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Chapter Two

The child had relaxed as soon as he found the path. He had slowed his pace so that they could keep up. He allowed them to rest for a while. Kathy sat on the ground trying to catch her breath. The air was definitely getting thinner and she was feeling dizzy. She wondered how much higher they would go. Prescot was not faring any better, though he refused to sit down even when she beckoned him to and continued to scan the tree line for danger. She was reassured by the behaviour of the boy. He sat beside her and began digging in the dirt with a stick he had found. That he seemed relaxed told her that they were not in any immediate danger.

Prescot was quiet and preoccupied.

“It wasn’t your fault.” Kathy finally broke the silence. “There’s no training for this.”

He shook his head. “I should never have gone back to the ship. I should have listened to you.”

It was strange, she felt, to hear him agree with anything she suggested. She had always felt that he would deliberately take the opposite stance. Prescot seemed to take an almost pathological delight in provoking an argument, especially if it was with her. Now he seemed so lost and utterly out of his depth that she felt duty bound to reassure him. He needed to be in control and he was clearly struggling with the idea that he no longer was.

“Did you see what we landed in? How could any of us have known? I don’t think any of us would be alive if we’d stayed. Besides, leaving in the first place was your idea.”

He nodded but she could see he did not share her opinion.

Eventually, Prescot said, “How do you know? You always know.”

“Not always, sometimes,” she said vaguely, “I’m not psychic. I don’t go in for that. There’s no real proof. I just… it’s hard to explain. This time was different though. This time I-”

He was about to ask her to explain when the boy interrupted them. The boy had been brushing the dirt from a grey pebble he had found then, he gave it to her. It sparkled like a smooth, polished opal and she smiled before handing it back to him. He gently closed her fingers around it and pushed her hand back. Then he got up and set off along the trail again.

“Guess you’re supposed to keep it.” Prescot ventured, as they walked on after him.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, turning it over in her hand. “Thank you.”

If he understood her it was impossible to tell. He turned away and they followed. There was no other option open to them.

“For all you know you just got married,” Prescot joked.

Kathy smiled, glad that he seemed able to make light of their situation. She did not share his apprehension but had no idea why she felt so at ease. Even the sadness and absolute fear she had felt at losing her shipmates and friends seemed like a distant memory. There was only the sense of calm and the certain knowledge that they were being led to safety. The idea that she should be feeling differently occurred to her but it quickly ebbed away.

They were walking up a steep slope covered in the same grey shingle. The boy took their hands as they stopped on the edge of a clearing. He paused as if waiting for something but they had no idea what it could be. Then he pulled them forward and they stepped over the threshold together. Kathy felt her skin tingle briefly. It was not exactly pain but it was deeply unsettling. She braced herself naturally, giving the boys hand a sudden squeeze, but the sensation passed without further discomfort.

The ground was covered in deep red shingle. Swirling patterns were marked out by trails of white and green shingle which spread out from a circle of small huts encircling the compound. The huts were grey, smooth-walled with woven thatched roofs. Pebbles like the one Kathy carried had been set in patterns in the walls of each hut. A beaded curtain hung at each arched doorway. Prescot was struck by the uniformity. He mentioned this to Kathy who shrugged.

“There are no signs of… well… people actually living here. You know, most villages have more… I don’t know… stuff.”

“Stuff?” Kathy smiled.

“Just more… you know…”

His voice trailed off as she arched her brows at him, “It’s an alien village, Paul. What should it look like?”

He sighed, unable to explain and they continued to take in their surroundings.

Larger stones marked the edges of the paths. Each stone was exactly the same size and shape. Prescot followed the boy and was reassured by the familiarity of the sound of gravel crunching underfoot. At least, he mused, the sound was right. Nothing else seemed to be.

The more he looked around, the stranger it seemed. The entire area seemed decorative rather than functional. Each hut was almost identical and even the decorative stones pressed into them were the same size and shape. He found it hard to believe that anyone actually walked over the immaculately raked paths and lived in the pristine huts.

The camp seemed to be deserted and the child led them to a stone platform in the middle of the village. He left them there and ran into the nearest hut, brushing aside the elaborate bead curtain at the doorway.

“Now what?” Prescot asked.

She shrugged and said, “I guess we wait.

Prescot sat down on the ground and Kathy followed. She was suddenly aware of how exhausted she was. They were safe for the moment and sat in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. If she had been watching Prescot, she would have noticed him checking escape routes, scanning constantly for signs of danger. Finally, he looked at her and relaxed a little. She was not worried; he had less reason to be.

She had a sixth sense about things. It unnerved him but she was never wrong. Then, there were other things that unnerved him about her. The Skylark training schedule had been punishing. He often wondered if Ellis simply enjoyed watching him fail. Kathy could keep up with him easily and he got the impression that she held back at times to avoid his jibes. She had resisted every attempt he had made to flirt with her and focused on her work with a single-minded determination that made him uneasy.

