"Behold, dummy," Won Won remarked clearly, poking at the paper with a crude little tube of ink, and scrawling a quick sketch of the building as it had appeared when they first entered it.
Won Won was bored. Nothing about this hole in the wall interested him. The big gray box had always been here on top of this hill, and there had never been anything fun about it. But the others were so insistent, they almost convinced him this building might be fun. A few minutes more and he knew better.
"Bored!" he cried out again, hoping to make it more plainly obvious.
"Quiet, you," Teef growled, and the group went in. The air was immediately much more pleasant, and artificial lights came on in the room.
"What is?" Won Won glared at the other four. Teef, his friend, Won Ji, his own sister, X51 and Jorry, the other two he didn't really know and didn't care about.
"Now we are indoors," Teef replied, opening the door he had closed behind them. It no longer led out onto the grasslands, but to a narrow little room with stairs descending elsewhere.
"What is?" Won Won peered in to the stairwell. Teef nudged him forward and Won Won went down the stairs, his foot-claws clickety-clacking on the hard surface. No grass, and not wood. It felt like rock, but it wasn't bumpy enough to be rock.
The door at the bottom of the stairs opened into another big room with even more doors. Short land mammals were standing around in there. Won Won loved little land mammals, but these had a significant lack of fur. Staring more intently, he realized they looked like Skybound. But they were much too short, and wore non-metal clothing.
Won Won stepped up to one with skin the color of his own fur. The little one turned to him and started to speak in incoherent Skybound jibbering. Won Won couldn't understand much of it, and turned to leave, when it began to click and snarl gutturally, putting out a fair representation of Won Won's native language.
"I'm at Davis High School in Baltimore, Maryland. Hello! My name is Johnny!"
Won Won started to squirm in delight; little talking mammals! Won Won recognized most of those words. "School" in particular. Given the size of this mammal, it was likely to be a nursery as well. And since they had been on top of a hill when they entered, it made sense to call it a high school.
"I am Won Won, progenitor is Won."
The little Johnny threw its arms out to its sides in some manner of physical greeting. "Hello One-one! You are at Davis High School in Baltimore, Maryland! Would you like a tour of the newest edition of Davis High School in Baltimore, Maryland?"
Won Won understood enough to know tours were boring. "No tour. Where are big ones? Old persons?"
The Johnny seemed to be gesticulating with its hands, wiggling its fingers and moving its arms as it spoke. "Some of our students aren't yet ready for class. Please bear with us as we renovate the classrooms."
Won Won stared intently at it, not knowing if this little mammal misunderstood or was being deceptive. "Old persons! Professors? No students."
"There are students all around, just waiting for classes to begin! Please bear with us as we renovate the classrooms."
He turned and left the Johnny, returning to Teef and the others. "Confusing and disturbing in implications. Skybound left many moons ago."
Teef nudged him with a clutched claw. "Not Skybound, fool. Look how little they are."
"Skybound can be little," X51 put in.
Teef growled at him in retort, but Jorry and Won Ji backed X51 up.
"It's clearly an infant," Won Ji clarified. Teef still didn't think so, but didn't care enough to keep arguing over it.
"If infants, therefore Skybound progenitors." Won Won sniffed, seeing further than his companions could. "Skybound mimic us naturally; infants cannot deceive, only old ones."
Jorry stared emptily at him. The others were silent; he couldn't tell which got it, and which were just impatiently waiting for him to explain.
"Little Skybound over there engaged in deceptive speech; repulsed attempts to acknowledge older Skybound. If infants manipulated to lie, then infants and/or progenitors may engage in bellicose behavior."
That finally got through; the group split up into thirds, drawing their short thrusting spears and checking all the rooms to see if there were Skybound lying in wait. Won Won thought the Skybound could just set the building on fire if they really wanted to kill them. But Skybound were notoriously prickly about killing infants for any reason. It always bothered Won Won that they considered freshly-born, easily replaceable infants to be more valuable than a full-grown mature person, with years of experience…
"Jorry has food!"
Won Won's head jerked towards the cry, and others started to bleat, "Where did you get food?!" Jorry was eating something brownish with shiny paper around it. Broken glass was on the floor around him.
"In this window-box. These things are food."
Jorry had broken open the window to a big black box. Colorful bricks were lined up in rows, along with bags and other things with writing on it. Won Won rushed over to get some before the others hoarded it all. That they had food dispensers dispensing wrapped food indoors was unusual even for Skybound—they were supposed to love food that was freshly dead and burnt up.
Most of the food went down easily, but the taste was overpowering. Won Won suddenly began to panic, and turned his head to eject the food. "Dummies! Potentially poisonous!"
The others ignored him and kept eating. Being the only sane one in the group was overly frustrating sometimes. Won Won gave up and grabbed for some more of the food-bricks before they were all claimed. They were tasty so why not indulge—better to die together happily than have to battle their way out of this school with empty abdomen.
