What was amazing, Andy found, was just how much got done when you had nine people instead of three, even bony and prone to sitting down after a walk as they now were. Noah and Dev worked together on their net, exchanging the occasional explanatory grunt or pointing. It was already a few feet wide and a couple feet long. The fire in its firepit was a merry blaze of tiny flames, not burnt down or ignored. The little emergency-blanket tent that had served Noah, Michelle and Andy so well had been deconstructed, perhaps out of a sense of fairness, and four piles of grasses, two against each wall of the cave, left enough room in the center for the narrow rain-dependent stream.
“Only four?” Andy asked.
“We’re all so used to bunking together,” Kitty said. “I know I’ll be in with Sam, and Caleb and Zack and Dev can be number two. Noah and Michelle are three, which leaves you and Louisa as four. Um, if that’s okay? I wasn’t super sure who should be where.”
“I think I’m okay with Louisa as a roommate,” Andy said slowly. “What have you got there?”
“I’ve been experimenting,” said Kitty. “Look.”
Kitty’s demonstration of the narrow, pale fibers that you could pull from the core of the black seaweed if you broke it up completely distracted Andy from any worry about roommates. Kitty’s production of a small needle and awl, one distilled from a shard of fish bone and the other made of reefrock, raised her in Andy’s estimation to a true colleague.
“This is fantastic. Can I make a request?”
“Sure,” said Kitty. “What’s up?”
“Shoes for everyone. Sandals, really, like mine? This isn’t sneakers country. We’ve already got two pairs, and I’ve got a stack of fish skins doing nothing except sitting around being a little too small to work with-“
“So you want me to sew a couple of them together so that the sandals are big enough,” Kitty finished for her.
Andy showed Kitty the location of the supplies, tucked behind the woodpile out of the way. When she turned to find the others, she found Louisa and Sam engaged in breaking off pieces of the spreading narrow forked top branches of some of the firewood and – using it for plates. The spidery branches were just close enough together, and they all bent together in a slight curve, such that a plate-sized segment of branches could hold a portion of the green globes neatly and keep them off the sand. It would work for fish, too, Andy realized. Plates. Andy felt stupid for forgetting plates. Awkwardly she scrambled to unearth Noah’s stash of carved silverware – while there weren’t enough for everyone to have everything, there were enough for everyone to have a random selection from dull knife, tined fork, or shallow spoon. Andy claimed her own little ‘plate’ and carried it with her, collecting Kitty’s share and setting it down next to her as well.
Kitty’s work was sure, neat, and made it look easy. She assessed her materials, and had already chosen two of the little oval skins, overlapping them cleverly and punching holes with her narrow stone awl.
“Can I borrow your pocketknife?” she asked, not looking up from her work.
“Yes,” said Andy, watching Kitty’s fingers in some awe. “Be careful with it, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kitty drawled.
“I brought you some food,” Andy added, because she wasn’t sure Kitty had noticed. Kitty’s head jerked up, her awl stabbing into sand.
“Food,” Andy agreed, pointing at it. Kitty grabbed four of the things and stuffed them into her mouth.
“Oh. Oh, that’s good.”
The food disappeared surprisingly fast – or not surprising, if Andy took a second to realize that Kitty was starving, bony in all the wrong places, fingers thin, face drawn, wristbones huge in comparison to her hands. She had red-brown hair coming in, the tips having been dyed black once upon a time, and light grey-green eyes.
“Enjoy,” said Andy.
The fishing party was quiet and less productive than Andy had expected – Michelle was the star with an eel sufficient to feed the group a little bit each, but there were only a couple other fish to be split between the nine of them.
“Not many fish?” Noah asked.
“No, we’re just getting the hang of it,” said Michelle. “There was a lot of splashing around and not drowning.”
“And the thing,” said Zack.
Caleb was content to sit next to the fire and steam.
“What thing?” asked Noah.
Andy, busy braiding new seaweed rope for Noah and Dev, watched Michelle’s expression – she was worried.
“There’s a metal pole stuck out in the reef out there,” said Michelle. “Out near the edge. I was showing Caleb where the sea serpent had come in to, and it’s right out there – stuck in the seafloor with a few feet up over the water. It’s just like – the sort of post you’d put up for a chain link fence? But it wasn’t there before.”
“Our new alien friends?” asked Andy.
“But what does a pole do for us?” asked Noah. “It doesn’t do anything?”
“We didn’t poke it,” said Michelle. “You want to?”
“No. No, I don’t.”
Conversation continued in this vein while Andy busied herself tying off her ropework and gathering up the fish to clean and the gutting knife. She was still the fastest at gutting, even now.
“Show me?” asked Zack, watching.
“Okay,” she said, taking up the eel. “You can do the bit that’s a pain. We’re going to turn this eel into another waterskin, which means peeling the skin off in one piece. You cut off the head-“ she demonstrated, knife pressing firmly through flesh and bone, hands steady, “And loosen the skin around the edges like this. Then you just have to peel it off like a sock. Take it easy.”
Under her direction, he was soon an accomplished eel-skinner. She was about to toss the head off the edge of the cliff when Kitty said, “Hey, does that thing have teeth?”
