©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Twenty-Four - Know Thy Neighbor
“Do you have a name for this world?” Ken asked the alien visitor as they approached the activity of Tellus. “We call it Bellerophon, again to honor a name from our legends. We use that kind of naming a lot. For short, however, we just call it Belle.”
Zaizen smiled over at the cougar who drove the electric cart beside where she and Kate were walking. “We call this place,” she made a series of noises in her native language that sounded something like “Serallasion.”
“Can you tell us what that means?” Kate asked. “Does it have a significance?”
“World of trees and water. Is just description.”
Ken laughed aloud at this, warming up to the alien’s personality. Bellerophon did have an abundance of water and continents full of forests. It was fitting.
“What name is your home world?”
The cougar answered that one with a feline grin. “We call our world Earth, which is just another word for the soil beneath our feet. What is the word for your planet?”
Zaizen smiled back. “Sorini — the grass beneath our toes.”
“That’s appropriate!” Kate remarked. “Our world is Dirt. Yours is Grass.”
By the time they crossed the bridge over the river and approached the command tent, there was a small crowd waiting for them. The mayor parked the cart at the edge of the gathering and looked up at Rod Vincent, who walked over to him.
“What’s all this?” Ken asked his former first officer.
The spotted snow leopard gestured above them toward the hovering security drone. “Arion told us you were coming,” he explained. “We knew that we would be the aliens here on Belle, but I don’t think any of us actually expected to meet a real space alien. Everyone wants to see it.”
“Her – everyone wants to see her.”
“Whatever. We weren’t informed of her gender.”
The cougar stepped out of the cart and joined Kate and Zaizen. The gathered crowd was eager to see the talking dinosaur, but no one appeared to want to get too close and some even felt sudden instinctive fear at the sight of the creature. This was a space-faring being? It was a difficult thing to fathom, but none of them seemed to remember that as Furs, they probably did not resemble a technological race themselves, but more of a conglomeration of talking animals.
“Everyone, this is Ambassador Zaizen, a representative of the Sori,” Ken announced in carrying voice. “With the aid of a bosom plant, she has been able to converse with us somewhat in English. She comes from a planet they call Sorini, and her people were visitors to Belle just as we are, although they were here only for scientific research.”
“Were?” someone asked.
“Their science station was destroyed with all hands when the meteorite that formed our crater fell upon them. Only Zaizen survived because she was away elsewhere on the planet to survey. She has been here alone for over twenty years since that event, but came to visit when she saw our activities.”
A large wolf stepped out from the crowd and looked up at the tall visitor. “Welcome, Ambassador,” Will Andresen said politely. “We are honored by your presence,” There were several in the crowd who adopted expressions of surprise on their furry faces. The red wolf had never been known to be polite to anyone.
“We collected a number of devices from your outpost,” the lupine engineer continued, “but we have been unable to determine most of their functions. We hope you don’t mind us examining them.”
Zaizen lowered her head so that she did not tower over everyone there to see her. “Not mind,” she said, still clutching the water plant. “Most stop working long ago when power cells deplete. No could repower them.” This was the first time this group had heard her accented voice, but it amazed them more than her mouth shape was able to form the words of understandable English, even if her perception of syntax needed work. “I taken tools I use. Left rest unusable.”
“Were you here to make a home for your people?” Dr. Kazama ventured to ask. The alien looked at the river otter and shook her head in the manner she had learned from watching Kate.
“No desire to home away from Sorini. Here only to study Serallasion.”
“What are serallasion?” asked the botanist Bali Manhigh. “Are they plants or animals?”
Kate answered the Samoyed’s questions. “Serallasion is their name for Bellerophon, this world.”
“Would you be willing to share with us what you have discovered about this planet?” Rod asked. “We haven’t been here long and are still learning even the simple things about this place.”
“Yes, agree to exchange information between,” Zaizen replied. “Much interest in you race too. Take time.”
“I’m sure it will,” said the snow leopard, “but we have plenty of time to discuss it with you.”
“Where is your space ship?” asked a red panda. “We didn’t see any when we came here.”
“Voidship destroyed in orbit revolution by meteorite before hitting this place; pieces burned up or fall into the sea. Airship used here has no power, lost crash in forest. Travel feet only now.”
