When Lakshmi returned, she found Finn and Leah working on two of the tablets while the rest of them laid in the sun. Leah had taken one of the abandoned packs and collected everyone’s personal effects.
“We thought these had departed the path,” she said.
“They’re not really alive or dead,” Leah explained. “They just require the light of the sun for several hours when they stop working.”
Leah picked up one of the tablets and showed the Other how to expose the high-efficiency solar collector. Lakshmi rested a hand on her shoulder for a moment, allowing Leah to feel her gratitude.
“There were many stories we did not find the end of. Now we will know the endings.”
Leah smiled, imagining the large creatures gathered around listening to a children’s audio book. “What stories were your favorites?”
“Mahatma Gandhi is very popular among my sisters. I have followed the American Civil War with great interest.”
“You’re reading the history of our home,” Finn said.
“Yes, it is a fascinating story. Charlene Victoria Cooper and Yuri Stepanovich Bogdanov made us promise to learn these stories carefully. This is why Eldest has kept us from joining our path to the sky-people’s path.”
“You learned to read as well?” Leah asked. “That’s very impressive.”
“No, I do not understand the verb ‘to read.’ These are the strange markings? How do they speak to you?”
“Through our eyes,” Finn said after thinking. “Each symbol makes a sound. Together, those sounds create words. How do you pass memories along?”
“We pass through stages from newly born to a fully Become person. As one Becomes, they begin to hear the voices of those that have traveled the path before. As we grow older, we hear the voices more clearly. There are some who the ancestors speak to more than others, each of us are different.”
“We are similar, but we read the words instead.”
“And how do these symbols come to be?” Lakshmi asked.
“We write them down,” Finn said. “Like this.”
He took out his sketch pad, wrote a sentence and then handed it to Leah.
“Hello, I wish you peace.” Leah read.
Lakshmi looked at each of them for a long while.
“This is how knowledge is shared.”
“That’s one way,” Finn said. “We also share knowledge through speech.”
“This seems very inefficient,” Lakshmi said. “What if one’s words are lost?”
“It happens. How is knowledge shared among your people?” Leah asked.
Lakshmi reached out and put her hands on their legs. (Like this) a voice said in their heads. Leah and Finn both had a brief glimpse of towering waterfalls on the edge of the forest.
Leah gasped and grabbed Finn’s hand. Lakshmi took her hands away and they were suddenly back.
“That’s…wow,” Finn said. “I can see why no one bothered to invent writing here.”
“And what if a person does not write down their knowledge before they leave the path?”
“That happens sometimes, or their writings can be lost,” Finn said. “In our past, knowledge was often lost.”
“May I see your leaves of knowledge?” Lakshmi asked.
Finn handed her the sketch pad. “We call them books.”
She carefully looked through the book and stopped when she came to a sketch of a sailboat. “What is this?”
“A kind of vehicle that floats on top of the water. Wind pushes against this part and makes it move.”
“Sky-people and the wet. Madness. These are not word symbols, more like the devices.”
Finn nodded. “Those are pictures.”
“Who makes them?”
“I did,” Finn said.
Lakshmi looked at him, then at Leah. “This is truth.”
“Yes,” Leah said. “I can prove it, keep going.”
Lakshmi kept turning the pages, barely touching them. Then she came to Finn’s sketch from the previous night. She stiffened and the quills along her back ruffled themselves. A peppery smell grew around them. Leah rubbed her nose and Finn cleared his throat.
“What’s that smell?” she asked.
“That is my surprise,” Lakshmi said. “Sky-people use only words they can hear. We are able to speak in several ways. How did you create this picture, Finn Morgan?”
“With my eyes and hands,” he said. “Would you like me to show you?”
Lakshmi handed him the sketch pad. Finn wasn’t sure if he should sketch Lakshmi again, he couldn’t tell if she was offended that he’d captured her image or not. So he looked at Leah and began to sketch her from the shoulders up. Lakshmi moved behind him and her head bobbed over his shoulder as she watched Leah’s image take shape.
“This is quite remarkable,” Lakshmi finally said. “Is this how the images within the tablet device come to be?”
“Those are made using another kind of machine,” Finn said, roughly shading in the picture. “Images made this way are usually done for pleasure, to share with others.”
“I want to see,” Leah said.
Finn finished the sketch and held it up for Lakshmi. She held the sketch in front of her as she circled Leah, examining both.
“I want to see it,” Leah repeated.
Lakshmi looked at Finn. “You have added your emotion to her likeness.”
“People who make these pictures often do.”
“Your affection for Leah Jones is quite evident here.”
