It started the day I discovered that Uncle George was still alive.
Nearly everyone in our accidental colony presumed he perished long ago, but I knew that if anyone could survive this alien wilderness, it would be him. Despite what he or many of the crew thought, it probably wasn't his fault we were here; it was impossible to tell who made what miscalculation, or flipped the wrong switch or what unforeseen anomaly got in our way. But still, as the Chief Astrogator, it was his responsibility.
He knew something was wrong the moment we came out of jump. No one could recognize a single star on the screen, and I swear practically every red light on the ship's engineering panels was on. And even though I was just an apprentice, I knew this was really bad.
"Commander Gale, where the hell are we?" the Captain barked. Uncle George just stood there, in shock. "Ojutof," was all he managed to say.
"So you know where we are," the Captain said naively. But I and the others in our section knew otherwise. We explained to her that what it meant was "OJTF" -- One Jump Too Far -- astrogator's worst nightmare.
Whatever error or phenomenon had brought us here had weakened the ship, giving us no time to complete the long-shot task of regaining our galactic bearings (presuming we were in the same galaxy). Thanks be to whatever deities watch over starfarers, we not only found this planet, but found it to be practically Earth-like. So, barring the even bigger miracle of someone noticing the beacon on our now-derelict orbiting ship, this colony in a subtropic region of planet X was now our home.
Captain Brown named our outpost Ojutof. I'm sure she meant it as a humorous gesture -- making the best of a bad-but-could-be-worse situation -- but Uncle George didn't take it well. One day he took some supplies and struck out on his own. That was several years ago.
So one day I'm on the north edge of the settlement, near the river, when I noticed one of the grackles -- half-meter tall monkey-creatures with nimble hands and glider wings -- up in a tree poking at a branch with something shiny. Probably questing for bugs under the bark, and like grackles often do, had stolen a shiny thing from one of us humans. So I startled it, and it dropped the object and glided away.
It was my uncle's multiknife -- the kind the old-timers called a swissarmy knife -- and I had seen it enough to be sure it was his. I made my way back to the command post to tell the Captain.
I think she believed me that it was Uncle George's knife, but theorized that the grackle had merely found it by his remains. Then, the next day, scouts reported possible smoke from a campfire up the mountain, near an upstream portion of the river.
This caused a buzz throughout the colony. If Commander George Gale was still alive, in what state of mind was he in? This was a genuine concern for two reasons. First, we all remembered what happened after Petty Officer Skinner came back from one of his days-long scouting expeditions only to demonstrate that not all the chemicals in the berries and fruits here agree with the human brain. Second, if George wasn't in his right mind, he was camped upstream from us. With his genius intellect and engineering doctorate, it would be easy for him to dam, divert or damage our water supply.
"Who knows how long he's been up there?" one scout said. "And the river has appeared more muddy lately."
"How can you tell that?" another countered.
The ensuing argument only lasted a few seconds before I spoke up, volunteering to approach Uncle George myself. After all, I kinda felt that finding the knife was a sign that it should be me -- and, we're related. Brown agreed, providing the scouts followed at a distance.
I made my way carefully up, along the river, nervous at how he'd react to seeing me -- or any human being -- after all this time. Suddenly, there he was. To my relief, upon seeing me his face lit up with a big smile.
"Jack!" he shouted, then hugged me. "So glad you came up. I could really use your help."
"OK, I guess," I said. "I mean, where have you been? What are you doing up here?"
"I'll tell you everything later," he said leading me to a clearing next to where part of the river went over a little waterfall. "First, help me with my little surprise."
Noting my confusion, he said. "Look, I've been out here by myself a long time, I know. But it gave me time to think, and to get to know these guys." He pointed to a small herd of eledonks. "They're incredibly smart, sometimes hard to tell who was training who. So, anyway, they kinda nudged me back towards you guys -- thought I should be with my own kind, I guess."
One of the eledonks lumbered up to us, extending its trunk to me. It was about the standard size of this native four-legged herbivore, its kind eyes on the same level as mine.
"Shake," George said. "He's the group leader."
The grip of his nasal appendage was firm, but not too strong.
"So, we've been working on an important project up here," my uncle said, "and we're ready for the most important part."
Moments later, the eledonks were rolling a large wooden wheel towards us. George directed, and as I helped guide it towards the water's edge, I started to understand what he was doing. It was about that time that the scouts made themselves known, and I told them to put down their rifles and come over.
They stood stunned. "We're making a mill!" I shouted. They must have felt the genuine excitement in my voice, because soon they were right beside me, helping the wheel into the channel that had been prepared for it. Uncle George hoisted it up and the eledonks eased an axle into place.
Within an hour, the edge of the river was diverted over the wheel and it started turning. The scouts and I laughed as a grackle that sat atop the wheel rode it all the way around, getting soaking wet. It comically shook itself, and with an angry "Grak-grak graak!" took off across the river to seek comfort with its brethren.
The next day, practically the whole colony was up at the mill. Uncle George explained that he didn't want to return empty-handed, and he knew that once our power-pods finally gave out, we would need to exploit the power of the river. With time and ingenuity, our rivermill could be adapted for anything from grinding grain to generating electricity. Now that our navigator had forced us to look at Ojutof through the eyes of permanent residents, we eventually saw other places and ways to harness the water's energy.
A fresh feeling of optimism came over our intrepid band of humans that season. So one day it really surprised me that I felt uneasy watching a couple of the eledonks, while a full-grown one was drawing in the dirt next to a younger one. Drawing circles. The young one started drawing them, too.
Later, I noticed a grackle sitting on a low branch. It held a stick that impaled what looked like a smooth round stone or shell. Had it made that itself, I wondered, as I watched it staring at its wheel, then at the ever-turning millwheel, then back at his own wheel turning and turning in his hands.
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This is my entry for LJ Idol Season 8, Week 16, Topic: "Reinventing the Wheel"