The Long Road Home
I did not realise I had fallen asleep until I opened my eyes and felt someone gently shake my shoulders.
"Isha," whispered a familiar voice, "Isha, wake up."
I gave a big sigh and found that my head was resting over my crossed arms on the edge of Xeenan's bed. I snapped my upper body up and looked around, finding Za'Becc standing beside me. Her colour had come back and she appeared very well rested, but the dark bags still remained under her eyes. I saw the children sitting near the table, eating their own portions of the meal Nadar–ian'ah had set out for them. My friend did not take her hand off my shoulder as he smiled at me, her red eyes sparkling once again.
"I'm sorry to wake you Isha, but I wanted to make sure you had something to eat," she nodded to what was left of the food.
I rubbed my eyes, "No Becky, I should be sorry. I fell asleep when I wasn't suppose to. How is Xeenan doing?"
Becky sighed sadly, "I don't know, he still hasn't woken up."
I looked over at the unconscious male and frowned when I saw his closed eyes. The continuous beeping of the monitors filled the air and I thought for a moment that the rhythm sounded faster. I turned back to my friend and saw that she was staring longingly at Xeenan, with her hand laying on top of his forehead. Often she would brush away a few of his thick locks from his head and run a finger over the bridge above his eyes. I hated seeing my friend this way and I hated feeling helpless to be unable to lift the pain she was feeling. After a few minutes she turned from Xeenan and looked at me with a forced smile.
"Come Isha, eat."
I shook my head, "No thanks, I already ate. The rest is for you," I gave my friend a stern look, "No arguments Becky. You and the children need the food more than I do."
She sighed and nodded, then joined the children and ate the rest of the food silently. I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead, wondering if my friends' appetites will get better when they leave...my eyes snapped open when a sudden thought came to mind. Where will they go? They can never return to their home world, it's not safe for them anymore. Even if they hid somewhere on the planet, the High Elder would eventually find them all and kill them. I furrowed my brow in worry and instinctively ran my fingers through my hair. I winced at a snag and realised how filthy I still was.
Glancing over at the table, I noticed the children play with the bowls and cups, while Becky looked from them to Xeenan. I heard the door open and I raised my head to see Nadar–ian'ah walk in. I noticed she was holding a clear, plastic bag of liquid in her right hand. She nodded to us as she came closer and I saw Becky and the two children immediately jump from their seats. They lowered their heads and hunched their shoulders in a submissively; something all Yautja slaves were conditioned to do when in front of an Elder. I was about to speak, when Nadar–ian'ah shook her head. The Elder approached Becky and placed her hand gently on her shoulder. My friend was so startled that she gasped and cringed under her hand, for no high ranking Yautja ever touched a slave. I saw the children glance up and begin to make small whimpers as they lowered their heads again. Nadar–ian'ah's hand remained on Za'Becc's shoulder and she gave a soft purr.
"Do not be afraid of me, you don't have to lower your gaze anymore. As you may already know, I too was once a born and raised slave. So why should we look away from each other?"
I could see Becky hesitate for a few moments. Finally, she willed herself to look up at the Elder and was greeted by a warm smile. I noticed Al and Sor'an taking a few glances up at Nadar–ian'ah,, confused about whether to follow with their old life or with the Elder's statement. Nadar–ian'ah looked down at the children and smiled at them.
"Rise little ones, there is no need to fear," she said as held out her hand.
Al and Sor'an looked at me questioningly and I gave them a reassuring nod. The children reached out slowly and took the hand of the Elder, standing tall. I noticed that Al and Sor'an relaxed and they even smiled at Nadar–ian'ah. I turned to Becky when I heard her speak with a slight quiver.
"Elder, I...I thank you for what you have done for me and my friends. And for taking care of Xeenan, he would not be alive if it weren't for your superior healing skills. I... I'm in your dept, Elder."
Nadar–ian'ah bowed her head to her, "Anything to help a fellow slave."
The Elder, walked to the unconscious male, with the clear bag in hand. Setting the bag down for a moment, she looked over the male's bandages, his bound leg and the monitor. She took out a small tool with a square screen and ran it over Xeenan's body. The four of us waited in silently as we watched Nadar–ian'ah prod over the injured warrior. When she was done, she turned around and gave a grin.
