… continued from Red Sky at Morning
The aliens arrived in less than two hours.
Anna kept reminding herself not to think of them that way, that this was their planet and that she and Laxmi were the aliens. As Laxmi had told her, what now seemed a very long time ago, when they were still safe aboard Aniara. Keplerians, for lack of a better word, was how she would think of them.
While they waited, Laxmi gently probed her ribcage and confirmed that, yes, Anna had probably broken a rib. Laxmi administered her an analgesic from the medical kit and wrapped a bandage around her midsection.
“Not that this really does anything. The rib will heal itself. But you need to take it easy, don’t bend over, don’t twist or exert yourself, and the wrap will help to remind you about that.”
“And do you think taking it easy and not exerting myself is going to be possible?” Anna pointed at the approaching sail.
Laxmi shrugged. “It’ll be what it’ll be. Just try.”
Soon they could make out the hull of the Keplerian boat. It was a wooden outrigger canoe design, though far more sleek than their own jury-rigged craft, perhaps fifteen meters in length, with the same lateen sail shape as the boat they had seen in the lagoon. The sail carried a design, what appeared to Anna’s eyes to be a stylized cross or X, with one leg thin and gently curved, the other longer, straighter, and more substantial. She did not recall whether the boat they saw in the lagoon had the same design. Was this the same boat? Would Jaci be aboard?
The boat pulled closer, quickly overtaking them, then rounded sharply across their bow. The Keplerians’ boom swung over in a fast, controlled jibe, the triangular sail flapped just once then caught the wind and snapped back into shape. Sharp whistles pierced the air, then the sail was brought in tight and the sleek craft hove to a standstill directly against their port outrigger.
The tightly executed maneuver impressed Anna with its precision, but she had little time to reflect on the Keplerians’ seamanship. The Keplerians themselves had her full attention, and she and Laxmi appeared to have theirs.
Her first impression was of long-beaked emus, except these emus had smaller bodies, larger heads, and shorter necks. And long, sharp, dangerous-looking beaks. No, not emus, more like meter-high kiwis, except with longer legs.
Unlike the flightless birds of Earth, however, these avians were clothed and armed. They wore thick tunics, made of leather hide or some leather-analog, laced down the front, and some of them sported some sort of helmet. The tunics had the same crossed design embossed upon them as the sail, which caused Anna to wonder if they were some sort of military unit.
The ones with helmets also stood only upon one leg, as with the other they held what Anna could only describe as spears. They tucked the back ends of the spears under their stubby wings, but they aimed the sharp ends all rather pointedly at her and Laxmi. Despite balancing on just one leg, the soldiers — for they were definitely soldiers, Anna saw — had no difficulty whatsoever maintaining their stance, and the spear tips did not waver.
Another sharp whistle sounded, and for the first time Anna noticed an avian with different headgear, a circlet of feathers rather than a helmet, standing behind the soldiers lining the gunwale. This clearly must be the leader. At the whistle, other avians — the ones without helmets or spears — tossed grapples across Anna’s makeshift outrigger, securing the boats to each other. The moment the grapples caught, four of the soldiers nimbly ran across the spars into Anna’s boat and surrounded her and Laxmi, spears leveled directly at them.
Laxmi and Anna both instinctively raised their arms, though it occurred to Anna that, not having arms themselves, the meaning of the gesture might be lost on the avians. Had these avians seen a human before? Was Jaci here? So far there was no sign of him. One of the soldiers who had come across whistled sharply, and Anna imagined he… it? she?… was getting impatient with her, but she had no idea what the whistle meant. One of the others looked around the raft, studying the crude boat’s configuration. Probably not too impressed with her handiwork, she thought. It held its spear under a wing and kicked at the hypalon rubber floor. It appeared confused, or perhaps just fascinated, by the way the material gave way under its foot.
The first one, the one that had whistled, whistled again and pushed its spear threateningly toward Anna. She backed away quickly and stumbled over the mainsheet, yelping at the sharp pain in her side. Laxmi knelt down beside her, concern in her expression.
The spear tips lowered, though only by an inch. The lead soldier laid down its spear, moved in close to Anna, and crouched. Anna could not read its facial expression, but it definitely had one, and it had changed. Was that concern? It lifted its leg and poked, gently, at Anna’s torso. Anna winced, and Laxmi angrily batted the avian’s foot away.
“Stop that! Can’t you see she’s hurt?”
The avian looked into Laxmi’s face, and it seemed to almost cock an eyebrow at her. Then it backed off, stood up, and picked up its spear. Laxmi braced herself, but the avian turned away and whistled in the direction of the other boat, a complex series of shrill notes. A response came from the leader, and the soldiers all raised their spears, no longer pointing them at the two women.