Several minutes passed and they weren't dead yet. The last room in the building contained a stairwell, leading down to a ground-level hall. The hallway led around in a big square, and in the center of the square was an open courtyard with the sun beaming down. X51 ran across the courtyard, and found one of the doors lead out of the school. Nothing unusual, except the school was supposed to be high on a hill. X51 opened a door showing flat grassland as far as they could see.
"It's fake," Won Ji figured, and stepped out into the open. "Artificial projection." The sunlight looked real enough on her fur, and felt warm enough. Won Won stepped out and started walking away from the school, checking his feet as he put some distance between him and the rest of the group. Nothing appeared on the horizon ahead of him, and the ground seemed not to be tilting like a round planet should. In fact, when he looked behind, the school building seemed slightly elevated, as if he'd gone down a ravine. But he'd felt absolutely no shift in gravity to suggest the ground elevation had changed. Won Won grunted in frustration; physics was hard for him, and numbers scared him like spiders. The distance he'd traveled and what he saw might mean that the ground he was on was either completely flat, or curved outward rather than inward…
Teef hooted something loudly, and Won Won rushed back over to the building. Teef had apparently been thinking much the same as him, and similarly couldn't understand what it meant.
"Should've sent a scientist," X51 remarked, shutting everyone up. Except Won Won.
"I is not good enough?" Won Won blinked defensively, sheathing his eye as if in preparation for a fight. He loved exploring and being a scientist. Whenever the experts were busy, people came to him with their questions about plants and animals and space. That was partly why they had dragged him here.
"For studying! With numbers," X51 clarified, backing down from the challenge.
Eventually they would send experts, but they weren't even supposed to be wandering around on archaeological sites on their own. A thought then struck Won Won.
"We're stuck. Are we stuck?" The door they'd come in from was the same they ended up going down the stairway from. If that door magically teleported to this place, they probably wouldn't be able to get back home.
Teef prodded him in the sides. "Door might open again. If not, therefore Hwee will come open door. It may bring us back."
Won Won grumbled in agreement, but was already mentally preparing himself. Skybound liked to play with them, calling it a "hunt" when they shot at them and made them run while bleeding on the grass, leaving behind a "trail". He'd take some of their infants to protect himself—threaten to kill them if the Skybound tried to hunt them.
Teef didn't seem perturbed, and casually approached one of the infants. "You. Food location."
This infant was slightly taller, and appeared female by its high voice and swollen chest. It responded in Teef and Won Won's own language, "Welcome to Davis High School in Baltimore, Maryland! What was it you were looking for?"
"Food location, fool."
"Food is being served right now in the cafeteria. Better hurry or you'll miss out on the Tuesday surprise! And please remember: garnishes are no longer allowed within 28 hectometers of croissant-like food items."
The way it spoke disturbed Won Won, but he couldn't tell why. It spoke his own language, but its tone was not Skybound. It was monotonous, and overly friendly. Overly friendly people tended not to be.
Won Won nudged the infant aside and followed the sound of noise. Skybound made lots of noise when eating. Presumably they couldn't figure out how to regulate when to speak and when to consume, and so ended up doing both at once often times.
"Formations!" Jorry barked, and Won Won's hair bristled in panic. He whirled and stood alongside the others, small tubes out and extending into a full-length spear. Enemies around. Danger. Something or other. Jorry wouldn't just be a fool and shout dangerous words insensibly.
Just ahead of them were two mature Skybound. They weren't wearing metal clothes, but they had guns on their pants. They had stopped too, and were staring back at them. Won Won slowly stepped forward, arms out at his side.
"Won Won, you don't speak Skybound, get back here, stupid!" Teef shouted at him.
The two Skybound had their hands tentatively reaching for their guns. They looked shocked, on edge. One was reaching for a weapon at its belt. That did more to comfort Won Won than if they came with a smile and friendly words. Won Won raised one of his clawed hands, and waggled it back and forth, like the things usually did in greeting. That seemed to work, as the Skybounds' hands moved away from their guns. One even raised his hand and did the same. The other murmured something. Won Won looked down at his feet, feeling oddly comfortable. What a queer thing to feel when there stood the first full-grown Skybound he'd seen in sixteen decades…
- - - - - - -
Won Won had been stuffing his face while these Skybound struggled to speak clearly. They seemed to understand the ursines' language structure easily enough, but couldn't manage the different tones that made each syllable into something entirely different. Skybound memorized dozens of syllables and extended it into millions of words without need for add-ons. Primitive, compared to their own language; only a handful of syllables, with a few dozen add-ons divided by accent, tone, length, and timbre. It was so much simpler, why couldn't the Skybound put it together more easily?
