t know how to do this, this is ridiculous,” instead of saying, “Here, let me show you,” Elva sneered with a nasty expression on her face, “Oh my, aren’t we having a bad day. Why don’t we try to get a grip on ourselves?”
I turned to Sally, cashiering on Register Thirteen, and told her, “Get me off this machine.” I’d had enough.
She said, “Find Andy.”
I scanned the area and shrugged at Sally. Andy was nowhere in sight, as usual.
Of course Calvin and Pat stood behind us, observing.
Sally finished up and closed down Register Thirteen. She came over and I said, “I’m this close, Sally,” pinching my fingers together in front of her face.
“Finish with this customer,” she said, which I did, and then I walked away toward the break room.
Calvin somehow ended up near the door to the employee area. I thought, now is not the time, but like a fool, I asked, “Can I talk to you?”
“Sure,” he replied. He didn’t walk to his office as I’d expected though; he stood there staring at me.
I started to blow all my frustration in his face and he stopped me by admonishing, “I don’t use that language with you, do I? I expect you to give me the same respect.”
Granted, I shouldn’t have used those words, but he should have been able to overlook the language and frustration and listen to me. I could have told him all the problems and the solutions and made him a better manager. I would have cut him slack had I been in his position and he the frustrated employee. In fact I had done just this when I’d worked as the supervisor at a distribution facility. But Calvin, too ignorant and inexperienced to handle the situation, didn’t get the goods from me. It also occurred to me he might have gotten caught up in the backstabbing and had used the opportunity to kick me when I was down, as Elva had. Like vultures, they’d waited for it. Suddenly I fully realized I was in the company of ignorant, mean buffoons who had all the power and were having loads of fun at my expense. Calvin was the head buffoon. No wonder those attitudes had been allowed to thrive and grow. I turned and walked into the break room.
Lorne stood near the door looking at the schedules.
“I’m sorry Lorne. I just quit. I tried to talk to Calvin, but he was too busy pissing on me about my language to listen.”
I opened the locker, took off the vest, cleaned out the pockets and gathered my things. I slowed my breathing, and, although I was sad I’d lost another job, I was thrilled that the nightmare had ended. I thought so, anyway.
Sally came in, walked over to me and said, “You’re not being picked on, Carol,” confirming all my suspicions.
Calmly, I replied.
“I don’t think I’m being picked on, Sally. I think I’m being stuck on fourteen without being fully trained, I don’t know what I’m doing and everyone else has to step in for me. I think I’m being stuck out in Building Materials with no other staff and nobody answers the code thirties. I’m sorry, Sally,” I said as I patted her shoulder, “I like you, but this isn’t working out.”
Stupid me. Polite to the end.
I said, “Sorry” to Lorne as I walked out the door and he replied, “I am too, but I understand completely.”
I went out of the break room as Deena headed in. She had a huge grin on her face. I knew, for absolute certain, and had no doubt whatsoever she’d been the ring leader. She hadn’t talked to me or looked at me for two weeks, not since Lara had left her job, not even when I’d tried to talk to her.
Though I knew better and I told myself not to do it, I flipped Calvin off on the way out the exit door. He seemed surprised.
“Oh, that’s nice,” he said. “Thanks a lot. Have a nice day.”
Had they really expected me to just bend over and take it without complaint? Apparently they had. Could they really not see how their petty behavior had caused yet another self-respecting employee to walk out the door, never to return? No, they could not.
As soon as I got to my house I called in a complaint to the corporate 800 number and told them every dirty detail.
“What do you think about the new one?” Elva asked as Deena drove her home from work on Wheeler Mountain Road.
Deena glanced sideways at Elva.
“Sherry says she screwed up her drawer again,” Elva said.
“Have you listened to her talking to customers?” Deena asked.
“Oh yeah. She’s so damn pleasant. Hey, look up ahead, the blue truck. Isn’t that Carol?” Elva leaned forward in the ratty seat of Deena’s red and silver 4x4 half ton pickup.
“Is it?” Deena glared into the rearview. There were no cars behind or ahead. Deena said shrewdly, “She complained to corporate. That’s why the bosses came down to sort us out.”
“Did she? Was that her?”
“Who else? She’s the college girl, the corporate snitch.”
“Oh, fuck her. Speed up,” Elva hissed.
Deena eased the faded and scratched red and silver truck closer the smaller SUV. Elva kept an eye behind and in front of them on the long rural road. Wheeler Mountain Road was the back road from the 1060 to the 460. The roads made a triangle, the 460 making up the small side. Not many people knew about this back way except the locals. Most took the 1060 to the 460, clogging that main artery and leaving Wheeler Mountain Road pretty much empty.
Deena drove up behind the blue SUV. “Is it her?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s her,” Elva replied. Her eyes opened wide and shone wickedly.
I recognized Deena’s ugly truck. Elva’s grin seemed sinister through the windshield. Deena had that familiar hateful expression on her face. Curious how purely their faces reflected the hate and glee they felt inside when they attacked someone. I remembered those expressions and intimately realized I was alone on this remote rural road with them and their hatred and willingness to hurt me.
Deena slowed and rode my bumper closely.
“She’s checking the rearview. Doesn’t she look scared?” Elva laughed.
“Let’s give her something to be scared of.” Deena let her truck fall back.
“What are you gonna do?” Elva nearly yelled. She turned around, looking for cars behind them.
“I’m gonna push her off the bridge,” Deena said.
“No way! The cops’ll figure it out. The truck’s paint’ll be on her car.”
“So? We’ll report it. It’ll be an accident. The shelter’s right back there. We’ll tell them a big dog ran across the street and we swerved while we passed and hit her car.”
“The shelter knows how many dogs they have. They’ll know if they’re missing one.”
“People drop animals in this area all the time. We’ll say it was a big mixed dog, a Border collie mix. Lots of them around here. And it’s two against one, right?”
‘I’m in. There’s no one else on the road. Here comes the bridge.”
“Good. Watch this.”
Deena pressed on the accelerator, sped up behind my truck, and swung out into the empty oncoming lane. She pulled beside me and wrenched her steering wheel to the right just before I reached the narrow bridge. Our vehicles met with an obscene crunch, then separated. The bitch was trying to kill me!
“Look at her face, she’s freaking out!” Elva yelled over the shriek of metal on metal.
I made it onto the narrow expanse, barely missing the beginning of the guardrail as Deena again yanked the big truck into mine again. My smaller vehicle smashed into the right-hand railing and screeched along for what seemed like hours, but was only seconds, and then the rail ended. The nose of my truck slammed into the hillside, and it crashed to a stop for an instant as its front end crumpled. I smashed into the steering wheel, knocking the breath out of my chest. Pain blossomed. I fell, rolling and crashing down into the creek bed, fifty feet below.
Elva, yelling excitedly, stretched out the window and looked backward to delight in the crash, so she didn’t realize Deena had lost control of her vehicle. As the blue SUV crashed into the hill, Deena’s truck rolled on.
For a moment Deena still pulled her steering wheel to the right, and then she had to pull to the left so as not to follow Carol grill first into the hillside. Deena’s gut burned, her adrenaline flowed, and she severely overcorrected. Her vehicle began to roll. Elva briefly saw the pavement coming up before it crushed her against the door frame. The four-by-four rolled onto its roof and skidded diagonally across the road toward the left side. Deena’s head snapped around inside the cab, stunning her, but she clung to the steering wheel with all her strength. The upside-down truck hit the end of the guard rail on the other side of the road, spun, and fell off the edge of the asphalt. During its plummet down the hillside, a tree stump protruded into the driver’s window and struck Deena in the head. Her neck broke at the exact moment Carol’s snapped when her truck crashed into the rocky creek bed below. They died simultaneously.
I sucked in a deep, long, spasmodic breath and opened my eyes. A bizarre vision appeared before me. Strange creatures stood in the area around me. They all glared at me. So I looked at me too, and I was no longer human! Somehow I had become something entirely different! I stared back at them.
The moment was like a photograph of a group of folks after they’d all turned to face the same thing and froze in place - except these creatures didn’t resemble people. Noise and movement exploded. They rushed toward me, scaring me. They seemed sinister and insectoid until I realized they were checking the tubes coming out of my mouth, and elsewhere.
The face of one of the monsters appeared close to mine. A female. How I knew the thing was female I don’t know. No language as I understood it was spoken, but noise clicked out of – what, mandibles? A jerking type of dance was going on, too.
I comprehended the meaning of this monster’s clicking and dancing even though I’d never learned enough to be able to interpret any language other than English. Nevertheless, comprehension came to me as I examined the insectoid face. I glanced down at myself again with HORROR - I was one of them!
How had this happened? I had a green, hard, chitin shell (not skin) and long pointed limbs, some of which had been glued together at the breaks.
At the breaks! I was a broken bug! Then the pain screamed loud enough to get my undivided attention until the tunnel closed in and I passed out.
Sometime later I regained consciousness in a room resembling a large cell in a beehive or a paper wasp nest. Occasionally, the creatures poked and prodded me. Their long pointy feet examined the glued breaks. For the most part, they used their front pairs of limbs. They could, in an emergency, as I’d noticed before I’d blacked out, also use their second two legs while balancing on the third set and abdomen.
Taking stock of myself, I remembered my former life in the White Mountains of Northeastern Arizona, USA, Earth, yet here I lay. My hard, green-blue skin had a sheen similar to an oil slick. Six limbs, long and pointed like the others’, were articulated three times. The feet were also jointed, four segments in a row, and then split into two small, hard knobs - toes of a sort. I had no idea how this body compared in size to humans, but I wasn’t a normal Earth-type insect. For one thing, my thinking hadn’t changed from my old human self.
I understood the breaks in my exoskeleton meant my gooey inner juices would leak out and I’d dehydrate and die. A simple break in skin couldn’t be so dangerous, or fatal, as this. This reality differed greatly. I’d have to keep these new limitations in the forefront of my mind.
I moved a little, but this body was ungainly. I forced myself to relax. I tried to understand my position in this world. I spent some time trying to remember the bug’s life. I failed. I could access muscle memory though. I’d be able to perambulate, although at the moment, not so much.
Who this creature had been or what the thing had done in this reality I couldn’t recall. Did bugs have jobs? They must, at least primitive duties such as insects had on Earth; food collection, housekeepers, drones, queens, soldiers. There existed a sort of health care here, manufacturing, too. Earth bugs didn’t have technology, so I couldn’t be on Earth.
I fed from a tube which went into my mandibles and down my throat. More tubing snaked up my cloaca; I remembered that word from college. This one took waste away quite visibly. How nasty. I thought I experienced a brief bout of stomach sickness, but realized this was a mere human sensual memory. This body did not feel nausea.
It was all very confusing.
A bug entered. She peered into my eyes, pulled on both of the tubes, and pushed them back in almost to the hilt, checking their placement, I guessed. How inhuman. The bugs had no concern for privacy, embarrassment, or pain. She stood next to me, moving her mandibles and jerking about a bit, and I understood her meaning as this:
How are you?
I’m fine, I hope, I replied by jerking and clicking. The body remembered. For all I knew I could have said something quite nasty. I interpreted everything in my mind as English.
I think she laughed. She danced for a while and clicked her hard mouthparts. I translated the movements as, You’ve been broken. You understand the seriousness of this. We’ve glued you back together, filled you with food and water, and your body should fill the voids. Fortunately, the parts that have cracked are the legs and antennae, not the thorax, abdomen, or head. You seem to be surviving, so far. These breaks could be fragile in the future, or even go the other way and be stronger than the exoskeleton is. We won’t be certain until you become active again.
I thought, okay, and my mandibles moved and clicking noises came out. She seemed satisfied. She spent more time checking the glued seams on my antennae and two legs and left after dancing, Rest. Do not walk.
Okay, I heard in my mind a moment before my mouth moved.
Walking would be a challenge. I became thankful I’d been damaged so when I did get to my feet any awkwardness might be seen as a result of the inactivity and injuries; I couldn’t figure out how to control the legs. I still wondered about my role in this society. I’d no idea who this creature had been before I’d taken up residence.
This new body was something else. I practiced moving my four undamaged limbs and one antenna, but I didn’t get up. I stayed in the six sided cell and wasn’t able to investigate too thoroughly what materials made up the walls. The creatures came and went; some spoke to me, brought me food, checked the tubes and the glued seams, or removed waste. I liked the place about as much as I’d enjoyed hospitals on Earth, which was to say not a lot. I’d experienced plenty of damage in forty some human years. That body had started a swift decline after the bad car accident and subsequent spinal surgery. Without total regret I found myself experiencing this new, albeit strange one, which had damage, but was so young! Youth has many advantages. The constant aches of the injuries to my human body were gone. The breaks in this one didn’t cause much pain. Would they stay glued, I wondered? What if they broke again under excessive or even normal use? I hoped my job wouldn’t be too stressful. When one of their own literally couldn’t keep a leg or two together and do its job, what did the bugs do? Was this the kind of society that took care of the unfit, or the type which heaved the cripples out of the collective and left them to the elements and predators? Would I be killed outright if I were unable to perform my duties?
Who knew? Not I. I couldn’t ask, because I should have already known. This became a gnawing dilemma.
A sort of physical therapy started soon after they pulled the tubes out, which consisted of walking. This area of the hive housed recuperating bugs, boding well for my future. If they cared for the infirm, perhaps they wouldn’t kill me if I functioned improperly. On the other hand, these patients apparently all expected to recover.
At first they strapped me into a sling which hung from a ceiling railing. Two bugs helped me amble forward and backward, the length of the rail. They danced and jerked, making comments like, Have you forgotten how to walk? Did you take a blow to the head? You’re so clumsy, this is worse than training a new pupate.
I struggled to control those six limbs and the ungainly abdomen quickly. I knew I couldn’t spend too much time learning to walk. I’d understood limb breaks weren’t so serious if they didn’t kill you by allowing your fluids to drain out. They expected me to get myself together and on the job quickly. It was quite a challenge; I succeeded out of desperation. The body’s memory saved me.
