Light on Shattered Water
Next morning I was given clothes. Not mine, but my hosts had gone to some trouble. The pants were of Rris manufacture and a material lighter than denim, but it looked like the pattern had been copied from my blue jeans right down to the rivets. No zipper, instead there were wooden buttons on the fly. They fit all right, as did the long-sleeved green and brown patterned tunic I had to belt around my waist and the cream-colored quilted sleeveless vest. That vest was a blessing, the warmest thing I had.
Following breakfast I was taken to see Hirht again. It was back in that oversized white room with the desk over in the corner. What was the purpose of that place? To show who was in charge? A Rris statement of power like the human convention of facing your clients from behind an oversized executive desk?
It was a gray day outside, periodic flakes drifting out of the overcast. The shutters on those ceiling-high windows were open for what light they could admit: a greyish dimness that didn't do anything to add warmth to the room. This time there was another cushion at the desk and Hirht waved me to it with a flick of his hand from his seat, just watching me and not saying anything. I sat down awkwardly, again wishing they had proper chairs, even if they were the rickety things I'd used out in Westwater. He was only wearing a pleated kilt of some dark material but his knife still hung at his hip.
"I was told you didn't sleep very well last night," he finally said.
I nodded slightly. "I've had... better."
"Does that happen often?"
"Sir. I haven't... it's the first time for a while."
"Uhn." His cushion rustled as he shifted. "Is there anything we can do? Do you want something to help you... no, you can't, can you."
"No sir. Thank you."
"Is it going to be like that every night?"
"I don't know," I shook my head. "It's... I can't tell."
"You don't know what causes it?"
I opened my mouth, closed it again and swallowed. Just shook my head again.
"That means 'no', doesn't it," he said. "Huhnn. The Mediator said you were quite upset when he left you. Maybe it's just the changes. I know for you they must be difficult. I'm sure you'll get used to it. He said you had disturbing nights in Westwater and those calmed down. These will too."
"I hope so," I forced a smile, for what little that meant to him. Sheer force of habit, but I was careful not to show teeth.
His ears flickered backwards, but only a flinch. "Are those clothes enough for you."
I reached down to rub the linen of the vest between thumb and forefinger. "They are fine, sir. I like this coat. Warm. But would I be able to have my foot coverings back? The floors are very cold."
"Cold?" He glanced downwards in surprise, then looked at my bare feet and this time his ears did go down. He stared for a few seconds before drawing his gaze back to my face. "Good lady Wilder wants to see you at the university this afternoon. You would need them to go there?"
"Out there?" I looked out one of the windows at the snow and ice outside, thinking frostbite. "Yes, sir. Yes. I'd freeze without them."
"All right. I'll make sure you have them. Now, your machine. Can you fix that?"
"It doesn't need repairing. It's just that it needs to be... refilled. You can use it for about eight hours, then it needs to be refilled. I need the shiny cloth that was with it to do that."
"Can you do that this afternoon."
"It will take longer. It needs sunlight. When there is not much sun it takes longer to refill."
"You fill it with sunlight?"
I suppressed the urge to pinch the bridge of my nose. "Something like that."
"Something like that," he frowned, a crest of wrinkles marching up his muzzle. "Can you be more specific?"
So I tried to explain about electricity and batteries and found that necessity drew me deeper and deeper into a mire of metaphors that ended up confusing us both. He was getting the impression that electricity was a liquid that could be stored in jars, I was getting the impression that this was going to drive me up the wall. Preschoolers accept the fact that electricity is there, it works. They just have to stick a fork into a wall socket and they have the proof. Here I was trying to explain it to someone who'd never had anything to do with anything even remotely electrical in a language I couldn't speak properly. When I stopped to try and get my thoughts together he raked his claws through his mane. "Maybe this can wait for a while," he said. "Mikah, can you say [something] far your kind is ahead of Rris? You understand?"
I hesitated. "I think so. My kind went through a time like this maybe three hundred years ago. I'm not sure. I think it's impossible to say exactly. I'm not sure it's very important."
I shrugged. "My kind doesn't exist here."
"Comparing ourselves with something that doesn't exist. Huhn? But what if we DO meet your kind someday? What could they do to us?"
Didn't he realize... "You've already met them. What are they doing to you?"
He looked puzzled, "I don't understand..." then he stopped in his tracks as comprehension dawned. "Ah," he said and looked down at the papers on his desk and whatever was written there. "Ah." When he looked at me again it was a different expression: wary, startled, as though he were seeing something he hadn't noticed before. "[something] of change," he said.
