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Noah's Arkangel

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~//~

So yes, we did indeed send the captain of our mission back trussed up like a prize turkey, and I have no apologies to make on that score. Attempting to save the mission’s scientists from a natural disaster was an understandable and appropriate impulse, but unlike the captain, we refused to accept the gift of our lives while condemning others…

Acting Captain’s Report, TSV Arkangel

~//~

“How’s it going?” Nyomi’s question is muffled against the skin of Lia’s shoulder, a shoulder which feels as if it will never recover from its current slump.

Lia sighs, taking her eyes off her console and leaning her head against her partner’s. “Not particularly well. I’m not military or diplomatic corps. I don’t even know where to begin in composing a report, let alone how to phrase mutiny in terms that won’t get us all packed up and sent to Sailor’s Waste.”

She’s not even sure if Sailor’s Waste is an actual thing, or just something they threaten the first-years with to scare them. Perhaps she should have paid more attention during her military liaison classes, instead of sketching language trees in her notebook or playing footsie under the desk. Ah, to be eighteen again. Today she feels about ninety.

Nyomi snorts, and Lia jerks back to herself. “You’re the closest thing to diplomatic we have. Do you want Ham composing the report? Or, worse, Rahela? I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Nyomi always has faith in her. Lia isn’t sure how justified it is.

“Stop thinking,” Nyomi says, punctuating her command with an affectionate rumple of Lia’s hair. “Hurry up and finish that report so we can put the whole thing behind us. And come down for dinner soon.”

“I’ll try,” Lia says, with a despairing glance at her console. It blinks cheerily up at her, waiting for her to continue with her tale of mutiny and rebellion.

“You’ll do fine,” Nyomi says airily.

Lia only wishes she was as sure.

~//~

two weeks earlier

“Come in,” Lia calls cheerfully towards the open flap of her tent. “Keziah and I were just finishing work. You can join us for tea.”

“Tea sounds lovely,” Nyomi says, ducking in, her tall head grazing the flap’s fabric. Even after six months on assignment, she still forgets to dip her head low enough. No matter how many times she bumps into the tent, she can’t seem to remember that she isn’t at the Lyceum, with its high arches and vaulted ceilings, but in a far-off plainland, with its pesky tents and tent flaps.

Lia hides an unprofessional giggle in her sleeve, pretending to cough. At least this time Nyomi hasn’t almost pulled the tent down on top of them, as she used to in the first weeks after their arrival. That was amusing, but hardly something you wanted to do around the locals. Their ‘family’ is supposed to be from over the mountains, not from somewhere completely alien and unfamiliar with simple things like tents.

“So,” Nyomi says, swinging down onto the rug with an engineer’s flexibility, developed from long hours of contorting oneself around the bowels of ships. “What have you two been up to today?”

“Keziah’s just been teaching me the story of the serpent and the pomegranate,” Lia says, pouring tea into the cups Keziah holds carefully for her. The local population takes its tea rituals, and its cups, very seriously. From what Lia can glean, this concern is founded in a reverence for community-building and the breaking of bread; it’s a reverence usual in societies of this size and development. The cups, meanwhile, are beautiful, and well worth being proud of. Keziah’s young friend Yusuf is an apprentice to the old master craftsman of the village, and Lia’s planning to take back a sample of his work at their mission’s end. She has a friend in the capital that studies early pottery from this quadrant, and these cups would be gems in his collection.

“How does that story go?” Nyomi asks, accepting a cup from Keziah’s hands.

Keziah blushes, as she always does when someone pays attention to her. She’s a shy thing, Lia thinks, for all her height and talent. If Lia wasn’t in the business of studying people, she’d hardly have noticed her the first time she passed her drawing water in the village square. But there had been something in Keziah’s eye that drew her…

Nowadays she knows what that something is: Keziah comes alive when she sings.

“Surely you know it,” Keziah is saying, her rich contralto soft but a little amused, here among friends. “Everyone knows the tale of the serpent and the pomegranate. Even those who come from across the mountains.”

“Yes,” Nyomi says, and Lia can see the smile trembling at the corners of her mouth. Nyomi has never quite got over being amused at the way all their faults are explained by being from ‘across the mountains’. Lia could have told her that community spirit in societies such as this is very strong, but even wedded bliss isn’t enough to keep Nyomi sitting still long enough to hear anthropological theory. “Even we know the tale of the serpent and the pomegranate, of course. But I’m not a singer. I don’t know the lay.”

Keziah sets her cup gently down before her, leaning into her crossed legs. “Ah. Shall I sing a bit for you?”

Nyomi looks to Lia, who hesitates for a moment. She already has a recording of Keziah’s performance from this morning, but duplication can be good. For one thing, it’s useful to know whether the bards repeat their tales exactly every time, or whether they vary them - and if they do vary them, how much and why. She gives Nyomi a slight nod, and surreptitiously flips on the concealed recorder under her scarf, pretending to readjust her robes over her pregnant belly.

“Yes,” Nyomi says, “if it would not trouble you.”

After six months, even Nyomi’s usual curt tones are beginning to meld to the rhythms of the locals. Lia suppresses a smile of her own as she shifts her weight and prepares to listen to the dulcet tones of Keziah as she weaves the tale of the woman Chava, the evil serpent, and the forbidden pomegranate.

~//~

Lia is still thinking of the story of Chava that evening around the dinner table, as the usual boisterous chatter surges around her.

“Look, Rahela, you can’t have Yaffy all the time.” That’s Ham, as belligerent as ever. “I need him to keep an eye on the tigherium. You know it goes all floppy if it’s not watered often enough, and it’s really fucking important.”

“Language, Ham,” Noah says wearily, head buried in his padd.

“Yeah, Ham,” Ava says, raising her eyebrows. “Don’t talk to your mother that way.”

Ham sticks his tongue out at her, which is incredibly mature of him, given that he’s supposed to be a respected scientist and hot on the trail of a breakthrough that may possibly cure Carolinian Flopsy. If the tigherium works, which Lia privately doubts. Ham’s a genius, but a rather impulsive and erratic one. He sometimes forgets to wear trousers under his robe, for instance, and has been known to forget to eat for days. “Don’t talk to your mother that way,” he mimics now. “Don’t talk with your mouth full, little miss Ava.”

Ava shows him just how ‘little miss’ she is by growing her third arm and sending it across the table to snatch his stew. Grinning, she retracts her arm and settles back into her wheelchair, taking an enormous mouthful of stew and crossing her eyes at Ham to rub it in.

“Hey, that’s mine!” Ham says, outraged, and attempts to climb over Shem to mount the table and get it back.

“If you get stew on my book I will end you,” Shem says calmly, turning a page and pushing his glasses up.

“Children!” Rahela says, from her position at the foot of the table. She throws up her arms. “Why I ever thought it would be a good idea to come on this mission is beyond me. You’re supposed to be responsible adults. When they said, ‘And you’ll be the titular mother of the group’, I thought it was for acting in front of the locals - I didn’t think I’d end up responsible for a pack of hooligan teenagers!”

“Calm down, mummy,” Ham says, patting her hand. “Eat something. You know it’s not good to let your blood sugar get too low.”

Rahela snatches her hand away and looks at him murderously. “You’re the worst, Hamiathes O’Leary.” (Nevertheless, she reaches into her robe and pulls out a chocolate bar. Ever since that one time she fainted in front of a villager and an annoying late-in-life-pregnancy rumour started, she’s been especially careful.)

“I’m wounded to the core,” Ham says, clutching at his heart and flopping over sideways on the bench.

“Will end you,” Shem repeats, turning another page in his book and then reaching down and delicately peeling Ham away from his side.

So much for having a nice quiet lunch in which to think about the morning’s work. Lia meets Nyomi’s eye and exchanges an eloquent glance of shared suffering.

“Anyway,” Ava says, her mouth still full of stolen stew, “Yaffy isn’t a responsible adult.”

The conversation having moved on, they all stare at her for a moment. She grins back, unconcerned. Ava is never concerned about anything. “Yaffy’s still a kid,” she clarifies. “You said we were all supposed to be responsible adults.”

“Well,” Rahela says, inhaling the last of her chocolate, “yes. It says something about you lot that the gap year kid is the most mature of the bunch. I have nothing to complain about Yaffy.” Unlike the rest of you bozos, her manner says.

Yaffy, who’s left the table ages ago like a sensible person and is now fiddling with the hand loom that purportedly belongs to Ava, beams over at them with all the benevolence of a self-satisfied nineteen-year-old.

“Neither do I,” Ham says. “Yaffy’s great. Which is why I want him back, Rahela. He’s wasted with you. Analysing the structure of rocks, whoop-de-fucking-do.”

“Language, Ham,” Noah says, absent-mindedly. His eyes still on his padd, he fumbles around on the table and puts sugar in his stew. Again.

Rahela, meanwhile, is spluttering at the other end of the table. “Analysing the structure of rocks? Is that what you think I do, you overgrown lunkhead? I’ll have you know that I should win the Lyrian Prize for my work, if the prize committee has any sense. And what do you have Yaffy doing that’s so important, anyway? Watering your plants! What sort of work is that for a highly-educated young man? I’m giving him experience that will last a lifetime – What are you laughing at?”

Ava looks up innocently. “Nothing.”

Rahela’s eyebrows are suspicious. “What?”

“Oh, for Kessel’s sake,” Nyomi says. “Ava was probably putting ‘in bed’ on the end of all your sentences. You two do act like Yaffy’s the third part of your love triangle sometimes, with all the fighting over him.”

Rahela wrinkles her nose. “Eww. No offense, Yaffy, but you’re a kid and an aristo. I don’t sleep with either.”

“None taken,” Yaffy says blithely, still busy with the loom.

Lia comes from an ordinary family. Three parents, two children, a pet rhinodile, the works. She’d thought her family was loud. “Excuse me,” she says, and escapes into the cool evening air.

Behind her, she hears Ham’s protesting voice, “I don’t want to fuck Yaffy, I just want him to help with the tigherium. It’s for science.”

“And what everyone else here does isn’t?” Rahela says. “Fuck you kindly with the business end of a chisel.”

Language,” Noah says wearily, and Lia drops the tent flap.

Down the path, she can just see the tips of the village tents against the sunset. Five minutes’ walk, and she could be amongst them. It’s addictive, being this close to her research subjects, and difficult. She has to continually police herself to protect against exploitation, and she’s under no illusions that her work will be able to be anything but the most rudimentary examination of local culture, with the time constraints she’s under. Only a month left, and so much still to do…

The sun sets.

~//~

“So, tell me about this Hevel,” Lia says, as she fills her sack with berries. The berries seem to have a great deal of juice. Lia would think this was a good thing – juicy berries, how tasty – except that most of the juice is ending up on her fingers.

Keziah’s fingers, meanwhile, are nearly clean. Lia doesn’t know how she does it. Sometimes she thinks that these are the sorts of things anthropologists like herself should be studying, not culture and songs and history. Concrete helpful things like how not to get berry juice on your fingers.

“He was Chava’s son,” she prompts now, dropping another few berries in to join their brothers. “Chava of the pomegranate.”

Keziah hums to herself as her fingers dance deftly across the vines. “Yes. Her second son. Her first son was jealous of his brother, and angry that Hevel was blessed in the sight of his parents and beloved by the Creator God.”

“That must have been difficult,” Lia says, thinking of Yaffy, although Ham isn’t exactly jealous of him, only of Rahela for stealing him away.

Keziah nods. “Yes. Shall I teach you the lay this afternoon, when we’ve given your mother the berries? I can bring my handwork, and you will be inside out of the heat. It’s not good for the baby.”

“I hate to take you away from your duties so often,” Lia says, a bit conscience-stricken. It seems almost every day now that Keziah ends up at their tent-stake. She doesn’t seem to mind, but Lia worries. Until recently, she’d spread out her attention more broadly, observing and studying everything she could in the village and making herself a general nuisance, but since her focus has turned to oral culture, Keziah has been her primary case study. Building relationships is important for the best data, but Lia hopes her work isn’t leading Keziah to neglect her own.

Keziah smiles, her teeth gleaming. “Don’t worry. Elisheva is pleased that I come to see you. She’s reaching the end of her days, and the hours I must practice the lays begin to wear heavy on her. There are only so many times one can hear the story of the pomegranate and not grow weary.”

“I’m surprised you don’t invent new versions,” Lia says lightly, and is surprised to see the faint notes of a blush surface on Keziah’s cheek. “You do!”

Keziah looks prim. “Perhaps we do. When our tent-flaps are down and the menfolk away.”

Intrigued, Lia is about to inquire further – this could mirror the female traditions on Sigma Five – but is preempted by a barefoot youth dashing down the path.

“Hide me!”

It’s Yaffy, flushed and panting. His kerchief’s askew, and he looks for all the world like a monster is after him.

“What in the…” Lia begins.

Yaffy looks about wildly and then darts behind Keziah, whose eyes go wide. Behind the broad sweep of Keziah’s skirts and her statuesque height, Yaffy – who is not the largest of teenagers – nearly vanishes.

“Yafeth,” Lia says, calmly. “Come out from behind Keziah and be reasonable.”

“Don’t let him find me,” Yaffy says, obstinately refusing to budge.

“Ham?” Lia surmises, motioning for Keziah to move, if Yaffy won’t.

Abandoned by Keziah, who gathers up her skirts and comes to stand by Lia’s elbow, Yaffy is marooned in the middle of the path. He looks down and squishes mud unhappily between his toes. “Noah.”

“Why is Father angry at you?” Lia asks, stressing the familial relationship. In a patriarchal society such as this one, they all have their roles to play.

Yaffy makes a face. “I interrupted him while he was…” He seems to notice Keziah for the first time, which is ridiculous considering he was just hiding behind her. But then Lia is quite used to her scientific brethren neglecting to notice the nose on their face. “…talking to God,” he finishes awkwardly.

“You shouldn’t have interrupted his prayertime,” Keziah agrees, to Lia’s surprise. The village women rarely speak around unrelated men. “This wouldn’t be a good time for him to find you.”

Yaffy looks at her like he has just discovered womanhood.

Lia pinches her nose. Is this really the first time they’ve met? She supposes Yaffy has been up at the greenhouse with Ham most days, while she’s been keeping Keziah busy herself. “Yaffy, this is Keziah, the apprentice bard. Keziah, this is my tent-brother Yafeth.”

Yaffy bobs a perfect Sunderian bow, all aristocratic lines and fine flourishes. Lia suppresses the urge to roll her eyes, a common impulse around her ‘brothers’. Why Yaffy’s birth manners come out now, of all times, and not around the dinner table - when not slurping his stew or blowing bubbles in his homebrew would be a blessing - she simply doesn’t know.

Keziah giggles, a sound Lia has never heard from her before. “Is this the way of greeting beyond the mountains?”

“It is the way of greeting when a man meets a beautiful woman, o fair one,” Yaffy says, managing to sound at once like both an ancient Moldarian professor Lia used to know and a right royal arse.

Keziah’s eyes grow wide, and she turns away demurely. “I’ll go fetch my handwork, Lia,” she says, and sweeps away with her berries without another look or word in Yaffy’s direction.

Yaffy stares in the direction of her retreating form.

Lia hits the back of his head with the back of her hand, not hard. “You’re supposed to be married!”

“I am?” Yaffy looks confused. He rubs at the place her hand struck. “I thought Ava was only supposed to be betrothed to me.”

“Even if she is,” Lia says, resisting the urge to thump her head against a tree, “you can’t go meddling with the locals. Particularly not one as young and smart as Keziah, but no, any of the locals. We’re leaving in a month, and you get to go back to being a sprog of the noble house of Whimson, and Keziah gets to stay here and live out her life blithely unaware of your continued existence.” She leans in close to Yaffy’s face. “Mess with her and I’ll mess with you.”

“That menacing undertone only worked once I remembered that your wife is an engineer,” Yaffy says, after a long moment. “No offense, but anthropologists aren’t really that scary. Engineers, on the other hand, probably know lots of different things to do with a spanner.”

“Yes, they do,” Lia says, and waggles her eyebrows at him.

Yaffy looks impressed.

~//~

Keziah’s bent over her handwork crooning the dirge of Hevel as sung by Chava the mournful, when Shem sticks his head into the tent. “Yo, Lia.”

Keziah stutters to a stop, head whipping up in surprise, and Lia stares daggers in Shem’s direction. “What? We’re busy, husband.”

How many times does she have to tell them? Lia rages internally. It’s not like she hasn’t impressed on them all very firmly the basic cultural norms of this village. The men do not come into the female tents. They just don’t. There’s the sex tent, but that’s totally different. Not called the sex tent, for starters, although Ham is incorrigible… But she’s wool-gathering.