That was the last straw for Leah. She bounced to her feet and pulled Lakshmi’s arms down so that she could see the sketch.
“Finn, that’s really good!”
“All sky-people have this ability?”
Leah shook her head. “We can learn but each person has different talents. Finn is very good at this.”
“I must show this to Eldest,” Lakshmi said. “I have never heard even a whisper of such a thing.”
“Here,” Finn said. He took the book and tore out the page with Lakshmi’s picture.
“I will treasure this for as long as I walk the path,” she said, taking it carefully.
“It’s kind of rough, I can do a better one.”
“I like this one best.”
“And I want the one of me!”
The next morning, one of Lakshmi’s sisters arrived and introduced herself as Haali. Her short fur was a lighter blue than Lakshmi’s and she was a bit smaller. The humans caught bits and pieces of their conversation but most of their speech was too highly pitched for Finn and Leah to hear. After a few minutes, Lakshmi lifted Finn to her back and Haali picked up Leah. Their oversized arms folded over the humans, holding them snugly against the Other’s backs. Both of them took flying leaps to a branch adjacent to the platform, much further than anything Lakshmi had done yesterday. As the natives ran down the branch, feet thudding, Finn didn’t hear any screaming and wondered how Leah was taking it.
“Haali is one of our…doctors? She helps the injured heal,” Lakshmi said as she slowed. “She will help Leah Jones sleep.”
Finn glanced over as Haali caught up. Leah’s eyes were closed and she did look a lot more relaxed than she had yesterday.
“She’ll keep Leah asleep all day?”
“Only for a little while. We are near the Inner Courses.”
Lakshmi laughed in his mind. (Do all sky-people ask as many questions? You will soon see)
She leapt off the branch and ran down the main trunk of the tree. The view over her shoulder was unsettling, even for him, and Finn closed his eyes. There was more amusement in response. She leapt twice more and stopped. He opened his eyes and saw the Inner Courses for the first time. Lakshmi lifted him off her back and set him gently on his feet.
At first he thought one of the giant trees had fallen over but a glance over the edge showed him that they were still well above the ground. The smooth surface was tens of meters wide and curved slightly upwards toward the edges. The strange road wound its way through the trees, rising, falling, and twisting in gentle curves as far as he could see.
A breeze flowed past Finn and above, he could see it pushing and twisting the eternal mist through beams of sunlight. The Course was brighter than the surrounding forest but was still mostly shaded by a monumental branches that took advantage of the open gap.
Haali thumped down behind them and Finn turned to see Leah being set down as well. She yawned and rubbed her eyes.
“I can’t believe I fell asl…oh wow.”
“This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Finn said to Lakshmi. “This is a tree?”
“You might think of it as more of a vine,” Haani said. “But the hoom courses through it in the same way as the errsha. It was created in the time before and carried the A’nek from Meeting to Meeting.”
“Oh…wow,” Leah repeated, looking around.
“Okay, now are you glad you’re a Scout?”
She looked at him, her eyes bright with wonder. “It’s…I can’t…oh my god, yes!”
As the humans looked around in wonder, Haani and Lakshmi jogged to a nearby platform that extended from the side of the Course. Both of them removed their harnesses and wrappings and put them in another one of the domes. When they returned, Finn saw that they were wearing matching wrappings of a different, deep green cloth. The rough harnesses had been traded for belts that looked like they were made of silver.
“Now that we will not shame our clan with grubby laathin, we will go Water’s Leap,” Lakshmi said.
Both of the humans were put on the A’nek’s backs, though they hardly noticed as they looked around.
“I fear for their minds when we come to a Meeting,” Hanni said.
Finn smelled Lakshmi’s laughter. “They are stronger than they appear.”
“That would not be difficult.”
They started to jog and built up speed until both were running down the Course.
The humans stared again, this time stunned into silence. They stood high in an errsha, looking at the head of an enormous canyon that dwarfed even the immense forest that abruptly ended at its long curved edge. Throughout the seasons, waters draining from the eastern third of the super-continent leapt over the edge and landed hundreds of meters below. Now, during the wet season, the mighty river overflowed, expanding the mighty falls. Smaller waterfalls had appeared along the entire rim of the canyon, adding to the clouds of mist that boiled up from the canyon’s floor. The strong sunlight created vivid rainbows across the entire chasm.
Further down, a constantly shifting maze of channels was etched into the gravel between thickly wooded islands. From here, the torrent would begin another long trek, winding across the lowlands on the journey to the sea. Above the canyon, low domes and wide platforms had been woven and bound into the middle branches of the errsha trees. Without a sense of scale, Finn could have mistaken them for fantastical birds nests. But as they began to move closer, the intricacy of the constructions became visible, along with individual A’nek. Some of the “nests” were hundreds of meters across.