I learned “family” wasn’t a concept among bugs as it was with humans. The entire hive served as a collective. Everyone had a job and duties to perform, for the good of the whole. All were familiar, but bloodlines didn’t exist. No family names spoken. There were no Smiths or Joneses. Bugs didn’t bear and raise their own offspring. Queens had the children - laid eggs, rather. Nursery Workers cared for the soft, vulnerable larvae in their cells, and Nursery Guards protected them. Food Gatherers aplenty collected, converted, and stored food. Carpenters built and repaired the hive. Drones serviced the Queen. Cleaners cleaned and Guards defended the colony from predators and fools. These bugs spent the majority of their time and resources doing this. As I practiced walking, I listened and observed and picked up on all these facts and more.
I learned I’d been a Hive Guard, a good one, and was well respected. I’d damaged myself defending the hive from a, well, in my head the noise sounded like kookool. I hoped I’d never meet one of these things, because the last one had broken this body up pretty good.
All of the bugs had wings, except the larvae and me. One of mine had been torn off in the accident and the other damaged. A Nurse had chewed the second wing off, I heard from my therapists.
Bug life followed a thoughtless, dull, repetitive routine. Not a lot of creativity involved, in fact, none at all. My days consisted of constant work, but nothing like human muscle burn and fatigue bothered me. The exoskeleton took most of the stress and didn’t seem to have nerves. The inner workings were mostly painless. My circulatory and respiratory systems functioned magnificently. Consequently, we bugs worked every minute of the day as the sun shone. When the skies were overcast, our physical busyness warmed our bodies as long as the air didn’t get too cold. They all wagged their wings to warm themselves. Here I discovered a disadvantage; I really slowed down when the clouds rolled in because of my lack of them. As sunset approached, we flew or walked into the hive for the night.
The bugs didn’t sleep; they became cold and kind of stopped. Foragers finding themselves far from home when it became cool enough to limit or stop their movement just grabbed the nearest branch and waited out the darkness or clouds until the sunlight warmed them up enough to get moving again. Otherwise, when the sun went down and the air cooled off, everyone piled into the hive to wait for the heat of the next day.
After the hospital released me, I returned to my duties, which consisted of standing on a tree limb in front of the hive and jiggling all day. I picked a fine spot in a beam of sunlight and the body did the work. The brain and body remembered the movements and I wiggled and jerked to the tune of everything’s all right, the coast is clear, and no danger in sight. My bug brain simply didn’t have any thoughts; it was programmed to do the dances, to eat and drink, and to stay vigilant for predators. That was it. Why I now resided in this body was unknown to me. I thought about my consciousness, my personality, my soul if you prefer, and how it must take up no space whatsoever, since this bug was a fully formed individual. Unless, of course, this bug’s life essence, spirit, or conscience had existed and departed, leaving the vacancy to me. This seemed likely, for although these insects were programmed for mindless repetition, after a while I perceived they did have identities of a sort. Reality constrained these personalities, of course. Bugs couldn’t travel to foreign countries or go to universities. Their education was imitative. They didn’t seem to form cliques or friendships; they were too busy serving the collective.
Day after day I stood and I danced. I observed the other guards, all spaced out around the hive. The dances seemed much the same, with slight variations. This was not the New York City Ballet.
The plant life didn’t appear to be the same as the plant life on Earth. It was alien. The flora might appear huge and therefore unfamiliar to me if I were small, as to bugs on Earth, so I could perhaps still be on the planet. But the colors and the shapes differed from what I remembered.
Something exciting finally happened to liven up the repetition of my endless days of guard duty. A koolkool hunted the nest.
The threat revealed itself as I looked in the opposite direction. I wasn’t aware of it at first. It slunk up through the ground cover and got fairly close before a guard drummed his feet on the branch and began to dance, sending out the alarm.
Things changed fast then. The guard that spotted the koolkool switched to an infectious and agitated Warning! Danger! dance which spread like a virus through all of us. I did the Warning! Danger! dance too, while the inhabitants of the entire hive went on Red Alert. The agitation became palpable. The food gatherers took flight and I danced over to stand above the koolkool to show the others where the thing lurked. The guards lifted into the air too, but all I could do was stay on the branch and dance my legs off.
The threat was a lizard. I’d never seen this kind before, but I don’t really know lizards. The creature seemed incredibly huge compared to me, and if I hadn’t been caught up in my duty of warning the hive I would have run away.
The foragers, soldiers and guards all bombarded the reptile. They flew at great speed, attacking its tail and dive bombing its back. The koolkool spun and snapped and ate quite a few of the defenders. It made a meal out of them, and took its sweet time doing so, too.
The bugs never faltered. They tried to scare the thing away, but it didn’t frighten. It had a leisurely supper and then left! My coworkers did their duty mindlessly, and many lost their lives. I, with no wings, simply danced on my limb above the beast, witnessing the fruitless warfare.
After the lizard moved away the agitation subsided, although we remaining guards continued active patrolling. We paced our areas, covering the whole circumference of the nest doing a sort of yellow alert dance. Slowly, everything settled again, and one by one we went back to our no danger in sight jig.
It was one hell of a rush!
I thought I should feel sad about those who died in the fight for the hive, but I didn’t experience sadness. In the following days, as in those before, new pupates emerged as winged adults and took the places of the ones eaten by the koolkool. Bug life continued the same as before.
Somehow, someway, I got the sneaking suspicion some of the others didn’t appreciate that I’d not risked and perhaps lost my life in the defense of our home as everyone else had done.
The koolkool came back for another easy meal. Apparently this was a routine happening. Before I became aware of the lizard, I realized two of the guards had left their positions and stood close to me. I experienced a sudden moment of clarity, and a flash of Deena’s and Elva’s faces appeared in my mind’s eye. I was dimly aware of the koolkool creeping directly beneath me. Suddenly, two hard feet stamped into my thorax and shoved me off the limb. As I fell, I caught a glimpse of the pair of guards who’d kicked me putting their limbs on the branch and beginning the Warning! Danger! dance. I could swear they grinned when I landed in the lizard’s snapping jaws, exactly as Deena and Elva had on a lonely country road.
Again I slowly came to. The pain overwhelmed me. I hadn’t opened my eyes yet, but I inhaled the cool mulch of soil and decaying leaf litter, and a heavy, sour odor mixed with a fecal and urine chaser.
Consciousness fled and returned, bringing enormous pain. I briefly contemplated the variation in different species’ concepts of agony while I blacked out.
I woke up again. This time I smelled a pleasant, clean dust... and blood. A slight breeze cooled my nose and dried my gums and tongue. The wind relieved some of the foul odors. A bit of sunlight warmed me. I opened my eyes, but I couldn’t see. A single star’s light, bright and low in the sky, glared into them.
Physically and psychologically, bringing these dead bodies back to life was hard work. I wondered whether the souls I was replacing went on a similar bizarre journey to mine.
My hide warmed in the star’s radiation. Without moving, I assessed my latest situation. The bright orb had risen higher. A huge mound of longish brown hair stunk nearby. Large tawny paws, like those of a cat’s, with faint stripes and claws stretched in front of me. Scents filled my palate. Slowly I closed my mouth and moved my dry tongue, which stuck and scraped. I couldn’t understand the shape of this new mouth.
Carefully I turned my head. The resulting throbbing pain made me nauseous. I breathed through my mouth to try to keep my gut from clenching over the foul odor of the vomit. The effort it took to retch increased my awareness of all my wounds, including the mortal one. My heart pumped furiously to replace lost blood and I fainted again.
The sun continued to abuse my eyes when I next awoke. Vulture-like creatures tore at the dark-haired hide beside me. I didn’t feel it; they weren’t feeding on me. Slowly I rolled and realized my mistake because one of the scavengers hopped lazily off of my dusky body, a strip of meat dangling from its hard, toothed mouth.
Christ! They were eating me alive! This time I jerked up onto my four paws in one motion and stood, swaying and retching. All the carrion eaters moved away, but not far away, eyeballing me.
The thudding waves of pain and nausea defeated me for awhile, and then the searing hot agony of open wounds brought me around.
This was bad. I needed to get far away from the dead beast and the scavengers.
I stood in a little meadow, complete with a pooling creek and surrounded by forest.
I stumbled to the stream, experiencing agony with every twitch of muscle. My whole body was like a giant bruise. I collapsed at the shore of the pool. My head fell into the muck. The water cooled my dry, chapped tongue and tickled my whiskers which transferred an annoying tingle to my upper lip. I contemplated this as I passed out again.
I came to snorting and coughing, my face sunk into the mud. Water had crept up one nostril.
Steeling myself, I rolled onto my chest and abdomen. That stretched my right flank which flared in anger. I smelled fresh blood.
I looked back toward the hairy mound. All the scavengers feasted on the carcass, perhaps ignoring me for the meal that didn’t lurch into action - unreasonable, from their perspective.
Huge tawny paws stretched ahead of me into the pool. Small waves lapped against them, pushed by a breeze. I stuck my face into the liquid and sputtered. I used my whiskers to help me judge the distance to the surface, and my tongue came out, into the cool liquid. I lapped it up, curling my tongue under and depositing the water into my lower jaw. I gulped. The crisp coolness soothed my parched tissues. After several more deposits I swallowed again.
My throat was hellaciously sore. I stretched my neck. Tendons and cartilage snapped and crunched. I breathed easier. Swallowing was becoming simpler, but still painful. Was the mortal wound a crushed throat? Who knew? Not I.
I drank and moved and rested. What was I now, a reviver of corpses? What fresh hell was this? What had I done to deserve this torture? I couldn’t remember.
My reflection in the surface of the pool revealed a feral face, an animal image with a cat-like beauty. The battered visage had two shallow claw marks bleeding from above the left eye diagonal to the right of the nose. The eyes weren’t damaged. Deep fang wounds exposed the meat on each side of my neck. Flaps of skin and hair hung. Blood had drained out, soaked my fur, and dried. What had made the fluid stop draining out to allow the heart to refill the veins? Had this creature bled out and died, and had I stepped in, restarting the pump? How had I come to be in this victim? My shoulders and flanks, also mauled, gaped flesh and fur. I couldn’t imagine I’d be long in this weakened container.
This animal’s ability to ignore pain and keep moving was superior, because agony filled the body and my mind. Move it did, though, past the carcass with its abdomen torn to shreds. Claw wounds on its rib cage and the back of its shoulders showed my violent potential. The animal I now inhabited had ripped its enemy’s guts out and shredded them with its hind claws. The scavengers feasted on entrails and organ meat.
I stumbled along trying to wipe off the blood and offal on my toes and claws into the meadow grass and soil.
My skin grew cold when I entered the deep shadows, so I returned to the sunshiny-bright clearing.
I looked back at where I’d exited. About ten yards in, the woods became dense and dark. Why I wanted to go that way I couldn’t guess, but I did.
I reentered the woods and reacquired that chill. The cold seemed to make my wounds hurt more. They bled as I moved, but this didn’t stop me, and I continued. The darkness smelled dank and moldy. My padded, clawed feet disturbed the rotting leaf litter. Fungi pushed through the soil everywhere, and where the sunlight managed to filter down to the soil, flowers grew. A beautiful variety made the walk pleasant, and my feral brain filtered out the pain as if it was a noise I was getting used to. My heart beat very hard, making me pant. Drops of saliva dripped off my lips. I could barely stand to waste a drop, though, because I was still so thirsty. I snapped my jaws shut. My tongue traced the inside of my carnivorous teeth. Canines. Sharp molars.
The forest began to thin out as I stepped out onto some large rocks. A small river fell gradually over them, down to a wide meadow which opened up onto a crescent shaped plain surrounded by trees on each side. The view was beautiful.
I climbed down the boulders. My four limbs protested but obeyed. The wounds began to scream again as I stretched them to their limits over the rocky terrain. Damaged muscles faltered.
When I reached the end of the fall of rocks, the meadow opened up before me, ever widening. The land here was flat and the river slowed, split, and divided more, turning into five streams which meandered in sparkling ribbons through the green carpeted silt.
Far off I spied a small herd of something. My predator instincts heightened. A rustling to the right caught my attention and out of the trees walked a group - of people!
They weren’t humans, exactly, but sort of shaped like us, bipedal and symmetrical, with two arms and a head, grasping digits and two legs, two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth. Short and somewhat broader than a human would be, they were sort of flattened from front to back. They appeared to be starving, the poor beasts. Like rabbits, they poised to run, yet they came to me, clumped in a pack.
The four males and five females were all naked and their cinnamon colored skin was filthy. Two carried bundles of rolled skins. A swarm of insects, some cross between gnats and houseflies in behavior, hovered above their dark hair. The flying bugs dipped and landed on festering sores and weeping eyes.
Still they advanced, timidly, pressed together. They looked anxious, but didn’t seem worried that I would attack them. I didn’t feel that strong, feral, hungered urge I’d experienced when I’d seen the herd of grazers at the far end of the valley.
They appeared concerned about me. As they advanced, I cringed at the thought of them touching me with their filthy hands and infecting me from their draining wounds.
I had the sudden urge to rear up, and so I did, but the creatures didn’t scuttle back or cling together more.
Then something amazing happened. I lost focus and floated briefly. The sensation was similar to the floating weightlessness I used to enjoy when I went scuba diving on Earth. Everything got a little fuzzy around the edges, and when my vision snapped back into clarity, I towered above my short, dirty companions. I was standing.
Casually, I glanced down. My rounded chest and flat white belly now had no fur, but skin. I stood on human-like feet. I had hands, real hands, complete with opposable thumbs. I still had retractable claws, the tips of which protruded from human-like fingers and toes. Fantastic!
The wind kissed my defurred skin and a sudden weight pulled on my head as all the remaining fur transformed into a long cascade of tawny hair. My arms and legs were fawn colored with darker, tiger-type stripes. Wow! I was a beauty!
Again, the dirty creatures advanced.
My wounds had healed somewhat when I’d transformed, but were more painful in this form. I wondered if it was possible to pick up infection from the little people through the breeze alone.
