… continued from Visitors
Avian voices filled the air, a cacophony of alarm. Anna needed no translator to understand the fear in those cries rising up from the beach below. Kwakitl bodies pressed back toward the cliff in their collective alarm to get away from the eight-limbed space-suited visitor, standing on its hovercraft vessel.
The elevator lurched to a none too gentle halt in its descent, sending the dozen bodies on the platform scrambling for balance. Ca-Seti pushed her way through the others to the track and grabbed the messenger rail with her foot, giving it an angry yank. For a moment, nothing happened, so she yanked on the rail again, signaling her desire to the operators up above. After the second yank, they understood the message, and the platform began once more to descend.
Anna feared they would crush the frightened Kwakitl beneath them, for in their haste to get as far from the water as they could, several stood precisely where the platform would touch the ground. Ca-Seti saw this too, for when they were but eight or ten meters from the beach, she leaned over and whistled a loud command which pierced through all the raucous noise. Anna understood that a career giving orders at sea would well accustom a sailor to making herself heard, and those below heard Ca-Seti. Alerted, they all looked up and then scrambled out of the way of the platform.
No sooner did they touch ground than Ca-Seti and her two guards pushed their way out and through the crush of bodies. She seemed almost to have forgotten the humans in the face of this new threat. It quickly became apparent that more guards had earlier descended, as Ca-Seti swept them up in her wake as she made her way to the forefront.
Jaci stood entranced, an almost rapturous smile gracing his features, looking at the alien emissary on the hovercraft. Not just one sentient alien species for first contact, but two! Anna almost chuckled as she imagined the thoughts going through his head, but when he stepped forward to follow Ca-Seti to the front rank, Anna’s smile froze and she gripped his sleeve to pull him back.
“Anna, we have to meet them!”
“Give it a moment. Let this play out. We don’t know their intentions. In fact…” Anna looked around the beach at all the waist-high Kwakitl. “I think we should sit down.”
“Down. Yes.” Anna tugged both Laxmi and Jaci down with her as she sat on the sand, letting the Kwakitl spectators now stand taller than the three humans. They could still see the Orta, towering well over two meters above the hovercraft wing. The creature swung its ponderous torso from side to side, looking over its avian audience. So far it seemed completely unperturbed by the frenzy its appearance had caused.
Ca-Seti’s guards formed a rank near the water’s edge, all the other Kwakitl now behind them. They numbered nine in total, standing impassively, leather-clad, spear butts grounded and tips angled slightly forward, held in one claw as they stood well balanced upon the other. Anna had to admit they looked serious. With the rank formed, the rest of the crowd gradually quietened, until the only sound was the creak of the elevator platform, once again trundling its way upward, overloaded with two dozen Kwakitl escaping the beach.
The Orta reached a suited limb up to touch a rounded box extending from the front of its torso, above the transparent face shield. The Kwakitl guards tensed as it moved, but otherwise they maintained their formation. A light on the box glowed amber. Behind its faceplate, between the two uppermost limbs, Anna could see the Orta’s beak moving, then it stopped. The light turned green. The box emitted a series of whistles and squawks.
“It has a Kwakitl translator,” Laxmi whispered in wonder.
“Of course it does,” Jaci said as he brought up his own tablet. “They used to live here, remember? And that means… we can listen to their conversation!”
“Quietly, Jaci,” Anna warned. “Text only, please. No audio.”
Jaci nodded and touched the tablet’s screen, and a moment later they could read the conversation in transcript, only slightly delayed.
Ancient friends, the Orta said, why do you carry weapons of war? Do your histories no longer tell of the long and prosperous relations between our two peoples?
Ca-Seti squawked her reply. We know you from stories told down the ages, generation to generation. Long have your kind been absent, leaving us in peace, but our stories still tell of the violence and destruction you wrought upon our villages. After so much time, why are you here now? Why have you returned?
We would reignite the friendship between our <untranslatable>. We regret the manner of our parting so many years past.
But why now? Ca-Seti insisted. Why at this time? And why here? This is not the largest Kwakitl village. We are not the most numerous, nor the strongest. Why come to us? Is it because we are more easily overpowered than our larger neighbors? Perhaps you shall not find us so easy to push down.
The Orta paused, looking over the crowd. Anna tried to crouch even lower. The new visitor had not made any aggressive moves, but the Kwakitl so obviously mistrusted it that she could palpably feel the tension in the air. Could it see her?
There have been others, the Orta said. Someone else has come to your <untranslatable>. Someone from another world.
The nervous Kwakitl near to the humans looked at the three of them, crouched and seated in their midst. Anna held her fingers to her lips and hoped the gesture would be universally understood, though she rather doubted it.
These visitors are not Orta. We do not believe they are Kwakitl, either. They damaged our <untranslatable>. The Orta pointed skyward with an upper limb.
“Holy shit,” Jaci whispered. “Does he mean…?”
“Yes,” said Anna. “The ring station.”
The Orta continued. We found their ship in <untranslatable>. It too is damaged, and soon will fall. We seek to know what happened, who they are, and why they are here. We tracked them to their <untranslatable>, crashed in the lagoon of the forest island, but they are not there.
