The Late Conversation
Za'Becc was right, for the first four days of the week, the slaves were pushed harder than ever. I had to unload crates full of vegetables, fruits and meats from small ships and deliver them to the kitchens inside the citadel. The produce came in all different colours and skin textures; some resembled the fruits and vegetables I ate on Earth. The meat was delivered in various forms, from thick roasts to whole animals. It was hard to move the crates without gagging on the smells of the raw flesh. It was like a mixture of rotting leaves and ground beef. I prayed that was normal on this planet. Once all the food was unloaded I was put on dishwasher duty.
In the kitchens fifty slaves prepared the food, while thirty guards watched their every move. They would cut the vegetables and fruits into pieces, set them on trays in impressive presentations and put them in refrigerators so they would not spoil. The meat was cut and sorted into large roasters where they marinated in spicy seasonings and sauces. Anything larger was taken into a walk in freezer and hung on hooks. Mouthwatering smells of sweet fruit and infused meat filled the air and made my stomach constantly growl. Looking up from washing a pot I watched the slaves work. I could understand how psychologically torturing this was for them, handling real food while knowing they would never eat it. The other day I saw a slave try to slip a vegetable slice into his belt, but he got caught and received a beating from a guard. He was promptly dragged out and never came back to the kitchens.
Seeing a guard come my way I went back to work and quietly hummed the song "Proud". After scrubbing the dishware I would drop them into a tub full of clean water where another slave rinsed them before passing them on to another to dry. The soapy water irritated my already cracked hands, the front of my shirt and pants were soaked and my back and arms burned with exertion. But falling behind meant a beating. A container full of dirty utensils was dropped beside me and I quickly started loading them into my wash bin. As I cleaned I kept fixating on the serrated knives. They would just fit into my pockets, if only there was a way take one without getting caught. I took a deep breath and formed a quick plan. I left a knife in the brown water and carried the wash bin to the back of the kitchen. Stopping in front of a drain I set the bin on the floor and tilted it forward, keeping the right side of my body close to the wall. As the water poured out I took a quick glance around the room, bent down, grabbed the knife and slipped it into my right pocket as I stood up. Adrenaline coursed through my body as I quickly walked back to my station, holding the bin near my right side. It took all my focus to stop my hands from shaking as I refilled the bin with water and soap. I just procured a weapon! Inside, I was jumping for joy, but I remained outwardly calm and collected. I reminded myself not to get cocky, one successful steal did not mean it would be successful again. Pacing myself and following a routine would draw less attention.
Finally, the day’s work ended, much to my relief. I had managed to take three knives with my strategy of hiding one after every four to five water dumps and making sure the use the wall to block the view. We were given our supper and then put into our compounds. When the guards left us I fished out the knives from my pockets and hid them under Becky's mattress. My friend saw me and stared in shock.
"Isha, where did you get those?"
Za'Becc had gotten into the habit of calling me by my new nickname. It was a Yautja name meaning "spirit of hope". But she only spoke it in private or when we were in our compound. I gave a sly smile.
"I hid them in my pockets when the guards were busy. You'd be surprised how much stuff I can fit in these."
Becky shook her head, "I’m impressed, but what do you plan on using them for?"
“I don’t know yet, but they’ll be there if we need them.”
I felt a tug on my hand and looked down to see the boy and the rest of the children staring at me anxiously. I smiled, knowing what they wanted. I sat down on the bunk and waited for the children and adults to gather around me. Since the first time I sang, they had asked me to continue singing every night. I was amazed of the effect my songs had on the slaves; their faces seemed to have brightened and their eyes appeared to sparkle. Many times I received thanks from the Yautja for sharing this gift with them. Sometimes they offered their help or would give me advice on how to make work less strenuous. A few of them had told me that they had either tried or prayed for death in order to escape this awful place. They said my singing gave them hope, comfort and a happiness they had never experienced in their lives.
That night I sang a very special song called "When you Believe.”
"There can be miracles, when you believe. Though hope is frail, it's hard to kill..."
As I sang I wished I could use the translator, the song would have had a deeper meaning. But it did not matter to them; even if I sang off key or forgot the words. All they cared about was that I could make music just by using my voice. Five songs later, I ended with "Amazing Grace". The hymn was dubbed their favourite ever since I sang it four days ago. Finishing my performance, the slaves scattered to their bunks. Some of the adults gave me a smile or a friendly shake on the shoulder as they walked by. I saw Xeenan again, leaning on the frame of a bunk with his arms crossed over his bony chest, giving me the same cold stare. Despite sharing the compound, the only form of communication I got from him was glares. It would be wrong to say "suck it up and get over your grudge!" No amount of singing would mend his dishonour or change his views on humans. After what seemed like an eternity he straightened himself and walked away.