In the largest dome on the highest of the platforms, an A’nek crouched just inside the wide arch of the entryway, watching the mists and rainbows dance far below. Behind her there was a scuff of feet and the odor of a young one. Her nervous respect was evident in bright, coppery tones.
(Eldest, they have come) the recently Become sister said nervously.
Eldest gracefully rolled to her feet and stretched. (Our paths meet at last. Lend me your impressions, sister)
The younger one felt a little panicky. (They are adorable as a baby othrephis!) she blurted.
Eldest was amused and gestured for the young one to continue.
The smaller A’nek composed herself. (But I think they are more advanced than our othrephis. Their coverings are complex than even our own. But I only saw them for a breath before I was sent to you. I apologize, Great Mother)
Eldest adjusted the folds of the scarlet laathin wrapped around her upper body. (Don’t be silly, those are perfectly acceptable observations in a brief look. We must remember, no matter what their pleasing appearance is, the sky-people are nothing like our othrephis. To believe otherwise would be unwise)
Eldest stopped beside the youngling and leaned against her briefly, pulsing pleased approval. (I am glad the hoom sent you to Become here. Your analysis, no matter how quick, holds an interesting problem. Commune with the ancestors before sleep. When you wake tomorrow, come and tell me what you have learned)
There was a rush of pleased embarrassment in return and Eldest swung herself down the worn passage to the large dome below. Her interesting problems stood inside, beside the young Runner that Eldest had been pondering over all morning.
When the Runner saw Eldest, she bowed low and offered her small front arms in respectful submission. Beside her, both sky-people bent their heads slightly. Eldest guessed it was a similar gesture but the chants of the ancients in the back of her mind cautioned her against guessing. They were standing still, very different from the clan’s othrephis. Those were well past breeding age before they were able to sit still for more than a few breaths.
(The resemblance to our small ones isn’t as strong when seen from so close) Eldest said. (Please, stand up, my most excellent daughter. Your path is unexpected but you journey with strength and grace. You are able to speak with them?)
(I am, Great Mother, even with an imperfect grasp of their tongue. They are also capable of communicating through touch-talk, though their voices are quite loud)
Eldest gestured toward one of the woven frames near the edge of the Meeting. (I have not had the time to properly learn their tongue. Your sister Thalia will be here soon to instruct me. It is remarkable they can communicate through touch. I do not believe I’ve ever heard of an othrephis with that gift)
Lakshmi guided Finn and Leah to a low, wide bench made of woven grasses. They climbed onto the seats as Lakshmi and Eldest gracefully sat, their legs folded beneath them. Lakshmi held out one of her front arms to the sky-people and Eldest was interested that they both took her hand without hesitation.
Finn and Leah had gotten used to the feeling of Lakshmi in their heads and weren’t too surprised when another presence joined her. She spoke and Lakshmi spoke at the same time, translating her words.
(Welcome to Water’s Leap. I am known as Eldest and I have heard the song of your coming. You are protected here, feel safe as we speak. Daughter, I sense a sorrow in you)
(Great Mother, I departed my given path. I regret this thing and ask you to judge me…)
A strong wave of amused approval washed over Finn and Leah. They glanced at each other, trying not to laugh out loud in sympathetic amusement.
(On every path, no shame can come from rescuing others!) Eldest said. (Our path together is often wider than even I realize. Remove the sorrow from your mind, I hope that I would have the courage to do the same. Now, I would learn of your journey to this moment)
Lakshmi and Eldest intertwined the fingers of their free hands. Neither of the humans could hear them any longer so they both sat very still. Finn raised his eyebrows and Leah shrugged slightly.
(You are a most excellent and skilled daughter) Eldest finally said. (But what is this about abandoning their own Meeting?)
(They call it an ‘outpost.’ They have explained that their Path forbids living in places that others inhabit. I do not comprehend this. They say the story of their ancestor’s path provides the explanation)
Eldest considered that. (They must always live in empty places? They must get terribly lonely)
Finn and Leah felt Eldest shift her attention to them. (What are your people called?)
“We’re called humans, ma’am,” Finn said.
(We are the A’nek. Here our paths have come together and we will sit and consider the way forward. The story of your path here has fascinated me, though I don’t understand much of it. I will ask the sisters with the best memory to search for the reason you must flee, I do not recall it myself)
(Eldest, they have returned the devices of Yuri Stepanovich Bogdanov to life. They have showed me the way that they are fed so that they may live longer)
(Humans, was the Yuri Stepanovich Bogdanov permitted to gift us these things?) Eldest asked.
