After a few more hours, the comm system instructed her to back away from the wall again. She did so, expecting Lagos to appear to retrieve her food tray.
Instead, it was a different human who opened the door, stepped inside, and bent to pick up the tray from the floor – all with only the most idle and unconcerned glances in her direction. Another male, she noted. This one was wearing a plainer uniform in the same basic colours as Lagos’s, but lacking in identifying markings and accompanied by a couple of different accessories. Something about him said cleaner or janitor to Predericon, and this impression was confirmed when he shuffled out of the room and set the tray on a small metal trolley laden with cleaning gear that was recognisable as cleaning gear despite its alien configuration and style. Across the ten million Dimensions and the countless trillions of species of the Corporation, there were only so many ways you could mop up spilled food.
“[…],” the janitor said, and came back into the room pushing a round footstool thing with one foot. He nudged it over against the wall under the mirror, and folded its lid open against the glass. Predericon cautiously identified it as a portable chemical toilet unit. Another thing, she reflected, you could only design in so many different ways. At least if you were a biped. “[…] my job […] and joy.”
“Thank you,” she said, taking the opportunity to lay the groundwork for another friendship among the humans of the facility.
The janitor raised a hand to his forehead in a sloppy genuflection.
“I’ll come back […] to clean it out and […] the room a […],” he said. “But that depends on the […] I guess.”
He left again, and Predericon examined the toilet.
He’d placed it as far out of the line of sight of the one-way mirror as possible, even if that meant she was essentially leaning back against the mirror itself. She remembered reading somewhere that humans were squeamish about relieving themselves while others were watching, which was a fascinating cultural trait, but for the moment she took solace in the conclusion that the janitor had intended his placement of the toilet as a thoughtful gesture. And it wasn’t as if she relished the idea of a group of humans watching her take a shit. It just wasn’t all that different to the way she didn’t relish them watching her walk up and down the length of her cell, or eat her lunch.
She didn’t need to use the toilet at that time, in any case, so she resumed waiting.
More hours passed. She was not informed about the status of Gyden or Lelhmak, and neither Lagos nor the janitor returned for some time. Eventually, however, she was sent to the right-end of the cell once more and the door opened to reveal a new human.
This male was clearly elderly, with pouchy, spotted skin and silvery fur. Hair, she corrected herself. He was dressed in a long white garment and was carrying only a notepad and stylus. He closed the door behind him and did not seem to be concerned about being locked in a cell with an alien creature without a cluster of armed guards in the doorway. She could nevertheless hear his pulse hammering fast and hectic – he was certainly afraid … just not showing it.
“Hello,” he said, and smiled. “My name is […] Emory Brackish. I am a […]. Do you understand? I do research, I study and I communicate, I will examine you – but first we will just talk, to build a […].”
“You are a researcher,” Predericon said, and added the honorific he’d used. The term was familiar from the broadcasts they’d picked up on their inbound flight, but from the context it had been hard to tell for certain if it referred to a medic, an academic, or a monstrous war criminal who built engines of toxic destruction. They’d had some as-heated-as-they-could-afford-to-be discussions about it on their long journey. Apparently, it was a fairly broad title. “Doctor. Doctor Brackish.”
“Yes. It’s nice to meet you, Predericone,” he made a very earnest and almost successful attempt to pronounce her name, and she inclined her head in acknowledgement. He extended his right hand in another gesture she’d learned about, and Predericon extended her own lower right hand to curl her fingers around his thick forearm through the white material of his coat. Brackish seemed momentarily surprised by this – perhaps he had not expected her to be familiar with the gesture – but gently squeezed her bare forearm before releasing. “Yes,” he said again, and laughed nervously. “We usually […] our hands but that is […] variant of the […],” he tilted his head curiously. “Are you well, Predericone?”
“I have been well cared for,” she said, “and am grateful for the help I have received. The food, and so on. I consider myself fortunate to have landed in friendly territory.”
“It certainly could have gone worse for you,” Brackish said positively. “You could have crashed in […] country.”
“Or in the ocean,” Predericon added.
“Or that,” Brackish waved a hand. “Won’t you sit? I’m […] getting a sore neck here,” Predericon obligingly lowered herself onto the bed, although this still left her eye level somewhat above the human’s. “Your species doesn’t […] very much, does it?” he went on, his hand-gesture now encompassing the bed itself.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t … oh,” she pieced together from context that Brackish was referring to the unconscious state human bodies reverted to periodically, in order to flush toxins from their blood and keep their brains fully functional. “When you lie down and go into … what was the word you used?”
“Sleep,” Brackish repeated.
“Sleep, yes. Thank you. No, we do not sleep. I did not have a word for this in my English lexicon. It was not something we concentrated on. My species has cycles of activity and lull,” she added, using the Xidh terms, “approximately what you would call motion and being at standstill … but even during the lull, the standstill, we are conscious and capable of movement and communication. It is merely a more relaxed time, when we process thoughts and rest our muscles.”
“Your English is […],” Brackish said. From the context, again, Predericon assumed he was being complimentary, so she inclined her head a second time in thanks. “Did you really learn it from our […] transmissions as you were flying here?” he went on.
“Yes,” Predericon said. She’d debated with herself about mentioning the head start they’d had on some of the languages, but had decided to keep her knowledge of Latin and assorted other now-dead human languages to herself for the time being. It would raise too many questions. “May I ask…?”
“Do you also speak to Gyden?”
“I do,” Brackish smiled. “Gyden and I have spoken on […] occasions. She was in a […] better condition to speak from the moment we brought her here,” he hesitated. “That is correct, yes? She, her? Gyden is a female of your species – as are you?”
“Yes,” Predericon said.
“We have, you might imagine, many questions about your […] system, your internal […], your […],” he said excitedly, rattling off probably-scientific terms. “Are you mammal? You have some […] in common, but,” he studied her, his close-set little eyes bright with interest. “Ah,” he went on after a moment with another wave of his hand, “it is probably […] to begin such a discussion. […] probably occurred on your planet so very differently to here, that there is no […] between the different orders of fauna.”
“Lelhmak is male,” she pressed, not wishing to be sidetracked. “Have you been speaking with him as well?”
Doctor Brackish’s face slackened and closed in some indefinable way. Predericon was no good at reading human expressions or body language, but Brackish’s movement stilled, and the excited crinkle around his eyes was replaced with a tight guardedness.
And that was the moment Predericon knew that Old Man Lelhmak was dead.
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.