Given that the town of Amieredetta was essentially a long cave snaking through the earth, it was hard to tell the actual scale of it. Just when you think you’ve reached the end, there is another corner or a little tunnel connecting it to another cavern.
Nelub’s house, or hole in the wall, stood some turns further than Lasha had gone before. Fortunately, it was located at the bottom, where even those that couldn’t walk on walls could access it. She had ordered Lasha over to discuss the movie.
Since Nelub liked to be small, Lasha feared her home might be miniature sized too, but she neither had to duck under the door nor fear the chair couldn’t hold her weight. Things being too big for her seemed to just be a desired part of the small experience. Nelub’s house was decorated with familiar objects. Smart phones, candy wrappers, knitted gloves and bottles. Lasha surmised they were objects found in the forest above. She sat down at the kitchen table while Nelub placed a cake on it. Felt like visiting grandma.
“You’re a fan of this stuff?” Lasha said, studying the wall ornaments.
“Yes. I’m very interested in technology. The thing with magic is that it by definition makes no sense, so there is very little to study or understand aside from learning to use it. Technology is a way more complicated way of doing things but it’s just such fun to me to use problem-solving skills to get things to work instead of just willing them to.”
Nelub sat down on the table and gave each of them a slice of cake. The fork was as long as her lower arm, so she used her hands to dig in.
“If you don’t need to eat food, do you still digest it?” Lasha asked.
“I think so… it’s hard to say.”
Lasha imagined humans had an easier time understanding their bodies thanks to their dead not reforming into newborns.
“But what I wanted to talk about is the internet. You could use that to access even more of human media, if not all of it, right?”
“Yes. But we don’t get a signal down here.”
“Right. Algasath doesn’t let us up to the surface for long, so I never had enough time to study the signal and figure out how to relay it down here. In fact, I don’t even know how to perceive this signal.”
“That thing can access the internet.” Lasha pointed at the smartphone, propped up on a shelf like a framed photo.
“I thought so. I tried fixing it but this is way above my understanding.”
“So it’s broken. Don’t think that’s something you can fix with your bare hands anyway. We use super precise machines to make them.”
“You use machines to build machines?”
“Yeah, for things too big or too small for us to work with.”
“So, what are you planning?”
“I know you live here now, but it’s not impossible for you to go to human settlements, right? I was wondering if you could go get some internet machines for me.”
“Like a repeater? A WLAN modem?”
“Whatever you think we need.”
“That’s gonna be expensive. Not sure how I’m supposed to get the money for those.”
“Oh… hm. How do you usually get money?”
“You get it for working. I can’t work though, that’d be child labor. Not sure if they’d even let me buy a router all on my own.”
“So it’s not as easy as I thought.”
“Do you not think Algasath will try to make contact with humans?”
“Not anytime soon. He’s an eternal being. It can take a long while for him to make up his mind about something. And he tends to go the way of least possible conflict.”
“What do the Asterians think?”
“I think they do wanna live with humans, but that’s a decision no one can make for themselves. There are Sjetta living in Asterian places. They couldn’t just tell them to leave.”
“Right. Are there any more… xenopeople?”
“There are… Lemadoren. They aren’t really interested in society though, they live very secluded. You won’t see any of those around. Then… I guess there are the Attejs. They used to also be Sjetta, but since the war, they consider themselves a different kind.”
“There was a war?”
“There was. On an island far in the north where no humans live. It only lasted two days too. Happened nineteen years ago.”
“The Attejs.” Nelub picked crumbs off her cake but just dropped them on the plate. She started to cry, only evident by her breathing. Her star eyes couldn’t shed tears.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, it’s okay. By the time I was born, the war was nearly over. I don’t have any memories of the home we lost. The friends I lost. But I remember the pain of those that survived. I’ve not thought of it in a while, so I got a bit overwhelmed.” Nelub tried hard to steady her breathing.
“...It’s a very delicious cake, by the way.”
