… continued from Where Are They Now?
The sun passed its zenith and shadows lengthened outside, but inside the cavern the changing hue from the light ducts provided the only hint of passing time. Anna and Laxmi continued to interrogate Li-Estl about her world, with Jaci acting as interpreter and filling in what he had already discerned, but Li-Estl was equally curious about their own origins.
“I’ve tried to explain about Earth and how far away it is,” Jaci said, “but I don’t think I’ve done a very good job of it. Li-Estl understands that she lives on a planet, that it’s a sphere, and that it revolves around their sun. They don’t seem to be hampered by any flat-earth kinds of fallacies here, or at least she isn’t. She knows that there are other planets also revolving around the sun, because she has observed the difference in their motion compared to regular stars in the night sky, and because she has texts from earlier astronomers that describe their motion. She gets that.”
“Wait, so they have astronomers here?” Anna asked.
“Well, again, I get the impression that there aren’t clearly defined scientific occupations in the sense that you and I understand them. It’s more like there are a handful of Kwakitl in any given generation who are of a general scientific mindset, and who try to understand and document their world around them. So it’s not like they have astronomers and chemists and biologists and so on. It’s more that they have people like Li-Estl who do all these things, as well as teach the young and record histories and pass on oral traditions. At least, that’s the impression I came away with. Most Kwakitl become fishermen or builders or cooks or what-not, to keep day-to-day life in the village going on, and everyone’s expected to do their part, but there’s always one who is allowed to set aside her time to study, and to teach. Usually just one, however.”
“But she knows what stars are.”
“No, I don’t actually think she does, to be honest. She knows they are different from planets, but I’m not sure if she understands that her sun is a star like all the others. I tried to explain how far away Earth is, and that it revolves around a different star, but either the translation program isn’t up to the task, or it’s just too foreign of a concept. When I point up to the sky, she just shuts me down right away and doesn’t want to hear it. I think maybe she believes we come from the far side of her own planet, or something. I’m not sure. Considering how open she has been to everything else, and how quick to pick up on things, like language and so on, there’s a strange reticence to delve into this one.”
“That’s odd. Gamma didn’t seem to have any trouble with it.”
“Gamma? Who’s that?”
“One of the lieutenants on the boat. In charge of the fishing crew. Old bird, probably with many years of offshore sailing experience, and thus almost certainly an accomplished celestial navigator. I’m pretty sure he was… sorry, she was well aware that a new bright object had appeared in their sky when Aniara arrived in orbit. I tried indicating that we came from that new star in the sky, and she appeared to get it right away.”
“Her name is Gamma? How… that doesn’t seem much like…”
“I named her that,” Laxmi interrupted. “I know it’s not her real name, but we had to call the leaders on the boat something, and she was the third, so… Gamma. Delta was the cook.”
Jaci chuckled. “How original. I wonder what they called you.”
“Probably Thing 1 and Thing 2, for all we’re aware, since that’s basically what we called them.”
Anna picked up Jaci’s handheld, studied it for a moment, then turned toward Li-Estl.
“Li-Estl,” she said, as she started typing, then she turned back to Jaci. “Can’t I just speak to this thing? It seems to understand Li-Estl speaking just fine.”
“Sure, go ahead. I’m just old-fashioned, I guess. Press that when you’re ready to dictate.”
Anna smiled her thanks, then she held up the handheld while speaking to Li-Estl.
“Where do you think we came from?”
“Jaci come from Ar-Velen,” the device translated. “Discoverers find him there. Laxmi and Anna, uncertain, find at sea, but maybe from Ar-Velen also. Why humans on Ar-Velen?”
“Discoverers? Like, explorers? So you have explorers who travel the ocean, not just fishermen?”
The tablet beeped, and looking at the display Anna saw that it had no Kwakitl translation for “explorers” and that “discoverers” was an uncertain term, which it reused in place of “explorers.” Li-Estl paused before replying, and Anna supposed she was confused by the garbled translation.
“Kwakitl who find and discover. Go to Ar-Velen because falling star go there. Fire shine bright in line across sky, then big noise everywhere across ocean. Send discoverers. Go Ar-Velen, but big storm cause delay. Then after storm, in fast wind, go very fast to Ar-Velen and find Jaci there.”
“The sonic boom.” Anna turned to the others. “She’s describing the shuttle descent. And the hurricane. I guess if it hadn’t been for that, they would have arrived sooner? So they sent a team to… Oh! She means investigators! They went to investigate what they must have thought was a meteor.” Anna turned back and activated the tablet again. “Li-Estl, is Ar-Velen the island where your discoverers, or investigators, found Jaci?”
“What is that place? Why don’t Kwakitl live there? It seems like it would be much easier than here, with lots of readily available food.”
“Lots of… food? No food on Ar-Velen. All food is in sea. Ar-Velen is forbidden.”
“Forbidden? Why? But there’s an old, abandoned place in the mountain there, like here, a cave, with round doors and windows. There are drawings on the walls. Why did the Kwakitl leave there?”
Li-Estl squawked in alarm when she heard the tablet’s translation. She turned to face her students, spoke to them rapidly, and clearly started urging them to get up and go. The students, for their part, appeared to have been listening with rapt attention to the exchange between their teacher and the strange human visitors, and it was only with much grumbling and disappointment that they shuffled out of the room. Li-Estl followed them to the entrance, peered outside, then came back in and faced the humans.
