Part One: Establishing a Base
I trekked to the west, into deeper swamp, walking around in shoes haphazardly fashioned from bark, moss, and vines of some native plant life. Blubberballs couldn’t swim around my toes, but they did bump up against my legs. While wandering near my base, I found those in some of the nearest pools no longer concerned by my splashing. Out here, though, farther than I had ever traveled before, they panicked and flopped into new puddles.
It wasn’t long, though, before I figured out why the blubberballs were always so afraid. A flying creature, its crystalline body shaped with the usual quadrilateral symmetry, fell from a tree at high speed, plucking blubberballs up to eat. Its large mouth, at the top of its body, opened like a four-parted beak before it expanded two wings, flapping them to draw itself back up. Hooks on the wings dug into a tree, its eyes moving to follow me, see what I did and how I treated it.
The farther I traveled, the more I realized how difficult it would be to find a tribe of Osminog. They didn’t establish cities or use fire, so there were no land markers other than empty berry bushes that I could detect.
Eventually, though, I began to hear patterns in the chirping animal sounds. Quality and pitch changed in rollocking ways. I followed the voices, quietly pushing through the water as best a land animal could manage. The Osminog, well suited to this freshwater swamp, would probably be able to detect me quickly if I didn’t remain silent and still.
Two creatures were walking around, picking and eating fruit. They chatted openly, as if they were unafraid of what was in the swamp, a bit unlike most Osminog I had watched through the probes. I listened to their voices, recognizing many of the words from my studies of the information of the probes. I could tell from their speech patterns that the two were from a spotted tribe of the Alpanqua language group. I smiled as I thought of the words I had coined to name their peoples.
Through their rhythmic chirping, I heard the smaller one say, “Go see you often.” I sunk into the water, allowing even the duffel to get soaked. Worse than me dying of starvation or thirst would be the Osminog finding me.
They stepped around, their bulbous bodies floating around in the swamp as their long, tentacle-like appendages swept water behind them. They had two eyes on each of their four sides, pure black orbs set in translucent, mud-colored skin that was slimy like that of a jellyfish. One of the Osminog was smaller and hard, dark, new, black spots, so I supposed it was in the young adult stage. The other was bigger and baggy, its spots very faded, near the end of the wizened stage. I cringed, realizing what was happening, needing no other explanation.
“Follow tribe,” I heard the older say, recognizing only a couple of its myriad of words.
“Visit many times.”
They floated away through the swamp, blubberballs completely undisturbed by their movement and graceful skidding across the murk. I couldn’t let what was happening make me feel sorry. The plight that the wizened one was going through was something that happened to all Osminog whether I liked it or not.
Unlike humans, the Osminog seemed to go through definitive life stages, the last of which Kyle and I had called ‘wizened.’ Once their cycle of budding was finished, the spots on their skin began to fade. Once the spots became too faded, a wizened Osminog was sent out of the tribe, never welcomed back. Food gathered and hoarded by the tribe would not be shared, warmth and protection amongst the numbers no longer afforded them. In extreme cases, where the wizened Osminog tried to come back and share from plants in the tribe’s territory, the group would destroy their own food supply just to keep the old one – or, in some rare cases, banished traitors or thieves – out.
I continued on in the direction the two Osminog came from. The hub of their tribe wouldn’t be too far away now.
I slunk around, the berry bushes nearby not sporting fruit as plentifully as the ones further out. These were the signs I could follow.
The diurnal creatures were milling about, talking with each other. I got as close as I could and tried to listen and catch as many words as possible. I let only my head stick out of the water, hiding by bushes as I crept.
It wasn’t long before a very large Osminog passed me, the first creature I had seen in the bearer life phase. The bearer before me was even budding, the child growing on its side like a tumor. The child’s eyes blinked, unseeing, as the offspring became distinct from its parent. It was fascinating, yet somewhat frightening.
I remained still as the bearer floated along past me, then I followed far behind in its wake. I couldn’t let the creature see me, not for anything.
The bearer came up, eventually, to an Osminog in the assistant phase. The assistant was smaller than the bearer, as was normal, and was taking care of a very small child. White, slimy goop wetted the assistant’s skin. It greeted the bearer with a series of clicks, the bearer returning them. I tried to remember the pattern, hoping to use this time to increase my vocabulary.
“Very soon?” an Osminog questioned. I couldn’t quite get what it was trying to say other than that, but supposed it was asking about the child on the bearer’s side.
“Very good. Today is big day. You good? Child good?” the bearer asked, tenderly patting the small child on the top of the head. The child clicked randomly, its teeth not yet in and it not able to make all the right noises. The cute and odd way of speaking made me smile as the child reached to the bearer, who drew it near over the murky water. “Child good,” the bearer said, stroking the wet skin of the child.
The bearer reached underneath itself and pulled out a bag made of broad leaves. Its body fell, sinking slightly in the muck without the buoyancy of the package. I poked my head up a bit more to see what was inside, but quickly put it back down.
