Atahua fought to stay awake. She bore several wounds; her muscles periodically shook and her skin shivered. She was dressed in a thin skin, her jewellery absent--it was bequeathed to her younger sister in case she did not return.
Her trials had lasted three days and she sat cross-legged on a flat rock in the middle of the stream near her village to await the passage of the most dangerous hunter-beast in the forest. She wore mud from the stream to disguise her scent and she blended into the moonless night. The red chiggers and wet rock hoppers sang in throaty croaks and hooting calls. The moss-lichens at the edge of the stream glowed pink and purple. The breeze was thick with tree spores, red diaphanous spirals that spun and lifted and zagged on their way to new grounds and new life.
Her nose twitched. The breeze carried a new odor, strong and musky, with an accompaniment of rot. A hunter-beast was near, carrying its meal on its back, coming to the water so it could wash its food down. Atahua slowly reached up and grabbed one of the spears strapped to her back, sliding it out silently, and held it poised above her shoulder. The foliage rustled. Atahua hopped to her feet and crouched, with one hand on the rock. The hunter-beast emerged and flung it's meal down, grunting. Atahua recoiled and struck.
The spear-tip penetrated both of the hunter-beast's eyes and it fell dead without a cry. Atahua keep silent and composed. She slipped down from the walk and waded through the water to the body of the hunter-beast. Its head was partially submerged in the water, with a ribbon of its oily, iridescent blood trailing into the flow next to the pink of the moss-lichens. Atahua put her foot on the head and extracted the spear, then rinsed it off in the water. She pushed the body back up onto the embankment, then looked at its meal.
It was a boy, about three years of age and probably from a neighboring village. He was wrapped in an enzymic casing produced by a gland on the hunter-beast's chest. She unsheathed her knife and cut into the casing, then unwrapped him. She threw the casing into the water where it foamed and sparked and quickly became acid. She felt for a pulse and found one. He was just unconscious.
She returned her attention to the body of the hunter-beast. It had legs and arms much like a human, but no hair. Its skin was slick with an oily sheen--their blood leaked from lines of pores that spiraled around their bodies, and they spent a lot of time rubbing their paws around themselves, spreading the small amounts of blood evenly. It kept their skin lubricated and healthy, cooled them in the heat of day, and disposed of ingested toxins. They had little technology. They could speak to each other in a language of grunts and clicks and howls, and knew how to throw rocks at prey. They were fascinated by fire and stole it from humans when a fire went unattended, but were unable to create it for themselves.
Atahua plunged her knife into the hunter-beast's chest, and cracked open it's thoracic plate. Blood geysered out. Atahua cupped her hands, collecting it, then drank of it. It was bitter, thick, and salty and she gagged, but managed a full handful.
"I take your life, noble hunter-beast," she said reverently. "I take your memories, and make them mine. I take the prey you have killed, and make them mine. I take your powers, and they make me stronger. I take your blood, and it becomes my blood. I release you back to the soil and the water and the air, and I thank you."
She continued with the knife, and skinned the beast, cutting around the dangerous chest gland, then cutting off its head. She extracted the skull bones and the sweetmeats inside and flung them to forest. There would be no time to dry the skin, so she bundled it up under one arm. She picked up the boy and slung over her shoulder. She walked back to the village.
"Atahua's back!" screamed her sister, in shock and relief. Atahua passed her the boy and she carried him back to their hut.
The wisewoman came running, her long black robes flapping. She was a large woman, well-fed and hips wide from birthing seven children. Her hair was long and braided and white. Her eye-sight was still sharp. When she arrived she observed Atahua. Atahua unfurled the hunter-beast skin and showed it to the wisewoman.
"I have taken its life, and its life is now in me," said Atahua.
"You have completed all of the tasks, and you have rescued a human."
"It was incidental," said Atahua, shaking with exhaustion.
"Nothing is incidental," said the wisewoman, smiling. "The star ancestors have singled you out. The tasks I have set out were not adequate. In the five tasks I gave you, I tested your endurance, your bravery, your intelligence, your skill, and your ingenuity. They gave you another that would show your empathy."