“Pray excuse me,” she says to Keziah, dipping her head in a universal female gesture for ‘I must go instil some sense in my ignorant plonker of a husband’, and receiving in turn an understanding smile.

She drops the tent flap behind her. “What are you doing, interrupting me at work?”

Shem, in his defence, looks completely baffled as to why she’s angry. To be entirely fair to him, she’s not sure that he ever hears anything anyone says about anything. When he’s not helping Ham run his experiments on the tigherium or monitoring everyone for all the dreadful illnesses that Rahela insists they’re in danger from every moment of every day, he never seems to look up from his books. She wouldn’t be completely surprised if he didn’t even remember that he’s supposedly married to her.

“Are we all going to die a horrible death?” she presses, sarcastically.

He purses his lips. “Maybe.”

While she hadn’t been expecting an affirmative answer to that question, Lia still isn’t worried. “What’s Ham done now? Or is it Yaffy? He was running about earlier hiding from Noah.”

Shem takes her by the elbow, trying to pull her along towards the main family tent. “Nothing that I know of.”

“Rahela, then?” Lia sets her feet and refuses to budge. She’s damned if she’s going to be bossed around by anyone, fake husband or not. And her current quite-pregnant state gives her a weight advantage that she’s not going to waste. “Has she exploded a rock or something?”

Shem looks at her like the sun has gone to her head, then shakes his own. “It’s Noah. He’s been taking the weekly IAM readings, and he’s calling a general meeting.”

“Noah?” The titular head of their mission, the only soldier among their company, has never been anything more than a figurehead with a bit of a problem about Ham and Rahela’s graphic profanity. “Fine. I’ll just go tell Keziah to run along home.”

“She’ll be fine for a few minutes,” Shem says, and something in his voice makes Lia look up sharply. Could there really be something wrong? Wrong enough to make Shem of all people sound like that?

~//~

Lia closes her eyes and leans forward to rest her forehead on Nyomi’s broad back. Why did they have to pick the mission that is so incredibly loud?

(She knows why. They were in no position to be choosy about their assignment, not when Command is so disapproving of the effect intra-team relationships have on the conduct and professionalism of missions. Either they accepted separate assignments and didn’t see each other for a year – and maybe more, if one of them ended up on a long haul – or they dealt with one of the only teams that was just dysfunctional enough to all say “what the hell, why not” when presented with a wifely duo of awesomeness.

In any event, Lia doubts their duo could have interfered with this team’s ‘conduct and professionalism’.)

“There’s got to be something we can do,” Ham is currently wailing. “If we move the tigherium now, I don’t know what will happen. It might die. It might decide to eat itself and then us. It might turn into a gigantic man-eating monster of death…”

Ava looks intrigued. “That sounds like a holovid I saw once.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Rahela says. (For once, Noah doesn’t chide her on her language.) “The tigherium isn’t going to eat anyone. They’re plants. You’ll just have incomplete data and have to deal with it. But I – and I didn’t think I’d ever say this – I agree with you. There must be something we can do to protect the work site.”

“Build a dome,” Nyomi suggests, her shoulders shifting under Lia’s forehead. “If we built a dome and properly secured it, it should hold against any but the most massive of floods.”

“Yeah, and what if the flood turns out to be the most massive, huh?” Ham shoots back, before apparently remembering that he’s supposed to be on the ‘do something’ side. “Not that I’m saying it’s not an idea worth exploring. Although just where are we supposed to get the parts? You know better than I do, but even if we cannibalise the rover, I doubt we’ll have half of the necessary equipment for even the smallest dome.”

“Maybe we could build a weather machine and persuade the flood to go in another direction,” Yaffy says, brightly, finishing a row on whatever it is he’s making on Ava’s hand loom and starting another.

“In the real world,” Rahela begins.

Lia lifts her head up from Nyomi’s shoulders just in time to see Noah raise his hands in frustration. “Everyone - be quiet! We’re not going to build a dome or a weather machine. We don’t have the tools or the parts.”

“Or the magic,” Rahela adds under her breath, rolling her eyes at Yaffy.

Noah stares pointedly at her until she subsides. “The Gabriel won’t be here to pick us up for six weeks, and our last check-up visit was two weeks ago. They obviously won’t be in range for a hail. We’re on our own.”

“They’re on their own on a doomed planet. Will the dangers and fears overwhelm them? Or will their mortal peril spark an equally doomed romance amidst the fireballs, as our hero and heroine rage against the dying of the light?”

They all turn to look incredulously at Ava in the corner, her chair half-hidden in the shadows to camouflage its wheels from any casually passing locals. Sometimes Lia almost forgets she’s there, when they’re all shouting around the table – but it’s impossible to forget Ava for long. Not when she comes out with things like that.

Ava shrugs, smirking under the attention. “What? I like those holovids. So bad they’re awesome.”

“This is hardly the time for flights of fancy,” Noah starts, sternly, only to be interrupted by those with more pressing concerns.

“The hero and heroine would hardly be raging against the dying of the light if they’re surrounded by fireballs,” Shem points out. “Metaphors don’t work if they’re directly contradicted. You can’t murder a crew in a boat race if they’re zombie rowers, for instance.”

“I think that’s called irony,” Ava says. “Delicious irony.”

Rahela snorts. “Those fucking holovids are completely unrealistic. In mortal peril, the last thing on anyone’s mind is going to be ‘doomed romance’, I assure you.”

“Well, you’d think that, but…” Ava begins, but stumbles to a halt at the rhythmic pounding of Ham’s head hitting the table.

“How?” he moans. “How could they have neglected to notice the impending flood on the surveying mission? They’re not supposed to send in scientific teams until they’re absolutely sure the planet’s safe. Not go, oh yeah, we think that mountain won’t collapse in a massive landslide that dumps the entirety of that enormous lake over there on our scientific team’s heads, we think that won’t happen, but oh what the hell, send them in anyway, if the worst happens they’re only scientists.”

“I’m not sure that’s exactly how the flood is happening,” Shem informs him, wrinkling his nose at the thumping of Ham’s head on the table and scooting silently away down the bench.

Ham lifts a single profanely eloquent finger in Shem’s direction. “Like I care. Rahela’s the rock person, talk to her. I can’t believe you care about the specifics at a time like this. We’re all about to die a horrible drowned death.”

“Well, we’re scientists, we’re supposed to care about specifics,” Ava points out logically. “And besides, we’re not going to die, we’re going to keep thinking until we come up with a solution. We’ll have to be imaginative to get the Ark shipshape, but I bet between Nyomi and me we can get it banged up in no time.”

Ham doesn’t look reassured. “Seven days. Seven days for you two whizgirls to transform a planetary rover into a Sea-Rover-of-the-Pirate-Seas. Which as far as I know has never been done.” He makes a mournful face. “Time to try for the doomed romance. Shem, my love?”

“Please take your hand off my knee,” Shem says, with pained politeness.

Noah hits the table with his fist. The solid thunk startles the assembled company; Ham nearly falls off the bench and windmills his arms to stay upright, catching Rahela about the waist as he does so. She shoves him sideways back into Shem. Poor Shem.

Lia closes her eyes again.

“Look,” she hears Noah say. “I didn’t call this meeting so all of you could argue and be your usual impossible selves. And I certainly didn’t call this meeting to talk about romance.” It sounds like a dirty word in his mouth. “We have a limited amount of time before the flood to transform the Arkangel into a suitable liferaft. We’re going to need all hands on deck.”

“Literally,” Yaffy mutters.

“And I’ve had it up to here with backchat!” Noah says, hitting the table again. “We have a week until the flood arrives. Seven days. Now if you want to live, you’re going to listen to me.”

Everyone stares at him.

Noah smoothes down his shirt, looking a bit fussy. “Now. Let me recapitulate one last time. Yafeth, stop playing with that loom. Hamiathes, sit up straight and behave yourself. Shemuel, put the book down.”

He waits until everyone has complied before clearing his throat and starting again. “This morning I ran the weekly condition checks with IAM. There has been an unfortunate and unforeseen sequence of events culminating in the imminent arrival in approximately seven days of…”

Lia only barely manages to avoid rolling her eyes. Perhaps it’s just because she’s an anthropologist, but all of this sounds completely made-up. She’s seen the IAM printouts, though, and the ‘real’ scientists in the room seem to be taking the situation seriously, so it’s probably just Noah’s transformation into the most stuffy and portentous of professors that’s bothering her. Given that Nyomi is listening intently, however, and given that Lia is unlikely to be able to do anything more than hand spanners up to the workers (and bail water if eventually necessary), Lia feels justified in tuning the lecture out and letting her attention wander.

Wandering, her attention catches sight of the tent flap. It’s quivering. Now, while this is rather usual in the plains, Lia hasn’t seen it twitch quite so…methodically before. She narrows her eyes and squints at it.

“I’ll be up at the Arkangel,” Noah finishes. “When you lot have finished your grumbling, come up and get your assignments.”

After he leaves, everyone looks at each other, still caught in the moment of silence. As might have been expected, Ham’s the one to break it. “What’s crawled up his exhaust pipe?”

“I think the prospect of a life-ending flood might just have had a moderately deleterious effect on him,” Rahela says sarcastically. “I can’t imagine why.”

Lia taps the back of Nyomi’s neck. “I’ll just be outside,” she tells her in an undertone, careful not to pitch her voice high enough to carry to the tent flap. “Gotta check something.”

Not waiting for Nyomi’s nod, she walks quickly to the tent flap and ducks outside, swivelling to her left in time to catch sight of the fleeing figure before it turns around the tent and vanishes.

“Keziah,” she says.

~//~

“I shouldn’t have listened,” Keziah says, pouring the tea. Her face is troubled.

Lia accepts a cup, mulling over her options. “Tell me what you heard.”

It’s not a surprise that Keziah eavesdropped, now that Lia is out of the boisterous interior of her ‘family’ tent and can think clearly again. They must have been making quite a racket, with Ham and Rahela trying to talk over each other and Ava going on about holovids. Not to mention Noah hammering on the table and ordering them around like a drill serjeant. (Which isn’t going to go over well with this group, Lia already knows. Yaffy’s a rebellious baby aristocrat, Shem has a ponytail halfway down his back, Ava’s only a quarter human, Rahela doesn’t listen to anyone who isn’t Rahela, and Ham is almost certainly growing recreational plants interspersed with his precious tigherium. They’re not the most docile of groups. And above all else, they’re scientists. If they’d wanted to be tortured by drill serjeants, they’d have joined the army.)

So it’s not a surprise that Keziah eavesdropped on all the commotion, and neither is it necessarily a bad thing. There hasn’t been enough time since Noah’s announcement to talk about what they’re going to do about the local village that shares their little valley, but Lia assumes the village is eventually going to have to know about things. However they camouflage the Ark to make it borderline-acceptable to disclose, the flood that’s coming down the pipe is going to be hard to explain away.

She supposes they could just let the village drown, but that seems a bit dark for the Hegemony. Much more likely for the Momon Anocracy, but then the Momons aren’t here, are they?

“I heard your husband’s father talk about his God,” Keziah says. Her hands are tightly gripped around her cup, her eyes staring at the tent wall. “The great IAM.”

The great…The computer software. Ah. “Yes. Noah speaks with IAM to learn about…” Lia stumbles to a stop. This, this is exactly what they teach you in the first class of interstellar intercultural anthropology as being the sort of thing that is not supposed to happen. Interstellar intercultural anthropologists (IIAs) are there to observe, chart, and study only. IIAs are certainly not to interfere in the natural development of a studied culture’s heritage, myths, and histories. Lia may only be a third-year IIA, but she’s pretty sure that introducing a new god counts as Not Good.

“To learn about the future,” Keziah finishes for her, looking suddenly very old and wise. “Noah is beloved by IAM, who speaks to him often in the mornings, as your tent-brother Yafeth told us. Today IAM spoke to Noah and told him that a great flood is coming, a flood that will overwash the world and destroy its inhabitants.”

Just this particular ill-placed valley, its people, and the ill-fated scientists stuck in its basin, Lia thinks, wryly, but holds her tongue.

Keziah is warming to her topic, her bard’s cadences deepening. “IAM told Noah to build an Ark to rescue the world and its inhabitants from the coming flood. Noah has seven days, seven days to build this great Ark and convince the world to join him and be saved. Seven days, and then the world will be drowned.”

And this is how myths are created. “Noah isn’t alone,” Lia protests. “My…tent-sisters and brothers will also be working on the Ark.”

Keziah jolts, called back into the present by Lia’s voice. “Yes,” she says. “You must work to help your father, and I must go and tell the village. They will want to send help to build this Ark, while others prepare for what is to come.”

Lia frowns, something nudging her brain. “You said ‘the village people’ as if you aren’t one of them. I thought you were the apprentice bard?”

“I am,” Keziah says, poised against the tent flap. “I come from the hills beyond the mountains, like you. Elisheva took me into her tent two years past, and I have cared for her and learnt from her to this day.”

As Keziah vanishes, walking quickly down the path towards the village, Lia finds herself still frowning. How Keziah will manage to persuade the villagers to listen to her if she’s an outsider, Lia isn’t sure. They take community very seriously in societies such as this; on her last assignment, one of her primary subjects had been nicknamed ‘Foreigner’, despite having been born in the village and having a perfectly serviceable name already. When she’d asked him why the nickname, Xuân Phái had simply shrugged philosophically and quoted a local proverb about the length of memories in elephant snails. She wonders if Xuân Phái’s baby son is now nicknamed ‘Little Foreigner’ – ‘Foreigner Junior’? – or if outsider status gradually fades with each generation. Perhaps it differs from society to society.

In any event, two years is a blink of an eye. Particularly without an accompanying family group to cushion the blow of arriving in a new village, as their “family” had had. And even they had been obliged to settle some little distance from the main village, despite speaking the local language perfectly (thanks to their universal translators) and claiming distant relations in common. Lia doesn’t hold out any great hope that Keziah will be able to send help their way.

Still, perhaps it’s for the best. Her lot aren’t bigoted against the local populace – they screen for that in the Lyceum’s entrance exams, and besides, with as complicated and chequered a family as the Hegemony is these days, anybody who goes out on galactic service soon gets over any remaining strands of bigotry – but they are likely to get frustrated rather quickly with anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and it would hardly be likely for any of the villagers to know how to take apart a drive converter. Her lot is certainly not allowed to teach them. “Interference with local development.” Even if they’re trying to save everyone’s lives.

Lia sighs, puts the tea things away, and hikes up her skirts. Time to trudge up to the Ark and see just what’s happening up there.

She wonders if Rahela or Ham has murdered anyone yet. Or Noah. Or perhaps Shem. It’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it?

~//~

“So how are things going?” Lia asks Nyomi, accepting the proffered bread roll and cheese. “Has anyone died yet?”

Nyomi’s leaning against a bulkhead, her curls pulled away from her face with a bandana. She looks sweaty nonetheless, and Lia has to firmly direct her mind back to the task at hand. Seven days until the flood of floods – she has no time to go woolgathering or seducing her wife. Afterwards.

Nyomi opens her mouth to answer the question, when she’s preempted.

“I’m using my quiet voice, Ham. Do you hear my quiet voice? Pay attention to the quiet voice.

They look at each other, then turn in tandem to look down the corridor to where Rahela stands, arms akimbo, berating an unrepentant-looking Ham.

When Lia turns back, Nyomi is trying not to grin. “I’m happy to be on a team without those two. They both have good hearts. But Ham is a bit of a wanker. And Rahela gets easily stressed.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Lia says, popping bread and cheese in her mouth. She has the feeling that she’ll be eating standing up a lot in the coming days. “Why are they on a team together anyways? Surely that’s just inviting conflict - no, wait, strike that, why are there teams? This isn’t a sporting competition or a group-bonding exercise. We’re trying not to die.”

Nyomi shrugs. “Noah thought that teams would function better with less chaos than trying to coordinate all of us at once. Can’t say I disagree. Besides, the rooms on the rover are too small for eight full-grown opinionated bodies. Except Ham’s greenhouse, of course. That’s enormous. But he won’t let anyone except Yaffy go anywhere near it.”

“And Ham and Rahela?”

“Oh, them. They were fighting again when Noah was coming up with the assignments. He snapped and put them together. Something about how they’re adults and will have to learn to work together or else. Not a good idea in my opinion.”

Lia leans back against a bulkhead and contemplates this. “Well, maybe their antics will cut the tension around here a bit. Noah doesn’t seem to be holding up particularly well.”

“Cut the tension, maybe. Or make us all even more stressed,” Nyomi says, gloomily. “Anyways, finished with your lunch? You’re on my team along with Yaffy. Ava’s taken Noah and Shem.”

Lia dusts off her hands. “What can I do?”

