Pish and I were shaking handfuls of seeds out for the brown chickens when Duncan whistled loudly from the house. "Oi! Simon!"
I jogged over, picking up my hospital robe from a nearby branch along the way. I wiped the sweat from my brow as I walked through the creepy robot statue garden and pushed into the house. Duncan waved me over to the sofa, where my bits were spread out on the cushions. "Give me your telephone," he said.
I reached behind my ear and plucked it off. He waved a small device over its surface until it beeped, and then he handed the telephone back to me. "Your telephone, your wallet and your plate are now the property of one Hellig Apples of Samundra's Western Territories."
"Who's Hellig Apples?"
"You are, my friend," said Duncan, shaking my hand. "Nice to meet you."
Over the next hour Duncan explained to me many of his tricks for staying ahead of the authorities, impressing upon me various precautions for which I had no real context. I did my best to memorize what he said, and hoped everything would fall into place later. He transferred into my plate's cache his personal map of Thaumas, complete with byways for the wily. "Thank you for everything you've done," I said to Duncan. "You're saving my life."
"Saving yourself is up to you," replied Duncan seriously. "I'm just making sure you get a chance to."
He smiled and started to say something else but stopped, eyes darting, suddenly attending to something I could not hear. "What's wrong?" I asked, feeling the anxiety ramp up under his skin, the hairs on his arms rising on end.
The colour drained from his face. "Mother of love!" he swore, and pushed past me outside. I detected a mounting hum sounding through the air, and a second later saw the dirt on the shelves begin to dance as the house vibrated. I spun around and followed Duncan outside.
I ran into him from behind. Duncan was standing right outside the door.
Tracing the line of his gaze I looked out into the yard, cluttered with dead robots and junk. The sun winked off their tarnished bodies, and a gentle breeze made the tall grass sway. "What's wrong?" I asked again.
And then I saw that two of the statues were not dead robots -- they were men in black armor, their faces behind transparent shields, their right hands extended, pointing twin metal devices at Duncan.
We all stood there, frozen. With a gust of air and a squealing thrum a doughnut-shaped vehicle sailed into view overhead, two more black armored figures descending from it on long cables. An amplified voice boomed out harshly: "This is a police control! Stay where you are. Follow the officers' instructions. Drop your bits and keep your hands where we can see them at all times."
I saw Pish at the same moment Duncan did. His eyes flicked over and the police saw them move, following them to spot the boy. "Stay where you are!" they bellowed in rough unison. One of the officers descending from the ship unclipped from his cable and hit the ground running, eating up the distance between himself and the child.
"Leave him alone, you bastards!" shouted Duncan, suddenly moving. He smacked aside the first officer and narrowly dodged a shot from the second officer's hand-held device, which emitted a jet of shiny liquid that crystallized instantly into a kind of sticky web as it spattered against the side of a tree. "This is your final warning!" the officer yelled.
I yelped as two more officers burst out of the house behind me, kicking out the door so that it struck me and knocked me aside. "Clear!" they barked, and then apprended the situation and joined their comrade in charging after Duncan. One of them was intercepted by the family's giant brown dog, who appeared without warning, loping across the field at incredible speed, dropping on the closest officer and felling him with a single push. I saw the dog's jaws go down on the man's throat and then heard the officer's gurgling screams, cut off an instant later.
I slipped out from behind two robots and made a break for the woods, tearing toward Pish and praying I did not fall. "Hey!" shouted another officer as I rushed past him. A second later I saw a smear of webbing skip over the grass a few steps ahead of me. I jumped behind the greenhouse and hit the ground, tasting dirt. I got up and ran to the other side, coming around the corner just as two of the pursuing officers caught up with Duncan, tackling him. The amorphous mound of bodies kicked and jerked for a few moments and then burst asunder, Duncan rising up from its midst and casting about wildly for the boy.
An officer rose behind the bearded giant and struck him savagely across the back of his head with a baton. Duncan folded. The second officer crawled over and touched Duncan with a small device in his hand. Duncan cried out and began to kick spasmodically.
"Dad!" screamed Pish in an agonized wail, dropping the cat who had been in his arms.
Duncan clawed his way out of the melee and raised his quivering head just long enough to bellow, "RUN!" with his last ounce of strength. A second later he was buried in multiple shots of sticky webbing, drawing into a foetal curl and shaking. The officers surrounded him.