Although most everyone who heard this assumed her atmospheric flyer was another technological wonder, there were several who visualized a steampunk airship merely from her terminology.
“How long have your people traveled space?” someone else asked.
“Before you all continue to interrogate our guest,” Ken said in interruption, “I suggest we all go into the galley tent before it starts raining on us.”
Indeed, the sky had been slowly darkening, although the conditions would simply dump rain on them without the threat of a storm. Leading by example, the cougar walked over to the larger tent nearby and went inside. The Sori had to duck down to fit in beneath the door flap, but there was more headroom inside, even for her.
Chef Rocky had not been a part of the crowd outside, and had heard nothing of the alien visitor coming to town, so when he saw the long-necked, dinosaur-thing in his galley, he nearly fainted from the sight thinking a local wild animal had wandered in. He had to hold onto a chair just to stay upright.
“Please, not to be afraid,” Zaizen said to the opossum, walking over to him. “I am a friend, just a visitor, strange to you I know.”
Hearing English from it, Rocky gasped and sat down – completely missing the chair. He hit the flooring hard on his tail, but he suddenly felt himself pulled back up to his feet. Incredulously, he stared at the alien hands that helped him up, and then almost with a will of its own, he saw his own hand reach out and lightly stroke the iridescent fur of the strange arm.
He looked up into the Sori’s calm face with awe. “Thank… thank you,” he said after a hard swallow.
“Welcome to help.”
The cook finally got control of himself and felt his feet firm beneath him. Wiping his hands on his apron, he looked around at the crowd that had gathered around them and gave them a sheepish smile. If they were not afraid of this… person, he did not have to be either. True to his serving nature, he gave her a slight tilt of his head and asked, “Can I get you something to eat or drink?”
Zaizen looked at him and mimicked his head tilt. “Long time since I eat. I will try something you may have.”
Rocky grinned widely. “Wait here. I will be right back with something you might like.”
Kate reached out a hand to the opossum. “Wait!” she said. “We don’t know if she can eat our food, or what she even likes.” She turned back to the alien and looked up at her. “What do the Sori eat?” she asked.
Zaizen shifted the water plant from one hand to another, re-wrapping the root tendril around her other wrist. Thinking through the words and impressions she got from those around her, she answered, “Some plants, some birds, some small animals.” She opened her mouth and gestured to the teeth of an omnivore she possessed. “Can eat many things, but not all, only some.”
“That’s the same with us; some things, but not others.”
“I have some vegetables she can try,” Rocky said. “Small pieces of grilled beef and pork, and some cheese too.” When he disappeared back into the depths of his kitchen, the African lioness went with him to explain who and what their visitor was, and why she was in his galley.
Zaizen was about to follow them, but Andresen asked, “We know your people are technological. You have an interstellar ship, can build houses composed of both technical and organic materials, and use hand tools powered by capacitor cells. Your civilization on your home world must be wondrous to behold.”
The Sori folded all three of her free hands up to her chest and dipped her head, her ears folded. “Missing Sorini,” she said sadly. “Away long time. Living too simple. Missing technology… and other Sori.”
“Do you have family back on Sorini?” Jessica Heald asked softly.
Zaizen looked over at the red panda and nodded, absently rubbing the edge of the abdominal pouch beneath her fur. “Mate and daughter.”
“How long ago did your daughter hatch?” Dr. Kazama asked.
Zaizen suddenly laughed out loud, and although she was greatly amused by the question, the sound was almost disconcerting to furmen ears. “Sori not lay egg,” she explained patiently. “Sori birth to childlings.”
The river otter felt his face flush beneath his short pelt of fur. “Oh, I am sorry!” he said in a rush. “I meant no offense – I didn’t know!”
The alien did not seem offended, but was genuinely curious. “Why you think we hatch?”
The doctor swallowed and looked around sheepishly before he returned his gaze up at her kind face. “There was no disrespect intended,” he began, “but there is a resemblance of your form to a creature in our distant history called a dinosaur, which was known to reproduce by laying eggs. I know you are not related to anything on our world, but you seemed familiar. My apologies, Ambassador.”
