The best part of clay, hauled back in all their available bags and baskets to the cave, was that almost everyone had done something with clay in elementary or high school – even so simple as building a coil pot. It wasn’t the smooth, perfectly even clay you worked with in school, but it wasn’t terrible, aside from one or two out of every three pieces cracking horribly as it dried, and more as they were exposed to heat or flame. Dev and Kitty had the most patience for it, and the ones to produce the most essential items – simple cooking pots, in order to make soups and stews instead of endless, monotonous, stab-yourself-in-the-eyes roast fish. None of them were so spoiled as to complain about a hot meal at this point, but there was a slowness to eat, an eager happiness at the appearance of a change in routine – some new combination of flavors, a meal of shellfish instead of fish.
Michelle, leaving that to the others, kept her focus on food. The only other person who was as consistently ready to go out hunting was Zack, reinforcing the way she felt when she looked at him – especially when he was stripped down to almost nothing to go into the water, sun-tanned shoulders damp with drops of sea spray.
Well, maybe she had other motivations to be that willing to go out hunting whenever Zack seemed about to, but the end result was the same.
They were sitting out in the branches of one of the big trees out beyond the entrance of the delta – Michelle, feeling restless, had taken them out farther today than on previous expeditions. It was like being a kid, sitting in the branches of a big willow, except really not.
“So, do you think we’re going to die?” Zack asked, one leg dangling off the edge of his branch. Michelle had both of hers tucked up in front of her.
“You mean earlier than other people, or at all?”
“I mean here. Now. Soon.”
“Not soon soon.”
“Well… think about it. We’ve got food, water, shelter. It’s okay out. We don’t hate each other, so no one’s going to get murdered. As long as we don’t drown ourselves I think we’ll be okay. Have you been keeping track of how much food we’re getting tucked away?”
He shook his head.
“We’re up to slim rations for everyone for a week – dried fish and seaweed soup, nothing fancy. Now we’re working on decent rations, instead.”
“It doesn’t bother you there’s no hospitals or anything?”
“I never trusted those anyway,” Michelle said.
“Yeah? Why not?”
“Something my dad said once.”
“I’d trust a hospital before I trusted my foster-dad to give me advice about anything.”
“Yeah? Was he an asshole?”
“No, just stupid.”
Michelle watched the frown come and go across his face.
“And an asshole,” he added, and she laughed.
“They can’t bother us here,” she said. “And this fishing thing is kind of fun. Go out, catch stuff, come home and let other people cook.”
“I don’t love it the way you do, I just like eating.”
“Everyone likes eating, but some people are lazy about it. I like that.”
“I’m glad someone doesn’t hate me.”
“Hey, who hates you? No one hates you.”
“Louisa thinks I was a shitty boyfriend.”
Michelle hesitated, watching a sea serpent patrol out in the open ocean. It was the same one again, she was beginning to recognize it. Maybe it was the one whose babies she kept killing. Creepy.
“You too, huh?”
“I think her friend’s dead and she’s pissed,” Michelle said. “I mean, I didn’t even know Harry, but him being dead still throws me, you know?”
“You really liked her, huh?”
“People keep asking that. I don’t know.”
“Well, you didn’t hate her,” Michelle said practically.
“Hah. That’s true.”
She could go over there and kiss him. She could go over there and kiss him right now.
“What about you?” he asked. “Boyfriend back on earth you’re missing?”
Diverted, she replied, “There were a few guys – I had this sort of gang I worked with, lived with, we were tight. I wasn’t dating any of them, though, things were too… it wasn’t right. Maybe they weren’t right.”
“Well, at least you didn’t leave anyone behind. Some of the others – Dev had a girl.”
“Did Andy have a boyfriend, do you know?”
“Not that I’ve heard her mention. Shall we get back to it?”
“Sure,” he agreed, letting himself fall casually off the edge of the tree into the waiting water.
Fishing sounded more fun than gossip, anyway.
Let other people have boys and girls and crushes and arguments. Andy had a water barrel, and it was beautiful.
It had happened like this. The most waterproof material they’d found so far was the fish skins, of which they had an endless supply from the frankly alarming numbers of guppy-fish and baby sea monsters. It appeared to be baby sea monster spawning season. There were also larger creatures, cow sized, that prowled the waters, but they mostly were active at night and during the twilight hours. The humans stuck to the daytime, when they could see the damn things coming and hide in the branches of the trees.
The point being, between Kitty’s adept teaching of basket-weaving and many hands, they’d happened into a variety of baskets, especially a set of long, tall ones designed to be worn as backpacks. Then Andy had had an idea.
The idea, realized, stood before her now. Three baskets with liners stitched together of tough fish hide, coated in fish oil until the seams stopped leaking, covers for the tops, and backpack straps to carry them with. It increased the amount of water they could bring home from trips to the river enormously – the rainwater pool at the head of the cave was great, and mostly full, but it was best saved for those times when you were feeling really damn lazy.
“This should be enough for the party,” she said aloud, tasting it on her tongue.
