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Electric Armadillos and Invisible Men
Oh, intermittently useful telepathic fungus.
I've learned a great deal about both Martian anatomy and Martian vulgarity in the years since this incident, imaginary reader. To this day I still have no idea what Avila was driving at.
Whoosh whoosh hiss. The spider-creature didn't bellow back at us. Silently fixated on the loss of three possible meals, it announced its presence only with the deadly sound of legs hitting sand. Whoosh whoosh hiss.
Jungle monster on one side, water monsters on the other. I had an icy sensation between my shoulder blades, the one that lets you know that a guy in a black cloak thinks you look ripe for the scythe.
Plan A! Desperate sacrifice! But not by yours truly.
If I hadn't been so exhausted and terrified I might not have thrown dear Fifinella into the jaws of peril on my behalf, but she was all I had. At the water's edge I whirled and flung my leather flight jacket into what I hoped was the monster's "face," just above its twitching fangs.
Had this been one of my stories, the creature would have been politely discombobulated just long enough to allow our complete escape. Unfortunately, real life has no vested commercial interest in throwing protagonists a bone.
One of the beast's legs whicked up and down like a windshield wiper. A scant moment was all it took-- Fifinella was down on the sand and we were back on the menu. Nothing gained but a couple of yards.
Plan B, then! It leapt to mind instantly. It was not a good plan, nor even a sane plan, but it was now an only child.
I shouted, "River! Follow me!" and took a flying jump for deep water.
I hit the cool gray flow like a torpedo, plunging face-first into that thrilling soft buoyancy of Martian water, and for a second all the light and noise of the world above was blotted out. I didn't have time to marvel, though. I regained the surface with frantic strokes and glanced backward. God willing, was the spider-thing a hydrophobe?
Of course not! Once again it came straight at us, splashing up white fountains as it pistoned into the river. Avila and Gathris were a few feet to my left, and together we thrashed away from shore with all of our might.
"This is madness! Lurk-jaws!" spat Gathris.
"The enemy of my enemy!" I sputtered back.
The thing in the water at the crash site hadn't borne in with a direct attack. Like some of earth's aquatic predators, it had made a reconnaissance pass or two while deciding whether or not to take a bite. I hoped that meant something. If its cousins in this part of the river were as fastidious, they might detect the spider-thing. . . and hopefully the spider-thing would detect them. For at least a few moments, we might enjoy a safely neutral space in the water to plot our next move.
Something heavy brushed against my right thigh. I felt the rush of a great dark mass as it slid past-- mottled, crocodilian, sinuous. It was the length of my pick-up truck, and it began to curl possessively around me.
Did the spider-thing pause for reflection? No joy. It bobbed toward us like some kind of blood-mad squid. There didn't seem to be much room in that brain for any thought beyond the horizons of lunch.
Frustration drove me to further insanity. I rolled in the water and threw my arms around the lurk-jaw. The beast was roughly my width, with skin like pebbled rubber. I dug my nails in, hard, and tried to wrench the thing around toward the oncoming spider creature.
Finally I caught a break.
I could only just scrape the river bottom for leverage, but this was an animal evolved in Martian gravity. At last my earth-born strength was a match for something! The beast thrashed and writhed, trying to somersault and bring its jaws into play. I caught a glimpse of an eel-like head, with rows of pyramidal backward-angled teeth vanishing down a black gullet. Snarling, I shoved that head back under water, squeezed until my arms burned, and forced the river predator back toward the spider-thing. It was like fighting an over-pressurized fire hose.
At last neither of us could take any more. It slipped loose and shot away, slapping me hard with its tail, but my half-assed design was accomplished. The lurk-jaw rocketed directly into the oncoming spider beast, and in an instant the water lashed and foamed around them as they made their acquaintance.
What a battle! The lurk-jaw wound the spider in its coils, rolling it over and over, attempting to drag it into the depths where the air-breathing creature would presumably be doomed. The spider flailed wildly with its legs, the cruel hooks and edges of its carapace slashing softer lurk-jaw flesh. Its fangs plunged and stabbed, an arachnid Brutus et tu-ing Caesar again and again.
I was hypnotized to stupidity by the spectacle. My Martian companions seized me and hauled me back to shore. There we all collapsed on the red sand, panting, and by the time I'd recovered the diminishing balance of my wits the fight was over. There was no winner.
