Berran was on the big flat rock wearing her heavy skin. Her eyes looked closed, but her slow, dancing movements always stopped just a bit before the edge. The eye-pod hung around her neck on a grass cord with the ear-bits still tucked up above her meaty ears, and I could hardly take my eyes off it.
All except the ones who were too sick were there watching, waiting. They were sunflowers to Berran’s sun, shuffling so their fronts were always to her. The real sun should have been rising, but a flat grey roof of clouds covered the whole sky, holding the cold and making the wide valley feel closed-in. The main fire was low and smoky, just coals.
Birds peeped half-heartedly, sweet little bush sounds cut by crows complaining. No-one spoke, and the coughing from the huts blended with the birds. I sneaked a look around me. They were all staring at Berran, even my brother, whose normally sharp mouth was dangling dumbly open to match his eyes. Seeing him made me look for our kid, but then I remembered she’s been in the pit since a long time. I quickly turned back to Berran, and though her eyes were still closed, it seemed she watched me, so I made my face look like the others.
A small sun patch brightened the rock and Berran breathed, a big gasping lungful. Everyone stirred, ready to listen. Her eyes opened wide and she grabbed the eye-pod, squashing it up to one eye and looking wildly out to the ridge top with the other.
I copied her strange call with a whisper so quiet only I could hear it, watching how she did her little dance. She slowed until she was only just moving, then planted her big feet firm. Looking up with wide eyes, she dropped the eye-pod on its cord and reached into her folded skin. Out came her hand, and she held the buk high. That was when I got my idea.
17 Aug 2112 After fourteen days of walking, we have finally found something of note. Yesterday morning we decided to push on up the big spur, even though we were both on the verge of turning back and it was just pride that kept us going. Lauren looked dead tired and I’m sure I did too, but it’s all worth it now.
It’s been cool here for some time according to the scans, but our counters both went off heavily a couple of times on the way up (NB co-ords for download when we get back), though we got around OK of course.
I should be sleeping now but I’m too keyed up. Writing this by hand on permapaper – once we’d scoped out how the people here lived I insisted we stash the gear and not bring anything too tech. Good plan, but Lauren still had her ipod under her jacket! Oh well, hopefully they think it’s jewellery or something. Right, must stop rambling now! Notes in no particular order.
We are in a rough hut in a group of about fifteen similar on the south-western slope of a wide grassy valley closed in about four km to the west by rockfall. Eastern slopes lead up into the high country. There’s a small river with good flow which must go underground into the fall. Water is clean.
The people! Will count properly tomorrow, but there’s about sixty, I think, ranging from infants to about forty years old (? – hard to say, all filthy with hardly any teeth). We can’t understand them but now and then I think I get a word. It’s only been ninety years, so I don’t understand how they can have lost it all so quickly.
The day those other people came, we had killed a cow and a goat. The meat smelt so good, but after Berran, there was the men to eat first, then us other women. The kids go last. Still, even though I’m not that big, I could usually get some early, most times.
It was my brother, Dail, dangling a bit of meat on a stick to tease me. I growled and made fists but he just laughed. He knew he could beat me any time then, but he’s not so smart now.
The cows and goats go where they want, but I think lately it takes longer to catch one. We run after them and hunt them into the steep-sided cliff part, but that’s just the start. We look at them and they look at us until someone makes a move, and then it’s a mad rush of kicks and wrestles and thumps that ends up as a heap of people sitting on one frothing beast until its temple is bashed in with a heavy rock and all its friends have run far away. They will come back for water sooner or later. Dail got a massive kick in the nuts one time and I still laugh to think about it.
This was only yestermonth, or two. My head whirls to think about everything that’s happened since.
I was blowing on my piece of goat to cool it when a big yell went up, spreading from one side of the fire to the other. Everyone started jumping up and down and waving their arms and I just about dropped my meat when I saw what they were looking at.
Two people, those other people, were standing on the hillside watching us. There was a girl and a man, but very strange. Their faces were shaded by things on their heads and they had, not skins, but something else to cover their bodies up. They had big brown feet, which I found out later weren’t their real feet at all.
No-one knew what to do. Some shrank back and others went a little way towards the strange people. I just watched.
The man held up one hand and made a noise that sounded like talking but made no sense. He looked at the girl and walked forwards a bit, taking the thing off his head. His skin was very soft-looking, and his hair stopped above his ears. Again, he made some sounds.
Berran stepped forward holding her hitting stick up high and everyone quietened down. As usual, she didn’t just say what she wanted to say, there had to be some wailing and closed-eyes dancing first, but once that was done she looked straight at the people up the hill and called to them.
“You people! Who are you and what do you want?”
The others said nothing but you could tell they were listening hard. Berran tried again.
“I said, you people up there! This is our place and I’m in charge, so you look out! Now come down here and let us look at you.”
