Chapter Nine – What Does it Mean to Be Human?
Callina waited in the laboratory for a long time before Endan came back. Her grandfather had stepped out to attend to a few things, so she’d had to wait alone for about half that time. Fortunately for her, her best friend Mesilde showed up, and Callina at least had somebody to talk to.
“It’s a good thing he woke up at all,” the green-eyed Mesilde told her friend as she sipped her drink. “I have heard of some who are given K’zzyrch venom too many times, and they never wake up.”
“So have I,” the pink-skinned woman replied as she propped her head on her hands and sighed. “The problem is that every race metabolizes the venom differently. I’m not sure whether this one will actually recover.”
“What did you say he was?”
Before Callina could answer her friend, the doors slid open and there was Endan, standing in the doorway and glaring into the room.
“What happened to me?” he wanted to know, his voice gruff and ragged.
Callina was out of her chair in an instant. She ran over to him, took his hands, and led him the rest of the way into the lab. “Endan, you look like you’ve been through Hell. What happened to you in the shower?”
Mesilde watched silently as the stranger was given a seat on one of the desk chairs. Her long, upright ears twitched nervously as she took in the sight of someone who’d been through a great trauma.
“I asked you first,” he told her in an annoyed tone. His hair was still dripping wet, but it looked as though he’d at least found a way to comb it. Droplets fell from the long blond strands and soaked his shirt of thick white wool, making it stick to his skin. “What are these scars? What happened to my back? What is wrong with my head?!” By the end, he was raising his voice, and was ready to scream if it meant getting some answers.
“Callina, he didn’t!” Mesilde cried as she watched the conversation unfold. “He really found a… a –”
“Yes, Mesilde. Grandfather found a human.” Callina didn’t sound like she was interested in discussing the details of it. “Will you find him something to eat? Maybe a drink?”
Endan eyed the woman whom Callina was talking to. Her skin was as green as the needles of a pine tree, her hair thick and brown like its bark, except that it was also streaked with lines of green, as though an artist had painted it that way. She wore a shirt of black silk and pants to match, but despite her clothes, she looked very strange to him. The pupils of her eyes were bumpy like the outline of a flower, and her nose was long and wet like a cat’s. She had somewhat of a feline grace to her, but at that moment he didn’t seem to care.
Mesilde took off to another room while Callina worked to calm him down.
“Endan, relax,” Callina cooed, taking his hands into hers. “Whatever is going through your mind right now, I want you to know that you are safe here. Nobody is going to harm you. The K’zzyrch never come this far out… this planet is a worthless heap anyway. I will tell you what I know, but you have to control yourself.”
The human nodded and sat back slightly. “There are these scars,” he told her in a trembling voice, not caring that she’d probably seen them when she changed him. He didn’t want to think about this strange woman having seen him naked. “They look like tattoos, but the only tattoo I ever got was this design on my back. I didn’t even know it was there until I looked in the mirror and saw it. Somehow I knew that it was supposed to be there… It was something I did a long time ago. But the black lines… I never asked for those. And they’re like spiderwebs…”
“Slow down,” she soothed, glancing over her shoulder to see if her friend was on her way back yet. “Stop and take a breath.”
He tried to take her advice, but was not very successful. “There’s one on my back, just below my left shoulder. And another one on my thigh. And the one on my chest… the lines stretch all the way down.”
Callina nodded her understanding. She searched her mind for the right way to explain things to him, but was having a hard time settling on anything.
By then Mesilde was walking back to them, a wooden tray in her hands. She set it on the desk and picked up a glass to offer Endan. “I thought we could start with water, but I brought Blasphemer in case you need something stronger.”
“I don’t think that alcohol is what his mind needs right now,” Callina told her friend as Endan accepted the glass of water.
Despite the long shower he’d had, Endan was thirsty enough to drink the whole thing in under a minute. The cool liquid felt good on his throat, which was sore from all the crying he’d just done.
“Thank you,” he told her ask he handed the glass back to her. “By any chance, do you have ice, too?”