~//~

An hour later, as she painstakingly inches down a corridor, running a scanner along the hull to check for air leaks, Lia reflects that she was hardly likely to get an interesting job. And this one, despite being boring as hell, seems vitally important. She should be glad she can be useful.

That doesn’t help her boredom. She’s not a mechanical engineer like Nyomi, or even a geophysicist like Rahela. How to create a metaphorical – and literal – liferaft to escape a flood is not a question that she can even begin to answer. She’s an anthropologist, which means she needs to be surrounded by people, not mute metal and hunks of beeping electronic gizmos.

“How’s it going?”

Lia jumps. Yaffy, poking his head around the corner, looks unapologetic.

“It’s fine,” she says.

Yaffy grins. “Ava’s suggesting we build a massive pair of wings and fly up to the top of the far mountains. Flood won’t be able to reach us there, don’tcha see.”

Lia may not understand most of what Nyomi says, but even she’s not stupid. “Did someone point out to Ava that we’re in the forty-fifth century now? Wings, really?”

“Weeeeell,” Yaffy says judiciously, drawing the word out, “I think she was just trying to wind Noah up. He keeps ordering his team around like they’re soldiers and they have a checklist to get through, and Ava’s getting annoyed. She’s told him that beyond the basic precautions – like you checking the hull for leaks – the checklist mentality isn’t going to help, but he doesn’t seem to want to listen. Plus he keeps patronising her – I’m not sure if he’s doing it because of her age or because of her chair, or just because he’s Noah – and she’s getting more murderous by the minute.”

“Sometimes I really doubt the wisdom of putting the military in command of scientific missions,” Lia says, pulling out red tape to mark a place where her scanner has detected a puff of air.

Yaffy raises an eyebrow. “Yeah. But now imagine Ham in charge. Military’s supposed to be all impartial and trained in leadership and shit.”

They share a look.

“Anyway,” Yaffy says, “So wings. We’re all gonna flyyyy awayyyy...”

“Keep your tunes to yourself,” Lia tells him, and squats down to scan near the floor. Her legs dislike her heartily at this point. Plus her belly keeps getting in the way. Damned belly. You’d be better be worth all this, kid, she thinks.

Yaffy takes pity on her. “Look, I can take over here. Squatting can’t be good for you. Besides, Keziah’s down at the tents asking for you. Just keep her from coming up here for a while, because even under the camouflage this looks like a mighty big thing to have built in a couple of hours. The human brain’s good at creating explanations for things it doesn’t understand, but there are limits, and one is –” he grins wickedly, “– ‘holy fuck that wasn’t there before how have a handful of weedy furriners built that in less time than it takes a camel to shit in the morning’.”

“Thank you, Yaffy,” Lia says, repressively. She shouldn’t encourage him. His family sent him on this mission to ‘make a man out of him’, and while she may not agree with the sentiment – or agree with the possession of as much money and privilege as Yaffy’s family has – she supposes she can understand the desire to push your teenager beyond childish things and into mature independence.

Still, who’s to say what is childish and what isn’t? Sometimes it feels like Yaffy’s the most mature of all of them, for all his mischievousness and strange hobbies (really, the loom? Just because something’s brought from Props Central to help them fit into the local environment doesn’t mean they’re supposed to become aficionados!) He’s calm and hardworking. And it’s not like she can really blame him for falling under the influence of Ham and his charming profanity.

Under the circumstances, she relents and smiles at him as she hands him the scanner and the marking tape. “Been making the acquaintance of a lot of camels, then?”

Yaffy makes a rude gesture he must have learned from the villagers, and Lia cracks up despite herself. “Congratulations on your cultural knowledge. Don’t drop the scanner on your toes – it hurts.”

“I’ll keep that in mind!” Yaffy calls after her.

~//~

Keziah is waiting for her by the tents. Her usual long dark robes are enlivened by a splash of red at her throat.

“That’s a gorgeous scarf,” Lia says, by way of greeting. Not that scarves matter much when they’ll all be underwater in seven days, but Keziah’s such a quiet girl. Anything that brightens her up is a good thing, in Lia’s opinion.

Keziah smiles and raises her hand to stroke the fabric. “Thank you. It was a gift.” Her expression sobers. “But I have difficult news for you. The villagers laugh at the word of IAM.”

Ah. Lia gestures for Keziah to follow her inside the tent, where she immediately reaches for the tea things. “They do not trust us?”

Keziah shakes her head. “You’re newly come to Tirzah. The land has never flooded, in our lifetimes or in the history of the bards. The river runs calmly and the lake stays on the mountain. Why should it change now? The people do not believe it. And they don’t recognise the word of IAM.”

“Yes,” Lia says, slowly. While she doesn’t regret the labour of the villagers – she doubts they could be usefully employed – she does worry about how they’ll manage to get them on the Ark, if Ava and Nyomi ever manage to figure out how to get it “shipshape”, as Ham would say. If they’re mistrustful of the newcomers’ motives, they’ll be unlikely to happily trot down and imprison themselves within the walls of a very strange-looking ‘boat’.

Keziah accepts a cup of tea and shrugs one eloquent shoulder, her headcovering rippling. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”

“You trust us enough to put your own position in jeopardy, after knowing us for so short a time?” Lia asks, sinking down onto her cushions with a murmured curse at her aching muscles.

Keziah follows, gracefully folding her legs. “It is what’s inside a person that matters, not their longevity.” She ruins this oracular statement by smiling, a sharp slash that Lia has never seen before. “And if the valley is lost to the many waters, what you call my position will no longer be important.”

“True that,” Lia says, trusting to the universal translator to handle the idiom. “But still, if the villagers become angry at us instead of just distrustful – or if they start to feel that we’re dangerous – you taking our part may put you at risk.”

Keziah’s fingers tighten around her cup. “Life is short and cruel. To live in fear is to fear to live.”

“I see why you became a bard,” Lia says after a moment, in a clumsy attempt to lighten the mood.

Keziah smiles again, this time less bitterly. The smile softens her face and makes her look younger. “It’s what I love. But I’ll leave you and return to my own tent. Even at the end of the world, Elisheva needs her supper. I am sure your Shem feels likewise.”

Lia doesn’t give a fig’s arse what Shem feels, but she nods. “Until tomorrow.”

“Until tomorrow,” Keziah says, the red scarf at her throat glowing in the sunset.

~//~

six days until the flood

“So,” Lia says with growing irritation to Noah’s back, “we’re going to have to think about how to win them over. From what Rahela said at the morning meeting, I don’t think there’s going to be time to get them onboard once the earthquake starts. Once the mountain falls over and dumps the lake on our heads...”

Ava laughs. “Mountains don’t fall over.”

Lia makes a face at her. “Bear with me if I don’t know the proper terms. You can educate me once we live. Anyway, once the floodwaters pour into the valley, Rahela doesn’t think the villagers will have enough time to get up here from the village and into the rover before they drown. We’ve got to figure out some way of persuading them to trust us beforehand.”

She comes to an emphatic halt, arms on her hips, and waits for Noah to answer. Ava makes a face at his back and rolls her eyes heavenward, then turns back to her work.

Noah doesn’t answer. Lia clears her throat meaningfully.

“What do you want from me?” Noah snaps, still intent on his console. “I’m a bit busy right now. How to win friends and influence villagers is not top of mind.”

“But Rahela says,” Lia starts, obstinately.

Noah rounds on her, eyebrows beetling. “I don’t care what Rahela says. In case you haven’t noticed, she’s not actually my wife, which means I don’t have to listen to her. If you want to talk about what Rahela says, go talk to Rahela. Otherwise get out of my control room and get back to work. We have six days. Six days!”

Lia bites back an insubordinate reply.

Noah closes his eyes as if collecting himself. “Look, the locals are your business. You know them, you spend all your time with them. If you’re worried about them, go talk to them yourself. I have to worry about my crew.”

“Not his ‘crew’,” Ava mouths rebelliously behind his back, using her fingers to outline the air quotes.

“Hiya, Noah?” Ham says, sticking his head around the corner. “So I’ve been thinking, and look, what if we hiked up the mountain and built a dam? Given the distance the lake is going to be from the epicentre of the earthquake, if we built a dam and shored up the weak spots that IAM thinks are going to give way and start the landslide, it just might work.”

Noah’s eyebrows shoot up. “What do the others think?”

Ham shrugs. “Just came to me. Shall we run it by the others?”

~//~

“Are you fucking with me?” Rahela asks. Her hair is sticking to her cheek with sweat, even as she swipes at it with an impatient hand. Her glasses hang slightly crooked, as if she’s hit the side of her face against something and knocked them askew, and hasn’t bothered to correct them. “We have six days left until the flood gets here and you want to go on a field trip?”

“It’s a hike,” Ham says, wounded. “Because the rover needs relatively level land. It can’t climb a mountain. Me and the other guys could hike up...”

Rahela doesn’t look impressed. She interrupts. “That’s as may be. Do you have any idea how much work would be needed to ‘shore up the weak spots’? What do you think you’re going to do it with, since the rover can’t climb? You going to use spoons? Tea cups? Your shiny white teeth? Do you think...”

“It was just an idea,” Ham says.

Noah throws up his hands silently and stalks back to the other room.

“Point taken,” Lia says, diplomatically. “How about we leave you to your important work and stop distracting you.”

As she and Ham beat a hasty retreat in pursuit of Noah, Rahela calls out, “Get your arse back in here, pretty boy. You’re still on my team and we’ve got a lot of work to do. Without hiking.”

“I think that’s my call,” Ham says. If Lia didn’t know better, she’d think he was trying to suppress a grin as he turns and heads back to join Rahela again.

She sighs and goes to take over from Yaffy so he can make lunch. Rahela may usually be the one who attempts the culinary arts – otherwise known as ‘Rahela throws a bunch of vegetables, some beans, and a handful of tubers into a pot and calls it stew’ (and Ham tells everyone he’s never accepting a mission to a vegetarian society again) – but Lia rather thinks no one’s going to bother Rahela at the moment. Geniuses. How you live with them, Lia really doesn’t know.

~//~

Later in the afternoon, Yaffy comes to find her. “Keziah needs to talk to you.”

He’s panting just a little, having obviously run up from the tents. His cheeks are rosy and his hair windswept, and Lia only just manages to stop herself from reaching out to ruffle it. She sighs and puts down her scanner, rubbing at her sore back. “Did she say what she wanted?”

Yaffy shrugs and takes the scanner from her. “Something about the villagers. And I don’t think Elisheva’s doing well.”

“Elisheva?” Lia asks absent-mindedly. “Oh, the bard. Yes. I suppose Shem could take a look. Although we’re not really supposed to interfere with nature’s course in these cases. It wouldn’t be fair to the integrity of the society.”

Yaffy hesitates. “About that.”

“Hmm?” She needs to remember to get Keziah to finish Chava’s dirge at some point – she thinks there had still been a good part of it left when Shem interrupted them to say that the sky was falling. Not that right now would be a good time for it, with Keziah’s mentor ill and the world ending around them, but if she really thinks about it, Lia supposes she doesn’t actually believe they’re going to die. They have a team of geniuses on board. One of them will come up with something. If only to pique the others.

Yaffy shifts his weight to his other foot. “Look, I know you’re a professionally trained intercultural interplanetary anthropologist, or whatever the proper title is. And I’m just a kid, and I’m privileged so I don’t know much about a lot of things.”

“Yes?” Lia says, putting an encouraging look on her face. This isn’t really a good time to be doing a career fair, but she likes Yaffy. He’s a tad eccentric but he’s pleasant and he never complains if they ask him to do scut work. “What’s the question?”

Yaffy purses his lips. “It’s just...it seems to me that a lot of what we’re doing here is terribly exploitative. The villagers are people, after all. Just because they’re not as developed as we are, and just because they don’t live in a congested part of the galaxy, doesn’t mean they deserve to be studied, like...like animals in a zoo.”

Lia hadn’t expected this. But it’s an argument she’s had to deal with at the Lyceum in ethics class. She calls up the slightly rusty rebuttals.“We’re not studying them like animals. We’re studying them with the greatest respect, and preserving their cultures and histories for perpetuity. Without IIAs and the work we do, cultures like these would only have myths from this period of development, if that. Nothing more concrete. This way, when they eventually do reach a higher level, we can throw open our museums and our recordings...”

“But that’s so patronising,” Yaffy objects. “They’re people. And it’s not like you can get their consent. You’re – forgive me – but you’re exploiting them.”

“How are we exploiting them?” Lia asks. “We’re not harming them. We’re preserving their culture for them at a later date. We’re studying them and extrapolating theories and data. We’re even sharing their art and music and stories with a galactic audience – when this planet is approved for interplanetary tourism, there’ll already be an enormous queue of people all excited to visit.”

Yaffy looks frustrated. “But again, you don’t have their consent. You’re nonconsensually taking their voices. What you call sharing, I think is more like stealing. If you take your recording of Kezzy singing the story of Chava and the pomegranate, and you turn it into a bestselling hit, will she ever benefit? Will she ever even know? Or will her stolen voice be floating around the galaxy in perpetuity long after she’s dead?”

Lia breathes through her nose. She doesn’t want to antagonise Yaffy, even if she thinks he’s being terribly naive. He’s just a nineteen-year-old kid, after all, and the last thing they need with a flood bearing down on them is more interpersonal conflict on board. “Look, I think you’re asking some great questions. The ethics of anthropology is a hotly-disputed subject. Maybe you could study it at university when you get back home. I’d be happy to read your paper or even give you a quote.”

“I’m not going into academia,” Yaffy says, shortly. “Think about what I’ve said. Just...think about it. I believe you care about Kezzy, or you do as much as you’ll let yourself, without getting too close to your subject.” The last word comes out almost as a hiss. “Just think about what your work means, treating people like they’re animals that you can steal beautiful thoughts from and rob of their culture.”

“Now Yaffy, that’s too far...” Lia starts, but he’s already gone, striding away down the corridor without a backwards look.

She sighs and goes in search of Keziah.

~//~

Keziah’s hands are wringing the ends of her bright red scarf. “They won’t come. I’ve done everything I can, but they won’t come. They laugh at the great IAM.”

Lia, after the discussion with Yaffy, is in no mood to hear about the great IAM. For one thing, it’s farcical, and for another, hearing Keziah talk about it just reminds her that she’s broken the code and influenced the villagers’ culture, however inadvertently. (She doesn’t think that a disciplinary hearing would find adequate cause to sanction her, though, given that under threat of imminent death it’s hard to keep voices down.) Luckily it doesn’t sound like the village is exactly taking to this grand new god, so the damage may be limited.

“And Elisheva is ill,” Keziah says, her fingers clenching around the fabric they hold. “They’re afraid, I think, that it’s you who have brought the sickness, or that your new god has offended ours. I fear their fright will turn to anger.”

Lia massages her temples. “Well, we’re already going to die from a flood, I suppose it doesn’t matter much if some angry villagers with pitchforks come after us.” She sighs. She shouldn’t have said that. It’s disrespectful and probably confusing to Keziah. “Sorry. Can you think of a way we can calm them down?”

Keziah looks doubtful. The expression makes her look younger, for all her height and gravity, and Lia is abruptly reminded of what Yaffy had called her up at the Ark. Kezzy? Lia’s never heard the nickname before. Since when does Keziah have a nickname, and why is Yaffy using it?

“Would it help if my tent-brother Shem came to the village?” she suggests. “He’s a healer, and he might be able to help Elisheva. Perhaps if the villagers saw that we heal, not harm, they’d be less frightened.”

“Perhaps,” Keziah agrees, although she still looks doubtful. “Will the great IAM be angry with them if they refuse to believe? Will he condemn them to die and drown them under the many waters?”

Enough with the god already. “We’ll have to pray to him. But for now I’ll go get Shem, okay? You wait here and I’ll be back soon.”

Lia can feel Keziah’s eyes on her back as she starts up the path back to the Ark. Her skin prickles. It’s all Yaffy’s fault that she’s feeling guilty. There’s no real reason to. Her recorder bangs her collarbone under her shirt, and she swears under her breath.

~//~

“Maybe,” Ham says, “we could build this big curved hull thing out of wood.”

Rahela’s eyebrow seems to have affixed itself in a permanently sceptical quirk. “Go on.”

They’re sitting outside on what Lia would have called a picnic blanket in better times, eating nuts and olives with their fingers. Protein, to keep the brain humming. Yaffy hasn’t been the most successful of dinner cooks, not that it really matters; function rather than flair is the order of the day. Shem isn’t back yet from the village, and they’re all lingering, using the excuse of a brainstorming session to avoid the unspoken truth that without an amazing idea – and one able to be developed quickly – they’re all pretty much fucked.

