If you’ve been following along on my journey, hopefully you’re curious about what’s to come. Here’s a little taste from Chapter 1! I hope that you enjoy it, and be sure to grab your copy when The Penny Drops launches on March 15th, 2021!
She said she’d never leave me, and now she’s gone, I believe she meant it. I first saw Penny from a hospital bed. Not that I knew what a hospital was at the time, or how I’d come to be in one.
Surrounding me were rudimentary technologies. Bulky metal instruments scattered the floor around the platform on which I laid, and large, square storage solutions lined the walls. I adjusted my position a bit. That made my arm sting. I was hooked up to a bag of clear fluid via a tube and small needle.
Shocked, I jerked on the tube to remove it from my limb, and in the process, I managed to topple over the bag and metal branches that held it up. The clattering noises echoed out of the room, and soon after quick click-clacks approached.
Two humans charged in. Females, I presumed. A small one with loose-fitting, monotone clothing and dark, delicately woven tendrils around her face; and a young, slightly larger one with a silver mane. The last, like a beautiful creature that I’d seen in an ancient human text from my study. A badge clipped to the breast of her shirt read “Penny.”
As soon as I saw them, the morning rushed back to me. It began to make sense how I’d ended up unconscious. My eyes lost their focus on the humans in front of me as I recalled.
I’d begun this day at the tsez̈ø (educational center) where I’d received my rushed, mandatory training. It was tucked deep into the crust of the Pacific floor many leagues from the southern California coast, so I was urged to leave early in order to arrive landside before the daylight hours. I reviewed details about human life as I rode the waves up-ocean in my juz̈uṣùs̈, the spherical underwater vehicle of the Oɦiṣod, my people.
When I arrived near the shore, I pressed hard on the navigation tools and halted. I puffed air through my cropped nostril slits with hesitation. Leaving the juz̈uṣùs̈ was dangerous, and the world beyond a mystery that I had not yet experienced. My clawed fingers grasped the navigational panel, and my eyes wandered around the surfaces of my transport. They bounced from my collection of retrieval supplies of suits and bindings to the algaeal fuel adaptor in the back, to the oxygen absorption channels above. Lastly, my eyes sank down to the escape hatch and lingered. Was the challenge worth the danger? Would reprogramming back home truly be worse than my fate among the humans, unprepared?
I let another long puff of air leave my nose. A sigh of longing. I’d miss the freedom of my juz̈uṣùs̈ and the routine of the tsez̈ø, where I reported daily to train or work. It was the essential hub of all academic and professional life in my colony. I’d ache for the certainty of language study and words and the human books, the underwater cave where I resided, and the freshwater pool where I lounged. I feared that I’d miss them indefinitely, or worse, go without them for a shortened lifespan. Few tsuṣuṣe were lost in the land trials in this day and age, but with months rather than years of specialized training, the risks to my life were magnified.
As much as this state of limbo in the vehicle appealed to me, I gathered my satchel of supplies and set the juz̈uṣùs̈’ controls to camouflage, rendering it invisible in a tall drift of ocean sand. From there, I swam toward shore and scanned the waves carefully as I paddled closer to the beach with my tail. When I reached the shallows, I bobbed, barely raising my eyes above the water. The moon and sun fought for the sky above as I rode a shallow wave into the sand.
Flat on my stomach, I raised only my head to sniff the air and listen. There was no detectable movement beyond sea birds and some crustaceans, so I began the slow journey to the closest outcropping of rocks. It took longer than expected to wriggle to the shelter as the sand did not create much grip against the yellow and black scales of my skin.
Hidden in the rocks, I lay still for a moment and focused on my body, the breath in my nostril slits, the sand beneath my claws. I had to calm myself and prepare for the challenge ahead. My entire life led to this moment when I would walk among the humans, but it should never have come so soon. My training was so unduly rushed, and my anxiety on shore that morning matched the severity of the circumstances.
Regardless, it was time for my modification process to begin. I’d modified before during training simulations but never on land. In that very first moment of change, I knew that the simulations had not prepared me for this agony. A new torture overtook my whole being.
Despite knowing how the changes occurred anatomically, there was something mysterious and new about how my spinal column retracted and my muscles and skin tore. The way the sandy air whipped against my bare tissues as they sewed themselves back together was harsh and horrific compared to the soothing comfort of the ocean’s deep pressure and light currents over wounds from my past modifications.
I’m still unsure how I remained conscious through the popping, oozing, cracking, and ripping that lasted for ages. When my body had finished the greater part of its modification process, there was little sensation in my wrought body parts and a haze pervading my mind. While the pain was still there, I separated from it. In the tsez̈ø, I would’ve had assistance in acclimating and been given pain management, but such treatment is not available during one’s land trials, the all-important eɦùsh juṣiṣos̈ .