The spider-thing drifted motionless in a cloud of dark blood, like a half-sunk ship, while nearby the lurk-jaw had floated to the surface and was feebly shuddering into death. Better it than me, I told myself, though a strange guilty sourness was settling over my relief.
"The enemy of my enemy," said Gathris. "A blue world aphorism? The foe of one's foe can indeed be manipulated. A useful philosophy."
"Actually, strangely enough, it's more about making friends." I stared at the lurk-jaw as it twitched its last twitch. "I guess some friends are just very temporary."
Next we retrieved most of our wood, very cautiously, only gathering what we could reach while staying clear of the jungle's edge. The stuff was hard and glossy but slightly flexible, like bamboo, and neither Avila nor Gathris had ever handled it before. City boys, the pair of them.
We moved a few hundred yards down the river from the floating corpses. Then we dug into the sand, hunting flakes of rock, and with these we began the painstaking process of peeling and chipping makeshift spear points into the branches of our choice. The acetic-smelling branches gave off further odors of sulfur and rubbing alcohol as I pried their resinous fibers apart.
Hunkered on the beach, tensely alert for surprises, we spent an hour at our seemingly ridiculous task. Yours truly, aerial expert, and two scientists from a race that could banish planetary magnetic fields, chiseling wooden spears. Cave-woman and cave-Martians!
Breezes stirred on the face of the gray water as we worked, and the clouds darkened overhead. Pale flickering insects annoyed Gathris and Avila, but didn't bother sinking any sharp little bits into me. The peculiar chemistry of my blood and sweat, I presumed.
The hunger of the flying pests did, however, remind me of my own. Milder discomforts had been shoved out of my mind by the stark terror of our plunge from the sky, but now I was well past running on empty. I caught myself staring at the river again and again� a little water had seeped past my lips, of course, but I'd so far fought the urge to take deep gulps. Back on earth, you could get knocked on your ass for drinking water from a few hundred miles away. What gut-rot might be lurking a hundred million miles from Abilene?
"Is your thirst upon you?" said Avila.
"That obvious, huh? I'm worried about germs."
"Ah. You needn't, you know. The mycomatrix." Avila halted in his work, flexed his long leathery fingers, and studied me. I flattered myself that I was beginning to see nuances in Martian faces-- not read them, just yet, but at least I could identify repeated tics and creases in the skin that must have some meaning. Avila, shed of his mask, struck me as a more expressive Thoraved than his colleague.
"It's not merely a tool for communication," he continued. "It strengthens your immune system. It seems to me that the Old Makers must have intended it to facilitate the mingling of the tribes. Our microscopic life should be all but harmless to you by now."
"My physiology, though--"
"Recall the pictograms at Dawning Deep," said Gathris. He didn't stop working for an instant as he spoke; his spear points were the least amateurish-looking of all that we had made. "The Old Makers were familiar with your species. Besides, we're likely to be stewing in some creature's digestive juices before long. That's the only gastric distress I'd worry about."
Fatalism and telepathic space fungus. What a basis for hope. Resigned, and damned thirsty, I shouldered my longest spear and hopped down to the river's edge. From cupped hands I took my first deliberate taste of the natural waters of Mars.
I ran the lukewarm stuff around in my mouth, savoring the faint flavor of alien rust, and trying not to think about whether the current was seasoned with traces of spider blood and exploded aircraft. Beggars can't be choosers. I drank my fill and wondered if I would regret it, or live long enough to.
"Hey, Gathris," I said, "What's this good news you mentioned earlier?"
"I preserved one useful device in my belt pouch. A chirp."
"What the hell's a chirp?" I said, hoping it would be a portable cross between a pizza oven, a bazooka, and a flying saucer.
"A pre-coded radio," said Gathris. "I can send out micropulses on a rotating set of resistance bands. It will also tell me if it receives such a pulse. It was meant to aid our rendezvous."
"Well, push that button and get us the hell out of here! Or at least order us a snack," I said.
"Using it now would be madness. Somewhere over our heads, that swarmship and its auxiliary craft will be orbiting our crash site. The chance of detection is too great."
"So we just bounce like hell along the river and try not to die for as long as possible?" I said.
"A keen tactical summary, blueworlder."
