… continued from Cafeteria
After the meal, the humans bade goodnight to Li-Estl, and Jaci led the women back to his chamber. It was a small, circular room, rough-hewn and low overhead, and lantern-lit like the others they had been in. A pallet of cushions lay on the smooth floor, with a low table and a woven basket beside the pallet. Neatly folded in a pile beside the basket lay the two e-suits retrieved from the boat.
“Welcome to my humble abode. It’s not much, I know, but it’s home, or at least it has been for these past weeks.”
Laxmi looked askance at the single pallet, then at Jaci with a cocked eyebrow. He laughed and reached into the basket, pulling out more cushions.
“Never fear, Laxmi, you won’t be sleeping on cold, hard stone.”
“Oh, I wasn’t worried about that. I was worried about you sleeping on cold, hard stone, not us. However, I see you’re equipped to host visitors.”
“Mostly for the children to sit on when they come by, but these should do for sleeping comfortably, too. For some reason the kids seem to like me, so there’s usually a few of them around. Must be they sense my innate good nature.”
“Ha. Or they know a sucker when they see one.”
Anna smiled. “Ok, you two, knock it off. I’m just happy we’re back together.”
The pallet cushions were comfortable, though lumpy, and Anna found herself missing her hammock from the fishing boat when she lay down to try to sleep. Once the lantern was out, and the chamber was dark, the floor seemed to rock and sway beneath her, and she slept fitfully at best. She awakened several times during the night, laying still, listening to the deep, even breathing of the others beside her, and tried to ignore the floor’s stone hardness that the cushions could only moderately soften. She thought back to her first experiences sleeping in a zero-gee sling, when her mind would play tricks on her and she would awaken to the sensation of being upside down. She not only became used to that, discarding notions of up or down, but she grew to prefer it, with no surfaces pressing against her body. The hammock swinging in the hold of a boat at sea seemed the closest earthly parallel. She sighed, turned over to find a more comfortable position, and let her thoughts drift.
She awakened again to growing light in the chamber from the ceiling duct above her. She yawned, stretched, and sat up. She felt a growing need, so she reached over and nudged Jaci.
“Hmm? What?” He opened his eyes blearily, looking up at Anna. “Oh, it’s morning.”
“Hey. Yeah, sorry to wake you, but… where are the facilities in this place?”
Laxmi rolled over and groaned. “Oh, my aching back.”
Jaci rolled off his pallet and stood up, keeping his head ducked. “Come on, I’ll show you where you can wash up, and then we’ll head down to breakfast. It’s gonna be a busy day.”
“Ok, so what’s happening here today, besides us?” Anna spooned up another mouthful of porridge, and chased it with a sip from a chicory-like hot drink that didn’t quite replace coffee, but fooled her stomach into thinking so. “What I’d like to do is spend some more time in the observatory. I’m hoping to get another view of whatever it was that arrived in orbit last night, plus the more we can figure out about the elevator, the better. Is Li-Estl going to join us?”
“Li-Estl’s going to be busy today. She has a ceremonial role to perform. It’s like a coming-of-age thing, or maybe it’s graduation day, I’m not entirely sure, but basically today is the final part of a ritual for some of the juveniles to officially become adults.”
“School graduation? And we have to attend that?”
“The entire community attends. As long as we’re here, even as guests, I think it would be noted if we don’t show up. Besides, one of the graduates is from Li-Estl’s class and specifically asked me to be there. Like I said, the kids here like me.”
When they finished eating, Jaci led them away from the cafeteria and through the twisting passages of the mountain abode. He seemed quite familiar with the routes, but soon enough Anna realized that they had become part of a stream of Kwakitl all headed in the same direction. She was not surprised when they exited a passage onto the cliffside elevator platform, where they queued up for their turn on one of the crowded elevators heading down.
Even Anna could sense the buzz of excitement among all the Kwakitl. Though the humans still drew their share of curious looks, they were no longer the most interesting thing happening today.
When their turn on the elevator arrived, they shared the platform with about two dozen Kwakitl. Anna worried they might be overloading the design specification of the elevator, if there even was a design spec, and she watched the cables with concern as they descended. The avians, however, were too engrossed, chattering away with each other, to pay the elevator or the humans any mind.