Andy had to check.
“More, um, a beak. Sharp looking.”
“Can I have it? I might be able to make something with it.”
“Waste not, want not,” Andy quoted quietly, and tossed the head back down into the sand instead of over the edge.
She set about cleaning the other fish, all two of them, and realized she was humming to herself when Kitty said, “Someone’s happy. Are you sure you didn’t volunteer, too?”
Andy glanced up, startled.
“I spent a month thinking I was alone on this rock. At this point, I’m just happy I was wrong about that. I mean… don’t get me wrong. I miss my parents. The aliens are creepy. I miss hot water. But… I’m not unhappy, no.”
“I’m happy as long as we survive,” Zack commented. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring back more fish.”
“We’re still exhausted,” Andy pointed out. “And starving. Cut yourself some slack.”
“We won’t get less starving if we don’t catch enough food,” Zack pointed out.
“We have enough for lunch. We’ll figure out dinner at dinnertime.”
Andy’s prediction proved correct. They ate a good filling lunch of meat with a side serving of water greens, and then most of the group napped away the midday heat. Andy didn’t nap, not having had a very busy morning – she went out fishing by herself and with patience and care, netted nine fish for dinner. Today didn’t seem to be a day to build up more food stores, but at least they wouldn’t starve today, either. The others cooked and cleaned up from the meal, at least, so it wasn’t all on her. In her head, she kept coming back to the idea she’d put together for herself, finally, while talking to Kitty. She wasn’t miserable. She wasn’t even unhappy. She was excited, interested, mind full of plans and puzzles and projects. She had enough to do. Andy wasn’t sure she’d ever had enough to do before.
It was a good feeling.
“You want me to take charge of all of these?” Noah asked, staring at his baby net, all grown up and full of wriggling, gasping, dying little fish. The fish ranged in size from the biggest hole in the net, about fist sized, up to a whopping forearm length. Noah tried to count them. “How many are there?” He asked, giving up, and staring at Michelle imploringly.
“Don’t blame me, the net was your idea,” she said cheerfully. “There’s probably only like twelve in there. They’ll go fast once everyone gets eating.”
Michelle headed back out to her day’s work. It turned out, when Noah took the time to count them, that there were seventeen fish in his net. At least he had helpers – Louisa, Zack, and Caleb were taking some time out of the sun to do chores around the cave. Kitty was a staple as well.
“Do you still need skins for shoes?” he asked her.
“No, we’re fine on shoes, but save them anyway,” she told him. “I was thinking maybe raincoats? It’s stupid we’re stuck inside all the time whenever it starts dripping out.”
“Andy said she wanted to try some of the fat in some sort of lamp,” Louisa added. “So there’s that.”
“Right,” Noah said, rubbing his temple. This was definitely giving him a headache. “Let’s get started, then.”
Noah thought the conversation with his fellow fish-gutters was going pretty well, right up until Zack said something to Louisa and she shouted at him.
“You keep your hands and mouth to yourself, you hear? Ugh, I don’t know how anyone stands you.”
“How anyone stands me? I was just talking to you!”
“She didn’t even like you, you know that? You were just convenient!”
“Don’t talk about her.”
“I knew her a hell of a lot better than you did!”
They were both standing. Fists clenched, stance rigid.
“Hey!” said Noah, on his feet as well and not sure when he had gotten there. “What do you two think you’re doing?”
“What business is it of yours?” asked Louisa.
“Everyone’s business, if you’re about to start fighting. You want to step back a pace, both of you? You know what minor injuries can turn into out here.”
“I didn’t start it, she’s just a-“
“One of you want to come with me to the river?” Noah interrupted. “I need someone to keep me from falling down on the way.”
Both future combatants stared at him in a decidedly unfriendly fashion, and Noah took a second to wonder if he was going crazy, getting between two angry people who’d lost someone they’d cared about in the past couple weeks. Someone they’d both cared about.
“I’ll come,” Zack said. “We need to refill the waterskins anyway.”
“Thank you,” Noah said, grabbing a waterskin while he was thinking about it.
Life sure was peaceful when you were stuck on an alien planet with people who didn’t get along.
It wasn’t Noah’s smoothest moment when he said, “So. Kelsey, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Zack. “I thought everyone knew that.”
“I was out of the gossip loop,” said Noah. “Being away and all.”
“Right. Being here. Plus you’re not that with it with boy-girl stuff, huh?”
“Christ,” said Noah, almost biting his tongue.
“I mean, that’s fine! I – did you not know everyone knew?”
“No. I didn’t… well, I didn’t tell anyone, did I.”
“Well, I know you don’t want to do me, so we’re fine,” said Zack.
“Oh, don’t go all stuffy. It’s just sex.”
This made Noah go quiet for a minute, as the dunes passed them by. It was foggy today, low white wisps over the sand, and the grass was rustling in a light breeze. It was one of those pretty days, a little colder – which was good, it had been stupid hot the past few afternoons and no one had gotten much of anything done except napping during the hottest part of the day. The light had a crisp quality to it, everything painted in desaturated shades of white and gold.
“Just sex, huh.”