Fartles was barking madly. The thrumming vehicle swooped over for another pass, its loudspeaker blaring dire warnings and instructions. "This is a police control!"
I bolted past it all, passing through the vehicle's circular shadow and pelting after the officer who pursued Pish. Pish turned and ran away into the bushes, the officer's boots crushing the plants at his heels. I ignored the shouts and shots of the other police and I dove into the foliage after them, tearing away brambles and twigs with my arms and shoulders as I pushed relentlessly toward the source of the noises of struggle ahead.
I came upon a clearing. The black-armored police officer was backing Pish into a corner by the brook. Before I knew what was happening the officer had punched me twice in the head and tripped me backward over his leg, the wind knocked out of me as I rolled into the wet ditch. Gasping and wheezing, my chest on fire, I flipped myself over in time to see him make another grab for the boy. Pish dodged him, tears running down his face...
I discovered a new emotion today. Pish tells me it's called "rage."
When the crimson light cleared from my vision I found myself astride the police officer, his helmet smashed apart, bright blood running out of his nose and mouth. I watched with passive interest as my fists flung out and smacked his face savagely again, causing a small piece of skin from his lip to fly off over my shoulder and land in the shrubs.
This gave me pause. I tumbled off of the man as he moaned, his breath sounding wet and constricted. I spotted Pish and stumbled over to him. He was kneeling over his cat, who lay on its side with its tongue sticking out of its mouth in a strange way. "Pish?"
"He killed my cat," said Pish, a new hardness in his voice.
I touched the cat. It still felt warm, and looked as soft as ever. His eyes were open, but were developing an odd sheen. "This animal is now dead?" I asked dumbly. Pish nodded, his throat working as he fought back more tears.
We were both startled as the dog burst out of the bushes, pursued by the sounds of more shouting officers. Pish turned away from his cat and looked at me. "Come on," he urged, taking my hand. "This way -- we have to run!"
Hand in hand we raced together between the trees, Fartles the dog panting and loping along behind us. Pish took me down a steep gully into a storm sewer drainage pipe, its edges hung with reeds. The dog ran in after us. We drank from the moving stream at the bottom of the stone-like tube and then waited there in the semi-dark, our hearts pounding in our chests.
After a while we heard the sound of careful footfalls. Without speaking I gestured to Pish to stay put, and I cautiously stepped to the end of the pipe. Though technically Pish was older than I was, as the tallest man present I felt a certain duty to at least appear to uphold the courage of a protector. I tightened my robe around me and climbed up the side of the gully.
Crouching in a bush, I listened and sniffed.
Another twig snapped. I heard Fartles fart back in the draining pipe, and a moment later felt its evil mix with the forest damp. A pebble skittered. I found the direction by my ears and then opened my eyes and looked where they had pointed me. Squinting into the foliage I saw a shadow of a figure making its cautious way toward us.
I picked up a small rock from the stream-bed and prepared to pounce. Closer...closer...and finally the shape emerged from the glen and I raised my arms and --
"Sir!" exclaimed Jeremiah, his strange inflexion clouding the word.
"Jeremiah!" I exclaimed.
"Jeremiah?" called Pish, emerging from the pipe. Fartles followed.
"Little Master," Jeremiah greeted Pish with a bow. "It is fortunate you are well."
"What did he say?" I asked, unable to decipher the thick accent which Duncan had called Eridani court. "Your robot sounds like he needs a glass of water."
Pish hugged Jeremiah and closed his eyes as he pressed his face against the robot's silver chest, so I just shut up. I pet the dog, who licked my hand and passed gas noisily.
We didn't talk much after that. It was understood that we would hole up for the night in the drainage pipe, and make for Thaumas in the morning. There was never any question that Pish had become my responsibility. Nothing much had changed for Hellig Apples, except that he now had an ensemble -- a bereaved child, a nearly unintelligible robot, and a dog with serious gastrointestinal problems.
Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance as the afternoon darkened into an early evening. My body was throbbing in various places, including the cuts on my neck, which were tender and swollen. As I arranged myself to sleep Pish crawled over and squished himself against me wordlessly.
Jeremiah stood watch at the mouth of the pipe, the first drops of rain singing off his hide like wind chimes.