“Knock it down! Put it out!”
Andy was trying to sleep.
“Throw water on it!”
Andy coughed, rolling over, nostrils burning. What was going on? Who was shouting?
“Everyone out of the cave! Come on, out!”
Someone was shouting at her. Andy opened her eyes to darkness and an orange glow and smoke that stung her eyes and nose. She inhaled through her mouth and sat up, coughing. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe.
“What-“ she hacked, coughing. At this rate she was going to develop asthma like her cousin Aliyah.
It came together in her head in a flash – the orange tree above the fire, the oily smoke, the shouts, the- not pausing to think, Andy grabbed the nearest shoulder – Michelle – and shook it hard.
“Come on! The fish caught fire, we have to move. Come on!”
Shaking shoulders, pushing people, almost getting punched by Zack as he came awake, dodging, trying not to breathe in the miasma, trying not to breathe at all. Running out of people to grab, heading for the cave entrance, outlined in the faint light of dawn and the orange blaze of the fish-drying rack catching on spectacular, smoky fire.
Andy leaned on the pale stone outside the cave and to one side and coughed, hands on her knees, trying to breathe and think at the same time. Thoughts slotted into place like building blocks.
- They would need a new drying rack.
- It would need to not be in the cave.
- It would need to be less flammable.
- Her only source of non-flammable materials were rocks and the shuttle panel buried in the sand down to the west of them.
- Rocks would be heavy and she didn’t have tools to move them or cut them.
- She would need people to help her move the piece of shuttle.
- She would need to go see it to see what sort of materials it could yield.
- This was going to be a pain in the ass.
Luckily for Andy’s peace of mind and need to kick ass to share the pain, they’d gotten pretty good at collective decision-making. Everyone knew that if they didn’t work, they didn’t eat, and everyone liked to eat. The collective pain of losing multiple meals to a fire and a disrupted night’s sleep left everyone groggy, grumpy, and hungry. They’d done so well yesterday catching more than enough fish to eat and dry over the fire as well. They’d been camping at the cave for a week and half, and this was the first day they’d had a food surplus at the end of the day. Despite their moods, Andy didn’t have any trouble grabbing a hiking partner, Kitty, for her first trip out to the abandoned shuttle to investigate.
“Gather some sweetgrass stems while you’re there,” Dev said practically. “Don’t waste the trip.”
Andy nodded. She’d gotten as fond as anyone else of chewing the things and the sweet, refreshing taste, and the way it made water just that bit more interesting. She missed soda. Coffee. Tea. Juice.
She banished that from her thoughts.
“Do you think we’ll always act like we’re going to be jumped at any second by ravening wolves?” Kitty asked. “Or muggers?”
“Wolves aren’t that bad,” Andy said absently. “I just don’t like being alone.”
They talked idly, Andy getting Kitty to explain the engineering principles involved in sewing and basket-making as well as she could.
“I really want to try weaving and spinning with the fibers here,” Kitty said, “But that’s really more a hobby than a project.”
“It’s all the same in the end,” said Andy. “If we’re really stuck here, for whatever reason – like Louisa was saying, we need more clothes.”
“Do you think that thing I’m trying with the skins will work?”
Kitty had, with Andy’s cautious approval, buried their spare fish skins designated for future clothing use in hot sand to cure.
“No idea,” Andy said happily. “But won’t it be interesting to find out?”
“You’re weird,” Kitty said without rancor.
“Mhmm,” said Andy. “And not dead of smoke inhalation.”
“Something like that.”
“Hey, look,” Kitty said, stooping to gather a shell from the beach. Andy studied it with interest. It was a small, convex shape, iridescent pink and cream in color, about the size of a silver dollar. Kitty twisted it this way and that way in the morning light, light shimmering off of it.
“What would you use that for?”
“Jewelry. One little hole drilled in this baby, and a cord, and I’ve got myself a honest-to-baby-Jesus necklace.”
“Some of you may be happy to look like boys, but not me.”
Andy frowned, self conscious.
“I look like a boy?”
She knew her hair was short, but….
“Oh! No, no, you’re great. I meant Michelle.”
It was true that Michelle had an androgynous thing going on, especially since she’d lost weight, but that still didn’t seem like a nice thing to say about her.
“I’ll make some jewelry for everyone,” Kitty said abruptly, perhaps reading something in Andy’s expression. “For the party. We’re still doing the party, right?”
“Soon,” Andy agreed. “I want to have a week’s food put away before we spend time on something that… uh.”
“I just meant… no point having a big feast if we starve the next day.”
“I’m not actually arguing?”
Kitty was a complicated person to talk to, Andy thought. Or Andy was just bad with people. Probably Andy was just bad with people.
“I’d like some jewelry,” Andy tried instead.
“Do you think Noah will want some?”
“Is he an honorary girl now?”
“If he wants to be,” Kitty said firmly.
“Right. Well.” Andy had to think about it. “I don’t think that’s his style, really, but you can ask. I miss earrings.”
“Earrings? Tricky. No wire.”
“I’m sure we can figure something out.”
“Me, too. Just a question of how quickly.”
“You know, I bet we could make some… I don’t know. Glitter? I’ve seen rocks on the beach that are full of good reflective stuff, it’s just a matter of finding the right composition. Mica, or something.”
“Now you’re speaking my language,” Kitty said happily.
