The first day he wakes up enough to focus on something other than the pain, he realizes the First has bound him to a raft. The river is wide and gentle, and except for the occasional drift as a pod member pushes by, it feels almost like flying. For a long while he simply watches as they float downriver.
The shores are lined with flowering plants, and the pod spends almost as much time tending their crops as they do eating. The First is right in among them, helping to weed and prune the flora. She’s got her fins half undone so that her fingers are free, and he watches the faux-leather ripple with the breeze.
She looks out of place, a thin sylvan form among the wide mounds of shell, but at the same time she fits and it makes his hind-brain stutter as it tries to classify the difference. He’s heard the rumors about the Firsts, no pilot in the diplomatic corps hasn’t, and he’d never been this close before. He’s ferried them home and back, but those Firsts stayed in their cabins, self-segregating and hostile. The polite called them feral and broken, the others called them inhuman and insane.
And it’s true, in parts, the Firsts are chosen for their ability to forget their humanity, a mental quirk that separates the concept of self from the concept of form. This First most likely thinks of herself a nothing more than another pod member, and he wonders why she saved him.
She reappears, as the sun starts on the far side of noon, with an armful of fruits and what look like vegetables. He smiles when she looks over and she starts, nearly dropping her load. There’s a stuttering grunt and the raft bobs angrily as she stirs the water. An echoing grunt comes from one of the nearby pod, but after a moment the turtle turns away. Rafiq holds very still, the smile gone, and tries to will his heart back into rhythm.
The First stares at him for a moment, then sighs and begins unloading her bounty.