They stank. They all needed a bath. The sun shone hot on my hairless skin. One biggish male led the group, slightly forward but pulling them along. They did what he did. Not exactly old, he was worn, scarred, and bent. His amber eyes leaked a perpetual slew of tears and puss. As they came nearer my nose was assaulted by an even gamier odor than their sweating bodies. Two of them carried babies wrapped in the rotting skins. I peered closer. One of the infants appeared tan and robust under the layers of dirt coating it. The other, thin and pale, didn’t move as much, and leaked the same teary puss from its eyes. As I looked, it coughed.
These poor creatures! Not only were they starving, but suffering from preventable diseases.
I could help them. Maybe I would live long enough to teach them hygiene and fire starting, hunting, agriculture, and my meager construction skills.
I began to slowly walk away, up the valley toward the area under the rumbling falls where they pooled. They followed as if afraid to be left behind. I stood with my now furless feet in the frigid water. The sun streamed through the tall tree tops and warmed the rocks and the ground at the spot I’d chosen. I stepped further in, up to my knees. My toes stung from the bruising of the fight when my predecessor had kicked the beast’s guts to pieces.
The battered male stared hard. He led the small group to the edge of the pool. I retreated again until the cold water was waist high. I nearly screamed and fainted. The pain of it surging into the wounds on my thighs and hips threatened to drop me like a stone. I locked my knees and gritted my teeth until my body numbed and the darkness passed. Again I stared at the gnarled one. He eyeballed me and stepped into the liquid. The rest balked. One of the females wailed. The man turned his head to look at her, and then at me, and took another small step. A long while crawled by, but finally I had him with me in water up to his waist. He walked about, trailing his fingers and smiling. I washed and he imitated me, cupping the water in his hands and splashing it onto his filthy chest and arms.
I reached down and splashed my faced and he did the same. The people on the banks had slowly crept in, some more than others, and learned the new bathing ritual. I walked among them, teaching them to wash each other’s backs. I took the babies, one at a time, throwing the rotting skins onto the bank. I cleaned them thoroughly, and placed them to dry on the sun heated boulders which I’d splashed first to cool a bit. Their mothers waded over to be near them, sat on the rocks and washed themselves. I taught them to squat down in the water, tip their heads back and run their fingers through their matted hair as best they could to scrub the dirt off their scalps. Then we all climbed out, thoroughly chilled, and steamed ourselves dry in sunny spots.
Unfortunately, the heat made the lacerations in my hide ache as much as the cold water had numbed them. I’d imagined, while we’d bathed, their filth and infections entering my wounds. Then I thought, so what? I didn’t know how long I would be in this incarnation. I might be attacked by another of those brown creatures tomorrow. I could wake up in different body at any time. I stayed upstream for the most part.
Here and now, I would make these people healthier, feed them and give them work to do. There was no other choice. I wouldn’t walk away.
As we dried I watched the pool clear. All the nastiness dropped to the bottom or floated downstream. The mothers picked up the rotting skins and tried to wrap their babies in them again. I gently pulled the pelts from their hands, shaking my head and saying, “No.” They resisted and worried, but let me have my way. I picked up one baby and gave him to his mother, and did the same with the other, pushing the infants close to them and folding their arms around to support their heads. I wanted them to cradle the babies close to their breasts for warmth. That would have to do for now.
I’d had many cats and dogs as a human, and I was a decent trainer of things which did not have language. I’d broken up fights, distracted them from destructive behaviors, and they’d learned phrases, like, “No”, “Good”, ”Bad”, “Come”, “Stay”, “Outside”, “Get ‘em”, and “Snackies!”. I was certain I could train these helpless creatures as well.
A gnawing hunger growled in the pit of my stomach. I took the decaying skins with me and walked into the woods, turning back at the peoples’ distressful noises to say “stay”, holding my hands up, palms toward them. The further away I went, the closer they huddled together. They backed into the cold forest watching me. At least they were dry; I’d made sure of that. As they disappeared into the dark shade I turned and threw the skins away. With a weightless, fuzzy feeling, I assumed the form of the cat-like hunter again.
The pain lessened immediately, becoming more like background noise. My eyesight sharpened in the stark world. Silhouette and movement became paramount. My ears perceived sounds far and near that I hadn’t heard in my bipedal form. The breeze caressed my whiskers, which annoyed my lips.
The damaged muscles didn’t move freely, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to run down one of the herd beasts. I followed my paws to a little clearing where the grass grew thicker. Several of the small furred creatures that had lost their skins to my new friends were feeding there. I settled down on my belly in some cover at the edge of the tiny meadow and I waited. Sure enough, several of the little beasts frittered near. They seemed to be performing a kind of courtship. I cut short their lust when I pinned them each under my giant paws. One spine snapped but the undamaged creature squirmed. I picked my paw up off the broken one and bit into the back of the struggling one. I must have punctured an artery because blood flooded my mouth. My will was strained as I fought not to crunch the damn thing up and swallow it whole. I opened the bellies with my awesome claws and ate the organs and intestines, but not the meat.
No, they weren’t for me. Quickly I changed into the bipedal creature, the other me. I wiped the blood and fur from my face and picked up the two warm, limp bodies.
I imagined my new friends would happily eat the flesh raw, but I thought up a better idea. I collected dry wood while walking back toward the pool. Feeling slightly less ravenous than before, I moved somewhat easier and experienced less pain.
I stopped and skinned the little beasts with my ever present claws before I reached the clearing. I’d raised rabbits as a kid on Earth and had watched my dad dress them out. I hung the skins on low branches for the time being, and collected two slender, longish sticks. When I came out of the forest beside the river, some of my friends had ventured out into the valley and were digging in the wet silt. A few of the others had left. The babies lay in the tall grass in the sun, barely visible.
They hadn’t seen me yet. I searched the ground for small branches to rub together to start a fire. I’d never been a scout and hadn’t ever made campfire with sticks, but I understood the concept. I collected some brittle, dry grass from last season, and then I found something even better than rubbing sticks. Flint!
Growing up on the coast in California my ex-Navy dad had shown me this sedimentary stone in the hill behind our yard. I’d loved the way I could chip patterns in the stone, the smooth glassiness of the rock, and the sharp edges. He’d knocked two pieces together in a sideways motion that I now remembered and they had made sparks.
I cleaned an area of grass, surrounded the space with stones, and collected more kindling and wood. As I struck the pieces of flint together over the bundle of straw, the women noticed me. They came closer and spied my prey, but I didn’t let them have it. Somehow, between standing over the meat and pushing them away - they were starving - and striking my flints together, I made fire.
The women backed away, one gnawing on the raw hind leg she’d torn from one of the beasties I’d killed. I carefully nurtured the little flame, adding twigs and more grass, small chunks of wood, larger sticks, and thin branches. I tended the tiny fire until it was hot, and then let it slowly recede to red and yellow coals as the sun set and the sky lit up in pastel colors for a brief time. I skewered the meat and put the loaded skewers over the fire, the ends of the sticks on the two large stones I’d found and placed opposite each other. I turned our food as it began to roast.
The males returned. They dropped the things they’d collected and stared in fear. I calmly sat and cooked our supper.
The air had become much cooler and the ceiling of this world darker. Still terrified, the men and women moved closer to the blaze, yet far enough away to run if necessary. They seemed to enjoy the heat. They’d brought the babies and their collections with them. The men carried something like berries in their hands, and in the women’s was a kind of root.
As the evening cooled further they came closer to the fire. The fear never left their eyes, and they flicked glances into mine. I tended the meat. My calmness seemed to reassure them. They squatted down and began to eat the raw roots and berries.
Our dinner cooked through and I moved the beasts from their suspension over the coals to the rocks at the fire’s edge. I allowed them to cool and then removed the sticks that had suspended the carcasses. I divided the meal into roughly ten equal portions with my awesome claws.
I crept over to my friends in a crouch, so as not to scare them. I held a chunk of meat out to the mother of the sick child. She flicked her eyes from mine to my offering and gently took the piece from me. I pointed to her roots and put my hand out, palm up. She picked up the biggest one and gave it to me. The other mother did the same, as did the three other women. The men traded some of their berries to me for their portions.
I sat with my back to the fire and consumed mine. Strangely they’d all waited, watching me. After I took my first bite they tried the meat, which disappeared in a hurry. They then started chewing up the bones and the rest of the roots and berries. They licked their fingers clean.
I examined those tubers. They looked similar to onions, and smelled like raw garlic, which accounted for some of the pungent odors coming from my friends’ bodies. Apparently they’d been trying to live on these vegetables. I tried a small nibble. Its texture was of uncooked potato.
I put my five roots in the coals, and as I waited, I ate the berries.
The mothers nursed their babies while everyone watched. They all seemed to care whether their kids lived or died. The mother of the robust one took the weak baby and rubbed her nipple across his lips until he suckled, too. His own mother’s milk was not enough. Everyone seemed relaxed.
I flattered myself that I’d taught them the concept of sharing, or at least reinforced the idea, and had inadvertently saved the baby from starvation at his mother’s weak breast.
“Good,” I said quietly through the alien mouth. “Good.”
The mother of the sick child moved her lips and grunted. All the other adults tried, too. A chorus of guttural noises interrupted the night. The wild sounds out in the forest ceased briefly, then resumed as my new friends grew quiet again.
The people petted the little ones and passed them around.
I picked the smallest root out of the coals and let it cool on a rock away from the heat.
When I bit into the vegetable I was amazed at the potatoey, oniony, garlicky goodness. I considered sharing, but my hunger wasn’t sated yet, and they had all huddled together and lain down. The men circled the women, who snuggled the babies.
This was my family now.
I woke before dawn, when the air was the coldest, and quietly put several logs onto the warm charcoals. I changed again into my animal self and went into the woods. I had to feed myself and these people until I’d taught them how to hunt.
Chattering noise awakened in the forest. The sky started to glow and individual trees made dark profiles against the light. Stars and moonlike planets twinkled above.
What prey could I catch in my weakened state? I decided to try for the small creatures we’d already eaten and started for the clearing where I’d caught them before. Nothing stirred.
I prowled the perimeter of the little meadow and picked out their thin trails. I found a nest of soft insects in a rotting limb, metamorphosed into my humanoid form, picked them out, and ate them. They tasted woody and foul but I was hungry and I didn’t care. I changed back into the beast and followed a trail to a hole dug in the loamy soil. I lay down behind the burrow, downwind of its mouth, on my belly, with my paws stretched out in front of me. I rested my chin on my long legs and waited.
Through the soil I heard them stirring. I listened to them coming up the tunnel until a little head peek out. The small thing wasn’t a rabbit but behaved much like one. The beastie came out, sniffing and looking around. I waited. The creature departed its home and began to sniff the ground. Its babies followed.
In a split second I had the adult in my mouth, dead. The young squealed and ran back down the burrow. I tore open its belly and gulped down its insides, then spent some time breaking, tearing, grinding and swallowing the body, fur, and bones.
My predator’s mouth savored the flavors, even the little pellets that fell out of the rectum. All. I dug up the burrow and swallowed whole each of the young.
My belly finally full, I felt no remorse or nausea, only satisfaction and relief.
Nearby I found the head of a small spring whose stream dried up a few feet away. I lapped at the water and quenched my thirst, swallowing hair. I sat and had a good cleaning.
I cleaned myself like a cat, washing my face and whiskers, ears, paws, and fur as best I knew how. I left licks of hair standing on end in some areas but I couldn’t clean everything because the lacerations, scabby and tight, prevented me from bending every which way. They itched. They seemed to be healing fast.
I lay in the sun and dozed. As I grew warmer some of the gnat-flies landed on the cuts and fed. I let them, remembering a story about how flies had cleaned out the wounds of civil war soldiers in the fields, and how these men sometimes survived, while those in hospital more often died. The flies ate the dead tissues, preventing disease, but the injured who were doctored and wrapped in bandages suffered horrible gangrene.
My stomach growled and my hide warmed. I determined to hunt for my friends. I crept back toward the clearing, but on the way I heard grunting and twigs snapping. Something was foraging nearby. Larger than the rabbitty things, the hide looked gorgeous. I daydreamed about how good a baby blanket that pelt would make!
With difficulty, I stealthily snuck up to the prey, chased, pounced, and bit into the back of its neck until the spine bones crumpled. I realized the power of my jaws, how the teeth punctured the meat and prevented escape. I was a hunting machine!
The beast kicked its last while I thought of my little cat Chloe. She’d been quite the huntress. She’d brought me mice, lizards, snakes, grasshoppers, crickets, birds, bunnies, and even one of those fancy horned lizards. She loved to devour birds in my office. I’d always praised her despite the mess, because she’d been so proud, and now I fully understood why.
I took my people their supper.
The carcass I carried was the size and shape of a round and compact dog, with short limbs and plenty of muscle.
When I reached the clearing I stood up and became humanoid again. They all gathered around. This time they waited without trying to grab the food from me.
The logs I’d earlier added to the fire glowed as hot coals now.
I found a large piece of flint that fit in my palm, and easily chipped a cutting edge into it with another rock. I showed them how to skin the fine beast from the back legs to the neck, and the right way to cut the guts out. Showing them the gallbladder on the liver, I demonstrated how to remove the small organ without breaking it, which would spoil the meat.
Placing the carcass directly on the coals, I turned it over frequently. I put the organs on heated rocks set in the fire pit. We ate those as appetizers since they cooked faster than the whole beast. My new friends had spent the morning collecting and had their little piles of roots and berries. Eventually, half the tubers went into the cinders. I didn’t know if they would enjoy them cooked. I sure did.
Cautiously the people explored the fire. They threw sticks at it from a safe distance, and chattered excitedly when the flame flared. I showed them how to collect the dry old wood from the forest and make a pile near, but not too close to the flames.
I collected the small skins from the branches where I’d hung them and rubbed them on rocks to soften them. I staked the warm, wet skin to dry, fur side down. The little folk watched everything I did.
