Author : Kristin Kirby

As she trudged across the rocky sand, shivering, she stared at the one dim star in the sky and wondered how the inhabitants of this soggy planet could see anything. Her gasps were harsh and wet. She was breathing water.>

Lost, drowning, she knew she wouldn’t make the rendezvous. Her companions would leave without her, abandon her in this cold, sodden, desolate place.

Movement to her right startled her, and she stumbled, then caught herself. A curious feathered creature, brown and mottled, struggled in the sand, one wing flapping. Its other wing appeared broken. Its head was bowed. A brown serpent chased the feathered creature, triangular head reaching, mouth agape and full of fangs. A whirl of kicked-up dust enveloped them.

Ignoring the gurgle in her throat, she stopped to watch. The serpent was patient but determined, following the feathered creature in circles, dodging its powerful wing as it thrashed. She thought the serpent wasn’t cruel, just hungry. But she felt for the feathered creature as it fought for its life.

She coughed, doubled over, staggered to one side. She remained hunched and shaky until her gasps subsided. She didn’t have much time. Her companions would wait only until the deadline. They might search for her if they felt inclined, but it wasn’t part of protocol.

The feathered creature now lay sideways, panting, clawed feet splayed, beak open, eyes glazed and bright. It had been struggling for a long time. She could almost feel its utter exhaustion and hopelessness. The serpent rested too, expectant, in the shade of a great boulder. Neither seemed to noticed her.

She and her companions weren’t to interfere in the doings of this planet’s inhabitants. But she couldn’t watch this, and she couldn’t walk much farther.

Wary, she moved toward the serpent. It saw her and spun into an angry coil, tail rattling, forked tongue darting. She stooped, almost fell, but straightened again and in her fist was a rock.

She raised her arm and threw. A dull thunk as the rock landed on the serpent. It jumped, struck out at air, and recoiled. She kicked the ground with her boot. The serpent struck again, but was pelted with sand. Finally it yielded, slithering off to find easier prey. Soon it was out of sight amid brush and spiked plants.

She gave a rheumy cough. The feathered creature didn’t move. Peering closer, she saw the reason for its trouble: its head and one wing were entangled in a flat, opaque, flexible apparatus with six rings. She had no idea its purpose, but realized it was a death trap for anything caught in it.

She kneeled carefully next to the feathered creature, saw its sharp eyes widen in panic. She reached gentle hands to the milky yoke of rings. They were strong. But she found if she pulled, the material stretched, widened. And finally, with the last of her strength, she broke two rings apart.

The creature didn’t hesitate. Free, its head snapped up, both wings arced, opened–she felt the gust of them on her face, heard the flapping–and the feathered brown body rose into the air. Nothing like this magnificent being, that owned the sky, existed on her planet. Her heart rose and flew with it, her eyes squinting as they followed it away on the horizon.

Then she lay gratefully on the sand near a tall, thorny plant, amid the buzz of insects and meager heat from the dim star. The day continued around her.

Her companions would search for her. They’d find her. They’d be there soon.

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