The Universal Language
I woke up the next morning before the guards came into the compound. Every part of my body was stiff and sore; my back was burning and it hurt to breathe. I hoped my wounds had scabbed over so I would not get an infection. Propping myself up my elbows, I checked my watch. It read five seventeen, ten minutes until the guards would come in. I was grateful that the planet ran on a twenty-four hour time zone. I coughed and realised the converter was still off my face, as well as my tank top. I found them on the floor, right beside the sleeping body of Za'Becc. I was touched that the Predator had given me her bed to sleep on, but I was guilty because she probably was not comfortable. Slipping on my blood-stained shirt and clipping the mask to my face, I looked at the female with more detail.
Her skin was a soft, brown colour mixed with yellow—like autumn leaves-—with a crimson and charcoal diamond shaped birthmarks cascading down her spine. She also had numerous whip scars running up and down her back, like gnarled roots. The same diamond cascade fell down the middle of her forehead and soft black spikes outlined her temples. Her dark, chestnut dreadlocks grew two inches beyond her waist. She wore a leather top that tied in the back, a stained, ankle length loincloth and worn sandals on her feet. On her left wrist she wore a bracelet, decorated with blue rocks and tiny animal skulls. Wincing I sat up on the edge of the bunk and began to hear the slaves stir from their sleep.
I saw Za'Becc sitting up, her head an inch below mine. I had a feeling she was at least eight feet tall.
"How are you feeling?"
For a moment I did not answer.
"Uh...a lot better. Thank you for cleaning my wounds."
Za'Becc nodded, but did not continue the conversation because the guards burst opened the door
After a breakfast of the same green mush, I was sent back to the landing pad where I spent part the morning unloading and loading ships. I still received the cold shoulder from the other slaves, but I was able to keep a closer pace with them without dropping anything. Despite being bruised and bloodied it seemed my body was adapting to the strenuous work. I guess it is true, what they say, humans are an adaptable species. The guards took me away from the landing field and lead me inside the Citadel to a huge room; or "Feasting Chamber," as they called it.
The golden walls of the room were covered with stunning images of Yautja hunters and hieroglyphics. Tall arched windows near the ceiling allowed sunlight to shine through, casting an outline of the frames on the silver floor. In the four corners of the room, twenty-foot statues of Yautja warriors in full armour stood with one foot in front of the other, their right arm stretched out and holding a long spear in their hand. The guard told me that, in one a week, a feast was going to be held in this room and I had to scrub the whole floor. I did not understand why they wanted me to clean the room all by myself. Probably to see if I was worth keeping alive. They gave me a scrub brush and a large bucket of soapy water, shoved me into the room and closed the double doors. Why was I left unguarded? I looked around and saw why. The door was the only way in or out and the windows were too high for me to climb. Sighing, I turned the translator off and got down on my hands and knees. I dipped the brush into the bucket and started to scrub.
After an hour I looked around and saw that I had barely made any progress; my knees where aching so bad I had to use my shoes as pads. The whip wounds were aggravating my back and my hands were getting irritated by the soapy water. Save for the swishing sounds of my brush, the silence was almost maddening. A ghetto blaster would be nice right about now, I thought. Suddenly, the song, "American Pie," popped into my head. It was a really old song, but people back on Earth still listened to it because it was considered a classic in the twentieth century. So, I started humming it, and then I started to sing; my brush moving along with the beat. My energy seemed to boost up, so I sang louder.
"Byyyye, byyyyye Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dryyyyy..."
When I finished the song, others started to pop into my brain. I preferred to listen to ancient, classing tunes rather than current music. There was an energy to them that modern songs did not have. I sang "Rescue Me,” by Fontella Bass; "Shut Up," by the Black Eyed Peas; "Cell Block Tango" from the movie Chicago and, the ever popular, "Bohemian Rhapsody".
After several hours I stopped singing and scrubbing and looked around. I was shocked to see that I had scrubbed more than half of the room. I had not even noticed my discomfort. I heard the doors open again and I saw a guard bring in another bucket. He stopped mid step and gazed around the room, as if he, too, was stunned at how much of the floor was washed. He peered down at me for a moment, then, without a word, he replaced the bucket. The guard left the room and locked the doors them behind him. Smiling, and feeling more lighthearted, I went back to work; humming the odd tune.