That day they’d learned many new lifesaving skills, and they looked a lot cleaner and healthier already. They seemed less frightened too.
After dark we feasted on the beast, roots, and berries. We devoured the whole business. The people had decided they liked the tubers cooked, and had braved the heat to roast the remaining ones. That night we all slept very, very well.
Somehow the ability to morph between the two forms of my being healed and rearranged my damaged flesh, but I still wasn’t pretty. I remained tender and eventually scarred badly.
My little tribe and I practiced our daily routine. I awoke early and stoked the campfire and went hunting. While I was gone they collected the roots and the berries, which seemed to get tougher and seedier every day. After I returned, one of them skinned the meat. Everyone was getting a turn. Some of them grew bold enough to place the carcass on the fire and turn it. We bathed frequently and slept the afternoons away in the warmth of the sunlight until the weather changed. The monsoon season arrived.
Most people on Earth think of monsoons as a tropical phenomenon, but all forests are rainforests, and if they are big enough they create their own special climate.
This alien forest did. The rain, often hard and drenching, lasted maybe twenty minutes, sometimes longer or shorter before the sun came out again. The precipitation caused fevered growth among the seasonal plants because the air was still warm, though cooler than before the clouds spread across the sky. Two chores needed to be accomplished now: one by building roofs over our heads, and the other, planting food.
My little friends took care of the shelter aspect by leading me up the waterfall. The falls were not the spectacular drop of calendar pictures but a more gradual grade downward over the mountain’s boulders, cutting through the forest on either side and flattening into the valley below.
When the first rain fell, it killed our fire with sputter and smoke. The people cried and fled up the side of the falls. I followed their tracks, finding them in a dry cave behind a small entrance disguised by shrubbery. I nearly passed by, but one of my friends peered out and tittered something that sounded like, “ta-ta”. I crawled into the opening and found a high-ceilinged cave which allowed us to stand up. A dark doorway at the back seemed to lead away, but I didn’t explore it yet.
They were upset about the loss of our campfire. They put their hands on the ground and pulled them up in a waving pattern and cried, and made what I guessed they thought were noises of the fire. Anyway, I got the picture. They seemed to think I could produce another, even though I knew I couldn’t make it with wet straw. They’d just have to wait. I wasn’t able to explain this to them.
A slight breeze came in from the entrance of the cave, moved across the floor, and exited out the dark back passageway. Because I was wet the cold wind chilled and goose-pimpled me. We huddled together, sharing our body warmth, until the rain passed.
I wanted to explore our new shelter further but the darkness stopped me. A flashlight would have been useful. I lived in such a raw world now that I’d become used to thinking of substitutes for things I’d have taken for granted on Earth. The flashlight, for example, became a burning stick.
I pondered the possibility of an opening at the rear, because of the draft. A back door would be a convenient thing to have in case a large predator decided to seek shelter in our new home.
Once the clouds cleared off a bit, we exited the cave to bask again on the sun dappled rocks. The forest was closer up here and shade more prevalent. Gradually we all drifted back down to the pool and our now wet charcoal fire pit. Instead of watching the people fret, I wandered around collecting last season’s grass and some kindling. I moved our woodpile out of the shade that had crept over it. The air was very dry here, and tended to rapidly dehydrate us, which was why I’d located several water sources away from the waterfall. When I went out hunting, I didn’t want to get dehydrated and end up with a headache and the inability to keep up with my prey. Puddles formed and streambeds filled, and the falls would become stronger now that the rain fell every afternoon.
I finished stocking the cave and sat on the boulders by my little tribemates, contemplating the valley.
This was a prime time to plant. Where should we cultivate crops, though? The flat area below was pretty much soaked because the river split into so many streams down there. To get some good planting area, we’d need to channel to direct the water into the beds. We could plant the berries in drier areas, since that’s where they grew best, near springs but not soaking their roots in mud. The garlicky tubers thrived in the wet silt and would grow well along the banks of any channels we built.
Channeling would decrease the area that supported the roots, and increase the drier soils which the berry shrubs needed. We’d have to move the tubers from the original banks to the new ones before the soil they were growing in dried up. Soon after we changed the flow of water, the berry seeds needed to be planted. I didn’t know how long the rains lasted. If the bushes grew, but then became too dry and wilted, we could divert channels to them.
We had no buckets or hoses and the only way to get the little people to do anything was to show them. They parroted me well, and apparently never thought to themselves, “What the hell am I doing this for? Screw it, I’m going to go lay in the sun.” They were curious and enjoyed everything I led them to do. They had a good work ethic, I decided. Every once in a while I hummed the Oompa Loompa song, and darned if they didn’t try to hum along with me!
Early that evening the chill set in as the ground was still damp. I went to the cave and my little tribe followed me, but damn, the air was even colder in there. I worked for an hour to get a bunch of grass to catch the sparks from striking the flint and boy, were my arms and hands sore and bruised by then! I carefully tended the sparks until the weak flame became a small blaze. Some of the smoke collected under our roof ceiling, but flowed with the slight ventilation toward the rear door. Soot floated around us and settled on rock, so it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be. The draft was a blessing and a curse. It unfortunately continuously blew over the cold floor, though it moved the soot. We huddled by the fire. I kept the flames blazing hot until our shelter grew warm, and then let it slowly reduce to coals.
We slept uncomfortably on the hard floor.
As usual, I awoke in the early morning darkness, stoked the coals, and left the cozy cave. The soil under my bare feet was moist and the air chill. I entered the forest. Some patches of the ground were drier and others wetter. The tree canopy had acted as a sort of umbrella, protecting the areas beneath the branches and leaves, while the raindrops had pooled at the edges of the canopies to fall in concentrated rings, creating circles of mud.
My eyes had adjusted to the darkness. My animal self gained the advantage of predatory vision and hearing.
Always, I kept a lookout for other predators, wary because of the creature I had woken up beside when I’d arrived here. So far no hungry, hairy, vicious beasts had made an appearance.
I found a wide variety of prey in the vicinity including a large bird-type animal that reminded me of wild turkey. The things had sweet, tender flesh and they seemed to flock together. Most of the other potential meals I’d seen so far had been a burrowing or herd type.
Trotting along, I sniffed the air and eyed the terrain. A large thing burst out in a sudden crashing of limbs from underneath some brush cover. I was on it in a second. The creature was one of the herd beasts I had spotted down at the river early on and often since, with the long legs and bounding leap of deer.
My powerful muscles bunched and stretched. My claws dug divots from the forest floor. The animal dodged trees and shrubs, but I followed easily. The anticipation of sinking my canines into its flesh and the warm flow of blood onto my tongue made me drool.
The chase was a short one as the creature bounded right, then reversed to the left and crossed my path to avoid a close patch of thorny shrubbery.
Too bad. My left claw caught its left shoulder and I squeezed down on the meat. The animal’s behind swung out and away and its head was forced toward my jaws. I pushed powerfully with my hind end, jumped, and spun in the air. My right claws tore into its right ribcage while I bit with the whole of my strength into the neck behind the head. My rear feet landed on its rump, forcing its back legs to collapse. As I lay on the beast it kicked and struggled, wearing itself down. I worked my teeth out and clamped down on its throat, crushing the windpipe and holding on as the life slowly left its body to me.
I’d made a superb kill of the largish creature. My people had been eating as much protein as I had been lucky and skilled enough to provide. I wondered how long it would take us to eat this entire animal. If we were unable to finish it off in one meal, how could we preserve this meat? We had no refrigeration, salt, or sugar.
As usual I gutted the carcass by eating the entrails and organs. I was so full that dragging the remainder back through the forest was a chore. This was one disadvantage to killing large prey. As my animal self, I bit into the neck behind the head and dragged it underneath my body, stepping around it. I struggled in this manner around trees and over rocks and dropped branches. I tired and morphed into my bipedal form. With difficulty I hoisted the animal onto my shoulders, the front and back legs dangling on each side of me as I walked to our clearing by the pool.
By mid morning and I decided to cook the meat in our cavern, since otherwise, it wouldn’t be finished by the time the rain came. The carcass didn’t quite fit on the fire, so out of necessity I placed the rear haunches in the pit with the shoulders, neck, and head on the cave floor.
My friends had skinned the beast, exclaiming, I guess, over the size. Now we were all crowded inside our home, with supper cooking, and the large skin dried draped over a big rock beside the stone wall. It would take hours for the flesh to cook enough for us to eat, so I shoved the end of a thick branch into the coals. When the end was glowing, I held it like a torch and exited our living room through the back door into a dark passageway.
Beyond the narrow slit a tunnel branched backward from our cave, curving enough that I couldn’t see much of whatever surrounded me. The rock floor graded slightly downward.
Something twinkled ahead, sort of like the stars, and then the passage opened up and the twinkling was all around me. I realized I had left the hallway and entered another chamber.
One of my tribe bumped into my back with an exclamation, stood at my side, and looked about. Two more walked up behind me. One was the little female who insisted on calling me, “Ta.”
“Ta. Ta,” she said. I think she was pointing, but the glowing stick didn’t cast a lot of light, so I wasn’t sure. I heard water dripping, but in the big echoing cavern it was hard to tell where the sound originated, or even the size of this space. The cool breeze flowed differently than in our cave; it didn’t flow across our feet, more like the cold air entered and kind of hung before moving away from us toward an unseen exit. The effect was chilling. I had my left hand on the cave wall and I walked about ten more steps in, keeping my palm in contact with the rough rock. The alarm in my quietly chattering companions’ voices increased, so I stopped. They’d followed me. I turned around and found them poised in a line behind me, all of their left hands on the stony wall. I switched the burning stick to my left hand and raised the other in the palm forward, “stay” gesture I’d taught them. Indeed they stayed as I went past them and put my right hand on the wall. They all rotated and did the same. I then led them back to the tunnel and into our chamber where the others were doing an artful job of turning the carcass over.
For a few minutes the chattering was unbearable. One of the men was showing the group what he had taken from the cavern.
He held a bit of the luminescent material. They were passing it around. The thing glowed more brightly near the fire. I realized their prize was a crystal which was phosphorescing like an emerald, and casting a green light on the walls. Damn, the glowing rock really looked like a raw emerald!
Everyone took a good look and then passed the gemstone back to the male who’d brought it out.
I tore a handful of cooked game from the now upside haunch of the roast and savored the juicy goodness. Emeralds. Here we were, rich, with no one to know.
Ah, the irony.
The next morning I pulled what remained of the roast beast off the cold coals. I stoked the fire up to flame with new wood, collected the hind legs, pelvis, and the back end of the spine, and took them into the woods. Those bones were stripped. We’d eaten well. The people would put the meat back on while I hunted, and we’d have breakfast, too. What a treat! We’d only managed to polish off half of the beast, but that was okay. If we ever managed to eat a whole one, it would be past the time to teach my little people to hunt. The pressure on me to provide all the protein kept me out in the forest every night, increasing my chance of injury.
I dumped the bones into the latrine.
Shortly after I discovered, by stepping in some, that the tribe defecated aimlessly in the forest, I made a pit with a stick and taught them to use this makeshift toilet by example. They parroted me well, as usual, and when the depression was half full, I’d buried it and dug a new one. Most had gotten the idea quickly and they began policing the latrines themselves, burying the old and digging one fresh when necessary. They even went around, by their own initiative cleaning up a good section of the forest floor of their previous deposits. I was charmed by them, and of course, I made them all rub their fingers with dirt and rinse them down stream of our bathing pool afterwards.
On several occasions some of the slower learners tried to urinate in the falls, or defecate above our bathtub. I said, “No, no, no,” and, taking them by the hand, led them to the appropriate area. They had no comprehension I was trying to protect our water supply, but as ritualistic creatures they observantly, even slavishly, followed my every example.
I also taught them to drink from the small ponds located above the bathing pool. Whenever one tried to drink from elsewhere, I wagged my finger back and forth and again said, “No, no, no.” I grabbed a hand, and led them to the smaller pools above our bath, where we both proceeded to quench our thirst. “Good, good,” I praised.
Of course, when the little folk went down to the valley to collect roots, I suspected they peed and drank as they wanted. I couldn’t do much about this as the flats were a long way from the latrines and drinking pools.
Usually, while they gathered the tubers, I hunted, so I didn’t have to see them doing this. I made sure I drank from water they hadn’t fouled. I did the best I could.
I found myself unable to hide my surprise when one day the big baby grabbed a handful of the smaller one’s sparse hair and pulled until the poor thing screamed pitifully. Imagine my pleasure when one of the mothers unclenched the offending darling’s fist and said, “no, no, no,” and then stroked the startled infant’s empty hand saying, “Good, good.”
I returned from my hunt and discovered the rest of the beast had been eaten. I examined the piles of roots and berries and they seemed approximately the same size as yesterday. The ambition to collect these declined as the availability of easy (for them) meat increased. This was a logical phenomenon, but I worried about the possibility of cold weather of some sort, making food hard to come by. How would I motivate my little tribe to keep collecting and storing so we’d have enough to get through a winter, without being able to talk with them regarding the concept of the tough season and starvation? In fact, how had they survived past winters? This may have been one reason I’d run across so few of them and why they’d been in such bad shape when I’d found them.
Most of the little people dozed. The one with the emerald tried to gaze at the embers through his stone and pondered the green reflections on the walls. The mother of the big baby had him in her lap, and she dangled what looked like a thick piece of shiny string above him. He laughed and tried to catch the end in his clumsy hands.
I sat next to the mother and took the other end of the strand to look at it. She chewed on the middle part and watched me. “Ta,” she said, and she leaned against me.
It was some sort of pulpy fiber, about as thick as a pencil, as long as my leg, and somewhat flattened and shiny like waxed dental floss. The taste resembled jicama. Refreshing.