“You and Louisa and everyone – it’s not that big a deal, okay?”
“I think everyone’s been too hungry to really think about it,” Noah offered. “Now that we’re getting a bit of meat back, people will start pairing off. Unless – has anyone already done that?”
“Sam and Kitty are pretty tight. Which is a real pity, it means there aren’t that many girls to go around.”
“Now that, that I could see Louisa hitting you over.”
Noah was beginning to get the hang of this being friends with girls thing. Certain turns of phrase were just a bad idea.
“She’s okay. Short.”
“So you have a crush on Andy.”
“I didn’t say that. Sure, eat drink and be merry because tomorrow we die, but….”
“I didn’t know her that well.”
“She was nice. Sweet, really. Quiet.”
“I noticed she was quiet.”
“Whatever,” Zack said finally. “So, what’re we doing?”
Noah displayed his handful of shrunken roots, all shriveled and dried-up looking from their long travels.
“If they work,” he adds, “We’ll have something else to eat. Not that I’ve ever farmed anything, so I’m just going to dig them into the mud and hope.”
“Sounds like my kind of farming. Easy.”
Planted, the tubers disappeared into the muck and shallow water of the riverbank without a trace. Zack, practically minded as always, stuck a piece of driftwood in the sand standing upright, to mark the spot.
“You could have had one of the girls do that,” Zack commented. “Or I could have.”
To say he didn’t trust any of these half-starved people to have the self-control to plant a seed instead of eat it right there, or not? To be or not to be, that was the question….
“But then where would I have found such a good excuse to get you and Louisa away from each other for a while?” Noah shrugged. “Anyway, if I stay off my feet any longer I’m going to go crazy.”
“What did you do to your leg, anyway?”
“No idea. Banged it, overused it. It’s feeling fine today.”
Here was to that never happening again. His knee didn’t feel like bending was an unreasonable imposition anymore, it was great.
The fish they prepared, large portions though it was, disappeared as usual into the many hungry mouths, accompanied by a mess of spicy dark green seaweed heated very slowly to boiling point in a waterskin hanging from the fish-drying rack just off to the side of over the fire. This ‘soup’ was set out in an assortment of spare mismatched shells and cups and turned into, by some experimentation, a pleasant dipping sauce for the fish. Noah wasn’t sure what the Earth equivalent was – one of those thin sharp leaves you got in salads that were trying to be fancy.
“Everyone’s feeling better,” he said, watching this with pleasure. “Think we’ll actually start putting on weight?”
“I hope so,” said Caleb. “Some of us still have growing to do.”
“You?” Noah asked, feeling his eyebrows go up. Caleb was big, broad, tall, muscular. Noah wasn’t sure how there was more growing for him to do.
“No, shrimp, I meant you,” Caleb said, with a smile that reached his eyes.
Noah blinked, and swallowed, and concentrated on getting the last drops of sauce from his bowl. Well. That was distracting. Think about fishing. Fishing.
“So, we’ve done a lot around the place to get it habitable. Should we all work on food tomorrow?” Noah asked. “Make a big day of it?”
“I bet this seaweed would dry okay, not like the other kind,” said Sam. “And there’s mounds and mounds of it, it just washes up on the beach in places down by the delta.”
“I’ll leave beachcombing to other people,” said Michelle. “I’m going fishing again tomorrow, I want to try to spear some of the big guys.”
“That’s not really news,” said Caleb. “Has there been a day since we got back you haven’t spent more time in the water than out? You’re going to grow gills.”
“That’d be really convenient. Damn it, Caleb, now I want gills.”
Michelle and Caleb, Noah realized with a start, were friends. He suppressed a stab of jealousy, badly. It wasn’t her fault he could barely look at the guy without freezing up. Just act normal, Noah.
“Sorry, Michelle. Maybe the aliens will bring us some,” he tried.
“You’re encouraging her,” Caleb complained.
“Sorry,” Noah said, not very sorry at all.
Caleb laughed and Noah swallowed a howl of triumph. Yes! Okay. Now just to keep up acting normal, or if not normal, at least verbal. Verbal would be acceptable.
“How about a few different fishing parties?” Noah continued. “I’d like to try using the net, that seemed to work well.”
“I want to stay here,” said Kitty, chiming in, “If that’s okay.”
“New project?” asked Andy.
“Have a look.”
Kitty held up a spoked wheel of the thinnest branches from the trees, eight spokes with a spiral of branches coming out from the center, filling in the gaps.
“What is it?” Noah asked.
“The start of a basket,” said Kitty. “To hold all this stuff we’re making? Once it’s bigger, it’ll hold things fine, as long as we’re not trying to hold water.”
“You’ve done that before,” Noah commented.
“I had a lot of hobbies,” Kitty agreed. “This was just one of them. It’s nice to do it for a reason.”
The fishing parties divided – Andy, Dev and Noah with nets, Michelle, Zack and Caleb with spears, Sam and Louisa on beachcombing. With beds to sleep in, firewood gathered, and Kitty agreeable to mind the hearth, all of them could turn their attention to food for a while. Noah meant to tell Michelle about Zack and Louisa’s fight, but somehow it slipped his mind. They seemed fine.