… continued from Grotto
Silently they slipped between the rocky headlands forming the lagoon, seeing them as no more than dark patches blotting the multitudinous stars from the sky above and their reflection from the still waters below. With but a whisper of wind to pull the lateen sail, the small trimaran all but ghosted beyond reach of the solid shore and into the vast deep of the ocean beyond.
A subtle glow emanated from beyond one shoulder of the island, limning the cliff edges along the lower slopes. That way lay the main lagoon and the docks on the beach, Anna knew. That way lay the Orta craft, and the glow no doubt was its landing lights. Anna took comfort that the high-tech craft remained in the lagoon and not out searching the waters for she and her companions, even as she realized it bode poorly for the Kwakitl of the island.
She turned away from the island, allowing her eyes to adjust to the night sky and the sea. Though moonless, the stars lit the nighttime waters to the far horizon, and there, just west of due north, though she needed no compass to tell her the direction, fell the straight, thin line of the space elevator, its impossibly high reaches still lit by the long-set sun, until it descended into darkness. For many weeks this beacon had called out to her, and finally she could point her tiny ship, her craft of avian manufacture, straight toward it. No more detours, all her crew were aboard, and as they pulled away from the lee of the island in their wake, the southeast trades steadily grew and pushed them toward their goal.
“Laxmi, take the helm, please.”
Free of the tiller, Anna checked the trim of the sails, adjusting the sheets for optimal flow.
“Jaci, keep watch astern. Let me know if you see any sign of pursuit, by the Orta, or anyone else.”
She moved forward, checking the tension on stays, shrouds, and halyards, and familiarizing herself with the small vessel.
She was not large, less than ten meters length overall, and with the outriggers about the same in beam, yet she cut through the water with ease. The main hull was narrow, with the cockpit consuming fully half its length, and thus providing reasonable working room for a Kwakitl crew larger than Anna’s three. Forward, the remainder of the hull was decked over, creating a small cabin below for protection from weather, while at the bow, a sprit reached another two meters beyond the hull, creating length for a substantial lateen sail. Indeed, as they pulled farther north and the tradewind freshened, the small boat gathered more and more speed, cutting across the dark water with grace and ease. Despite everything, Anna’s heart lifted with the sheer pleasure of sailing such a craft.
Their wake phosphoresced behind them, a growing vee pointing them out to any who might look, yet when she rejoined Jaci at the stern, Anna saw no evidence of any other vessels upon the water, nor in the air. She caught Jaci’s eye and he shook his head.
“I think we’re getting away clean, Anna.”
“So what now?” Laxmi asked from the tiller, her gaze remaining forward.
“Now we keep going north, toward the elevator, like Ca-Seti said. We don’t know what we’ll find, but we’ll figure that out when we get there. Meanwhile, we’ll put Ar-Danel as far behind in our wake as we can before daybreak.”
“Darkness won’t hide us from radar, Anna. The Orta are sure to have that, at least.”
“True, but let us hope tonight they are too busy searching the island to point it out to sea, and come dawn we’ll be half a hundred kilometers from here, or more, and far over the horizon. Also…” Anna knocked on the hull of the boat. “No metal. No steel. A wooden boat will provide a limited return on their scope, unless they’re already close enough to just see us.”
“Let us hope you’re right.”
“And if I’m wrong, it will make no difference to our fate. We will do what we can. Ok, Laxmi, I’ll take over. You should sleep.”
“It’s all right. I’m not at all sleepy. I can keep going for a few more hours. We need you to be sharp later, so you should rest. Jaci and I will take turns on the helm, and we’ll wake you later.”
Anna opened her mouth to argue, then paused. She thought for a moment, then simply nodded and went belowdecks.
“Wow, did you see that, Jaci? She didn’t argue! She just accepted it. Mark this in your book, for today is a first, and it may never happen again.”
The cabin was not just small, but pitch dark, with the open hatch to the cockpit and the nighttime stars providing the only illumination. Anna felt her way carefully, grunting when she knocked a shin against something solid. More by touch than sight, she eventually identified now-familiar hammocks, and she rolled into one. She was unable to fully stretch out in its short length, but it would do in her exhausted state. And she was exhausted, she realized, finally letting herself relax and her mind to wander. The susurration of water rushing past the thin wooden planking of the hull, mere centimeters from her face, eased her thoughts, though she doubted she would truly sleep. There was too much still to worry about, but she would just close her eyes for a moment, perhaps half an hour.