Mesilde thought for a moment, and then looked at her friend. “A hot shower and cold water? Humans are very interesting.”
“Just bring him what he needs,” Callina insisted. “He’s probably the only one who really knows what he needs, and if he can tell us that despite all the venom in him, that is really something.”
There was no arguing with that. Mesilde headed back to the kitchen to look for some ice. She peeked around the corner after a moment to ask, “Does he like tea, too?”
Callina gave him a querying look, and Endan nodded. “That sounds amazing, actually.”
While Mesilde grinned and left to prepare the tea, her friend looked at what else was on the tray. There were a couple fruits, a few pieces of bread, and some slices of cheese from the food chiller that had been cut from a larger brick. Callina hoped that the human would be able to digest them as she pushed the tray closer to him.
“You are lucky they didn’t stab that needle into your heart,” she informed him as he began eating. “I hate to say this, but they probably meant to; there are some species who have their hearts on that side.”
“What happens them?” he asked after swallowing a mouthful of food.
“Most species die within a few minutes. I have heard that they scream in terror and pound their chest to try to get their heart beating again, but it’s too late. The venom makes their heart sluggish, until it does not get enough oxygen – or whatever gas the species needs – to keep beating, and then it stops.”
Endan stared at her, forgetting about the food, his mouth hanging open in disbelief. “I have a deadly poison inside me?!”
“You do,” Callina told him with a solemn nod. “The venom of the K’zzyrch can kill if it hits certain major organs directly. In most other blood vessels, all it does is make its way through your veins and arteries until it addles the brain. You end up weak and confused, and easier for the K’zzyrch to control. Most of the time that is all it takes.”
“Then why was I given three injections?”
Callina chuckled at the question. “I have no idea what the specifics were, but you must have been out of control. They only use it when the victim is acting wild and causing damage. Hitting a K’zzyrch, for example, is a good way to get an injection of their venom. It leaves scars like the black ones you have, which spread out from the injection site. Plan on having them for a long time; they take longer to fade than it does for your body to metabolize the venom.”
By then, Mesilde was walking back out from the kitchen with a glass of ice and a pitcher of water. She set them down on the desk and Endan quickly poured himself another glass.
“The tea will take a while. That stove takes a long time to heat up.” She sat down across from them and looked him over carefully.
Endan paid her little attention and asked Callina, “What about the welts on my back?”
The pink-eyed girl shrugged. “You were among slavers for about a month. You probably refused to work or obey… plenty of them will beat you for that. Grandfather bought you from a slaver who either knew very little about you, or who was unwilling to divulge what he knew.”
“So I am his slave now?” Endan asked, his voice full of spite.
“Ooohh,” Mesilde said, feisty and daring. “The human reputation for rebellion. I’ve heard a lot about that!”
“Mesilde, stop it,” Callina told her friend. “He’s been through Hell and – well, not quite back. I think he’s a long way from being okay, and wanting to buck against whatever hurt him is a completely reasonable reaction.”
“They took something from me,” Endan added.
“The K’zzyrch take from everybody. They think that since they are from Vaharrish the Glorious and have been fighting the Dark Apostates for so long that they can have whatever they want. I think their battle has madethem just as evil as their oppressors.”
“Sure,” Mesilde scoffed, clearly giving the term no credit. “If you can truly call them oppressed at all.”
“Something important,” he clarified, ignoring her comment. “I just… I can’t figure out what it is, but I have a feeling that it was the most important thing there is to me.”
“That is a terrible loss,” Mesilde sympathized. It seemed like she was being sincere rather than sarcastic this time. “If we are able to help you get it back…”
“Do not promise –” the pink-eyed girl began.
“What you cannot deliver,” she finished for Callina. “I know what your grandfather always says, but I said ‘if.’ We can at least try.”
Callina sighed and nodded. She turned and looked to Endan and told him, “My grandfather didn’t buy you to be a slave, but neither is he setting you free outright. He is a doctor in several sciences, and right now his main research is xenobiology. He wants to study how different alien species get along together…. or don’t. He can explain more about that when he gets back, but for right now just know that you won’t be asked to do any manual labor.”
