Senses come awake as he taps her on the shoulder and signals to her to be quiet. Visibility is restricted to little more than an arms length in all directions, so she halts and listens. The breeze, cool and fresh, blows in from the sea and the air is full of the sound of the rushes creaking and rubbing against each other. Each gust sends a wave of movement through the thumb-thick stems and she can see nothing except for this densely packed purple-brown sway.
The music of the reeds, is hypnotic, washing over and through them. The sun is still forcing its burning, late afternoon light through the hazy, mote-laden sky. They stand, breathing stilled, searching without moving. Then there is a snort, something new, something close. He pushes at her shoulder and suddenly they are running.
The rushes bend down in front of her and then spring back up, the sticky tongues at their tips dragging at her clothing and slowing her down. She takes his example, bending slightly at the waist and fending the reeds to her sides with her outstretched arms. It is hard going and they are running blind.
Behind them something scythes through the reeds, she can her its snorting expulsion of breath getting closer. She wills more strength into her legs, ignores the battering her arms are getting from the stems, resists turning her head to see. Peering ahead, trying to divine the layout of the land in between the stalks, she spies a shadow and veers to the right to avoid it.
The shadow lunges to grab her. A long pointed snout, sporting a mouth with rows of jagged teeth, brushes her leg but fails to find purchase. She dashes on as the creature gives chase. Acutely aware that they have been separated, she bends her course to the left. The land rises slightly, she feels the ground get less muddy underneath her feet.
A cry pierces the air above the noise of crashing reeds and her laboured breath within the mask. She has no idea whether it signifies pain or triumph, but she heads towards it anyway. The reeds thin and she stumbles into the clearing caused by a rocky outcrop. The change of footing and lack of anything pushing her back makes her lose her footing, causing her to dive over one boulder and come to a rest in a heap on a pile of smaller stones.
She scrambles to turn her body to face her attacker, her hand reaching desperately for the holster. It comes barrelling after her, cresting the boulder and flinging its toothed snout towards her, the long, sinuous body arcing through the air. The jaw closes over the arm she has raised to fend it away from her face and its weight pins her to the ground. It shakes its head, jerking her arm viciously, but unable to penetrate the smart material which has hardened like armour.
A shadow falls over their struggle and a spear jabs at the creature’s flank, barely marking the smooth, tough hide, but pushing it hard enough that she is able to slide partially from under it and get her free hand on the pistol’s grip. She draws and puts a charge point blank into the animal’s belly. It spasms and becomes a dead weight.
He helps her roll the creature onto its side, and she squeezes from beneath it. She stands to inspect her attacker, its nervous system overloaded by the pistol, it is dying from being unable to draw breath. It is about as long as her if she outstretched her arms, the head accounting for a quarter of that. The snout is narrow and sharp-nosed, for cutting through the reed forest, the body is barely any wider. The skin is smooth, a rusty brown striped with purple, and obviously thick enough to repel a spear thrust. Six beady black eyes, two looking forwards on the head and the others spaced evenly around the body, give good all round vision, although she suspects it is short sighted. A single purple spike with no easily discernible use juts upwards behind its head.
“You are not hurt?” He asks her, concerned that he has let her come to harm.
“No, Emtaka, my clothes are very tough.” A quick check reveals that her clothing has done its job, but she feels a little sore. “How about you?” There is a light gash on his leg, a thin trickle of blood leaking down his ebony calf.
“Only a scratch, Shylet.” He falters a little on her name, his language missing the sound of the leading consonant. “Reed runners, difficult to slay with a spear, no match for the weapons of the star people, it seems.”
“What happened to the other one?” She is dismayed that she was forced to kill the beast, always disappointed at any impact she makes, her wish is only to observe. But she has been in tight corners before and has never failed to retaliate when it was necessary.
“I managed to hurt it, they are used to chasing grazers, they retreat if you fight back.” Emtaka is only a young man, but she is impressed by his manner of getting along with his surroundings, of belonging to the landscape in a way she cannot. He applies some salve to his wound to stop spores from taking root in his skin.
She climbs onto the tallest rock of the outcrop, eager to get a good look at their locale, it is the first time she has been higher than the rushes since they entered the delta. The rushes stand all around them, spreading as far as she can see. The tall purple-brown stems are topped by a long, sticky, streamer-like tongue which waves in the wind and traps the airborne motes to supplement the plant’s nutrition.