"I don't understand that word."
"A messenger. Carrier of gifts or otherwise. [harbinger]." He snorted. "Shave me but you're right. That's a twist I hadn't noticed. Just you and in two days you've already started a fire under the university."
"I haven't..." I started to protest, then realised. "That is a... figure of speech, isn't it."
He smiled then. "That's something else we're going to have to address. There've been concerns about your language skills so we will have to find a tutor for you. You will need a couple of days a week, but I think that shouldn't be too much of an immediate problem. See how you get on with Aesh Wilder this afternoon."
Aesh Wilder, a female name that rang a bell. "That is Rasa? The one who studies animals?"
"Huhnn," he frowned. "Animals. Rris. The way life works. Yes."
Her. I remembered the way she'd looked at me, like she wanted to open me up to find out how I worked. "Why does she want to see me?"
"Mikah, there're over a dozen scholars tearing at each other's throats to be able to talk with you. I think it's best that she's first."
It was just after midday when the guards came for me. They brought the solar sheet for the laptop along with my boots and socks and stood watching with interest as I put them on. Someone had been playing with the buckles and fucked up the settings. Finally got them settled and the officer asked, "Finished?"
"Ready." Felt good to get something warm on my feet and I was equally grateful for the gloves the cubs had given me. My guards led me out of the palace by another route, this one ending at a side entrance on the northern face of the palace that opened onto a cobbled yard. A group of low buildings with peaked roofs were situated on the far side of the square, carriages and wagons visible through opened double doors. A Rris in servant's livery led a pair of llamas through a door and into one of the larger buildings. The palace stables I guessed.
A pair of wooden four-wheel passenger carriages were waiting in the courtyard. Elegant things that vaguely resembled Wells-Fargo stagecoaches, save that every available surface was elaborately decorated with relief engravings. The lamps on the roof, screw heads, door handles and other fixtures were polished brass. Each coach had a pair of elk or somesuch in the halters, their tracery studded with more brass. A guard held the door open while I climbed in. The entire interior of the cab was upholstered in studded green leather, from the ceiling to the facing benches that wheezed as I settled myself. The cab rocked as two Rris guards in all their armor climbed in to sit opposite and stare at me.
There were voices outside, then with a lurch we started moving. The windows were glazed, but the glass was so distorted they let light pass but it was impossible to actually see anything through them, from the inside or the outside. I guess that was the idea. It was a rough ride. There were cobbles under the snow and no suspension in the coach. The cushions helped, but it still felt like you could feel every stone the thing ran over. I had to copy my guards and make use of the leather loops set around the inside as handholds but that didn't offer much comfort when you could feel the wheels skidding sideways on the ice.
"Is it a long way?" I asked.
Both my escort's muzzles twitched back in hurriedly-suppressed grimaces. "Ah, no sir," one said. "Not far. The eastern quarter."
Wherever that was. "Is there anyway to open the windows?"
"What for?" the other guard asked, warily.
"To see outside."
"No sir." He said. "We can't do that."
I'd figured as much. I just sat and watched amorphous shapes going past through the warped glass. There were starts and stops, occasionally voices shouting, the complaining noises of animals. If the guards hadn't been there I'd have probably opened the door or at least tried to open a window. That was probably one reason they were there.
The ride didn't take too long, about a quarter of an hour before we stopped and the door opened. Four other guards ushered me out onto a snowswept drive. It was a big old building built of dark clapboard and hidden away by the trees that surrounded it: green and white evergreens, the skeletons of deciduous. I wasn't sure how many floors there were to the place: the frontage was a riot of shingle roofs and gables, annexes and additions, windows of all shapes and sizes. This was the university? It wasn't what I'd been expecting.
Looking around I could see other buildings through the trees. There was a large brick place nearby and another slate roof visible a short distance away. "Here." a guard guided me toward the front porch.
"This is the university?" I asked him.
"Part," he grunted. "Other buildings the rest."
A man of many words. The steps looked worn with use and the front door was open with still more guards in the reception hall inside. It was warmer there and everything was made from polished wood that glowed golden-red in the meager lamplight. What parts of the floor weren't laid with threadbare rugs were scored and marked from claws. No paintings here, instead the walls were decorated with ornate tapestries featuring geometric designs that could almost have been old Celtic. Rasa was on me as soon as I stepped into the place. "Ah, welcome, Misah. I'm glad you could come."
"Mikah," I corrected. "I mean, Michael. I like seeing more of your town."