"The male's rib and leg fractures are completely healed and his vital signs have improved slightly. It's not much, but it's a start. If he keeps recovering like this, he may open his eyes soon."
I exhaled with relief and smiled wide as I heard the children cry out and jump in happiness. Becky's eyes sparkled even more with hope and I saw her shoulders relax. Al made another excited cry and leapt into my friend's arms, giving her a tight hug. A laugh came from Becky as she returned the hug while gazing at Xeenan with love. A great deal of distress had been lifted from all of us. My smile remained on my face as I watched Nadar–ian'ah hang the liquid filled bag on a tall apparatus, then attach a thin tube to the bottom of it. At the end of the tube was a small needle, to which the Elder stuck into the crook of Xeenan's arm. The process looked no different than what doctors did with an intravenous back on Earth.
"This is to keep him from becoming dehydrated and to help him gain strength to recover," Nadar–ian'ah explained. With her task finished she turned her head to me, "Seeing as you are the only one left who needs to be cleaned, I have the bathing area prepared for you."
I stood from my seat and stretched my legs.
"That sounds really great, I've been dying for a bath."
The Elder chuckled, "Good, follow me."
I walked to Becky before I left, "I'll be back as soon as I can."
She smiled, "Take your time Isha, you deserve to have some luxury after all you've gone through."
I snickered and thanked her, then hurried out the door to catch up to Nadar–ian'ah. She looked me curiously with her head cocked to one side.
I shrugged modestly, "Yeah, Za'Becc gave me that nickname and eventually all the slaves were calling me that."
Nadar–ian'ah nodded her understanding and smiled with her eyes, "It suits you very well my friend."
She headed down the orange lit corridor and I followed eagerly. After a few twists and turns, we came to a black, double door that was decorated with bright silver carvings of scaling spirals and sharp zig zags. As soon as the aged female came within a foot to the door, it parted for her and she stepped inside. I followed her into the large room and felt warm, moist air touched my skin, causing goosebumps to form. Nadar–ian'ah moved to one side and I found myself looking at a large, oval shaped hot tub, filled with the clear water. Steam rose from the tub and curled in the air as I noticed stack of towels and a cluster of glass bottles, containing what had to be soap, on the edge of the bath. I also saw a small metal comb and a fine–haired scrub brush, laying near the towels. I gazed at the pool with amazement and anticipation.
The Elder chuckled at my codfish face and indicated which bottle contained soap for my hair and body. She had even set out an oil to rub over my skin when I was finished. I was about to ask Nadar–ian'ah if she had a razor, since my underarms and legs had the "all natural" look, but I stopped myself when I remembered that the Yautja did not have noticeable body hair like humans did. Most likely she would have no idea what I was talking about.
"The water is constantly filtered, so you won't be bathing in your own filth," the Elder explained. She then pointed to a small panel near the edge of the pool, "if you need anything, press that button and a signal will be sent to my wrist computer."
I gave a sigh of wonder, "Thank–you Nadar–ian'ah, this is more that I could ask for."
She gave a nod, “Enjoy, Dakota."
The aged female turned and disappeared through the double doors. As soon as she was gone, I stripped out of my clothes, took off the converter and translator and stepped into the water, giving a long relaxing sigh. Warm water sloshed over my shoulders as I sat back and closed my eyes, breathing in the moist steam. I took a deep breath and slipped my head under water, letting my hair soak for a moment before coming back up. Reaching to the side of the pool I selected the shampoo and poured some of it in my hand. A runny, emerald liquid spilled out and I immediately caught a sharp odour that smelled something like a combination of roses and pine needles. Slapping the soap on my wet scalp, I scrubbed vigorously and felt a mounds of suds loosen the matted knots in my hair. I spent a good five minutes scrubbing away four weeks of dirt and sweat, then submerged and rinsed. Coming back up, I grabbed the same bottle and promptly spent another five minutes of hair washing. As I squeezed the water from my locks, I could run my fingers through without hitting a snag.
I reached for the body wash and poured some on the brush, right away my nose was filled with a citrus smell. I sat on the edge of the tub and washed every inch of my body until my skin tingled. Water rushed up to my neck as I slipped back into the tub, feeling the velvety suds rinse from my clean skin. I leaned back and allowed myself to relax in the water, it felt unbelievably wonderful to be clean again—well, almost. My tongue told me that filmy plaque remained on my teeth and I shuddered at the thought of how many cavities were drilling at my enamel. I completely forgot to ask Nadar–ian'ah if she had something to cleanse my teeth. Oh well, I could ask her later. Right now, I wanted to soak and let all my stresses melt away.
