“But how long could they live there without drowning? You humans don’t seem to have much breath control.”
“No, they wouldn’t need to hold their breath.” Jen said through a mouthful of dried meat, stopping to swallow before continuing “What the guy did was build a city on the ocean floor. It was made up of airtight domes and tubes; once you’re inside you can walk and breathe normally.”
“So, they live underwater without actually being in the water?”
Mama pondered this answer, absent-mindedly picking up a bird-like infant as it started pecking at the tentacle poking out from a neighbouring cradle. Meanwhile Jen was sitting cross-legged on the floor, picking at the meat with one hand. Currently curled in her lap was another infant, a blue-skinned maggot the size of a cat. Occasionally it let out a little ‘blub’ of contentment.
There was rarely an opportunity for her to help with the children. Part of that was the obvious fact that couldn’t nurse them, but the more pressing issue was how even at their youngest, most of them were too dangerous for her to handle. Teeth, talons, tentacles; some of them were even venomous. Mama was naturally built to cope with all of these whereas Jen was not, and to make matters worse some of the infants were aggravated by the unfamiliar scent of human. Often it was safer for everyone involved if she just stayed out of the way, and Mama was more than capable of handling all of them. However, both women agreed that it was better for Jen to interact with them whenever she could, getting them used to her scent and presence to keep a peaceful environment and not cause them unnecessary stress.
Some of them were safe, or at the very least docile enough for her to handle directly. The little boy currently snuggling against her knee was a good example. He was a friendly and affectionate child, and his teeth were in his throat rather than his mouth, so the worst damage he could do was leave a suction mark. Jen found him oddly cute and had affectionately given him the nickname ‘Wiggles’ in response to the way he shuffled around.
Mama finally broke the silence, her long nose creasing as she spoke. “Child, I am struggling to see the point of living in a body of water if you cannot adapt to aquatic life.”
Now it was Jen’s turn to think, giving Wiggles a little scratch as she did so. “Well… see, the point wasn’t really about living underwater. It was about living somewhere completely outside of any government control; the bottom of the sea was just the best place to do that. He might have gone to space if he had the technology. And another guy did a similar thing by building a floating city in the sky!”
“All uninhabitable environments, which is counterproductive to survival. Humans must be terrible at leadership to drive their own kind to such lengths.”
“Part of me feels like I should defend my species… but looking back at our history I can’t say that you’re wrong.”
Mama chuckled at this, turning her attention back to the suckling infant. “So, you have humans living in an underwater city despite not being able to live underwater. And they start killing each other after consuming slugs that let them create lightning and fire?”
Jen nodded slowly, a smile plastered on her lips while her head was swimming with regret.
She said ‘would you kindly’. She wasn’t making a reference because she doesn’t know what it’s a reference to. You could have just let it pass by unnoticed but no! You had to try explaining the story and setting of a video game to a demon who doesn’t know what a video game is! And it’s not even a simple story! Next time keep your mouth shut you fool.
Despite these thoughts she was enjoying how much interest Mama was taking. She’d only recently found out that demons had their own fiction, and it was fun being able to swap stories. Mama had told her one about a pillar made entirely of eyes that somehow appeared on every horizon, hypnotizing any demon who looked at it directly. Before today’s debarcle Jen had mostly be sharing fairy tales, which Mama found quite enjoyable. Her current favourite was Rumpelstiltskin.
There was a faint rustling sound from the entrance, both turning to see Jen’s letter sack shift. Nobody came in, and after a few seconds of silence they noticed footsteps growing steadily fainter.
“Another one that doesn’t say hello. How rude.” Mama tutted, glancing over at Jen. “Not going to check?”
“Nah, it’s not going anywhere. Besides,” she added, looking down to see Wiggles tugging at the meat in her hand. “I’m about due for a day off.”
“Ah good. You have been running around a lot lately, especially after that loud one showed up.”