I sighed and headed for the window. Sitting down and looking up at the cloudy sky I began to pray. Two days ago, after singing Amazing Grace, I felt the need to pray God. I had not seriously prayed or gone to church since I was fourteen, but under the circumstances I was in need of some divine intervention. At first I was discrete about it, only saying prayers in my head but I eventually found myself speaking the words without realising it. I was in the middle of the "Our Father" when I heard Becky step beside me.
"Praying again?" she asked.
I nodded and she sat down, letting me continue. When I finished I watched the clouds and hoped to see the stars before going to sleep.
“Do you think your god hears you?” she asked.
I looked at her, this was the first time she asked anything like that.
“I hope so.”
“Does your god see you?”
“I think He does”
“How do you know?”
I paused. “I just have faith.”
Za'Becc started asking more questions about my religion and I tried to explain as best I could. She found it strange that God loved all humans, even if they were "dishonourable” at times. She also had a hard time believing that if a dishonourable human asked for forgiveness, he or she would be forgiven.
"What happens when you oomans die?" she had asked.
"Well, some humans believe if we lived our lives with a good heart and soul, we are taken to God’s kingdom in heaven, where we'll live forever in paradise."
I then told her about Hell and Satan; that humans who had a dark soul ended up in that horrible place. When Za'Becc asked me if there were other gods I worshipped, I told her I only believed in one and she looked confused.
“But isn’t Satan a god?”
“No, he’s not. There is only one God.”
She suddenly started laughing.
"What’s so funny?" I asked.
"I'm sorry I laughed, I just found it funny that you believe in only one god. Yautja believe in three main gods, but there are many others."
She started to tell me about “Paya”, “Cetanu” and the “Black Warrior.” Paya was a goddess who created the Yautja and gave her children the codes of the hunt. She was known as the “conquering warrior” who guided and strengthened the spirit of the hunters throughout their lives. Cetanu was known as the God of Death who decided if a warrior was worthy to have his or her spirit live on after they died. If they are found to be unworthy, their spirit fades away, as if it had never existed. When a hunter was visited by the Black Warrior, there was no escape from him for he was known as “the one who wins all battles.” Yautja are constantly worried about how they die, since they wanted to be forever remembered for their honour and bravery.
"I doubt my sprit will live on when I die," Za'Becc said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because I'm a slave, not a hunter or a warrior."
"What do you mean? You are brave, strong, loyal and have a good soul. Those are qualities most people use to define a warrior."
"Maybe an ooman would, but not a Yautja. A warrior is defined as one who hunts for honour and glory. Warriors also gain recognition from the number of trophies they have or through victorious battles"
I sighed and said, "Well Becky, if that's what you believe in, I respect that. But just so you know, I'll never forget your spirit. In fact, I always ask God to watch over you and all the slaves in the citadel."
She looked surprised, “But…can you do that? I’m not ooman.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re my friend and you deserve to be remembered.”
Za'Becc looked at me, wrapped her arms around my shoulders, and gave me a hug. She whispered thank you in my ear. I decided to change the subject and began to tell her about my family and home back on Earth. She listened with interest as I talked about my mom and dad, my older brother, younger sister and my dog, Thunder. Becky loved it when I described the memories of living on an acreage. I told her childhood stories of when my siblings and I would spend a whole day playing hide and seek in the bushes that lined our property or went to the local pond to catch frogs and garter snakes.
"Do you still spend time with your brother and sister?" Becky had asked.
"No, as we grew older we kind of drifted apart. My older brother went to university, I went to work at the space station and my sister is still in high school. I do miss those times though."
I felt tears start to form in my eyes and quickly wiped them away. Becky did not seem to notice as she gave a great sigh.
"I wish I had known my clan."
She told me that she was orphaned as a baby when a civil broke out in a city about fifty or sixty years ago. She was found by a passing slave caravan and was brought to the Citadel. An older female took care of her and taught her how to dance. Her foster mother died a few years ago from a fever that sounded similar to typhoid. The bracelet Becky wore belonged to her foster mother.
"That's basically what all of us slaves are made up of. Orphans like me, dishonoured warriors like Xeenan, others are turncoats or physically disabled. I can guarantee that every single slave here has a horrible past to tell."
"Not everyone," I said
I checked my watch.
“We should get some sleep Becky.”
She nodded and we both climbed into the bunk. I turned off the translator and closed my eyes. It was not long before we fell asleep.
A noise woke me up and I opened my eyes slightly. I saw a small shadow in front of me, but it was too dark to see who it was. I turned the translator on.
"Who's there?" I asked in a whisper.
"Me," answered the shadow.
I recognised the voice instantly, it was the boy.
"Oh, hey sweetie. What's wrong?"
"I can't sleep."
I sat up quietly so I would not disturb Becky.
"Come here little one, so I can see you better."
He hesitated, but he stepped towards me and I pulled him to my lap. He looked up at me.
"You can't see me?"
"Not very well. I need light to see, without it I'm blind."
I had learned that the Predators natural sight is infrared.
