The Vrr’ak’l had dispersed. Tr’b’l had vanished into the canopy. K’eel and W’oo’woo still sat on each side of me, shielding me with their warm feathers. W’oo’woo was clucking quietly to himself, scratching at the ground with his beak from time to time. K’eel was tracing patterns in the dust with the worn tip of an old, shed feather. There was chatter among other Vrr’ak’l from distant places in the trees, but so far as I could see, we were alone.
My eye itched and again I drew my hand away covered with the black cream. I snorted, not sure if I wanted to laugh or cry. W’oo’woo cast a curious eye at me. I held my hand up to show him. He nodded, trilling quietly.
I sighed, examining the texture of the cream. It was thick, like oil paint. I smoothed it between my finger tips. “I suppose if I wash my face, then I’ll have that allergic reaction again.”
“Yes,” muttered K’eel without looking up.
“I suppose I don’t have to impress you with my stunning good looks,” I laughed.
K’eel cocked her head at me, and raised her crest slightly. “No.” W’oo’woo trilled at the joke.
“So what now?” I asked. My legs were starting to cramp from sitting in the bowl. “I’d like to walk around a bit.”
“Of course,” said K’eel. “Let me show you around.”
I stood and stretched. The chill was still in the air and I clapped my arms around myself. “Remind me to bring back some warmer clothes.”
“Yes,” said W’oo’woo as he hopped off to something else.
K’eel and I passed back through the bush wall and proceeded to the margin of the trees. The distinction between forest and plains was abrupt and artificial. We walked the entire perimeter of the wooded area that contained their homes, taking about two hours. K’eel showed me which way the white wall was and where their favored hunting-grounds were. The rivers were unnervingly straight, and all trees were deliberately planted in regular stands dotting the plains. “I feel like I’m in a giant terrarium,” I muttered.
“We believe this was made for us, by the keepers.”
“Are these familiar plants to you? Trees?”
“Yes, the plants are the same as from home. And our prey. But they do not grow this way.”
“I would guess not.” The sky overhead was a uniform blue. “It’s unreal.”
“It is depressing.”
K’eel faced me. “I hate this. I hate this place. I want to soar the true plains and hunt. These animals just stand there stupidly.” She looked away toward the white wall. “I want to hatch a clutch. I want to hear chicks chirping.”
K’eel fell silent. I didn’t know what to say. “I haven’t the faintest idea what I can do to help.” K’eel cast her eyes on me. “But I’ll try.” The perfect trees loomed beside me. “This is no good.”
“If we only knew what the Keepers wanted.”
“I suspect they have no idea that they’ve even hurt you. Maybe they think they’re doing you a favor.”
K’eel cocked her head.
“I mean, what if they rescued you because your planet was about to be hit by an asteroid?”
K’eel raised her neck feathers. “Asteroid?”
“I don’t know. I’m just playing devil’s advocate. The point is, their motives might have been noble. Maybe they’re so far removed from your mode of life that they don’t even realize you’re sentient.”
“What is an asteroid?”
“Any sufficiently advanced technology would look like magic,” I muttered, trying to quote something I didn’t quite remember.
“But what is an asteroid?” K’eel spread her wings.
“What? Er. It’s a big piece of rock that could hit a planet and destroy everything. It’s happened lots of times on Earth. Completely devastating.”
“A rock the size of this place.”
“Could we see it?”
“I dunno. You’d need telescopes and lots of eyes on the sky. I’d guess probably not, until it was too late.”
“Do you think this possible?”
“I’m just putting that out there. It’s possible they just wanted to make pets of you. I don’t know. We’d have to ask.”
“Can you ask?”
“Yeah, maybe. We don’t even know what we’re dealing with.”
“The Keepers,” said K’eel.
“Yeah, people in black suits? Humanoid? Black flying craft? Maybe spaceships? Maybe black Tardises?”
“Sorry. A joke.”
K’eel snapped her wings closed and snorted.
“Look, I don’t know what we’re dealing with. What are the chances that I’ll see these things?”
“We can observe tonight. There is a safe roost where we can see very far. Their craft are often visible in the early evening.”
“And we won’t get caught and taken away?”
“I don’t think they know about this roost, but we do not frequently occupy the place. It is quite exposed.”
“And they’re only around in the evening? Do they hang around over night?”
“They soar overhead at night. I believe they walk the plains after dark, though I am not sure.”
“So I need some night-vision goggles. Check.” K’eel blinked at me. I shrugged. “I’m sure I can find some.”
She looked up at the sky. Fluffy white clouds had appeared. “It will rain soon. Best find shelter.”
Read Chapter 16.
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