“Understanding. Daughter Kainah birthed twenty and nine years ago.”
“How long have you been away from her?”
“Twenty and six Serallasion years.”
“She was only three when you left,” Jessica remarked. “You didn’t get to see her grow up.”
“No. She to have own mate and childling now.”
Seeing that the questions were troubling the alien, Rod tried to direct the conversation elsewhere. “Is there anything on your world that resembles us?”
“Your forms are many,” the alien reminded him, “but there are some similar among you. None can talk to Sori.” She held up the water plant and added, “Not have Serallasion orb on Sorini to help.”
“Does that mean your animals like us can talk too?” Will asked. “Are there other intelligent races on Sorini?”
“None like you.” She searched her memory for a word used in a conversation with the lioness. “None … sapient – personal beings like Sori or you.” She paused for a moment and then said, “Kate said your many forms were not natural, but caused by changes during your void travel.”
“This is true,” Dr. Kazama confirmed. “We were all one people, but radiation in space combined our bodies with the other creatures we brought with us.” He held out his arms. “I am a human combined with an otter.” He pointed to others around him. “He was a human combined with a wolf. She was human combined with a red panda. He was combined with a leopard. These were all other creatures that were asleep on our ship, but something in space changed us.”
Zaizen nodded. “Understanding. Same happened when Sori first ventured into void. Long history past.”
“Are you a blend with another creature?” Will asked. “Were the other Sori that came here with you all combined as we were?”
“No, am true Sori. Many researches made way to protect against such changes. Voidships safe now, no more changes.”
“Did the Sori find a way to reverse the changes, or just protect future space travelers?” the lupine engineer pressed.
“Not for many years, but did reverse combination errors. Now just need protect against.”
The red panda stepped closer, her hands clasped together hopefully. “Can you change us back to the way we were?” There were several gasps among the crowd, suddenly sharing Jessica’s hopeful plea.
“Zaizen cannot,” the alien replied. “I do not have that knowledge. Other Sori do. No other Sori here.” There was an overall feeling of disappointment in the air that she felt even without the aid of the water plant. “Cannot change the change. Sorry.”
“Well,” Dr. Kazama said flippantly, “we’re no worse off than we were before you told us. We are all different beings now, but our people are relatively healthy in spite of it.”
“Would like to have seen what true Human look like.”
“We have pictures that we can show you,” Rod replied.
Everyone looked up in unison toward the roof above them. The rain had started falling heavily on the tent, which made hearing more difficult.
Zaizen looked over the group as if a new thought occurred to her. “My world is Sorini, my people are Sori,” she said in a raised voice. “Your world is Earth. Are your people Earthy?”
That garnered chuckles of amusement from the crowd as if she had called them dirty. Rod smiled up at her. “We have called ourselves Earthlings, and sometimes Terrans.”
“Terrans? Have not heard this word among you.”
“It comes from our word ‘terra’, which basically refers to the ground under our feet.”
“Yes,” the leopard said with a surprise that she would know the origin of that word. “Earth actually means the same thing, just a different word. We have also called our world Terra. Among ourselves, the names are interchangeable.”
“Now, let’s see if we have anything you like,” Rocky said, cheerfully carrying in a red plastic tray with several paper-plated items. “These are only bite-sizes, but if you find something you like, I can bring out more.” There were cuts of vegetables, meats and cheeses as promised, each skewered with a wooden toothpick. He set them on a table near the alien and once he was sure he had her attention, he picked up one bit of cheese by the toothpick and then put it in his mouth, slipping the toothpick back out to show she was not to eat that.
Zaizen looked over the plates with interest and her single nostril quivered as she took in the various scents. She was not sure about some of the items, but out of politeness chose one that smelled enticing. She grasped one small toothpick as the opossum had done and lifted a square of meat to her mouth. She ate the meat and set the toothpick back on its plate, silently chewing the morsel. The flavor was good, so she looked over the selection and chose another.
After several moments, she had chosen some of the meats, but left others alone; likewise with the vegetables, although she did not try any of the cheeses. There had not been enough of any of them to fill her belly, but the chef had explained that it was only a sample tray and she could have more if she wanted.
“Thank you,” she told him, “but I hold from more until I know if stomach can digest.”