Another four hours went by and I was finished cleaning the floor. My throat was dry, my back throbbed and my arms and knees were sore beyond belief, but I did not care. Singing made me feel happier in this miserable place; nothing seemed to matter. Looking through the windows I saw the sky melt into pinks and blues as the suns set. Checking my watch, it read eight thirty-six. The other slaves would be finished their duties in less than half an hour. I leaned against one of the statues and closed my eyes, trying to ignore my stinging hands as I made an attempt to doze.
About twenty minutes later, two guards came in and took me back out into the Great Hall where I saw the slaves being filed into the Mess Hall. I took my cup of water and a bowl full of brown slop that looked and smelled like wet dog food. I slowly sat down at a table and ate my food silently. From the corner of my eye, I saw Za'Becc and Xeenan head my way. Xeenan shook his head and gave her a mean glare then continued on his way to another table. Watching him, I guessed he was a little under seven feet tall. I was surprised to see a zig zagging symbol burned into his forehead; I had only seen markings on the guards and Elders. His skin reminded me of beach sand with a hint of green. Auburn spots covered back, arms, thighs and around his forehead. Dark spikes dotted along his brow and temples, outlining his tangerine eyes. His jet-black locks grew a few inches past his shoulders. Like the rest of the slaves, he wore a tattered, leather loincloth, no longer than his knees, worn sandals and had crooked whip scars all along his back and legs. I also noticed a long, jagged scar running down his left cheek to his lower mandible; as if someone had slashed him with a knife. A creak brought me back to reality and I saw Za'Becc sitting across from me. I saw some of the slaves look at her in disgust. They started to whisper to each other and I heard a few insults. The female ignored them. She was obviously used to that kind of treatment but I could not help feeling sorry for her. Za'becc began to speak, but I stopped her to turn the translator on, and then let her continue.
"How's your back, ooman?" she asked.
I shrugged and cringed in pain, "Hurts like a bitch, but it's getting better."
I scooped another finger full of the slop and swallowed, trying not to make a face.
"What happened to your hands?" asked Za'Becc.
I told her what I did all afternoon and the female hissed with anger.
"'The Feast of the Gods'. We will have much work ahead of us. And you say you cleaned the whole chamber by yourself?"
"You're a strong worker, ooman."
"Could you please stop calling me ooman, I have a name you know."
The female Yautja leaned on her elbows and waited patiently. I cleared my throat.
"My name is Dakota Evens," I stretched out my right hand, "and you're Za'Becc."
She seemed confused of my gesture.
"You're supposed to shake my hand."
She still was not sure what to do, so I took her hand and shook it.
"It's how we humans greet each other."
The Yautja smiled, more with her eyes than her mouth.
"This is how we greet each other." She clasped my shoulder and gave it a gentle shake. I did the same to her shoulder and my smile grew wider.
"Cool," I said.
Za'Becc cocked her head, "Cool? Are you cold Dakota?"
"No," I chuckled, "It's human slang for 'amazing' or 'wonderful'."
"Oh," Za'Becc nodded, "Yes, I suppose it is."
I giggled and went back to my meal. Both of us sat silent for a time. When I finished I played with my empty cup and curiosity took over.
"So, what is this 'Feast of the Gods?"
The Predator's voice was full of contempt, "The High Elders hold a feast to honour the Gods and offer their thanks for prosperous hunts. But, the feast means more work for us slaves. We have to prepare and serve them food and drinks at their beck and call, clean up after them and provide entertainment."
A roar brought our attention to the guards and everyone got up from their seats. Once we were back in our compound I saw Za'Becc sit on her bunk and stare at the floor with a look of shame. Something was bothering her. I sat down beside her.
"You didn't seem too happy when you mentioned entertainment."
She clicked her tusks in anger, "I am a dancer. We are required to perform for many hours without stopping. But that’s not the worst, if you’re a female."
I felt my stomach drop and did not dare question further. Despite being larger than the males, I doubt the female slaves had any say in such horrible situations. I put my arm around her boney shoulders and hugged her.