Bounce along we did, spears gently rattling, pale insects following. The water in my stomach sloshed rhythmically. The veils of the coming night drew down upon us, and when shadowy shapes appeared in our path, we bounded very close before I realized they were artificial constructs.
"This looks like some kind of landing!" I peered at the rough crumbling shapes, hexagonal black stones with time-eaten silvery mortar. A broken line of blocks ran out into the river, vanishing under the mist-crowned currents. Whatever walls or structures had once stood here, none of the ruins were higher than my shoulders.
"Vashanka work," said Avila, "the old people of the valley."
"I don't think their postal service still delivers to this address," I said. "Are they your species?"
"Another tribe," said Gathris. "When the All-Sovereign proposed to lead us into the cities of the Old Makers, only the Thoraveds followed. The Vashanka turned their backs on him."
"As have you two," I said.
"Well, yes," said Avila. "But you see what the Vashanka missed. Their villages are flotillas, and the only land they touch is the water's edge. Without Thoraved weapons, the jungle rules them entirely. How I sympathize!"
"These Vashanka," I said, "do they have anything to do with your resistance?"
"Some bands do," said Gathris. "Others are content to be savages. The All-Sovereign ignores them, though sometimes Military Section drops clouds of death-enzymes on them for practice. With a swarmship at hand, let's hope no flotillas draw near."
"So many ways to be slaughtered by random chance," I said. "So little time."
Things shuffled and snorted and screamed in the forest depths. Nature, red in tooth and claw, red in proboscis and tentacle, up to business as usual.
I was checking our six from time to time, an old pilot's habit. The fifth or sixth time I glanced behind, I saw that low lean shadows had come out of the edge of the jungle.
They moved like wolves, though I could see little of their bodies, except the eerie gleam of the jungle lights in their eyes. Too many eyes, black glossy eyes that caught the jungle lights and gleamed like fairy-story jewelry.
"Guys," I whispered, "trouble."
Gathris put his back against mine, then grabbed Avila, dragging the synthesist into our impromptu triangle. We dropped our extra spears with a clatter.
"They're ahead of us, too," said Gathris.
The ones coming from behind were enough trouble for me. I could see at least four of them, crouched and committed. Pack hunters! Multiple attackers from multiple directions. Would they find my terran proteins inedible or would the mycomatrix, that bridge across species, that meat-seasoning of the Old Makers, render me as tasty a snack as my buddies? One of the creatures darted toward me, eager to find out.
It didn't find me quaking in my boots. Had I really come a hundred million miles, and then through ray-gun fire, alien sewers, air battle, giant spiders and lurk-jaws just to end up as burgers and a shake for some nameless critter? Hell no! In that instant I was Jirel of Joiry! Conan in soggy ladies' work clothes! I let that sucker have it with my spear and felt the point sink into soft, squirming flesh. The creature moaned and howled.
I released the spear, leaving the wounded beast impaled on the sand, and snatched up another one. Noise and Martian vulgarity behind me told me that Avila and Gathris were similarly engaged. Something hit my shoulder, and I flinched, nearly striking backward with my spear before I realized it was Gathris.
"Creep forward with me, but keep back to back," he shouted. It was sound advice. I took the tailgunner position as we hefted spears and shuffled along the dark riverbank in the midst of moaning and scuffling. Another of the things lay speared on my right, and the uninjured members of the pack let us have enough room to move away. They milled protectively around their fallen kindred, or so I thought.
A moment or two later they fell on the injured beasts, and what I saw by the faint light turned my water-heavy stomach. The creatures vomited forth pulsing coils of glistening, tendril-threaded innards, like certain ocean creatures on Earth that fling their stomachs around their prey and digest them less politely than we do. Those sacks of flesh fell on the injured creatures with wet sucking sounds, and the howling rose to a horrible crescendo before it died out. Luminescent insects fluttered past in little streams, hungry for their own tiny portion of the feast.
"I'd trade my left arm for that desiccator pistol that cracked your skull, Gathris," I muttered.
"I would also trade one of your arms for it," said Gathris.
"They may be satisfied with the bodies of their kin, and they may not," said Avila. "I suggest we run like frightened children before they have to make up their minds."
All agreed, we bounced along with wary abandon, splashing in the soft wash of the river's edge, and left the impromptu Martian Murder Bear picnic far behind. I was gasping now, and I wasn't alone.