“So once you’ve got this big hull thing,” Ham continues.

Ava laughs. “I’m liking this idea already. The expert way you’ve described the main component of your plan has really won me over.”

The teasing is playful, and Ham only rolls his eyes at her. “Shuddup. So we take the hull and we build a ramp up to it and we drive the rover up the ramp and into the hull. And then when the flood comes the hull works like a ship and we stay on top of the water.”

“Have you ever built a ship?” Nyomi asks. “Besides model ones.”

“Well, no,” Ham admits. “I’m from a desert country. We don’t tend to have a ton of excess water.”

“Unluckily there’s no holonet server here so we can search ‘how do ancient ships work’,” Nyomi says, dryly. “We also neglected to bring a historical shipbuilder on the mission.”

Yaffy’s been a bit quiet all evening, but he looks up. “If we were going to build a hull that size – and it would have to be massive – why not build a whole ship? A big one so we can fit all the villagers in plus all of Ham’s plants.”

Noah rolls his eyes. Lia’s beginning to be a bit sick of hearing about Ham’s flora as well.

“Same problem, we haven’t brought a shipbuilder,” Nyomi says kindly. “It looks simple. But I’ll bet there are all sorts of things you have to do to make it seaworthy. I seem to remember something about tar. Besides, have any of you ever chopped down a tree? Do we even have an axe? The villagers probably do. From what Lia says, though, they aren’t that happy with us. And six days – almost five now – is about long enough to build a dinghy, not an ocean liner.”

“How about helicopter wings?” Ava suggests. “We could get up above the waves that way, and maybe fly to safety on an unaffected mountain.”

Rahela, who’s been uncharacteristically silent, snorts. “This is what happens when you get a group of scientists together and ask them to think outside their disciplines. Chaos. Inanity. The complete absence of common sense.”

“Didn’t you already suggest wings?” Ham asks Ava, ignoring Rahela entirely, except for a little smirk around his mouth. “I distinctly remember you suggesting wings.”

Ava looks at him as if he’s silly. “Those were fixed wings. Helicopter wings are different.”

There’s a general laugh, and Lia relaxes for what feels like the first time in days. They still aren’t anywhere near a solution, so perhaps she shouldn’t be relaxing at all, but this stress needs the occasional break or else she’d eventually run screaming.

When Noah laughs, the worry lines around his eyes relax, and Lia sees why some of her friends back at Command elbowed each other when they’d seen which captain had been assigned to her mission. He’s good-looking, in the handsome rough look of Galla 5, and laughter sits easily on him. “Look,” he says, laughter still tugging at the side of his mouth, “if no one manages to come up with an idea pretty quickly, we’re going to need to consider the mountains.”

“The mountains?” Nyomi says, sharply. “What do you mean?”

Noah shrugs, one-shouldered. “We have six – well, basically five – days at this point. If we started walking now, we should be able to climb into the mountains out of range of the flood. We wouldn’t be very comfortable, of course, but as long as we took enough supplies we should be able to survive until the Gabriel gets here next month.”

There’s a moment’s silence as everyone thinks about this.

“Crap,” Rahela says bluntly. “We’re not leaving Ava.”

“We could carry her,” Noah says, taking a long draught of his water flask and refusing to look in Ava’s direction.

Ham’s eyebrows shoot up. “Carry her? All the way up into the mountains? You know we might end up being forced to leave her. I can’t believe you seriously just suggested that. It’s not an option.”

Lia privately thinks that it’s not just Ava who’d be in trouble. She may be the most visible, with her chair unsuited to climb up mountains, but with the exception of Noah (who’s in prime military condition), none of the rest of them are exactly fighting fit. Yaffy looks like a strong wind could blow his toothpick self over – would he have the stamina for a multi-day climb? Rahela has to watch her blood sugar – what if she forgot amid the stress of the climb, or the pack with her medications fell over the side of the mountain? Nyomi’s fit, but her generous frame puts added pressure on her knees, and Lia can easily see her catching her foot in a hole and one of those stressed knees giving way. And Shem has asthma, and Lia’s pregnant. What a group.

Noah shakes his head. “I’m sure Ava wouldn’t want you to die just out of solidarity with her.” Lia is thoroughly regretting that she ever for a moment thought he was attractive.

“Ava is sitting right here,” Ava says quietly, her hands clenched on the wheels of her chair. “How about this plan – you start hiking now and try to save yourself. We’ll be here working on a plan to save everyone.”

Noah looks like he’s about to say something, but then he sees the faces turned towards him, and visibly reconsiders. “I’ll be in the Ark.”

When he’s gone, they stare bleakly at each other.

Ham gets up and comes over to rest a hand on Ava’s shoulder. “We’ll find a way. Ignore him.”

“I do,” Ava says, but her hands shake in her lap. “I do.”

~//~

The sun is setting as Shem comes up the path. He’ll find them a quiet party, Lia thinks; certainly less boisterous than usual. Rahela’s pacing, occasionally muttering to herself under her breath. Ham’s sitting by Ava’s feet, one hand scribbling away furiously in his notebook, the other resting forgotten on one of her ankles. Nyomi’s sketching an invisible diagram on her own palm, brow furrowed and lips pursed. No one looks up at Shem’s approach.

“I’m back,” Shem says, sounding somewhat bemused. Lia wonders when the last time they were all together and so quiet was. She can’t remember.

“How is Elisheva?” Lia asks, to break the silence.

Shem shakes his head. “Old and weak. I’ve made her as comfortable as I can. Have we come up with any ideas?”

“Noah wants to make a break for the mountains,” Rahela says. “You’re welcome to go with him if he fucks off, but we’re trying to find another solution.”

Nyomi makes a sudden startled hum. Lia looks at her, but she shakes her head and goes back to palm-diagrams.

Shem frowns. “Noah might make it, especially if he’s had climbing training. But we don’t have any gear, and the rest of us aren’t exactly trained. In my medical opinion,” he makes a little mock bow, “it’s not a solution that’s likely to have a good outcome.”

“You mean Ham’s likely to start wool-gathering and step off a cliff,” Rahela says.

Ham looks up from his notebook with an outraged cloud gathering on his brow. “Oi! You’re more likely to forget your chocolate and end up taking a long swoon-dive back down to the valley.”

“And besides,” Lia says, cutting into the squabble, “we’d never be able to persuade the villagers to come with us. They think we’re responsible for Elisheva’s illness, and they don’t think much of the new god we’ve so thoughtfully and illegally introduced. They’re not going to uproot their entire village – including the elderly and the children – and go trekking through the valley and up a mountain just on our say-so.”

“Oh, now you care about them,” Yaffy says, under his breath. “But only about their bodies, not their souls.”

Lia opens her mouth to respond, but Ham cuts in. “Do you really think we’re going to be able to get them in the Ark, even if we manage to find a way to make it into a liferaft? Most of them won’t come over here in the first place, and like you said, they’re not happy with us at the moment.”

“We’ll find a way,” Lia says, simply. “We have to.”

Next to her, Nyomi suddenly sits up. “Everyone stop fighting. What if we boost the signal range on the rover’s transmitter? I know we’re not exactly on a main trade route. But there still could be passing freighters. You know budget airships, they don’t always land in the main ports. Maybe one could be taking a bit of a detour. Or a classified ship could be nearby.”

“It’s a bit of a long shot,” Rahela says, slowly.

“Everything’s a bit of a long shot right now,” Ham says, leaning forward. “Go on.”

Nyomi becomes more animated as she talks, beginning to wave her hands in illustration. “Ava, you’ve got your towers up on the top of the rover for your air and climate studies, right? Could we use them – or cannibalise them – for the transmitter?”

Everyone looks at Ava. She’s chewing her lip, her fringe falling in her eyes. “Maybe. I don’t know. We could try. But do you really – do you really think we’ll reach anyone? The standard signal reaches to orbit; even if we boost it two hundred or five hundred percent, it won’t go very far out into the system. They’d have to be coming pretty close to the planet.”

“I’m not saying it’s a great idea,” Nyomi says bluntly. “But it’s something we can work on while we try to think up something else.”

There’s silence for a moment, but then Ham rubs his hands together. “Well, you’ve sold me. Anything’s better than standing around trying not to think about floodwaters.”

They’re a sober lot when they break up. Nyomi takes one look at Lia and reaches for her hand; they walk hand in hand back into the Ark.

~//~

five days until the flood

“Good, good,” Noah says, nodding with approval up at Ava and Nyomi. They’re on the roof balcony, hard at work on the attempt to boost the signal. Or, rather, they’re calling out instructions to Yaffy, who’s the only one small and light enough to climb the makeshift scaffolding they’ve erected to reach the towers. As Lia and Noah watch, it wobbles, and Yaffy shouts something cheerful down to them. Ava rolls her eyes, grows her third arm, and reaches it up the ten feet to steady him.

Lia hasn’t forgiven Noah for last night, but he’s still the commander of the mission. She can’t ignore him entirely. And he’s all bluff good humour again today, now that they at least have something to do. “Keep up the hard work, girls!” he calls up.

Girls. Lia grits her teeth. She supposes Ava might be on the far outside of being called a girl, although late twenties seems a bit old, but Nyomi’s certainly not. And what might be light teasing in some voices sounds patronising in another.

Yaffy waves down at them again, and Noah laughs. “Keep up the hard work girls and Yaffy, I should say!” he says, and waves back before ducking into the interior of the Ark again.

Lia follows. There’s a reason she’s trailing Noah about this morning, and it’s not for his company or excellent jokes. “Noah, I need to talk to you about how we plan to get the villagers aboard.”

Noah doesn’t answer for a long moment, swerving into the cockpit and dropping loudly into the driver’s seat. Lia’s forced to perch awkwardly on a stool someone’s left there. “Let’s not put the cart before the horse, eh?”

“Noah,” Lia says.

Noah sighs. His fingers reach out almost unconsciously to touch the controls. “First we have to figure out how to save ourselves. This signal boost is good, particularly for morale, but it’s probably not going to save our bacon. We have to do that ourselves.”

“I understand that,” Lia says, surreptitiously slipping a hand around to massage the small of her back, “but we can’t just leave the villager problem until we fix the others. We may have a very short period of time between a solution and the flood, and we have to be very careful to disclose as little as we possibly can. I’m planning to go into the village this morning – if Keziah can’t persuade them, maybe Elisheva can.”

“Look,” Noah says. His fingers have tightened on the controls. “I know you’re upset about losing your study group. I know you’ve put a lot of work into this. How about you do the same thing I was telling Ham – take a couple of the best specimens and make sure you have your notes, and then do the best you can from that? It’s not ideal, but under the conditions...”

Lia can hardly believe her ears. “Did you just call the villagers ‘specimens’?” She shakes her head. “Please tell me you meant something else.”

Noah shrugs. “I know it’s not politically correct, but that’s what they are. Look, talk to Shem. I’m sure he can give you a couple of sedative patches. When – and I’m saying when, not if – when we get things fixed up, get the bard girl and some fellow – maybe that mason friend of hers – up here, slap a patch on them, and there you go. Two by two. You could use them to start a new village and observe all the rites from the beginning. And your line wouldn’t snuff out entirely.”

Lia finally finds her voice again. “I...Never say something like that again to me. The villagers aren’t specimens. They’re living creatures with free will. I’m not kidnapping some of them and treating them like lab rats for my pleasure!”

Noah turns back to his dials and pulls up a schematic on his console. “Suit yourself. To be frank, I don’t have the time to worry about a bunch of primates. I’m busy trying to save the scientists of this mission. I understand that in your condition you may be a bit emotional, but...”

“Fuck off,” Lia says, in a cold fury. “If I have to save the villagers by trussing you up and throwing you in the brig, I will.”

“That’s dangerously close to insubordination,” Noah says. His calmness only infuriates her further. He doesn’t even look at her. “I’ll make allowances this once. Now, if you could please go tell Ham that I need him to come look at something, I’d be grateful.”

Lia seriously considers punching him for a short satisfying moment, but violence is never the answer, and she slowly lowers her clenched fist. “Yes, sir,” she says, stressing the syllable sarcastically, before turning on her heel and striding out.

~//~

It’s been a surreal few days, to say the least. The baby kicks, as if sensing her discomfort, and Lia puts her hand on her belly. “Shush, little one, shush.” And to think that she’d been nervous about childbirth. Floods are much scarier.

So is the quiet inhumanity of those around her. The vision of Noah calmly playing with his controls while suggesting kidnapping and human experimentation will haunt her, she knows it will. Yes, it may be the favourite thought game of philosophers to debate the line of humanity and to place alien races on the far side, but whether or not they are technically ‘human’, Lia knows them. She’s held their children, laughed at their jokes, watched them strive to put food on the table. How could she possibly treat them like lab rats? How could she possibly save Keziah and her friend Yusuf only with an eye to her own research?

The corollary strikes her, and she stops, hand hovering over the doorknob to the greenhouse, where Rahela and Ham have lately set up camp. If she cares this much about the villagers – if she can’t bear to think of them as research subjects, if they’ve crossed the line into being friends, if she’s willing to threaten the captain of her mission if he won’t help her rescue them from the flood – how can she keep a sober anthropological head about her results? How can she know she isn’t shading her findings in their favour? She’s never before felt the need to be anything more than cordial acquaintances with the people she’s studied. Has she lost her academic honesty?

Thump.

The sound of something being dropped, and a subsequent soft cry, jolts Lia out of her agonised scholarly soul-searching. She quickly turns the doorknob under her hand to see if there’s anything she can do. Send for Shem, at least, if it’s anything more than a scanner dropped on a toe.

But Shem is already well involved, if the tableau that greets her eyes is to be trusted. Lia blinks quickly several times, uncertain whether it’s all just been too much at last. Or perhaps some hallucinatory toxin has been released in the area.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, go out and shut the door,” Rahela snaps at her. “You’re not an innocent - you’re knocked up! Close your mouth and come back later.” Despite her sternness, she’s laughing, a merry rueful laugh; Lia’s not sure if she’s ever seen Rahela laugh quite so freely before.

“See you later,” she manages, inanely, then beats a quick retreat.

~//~

Having fled the rover for the less disturbing outdoors, Lia’s relieved to see nothing more frightening than Yaffy and Keziah waiting for her around a corner. Yaffy must have finished on the roof. They’re laughing too – how can everyone be laughing, with five days until doomsday? – and Keziah’s hand is tucked into the crook of Yaffy’s arm, as he smiles up at her.

What is in the air? Do floods throw up aphrodisiacs? She’d never wanted to see Shem in that state of déshabillé. Or Ham, for that matter, but given that Ham is both forgetful and unconcerned about exhibiting his body, that particular Rubicon was crossed long ago. As for this lot, Lia is not going to see Keziah exploited, by Yaffy or anyone else. She’s just a kid.

“Hello, you two,” she says, keeping her voice light.

They look up. Yaffy’s smiling a rather silly smile, and Keziah’s eyes are sparkling. “Hello,” they chorus, then giggle.

They have it bad. “What can I do for you, Keziah?” she asks. She’ll have to talk to Yaffy later.

But it’s Yaffy who clears his throat. He looks a bit uncomfortable, but he forges on. “Lia, I’ve been thinking. And I know you won’t like this, but hear me out. We don’t have any bright ideas. We’ve been trying for days, and we’ve got wings and hiking and ...magic? I don’t even know.”

Lia feels her eyebrows shoot up at the beginning of this little speech, and by the end of it she’s reaching for Yaffy’s elbow herself. “If you wouldn’t mind excusing us, Keziah, I need to speak to my tent-brother alone for a moment.”

“Of course,” Keziah says softly, dropping her eyes. Lia spares a second from hauling Yaffy away to look back at her sceptically. She’s beginning to think that Keziah’s shy obliging demeanour is a camouflage for quite a steely disposition.

“Look,” she says to Yaffy, once she’s got him out of earshot. She checks, but Keziah’s staying obediently put, fiddling with that red scarf. “What are you thinking? Keziah thinks we’re building a ship. Out of wood. What are you talking about wings for?”

Yaffy has never looked stubborner. Lia groans internally. “I was getting to that before you interrupted. We’re not finding any solutions. When the best one is to actually build a ship, you know we’re fucked.” He takes a deep breath. “I think we should disclose to Kezzy. You’re a good anthropologist, but we haven’t been here for that long – you can’t have learned everything the locals know. Maybe Kezzy will have an idea. Maybe she’ll be able to figure out how we can save everyone.”

Lia’s head is not turned by the haphazard attempt at flattery. She cocks her head. “Let me get this straight. You want me to disclose to a teenager who we really are? Not just accidental small disclosure, like, oooh, teakettle or something, or another god to add to their pantheon, but wholesale Disclosure with a capital D.”

