Chapter one Akara
The autumn waves were always a bit larger and the air had more of a sting to it, more of a sharper chill. The cold season was coming, but there was still a bit of the warm season left, which meant there was still time for some fun. She was treading water, rising with each wave’s crest, then falling with its trough while occasionally looking shoreward to make sure her mother wasn’t waving her in. Her mother would wave once.
At times her mother’s silhouette could be seen through the main window of their little house, moving back and forth as she began her day’s activities. Currently she was out of sight. That meant there was time enough for one last ride, one last surf to the shore before school began, but it had to be the right wave. Today the right wave was every sixth, and number five had just passed. Number six began to form up. It was a big one, perhaps the biggest of the day. As it approached she began swimming and when it hit she jumped with it, stretching her arms forward and stiffening her spine. She rode the wave, feeling its power, its sublime energy as it carried her like a piece of driftwood. She couldn’t fight it, but fighting it wasn’t her intension. There were two rocks, barely visible, that she had to navigate between. If she went to either side she’d be cut up on the coral. Her friend Allon had missed once and when he came out of the water his chest was a bloody mess. He simply smiled as though it were a rite of passage. For boys maybe.
She twisted her torso and began to head for one of the rocks. Her heart pumped as the rock approached, but she held her position. When she got into shallow water the force of the wave intensified. Then its curl engulfed her and she lost sight. When she shook the water from her eyes she saw the rock, and only the rock. She twisted her body hard, contorting her upper torso, and again the curl came over her. For a moment she thought it was consciously trying to grind her into the rock, trying to punish her for her youthful impudence. Then the coarseness of the rock brushed her, pulling at her suit and she feared she’d come out of the water wearing nothing. That would be worse than being dashed.
Finally, she felt the soft sand on her chest, then her stomach, and lastly her feet. She had made it and nothing seemed to be broken. She stood up and checked her swim suit. There were some scuff marks, but nothing too serious. Not enough to make her mother throw a fit. She looked up and saw her mother standing at the front of their home and waving her in. It wasn’t her angry wave.
Once inside, her mother handed her a towel. “I swear you’re half fish,” she said. “Now dry yourself and get ready for school.”
“Did you see me mother? Did you see me ride the wave? That was one of the biggest I’ve ever ridden.”
“Yes, I see you’re getting quite good. Now get ready for school, and I better not hear that you missed your chores.”
There must be some point to the tedium of school. The adults seemed to think the whole affair was utterly indispensable, which made little sense as far as she could tell. Her father was a fisherman, as was his. In fact everyone on the island was a fish- erman, or the wife of a fisherman. She sat in class, dreaming of other possibilities, those dreams played out in her mind’s eye, only occasionally being interrupted by the sounds of the teacher. Why study history or math or proper language? Why study anything except the necessities of life?
She stared out the window, taking her focus completely away from the day’s les- son. From that vantage she could see the twin-mountains of Wahieroa and Kura. They stood like giant guardians over their tiny island, watching the people throughout the ages and keeping them from harm. Their peaks were showing signs of the coming snow. The flatland rarely received much snow, and in her young life never, but the peaks would usually get covered for at least a portion of the cold season. She wanted to climb them someday and see the snow for herself. She thought about all this as her teacher droned on about… something. History, it was. Why would anyone need to concern themselves with the past? It was gone, not to be relived. Only the future mattered. She took a moment to look at Allon. He was always more focused in class. He’d be a village leader someday.
She looked up to see the teacher staring at her.
“It’s easier to learn if you actually listen,” she said. “Please try to stay with us.”
She wanted to hide and slouched a bit, as much as she could. She caught Allon staring at her and smiling. At least he was amused.
“It could have been worse,” Allon said.
They were walking on the beach between school time and chores. “And just how, exactly, could it have been worse?” she said.
“It could have been Barnabus in math. The mathematician in him would have given you some lecture on the relevance of number theory, or whatever we were discussing that day, and how you’d end up a miscreant. But worse than that, the frustrated actor in him would have done it in some exaggerated stage persona because it would have been an opportunity for it.”
She laughed. “We would have all suffered then.”
“And everyone would have tortured you for it after class.”
“And I’d have deserved it.”
