Some time later, she woke again. Her skin was slick and icy, her first reaction one of relief to be feeling something again, even if it was unpleasant. After a few moments, she noticed the feathery swish of air through her lungs. Her chest rose and fell rhythmically. Something flat pressed against her back, firm but not hard.
If she could feel her body, then she was still alive. And if she was not dead at the hands of the pirates, then what she had seen before she blacked out must be real and not an hallucination born of dying brain cells.
An image flashed unbidden across Kithri’s mind.
Man-high and twice as long, the rounded body had tapered upwards, like a mound of silver jelly drawn erect at one end. Four plate-like discs covered the highest tip. Below them, boneless appendages uncurled and lengthened, reaching for her–
No, don’t think about that!
–and there had been a voice, she remembered, two voices, deep and resonant.
“Ah! Your recovery is proceeding well.”
Kithri sat bolt upright. She was no longer in the crystalline courtyard or the scrubjet. She was sitting, stark naked, on a low table in an otherwise unfurnished room of neutral gray.
She shivered and hugged her arms to her body. A thin film covered her skin and peeled away at the lightest touch. Slowly her eyes locked on the rounded silvery shape. She’d remembered the creature’s size and color right, but the head discs were tinged with shades of copper and blued steel, resembling four oblong coins. They were set in the place of eyes but showed no hint of pupil or other marking. Coiled tentacles covered the upright section of the body, varying in thickness and arranged in no discernible order.
A webwork of centrally located neck slits vibrated as the deep-toned voice spoke again. “Please do not be alarmed. No aggression toward you is being intended.”
Now there was no possible doubt she was awake. Not only awake, but facing something that looked like a giant silver slug.
“Please do not be attempting to communicate verbally,” the thing said. “Your universal-meaning unit has not yet been installed, although the artifact previously implanted in your cerebral cortex is permitting you to comprehend my words.”
Artifact? Brianna’s translator.
One of the creature’s neck coils uncurled into a slender appendage, which it extended in her direction as it moved closer. Kithri leapt off the table, putting its bulk between her and the creature. It withdrew, folding its tentacle into a series of graceful coils.
“Your companions have previously indicated the desirability of synthetic integument. To obtain this, I must be manipulating this building-appendage,” it said. “Then I can be fitting you with a device permitting mutual conversation.”
Without waiting for her response, the alien glided to the table. Its neck section shrank back into the mass of the body as it uncurled several slender upper tentacles and began stroking the base of the translucent gray pedestal.
Kithri jumped back a few steps. She pressed the knuckles of one hand against her teeth, forcing herself to breathe slowly and evenly. It was ridiculous, to be so afraid. The thing hadn’t harmed her or even threatened to do so. In fact, unlike the pirates, it seemed to be making every effort to reassure her. Your companions, it had said. Eril, the others–alive, too? Then where are they? What’s happened to them?
Slow down and think! she told herself sternly. If they’ve been asking for clothes, how bad off can they be?
The slug creature finished whatever it was doing and undulated back across the room, revealing a cubbyhole in the table’s pedestal base. Kithri cautiously approached the table, knelt and reached in.
Her fingers closed around a bundle of silky cloth. This proved to be a loose, sleeveless shirt, long enough to come half-way down her thighs, a length of fabric to tie around her waist as a belt, an undergarment somewhere between a loincloth and a bikini–she wondered whose idea that was–and tube-like socks.
Trying not to take her eyes off the creature, she pulled the shirt over her head. The thin gray fabric felt unexpectedly warm against her skin. Instantly it shrank in some places and stretched in others so that it fit her body perfectly.
When she straightened up, the silvery alien was holding a small rectangle of grayish glass between two of its feathery upper tentacles. “It is now necessary that I approach you more closely for the installation of universal-meaning device. The process is brief and without risk. The panel will adhere to your synthetic covering, not your integument. I assure you, I mean you no harm.”
Kithri pressed her back against the hard, rounded edge of the table. She forced herself to stand still as the thing slithered closer. A cold sweat drenched her hands. Her breath came in punctuated gasps, so shallow she felt dizzy. She wet her lips with a tongue gone curiously numb.
It isn’t going to hurt me–I think–and besides, where could I run to? There’s not a door or window in the
place. It’s stupid to be this scared…
The giant slug was almost upon her now. Kithri expected to smell its foul, decay-laden stench, but there was only a slightly acidic odor, not at all unpleasant. The panel was inches from her heaving chest now. She caught a glimpse of it, a thin tile of the same watery-gray stuff as the table and walls. She held her breath.
The slug-voice said, “I am of the caste Hath, rank Djan, and my personal name is Raerquel.”
Deborah J. Ross began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with Jaydium and Northlight, (and the omnibus edition, Other Doorways: Early Novels), and short stories in Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, and Star Wars: Tales from Jabba’s Palace. Now under her birth name, Ross, she has written an epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. Her collection Azkhantian Tales, includes four short stories set in that world. Book View Cafe also offers her nonfiction Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life and a number of her stand-alone short stories.