“Yeah,” Yaffy says.

Lia takes a deep calming breath. “Don’t you think you might be a little bit compromised by your feelings towards her? Feelings,” she adds, “that we’re going to have a bit of a talk about later.”

“Feelings that are none of your business,” Yaffy counters, obstinately.

“Feelings that have you giving her a cutesy nickname,” Lia says, before glancing back at Keziah and having another clue drop into place. “Feelings that have you making her pretty scarves. Which in this society is tantamount to proposing, I should think, giving clothing to an unattached woman.”

Yaffy looks skyward as if for patience. “We’re not having this discussion right now. What I feel for Kezzy isn’t relevant. What’s relevant is how we’re going to save everyone’s lives, and how we’re going to do that is to overlook convention and get practical.”

We are certainly having this discussion later, Lia vows silently, but he’s right that they don’t have much time. Does she really think that a villager from a remote valley on an unstudied planet in a backwoods section of the quadrant is going to have an idea that can save them, when all the geniuses on the crew are coming up blank? Perhaps not (although she’s not that impressed with the geniuses’ work ethic at the moment). Does she have much to lose, however? If they don’t come up with an idea from somewhere, all the prudish nondisclosure in the world isn’t going to do anyone any good.

“Give her a chance,” Yaffy pleads. “If we don’t make it out of here, no one will ever know. If we do make it out, a little mild disciplinary action is a small price to pay, isn’t it?”

“If you put it like that,” Lia says, succumbing. She raises an admonishing finger. “But we’re talking about the romance thing later, okay? Hell, first those three, and now you. What’s with romance and the end of the world?”

Yaffy laughs. “If you’re talking about Shem, Ham, and Rahela, I’m pretty sure that’s sex, not romance. Unless you think Ham and Rahela are on their way to bickering happily ever after while Shem keeps them from killing each other. Which is possible, I suppose, but I think it’s just impending doom and the need for stress relief.”

“We’re going to have to start knocking,” Lia says, as they walk back over to Keziah.

Keziah looks up as they approach. Her face betrays mild interest, no more, but Lia is beginning to suspect that her pleasant exterior hides a much more complicated inner life. She waits for them quietly, her hands tucked under Yaffy’s scarf.

Lia opens her mouth, then closes it again. To her chagrin, she finds that now that she comes to it, Disclosure is rather more difficult than she’d imagined. How do you just up and tell someone that you’re aliens? In a world that has no real concept of aliens? When you’ve been socialised your entire career that nondisclosure is the Number One Rule?

Surprisingly, Yaffy doesn’t jump in. He goes to stand with Keziah, and they both wait for her.

Lia swallows. Just plunge in, woman. You’ve journeyed all across the quadrant, you’ve heart-bonded with the woman you love, you’ve decided to bring a child into this world, and you’ve even passed old Troutface’s Cultural Psychology class. You can do this.

“We aren’t from this world,” she manages at last. Best to begin big.

Keziah’s face is confused, but the expression quickly smoothes away. “Where are you from?”

“We’re from...” Lia stalls. How do you explain? The universal translator is all well and good, but not having had to learn the local language, she has no idea which sorts of words they have and how they linguistically understand the universe. If she’d only had more time – those are always her favourite studies.

“We’re from the stars,” Yaffy fills in, and Lia is perversely relieved to see that he looks as nervous as she feels.

Keziah instinctively looks up to the morning sky, but only the sun shines back at her. “The great IAM sent you here?”

“You’ve told me about your god,” Yaffy says, before Lia can confess that the great IAM is no more than some software she doesn’t entirely understand. Or is it hardware? “The Creator of the Universe?”

Keziah nods, searching his face.

“Well,” Yaffy says, looking earnest and nonchalant at the same time, “the great IAM is the same god as the Creator of the Universe. He just has lots of different names, that’s all. But no, he didn’t send us here, not exactly. We’re here to study the plants.”

“The plants?” Keziah repeats, dubiously. She does seem to have swallowed the god thing, though, for which Lia is grateful.

Yaffy nods to Lia, and she takes over. “Yes, your world has different plants than our star does, and one plant in particular will help to cure a sickness on our world. So we came to study it.”

Keziah considers this. After a long moment, she nods again. “There are healing plants, this is true. I am glad that you have found some.”

“The reason we’re telling you this,” Lia says, pressing on while Keziah is still listening and not running screaming, “is that we need your help.”

Perhaps, she thinks belatedly, they should have moved this conversation back to the tents, where there would be less chance of someone happening upon them. She doesn’t think Noah, for example, would be pleased at all to find disclosure happening under his nose. But Noah was asking for Ham, if she remembers correctly, and if he goes looking for him he’ll find more than he bargained for and probably storm off back to the cockpit in a dudgeon. She doubts he’ll be coming outside soon, at any rate.

“My help?” Keziah repeats. She looks towards Yaffy, who smiles encouragingly. “Yes, I will help if I can. Although I don’t know how I can be of help to angels from the stars.”

Oh, that’s lovely, Lia thinks, but she doesn’t have time right now to correct this latest misapprehension. “You see, while IAM told us about the flood that’s coming, we can’t find a way to escape it. We’ve been trying, but nothing we think of will work. If we can’t find a way to get out of the range of the floodwaters, all of us will be drowned.”

Keziah frowns. “But the Creator told you to build a great Ark, a ship to sail the waters.”

Here’s the tricky bit. Lia tries her best to find a version of truth that will still make sense to a young villager. “We already have a ship called the Ark, but it doesn’t sail on water. It sails on land, but it can’t climb the mountains, and it will sink under water. We thought maybe we could make it sail on water, but we can’t.”

Yaffy helps her out. “This is a test from the Creator. He wants to test our faith and our fellowship, when we could not make the Ark sail on water. He wanted us to trust you and ask you for help. He’s testing us.”

For a long moment, Lia’s not sure if they’ve spun a convincing tale. Keziah’s no fool. She has a prodigious memory, to keep her village’s entire oral history and myths in her head, and she’s more than capable of twisting people around her little finger, as Lia is just now finding out. Will she see through them? Or will she accept their stories?

She sees the moment Keziah decides to trust them, as her face relaxes. “If the Creator tests his angels, his people should not refuse their help. What do you need from me?”

Lia breathes properly for the first time in ages. They haven’t even needed to do a full disclosure, although she’ll still be in some major shit if the licensing board finds out. “Help. Local knowledge. Mostly, if there’s any way you can think of to escape a flood.”

As Keziah’s brow draws down in thought, Yaffy pipes up. “Look, I’ve got some maps and things that I’ve drawn. I’ll go fetch them from the tents.”

Yaffy’s running footsteps are loud in the silence that falls between the two of them. Lia’s back is suddenly killing her. Damned baby. (Not that she means that, she amends guiltily.) She looks around and spots the blanket from yesterday, lying still in the same place on the ground. “Let’s sit down.”

“I think,” Keziah says, when they’ve settled themselves as comfortably as possible (although Lia thinks that sitting on the ground will never be entirely comfortable, due to the prevalence of small rocks), “that there is more you’re not telling me.”

Lia’s tired of dissimulating. It’s wearing her out. “Yes. There are some things you wouldn’t understand, and some things I just can’t tell you. Do you trust me?”

Keziah’s eyes are sharp, although not unfriendly. “Not entirely. Yaffy told me that you might try to steal my voice.”

Yaffy is a troublemaking young aristocrat who needs to read an anthropological ethics book and stop being so freaking righteous all the time. But then she can hardly tell Keziah that. The girl’s lovestruck.

“I study songs,” she says instead. “I study songs on many worlds, and I wanted to see how your songs were different or the same to other songs. Is that so wrong of me?”

Keziah considers this for a moment. “You could have asked,” she says severely, but then she smiles. “Yaffy is perhaps overly-careful of me.”

Lia smiles back. It’s nice not to feel quite so guilty, although Yaffy’s voice in the back of her head warns her sternly that this is not exactly informed consent. “Yeees,” she says, drawing the world out. “About Yaffy. He’s...promised to Ava.”

Perhaps she should just let it go. If they’re going to die in the next few days, perhaps she should just let them enjoy the time they have. Even if they don’t die, the broken heart won’t hurt any less now than it will in six days. But if Yaffy’s going to be so vehement about truth, and school her on her ethical responsibilities to the locals, she’s damned if she’s going to let him get away with his own personal exploitation.

Keziah nods. “I know. But he’s told me Ava’s story – that she was in love with a man, but that her father wanted the higher bride-price that Noah could offer, and so she was betrothed to Yaffy instead.” Her tones sink into her bard’s voice, low and crooning. “But the man who loved her thought to carry her off – and once they were properly married, who could say them no? After all, Yaffy could not marry her until he reached his full manhood, and that was still two years off; so Noah moved your family here beyond the mountains, where there was much rich land and where the man who loved Ava could not find her. But one day, Yaffy says, the man will find the trail that Yaffy and Ava left for him – for Yaffy does not love Ava, but cannot defy his father – and the man will carry her away, and Yaffy will be free to marry.”

Lia’s heart is breaking for her. What a story. And Yaffy has the gall to scold Lia over her mistreatment of the locals! “We’re from another world, Keziah. There is no other man.” She tries to say it as gently as she can.

Keziah meets her eyes for a moment, then looks away. “I know. I knew when he told me, for all that he said it so beautifully. He loves me, so he finds a little lie. But it’s no matter.”

“No matter?” Lia repeats, unable to keep the incredulity out of her voice entirely. “You deserve to find happiness, happiness that will last, not something temporary that has to end when Yaffy goes back to his own world.” She hesitates. She has no idea what the sex education on this world is like. But if she doesn’t explain, Keziah may learn another way entirely. “If he leaves you with child – you’re already an outsider. The village would surely throw you out.”

“He won’t leave me with child,” Keziah says, and something in the stony abruptness makes Lia blink. It’s not in what Lia knows of Keziah’s character to be so bleak.

She reaches over to set her hand on her friend’s. “He may. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean that your body can’t bear a child.” She injects a little rueful humour into her voice. “I’m young, and look at me. And you’re not so very young. You must have twenty winters.”

Keziah shakes her head, although she doesn’t pull away from Lia’s hand. “The Creator God did not make me able to have children.”

“You can’t know that,” Lia says gently. “We tried for three years. Just because it hasn’t happened yet...”

Keziah looks up and meets her gaze, and something in her eyes brings Lia stumbling to a halt. Here’s the passion burning behind the placid shell. “The Creator God has in his wisdom given me a woman’s soul and a man’s body. Is this on your world too? Do you understand now? Do you understand why Yaffy will never leave me with child, why it doesn’t matter that no man will come to set him free from Ava, why when he goes back to his world it will not matter that he leaves me compromised in the sight of the village?”

Lia doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know what to do. She thinks of surging forward, of pulling Keziah into her arms, but physical comforting might very well be unwelcome. How could she have been so blind? Such a medical case is certainly not unknown in the quadrant, but it’s easily and readily correctable on planets with a developed health system. She’s never ran into an untreated case before, as far as she knows. Still, that’s hardly an excuse for being so blind, she’s an anthropologist for God’s sake, she’s supposed to be observant, and she’s wittering on in her own brain, and there’s a woman here who needs support, who needs comfort...

“And I know you’re here, Yaffy,” Keziah says, loud in the silence, without turning her head. “Those footsteps of yours never will be quiet.” Her voice trembles, but doesn’t break. “So now you know.”

Lia looks up. Yaffy is indeed standing there, maps in hand, face inscrutable.

It seems forever, but it’s only a moment before he steps towards them, clearing his throat. “I love you, Kezzy.”

Keziah makes a small sound.

As quietly as possible, Lia levers herself up from the ground and hurries towards the Ark. For all her anthropologist’s curiousity, there are some things that deserve absolute privacy, and this, she thinks, is one of them.

~//~

“How is she?” Lia asks immediately, as soon as Yaffy enters the room. It’s been a long hour. It hasn’t helped that she’s been confined to one room, for fear of encountering Noah on the one hand or the trysting trio on the other. “Is she all right?”

Yaffy’s face, usually so open and laughing, is closed off. She can’t read him. “Kezzy’s fine. I don’t appreciate that you forced her to disclose.”

Lia splutters. “What? I didn’t force her into anything. I was trying to warn her off you, if you must know. You can’t start up a relationship with a local, you know that! It’s the worst sort of exploitation. If you really love her, you have to see that you’re going to break her heart.”

Yaffy sighs and drops into a chair. “I’m not intending to leave.”

There’s a long minute where Lia can’t make her mouth form words. Then the dam breaks. “You’re not intending to leave? Oh yes, that’s entirely feasible. Number one, you’re not allowed to do that. This planet’s not zoned for settling. Number two, your family’s never going to allow you to up and move here. You’re an aristocrat, for fuck’s sake, I don’t care if you’re a younger son or whatever, you’d be basically be choosing civil death by moving here and it’d be a total scandal. Number three...”

“Can we just focus on getting out of here?” Yaffy says, holding up his hands wearily. “Look, I count you as a friend, despite your anthropologist-ness, but I don’t want to discuss my personal life with you. Particularly not now. We’ve got to get out of this mess, and then we can figure out what happens next. But I’m not leaving Kezzy.”

Lia rubs her temples. “You two are setting yourself up for heartbreak.”

Yaffy looks up sharply. “That’s our business. And one thing more.” He waits until she meets his gaze. “Kezzy disclosed to you. That was her choice. But you had better not tell anyone else or I will...I’ll be an avenging fury, I swear.”

“I’m not going to tell anyone,” Lia says, stung. “That’s...I wouldn’t.”

“Okay,” Yaffy says. He shifts his armful of maps to under his other arm. “And no asking her for details, either. I know you’re an anthropologist and thus always curious about everything, but again, that’s off limits.”

“You’re not her keeper,” Lia says, warningly. “She’s an adult woman and can make her own choices.”

Yaffy raises his eyebrows. “I’m not saying I’m her keeper. But she feels indebted to you – fuck knows why – and I’m just saying, don’t exploit that. She doesn’t want to talk about it, so don’t force her.”

Lia feels tired. “I won’t,” she says simply. “To be perfectly frank, I’m a bit soured on anthropology at the moment.”

“I’m not entirely unhappy to hear that,” Yaffy says, and grins suddenly, dark look fading. It’s a teasing grin, and Lia finds herself responding to it, smiling back. She’s glad the old Yaffy isn’t entirely gone, hasn’t entirely given way to this new intense stranger. “You’ll make a decent human being yet.”

“Oi,” Lia says, and kicks his ankle.

“Hey,” he protests, “no physical violence. Not fair. I can’t kick you back, not with the baby.”

“Exactly,” Lia says, and grins wickedly.

Yaffy skips back out of range of her second kick, laughing. “Come on, then. Kezzy’s gone down to check on Elisheva, but she’s going to meet us at the tents in fifteen minutes or so. Unless you want to hang about here to catch the terrible trio doing the walk of shame?”

“Ham will never do a walk of shame,” Lia says, darkly. “Rahela either. They’ll be more likely to be unbearably smug about it all. Shem might, though. What is it with you guys? Is it really the impending doom? Or has Ham grown some aphrodisiacal shrub?”

“Well,” Yaffy says, and grins. “Much as I hate to disparage your anthropological antennae, Kezzy and I have been seeing each other for five months. So, um, this is hardly new.”

“Dammit,” Lia says. “Come on, then, let’s get down to the tents and find a way out of all this mess.”

~//~

Kezzy – somewhere along the line, Lia’s gone and adopted Yaffy’s nickname for her – looks down at the maps Yaffy’s laid out and chews her lip. “This is Tirzah?”

“Yes,” Yaffy says, and points. “There are our tents, and there’s the path up to the Ark.”

Kezzy laughs and claps her hands together. “It’s like we’re birds!”

“Yes,” Yaffy says, smiling at her.

They’re so easy with each other, even after the recent revelations. Lia thinks Yaffy must have known already, must have guessed. She certainly doesn’t know how she didn’t see their relationship before. But then she’d only seen them together that once; they’d hidden themselves well.

Kezzy sobers and looks back at the maps. “We need to get out of the valley to escape the flood. It comes from here?” She points.

“Yes.”

She goes back to chewing her lip. “Perhaps – perhaps the pass.”

“What pass?” Yaffy sounds remarkably calm. “We can’t climb mountains, not if we want to take anyone but the strongest with us.”

Lia looks down at her belly and makes a face. You’re a wanted child, munchkin, she thinks, but you’re certainly helping to make things difficult for your mothers.

“It’s not in the mountains,” Kezzy says, and that brings Lia’s head whipping up double-fast. “You came over the mountains – ” She laughs, sounding surprised. “Well, I suppose you didn’t. But you said you did. I, on the other hand, came between the mountains.”