"What can you see now?"
I looked around the room, "Just black shapes and shadows. I can't make out any detail. Now why can't you sleep?"
He snuggled closer to me, "Because tomorrow all the sucklings have to clean the ovens for the feast. I'm afraid to go in them, I don't want to fall in."
I had seen the ovens before. From the outside they looked like tall stone pillars with an opening about two and a half feet wide. They were used to roast huge animal limbs that hung on large hooks. The adults were too big to fit inside the ovens, so they used children to clean and sterilize them. It was an extremely dangerous job. Each oven had sensors to detect meat and calculate the appropriate temperature to cook it, but they could not differentiate between an animal limb and a small child. As soon as something fleshy was inside, the sensors turned on the oven. The children only had short increments to complete their job, before a heating element at the bottom sent a blast of fire through the oven. A few slaves had told me horrible stories of children falling in and getting burned alive because the door was too high for them to climb out. The boy in my arms began to whimper. I comforted him by rubbing his scrawny back and rocking him like a baby.
"Baby mine, dry your eyes. Baby mine, don't you cry. Rest your head close to my heart, never apart, baby of mine..."
As I sang the lullaby, he stopped whimpering and rested his head on my neck. When I completed the song I lifted his chin and smiled.
"What's your name sweetie?"
"Sor'an, that's a nice name."
"I know how much you love my songs. I can teach you one that'll keep your spirits up while you work."
Sor'an's smile grew wider as he listened. I kept the translator on so he could understand the words.
"Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens. Brown paper packages tied up with strings, these are a few of my favourite things..."
When I finished the tune I said, "Just keep that song in mind and I guarantee you’ll feel better.
Sor'an's grin grew wider as his arms flew around my neck and his little forehead nuzzled my cheek. Chuckling I hugged him closer and rocked him back and forth.
"Feel better?" I asked.
"Uh-huh," he replied.
I continued to rock him for another five minutes and I noticed his eyelids were drooping. To help the process along I sang him a lullaby from the movie "Mary Poppins" that never failed to put me to sleep.
"Stay awake, don't rest your heeeaaad. Don't lie down upon your beeeed. While the moon drifts in the skiiiiees, stay awake, don't close your eyyyyyes..."
Sor'an's eyes closed and his head rested on my chest as I sang. When I trailed off the last note of the lullaby, he was fast asleep. I gently cradled the little boy and quietly walked over to his bunk, where I set him down and pulled the ragged blanket over him. Brushing his wiry hair from his face, I leaned down, kissed his forehead and walked back to my bunk. I saw Za'Becc propped up on her elbow, smiling at me. I had not realised she was awake.
"That was a wonderful thing you did, Isha," my friend said.
I smiled modestly. "It was nothing."
"But it was something to that suckling."
I suppose it was I thought, sitting on the bunk. I looked back to where Sor'an slept and was suddenly full of mixed emotions. The tears I had kept hidden for so long began to run down my cheeks, but this time I could not stop them. I cried from the pain and frustration of enduring the tortures of a slave. I wept because I missed my home and family terribly and the thought of never seeing them again was too much to bear. I cried in happiness, because the Yautja in the compound made me feel needed. So needed, that Becky was willing to risk her reputation to help me and that a scared child was willing to come to me—a human—for comfort. I never got that sense of belonging when I worked at the station.
"Isha, what's wrong? Why are your eyes wet?" asked Za'Becc.
I sniffed and wiped my face, but the tears kept falling.
"Nothing's wrong Becky. I'm fine."
She sat beside me, looking very worried, "But why are your eyes wet? Are you in pain?"
"No," I whined and looked away.
My friend grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face her.
"Dakota, please tell me what's wrong?" she asked softly.
I sobbed harder and covered my face, feeling embarrassed. Becky waited patiently and gently purred as she rubbed my arms. After a while I stopped crying.
"Now Isha, what were you doing?"
I rubbed my puffy eyes, irritated, "What do you think I was doing? I was crying."
I looked up at her, "Yes, crying. You...you don't know what crying is?"
She shook her head, "No, we don't…kriy. Why were you doing that?"
It took me a while to explain that humans shed tears as a way of expressing sadness, stress, frustration, pain or happiness. It also took a while to tell her why I was crying.
Becky shook her head, "You oomans are a very peculiar species."
"I’d say we’re unique," I paused, "thanks for listening Becky, it helps."
She chuckled and lay back on the bunk, "I’m glad you told me. We slaves rarely talk about how we feel; some of us take it as a sign of weakness. But you seem to be strengthened from the conversations we have. I guess in a way, I'm strengthened by them too."
I smiled, feeling pleased that Becky was growing stronger. I checked my watch.
"Oh shit! We should get some sleep. We only have a few hours until the wakeup call."
Becky nodded, shifted to her right side and closed her eyes. Following her example I rested my head at the head bunk and soon drifted off, with a smile on my face.