Methven - Day Thirty-Five - Part One
I look back over my last entry and I cringe. Even though I know it was me, it feels like someone else wrote those words--all of them.
Then again, those of us who survived the Deadman's attack are safe now--here, among friends, a hundred miles or more from that boulder-strewn slope and its two lonely graves. And I have to admit that the change in cirumstance might have something to do with my change in perspective..
. . .
Once he finished trying to convince me, Bill made his case to Pith and then Mantami. By mid-afternoon, it was three to one for taking our chances outside the Wards' protection and, still wildly pessimistic, I reluctantly let them persuade me to join them.
Not that I had any intention of staying behind by myself, mind you--I was just feeling contrary.
The trip across the Wards' perimeter was strictly a one-way ticket. Since there was no going back, we had to figure out how to haul our three wounded companions and everything else we were going to take with us in one swell foop--and, with our water running low, there wasn't a lot of time to waste.
So we brainstormed.
At first, we kicked Bill's idea about building sleds around, but swiftly realized that we just didn't have the necessary tools. Then, after a couple of minutes of head-scratching, Pith came up with the solution.
"Think we could take down th' tents 'n' stack ever'thin' else on 'em? We could mebbe Sherpa patrol th' whole score 'cross th' line that way."
Bill nodded, stroking his chin.
"The idea has merit, Pith. The distance we must traverse is not great and the material from which the tents are constructed is relatively robust."
"Yeah, but are the four of us strong enough to haul the whole load that far?"
Mantami spoke in the Traders Tongue.
"I do not think we have a choice, Mr. Drew. If we are not strong enough to take everything, then we must leave behind the least important items."
"I agree. We can determine the mass of the maximum possible load by experimentation. Moreover, we should take steps to clear our proposed path of obstacles before the actual attempt."
"All right--it's worth a shot. But let's not do any more 'experimentation' than we have to, okay? We wear ourselves out in the preliminaries and we'll have nothing left for the main event."
. . .
We nearly busted a collective gut in the process, but we got everything--and everyone--across the perimeter within two hours. I think Mantami's hinch nuts helped. So did gravity, since we dragged the load downhill.
. . .
The sprawled bodies of the four men who'd attacked us the previous night were stiff with rigor mortis.
Three of them were of a type: short, like Mantami, solidly-built and dark-haired. It was hard to tell what color their skins had been when they were alive--by the time we got to them, they were all mottled purple from coagulating blood and covered with crawling multitudes of tiny, many-legged lifeforms. They were dressed alike, in geometrically-patterned reddish ponchos woven from some coarse fiber draped over yellow, hip-length cloth tunics, belted, loose-fitting leather pants and pointy-toed footgear that reminded me of a cross between Wellingtons and cowboy boots. Each one had been equipped with a bulky metallic sidearm, a leather daypack and a canteen.
He wore the same type of clothing and had the same kind of sidearm--still in its holster. But he was a good foot-and-a-half taller than the other three, with a gleaming, bald head. And he had a dull, brass-colored metal disk the size of a half-dollar set in the middle of his forehead.
"What in the name of Fred MacMurray is that?"
"It could be any of a number of things, Drew. Perhaps it is a sensory enhancement of some sort. Then again, it is equally possible that it is a communications device. Until we have determined its function and capabilities, however, I suggest that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it would be wise of us to proceed from the assumption that it is still capable of monitoring and transmitting our conversations and actions to the base of operations from which these gentlemen were dispatched."
"You're saying you think his buddies can listen to us through that thing, even though the guy it's attached to is dead?"
"Although its bearer may be deceased, we must assume the device itself is equipped with an independent power supply."
"Shit, Bill, we don't even know what 'the device' is."
"Exactly my point."
"Speakin' of which.."
Pith knelt and dug the tip of his Buck knife into the dead giant's forehead, using it to pry the bronze-colored disk from the corpse's brow. It popped free, trailing a tangle of gossamer wires--and, when he tugged on it, gory globs of brain matter that adhered to them.