The Osminog perked up, sensing ripples in the water that I had created. The bearer chirped and held the child close to itself.
“Leave? Predator near?” the assistant asked, nervously kicking the water.
“I see nothing,” the bearer said. Even so, they floated away warily, the bearer pushing the package full of ripe, orange fruits while the assistant took care of the child. I waited until they were sufficiently far away before I tried following them again.
The bearer, in its largess, stood behind and urged the assistant and child on faster. I didn’t recognize all the words, but I could gather from context that some of what they said was ‘faster’ and ‘not home.’ Wherever they were leading me, it was not going to be the place where their tribe slept. I remained still, waiting for another set of Osminog to follow while the first set ran away from me.
The water was getting very deep, my feet sticking in the muck at the bottom of the swamp, so I held onto the bark of the trees to easily stay afloat. Another set of Osminog, the only discernible difference between them and the last group being the presence of two assistants rather than one, eventually floated by. Though the Osminog were attuned to tiny differences in the spot patterns on their skin, I couldn’t tell them apart.
“Many fruit,” I heard the bearer in the group say. “Eat forever.”
They ate of the fruits from the bearer’s package as they floated along the top of the swamp.
An assistant said, “Today big day. Many child show to…” but I couldn’t tell who the children were being shown to or if I’d even translated the sentence right in my head. Was I wrong about what the bearer had told the assistant earlier? Was it not talking about the child on its side?
“Of ‘click-chirrup-whirr’ all good comes.” There was that word again.
“Big day, very soon. Hurry, hurry!”
This group, more excited than the last, was easier to follow. I swam at a distance behind them, hearing this new word over and over, never able to learn its meaning. Even so, I was recognizing more of the language from my studies, remembering words that I had once forgotten. More of what the Osminog were saying was making sense.
“Give fruit to ‘click-chirrup-whirr’ of Fruit, eat forever,” the bearer said, handing some of its package to the child.
“Hear bearer?” an assistant asked, tickling the spot just above the floating child’s eye. “Give fruit, get fruit. Always be a good Osminog.”
The child clicked and made a chirp or two, its capabilities still not complete.
Finally, though, I decided what ‘click-chirrup-whirr’ had to mean. It was either king or god, some higher up that they were going to sacrifice their fruit to.
As I followed, the swamp became filled with broken sticks, moss, and vines shaped into nests. The nests were all empty, all the Osminog floating steadily towards a central point. I looked in the nests and, in some of them, found something interesting. I looked around and, not seeing any Osminog nearby, plucked up what looked like their teeth sitting in the nests. They were of different sizes and had strange, unique textures. They were flat, meant to grind up fruit, and fit together so as to produce the sounds of the Osminog. I put them in my duffel bag, unzipping it carefully underwater to avoid being detected.
After collecting many samples from several nests, I followed the groups of Osminog and felt the water levels lowering quickly as I went. I looked ahead and saw a mound somewhat like dry land, all the Osminog gathered there, looking to a central, nest-like pyre built of moss, rocks, and sticks.
I went to an empty nest close enough to the gathering place to listen, but far enough away that I wouldn’t be seen, and hid underneath the floating structure.
Eventually, the hubbub died down, a single, wizened Osminog standing next to the pyre. The four tentacles normally used to push an Osminog through the muck were extended, lifting the bulbous body up to a height just shorter than a human. It lifted up a branch covered in orange fruits, waving it around.
“The King of Fruit, the Protector God of the Osminog, deserves our sacrifice!” the wizened Osminog called out. “All child, come forth!”
I began to worry. The word for fruit and the word for child were very similar – what was actually being done in this ceremony?
Small children crawled out of the muck, onto the island, each carrying a few fruits with one of their tentacles. They came up to the wizened Osminog, scampering at its feet, chirping nonsensically. The wizened one closed its eyes and bounced happily.
“Now quiet, children!” the wizened Osminog shouted. “The God of the Waters is coming!”
I watched as a bearer, draped with moss, clambered out of the water. The children all clicked nervously and gathered together, still and afraid.
“I am the God of Water! I hide everything that wants to live in me, even small, delicious children!” the Osminog said. It flung a couple balls of mud at the children. “If you do not respect me, I will not respect you, and currents will not lead you home, ripples will not show you predators.”
An assistant, covered in mud, came up from the water. “I am the God of Land!” it said. “What lives in the water cannot find you in my realm, but I will also support that which hunts you. All life is precious to Osmina.”
Another bearer threw off a moss cape to reveal skin covered in the bioluminescent algae common in certain puddles. “I am the God of the Sky, the source of light! I will guide your footsteps and show you where to swim, but my gift is two sided, also helping your enemies find and eat you.”
An assistant threw some vines across the little island to a bearer, the two of them working to pull a plant-like puppet that the assistant voiced, “I am the God of the Plants, amongst which you can play, and hide, but which also fool and deceive! Poisons run through my veins and ‘chipperwha-click-zza’ remain still to surprise and consume you!”