By the time I got out of the hot tub, my skin was pink and wrinkled. I wrapped myself in large, fluffy towel and dried off my body and hair, then rubbed the oil over my skin, loving how it made it feel silky smooth. I changed back into my clothes and picked up the metal comb. Turning it over, I saw that the long, thin tips appeared to have been filed down. I shrugged off my confusion and worked the comb through my hair. A high pitched beep surprised me and I pulled the curtain of locks away from my face to look at the panel. I heard Nadar–ian'ah's voice.
"Dakota, I'm outside. Would it be alright if I come in?"
"Yeah, come on in."
I combed out the last knot as the female Elder entered. I saw her smile down at me while I brushed away my long hair.
"Good, I'm glad that comb works for you."
I nodded and held it out, "just out of curiosity, how come it looks like the teeth were filed?"
"Because that’s an old braiding comb."
I cocked and eyebrow, "braiding comb?"
"Yes," Nadar–ian'ah pulled out one of her decorated dreadlocks for me to see, "a braiding comb is used to plait our hair this way. If I did not file tips, they would have cut your scalp."
I lowered my eyebrows for a moment.
"But they didn't use a braiding comb for my hair during the feast."
"That’s because your hair was not meant to stay like that. A braiding comb is used only for ceremonial purposes and to ensure that the braid stays permanently in place. As you can imagine, this process takes a very long time."
Painfully long, I thought. I could only wonder how much torture a sharp, comb would put on the scalp. I even winced at the thought of how hard their hair would have to be pulled, so it could be tightly bound into dreadlocks.
"Nadar–ian'ah, this might sound like a dumb question, but do you have anything I could brush my teeth with?"
The aged female tilted her head to one side, "Brush your teeth?"
I waved my hand in the air for an explanation, "Uh, something to clean away harmful bacteria from my mouth."
Nadar–ian'ah chuckled, "Oh, I understand. Actually, I was one step ahead of you."
She reached for a pouch on her belt and took out a small container that was filled with a red liquid.
"This is a mouth wash that children use. Rinse your mouth twice with it and take care not to swallow."
I took the container and lifted off the small lid. For some reason I expected to smell cinnamon, but all I got was a sour odour. I sighed, put the rim to my lips and took a mouthful of the wash—only to spit it back out again when my mouth burned and my eyes watered. I could not stop myself from coughing and I felt the Elder pat my back.
"Are you alright, Dakota?"
I managed to speak with a prickling tongue, "Kids use this?"
"Yes, they do."
Good grief, this wash had to be five times as intense as Listerine!
"Remind me not to get the adult formula."
I looked back at the container. Was this really worth it? My tongue over my gauzy teeth said yes and before I could hesitate I took another gulp and forced myself to keep the liquid in. Closing my eyes, I quickly sloshed the mouth wash around my cheeks and over my teeth. When I felt my tongue go numb and tears roll down my cheeks, I spat out the wash over a drain on the floor. I kept on spitting and decided one rinse was enough. I felt Nadar–ian'ah pat my back again.
"Will you live, my friend?"
"I te' yo...whe’ I ca' phel, my ton'."
The Elder laughed and gave me a solid hit on the back, causing me to bend over and cough again. She turned and motioned with a claw.
"Come with me. I'll show you around the ship, then take you to the bridge"
I wiped my eyes and nodded as I followed her out. For the next thirty minutes, Nadar–ian'ah gave me a tour though the interior of the ship. She showed me the eating area—a level below the medical bay—the quarters level where I was shown the room I would be sleeping in and the Observation Deck. While we travelled through the twisting hallways of the giant ship, I saw that each corridor had its own distinct design on the wall and I made sure to memorise them so I would not get lost in the future. I was looking over the markings along the main corridor when I saw Nadar–ian'ah stop in front of a tall door. Etched into the metal was a long, double bladed spear, with unrecognisable skulls on both tips.
"This is the Trophy Room, your skull is inside."