She always knew when he was lying. It was a talent that had caused more than one embarrassing situation and he had begun to resent her for it. At times, he forgot how young she was and felt a pang of guilt at some of the crueller things he had said to her. He felt at the time she had deserved it but their situation had made him realise that they had to look out for each other.

Prescot glanced at her but looked away quickly before she caught his eye, smiling to himself. She was pulling her hair back into the usual band she wore and taming the wild curls always irked her. At that moment, she seemed far more vulnerable than usual. He should have listened to her. He would in future; at least he would try to.

The silence was the most disturbing thing. He found that brushing the shingle, though a small sound, bounced off the walls of the huts, magnified.

Finally, the child returned with two cups and gave one to each of them with a nod of assurance. He turned away when they took the cups from him. Prescot tipped the thick liquid experimentally.

“I guess we could try a little and wait to see if-”

He turned to Kathy, who was already halfway through the contents of her cup.

“What?” she asked innocently. “Look, if it’s bad we’ll soon know. I think it’s okay. It doesn’t taste of much. I feel fine. No tingling, nausea. I feel… great actually. I didn’t realise how hungry I was.”

“That’s the craziest-” he shook his head.

“Well, you can wait to see how I react, or, we can die together. What’s it gonna be? If we can’t eat what we’re offered, we might as well give up now. My supplies won’t last and I’m not going to starve to death.”

Prescot had forgotten what she had seen during her time as an aid worker. He supposed poison might be merciful, given their surroundings. Everything he had learned told him to wait but there was something in the way the child had handed them the cups; he knew what they needed.

“Here goes…” he began.

Kathy watched him for any signs of a reaction.

“You’re right. It’s not that bad,” Prescot said. “I’ve had worse. Like porridge… needs salt, though!”

“Salt? In porridge?” she scoffed.

“Scottish heritage, my dear. It’s salt or nothing!”

The sound of gravel crunching gently under bare feet made them both look up from the cups.

“Here come the adults!”

They had followed the same path. Kathy wondered how far behind them they had been. The first adult called to the child who walked over to him and lowered his head. Kathy listened intently to their conversation. Their voices were soft and lilting. Words flowed between them whilst the others looked on. She tried to find any familiar structure to the exchange but it was over quickly. She got the distinct impression that the adult was more worried than angry and that they had been looking for the boy.

“Being told off for bringing strangers home again. Oh, but they’re so cute please can I keep them?” Prescot smiled without mirth. “Sure, we’ll invite them for dinner!”

The adult the boy had spoken to seemed to be in charge. He nodded to them briefly but did not seem too worried by his dishevelled guests. The boy pulled on their leader’s hand and led him over to them.

Prescot stood up stiffly as did Kathy. It seemed the right thing to do. Prescot extended his hand, which the man ignored. The man was dressed in the same simple woven cloth tunic, frayed and worn, the green pigment patchy. He wore a small pouch around his neck exactly like the boys. He stared at Kathy then proceeded to actively ignore her. All of her best efforts to make eye contact failed. He would not look at her and only spoke to Prescot. Neither of them understood him but the exchange seemed reassuring somehow.

She was aware of the other villagers watching them with interest. Each villager was of a similar height and slender build with the same thin lips and narrow nose. Prescot struggled to distinguish one from another. Their features were almost identical. The only way he could tell them apart was by their hair beads and braids.

It seemed they did not have anything further to say to them. He looked around and decided that inaction was the best response. This seemed to satisfy the other villagers who went about their lives as if they had always been there.

They were taken to a hut, which was sparsely furnished with two low benches and left alone.

Prescot swept the bead curtain aside and watched the villagers from the open doorway. There was no sign of the child.

He could find no evidence to explain how the villagers gathered food or supported themselves. They seemed to spend their time in conversation and he could not understand anything they said so he quickly tired of trying. He turned back to Kathy, and the contents of their own hut, for amusement.

“Doesn’t this strike you as odd?” She said.

Prescot had finally given up trying to find a weapon in their barren hut and was examining one of the cots purposefully. There were no seams or joints and the legs were part of the main platform. The surface was smooth and slightly springy to touch. It had the texture of polished wood but not the density. He tapped it, sighed and looked at the padded mat which was lying on it. He rolled the woven mat back down onto the bench after examining it for a while.

“What in particular about our situation strikes you as odd? I can think of a few things but please, enlighten me!”

She smiled at him, inviting him to work it out for himself.

“Okay so… There are no women. Not that I can see anyway. Maybe the differences aren’t so obvious... maybe in their society, the women do all the hunting. Or, they are in the huts and not allowed out!” Prescot teased.

“You’d love that!” She smiled, welcoming the light banter. “No one to tell you that you’re wrong!” she retorted. “It’s not that. Tribal traditions… who knows? No, it’s just that they are not at all bothered by us being here. We look different enough to be perceived as alien. First contact with this race and they welcome us like friends or next-door neighbours who’ve just popped over for a chat!” And, she said to herself, I got the distinct impression that I was familiar to him, almost that he recognised me…

He joined her at the doorway and began to watch the preparations with renewed interest.