They both laughed. Suddenly he stopped and turned toward her taking both her hands. “Let’s go to the beach tonight, after everyone has gone to bed. Let’s go for a swim in the moonlight.”
She felt herself flush. She wanted to, so badly. “Just me and you?”
“Yes, like when we were little, remember?”
“Of course I remember. I remember going out too far once and having to pull ourselves along the bottom to get home. My father threatened to tan my backside, and as I recall yours did.”
“I’m the male, I’m supposed to know better.”
“Oh so that’s it. You’re simply superior by dint of your gender.” He shook his head and laughed: “Of course.”
She took that as her cue to initiate some violence against him and punched his arm, making sure not to do any real harm. “Now you’re going to get it,” she said and he took off down the beach. She followed at the best speed she could muster. He was the faster of the two, in fact, he may have been the fastest on the island, but she had the endurance. He’d stop and she’d catch him. He finally stopped at the bend and she quickly caught up to him and they took a moment to catch their breath. “We need to cool down before going to chores,” she said.
He smiled and removed his shirt and jumped into the surf. She watched as he bobbed up and down on the waves. The water was so inviting and perhaps her mother was correct, perhaps she was half fish. She ran after him and dove into the surf.
They swam together and dove for long periods of time. They played tag, and keep-away, and pretended to keep up with a school of fish. It seemed neither wanted to leave the comfort of the water to return to their daily regimentation. She dove deep and waited. Her vision was beginning to tunnel in and her lungs began to burn, but she waited. Then it happened. There was a slight flash as the membrane in her lungs opened and released its store of oxygen. The tunneling vanished and she was replenished.
She continued on, chasing Allon, and having the kind of fun that kids were supposed to have, the kind that was allowed. Eventually she realized it had to end and signaled Allon that she was going to surface. She broke through the water’s surface and was surprised to see just how far out they had gone.
In a moment Allon popped up next to her. “Wow, how’d we get this far out?”
“By not paying attention,” she replied. “We’ve got to get back. If I miss my chores my mother will skin me.” She stopped for a moment and looked off into the distance. She could see Bellandrill, their neighboring island, and beyond that a speck of the very tops of the mountains of Alir were visible. “Which direction is Arian,” she said. Allon turned and indicated the way. “How far is it?”
“I don’t know the distance. In terms of time, it takes two days for our fathers to get there, even with their fastest boats.”
“Well I knew that much.”
“Our fathers won’t be home for a couple of days, and there’s no school tomorrow, will you meet me tonight?”
She looked at him for a moment and thought how big a mistake it would be, then she slowly nodded. A part of her wanted to believe that some exterior force was con- trolling her, making her do something she really didn’t want to, but she knew better. “Yeah. Come and get me though.”
She spent the next hour hurriedly mending the nets that the men would use for deep water fishing, which was a task that fell to the young girls. When she was very young she’d mended the small nets, the ones that were used in the rivers and could be handled by small children. The work would prepare them for the big nets, the ones that were used in the sea and brought in the best catch, the valuable catch. Her father was away in Arian with this month’s catch, trading with the people of the big island. He would bring home grains, and meats, and maybe something special, something sweet. And, perhaps, some of the fine fabrics that they wove at Arian. Her mother would be able to make her a fine dress, a dress that would impress… What did it matter, there was only Allon to impress.
She noticed one of the small children, a young girl, mending a river net all the while singing the mending song they had all been taught as children. The girl would take a bit of mending cloth and wrap it around a torn strand, while singing of how the cloth would begin the bind. Then she’d take the time to pull it tight and then delicately apply a line of glue that would hold it in place until she could sew it on permanently. The song would finish with how well the catch had been, and a request of the gods to allow another great catch.
“You do a great job fixing the net,” she told the girl. “I don’t believe any of your mends will ever tear.”
The girl smiled, sheepishly. “My daddy says I’m the best at mending the small nets.”
“Well I think your daddy is right. You take such great care to make sure it’s done correctly.” The girl smiled again and continued to work on the net.