“I don’t know what rule would be,” Leah said. “But he was a friend and I trust his wisdom in giving those gifts.”
(Well said, Leah Jones. You are anxious that you have said this thing, that Finnegan Morgan should speak?)
“I just joined the Fleet Scouts,” Leah said, blushing. “He is senior and should have answered…”
(Yes, I can see parts of your own story. What would you say, Finnegan Morgan?)
He chuckled, surprising Leah. “We are both way past any training we were given. So, her answer valid as any other. But I do agree with her.”
(You see? Put your mind at peace, Leah Jones) Eldest said. (I would like to discuss our path more but soon we must attend to other matters, and then there is sleep. You are my guests, equal to any sister here. Runner, all of you will stay in my space tonight. Other than your necessaries, you will stay with the humans. Find comfort and we will speak more on this after we wake)
Without another word, Eldest rose and disappeared through the same arch she’d come from.
“She feels exactly like Lady Tulani,” Leah said, smiling at the abrupt departure.
Lakshmi asked them both for permission again before lifting them to her back. She strode through the entry arch and Finn wrapped his arms around Leah. Lakshmi sprang off the platform, over to a simple wooden ramp that led to a smaller dome.
Leah patted Finn’s arm in thanks before Lakshmi lifted them each off.
“Why are you embarrassed?” Finn asked her.
“In the errsha, I move or rest on my own feeling. It is different here, Eldest leads the Meeting. I must go now but I will return. Try to stay out of trouble.”
“We’ll see you soon,” Leah said.
Lakshmi considered her for a moment and sprang back to the ramp without a word. She jogged downward, heading for some place out of view.
“Why did you say she was embarrassed?” Leah asked.
“Didn’t you feel it? Let’s go see where we’ll be staying.”
It was exactly like the ones they had stayed in before, except the walls of the dome met the platform. Inside, instead of a mat of moss, there a wooden frame with something stretched tightly across it. They pressed on it and it was comfortably springy.
“Feels like a trampoline,” Leah said. “Oh, there’s some of those towel things. We can bathe if it storms tonight.”
“It would be nice to rinse this sweat off.”
“And I might have a surprise for you.”
His eyebrows went up. “Uhm, what?”
Leah rolled her eyes and pulled a small bottle out of her pocket. “Pervert. One of the packs had a bottle of Doc Bronner soap.”
“I deeply apologize for my insensitive remark then. I’m getting tired of smelling myself.”
Leah grinned at him. “How do you think I feel? If you are very, very nice to me, I might give you something else.”
Finn rolled his eyes. “I’m not falling for it again.”
“Damn. It’s a surprise anyway.”
Eldest headed toward one of the large domes, the Meeting of her personal clan. She preferred the noise and companionship there but didn’t visit often. Her clan sisters were formal and very careful around their “Great Mother” and she remembered the play and laughter of her early years. It wouldn’t be fair to take that away just because she was lonely. With that in mind, she changed direction and entered through one of the smaller arches. One of her oldest friends was there in her chamber, grooming herself.
(Eldest! Your company is a rare pleasure)
(Thank you. I gave the Runner’s new friends my place to sleep tonight. Is there some space I can take here?)
(In your own Meeting? I’m certain we can find you a bit of floor. But come sit with me)
Eldest settled herself next to the other Watcher. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the rare quiet moment until the other put a companionable arm around her. The amusement and worry of her sister was obvious.
(Don’t even say it) Eldest grumbled.
There was a silver wave of laughter in return. (Out of all of us to join the paths together….)
(It just had to be a Runner, I know. Was their pride not yet insufferable enough to please the hoom?)
There was the smell and feel of shared amusement.
(Is she strong enough?)
Eldest pondered the question. She’d been pondering it since she’d received word from the hoom yesterday. (Thankfully, she has that strange mix of arrogance, wisdom, and luck that marks the rest of her clan. She will find the path, I think. Of course, it remains to be seen where that will lead us)
The daughter gave off a scent of obedient assent but, like always, didn’t really mean it. (The hoom has sent echoes of the Way ahead. I fear there will soon be darkness)
(You know as well as I that darkness lays before us on our present path as well. It has waited there since the Screaming came)
There was a melancholy feeling now. (If only we could have found another path)
Eldest ran a gentle hand over the quills on her sister’s back. (We cannot have what the hoom will not provide. Perhaps)
There was shocked amusement in return. (Perhaps? Yes, it is best you are not with the younglings. You’d shock them beyond their senses)
Eldest gave back happy determination. (It would be good for them. But not yet. One last order before the night comes, and this will stay between us two; send more Runners to the Screaming Waster. Enough to surround the sky-people with their watchful eyes. Send enough to bring news every day)
There was honest surprise now. (Directly, not through the hoom?)