Above the reeds birds jostle and circle, white wings outstretched to catch the wind as they take their own share of the bounty from the air. A bird twice the size of the others glides by and deftly snaps up a smaller compatriot in its toothed jaw. The sky is heavy with the drifting aerial harvest, although cloudless, the haze takes the edge off the too bright light of the sun. The sun itself is a bright disc in the West, painful to look towards with the naked eye. She is glad of the treatments that stop the harsh radiation from burning away at her skin, envious of the extra protection engineered into his body when the planet was settled.
Looking in their direction of travel, there is a river, larger than the channels they have waded so far, the final obstacle on their journey. Trees fill the centre of the sluggish flow, their branches reaching high above the water supporting huge purple leaves that track the sun’s progress across the sky. Beyond the river more reeds and then finally the sea, its waves glinting in the harsh sunlight.
She uses the magnification on her glasses and she can see huge masses, bobbing in the water, spewing motes and spores up into the atmosphere through massive funnels. This is part of a barely understood life cycle, the motes feed on the sunlight as they drift inland, there they settle on the ground grow as plants and animals and slowly make their way back to the sea. The whole thing seems wasteful to her, but there is an abundance of energy from the sun, far more the ecosystem her ancestors grew up from.
Seeing him retrieve some food from his backpack, she seats herself on the rock and does likewise. She lifts the dust mask; not a necessity, but advisable, many of his people die before their time of respiratory problems from inhaling the spores; and takes an unfiltered sniff of the air. Salts from the sea infuse the aroma of grass and cinnamon the motes impart. She bites into unleavened bread from the small circles of off-world wheat the locals cultivate, and a hard cheese from goats altered to thrive on local vegetation.
“What is it like to fly between the stars, Shylet?” He is bolder in his questions than others of his people, not embarrassed at any holes in his knowledge of things beyond this wondrous sphere.
“Dull, mostly, there is nothing between the stars, there is no landscape to traverse, no rivers to ford, no wildlife to avoid. Its just empty and cold.” Years of empty and cold, following a trail of mostly forgotten suns to reach this haven of life far from the reach of civilisation, just to answer a question.
“Why is it the star people brought my people here?” She has tried to avoid making comment on their myth and legends, brought here and left by a race of gods whose chariots traverse the sky, visiting once every generation or so but never interfering.
“You were not really brought here, your ancestors belong to my people. Back then we were fighting a war against the water people. When we found your home we knew it was a treasure, but we could not stay to defend it. We changed some of our people so that they could live here, so that they would become part of the world and the world would become ours. We did not know that the water people had done the same.” She shivers slightly, not with cold, for the suns heat beats down from the sky, but with the memory of conflict in the unforgiving void, of the impersonal uncertainty of large-scale death.
“Why did you fight? Are there not stars enough for all of you?” Unhurried, the sun drifts towards the horizon and the air begins to attain a yellow tinge.
“I do not know who started it or why it started, or why it continued for so long. I do not know why we never talked, or took the time to learn about each other. All I know it that whenever we met, we fought. Then one day we stopped attacking them and they stopped attacking us and as long as we stay away from each other everything is fine.” All she knows is the aftermath.
His thinks about this for a while in silence, then picks up his knife and begins hacking at the dead reed runner. She watches as he peels back the skin and then carves out chunks of flesh and organs, scooping the hunks into a leather pouch. The meat of the local fauna is mostly inedible to humankind, so she considers this action with a frown, although it could have other uses, she decides it is better that it does not go to waste.
Emboldened by the stillness of the humans small animals make their presence known in furtive rustles and half-seen movements. Farther out there is a motion of the reeds that can not be explained by the wind alone, she puts it down to grazers, stripping some reeds but leaving others standing so that they do not expose themselves. The sun begins to set and the sky’s hue traverses the spectrum from yellow to orange.
Taking note of the sun’s progress, he stretches and replaces the pack on his back. She follows his lead, the pack’s now familiar weight pressing her lightly down into the springy, moist soil. They part the reeds carefully, cautioned by their recent encounter, but nothing troubles them and nothing moves except to scurry away.
