… continued from A Light Upon the Sea
An hour passed, and then another one, or at least so it seemed to Anna. Without sight of the sky, and without easy access to Jaci’s tablet, she could not really be sure. Once her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she realized it was not quite complete, though nearly so. The hatch was well sealed, but still a faint circle of dim grey outlined its circumference and provided some small reference in the pitch black. Occasionally the circle would be obscured, and she knew that was Jaci, between the hatch and her, shifting about to find some less uncomfortable position.
The hold may have been dark, but it was far from silent. Only a few centimeters of wood separated Anna’s ear from the ocean waters outside. The port outrigger in which she and Jaci were hiding was windward, and with the trimaran beating upwind on its southerly course the narrow hull spent most of its time lifted out of the water. The water was not flat, however, and as the boat climbed each wave the outrigger plunged into it, surrounding them with frothy, noisy, bubbling sounds of the sea sluicing past, until the stomach-dropping moment when the boat crested the wave before tipping down into the next trough. These were not big waves, nor deep troughs, and it was not a strong wind, but with only sound and motion to go by, it felt like the previous night’s storm remained with them.
Fortunately, Anna’s nose gradually adjusted to the initially overwhelming odor of fish. The hold was mostly dry, though not completely, and didn’t seem to have been used for quite some time, but the not-quite-rotten smell permeated the wooden planking. In the first hour, she could hear Jaci trying hard not to retch, and he muttered a few choice comments about the environment, but equally fortunately he managed to control his reaction. Anna sympathized, as she too fought not to feel sick. By the third hour, however, the aroma, like the noise, had become background: present, but no longer overpowering.
Inevitably, with enforced inaction, Anna’s mind turned to the events and decisions that led them to this place. Though she knew at a rational level that she had done all she could, deep down she could not but help still wonder if that was true. What if she and Laxmi had not gone off through the jungle to explore that mountain cave on the island? Then they would have been captured along with Jaci by the Kwakitl, and though that turned out well enough in the end for him, they might not now have had the e-suits. Would the e-suits even matter? Anna had to continue believing they would.
Was descent to the planet’s surface really their only option when the shuttle was disabled? As a pilot, Anna knew better than to second-guess her decisions in moments requiring swift action, but now with no action possible, she wondered if it was true they could not have regained Aniara’s altitude and docked with the starship. No, her calculations were correct, she was sure of it, and had they not landed, certainly by now they would all be dead.
Should they have spent more time analyzing the ring station from Aniara before sending the shuttle team to investigate? Would they have detected the latent defensive capability that killed Tak and disabled the shuttle? Would Tak still be alive? No, they had analyzed the station as well as they could with the sensors available to them while still remote, and besides, it was not her decision. Captain Benetton made that call.
The Captain. David. Was he possibly still alive in orbit?
Enough with worrying about the past. No amount of second-guessing herself now would change that. What Anna had to do now was focus on their future. She still had no concrete plan for what they would do once they reached the elevator. She would just need to trust herself to take advantage of whatever they might find when they got there. Assuming they got there, that is. The more immediate future of what would happen when the Orta search party arrived was the real problem of the moment.
Yet the time for thinking about it was done. Anna realized that beyond the creaking of the wooden hull and the rushing of the water beyond, there was a new sound reaching her ears, a faint yet persistent high-pitched hum. She put her ear against the hull, and each time the hull sliced into the water, the faint hum became a clearly audible whine, much like an electrical motor sounding a one-note chord. There was no doubt about its origin. The hovercraft must be near.
She tapped on Jaci’s foot, and when he yelped and nearly kicked her in the face, she realized she’d woken him from a slumber. Lucky him, to have been able to catch a few winks.
“Shh. Jaci, listen. The hovercraft is about to arrive.”
“Got it.” He fumbled about in the darkness, knocking once against the hull.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting the tablet out. It’s nearly out of juice, but there should still be enough charge. We need to know what they say to Ca-Tren when they get here. Assuming they don’t just shoot her on sight, that is.”
“What a cheerful thought.”
“She’s a good kid. I worry about her.”
“I worry about her too, but right now we have to trust her. Ok, the engine pitch is getting louder, I think they’re close. Time to go quiet. And make sure the tablet isn’t transmitting anything.”
“You think they’ll have detectors?”
“I’m sure of it. So put it in airplane mode.”
“Sorry, old joke. Very old joke. But you know what I mean. Now, quiet.”
The approaching engine grew louder, and now they could hear the hovercraft’s great fans clearly without needing to put an ear to the hull or wait for the hull to be in the water. It sounded as though the advanced machine must be right next to them. What would Ca-Tren do? Surely she wouldn’t try to outrun it, would she?
The answer came soon enough. They could hear the creaking wood as the gaff and sail came down, and the trimaran’s motion in the water changed as she hove to and then slowly drifted back with the moderate wind. A much louder thump, felt more than heard, told Anna the hovercraft had come close alongside and grappled the far hull, the one in which Laxmi hid just as she and Jaci were doing.