"I’m sorry, Becky," I caught myself, "you don't mind if I call you Becky, do you?"
The female raised her head in thought, and then she looked at me, smiling. Her red eyes sparkled.
"No, friends give each other nicknames."
She gave me a gentle shake on the shoulder and I smiled back before looking out the small window. The first stars were twinkling in the darkening sky. I wished I knew which one of them was Earth's star and I felt homesick again. Have the workers at the station found me missing? Do my parents know? Are they looking for me? They must be absolutely sick with worry. I wanted so badly to tell them that I was alive, but I knew it was hopeless because I did not know if this planet was close enough for the communicator to reach Earth.
I continued to stare at the strange constellations and I felt a little bit calmer. Since I could remember, I had always had a love for the stars; which was one of the reasons why I wanted to be a part of the space program. They were like a never ending light, giving me a sense of reassurance and comfort. For a moment I forgot where I was and I began to sing.
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. That saved a wretch, like me...I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now, I see..."
The room was very quiet. I snapped out of my trance and looked around to see Za'Becc and every Yautja staring at me, wide eyed and open mouthed in astonishment. I raised my eyebrow, what was wrong with them?
"How...how did you do that?" asked Becky.
"That beautiful sound with your voice, what was it? How did you do that?"
"I...I was singing."
"Shenging?" I heard another Predator say.
The translator buzzed in my ear and all I heard was the Predator trying to say the English word. This could me the Yautja do not have a word for “singing” in their language.
"No, ‘sing–ing’. You you’ve never heard—oh, no I suppose you wouldn't have."
It occurred to me that the Yautja's vocal cords were too low and gruff to make a music note. I wondered if they even made music at all.
"Can all oomans…sheng?" asked a boy. He was small, about four feet, with black hair and his skin resembled a yellow pear. He had dusky-brown spots crisscrossing his little forehead and body. He held my arm and gazed at me with bright amber eyes.
"Uh...yeah, I suppose all humans can sing. Some better than others, some worse than others."
I felt Za'Becc's hand touch my other arm.
"Can you... sheng that again?"
"Er-okay, sure." I took a deep breath and was about to begin but Za'Becc stopped me.
"No, no. Without the mask and translator."
"But you won't be able to understand the words."
"It doesn't matter; it'll sound so much better if you do."
I did as she asked and sang "Amazing Grace" once more, as all the Predators gathered around me. The older Yautja had their eyes closed as they listened to my song, while the children sat cross-legged at me feet. When I finished they asked me to sing it again and I did for the third time. Feeling more confident I sang lullabies, church hymns, Christmas melodies and songs from favourite movies, musicals and bands. I had sung about twelve songs when I started coughing from breathing in too much of the atmosphere. The children were curled up on the floor, sleeping peacefully. I checked my watch and saw it was midnight. As the children were gathered up by the adults, some of them gave me respectful nods before they retired to their bunks. I saw Xeenan at the back of the crowd and he glared at me before going to bed. Feeling Za'Becc lift the back of my shirt to examine my wounds, I put the mask and translator on.
"You're healing nicely Dakota, I don't see any infections."
"That’s a relief," I looked to where Xeenan was laying down. "What does your friend have against me anyway?"
Becky sighed, "He used to be a hunter, you can tell because he has a blooding mark on his forehead. About two decades ago he went to your planet for a hunt and was captured by ooman soldiers. He managed to escape, but when he was brought before the Elders, they said he dishonoured himself for allowing prey to cage him. His punishment was to serve as a slave until the end of his days. That’s why hates all oomans with a passion."
Well that explains the knife scar on his face, I thought. His feelings towards my people were certainly justified, but there had to be a way to convince him that I was nothing like those soldiers. I yawned and stretched.
"We should get some sleep, Becky," I said.
She nodded and yawned, her four mandibles extending outwards. I stood up and walked to the corner, but the female Predator grasped my arm.
"You can sleep here, I can make room."
I smiled and thanked Za'Becc. I curled up on the bunk beside my new friend, feeling secure at last. Before I drifted off, I heard Za'Becc whisper.
"I knew there was something special about you, Dakota."