“Where?” Yaffy says, dropping his hand nonchalantly on top of one of hers and squeezing it.

Kezzy thinks. “When I left my home village, I went towards the sun...Here.” She points. “The river cuts a chasm through the mountains here – they say it runs to the sea, but I’ve never followed it that far. It comes from the mountains here, and runs here...” Yaffy hands her a pencil, and she looks at it curiously before smiling and starting to draw a slender line to mark the river. “Clever, this little stick. The river runs here, and meets the village here, and goes on towards the chasm – here.”

“How long would it take to follow the river to the pass?” Yaffy asks.

Kezzy frowns in thought. “I came slowly, but I was foraging by that point. But then we will have old and young and sick. Perhaps a week.”

“Too slow,” Yaffy says, but then stops. “How level is the ground? How flat? Is it all rocks? How wide are the banks in the chasm?”

“Many questions,” Kezzy says, grinning, but her eyes are soft as she looks up at him, and Lia feels her own heart flip. Perhaps she should just let him mysteriously vanish when it comes time to go off-planet...but they’d mount a search. Pretend he fell off a mountain and they couldn’t recover the body?

But Kezzy is answering the questions. “The ground in the valley is much the same as here. Not completely flat, but not mountainous.”

“Perfectly fine for the rover,” Yaffy explains to Lia, who is following along just fine, thank you very much. “We can probably halve the time needed to get there if we take the Ark. And the pass?”

Kezzy shakes her head. “Not wide. If we reached it before the floodwaters, we would be able to go three or four abreast on the banks, since it’s summer and the river will be low. Once the floodwaters begin...”

“The river will swell and we’ll be cut off,” Yaffy finishes. “Yes. So we’ll just have to get there first.”

“Time to break it to the team?” Lia suggests, but then reconsiders. “Or should we try to persuade the villagers first? I’m a bit worried about how Noah was acting this morning.”

Yaffy’s eyebrows shoot up. “Yes?”

She fills them in, skating around the part about kidnapping Kezzy and her friend, although she thinks Yaffy guesses. His lips certainly thin into a straight line. “So,” she finishes, “He didn’t exactly say he didn’t want us to bring the village onboard, but he didn’t encourage it either. I’d rather present him with a fait accompli than rely on him to help.”

“It’s the lunch hour,” Kezzy says, her hand still resting on the maps that are their best chance now. “The workers will have come in from the fields. We should go now.” She stands up decisively.

“Before they go back?” Lia asks.

Kezzy smiles, a small but determined slash of teeth. “Before we lose our nerve. They’re not well pleased with you – or with me – but we must venture much to gain much.”

Yaffy helps Lia to her feet, and they follow Kezzy down the well-worn path.

~//~

“Please,” Kezzy says, standing in front of the well in the centre of the village. “Please listen to me. The flood is coming, and if we want to survive it we must listen to the newcomers.”

The villagers who’ve opened their doors to get a good look at them don’t appear to be very won over. Their scepticism radiates outwards, creating an almost visible field that makes Lia wince.

She can hardly blame them, however. They are newcomers, and any earth tremors that may precede the coming earthquake haven’t started yet. Why should the villagers believe them?

“Yes, we know you listen to the newcomers,” a man calls from a window, and there’s a chuckle.

Lia doesn’t like the sound of it. Neither does Yaffy, if his stiffening next to her is any indication. “Should I say something?” he asks her, under his breath. “Maybe they’d listen to a man.”

She shakes her head minutely. “You’d only confirm the rumour. Kezzy would lose any credibility she has left.”

“I don’t like it.”

“I know you don’t,” she says, slipping her hand into the crook of his arm. “But you can’t fix everything for her.”

“Maybe I’m wrong,” Kezzy says, projecting her voice the way Elisheva has no doubt taught her, using all her powers to cajole. “Maybe there will be no flood, and in a week you will laugh at the newcomers, and call Noah the Man Who Cried Flood.”

The joke seems to be better in the vernacular. A woman with a baby on her hip laughs, and after a moment the men grudgingly laugh too.

Kezzy spreads her arms. “And that will be amusing, and we will tell our children of Noah the Worrier, and the time we left our village for a week, and no doubt Noah’s sons will help us to build new barns and put in our crops this autumn, to recompense us for our wasted time.”

She looks around the gathered people. It’s not the whole village, but Lia recognises the gossips and the newscarriers. Whatever they tell this lot, the community will know by nightfall.

“But what if they are right? What if they are right, and we refuse to go with them? Our children will drown beneath the waves. Our mothers will cry out and no one will hear them. Our farmers will choke and die, and Tirzah will be no more.”

She lifts an arm to the sky. “Is that what you want? Do you want us to laugh at the foolishness of an old man, but live? Or do you want us to die, and our stories with us?”

Lia looks around at the faces. She almost has them. So close. If only...

There is only one thing Lia can do. She must help if she can. She steps forward, steps up to stand next to Kezzy. “Women of Tirzah, I speak to you.”

Kezzy looks surprised, but she doesn’t step back. Lia gulps and continues.

“We are not so dislike. From one woman to another, I appeal to you. I carry my first child, the first fruit of my womb. Another turn of the month and my child will be born.”

She looks at the women with babes in arms, at the toddlers playing on the steps. “Would I put my child in danger by this perilous journey, if I did not think I must? I ask you, mother to mother, can you endanger your children because you do not care to take a small journey to save their lives?”

She touches her belly. “My child kicks in my womb. Let the men laugh at my husband’s father for his foolishness, for perhaps he is foolish. But he is old, and perhaps he is wise; perhaps the Creator God does speak to him. We are not men, to laugh. We are the women who hold the future in our arms and in our wombs, and we are the protectors.”

“You serve a different god,” someone cries out. “Not the Creator God.”

“They serve the Creator God,” Kezzy calls, her voice strong and true. “The Creator God has many names, and so the men from over the mountains call him the Great IAM. Is this so strange? He is the Ruler of the Universe, the Shepherd of the Flock, the Bringer of the Rain. He is also the Great IAM, and he speaks to Noah.”

“If the flood does not come,” Lia says, holding her hands out to the crowd, “My tent-brothers and my husband will work for you to repay you for your lost work days. My sisters and I will weave you clothes on our looms. My young brother –” she indicates Yaffy with her head, “will supply you with the drink of the stalk to cheer your evenings.”

From the interested cock of some of the men’s heads, she wonders if their homebrew has already become famous. She wouldn’t put it past her boys. Or Rahela, for that matter.

Kezzy takes up the thread. “Just because the Creator God spoke to the newcomers first about this flood, we must not refuse to listen to His Word. He loves all of us, and he wants to save us. We must listen, or we will drown.”

“I can feel the winds,” a gravelly voice says from behind her.

Lia knows the instant the growing crowd’s attention is diverted from her and Kezzy. It leaves like a breath of air, whistling over their heads.

Elisheva’s cane taps painfully on the ground as she limps forward to stand on Kezzy’s other side. “I can feel the winds,” she says again, every word measured and slow. “I can feel them in my bones.”

A dog runs yapping down the lane, and a baby squeals. All the adults, though, are respectfully silent.

“I have lived a long time,” Elisheva says. “And my time is almost through. The earth trembles under my feet. It will send the waters.”

She looks around at them, then turns at last to Kezzy. A smile on her wizened face, she reaches a shaking hand up to sign a blessing on Kezzy’s forehead. “Listen to my tent-daughter,” she tells the crowd, “for she speaks truth.”

After a long moment, Yaffy steps forward and offers his arm to escort her back to her tent, but Elisheva only pats his cheek and limps away leaning on her cane once more.

That’ll be Kezzy one day, Lia thinks, watching a single tear sparkle in the corner of Kezzy’s eye, even as the girl raises her head to address her people once more.

~//~

“So we’re agreed,” Lia says, looking around the little impromptu council of war gathered in Elisheva’s tent. “I head back up to the Ark to fill everyone in. Yaffy, you stay here with Kezzy to help run the preparations. As long as everything goes according to plan, we’ll bring the Ark down in the morning to pick everyone up and then head on towards the pass.”

Yaffy’s frowning, although whether that’s because he doesn’t entirely approve of the plan or because under Elisheva’s sharp-eyed supervision he can’t hold hands with Kezzy, Lia’s not completely sure. “I wish we could get started tonight.”

“I wish we could too,” Lia agrees, “but you know it’s going to take all night to empty Ham’s greenhouse so that we can fit the villagers in. I’d like to make it look a little more...” She checks to see that Elisheva is still in bed and out of earshot, although within chaperon length. “Boat-like, if you know what I mean.”

Yaffy chuckles ruefully. “Yes.”

“You’ll let me know if anything changes down here?” Lia says, rolling up the maps.

Yaffy nods. “Of course.”

~//~

“Let me get this straight.”

It’s only an hour later, but it feels like an age. While her fellow scientists are thankfully wearing more clothes than they were earlier, they’re no less ornery. Particularly this one.

“We’re supposed to pack the village into the rover and then go haring off to find this canyon some village girl claims to know is in the mountains.”

“That’s about the size of it.” Lia is done with putting things tactfully. Her tact setting seems to have broken from over-use.

“Well, that’s all right then,” Rahela says sarcastically, before throwing her arms up. “Sounds like a wild goose chase.”

“Noted. Shem? Overall thoughts?”

Shem rubs absent-mindedly at his beard. “The rover will have to be decontaminated afterwards, if it’s to be used for experiments again. Not that it’s sterile, except for certain small parts, but they’ll have all sorts of germs that we’re not familiar with or used to factoring into our work.” He looks down at his notes. “I haven’t done a full study of the diseases here, either, so we’ll have to expand the regular scans I do on you, Lia, to cover all of us.”

“But that’s not a no?”

Shem looks surprised. “No, it’s not a no. Sounds like a reasonable idea.”

“Ava?”

Ava looks the most supportive of all of them, even Nyomi. But then Nyomi hasn’t been entirely happy to discover that her very pregnant wife put herself in front of a not entirely friendly crowd. For all that Lia has argued that she was never in any danger, she supposes it’s the privilege of a wife to worry.

Ava smiles at her. “We’ve finished boosting the signal. Theoretically, it should be fine if we move the rover. Practically, I suppose there’s a chance that the towers may collapse. They’re not entirely sturdy. But they’re as sturdy as we can make them, and they never collapsed when they used to be my air quality towers.”

“Ham?”

Ham’s nibbling some cheese, but he looks up at his name. “If you’ve got Shem and Ava, and you’ve obviously got Yaffy and Nyomi, then you hardly need my vote.”

“It’s not a matter of voting,” Lia says. “I’m hoping it won’t come to that. But do you see any problems?”

Ham shrugs. “I agree with Rahela that it seems like we’re putting a lot of faith in one local kid. And none of us knows her. I suppose we’re putting our faith in you and Yaffy.” He stares gloomily at his cheese. “But it’s not like any of us has any better ideas. At least driving the rover towards the mountains is only trusting that there’ll be a pass there when we get there, not hoping that some laws of physics magically work differently here.”

“So that’s a qualified yes,” Lia sums up.

Ham laughs. “I suppose so. Better die doing something than nothing, I guess.”

“Charming,” Lia says dryly.

“I’ll have to move my babies out of the greenhouse, though,” Ham says, pulling a mournful face. “Their fathers and mothers were already going to be sacrificed due to their non-portable nature. Now the babies too.”

Rahela rolls her eyes. “They’re just plants, mo ghrá. You can grow them again.”

“I’ve named them all,” Ham says sadly. “If I were to grow them a thousand times, they’d never be the same as the ones I lost.”

They all look at him.

“Bullshit,” Ava says.

Ham laughs, and after a moment they join him. “Had you going, though. Nah, it’ll be a bit of a wrench to lose them after all the fucking watering, but I’ve got the notes, and better lose six months of work than lose the scientist.”

“You’d run out of names if you tried to name all those plants,” Shem observes.

“Never, loukoumaki mou,” Ham says. “I have a very fertile imagination.”

Lia is busy trying very hard not to think about Ham’s fertile imagination – or to think too much about why the universal translator has, after a due consideration, decided to inform her that Ham has just called Shem a little doughnut – and that’s why, she’ll decide later, she forgets all about Noah.

He’s been very quiet all this time, sitting behind her smoking his pipe.

Now, as Lia feels the business end of a phaser jutting cold against her neck, she realises just how stupid she’d been to overlook him.

It’s always the quiet ones.

She looks around the surprised faces turned towards her. Ham’s already starting forward, his hunk of cheese tumbling forgotten to the floor. Rahela’s half out of her chair, her mouth opening soundlessly. She can’t see Ava, who’s sitting behind her shoulder, but her distressed cry rings in Lia’s ears.

“Put it down, Noah,” Shem says clearly.

“Nobody make any sudden moves,” Lia calls out. She’s sure Noah has the phaser set to stun. He’s not that far gone. Surely he’s not that far gone. But even the stun setting could have repercussions for the baby, couldn’t it? She’s no doctor. She can’t risk it.

Noah’s voice is quiet next to her ear. “Listen to Lia. Everyone sit down.”

She remembers how distracted and disengaged he seemed, just a few days ago. The military wouldn’t have picked him to command a mission if he’d been that bumbling, she supposes. She’d just thought somebody wanted him out of the capital.

“Now here’s what we’re going to do,” Noah says, and she closes her eyes, because she can’t look at the people she suddenly realises are her friends, not just her colleagues. She can’t look at the fury in Rahela’s eyes, the fear in Ham’s. “Nobody’s going to get hurt. Everyone’s going to walk slowly and quietly down to the brig, and then I’m going to lock you in. It’ll be a bit tight, but you’ll be fine.”

“What do you want, Noah?” That’s Shem, the professorial tone turning to steel.

Noah laughs. It’s a pleasant laugh. In another life Lia might have found it attractive. Now its cheeriness chills her. “What do I want? Nothing special. Us, alive. My mission to keep you safe, fulfilled.”

“Putting us in a cage hardly seems like keeping us safe,” Rahela says, her voice tight.

Noah’s close enough that Lia can hear him shake his head. The phaser quivers against her skin. “But you see, I have my orders about disclosure. Military assets – and for all it’s just a scientific hunk of metal without any real defences, this rover still counts as a military asset – are not allowed to be disclosed to alien lifeforms.”

“You said we could take Keziah and her friend Yusuf,” Lia says, breaking her silence. Keep him talking long enough for something to happen, she has to keep him talking. She doesn’t know what might happen, but if Ava’s holovids are anything to go by, she has to keep him talking.

She thinks Noah might have shrugged. “Two primitives are a misdemeanour, not a felony. Particularly if Shem drugged them, and if it kept you pacified.”

“They’re not primitives,” Lia says, twisting in his grip despite her fear of the cold muzzle under her chin. “They’re people.”

His hand tightens painfully on her hair. “They’re not like us, sweetheart. They believe in a big benevolent star being who watches over them. They evolved from apes not so very long ago.”

“They’re people,” Lia says obstinately, and is appalled to find herself blinking back tears. She’s not sure if it’s the stress or the pain in her scalp, but she mustn’t show weakness. Not to a man like Noah.

“We could debate the philosophical line of ‘people’ all day,” Noah says. His voice is mild and soft, like an academic, or like that kindly old uncle-type you meet at parties. “But ultimately my job is to protect the humans, not the locals, and I’m not going to jeopardise my career so you can interfere in their lives and play God.”

Lia clears her throat, forcing her voice to stay steady. “I’m not playing God.”

“If we weren’t here, they’d die,” Noah says, flatly. “Because we’re here, you think they should live. That’s playing God.”

She has no answer for him.

“Now, enough talking,” Noah says. She can feel his quietness growing ragged. “We’re all going to go down to the brig now, and then I’m going to drive this rover over to the village and pick up Yaffy and your local girl.”

“Kezzy won’t leave her people,” Lia says, with absolute certainty.

Noah laughs, and it’s no longer a pleasant laugh. “She’ll guide us to the pass if I have to hold her at phaser point the whole way. Or perhaps I should threaten Yaffy to soften her up?”

Not everyone has been as blind to Yaffy’s courtship as Lia has been, it seems.

There’s a long minute of silence as they all contemplate the situation.

“Fine, so it’s playing God,” Ham says. Lia opens her eyes for the first time since this all started to see him standing up from his chair. “So are you then. You’re condemning them to death.”

She feels the phaser press in harder. There’ll be a bruise. “I’m letting nature take its course,” Noah says, and the calmness in his voice wavers. “Sit back down.”

“No,” Ham says, and takes a deliberate step towards them. “I don’t think I will. I wasn’t particularly sold on the idea of taking the villagers, but I’m damned if I’ll let you bully us out of it by force.”