"Good, good," she said, looking me up and down and I wondered if she'd even heard me. "Well, we don't have much time, so if you would follow me... Watchkeeper, do you need an entire army [something] around after him?"
"I have orders," the officer responded.
"Orders," she hissed softly and waved a hand. "Oh well, come along. This way. We don't have all day."
I followed her agitated tail and heard the guards fall in behind me. Down the hall into the dimmer interiors, up a narrow staircase. The place had an old smell to it: wood and fabric, the underlying scents of beeswax and oils and something else. It was stronger when we got to the next floor and reminded me of hospitals.
Halfway down a corridor and guards grabbed me, pushing me against the wall and closing in around me as a stranger in great haste rounded a corner and wisely froze when it found itself staring down the muzzles of four flintlock pistols. "This area [something]," a guard snarled. "Who are you."
"Hysck," Rasa provided with a snort. "A student in the wrong place. What are you doing here? You were told this building was closed today."
The student stared wide-eyed at the guns, ears laid down flat. "Ah... I had to get my [something]." There was a sheaf of tatty papers clasped in his/her hand. "I was leaving."
"You know?" the officer asked Rasa.
"Huhn? Oh. Yes. She does have a [something] she's working on. Not much trouble."
The officer snatched the papers from the student's hand, leafed through them, snorted and passed them back before waving her along. She ducked her head to him and sidled past, staring incredulously at me before scampering off down the stairs with a clattering of claws. She'd have a story to tell her friends all right.
There were no further incidents. The corridors were empty, as were the rooms we passed. I caught a few glimpses through open doors: cushions and a few low desks, parchment drawings on the walls, charts and wooden models, other rooms with containers like glass mason jars with things suspended in greenish liquid lining the shelves. Now I realised where I'd smelt that smell before: biology labs. Formaldehyde. That didn't do anything to reassure me.
Then Rasa opened a door and gently took my arm to show me in. I went along, all the time plagued by the gut feeling I was making a bad mistake. It was a large room lit by a chandelier of gas lamps in pale glass globes; if there were windows they were behind the heavy green drapes opposite. There was a bookcase with glass-lattice doors protecting thick leather-bound tomes. On the walls hung charts and framed pictures of all sizes, anatomical diagrams of Rris, deer, beavers, other animals painstakingly rendered in charcoal and ink and some in startling color. Ten or so Rris had been seated at low desks and were standing as I entered. I could see the fur bristling on several of them as voices rose in excited chattering and then all my attention was focused on the table in the center of the room: large enough to lie on, padded with green leather and with several sets of heavy leather straps dangling from the sides. Two guards had followed me in, closed the door and taken up stations on each side. My heart lurched into double time. I couldn't take my eyes off that table.
Rasa was talking, waving her hands and gesturing as she tried to get the others to sit and calm down. Eventually they did so and their eyes stayed locked on me while she led me forward. "Nothing to worry about," she assured them. "He looks dangerous, but he is civilized. He won't [something]."
"Goods words for your memorial speech," someone said and there were chuckles.
"Very amusing," she sighed. "Now, as you see he appears to be [something]. He can think, possibly as well as a Rris. He has a [something] language of his own. His [something] hands are well [something] for using tools. I've tried to [something] a match in [something] journal of [something], but there was nothing [something]."
"Understandable," a young-looking Rris spoke up. "But what exactly IS it?" those sentiments were echoed from several of them.
"I have a few ideas. He claims his kind [something] from a variety [something] in the [something]..."
She went on at length like that. Parts I could understand but so much of the time she was using names and words I was completely unfamiliar with. Others started asking questions: How could she be so sure? Could anyone verify my story? Was there anything like this on record? What was I exactly? What did I eat? Drink?
It went on. I was shivering and only partly from the cold. A couple of the others went to the bookshelves and retrieved several books and a couple of cylindrical scrolls they opened to unroll A2 sized parchments. Pictures of chimpanzees. Dissected chimpanzees.
I flinched wildly at the touch on my arm and Rasa jerked away in shock. "Mikah?" her hand came up, like she was ready to ward me off if I came at her.
"W..." I had to try several times to pronounce the Rris words, "What is happening?"
"They just want to talk. Do you understand? Mikah? Just talk." She reached out again, slowly, and touched my arm. I know she could feel the trembling there and she looked worried, then looked around at the table with its straps, across to where a line drawing of a dissected chimp was spread out across a desk. "Oh. Shave me... Mikah, you think we..." she laughed then, drawing attention from the other Rris. "Mikah, his lordship would cut my [something] out if he thought we would even scratch you. You understand that?"
