Reassured about her immediate safety, she turned her attention again to Kris. Kneeling by her side, he was observing her with a slightly expectant look, though she had no idea what he could want from her. Her observer training kicked in and she unconsciously started cataloguing details.
His knee-length pants and tunic-like, sleeveless shirt seemed woven from a natural fiber. Their uniform light brown color appeared original to the fiber and not dyed. The weaving was fine, but clearly handmade. He didn’t seem to be carrying any tool or weapon. All of it confirmed what her preliminary observations had revealed; the planet’s civilization was pre-industrial. At the back of her mind, she already hoped she would have the opportunity to see artisans at work and document their techniques.
At the same time, she detailed his appearance. He seemed human, which reinforced the theory that the planet had been seeded by one of the Lost Ships. His facial features were strong, his jaw covered by the beginning of stubble. The gray of his eyes was a little unusual, but not unheard of. His black, shaggy hair fell to his shoulders. His body was lean but muscled, and tanned by the sun. He seemed in good health and well nourished. If she had had to guess, she would have placed him somewhere around her age: seventeen, or maybe a little older.
He was also good-looking, a small part of her added, although that had nothing to do with a formal observation.
She noticed then that his clothes and hair were dripping wet. “Did you pull me from the river?” she asked before remembering that Kris didn’t understand her.
He frowned slightly, indicating he didn’t comprehend. Zaren grimaced. When she had been in contact with a civilization new to her during her training, she had had a translang to help her communicate. She had brought one of the devices along on this trip, even though she hadn’t been supposed to meet anyone, but it was with the rest of her equipment: in the shuttle.
“I don’t suppose you know where my shuttle fell?” she asked as she stood, knowing it was useless but needing to fill the silence.
Kris stood as well. He said a few words, but even if they had been an answer to her question, Zaren wouldn’t have understood. With a slightly hesitant hand, Kris reached toward her arm and touched her torn sleeve. It was holding on to her top with no more than a few threads. She wondered if the wolf had done this. If it had, she was lucky it hadn’t ripped through her flesh as well. She shuddered as she remembered the animal’s gleaming teeth.
“Torn for torn, I might as well tear it off,” she said aloud, speaking to herself.
She grabbed the edge of the sleeve and pulled hard, finishing to separate it from her top. She peeled it from her arm.
Head tilted to one side, Kris reached again to touch the fabric. Frowning, he rubbed it between his fingertips before doing the same thing to the edge of his tunic. Zaren didn’t understand his words, but the surprise in his voice was clear enough.
“Yeah, it’s dry,” she said, smiling. “The miracles of artificial fabrics.”
She shoved the bit of fabric inside her pocket. It was bad enough that she was having unauthorized contact with a native, she couldn’t leave anything behind. Her eyes widened at the thought and she looked back at the river. From the bank, she could see how fast it flowed. Her seat and parachute were long gone. Those, she would have to abandon. She was lucky enough to have survived; trying to fish out her belongings would have been suicide.
Looking around, she tried to orientate herself. It proved much more complicated a task while in the middle of a dense forest than when she had been above it. The direction of the river’s flow gave her a small idea about which way to go, but she had no clue how far away the shuttle had fallen.
Trying not to be discouraged, she looked at Kris. He was observing her every move with rapt interest.
“Did you see my shuttle fall?” she asked again. “Shuttle?”
Feeling a bit silly, she raised her arms and batted them awkwardly like a bird before pointing up at the sky.
“Shuttle. It flies.” She batted her arms again. “It’s silver. It fell down the sky.” She pulled her sleeve from her pocked again, bunched it up and threw it in the air, pointing at it as it fell to the mossy ground. “See? It fell like this.” She glanced at Kris, who was giving her a completely bewildered look. She sighed. “And I don’t know why I’m standing here babbling at you when clearly you don’t understand a word of what I say.”
Kris picked up her sleeve. Rather than handing it back to her, he folded it this way and that, creating a long form with small triangles sticking out horizontally by its tail. He looked up at Zaren, an eyebrow raised questioningly as he said something. Zaren blinked, her hopes suddenly renewed.
“Yes! That’s my shuttle! Did you see it?”
She pointed at her eyes, then at the representation of the shuttle again. Kris tilted his head back, looking at the ceiling of branches high above them; only a little bit of sky was visible beyond it. Then he looked at the river, before turning his eyes to the forest around them. He didn’t seem to know which way the shuttle was, Zaren thought dejectedly.
She picked the bit of fabric from his open palm and looked at it, thinking. Maybe if she found a way to get some height, she could manage to orient herself. She turned her eyes to the closest tree. How hard could it be to climb it, she wondered, and tried not to think about what would happen if she fell.
She froze at the hesitant word and returned her full attention to Kris. He was pointing in the direction where she had thought the shuttle might have fallen.
“My shuttle?” she said, reining in her excitement. “It’s this way? You saw it fall?”
He repeated the word again, this time pronouncing it a little better. He was still pointing at the forest. Zaren pointed at herself, then at him, then at the same direction he was indicating. “Can you take me there? Can you help me find my shuttle?”
