[A/N: Inspired by a dream I once had. The alien uses they/them pronouns, and only thinks of a human as it, due to lacking familiarity. Deciding on a singular version of ‘themselves’ was the trickiest part. After some consultation, I went with ‘theirself’, though just ‘themselves’, or perhaps ‘themself’, was also options considered.]
The war had lasted a long time. There was currently a lull that had lasted most of a year. In all honesty it was mostly lulls and not so many battles or campaigns these days. The frontline hadn’t moved in five years, and was now treated more as a border. Mutual exhaustion was taking its toll more than the actual fighting was. A cold war, you could say.
There was talk of a ceasefire. There was talk of peace. There was always talk of peace.
None of which really concerned the nadryn. They were a mere border patrol guard now. They had been trained as an ambusher, but there was little call for that right now. Perhaps the occasional sabotage mission, but the main mission was spotting and intercepting threats along the river that served as a natural border line.
They couldn’t really explain why they picked up the human child.
It was not a threat. It was merely stuck on a rock in the river, and of no concern to the nadryn. So why did they wade they into the waters to retrieve the child? They’re not sure. It objected.
“No! Stay away! Don’t get any closer!” it shrieked in panic when it saw them approach. The nadryn recognised panic. They understood most human languages well. They just lacked the appropriate organs to communicate back in human speech. Such speaking aids were not deemed necessary for an ambusher, or for border patrol. Warnings could be delivered with shots.
The child slipped and fell when the nadryn got close. It was trying to get further away, but there was no room on the rock. The nadryn caught it, and carried it to shore. It struggled the whole way, like an animal not recognising its own good. It didn’t matter, a child could not hurt them.
The nadryn put it down on dry land in a patch of grass. It had been so long since this area had seen active combat, that nature was trying to reclaim it. Ruined buildings could be seen not far off. No one dared live in close proximity to the border any longer.
The child was too terrified to move, but they had no intention of hurting it. They bore no particular enmity towards humans as a species, even if the nadryn wouldn’t hesitate to strike them down in combat. But this child was no threat.
They offered it a bottle of purified water, and some rations. They were reasonably certain the rations were edible by humans, but they weren’t an expert on such things. The child still did not move. Since they weren’t sure what else to do, they got up and went back to their patrol. This was nadryn land, but they weren’t allowed to cross into human land without direct orders. Still, the child should be safer than on the rock. They had no reason to believe any other nadryns would harm a child that was no threat, and there were no large predators here.
The nadryn was still not sure why they cared. Perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps it was just like taking pity on a helpless animal. Almost nothing happened on these patrols anyway, so perhaps it was just a desire to do something a little different. Still, when they noticed the child pouncing on the water and rations as soon as they were some distance away, they felt… pleased.
Of course they noticed right away when the child started following them. It was a little puzzling why it would choose to do so. They expected it to go the opposite direction. It wasn’t worrying though, in fact they felt a curious sense of relief at remaining able to keep an eye on it.
When they came up on a large bend in the river, they decided it was a good spot for a break. They found a place to sit, and took out some water and rations for theirself. Perhaps they’d be asked where the extra supplies they gave to the child had gone when they got back to the camp, but that shouldn’t be a problem.
Speaking of, they looked over towards the child, and it quickly scrambled behind a nearby rock. Did it think they couldn’t see it? No matter. Once the rations were consumed, and they were finishing the last of the water bottle, they noticed the child approaching slowly. Walking in clear view. It looked nervous. Their curiosity compelled them to sit and wait. It stopped a little bit away.
Looking at it now, they could see its clothes were not just wet, but tattered and threadbare. The child was covered in cuts and bruises too, possibly from getting caught by the river.
“Um…” The nadryn hadn’t heard that sound before, but felt they could infer its intent. “Th… tha-thank you,” it said in a shaky voice. “F-for rescuing… me…” It stared at the ground, only glancing up occasionally. The nadryn pondered their inability reply verbally. They knew humans had a basic system of non-verbal communication, but it had only been touched upon briefly in their training. Being able to recognise human gestures is helpful, but not considered especially important for their role.
The nadryn performed a small head-bow. They thought that was the gesture for a greeting or a recognition of something said.
“C-can you understand me?” it asked timidly. Ah yes, they knew this one. The gesture for positive acknowledgement was a thumbs up. But which thumb? To be on the safe side they used both. The child seemed to get it.
“I… I’m Emily,” it said, though the nadryn wasn’t sure what that meant. Was that a rank? No, the child was unlikely to be part of the military. A profession? They weren’t sure whether humans had child labourers. “What’s your name?” it asked while they were thinking things over. Ah right, names. Nadryns didn’t really have names in the same sense that humans did. Theirs was more of a… an identity that was understood on a different level.
Even if they could communicate in human, they weren’t sure it was something that could be expressed in the human tongue. They believed that was part of what made interspecies communication difficult, even with speaking aids.
The nadryn seemed to remember that the negative acknowledgement gesture was shaking something back and forth. Head? Hand? Perhaps both would do the trick. So they tried to communicate both that they couldn’t speak human, and that they didn’t have a name as such. Which really involved pointed at theirself, their mouth, and shaking head and hand back and forth. The child seemed confused, which was understandable.
“You… can’t tell me?” it asked. They figured that was close enough, and displayed the thumbs up. “Are you not allowed to talk to me?” Negative. “Can’t you speak?” Thumbs up, as that was close enough. “I don’t really understand…” it said, sounding disheartened. Certain things came across more easily than others. “But I need something to call you,” the child stated.
The nadryn wasn’t sure why that would be the case, but it made a certain kind of sense. A cultural thing, perhaps.
“How about Sammy?” it asked. “Can I call you Sammy?” As they had no familiarity with human names, they really had no basis with which to judge a name. Did ‘Sammy’ have any specific meaning? They couldn’t say. It seemed short and easy to understand though, so they gave the thumbs up. The child… Emily, brightened up. They were both named now, so it was only fair that Sammy referred to Emily by its. Even if it couldn’t hear. They got up, as it was well past time to resume the patrol.
“Um…” Emily sounded like it still wanted to say something. “Can I… come with you, Sammy?” They were unsure if that was wise. “I… I have nowhere else to go…” it said. Sammy wanted to ask whether Emily had other humans to go back to, but that was of course impossible. Maybe it was best to take it back to the base. Someone there was bound to have a speaking aid. Probably the commander. Sammy could ask if it was possible to perhaps borrow it, or if the commander could speak to Emily theirself.
While they were still unsure about the wisdom of this, Sammy felt it would be cruel to leave Emily behind now. A little hesitantly they gave the thumbs up, and Emily appeared pleased.
“Thank you!” it said. “I… I promise to not get in the way!” Sammy bowed slightly, then started walking. Emily trailed a little bit behind. They supposed they’d have to keep feeding and watering it now. Did this count as adopting a pet? They hadn’t really looked up the rules on that, since it had never been relevant. It was only temporary though, until they were able to return Emily to the other humans. Maybe they could even get something in trade for it.
Until then, Sammy would make sure to keep Emily safe.