… continued from Nightwatch
Twice more the avians fished over the ensuing week, but each time it was clear to Anna their hearts were not in it. Understandably, the divers were hesitant to go into the water, and when they did they stayed quite close to the boat. As a result, the hauls were but a fraction of what they pulled in the day of the octopoid attack. Beta and Gamma argued over the fishing, but who was taking which side, and what were the sides anyway? Anna supposed that one pushed for more aggressive fishing, the other for more restraint, and neither seemed happy with the compromise.
There were no more attacks, however, and in between fishing episodes most of the crew remained idle.
Early on the morning six days after the attack, Beta squawked an order and the crew jumped to stations. Laxmi leaped out of the way of a pair of rushing sailors and found herself a spot on deck where she would not be run over or bumped aside.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re changing course.” Anna pointed out the sailors taking up slack on lines strung through blocks on the port side of the boat, while others to starboard stood ready to let loose on their side. “We’re tacking. You might want to hold on. And duck.”
Beta squawked again, and the two avians on the helm pushed the tiller hard over to starboard. The bow of the boat came left until it passed through the eye of the wind. With a tortured groan of stressed timbers, the boom swung from starboard to port, carrying the big sail with it. The boom passed well over the heads of the avians, but the boat had not been designed with the height of humans in mind. Laxmi and Anna indeed had to crouch down to avoid being knocked senseless, if not swept across the deck and overboard.
The trimaran design prevented the boat from gaining too much heel angle, yet still the deck canted to port as the port outrigger dipped into the water and the starboard one lifted into dry air. Salt spray from the lifted outrigger splashed Anna’s face, reminding her of Earth’s oceans and filling her with a sudden nostalgia. She sighed, then pointed forward.
The faint silver thread of the space elevator, easily lost if not for its brightness against the turquoise sky, now lay nearly straight ahead.
“We’re finally headed in the right direction.” Anna smiled.
“If it is the right direction. We still don’t know where Jaci is.”
Many hours later, with the sun sinking low to the west, Anna understood the reason for the course change, and it was not the elevator. At high noon she would have missed it, but the low-angle evening light illuminated a slight irregularity on the northern horizon, a faint bump on the otherwise unbroken line, orange against the darkening sea and sky.
She soon lost it in the dusk of twilight, but Beta had clearly noted its bearing. The trimaran made minor course corrections and they sailed on toward it through the night. The sense of excitement among the sailors grew noticeably, and Anna understood they were all eager to be home, to be done with this fateful voyage.
She wished she could share in their excitement.
Sleep came fitfully that night. Worry and uncertainty filled Anna’s thoughts. What would the next day bring? She had always thought of herself as an explorer, ready to leap into the unknown, but she realized she was far more comfortable in the clean environment of space than with the messy, squishy business of living things, even though space was intrinsically more inhospitable than anything on this planet could be. She had even been happy sailing their makeshift raft on the ocean, uncertain though their fate had been, until they met the avians. This was Laxmi’s realm.
Dawn arrived with the stamping of avian feet, the sailors all rising early out of their hammocks and lining the rails. Laxmi and Anna joined them on deck.
The island loomed near, tall, mountainous, and rocky, with steep, vertiginous cliffs appearing to rise straight from the calm inshore waters. A kilometer or two out from the mountain, waves broke white and misty over a fringing reef, much as with the island they had come from. There the similarity ended, however. Where the previous island had been green, thick with vegetation, this one was brown, bare, and rocky. Where the previous island had been encircled by small, lush islets making up the atoll, this one had naught but rocky, crashing reef.
Where the previous island had been abandoned, with ancient ruins overgrown by jungle, this one sported rocky towers scaling sheer cliffs, and even from beyond the reef Anna could make out small figures moving atop the towers.
As before, the reef included a pass, a gap between crashing breakers, through which they could sail, and the trimaran soon navigated the gateway to the lagoon with an ease that left Anna impressed once again with the avian sailors’ skill. Once inside, they ghosted across the calm waters, reaching toward a rare spot where a speck of beach separated the lagoon from the mountain. Gamma barked an order and a sailor hoisted a flag up a halyard to the top of the boat’s mast, clearly a signal to those onshore. In the distance, a similar flag rose to the top of a post at the small beach.
Six stone jetties extended out from the beach, and three other boats currently occupied spaces between them. Avians stood at the ends of the jetties, apparently dockworkers, ready to take mooring lines. Others clustered on the beach, including several smaller avians running back and forth along the jetties. Children? The smaller avians appeared to be in the way more than anything else, yet they also seemed to be well-tolerated, so yes, just like children everywhere, Anna supposed.
Only a narrow sandy strip behind the jetties separated them from the base of the cliff. Structures against the cliff took up much of that space, and some of these had long, straight, narrow lines extending up the cliff face. Anna craned her neck back to look up, shielding her eyes against the mid-morning sun, and with a start she realized she was looking at crude elevators. The lines were cables, and even as she looked a low-walled platform descended the face toward the beach.
“Anna, look! Oh my god! I don’t believe it!”
“There! Standing there at the back of the third pier. Don’t you see him?”
Anna pulled her gaze down from the descending elevator, back to the beach and the jetties. It looked as though the humans had been noticed by those onshore, as the excitement level among the onlookers, especially the children, grew to a fever pitch. Several of the children dashed into the crowd on the beach, then pushed their way back onto the jetty, dragging an adult by the hand.
An adult human. Avians didn’t have hands. A man emerged through the crowd, towering over the others, apparently admonishing the children for their behavior. His dark hair was unkempt, his scraggly beard needed trimming, and his clothes had seen better days, but he appeared mostly fit and healthy. He walked with a slight limp.
The trimaran pulled neatly into the space between two jetties, the sail and gaff dropped smartly, and sailors on the outriggers to either side threw lines to waiting dockworkers, yet Anna had no time to contemplate the process. The man on shore looked up and met her eye, and she saw shock register on his face, quickly followed by a beaming grin.
The lines were not yet tied, the boat was still slowing, yet Anna leapt onto the forward outrigger spar and dashed onto the jetty before anyone could think to stop her. No sooner did her feet touch stone than she wrapped her arms around the man and held him tight, tears staining her cheeks.
“I thought we had lost you…”
The man appeared surprised for a moment, uncertain of what to do, then he wrapped his own arms around Anna. His smile reappeared.
“You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
By this time Laxmi had made her way ashore, and she stood looking askance at the two of them.
“So what’s with the beard, Jaci?”
He looked over Anna’s shoulder at Laxmi and winked.
“Well, it’s not as if I had time to pack a razor, you know.”
Laxmi laughed, then she too stepped in to the three-way embrace.
… to be continued.
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