Our cave was warm, so the baby lay naked on his mother’s legs, his little feet pushing at her belly and his head on her knees. I picked up the two small skins he’d been sandwiched between, now discarded on the cave floor: the ones I’d pulled off of our first meal together. I laid them next to one another on the rocky ground and punched matching holes in one edge of each skin with my awesome claws. I gently took the fiber from Mom, as I thought of her, and put one end through the last two punctures in both pelts. I tied a square knot, and then I worked the floss through the holes, sewing the skins together. At the end of the row of holes I tied another knot. Now Mom didn’t have to try to hold her boy sandwiched between the two pieces; she could wrap her big kid up.
Mommy, mother of the weaker, smaller child, was using the bigger skin for her little son. Mommy’s sick baby wasn’t as healthy as Mom’s robust offspring, but at least the poor thing had a better chance at survival now.
While I did my magic, Mom cooed and cackled, waking the whole tribe up. They stared in fascination.
They all got up at once and pulled me out of the cave and into the forest, walking me to a slight clearing overgrown by dark shrubbery. My group led me to the area where some animals had been stripping the shrubs of leaves and bark for food, and also chewing the twigs. The people picked at the broken branches and stripped out the inner fibers, which were the tasty floss I’d sewn the hides together with. Oh, this was a rich find indeed! Now we could make clothes, shoes, and blankets from the skins we’d been collecting. Something to wear and wrap up in would be lifesavers in case we did have to endure some kind of winter.
We all traipsed back to our cave with our stringy booty in our hands. I skinned the two small carcasses I’d caught that morning as the people sat around chewing their yummy fibers. I placed the meat over the coals and then I chewed the woody, sweet string, too. I sucked much of the moisture out of my length and then laid it outside the oval of rocks surrounding the fire to dry. My people did the same, and afterwards we sat and grinned at each other.
Several got up and gathered the drying skins from around the cave. They scraped and pounded and worked the dried, stiff leather with rocks while I tended our dinner. They remembered how I’d softened the other hides, and they were on the job.
By bedtime that night, I’d used flint to cut some of the skins into patterns, like fat tube socks, and had sewn the pieces together, fur side in. The people stared curiously. I now had booties and mittens to sleep in, and I wore them all night. With a pelt underneath me, the little folk radiating heat around me, and the coals glowing merrily, I finally slept warm and comfortably after many weeks of shivering sleepiness.
By the time I came back later the next morning with our next meal, my new family had banged out more flint cutters, cut out the patterns, and tried hard to figure out how to sew them together as I’d done. I spent the afternoon punching holes with my handy claws, and, with my guidance, they sewed up their very first pieces of clothing. That night we all slept comfortably in the furry embrace of our booties and mittens, using the rest of the softened pelts for blankets.
Frequently, I wondered why they exhibited such finesse with physical things, imitating my behavior, taking over chores, and even advancing them, yet they spoke no language. Mom and Mommy called me “Ta,” and the others imitated them, but when they needed to attract each other’s attention, they barked or threw pebbles.
One day Mom decided to name the man with the emerald ‘Ne’. She’d realized he’d amassed a small pile of the glowing stones. The others began to call him ‘Ne’, as well. They also called the emeralds ‘Ne’, and the act of getting burning sticks and going into the rear cave to collect the stones became ‘Ne’, too. The rock hunting turned into a past-time for some of them, and soon several had decent piles of the crystals. I witnessed with extreme pleasure that the ones who enjoyed collecting them also liked to give them away. Eventually I started to discern a pattern, I thought. The folks shared with members of the opposite sex. Either they were choosing partners, or sharing with the mates they’d already had. Although the people traded their rocky booty freely, it became clear they had favorites.
I contemplated introducing the concept of privacy to them because, frankly, I’d tired of watching them do it. I couldn’t figure out how to teach this idea to them. I didn’t want to introduce guilt or shame, but really, they needed to go out of sight when the mood struck instead of sharing their good fortune with all of us. Geez!
If they paired up and we built separate houses for each couple and their babies, and one for me, then I wouldn’t be bothered. I imagined teaching them to do the nasty in their houses instead of out in the open, just like I’d taught them to go potty in the latrines we’d dug. Yikes, I would have to interrupt them and take them by their hands and lead them to their home. “No, no, no.” “Good, good.” Icky. Whether they paired off like humans in their mating habits, or were communal by nature I hadn’t discovered yet. It might be wise to build one big home for them all, and a little one for me. This was getting complicated.
Could I impose my morality on them? Well, of course, but should I? If I hadn’t awakened in this body, how would they have evolved? They might not have even survived. But I had resurrected the corpse of this cat person and here I was, feeding, cleaning, and clothing them, and worrying about their habits.
It was possible my marbles had come loose and now rolled around willy-nilly in my brain case.
I decided to let be those things which I couldn’t resolve. I would just leave them alone until they sorted themselves, or until I came up with an answer which didn’t cause me to grind my teeth in my sleep.
I’ve never been a goddess before, or even a queen. Once upon a time I took a position as the manager of a little satellite office and warehouse of a corporation, but no one has absolute autonomy in a corporation. I’d been a cashier, a waitress, and a security guard. I even worked at a small firm raising beneficial insects. Here though, I enjoyed complete obeisance from my people. I could teach them everything and sit back and have them take care of me. That idea was tempting, but teaching them to hunt, plant, tend, harvest, dry and store food, and make tools and build homes would consume years. The only way to educate the little folk was to show them; otherwise, we were going to starve. I wanted to be an integral part of the society, not its goddess.
I had reasoned that if we were lucky, the winters might not be too severe. These simpletons lived through them in the past, unless they’d been dropped here before I slipped into the creature I now inhabited. This didn’t seem likely.
The mothers had given birth in what would have been winter if the seasons followed like on Earth. I decided this because when I woke in this body, leaves were beginning to bud and pasture to push through last season’s straw, as in spring on Earth. That seasonal periods followed one another here as on Earth seemed reasonable.
Where I’d come from, the monsoons poured down sometimes during the end of June, and definitely during July and August. If the weather on this planet followed the same pattern, this should indicate that this must be summer now. I might be wrong. My experience beyond Earth was limited.
I still couldn’t figure out how this little bunch of humanoids came to live here, seemingly the only group of people in the area. They’d survived on roots and berries, though they were malnourished when I met them. Starvation had been normal for them up until the time I walked out of the forest in my new skin. Why hadn’t they feared me? They’d been starving, but unafraid, so I reasoned my predecessor hadn’t preyed on them. Likewise the beast hadn’t fed them as I was doing. Since I’d begun feeding them, they’d muscled up significantly, and their health had improved. Their energy increased and every one of them showed interest in everything and seemed eager to expand their knowledge.
I changed their lives dramatically by changing the behavior of the body I now inhabited. Maybe the other one was their pet, or treated the people like pets. Perhaps it had nothing to do with them at all. If these folk had no natural enemies, this explained why they knew little fear.
I still hadn’t run into another predator, except for the thing that I’d apparently killed in a fight to the death. I’d seen signs of several large animals while out and about: footprints, clawed soil, spoor, broken shrubs and small trees, but not often. Possibly the former inhabitant of this body cleared its territory before I arrived. Perhaps the other beasts’ needs and ranges were unlike mine, or they hunted at different times. At any rate, my little tribe was fairly fearless, and gregarious, too.
This seemed a strange way to evolve, and didn’t fit my understanding of evolution, but suggested we were put here.
I suspected something or someone was manipulating me, or I’d gotten into some kind of soul loop which moved my consciousness to another body every time the one I inhabited expired.
Was death, then, a series of rebirths? Had this been going on forever? But I didn’t remember my soul moving into my human body, Carol’s body. I sought the memories of my childhood on Earth: schools, friends, and family. No recollections of lives before Carol’s life remained with me.
I’d thought life was a test. The way to pass was to always select the best option that occurred to me. The challenge became choosing to do the correct thing even when no one was looking, even if getting away with being bad and profiting somehow was possible, and especially if I’d pay a hefty price for being good. A toll was often extracted from if I did the right thing. Regardless, I thought I’d been pretty damn careful not to do wrong no matter how tempting or easy this would have been. Then again, I’d walked off the job and flipped off the boss. I hadn’t backed Andy down with the words I’d wanted to say when she’d been prejudiced and spiteful. I hadn’t been as good as I’d wanted to be.
Also, I never was able to take that leap of faith and just believe. I went back and forth between believing someone watched, listened and judged, and thinking we were alone and ‘God’ was simply a human fantasy and vanity. Still, I chose to be as good as I was able to figure out how to be, which seemed to be the prudent choice.
If this was some kind of karmic ride, I feared I might never get off, especially since I sometimes failed to understand the often subtle differences between good and bad.
I knew I shouldn’t have flipped Calvin off, that wasn’t astute or constructive, but damn it’d felt good. I could have backed Andy down, but why bother? Her prejudices went deeper than I would have been able to reach.
I should have said what I’d wanted to Andy, and taken the time to sit down with Calvin to talk with him regarding the problems of staffing and training I saw. I might have been clearer about the nasty women who decided which of us stayed on the job, and who bullied the pleasant gals away. I’d probably still be on Earth working at Freda’s. But I hadn’t, and I wasn’t, and anyway, what kind of prize was cashiering at Freda’s? This new life was much more satisfying.
I’d enjoyed myself so far, other than the agonies of death and resurrection. The deaths had been quick, almost immediate. The resurrections involved long recoveries. The adventures - amazing.
I wondered if I’d ever understand what was going on, and whether I’d continue to die and resurrect forever. Was this the afterlife, another test, or a weird fluke? Back on Earth I’d believed we’d never know the answers. Some people arrogantly believed they had life all figured out, but I always thought their beliefs revealed insecurity. They desired to be in control of others to keep bad things from happening to them, when they should have been controlling themselves. Many people couldn’t face the possibility of being alone instead of part of a group, with no God or biblical guidance. They relied on ritual and verse, believing in stories that had never happened.
Or had they? What was happening to me right now?
I walked down into the valley. The river bed, marshy and thick, supported the growth of thickly stemmed grasses. The leaves’ serrated edges gripped the skin unpleasantly. Throughout the swampy area the tubers grew, easily located by the flower stalk. Each root sent up a single stem with a round, yellow, blossoming cluster the size of a fist on top. The scent also gave away the edible fruit beneath the mud.
The wet strip through the flats in which the root thrived averaged a hundred feet wide. Since the marsh went on into the length of the valley for about a mile, I figured altering some of the stream bed would be alright. Even if I destroyed a fifty foot section and nothing I planted or transplanted grew, we’d still be able to harvest from the whole remainder of the undisturbed area.
My plan was to redirect and consolidate all the branches of water into the one trench, move as many of the tubers to the river banks as possible, and take the rest to the cave to dry and store. Then I wanted to plant the berries alongside the streams in the drier soil, close enough to the water for their roots to grow into the moist banks to drink and feed.
We could irrigate the berry bushes if this proved necessary by trenching. I’d end my single trench by directing the water back into the five streams to continue feeding the valley floor as before.
I hoped this would give us access to more berries while not killing the tuberous plants growing closest to our cave.
After taking a good walk around, I decided to alter only three of the streams into one trench, and let the other two continue to wander. This would be enough work for the time being. Creating new wet banks for roots and drier, outer banks for berries left two streams in their original muddy configuration. This constituted less labor then trying to trench all five into one. The damage to the environment would increase if I disturbed more. If my trenching failed somehow, we’d still have two of the original steams and their rooty bounty near our cave.
Great, but I didn’t have a shovel. I’d have to dig the trench through the mud with tree branches, as I’d dug our potties. At least this soil wasn’t the hard ground like in the drier areas. Even though the rain fell every afternoon now, the dirt in the forest where we made our latrines was difficult to dig into.
The morning after I finalized my plans I went out hunting as usual. I’d been trying to kill smaller animals to try to motivate the little group to collect more roots and berries. This appeared to be working. They’d also added gemstone collecting to their schedule though, and this activity sometimes took precedence. I hoped the novelty would wear off, but the phosphorescent stones fascinated the funny folk. I couldn’t blame them.
I put the carcasses on the skewers and balanced them above the coals, grabbed the stick I’d picked for the job, and started down into the valley. It was late morning.
The forest was making its own weather. The trees drank up so much water they became saturated, and when the sun warmed the bark, a mist wafted out from them. I never grew tired of watching the trees make fog.
Even down on the flats- a treeless, grassy plain - the ground released an opaque moisture. The daily afternoon rains kept the heat down, but the humidity stifled me. I worked slowly and steadily, choosing the area to start my project where the streams branched off of the main flow from the mountain. I trenched, knee deep in the muck, occasionally straightening up to make sure I continued to follow the line I’d tried to draw by dragging the stick across the mud. Some was still visible; much had been swallowed by the inflow of water, but enough remained to guide me. Four of my friends came down to watch, silently and studiously, having no clue what I was doing. I dug out a few roots and tossed them towards the little group, and they took up the harvest. I dragged that trench until I heard Mommy up by the pool, barking and squawking and waving her arms. Dinner was ready.
I helped my companions carry the substantial pile of roots they’d gathered up to the cave. The rains came and went while we worked and we dried off slowly. The air was too moist for us to dry completely.
I didn’t know how long the berry shrubs would take to mature and fruit. I hoped we’d get the seeds into the soil before the rains stopped so I wouldn’t have to worry about irrigation for a while.
When we arrived at our homey cavern it was already late afternoon. I checked our store of berries and found few, about a pint, all of which we’d eat that night. I wondered how to get the people to go out and pick some more. I wanted to have enough to plant in the banks when I got through trenching.
I’d trenched about six feet this afternoon and my muscles ached. I realized this project would take longer than I’d planned, even though I’d ignored two streams, because I hadn’t factored in my own fatigue.
As I settled into the evening repast another problem bubbled into my head. How would I keep the little folks from trampling the berry bush seedlings? I’d have to mark the plantings somehow and train them not to step on them.
I was tired and fell asleep early, after noticing the clever beasts had placed many of their glowing emeralds in the cracks and on the little natural ledges in the walls of our cave.
Maybe this is heaven, I thought to myself as I drifted to sleep under the twinkling phosphorescence.