The sky is aflame with a burning red glow by the time they reach the river. Repelled by the salt of the tides, the reeds cease and there is a small, muddy foreshore. In the shallows she sees the antennae of the vicious crabs that infest these creeks and make wading across such a hazard, some she has seen have been longer than her arm.
The trees form a woody barrier along the middle of the river, as the silt collects in their roots and threatens to block the channel they migrate slowly upstream to fresher waters, finally crawling ashore in their adult form, mating as a forest and then sending their spawn back down the river to the sea to begin the next generation. She had scoffed when she first heard such tales of the local lifeforms, but now she had witnessed the strange blending of plants and animals she realised why the discoverers of the world had gone to such lengths to make it theirs.
There is a slowly building cacophony of creaking and splashing as the trees, reacting to the change in light fold their leaves and pull their branches back beneath the surface of the river. The crabs shake their antennae at the disturbance, but remain in their little patches of territory. He strips himself to the waist and anticipating the delicious cool of the water against her skin after the long hot day, she does likewise.
Without embarrassment she realises that he is staring at her body. She thinks back to the women in the village, but they displayed a casual lack of modesty, so he must have seen the female form often enough before. Then it dawns on her that it is the spiralling whorls of scar tissue that pattern her coppery skin, something that she could have had repaired away, but kept as a memorial and reminder.
“Shylet, are all the star people so decorated?” He asks, tearing his eyes away and fishing around in his pack for something.
“No, I was hurt fighting against the water people.” She think of the names used for their adversaries, nothing is as simple or neutral as ‘water people’, nothing that acknowledges them as people at all.
He retrieves flotation balloons made from the innards of some beast, inflates them and hands a couple to her, to tie onto her pack.
“Did you come here for revenge?” For the first time he seems unsure about her.
“No, Emtaka. Not revenge, understanding.” He seems happy with this.
Taking out the pouch of meat cut earlier from the reed runner, he begins to cast flesh into the water. Immediately the crabs sense the feast and converge, snapping at each other with their quarter of powerful pincers. Other shapes swim in, eager for their share.
“Come, now, before something big smells a meal.” The water starts to froth over with the excitement of the creatures within, he walks upstream of this and wades into the river.
The cool embrace of the water slides sensually up her legs, quickly coming above her waist. A few more steps and it touches her breasts, the current sliding past her skin like a gentle lover. She pushes the pack before her and swims with a languid motion, taking care to disturb the surface as little as possible, unwilling to attract attention. The rigours of the day wash away and she smiles to herself, suddenly feeling part of this strange ecology, until a splash from behind her reminds her how close she is to the river’s less than friendly denizens.
At the river’s centre she climbs up beside him on the rough, submerged branch of a tree and balances knee-deep in the water. He casts more meat from the pouch, throwing it with a smooth motion into the shallows to excite the crabs. They swim on, taking a course to reach shore a distance upstream of the frenzy. Her foot touches the river bed and she wades carefully ashore until something touches her ankle and she splashes the last few steps in a panic reaction. The fading light of the sun illuminates a rare smile on his face.
The air is losing its heat, they redress in silence against the chill as the sun dips below the horizon. With a sucking, dripping commotion the trees raise their night branches, tall spikes topped with long fronds and a gently glowing bulb. The first moths of the evening emerge from between the tree roots, climb these stems and wait on the drooping fronds, drying their wings and long white tails.
He leads them back into the rushes, her glasses adapt to the near darkness, but she can see no further than before. Around them many small things raise voices in a chirping song, quieting as they approach and then rejoining the chorus as they pass. The clouds of spores above them blot out any stars and lend the night a close, oppressive air.
They burst out onto the beach, a gentle slope of fine, soft sand. He prods the ground before him with his spear, probing for buried creatures in their path. A bonfire of driftwood has already been built on the beach, she suspects after the last full moon, they will rebuild it in the light of the morning. He shakes a large log, disturbing small shapes creatures which scurry away into the night and then sets about lighting it with flint, steel and kindling.
Staring out to east, across the sea, she waits with slight apprehension, watching the moon make its way above the horizon. Out in the water there is movement as one large shape sinks below the waves and is replaced by another, the newcomer extends funnels and blows a fresh cloud of organic matter into the onshore breeze. The fire splutters into life, a low, rosy glow. She sits at the offered place beside him, not needing the warmth, her clothes can provide ample, but glad of this little island of human life. Now and then she glances back out to sea, and at the full moon playing on the water.