Ar-Velen is far from here, Ca-Seti said. Kwakitl do not go there. It is forbidden. If what you seek is there, again I ask, why are you here?
The large eyes blinked once, slowly. The large creature shifted itself, ponderously, half a meter forward, and looked down upon Ca-Seti directly.
Ah, but some Kwakitl did go there. Some even stepped inside the <untranslatable>. The storms have not yet erased all the tracks. Like footprints in sand, they are faint, yet they remain. The <untranslatable | visitors | foreigners | aliens> had help, or they were taken, and they were taken by Kwakitl. Yours is the closest village. Even now, your sailors fish the waters between here and there. Do not deny it, as we saw them, though they did not see us.
Ca-Seti seemed to pause, to consider this information as the last squawks from the Orta’s translator faded away and the re-translated words scrolled across Jaci’s tablet. Jaci looked up to catch Anna’s eye.
“We have to talk to them,” he whispered urgently. “This is an amazing discovery.” He started to gather his feet beneath him. This time Laxmi pulled him back down.
“Like Anna said, wait. The Kwakitl clearly don’t trust them. We shouldn’t either until we know more. Right, Anna?”
Anna didn’t answer right away. She bit her lip and watched the standoff between Ca-Seti and the Orta continue before turning to Laxmi and Jaci.
“They could be our ticket out of here. But Laxmi’s right, we need to know more about their intentions. So far, this just seems like normal distrust between nations, but…”
We deny nothing, the translator repeated as Ca-Seti spoke. Those waters are good for fish. Yet it is a wide ocean, and we are but a tiny island, and but one among many such islands. My crew have not been to Ar-Velen. We did not go there. If you find these <aliens?>, what will you do with them? Will you treat them as you did us so many years ago? Will you make war upon them?
A claw tugged at Jaci’s sleeve. Anna and Jaci both turned to find one of the juveniles, and from Jaci’s expression, Anna supposed her to be one of the students from Li-Estl’s class. Jaci made a placating gesture with his hands and tried to turn back to his tablet, but the student became more insistent, tugging again at his sleeve and making a very clear come with me gesture with her head.
Throughout the dialog between Ca-Seti and the Orta, the two elevator platforms had continued ceaselessly moving up and down, removing a dozen Kwakitl from the beach at a time. The crowd in which the three humans took cover was steadily reducing in size. Yet still, Anna did not see how they could gain entrance to one of the elevators without the Orta noticing. She looked at Laxmi, then Jaci, and shook her head.
The juvenile made a short, soft whistle. Secret way, Jaci’s tablet read.
Anna took one more look around, then came to a decision. She nodded, and she and Laxmi shuffled closer to the juvenile. Jaci didn’t move at first, turned to look at the Orta, then looked back at Anna, resignation in his gaze. He nodded too, and the three of them followed the juvenile in a shuffling crab walk through the thinning crowd, keeping their heads low.
“Why is Ca-Seti protecting us?” whispered Laxmi. “First she wants us there, and then she denies our presence. What for?”
“She wasn’t expecting it to be Orta,” Anna replied. “I think she thought it would be more humans. Remember, she asked us to translate, but that wouldn’t make any sense for Orta, only for other humans.”
“Still, why not give us up? Wouldn’t that be easier? I don’t think she particularly likes us, after all.”
“I think she likes the Orta far less. And we are guests in her village.”
The small group had passed through the thickest remaining part of the crowd, all waiting to board elevators, but instead of leading them onto one of the platforms, the juvenile Kwakitl took them around the side and along the bottom of the cliff, leading in the direction of the pool where the diving accident occurred. Anna feared this would be the most exposed part of their route, and she struggled to resist the urge to keep looking over her shoulder at the beach where the confrontation continued, no longer translated.
The beach narrowed to a thin strip of sand as they continued, then faded altogether into a jumble of huge boulders forming a rampart at the cliff’s base. At first, it seemed as though there would be no way through without swimming, but then their guide ducked between a pair of house-sized boulders. There, Anna saw a short, steep, wooden stairway leading up over a large rock wedged into the gap between the giant boulders. She climbed up after the Kwakitl youth, who disappeared down the far side into a dim grotto.
She was about to follow when a rising volume of avian voices behind caught her attention. She turned back to see an angry crowd of Kwakitl surge toward the hovercraft. Someone threw a spear, and it struck the Orta emissary in one of its limbs, tearing a rent in its spacesuit. The Orta fell back, then drew something out of another compartment on its suited torso.
“Oh no,” Anna breathed.
The Orta pointed a limb at the Kwakitl guards and fired a weapon. Anna saw a flash of light and a Kwakitl went down. The crowd’s surge paused, and in that brief respite, the Orta fell back into the airlock of its craft and the hatch closed behind.
“Oh, shit, this is bad.”
“Anna, come on! We have to get out of here!” Laxmi called up to her from below.
Anna turned away from the fight and scrambled down another ladder into the recesses of the grotto.
… continued with Grotto
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