"I had no other choice but to save him from the hunter-beast," said Atahua.
"Exactly. That you saw only one option shows the degree of your empathy." The wisewoman smiled. "Come now, Atahua. I know you are tired, but I must show you something."
The wisewoman put her arm around Atahua walked her to the center of the village and the entrance to a forbidden cave where only the wisewomen and medicinemen were allowed to enter.
"Here?" asked Atahua.
"Yes," said the wisewoman. "You said when you started your trials that you did not know what you wanted to do for the community."
"I still don't, but I will do what is asked of me."
"The star ancestors have determined that you are fit to receive their knowledge. Would you like to become a wisewoman?"
"I am too young!"
"It is not unheard of to start at your age."
"It's not my ambition."
"Perhaps it was, but you thought yourself unworthy."
Atahua cast her gaze downward and nodded. She started to cry.
"You are tired," said the wisewoman, hugging Atahua. "You are able to admit the truth easily. That is a good trait that will serve the village well. Come now, let's go inside."
They walked into the cave, which was lit by a heavy encrustation of moss-lichens. The entrance was perfectly cylindrical, and sloped downwards a few degrees. It was only a few meters before they came to a wall with a wheel. The wisewoman turned the wheel and the wall started to slide open. Atahua could hearing quiet singing. The chamber on the other side was much darker, but some moss-lichens had been spread on the walls by the many ancient hands of generations of wisewomen and medicinemen.
"This is not a cave," said Atahua.
"No, it is not," said the wisewoman. "This is the vessel of the star ancestors."
"This?" asked Atahua breathlessly. "This was in the sky?"
"A long time ago, yes. It traveled from the stars themselves."
"No wonder it is forbidden! Why is the village not told of this?"
"To preserve it. To keep their curiosity contained. Sacred things should not be exploited. And to keep our village safe from other villages. This is where our society started. The very spot of our birth. Now step through. There is more to show you."
Atahua stepped through the hatch, and the wisewoman closed the door behind them. They continued down the slope. There were more hatches on either side of the corridor, and one at the other end. When they reached it, the wisewoman again turned the wheel and opened that hatch. The sound of the singing was louder, and when the door was fully open, Atahua could see the medicineman sitting cross-legged in front of a sculpture of some kind, with burning twigs held in his fingers, singing a song of the star ancestors. The air was thick with smoke and it was difficult to breath. Atahua coughed.
The wisewoman left the hatch open and the smoke began to dissipate. The medicineman stopped rocking, then stopped singing. He extinguished the twigs with the tips of his fingers then stood. He was wiry but young, only five years older than Atahua. She knew him from the village, but only talked to him once when he administered to her mother when she lay dying. Atahua bowed her head slightly in deference.
"This is Atahua," said the wisewoman.
"I know," said the medicineman. "I know all in the village that I care for."
"She has just become a woman, having completed all her trails successfully. She was also given an additional task by the star ancestors that proves she is able to take on the role of wisewoman."
"What did you do?" asked the medicineman.
"I saved a boy from a neighboring village. He was to be eaten by a hunter-beast. He is alive and strong and being attended by my sister in our hut."
"I will go to him," said the medicineman.
"Before you go," said the wisewoman, "do you agree to help me train her?"
"If the star ancestors have decided, I cannot object," he said. He smiled and bowed, then quickly left.
"What does he do here?" asked Atahua.
"He prays to the star ancestors at their altar of knowledge, here." The wisewoman pointed to the sculpture, which was of no human or creature, and of nothing found it nature. It was angular and odd, made of metal and rare, perfect glass, and resisted colonization from the moss-lichens.
"Does he receive knowledge from the ancestors?" asked Atahua.
"We both do. The altar comes alive at regular intervals. It glows, the face of a star ancestor appears and dispenses sounds, words, and if we are very lucky that day, whole sentences. When add that knowledge to ours by memorizing what is said. It will take you several years to learn all of the knowledge of the star ancestors that has been passed down through countless medicinemen and wisewomen."
"That is what I will learn here? I will not spend my days hunting or caring for children or gathering roots or making clothes and tools? I will just be here learning words?"
