… continued from Indigo Ocean
Darkness fell on the steep-sloped jungle with near the speed of turning out a light. Laxmi and Anna descended the cliff as rapidly as they dared in fading twilight, and by the time they retrieved the rope, shouldered their packs, and hacked their way back into the brush, the leafy green canopy turned black with night. Not a star penetrated to guide their way, and the twin moons were yet both below the horizon. The powerful beams of their headlamps created a circle of light only as far as the next set of creepers and fronds, and half a meter beyond the reach of their knives darkness ruled the forest.
“Are you sure this is the way we came?” whispered Laxmi. “I don’t remember it being this thick.”
“It’s as close as I can get to our outbound track, but no, I can’t be sure.” Anna didn’t whisper, but she kept her voice low. Whoever was in the boat could hardly be in the lagoon, let alone on the mountainside, and they had yet to see any animals on the island. Still, the darkness pressed close. “If we just continue downslope, eventually we have to hit the beach.”
The footing remained treacherous, vines and roots threatening to trip them up with every step. They spent as much focus on their feet as on the way ahead. Laxmi collected no samples this time.
Anna lifted her handheld. She had tried raising Jaci as soon as they exited the tunnel, and at thirty-minute intervals since. Once again, she activated the mic.
“Jaci, come in. If you can hear us, Laxmi and I are on our way back. We’ve seen a boat outside the lagoon, so you must prepare for possible visitors.” She listened for a minute, then raised it again. “Jaci…”
“Anna.” Laxmi gently pulled the handheld away from Anna’s face. “If he could reply, he would have by now. If he can hear you, he’s heard the message.”
“Anna, there’s nothing more you can do. Save your battery. The best thing we can do for Jaci right now is to focus on getting off this mountain.”
After a moment, Anna nodded, and clipped the handheld back to her belt.
Despite heading downhill, the going was, if anything, even slower than it had been going up. After another couple hours, they broke through a tangle of vines to a clear view of starlight, and a sheer cliff falling away at their feet. Anna grasped Laxmi when she stumbled and pulled her back from the edge.
“Well, clearly we didn’t come up this way earlier. I think I’d have remembered climbing that.”
“Douse your light.”
“Turn off your headlamp, Laxmi. Quick.”
Headlamps darkened, they peered out at the expansive nighttime vista. Stars filled the sky, undimmed by any planetary surface light, constellations foreign to human eyes, or twisted from their familiar patterns. Only the glow of the Milky Way remained easily recognizable, the galactic core unchanged in appearance despite the distance they had traveled, its familiar bands of dust and light, darkness and color a broad brushstroke disappearing behind the mountain’s northern shoulder to their left. Far to the east a brightly lit line ascended from the horizon to about thirty degrees above the dark ocean, the ring station high in orbit illuminated by the as-yet unrisen sun and continuing invisibly overhead in the planet’s umbra. Nearer to hand, waves breaking over the lagoon’s fringing reef revealed themselves dimly against the ocean’s darkness, lit by starlight and the station’s glow, enhanced by some inner phosphorescence.
“It’s beautiful, Anna, but what are we looking for?”
“That.” Anna pointed down low, to something much closer.
A light glowed from one of the islets bordering the lagoon, flickering in a way the stars did not.
“That’s our site. I think that’s a campfire on the beach.”
“Or visitors. We need to stay unseen until we know what’s going on. Come on.”
Anna turned to the left and started following the cliff’s edge, falling back into the forest a short distance. Her heart raced in her chest, and not from the exertion of pressing through the jungle. Was that Jaci’s campfire? If it was, the arriving visitors could hardly fail to notice it. If it was not, then the visitors unerringly chose the camp of Aniara’s surviving crew for their own. They likewise could hardly fail to have noticed the shuttle parked in the lagoon just off the atoll beach.
She turned her headlamp on dim red, a setting for maintaining night vision, and Laxmi followed suit. They pressed on through the night.
Another two hours brought them to a place where the steep cliff merged back into the sloping forest, showing it to be more of a knoll pushed up from the mountain’s flanks than a serious obstruction, and they were able to continue their original line more directly downhill toward the lagoon. Soon after that, the slope began leveling out, easing back into the flat, swampy marsh they had first trekked through a day earlier. Details began emerging from the dark forest, the fronds and creepers shading toward a deep viridian hue in the predawn twilight.