“Sit down,” Noah says again, louder, and there’s definitely tension there now. She can feel his wrist wobble.

Ham shakes his head. “No,” he repeats. “As a scientist, my number one personal rule is to never obey the business end of a phaser. I took a history class once.”

“Sit down!” Noah says for a third time, his voice surging higher, as Ham steps closer – and then everything seems to happen very quickly.

Lia feels the phaser leave her neck, sees its barrel swing into her peripheral vision, sees it point at Ham. She sees Ham gather himself for a leap forward. She sees Rahela starting to her feet, caged anger beginning to break out.

Perhaps she should have leapt away herself, taken advantage of Noah’s distraction, but she hesitates for a moment, her hair still caught, and then it’s all over.

~//~

Ham is cradled in Rahela’s arms, his head lolling back, while Shem bends over them with a scanner. They look for all the world like a painting of a mourning family that Lia saw at an art gallery before they left on this mission; she supposes however that Ham’s soil-stained dungarees and Rahela’s impatiently knotted hair are rather less dignified than the sombre and beautiful lines of the painting.

She’s looking at them because she doesn’t want to look down at the floor next to her.

“He forgot about your third arm,” Nyomi observes to Ava, conversationally.

Lia turns to them in time to see Ava’s mischievous grin. “Never forget the third arm. It’s a pain when you have to pass in societies like this, always keeping it retracted when villagers are around, but it’s a useful bugger. Particularly when you have to reach a long way.” Her voice isn’t entirely steady, but then neither is Nyomi’s. Breaking tension is a killer.

Lia thinks back to earlier today, when Ava’d reached nonchalantly up to steady Yaffy on the tower – to that night at dinner, when she’d stolen Ham’s stew. She supposes Noah either hadn’t been around or hadn’t been paying attention most of the times Ava had used her third arm, though he surely must have known about it. But then when did he pay attention to them, until he had to?

“He’s going to be fine, isn’t he?” she asks.

Nyomi shrugs. “He should be. I didn’t punch him that hard.”

When Ava’s third arm had unexpectedly materialised from behind the two of them, snatching the phaser out of Noah’s hand, it’d gone off into Ham’s chest. Rahela had leapt forward to catch him, and in all the commotion Nyomi had simply stepped up behind Noah and laid him out flat.

He hadn’t been much of a soldier in the end, if he’d forgotten not only about Ava’s third arm but about the need to watch his back. Somehow, however, Lia can’t find it in herself to feel sorry for him.

“He’ll have a bit of a headache when he wakes up, though,” Nyomi adds, with a satisfied grin.

Ava smiles. “Good. Shall we tie him up now?”

“I like your thinking,” Nyomi tells her. “Here, you stay here and punch him again if he wakes up. I’ll go grab something rope-ish.” She turns to Lia. “You okay?” Her tone is light, but Lia knows better.

Lia musters a brave smile. “I’m fine. A bit shaken up, but fine. I’ll feel better once he’s tied up, though.”

“My cue,” Nyomi says, saluting, and jogs off, although not before bending down to steal a kiss.

When she’s left, Lia smiles at Ava. “Thank you.”

Ava shakes her head. “Thank Ham. He saw me and Nyomi trying to get ready and knew he had to distract Noah’s attention.” She looks worriedly in his direction. “I hope he’s going to be all right.”

Shem glances at him. “He’ll be fine. It was on stun.”

“I will not,” Ham says muzzily. “I’m killed. Put wreaths of tigherium blossoms on my grave. Dedicate your Lyrian prize to me if you ever win it, Rahela. Write ‘here lies a clever man’ on my tombstone.”

Rahela is laughing too hard to shut him up at first, the nervous shaking laugh of breaking tension. “You wanker, you had me worried.”

“Your boobs are shaking my head,” Ham complains. “Stop laughing at me. I’ve just taken a phaser to the chest.”

“Yeah, he’s fine,” Shem repeats, massaging his forehead. “He might need to sleep it off for a bit, though.”

Ham shakes his head, then makes a pained face. “Plants. Need to choose the best ones to keep and unload the rest.”

Lia shares an amused look with Ava. Even after getting shot, all Ham can think about is, first, winding them up and, second, his plants. Some things never change.

Rahela narrows her eyes at him. “You can choose the best ones if you do it quickly. But after that you’re going to sleep. The rest of us can deal with unloading the surplus plants and making the room ready for a flock of villagers.”

For a long moment, Lia thinks Ham’s going to argue, but then the fight seems to go out of him. “Yes, khriso mou,” he says, before letting his eyes fall shut.

Nyomi reappears with a pair of handcuffs and some rope. She looks down at Ham with interest. “Looks like he’s out for the count,” she comments. “Shall we draw a penis on his face?”

If glares could kill, Rahela’s would. But then that’s nothing new. “Shem and I are taking him to bed. You just see to that douchebag over there.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Nyomi says, laughing, as Ava observes, sotto voce, “I’ll bet you are.”

Shem flushes a violent shade of red. “Shut up, Ava.”

“He’s drooling on me,” Rahela says disgustedly. “Someone get me a pillow.”

Lia laughs, and then she can’t stop, and then she’s not sure whether she’s laughing or sobbing.

“Shhh,” Nyomi says, and then she’s in those comforting arms.

“Move and I’ll thump you again,” Ava tells Noah conversationally.

~//~

“Is this everyone?” Lia asks.

Most of the village is gathered into what was once Ham’s greenhouse. After a busy night, a hastily constructed wood floor (“and we ended up slaving away over trees after all,” Shem had said ruefully, wiping sweat out of his face and leaning on the log he was currently sawing planks out of) lies underfoot. It’s horribly uneven and unfinished, but they’ve covered the worst bits with a cosy bed of straw, and it seems to be passing muster so far.

As for the outside of the Ark, they’d trusted to the wobbliness of the predawn light and the capacity of the human brain to rationalise things to explain the distinctly unboatlike nature of the rover. Kezzy had explained that this particular boat, due to the graciousness of the Creator, sailed on land not on water.

Lia’d seen more than a few sceptics at that, but when you’ve spent the evening packing up your belongings and foodstuffs, it’s a bit embarrassing to climb down. When Elisheva had limped forward, helped by Kezzy, most of the rest had followed her. And now here they are.

“Yes,” Kezzy answers, pushing a wisp of hair back under her headcovering and looking harried. “This is everyone who’s coming.”

Lia winces. She can’t believe they’re leaving people. But like Kezzy so passionately argued, they have to allow the villagers to have free will. They can’t force the refusers to come if they don’t want to, even if Shem could probably technically sedate them all and bung them up in one of the smaller rooms.

“Have you...”

“I’ve tried,” Kezzy says. “It’s their choice and we’re going to respect that.”

Lia nods, not trusting her voice. She knows Kezzy’s right. It still seems hard, very hard.

Kezzy steps away from her and strides to the middle of the room. “Welcome aboard the Ark, everyone. We’re just about to get started –” The Ark lurches forward, and she grins. “We’ve set sail!”

“If there’s anything we can get you, let us know,” Lia chimes in, feeling for all the world like an airship hostess, then leaves Kezzy to it.

The maaa and clucking of assorted small animals follows her to the door, and she grins. She hopes they don’t decide to chew the tigherium. She thinks it’s sufficiently protected, but you never know with determined livestock, and there are some things Ham just couldn’t survive.

~//~

Yaffy finds her on the roof balcony staring out at the passing countryside. They’ve left the village a good ways behind now, and the deserted green land rolls on before them.

“It’s so beautiful,” Lia says. Beautiful is an inane word for such a sight, but it’s all she has. She wonders what the local words are. If only she had more time, she’d learn.

Yaffy nods, coming to join her by the railing. “That it is.”

They stand in companionable silence for a few minutes, watching the world go by.

“I can’t help mourning the other villagers,” Lia confesses at last.

“They chose,” Yaffy says, simply.

She clears her throat, determined not to break down again. “Yes.”

They seem to have lost words, here in the last desperate try for escape. She doesn’t know what the odds are. None of them are mathematicians. How would they even figure them?

“How’s the baby?” Yaffy asks.

She smiles with a small effort. Yes, one must believe there will be a future. Perhaps the believing will help to create the reality. “Shem says we’re fine, but he wants me to have less stress for this last month. Can’t say as I can argue with that.” If she had argued, she thinks Nyomi would have been about ready to keep her on forcible bed rest anyway.

“Well, soon enough this will all be over,” Yaffy says. “You’ll be back in the capital with Nyomi and the new little one, writing your next book and readjusting to an omnivorous diet with a vengeance.”

Lia laughs.

The world spins by.

“This will soon all be over,” she says, somewhat hesitantly. “Do you know yet what you’re going to do?”

Yaffy’s profile sets, his jaw tucking in. “Stay with Kezzy. The method is negotiable. I’ll start with my family – a mixture of blandishments and threats will probably be effective.”

Lia privately doubts it, but she doesn’t think expressing her doubts at this point would be useful. “Oh, well, I don’t know much about aristo culture,” she says, lightly. “Perhaps I should tackle that for my next project. Know thyself, they say.”

Yaffy huffs a small laugh. “It wouldn’t be a particularly edifying one. Even if I hadn’t met Kezzy, I’d want to leave that life behind for good.”

A thought occurs to Lia. She’s not entirely sure how to voice it, but then that’s never stopped her before. “You know, before you cut off ties with home entirely, you should pull some strings and take Kezzy back to the capital with you.”

“Why?” Yaffy asks, his voice bland.

“You know,” Lia says. “The correction is easy these days. Or I suppose she could do it with medication, if you got the supplies shipped in and had Shem to...”

“Look,” Yaffy interrupts. “I know you mean well. But this isn’t your business.”

“I care about her!” Lia says indignantly. “I’m her friend. I want her to be happy. Just because you’re her lover doesn’t give you a greater say. She should know about her options...”

“She will,” Yaffy interrupts again. He sighs and pinches his nose. “I know what it’s like to have well-meaning strangers and acquaintances poking their noses in a person’s private business. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure she has her options. But it’s not your business. Leave her alone.”

“But...”

“This is why people don’t disclose,” Yaffy says, his grip white on the railing. “This is why people don’t disclose. It’s all you’re going to think about when you see her now. She’s a person. Forget about her medical history, which is none of your fucking business.” He swallows, then continues more slowly, his voice quieter. “I know she...she considers you a friend. Be her friend.”

Lia’s not entirely dense. She’s beginning to realise that she often is, which is something she needs to think about, if she wants to continue being an anthropologist (which she’s not entirely sure she does anymore, or at least not the kind she has been). But there are easy-to-miss cues, and then there are bright blaring ones.

Yaffy is right. Keziah’s medical history is none of her business, and when it comes down to it, Lia does trust him to provide Kezzy with options and let her make her own choices.

And if Keziah’s medical history is none of her business, Yaffy’s is even less.

“Okay,” Lia says softly, accepting both the reprimand and the exhortation. “Take care of her.”

“I’ll do what I can so she can take care of herself,” Yaffy corrects, but he smiles tiredly.

They watch the world go by, together.

The sun sets.

~//~

“Here,” a harried mother says abruptly, shoving a cat into Lia’s arms before chasing after her giggling toddler.

Lia and the cat regard each other. The cat doesn’t seem to think much of her. It gives her a supercilious look and twists, trying to get away.

Kezzy drops down next to her, laughing. “I see you’ve got yourself an armful there. Careful, don’t let her get away. She keeps chasing the chickens.”

“This is rather messier than I’d thought it would be,” Lia admits ruefully.

Kezzy grins and reaches for the cat. “Here, let me have her, she tolerates me. Yes, I know what you mean. It’s not as quiet here as it was at your tent-stake, is it? Children and chickens and sheep and bored men playing cards. Thank you for introducing that particular past-time, by the way.”

It’s Lia’s turn to grin. “I think Ham thought there’d be murder done if people got much more bored. And I believe they’ve created at least six new games already. So it’s not entirely our fault.”

“Of course,” Kezzy teases. “Nothing is ever your fault. Including the fact that I’m holding a scratching cat.”

“You asked for her!” Lia protests, as the giggling toddler waddles back and reclaims the cat with a satisfied “Kitty!” The cat looks pained and longsuffering, but Lia notices she doesn’t scratch the child. Only adults which have the temerity to try to restrain her from chasing chickens.

“Come on then,” Kezzy says, hopping to her feet and extending a hand to pull Lia upright. “We’re going to go talk to Maryam now.”

Everyone else may be getting quite bored by this point in their journey. They’re almost to the pass now – Ava’s hoping that they’ll reach it by midday and be through by nightfall, counting on the long summer evenings. It’s been a long couple of days.

Lia, however, is far from bored. Enlisting Kezzy to introduce her to the entire village has resulted in an exhausting but exhilarating voyage of discovery. She’s left the men for now – they’re busy teaching card-sharp Ham a lesson in humbleness – but the women have thoroughly occupied her waking hours. Many she’s already met in the months she’s been here, but she’d previously seen them as research subjects, as points on a graph and anecdotes to mine.

Now she comes as a cross between supplicant and friend, and she sees with new eyes. She’s not sure how different she appears, but she knows she feels entirely different.

She smiles as she remembers her conversation with Kezzy.

~~ “But you have to promise not to record their voices,” Kezzy says, her hands on her hips and her eyebrows raised bossily high. She no longer bothers to hide behind her shy shell around Lia. This is the person Lia used to only glimpse, a passionate and assured woman who’s entirely too good at winding people around her little finger.

“I promise,” Lia says. She holds up her recorder so Kezzy can see it. “See, I’m leaving it behind in the bedroom.”

Kezzy nods, satisfied. “Good. I don’t mind if you record my voice for you – I want you to remember me when you’re back among the stars – but you know I don’t want my voice to live past me and be heard by all the other star-dwellers. And I know the others would not either.”

“I promise,” Lia says again. “I just want...” She hesitates, trying to find the words. “I just want to know the village. I just want to understand.”

“Well,” Kezzy says, straightening one of Nyomi’s framed drawings, “you’ll hardly manage that in a few days.” She grins. “But we can start. Old Peninnah is amazing. She’s one of my favourite people in the whole world.”

Lia matches her grin and gathers her skirts. “Lead on.” ~~

“Come along, slowpoke,” Kezzy says now, jerking Lia out of her thoughts.

Lia gathers her skirts to follow.

They’ll think she’s ‘gone native’ at home, she knows, however offensive that phrase is. And perhaps she has, if that phrase means that she’s stopped consciously keeping herself apart and thinking of the group she’s with as objects of study. At the same time, she’ll always be an outsider; as long as Kezzy and the other villagers are willing to teach her, though, she’ll be willing to learn.

Now she learns how to care for elders, sitting by Elisheva’s bed and telling her stories to while away her bedridden hours. Now she sits with toddlers, learning silly songs to sing to them to keep them occupied while their mothers have a well-deserved break. Now she listens to their mothers’ stories – not just the grand mythological ones that she used to record, but the everyday ones of hearth and home, chicken and husband.

She doesn’t idolise them. They’re not ‘noble savages’, a phrase she loathes just as heartily as ‘going native’. They’re individuals. Their society is as complicated as her own and just as ethically shaded. They’re neither noble nor savage, but people – individual, flawed, human people.

In some ways, Lia feels much as she did before. And yet she is different now; no longer an observer but, however humble and however silent, a participant.

Her notebook is gathering dust in her room. It’s time to make memories, not take notes.

The flood comes tomorrow night.

~//~

Rahela pulls her aside as she leaves the erstwhile greenhouse in search of the loo. A proper loo and a proper shower are the two things she refuses to give up, even while spending most of her time with the villagers. There are just some things, particularly when she’s eight months pregnant, that she’s too selfish to surrender. And given the size of her bladder these days – or rather, the munchkin’s tendency to sit on it – she’s a frequent visitor to the sanitary facilities.

“What’s up?” Lia asks. “Do you need me to get Ham? I might have some trouble prying him away from his card game.”

Rahela rolls her eyes. “That man is incorrigible. No, let him be. Nyomi sent me to find you.”

Quirking an eyebrow, Lia follows her back to the control room, where she finds Shem peering bemusedly at a console, Ava grinning and popping a wheelie, and Nyomi dancing in a thoroughly distracting way.

“What’s going on?” Lia asks, already smiling. Their joy is infectious.

Nyomi spins around and kisses her rather thoroughly.

“Well,” Lia says a short while later, after she’s got her breath back. “I assume something has happened?”

Ava’s laughing, but she manages to force words out. “We’ve been hailed - there was a diplomatic ship going by and they picked up our mayday.”