Before I had a chance to say anything, she opened the door and walked right in. From where I was standing, I could see several different kinds of skulls line the walls of the great chamber. Under an intense light, some of them were glistening in white or yellow and some of them were greying with age. There were skulls that looked like a cross between an insect and a T-Rex, others had large horns attached to their foreheads or around their face and I even saw a few that were mouthless. While I found the sight frightening, I also found it fascinating to see so many different species from other parts of the galaxy. This room showed me that humans have only seen a tiny sliver of space compared to the Yautja. I managed to step inside and I raised my hand to touch a long jagged horn that stuck three feet out from the middle of a bovine skull, when I heard a sharp hiss come from beside me. I snapped my head and saw the old female give me a serious look.
"Do not touch."
I nodded and immediately moved my hand away. I stepped father into the wide room, looking over more of the trophies on the wall, when I turned my head and screeched when an all too familiar skull appeared inches in front of my face.
"What?" asked Nadar–ian'ah.
"I...you...that—" I pointed at the six, banana shaped Xenomorph skulls, that were hanging on tiny hooks in a pyramid formation. The bone appeared to have an off white discolouration, indicating that they were old. I turned to the Elder and she gave me a strange look.
"You know of those creatures?"
"Know them! You realise how many people have lost their lives because of these things? I can’t believe you hunt Bugs!"
A Xenomorph looked like an eight foot, gangly bug covered in hard, black chitin, displayed sharp claws on all four of its strong limbs and had a long scorpion tail with a pointed barb that was capable of piercing through steel. Inside its mouth of sharp teeth was a second mouth that could shoot out at incredible speeds and impale anything within reach. Even their blood was deadly; one slash through its chitin and its blood would burn anything it touched.
Scientists claimed it was the perfect bio–weapon. Many "master minds" have made several attempts to control the Xenos, but instead got themselves and hundreds of innocent people killed. Five science centres had to be completely destroyed because the Bugs always seemed to find a way to escape from the labs. Even after all these centuries, there were rumours that scientists were still trying to find a way to control the Bugs. Ironic how the most brilliant of people could be the most stupid.
"Of course we do, young bloods hunt them in their chiva. A rite a passage."
I looked up at Nadar–ian'ah with shock as I moved away from the Xeno skulls. This “rite of passage” piqued my interest, I will have to ask more about it later. The Elder moved to one side and motioned with her arm.
"Here, this is your Ghequo skull."
I looked and I could not stop a shiver from travelling down my spine. There it was, gleaming white with fresh polish, its long maw wide open to show off each dagger edged tooth. Black, eye sockets stared down at me in permanent shock and I could not stop the memory of how close that thing had come to killing me. I could recall the stench of his rancid breath and the sight of those terrible teeth hovering before my face. Yet, even though I felt uncomfortable about the memory, I did feel a sense of pride. How often does a teenager, armed with nothing but a junked spear, take on an oversized rat on an alien planet? I looked to Nadar–ian'ah and gave her a nod.
"It's very well done, Nadar–ian'ah. You've...prepared it well."
She nodded and must have sensed my nervousness, for she put her large clawed hand on my shoulder and guided me out of the trophy room. The Elder turned to the left and I followed her the rest of the way to the bridge. A very wide door that had similar markings to the walls of the corridor greeted the two of us before it opened. At the very front of the room was a large oval window, where I saw thousands of tiny stars coast over, under and along the sides of the ship. Two giant chairs were situated behind a panel that stretched to either sides of the window. A rectangle consol, displayed a holographic image of the ship that followed a dotted path towards a small sphere, was located in the centre of the bridge. I assumed that sphere was Earth and I realised we were half way there. The image suddenly changed and I turned to see Nadar–ian'ah pressing a white button. She zoomed out until the ship was no bigger than a dot and the images of nearby planets and stars came to view. Nadar–ian'ah continued to stare intently at the consol image, tapping and turning switches, until returned to the original display.
"I'm still not detecting any Yautja ships."
I nodded and crossed my arms as I stared at the holographic planet. As I stared at it, the feeling of dread kept weighing in the pit of my stomach. I knew exactly what was going to happen when we arrive. My people will see Becky, Xeenan, Nadar–ian'ah and even the children as nothing but a pack of murderers! Scientists will view them as a great advantage to Earth's technology and study of extraterrestrials! I was so immersed in my troubles that I did not notice Nadar–ian'ah stretch her hand out to me and place it on my shoulder. I jumped and gasped.