Next she heard a loud voice, clearly electronic in nature, and sounding as though speaking through a megaphone, squawking in Kwakitl. Jaci angled his tablet so she could see the face of it, though she had to squint to make it out.
Tell everyone in your crew to come out on deck and prepare for boarding and inspection. You have nothing to fear if you comply.
Ca-Tren replied, much fainter than the booming Orta translator.
I am alone.
Anna tensed, trying to make herself as flat against the bottom of the hull as she could. She tapped Jaci’s foot, and in the dim light of the tablet screen motioned for him to do the same. This was the moment. If the Orta used infrared detectors, would the wooden hull shield them?
She heard a clang, as of a metal hatch opening, and then the port hull in which she lay lifted as the trimaran heeled over toward starboard. The Orta, much heavier than any Kwakitl, especially in their environmental suits, were boarding.
Why are you alone? That is not normal.
More thumps as the ponderous Orta moved about the cockpit. Or was it more than one?
It is normal. I am young. This is my test, and I must pass alone to become a full member of my village.
Was that nervousness in Ca-Tren’s voice? The translator conveyed only words, not emotions, and Anna was not expert enough to know. Jaci could probably tell, though.
Where are your fish? Don’t Kwakitl go to sea to fish?
I am not fishing. I told you. I am proving my right to be an adult. I have already proven I know how to fish. Now I must prove I can sail alone across the sea and back. Net-fishing requires a crew, and I am alone. I am proving here that I can navigate by the sun and stars beyond sight of land.
The thumping stopped, and for a moment there was silence. Then the Orta translator crackled its electronic squawk again.
That is admirable. Do all Kwakitl do this? Your people were not like this when last we were here, long ago. What if you lose your way? What if the clouds remain for days, like today?
Then I shall not have the chance to become an adult for my village. That is obvious. Are all Orta as simple as you? If so, how did you find your way here from so far, for surely you have come from much farther away than I will ever travel in my small boat.
Anna suppressed her chuckle at Ca-Tren’s snarky reply. If she wasn’t careful, though, the Kwakitl youth would anger her Orta interrogator, and that would likely not go well for any of them. Still, Anna could not help but be impressed with their young stowaway’s self-possession in the face of what amounted to a world-altering encounter with a massively overpowering invader.
You are upset. That is understandable. But we must ask our questions. If you answer them, we shall leave you to continue your voyage in peace. Where have you come from?
Tell us where to find Ar-Lasso.
It is five days sail to the <unknown / northwest?>,
We tracked your course. You were not traveling from the northwest.
Anna held her breath. How long had the Orta been tracking them? Had their course reversal been seen?
I was blown off-course by a storm from the southwest. If you were out here, you cannot have missed the storm.
Anna silently nodded her approval, for no one to see. Now it all depended on how early the Orta had detected them.
Very well. So Ar-Lasso is your home?
No. Ar-Lasso was my destination. I am returning home now, to Ar-Danel.
Risky, mentioning that name.
Ar-Danel is known to us. We have just come from there.
Crap! Too risky, perhaps.
So you have not been home to Ar-Danel in the past few days?
Of course not. Perhaps you were not listening, or perhaps you are just bad with numbers. It is a seven day sail from Ar-Danel to Ar-Lasso, and eight days to sail back. I am five days out from Ar-Lasso, and if all goes well, I shall be home in three days, though with the storm it might be four. I hope not, as I am nearly out of food, so I might have to go fishing after all.
You go, girl! Bury them in detail. Anna breathed again, wishing she could see the Orta emissary’s face, confronting this fiery young Kwakitl. Not that she’d be able to read Orta expressions, though.
So you have not been home for twelve days?
Ah, you can count after all. No, I have not been home for fourteen days. I spent two days on Ar-Lasso. What is this all about? Why are you stopping me? Why are you here?
If you answer truthfully, we shall not stop you for much longer. Have you seen any other boats at sea during your voyage? Especially boats that may have been coming from Ar-Danel?
No, I have seen no one else out here. You said you have come from Ar-Danel? Why? What were you doing there? My family are there.
Let it go, Anna breathed to herself. Let it go. Don’t push it.
We are looking for other visitors, not Kwakitl. We have reason to believe they were at Ar-Danel, and reason to believe they have left there. We…
Was that doubt in an Orta translator’s voice?
We are sorry. There was a misunderstanding upon our arrival at Ar-Danel. Tragic misunderstanding. We shall leave you in peace now.
A tragic misunderstanding? So the Orta were sorry about what happened? In the darkness of the hold, Anna could just about see, or imagine, Jaci looking at her meaningfully, though really it was too dark to read his expression.
We have just one more question.
One more? Ok, they were almost through this.
How did you know we are Orta?
… to be continued.
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