“But he wants something from me?” Endan asked, sounding disappointed. “All I want is to get my life back to normal.”
“If I may…” Mesilde cut in. “If you try it out there on your own, you will get yourself killed before you even manage to remember who you are and what you lost, let alone finding anyone to give you passage. With the doctor, you have an ally, someone who has no intention to hurt you, and who would be willing – and I say this because I know his character – to help you when the time comes.”
“So I’m trapped?”
Callina sighed. “Do you feel trapped? I suppose in your circumstances you would, no matter how much we assure you that we’re working in your interests as well as our own. You have options, Endan… whether you like them or not is another story.”
Endan was trying to think things over, to decide what made sense and what didn’t, but just then thinking was the hardest thing in the world for him to do. Callina let him be for a while, knowing that she could do nothing more for him. It was her grandfather who had all the connections, who had done all the research. They would have to wait for the old man to get back before they could do anything else.
* ** *** ** *
The upper halls of the bunker were swelteringly hot. Professor Sendrick didn’t like venturing up so high, but when he needed supplies, he had no choice. Fortunately, the runner was speedy, and the transaction didn’t take long at all. It was usually getting through all the detours on the way up and down that made the trip difficult and time-consuming. Sometimes the heat coming from the surface was worse, and the lift would stop working, or certain doors didn’t slide open correctly. They would not be repairable for much longer, he despaired.
Professor Sendrick took a few puffs from his pipe, and then when back to pushing his two-tiered rolling cart down the hall. The lift had come down roughly, and he was grumbling that his glass had better not be damaged. Really, why had he not moved his lab off the planet while he still could? Things just got worse and worse on this planet.
By the time Sendrick got back to his lab, Callina had already started dinner. Her friend was in the kitchen chatting away, but she was at least sweet enough to rush over and help him get the cart inside.
“How is it up there?” Mesilde asked as she started to help put away some of the boxes of food.
“Hot, as usual,” Sendrick replied. He took a jar of shredded leaves from a nearby counter, opened the lid, and added a pinch to his pipe. “I say we start thinking about getting out of here while we still can.”
“Grandfather,” Callina said as she stirred a pot on the stove, “that’s what I have been telling your for years.”
“Don’t you dare rush an old man, young lady,” he chided her, and peered over to see whether he could learn what was cooking. “Bah. Bat wing stew again?”
“You were the one who thought that trapping all those bats would be a good idea,” she reminded him.
“Bats?!” another male voice exclaimed. “’Up there’? Just what kind of place are we in, anyway?”
Sendrick looked over to see the bond-haired human sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of tea in front of him. With a harrumph he said, “So my special project is awake and clean and with us at last. Are you feeling any better, young human?”
Gazing at the old man, Endan let out a long sigh. “Nothing feels right. I should not be here. I should be… somewhere else. There is something missing, and the worst thing is that I can’t even remember what it is.”
“He’s been going on and on about missing something,” Callina informed her grandfather from her place by the stove. She added a few spices to the pot and stirred it a little more.
“Well, those vile lizards plucked him out of his life and pumped him full of their nasty venom.” The old doctor took a puff from his pipe and shook his head as he thought of what a pity the situation was. “He is a long way from Earth, and a long way from… well, wherever he was that the K’zzyrch attacked. Does he remember anything?”
“Just that something major in his life is missing.”
“So… where are we?” Endan asked again.
“And the question that he just asked,” Callina added sardonically.
Sendrick poured himself a cup of tea and sat down across from the human. “We are ten floors down in one of the last bunkers still functioning on planet Sypherie.”
“We’re orbiting Beta Carinae, you know,” Callina added.
Doctor Sendrick gave her an annoyed look before he went on. “Yes, well, Old Sypherie as they are calling it these days. My family and my fellow Rirans lived here for generations as far back as we can trace.” He puffed on his pipe and added, “Until most everyone else decided to move away, that is.”
Endan thought about that for a moment and then asked, “But why did they leave?”
