Odd One Out

© by Charlotte Babb   draft for the Port Nowhere universe.

Crila dropped to LevFour and made her way along the spiral tunnel to the entrance to the public temple of the Sisterhood. It was open to the public, but almost no one ever entered without explicit directions. Two warrior Ophidia kept guard at each side of the temple opening, a simple round hole in the native rock with serpentine inscriptions for decoration. A statue of three Ophidia, a healer, a dancer and a warrior, stood inside, just past the opening. It took a bit of courage just to pass the guards and face the statue.

Inside were various curtained openings, some lighted and others dark. Smoky incense added to the mystery of the place. Beyond the statue on a platform were a group of dancers, perhaps a class rehearsal, as no one seemed to be watching except the musicians who played wind, string and percussion instruments Crila had never seen before. The music was hypnotic, as was the dance. She forced herself to look away from the dance to find the pod where Heart of the Core and JayRand would continue her training. She passed several Ophidia, all about 3 meters long, but in various colors and mode of dress. Each nodded to her and sent her a mental greeting: Sister Gives More than was Taken.

Crila had learned to pick up their names as she passed: Beryl Scales, Speaks with Many Voices, Bites First then Asks. As yet Crila had seen no males, but she supposed that they were kept in some kind of harem or stud farm, whether managed or enslaved, she did not know. She saw JayRand’s crest emerge from behind a curtain. She wondered again why an L’Talton would pair with an Ophid—L’Taltons always had pair-mates. But JayRand’s mind was too different from the Ophid’s for Crila to read, or it was not open to her. Yet he would mind-speak with her when he wished.

A little mystery keeps things interesting, Crila thought, ruefully.

Then you must be completely engrossed, Heart thought back, with the warmth of emotion that accompanied a smile.

That her thoughts were like loud conversation to the Ophidia still embarrassed Crila. She pushed the dark curtain aside and entered the pod. It held only lounges for her and Heart, and a roost for JayRand. Heart was coiled on one lounge, her upper body draped in a silky yellow shawl.

You’ll learn. Perhaps today. Heart’s thoughts carried a smile. The best thing about the mind-speak was that the emotions carried through the thoughts had to be genuine. The Ophidia were known for telling the truth, even if not the whole truth. How could they lie to each other?

False-telling is easy enough if you believe what you are thinking, JayRand added. It nodded to her, raising its crest in salute. All sentients are capable of it if they are capable of deceiving themselves.

Crila sat down on the lounge and curled her legs under her. About two meters long, a meter wide and less than half a meter off the floor, the lounges had one arm and a back which slanted down to meet the foot of the other end. An Ophid could coil or stretch out, dangling her tail over the side while she rested her humanoid body on the arm. This one was very soft, with a suede leather covering. Crila didn’t ask what kind of leather or if was synthetic.

Clear your mind, Sister, as you have learned to do. Heart said. Do not concern yourself for the animals whose skins made up the covering of your lounge. They did not suffer in their life or death.

Crila took a deep breath and drained the thoughts from her mind into her body and into the floor. Grounding, Heart called it. Crila stared ahead, practicing seeing what was around her without analyzing it.

Well done. Now close your eyes and wait for our next question. JayRand’s voice had a different texture than Heart’s.

Crila let the thought pass on without considering it. As she closed her eyes, she heard sounds of someone slithering by. The sound stopped. Crila felt that someone had joined them in the pod, although she could not hear anything. She stopped herself from asking, even mentally, but continued to listen. She resisted the urge to look. She felt a mental touch from Heart, as if Heart had put her hand on the back of Crila’s head. Then Crila knew that four beings were in the room. She could almost see the shapes of them, shadowy figures modeled in the fuzzy gray of her mind’s eye…herself, JayRand, Heart and another Ophid, one she had not met, smaller and different.

Open your eyes, Sister Gives More. The thought-voice was male, young, almost like Tau’s except without the edge of long-term distrust, fear and working the angles. His name was Plays Deep.

Crila opened her eyes but held onto the psychic vision she had of the room, looking at Plays Deep’s face, but taking in all the detail around him that she could. He was brown with geometric markings, not as large as Heart, perhaps not fully grown, but with serious eyes in a face full of mischief. He wore a tunic that closed beneath his waist, covering his genitals. Crila did not look down.

Excellent! JayRand did not smile, as its beak did not allow for that expression, but the others did, with that wide but closed-lip grin of predators who, as a sign of friendliness, do not show their teeth.

Heart nodded. Brother Plays Deep is an adept of trance. He is quite young, but he has the gift. He is in training, much as you are, to teach what he knows.

