Opel sat in a wooden deck chair, typing on a personal console on her lap, while enjoying the bright mid-morning sunshine. Next to her chair was a platter of food: thick slices of yams, fried in batter, a spicy salsa of beans and vegetables, and a bowl piled high with assorted fruit. The yams and beans came from the vast greenhouses aboard the Nahilander ships, docked in the valley below, but the fruit was native to the planet. Around her rose the peaks of the mountains encircling the valley, and the valley itself lay directly before and below her, lush and green. Now that the weather was so nice she had formed a habit of spending most of her waking hours out here on the deck. Even after most of a year, she was still struck by the beauty of this place. Back home on Nahiland there were plenty of lovely gardens and nature parks, but nothing like this.
The cottage door opened and Neenan walked a little unsteadily onto the deck. She was dressed in the tunic and trousers that she’d worn on the day she’d crash-landed on the planet, rather than in the clothes that Opel had loaned her.
“Good morning,” Opel greeted her young guest.
Neenan put her hands on her hips. “I want to see my ship,” she said.
“We went to visit your ship the day before yesterday,” Opel said gently. “Do you remember? We went down to the valley together. Our mechanics had done some repairs. You showed me around inside the ship and you let me copy your notes about the planets you visited. On the way back you struggled to make it up the hill.”
Neenan stood blinking in the sunlight for several moments. “I remember that,” she said finally. “I remember it now. I remembered it before, I just thought it was a dream.”
“That sort of confusion is perfectly normal for someone with your condition,” Opel said soothingly. “It’ll get better, you just have to be patient. In the meantime, sit down and have some breakfast.”
Neenan obediently began nibbling at some battered yams.
“Look at this,” Opel said, tilting the console screen so Neenan could see it.
Displayed on the screen was a high-resolution image of a large earthenware jug, with dancing figures carved on it.
“Isn’t it incredible?” Opel said, “It’s over a thousand years old.”
“That’s really old,” Neenan said, underwhelmed. On Florence, where she was from, people used pots to cook in, or threw them away if they were old and broken. No-one would think to look at the decorations on an old piece of kitchenware and wonder about the people who had used it.
“Look at the detail, here, and here,” Opel said, pointing.
The figures were drawn in a jagged, angular style, and they all faced either straight ahead or straight off to the side. Nevertheless the scene was easy to make out.
“We had books with pictures kind of like that on Florence,” Neenan recalled. “Adventure stories. They were for kids, but adults read them too.”
“The people who made this jug had no computers,” Opel reminded her, “no paper, no factories, no electricity. Everything they had, they made by hand, from stone, wood, animal hide, or clay. And yet they had a sophisticated artistic tradition. Even the most mundane objects were decorated with scenes from their mythology. They had mathematics, a written language, and they were consummate storytellers. To us they may look like primitives, but that’s not how they saw themselves. They considered themselves the princes and princesses of the universe.”
“You can tell all that from looking at a pot?” Neenan asked.
In response, Opel selected a slightly soggy slice of fried yam from the breakfast tray, and flung it at the younger woman. Neenan was taken so completely by surprise that she didn’t even duck. The yam smacked her in the cheek and hung there for a moment, before sliding wetly to fall in her lap.
Neenan looked at her host, who was normally so peaceful and dignified, in total astonishment.
“Don’t be such a snark,” Opel said. Her expression was serious, but her eyes twinkled.
While Neenan wiped sauce from her face, Opel brought up another image on her console. This one was also of an earthen jug, but sand-coloured rather than reddish-brown. It also had human figures carved onto it.
“This one’s from a planet called G’nath, which we Nahilanders first visited three centuries ago,” she said. “The G’nathi are technologically advanced, but they’ve managed to preserve some artefacts from their distant past. Their museums are incredible. The original Nahilander expedition to G’nath was intended to last one or two years, but instead it lasted ten, and when the ships finally returned they brought twenty-one G’nathi with them, while a similar number of Nahilanders chose to stay permanently on G’nath. It’s an anthropologist’s dream. Look, see the similarities between the piece from our dig, and the ancient G’nathi one?”
Neenan looked at the console, and saw two old jugs with some designs scratched into them. “Sort of,” she said.
The older woman began tapping away at her console. Neenan looked up, to see a surprisingly large, solitary animal with leathery wings, circling high above the valley. Searching for prey, Neenan thought. It’s a hunter, like me. Except I’ve been stuck on the ground far too long. I need to get back in my ship, and fly away.