“Right?” Nelub stuffed a big chunk into her mouth and chewed on it for a while.
“You know, my town has glass fibre, maybe we could tap into that network. I’m sure it’s possible to splice in a cable to down here.”
“Don’t worry about it. Before you even came here I realized it was pretty silly to expect you to be an expert who can tell us exactly how this works and what we need to do. Like, I’m from a very magical society but I couldn’t explain to you the differences between the schools of magic either.”
Nelub divided her arm into three and picked up cake crumbs with them.
“How are you settling in, by the way? It’s quite the adjustment.”
“It’s going okay for the most part.”
“I feel kind of responsible for you, so you can come over any time.”
Nelub slapped the table when she finished her cake before Lasha even did. “Okay now, let’s discuss the movie!”
Lasha left Nelub’s house feeling a little more at home. She decided to check out the rest of this side of the town before heading home. There was a town square with a colorful water fountain that she could already see from afar. It was a tall spire of a rock with water flowing down its side and magical lights reflecting off the stream. All along the rock stood little offshoots with small basins that allowed the local wildlife to drink from it. Instead of birds, this town had bats.
She wondered if there was an old lady sitting on a bench feeding bats around. Not that Lasha had any idea what old Sjetta even looked like. Instead she spotted someone different. If they were an Asterian, they were an animal Lasha had never seen. They had blue skin, horns and a tail, as well as wings like that of a bat. They looked lost, standing in the middle of the street. Lasha felt empathy and decided to help them out.
“Hello. Do you need help?”
The stranger directed their attention to Lasha. “Arisa.” they said.
“Sorry, what was that?”
Lasha didn’t expect to run into a language barrier after the Sjetta and that Asterian spoke perfect English. Algasath probably knew what to do.
“Can you follow me? I think I know someone who can understand you.” Lasha scooped her hands towards her chest, hoping this conveyed the sentiment. The stranger copied the motion.
“Marvyad Cinnap.” they said.
“Oh… is that your name?” Lasha repeated the gesture. “Lasha Kyong.”
Marvyad smiled, reached a hand towards Lasha and said “Lasha Kyong.” Then she brought the hand back to themself and said “Marvyad.”
Great! A successful communication. Now to try the following part again. Lasha held out her hand. Marvyad was a bit confused by it but decided to simply copy the gesture again. Lasha grabbed their hand and gently tugged them along. Marvyad followed without resistance. So far so good!
Algasath peeked out one of the upper rooms connected to the throne room. Lasha kept identifying it as that, unsure what it actually was. The lobby?
“Oh, who did you befriend there?” Algasath walked down the side of the wall.
“That’s Marvyad. They don’t speak English though. I’m sure you know a handful more languages than me.”
“La.” Marvyad said.
“A Shandari, hm?”
“Shandari? What are those?”
“Beings from another world. I’m guessing they only got here today. They can pick up languages incredibly fast, so you should just talk to them for a bit and they’ll figure it out.”
“Really, just by hearing me talk?”
“Their kind has been traveling to far away worlds for generations. Not sure if they developed that ability along that way or if that allowed them to spread all throughout the world in the first place.” Algasath mused.
“Wanna go to my room, Marvyad? I think I’ll need to read off something to give you a good grasp on this language.”
“...Can.” Maryad said.
“Did you understand what I asked?”
Lasha’s room had been stocked with some books. She decided to read the first chapter of three books, to not restrict herself to one author’s vocabulary. She overestimated how much talking she was used to but she powered through, even as her jaw became numb. Marvyad just sat and listened intently. After the third book, Lasha decided to check her progress.
“So, did that help at all?”
“I think I got a good idea. Thanks, Lashakyong.”
“Just Lasha, Kyong is my last name.”
“Okay. Wasn’t sure if you had those too.” Marvyad learning to articulate themself over the span of an hour made Lasha feel like they just pulled a prank on her.
“How the hell can you learn a language that fast?”