“Wh…” Crila started to ask, the control of her thoughts and curiosity taking away from her control of her speech. Embarrassed, she tried again. What is the need for trance? How is it used?

You remember the trance state of the initiation? That was from JayRand.

Yes. Crila had never experienced that level of belonging to the group, but while she seemed to be treated as one of the Sisterhood, the feeling had faded.

It was necessary for you to be in mental contact with the Sisters for you to survive. Heart explained. Now you learn how to transmit messages across the planet.

We are here to protect you, JayRand added some ruffling of feathers to its thoughts, and to guide Plays Deep. When you are to report to us, you will need to go into deep trance because you will not always be able to come to us.

Crila pushed a stab of fear from her mind. Have to close your mind to be openminded. She blushed again, looked at the floor. She had always been able to think what she would, whether or not she expressed her thoughts. Now she felt stripped, vulnerable, helpless.

Yes, Sister Gives More…Crila, Plays Deep sent her a warm, hugging thought as well as his smile. We have many minds, all with doors we learn to open and close. All of us have to learn this, even we “gifted” ones. He pulled the edge of his tunic away from his neck to show Crila the scars of fang marks, the ones that matched Crila’s.

So do I call you Brother or Sister? Crila’s upbringing did not include a male who could enter the women’s inner circle. All of them laughed aloud, the noise startling after the quiet thoughts. They weren’t laughing at her, though they found her unstated assumptions about the differences between male and female funny, and they even felt some of her sarcastic tone of voice.

JayRand’s trills in particular were so piercing that another Sister, one of the warrior guards, jerked the curtain aside to see what caused the ruckus. She clamped off her thoughts as soon as she saw Crila, but the emotional content slipped out almost as an odor. Some Ophidia were not happy about having out-species as sisters—or brothers.

Thank you for that teaching, Sister. Plays Deep bowed to her. I will strive to be a true brother as well as a sister to you. Call me Plays…or call me Deep, but call me! His double entendre came across as well as the joke.

Crila met his eyes. They were all mischief this time, as much as any teenage human male.

Some jokes do cross cultural lines. JayRand commented. It preened, settling all his feathers into their normal immaculate state as ite settled its mind. It too raised its crest to her by way of bow. Though heart-fasted to Heart, I too am your sibling–yet neither brother nor sister.

Crila felt too many emotions to trust herself to speak or to think. She felt she had asked a stupid question, one they had taken as a joke. She pressed her human side into its niche, and settled herself into her Halsan training, focusing on what she could sense physically to make herself more present in the moment.

Yes, very good, Heart thought. You already have this skill you desire, to close the door for a private space. Now you will learn to build a space for the private thoughts as well.

Crila nodded, still separating her conflicting selves. She breathed deeply, stared at each one for a moment, and then let her breath out, feeling where each one stood, feeling a connection with each one. Shall we start the training now?

* * *

Two hours later, Crila and Plays Deep were exhausted. He had taken her by the hand, mentally, and led her into his own mental construct for reaching the deep kind of trance necessary to send and receive thoughts across the planetoid, and perhaps even into space. He showed Crila how to build her own mental rooms for separating her private thoughts, using the metaphor of her human self shoved into a dark closet.

Don’t be so cruel to yourself, Plays Deep chided. Each part of yourself is beautiful, even if it needs to be protected from a cruel world.

What would you know about that cruel world? Crila’s scorn came through with more intensity than she expected.

Because I can’t experience it? Plays Deep sent her a wry smile. Just that–because I can’t experience it. To go out of the Enclave, I must learn to be a warrior, to be the killer we are rumored to be, just to save my own scaly skin from becoming someone’s aphrodisiac.

Crila shuddered. Her revulsion from the idea of someone grinding up Plays Deep to a powder on a LevSix bazaar shelf pushed her out of her body. She hadn’t done that since she was a child, her consciousness floating above her body as it lay inert on the lounge beside Plays Deep. The others turned to look at her and beckon her to return. They did not seem upset, only a little surprised.

Welcome back, Plays Deep thought. It is time that we go back to the mundane world, as your spirit can tell. He again offered a mental touch to help Crila walk back up the ramps she had imagined into the depths of her mind.

Crila became aware again of the lounge beneath her body, and the Ophid beside her, though her body still retained some of the feeling of paralysis of sleep. She opened only the door of her public mind, the one she and Plays Deep had constructed as she opened her eyes. Someone had brought in a pitcher of liquid and glasses. She realized that she had not seen the Ophidia eat, and that she might not want to. But that thought stayed obediently behind her private door, and she got no reaction to it from anyone, not even Plays Deep.