“That’s probably a wise decision,” Rocky replied. “What have you been eating here that your stomach can handle?”
“Most sully eggs, common ground plants of crater, and little chitners in the forest. Others when can catch.”
“Sully eggs are from birds?”
She thought a moment for the right word. “Rodents.”
“Do you cook your food or eat it raw?”
“Some and some.”
The Sori then made a face, and accompanied by a retching sound within its throat, threw up what she had just eaten surprisingly quick. Unfortunately, it all came out on top of the sample tray. Numerous faces turned away in disgust, and a couple even darted back outside into the rain, but Rocky calmly pulled out a towel from his apron pocket and draped it over the tray.
“Sorries,” Zaizen murmured with one had to her mouth and another up to her throat. “Not know which samples did that.”
“Our apologies,” Kate said with a hand resting on one of the alien’s elbows. “We should have known you might not be able to stomach something from our world, having never been there.”
Zaizen dipped her head. “Same reaction to Serallasion foods try first time after outpost food lost. Had to learn which could eat, same with yours.”
“I’m sorry my selection was not to your liking,” Rocky remarked. “Did any of it taste good to you, or did you eat it just to be polite?”
The Sori turned to look at him. “No sorry. Some tasty tasty, others taste only some. Will learn.”
“In the meantime, is there anything we can get for you to eat that you know you can have?” Ken asked from the side. The opossum was turning to take away the covered tray, his eyes watering from its new odorous contents, but he stopped to hear the answer to the cougar’s query.
Zaizen pointed toward the door flap. “Common ground cover, lots in crater,” she said. “Can eat, has nutrition.”
“That’s something we can’t eat,” Kate remarked. “No nutritional value at all for us.”
“Crater weed, it is!” Ken replied. He moved out the door into the rain, and now that he no longer carried the rifle, he dropped to all fours and darted out to gather some fresh vegetation for their guest. Rocky took the tray away and only then did some of the crowd return.
While the mayor was away and Zaizen was looking better, some of the questioning began again.
“Where have you been living?” Rod wanted to know. “We didn’t see signs of habitation inside your outpost.”
“Outpost structure weak beneath tree on top, not safe. Could collapse with Zaizen inside. I have several abodes around area to stay as needed.” Feeling it was her turn to ask something, she reached out to pull lightly on Jessica’s gingham top. It was one of the more colorful cloths that Arion had printed for them and the red panda had also added a few items for decoration.
“What is?” the alien asked. “Covers for hair?”
Jessica glanced at the iridescent hair that covered the Sori’s body. Although in need of brushing, it otherwise appeared to have a silky texture that was not too different than the fur of a Yorkshire Terrier she once had during college. The alien’s body had no clothing on it whatsoever, yet she was fully covered.
“Before the… accident that happened during our space travel,” the red panda answered, “our human bodies were not covered in fur as we are now. We needed clothing like this to cover our bodies, mostly for protection against the elements.” She did not feel the need to try to explain nudity taboos to an alien that was naturally hairy.
“Understanding. Why still wear now?”
Kate laughed aloud at this. “It’s mostly out of habit,” she answered. “There are some of us who would shed all our clothing given the chance, but the habits of our race have prevented it. Habit can be a strong influence.”
“This I know.”
“If not for the guys, I would shed all my clothes,” Jessica confessed.
“You wouldn’t hear complaints from any of the guys,” Andresen quipped with a smirk.
“Guys? Not getting translation.”
“Guys are males,” the panda scoffed. “Females get too much attention from the males when we show ourselves to them without clothing.”
“Human custom of cloth puzzling.”
“Before our changes, humans were naked without clothes, with no fur and not enough hair to cover us,” Rod said. Then with a smile, he added, “Naked humans cause too many children!”
The Sori continued to look puzzled, but Kate waved a hand to get her attention as the sound of rainfall lessened. “No doubt many of our customs would be confusing to you,” she said. “It’s probably best to discuss something other than our breeding practices.”
“Wish to see differences between Human male and female.” The room went completely silent and the Sori looked around the room. “Request?”