(Directly. The hoom has been oddly silent about the sky-people. The songs of the ancients have nothing for me. If neither will guide us to the path ahead, perhaps others will provide the way.)
(A youngling Runner and some oddly shaped folk who fell out of the sky)
Eldest was silent for a time. (I have seen nothing of the way forward but the A’nek have declined since the loss of the othrephis. We both know that there are not enough A’nek left to face a difficult path. Not alone. Perhaps we have found traveling companions)
There was an odd mix of joy and defiance. (Then we shall find our places in the Song for ourselves!)
Eldest laughed. (Now who is the one shocking the younglings from their senses?)
“What do you think they eat?” Leah asked.
Finn shrugged. “Whatever it is, they must eat a lot if they’re only doing it once a day.”
Leah shook her head. “They’re really uptight.”
He chuckled. “They’ll probably surprise us at some point.”
She turned and put a hand on his arm. “Finn, I have to admit something really awful. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to deal with it.”
His eyebrows went up. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m really, really hungry. I…I think I’m going to have to open a OneDay.”
“That’s disgusting. Keep that kind of thing to yourself in the future.”
She laughed and pulled one of the dreaded ration bars out. “Want half? It’s a new flavor.”
He sighed. “Just when you thought it was safe to open your mouth…. What’s it supposed to taste like?”
She read the wrapper. “Not a clue, this flavor is called Magnificent Hope.
“Not a hint? That’s ominous. Are there any edible ones anymore?”
“Actually, there was one called Grandmother’s Oatmeal Cookie that wasn’t totally disgusting. We didn’t get any in our resupply though.”
“Did it taste like grandmother’s oatmeal cookies?”
“Maybe. If your grandmother couldn’t cook.”
Finn shrugged. “That might not be too bad.”
“And grandfather had emotionally abused her for decades and she had decided to take it out on her innocent grandchildren.” Leah continued. “But they didn’t make you gag.”
Finn laughed and she opened the ration bar and gave it a sniff. “Maybe it’s like stinky cheese. You can have the big half though.”
Finn took his half and smelled it as well. It was an unpleasant mixture of soy sauce, spoiled protein shake, and something hauntingly familiar, but still unpleasant.
“Okay, on three,” Leah said, water bottle in her other hand.
Finn nodded and they both put the ration in their mouths. There were simultaneous noises of disgust as they chewed. Both of them quickly swallowed and drained their water bottles.
“I knew I remembered that smell,” Finn said. “Rutabaga.”
“What is that?”
“Kind of like a turnip but worse.”
Leah shook her head and looked at the wrapper again. “Should have called it Desperate Hope. As in the desperate hope that you can find something else to eat.”
“At least there’s no carob in it. Don’t they taste these things before they distribute them?”
“Maybe the chef is a misanthrope.”
Finn laughed and Leah smiled at him.
“You look totally different when you laugh.”
She shrugged. “I dunno, younger maybe. Smiling looks good on you.”
Finn looked away, embarrassed and it was Leah’s turn to laugh.
“You’re okay, Finnegan Morgan. I had my doubts about you at first but you’re shaping up to be a decent partner. I think I’m going to let you live.”
“Thanks. Have you killed partners before?”
She sat down on the deck and patted the space beside her. Finn sat down and put their water bottles out of the way.
“Joking aside, I’ve been paired twice before. I asked for reassignment after two hours with Dennis, the first one. They tried a woman after that, Carol. We made it almost a week before we both requested reassignment.”
“Do you snore or something?”
“No, but you do. There was the same fundamental problem with both of them. They were recruited, neither had anything to do with the Project before Announcement Day.”
“I’m surprised they paired you with me,” Finn said. “I was only at Echo for about a week before Lady Tulani pulled back the curtain.”
Leah smiled at him again. “I know, you gave a couple of open lectures on combat resupply. I was at the second one.”
He shook his head. “Can’t believe those were standing room only.”
“Early education at Arclight and Echo both had two basic lessons; never waste time, and never pass on a chance to learn something new. Oh, and always double tap to make sure they’re really down.”
Finn’s eyebrows went up again and she laughed.
“I’m kidding. We didn’t learn that until we were in middle school.”
“I’m never sure when you’re serious.”