“They will come when they come.” He says and she tries to will herself some patience.
The fire climbs higher, motes are highlighted by its light and then sent swirling in the updraught, like an inverse orange snowfall. She relaxes watching the primal beauty of the flames, some ancient part of her brain soothed by the flickering dance of burning wood. Out in the sea a new noise catches her attention and she turns he head towards it.
Trudging from the water are five dark shapes, her glasses instantly blank out the light of the fire and enhance the details. They balance on their long, flat swimming tails and short lower manipulative arms, which makes their progress on land slow and waddling. The long middle arms hold spears, probing at the sand before them and helping with balance. Wide flippers are held out for balance and the short upper arms folded up close to their sizeable jaws. Their backs are armoured, lending them the appearance of a giant isopod or maybe an old Earth armadillo crossed with a turtle. Eight eyes tuned to a variety of different wavelengths top a small, pointed head.
Suddenly she is back aboard the Thomas Stanley's Decision. Her crew lie dead or dying, the counter-agent she has injected chases the viral weapon around inside her own body, spreading agonies as they go. Through the ragged opening of the hull breach advance the suited alien figures of the enemy, the Roaches, torching the bodies of those dead or not quite as they go. She struggles to breathe, her suit’s contamination alarm flashing its warning, and then her lungs open up and she coughs the command to rearm the automatic defences. The intruders start to fall under her retaliation, something grabs her hand.
She looks down at her wrist, he is holding her arm away from her pistol. She slows her rapid breathing and relaxes her tensed muscles.
“Sorry, an old memory I thought I was over.” She tells him. He lets go but keeps a wary eye on her.
The newcomers take their places around the fire, making gestures of welcome with the tiny, baby-like hands of their upper manipulative limbs. They are semi-aquatic, able to breathe both above and below the surface of the water, although ponderous on two limbs they are quick on four and rapid swimmers. Sat down they are less threatening, and if she concentrates on their hands and not on their jaws, somewhat comic.
Trade is quick, the bronze spearheads and tool that have been weighting down their packs are passed over along with foodstuffs and curios from inland, medicines and dried fish are passed back. There is no haggling, no discussion on quality or price, no measuring. Gratitude is expressed with hand gestures, there being no common way of expressing language between the two species. He hands a bone carved with a complex design of lines and inlayed with wood to the nearest of the sea people and in return receives a large fang, tipped with a crystal and carved with a pattern of circles.
“What is that?” Her curiosity is piqued.
“A totem,” he replies, seeming a little embarrassed. “If you love another person, then you can make a totem and trade it with the sea people. If they trade you a totem in return then you can give that to the person and they will return your love. I do not know what the sea people do with the totems we give them.”
“They probably have the same tradition,” she laughs. Their visitors look up at the sound, making a variety of hand signals, but do not seem alarmed.
“Maybe so,” he says, thoughtful. “Shylet, why did you come to our home? There must be many stars to choose from.” She thinks of the myriad of stars visible from the mountains above his home where she had been shown the the buds that grow from the airborne spores and how to harvest the edible parts.
“In all the sky, whenever humans and the sea people meet, they fight, so we stay away from each other. Here is the only place where when we meet, we share a fire. I came here to find out why, Emtaka.” Some people spoke of a renewed push against the Roaches, some of careful avoidance, others lamented the lack of communication, she had kept quiet and gone seeking answers.
“That is easy. I do not know about what lives between the stars, but here everything that is not us tries to hurt us in its own way. We need to trade to survive, we do not need more enemies, why would we fight each other?”
Here was her answer, humanity craving an enemy, lest it turned upon itself, maybe the sea people were the same. As if to illustrate the point, a stray moth lurches overhead, perhaps drawn by the light, human and alien alike duck to avoid the touch of its tail. One of the sea people strikes it with a bold flipper, sending it tumbling into the fire, and then inspects the small wound this touch has caused. The group applaud this action together. She leans back, enjoying the easy, if wordless camaraderie.
“Shylet,” he says eventually. “Would you take me to the stars?” Suddenly she has an uneasy inkling of whom the totem is for.