Kate cleared her throat and looked amused. “Baring our genitals to others is a private matter and not done openly,” she said. Then with a feline grin, “If there are any guys or gals here who would agree to satisfy our guest’s curiosity in a private setting, see me later and we can set up a personal session. The room remained quiet with no volunteers. The lioness shrugged her shoulders. “I’m sorry, Zaizen, “but that request may have to wait for another time.”
“Not understanding, but can wait proper time.” Then without discussing it further, the Sori turned her tail toward the small crowd and raised it so all could see her sex. “I am female,” she announced. “I bear childlings for my race,” and then she turned back around, hooking two thumbs into the edge of her marsupial pouch, “and care for them here.” She pulled it open, revealing a single teat within for nursing her young. She looked around the room, trying to discern the physical differences between the furman males and females, but all she saw were expressions of shock upon their faces. “All breeding organs are inside for protection, emerging for both only mating. Some Serallasion living things have them external. Strange to Sori, but have witnessed breeding for researches.”
“Our alien is a voyeur,” someone muttered in amusement. Zaizen looked to Kate, not getting a good translation of that word, but the lioness offered up no explanation.
“How many children does a Sori family have?” Jessica asked, attempting to divert the conversation somewhat. “As unchanged humans, we can have many, but usually choose from one to four or five at the most.”
“One childling each mated pair.”
“Do you have one or many partners?” someone else asked.
“One mate for life of partners. If one dies, must choose another, must have another childling.”
Ken Robeson returned then, pulling a plastic trash sack behind him. He shook himself off vigorously, causing those near the door to scatter from flinging raindrops, and then he moved through the crowd toward the alien. He set the sack upon a table and then opened it so that the Sori could see that it was filled with freshly-pulled crater weed.
Zaizen reached in, pulled out a strand, and then immediately began stripping the leaves from the vine with her omnivorous dental work.
Rocky returned before she finished eating and promptly looked at the weeds in a new light, wondering if there was some way he could prepare the vegetation other than raw. The crater weeds were not poisonous, but there was no nutrition in it for the furmen races either; perhaps it could be made into a garnish or added to a salad.
When the Sori had finished eating all she wanted, she asked for some water. Rocky procured a bowl, thinking her wider mouth might not work well with a cup, and she drank from it without seeming to be offended. She wiped her mouth with the fur of an arm and handed the bowl back to the opossum.
“It will be nightfall soon,” Ken announced. “Would you like to sleep in our town? We have plenty of room.”
“Thanking, no. I will sleep at the lake, please.” She held up her water plant and they all noted that it was beginning to shrivel.
“We brought more of those if you would like to stay up later.”
“Sleep with darkness. Save water orbs for tomorrow. Can use then.”
“Yes, we can. Do you have a camp at the lake? It’s really no trouble if you want to stay here tonight.”
Zaizen gave him a gentle smile. “Not worry, I will be fine.”
Kate put a hand on the alien’s arm. “I will walk back out there with you,” she said. “We can visit more tomorrow, as much as you want.”
“I would like that.”
The crowd began to disperse and numerous small conversations sprang up about the new visitor, but before Kate and Zaizen could leave, two furmen approached.
Piale Bonavita and Rex Bletchingdon looked up at her greater height. “Good evening, Ambassador,” said the white arctic fox.
“Yes, this has a good evening.”
Piale gave the tan Labrador beside her a shy look and then glanced back at their guest. “Rex and I would like to volunteer for your private inspection,” she said in a voice that hopefully would not carry to others still in the tent. The canine male could not seem to stop swallowing and looked around nervously.
Kate suppressed her surprise and tried to keep from smiling when she looked over at the Sori.
“Is proper time?” the alien asked.
“It can be,” Piale answered, “but not here. Dr. Kate, is there a place we can go to do this?”
The lioness nodded in private amusement. “There is an empty tent near here. You can use that to show her all she wants to see – or all that you’re willing.”
Rex leaned close to the young fox and put his mouth right up into an ear. In a whisper meant only for her hearing, he said, “I just hope she doesn’t want to watch us… breed.”
Zaizen smiled and nodded. Either she heard his words, or the water plant was still viable enough to transmit his intent. “Yes, would like to see Human mating,” she said with interest.
Beneath his breath, Rex muttered, “Yup, she’s a voyeur…”
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