“Ar-Velen is ancient place. Long, long ago Kwakitl live there, but it is dark time. Very dark time in history. Not so long ago as…” She pointed to the tablet. “As Jaci’s recording. But all history, all stories, from before time of Ar-Velen lost. Li-Estl not know truth, but old stories say Orta come to punish Kwakitl for fly too high, steal flight from Kwakitl. Orta and Kwakitl fight, and Kwakitl win, make Orta go away, but if Kwakitl try fly again, Orta may come back. That is myth, not history, Li-Estl knows this, but dark time is not myth. In dark time, some Kwakitl gain power with fear. Spread fear to ask questions, fear to know truth. Fear to fly. Use fear of Orta. Punish any who ask questions. All Kwakitl must watch punishment. Punishment very bad. Always those punished die, but first much pain. All must obey, all must forget from before, or punishment and death.”
Anna listened in horror. “She’s talking about…”
“The Inquisition,” Jaci said. “Or their version of it. Control of society through terror and persecution.”
Li-Estl spoke again. “Now is different. Now Kwakitl civilized. Now Li-Estl can teach history, not myth. But, still some believe in old ways. Myth say only Orta come from sky, and Orta evil, so some will say only evil come from sky.” She turned toward Jaci. “Li-Estl know you not live long on Ar-Velen. Nobody live on Ar-Velen. All afraid of Ar-Velen, because Ar-Velen have dark history. Ar-Velen place of dark time. Li-Estl know you come from other world, that you ride bright fire down from sky. Li-Estl know new star in evening sky, beside path of gods, is not star. Not star, but somehow is where you come from, how you get here. But, very important, you not speak this to other Kwakitl. You say from Ar-Velen. Much safer. Most not believe if you say from sky, but some… some think maybe you with Orta. Only evil come from sky. Only bad things. If you from sky, you must be evil. You must be bad.”
Jaci’s jaw dropped. “All this time…”
“Jaci, your mistake clearly is speaking too plainly in front of the kids,” Laxmi observed dryly.
“Students good,” Li-Estl continued. “But young. Not always understand in full. Some have parents follow old ways. Maybe. Not safe come from sky to some parents.”
“Li-Estl,” Anna said slowly. “How do you know this? How do you know we come from the new star that isn’t a star? How do you know it’s not a star?”
Li-Estl didn’t answer right away. She looked into Anna’s eyes for a long moment, searching for something there, then relaxed, seeming to have arrived at a decision.
“Come,” she said. “Li-Estl show you.” She hobbled slowly on old, creaky legs toward the door. In the doorway she paused and turned back to the humans, waving a wing impatiently at them. “Come!”
In the hallway outside an aroma of cooking fish reached Anna, and her stomach rumbled with hunger.
“Soon is meal. We eat. Your boat bring good fish. But first I show you. Come!”
They followed the old bird back to the external elevator chamber. Li-Estl trundled past the operator, who cocked her head to the side but did not interfere, and the humans followed her right onto a waiting platform. The operator shifted rocks onto the counterweight until she judged the weights balanced, then nodded to Li-Estl. A moment later the platform began rising up the face of the cliff toward the evening sky.
Far to the west the last rays of the setting sun lit both sea and sky on fire, a brilliant ruddy orange hue against the darkening aquamarine above. The first stars… real stars… twinkled through the thick atmosphere above and from the darkened east. A breeze ruffled through Anna’s hair, and she listened to the squeak of the elevator platform’s ascent. No one spoke.
After several minutes they arrived at another opening into the cliff, another platform, and Li-Estl brought the elevator to a stop. They stepped onto the unattended platform, much smaller than the main one down below, but instead of a passage leading back into the mountain they were presented with a door.
Li-Estl produced a set of keys from a pocket somewhere in her vest, and despite her wobbly gait, she stood quite nimbly on one leg while unlocking the gate with the other. She swung the door open on creaky hinges and ventured into the darkness beyond. Turning, she again waved a wing.
As darkness descended upon the ocean outside, the party ventured into darkness beyond. Li-Estl seemed quite sure of her step, but the following humans felt their way along the smooth wall of the passage. All was not pitch black, and their eyes soon adjusted, but nevertheless it was dim going.
“Anna,” Laxmi whispered. “This wall…”
“I know. It’s not rock.”
Li-Estl led them up a stairwell, and then another one after that, until they arrived at another door. Again, Li-Estl produced a key and opened the door, then gestured for the humans to precede her into the chamber beyond.
“Oh my God,” Anna breathed.
“Wow.” Even Jaci was overcome with amazement.
The chamber was circular, with a smooth domed roof. The roof, at least, was clearly not rock, but metal, and divided into even sections, wedges which came together at the apex. In the center of the room, upon a thick dais taking up most of the floor, a large cylinder rested at a steep angle upon a metal stand. The lower end of the cylinder tapered down to a narrow end, resting at what would be eye level for a Kwakitl above a chair, also on the dais. The wide upper end of the cylinder pointed toward an open section of the roof, through which stars shone clearly.
Anna took a deep breath and gazed at the large telescope, grinning.
“And I thought you said they don’t have astronomers,” she said to Jaci. “Well, they have an observatory.”
… to be continued.
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