The next morning my old routine melded with the new one. I woke in the dark and stoked the fire. The people barely stirred. I went on a hunt and killed another of those medium sized, short-legged, dog-type creatures, ate the belly parts and organs, left some poopy intestines behind, and dragged the remainder home. I noticed on the way several berry bushes and tried to mark their location in my mental map. I’d developed a certain territory and range which I knew pretty well. Funny, I hadn’t paid attention to the fruited shrubs before, as my tribe did the collecting, but today they attracted my attention. Last season’s berries still clung to the branches and new ones plumped up greenly. I knew last year’s old fruit had seeds inside ready to sprout, and that the plants we picked clean would produce more fresh fruit than bushes still harboring the old, wrinkled stuff. Last seasons’ produce tends to suppress this year’s growth.
Apparently, not too many animals dined on those berries, which surprised me. Come to think of it, I hadn’t noticed any birdlike creatures other than the turkey-types. Surely the turkey beasts ate the little fruit.
I’d seen and killed mostly grazers. They liked berries too, didn’t they? At least the ones that were able to reach them should be eating them. How else would the seeds propagate? Wind maybe. Something besides my people must eat them and spread them through the forest in their feces, so why were so many left on the bushes? Had last year’s been a bumper crop?
Fauna did seem to be somewhat thin on the ground on this planet. Flora ruled.
I arrived at the cave and put the meat on the bar-be. I swear nothing smelled as good as that daily game cooking.
I took my stick and went down into the valley. Surprisingly, everyone except the mothers came down with me, and they all carried sticks! I dragged a directional line in the mud, and we spent the rest of the morning and late afternoon digging and widening the trench. We got soaked and frustrated for a while as the heavy rain spoiled our new stream banks, but we managed to get a good ten more feet roughly dug out, which pleased me.
By the time we returned to our cavern, the meat had been pulled off the fire and sat waiting for us. The mommies had even cooked roots for everyone. Before we ate, we neatly laid out the fresh tubers we’d been digging up all afternoon. We’d learned how to spread them out so the outsides would dry, but not mold. We had a nice bit of stock going. Those which had been collected earlier and had dried enough we pushed into a pile against the cave wall.
I realized while laboring over my engineering project that the reason we didn’t have more berries was because the old ones had become dry and tough, mostly seed and skin, and the fresh fruit wasn’t yet ripe enough to eat.
If I ever had extra time in a day, I’d have to search for different foods to expand our cuisine. Perhaps the rains would bring something else up.
I fell asleep gazing at our green cave stars.
I awoke in the dark and repeated my activities of the previous day, and did the same the next, and again after that.
On the sixth day we completed the trenching. Hallelujah. We’d made a slightly curved river about fifty feet long and ten feet wide, and finished off by splitting our stream to connect back with the original three branches. Then I opened the dam by removing the rocks I’d piled up, and let in the water that I’d temporarily redirected to the other two streams. The rest of the valley, except for the dispersed silt from our efforts, was unchanged.
I sprawled on my back in the cool mud with my feet in the new stream, and my companions flopped down all around me. They had no idea why we’d just dug in muddy water, in the sun and the rain, for six days, but I was sure they felt that “job well done” feeling, like I did.
Soon enough the mothers at the cave were barking at us, so we all groaned and moaned our way up the hill with our hands full of roots, to dinner.
The next day I took my chatty co-workers down and we finished digging the remaining tuberous plants out of the original streambed and replanting them in the new one.
Then it happened.
The valley ended about a mile away in some rolling, grass covered foothills. The river’s path, not clearly visible at this distance because of the uneven terrain and haze, seemed to turn gradually to the right. The forest there grew out in a slight crescent toward the river, which turned into these woods and disappeared behind them. An unnatural sound came from that direction.
The odd drone registered at the hindmost of my consciousness, and when I finally recognized it, I stood and stared. Nothing was visible yet. My little buddies imitated me, looking something like prairie dogs. Their ears weren’t as sharp as mine, but they mimicked me, alarmed at my rigid stance.
The noise became louder; the source still invisible.
My companions grew quiet.
We stared and waited until something came into view, following the riverbed along the crescent of trees.
The aircraft appeared and in a few blinks meandered up the river toward us, over us, up the falls and out of sight.
A harsh wave of air and noise hit us and the people broke, running for the cave soundlessly, except for their pounding feet and ragged breathing. I followed.
We huddled together in the cavern experiencing and expressing utter shock and dismay. They sat silently and stared at me through widened eyes. Poor little critters, I could do nothing to alleviate their fear.
I smelled our dinner burning and pulled the roast off the fire. I stripped the meat off the upper, cooler side, holding out the chunks. At first they would not move. Eventually they loosened up, took my offering and ate, but I’d never heard them so quiet. They kept glancing at the cave mouth and I felt their ears listening. I put myself between them and the entrance, to sooth them.
That night our home was spooky, and when I came back from hunting the next day, it was obvious to me that no one had gone out. Ne looked catatonic as he sat with his pile of stones in front of him. He picked them up and dropped them, picked up some more, and dropped those; the clattering treble became monotonous.
“Problem, One,” Five said.
“What?” One demanded.
“Just a handful.”
“Are they advanced or primitive?”
“They’re not sophisticated, One,” Four replied. “There are no dwellings or industry, and only a small amount of heat emanating from the boulders besides the falls, probably from a cooking fire.”
“What about the rest of the survey?” One asked.
“The planet has evolved various flora and fauna but the inhabitants we flew over are the only advanced life detected,” Four said.
“You are sure?” One queried.
“Our bio scanners penetrate to five meters underground. Any creatures living under that depth would have escaped detection.”
“Wait two rotations of the planet and then repeat the survey. Discuss the results with no one. Encrypt your reports and send them directly to me, Two, and Three,” One ordered.
“Affirmative, One,” Four and Five answered simultaneously.
One, Two, and Three sat comfortably in One’s eating area. The remains had been cleared away and libations poured.
One, Two, and Three, the senior crew members and decision makers, were deadly serious.
“Two and Three, you’ve heard about the inhabitants on the planet?” One asked.
“Yes, One,” Three said, “We’ve received the encrypted reports.”
Two nodded in the affirmative
“What is the problem?” Two asked.
Three stared at Two.
“There are inhabitants, Two, you know that means we are to negotiate,” Three said.
“The Opiniatrety clearly states…” One began.
“Yes, yes, the Opiniatrety.” Two interrupted. “We all understand, but we need the mineral wealth of this planet. The scanners tell us 375,000,000,000,000 tons of material may be mined from this planet, mostly located in the first 10,000 meters depth.”
“These inhabitants, how advanced are they?” Three queried.
“They have no industry and are living in a cave beside the river. We detected only eight of them out in the open. The operators say it looked as if they straightened out part of the streams in the valley,” One replied.
”Agricultural development denotes intelligence,” Three said.
“Besides the stream alteration and the fire, no other signs of intelligence are observable,” Two said.
“Those are signs of intelligence. The Opiniatrety states we must negotiate with intelligent inhabitants,” Three said.
“We need those minerals,” Two said. “Likely these things can’t negotiate a contract.”
“Let us contemplate,” One interjected. “The inhabitants number eight. Let’s call them intelligent. Perhaps four or five more are in a cavern. We kill them all, contact the mine ship, and mine the planet. We don’t talk about the creatures we murdered. We report this orb uninhabited.”
Two continued. “We disintegrate the bodies, naturalize the cave, and meander the streams. Clean up every sign of habitation. We direct the miners to another region of the planet to mine first; nature takes care of what we missed during our cleanup. By the time the miners get to this area, there won’t be any sign left.”
“No, no,” Three said. “The Operators saw the beings. They made reports.”
“Operators occasionally die by crashing in their craft. We can arrange this and alter the reports, or create new ones,” Two said.
“I ordered their reports encrypted, and no discussions amongst the Operators,” One said. “Deception is possible.”
“And since I’m disagreeing with you, will you kill me, too?” Three asked.
“If need be,” Two said.
“Enough,” One interjected. “Now the Opiniatrety.”
“Our instructions are to contact any inhabitants,” Three said. “Make them understand in whatever way possible that we are interested in their rocks. We cause them to comprehend what we want.”
“We will have communication problems,” Two stated. “They do not speak our language, or, we can assume, Infinite Standard.”
“There are ways to communicate with primitive intellectuals. We’ve done this before,” Three said.
“It never goes well.” One said. “Once they realize we’re moving in and stripping their planet they renege pretty quickly. The Opiniatrety states in this case we must abandon operations.”
“At the heavy cost of lost future production and of setting up in the first place,” Two complained.
“But between the negotiation and the renegotiations, some extraction will be achieved,” Three protested. “We can start on the far side of the planet. By the time they reject us, we’ll have increased our wealth. Additionally, total extraction must by necessity nearly destroy the planet. If they survive and prosper they’ll eventually need to expand. Consequent climactic changes will make planetary life much more difficult, if not impossible. Some is better than none, or all.”
“This small group seems to be the only intelligent inhabitants here. In two rotations, the Operators are directed to scan again. Shall we adjourn until the new data is available?” One asked.
“Agreed,” Two said.
“Indeed,” Three agreed.
The hollow ache of fear would not leave my gut. I tasted bile. I even felt bad about killing our dinner this morning. We were all prey now.
The airship was shuttle sized, but I didn’t think this small transport ship had been built for humans. This was no boxy shuttle dreamed up in twentieth century imaginations. It was ovoid and reflected the scenery around us, and I’d not been able to determine where windows or doors might exist.
They must have seen us. What had they been after, just an afternoon flight over a mostly uninhabited landscape?
I’d never learned whether other sentients lived on this rock. There wasn’t any way to know except to walk around. I supposed I might have done that had I not joined the little people. It seemed unlikely that my group represented all the inhabitants, and I hoped we didn’t. How easily the shuttle creatures could shove us aside if they wanted something and we were the only inhabitants hereabouts! Considering my recent history, I feared the worst. Would I reincarnate this time, or just die?
I continued on as normal. What else could I do? When I got back from the hunt I gently herded my frightened little tribe out into the forest to pick shriveled berries. We worked all afternoon, mostly in the rain, under the leafy canopy, without much chatter. The mothers came with us today, as Ne wanted to stay in the cave. He’d sat by the meat on the coals and wouldn’t be budged. Both moms seemed happy to be out with the group, even though we were all pretty subdued. They carried the babies with them.
I’d brought some small skins and we piled the berries in them. We had several bundles as we trudged back to our home. We ate our meat and roots and dried by the fire. Ne, still sullen, withdrew to the side of the cave with a handful of roast beast. He played with his emeralds.
The next day I had them down at our stream, all except Ne who would not leave our home. He tended our dinner while we planted the streambed with berries. I taught them to plant the seeded fruit outside of our rows of roots, about so deep and this far apart. They were good planters. They measured the distances between the plantings by eye and the depths by digit, and got both measurements right every time. I couldn’t have asked for better farmhands.
I decided to teach Ne to hunt, to get him out of his slump with exercise, and determined to fashion him a weapon. A sturdy stick with an end sharpened by flint should do. I would show him the trails, springheads, and ponds where we would wait until our unlucky prey happened by. We could practice our spear chucking at trees until it became second nature. I felt sure that after much repetition he’d become sufficient at hunting, and teach the others. I imagined other things to devote my time to, like designing and building our homes.
We planted all the berries we had, and then headed up to the pool to rinse off. On the way up I scouted the edges of the forest and found a good, stout branch of about the right length for Ne. The little tribe picked up my idea and each collected their own stick. Why imitating what I did made them so cheerful I couldn’t tell, but it always did, and their enjoyment never failed to bring a grin to my face. I’d learned not to smile too broadly around the people though; my teeth seemed to make them a little nervous. I think my predacious fangs scared them.
That afternoon I carved a spear for Ne, and dragged him protesting into the forest. I held him beside me and kept him with me while I chucked the pointed stick at trees. He pulled from me and tried to return home until the pointy stick stuck and vibrated in the trunk. He looked at me with eyes widened. I knew I had him then. In about an hour Ne and I learned to throw the weapon so that it stuck into a nearby tree nearly every throw. He had a natural ability and was pretty good. By the time I was ready to go back to the cave, he was reluctant to come. The evening grew too dark soon though, and he had trouble finding the spear anymore on the few occasions he missed, so we gave up for the night.
The next morning I caught our daily repast, and then took the tribe out to collect berries again. Ne hung back to tend the roast, and when we returned, he was outside practicing his new skill. As we arrived, I put my palms up and said, “No, no, no,” and stopped him from throwing the deadly weapon. I pointed to the babies and to the rest of the people. His eyes went wide. We were both holding onto the horizontal spear, which I set up vertically with the butt in the soil. I patted his hand. “Good. Good.” I didn’t know if he understood, but he stopped throwing and we all went in to eat our dinner.
The next day we continued to plant our streambed. We planted the tuber-producing plants three rows deep along both sides of our stream. The seedy fruit we poked into the moist soil in two rows outside the roots, for about thirty feet, by suppertime.
Things were going very well. I hoped the plants would settle in, germinate, and grow.
The planet seemed fecund in flora at least. I couldn’t foresee any problems. The unforeseeable, though, more than once, had kicked me in the teeth.
On the third day after the shuttle had flown overhead, it flew over again.
“Report,” One ordered.
“We detected nine adults today and two infants. One is of a different species,” Four reported.
“Has any transportation been found?” One asked.
“What were they doing?”
“Planting the streambeds,” Five replied. “The cave mouth again showed signs of heat, about right for a cooking fire.”
“The cavern in which they are living in shows a high concentration of the crystals. Almost as dense as the best region in the southern hemisphere.”
“Encrypt your reports as before and speak to no one.”
“Yes, One,” Four and Five replied in unison.
“Two, Three, the Operators detected eleven sentients today planting the stream beds, and one cook fire.”
“Have other inhabitants been located elsewhere on the planet?” Two queried.
“There are none,” One replied. “Operators Four and Five confirm the creatures are sitting on the second largest find.”
