As I waited for the approach of the Roamers, I did two things. First, I collected food from my surroundings in a way that required little effort. I generally refrained from consuming anything that I considered to be of less value than a human meal, but I made an exception, since for the second time I was specifically seeking to interact with humans in a capacity other than as food. I cleared the forest canopy of all insects, birds, small mammals, and other living creatures of diminutive size that found themselves in contact with me. I also cleared several trees of their fruits.
Second, I began to ponder the memory crystals Telan had carried with him. Along with his clothes, I had kept them, though not out of any sort of sentimentality. I kept them because I didn’t know what they were, and they had seemed important to him. They also intrigued me because, now that I had eyes with which to see them, I realized that they had their own inner light.
The memory crystals were a collection of five oblong, translucent blue stones, with faceted sides and rounded domes on either end. Each one had a band of metal around its center, which I failed to dislodge when applying a small amount of force and which all had different patterns carved into their surfaces, which I could not interpret other than to realize that the patterns contained symbols which repeated it.
I knew, from what questions Telan had answered regarding the crystals, what they were called, and I knew that they were important to him as a Sahalan. I knew that they contained his memories. I did not know how to access the memories within, or how to store my own memories inside them, should I have a need to do so. They became an interesting puzzle that I endeavored to solve as I waited for humans to enter my new domain.
Unfortunately, I had no starting point from which to begin attempting to understand the crystals. It was like I was attempting to learn language again, but without Telan’s assistance. In all the time it took for the first group of humans to wander into my little realm within the forest, during which the seasons began to shift toward warmth once again, I made only tiny bit of progress, which was to discover that if I tilted my awareness in the right way — not even physically, but in a way I couldn’t describe — it felt as though the crystals were pulling at my mind.
Just as I was beginning to experiment with this new sensation, I sensed another, in the physical realm. The one I had been waiting for had come: the feeling of two-legged humans making their way through the section of the forest I had claimed as my own. In a moment of inspiration, I sent one of Telan’s eyes away from my simulacrum, moving it as swiftly as I could along the strings of myself woven through the trees. It mattered little if it became damaged, for soon, I would have access to more, especially if my interaction with the humans didn’t go well.
With my simulacrum positioned as it was at the center of the rest of my body, and with my body spread thinly over such a wide area, it took time to transfer the eye to the edge of my radius. By the time I reached them, the Roamers had already come a good way into my territory. I brought my simulacrum to its feet, ensured that Telan’s old clothing was properly installed upon it, and began walking it toward a place that would intersect with what I predicted to be their path.
While my simulacrum moved, which was at a much slower pace than that to which I was accustomed with my true body, I used the eye I had poached from it to observe the Roamers. There were not a large number of them. A virile male led the way, moving out ahead of the others by quite a distance before circling back to them. The others moved much slower. An older female, kept in the center of their group, set the pace for the rest of them. She moved with an assured confidence, but it was obvious she was by far the most feeble. A younger female and a much younger female kept pace on either side of her. Behind, a second male trailed the group, older than the scouting male and, I guessed, of roughly the same age as the female of middling age.
The females all bore large packs, with the elder female bearing the least and the middle female, the most. The males carried packs as well, though they were not as heavily burdened. Likely it was their duty to be ready in the event of danger; therefore, they were kept less heavily encumbered. All of them wore animal furs to help fight off the lingering chill from the season just now passing. The light rainfall beaded upon the furs and packs and rolled off onto the forest floor, repelled by some sort of coating.
Only the scout’s head was unhidden by a hood, presumably so that his vision wouldn’t be blocked in any way. The females had hoods as well as masks that covered their lower faces. Unlike Telan’s ears, the scout’s ears swept back and came to points, over which his hair flowed on its way to the tail into which it was bound.
They spoke little, and I couldn’t understand what they said. I thought that, with my body stretched into an unfamiliar array, I might be having difficulty interpreting their words. The sound of the rain also made it difficult to make out what they were saying with any clarity. I hoped that when my simulacrum approached, I would be able to fully form my imitation hearing organs and therefore be able to better listen to them.
I had never, at that time, made a study of of human interaction. I never considered that they might react unfavorably to stumbling upon what I thought would seem to them to be another member of their species. My most extensive experience with human interaction outside of how they behaved toward me and toward each other when I hunted them had been with Telan, and of course, that intercourse had been exceptional in more than one way. None of my prior experiences had prepared me for this, my first attempt to interact with humans under the guise of humanity.
I set my simulacrum in their path. I brought my eye back to it. I installed it into my simulacrum’s face just in time to greet the male leading their party. “Hello,” I said, with my simulacrum standing perfectly still so as to remain unthreatening. My experience hunting humans told me that they often perceived movement as a threat, while they might fail to notice something threatening entirely should it refrain from motion entirely.
I had intentionally studied the scout’s pattern so that when he met with my simulacrum, he was as close as possible to the rest of the group. He held up a hand and called back to them with his eyes held wide open. I still did not understand his words.
“I do not understand you,” I said. I still kept my simulacrum perfectly still. Small tendrils of the rest of my self extended down trees and snaked through the grass to where they could meet up with its feet and maintain the connection.
The male drew his weapon. I did not understand. “I am not hear to eat you,” I said. “I am another human. I want to speak with you.”
The young male advanced toward me warily, keeping himself between my simulacrum and the females. He spoke to me with words I did not recognize. I began to wonder if the vocabulary Telan had given me was far more insufficient to my desires than I had previously known. The older man joined him circled around the females and joined the younger. He, too, held his sword in a protective stance.