"Door coming. Coming door. Coming on door," the black-haired female repeated in stilted tones. X51 and Won Ji snickered, and Won Won tried again.
"Coming through door."
No one wanted to humor these creatures but him. It was like no one had any sense of wonder or adventure but him. Teef and the others were more fascinated by the hot-box in this room, which hummed with energy and cooked food without fire. It also made sparkles when they put little bits of metal in it, but that had bored Won Won after four or five times.
The Skybound female was accompanied by the two Skybound Won Won had greeted earlier, and by another male who transcribed Won Won's words, attempting to fit them into his own language's alphabet and aiding the female in speaking.
"Behold, dummy," Won Won remarked clearly, poking at the paper with a crude little tube of ink, and scrawling a quick sketch of the building as it had appeared when they first entered it. A squat gray box on top of a hill. He then illustrated closing the door, moving down the stairs, and going outside, and the appearance of the school from there—an identical squat gray box in a flat open field.
The female held out a clean sheet of paper to him, urging him to write something. How did people usually do this? All sapient creatures understood math, except him. Teef came to his rescue, snatching up the paper, and making a line of circles on several rows. Then he poked dots into the circles, different numbers. Prime numbers, he recognized, into each circle. This amused and fascinated the Skybound. Won Won took another clean sheet, deciding to draw something he thought more important.
"Sun and stars." He indicated his drawing. It was the night sky he saw each night, riddled with stars and the pale white gash that ran along the sky like a river, never coming to an end but extending forever.
"Sun stars?" she repeated hesitantly.
Won Won poked at the wiggly lines indicating the sky-river, then pointed down to the bottom of the page. The female became excited then. "Give me your land!"
Won Won pulled a fresh sheet of paper from the stack they had. He had loved astronomy classes, and missed the days before the Skybound came, when the ursines still claimed the sky. One of the last images ever taken of home had been taken by an orbital flight Won's progenitors had been a part of. Won Won reproduced that image as best he could from memory, and slid it back over to them.
They must have been impressed by his artistic skills; the female and male finally shut up and stared at the sketch looking overawed. Most likely they were fairly intelligent people, but they always came across as simple and easily impressed people to him in his limited dealings. Then he realized they were not impressed, but anxious. The female slid it back to him, and shook her head. "No. Give me your land. This is my land."
Won Won stared back at her, his throat rumbling in a low growl. The others had been eavesdropping, and apparently overheard him growling. Won Ji bopped him on the head. "No violence, stupid! Calmness."
"Usual Skybound arrogance. They came, we won, they refuse to let us win, think they own our world," Jorry remarked, and leaned forward at the two, barking in amusement as they jumped back in fright.
"What losers still call our world their world?" Won Won asked, and turned to the Skybound again, pointing at the image. "This is my land."
The Skybound didn't become belligerent in turn. Instead they looked at each other, then back at the image. Again they started to chitter in their flat, atonal language. How could they memorize so many words, so many of them sounding completely different while meaning the same thing? At the very least the female gave up asking the question again. She kept the drawing, and pointed over her shoulder to the open door.
"Skybound. Infant Skybound."
Close enough, Won Won thought.
"Not baby Sky-Binders. Not breathing. Comprehending?"
So the infant Skybound weren't real. Artificial re-creations, perhaps memories made to honor the dead. It seemed insane to try to resurrect the dead via unthinking machines, but Skybound were always touchy when it came to killing infants.
"Automatic Skybound. Not breathing. Not alive."
The female nodded hesitantly, as if Won Won were the one not quite understanding.
"Never breathing. Infant Skybound are artificial creations. Fake. Unreal. Toys. Dolls. Machines."
The male understood at least one of the words, and consulted with the female. That pleased them. Won Won started to illustrate on paper, showing a Skybound brain, with lines extending outwards. He scribbled some symbols, hoping it to be similarly understood as hand gestures were, demonstrating he was aware of how artificial intelligence worked. Skybound looked at their own brain, mapped out its functions, then transferred the same manner of thinking and functioning to artificial brains. At least, that was how he understood it.
This impressed the Skybound even more. They looked ready to ask even more questions about it. Won Won was tired—the astronomy had been fun, but it looked like they'd moved on from that. He didn't have any food on him, so he just got up. The others turned and watched as he rose.
"Come, then, these Foundationers bore me. Let us see if any other vegetation grows outside."
What a waste. So much potential for learning and exploration, and these Skybound sought to piss away the opportunity and continue with their lies and deceit. Normally he'd be concerned. But after seven years spent forcing the invaders back to their ships, it wasn't even worth dignifying them with any more attention.
"What is?" Won Ji asked quizzically, noting Won Won's empty stare.
"When Hwee comes for us, we should say nothing. Let the Skybound play with their fantasy land and fantasy infants here. So long as they remain in space, away from us."