MARCH OF THE ANTS
The gong for breakfast did not wake me, but being hit across the face and thrown out of my hammock did. "Wakey-wakey-wakey!" invited someone unfriendly. "It's time for eggs and breaky, my little mules."
I opened my eyes and coughed, finding myself entangled with Pish in the web of vines beneath our bunks. Pish was staring with wide eyes at the two scar-faced thugs glaring down at us from the round wooden balcony that surrounded the nook, woven out of the face of the living tree. "Is this some kind of Annapurnese wake-up call?" I muttered groggily. "I distinctly remember asking not to be pistol-whipped."
One of the thugs used a knife to slice open our bag. He pulled out handfuls of clothing until he came to Glory's strong-box, which I knew contained rows of the little orange sticks she flared and inhaled. "The faeces is right here," the thug called to his partner.
"You have your faeces," I shouted, attempting to stand up on the vines. "Now leave us be!"
"Ah no, mule," said the first thug. "There's still the little matter of you busting up Nilo's shop, offing Monkey and stealing the boss' robot." He crouched down near the vines and fixed me with his hard, hazel eyes. "And you jazzed me fierce, and for that I'm going to make you cry blood."
"Help!" I yelled.
The thugs laughed. "Every soul is taking grub, fool. Didn't you hear the breakfast gong?"
They both laughed again and then the second thug stopped suddenly, his knife dropping from his hand and landing hilt-first on my thigh. Then the thug collapsed without a whimper and fell face first into the web beside me, the ripple of his impact tossing me over Pish and against the tree.
"What the hell?" asked the first thug, wheeling around to find himself facing Jeremiah's impassive masque.
My stomach turned over queasily. There was no need to kill! I grabbed the knife and started sawing through the vines that held me. Pish ran over and jumped on my back, and I caught Jeremiah's eye just as we dropped through the broken web, falling in a tangled mess into the empty hammocks beneath. I spilled out onto the web underneath and swiped it with the knife. When it split Pish and I dropped another level.
"You're dead!" promised the thug, jumping down through the first ripped web and withdrawing a small black jazzing device from inside his jacket. "You're already dead, mules!" he declared, red in the face.
A blue-green blur flashed past and I looked down to see Jeremiah's body cutting a swath through the next layer of webbing, then dropping to the tiled floor below. I threw Pish down into his arms and then leapt down myself, an instant before the thug hit the vines beside me. I rolled with the fall and jumped to my feet running, hot on Jeremiah's heels as he pelted down the sunny path effortlessly.
Mid-way across the dome a terrifying bang sounded out from behind us, echoing against the ceiling and the trees. Some people screamed and hit the deck, but others tossed back their coats and drew out their weapons. The little people hooted with alarm as they scampered up the columns around the edges of the dome with amazing agility. I risked a look back over my shoulder and saw the thug facing off against a dozen men and women, a ridiculously large gun shaking in his hand.
We pushed roughly through the fringes of the crowd and out onto the tarmac where Greskin Mile was lounging against the side of his dented taxicab, biting dirt out from under his fingernails. "Goodmorning, folks!" he called, and then took in our state of haste. He hopped over the hood and squeezed inside, the engine roaring throatily an instant later. "Trouble?" he called.
We heard more shots ring out from under the dome. "Trouble!" I yelled, sprinting toward him. Jeremiah and Pish ducked into the front seat and I dove head-long into the rear. "Go!" I shouted, and Greskin yanked back hard on the steering bar. The engines whined in protest as the cab careened into the air, skimming the top corner of the six-wheeled freighter as it cleared the walls. Greskin steered us neatly between the opposing cliff-faces and out again into the open expanses of the sandy Thither Sea.
After a few moments Greskin cleared his throat. "So if you don't mind my asking, was there some kind of a pre-existing situation between you and somebody or are you just not very good at making friends?"
"Pre-existing situation," I muttered, feeling the bump on my head where I had been hit. "Are you okay, Pish?"
"Yeah," he said. "Those were Glory's friends, weren't they?"
"Yes. Do you see what she's brought us?"
"She wanted to get away from them. She wanted to come with us."
I grunted. "How much further, Mr. Mile? I want to get off this world. I want to get away from this sun."
"I can make it in two hours if I push it hard, Mr. Fell."
"Please Mr. Mile," I said, holding up my wallet. "Push it hard."
The engine geared up to a higher-pitched whine and the desert below began to scroll by slightly faster. We passed over a railway, which Greskin explained was the more conventional way to see the sea. We saw more herds of ruby cattle grazing between dark, organic lines that visually networked a series of rocky outcroppings. "Are those ants?" I asked.
