… continued from Denizens of the Deep
That night, Anna could not sleep. Much weighed upon her mind, not least the disturbing death of the avian sailor at the hands — sorry, tentacles — of whatever sea creature it was they had encountered. The mood of the entire crew was obviously somber, their joy at the bounty of the catch shadowed by the loss of their crewmate.
She rolled out of her hammock and found her way up on deck, careful not to disturb the other sleepers. The crew mostly slept the entire night through, more hours than a human required, with just a minimal number on watch to guide the vessel through the dark. Anna supposed they considered fishing strictly a daylight activity, or perhaps they had caught their quota and now just wanted to get home.
She could understand that. She just wanted to get home, too. At this point the mission appeared an abject failure, and living to tell the tale remained her only interest. She knew Laxmi, and Jaci too if he was still alive, might feel otherwise, and Anna had to admit that if they did indeed make it home, then all was not a total loss. They had made contact with an intelligent alien culture, and they had found evidence of a technological civilization, albeit apparently regressed in the past thousand years. Laxmi was in her element, studying the avians covertly, and the fish quite openly. Anna wished they could talk to the avians. More than once, she missed having Jaci’s expertise at hand.
She missed his irrepressible smile, too, if she was honest with herself, and even his silly sense of humor. His jokes weren’t all that funny, but they were part of him.
She would not give up on him.
The steady northeast tradewind blew warm against her cheek, coming over the aft port quarter of the boat. Anna breathed in deeply, taking in all the scents of this new world. Salt fish, certainly, but also oiled hardwood, tar, the last dying remnants of the cooking fire, and… something else. Something sweet. Jasmine? No, of course not, but a faint floral aroma lingered at the very edge of perception, almost completely overshadowed by the stronger odors of the vessel.
Unlike in daytime, no bustle of activity disrupted the serenity of night, no barked orders or sailors moving about. Forward, the lookout was a quiet, dark shape on the bow, while aft two more stood by the helm. They paid her no mind. The creak of timbers and the constant wash of the hull surfing through the waves soothed and calmed her.
No lights burned aboard. The vessel remained completely dark, a shadow upon the reflecting water, sailing across a sea of stars. Astern, their wake was easy to make out, a disturbance of the reflection, but also glowing, phosphorescing with microscopic sea life. Laxmi would be thrilled to know this phenomenon occurred here as it did in Earth’s oceans, but Anna could not recall ever seeing it so bright on Earth. Zigzag lines shot away from the boat as they sliced through the water, fish darting away and themselves triggering the luminescent reaction. The Kepler sea teemed with abundant life.
Above, the stars burned bright across the night sky. This, Anna thought, was what it must have looked like from Earth before the advent of the industrial age. The constellations were different, though some remained familiar. She took some time to gain her bearing, starting with the galaxios, the Milky Way’s brilliant central core, blazing a path across the zenith of the sky. Southeast, low above the horizon, Deneb dominated, easy to identify. Nearby, she could just make out the Veil nebula, though through the planet’s thick atmosphere, and without the aid of her observation instruments, it appeared as a smudgy band in the sky, rather than the brilliant colors she had seen from the system’s outer edge.
Turning to the northwest, at the opposite end of the Milky Way’s band from Deneb, Orion’s Belt reassured her with its familiarity. Though it had been many weeks since she had looked, once again she picked out Betelgeuse and nearby, very faint, so faint it could be her imagination, the tiny yellow pinprick that was her home.
Anna gazed at that small yellow dot for a long time.
As always, the ring station, gleaming in the light of Kepler 62f’s sun, shot a perfect arc from the east-northeast horizon to the west-northwest horizon, with only a small section of its length directly overhead darkened by the planet’s umbra. A faint, thin line dropped from its northeast quadrant, dim against the brightness of the station itself, until it faded into the shadow of the world to which it descended. The elevator, and surely they could not be very far from it, though they traveled in the wrong direction.
Just south of the station arc, just west of the elevator, another faint celestial object shone. Had the avians noticed this new star in their sky? As accomplished ocean navigators, surely they were attuned to the celestial objects that guided their paths. What did they make of it? What did they think it was? She wished she could ask.
Two months ago, that new star wouldn’t have been there, but even more than seeing Sol, its presence reassured Anna. Her starship still orbited the planet. She had no real concrete plan for getting back to Aniara, but at least there was still a ship to get back to. As long as that remained true, she could not give up trying.
She turned to head back down, and jumped with fright as she bumped into someone, standing still behind her. The grizzled avian didn’t move, simply watched her, the cruel slash of his scar running straight across one eye. Gamma, she realized, the forward deck boss. The old sailor appeared unfazed by her height towering over him, unfazed by much of anything. He slowly looked up, his good eye turned to the stars, tracing where Anna had been looking, then back down to her face once again. He cocked his head at an angle, as if asking a silent question.
Anna looked up again herself, fixed her gaze on the starship’s faint light, then back down to meet Gamma’s gaze. She nodded once, and Gamma nodded in turn, then stepped aside to let her pass.
Did he understand where she came from? What did he know of his planet’s distant history, when his ancestors presumably flew their skies?
Once again, she missed Jaci, and for more than his linguistic expertise.
… continued with Changing Course
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