The wisewoman looked suddenly stern.
"Do you question my value to the village? Do you question the medicineman's value?"
"No, that's not what I meant..." said Atahua, looking down again. "It's just that, why do the star ancestors speak to us so little? Wouldn't it be more helpful if they told everything to us once, at the beginning?"
The wisewoman squinted and sighed.
"I don't know the motivations of the star ancestors. We have learned from them how to build things, and to heal our people. They have told us stories of their home, and they often speak of love. You will learn all of this in time, and you will quickly understand its value."
"Yes," said Atahua. "It's just..."
She moved closer to the altar, running her hands across it.
"What are you doing? It's not meant to be touched!"
"I think it is," said Atahua. "It looks like it is meant for a human to be near it. I think the altar is a tool to be used."
She bent down and felt around the space under the altar. Her fingers came across a thick rope covered in dust and grit. She wiggled it, and the altar glowed briefly.
"What did you do?" asked the wisewoman, her eyes wide.
"There's something not quite right here," said Atahua.
She pulled on the rope and it came loose. There were four metal prongs on the end of it, covered in rust. Atahua unsheathed her knife and scored the rust, flaking some of it off. She looked at hole the rope had fed into, and found the prongholes. She re-inserted the prongs and pushed until they fit snugly.
The altar chimed.
"Please wait while terminal five reboots," said the altar in a tinny voice.
"What have you done," whispered the wisewoman, her eyes wide.
"I don't know," admitted Atahua. "It never does this normally?"
"No," said the wisewoman. "Never."
The altar suddenly glowed bright white. Both Atahua and the wisewoman shaded their eyes from the glare.
"Power levels are at five percent," said the altar. "Entering into safemode. It is determined the ship is no longer in flight. Terminal five will be continuously operational for forty thousand, twenty six days. Reigniting the engines is not advisable. Engine lock is activated."
The altar went dark again, then displayed a series of symbols.
Atahua moved closer and touched one of the symbols. It showed up in a box above the symbols. The rest of the altar filled with clusters of symbols.
"What do they mean?" she asked.
"They describe our language," said the wisewoman. "They are words, but not spoken."
"What do they say?"
"Would you like to activate accessibility mode?" said the altar.
Atahua looked at it quizzically.
"Yes," she said slowly.
"Accessibility mode activated. You may state your queries verbally."
"What is a query?" Atahua asked the wisewoman. She shook her head.
"A query is another word for question," said the altar.
Atahua grinned. The wisewoman looked at her with awe.
"Will you answer my questions?" asked Atahua.
"Terminal five will answer queries verbally when in accessibility mode," said the altar.
Atahua placed her hands on the altar surface, and began to speak quickly.
"Why do the hunter-beasts hunt us?" she asked.
"No results for the search term 'hunter beasts'. Wider results show that humans have been hunted by a variety of predators during the course of human evolution. Humans are an integral part of the ecological food-chain, and while predators themselves, they are also hunted. Much of the development of human civilization can be attributed to the desire to secure humans from the threat of predators."
"Why must I drink the blood of prey in order to obtain their power?"
"Hemophagia can lead to indigestion and iron toxicity."
"I can't believe it!" wailed the wisewoman. "It is a miracle!" She flung herself onto Atahua and hugged her tightly, beginning to sob.
"There are no known miracles," said the altar.
"Wha--" said the wisewoman.
"Miracles are events that occur without sufficient information to explain their origins. With enough investigation, their origins are inevitably discovered."
Atahua smiled, then she giggled.
"Who are the star ancestors?" she asked slowly.
"No results for search term 'star ancestors'. Would you like results for star, and or ancestor?"
The wisewoman stumbled backwards, her hands over her mouth.
"It's okay," said Atahua, looking back. "That is the name we gave them. They didn't know it at the time."
"We can know everything now," whispered the wisewoman, trying not to trigger a response from the altar.
"And it's not a miracle," said Atahua smiling. "Come closer, don't be afraid," she said gently, and the wisewoman complied.
"There will be so much to memorize," said the wisewoman, looking suddenly worried.
"Somehow, I don't think that will be necessary," said Atahua.