She was brave, Berran, I’ll give her that, going right up to the people and herding them down to us. She even gave the man a little poke with her stick to get him going.
18 Aug 2112 Still can’t believe we’re here with these people. There are old foundations and the rusty remains of farming equipment, but they seem to have totally regressed to a primitive state. I’ve seen what looks like corn growing wild, but there’s obviously no organised agriculture here now. There are rocks stacked in the river shallows – fish traps, perhaps, although I haven’t seen any caught – and cattle and goats grazing, but nothing to indicate an organised system of management. They have fire, though, and had animals cooking when we arrived. The people themselves are a puzzle. As I said, they have a language and some words sound vaguely English, but most of it just sounds like babble. Hygiene is non-existent and many of them are sick (I’m worried about what we might catch), and there’s something else. Perhaps it’s just my bias because of how they look and live, but even allowing for that they seem sub-normal. Radiation? Inbreeding?
Depending on weather patterns and prevailing winds, some regions were hit hard and others barely touched. The records show there were various communities in places like this, alternative lifestylers, cults and the like. It’s all conjecture, but my take on this group is that they were on the cusp, taken so low they almost died out but not quite. If the survivors were children, or at least child-like in their mental capacity, it could explain the rapid loss of cultural knowledge.
We haven’t been here long enough to have a full picture of their social structure, but it’s rudimentary, that much is clear. There seems to be a leader of sorts, a woman the others defer to. She was the one who approached us first. The rest of them I can best describe as a disorganised rabble! It’s subsistence living, and this number cannot be sustainable given their limited resources. If they farmed and managed, maybe, but it’s not our place to interfere, at this early stage at least.
I’m concentrating on data collection, but Lauren’s not really sticking to the plan. She’s out there right now trying to communicate, doing the ‘me Tarzan’ thing – I think she just likes being the centre of attention. It’s totally off base in my view. We’re here to observe, not bring about change, and I think she’s being very unprofessional.
It’s amazing just being here, though – I wonder if Darwin felt like this on his voyages of discovery?
Once things had settled down, those other people just hung around and didn’t really do anything but look, especially the man. The girl came up and made noises like she was trying to say something to us but there was something wrong with the way she talked. She had things hidden in places under her strange skins. The first one, she touched it with her fingers, tap tap tap, saying “Buk, buk.” It wasn’t the buk, though – the man had that. Hers was like his, full of funny marks, but it ended up broken.
The next thing she had, though, that was the best. It was around her neck on a cord, but not grass, something stronger. It was the eye-pod! She touched it and said “Eye-pod, eye pod,” and when she did, I can hardly say what happened. A dark part of it changed to colours, and in the colours you could see tiny people moving. She tapped again and they were gone.
Then some people started looking and feeling to see if she had other things hidden. Her skins came loose and that’s when Dail grabbed her. I don’t think he meant to hurt her, it’s just what he’s like. I should know. People were yelling and she screamed, and the man ran out of the hut and tried to hit Dail, which was very stupid. Dail went mad and hit him over and over until he was dead, then carried him to the pit and threw him in. The girl tried to run away but we caught her. She’s still tied up in one of the huts but I think she’s too sick to run now anyway.
Berran got the eye-pod and the man’s buk first, but it wasn’t fair, because Dail won the fight with the man and he should have taken them. He’s strong but he doesn’t have enough ideas.
I have ideas, though, big ones. After Berran stood up in front of all of us with the buk and the eye-pod, I talked to Dail about how she didn’t have any right to take those things. I talked about how I was smarter than anyone else, even Berran, and how he was stronger than anyone else, and how we should do something to make things right. So we did.
Now when we kill a cow, I eat first and Dail goes second. Berran can’t stand on the rock and wail and dance any more, because she’s down the pit with the man. People were surprised at first when I took her stick and hit her with it, but they know who I really am now. I am the one who stands on the rock with the buk and looks into the eye-pod for signs. I touch it and say, “Eye-pod, eye-pod,” like the girl did, but it stays dark.
“What do you see in it?” Dail asks me.
“Tomorrow,” I say, “I see tomorrow.”
About the Author
Tim Borella is an Australian author who mainly writes speculative fiction, but has also had non-fiction material published and has won awards for songwriting. Tim’s achievements in recent years include having stories published in AntipodeanSF, an honourable mention in the 2018 Literary Taxidermy short story competition, and a first round win in the 2018 New York Midnight short story competition. He advised American author Keith Thomson on aviation matters for the ‘Once a Spy’ series of novels, and wrote an autobiographical chapter for Bruce Anderson’s ‘Ploughshares and Propellers’, a history of the RAAF experiences of country Victorians. He’s also written a couple of novel-length SF manuscripts, and looks forward to working on these and others soon when he hangs up his flying boots after a lengthy career in the air. To find out more, please visit his Tim Borella – Author Facebook page.