The ‘loud one’ was Corporal Marshall, an obnoxious soldier whose directions had led her into the path of angry lobster demons who had chased her into an abandoned submarine. His letter ended up dead, which was always sad, but it was difficult to feel sympathy when she’d spent nearly a whole day waiting for the furry bastards to fall asleep so she could escape. Her suit had been damaged, she had a small burn on her foot and even now she was tired no matter how much she slept. In her bitterness Jen had promised herself that if they ever met again she’d punch him in the face, gun or no gun.
“Anything planned for today, child?”
“I noticed yesterday that there are some rat-heads living in the crater. Seems like a good opportunity to watch them, see if I can learn more about their behaviour before I go out again.” She watched as Wiggles swallowed the remaining meat before adding “Assuming they’re not hunting of course.”
Mama nodded knowingly. “They can be vicious. But I doubt the crater has much to hunt, so you should be fine. Oh, do let me know if you need one of them for a new suit.”
“… t-thanks Mama, but mine will be fine for a while. That mixture Elena gave me has pretty much halted the decomposition, and I’ve been able to patch up where it got torn.”
“Hmm… as you say.”
It was another hour before Jen left the hut, waving goodbye to Mama and heading towards the crater.
Her head felt strangely naked without the mask, though it was pleasant having a breeze run through her hair for a change. She had pulled on a pair of loose trousers and a long coat. A few sheets of paper were folded in one pocket, while the other held a stick of charcoal and a pencil. The pencil had been a rare find that she tried to use sparingly, but while the charcoal worked well for plotting maps it was very awkward to write with.
When was the last time I went out without the suit?
The thought made her lips curl into a smile, a little bounce in her step as she approached the base of the crater. As useful as the suit was, especially with how often it had saved her life, it was essentially a uniform. Wearing it put her brain into work-mode. And work-mode was nearly always synonymous with survival-mode. Whereas here, as she started climb up the rocky incline, she was more relaxed than she had been in ages. Granted she still had to be somewhat cautious, but there was far less chance of being mauled by furry lobsters.
With a grunt she hauled herself onto the rim, staggering to a standstill and looking down into the crater.
There were the rat-heads.
All scattered across the dusty surface, a few of them gathered around what looked like a fleshy pool. A rough headcount got her to thirteen, five of them small enough to be infants. One or two of them glanced in her direction but none showed any sign of aggression. There was a calm atmosphere to the place, reminding her of when she’d see stray cats all lazing in the sunlight.
Just what she needed.
A quick survey drew her attention to a mound of rock jutting from the far side of the rim, providing a little shaded area right on the edge. She made her way over and settled down, making sure she was clearly visible to the demons below. Her grandad, a big wildlife fanatic, had told her every time they went camping “Keep your distance but let the animals see you; if they think you’re trying to hide they’ll perceive you as a threat.” The advice seemed to work; in all the weekends they’d spent in one forest or another, the closest they’d ever come to an attack was the time a squirrel tried to pinch her sandwich.
He’d love to see this now… he’d have that silly tight-lipped grin he always gets when he’s trying to keep quiet so he doesn’t scare away whatever animal he’s watching.
Her eyes started to sting.
She sniffed, swallowed a lump in her throat and took a breath. Then she pulled out her pencil and watched.
Instinctively her gaze was drawn to the children. From this distance they looked like smaller versions of the adults, the biggest difference being the paler shade of their skin. She couldn’t tell if they were male or female as they were moving too much for her to spot which ones had a stubby tail at the base of their spine; only males had those, which was how she’d figured out her suit was female. She also couldn’t figure out which adults were the parents of which children. However, Mama had mentioned that communal parenting wasn’t uncommon amongst demons, so perhaps it wasn’t a great concern for them. The children seemed happy to flit from adult to adult as they pleased. Rolling around, play-fighting, and one of them kept bumping its nose against that of an adult female. She yawned, her jaw stretching wide, but eventually started nuzzling back.
I’ve seen others do that, so maybe that kind of nose rubbing is a common method of contact. Like dogs. Useful to know in case I can’t avoid getting close.
She jotted a note down.