Ariella continued to mend the large nets, making sure the bonds held fast. They were in need of a lot of repairs, which was good. The summer’s catch had been plentiful. It was why she didn’t mind the work. Her father had said the cold months were going to be colder than usual. All the indicators were showing it. The tree worm had grown a heavier than usual coat, the bark on the ancient trees was thick, and hard. There would be snow this year, and more than usual. She could feel it in her bones when the chill wind blew. But the catch had been good, and with it the trading had gone well. There would be plenty for her family and the entire village this winter. It would be a time of rest and reflection, and perhaps a good time to tell her family the decision she had made.
Speaking of which… She finished the last mend and turned the nets in. The men gave them a perfunctory inspection, they knew she always did good work. She took off down the beach, but before returning home she had to do one more thing. She had to visit Nerandra, the healer. The old one was taking the time to teach her the ways of the healers. It was a more practical education and something she had recently decided would be her life’s work.
“Come in Ariella,” the old lady said.
She entered the small hut and saw the old lady working over her table. The place was modestly appointed, some might call it sparse. Everything that was there had a purpose, nothing was superfluous. What she enjoyed most were the various smells that always emanated from the place. She stopped, closed her eyes and took a moment to assess what she was smelling.
“So, what do you smell?”
She opened her eyes. “Peppermint... Chamomile... The root of the Valerian tree.
You’re boiling them.”
“Very good. And for what purpose might I be boiling them?” Ariella smiled. “Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“Me, never.” The old lady set down the bowl she had been using and went over to the pot. “But Paulios Demille has been. I’m making this for him. It has to be just right. Too strong and he could become addicted to it.”
“I’m aware of this. A dosage for a man his size would have to be quite large.”
“Four times the size that I would give you, were you to need it,” the old lady said then smiled at her. “It’s good to see you. Let’s get to work.”
Ariella began by categorizing the herbs, roots, and various wild materials the healer had gathered that day. She would be questioned as to the purpose of a particular one, and how it could be used in combination with others. She would respond accordingly, occasionally asking about combinations that she had never seen and what might be the benefit.
“These here,” the healer began as she held up some fungus, “in particular this reddish substance can be used with certain venom to simulate death. Now, you’re wondering, why would a person want to simulate death? In some cases the body needs to be entered, with skill, to remove an infection, or a blight. If this is used, with caution, a skilled surgeon can enter the body and the patient feels no pain.”
“What if there were too much?”
The healer gave her a grave look. “The patient could die. Too little and the patient will have a paralysis that won’t kill him, but when the surgery is performed he’ll wish he were dead.” The healer stopped and stirred the pot with the sleeping concoction. “What are the general characteristics that a good healer looks for in a plant or animal that might be of use?”
“Color,” Ariella responded, then hesitated. “Scent is the next. Then its defense mechanism...”
“What would that tell us?”
“If it secretes a liquid there’ll be properties to the liquid that can be used for certain disorders, primarily ulcerous lesions and internal disorders of the stomach.”
“And certain plants,” the healer said, “will secrete an oily substance that can be boiled in water and its vapor will help to clear the lungs. Don’t forget the use of spines that protrude from some creatures. They can be used to pierce the skin and organs to deliver a serum to the needed area.”
Ariella smiled. She had remembered all that and she felt an inward glow of satisfaction.
“Now,” the healer continued, “let’s see if we can diagnose some problems and just what we’d do with them.”
They spent the next two hours going over symptoms and the proper prescription and dosage. The healer always stressed dosage. There had been stories of people getting too much of a substance and having a terrible reaction and, in some cases, had even died. Being a healer was a tremendous responsibility, many shied away from it, but she wanted it. She would be the one that the villagers came to, to cure all manner of ills.
“Do you know what this is?”
She was pulled from her meditation and saw Nerandra holding a glass vial with a thick black liquid inside. She turned it over and it flowed slowly and as it did the light showed it to be opaque at certain points. She looked behind the old woman and saw a cabinet door sitting open. It was a cabinet that had always remained locked.
She shook her head. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that.”
“This will end life, quietly and painlessly.” She turned and put it back in the cabinet and locked it, then turned back toward Ariella. “I wanted you to know that the work we do isn’t always enjoyable. It has its darker side. There are times when it’s best to end life, and we always want to do it in a dignified way. Doing that is also the role of the healer.”