"Yes sir," said Jeremiah.
An hour into the trip I smelled Greskin's anxiety blossom. "What's wrong?"
He knocked at one of his displays and then ducked over and looked past his shoulder behind us. "There's another car on our tail. Closing fast." He tapped his fingers quickly against a greasy plate suspended from the dashboard. "I can't get any informatics off it."
My heart started to beat faster. I turned around and peered out the small rear window. A distant but distinct bead of shadow appeared out of the bank of scaly clouds we had just passed through: a dark car, aiming to cross our path.
The cab's dashboard buzzed harshly. "Navigational conflict-ct. Redesign c-course."
Pish squirmed out of Jeremiah's lap and into the back seat with me. "Is it Glory's people, Simon?"
"Lizards to lies," I said, nodding. The pursuing car was rapidly growing. "Can this thing go any faster, Greskin?"
"No Mr. Fell, I'm afraid it cannot."
"N-navigational conflict," reminded the dashboard helpfully. "Imminent-inent collision: evasive action recommended-commended!"
A black car with dark windows swooped around above us, dropping suddenly and striking the roof of Greskin's cab. Greskin wrenched the steering bar hard to the side and climbed, dodging around the large black vehicle as it bobbed back up to hit us again. The engine sang and sputtered, the frame of the cab whining as it was flung back and forth. Pish and I clung to our harnesses, gritting our teeth.
"Cl-close proximity high speed m-manoeuvring is against the law," commented the taxi.
"Hold on folks!" called Greskin, banking hard again as the black car swept up beside us, its flanks passing within inches of my window. We dropped giddily, dust dancing before my eyes, and then we were thrown back into our seats as he brought her around hard to try to get the jump on our attackers. "Aha!" crooned Greskin.
The ploy worked, to the extent that the driver of the black car was apparently unaware of our new position when he thrust his vehicle upward violently. We collided with teeth-jarring suddenness, pieces of metal and plastic spinning away with the force. Both cars flipped over backward -- sky alternating to ground sickeningly -- and then flew apart as they spun.
Clutching Pish I was able to raise my head enough to see the ground racing toward us, filling the windscreen. An instant before we impacted the cabin filled with thick fluid, blasting startlingly out of several hidden orifices. I gasped and it filled my mouth. A split second later the crash echoed through the cabin, knocking the wind out my lungs and then forcing me to suck more fluid. I lost track of which way was up as the car rolled, Pish's skull knocking against my jaw once per cycle.
The cab skidded to a halt at the base of a tall outcropping of rock, and a second later the windows burst apart into dust. The fluid gushed out of the cabin, and then Pish, Greskin and I vomited what we'd swallowed. Though I sputtered and coughed I did not want for air, which suggested to me that the shock-absorbing fluid must have been somehow oxygenated in a way my lungs could use.
I stumbled out of the carcass last. Jeremiah was examining a small cut over Pish's eye, where the edge of his goggles had gouged him. Greskin pointed out a large cloud of dust dissipating a few dunes away. "They're down, too," he said, breathing hard.
"M-maintenance required," said the taxi.
"Shut up!" grunted Greskin. He sniffed at the wind. "Everybody get back behind the car. Stay low."
Three figures crested the nearest dune, one of them limping. All of them were carrying guns.
Greskin Mile's hand flashed out and unholstered his weapon in a blink. It barked once and one of the men crumpled with a pitiable scream, rolling backward down the dune he had just climbed.
By the time I'd blinked again Greskin was beside me, crouching behind the bent door of the overturned taxicab. "Nice shooting!" I said, wincing as a bullet struck the hull of the car, reverberating loudly.
"I'm a lawyer," he explained. "I have to be quick."
Bullets smacked into the sand near the car, startling Pish. Jeremiah enfolded the boy in his metal arms, his black eyes scanning the rocks. "One circles around to the rear," he warned quietly.
"I'll take care of him," said Greskin with a nod. "Mr. Fell, you hold off this joker."
I nodded back and Greskin crawled away. I unholstered the Smith-Shurtook and levelled it as I peeked above the top of the car. A bullet winged the hood and sparks flew at me. I fired into the air and dove for cover, the boom of my own weapon putting the fear of death into me.
I heard two more shots lay into the car, followed by an echoey exchange of reports from behind me. I hoped our driver was faring well.
