In the sixmonth of the Black Ice, the High Priestess of the Clan finally called together the meeting that everyone had known was inevitable.
The High Priestess had been putting off the meeting as long as possible. Even as the Black Ice had closed in, with its inevitable accompanying scourges of starvation and death, the High Priestess had waited, hoping against hope that there would be deliverance. Every time, in all the memory of the Clan, there had been. But not this time.
From the mouth of her cave, little more than a smooth depression in the rock wall that was barely adequate for her considerable bulk, she watched the Clan gather. She could see that they were fewer now than even in her worst fears. There were few of the old ones left, and as for the children…
There were no children.
Emerging into the open, the High Priestess pulled her eyelids down over her eyes and composed her mind for what she would have to say. She had not been High Priestess long; there were still those among the Clan who perhaps thought her too inexperienced for the position. It was certain that she felt herself inexperienced; there was, as far as she was aware, no precedent of this particular situation that the Clan faced. Never had any High Priestess had to make the decision that she was about to.
Still, she started with a question. “Has anyone,” she asked, “seen a Ravager this Black Ice?”
She waited. “Anyone?”
“No,” someone said. “We haven’t seen any. Not one.”
There were gestures of general assent.
“Not even a young one,” someone else replied. “Not even a spawnling.”
The High Priestess bowed to the inevitable. “There are no Ravagers left,” she said. “They have fled the Clan’s waters, and will not be back again. At least not this Black Ice, and afterwards it will be too late.” She turned her eyes from one of them to another. “Without the Ravagers,” she said, “by next Black Ice there will be no Clan.”
“What shall we do, then?” the first person asked. “We cannot leave the Clan’s grounds and look for new territory. Even if there were any suitable that aren’t already occupied by another Clan, we would never survive the journey.”
The High Priestess signified assent. “And even if we did,” she said, “there is no assurance that there would be Ravagers, so late in Black Ice.” She bent her heavy head. “You understand, of course, what our only option is.”
Everyone was silent. They had all surmised it, but had not really believed that it would come to this. At last the High Priestess spoke again.
“We will have to look to the humans. You know we have avoided all contact with them until now, and for good reason, but…”
“The humans!” someone shouted. “They’re invaders and despoilers. They are the ones responsible for killing and driving away the Ravagers.”
The High Priestess ignored the solecism. Surely, interrupting the High Priestess was a pardonable action in this crisis. “I know,” she said. “We have all heard the Ravagers screaming, tasted the blood in the water. We have seen their corpses. But that makes no difference. The humans are now our only chance of salvation.”
“Since they killed the Ravagers,” the one who had interrupted her said, more calmly, “they have a duty to us to set things right.”
“They will not see it that way,” the High Priestess said, “but it is true enough.”
“High Priestess,” said one who had not yet spoken, “you want the humans to help. But will they help?”
The High Priestess gestured. “They have no choice,” she said. “Black Ice is a hard time for them too. They will help.” Her heavy head lifted in determination. “I will need one from among you.” She did not ask for volunteers; her large, restless eyes swung from one member of the Clan to another, evaluating each, measuring. She made her decision. “You, Amacheasa.”
Amacheasa – large and young and placid – wriggled bashfully at the attention of the whole Clan being focused on her. “I will do as you command, High Priestess,” she said.
“Of course you will,” the High Priestess said. Once she had announced her decision and selection it was impossible for anyone to disagree. “You will have to be prepared.” She gestured towards her cave. “Come, and I will tell you what you must do.”
The boy stood on the shore, his shoulders thrust up around his ears, watching the waves break on the stony beach. Each wave was grey and topped with shards of dark ice, the same ice which coated the rocks and filled up the gaps between them, so that it was dangerous to get much closer to the sea.
Overhead the clouds – a blanket of grey and yellow – fled before the wind, but never broke for a moment, rank after rank of cloud fleeing inland while more appeared, always, to rush past overhead in their turn.
It was bitterly, almost unbelievably cold. It had been bitterly, unbelievably cold for almost as long as the boy could remember. But at the moment he was not concerned with the cold, just the gnawing pit of hunger in his belly.
Behind him, if he had cared to turn around, he would have seen the great heat-scorched sphere of the ship, partly embedded in the soil from its own weight. Much of it had been dismantled already, to provide materials for their new lives here. When the ship had crashed there, in the warm season, when the sea had been blue and sparkling, they had imagined that they could live outside its confines, and had started to build houses of a kind along the shore. Nobody had then imagined the endless cold and the ice.
But then, as the boy’s mother repeated daily, they had never been supposed to land on this planet anyway. Why they had crashed here, nobody knew, since the rest of the ship had vanished, along with the control systems. It might have crashed into the ocean, it might have burnt up on re-entry, it might still be drifting in space. Nobody knew. What they did know was that they had woken up from suspended animation to find themselves here, and they hadn’t even the faintest notion where “here” was.
“Amid,” the boy heard his mother calling, in the distance, her voice almost swept away by the wind. “Come in before you freeze to death.”
The boy ignored her. There was no food in the ship, and precious little warmth. There were no trees to burn for fuel, and though the crops they’d planted from the seed stores in the ship had somehow taken hold in the stony soil, they hadn’t survived the black ice. The men, including the boy’s father, had gone out hunting again, but had only just returned with no luck whatsoever. The animals that had been so easily shot in the early days, when there had still been hope, had vanished with the warm weather.
On top of which he was incredibly, appallingly, lonely, because he was the only child among the people on the ship. Someday, he’d been told, there would be others. But not now, not with things as they were.
By the time there were other children, the boy knew, he would be too old to want to have anything to do with them.
