He had wanted, back at the slate hill cave, to bring Harry’s rock. He’d been shot down on all sides, and looking at the long gravel stretch of hill ahead of him, he couldn’t find it in himself to object to their override. Just looking at this hike made him feel tired. Sure, his leg was behaving better, tired and aching in the cool nights instead of swollen and locked up, but that didn’t mean he really wanted to subject it to this.
He looked around at the other hikers. More than half of them matched his expression of exhausted resignation.
“This is stupid,” he said abruptly.
People looked his way, slowly. Their lack of verbal response was another cue that this was, indeed, stupid.
“What is?” asked Michelle, coming over to him. Even she was showing wear around the edges, not that that surprised him.
“All of us, like this. You could make a ton more time if you weren’t trying to match pace with the slowest of us, and I – shouldn’t be trying to keep up with you.”
“Who’s you, in this case?” Michelle asked. “I’ve been trying-“
“You shouldn’t be,” he interrupted. “You, Andy – I think that’s it – you should go on ahead. Get more food, double back, I’m sorry, I know it’s a lot of work for you, but it’s not like there’s food to be had here.”
“I wouldn’t mind getting down out of these hills faster,” Andy admitted. “But I don’t want to leave you all behind.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Zack, eavesdropping as everyone else was. “I can keep up.”
And that was, in the end, what they did. Noah’s group was left with most of the remaining food supplies, with meager helpings doled out to the advance party. With firm hugs and threats of dire death if Noah let anything happen to him, Michelle and Andy and Zack took off at a brisk pace belying their own hunger and fatigue. At a brisk pace, they were probably only two or three day’s walk from the coast, and less than that from places where the stream widened into pools with creatures and grasses that might be scavenged for less than palatable but entirely edible foodstuffs.
They got Zack back first, waiting for them in the first place where the dunes turned into the stony hills. He had waiting with him a whole bank of roots, dug from the ground around a pool, and a small fire. They ate and ate and ate and laughed and cried. Between the seven of them, his pile of tubers didn’t stretch so far as all that, but it was a full meal, if not a feast, and more than any of them had eaten in days. A few pieces of fish that was beginning to taste stronger and stronger by the day and make Noah think they needed to work on their fish preservation technique was just not the same.
The next day they didn’t meet anyone from the forward party. They were into the sandy stretch by then, with only grass and tiny flitting insects for company. The only bright side was that Zack, in his exploration of every possible foodstuff in his stop yesterday, had discovered that if you dug up the sea grass by half a foot, just above the root there was a sweet core to the grasses that you could peel and chew on. It wasn’t much nutrition, but chewing and sweetness was something, and everyone got a share to munch on as they walked, picking new ones from the grasses around them as theirs got old and tired.
A few people – Sam, Caleb – required shouting to get them to move. Noah found his shyness floated right out the window when he had a group to hussle and people who just wanted to lie down and die there. So he shouted. He did not assault, but he thought of sergeants from old army movies and did his level best imitation.
It was faint when he first heard it. It got lost in the wind, and he was sure that he was wrong. That the sun on the endless perfect dunes was getting into his head. As he trudged on, it came again. It was quieter than the wind, subtle, hinting.
The sound of waves on the beach.
Andy and Michelle were waiting on the beach, with food. Half a fish for everyone, reminiscent of their earlier lessons with Noah and Michelle’s hunger. Not too much food, not too fast. And they sat, and they ate slowly, and they drank water, and they began, by bits and pieces, to relax.
“This is a nice place,” said Kitty. “How about we just stay here?”
“It washes out during hurricanes,” Andy said. “I don’t want to get swept out to sea.”
“I’m sick of caves,” was Kitty’s reply. “Sick of no privacy. Sick of – I need a place I can be by myself sometimes.”
“We don’t all have to live together,” Andy said soothingly. “Though we’ll need to stay in the cave at least for a little while, since we don’t have any shelters built. There’s different parts of the cave, too, it’s a pretty big place. We could stake out different sections.”
“Michelle and I have kind of agreed Andy’s in charge, at least for now,” Noah said quietly. “Just to have a tiebreaker, when we vote or whatever.”
That got various murmurs.
“I’ll do what I think is best,” said Caleb. “I just want to make that clear.”
“That’s fine,” said Andy. “I’m not starting a dictatorship of one.”
