4. Belly

Samee looked to where Helmeted Man was looking. She saw nothing but the same gleaming black surface in the purple late afternoon.

The fortress began to change. It stretched toward them, creating a round, bulging shape in front. Like a big fat belly. Samee watched in delight as the structure expanded toward them. She liked the way it made the light change. Sparkles and twinkles bounced off the belly into the hot air.

A circular opening appeared at the center of the belly. Then, a shadowy figure. Samee could only see a head, wearing a tight black hood. Samee had never seen a face like that before. Pale. Hairless. Clean.

“Who are you? What sector?” the face demanded.

The driver and the guard stared, their mouths open. Helmeted Man leaned out and spoke. “9-D. We have something of yours.”

“No deliveries are scheduled today.”

The voice was deep and dark. Samee strained for a better look, but only the face was visible—a ghostly circle floating in the black belly.

“This is exceptional circumstance,” said Helmeted Man. “You will be pleased with our delivery.”

“We are not prepared to receive any delivery today. You must return at your scheduled hour.”

The guard and driver looked nervously to Helmeted Man, who continued to fix his gaze upon the face. “You will be pleased. This is exceptional circumstance.”

Samee wondered what those words meant. Very long words. Helmeted Man motioned to the guard to get Samee out of the truck. Quickly, the guard opened the back of the truck and gave Samee a shove. She landed with a thud on the sand, trailing her canvas bandages. The guard kicked the rest of the canvas out of the truck.

“What is this?” the face demanded. “How dare you deposit an injured insect at our observatory? Return to your sector immediately.”

The driver sucked in his breath. “No burnin’ way,” he whispered.

“I repeat,” said the face. “Take the insect and leave.”

Helmeted Man opened his mouth to speak, but the guard had jumped out of the back of the truck. “It’s not an insect!” he screamed, pointing his rifle at the face. “It’s a bloody Grrl!

A crack. A beam of light. The guard fell dead on the sand. Samee scrambled out of the way, her bandages dragging behind her, one of her legs singed.

After a moment, Helmeted Man spoke. “As my servant was saying, this is one of yours.”

The face in the belly turned to Samee and studied her for a long moment. At last, the face spoke. “Get up.”

Samee looked at Helmeted Man.

“Do it,” he said.

Samee tripped on her canvas bandages.

“Leave them,” the face said. “You will not need them.”

Samee unwrapped herself and stepped out of the bandages. She stood on the hot sand, naked from the waist down. Drying blood trickled down her legs. She looked up at the belly.

“Come forward,” said the face.

Samee walked around the body of the guard towards the belly.

The face addressed Helmeted Man. “That is all. You will be rewarded when we have examined the delivery.”

With that, Samee felt her body being pulled and lifted. She struggled and kicked, but the belly was engulfing her. She gasped for air but it seemed there was no air, only a warm liquid. Frightened, she twisted and looked back.

The truck was leaving. The body of the guard was already half-covered by sand. The bandages were rolling away into the desert.

~~~

Samee opened her eyes. Shivering, she gulped in air. She heard a voice cry out. She realized it was hers.

She was lying on the floor of a gloomy room, rimmed by a circular panel of controls.

A figure in black stood over her. “Well, well. What have we here?”

Samee looked at the person towering over her. Pale and tall, with a kind of body Samee had never seen before. She blinked and sat up.

“Are you a man?”

The pale face turned dark pink and bent towards her. A strong hand cuffed Samee on her left ear.

“I’m a woman! And don’t you forget it.”

Wuh-min. Samee mouthed the word, as she was yanked upright by one arm. Wuh-min. The blood rushed to the left side of her head. Her ear rang. Wuh-min.

The woman touched a panel of lights on the wall. A door slid open. The woman threw Samee out of the black belly and into the fortress.

Samee’s head banged against a cold, marble floor. Tasted blood on her lip and in her ears she heard: Wuh-min… Wuh-min… Wuh-min.

And she knew that wasn’t a good word.