“What’s that, boy? Oh, I suppose you wouldn’t know Sypherie’s history, would you? It was because the rakka rakka became far too numerous,” the old man explained. “Those red-skinned beasts have a love for heat, and they found an underground river of lava that allowed their population to grow and grow, until they cracked the surface and came up to bother us.”
“Lava?” he asked, raising a brow. “And they did not burn up in it?”
“No, lad… no, at at all. You see, the rakka rakka thrive on heat. They can eat the lava for their supper, and they drink steam to stay hydrated. They kept setting fire to our forests, and danced through our farms, cooking our crops right on their stems.”
“It sounds to me that a little cold would have slowed them down,” Endan suggested before taking a sip of his tea. Mesilde refilled his mug as she listened to their conversation.
Sendrick chuckled and puffed his pipe. “A smart lad, despite what you have forgotten! Well, we thought of that, but of course by then it was too late. There were too many of them, and we had no idea just how teeming their population had become until we sprayed an army of them with icy sea water. They retaliated three-fold, and we knew then just how impossible it would be to stop them from taking over the surface. The world leaders decided to start to evacuating the planet before it became too difficult to do so.”
“Then we’re underground… but not very safe, are we?”
The old man could tell by Endan’s tone that he was very critical of the situation. “This bunker was insulated centuries ago to withstand bombs that had been manufactured during some age-old war. It does a decent enough job of keeping the heat out.”
“What about the lava?”
“Endan, that line of question is going to get your emotions going again,” Callina added. “Are you trying to be afraid?”
Endan ignored her and focused on the old doctor’s answer. “The river of lava is miles from this bunker. Even then, my lab is at the center of it. There are heat sensors that will warn us of any temperature increases and give us a chance to evacuate, but I assure you that we are safe.”
“I do not want to die in lava,” Endan replied, his tone serious yet edged in sadness. “I want to get back what I lost, and then go home.”
“Well, I imagine that you do.” Sendrick took a long puff from his pipe before tapping out the contents into a nearby ashtray. “But before I send you off anywhere, I have some questions for you.”
“Questions…” Endan sighed, as though resigning himself to some unwanted fate, “or experiments?”
Sendrick frowned and turned around to look at Callina. “What did you tell him, young lady?”
Callina shrugged and began ladling up bowls of soup. Mesilde, meanwhile, tried to avoid the conversation by helping her serve the other things they’d cooked for dinner. All of their dishes were varied and mismatched, some of them chipped, one of them metal and dented. As assorted as they were, they managed to serve their function.
“Just that you bought him from the slaver. That, and the fact that your research is focused on learning about other species.”
“Well,” he said, looking back at Endan. “Nothing I want to do will hurt you, if that is what you are worried about. It’s all scans and conversations.”
“Then what do I get in return?” He paused as Callina set a bowl in from of him. A plate from Mesilde soon followed, then napkins and silverware. “An antidote to the venom and a ride out of here?”
“Laddie,” the old doctor began as he took up a bent spoon and stirred the steaming soup, “if I had an antidote for k’zshyrk, I would have given it to you a long time ago. It’s so frustrating dealing with the way it has addled your brain! As it stands, all I have is something that can keep you from dying from k’zshyrk. The problem is, it leaves the recipient with permanent brain damage.”
“And your brain is damaged enough already,” Callina said as she sat down with her own food. She winked at him to let him know that she was teasing.
Sendrick tasted a spoonful of soup and then reached for a bottle of what looked like chili oil that waited on a small tray at the center of the table. He shook a few drops into the bowl and stirred it. “Well… there is a truth to what she says. That mixture I came up with could make it so that your memories never clear up. At least without it you stand a chance of recovering… in time.”
Endan took a spoonful of soup and let the flavors roll across his tongue. There were vegetables in it, to be sure, and tiny chunks of meat here and there. He tried not to think about what it was called, and focused on filling his belly. It seemed like ages since he had been given anything besides mush and gruel. Judging by the way his belly felt, the slavers had been more likely to let him starve than to even give him nasty lumps of white paste. What was worse, he had never quite remembered if or what they had fed him.
