She stood on a rise, overlooking the village, contemplating the panorama of tents and corrals that the view provided. The winter sun, already low in the sky behind her, cast her shadow long before her, as if pointing the way to home and shelter. She closed her eyes, and sent a silent prayer of thanks that she had reached this place of possible safety. Smoke from the crash still clung to her skin and clothes, bringing back the memories of those final hours. A dark, threatening patch of red decorated her right side, denoting some grievous injury that burned like cold fire. She arranged her burden more comfortably on her back, checking to make sure that it was properly secured before she started moving. As she walked, slowly surely toward the village, the small bundle tied to her back with what remained of her crash webbing stirred. A wayward just of wind caught a loose flap of fabric and blew it aside, revealing the small, wind-burned face of a sleeping human baby.
The setting winter sun shone weak light down upon a wasteland of snow, ice, and the Fivonii village. A dozen large tents, each constructed of petrified wood, thick leather, and the ribcage of some long dead beast, sat in a semicircle around a shallow fire pit. Around the pit sat about two dozen Fivonii females, all silently skinning the carcass of a large, white-furred grazer, both a beast of burden and source of food and shelter to the tribe. Weighing close to a ton, the massive animal lay stretched out on its side, half buried in snow. T’Lawrna, the oldest of the females, stood suddenly from her position near the grazer’s head and cast her gaze over the vast wilderness beyond the camp. She was large for a female, nearly eight feet of sinew, bone, and fur. Like the rest of her kind, she had four long, triple-jointed arms, six fingered hands, and long articulated hind limbs. At her rising, the other females paused in their work, all respectfully turning their eyes toward the spot that their Mother was watching. All was still, except for a thin plume of snow that blew in the wind several meters distant.
Finally, an upright form came over a snow dune within sight, and began to descend into the village.
“Quindala,” t’Lawrna growled softly without taking her gaze from the approaching being.
“Yes, my Mother?” Quindala Sem, one of the other females present, stood rapidly as she spoke to t’Lawrna.
“Go investigate,” t’Lawrna’s ears flared wide, communicating the same message so that there could be no mistaking what she wanted her to do.
“Yes, my Mother.” Quindala dipped her muzzle in submission, and, without another word, loped off to meet the stranger.
She lifted her head once again to check to see how much farther she had to go. Her breath hissed through her teeth as both another spasm of pain rippled through her side and as she realized that someone was coming toward her from the village. She topped, allowing the large whatever-it-was to make up the distance between them. They stood several feet apart, steadily gazing at each other in silence, blue eyes staring into startling bright orange ones.It looks like a dog, she thought dazedly. That thought brought back memories of her youth on Earth and the huskies that her family had raised. The being raised its hands, all four of them, she realized with a start, and spread them out, as if to show that it had no weapons in its possession.
“Who are you?” she managed to croak, her throat dry.
The being tilted its head to one side, intently watching her face, but remained silent.
With a shaking hand, she pointed at herself and said, “Kathleen O’Brian.”
The being blinked, and, after a moment, copied her gesture and uttered a string of unintelligible noises that reminded her of something between two twigs being rubbed together and the rain pattering softly down during a summer’s storm. It was at that time that the pain from her side, the shock of recent events, and overall exhaustion combined to make the world spin, and then she knew no more.
Confused and often fragmented images bombarded her senses; people running and shouting, the noise of the emergency klaxon, the explosions as the airlocks gave way and vented their atmosphere into space. The sick, gut-wrenching realization that there was not enough time and not enough escape pods to save everyone. Her husband urging her to take their child and get into the one serviceable escape pod that they had found down by the star-drive room. Watching as the ship filled the small view-screen of the pod. Weeping as she watched it disintegrate before her eyes. Enduring the bumpy ride through the planet’s atmosphere. Her child’s wailing. Coming to a rough landing somewhere on the northern most continent. Emerging from the pod in time to watch the wreckage of the ship fall into the atmosphere, an artificial meteor shower. Realizing that, save for her child, she was the only survivor.
“Those are all the memories that I could retrieve,” Quindala apologized, opening her eyes to regard t’Lawrna. Both of them were in the shaman’s tent, crouched over the sickbed of the dying alien female. Sra'Cheel n'Ca, the shaman, stood close by, her painted face carefully watchful yet neutral. T'Lawrina made a negligent gesture with an ear, her attention for the moment focused on the form on the pallet.
"What is she?" She mused aloud, more to herself than to the other two present. "She is not like us; not in size or scent or language or appearance."
"Her memories suggest that her kind came from the stars," Quindala ventured hesitantly.
"How is that possible?" t'Lawrna demanded, turning her full attention to her. "Only the gods themselves can travel between the stars. And that," she gestured contemptuously at the dying female, "does not look like any of the gods as described in the old scripts."
"If I may, Clan-Mother Sem?" SraCheel n'Ca interjected quietly, coming forward slightly.
"Perhaps this is an omen of some kind from the gods."
"What are you suggesting SraCheel?" T'Lawrna became still, watching the shaman with her full attention.
"Perhaps with the coming of this being and her cub, we are supposed to learn or do something. Or perhaps it is an omen of times yet to come."
"I do not know." Sracheel flared her ears in chagrin and contimued. "I will check the prophecies and the old texts, but I am not sure that I will find anything."
"You are the shaman," t'Lawrna said severely. "The gods are supposed to talk to and through you."
"Yes, my Mother," SraCheel murmured, dippinjg her muzzle in submission and backing away.
"Speaking of which, what did you do with the cub?" t'Lawrna asked, turing to Quindala.
"I gave her to Ventuli," Quindala replied. "She has a litter at the moment and the cub seemed hungry."
At t’Lawrna’s perturbed expression, Quindala bristled slightly and said, “Ventuli is your granddaughter as well as my litter-sister. She can be trusted.”
“As you say,” t’Lawrna said diffidently.
The inarticulate crying out of the alien female interrupted their conversation. With a stream of incomprehensible babble pouring from her mouth, her furless hands clawing the air, and her fever-bright eyes wide, she surged upward, trying in a vain attempt to struggle to her feet. With a barely heard oath, Quindala pushed her down, using her greater strength to keep her pinned. Seeming to realize that the fight was useless, the female calmed, staring up at Quindala as if she were not there.
“She’s near the end,” t’Lawrna stated matter-of-factly. “Her mind is in confusion and is deteriorating rapidly.”
As if to prove her right, the female began to babble again, raised her hands, as if reaching for someone, and then with a final sigh, she was gone. After a moment of silence, during which time Quindala sent a silent prayer that the gods would guide her soul to the afterlife, t’Lawrna stood. She turned to SraCheel, who had now pulled her holy scrolls out of their carrying bags and spread them out on the matting in front of her, and said, “Dispose of the body and then start looking through those texts for anything unusual.”
As she walked toward the tent-flap she paused and without turning around, she said, “And Quindala, I charge you with taking care of this strange cub. Not Ventuli. You.”
“As you say, my Mother,” Quindala agreed quietly. “As you say.”