“Those will not harm me,” I said. Indeed, no sword had a chance of doing me any true injury. It was possible it might damage the bones on which my simulacrum was built, but I could replace those with the fresh ones standing before me. “I will not harm you if you speak to me in words I can understand.”
The two men spoke at me, taking turns. I still could not interpret anything that they were saying. At times, I heard what sounded like a word Telan had taught me, but mispronounced, or with missing or additional syllables. Apparently, there had been a lot more lacking from my education than I had realized. “I still do not understand your words. I have been taught language. I do not know why I can’t understand you.”
The older woman stepped forward. The two other females attempted to stop her, but she pushed their hands aside. The males stepped out of her way, seemingly as wary of her as they were of my simulacrum. “They don’t understand you, either,” she said, finally speaking words with which I was familiar.
“Why?” I asked.
“You are speaking a Sahalan tongue,” she said. “They don’t know it.”
“There is more than one language?” I asked, astonished. I had taken so long to learn only one, and that one seemed so rich and complicated. Why, I wondered, had humans taken the time to come up with more?
“What are you?” she asked, ignoring my question.
“I am human,” I said.
She snorted. “No you’re not. They think you’re one of the Pale Ones, come down from above to eat us.”
“I don’t know what the Pale Ones are,” I said, truthfully. “I am human.”
Her brow furrowed. Rain dripped onto her face from the rim of her cowl. “You can keep saying that, but you’re never going to convince us.”
“Why not?” I asked. It hadn’t occurred to me that my simulacrum was less than perfect. After all, I could now perfectly mime human movement and locomotion.
She blinked. “I don’t know how to answer you, because it seems like you couldn’t be serious.”
“Answer anyway,” I demanded.
“Well, for one thing, we can see you,” she said. “Do you think you look human? Do you think that you are human, truly? If so, you have been deceived.”
I hesitated, not knowing how my answer might cause her to react. “I know that I am not human,” I said. “I had believed that I could pass as one.”
“Your face is not right for that,” she said. “Human flesh is opaque. You can’t see through it.” She turned to the youngest female, and said something in the words that I did not recognize. The girl hesitated long enough that the older female repeated her request, but louder. The girl passed her something from her pack.
“Look,” the elder female said. She approached my simulacrum, though the males objected. She passed the object to me to me.
It was a piece of metal that had somehow been treated so as to reflect the surroundings. I turned it so that I could see my own face. I had no need of this object, of course, for at any time I could have taken out one or both of my eyes and turned them so that the could observe my simulacrum from any angle I chose. Still, it intrigued me to see my “self” in the same way one of the humans might employ.
As she said, the parts of me that made up my simulacrum didn’t really look like the flesh that covered the human bodies. For one thing, it was the wrong color, a sort of dark yellow-green, as opposed to the almost woodlike brown color of this group of humans. For another, my skull was visible through it, as the bones of my hands, though the way I’d had to change the density and viscosity to imitate musculature did make it less than perfectly clear.
I handed the piece of reflective metal back to the elder woman. “You have a lot to teach me,” I said.
“What makes you think I’m going to teach you?” she asked.
I ignored her question. It meant nothing to me. “You will teach me how to be more human,” I said. “And you will teach me how to speak with your words.”
“I think not,” she said. She gestured to the two males. They set upon my simulacrum with their swords.
I had no experience in the complex movements that actually using my simulacrum to fight them would entail, so I made no attempt. As we’d been holding our conversation, I had begun to condense my mas together in the surrounding area, so that I would be more readily be able to make use of it, should the situation arise.
The men hacked at my simulacrum with their swords, damaging Telan’s clothes. Any disturbance they caused to the body itself by inserting their blades, I nullified by quickly reforming that area. I brought large globules of my collected self down the trunks of nearby trees. The women screamed at the men, but not in time. I engulfed them, pulling their swords easily from their hands.
“Are they useful?” I asked the elder woman.
“What?” she asked, backing away from me. I advanced my simulacrum toward her.
“When you’re teaching me how to be human,” I clarified, “will these two be useful?”
“I…” She shook her head. “Of course they’re useful! I’m still not going to teach you.”
She began speaking again with words I didn’t recognize. This time, she accompanied them with a series of gestures, following some sort of pattern that reminded me, in a way, of speech given form.
“I must remind you,” I said, “that the longer you hesitate, the longer you companions go without access to the air. I believe that will prove detrimental.”
In response, her eyebrows drew together and the volume of her words increased. Then her speech and her gestures halted in tandem, and I felt something ripple across the globules of myself which I had use to encompass the men. They began to peel away from the men without my input. I was so fascinated by this that I allowed it to progress far enough that the men were able to take breaths. Then I covered them up once more, easily resisting the woman’s effort.
“That was interesting,” I said. “You must teach me how to do that, too.”
“Never!” she shouted. “What are you?”
“I grow tired of that question,” I said. With a thought, I created a vacuum against the male’s orifices. I withdrew the air from their lungs, collapsing them.
The woman began gesturing and speaking in that third unrecognized set of words again, but she stopped when I expelled the dead bodies of the men. She rushed forward, suddenly heedless of the danger she perceived from my simulacrum. “Why are you doing this?”
The question seemed bizarre to me. My motivations should have been clear. “You have something I want, and you refused to give it. I am trying to encourage you.” As I spoke, two more large portions of my main body descended from the canopy. They quickly covered the lower bodies of the other two women. They screamed.
“Fine!” she said. “I will help you. I’ll teach you whatever you want. Just don’t hurt my girls.”
“Good,” I said. I turned to her. I did not release the other females. “Where would you like to start?”