Espying an opportunity I flattened myself on the sand and fished my way forward to peek out along the side of the car. I could see only the leg of my attacker as he knelt behind a rock. Aiming my gun sideways against the ground I pressed the contact. His leg jerked out from underneath him and he yelped.
I ran over to the rock, my gun out before me. I jumped around the corner. The man in black was sprawled out across the ground, the lower half of his right leg a tangled mess of splintered bone, ripped pants and meat. His face was convulsed in pain.
"Mother of love I'm so sorry!" I shrieked, kneeling down next to the ghastly wound as blood poured out upon the pebbles. "What can I do?" I cried helplessly.
"Die!" bellowed the fallen man, wrenching his arm up to point the barrel of his gun at my nose. I jumped sideways just as he fired, the concussion ringing in my ears as I hit the ground and stumbled away behind the car again.
Pish and Jeremiah looked over at me. I crawled past them to the other side of the car and peeked out. I was met by a kick in the face.
I hit the ground sideways and rolled over. My opponent was propping himself up against the car, sweat running down his face and blood dripping out of his smashed calf. With a grunt of effort he levelled his gun at me.
The gun was knocked from his hand by a rock thrown by Pish. "Leave Simon alone!" he screamed. I dove at the man's middle and threw him to the ground. He bellowed in pain and struck out at me. In a ball of flailing limbs we rolled over the dirt.
He hurled me off of him and I hit the ground hard. Panting, I tried to rise. My eyes widened as I saw him lurch over me, his good foot planted in a stream of black ants.
"Mind the ants," I reminded him, panting. He looked down.
"I hate this planet," he said, spitting blood. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and took another hop forward, his boot squashing another section of the busy little insects. Though they made no noise I could sense their alarm in the sudden increase in speed with which they scurried. A ripple of frenzied motion cascaded down the stream.
He took another limping step forward, his left arm pinioning around a tall column of rock. His expression changed as he planted his boot once more. He looked down again, frowning.
I shuffled backward across the sand.
The ants began to climb his leg, long tendrils of scouts followed by opaque hordes. He reached down to brush them off, his hands coming away black and crawling. He hopped backward and lost his balance, sitting down in the stream. And then, like a flitting shadow, they enveloped him. He opened his mouth to scream and ants poured out.
I turned away.
Pish and Jeremiah had gone to help Greskin, who was limping back with a scowl on his face. "I'm okay, I'm okay folks," he said, gesturing at me dismissively. A hole through his thigh was oozing a dark stain upon his pants. With Jeremiah's help he sat down on a rock. "Got the bastard, though, sure as sunrise. How did you make out, Mr. Fell?"
"The ants got him for me," I said, pointing over my shoulder to the stream.
Greskin made a face, then moped his brow with a kerchief and looked around. "You have to mind the ants," he chuckled. He took a small device out of his pocket and tapped it, looking into its face. "There's a lot of magnetic rock around here. Hard to get a good fix on north."
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's just a compass, dude."
"A device for discovering the direction of north? Can it be used to find our way?"
He folded the compass away and looked at me. "Don't take this the wrong Mr. Fell, but I always pictured you being...more worldly."
"I told you," I said testily; "I've been through a bit of an ordeal."
We gathered what was salvageable from the wreck of the taxicab and walked out of the maze of rocks where we had come down. Beyond the mesa the sands blew in the wind, obscuring the horizon and occasionally even hiding the sun. But we were not long into our trek when we came against an impenetrable barrier: a wide river of black ants, their carapaces winking the sullen, shifting light.
"It's plenty too far to jump," declared Greskin. "For the falcon maybe, but not frogs like we. We'll have to follow their line. Put up your hood or you'll be burned by the sun."
"But it's so cold," I said.
"You can't feel the ultraviolet cooking you, Mr. Fell."
I sighed. "Lovely planet you've got here, Mr. Mile."
"Get off my back," he said, feigning offense as he limped at Jeremiah's side. "The atmosphere is a work-in-progress."
We travelled along the bank of the ant highway for an hour before we discovered we were being hemmed in from behind by another slithering stream of marching insects, these ones yellow and translucent.
We were left with no choice but to walk along the narrow path between the two rivers, turning as they turned, meandering as they meandered. The wind was frigid and gritty, sand sprinkling across our goggles in a constant wash, our hoods drawn tight around our faces. Greskin ripped his kerchief into three, and we each held a section over our mouth and nose in order to better breathe.
I was reminded of the time that Pish, Jeremiah, Fartles and I had shuffled sideways between the territorial flamingo and the jealous tree, the world apparently open all around us but in fact closed to a narrow corridor.