“That’s wonderful!” Lia says. Although she does feel a little cheated – they’ve almost managed to save themselves, for Kessel’s sake. Heroes riding to the rescue in the nick of time isn’t exactly how she saw this story ending. “How are we doing this?”

“We’ve got a day until the earthquake and flood,” Nyomi says. “We’re still trying to work out the details. It’s hard to reach them when we’re this close to the mountains. It may take a little while to get them the whole story. I imagine they’re going to have us go through the pass like we’ve been planning.”

Lia frowns. “Okay.”

“We can’t bring the villagers on board a starship,” Ava explains. “And it’s a diplomatic ship, so it only has one small shuttle anyways. If we get the villagers through the pass and safely out of the floodpath, then they can send the shuttle for the eight of us tomorrow night.”

“Will they stick around until tomorrow night?” Lia asks. “If it’s a diplomatic shuttle it no doubt has places to be.”

Shem snorts. “That kid of yours put his name on the mayday hail. Apparently his family is more important than we realised. Anyway, the ship’s quite anxious to be the one to rescue him.”

“So we go through the pass,” Lia says, going over the plan of events again to make sure she has it right. “And we get to a safe distance and we camp out to wait for the shuttle.” And maybe Yaffy mysteriously disappears? she thinks. Although if the ship is so anxious to rescue him, she doubts they’d leave without him. And he had said something about needing to talk to his family.

Ava interrupts her thoughts. “Dammit.”

“What?” Nyomi says, alertly, coming to hover over her console.

“You know how there’s been regular interference between us and the ship? Now I’m getting some odd readings,” Ava says, her brow furrowed.

Lia’s no engineer, but she knows that look. When engineers look like that, things are seldom going according to plan.

A few seconds later she gets confirmation of her suspicions.

The floor beneath her feet begins to shake.

~//~

“Are you all right?” Nyomi says, crawling under the table to her.

Lia checks her head for bumps. “Yes.” Luckily her school-age training in earthquake safety must still be in the back of her brain somewhere. The table had been the best place to go; poor Ava is going to have a bruise from where a flying spanner hit her, and Shem’s forehead is already sprouting a lump.

“Is it over?” she asks.

Nyomi, having quickly checked Lia for injuries, has turned and began to crawl out from under the table again. “I don’t know,” she says over her shoulder, “but that seems to have been the big one. Damned thing came early. Be careful of aftershocks.”

As Lia extricates herself from her place of safety, she frowns, looking around at the others. Ava’s scrolling through readings on her console at a furious pace. Shem’s taken over the communication attempts and appears to be frantically trying again and again to get through. Nyomi’s going through the process to deploy the rear view screen and bring it up on her console.

“Oh.”

Of course. If the earthquake has hit, the flood will be on its way. If they can’t reach the diplomatic ship in time...even if they can reach the diplomatic ship in time, it probably won’t be able to send its shuttle down quickly enough to rescue anyone.

Lia’s never been in an earthquake before, but if it was this severe this far from the epicentre, just how bad must it have been up on that mountain?

How long do they have? Seconds? Minutes? A half-hour?

Lia’s never been whiplashed quite so quickly from joy to despair.

Her small sound doesn’t appear to have been noticed at first, but then Nyomi turns around. “I love you, malaika,” she says, and tries to smile. “Go calm the villagers so they don’t panic?”

Lia nods, dry-mouthed, but Nyomi is already turning back to her screen. “I love you too,” she whispers.

She forces her feet to move. If they only have minutes, she can’t let the villagers die in fear. She brought them here; she will do her best to help.

~//~

Kezzy meets her at the door. Her eyes search Lia’s. “The waters?”

Lia shakes her head minutely. “I don’t know.”

“We have to keep everyone calm,” Kezzy says. Her hands are clenched in the fabric of her robe, her headcovering knocked half off her head, exposing her curls.

“Is anyone injured?” Lia asks. Luckily they had taken almost everything out of this room to make space for the villagers; only a few of Ham’s plants are left, and they’re carefully secured behind securely nailed planks of wood. (Ham had foreseen the sheep and taken steps to protect his work.)

Kezzy shakes her head. “Bumps. A toddler hurt her leg falling.”

And the ceiling held. Praise be.

Behind Kezzy, the noise in the room has begun to climb. It can’t have been more than two minutes since the shaking stopped; how much longer do they have? Lia and Kezzy exchange glances.

Kezzy seizes the moment, turning to face the crowd. “The Creator God has sent the earthquake.”

Whatever Noah thinks, the crowd isn’t primitive or stupid. They know exactly what this means. There’s a deep moan. Lia averts her eyes as the woman closest to her hides her face in her child’s shoulder.

Kezzy holds up her hands. “Do not despair! At this moment Noah is interceding with the Creator God for us. He is on his knees asking the great IAM to hold the waters, to show his children his loving mercy and his deep love.”

As far as Lia knows, Noah is still trussed up in the brig. She hopes he hasn’t hurt himself too badly falling out of bed or smashing up against the wall. She can’t bring herself to care very much, however.

“Let us all join him,” Kezzy finishes simply, and drops to her knees.

It’s a lie, it’s a total lie. Any minute their lives are going to end, messy and waterlogged. She’ll never get to see the munchkin. Kezzy and Yaffy will never be together. The villagers will die just as surely in her care far from home as they would have in their own beds.

But Kezzy needs her support in whatever this is, and Lia clambers carefully down to her knees, reaching her hand across to take her friend’s. “Do you have a plan?” she whispers under her breath.

Kezzy’s eyes are sad, but she tries to smile, as Yaffy kneels beside her to take her other hand. “Sometimes an untruth is the greatest comfort.”

One of the women who told the most ribald stories takes Lia’s other hand.

“O great Creator God,” Keziah says, raising her voice to carry, her bard’s clear tones sailing out above their heads, “hearken to us in our peril. Spare us from your waters and let us live to serve you.”

Lia closes her eyes and tries not to cry.

~//~

The minutes tick by.

~//~

Ham is kneeling next to Elisheva, holding both her hands in his. Their heads are bent together, old brown wrinkles and strong black cheekbones, foreheads touching. Their lips murmur, two voices and two languages raised together.

Lia wonders if Ham believes in a Creator God. She’s never asked him. She’s never bothered to get to know him. He’s funny and profane and a wanker, but she’s never learned why he became a scientist, why he named the plant he’s studying tigherium, what he hopes to achieve in life beyond his work.

Yaffy, on the other side of Kezzy, is holding her hand tightly enough that all the blood seems to have fled. Kezzy’s lips are bloodless as well, but her voice stays steady and true, its call keeping the crowd’s panic at bay.

The cat from earlier stalks among them, incurious and elegant. Its toddler is clutched to her mother’s breast.

How many more minutes?

She can’t steel herself for much longer.

~//~

The minutes tick by.

The door opens.

~//~

Kezzy can’t go. Kezzy’s weaving a calming spell whose potency Lia can’t begin to understand.

Lia drops the hands she holds and pulls herself upright.

Shem looks exhausted when she reaches him, as worn out as she feels. They haven’t been in a marathon, except of emotion. She’d never understood just how difficult facing death could be.

“It held,” he says, and even his voice is raw.

“What held?” she asks, feeling a wild hope fluttering in her breast.

“The landslide was smaller than IAM anticipated,” he says, and slips an arm around her waist to hold her up as her treacherous legs give way at last. “Or Noah made a mistake in interpreting the readings. There isn’t going to be a flood.”

She’s crying, and she’d be a bit embarrassed, but Shem is crying as well.

After a long moment in which there is only her and Shem and the overpowering relief thudding in her veins, there’s a hand on her arm, and she blinks the tears out of her eyes to see Kezzy’s face.

“It’s over,” she chokes out, and sees the moment Kezzy’s eyes catch the spark. “The flood didn’t happen.”

She’s too thankful to be embarrassed in this moment, too fucking relieved to care that they’ve been so utterly and totally wrong. She’ll apologise later, she’ll do whatever she can to make it up to the people they’ve put through so much pain and worry, but now she can only weep tears of joy.

Kezzy, after one quick breath, turns, shining with life. “The Great Creator has answered Noah’s prayers!” she cries. “He has held his floodwaters out of the love he bears us. Let us give thanksgiving to the Creator!”

Lia doesn’t believe in the Creator, but she doesn’t grudge the villagers around her their faith. She turns instead in Shem’s arms and weeps on his shoulder, for the deaths that might have been and the lives that are yet to come.

~//~

“So we’re back again on the old homestead,” Ham observes lightly.

They’re all still a bit sober, even four days after the flood that never was.

“Yes,” Rahela says. “Back again.”

They are a smaller group now, as well as a quieter. Noah went back to the capital with Ava and Yaffy the night of the earthquake, the diplomatic shuttle gliding silently down to the ground and just as silently returning to the skies.

The rest of them turned the rover around and brought it home again, back to Tirzah.

Nyomi tightens her grip on Lia’s shoulders, and Lia turns into the warm embrace. She doesn’t miss Noah, but without Ava and Yaffy their family tent is dimmer. There are only the five of them now, and it’s simply not the same.

“Maybe we should have Ham teach us some of those card games,” Shem says, trying for lightness.

Lia doesn’t feel like cards. Intellectually, she thinks she should be full of joy, eager to do all the things she once thought for a few heart-stopping minutes that she would never do again. She should be running about – or waddling about, because the munchkin is getting to be ridiculously big – singing and dancing and all the things you do when your life has been given back to you.

Intellectual knowledge is one thing, and feeling bone-tired is another.

Oh, they’ve re-established life on their tent-stake. The tents are back up, and Ham’s set out his plants again, bemoaning how much time and effort he’s lost. But even his whingeing feels like it’s a ritual, like he feels the need to keep up appearances. Nyomi’s helping him, with Yaffy gone, and she says that sometimes he stops and stares into the distance.

Lia stares into the distance sometimes too, as she tries to compose reports to send back to the capital. One is an official one to explain their mutiny against Noah’s authority. Another is to her licensing board. She can’t imagine she’ll be allowed to keep her anthropologist license, or maybe even her degree.

It’s one thing to survive. It’s another thing to start living again.

~//~

Yaffy’s been gone a week when Kezzy first seeks Lia out at the tent-stake. Lia’s given up on the reports for the moment. Instead, she’s trying to pick up the knack of the hand loom; she thinks they could use some extra blankets to sit on, and it gives her hands something to do when she’s no longer particularly ambulatory. She wonders how Ava managed without getting so restless she screamed. It must be a learned skill.

She misses Ava. Another teammate she never really knew, beyond her love for bad holovids and her wicked sense of humour. What were her depths? What was her history, that it led her to seek out a mission where she would have to pass as human and deal with as dysfunctional a team as theirs? How did she stay so calm and unruffled; how did she do her own braids that perfectly; what were her dreams and ambitions – who was Ava, beyond a woman who shared Lia’s life for a short space?

Lia’s beginning to realise that life is a succession of short spaces, and that each one flies by almost too quickly to grasp.

She doesn’t think she’s clinically depressed. Shem, when he checked up on her yesterday, didn’t think so either. She’s just sad.

“You’ve been moping up here since we got back,” Kezzy announces, sweeping into the tent with a masterful air and seizing the tea things before Lia can make a polite attempt to get up. “When are you coming out into the sunshine again?”

Lia doesn’t quite know the words, but she does know that she doesn’t need to prevaricate with Kezzy. The bluntness Kezzy offers her is an honour, and she does her best to return it in kind. “We almost died. I’m finding it...difficult to move on from that.”

Kezzy purses her lips thoughtfully. “We can only die once. We have to live like it will be tomorrow.”

“Oh, it’s all well and good for you,” Lia says, trying to be playful. “You’re a bard. You can say deep things and be all wise.”

“Only an apprentice bard, and I hope long so. But it’s true. Why take tomorrow’s sorrow early?”

“How can you be so...” Lia reaches for words again. “Even-headed? Especially with Yaffy gone?”

Kezzy folds herself down next to Lia and pats her hand. “But Yaffy is coming back.”

Lia’s not entirely sure of that. Oh, she wants to believe. And she’s seen the way he looked at Kezzy. If any man is lovestruck, that man is. But he’s also an aristo, and he went quietly enough with the ship in the end, when it refused to leave without him. When he gets back to what Lia would have called ‘civilisation’ until recently, will he so easily leave again? Or will he be seduced back by his family’s lifestyle and by the comforts and duties of home?

Perhaps Kezzy sees something of that in Lia’s face. “And even if he doesn’t,” she says, quietly, “I will not grieve for him before I must. Life is so short and can be so painful. I have lived through what I thought would be my death. Each extra day is a gift from the Creator.”

“I know,” Lia says, hearing the frustration in her voice. She hopes Kezzy will know that it’s not directed at her. “I know I should be grateful, should be happy, but I’m not.”

Kezzy looks at her thoughtfully. “Come outside. Just for a few minutes. We won’t tire you out enough to draw Shem’s ire.”

The afternoon sunshine is hot on Lia’s scalp. She leans on Kezzy’s elbow and squints through the brightness towards the impossible blueness of the sky.

They stand in silence for a moment, and Lia watches a bird soar upwards, flying free.

“We lived,” Kezzy says finally. “We lived, Lia. And you have a wife who loves you and a child coming to seal your love. Truly you are blessed.”

“I know,” Lia says, her breath catching, and then stutters to a halt. “Wait. I’m married to Shem.”

Next to her, Kezzy smiles, and her teeth catch the sunlight. “I’m not blind, Lili. Shem is a lovely man, and he has done much for Elisheva. But Nyomi is the beloved of your heart.”

She can’t deny it, not in this moment, even though all her classes from the Lyceum shriek at her that one is never advised to disclose a non-normative sexuality or gender in an early society. Kezzy isn’t going to hurt her – and for all her instructors that would say that, well, everyone always thinks that, Lia can only say, she knows.

“We don’t tell anyone, not here,” she says instead. “But yes, that is my truth. Does it bother you?”

Kezzy smiles at her again. “You are from the stars. Star-dwellers no doubt do many things differently than we do.” She laughs, throwing back her head in the sunshine, Yaffy’s scarf glowing in the bright rays. “And I know that the Creator God makes his peoples in a rainbow of colours beyond our mortal understanding.”

Lia looks out at the green lands. She still does not believe in a Creator God. But perhaps she can believe in herself and Nyomi; in their love for each other; in the future of their child; in the bonds of friendship and the new life this land has given to her.

“You are alive, Lili,” Kezzy says, insistently, gently.

Something breaks inside Lia, some held breath she hadn’t realised was there. “Yes,” she says, and breathes the open air deep into her lungs, a flood of oxygen and life. “Yes, I am.”

~//~

epilogue

The babe Iris is six months old when Yafeth, son of Noah, and Keziah, tent-daughter of Elisheva, plight their troth under a winter sky. They join hands in front of the village and in the sight of the Creator God, and vow their lives to each other.

The newcomers – and yes, they will always be newcomers, however fond that appellation may become in time – stand together, muffled up against the cold. Rahela, widow of the sainted Noah, says something under her breath, as older women are apt to do, and her sons laugh. The healer quietly, his teeth glittering; the farmer loudly, his head thrown back as he shouts his mirth to the sky. The farmer’s wife rolls her eyes and bends to say something to her tent-sister, the healer’s wife, who smiles up at her. Her babe-in-arms is wrapped so tightly that not an inch of skin can be seen, which is appropriate in this cold and brings approval from those who know how to raise children.

“In memory of my father, Noah, and of my first betrothed, Ava,” the bridegroom says, laying a wreath of flowers on the bonfire. They are funeral flowers from the summer, having been dried by the women of his household, as is traditional. And so they are properly at his wedding, even though the Creator God in his great favour took up his servant Noah to himself, and Noah’s sickly tent-daughter the same week.

It is meet for the newcomers to marry into the village, to strengthen their bonds and tie themselves to its people. But then the bride is a newcomer herself, for all that none care to remember it. She is Elisheva’s tent-daughter, and she the one who threw herself on her knees to plead for the sparing of their lives, even as Noah besought the Creator God. Some among the village women even think that it might have been her prayers the Creator listened to. For why should the Creator always listen to a man, when women are as strong and as pious?

“To our past and to our future,” the bride says now, and lays a smaller wreath of flowers on the fire. Those who remember whisper the story to the others: how Yafeth grieved for his first betrothed, but how as the months drew on he came to love the young village bard - and how when autumn gave way to winter he walked into the centre of town and set a crown of the last autumn flowers on her head.

The smoke from the burning flowers rises to the evening sky.

The newcomer-farmer shouts cheerfully that he thinks it’s time for a celebration. They dance late into the night, whirling about under a midwinter sky, merry in the cups that the newcomers provide, rejoicing for the continuation of life and the renewing of the world.

The stars come out over Tirzah.

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