“Emma, what are you doing?” Adam asked for a second time when she didn’t answer him.
He’d tore a strip of bright yellow skin from the long fruit to reveal a red pulp underneath. It was not juicy like the blue fruit had been, but it was still sweet to the taste.
Emma knelt low to examine the strange object nestled between the two black rocks. It was round and smooth, and the top was covered with slimy green lichen. It could easily have been mistaken for a stone but for the keen precision of Emma’s inquisitive young eyes. She didn’t know why, but there was something about it that seemed out of place in their surroundings.
Sticking two fingers into the thing’s two round holes, she pulled until she’d forced it from its resting place.
“Look at this funny thing I’ve found!” she called to Pin who sat eating, his legs hanging over the little waterfall.
“What is it?” he called back to her. “Can’t you see I’m washing my tired feet?”
“I don’t know,” Emma said and held it over her head for him to see. “It’s got holes in it.”
Pin squinted to make out the shape of Emma’s discovery.
“Give it here,” said Adam suddenly, grabbing it from her and turning it over in his hands. “Why, it looks like a face with no parts!” he said aloud.
Pin saw what it was then and jumped to his feet as though poked in the back by a large stick.
“Drop it!” he yelled gruffly as he picked his way back down the rocks to where the children stood. When he reached them, he plucked the thing from Adam and hollered, “Where did you find this?”
The boy looked at Emma who pointed at the rocks just below the surface of the little stream.
“Just there,” she said. “What is it, Pin?”
Pin tucked the object under his arm then pulled them away from the waterfall and back through the trees towards the lagoon.
“What happened?” cried Emma. She felt as though she’d done something wrong.
“Hush up, girl!” whispered Pin as he weaved them quickly between the thick trunks of jungle trees.
Despite more protests, he didn’t slow until they’d reached the spot where their crude shelter still stood against the trunk of the great tree. Then he pulled them inside and made them promise to be quiet, or he’d give them each a whipping.
After listening to the sounds of the forest for a few moments longer, Pin pulled the strange object from under his arm and held it up gingerly for examination.
Despite the green lichen, he could see it was a skull. Two empty eye sockets looked back at him as he examined the front, and when he turned it around he was shocked to see a deep dent in the bone where it must have been struck by something hard and heavy long ago. Or, he supposed, the damage could have occurred from a high fall. The rocks around the waterfall could certainly have done the trick. But, if that were the case, where was the rest of the body?
Without warning, Pin threw the skull as far as he could into the trees and wiped his hands on his pants as though they were covered with a sickness. It shattered somewhere in the distance, its pieces cascading against the rocks and trees of the tropical underbrush.
He sat back against the trunk and scratched at his chin as he thought hard. A skull by itself wasn’t something to be concerned about. There must be an abundance of animals on the blue moon and, though thankfully they hadn’t met any, some would be predatory. No, there was something else that disturbed him about the skull. Something about it struck such a fear and confusion in his soul that he could barely breath. The skull—preserved by the cool water for who knows how many years—looked almost human.
“Impossible,” he whispered to himself, shaking the thought from his mind. “It’s just... it couldn’t be.”
Emma and Adam looked at each other, confused by Pin’s strange bout of introspection. But before they could speak a word, the old man crawled from the shelter and started pulling at the ropey vines that covered the tree.
“What is he doing now?” Emma asked Adam. But the boy only had time to shrug before Pin poked his head back under the shelter, pulling two long vines behind him.
Moving beside Emma, he looped one of the vines around her waist and tied it into a tight double knot. It rubbed against her skin uncomfortably and she squirmed and tried to free herself.
“What are you doing? I don’t like this,” she said as Pin forced her to stop struggling.
Pin didn’t answer right way. Instead he tied the other end to a thick branch outside and moved to do the same to Adam. Emma pulled against the vine, but there was little slack.
“Why are you tying us up?” Emma cried. “I’m sorry if I did something wrong. I don’t want to be tied up!”