Ariella paced back and forth in her room. The darker it became outside the more pacing she did. Her mother didn’t seem to suspect that she had clandestine activities planned, and with a boy. She had taken some dark beans from Nerandra, they had the ability to keep a person alert. Her father would occasionally put some of the beans in his mouth when the men were going to be fishing all night and all day. They would keep him awake and let him work throughout the night. She put two in her mouth, and after having almost thrown them up decided to lie down for a bit.
She took the moment to look at her small room.
There was a rack for hanging some clothing and a small bench that she would use when she got dressed. A charcoal drawing she had made of her parents, when she was very young, hung on the wall opposite her bed. She smiled a bit at how little artistic talent she had shown at that age, realizing too, that that part of her skill-set hadn’t gotten much better.
Next to the picture was her birth necklace. Her father made it for her the day she was born and it currently had thirteen amethysts, her birth stone, on it. One for each of her years. She thought about her sixteenth birthday and the Garnett, blood red, that she would get then. Red for passion, and she thought of Allon.
In short order she realized that lying still would be impossible and returned to pacing the floor. The sounds of her mother retiring for the evening resonated through the walls and when the master bedroom door hinge made its last closing squeal she knew that Allon would be there at any moment.
She went to the window and removed the covering and looked out over the beach to the far horizon. The early morning’s heavy seas had subsided and now there was barely a wave to be seen. The water seemed to be at peace. Its serenity was interrupted only by the occasional fish breaching the surface. She had seen it this way only one other time in her life, when she was a small girl. If it stayed this way the men would have a hard time returning from Arian. They might even have to stay longer, until the winds were more favorable. The moon was full and its reflection was perfect. She was drawn to the light, to the water, as well. She was an Akaran. Like all her people their affinity for water was...
She jumped as Allon appeared out of nowhere directly in front of her with a big smile on his face.
“My god, you scared me half to death,” she whispered while slapping his shoulder. “Sorry. Let’s go.”
He helped her out of her window and they made their way as quickly and quietly as possible to the beach. Once there they slowed to a walk. Moonlight filled the beach and the sky itself seemed to be illuminated.
“There’s a frost in the atmosphere,” Allon said. “It reflects the sunlight from below the horizon and makes it seem brighter.”
She knew that, but decided to allow Allon one moment of superiority. They continued to walk, discussing a variety of topics from school to chores to life in general. She noticed the chill of the night creeping up on them. In the distance she could see a rock they had named White Rock, illuminated by the moonlight and jutting above the water line. “I can’t believe how still it is,” she said.
“Yeah. It’s like... it’s waiting for something. Something to happen.”
She giggled. “I think your imagination is running away with you. I’ve seen it like this before.”
He stopped and looked at her. “When?”
“Oh I don’t remember. About nine years ago. I seem to recall having my fourth birthday and later, I think it was about a month later, I saw it like this.”
“Did anything weird happen afterwards?”
She thought about it. “No. Other than having to start formal schooling.”
They stopped for a moment and Allon began to stare out toward the sea. He seemed to be focusing on White Rock. “The turtles are out,” he said.
“Look at the rock, they’re basking in the moonlight.”
She squinted but could only see the rock. His eyes were so strong, they had always been.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go grab a couple and ride them.” “Oh Allon leave them alone.”
Before she could finish her response he began to run toward the water. “Wait!” she yelled while running after him.
They got to the rock and she saw the large turtles resting on it. They were docile enough, but she had heard they could bite if necessary. They circled around, each determining the one they’d ride. Allon’s was the biggest, he always chose the biggest. They got close and slapped the water, hard. The turtles began to turn away from the noise and amble across the rock as best they could. Once behind the turtle each had chosen they sprang from the water and grabbed the animal on the outside of its shell. The turtles would pull as hard as they could. Ariella let it pull her into the water with her holding fast as the creature began to twist and turn in what would be a futile attempt to shake her off. She had always been the first to let go, the first to have her arm strength dissipate. But not this time. She wrestled with the creature and felt, for the first time, its strength begin to wane. It pulled and turned and twisted and strained, but each kick was a little less intense, each turn a bit less severe. Finally as if in a gesture of surrender, it made its way to the surface. Once there it floated as she held on.