Dissociated and weak, I tried to focus my eyes on the satchel. My vision lagged, but it finally helped me see my next step. I crawled again, this time with the awkward movements of an infant creature, unaware of my own body parts. Laying on my back, I fought to pull the provided clothing on properly. The bottoms had too many holes, or so I thought, until I fit the two long, wobbly legs that had replaced my tail into them.
Then, the numbing shock dissipated enough to cause a shiver of recognition and panic through my stunted human spine. I felt wet for the first time in my life. I’d heard it described, but I never understood how the feeling of water against my body could be unpleasant beyond the pressure of an intense wave or current. But once my birth skin had sloughed off to uncover this smooth, delicate, stippled organ, I was weighed down and saturated, like unprotected human artifacts in the tsez̈ø.
The pain, the cold, the wet. It was almost enough for me to lie there and give up just as soon as my trial had begun, but somehow, I urged myself to pull the satchel over to me and crawl awkwardly away from the rocks. The wind bit me as I left the meager protection of my shelter.
Just outside, I made it a short distance before my body forced me to rest. I saw humans, children, down the beach from where I was lying, and I was reminded of an early memory of mine when I observed a family. A small child with a round plaything and a larger one passing it along the ground. I’ve always been fond of that small human, and I wonder if he grew up to be the kind of tyrant that so many of them turned out to be.
I rested my eyes at the thought and then drifted into a dream of playing with a round thing of my own on the beach, as if I were a human child myself.
At some point in my dreamy recollection, one of the humans spoke to me. The smaller and darker of the two let out a breath and came over to me with purpose. Looking at the mess of liquid and red smears on the floor, she picked up the bag and its holder. She then looked at me and asked for my name.
“Natalie.” I stated clearly.
The two of them continued to look at me, but I was sure I had answered correctly. After years of English study, I was and am quite proficient. However, they continued to stare.
“Natalie…?” the paler one, titled Penny, offered.
I stared, uncertain then.
“What’s your last name, sweetness?” asked the other.
“Natalie…” panicked, my chest began to heave. I couldn’t remember the surname I’d been given!
The silence as I grasped for any human name in my mind grew into a dark cloud in the room. The two shared a glance, and I barely heard the other say to Penny, “There wasn’t any sign of traumatic brain injury, but we might be dealing with amnesia here.”
“Alvi!” I blurted and let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding in.
“Well, Miss Alvi, do you know why you’re here?” Not-Penny asked.
“Some kids found you on the beach, passed out, and hypothermic,” she said, coming close to me with a container of fluid and some white puffs.
“What are those?!” I asked her, scooting away and feeling the aches again.
“Sweetheart,” she said, “they’re just antiseptics and cotton balls to get your arm cleaned up. I can’t let you keep on bleedin’.”
I inspected the hole that the metal thing had left in my arm, and I could feel my flesh stinging. I held my arm close to my chest and scooted again until I almost fell off the platform I was on. Penny walked a step closer, as if to catch me. I observed them with suspicion but also curiosity. They didn’t appear as uncivilized as I’d expected. And these two had a certain nurturing air.
“It won’t hurt after I clean it and cover it up, but it might get infected, if you don’t let me fix you up.”
“Infected?” I asked, unfamiliar with the word.
“Yes,” she answered and then continued, “If the wound is not cleaned, germs can get into the bloodstream and make you sick.”
I was in a place for the ill or injured, then. A hospital, I believed they were called. Or perhaps, a clinic. To appease them and stave off some of their doubts or wariness, I offered my arm. After all, I reasoned, if they’d wanted to injure me purposefully, they would have already.
“Are you feeling warmer?” Penny asked.
“Yes,” I answered, and my face scrunched at the question.
“Your temperature was dangerously low when you arrived,” Not-Penny offered by way of explanation and then asked, “Did you sleep outside last night?”
“No,” I answered.
“If you weren’t outside all night, how did you get so cold, sweet pea? It wasn’t a cold enough mornin’ to drop your body temperature to 90 degrees.” As she finished speaking, she placed a puffy cotton ball under an adhesive strip and covered the puncture point.
“I don’t know,” I answered, despite having a good guess. I’d undergone the stress of a full modification on land with no anesthesia or other assistance. My body had likely been unable to reach stasis and control my temperature, especially with the cold air and wet clothing. And, of course, my birth body rarely rose to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so 90 degrees was still quite a leap.
“Well, Miss Natalie, my name is Dr. Loretta Kane, and this is Penny. We’re gonna get you all taken care of,” the woven locked one said and patted my hand.
She left my side and busied herself with some things across the room. When I followed her with my eyes, I saw my satchel and sat up with a jolt.
“I need my satchel!”