My stomach lurched. Even back in junior high, dissection was always my least favority part of biology class.
Bill seemed utterly unperturbed by the sight of the bloody thing in Pith's grubby paw.
"At a guess? Yes, it seems reasonable to assume that that is one of its functions."
"Check out th'other road kill?"
They turned their attention to the other three bodies, calmly and efficiently stripping them of their clothing and equipment. The stiffness of the carcasses would have made it difficult to get the packs and clothes off over their outflung limbs, but Pith cut straps and slit seams without any apparent concern for the damage it caused to the dead men's possessions.
While Pith looted the remains, Bill rifled through the booty. He divided the objects he inspected into two piles: a larger heap of shredded clothing and a smaller stack of items he apparently deemed worthy of closer examination. Within minutes, four naked cadavers lay obscenely sprawled in the late afternoon sun, while my best friend and the closest thing we had to a resident scientist matter-of-factly pawed through their former possessions, oblivious to the ghoulishness of their actions.
The spectacle didn't quite make me sick to my stomach--but I had to swallow hard. I decided I'd better check to see how Tong was doing.
. . .
He was going downhill, fast. We had no thermometer, so I couldn't be certain, but it felt like his fever had increased. He wasn't thrashing around and moaning any more, but rivulets of sweat still poured off of him and--despite his cocoa complexion--he looked deathly pale to me.
His breathing was shallow, too--and that, more than anything else, had me worried. Since we'd lost our drugstore when Bruno's magic suitcase went..somewhere else..and since Bruno himself was unavailable for advice, there was only one place left to turn.
. . .
"Mantami, do your people ever get fevers?"
"Yes, Mr. Drew."
"How do you treat them?"
"We make a tea from the roots of the zardhosi bush, Mr. Drew."
"Have you seen any zardhosi bushes around here?"
He shook his head.
"No, Mr. Drew. But I will look for them, if you wish."
"You do that, Mantami--and make it fast."
. . .
Pith and Bill showed up while I was checking on Læ's condition.
Once the flow stopped, we'd cleaned up the blood that had run so copiously from her nose and ears in the hours before dawn, but that was mere cosmetic therapy, at best. It had been more than half a day since our misfired ambush and she was still as limp and unresponsive as a plate of overcooked pasta--and the pupils of her rolled-up eyes were barely-discernable dots.
"Got a present for ya, dog."
Pith handed me a stiff, leather holster with one of the dead marauders' sidearms in it. I unbuckled my belt and slid the holster over the end, then cinched it tight and rebuckled it. The gun was surprisingly heavy, hanging there at my side.
"Nice toy. Thanks."
"Stylin'. How's th'lady?"
I shook my head.
"About the same. Not good."
"Drew, pardon my interruption, but Pith and I have discovered among our late opponents' accouterments a device that we believe may enable us to summon help."
The look that passed between them said there was more to it.
Pith just shrugged, so Bill explained.
"It may, indeed, be precisely what we require. By the same token, it is perhaps equally likely that employing it will both alert our adversaries to our presence and provide them with a means of divining our location."
"That's not so great. And?"
"And we felt it was unwise for us to make such a decision without first consulting you and Mantami."
I shook my head.
"He went off to try and scare up some medicinal plants for Tong's fever."
"Then I suppose we must postpone our decision pending his return. In the meantime, I suggest we deploy a sentry."
"It is nominally my turn on watch, Pith."
"Yep. But y'r not a Scout."
. . .
While we waited for Mantami to return, Bill showed me what he and Pith had scavenged from the four bodies.
The "communications devices" they'd discovered looked a lot like cell phones--small, black, rectangular units with rounded corners, about the size of a pack of filtertip cigarettes. They all featured an obvious antenna that could be pulled out about a foot or collapsed down to half an inch or so in height. Each one also had two small thumbwheels set just below the aerial, a small fold-out gate kind of deal attached to the opposite end and a glassy, black square thing that could only be some kind of display panel in between.
I pointed to the thumbwheels.