Every rat-head suddenly looked up. Not at Jen, but at the other side of the crater. She followed their gaze, seeing a heavily pregnant female crawling over the rim, soon followed at a distance by two other adults. Those in the crater didn’t move but all of them were focused on her; even the children seemed to notice something was up, though that didn’t stop two of them from batting their heads together. The female moved along, settling into an empty space near the fleshy pool and laying down on her side. Once settled, she raised her muzzle into the air and let out a gentle mewling sound. The sound had barely finished before three adults were surrounding her, yipping, and nuzzling and showering her with affection.
“Okay… so they give her space and independence but keep an eye out in case she needs anything.” She muttered, making another note. “Huh, as far as maternity policies go it’s not a bad deal.”
Some motion in the corner of her vision made her turn, looking to see one of the newly arrived adults making a gesture to their fellows. The movement was quick, and nothing about their body language told her what it was for. But other rat-heads mimicked the motion, and then another. By the fourth time she’d picked out each step.
The left claw lifted to rest on the back of the neck, each finger tapped the neck once before the arm dropped down like it had gone limp.
It wasn’t a move she’d seen before. Most gestures were simple sweeps or jabs, like the submission gesture. Yes, there was some subtlety to getting them right, but she hadn’t witnessed any with as many steps as this. Her only thought was that it could be unique to this group, like a sign of identification.
Then she set her pencil and paper down.
“Let’s see; left hand to the neck, fingers tap, then drop. Left, neck, fingers, drop. Left, neck…”
She repeated the movement a few times, playing with speed and how far her arm stretched until she was satisfied. There was no guarantee she’d ever have to use it, but better to have it and not need it.
The sky grew duller the longer she stayed, watching the group while continuing to make notes. Once or twice one of them looked like they wanted to approach her, but none of them got further than a few steps. It was peaceful just sitting here, and part of her could have stayed all night, but she didn’t want to risk outstaying her welcome. With a yawn, a stretch and a faint click of her stiff bones, she stood up. Going all the way to the other side of the rim seemed pointless, so she instead turned to descend where she was and circle back when she reached the ground. Just as she began to drop herself down over the edge, a faint growl caught her attention.
There was another rat-head at the bottom of the incline, a strip of dark green meat between its jaws. It had paused in it’s climb upwards, staring at her with pale eyes just visible within the hollow depths of the sockets. She couldn’t tell the sex from this side, but she did notice their back right leg ended in a stump and there were visible scares on their chest. They didn’t attack but their shoulders were rigid, causing Jen’s heart to begin thumping painfully in her chest.
Running would only cause a panic and potentially draw the attention of others; Jen wasn’t even certain she could outrun one of them.
The two watched each other silently, each waiting for the other to act first.
Then, careful not to move too quickly, she raised her left arm.
Left… neck… fingers… drop…
No change in posture.
No sign of moving.
Before she could decide on a back-up plan, the rat-head cocked their head to one side and let out another growl. It didn’t sound particularly aggressive or angry, if anything it sounded more confused. They didn’t return the gesture either. But after a few more moments of tense quiet, they moved one claw forward and resumed their crawl upwards, never breaking eye contact as they did.
Jen took the hint, edging her way down at as calm a pace as she could manage.
The two passed each other without incident, and once at the bottom she looked back to see the rat-head still watching her, head once again cocked to the side before they disappeared over the rim.
“… ok. That was close but I am alive. I’m counting that as a successful day off.”
Hey look, I wrote another episode and it didn’t take a year! And I’m already writing the next one, woo! A bit more mellow this time, just showing a bit more of Jen’s life with Mama and seeing how she studies the rat-heads to mimic their behaviour (very demon-centric).
The next episode is also going to be demon-centric. So far the only demon character we’ve gotten to know is Mama, but the next one will introduced some new characters which should be a lot of fun in terms of dialogue (some of the characters may even be recurring).
Here’s the itch.io version in case you want to support me – https://anmanarrative.itch.io/demon-skinned-postwoman-episode-4-observations