She opened them to weak daylight coming through the hatch. She blinked once or twice, rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and looked around the cabin. Storage trunks were lashed to the deck, including the one she must have tripped across the night before. Across from her, Laxmi lay curled in another hammock, sleeping. Through the hatch, she could just make out Jaci at the helm, his gaze concentrated forward. Grey clouds filled the sky behind him, and the following breeze ruffled his hair. He really needed a haircut, she thought, but barbershops were few and far between on Kepler 62f. The unkempt longer hair did give him a rakish look, however. A pirate of alien seas! Anna suppressed her laugh at this random thought, not wanting to wake Laxmi.
She rolled out of the hammock and crouched her way under the low overhead back to the hatchway and poked her head out. Jaci saw her and smiled, but before he could speak she put a finger to her lips and gestured at Laxmi below. Anna pulled herself up into the cockpit and looked about.
Clouds filled the sky in all directions. The island of Ar-Danel had long since dropped below the horizon astern. The tradewind continued unabated, powering long five-meter swells from the southeast, which approached from the starboard stern quarter, gently lifted the small boat, then rolled away forward. At the top of one such swell, Anna looked around, just barely making out a darker smudge at the limit of her vision, far to the southwest, but otherwise nothing in sight but endless grey waves beneath endless grey clouds. She gazed a bit longer at that smudge, and Jaci turned to see what had captured her attention.
“The most northerly of the islands in the chain, I think,” he said quietly. “According to Li-Estl, while most of the chain have tribes living upon them, that one is uninhabited. I don’t really know why, though. Probably just too small.”
“And still no sign of pursuit?”
“Not that I could see.” He shrugged. “Laxmi went down about two hours ago, or thereabouts, shortly before dawn. But since then, of course, it’s been easier to keep watch.”
“Why did you let me sleep so long? I told you to wake me after a couple hours.”
“You needed it. You and Laxmi both, really. You forget, I’ve been living the easy island life the past few weeks. But, if you’re ok with it, I might go catch some winks now myself.”
Anna nodded. “Sure. I’ve got the helm.” She took the tiller in hand and Jaci moved forward, out of the way. A thunking noise sounded from belowdecks, and he smiled wryly.
“I guess we woke up Laxmi after all.” He peered through the hatchway. “You ok down there?”
“Huh?” Laxmi’s sleepy voice drifted up. “Is it my shift again already?”
“No, I just thought you fell out of your hammock or…”
“Jaci.” Anna spoke quietly but urgently. He turned back to face her. “It wasn’t Laxmi.”
“The noise. It didn’t come from the cabin. It came from below the cockpit.”
“Did we hit something?”
“I don’t think so. Check the quarterberth.”
“Storage. Below the cockpit. I think there’s a storage space under there. Check it.”
Understanding dawned on Jaci’s face, and he briefly looked apprehensive before turning forward to descend down into the cabin. He whispered something to Laxmi, then ducked out of view, below the level of the hatch. Anna heard nothing else but the wind and water for a few moments, then the creak of a hinge on another hatch being opened, then…
Jaci scrambled backwards, back into her view through the main hatch.
“What? What is it?”
Jaci looked up at her, then back down to something out of her sight, his initial fear giving way to surprise, then… amusement?
“What’s going on? What did you find?”
“Laxmi, hand me my tablet, would you? Thanks. There. Ok, you can come out of there now. You’re safe. We won’t hurt you.”
The tablet issue a series of avian whistles, and Anna understood what Jaci had found. Moments later, a young Kwakitl squeezed out of the storage from beneath the cockpit and into the main cabin, then looked up through the hatch and into Anna’s eyes.
Anna recognized the youthful avian. It was the same juvenile who had led them to safety through the rocky pools and grottoes the previous day. And in her youthful feathered face, Anna imagined she could see a play of emotions: trepidation, relief, and perhaps defiance, one on the heels of the other.
“We… we can’t take her back.” Instinctively, Anna looked over her shoulder, back the way they had come, back toward Ar-Danel and the young Kwakitl’s home. As before, she saw only grey skies and a flat horizon beyond the endless rolling swell of the sea.
The avian clicked and whistled, and Jaci’s tablet translated. “I do not want to go back.”
“Anna, we have to go back! She’s just a kid! She has parents who will be looking for her.”
The translator whistled and clicked some more, and the youth responded, shaking her head.
“Not safe now at Ar-Danel. You take me with you. I help you find the way. You take me to Ar-Makati.”
Anna turned forward again and caught the young Kwakitl’s eye. She thought for a moment, considered her options.
“No. She’s right. It’s not safe for her at Ar-Danel. It’s certainly not safe for us. We will take her with us, for now.”
“She’s clearly resourceful. Useful in a sticky situation. So I wonder, in the end, who is taking whom?”
… to be continued.
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