The rivers of ants drove us toward rocky foothills, the setting sun casting their shadows long across the sandy plain. The temperature dropped sharply with the sun, and come twilight as we walked among the first crags of the foothills we were all shivering and numb. The rivers of ants ran through a shallow canyon and then split around the mouth of a wide cave, before which were set stone bridges to traverse over the insect ways.
As we arrived a party of men and women in furs stepped out of the mouth of the cave, their leader wearing the weathered skull of a bull atop his head and necklaces of teeth around his neck, wrists, and ankles. His skin was orange like the sand. Those arrayed behind him carried tall spears with electric torches tied around the hilts, which they engaged to dazzle us.
"Ruffians!" whispered Greskin. "They live off the land and answer to no one."
I cleared my throat. "Hello," I called. "My name is Simon. My friends and I have been through a bit of an ordeal. Can you help us get to Purandhi?"
The leader crossed one of the stone bridges, his bare feet slapping the smooth rock on our side of the ant rivers. He was muscular, and painted with stripes. "The ants carry blood. Your companion?"
"No," I shook my head. "Our enemy."
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," he declared, stomping his feet. The others turned off their harsh lights. "Let us all rejoice in the blood of the ant killer. Come: our hospitality is yours tonight."
They brought us herbs to smoke and introductions were being made when a squabble over a dowry threatened to bring three families of the clan to blows. Greskin stepped forward and offered his services as advocate, and then proceeded to settle the dispute to the satisfaction of all parties. Spears and knives were lowered and clansmen embraced one another. An old woman painted a sacred ring on Greskin's forehead, and then the fire was piled high for a celebratory meal.
"Why do these people live like this, Mr. Mile?" I asked him.
"Cha, it's a bit of a mystery. Nobody has any idea how they lived outside the domes before the atmosphere was baked." He took a puff from a pipe that was handed to him and then passed it to me. "Some of them are Edenites who couldn't cut the mustard in a civilized way, some of them are just regular folk who turned their backs on society. The lost always find a way to live on their own terms. You know what I'm talking about?"
I coughed explosively. "I think so."
We had beef for supper, roasted over a huge bonfire beneath a smoke-hole deep inside their wide cave where lived dozens of other Ruffians of all ages. A bearded old man pushed a rude clay cup of harsh, stinking mead into my hand and then proceeded to tell a long story in a local dialect which was largely incomprehensible to me, though I did manage to glean that the ants cleaned the bones of the evil after the exciting climax. Then the old man invited Greskin to tell a story, and he obliged them with several slurring accounts of especially ridiculous acts of litigation. Next it was my turn to tell a tale. I tried to beg off but the chief of their clan insisted, nodding and grinning, throwing back another cup of mead, the head of the skinless bull on his crown seeming to smile at me, too.
I looked around at the dirty, sun-burned, happy faces looking at me, their features swimming in the firelight. I sipped the foul mead and paced in a circle, considering where to start.
"My name is Simon," I declared, "and I come from space." I pointed out the smoke-hole, where a few stars could be discerned shining through the fume. "I was born a short time ago in the body of a man who lived a life I have never known."
The Ruffians hummed happily and scooched closer, the young sitting in the laps of the old. The old man passed around a jug to refresh our cups of mead. Greskin sat by the fire and listened, his head cocked. Pish sat beside Jeremiah, eyes fixed on me.
"They came to take me to my family, and like a skittish cat I panicked. I ran through the woods and came into the care of a boy, whose heart was open enough to see I was no monster. His father...his father was a good man, who taught me much. But he was also a hunted man, and when his destiny came to claim him the child and I were forced to flee..."
As the recounting continued I found my pace, adding gestures and crude sound effects to furnish the tale with decorations. They cringed in fear when I told them about the violence of Glory's keepers, and they laughed riotously as I described my deftless antics bouncing through freefall. When I elocuted on the way Fartles contributed to the ambience of Captain Gold's dinners they fell off their perches and gripped their sides, pointing to their own dogs sleeping around the fire and nodding knowingly.
"I miss Fartles," said Pish.
"Yeah, me, too," I agreed.
The Ruffians slept in a random pile by the fire, a sleepless crone sitting on a high rock tossing in new fagots of dried turd each hour. The unseen animals who had presumably produced the turds grunted and shuffled in their pens outside the cave. I could see Jeremiah standing guard at the mouth. Pish curled up on the floor beside a dog and fell instantly asleep. I slipped out my diary and patiently unwound my day into it.
I rubbed my forehead and winced. May tomorrow dawn without a beating!