"More ruins," said Avila. "If we can put stone at our backs and set spears to block other gaps, we might stand a chance of making it to sunrise. If we can't rest we'll be incapable of defending ourselves."
"I'm forced to agree," said Gathris. An instant later he grabbed my by my shirt and flung me into the shadow of more hexagonal stones.
"Conceal yourselves," he hissed. "Be silent!"
I hugged the wall and listened. After a moment I heard a rhythmic noise, somewhere out on the water. It was a soft buzzing purr, almost like a gasoline motor. I crept carefully to an edge of the old stones and peered out across the river. Yes, there in the misty dark not a hundred yards out a little gray shape was bobbing along above the waves... many feet above the waves. A flying craft, low and lightless. I fancied I could see a dark Martian shape crouched upon it.
"A flitter? The resistance!" whispered Avila.
"My chirp is dead silent," said Gathris. "Whoever's out there is no friend of ours."
We waited, tense, as the mysterious craft buzzed along above the rolling river, seemingly oblivious to us. After a few minutes it was lost to sight and hearing.
"That engine had a ragged sound to it," said Avila. "I can't imagine the All-Sovereign's forces would be out here in such a tiny piece of junk."
"You're not wrong." Gathris held out a thumb-sized cylinder and shook it. "But until this thing chirps good news, any mystery we meet is a bad mystery."
"Speaking of bad mysteries, have any of our hungry friends crept up on us from behind?" I said. I didn't leave cover, but I adjusted my position against the wall, relieving the pressure on my left leg, which had been falling asleep.
"Not that I can see," said Gathris. "But they could be--"
"Greep," said something just above my right ear.
I whirled, right arm raised, and caught the briefest glimpse of a silvery-dark shape against the stone. It brushed my hand, and a dry popping sound seemed to go off in my head. The world spun; in an instant I was sprawled dizzily on the wet sand and needles of prickling heat were stitching their way up my arm to mid-bicep.
I slurred out quite a few bad words with a tongue that behaved like I had it on loan from a drunk. Confused and horrified thoughts chased each other through my head-- had I been stung or bitten by something? A blind demon? Of all the idiotic fates!
Avila and Gathris dragged me away and fussed over me, but their lack of panic was calming. The pain faded to a hint of numbness and my wits soon made it back home safely.
On the sand before us a little animal crouched, something like a flatter version of an armadillo, eight-legged. All ten eyes in its triangular head glared at me. I caught these fine details because blue light now gleamed from under the joints of its shell and ran along its silvery tail.
"Greep," it said sharply, its voice half-cricket and half-bird.
"It's a battery burrower!" said Avila. "I've seen specimens in our observation gardens. They feed on bioluminescent plants and use the enzymes to power their electrical organs. When startled--"
"I think I figured out what they do when startled," I grumbled, heaving myself back to my feet. "I ever find out the son of a bitch is edible, I'm coming back with rubber gloves."
"Greep," said the battery burrower, "greep, greep!"
More such cries came from beyond the next section of collapsed wall. Gathris, Avila and I shuffled back in alarm as a half-dozen of the cat-sized things scampered into sight, greep-greeping to beat the band. They formed a circle and wound their tails tightly together. Their bioluminous threat display instantly flared to blue-white. Some of the pale insects fluttered greedily toward them and paid for it, sparking and sizzling like a miniature fireworks show.
"Fascinating," said Avila, "as an aggregate, they seem to form a capacitor bank substantially increasing their electrical current. They must think we threaten a nest."
"It's not just us," said Gathris.
Our earlier friends had returned, creeping up on us silently while I'd recovered from my mild shock. There were more of the sleek pack hunters this time; the Martian Murder Bears had called in the clans.
"Greep, greep, greep," chorused the battery burrowers. So long as the shockadillos circled their wagons in the ruins, there was absolutely no room to maneuver if the pack hunters moved in. We could be live-digested from the front or electrocuted in the ass. Never a dull moment in the Valley of the Emerald Night!
Poised for desperate action we stood, spears raised, between the greeping and the growling. And then... the hunters continued circling, a dozen paces from the ruins, attentive but coming no closer.
"I doubt they're terribly impressed with us, so it must be the battery burrowers," said Gathris. "So long as we can stay in proximity to them, we might be safe!"