“You only use a relatively short amount of words in everyday conversation. The vast majority of words are rather situational. The hard part is figuring out the grammar and social connotations of the words.”
Lasha tried to check in her head if all of those words appeared in the books she’s read. “That’s nuts.”
“I figure my kind isn’t that well known around here then?”
“Don’t ask me, I grew up pretty sheltered as it turned out.”
“It is a bizarre place I find myself in.”
“You’re in a town inside a massive cave.”
“That so? So is there life on the planet’s surface?”
“Yeah. Most of it is.”
Lasha noticed Marvyad smiled wider with each response.
“Say, how big is this planet?”
“I have no idea and can’t look it up right now.”
“Oh and the books you read, were those facts or fiction?”
“So what will you do now? Explore the world?”
“I’m bound to do that, I suppose. I’ll start from right here. Do you think there’ll be a place for me to settle in?”
“You wanna stay here?”
“It’s a good idea to stay among people, right? I wanna know how you run this place.”
“You should ask Algasath.”
“The shadow guy? Alright. Thanks again, Lasha. Would you mind being my companion throughout my process of fitting myself in?”
“You mean, do you wanna be friends?”
“Of course!” Lasha didn’t realize it was something she was missing until then, but was glad to have a friend of the same age again. She didn’t know how old Marvyad was exactly or if their kind even counted 365-day years, but she felt like someone from her age group. As small and cute as she was, Nelub was still an adult with 19 years and fit more the big sister role. Or cousin. Lasha had neither in her original family so she wasn’t sure what those felt like. It was like reclaiming bits and pieces of her life and she was happy for that. Though she felt a little sorrow that those pieces weren’t the same ones she’s lost.
Lasha couldn’t wait to learn more about her new friend. Since Maryad didn’t have any stuff to move into their new home, the two went on a walk. Maryad wanted to first see the outside, the sky and the planet’s surface.
“Wow, your grass is so green!” Marvyad ran out through the massive gate. “And what’s this smoke everywhere? Is that normal?”
“It’s fog and I think it is. Maybe it’s magic to hide the town entrance? I never asked.”
“A tree!” Marvyad ran off into the fog. Lasha jogged after them.
“Your trees are also green. They’re yellow in my homeworld.” Marvyad said, sitting on a branch.
“The surface is up there. But we should be careful, humans aren’t supposed to know we live down here.”
“Humans don’t know that Sjetta and other xenopeople exist and we have to keep the secret until politics decide otherwise.”
“Oh. And humans live on the surface?”
“Yes. I’m the exception because I stumbled into here and would’ve died if they didn’t help me.”
“Oh, you are a human? Are you allowed up there as long as you don’t say anything?”
“Yeah. I should probably stay out of my old hometown though. Officially I’m…. probably dead.”
“If I disguised myself as a human, then we could explore a bit?”
“I don’t think-”
Marvyad jumped off the tree, now a perfect replica of Lasha, even down to the clothes.
“What the fuck, how did you do that?”
“We Shandari can shapeshift. Some of us at least. I shouldn’t look exactly like you though, let me try to convert my regular appearance into human shape.”
Lasha watched them change shape but wouldn’t know how to describe what it looked like. Like spilling a bucket of water over someone and playing it in reverse? Everything just popped into shape. Then Marvyad stood before her without horns, tail or wings, skin a light shade of brown and a proud smile.
“Anything look off?”
“Yeah, your eyes. We can’t have white irises.”
“Okay. Can I copy yours?”
“Yeah, that works.”
Then the disguise was perfect.
Marvyad used their wings to escape the ravine, Lasha clinging to them for dear life. As soon as they made it to the surface, Marvyad folded their wings back into their body. Lasha mapped out the area based on her previous adventure, so they could avoid her old hometown. Going the opposite way would just lead to the ocean, but that should satiate Marvyad’s curiosity.
“Whoa, your sky is messed up.” Marvyad said.
