… continued from First Contact
The sun slid down the turquoise sky until it kissed the ocean and sank beneath the waves, spreading its red-orange glow in a wide line across the horizon and lighting up the last retreating clouds from the morning’s storm. Would there be a green flash, Anna wondered? And if there was, would she even notice it against an already green-hued sky?
She lay back on a pile of sacks, if not of burlap then she could not tell the difference, though she had no idea what filled them. A little scratchy, but relatively comfortable. After another examination, and tighter wrappings, Laxmi gave her strict orders to remain still, not to move at all, and Anna was quite happy to comply. The pain now reached all around her midriff, but as long as she didn’t do more than barely lift her arm it remained manageable. The avians seemed to understand that she was injured, so they became quite accommodating. From her position she had a good view over the starboard side of the boat, and with the enforced lounging she had nothing better to do than watch the sunset, and think.
After the initial unpleasantness, the avians treated them both well, even courteously. Perhaps they felt contrite after sinking the raft? There was no way to know. Anna caught a few of them giving her frank looks of curiosity, and she supposed if an alien had appeared from nowhere on Earth, most humans would have reacted the same way. Some of them came by to investigate the human visitors more closely, until the leader squawked something at them, after which the avians mostly left them alone, other than tending to their needs.
Anna’s biggest concern was their course. After taking the women aboard, they set course nearly due south, not at all toward the ring station’s elevator, nor back toward the island atoll and the crashed shuttle. She tried to raise a fuss, but it hurt too much to move, or even speak, so she gave up the effort.
For the moment.
She took stock of what was left to them, which was not much. When the raft sank, almost everything went with it. Without the inertial compass, her navigation would be dead reckoning at best, assuming she could somehow commandeer the avian boat, which — glancing around at the armed soldiers and apparently competent sailors, not to mention her own weakened state — seemed rather unlikely. Their food and water stores were gone, so hopefully the avians would feed them something, and hopefully it would be human-edible. Anna lost her handheld computer when she dove into the sinking raft, but fortunately Laxmi had retained hers. The solar charger was gone, however, so Laxmi’s battery would last a week, perhaps two if they were careful.
They had two of the three environmental suits. Assuming Jaci was still alive, and assuming they could find him, Anna did not know how to manage getting all three of them from the top of the space elevator to Aniara, but she would just have to cross that bridge when they got there. The avians took a keen interest in the suits, especially the helmets. What they thought of them, she could not determine.
Once the sun had set, the unmistakeable aroma of a cooking fire wafted across, and Anna realized how hungry she had become when her stomach grumbled. Was that what she thought it was? Yes! The avians were frying fish. How long had it been since she had eaten pan-fried fish? She hadn’t even known this planet had fish — they hadn’t seen any animals or birds, land or sea, until meeting the avian sailors — but it stood to reason the avians had to eat something.
One of the sailors brought over a woven reed trencher, laden with two small filleted fish, steaming from the fryer, heads and tails intact. Almost European style, Anna thought with approval. She was also impressed with how the sailor carried the trencher on its wings, then deftly presented it grasped in one foot while standing on the other as if balancing on one leg was the most natural thing in the world. She supposed that a species with no arms or hands would have to master that art if they were to become tool users of any kind.
Laxmi studied her fish intently, as if it were a dissected laboratory specimen and not dinner.
“Look here, just forward of the eyes. See these slits? Those have to be gills, same as for our own fish, except they’re located just a little differently. And fins, of course, for thrust, direction, and stabilization. Too bad the organs have been cleaned out, I would love to study those, see what’s different and what’s the same. But this, right here, Anna… this is proof that evolutionary developments, given the same basic environmental conditions, are likely to go down similar paths. This is Nobel prize material! No one has ever been able to study an animal from another planet before, the field of exobiology has been essentially theoretical. Until now. I have to document this.”
“Save your battery, and dig in before it gets cold. It’s good.” Anna scooped out another chunk of oily fish meat with her fingers and popped it into her mouth.
“Anna! I haven’t analyzed the fish yet, there could be parasites, or it could be toxic, and the hygiene here…”
“Doesn’t seem to be hurting them any.” Anna pointed at the avians who were digging into their own trenchers, using their beaks and claws to good effect.
“They have Stone Age practices, Anna. A lot of Stone Age humans died of bacterial infections. Plus, they probably have naturally developed antibodies for anything here. You and I don’t have that.”
“Well, I look at it this way.” Anna took another bite. “Maybe the fish will kill me, or make me sick, or maybe it won’t. But we have no other food, and I’m hungry, and eventually starvation will definitely make me sick and then kill me. So, I can take maybe, or I can take definitely. I’ll choose maybe.”
Laxmi watched Anna eat for a few moments, then sighed, and scooped up her own first mouthful.
The boat had a long, low cabin running along the center of the deck, and from the rear hatchway a ladder descended belowdecks. After eating, an avian sailor encouraged them with a follow me gesture and led them below. Both women had to stoop, as the overhead height was far more suited to meter-high avians than meter-and-a-half-high humans. Inside, they found a single narrow chamber, torchlit and smoky, strung with familiar-looking hammocks in four rows between the beams. Sacks and wooden barrels lined the bulkheads and down the middle of the deck, between the rows of hammocks. A strong odor of fish immediately struck Anna, and something else, sharp and tangy. Salt, she realized. How long since she had been close to so much salt? More spears hung from the bulkheads in racks, and upon closer inspection Anna realized that they weren’t spears, but more like harpoons. Not weapons, but tools for fishing.
These avians were not soldiers, nor a military unit. They were fishermen. Or fisherbirds, she supposed would be more accurate. Though she did not doubt the harpoons would double as weapons quite handily, should the need arise.
The sailor leading the way showed them to a pair of hammocks, obviously intending they should sleep here. Although the hammocks were slightly on the short side, Anna thought they would suffice quite nicely, and certainly more comfortably than the rubber bottom of their old life raft. A wave of exhaustion overtook her, and she realized she had not slept a full night in more than a week. She smiled gratefully to the avian sailor and, not knowing quite how to express thanks, gave an awkward bow. The sailor cocked a feathered eyebrow ridge — surprised, or amused, or something else — and bowed back, then turned and left them.
“You go ahead, Anna. I’ll go get the e-suits and bring them down here, then I’ll be right behind you.”
Laxmi departed to do that, and Anna climbed into her hammock with a grimace of pain and then a sigh of relief. She was well asleep before Laxmi returned.
… continued with Denizens of the Deep
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