“Can I be done with baskets now?” Kitty asked. “I’m going to lose my fingers, and then everyone will be sorry.”
Kitty had produced, with her team of assistants, three water baskets and enough storage baskets to make Michelle’s dream of food storage in the back of the cave a reality. They’d taken a good chunk out of a number of trees to do it, too.
“I think so,” Andy said. “Just in time for you to work on that cloak idea, I think.”
“Why did I admit to being any good at making stuff.”
“Because you were tired of not having any stuff,” Andy pointed out.
“Oh, right. That. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m taking the rest of the day off. Someone else can gut fish today.”
Andy considered, with some bewilderment, the idea of an afternoon off. How did those work again? What did you do with them? It had been… she had to count on her fingers… a couple weeks since they got back here, right? Someone should make a calendar.
She should make a clock. Her thoughts settled as she decided on this project. She’d need some slate, a bit of string, and a flat space with lots of light. Sundial, here she came.
“You and Kitty are weird, you know that?” asked Louisa. Andy looked up from her careful study of the sun-shadow of her carefully positioned rock.
“Why’s that?” Andy asked.
“Here you are staring at rocks, while she’s wandering around asking what my favorite color is.”
“Oh, that’s probably her jewelry project. She wants to make sure everyone who wants something has something they like.”
“Yes? She told me about it the other day. I’m working on a sundial.”
“And that’s the most important thing you could be doing?”
“Not in a million years, but I’m taking the afternoon off. It’s surprisingly fun.”
“Huh,” Louisa said, sitting next to her. “Not going to delay the party, are you?”
“Most of that’s a hunter problem,” Andy pointed out. “Though I think we should make a pen for fish so we can catch them alive and leave them there for easy eating later, that’s what I did at – my last campsite.”
“You put those baby serpents in with the puppy fish and the puppy fish will be gone by morning.”
“I know. I guess – you ever have pet fish?”
“Me, neither. Any idea what the – fish that look unfortunately friendly – eat?”
“I’ll have a look later. I just threw trash in there and they seemed okay – fish guts, seaweed, whatever.”
“We’d build it far away from the toilet, right?”
“Very far,” Andy agreed. Getting water-born nasties wasn’t on her list of things to do.
“Fine. Glad you’ll do that.”
“Where are you going?” Andy asked, looking up at her, squinting against the glare of the afternoon sun.
“To make sure Kitty knows I like bracelets, duh.”
It was a day later, and a hard day of hauling rock and wood to make a fish pen of a day it had been, too. Andy had built it a few minutes down the coast towards the river, where a shallow tidal pool never completely emptied. With some reinforcements and higher walls all around, her confused new friends were now a stock of fresh fish for lazy days and parties.
Now it was evening, and the fire was blazing, and it was someone else’s turn to cook. Andy was lying on her back staring up at the smoke-stained pale rock of the ceiling, painted orange-smoky by the firelight.
“You know what I discovered today?” She asked Noah and Michelle, sitting near her. It was Noah’s turn to cook, but he’d done fish gutting and then been kicked off the team while Sam and Kitty experimented with making some sort of fish pancake thing. Andy had low hopes for fish pancakes, but high hopes that it would be edible and keep her alive another day.
“What’s that?” asked Noah.
“I can make a lot of things. You guys must have noticed that.”
“It’s pretty spooky,” Noah agreed. “What was it today? Fish dispenser?”
“Fish pen, like the one I made back – down the coast.”
“You almost said back home,” Noah pointed out. “I’ve been doing that, too.”
Andy frowned, and stretched out a kink or five in her shoulders, rolling them.
“Huh?” she added, to try to emphasize that she was tired, and this was not a good time to engage her in philosophical discussion.
“Nothing. What was this about building stuff?” he asked.
“Right. Building stuff.” Back on track for the one thought she had energy for. “So I can build fish pens. I can build sundials. I can build water-carrying backpacks, goddamnit. So why can’t I build a stinking drum?”
“Oh,” said Noah.
“Exactly!” said Andy. “Music for the party, Andy. It’ll be great, Andy. You can build it, right Andy? Well, sometimes I can’t build it!”
Michelle put an arm around her shoulders, quieting Andy’s incipient hysterics.
“That’s okay. We can just sing, okay? I sang in church choir when I was a kid, it’ll be fine.”
Andy sniffed. What a stupid thing to cry about. Stupid tears. Stupid human emotions. Why couldn’t she just be a very efficient robot.
“I’d like to be a very efficient robot,” Andy confided in Michelle quietly.
“But if you were a very efficient robot, you wouldn’t be my friend, because being a friend isn’t efficient.”
“Oh,” said Andy. “I could be a friendly robot.”
“We like you the way you are,” said Noah. “Promise.”
Noah patted her knee. She patted his back, in retaliation, and got a small, sideways-crooked smile for her trouble.
Maybe not being able to make drums, tambourines, or even shaken rattles wasn’t so bad. At least she had friends.