“And you’re always serious. We’ll do well together.”
“Those two, they were serial layabouts or willfully ignorant? Both?”
She looked away from him, out over the falls. “No. It was the stupid sex thing. Dennis made it pretty clear that he considered me a fuck toy. Carol was a little better, she’d never heard of Echo before. When we started working together, she heard enough to turn her into a judgmental bitch real quick.”
“I have to admit the open affection was kind of startling at first,” Finn said. “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal though.”
She looked at him again. “Really? Did you meet someone who explained it?”
He chuckled, trying to ignore the sudden gnawing in the pit of his stomach. “I was six weeks into my third tour of Yemen when I got an expedited transfer to Colorado Springs. Really expedited. I got out of the cockpit, got orders, and forty-eight hours later I was landing at Echo. When I got off the plane, my priorities included food, alcohol, and sleep. In that order. Getting laid didn’t even make the list.”
“It really didn’t bother you though? Some of the transfers took a while to get used to it.”
Finn shrugged. “It’s not like people were screwing in the main tunnels. What’s the big deal? Y’all grew up in some pretty different circumstances, why should you act like you didn’t?”
Leah’s face lit up and she leaned over to bump shoulders with him. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now, don’t freak out but I’m going to tell you about my lord and savior. His name is hammock and he will show you the way.”
They both started laughing as fat rain drops began to fall.
Finn had figured that they’d shower in turns or on opposite sides of the dome, or whatever. Not that Leah would be asking him to wash her back after she stripped down right in front of him. Maybe she was testing him, but it was more likely that she just didn’t think about it. They’d all been like that. So he stripped down as well. It had been a long time since he’d been with anyone and his body started having the very predictable response to her naked body. Finn closed his eyes and thought about the meal they’d just shared, dirt, logistics, anything that wasn’t her muscular back. He handed her the soap and quickly turned away.
“Let me get yours,” Leah said from behind him.
She didn’t give him a chance to refuse, scrubbing his back with a rag she’d produced from somewhere. When she’d finished, he took the soap and scrubbed himself thoroughly. Whatever the stuff was, it had a sharp odor and tingled to the point of burning. Thankfully that was enough to occupy the more licentious portions of his brain.
He turned and saw that Leah was scrubbing her pants. He did the same and they joked back and forth as they worked. It began to feel more like being in a locker room than anything sexual and he was grateful for that.
“Are you ready for your surprise?” she asked as she draped her pants over a branch.
“I think I’ve had enough surprises for a while.”
She laughed and grabbed his pants to hang beside hers. Finn took two of the chamois cloth pieces and tossed her one of them.
“Hopefully you aren’t weirded out by this,” she said as they dried off. “And you can swallow whatever smart ass remark you’re about to make.”
“Oh. Okay, but it was a good one. What’s this big surprise?”
She went over to the stack of tablets and personal effects they had brought with them. Unfolding one of the leaf wrapped bundles, she pulled out a few plastic wrapped packages and tossed him one. It was a t-shirt, sealed in a bag.
“I didn’t know how well the A’nek had cleaned everything but they had some original issue. It’s not like I actually robbed their graves, right?”
Finn sighed happily, pulling out the shirt and smelling it. “I wouldn’t care if you pulled it from their rotting fingers. Thank you.”
Leah pointed to the little pile. “There’s underwear here too. And socks.”
“I shall now worship the ground you walk on.”
“It doesn’t seem like I’ve been walking on much ground lately. You can give me a foot rub though.”
When Lakshmi returned, they were sitting on the trampoline listening to music from one of the tablets. Finn had one of Leah’s feet in his hands and she was moaning happily as he kneaded it. Lakshmi took one of the towels and quickly began removing the water from her fur.
“I dislike the time of wet,” Lakshmi said. “Have I interrupted a mating ritual?”
“Hello, beautiful. No, this is way better than sex. Finn has a genius for foot rubs.”
She joined climbed up beside them. “Your pardon. I was curious because this is the music in your story.”
“What story is that?” Leah asked.
“With Leah Jones and Yuri Stepanovich Bogdanov. There were the two of you, then several instances of a third person, and one with many humans.”
Leah didn’t look happy. “Really. And this was this on Bogdanov’s tablet?”
“This is correct.”
She pulled her foot out of Finn’s hands and picked up the tablet. She flipped through it until she found the video directory.
“Mercy’s flaming ass, he recorded us every time we were together!”
Leah got up and began unwrapping the other tablets. “That asshole!”
“You don’t think he….”
She started another tablet and flipped through it. She swore again and tossed the tablet on the bed before grabbing another one.