"Good. Now come over here. We just want to look at you."
This time I went where she showed me, across to the desks to be seated on a cushion. "All right?" she asked.
I nodded and she patted my hair, made me feel like a dog.
The other Rris gathered. Scholars, their equivalent of biologists - I can't call them anthropologists - I guessed they were that, but looking at them it was so hard to believe it. Fur of different hues, odd joints in the limbs, clawed fingers over illuminated texts and those feline visages that twitched and stared at me. One of them crouched opposite me and tipped his? her? head back and forth while amber eyes examined me. "You can understand me?"
The pupils snapped to dark pools. Rris muttering and whispers went around the room, sounding like wind across a thatched roof. "How well can you talk?"
"I... I can manage. Please, talk slowly."
"[Something] sounding," another growled.
"With that mouth I'm surprised he can talk at all," another answered.
"Quite [something] though. See..." A clawed hand came up toward my face and faltered. The Rris looked worried, "May I touch?"
I swallowed, then slowly nodded, "Okay... Yes."
Fingerpads poked my cheek and stroked along my jawbone. "He has more [something]."
More Rris were touching me then. Fur and fingerpads felt inhumanly strange as they ran over my beard and skin, exploring and probing. They opened books to show sections of primate skulls and jaws. Apes of various types; something that almost resembled a chimp but had the damnedest coif-style hairdo. A Rris wanted to examine my hand, which I reluctantly extended. Three of them joined in, muttering and exclaiming, folding and bending my fingers, feeling for tendons and joints and comparing it with drawings of ape bones. A Rris with white and black speckled muzzle had produced a drawing board from somewhere, a black-stained hand moved quickly and competently as he/she sketched me.
I went with the flow.
They wanted me to strip: asked, then insisted. Like modeling for life drawing I tried to tell myself as I stood there shivering in the cold. Embarrassing; not just the nudity but the exposure, the vulnerability, the way they treated me like a piece of meat. The examination was very thorough and impersonal. The two guards watched, wide-eyed at first, then one whispered something to the other and they sniggered. There were exclamations over this and that: my ribs, my spine, shoulders and arms. My legs and feet drew a lot of attention, especially my ankles and heels. Rris were startled when I convulsed as furry digits ran over the soles of my feet: hell, can I help it if I'm ticklish? One touched the mass of scar tissue on the back of my shoulder and there were questions asked about that and all the other marks that criss-crossed me. I learned my heart is in a different position to theirs. My genitals caused remarks and more comparisons with anatomical diagrams and more questions. Of course I don't have a sheath, something I had in common with the apes in the sketches. I still didn't know what Rris male organs were like but apparently my physical shape bore more of a resemblance to the primates than to Rris. My genitals are also disproportionately larger than Rris'. I don't know why; maybe we breed for it. I don't have mating cycles. They wanted to know how well I could balance without a tail, why my grip was so much stronger than a Rris'... The questions went on, as did the examination, until I had to stop: I was literally freezing.
"Shave me, you are cold," Rasa sounded astonished when she touched my violently shivering arm. "Why didn't you say something."
"I tried to," I said. It was true, I had. It'd dragged out into a debate about what kind of climate I could've come from. "I don't think anyone was listening."
"Shave everything. I should have thought of..." She hissed in annoyance and scratched at a cheek tuft. "Get your clothes."
The Rris who was sketching me complained. The trio who were trying to find a precedent for my ankle joints complained, but Rasa had a few words with them. They looked at the guards and I didn't hear anything more out of them. The next couple of hours passed more quietly. They wanted to hear my version of how humans evolved so I sat on one of their cushions and recounted as best as I could: arboreal primates forced from the trees when the veldts of Africa began to open out, working in groups, scavenging and hunting food, learning to stand erect which freed the forearms to carry rocks, then shape tools...
A Rris wanted to know what we'd been before we were apes.
Another asked, "If your kind grew from the apes, then did we also grow from something?"
There were a few low growls and tails lashed, then the officer returned to announce I was through for the day. Time to return to the palace. Rasa saw me down to the front door where she patted my shoulder, "We'll see you later in the week."
It was night outside. A cold wind stirred the trees and I saw distant lights through the branches. The carriage was cold and dark. My guards sat in the gloom and watched me as I stared at the glass and listened to wheels clattering on stone and ice. Occasional lights passing by outside scrolling across metal on their armor, flitting across their inscrutable features.