"Volume and tone controls, you think?"
"I think it is more likely that one of them is a waveband selector."
"I guess that makes sense. And this gate thingy?"
"Most likely it serves as a microphone."
I started to flip it open and Bill immediately reached out and clamped it shut again--a little more forcefully than necessary--pinching the tip of my thumb in the process.
"Forgive me, but we do not yet know whether opening the microphone will activate the unit. As you will recall, we agreed to postpone making that decision until Mantami returns."
"You could have just said something, you know."
"Again, I apologize."
"Nevermind. What else did you find?"
"For one thing, a considerable amount of what appears to be currency of some sort."
It sure did. What kind of currency was another question, though, because--assuming my fluency in the Traders Tongue extended to literacy--it looked to me as though different-sized sky blue and grass green bills shared the same denominations. They'd also found no less than two dozen different types of coins, in shapes ranging from hexagons to triangles to disks of various sizes and what seemed to be a a small range of values--and all featuring different printed, embossed or incised designs on their faces.
They'd also scrounged up a couple varieties of knife--three pigstickers and a couple of what could have passed for Swiss Army knives. They'd also come across what had to be some kind of toolkit, sundry bits cardboard that could have been identification, correspondence or notes--language or languages unknown--a collection of various foodstuffs and an assortment of other things whose functions were less immediately obvious.
And then there was the flat, plastic-feeling card that had a crisply-focused three-dimensional image of Læ embedded in it.
"So it wasn't an accident we ran into those clowns. Bill, those guys were looking for us!"
"So it appears."
. . .
"What choices do we have, Mr. Bill?"
Mantami had returned with a bundle of zardhosi roots only minutes before and was using the butt of his Buck knife to pound them into a sodden mass in Bruno's good frying pan as he spoke.
"As I see it, we have four true alternatives, Mantami: firstly, we can do nothing, in hopes that our fortunes will turn of their own accord; secondly, we can attempt to use what we believe to be our decedent foes' communication devices to summon aid; thirdly, we can send one of our number--most likely you--for assistance, while the rest of us remain behind to tend the wounded; and, fourthly, we can abandon our casualties altogether and strike out as a group, either retracing our steps or onward, toward our nominal interim destination."
"No we can't."
"I also think abandoning our friends would be a mistake, Mr. Bill."
Bill held up his hands in a placating gesture.
"Fellows, please! I fully agree that our fourth alternative is both distasteful and cowardly. Like you, I am opposed to its adoption. Nevertheless, it is, in fact, one option--and I would have been remiss not to enumerate it."
Bill had been acting as our leader since our pre-dawn battle ended. We hadn't discussed it, hadn't taken a vote--it just sort of happened. We needed someone to take charge, he'd stepped into the breach and we'd all simply gone along with it.
All of a sudden, it looked as though he was in serious danger of losing the job.
"Do I take it that we are all agreed, then: abandoning our colleagues is unacceptable?"
"You got that right."
"Then the question becomes, 'Which of the remaining alternatives shall we select?'"
Pith and I just glanced at each other before I raised my hand.
"I vote for the radios."
"I gotta consense."
"Mr. Bill, I agree with Mr. Drew and Mr. Pith."
"That, then, appears to be a mandate--however, I think it is vital that, before committing to any irrevocable step, we first fully comprehend the relative risks of each strategy."
"Okay, Bill. Try this: the radio option could put us right in the center of a big, fat bullseye. Or not. If we do nothing, we either starve or get eaten by rats--assuming old Chrome-dome's little playmates don't show up and blow us to kingdom come, first. We can't sent Mantami back for help, because he's PNG until mid-Winter, and, if we send him on ahead, he might or might not get through in time to do us or our friends any good. Did I leave anything out?"
"Only that Mantami will be at considerable personal hazard, if we dispatch him to summon assistance."
"That, too. So, I still vote for the radio."
Bill looked at Pith and Mantami in turn. They both just nodded.
"Then the radio it is."
(Copyright© 1997, 1998, 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)