Shkinta led me towards the periphery of the event, where a boy I recognized as Reimic waited for her. She began to walk differently as she got closer, and had this funny sort of antsy, posturing body language as she spoke to him in their native tongue.
I don’t do that, do I? If I ever have, it wasn’t intentional. Reimic had a human with him as well, who I did not examine closely until it approached me. Even then, I couldn’t believe my eyes at first. “T…Trevor?” Sure enough. He was no longer as immaculately clean as he was back at the vet’s, having apparently rolled around in some mud since then, but close up there was no mistaking it.
He put his hands on my face and made a series of happy sounding squeals and grunts. Reimic looked on in apparent amusement while Shkinta appeared concerned. I gestured to her that everything was fine, and she returned her attention to Reimic.
I embraced Trevor, then looked him over for injuries. Apparently he’d been well cared for. Though caked with mud, he didn’t look malnourished and had no obvious cuts, bruises or other outwardly apparent injuries.
I began to speak before recalling how inadvisable it would be in the presence of a Nordic other than Shkinta. I glanced at his face, wishing I could understand either of them. Could they be talking about me? Was he paying attention? Might I be ignored if I only whispered?
I didn’t chance it. Shkinta shooed me off into the field, directing me to romp and play but not to stray too far from the game. Trevor followed, and Reimic did nothing to prevent it. Freedom, then? To a degree. I could not imagine, even having gained her trust in recent weeks, that she would leave me wholly unsupervised without some means to track me down should I try to escape.
Increasingly though, I’d begun to wonder why I wanted to escape. The stakes hadn’t changed. I could no more return to the surface and live a contented life now than I could before the failed assault on the black sun.
If anything, I now found myself better positioned to do some damage than I would be if I’d escaped the aftermath of the battle. What could I do by myself with no saucer? How long could I have spent hiding in those tunnels and caverns like terrified vermin?
So long as I kept the staff, my food would not run out. Neither would my water. But I couldn’t fashion with the staff any weapon more complex than I actually understand the inner workings of, which precluded the possibility of amassing my own army of weaponized servitors or something.
Even if I did, would I really stand a better chance of success the second time than we had the first? I now felt as if a frontal assault was doomed all along, however careful our preparations had been. The Nordics may even have known it was coming.
But with the battle behind them, they would be relaxed now. Certainly the lowly pet of a local child would be beyond suspicion. For all their strengths, they are too self-assured, never giving serious consideration the possibility that a human might get the best of them.
The one and only chink in their armor. For the first time since before the assault, hope swelled within me. As I ran through the grass, sometimes giving chase to Trevor and sometimes being chased in return, I took notice of a mangled chunk of metallic wreckage.
I might’ve kept running except that it struck a neuron. I’d seen this exact shape as I was being taken away from my crashed saucer in the payload bed of that utility vehicle. There was nothing else distinctive about this particular piece of land.
Sure, there were patches of burnt grass but I’d seen plenty of those already. This undeniably familiar bit of busted up debris, which the cleanup crews apparently missed, could mean only one thing. Trevor watched in confusion as I snooped around.
There was a noticeable depression. A crater once, but enough time had gone by that it was grown over with that odd maroon colored grass. I traced the rim of this crater until my foot caught on something. I’d expected a bump. Instead, there was a hole.
I spread the grass apart to get a better look. “No, no, no” I whispered to myself. Trevor became agitated, looking this way and that. Perhaps he’d been punished in the past for digging holes? I didn’t want it to be what it was, but soon it became clear to me that the staff was gone.
The hole was not the burrow of some creature native to the Earth’s interior. The sides were perfectly smooth and it tapered towards the bottom, so far as I could make out in the bright sunlight. I felt all the way to the bottom, and indeed it was just deep enough for the staff.
“NO!” I shouted. Trevor recoiled and began backing away. I gestured and spoke softly until he settled down and crept closer, bit by bit, studying my face. I’d begun to tear up. Still rigid and plainly nervous, his pupils darted to the right over and over, though he did not turn his head.
I saw in my peripheral vision that we’d been noticed by a nordic arn out for a walk. I took Trevor by the hand and made a show of scampering through the grass, making long, graceful leaps and laughing as best I could through the tears.
The arn, who’d stopped to watch us, now lost interest and continued on his way. I again embraced Trevor, realizing his experience surviving in this world made him more clever than myself in certain crucial ways that I would do well to learn from. It would be every bit as foolish of me to underestimate him as the Nordics were to underestimate me.
Still, my thoughts were troubled on the way back to the game of Eansul. Did the staff have some sort of tracking mechanism after all, which the Nordics used to recover it? Could that be how they found Tlalo’s hideout?
No, couldn’t be. He’d possessed the staff for too long without being located. Could another human pet have dug up the staff and stashed it someplace, in the way cats often hoard bottlecaps and paperclips? Or crows, for that matter.
When we came upon the game of Eansul, now underway, it was a bizarre sight. Striking too, probably moreso had I understood anything of the rules. The flimsy flying machines zipped back and forth along invisible rows parallel to each other. I counted twenty six in total.
Only, some of them flew faster than the others. So it was that they occasionally came up alongside competitors in an adjacent row. At this point they would kick at each other’s seats and swat them with a long, flexible metallic switch.
Once I’d spectated long enough, to my surprise, all of the flying machines came into alignment. It reminded me of the gyroscopic energy channeling device which exhibited the same effect. Apparent chaos, giving way to momentary flashes of exquisite order.
The moment in which the method to all of this madness is revealed, only for it to be subsumed back into illusory chaos. Try as I might, I could not suss out how the sport was actually played, except that one should try not to be knocked from their seat by their nearest neighbors.
The game now moved into a second phase. Instead of rows, they now flew about in concentric orbits. Not confined to a single plane as before, but every orbit at a different tilt than the rest. The angle of the orbital planes slowly changed as I watched.
Somehow, everybody knew exactly what to do. Now and then the orbits of two players would intersect such that they could swipe and kick at each other. One of them succeeded in knocking another from his flying machine.
I gasped as the boy plummeted a good twenty or so feet to the ground. Nobody helped him, though he looked badly hurt. Instead a few ran up to kick dirt on him, then went back to watching the game as the boy healed his injuries by way of the staff clipped to his forearm.
I wished I could spot either Reimic or Shkinta, they just all look so damned identical that there was no way to tell them apart. Not from this distance, nor at such high speeds. Another was knocked down, this time a girl. I worried it might be Shkinta, but when she finished healing herself and withdrew to the sidelines, I could see that it wasn’t.
Every time a player was knocked out, their flying machine landed itself, and the gap left by their absence was filled by a smooth contraction of the overall sphere. Whoever was in the orbit just outside of theirs pulled into a tighter orbit, as did everybody above them.
Stay Tuned for Part 44!