“Leah Jones, that story is present on all of the machines.”
Leah’s shoulder’s slumped. She dropped the one she was unwrapping and headed toward the door. Finn jumped up as she started to leave and then there was a blinding flash immediately followed by a deafening detonation of thunder. Leah was startled badly, slipped on the wet flood and fell backward onto her behind.
“Fuuuck!” she screamed.
Lakshmi’s surprise was obvious as Finn knelt beside Leah.
“You’re pissed, and you should be. But you can’t go out there right now,” he said quietly. “Even without the lightning it’s too slippery, okay?”
She nodded her head and began to cry. Finn helped her up and led her back to the trampoline. Leah sat on the edge, shoulders shaking as she silently wept. Finn went through the tablets, figuring out which files to delete.
“You have gifted those stories to the A’nek,” Lakshmi said.
Finn shook his head. “No, these are outside of the gift.”
“I disagree,” Lakshmi said loudly.
Finn was suddenly aware that she was much bigger than he was. It wouldn’t be any effort for her to take the tablets away, or even throw him off the platform. He ignored her and kept working. Lakshmi watched him but did not interfere.
“Finn, it doesn’t matter. It’s probably all over the outpost,” Leah sniffed.
“Then I’ll delete them there as well,” Finn said, his voice grim.
“I do not understand this behavior.”
Finn finished with the next tablet and put it beside the others. “Yuri Stepanovich Bogdanov did a bad thing by recording these stories without Leah’s knowledge. Giving the stories to others was cruel and has hurt Leah deeply. Punish me if you like, but those stories are gone now.”
“Is this true, Leah Jones?”
She simply nodded and Lakshmi put one of her hands on Leah’s back.
“I feel your sadness. You must know we have shared the memory of that story among ourselves. We cannot remove it as easily.”
“That’s fine,” Leah said. “I don’t think you’ll be mean about it.”
“We thought you were quite beautiful.”
Leah hiccupped, half laugh, half sob. “Thank you.”
“The other stories with mating humans, are they cruel as well?”
Leah looked at Finn and he shook his head. “Everything else looks pro.”
“The humans in those other stories knew they were recorded. It was their profession,” Leah explained. “I am very sad because I thought Yuri was a friend. What he did shows that he did not think of me like a friend.”
“I understand this and mourn with you. Finnegan Morgan is your friend. I made him fear but he refused to stop.”
“Yes he is,” Leah said.
She held out an arm and Finn sat down beside her. Leah turned and hugged him.
“I’m sorry,” she said into his shoulder. “That was a little dramatic. Thanks for keeping me inside.”
“Thanks for listening and don’t worry about it. This is meltdown worthy.”
She kissed Finn’s cheek and let go of him. “He was such an arrogant ass, he probably traded it all over.”
Finn shrugged. “If you think so, change your hair or something like that. It’s not like there were name tags.”
She nodded after thinking about it. “Might work.”
“Are stories of copulating humans generally forbidden?” Lakshmi asked.
Leah smiled and turned to her. “They fit in a special category. Ones that include friends are more special than that. It would be like a friend recording you while you…consumed.”
An unfamiliar smell filled the air. “This, I understand. We are correct in assuming not all copulation…”
“You can just say sex,” Leah interrupted.
“…not all sex is for reproductive purposes?”
“No, it’s a way to bond with partners, to show affection, sometimes just for fun.”
Lakshmi nodded her head. Finn blinked, he’d never seen her do that before.
“A’nek and Humans are alike in that regard then. It will be dark soon and I must sleep.”
“Are you able to stay awake after dark?” Finn asked.
“No. There are competitions while we are Becoming, to see who can remain awake. No one ever wins. It is a special skill that must be learned. Very few A’nek can do this thing. For humans?”
“We can, but it’s not easy,” Leah said. “I’m tired too. Finn?”
“Let me cover these up first.”
Finn loosely wrapped the tablets and put them back on the floor. By the time he got on the trampoline, Lakshmi was already asleep.
“I want you to sleep by me,” Leah whispered.
Finn laid down and Leah spooned against him.
“Thanks for being awesome.”
“I got your back,” he whispered back.
“Sleep, noisy humans,” Lakshmi grumbled.
Finn’s eyes snapped open as he gasped for breath. He looked around wildly, slowly remembering where he was. His heart was thudding hard in his chest, his arms and legs were trembling. He hadn’t had the dream the last few days, the strangeness all around him must have kept it away. But it had come back with a vengeance.