“Shall we vote?’ Three asked.
“Yes,” said Two.
Said One, “In favor of negotiating?”
Said Three, “Negotiate.”
Said Two, “No negotiation.”
“I say we try to negotiate first, Two,” One said.
“Negotiation it is, then,” sighed Two.
When I returned from hunting I found most of the people down at our new streambed, poking berries into the mud. I’d shown them how to put a large pebble besides each planting so we knew pretty much where everything was. They were careful not to step on or near the pebbles.
I took the gutted carcass to the cave, skewered, and laid it over the coals. Ne came in from outside carrying his spear, which he carefully propped against a stone wall, to tend the meat, so I started down to our little farm. The minute I stepped out, the strange hum of machinery became audible again. The shiny, round ship flew slowly up the valley. The people stood up and stared. I ran to them.
As I came up behind my friends, the aircraft drifted off to our left and hung in midair. The air beneath the shuttle wavered a little and creatures appeared on the ground below.
The ten things wobbled forward in a pyramid, one in the front, two behind, three behind those, and four in the last row.
They were opaque blobs with no heads or limbs to speak of. They advanced toward us, somehow looking like Weebles. I found it hard not to laugh, but I suppressed my mirth by examining their ship. Obviously they’d mastered superior technologies.
I walked through the people and stood in front of them, facing the blobs’ leader, who started to shake. A startling sound came out of it. The body was like a bellows and large pores opened up to release a vibrating squall.
I stared stupidly. I was reminded of bagpipes and accordions.
The leader stopped wiggling and spewing, and one of the two behind wobbled forward. This one also began to vibrate and the noise started again, but in a higher pitch.
I stared stupidly some more.
The lines of three and four behind spread out a bit and shaped themselves into a short semicircle around the first three. Those did not vibrate or make noise.
The third creature wobbled forth and I watched as it sucked in a breath like a bellows. This blob vibrated, too, while the pores formed in its flesh and opened, and then issued a mellow deep sound.
I swear the third one sounded eerily similar to Hypnotoad, only quieter. How the hell was I going to communicate with these things?
I noticed a shadow to my left and recognized the gregarious Mommy coming forward. She held out one of the green crystals toward the deep voiced, sad sounding blob.
The alien mass grew a tentacle, and slowly and carefully advanced the limb in Mommy’s direction. A thin gelatinous finger wrapped around the emerald. The melancholy blob carefully withdrew the limb and seemed to examine the crystal. Melancholy Blob passed the stone over to the one beside him. This one I‘d mentally named Squealy Blob. It also developed a rubbery protrusion to grasp the rock with, and examined it. Then the crystal was given over to Leader Blob.
They seemed interested. Mommy’s pleasing nature might prove to be our undoing. Or not, maybe we’d find a way to trade the crystals for tools, seeds, pots, utensils - roofing materials! This could be good.
Leader Blob returned the crystal to Mommy and began his bladder talk again. He grew many tentacles. All pointed to the stone and the jellied tips in unison made the sign that humans make for “come here” or in charades “keep it coming”.
They wanted more.
I put my hand in the air, palm toward them and waved back and forth. “No,” I said. I pointed at their empty tentacles and made the same “keep it coming” sign.
Two seconds later the shuttle had eased up closer to us and the light underneath shimmered a bit. Suddenly, what looked like supplies appeared on the ground beneath.
Yes, we are negotiating a trade agreement, I thought. How exceptional!
I led the people over to the materials and they began ransacking the stuff, every one of them looking at me frequently for direction and reassurance. I let them pick through the pile and only stopped them when they seemed about to tear something open or pull something apart. My friends didn’t know what they were looking at, but I did. The offerings were hand tools, seeds, pots, utensils, and what sure as hell looked like rolls of some kind of thick plastic.
I studied at the creatures and wondered how to ask, how much? The air shimmered again, and a metal box materialized, about the size of an old Earth wooden fruit crate.
“No!” I said, frowning. The people skittered back from the booty. I made my hands go from the size of that box to the size of a pint container. Their container disappeared and a gallon sized bucket took its place.
I walked over to examine the hardware. Pick type tools, hammer type tools, and chisel type tools lay among rakes and hoes and shovel types. I went over to look at the tub. I nodded affirmatively at the monsters and said, “Good.”
Leader Blob sucked air like a bellows and whooshed out something that sounded pretty similar to ‘Good’.
I grinned in delight and the gelatinous animals quickly wobbled backward. The seven individuals behind them rushed forward and made like guards until I pressed my lips together again. Damn those fangs.
I guessed we had an agreement, so I picked up the container.
I returned to the pile of offerings and selected a few tools. I gave each of my tribe a pick or a hammer and chisel. I started to walk up the stream bed toward our cave, making ‘come’ motions to the people with my hand, and saying “Come. Come on. Let’s do some work. Come and work.”
That confused them for a moment because those were the phrases I’d been using to get them down to the flats to dig and plant. At first, they all went to our planting area. I turned to the blobs and said, “Wait, Wait,” and gave them my ‘stay’ hand sign. Again I waved to my tribe, repeating, “Come,” to them, and I led them up the hill to our cavern.
I ignored their personal piles of the green stones and stuck the end of a small branch into the fire. I took the bucket and a handful of grass, twigs, a log, and my burning stick into the back cave. The people followed my example. They all had their tools and some were carrying sticks with flaming or glowing ends. I built a fire in the rear cavern while they watched. I studied the cave walls, floor, and ceiling.
I didn’t want them to cause a collapse and kill us all, so instead of starting on the vertical areas I chose a place where some rock bulged toward us at the bottom. Crystals grew out of this bulge. I took a hammer and a chisel from Ne, worked a large cluster out, and placed it in the bucket. I gave the two utensils back and took a small pick from Mommy. It was a hand pick, not the kind you swing over your head. This was the peoples’ first encounter with tools besides sticks and flint. I didn’t want them to hurt themselves with the big stuff. I showed them how to use the pick to loosen the rock around the glowing stones and break them free.
These were large and usually developed in clusters, so it didn’t take us long to fill the tub. I made sure everyone chipped out one cluster and we developed a fine pile of them. By this time, all of my friends sported at minimum one bruised finger. With the container filled, I directed the people to put down their tools and follow me.
The night was pitch black outside and cool. The aliens still bobbled in the same place as we’d left them, in some kind of glow that lighted them, their ship, and the supplies. As we drew nearer I also realized this illumination was a heat source. My little tribe quietly chattered and tried to get closer to the warmth. Pretty soon we were all warming under the light.
I handed the bucket to Leader Blob. The front three blobs started harmonizing as they examined the crystals with their jelly tentacles. The guards drew in a little closer. Even the people grew excited. I pointed at the pile of goodies and Squealy Blob wheezed, “Good. Good.”
Anybody who has dealt with humans knows you just never know what they’re going to do. I found out this applied to my humanoid tribe mates as well.
A shuffling occurred behind me and to the right. I turned to witness Ne stumble out of the forest. He ran toward us, pulling back his arm and cocking the weapon.
We all stood in shock as Ne advanced to about fifteen feet away, and threw the damn spear!
The long stick arced perfectly through the air. I actually experienced a little pride until the sharp tip hit Leader Blob, slowing to a stop as it made Leader Blob’s outer covering dent in considerably. Then the skin or membrane or whatever it was pushed the spear back out and it fell clattering into the dirt.
I was sure they would blast us, but they didn’t, perhaps because Leader Blob wasn’t hurt, apparently. Its hide didn’t even have a mark that I could see. I felt like we were all standing there wondering what had just happened.
This might be a cartoon. Yes, I decided, I was in a cartoon. It couldn’t be anything else. I’d reincarnated in Warner Brother’s Studios. Or DreamWorks. Pixar?
Leader Blob shuddered and the ship came to hover over them. The air pulsed and they disappeared. The bucket vanished and the crystals dropped tinkle, tinkle, tinkle onto the ground. The supplies disappeared. The shuttle whished away.
“Ne, what were you thinking? You killed our first trade agreement!” I shouted.
Ne had no idea what I was saying but he knew I was unhappy. I don’t believe I’d ever yelled at any of them before.
I picked up his spear and handed it to him as the people collected the fallen emeralds. We were about to start back up the hill when the shuttle returned. The little folk rushed toward it as it flew towards us, holding the damn green rocks up in their hands like an offering. Even poor Ne did the same, though unhappily. When the beam of light underneath the aircraft touched those in the front, my trusting little friends disintegrated into puffs of dust. One by one, puff, puff, puff. Puff, puff, puff, puff, puff, puff. I was the last, and I walked willingly into the light.
I woke in agony again, my face mashed into some kind of foul smelling grit.
Oh, God, my people are all dead and gone, I wailed in my head.
A huge roaring sound surrounded me and reverberated in my bones. I heard and felt heavy clunking around me and dimly recognized hairy, black feet as they crossed my blurred vision. Individual voices shouted out above the din. The languages seemed different and I couldn’t understand them. The pain pretty much enveloped me. I curled up in the fetal position. Sand-like stuff stretched away from me to the dark hairy legs and beyond to a wall which appeared to be splattered with many different colors of paint.
My view of the furry gams ended in a scary nightmare creature; its arms were raised and its gigantic fists pounded the air in what seemed like a victory gesture. Way up beyond the beast’s head and the stained wall a gigantic crowd stood, screaming, cheering, and pointing.
They pointed at me.
Uh oh. I finally recognized the stink in the sand as decaying flesh and fluids as the beast spied me staring at it. The thing screamed, turned, and charged in my direction.
Holy crap! I was in combat in some kind of coliseum, in agony, with a monster charging toward me!
I straightened out and rolled and rolled and rolled until I hit the wall. My sense of smell told me the paint was decaying blood.
I heard and felt a huge thump. The rumble vibrated in my skin on the sand and up through my body. The creature had fallen, landed on its face, and apparently stunned itself. Did the colossus trip? I didn’t know. I’d been too busy getting out of its way.
I struggled to stand. Oh, the agony. I screamed and charged. I leaped and came down feet-on-neck, punched the head with all the strength in my arm and jumped off. That was some leap! I landed, rolled, and ran away as far and as fast as I could.
Surrounding me, the stinking, circular, unscaleable wall was dotted and smeared with the variety of different bloods. The arena - an odorous sand-filled pit - contained me with the angry beast. Figures stood above us, screaming and hanging over a clear partition. Colors - bright blues, scarlets, yellows, and greens - abused my eyes. The stands went way back and up to where the ceiling started. We entertained many hundreds of spectators, maybe a thousand or more.
A flashback of the eradication of the little people stunned me momentarily. All that work for nothing. Those lovely innocent creatures - my friends! Sorrow assailed me, but mostly an intense and uncontrolled fury overtook me.
The beast slowly gathered itself and began to stand. I ran and leaped, punching feet first into its midsection. It grunted, stepped back, and shook its head. Its mouth gaped, and long, blunt teeth stood out at odd angles. Shades of yellow in the eyes circled red pupils. Muscles bunched as the huge paws grabbed me, turned me horizontal, and threw me into the wall.
I bounced off and sprawled in the sand.
This body was resilient; the pain faded quickly, but persisted, receding into the distance.
I scanned the arena for weapons, but found none.
I circled the beast, which turned to keep facing me, but stayed in place. I sped around in a circle and it stumbled, trying to keep me in sight. Maybe I had injured the creature somewhat; it seemed to be having trouble with its balance, or perhaps the animal was just clumsy.
I ran fast enough to get behind it and leaped on the monster. Wow, this body could jump! I wrapped my legs around its neck and clawed out its eyes. I flipped myself off as my opponent howled, bent over, and pressed its filthy paws into its bloodied eye sockets.
I was a killer in this incarnation. I let the body take over; muscle memory finished the job. I ran at the wounded thing’s left side, jumped, got horizontal, and knocked the damn thing over. Its paws still clutched its upper face. Howling in agony, its legs kicked sand around as I came up from behind and landed on its neck again. This produced much crackling and crunching. As I ran away, the hideous beast roared and screamed, thrashing and chopping with its limbs. The desperate monster spun around on its side in the stinking grit. I waited until the frenzy slowed, and when the creature wore itself out, I attacked the neck again. This time when I jumped off, the animal lay in a dead, broken in a heap, fouling the sand further.
The crowd roared as one, a crashing, reverberating noise, loud and almost soundless, as huge noise can be. I lifted my arms, clenched my fists, and pumped the air. I circled the pit, facing the crowd, taking my victory dues, keeping one eye on the beast, just in case.
My victory lap lasted a long, long time until a bunch of some other kinds of things came in and moved toward the carcass, watching me. Guards with weapons protected the crew. One of the small gates at the rear of the circular area opened. I figured that exit was for me. I made my way toward the opening, still celebrating. The guards had encircled me warily, keeping a distance, as several of the beings removed the body of the deceased. I retreated through the opening into a tiny cage. The arena gate clanged shut between me and the guards. Another opened, letting me into a jail full of relaxed alien combatants who apparently watched the fighters and waited their turns.
I looked down at this new incarnation of me, assessing a tall lean body with rather large bones, joints, feet, and hands, but no obvious genitals and or breasts; the chest looked like a large boy’s. Bruises and lots of faded, light colored scars covered it. The other inmates were all naked too. None of them were human, or anything similar. I was going to get very familiar with alien genitalia; some doozies were on display here.
“Cal nok far pat tuk, Ghee-nye,” something said from outside the big cage I stood in.
The speaker was probably the closest thing to human visible, maybe even closer than me. A uniform and protective gear covered it. Several others behind and beside, uh, him(?), carried things that looked to me a lot like cattle prods. The guards were short and thick and really muscular. The speaker looked directly at me.
“Ghee-nye, lot put roc ton ram cam dal,” he said. I think.