She let go and the creature swam off, but before diving it turned back and stared at her. They were dumb creatures, but some thought them to be mystical, and there were those who claimed they were the reincarnated spirits of their dead ancestors. She wasn’t too sure about that, but staring into its eyes for a moment she saw more than just a dumb creature. He seemed to be regarding her as much as she was regarding him, and she couldn’t help but wonder just how intelligent it might be.
“How old are you Mr. Hardtop? How much of the universe have you seen?” In truth, no one knew how long they lived, or how intelligent they were. It was said they had been to the world’s end, a place where none of her people had ever gone. “Thank you,” she said, and the creature turned and disappeared into the water.
Allon came popping up next to her. “You let go didn’t you?”
For a moment she was oblivious, then she turned to notice him. “What?”
“Never mind,” he said with a smile.
She suddenly realized how close they were. His face was inches from hers and her heart raced. Kiss me, she thought. For a moment it looked as if it were about to happen when something came into their peripheral vision. They both turned to watch a falling star. It was particularly bright, and long lasting.
“I’ve never seen one last so long,” she said. “It must be big.”
Then it did something that falling stars weren’t supposed to do. It turned. It made an arc that caused it to run parallel to the water. The thing looked as if it were being guided.
“How’s that possible?” she said.
Allon didn’t respond. Instead they just watched as it did a slow fall into the ocean, way off in the distance.
“What was that?” Allon said.
She thought for a moment, but had no memory of seeing such a thing before. “I have no idea.”
“Where do you suppose it landed?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. A major part of the way toward Arian I’d say.” They floated there, staring in the direction of the thing. Then she noticed the tiniest bit of sunlight creeping over the edge of the eastern horizon. Could they have been out that long?
Allon apparently noticed it as well. “We better head home,” he said.
They turned and began the swim back. When they got to the shore they stopped to look back in the direction of the falling star.
“I think we should go out there tomorrow. Try to find whatever it was.” Allon said it and looked back at her, as if waiting for confirmation of his plan. “There’s no school, and no pressing chores. Let’s do it.”
“How are we going to get out there?”
“We could take your father’s skiff. It can go into deep water.”
She was about to protest the insanity of the idea, but stopped to look in the direction of Arian. “We’ll see.” Why not just say yes? We’ll see was basically the same thing and the smile on Allon’s face told her he knew it.
They met at the beach early in the morning. She had told her mother that she was going to the long peninsula to help a friend with her higher math studies. She was good—relatively good—at math and that would make a believable excuse.
Her father’s boathouse was right on the beach and no one ever locked their boat-houses. The skiff was big enough to take both of them comfortably, but small enough to not be overly intimidating.
“My father recently taught me how to sail it,” she said. That was true enough and if necessary she could use that as the excuse for taking it out. Showing off was frowned upon, but it made a reasonable back up defense.
Once at White Rock they were able to get their bearings and began to head in the direction they’d remembered. The wind had picked up and was blowing out. This would make it a bit easier for them to get out and more difficult for her father to get back which would buy them some time.
It seemed like such a fool’s errand. This object, falling into the ocean was probably a hundred kilometers from here by now. Still, it was a good excuse to be with Allon, and that made it worth the attempt. The minutes seemed to crawl by and when Ariella took a moment to look back she saw their island had disappeared. She had never been anywhere near this far away from land before and began to get a bit nervous. If Allon was afraid he didn’t show it, he never did.
“I think we should stop here,” he said suddenly.
She was surprised by this. “I think it was farther away.”
“Probably, but much farther out and we won’t be able to anchor. It’ll be too deep. I’ve been here before, not far from here there’s a drop-off. If whatever it was has gone past that we’ll never find it anyway.”
They stopped and dove in. Allon fixed the anchor to some coral and they began to swim out. It was deep, but not so deep as to cut off all the light. They would swim together, occasionally separating when one or the other thought they saw something worth exploring. Invariably it wouldn’t be anything more than a shiny piece of coral or a bit of a dislodged anchor. They swam with some of the fish and at times had to remind themselves of the reason for being there. Time passed and she felt herself growing weary. They came together and Allon pointed up ahead. The water suddenly turned a deeper blue and the sea floor disappeared. They’d found the drop-off. Allon hand signaled that past that point there was no reason to continue.