“They’re not armed as far as I can tell. It should be easy enough to get away…” he mused.

“And go where? I don’t think we’re prisoners. It seems to me we have more chance of surviving here than out there. Wherever ‘here’ is.”

She sat down on the bench and began to rummage through her pack. Prescot looked at the bag with renewed interest. She handed him a food bar.

“Mmm… my favourite,” he smirked.”I’ll save it for later on when I’m more desperate!”

“I have some water too,” she said.

“Great! Now, all we need is a tea bag, kettle…”

She smiled slightly and Prescot nodded to acknowledge it.

“That wasn’t so hard now was it,” he said. Then, “We will get out of this.”

Kathy did not reply. The odds were against it but she felt optimistic. She was alive and that was worth something.

He stowed the bar in a pocket and said, “So, did you bring a weapon?”

“No, there’s nothing pointed or potentially lethal in here,” she sighed. “Can’t you just assume that they are not hostile?”

“You know I can’t!”

She found a small notebook and began to write down her observations, leaving Prescot to his appraisal of the enemy. Kathy had kept a journal since she was a little girl. She remembered the first ledger she had been given and how excited she had been to cover the crisp new pages with her cursory scribbling.

“What should I write?” she had asked her mother.

“Anything you want,” her mother replied.

Much of her life had been spent trying to fill one journal or another. Until the Mission, she had had very little to fill a journal with, although she imagined some would disagree with that. It was not the experiences she had shared with her parents, which had involved her travelling widely. She could have spent her time expounding the virtues of that. The children she taught were certainly inspiring in their way, but she knew she was only providing a brief respite. Nothing really changed. It was almost impossible to be hopeful.

“You know, for someone who’s seen what you have, lived as you have, you’d think it would make you grateful.”


Kathy smoothed the page and began to sketch.

It was not a lack of appreciation or a sense of gratitude she lacked. Somehow, everything she tried to accomplish was tainted with the knowledge that it would never be enough. At least now she had something worth writing about, she decided.

“If it makes you feel better… How sharp is that pencil… I’m joking!” he said, holding up his hands, feigning surrender.

“You’re an idiot!” she retorted, then, “but I’m glad you’re here.”

She meant it and Prescot nodded his thanks. He guessed it was as close to an apology as she would ever give him and decided it marked a new chapter in their relationship. It was a truce at least.

Kathy busied herself by observing the villagers from the doorway, occasionally making notes. She watched the groups sitting and it seemed, waiting. For what, she was unable to guess. There was a feeling of anticipation. She could not begin to describe how she knew to Prescot but she was certain they were waiting for something.

She drew the boy, smiling, his head tilted to one side and tried to show Prescot but he was not really interested. Prescot lay on a bench, lost in his own thoughts. She did not feel able to leave the small hut but had no idea why. Each time she tried to cross the threshold of the door she became so uncomfortable she had to go back inside. Prescot began to snore loudly. She was exhausted, but too interested in what was happening to sleep. They were covering the stone platform in green cloth, arranging bright flowers around it. The man with the pouch was giving instructions to the others. Flowers were moved, replaced until he finally seemed satisfied. They were clearly preparing for something important. She hoped it did not involve them.

Tiredness finally overcame her and she lay down opposite Prescot. He was already sound asleep. She watched him for a while, wondering what he was thinking. If she tried, she could tell but decided not to. Some things, she felt, were better left unsaid. Slowly Kathy succumbed to an uneasy sleep.

She coughed and opened her eyes, disoriented by what she felt and saw. There was the same sensation she had when she first woke from her pod; acrid smoke coiled around her and she was lying on the floor taking shallow breaths of the last few centimetres of clear air. Her vision came into focus slowly. There were vents in front of her and the smoke was being drawn into them. None of these events seemed to worry her. She was not afraid; she was angry but could not say at whom or what. Angry, she thought, did not quite do her current frame of mind justice. She was furious and it filled every corner of her being. Worlds would burn because of her fury and they would feel it. The furnace of the stars would pale beside her rage.

Her own anger and grief magnified the feeling as she fought to control it. Whispered voices came to her and their thoughts were dark, encouraging her to act on her anger.

“You have lost so much,” they said, their tones seeming soothing. “Give in to it and be free.”

“I will not sing,” her dream-self replied, defiant.

“You will die anyway.”

The corridor cleared and she was free to stand. When she did so, she became aware of her black-gloved hand and of the small fingers laced between hers. Her gaze travelled up from the hand she held along the swirling patterns of its silken sleeve to the shoulders and then to the face.

Violet, gold-rimmed eyes told her all would be well.

“Trust the boy. You are safe now. Don’t fight it.”

Next Chapter: Chapter Three