At the palace they shepherded me through a side door and along corridors with their feeble oil and gas lamps. I saw Rris servants and a couple of times we passed by better-dressed nobility who stared openly at me. Once a high-ranking pair blocked the corridor, demanding to know what I was. The officer smoothly diverted them to the side while the other guards spirited me past.
Back in the sanctuary of my dimly-lit rooms I ran the bath, stripped off and sank into the water. When the water got cold I kicked the faucet and let it run until water gurgled into the overflow. Just soaked, trying to unwind. I guess it worked: I never heard Shyia come in.
"How did it go?"
I flinched; water sloshed. The Mediator was standing in the door, hands tucked in the waistband of loose-fitting black breeches. "Oh, you," I rubbed my face and looked at my watch: 22:23. "It's been a long day."
"Not so well." His ears flickered. "I heard they were quite pleased. You feel otherwise?"
"I just don't enjoy being goddamn exhibit A," I muttered.
"What was that noise?"
I slapped water. "It's different from the other side."
His tail lashed, then he gestured at the bedroom and said, "I brought your food. I'll leave it for you."
"Thanks," I said and he left me alone then, something for which I was grateful.
It snowed heavily the next day. The heavy fall muffled everything and made the world a silent, gray place glimpsed through the ethereal clouds of drifting whiteness as I was driven back to the university.
My eyes were sore. I had the beginnings of a headache even though it was barely 7:00. I hadn't slept well that night, spending most of it lying and watching the gas lamps in that pox-ridden chandelier flickering. Still hadn't figured out how to turn the damn thing off. Maybe I couldn't. It seemed to have a life of its own.
More of the Rris had brought sketchpads and this time there was a fire in the grate. At least this time no matter how physically uncomfortable their examination was I wasn't freezing. Just as embarrassing though. They were thorough, impartial and merciless: I felt like a cadaver at a medical school. Their furry hands felt so weird and worst of all they tickled.
There was hour after hour of that while they questioned and probed and sketched: close-ups of my fingers and hands, feet and ankles, musculature, bones and ribs, my genitals, ears and nose, the patterns of my teeth. Of course it's a slow process, I should know. I saw how much detail they wanted to get and I saw how long it took one of them just to draw a finger, and I resigned myself to the fact that I'd be doing this for some time to come.
I did learn a few things from my time there. A few snippets of information about Rris history and evolution. They had evolved from cats, some kind of proto-felid that may have looked something like a distorted bobcat or lynx. They'd uncovered fossilized remains of creatures that bore a superficial resemblance to Rris but they'd summarily decided the remains belonged to a completely different species. My few remarks about evolution were causing stirs in academic circles.
As did my correction of their belief that muscles were powered by blood pressure.
"Of course it is," a rather thin male laughed when I queried this. "What else could it be?"
I gestured with my hands as I fumbled for words. "There are... very many small parts of the body making each muscle. They are like many tiny muscles, very many, all making one. When a muscle has to move the brain tells all the tiny parts to grow small. They all grow small, therefore so does the muscle." I frowned. "Make sense?"
There were murmured consultations between some of them, a derisive bark from the skinny Rris, "It's been proven that loss of blood weakens a body. It [something] that blood fills the muscles, [something / expanding?] them and [something] motion. Tiny muscles making muscle... Hah! Any fools here to believe that?"
I shrugged. "The heart moves the blood. What powers that?" He opened his mouth and closed it again, doing a credible impersonation of a goldfish. I pressed on, "It is possible to make a dead body's muscles move without any blood at all." The old 'frog-legs' routine. I'd done that one in biology way back in high school, I could explain it when they asked how.
The thin Rris who'd laughed at me just glared at me and didn't say anything more. I later found out he'd been pushing a thesis on the subject; my correction would blow holes in his credibility around the university. I hadn't made a friend that day. It would happen again in the future, but I tried to make sure that any time I did try to correct any misconceptions or interpretations Rris held I'd do it as diplomatically as possible.
This examination lasted longer than the other one had. On top of the physical they wanted to try and find out what medicines I might have a reaction to. They questioned me at length about a number of concoctions but I couldn't tell them much: I didn't know what they were showing me so I really had no idea what kind of effect they'd have on me. It was near midnight when they let me go and I climbed back into the coach to return to the palace. I couldn't tell if the guards were the same ones from the first night, but like that night they sat and stared at me the whole way back.
End Light on Shattered Water 12