… continued from Sea Dreams
Laxmi and Anna soon picked up on the shipboard routine. They rose in the mornings with the sun, ate meals with the crew, and otherwise tried their best to stay out of the way. The previously spear-wielding fishing crew, now that no strange alien boat presented itself, put away their spears and melded in with the sailing deck crew, so apparently all were interchangeable. Anna had trouble recognizing individual avians from one another, but Laxmi soon had many of them identified by distinguishing characteristics.
“That one there, with the circlet of feathers on his head? He’s clearly the leader, the captain. I’m calling him Alpha. Then those two, that one beside Alpha, and the other currently up on the foredeck, directing some work up there: those seem to be his primary deputies, or lieutenants, or deck bosses, I suppose. The one beside Alpha, with the grey streak in his feathers across his head, he’s Beta. And the one on the foredeck, who has a scar across one eye, he’s Gamma. Then there’s the cook, who seems to also command a lot of respect from the others. He’s probably next in line for importance among the crew, so I’ve designated him as Delta. For now, of course. There are only so many letters in the Greek alphabet, so eventually I’ll have to come up with a better system for naming them.”
“You don’t think eventually we can just ask them what their names are?”
“If Jaci were with us, yes, I suppose eventually we’d get there. Assuming they have names. But I think they do; there are some specific calls I hear Alpha making when he’s addressing Beta, different from the sounds he makes for Gamma. He makes the same call for Beta, and the same different call for Gamma, each time, so I think those are names. Or perhaps titles, it’s difficult to really know. Likewise, they both make the same call as each other when they address the captain, though they have distinct voices.”
“I’ll stick with calling them Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta, I think.”
The cook served up regular meals, twice a day, at sunrise and sunset. Invariably, dinner consisted of fish, but the cook varied the preparations, sometimes fried, sometimes poached, and with different spices, but always salty. Equally invariably, breakfast was something else.
Anna stared down glumly into her bowl of thick, green soup. It had almost the consistency of porridge, with chunks of dark vegetable matter throughout, and an odor of seashore about it. She stirred it disinterestedly with a spoon helpfully provided by the cook. Around her, the avian sailors slurped it up with gusto.
Laxmi spooned up her own soup, then nudged Anna.
“Come on, it’s no different really from what we were eating on the island. It’s algae and kelp, as near as I can tell. No doubt it’s full of essential nutrients. You can’t live on just fried fish. And it’s not bad. Try it.”
Anna eyed her suspiciously, then tentatively ate a spoonful. She made a face of disgust.
On the morning of the third day after the avians picked them up, a commotion occurred on the bow of the boat. The lookout gave a loud squawk, then several of the sailors whistled with excitement, rushing forward to see for themselves. Gamma, the deck boss, jumped into the fray, his voice louder than the others, batting at them with his wings. It didn’t require a linguist to know that he was berating the sailors for leaving their posts and ordering them back. Then he stood up beside the lookout to see for himself.
He turned back to face the stern and gave his own loud whistle, easily heard above all other sounds aboard the vessel. The captain replied with a similar whistle, the helmsman pushed the heavy tiller over, and Beta, beside the captain, barked out orders to the deck crew, who hauled on the sheets to bring in the sail. The vessel smartly turned about twenty degrees to port, tighter on the wind, and picked up speed.
Anna leaned over the port gunwale to see for herself what was going on. At first, she saw nothing but more water, unbroken by land as always, until her eyes picked out a disturbance, tiny with distance, far ahead.
“Laxmi, look at this.”
“What is it?”
“Just left of the bow, almost straight ahead. Do you see that?”
Laxmi remained silent for a few seconds. “I do.”
“Am I right about what I think that is?”
Laxmi nodded. “Seabirds.”
The far off flock of birds, growing closer by the minute as the vessel sailed toward them, wheeled and circled and dove repeatedly into the water. Before long, their cries could be heard, carried on the wind. The animation of the crew became palpable as they drew near.
Beta barked another order, and the vessel turned sharply into the wind in the midst of the diving birds. The gaff dropped level with the boom and three sailors bundled the sail neatly between the two spars. Others hauled out a large net, and several brought up harpoons from below.