“You see, grandfather? The soup is not so bad.” Callina smiled at Endan, added chili oil to her own bowl, and then went on eating.
Mesilde, meanwhile, decided to stay out of the conversation, and ate silently.
“Do not judge a recipe by the way a starving man eats it,” Sendrick noted, his words coming out like he was saying an old proverb.
“And do not judge the food set before you by a woman, or you will become that starving man,” she quipped.
The old man chuckled and went on eating. The rest of dinner was rather uneventful, but eating so much had its way of helping remind Endan that he’d done so all too rarely in the some since his first injection of venom from the vile, slithering K’zzyrch. He wondered (to himself, and certainly not out loud) what other trivial, routine things like eating and washing would help spark his memories.
* ** *** ** *
Later that evening, Endan sat in the old man’s lab, which was mostly quiet, since Callina had left to spend some time in Mesilde’s part of the bunker. It turned out that several families lived down there, scattered here and there and trying to get by until they could get off of the planet. Sendrick had a stack of notebooks and audio recorders in front of him, and he seemed to be searching for something in them.
“Ah, there it is!” he said after a while, right before Endan was about to excuse himself and go to bed early out of sheer boredom. “In all of my studies, I have met one other human, and it was years and years ago. I did not manage to get much out of him, though. He had already, uh… met his demise.”
“You killed him?” Endan gasped, ready to flee the room if he had to.
“Oh, no, laddie. I never kill the species I am researching. No, no, no, he had already been shot in some of ridiculous battle in a bar. I happened to be there, and the authorities were more than happy to let me have the body if it meant less clean-up for them.”
Endan didn’t even want to talk about how that made him feel. He had enough to deal with as it was. “And you keep all your notes on paper?” he asked instead, changing the subject.
“Not all of them. The scans are all in the computer system, and I have back-ups for when I need to leave. Some of this is simply easier to write down. I can scan it into the system later.” He paused to look over his notes, then asked, “So, Endan, have you thought about what I want from you? I was only able to get basic biological and anatomical data from the other human male. Will you let me scan your living systems?”
Endan took a deep breath and told him, “I have been thinking about it ever since your granddaughter told me why you bought me. I don’t see any reason why I should refuse, but…”
“Go ahead, lad. Say what’s on your mind. Your words give me insight into the human psyche.”
“If I ask to stop… will you?”
Doctor Sendrick didn’t answer right away. He picked up his pipe, filled it with shredded leaves, and lit the bowl until it began to smolder. He took several puffs before saying anything. “Well… tell me this. How do you feel about being rescued from slavery?”
“I feel like I should never have been a slave,” was Endan’s first thought.
“And was I obligated to save you?”
“So now you are saying that you saved me? I though you wanted me for your research. You weren’t exactly being altruistic.”
“What if I decided to sell you back to the slave market when I was done with you?”
Endan eyed the old man, uncertain whether he should be angry or laugh. At length, he came up with this response: “Sendrick, you had Callina clean me up and put ointment on my wounds. You bought me clothes – old-fashioned clothes, but something at least from Earth – you sat me down to eat at the same table as you. I don’t believe for a second that you would sell me back into that hell. You see this as a trade; my freedom for your research.”
“Besides,” he added as the old man sat there puffing his pipe, mulling over his words, “you want to know how long it takes for this venom to wear off in my species.”
Sendrick eventually broke into a smile and set aside his pipe. “You are a smart man, Endan. Did you have an extensive education back on Earth?”
The question caught Endan off guard, and he had to think for a moment before he could reply. “I… I think so, yes. This… thinking hard seems familiar to me. I just don’t remember the specifics of it.”
“I can see a pattern in you already,” Sendrick noted, and he took up a pen and began to scribble in his notebook. “Humans are creatures of habit. Those moments when you’re doing something that you have done – what would you say, almost ten thousand times before? – are the times that you seem to be more aware, more cognizant. I think you are even able to clear away some of those cobwebs in your brain.”