The marshy, muddy ground became less damp as they proceeded, giving way to rocky, sandy soil. The forest became less dense with overgrowth, and patches of pale sky appeared through gaps in the canopy. The two women emerged from the trees to find a rocky beach before them just as the first rays of sunlight appeared over the islets across the lagoon. The ring station remained easily visible, a sunrise-lit line of gold rising to their left. Fallen tree limbs and leafy fronds littered the beach, detritus from the previous day’s storm.
“I think the raft should be this way.”
Anna set out left along the beach, and Laxmi followed her. They clambered over and around boulders, some easily twice a person’s height. Why these boulders littered the beach so far from the mountain’s slopes, she did not know, and once again she found herself thinking of David. Aniara’s captain and chief scientist had been all set to study the planet’s geology, and doubtless he’d have had a theory to explain the landscape, but Anna could not. She suppressed the dark emotions that line of thinking would lead her to, and focused instead on the search for the raft. She hoped the aliens… no, the visitors… did not notice it. She hoped the storm spared it.
She hoped it was in this direction, and not the other.
All her hopes were not in vain.
Laxmi and Anna found the raft, intact, but wedged well into the trees at the forest’s edge above the beach. To Anna’s amazement, the pontoons were scraped and scratched but not punctured, and they still held air. The electric outboard motor, however, had been ripped from the raft’s transom and scattered in pieces across the forest floor.
“I guess we’re paddling back. But, it could have been a lot worse. We might have had to swim. Come on, let’s get this back to the water.” Anna took hold of a pontoon and began tugging.
“Anna, wait a moment. I’m exhausted, I haven’t slept in nearly two days, and I’m starving. I have to eat something first, and I think you should, too.”
Laxmi dropped her pack and rummaged inside for a couple of meal bars.
“We have no time! We need to get back to the camp and find Jaci.”
“Anna, whatever was going to happen there has already happened. And we’re going to need our strength to paddle two kilometers across the lagoon, not to mention for whatever we find when we get there. You need to eat, and so do I.” Laxmi held out a bar. “Just one bar. Just five minutes, ok?”
Reluctantly, Anna let go of the raft and took the bar from Laxmi. She unwrapped it, took a bite, and forced herself to take time to chew before swallowing.
“You’re right, of course,” she said between mouthfuls. “You usually are.” She finished off the bar. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Twenty minutes later the raft was in the water, secured by the frayed end of the painter. The storm-strewn beach provided a bounty of snapped-off palm fronds — well, palm-like, Anna reminded herself — with which to fashion crude paddles. Using the remainder of the painter, shorn off and still secured to the tree from a day earlier, they tied the leafy ends of multiple fronds together to give the paddles more surface area, and soon they were ready to push off.
Laxmi pointed across the lagoon to where the shuttle still sat in the shallows on the far side. Even from a distance, Anna could see that it wasn’t level, but instead canted at an angle in the water. She considered getting the binoculars from her pack for a closer look, but they would be there soon enough. Then something else caught her attention, and she realized that Laxmi wasn’t pointing at the shuttle.
A boat emerged into view from beyond the shuttle.
Anna fetched the binoculars and trained them on the boat. It was a crude vessel, apparently carved from wood, with some sort of low cabin or structure on its deck, and outriggers extending at least to the near side, if not the other beyond her sight. Anna estimated it to be perhaps fifteen meters or so in length. A mast rose from amidships, and a triangular lateen-rigged sail billowed out from the mast, with gaff and boom meeting at a point near the bow of the boat. The gaff rose to a height above and behind the mast, while the boom extended over the water beyond the stern. No doubt about it, this was the same vessel they had observed the night before, but even with the binoculars she could not clearly make out any crew on deck, other than some vague shapes moving back and forth. It gathered speed as the wind caught the sail and moved away from the shuttle and the atoll, heading south through the lagoon toward where Anna estimated the reef passage to be.
“Tell me Jaci’s not on that thing.”
“I don’t know. I can’t tell from this distance.”
“But Anna, what if they’ve taken him?”
“Well, then at least he’s finally getting to put his linguistic skills to use.”
Laxmi looked at her in shock. Anna lowered the binoculars.
“Look, if he’s with them, then presumably he’s still alive. If he isn’t, well, maybe he was able to hide, or maybe he was killed in the storm, or… We just don’t know.”
“Can we catch up to them?”
“No. They’re sailing really fast. Even if we had the outboard, it might be difficult at this point.”
“So what do we do?”
“The only thing we can do. Keep moving.”
Anna dipped her paddle into the water, and a moment later Laxmi did the same. They pushed out from between the boulders and into the open lagoon. Two kilometers away, the sailing vessel picked up speed in the Kepler trade wind blowing across the reef and carried its unknown cargo farther and farther away.
… continued with Damage
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