The sea surface beneath the wheeling birds and around the boat roiled from some great disturbance, fish leaping from the waves. Several fish leaped right into the boat, which apparently caused amusement among the crew. Even across species with no genetic commonality, evolved on different worlds light-years apart, laughter and joy were recognizable.
Anna thought of the birds as seagulls, and they certainly behaved like gulls, but these gulls had long, sharp beaks not unlike those of the vessel’s crew. They were also easily twice the size, perhaps three times, of an Earth gull, with a commensurately larger wingspan, and long split tails trailing behind them. Frequently, the Kepler gulls caught fish in mid-air, but other times the gulls dove deep into the water, disappearing for seconds at a time, before re-emerging with their catch in their beaks.
The sailors dropped the net over the side, and three of them dove into the water after it. The three each caught a loop of the net in their beaks, dragging the edge out away from the boat, and two dove deep with it. For a minute or more, they did not re-emerge, until finally they surfaced, and the three swimming avians closed up the net and made their way back to the boat. Those still aboard leaned over with long, hooked staves in their claws, with which they caught up the net and hauled it aboard, teeming with desperate, wriggling fish. The sailors dumped the load of fish onto the deck, where others made quick work of gutting and cleaning them, then packing them into salt barrels. The deck was soon awash with blood and fish guts.
Three more times the net went overboard, and the three avians in the water repeated the diving maneuver. All the while, Anna noticed that several sailors did not participate, but stationed themselves around the boat, facing outward from both sides, holding the long spears ready. They did not fish with the spears, and they did not watch the others with the net. They kept their gaze keenly on the water all around the boat.
“What do you suppose that’s about?” she asked Laxmi, who turned and studied the spear-wielding sailors, then looked out to sea herself.
“That, perhaps?” Laxmi pointed out to starboard, beyond the net, to the far edge of the disturbance of fish. Several gulls concentrated on one spot on the water, not diving, but beating their wings furiously and attacking something just below the surface. Then something dark reached out of the water, grabbed a gull, and dragged it down.
One of the spear-wielding lookouts saw it, too. He let out a piercing, shrill whistle which immediately got all the other sailors’ attention. The fishermen began hauling in the net, and the three in the water swam quickly for the boat.
“I think we now know what riled up the fish enough to leap out of the water and risk the seagulls,” Laxmi said.
Two of the net swimmers clambered up the hull, grabbing at the net with beaks and claws as a climbing aid. The third, the one farthest away, barely made it to the vessel before something dragged him under with a frightened squawk. The lookouts began furiously stabbing with their long spears down into the water around the hapless swimmer, while Beta and Gamma barked out orders. The sailors appeared confused, and Anna realized that they were receiving contradictory orders from the two deck chiefs.
For a long minute, nothing else happened while the chiefs argued with each other, their squawks and whistles becoming more shrill and loud. Beside the boat, the water roiled, fish and gulls leaping and wheeling as before, until something thumped hard against the hull of the boat.
The captain stepped in. Alpha whistled his own order, and immediately the argument stopped. The sailors at the gunwale pulled knives from their tunics and began cutting away the net still over the side, rather than hauling it in, while others heaved on the main halyard and lifted the gaff and sail high. The lookouts continued stabbing down over the side with their spears all the while.
Anna and Laxmi each rushed over to the gunwale, aft and away from the lookouts. Gripping the net, and beginning to climb, were three long, thick tentacles, and while they watched, a fourth reached up to hook itself through a loop. Sailors desperately cut away at the net, but there were many strands for them still to get through. The vessel picked up speed as the sail caught the wind, and a wake formed around the tentacles grasping the net.
A fifth tentacle reached up, and behind it Anna could see an impression of the body of the beast. Just beneath the surface, a great eye gazed up the hull of the boat. It turned toward Anna, then blinked. The tentacles paused in their grasping climb, and the eye studied Anna. She would swear she saw surprise in its gaze, though she knew she was anthropomorphizing the animal.
The pause was enough. The last strand of the net broke free, and the beast fell away astern, the net still in its grasp. It sank beneath the vessel’s wake, and they left the roiling fish and cawing gulls behind. Beta barked more orders to the crew, who set the sail to his liking and adjusted course.
Gamma, however, paid no attention to the activity around him. He stood alone and silent on the foredeck, his scarred eye turned to the sea.
… continued with Nightwatch
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