He held the grip of a bizarre contraption. A pole came off the handle at my waist height and split forward into a “y” ending in two solid metal shackles. These extended through a gate between the pen holding the variety of monsters and another one separating the uniformed creatures from us. From the first shaft with the handle in it, a single tube split upward, ending in a larger, similar shackle at neck height. This also went through the gate, so all three shackles were on my side, and the controls and handler safely on the other.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a shackled combatant being walked toward the cage opposite the one I stood in. The restraints enclosed the thing’s neck and limbs, and the fighter walked forward with a guard behind grasping the handle. Several guards with the cattle prods spread out behind and beside the one handling the shackles.
“Ghee-nye!” The guard glared at me. He rattled the shackle contraption against the bars of the gate and his knuckle moved on the handle. Electricity flowed and flashed like lightening across the circles.
When the flickering stopped, I backed into the restraint. I figured if I didn’t, the punishment might be worst than whatever I would get because of my delay.
To my extreme relief the handler closed the shackles around my neck and wrists and didn’t electrocute me. The material wasn’t hard cold metal as I’d expected. It was smooth and warm against my bare skin. I may have been a slave, but I was a somewhat comfortable one.
As the guard walked backward, his eyes on me, the gate behind me clanged opened. He pulled me in as the second gate rattled to a close in front of him. He still had hold of the shackle handle. The bars were designed to avoid it. The gate I’d backed through closed before me and I was snug in a little cage. Behind me the gate opened and he pulled me into the room full of guards. More annoying metal-on-metal noise assailed my ears as the double entry system secured itself. The yeller stayed on the handle, forcing me to circle, and the electric prods rotated too, staying to the side and behind me.
The guard who had been handling the other fighter withdrew the empty restraining device after the opposite gates secured themselves with an alien fighter inside the opposite pen. He hung the shackle on a hook and he and all the guards with stunners faced me. I became the center of attention.
My handler pushed me toward a door at the rear of this area, making guttural barks at me that sounded like cursing. I guessed my lack of cooperation didn’t please him. I had no idea what to do; I’d just have to wing it. Go along to get along, I thought to myself, and try not to provoke them into electrocuting you.
One of the stun stick wielders yelled to an unseen controller through a grill set in the exit door.
The door slid open.
I entered a hall that stretched far before me. Small cages lined both sides, some empty, and others with naked aliens in them.
Exhaustion defeated me. My muscles refused to cooperate. I wondered how long I’d been in the pit with the monster I’d killed. The guard on the handle seemed somewhat apathetic to my discomfort. When intersections occurred he yanked me roughly around, still cursing me. The cages became roomier and less spartan as we walked on. Eventually we came to an area of solid walls with barred sections at the level of the guards’ heads, and gated doors. The handlers all seemed to be of the same species and of the similar height, so they were able to look into the semi private cages. They brought me to one of these.
We stopped. This gate opened and he pushed me into yet another small cage and double door system. When it closed behind me the shackles came off and the one in front of me slid to the side. My handler pulled the restraints through the rear gate and they all trooped back the way we’d come.
I sank to my knees on the hard mats which covered the floor and bruised me. This gave me the excuse to cry.
Being alone allowed bad memories to surface and torment me. My thoughts returned to my previous incarnation. Puff, puff, played in my mind’s eye. Puff, Puff, Puff, Puff. “Oh, God!” I screamed. A raging pit of despair gripped me and lasted for hours, or for days, I had no way to tell. I just let it happen. Who cared whether I fell apart or not?
As I ran out of even the will to cry, the sound of pouring water drew me to it. An opening in the wall to my left revealed a bathroom. A thick, clear stream filled a bathtub. I recognized the noise as one I’d heard many hours – or days - before, when I’d first been shoved into the room. Maybe bath time was a regular event. I sat and watched, still sniffling. I pictured the faces of each friend that I’d lost, especially the babies, and the waterworks started again. I remembered the breakthroughs: our little triumphs of communication, cooperation, and skill.
I sank into the gorgeous, perfectly warm bath water. A dispenser squirted out some kind of liquid which turned out to have remarkable powers of cleaning and disinfection. The stink of the terrible sand left my body. I soaked neck deep until the bathtub automatically drained. As I stepped out, a blast of warm air blew on me from two areas in the ceiling, front and back. It dried me a little. I had no hair to squeeze the water out of, only some stubble on my head. When I walked back into the main room, I smelled a heavenly odor.
Someone had set a meal on the small ledge standing out from the wall below the narrow barred window. A little gate showed how my dinner had been put there. I looked out into the empty hallway, and back at the food. A ledge about right for sitting complimented the table.
I managed to eat around bursts of horror and emotion. I couldn’t manage my feelings, and didn’t even try.
Dinner included a shallow bowl of roast of some unknown kind of beast, and something that appeared to be boiled vegetables on top of what seemed like a starch. Two bottles of a wine-like liquid and a pint-sized mug also graced the tiny table.
The mysterious providers had given me a lot of food and I devoured every bite. After I finished, I lay down on the huge pillow on the floor. The lights turned off. Only the dampened glow from the corridor shone into the room through the bars in the wall.
I’d begun to think of each reincarnation as a new cage, no longer a trial or a treat. I’d surely passed any test and proved my worthiness by my behavior with the little tribe. What more could any god want from me? I might have preyed on them and eaten well, but I had befriended them and, I thought, made their lives better. I would have continued on the same course if the blobs hadn’t cut our existences short.
Perhaps the spear hadn’t been a good idea. Maybe the timing was off. How could I have known? I couldn’t have foreseen the future or predicted Ne’s behavior.
Even if I hadn’t been reincarnated into the cat creature, wouldn’t the Blobs have come anyway? My arrival couldn’t have changed that. Had I not been there would the blobs have acted differently? They might have killed the people anyway, or ignored them and left them to live and die without interference. Would they have tried to negotiate, or regarded my friends as animals and pillaged the planet around them, or just disintegrated them as nuisances? I didn’t know. I had reincarnated into that beast, I had befriended and taught those folks, and I had tried to negotiate with our alien visitors.
Poor Ne. Poor, poor Ne. Who knew what he had thought? Not I. He hadn’t even hurt Leader Blob that I could tell. Why had they exterminated us?
I knew the answer. Greed. They wanted the emeralds. Nothing would stand in their way. The negotiation had been a formality. When our attempt at business went wrong they removed us to get on with their business on our planet. The blobs knew no humanity.
I must remember I’m not human any longer, and anyway, humans behaved badly too.
This couldn’t be a test, because surely I’d have passed. If I’d satisfied some requirement, I wouldn’t have been brought to this horrible situation. No one could have tried harder or been better. This wasn’t a reward, or even a reprieve. I refused to beat myself up. I knew people and had met creatures much crueler than I. In fact, I wouldn’t accept a God so cruel as to punish me after my time with the little people.
If God was this mean, then Fuck God. I would not worship such a God.
I woke up on the big comfy pillow. The temperature in the room was perfect for me, thankfully, because no one had provided me with a sheet or comforter. I slowly rolled myself upright. As I did the lights glowed brighter. I leaned against the grey wall, missing a cold feeling on my skin. The material at my back and the air were the same temperature. I didn’t feel too badly, considering the beating I’d taken - when? Whenever. This body healed itself quickly. I sat for a long time feeling myself heal. My stomach growled in hunger but didn’t see any food.
I walked to the bathroom. A European style hole in the floor greeted, so I peed and shat in it. A moist wipe squished out of a slot in the wall, which I used and dropped in. A slight woosh sounded in the toilet. A swell of heat and a burning odor arose. Water flowed from a pipe as I passed, so I rinsed my hands. It exited through a drain in the floor.
I went back to the table-ledge to get the mug, which remained although everything else had been removed, and took it to the bathroom. I splashed water into it from the unfinished pipe that served as a faucet. I filled the cup and gulped. My lips and throat were dry, so I drank some more.
Everything was automatic: the bath, the soap, the air blower, the food, the lights, the incinerator toilet, the wipes, the water.
I finished drinking and walked back into the main room. To my left was a clear wall and some type of courtyard. Through a rectangular opening I found a sort of lawn surrounded by a narrow square pathway. What seemed like a mature but miniature tree grew in the center. The smell of soil and vegetation permeated the little room. Walls of the same warmish, grey material as everything else - the stuff looked like metal, but didn’t feel like metal - encased the small area of about eight feet square. Along the top of the wall, lights set in long rectangular boxes directed the glare out of my eyes. Above, a ceiling of blackest night twinkled with dots of stars. Some sort of projection, I guessed. I knelt down and put my hand on the growth. I worked my fingers through the long, blue-green, clumping, grass-like blades to the root mat, and into the roots. Underneath, about six inches down, I found the same material as the floors, the walls, the ceilings in the other rooms, the bathtub, the pipes, the bars, and the table and chair ledge.
That was all there was to my new cage.
I had nothing to do: no TV, reading material, or music, and no way to get out. So, I went back to bed.
I slept until the guards woke me by banging those shackles on the gate. They yelled. I got up and slowly walked to the bathroom where I peed, wiped, and washed. I backed into the restraints. I yawned.
They pulled me backwards through the double gates, one at a time, into the hallway, and we all marched back the same way we’d come before, toward the cage beside the arena. The guards reversed the procedure at the door and into the guard area, then into the small, double-gated pen, where they released me. This little cage let me into the big one.
Plenty of fighters already milled about in this slave pen, and in the identical cage opposite. They seemed relaxed for the most part, although some who tried to hide in the back sweat with anxiety. I imagined those were the creatures that wouldn’t last long, and they’d figured this out. Perhaps this was just their species’ natural behavior – and smell. I found myself not really caring.
The guard pen extended along the backs of both cages. The fighter’s entrance-exit points faced each other across a sort of wide hallway, which led to the fight pit in one direction, and the handlers’ area in the other. A gate in the middle gave the guards access to this hall, and the arena.
I didn’t understand who picked the combatants, but our minders seemed to know.
While the cleaning crew removed a deceased fighter, the victor took his laps and then left the arena to huge roars from the spectators.
The guards screamed and yelled at one of the sweating aliens in the back of the pen. The creature huddled in the corner. The other captors apparently got tired of the shouting, and manhandled the slave into the little cage set in a bigger gate. I’m sure the guards appreciated the fighters’ impatience, because it meant they didn’t have to enter the aliens’ pen. The combatants seemed resigned to their fate, and weren’t tolerating any nonsense from each other.
Whoever managed the show allowed no time between the contests, which were handled like a business. For someone, I guessed, it was. Usually the fights lasted some little while at least. The audience liked the longest lasting matches best, unless the opponents simply chased one another around. Any contact between fighters was cheered. The spectators enjoyed blood and broken bones to the fullest. Death caused near communal orgasm in the stands. There seemed to be betting going on. Celebrations were pronounced and disappointments extreme. The rowdy crowd consisted of many different species.
Mostly, the fighters were mismatched, and the better ones toyed with their opponents. The effect was quite gruesome, a slow death by torture until the final deadly blow, reminding me of cats tenderizing their prey. The crowds adored the most torturous predators, raucously cheering each injury they inflicted.
My turn arrived. The guards glared at me and screamed, sending bolts of tiny lightening from their prods into the vertical cage bars. They seemed excited.
Okey dokey. I stepped into the small pen and when the gate opened I ran down the hallway as I’d seen the others do.
For quite a while I circled alone in the arena and the spectators blasted me with noise. I walked and jogged around, looking up at the sea of faces, while stepping through gooey patches in the sand. The crowd berserked.
A long time later I learned that I was indeed one of the eight favorites; fighters who always won, put on a brutal show, and didn’t fight too often, but consistently made those in-the-know betters wealthier than before the contest began. We all had the nicer cells, the best and most food, the pillow beds, bathtubs, running water, fancy toilets, and little gardens. Occasionally we asked for extras, like blankets and towels and privacy walls in our cages. Infrequently, we received them.
Finally they forced my opponent into the ring. He cowered and cringed and hugged the nasty smelling circumference, and I perceived he wasn’t going to be easy to make a fight of.
Hugging the wall turned out to be a big mistake.
Once again I let muscle memory take over, and my rage reign. I‘d finished being sorry for myself and crying. I was through trying to be the best person I knew how to be. Now I just wanted to release intense fury on something.
I sauntered around. The crowd roared so loud I heard almost nothing but roar. The idiot cringed against the enclosure, limiting his movement and routes of escape. I ran up to him and planted my feet on his chest and bounced him off the wall. Gently, I didn’t want to crush him right away because I wanted to keep my poop-burning toilet, the roast beast and wine, and big fluffy pillow bed. I liked the lawn and the tree and the nighttime sky projection. I especially loved the bathtub. Oh yes I did.
The fights I’d seen and the one I’d been in had been death matches. No other type seemed to be allowed. I eventually learned that the combatant aliens and even the guards were slaves purchased by the owner, which was some thing none of us ever saw. A period of what I guessed to be at least fifteen hours of fights occurred every day-like cycle and the during the remainder of the time we bathed, ate, and slept. No real sense of time existed, only fighting and resting periods. The stands always filled and the slaves were plentiful. Those few of us who consistently won got to know one another well, because we returned to the holding pens after every match, as opposed to the ones who died quickly. We headliners, we rock stars, never fought each other. Our opponents’ competence varied greatly but in the end we always killed them. Our skills increased until no one matched us.
It didn’t take long for me to learn to give good show. Once in a while, after a particularly eventful fight, I even rated dessert, or a massage, surrounded by the prods, of course. The valued masseurs and masseuses arrived heavily guarded, as if we would hurt one of them. They brought us some relief, which we all were able to appreciate.
I herded my frightened opponent out to the middle of the arena with kicks and slaps. He didn’t fight back, though once I got him out into the center, he found his spirit. He put up a decent defense, but I made a mess of him.
It felt good. It felt great! I punished him for other things, betrayals others had committed, because for all I knew he was the same kind of creature as they. That’s what I told myself. Fuck being nice. Fuck doing the right thing. What the fuck did nice get me? Fuck. Fuck. Fuckity Fuck Fuck. Fuck it all to death.
Oops. I’d killed him too quickly. The crowd booed my unsatisfactory performance. I’d have to do much better next time.