Moodily, the boy bent, pried a stone from the beach, and flung it into the ocean. He hated the ocean now, because it seemed to be the essence of the loneliness and the malevolent cold and the hunger. The boats that the ship had contained, which had been used to fish and hunt in the waves, were like black humps on the beach, each covered with a sheen of black ice. The boy threw another stone at the nearest of the boats, and felt a moment of satisfaction as he heard it strike the metal.
“Amid,” his mother shouted. “Come in. I won’t tell you again.”
Sighing, the boy turned away from the ocean, and, as he did, saw something in the corner of his eye in the distance. At first he thought it was a large piece of the dark ice, like so many others, tossed and carried restlessly on the waves. But then it breached the surface for a moment, immense and broad and black, the water cascading from it before it sank again. And a few moments later, it came up once more, and closer.
The next thing the boy knew, he was already at the entrance of the ship, his hands slapping the metal in his desperation to enter, his voice hoarse from shouting. People – including his parents – turned as he scrambled through the hatch, their faces blank in astonishment. “Amid?”
“There’s an animal in the sea,” the boy gasped. “Something very large. It’s swimming this way.”
“An animal?” His father and the other men glanced at each other. “Are you sure?”
“It’s probably just an ice floe,” one of the others said.
“I saw it,” the boy insisted. “It isn’t any ice. It’s an animal.”
“You mean like one of those predators in the summer? The ones that lived on the beach, like seals back on earth?”
“It can’t be,” the boy’s mother said. “We killed them all off.”
“No, it’s not like them.” The boy remembered the predators, sleek-bodied with undershot jaws and spade-shaped limbs with which they could propel themselves over the stones and through the water with equal felicity. “It’s not like them at all.”
“What the hell,” the boy’s father said. His face was thin like everyone else’s, and covered with a mat of beard. He had been a plump man, clean-shaven and neat, when the ship had landed. “Let’s have a look. It’s not as though we have anything else to do.”
Everyone left the ship and walked down towards the ocean. “Where –” one of the men began.
“There,” the boy’s father said, pointing, before he could even open his mouth. Now everyone could see it.
It was quite close to the shore now, heaving slowly landwards, water and ice shards spilling from it each time it surfaced. It was huge, at least a quarter of the diameter of the ship, and shaped like an upturned saucer. As it came closer, the people could see flapping appendages like fins paddling it along, while an organ resembling a tentacle swept the water before it.
“What is it?” one of the women breathed.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it before.” The boy’s father stepped closer to the ocean. “Get the nets,” he called over his shoulder. “And the lances and knives we used on the predators.”
“Father...” the boy began. “Please don’t hurt it.”
“Not now, Amid.” The boy’s father frowned at him. “We need food desperately. This thing, whatever it is, is big enough to keep us going, maybe until the seasons change again. We can’t afford to let this chance go.”
The boy turned desperately to his mother, but her face was as hard as the wedge shaped stone she picked up. “Your father is right,” she said. “We can’t afford to give up this food.”
The boy stared at her and at the great beast out on the water, and then took off running, back to the ship.
“Amid!” his father shouted. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“It’s all right,” one of the other men said. “He’s still young. He’ll learn.”
And so, as the great beast came closer, the men fetched their nets and tools, and others pulled the boats up off the frozen stones, chips of black ice showering off them. Pushing the boats to the water, they climbed into them, set the little motors running, and set out to meet the monster.
Close up, it was even larger than they had imagined, and uglier. Its hide, smooth except for occasional bumps, was thick and rubbery. On a protrusion like a head, from which the tentacle sprouted, globular eyes blinked slowly at the boats as they approached. But otherwise the thing showed no indication that it had noticed their existence.
It made absolutely no attempt to either evade them or attack, not even when the first nets fell over it, not even when the lances speared into its hide. The boats, straining under the weight, dragged the immense creature – totally unresisting – towards the beach, where, armed with knives and stones to use as bludgeons, the women were waiting.
The High Priestess moved her tentacle in the water, in reverent worship.
“All praise our sister Amacheasa,” she intoned, to the assembled Clan. “Because of her, the Clan will survive. When the Open Water comes, there will still be a Clan to live and prosper and grow. All praise Amacheasa.”
“Are we certain it worked?” one of the Clan asked.
“I was watching. It went as we had hoped for and expected.” The High Priestess moved her tentacle. “They came out to meet her in their crafts, and pulled her to the shore.”
The Clan made a gesture together as of a pent up sigh being released. “Then by now she has fulfilled her mission.”
“Yes,” the High Priestess agreed. “By now she has fulfilled her mission.”
Yes, she thought. She had watched the humans pull Amacheasa to the shore, and there bludgeon her with stones and metal rods, and then hack her to pieces. Amacheasa had behaved admirably, not made the slightest attempt to get away all the while. And by now the humans’ bellies would be full. Amacheasa had provided.
Oh, yes, she had provided. Even now, the embryos would be crawling out of her flesh as it was digested. They would crawl out of her flesh, bore through the humans’ intestines, and into their bodies, just as they would have in Ravagers that would normally have preyed on members of the Clan. Before sevenmonth of the Black Ice, they would have eaten the humans hollow from inside, and gone into torpor as they metamorphosed, up on the shore, safe from the cold water and the ice. And when the seasons turned, when the skies were clear and the water warm again, they would cut their way from the husks of the corpses and return to their home, the welcoming sea. Most of the Clan would die in Black Ice, as they did every time; but the Clan would survive. And by next Black Ice, the Ravagers would come again.
“All praise the humans, too” the High Priestess said. “We will be eternally grateful to them for our salvation.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2021