“You’ll stay tied up until I get back,” said Pin sternly. “If I could trust you to stay hidden and not follow me I wouldn’t have to tie you like this, but I can’t. The both of you would be on my heels in a moment, and you know I speak the truth.”
“Where are you going?” Adam whined as Pin finished tying him to the tree outside. “What if you don’t come back?”
Pin pressed a callused palm to each of their cheeks and sighed deeply. “Stay here. Stay hidden. And, for goodness sake, stay quiet.”
Pin left the children and ran back uphill, muttering anxiously as he went. He passed the grove of close-growing trees, this time ignoring the beauty of the flowers that grew in rows on their sides.
When he came to the little waterfall he didn’t stop to wash his feet, or eat from the yellow fruit tree. Instead, he scaled the rocks quickly until he reached its top and kept moving higher through the jungle.
The higher Pin climbed the thinner the jungle became. The trees grew farther apart, allowing easier movement and a better line of sight. He passed through a patch of cane, twenty feet tall, that sprouted from the earth in alien rows and dripped with sticky sap. But he didn’t stop to investigate.
Then, finally, the trees parted and Pin stepped into a desolate area where a sun-bleached plateau of white stone welcomed him to the jungle’s highest point for miles around. Beyond it lay a deep valley surrounded by rolling hills patched with the green and red of towering trees.
As though his presence had caught Nature by surprise, a great flock of leathery not-parrots burst from the trees below like multi-colored fireworks and then disappear again.
Pin stepped to the plateau’s edge and surveyed the terrain in the distance, looking for signs of intelligent life among the thick vegetation. He wasn’t exactly sure what to look for, but unnatural movements were obvious in a natural world.
He looked for smoke rising, listened for human chatter, but nothing met his gaze. No handmade dwellings littered the horizon, nor ships flew across the skyline. It seemed that he and the children were indeed alone on the moon.
He turned around and looked back down towards their lagoon. He could make out its half-moon outline far in the distance and could imagine the sound of the water lapping peacefully against the sand and rocks.
It felt strange being surrounded on all sides by nature and to feel the hot breeze blow through his hair. They were in a place completely unknown to anyone but the alien birds and beasts who owned it unknowingly, completely indifferent to the petty affairs of Earthly men.
Pin sat down on the warm stone and hung his legs over the edge. He wished he had a pipe to smoke. Tobacco crops had held out well through Earth’s years of endless drought, but had eventually died along with the rest. It struck him as interesting that, though he hadn’t smoked in more than forty years, he could still remember how tobacco’s earthy sweetness turned to pepper and spice in your mouth upon taking a first full drag.
He returned his thoughts to the skull Emma had found. Looking into its empty eye sockets had sent a shock of electricity through to his soul. It smelled of death and reminded him of the decaying world they’d left behind.
Perhaps he was mistaken and it was not a human skull after all. Simian perhaps? Some celestial descendent akin to Earth’s monkeys? Maybe. But something felt too familiar about the structure of its face and the size of its cranium for Pin to completely resign himself to that.
Two options seemed to present themselves: Either the skull belonged to a creature that was indigenous to the moon, or it was a visitor from the stars like they were. As far as Pin knew, this moon had never been recorded by Le Guin’s probe program.
Perhaps it was hidden by the electromagnetic energy of the much larger gas planet it orbited. Pin remembered the strange event that had rocked the pod, and the flash of light that had occurred just before the planet had revealed itself to them. Perhaps the same phenomenon that had saved them then, stood between them and salvation now.
Pin sighed and rose to his feet. It was a mystery beyond his ability to solve in the moment, so he decided he shouldn’t let it consume his thoughts. Until they learned more about their new home he would remain vigilant, of course, watchful and alert. But, for now, he and the children had a lot to accomplish. A sturdy shelter and a good meal would be a good start.
After that, he would need to create some rules.