One last time, he repeated the word “Shuttle,” then took a few steps forward, looking at Zaren as though to invite her to come with him.
She beamed at him. “Thank you.”
He returned her smile and they started into the forest together.
* * * *
The first few minutes were intensely frustrating. Zaren kept talking and looking around her, but none of it made sense to Kris. She did seem to repeat one word several times. It had to be important. He watched her mime something—flying? Could she shift, too? Did she want him to shift to his bird form now?—and point to her torn sleeve as it dropped to the ground. It caught a stray bit of sunlight and gleamed, just like the flying thing had when it had disappeared beyond the forest.
Inspiration struck in a flash. Was that what she was talking about?
He picked up the silver fabric and folded it into the flying object’s shape. Her face lit up. It was what she wanted. It was that… shuttle thing she kept mentioning. It had to be. At least now he knew what to do. He’d lead her to it.
He pointed the way and they started in that direction. He kept an eye on her for the first few minutes. She wore strange, flat shoes that weren’t suited for a trek through the woods. He slowed down his step to accommodate hers and thought about what he was doing. At this pace, it would take them two or three days to get out of the forest and reach the swamps that bordered the Ushias’ territory where he had lost sight of the shuttle. Three days should be enough for him to figure out what he would do then.
But three days were a very long time for Elea in her condition. He’d hoped to go back from his journey as quickly as he could; this had definitely not been in his plans.
He stopped and looked back at the sound of his name. Zaren was leaning against a tree, her breathing fast and heavy. Clearly, she needed to rest. Maybe angels were used to flying but not to walking through the woods.
He looked up toward the sky. He couldn’t see the sun, but judging by the brightness filtering through the branches, it had to be past noon. Maybe they could stop for a while, rest and have some food.
He pointed at several large rocks on the ground. “We could camp here for a while.”
She merely stared at him. He walked to a rock and tapped it with his hand. “Sit here. I’ll make a fire.”
Her brow furrowed but she did come forward, and when Kris tapped the rock again, she sat down, the question clear on her face as to whether this was what he wanted. He nodded, smiling, to show her that she had understood him correctly.
In a few minutes, he had gathered enough dry wood to light a small fire in front of Zaren.
“I’ll get food,” he told her, hoping his calm voice would assure her that he wasn’t abandoning her. “I’ll be back soon.”
She nodded uncertainly. He could feel her eyes on him until he had walked far enough into the trees to disappear from her sight. Only then did he shift into is panther form and started jumping up trees to hunt.
* * * *
“You made fire,” Ilona Brink said, her voice holding all her doubts. “How exactly did you do that?”
Zaren swallowed hard and tried to picture as clearly as she could those gestures she had watched Kris make a few times. It had seemed easy; she had no doubt that it really wasn’t.
“I had read accounts of primitive cultures creating fire by rubbing pieces of dry wood together,” she said. “I tried to do that. It took me a long time, but I managed to do it.”
A few members of the council seemed suitably impressed. Others looked at her in frank disbelief. Zaren tried to remain calm. She had already put this in her report, she couldn’t go back on it now, not if she wanted them to accept her words as true.
“Maybe you can demonstrate this technique to us later,” Brink said, pleasantly enough, but Zaren had the clear impression that it would be a test of how much the council ought to believe her.
“So, you made fire and you gathered food,” the man sitting on Brink’s left said, leaning forward intently. “How did you know what food to pick? You could have poisoned yourself.”
Zaren remembered thinking the same thing when Kris had brought back several oval fruits and a small furry creature. She had watched in mild disgust as he peeled away its fur and prepared it using sharp rocks before putting it to roast over the fire. He had tried to offer her a piece of meat when the pink flesh had turned brown, but Zaren had declined. She might have been lost on a primitive planet, but she wasn’t so far gone as to eat a piece of a living creature.
She had turned to the fruits instead and hoped as she had taken her first bite that her physiology and Kris’ were similar enough that his food wouldn’t poison her. The pale, yellow skin of the fruit yielded easily when she bit it, revealing a succulent, juicy flesh. She feasted on the fruits while avoiding looking at Kris as he heartily ate the small animal he had caught.
“I guess I was lucky,” she finally answered. “The fruits I picked were nutritious, and very good. They sustained me for the three days it took me to get out of the forest and find the shuttle.”
It wasn’t really a lie, she told herself as the members of the council scrutinized her. She had eaten more of the fruits in the days that had followed, along with other foods Kris had found for them. She learned their names as they walked, and these had been her first words in his language.
“What about at night?” Brink asked, looking down at the screen in front of her then back at Zaren. “It says in your report that you found shelter. Can you tell us more about it?”
The memory of the first night she had spent in the forest resurfaced, and with it, her second glimpse of the wolf. Zaren’s heart started thundering in her chest. She had been so scared, that first night, awakening to find Kris gone, and this strange animal observing her instead. She had to be more careful than ever now. She couldn’t give Kris and his people away with a careless word. She had promised she wouldn’t.