“Good,” he said. “Good fish, thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she said with a nod.
Somehow they didn’t end up leaving the beach for a while. As the afternoon wore on, they passed around the water skin. Dev, in his quiet way, went and dug a few of the sweet grass stems, and crushed them up. Added to the water, it made for a slightly more interesting drink, to general acclaim.
Andy left again after a while. Noah took another drink, watching her go.
“Where’s she off to?” he asked Michelle.
“You’re so out of it,” she said fondly. “She’s going to get more fish. I’m not sure how else we’re getting any of you back to the cave today.”
Noah contemplated another hour or so of walking.
“More fish sounds good,” he agreed cheerfully. “I promise not to make a mess.”
“You’d better not,” she said.
“So, how were things here?” he asked. “I noticed you left Zack behind pretty early.”
“Well, easy on the eyes or not,” and wasn’t that an interesting thing for her to say, “He’s still like the rest of you. Them. Starving. We’re going to have to work really hard to get everyone fed so they aren’t going to keel over on us, Noah. How’s your leg?”
“Better. It’ll be better still if I can just stay off it for a day – tend the fire, maybe make nets. We could use nets, couldn’t we?”
“Bringing in a whole net of fish at once?” Michelle asked. “I’d love it. This spear thing is fun for a while, but we need more volume now.”
“Andy’ll be okay on her own fishing?”
“We’re right by that bay where they’re stupid easy to catch,” said Michelle. “She’ll be back soon.”
“Right,” Noah said, content with that. His stomach was still getting used to the idea of having food in it again – what he wouldn’t do for a salad (let’s not even think about cheeseburgers) but at least the flavored drink was good.
“This was a good idea,” he said to Dev. “Thank you.”
Dev smiled at him.
“You’re welcome. I get bored, too.”
“I’m sorry about your friend.”
“He is hopefully in a better place than this. A better life.”
“That’d be nice,” Noah agreed.
“Tell me about this net you want to make. What will we make it out of?” Dev asked.
That was probably the most words Noah had heard Dev say since this whole thing began. That was probably a good sign, wasn’t it?
“There’s this black seaweed that comes in long strands. If you braid it together, you get a good rope. Michelle, do you have some?”
Michelle reached over and snagged the waterskin to demonstrate – its top and bottom were sinched with tough black kelp-stuff, and its carrystrap was made of the same.
“I see,” said Dev. “How big a net?”
“Let’s start with big enough for one person to use and test it,” said Michelle. “Then we can always add more.”
She held her arms out wide.
“This wide, then.”
“I will help,” said Dev.
“Cool,” said Noah. “Um, good.”
“I understood you,” said Dev, looking amused.
“Good,” said Noah, feeling awkward. Michelle patted his knee, though when he looked at her she looked like she might be laughing at him. On the inside. Great.
Other little conversational groups had sprung up, clustered around the fire. Caleb and Zack were talking, the last of Caleb’s little band of brothers except for Dev. Sam and Kitty were talking – Noah tuned into their conversation for a moment.
“It’s stupid, really,” Kitty was saying. “But I’ve never seen an ocean before. Are they all this – big?”
“You’re asking me?” said Sam. “I only saw one, on vacation, once. It was – a little like this. More grey, less green, I guess. The weather was pretty terrible that week, though.”
“Where was that?”
“We all went to Florida for my grandpa’s 80th birthday. He paid for everything. I brought back a sand dollar.”
“Sounds nice,” says Kitty.
“This ocean’s nicer,” said Sam. “Except – what’s that?”
Noah glanced out to sea. There was a big – thing – out in the waves, cruising along the coast like it owned the place. A whale? This planet didn’t have whales that he’d seen before.
“Is that one of your aliens, Michelle?” he asked her, keeping an eye on it. That drew the attention of the rest of the group.
“Oh,” she said. “No, that’s a sea serpent.”
“A sea serpent,” Caleb said.
“Yeah, a sea serpent. Big, snake thing. Like the eels except the size of a small house.”
“A sea serpent,” Caleb repeated, volume rising.
“I heard you the first time,” Michelle snapped.
“You invite us all the way down here to the ocean, have us sitting here out in the open, and don’t mention the sea monsters?”