“Let’s go as far as we can,” Ariella signed back.
They swam a bit more, both of them scanning the sea bed, back and forth, then back and forth again, totally focused on anything that seemed out of place. Other than different shapes in the coral, the sea floor didn’t change much. When they came to the drop-off point, Allon signaled for them to return, but Ariella hesitated. To come this far for nothing more than exercise… She signaled that she was going to swim out over the drop-off a bit. Mostly, she wanted to see the chasm. As she got over it she could see what he meant. It was a sheer drop-off and after an additional few meters down there was nothing but darkness. She swam a bit, but quickly realized the futility of it and turned back.
That’s when she saw it. She stared for a moment and rubbed her eyes. But it was still there. It was something that had been built by… someone. She quickly signaled to Allon and he swam over. The thing was wedged on an outcropping just over the edge. Allon swam down to examine it, then came back immediately, his excitement obvious. He signaled that this had to be the thing they saw and told her to go and bring the skiff over while he waited.
She made her way back to the skiff, detached the anchor and once on board maneuvered it to Allon’s position, all the while her heart raced. This could be a grand adventure. This could be something different, something breaking up the monotony of their lives.
She brought the skiff to Allon’s vicinity and he surfaced. “We’ll have to use the trolling nets to snare it and the anchor pulley to pull it up,” he said in a manner that displayed his obvious excitement. “Stay there, I’m going to secure it. I want to make sure it doesn’t fall into the chasm, then we’ll pull it up.”
He dove and took the net with him. She began to test the wind to see just how she was going to have to do this. She got the skiff to pivot a bit and face what wind there was obliquely. Returning into the wind meant she’d have to zigzag her way back to the boathouse.
At that moment Allon surfaced. “I’ve got it attached,” he said. “Give me a few seconds and then start heading home. You’ll only need to go about twenty meters and it should be up on the seabed. Stop it then and we’ll haul it on board.”
“How heavy is it?” she asked before he could dive again. “I don’t know,” he said, and quickly dove.
She gave it a minute and began to trim the mainsail. The skiff moved about a meter but stopped. The thing was anchoring it. She waited a moment, assuming Allon was working on it and tried again. This time the boat moved. She kept it going for about twenty meters then stopped. Shortly, Allon appeared and told her to bring up the anchor. She began to crank it up and was surprised that it went as easily as it did. In a few moments Allon appeared at the surface with the thing and was pushing it alongside.
“The thing is actually pretty light,” he said. “I’ve been pushing it while you cranked and it moved easily enough.”
With Allon pushing and Ariella cranking they were able to get it on board. She walked completely around it, attempting to inspect every square inch of it. It was spherical, but with a few flattened surfaces and about three fourths her height. The material was hard and bright, some of it reflected the sun and shone like fire. Other parts seemed to absorb the sunlight, and as she moved around it there was something else. It seemed to change its appearance depending on how obliquely she stared at it. One moment it was shiny the next it was dull, sometimes red, sometimes blue. She touched it and was surprised to find that it wasn’t particularly hot, or even warm.
“It’s like… it’s alive,” Allon said.
She looked at him and realized they’d been thinking the same thing. “Now what?” she said. “We’re too old for show and tell, and it’s too big for an average living area.”
Allon stared at it. His brain was turning, she had seen it enough. “The cliffs on the short peninsula,” he said. “At the base there’s some foliage it can be hidden in, and it’s not accessible from the land. No one will ever find it.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I think, after we’ve examined it enough, we’ll tell everyone.” He stopped again and looked at her. “But not until we’ve examined it… enough.”
They hid it in the thick underbrush then took some time to examine the thing a little closer. It was completely foreign to both of them and Ariella convinced herself that it had to come from Arian. There wasn’t anything in all the thousand islands as mysterious as this. “What do you think it is?” she said.
Allon hesitated and looked as perplexed as she felt. “I don’t know. This stuff it’s made of... I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so hard and cold. What do you suppose this means?” He pointed at some markings. Writing obviously, but not in any language they had seen.
“I don’t know. Maybe...” She suddenly realized the time. “Oh my god, we’ve got to get the skiff back.”
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