The piece of shuttle, when they reached it, had achieved a colony of tiny scuttling insectoid things that fled the scene when Andy banged on it. It was, as she’d remembered, an L-shaped panel if silver metal with delicate designs on the outside, lying with the exterior up and both ends stuck into the sand just above the high tide line. She lay down on the top, feet pressed into the sand at the top end of the L, head a few feet from the curve of the L.
“How tall would you say it is?” she asked Kitty.
“How tall are you?”
“So – nine by six, eight by six. Something like that.”
Andy got up, and came around to the base of the L, where she dug up the damp sand briskly. Kitty joined her, and between them they unearthed the last end of the L, about four feet long from the corner, and a hand-sized shelled creature.
“Huh,” said Andy, distracted by the prospect of food. “Do you think there are more of these?”
It turned out, after a copious amount of digging along the high tide line, getting splashed by the waves and soaked by spray, that there were more of them. Quite a lot more. When they returned to camp they only brought a little sweetgrass, because they’d filled their bags with four-sided shells.
It turned out that the things popped open when cooked much like Earth shellfish, and made a very good lunch.
“I’ve got a way to preserve the fish,” Andy explained while blowing on one of them to make it cool enough to touch and eat. “We get the piece of shuttle and set it up as a lean-to to keep the rain off, and we use that as our place to smoke everything. I’ll need… the strong knife and all the guys to help me move some logs, and then everyone to help me move the panel. I think if we get it in the water to take some of the weight, we’ll be able to shift it with just us.”
“We can keep drying seaweed in the cave,” said Michelle. “That won’t do us any harm. Do we need to be ready to move stuff today?”
“I’ll be working on the framework for it today,” said Andy. “Let’s say tomorrow, or the first clear day after that.”
Clouds were rolling in, it didn’t seem likely to stay clear that afternoon.
“Good. I want a nap,” Michelle concluded. Andy could only agree. Life was exhausting.
Hauling the piece of shuttle was hard work, making her shoulders burn and her back ache, catching her breath in her throat until she wanted to just fall down into the sand and not get up again. Still, what Michelle didn’t notice was the work. What she noticed was the people. Whether through trained instinct or new awareness, this is what she saw.
“On three,” said Caleb, as they got ready to lift the shuttle from its place in the sand, finally.
“Shouldn’t Andy say three?” asked Zack.
“I don’t mind. Caleb’s officially appointed counting-to-three guy,” laughed Andy.
“You heard the lady. On three. One, two, three.”
They hauled. The shuttle piece shifted. One foot. Two feet. Three. It was in the water now, and Michelle felt the strain on her shoulders ease – was it floating? It was like it was floating. It was floating.
“It’s floating,” she pointed out, unnecessarily.
“This just got easier!” called Andy over the sound of the waves. “Our job’s to make sure it doesn’t float out to sea, now. Everyone together.”
Two teams of two – Zack and Sam, Kitty and Dev, had long tethers to haul with. The other five of them arranged themselves around it in a loose net and pushed. The waves pushed them in and out, the sand shifted underfoot. Every time one of them faltered, another one or two was there to take up the slack, keep it going. Caleb was at the back, providing force. Noah and Michelle were on the outside edge, keeping it from drifting out to sea. Louisa and Andy were on the inside edge, keeping it from washing up on shore again.
It took hours. It took minutes. All Michelle was sure of was the cries of triumph and the hugs they had, after Andy gave the call, “Here! Here, we’re done. Drop it, guys.”
She was hugging everyone.
“I love you guys.” She was saying it to everyone. Everyone was saying it to her. She did love them. It was warm and it was filling and it was exhausting and she was home.
Work wasn’t over then, of course. They took a break to eat and rest, and then Michelle and everyone joined the crew to set up the new smoke shack. (She couldn’t help compare it to outbuildings back home, with their similar thrown-together air and use of found materials.) It grew out of the piece of shuttle, which formed its back wall, and a frame Andy and her team had lashed together out of thick twisted tree trunks chipped away from their stumps over days, to prop it safely up. Everything, absolutely everything, was lashed down tight with braided rope, and finally the lean-to was done. A shallow pit lined with stones, drying rack they would keep an eye on, some fish gutting, and the whole process was done – fish drying on the lines.
Michelle and Andy were the only ones who stuck around after it was constructed, lounging and watching the shallow firepit flicker.
“Good work,” Michelle said.
“Think you’ll stick with this leader thing?”
“I’m not much of a leader, it seems like. If anything, I just want to keep us all moving in vaguely the right direction. So far everyone’s been really good.”
“Wait until we’re not starving or worried about starving,” Michelle predicted. “There’s enough food here we won’t have to worry about it for long, if we figure out how to store it. And cook it different ways – you getting as tired of fish as I am?”
“More tired, probably. At least we’ve been doing some new things. Shellfish. Green sauce.”
“If that works.”
“Yeah. So, want to take a walk? We can explore. See new sights. Find useful things.”
“You want to bring Noah?”
Michelle looked thoughtful at the question.
“No, I don’t trust him to take care of his leg right. We can go. Up along the river?”
And so it was decided.
They talked about boys, and jewelry, and how to store enough food for seven people for a week. Girly things. The riverbank was easy walking, and the weather was good – not too hot, not too cool, with only the barest whisps of the morning fog left out on the river. The animals were quiet that day.
There was a curve in the bank, where the river had cut in and dug out a little pool. The dirt at the edge of the pool was a different consistency – slick and pale grey, not the darker brown muck that was normal. It caught Michelle’s attention even as it caught Andy’s, though Andy was the one who exclaimed in delight.