Noah looked at Michelle at that one as well. Caleb had a point. Michelle hadn’t mentioned the sea monsters.
“They’re fine,” Andy said, coming over the hill and interrupting, a long-handled net full of fish in tow. “I’ve been living on the coast for months and I’m alive, aren’t they? They can’t come in to the coast, they’re too big. Maybe if one beached, but that’d just mean we had food for a year. You see them out there sometimes, patrolling the coast line like it’s their property. I think it might be spawning season or something – I think they’re larger versions of the eels we’ve been eating, like those are their babies.”
“You’ve been eating the babies of sea monsters, and you don’t see a problem with that,” Caleb said.
“No, I don’t. Sit your ass down and let me make you some more lunch, okay?”
“We’re not done talking about this.”
“I look forward to it. Big strong man like you telling me how to live my life. Sit down, kid.”
Everyone, in the end, sat down. More fish was prepared and served, though Noah noticed that the six new-old faces were keeping a wary eye on the water now. Given the two months they’d all had, he supposed he couldn’t blame them for some paranoia.
“Here’s an idea,” said Michelle. “How about we each say one thing we want? Not like a car, something for the next few days. I want to do a lot more fishing and start building up supplies for when it rains.”
“I think we need to smoke the fish longer, next time,” Noah commented. “It was fine for a few weeks, but I don’t think it was really preserved, just – I don’t know, like smoked salmon you could buy in a store.”
“Okay, we’ll smoke the fish longer next time. I stand by that. I’m so sick of not having quite enough food. Noah?”
“I want to plant the tubers I brought down the mountain over on the river, see if we can’t get a patch of those going. They’re great. Oh, but I’m going to be working on a fishing net for a few days, so don’t expect me to get to that right off the bat.”
“Did anyone think about what we’re going to sleep on?” asked Kitty. “I’m tired of sleeping on rocks.”
“We gathered some grasses from the hills,” said Andy. “A few big piles. I’m not sure if it’ll be enough for everyone, but that’s waiting back at the cave.”
“So, beds. Good beds. Next?” asked Michelle.
“I might be going outside the realm of the possible,” said Caleb, “But paper and pencil or rock and sharp rock. Something to write with. I brought a few pieces of slate with me, but they aren’t great.”
“A slate and a burnt stick together might work,” said Andy. “Let’s work on that later. Worst comes to worst we get a bit dirty. Um… actually, we should start saving the ash from fires in something. I’m sure I can remember the recipes you can use ash for if I just think about it hard enough. I know they’re there in my head.”
“Andy, what would you like?” asked Michelle.
“A way to store and heat water,” Andy said promptly. “In quantity. I don’t want to be walking to a river or pool, I want a hot bath. I want a hot bath really bad. Or a shower, but preferably a bath.”
There were general murmurs of approval for this idea. Hot water, hot showers-
“We can dream,” agreed Michelle. “Who’s next?”
“I know this is a small thing,” said Sam, “But – a comb. Something we can use for soap. I’d ask the heavens for shampoo, but I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
Sam had cut her hair, sometime while they were separated – instead of long black hair that almost matched Michelle’s, hers was now a choppy chin-length bob. Noah made a mental note to suggest to Michelle or Andy that they do girl haircut bonding night again.
“So we’ve got food, water, beds, writing, cleaning ourselves up,” summarized Louisa. “Nothing fun. Life’s not worth living without a little fun. How about we get all that done, and we have a party? Best food and drink we can get, some dancing, some singing. If I have to turn that into a wish – something to make some music with.”
“Well, okay,” said Michelle. “Fine by me, if everyone else wants to. Zack? Dev?”
“I want to gather and store food,” said Zack. “Everything else can wait, except maybe gathering a lot of fuel for fires. We don’t know if this planet has a cold season, but if it does and it hits… we’re going to wish we had built some real shelter.”
That was sobering, in the way that thinking about a party wasn’t.
Dev said quietly, “I would like a memorial. Funeral. For dead friends. Can this party be that, as well?”
“Hell yes,” said Louisa. “Kelsey’d like that. All our dead. We could make… I don’t know. Gravestone or something. Something good.”
“I’d like that,” Noah found himself saying. “Someplace we could remember Harry, too. And… and everyone else.”
The waterskin came around the circle again, and he swallowed the sweet liquid to ease his tight, dry throat.