"Their juice can't last forever," I said. I began to spin a ludicrous plan in my head. Was there some way I could snatch one of the burrowers, using my flight jacket as an insulator, and throw it at the pack hunters? No dice. Even if the little guys were polite enough to let me handle them without fighting back, my jacket was still wet. I'd probably die on the spot.
"We find ourselves in the crux of a painfully ridiculous dilemma," said Gathris.
"Greep greep greep," said the Greep Enthusiasts Local 501.
That's when something whistled out of the darkness, swift and unseen, and impaled one of the pack-hunters in a gout of dark blood.
The others snarled and moaned. Another dart fell and another hunter died; another leapt back from a dart that scattered sand an inch from its paw. One of the creatures rushed us in panic, and Gathris and I speared it simultaneously, determined not to be pushed back to the electric trap at the heart of the ruins. The impaled creature coughed out its sinister digestive organ; fluids that smelled like chemical warfare class spattered the sand as it shuddered and died.
That was enough for the survivors. They turned and ran like India ink, pouring themselves back into the jungle darkness, scattering sand in their haste and leaving nothing behind them but the corpses and a few bobbing pearls of bio-light from plants disturbed by their passage.
The battery burrowers never stopped greeping.
Figures appeared before us out of thin air. Not merely out of shadow or darkness, imaginary reader. Thin air, between one rise and fall of my eyelids!
They were Martians like Avila and Gathris, though their skulls were somewhat higher and narrower, curving back at the top with a convex sweep. Their faces were uncovered and their clothes were chitinous hides and dark leathers. Around their shoulders they all wore ragged black-green mantles of vegetable fibers thatched with slender threads of emerald bio-light.
"I don't believe it," said Avila.
The newcomers carried weapons primitive but far superior to our own: double-ended spears with points of gleaming black glass, clubs studded with rows of serrated rocks, and darts poised on little throwing-sticks that must have given them impressive leverage in Martian gravity. One of them stepped forward, and at his belt I saw a desiccator pistol.
"Hail Vashanka," said Gathris uneasily.
"Hail idiots," said the Vashanka with the pistol, his voice melodious. "How long do you intend to keep standing next to a battery burrower nest?"
We moved out of the ruins slowly, and the "greep greep" diminished behind us, though the critters refused to leave their defensive circle.
"You're not a Thoraved," said the pistol-carrier, his eyes gleaming at me.
"We have that in common." I raised my spear-point to the sky but didn't set it down
"You're a blueworlder," said Pistol Boy, and the amazement was thick in his voice. At least a dozen of his buddies had us surrounded, and they all started muttering to themselves. "Mask-wearers without masks and a blueworlder, all running from a fallen sky-launch and not waiting for aid. You are outlaws."
I said nothing else, assuming Gathris or Avila would know how best to deal with these folks.
"Come," said Pistol Boy, and he rested a hand on his gun. "Drop those toy spears and speak the truth. You have no chance to run or fight. A lie might anger me; the truth is probably no more than I have guessed. Your situation need not grow any worse than it is."
"We have... fled from the city of our people," said Gathris. He set down his spear, and I slowly did the same. "We are here by accident, but we have friends looking for us. Friends who may be far away, but they would give you many useful things in exchange for your aid and protection."
"I am Azon Arazef of the Emerald Night Vashanka," said Pistol Boy. "Line Mother of a Moving Village and First Huntress of all my kin."
So Pistol Boy was really Pistol Girl. Again with the retractable mammary glands! So much for my ability to read Martian nuance.
"You have my protection," she said. "Leave your spears and I shall guard you from all things in the jungle and the rivers, and bring you safe and well to my Moving Village."
"Thank you," said Gathris. "Will you aid us in contacting our friends?"
"I know these friends of which you speak. They are indeed far from here, and they burrow in fear of the All-Sovereign. I do not desire their poor gifts and I do not fear their wrath. So we'll keep you safe in a place of secrecy, and send to the mask-wearers that we have captured outlaws unlike any ever seen."
She made a casual gesture with the hand that wasn't resting on her gun, and her armed dozen moved on us before we could reclaim our spears.
"Yes," said Azon Arazef. "Much shall we ask, and much shall we receive, for it is obvious the All-Sovereign would pay dearly to have you returned."
Next: Across Savage Mars
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