The children screamed as the puppet quickly was pulled by the bearer, the plant whizzing by them. I laughed, thinking about how lame human children would find all of this. Holograms were far more sophisticated than these puppets. Still, I could appreciate the creativity of these creatures.
The puppet gone, a young adult pushed forward a bag that fell open, blubberballs, siltstriders, fish, and puffsanders – a small, hard-shelled creature that would puff up like a puffer fish, except instead of spikes would blow this hard, sandy material that would stick to its attacker’s skin irritatingly – falling out of the leafy bag. From behind the large bag, the young adult said, “I am the God of Fellow Prey, those animals which wander around and keep your enemies fed and alive, but who desire to be your allies and deserve your respect!”
From then, as the animal creatures snuck off the dry land and back to the water, the older Osminog all began to slap the water with their long tentacles.
The wizened Osminog that had silenced everyone in the beginning of the ceremony lifted her fruit bush branch and cried out, “Oh no! What is coming?!”
From the water rose a huge puppet, built from large branches, vines, glowing algae, and what appeared to be parts taken from a dead animal. Though I hadn’t seen the animal since my arrival, I recognized the majestic form that the Osminog were trying to imitate, an ocean beast I called the Leviathan. Like everything on this planet, the animal had quadrilateral symmetry. The puppet was the color of muck in the night, had eight limbs, upon four of which it walked and four of which had flails with massive claws that seemed to have actually once belonged to a living creature. Its body was more vertically oblong than the nearly spherical Osminog, the top of which held membranes that could detect the scent of its prey. The Osminog puppet wasn’t quite a perfect representation, but two moss-covered bearers holding algae-covered sticks in their hands, waving them menacingly in attempt to show the animal’s ferocity.
From within the costume, several Osminog said in unison, “I am the God of the Predator! I shall give to your enemies tooth, claw, speed, and stealth to find and eat you! I shall first consume the Osminog in body then, once you are all dead, I shall consume the captured ‘whir-ck-ck-ck-‘ in ‘ck-ck-skrrr!’”
The Osminog in the costume made a horrible racket, the sounds of many teeth grinding and making weird noises, while the Osminog outside whirred and smacked the water. The children on the island grouped together tightly, chirping and clicking in the most frightened manner they could while the costumed Osminog stepped forward menacingly, lifting the clawed appendages above their heads.
I couldn’t watch child sacrifice, not even of aliens that looked so disparate from humans. While all the slapping was going on, I lifted my hands out of the water and to my face, ready to cover my eyes.
But then, the biggest bearer I had yet seen stepped out of the water, neither covered nor carrying anything. “Stand back, predator! Let my people go! You cannot eat them!”
The predator made grating, hissing noises as it backed toward the water. “But who are you? I have never seen you before!”
The bearer stepped forward. “I am the Protector God, the god who will stand up and help the precious Osminog survive! I will show them tricks, cunning, the value of their tribe, of trust, and try my hardest to turn your predators away from them!”
The children seemed to perk up as the large bearer stood up to the costumed enemy.
The predator hissed again. “I will back down… this time. But you are weak, one who calls itself the Protector God, and I will strike whenever I get the opportunity. I hate the Osminog and will prey on them forever.” The Leviathan slipped back into the water and the Osminog slipped out from under the costume, letting it fall limply down.
The children, however, had all begun to cling to the large bearer. It patted them on the heads with a free tentacle, paying attention to each of them. “You are safe for now and, dear ones, and your ‘whir-ck-ck-ck’ will come to live with me when you die. I cannot always protect your bodies, though,” the bearer said. “The God of the Predators is strong, his beasts strong as well. My strength will fade if I fight it to protect you here, in this realm. So listen closely to your bearers, to the assistants who will care for you, and those who are of your tribe. Pay no heed to those with spots of the other tribes, ‘whir-ck-ck-ck’-less creatures who eat your fruit and make it easier for the predator to get you. I will try to protect you in this life, not just the next, but I will need something to rejuvenate me. As I speak through ‘whirrup-zza,’ my messenger, I look down upon you and see that you have fruit. Fighting the God of the Predators took a lot of work, and now I need to eat. Please, sacrifice your firstfruit so that I may protect you always.”
The bearer opened one of her tentacles to reveal a couple of olive-sized fruits, laying them carefully on top of the pyre. “Feed the Protector!” the bearer shouted.
The children opened their own tentacles and looked at the bruised fruit within with interested eyes. Some of the older looking ones pulled themselves to the pyre, decorating the sides with their colorful, orange fruit. The younger ones required their bearers to urge them up to the pyre, pointing out what they were supposed to do. All the Osminog whirred, congratulating the children.
I smiled, recognizing the story from when I’d translated it about a year back. The Osminog saw the whole world as out to get them, neutral parties at best. Even other tribes of Osminog were seen as enemies, people who stole food from the people under the righteous watch of the Protector God. It was an interesting religion.
Before the Osminog could get over their excitement, recess, and find me, I slunk away through the swamp, aiming to return to my base and clean up.