The first thing I noticed was pain. Everywhere. It felt like I had been dragged along a pishtanta trail, though as long as I didn’t try to wiggle my fingers, my thumb didn’t hurt more than anywhere else. Small comfort. What was truly comforting was that I had woken up at all. And warm. Wherever I was, it was warm and quiet, only the sound of a well-built fire to disturb the night. I cracked open my eyes to discover that I was laying on my side, alone in a large, bare tent made of a smooth material, its sections stitched together with heavy cords. I think it was the same type of cording that bound my wrists to my neck, knees, and ankles. My first attempt to pull free of the bindings proved that I’d choke to death long before I could free myself. I resigned myself to immobility.
A seam parted, and a robed figure came in, trailed by a smaller one. Both had lowered their hoods, and I noted the taller had dapple-gray hair, long down the back of its head, but eyebrows clipped close. Odd for a dwarf. More typically, however, hair grew below its nose, falling to the middle of its chest. The smaller one had dark brown hair just as long down its back, the same clipped eyebrows, but its face was as smooth as mine. Its features were as marred with dirt as mine likely was too. Given its size, a youth perhaps?
“Cen fath go bhfuil tu anseo,” the big dwarf said. Or maybe asked; the upward note at the end made me think it was asking a question. I stared at it blankly. It repeated the question more forcefully, pointing at the ground. It didn’t take a physics specialist to figure out what it wanted to know.
“I was looking for food. We’re surveyors, but our Companion died, so our ship isn’t generating power anymore. Without power, our food onboard will die, so I have to find something we can eat that we don’t have to run through the converter.” The dwarf stared at me, brows furrowing into deep grooves.
“An bhfuil tu de shaghas eigin ursceal?”
This time I caught two words it had used in its last question. A second iteration included a jab of its first finger at me. Obviously, “tu” meant “you.” Then it struck me; it had four fingers, not three. One thumb, not two. As much as these creatures looked like them, they weren’t dwarves. I was a prisoner being held by aliens. On my first planetfall. For all I knew, these creatures had built the fire not to warm me, but to roast me. The tent was probably nothing more than a way to keep the fire from getting wet in this miserably cold, damp climate.
“Please don’t eat me,” I whispered. I squeezed my eyes shut and flicked my chin down and out, audibly locking the bony outer plates of my spine shield into place. If they wanted to hack my head off before spitting me, I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. The creatures gasped, and I cracked one eye open again to see the smaller alien clutching at the robe of the larger, both standing there with their eyes rounded, mouths agape.
“Ni Sin ursceal, Daideo,” the little one whispered. The other nodded, then turned and strode to the flap. A grunt stopped the little one from following it out. Panting, the creature left behind whirled back to me, the whites of its eyes gleaming in the firelight. I lay there, unmoving, and eventually the alien lowered itself to the ground. It still watched me, flinching whenever a log shifted in the fire. After a time, it got up and added another log from a pile stacked somewhere behind me.
“I’m thirsty,” I said, “Is there water?”
The youth stared at me, blinking but otherwise motionless. I cupped my right hand and tilted it towards my mouth, then pointed at my throat. No movement. Trying another tack, I licked then smacked my cracked lips, then cupped and tilted my hand again. The creature gazed at me blankly when I did it again. Then, sudden understanding animated its face, swiftly followed by a nod. It clambered to its feet and ducked through the tent flap. A moment later, it was back with a rough pottery cup. It set the cup down before me and then scurried back a few paces. I stared at the cup, wanting it desperately. I would choke myself if I tried to reach for it. A glance at the creature’s expectant face showed it wasn’t actually trying to torture me, it was just an idiot. It mimed drinking from the cup, which I chuckled at. Startled, it backed up another step, and I demonstrated its idiocy by showing just how short I would come to drinking from that cup by reaching for it.
The bonds cut into my vulnerable throat, making me cough. My chest and sides came alive with electric fire at the coughing and subsided into a dull ache when the cough eased into a moan. Tears had gathered during the coughing and blurred everything when I finally opened my eyes again. With tentative steps, the alien came closer and picked up the cup. Visibly swallowing, it leaned forward and brought it to my lips. The water inside sloshed from the creature’s trembling, but I tilted my head as much as I could and awkwardly sipped from the rim, reveling in the simple relief of moisture against parched tissues. With a sigh, I laid my head back on the ground and closed my eyes.
“Thanks,” I said and let sleep overtake me.
“All right, Lin, let’s get you out of here,” Mina said, rousing me from a dream in which I had been running through a forest where vines were wrapping themselves up my legs, slowing me enough to draw me back into a great, gaping maw ringed with dagger-like white teeth. While my present reality wasn’t lovely, it was a relief to have the dream end.
She cut my bonds and unwrapped them gently, grimacing over the bruising bright against my marble-pale wrists. With a gentle finger, she lifted my chin to get a look at my throat and shook her head. “Let’s get you back to Mer and cleaned up. We can’t do anything about the bruising, but we need to set your thumb.”
I tried to hold back a groan when she helped me upright but lost the fight. Alarmed, she reached forward, unzipped my jacket, and reached in to feel around my chest cavity. The heat of her against me made my breath catch, though she probably thought it was because of her examination.
“I think you’ve got two broken ribs, but I need Mer’s diagnostics to know for sure.” She turned away from me and jerked her head at Tulin and Brima, who were standing behind her. I almost wept when I saw them and had to swallow hard to keep from crying like a baby when they flanked me and lifted me to my feet.
Gingerly, we shuffled out of the dim tent and into a bright daylight that did much to raise my spirits. Squinting, I looked about the village of wooden huts. Beardless aliens clothed in dingy, rough-woven fabrics stood in doorways, some clutching bundles to their breasts, others staring with hands to their faces. My attackers watched us from the edge of the forest, waiting for our little party to reach them. They turned as a group into the barren trees, leading us away. I desperately wanted to leave the village, but reluctance to follow my tormentors back into that forest made my steps heavy and slow. Brima grunted and muttered at me to get moving.
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