"Dakota, what is it? Something is greatly troubling you."
I took a deep breath and hoped that my voice sounded normal, "Yeah, I was thinking about Xeenan."
Nadar–ian'ah shook her head, "You’re lying, the change in your body heat cannot hide that from me. What are you really worried about?"
I uncrossed my arms, "Going home."
The Elder blinked a few times and stared blankly, "I don't understand."
"How am I going to explain all this?" I waved my hand around the ship.
Nadar–ian'ah looked at me like I asked a dumb question, "Why not the truth?"
"You think the truth will protect you from my people?"
"Do you think lying will solve the problem?"
I turned and walked away, running my hands through my hair, "No..."
"Then what do you want to do?"
I whirled around, "I don't know! The moment we enter the solar system, the ship will be detected and the military will see you as hostiles. You won’t be able to get past their blockade around the planet! If by some miracle they allow you to dock in one of their ships, I can’t promise you’re safety.”
Nadar–ian'ah remained expressionless, I could not understand why she was being so calm. Does she not realise the severity of the situation? The female towered over me, placed her hands on my shoulders and gave a gentle squeeze.
"Dakota, you listen to me," her voice was soft, but firm, "you stood up against the most powerful Yautja on our planet, won the hearts of slaves with singing, risked life and limb to save a child from a fiery death, gave your friends their freedom and fought against a giant rodent," she placed a clawed finger under my chin and lifted my head. "You have more courage than you think you do, Dakota. If you can outwit the High Elder, I have every confidence that when we arrive, you will try your best to defend us."
I stood there, absolutely speechless. To get that kind of recognition, from an alien of all people, was the most amazing thing I could recieve. She was right, I had come out of the worse scenario imaginable and I was worried about facing my own people? How could I work myself up like that? Without even thinking I wrapped my arms around the Elder's waist and hugged her. I heard Nadar–ian'ah grunt with surprise, then after a moment she clicked softly and returned the embrace.
"Thank–you," I whispered, "I needed to hear that. If there is anything I can do to repay your kindness..."
"Nadar–ian'ah was silent for a moment.
"Sing," she put her hands on my shoulders and gently pushed me away. "Sing me a song Dakota, that will be payment enough."
I gave a wide smile and bowed my head, "I would be honoured."
I even had the perfect song, "Wind Beneath My Wings.” Switching off the translator and taking off my mask, I inhaled deeply and began the song.
"It must have been cold there in my sha–dow...to never have some light on your face. You were content to let me shiiiiine, that's you're way...you always walked a step be–hiiiiiind. So I was the one with all the glo–ry, while you were the one with all the strain...a beautiful face without a name for so long. A beautiful smile with all the paaaaiiiiin..." I squeezed my diaphragm to make the notes of the refrain flow, "...Did you ever know that you're my heeeerooooo...and everything I would like to beeeeeeee. I can fly higher than an ea–gle...for you are the wind beneath my wings..."
I saw the aged female smile warmly as she listened to the song.
"...It might have gone unnoooo–ticed...but I have got it all hear in my heart. I want you to know I know the truuuth, course I know it...I would be nothing with–out yoooooouuuuu..."
I sang the refrain out as loud and clear as I could and ended off with the final words.
"Fly...fly...flyyyyy so high against the sky, so high I almost touch the sky. Thank you, thank God for you, the wind beneath my wiiiiiiinnngs..."
The last note trailed softly to a quiet whisper and I put the converter back over my mouth and nose.
"That was very beautiful Dakota, a worthy song for an Elder."
I smiled under my mask, "You are quite wel—"
I stopped when I realised the translator was not turned on, yet Nadar–ian'ah spoke perfect English.
"You–you can speak my language? All this time you could understand me?"
Nadar–ian'ah laughed and nodded, "Of course, I learned your language many years ago. I found it useful on hunts."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You never asked."
I gawked at her for a few minutes, then slumped my shoulders and shook my head. The Elder chuckled again and went to the panel under the window, pressing a few buttons now and then.
"I should probably get back to Becky, Xeenan and the children."
Nadar–ian'ah nodded, "Can you find your way back?"
"Oh sure, no problem," I headed for the door.
I walked out the door and turned right for the medical bay...or was it left?