Leak and Lakshmi were still asleep, so he probably hadn’t been yelling. Good thing, he really didn’t want to try to explain flashbacks to an alien civilization. He laid back down, staring at the ceiling overhead. If he went back to sleep too soon, it would be waiting for him. After a few minutes he sat up and looked outside. A heavy fog had risen, making it impossible to see beyond the edge of the platform outside. Even the steady roar of the falls sounded muffled. Finn went out and settled into a lotus position and closed his eyes. He began to concentrate on his breathing, willing his heart to stop pounding.
When he opened his eyes again Finn could hear movement inside the dome. The light was brighter and a breeze was starting to push and pull at the blanket of fog.
“Are you awake now, Finnegan Morgan?” a voice asked from above him.
On top of the dome, there was an A’nek he didn’t think he’d seen before.
“I’m awake. Good morning.”
“May your path bring joy. I am human-named Thalia. I am the one who found the sick people.”
Finn nodded his head, almost a bow. “I’m grateful that you helped them.”
“Better if we had been able to bring them to health but the path knows its own ending best. They were comforted as best we could and departed among friends.”
“I can’t think of a better way to depart.”
“That is good. Eldest has decided that I am most comfortable with your language and customs. When you are both ready, we will go to her.”
Three days later, Lakshmi lifted Finn off her back, at the edge of the open area the A’nek called the Screaming Wastes.
“This is very far from your Meeting and I am uneasy,” Lakshmi said. “I will take you further if necessary.”
Finn touched her arm in thanks. “You won’t have to.”
He picked up the beacon they’d left at the edge of the trees and adjusted it before setting it on the edge of the root mass. Hanni and Leah appeared on a branch above them.
“Don’t look directly at this clear part,” he warned before switching it on.
There was a soft chime and a powerful strobe flashed. Lakshmi and Hanni both made sneezing noises and rubbed their eyes.
“What did he just say? Are you okay?” Leah said.
“I do not care for this technology,” Hanni declared. “What foolishness now?”
Finn found a relatively flat place and sat down. “It flashes that light every fifteen seconds and sends a signal that will tell the other people that we are here.”
Finn knew that Lakshmi wasn’t happy about being this low, or on the edge of the Screaming but she sat down beside him. “I want to know more about the base of the ball. Things are unclear.”
He chuckled. “Just baseball. What part is unclear?”
“The Earned Run Average.”
“Understandable. Okay, this is one of those human ideas that uses confusing words. Remember, we have the pitcher in the middle of the field…”
A while later Finn heard the ATV’s engine and he stood up.
“They’ll be here in a few minutes.”
She gracefully rose to her feet next to him. “We will climb higher. They will not see us.”
There was a large lump in Finn’s throat. He simply nodded rather than try to speak. Lakshmi watched him with large black eyes before putting her arms around him.
“Humans and A’nek are in agreement. This will be the best path forward.”
“Yes,” Finn said, hugging her back. “But I’m going to miss you.”
“We will see each other again but I will feel your absence as well. Wisdom and grace, Finnegan Morgan.”
“Run swiftly, Daughter of the Errsha.”
There was a pulse of affection mixed with sadness in return. Then Lakshmi leapt up the massive trunk beside them, and pushed off of it in the opposite direction, leaping into the lowest of the branches. Hanni left Leah at the base of the tree and followed moments later. Both were immediately lost to sight but Finn could feel them watching. A minute later, the ATV arrived and Leah and Finn climbed down to meet it.
“Do you really not have anything better to do?” Finn called when he saw Tyohac driving.
“Took you two long enough. Where’s your gear?”
“We traded it for an important lesson about the local wildlife,” Leah said as she got in. “What did we miss?”
“Kid, the defecation has well and truly impacted the rotational cooling device.”
Despite the joke, Finn recognized the tone in Tyohac’s voice. “How bad?”
“To much shit to even see the fan. Here, use my tablet to talk to your ship. She’s worried.”
Finn took it and connected to Addie as they drove.
“Captain Finn! Is Captain Leah there too?”
“We’re both here. Sorry it took so long but you’ll like the story.”
“I wasn’t worried, you both promised to come back. And I made a new friend. She used to know you!”
“Tell her we’ll be there as soon as we can,” Leah said from the back.
“I heard. Hi Captain Leah! I’m glad you guys are okay and I’ll see you soon.”
“She sounded awfully young,” Leah said after Finn disconnected.
“Yeah, that goddam AI has all the Navvis freaking out,” Tyohac said. “Lykos wants to see you soonest but wants you armed first. Addie’s got enough hardware for you both?”
“Yeah. Tyohac, what the hell is going on?”
“Goddam idiots playing politics like Earth never happened.”