The elevator came to a stop about twenty-five meters above the beach, where a narrow rock path led away across the cliffside. About two Kwakitl could fit abreast on the path, and they crowded it, jostling each other, seemingly without concern for the sheer drop that awaited the unwary. Jaci, Laxmi, and Anna hung back to let the Kwakitl lead the way, then followed behind single file with somewhat more care to their own steps. The path wound its way until the beach and docks were out of sight around the curve of the cliff behind them, until it opened out to a natural wide ledge upon which dozens of Kwakitl stood, all crowding right up to the edge in their attempts to get the best views. The taller humans found they could stand behind the shorter avians and see over their heads just fine.
What they were supposed to be looking at, however, remained a mystery to Anna. Below them, beyond the ledge, the cliff plunged straight down into a deep pool in the lagoon, but most of the Kwakitl were looking upwards. So, Anna shielded her eyes from the sunshine with her hand and followed their gaze.
Anna could make out other rock paths at various heights on the cliff, all of which had their own groups of Kwakitl spectators. Some also seemed to have come along paths winding the other way around the cliff, standing across a wide gap from her own group. Far above, however, perhaps twice as high above as the pool was below, a smaller group of Kwakitl stood on another narrow ledge directly over the gap between paths, and directly over the deep pool seventy-five meters below.
A hush fell over the crowd of excited avians. The rocky cliff gleamed golden in the sunlight. Not a cloud marred the perfect turquoise sky, not a wave disturbed the cobalt sea nor a ripple the azure lagoon. Even the incessant tradewind seemed to have stopped for this moment.
A tiny figure, dark against the cliff, appeared alone at the edge of that highest central ledge. The others on the ledge stood apart, leaving space, and then the solitary figure leaped, stubby wings spread, gaining as much horizontal distance from the cliff as she could before beginning the downward plunge. She pulled her wings in tight against her body, arrowing downward head first like a missile, quickly growing in apparent size for the observers below until she rocketed past, sleek and streamlined.
The splash in the lagoon was minimal as the diver pierced the water perfectly, several meters out from the cliff. All eyes remained on the water, voices hushed, until a moment later when the diver’s head surfaced, beak open in joy, and the gathered Kwakitl squawked in loud cheers. The diver swam over to the side, to a tiny beach below Anna’s ledge, where attendants awaited to help her from the water.
Three more divers followed the first, at roughly twenty-minute intervals, with a period of some ceremony which Anna could not properly see nor hear up on that top ledge between each dive. With each one, the crowd of onlookers cheered wildly. Not all were as perfect as the first, but all were applauded just the same.
The fifth diver stood at the ledge, turning left and then turning right, all part of the ritual. By now Anna understood the sequence of events, even if she didn’t understand their significance. An adult in robes — Li-Estl? — waved something around the diver and appeared to chant something, though from Anna’s vantage nothing was audible. Another would repeat the performance from the diver’s other side, and then they would step back to leave the diver alone with the final part of the performance.
The diver was turning toward the second part of the ritual when a flash of light caught Anna’s eye. She turned to look, away from the cliff and high up, to see a streak of fire, a meteor’s path blazing across the turquoise, searing a straight line bisecting the sky, though Anna knew it was no meteor. Although she knew it was coming, when the sonic boom arrived a few seconds later it was still shockingly loud. The crowd of Kwakitl cowered down, tucking their heads under their wings to escape the noise, squawking in alarm and jostling into each other, into Anna, Jaci, and Laxmi.
Then again from the corner of her eye, Anna saw something else falling fast, an avian body streaking down the cliff face. However, this diver was not sleek and streamlined, not graceful, but flailing, wings flapping. This was not a dive, but a fall. The falling Kwakitl bounced off the cliff once before hitting the water with a large splash, and she did not return to the surface joyous and triumphant. She floated back up lifeless, darkening the azure pool with the spreading stain of her life’s blood.
The path of the entering spacecraft extended beyond the mountaintop, out of sight, but all eyes on Anna’s platform turned first to the dead youth in the water, and then to the humans in their midst. Anna was still learning to read Kwakitl facial expressions, but even she could see the shock, anger, and mistrust in their eyes, and she realized they associated this event with a similar one two months earlier which heralded the arrival of the humans.
… continued with Prisoners
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