“I think they’ve decided we aren’t a threat,” Laxmi said.
Two of the avian sailors lifted a ladder out of their boat and heaved it across the outriggers, creating a bridge between the main hulls. The lead solder whistled sharply, lifted its leg to point across the boats, and made an unmistakeable come this way gesture with its head.
“We may not be a threat,” Anna said, “but they definitely mean for us to go with them.”
“Perhaps we can negotiate assistance. Maybe they’ll help us find Jaci, or at least repair our sail.”
Anna rather doubted that, but she carefully got up and followed Laxmi to the ladder.
Anna was halfway across when Laxmi, already in the avian boat with the first two soldiers, looked back and started waving her arms and shouting.
Anna precariously turned on the ladder, ignoring the twinge in her side. The two avian soldiers still in the raft, obviously curious about the strange material used in its construction, were poking at the pontoons.
With their spears.
Hypalon is strong material, able to withstand being scraped over rocks and barnacles, resistant to corrosive oils and ultraviolet degradation. It was intended for rough use in harsh environments, and thus generally ideal for inflatable life rafts. The manufacturers, however, never envisioned it having to withstand intentional pricks from the very sharp ends of weapons of war.
The avians perhaps did not realize the pontoons were inflated and not solid. When they burst with a loud pop, one right after the other, and rapidly deflated, both soldiers squawked and leaped back.
Anna stood and ran across the ladder back into the raft, ignoring the sharp pain in her side and pushing through the shocked soldiers.
“Everything we have is in there!”
She dove under the tarp, tearing through supplies looking for a repair kit. The floor of the raft was already awash with water; a soldier’s spear must have found that, too, probably before testing the pontoons. The outriggers would keep it afloat for a while, but the raft was heavy, and heavily loaded with gear, so she knew she didn’t have long.
Where was it? She could not find the repair kit. Of course they did not expect to need it in the middle of the ocean. The water inside the raft quickly became deeper, and Anna realized it was going to sink. There was probably nothing she could do about that now, so she needed to prioritize.
The environmental suits. Big, bulky, and awkward, but she had to have them. Of course they were stored right up at the bow, behind food, water, and other supplies they had thought more immediately useful. She dragged the first one, half pushing, half pulling it with its helmet and backpack through the other gear, and got it into the open cockpit.
“Anna! The raft is sinking quickly. Get out of there!”
Anna ignored Laxmi’s call and again crawled beneath the tarp. She now had only inches of airspace in which to breathe, but there were two more suits to recover. Waterlogged bundles of supplies became heavier, more difficult to move out of the way. There was the second one. Holding her breath, out of airspace, Anna dragged the suit out.
She broke the surface, gasped in a lungful of air.
“Laxmi, grab these!”
“Anna, come on, take my hand.”
“There’s one more. I’ll be right back.”
Another deep breath, ignore the stitch in her ribs, and again she dove under. The raft was fully submerged now. It amazed her how quickly it sank once deflated. She found herself wondering if it was a design defect of some sort; surely the raft should have remained afloat much longer than this?
The third suit, where was it? The light no longer penetrated under the tarp, well below the surface, and Anna’s lungs were already crying for air. She just couldn’t get a deep enough breath with her broken rib. That third suit had to have been with the others, right? She put her hands on everything within reach, but she could not identify the suit by touch. She couldn’t find it.
The pressure built in her ears, and Anna realized the sinking raft was dragging her down with it. She had to get out, and she had to do so now. She turned around, but in the darkness had trouble finding the open cockpit end of the tarp. Had the raft turned over as it sank? No, but the aft end was lower, heavier with the rudder and outrigger spars, and dragging the raft down stern first. She needed to swim down to get out. Air, she just needed air. A rushing noise filled her ears. Was she hanging onto a spar? The storm, the storm capsized the raft, and she fell out and grabbed the spar, and she mustn’t let go or she would be lost, she would drown…
No, that was earlier. The storm was long over. If she didn’t let go, she would drown. The spar was dragging her down.
Anna let go.
Her head broke the surface, and despite the burning pain in her side, she gulped down deep lungfuls of air. Bundles of island roots and vegetables, pre-packed, floated around her. She turned, and there was the avian boat, and a splash as Laxmi dove in.
Laxmi grasped her and pulled her over to the boat.
“I’ve got them, Anna. Just hold on.”
A set of avian claws grasped either shoulder, and with surprising strength lifted her up and over the gunwale, into the boat. Anna lay there, catching her breath, holding her burning side and grimacing with pain. A moment later, the same pair of avian sailors lifted Laxmi into the boat. There, on the decking, lay two waterlogged but intact environmental suits, two space helmets, and two oxygen packs.
They would need three if they ever made it back into orbit.
… continued with Sea Dreams
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