“Looks normal to me.”
Lasha guided Marvyad eastwards, or her best estimation of it. This wasn’t the kind of forest people went on walks in.
“What pronouns should I use for you, by the way?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, he or she or they?”
“Oh, got it. You have options. Are they based on anything?”
“Gender, I guess.”
“Hmm, I have no concept of your genders. Which do you use?”
“She, her, hers, herself.”
“Then I’ll use those too.”
Lasha didn’t try to keep pace with Marvyad. She’d run around, fly up to the trees, back and forth, like a young dog taken off the leash. Finally they found the edge of the forest, a cliff with a beach maybe fifty meters down. It was a pretty beach but too inconvenient to get to for people to visit, or anyone building a safe set of stairs down to.
“Whoa, that lake is huge!”
“Technically, that’s the ocean.”
“Ocean… we don’t have those on Shandi… Maybe we used to.
“Did it dry up?”
“Not sure. That all happened long ago. Are oceans dangerous?”
“Not if you don’t go too far out.”
Marvyad jumped down the cliff and unfolded her wings, gently gliding down.
“What about me?” Lasha shouted down.
“I got you!” Marvyad waved up to her. Then her arms extended. Growing up to her like oversized noodles. Lasha didn’t think they could hold her weight. They were rather spindly compared to their length, but they wrapped around her and lifted her up with ease. Soon Lasha touched the sand and Marvyad’s arms fully retreated into her sleeves. Lasha’s eyes lingered on them.
“Yeah, but… nevermind.”
Marvyad took off. She ran across the shoreline, spattering water into the air. Then she jumped in.
“Hey, can you even swim, if you don’t have water?”
Marvyad resurfaced. “It stings in the eyes! You said it’s not dangerous!”
“It’s not life-threatening.”
“Can you swim?”
“Usually you take your clothes off before.”
“Oh, don’t worry, these aren’t real clothes.” Marvyad shapeshifted on a pair of goggles and dove back under. It didn’t appear she could produce transparent material though, so she was going in blind.
Lasha sat down in the sand. It was nice weather, but she didn’t like undressing in front of others. She didn’t care for other people to know her body that intimately. Really, she was as guarded as that in many ways. It’s not that she avoids contact with others, but at the end of the day, people might notice that they barely know anything about her.
Lasha dug her hands into the sand. There were clumps she pushed apart into fine sand. There were little broken shells, their insides smooth and pleasant to the touch.
“There are animals in here!” Marvyad discovered. Seeing Lasha sit alone at the beach made her come back out of the water. Her clothes may be otherwise indistinguishable from the real deal but they did not absorb water the same way. They were just wet on the surface like her skin. The sand clumped back up under her dripping form.
“I think I’ll like it here. Bloody sky or not.” Marvyad’s gaze wandered the sky. “Ouch, what’s that?” she shielded her eyes from the sun.
“Don’t tell me you don’t have one of those on Shandi.”
“Is that a sun? That’s not how I imagined them.”
“Now you’re just fucking with me. You can’t not have a sun!”
“We had one at some point! We have a word for it: Amnulum. But it exploded or something.”
“Uh-huh.” Lasha got up. She hoped looking Marvyad in the eye would expose the lie. Marvyad held onto it.
“Hey, wanna see a cool trick to dry up?” Marvyad said and held out a hand. Out grew an exact copy of herself, just dry. Then the wet body simply reabsorbed into her hand, which she wiped off on her pants then. “Cool, right?”
“You’re a jackass.”
Marvyad showed a light smile, that Lasha couldn’t quite identify. “Am I your friend, Lasha?”
Lasha was taken aback with how genuine that question seemed. Vulnerable. “...Yeah… right?”
“Okay. Don’t worry about that, I was just making sure. Let’s see where this goes with us.”
Lasha felt the urge to diffuse the tension with a joke but feared Marvyad might be hurt with that.
“Yeah. Let’s go back, okay?”