Endan nodded, but decided not to tell him about what had come to him while he’d been in that shower. It was hard enough not to plunge back into that same despair as it was. He leaned over and tried to see what the old man was writing. “I can’t read that, though.”
“Well, you might be educated, but you cannot possibly know every writing system in the galaxy. Tell you what, why don’t you write down Earth’s writing system for me?”
“Earth…” Endan sighed, thinking it over. “Earth has over six thousand languages and hundreds of writing systems. What I know is only a tiny fraction of that. Besides, don’t you have access to the galactic database?”
“Ahhh,” Sendrick grinned. “Another memory. Were you a student of linguistics, then?”
“Me?” Endan gaped, as surprised by the question as he was by the fact that he had been able to pull up that little tidbit of information. “Well… I don’t know.”
“Answer me this then: what do you call the language that you are speaking now?”
“Uh… English. It’s pretty common on Earth.”
Sendrick slipped a finger behind his ear and seemed to be adjusting something. “I turned off my translator. Let me hear you speak it naturally. Tell me something that you have done today.”
“Well… I woke up, met you…” Endan told him. “Then I took a shower and ate dinner.”
“Wow!” Sendrick exclaimed. He flicked his translator back on. “What sounds you can make! Do you know any other languages?”
Endan nodded, and when the old man turned his translator off again and asked to hear it, he started to speak Gaelic. “Dia dhuit. Tá mé ag labhairt na Gaeilge. An bhfuil tú go maith? Endan Clarendon is ainm dom. Ummm… Tá m’árthach foluaineach lán d’eascanna.” And then he added, “…Tá grá agam duit. Ni mits neki.”
“That last part…” Sendrick flicked his translator on once more. “That last thing you said, was that the same language? It had a different sound… a different feel to it.”
Endan didn’t reply right away. Instead, he sat there and stared out in front of him. He wanted to cry. His heart was aching again; he felt incredibly confused, and ever so alone. What had he even said? Of course that wasn’t Gaelic. But he was not about to tell the old man that, and have to answer more questions. Instead, he took several ragged breaths, and once he had gotten hold of himself, he decided to talk.
“I don’t know. Maybe we should talk about something else.”
Doctor Sendrick was writing furiously in his notebook, trying to get down every nuance of what he’d observed. When he set the pen down again, he nodded. “It all gives me information into what it means to be human, so change away. How about we talk about the females of your species?”
The question made Endan’s mouth fall open. He stared at Sendrick in utter disbelief. “Women?”
“I know that humans have females, but little else. We get very limited access to the galactic database down here. Besides, I would rather hear it from a human himself, and not from something slanted by alien viewpoints.”
Endan shook his head. All he could think of was the cinnamon skin that had once touched him. “Women… sometimes…” He sighed, feeling his heart tie itself into knots. Why did he want to scream so badly? “Sometimes, they smell like chocolate, and chilies… sometimes they smell like cinnamon.” Why was he remembering spicy hot chocolate, so frothy and creamy and sprinkled with cinnamon, all of a sudden?
“Fascinating” the old man said, writing so fast and so focused that he didn’t bother pause and glance up to see the look on Endan’s face.
A song came to him then. He’d sung it so many times before, received such affection for it. The words demanded to be heard, to come out and vibrate through his throat. He could not hold back from singing it.
“I want to live with a cinnamon girl. I could be happy the rest of my life with her. A dreamer of pictures, I run in the night. You see us together, chasing the moonlight. My cinnamon girl.” He didn’t stop when he felt the hot tears streaming down his face. He pushed through all of the words, forcing them out even as his throat closed up. He leaned forward as he choked out the last words, hiding his face in his hands. “You see, my baby loves to dance.”
No matter how well he remembered the words to the song, he had no idea who had sung it, nor why it had been so important. He had only the feeling that it not been him who had loved it so much. Then why – why was the need to remember it so strong? Who was this cinnamon girl, and why did his heart ache when he thought of her? He went on sobbing, his heart in too much pain, as though it was ripping apart instead of beating, to push away the old doctor when he tried to comfort him.