When the Wind Changed
A loud braying roar like a clarion from hell woke Sard out of deep sleep. The light, the angle of the sun was wrong. How long had he slept? And what was that terrible terrible racket? The kite’s fabric tenting them, rippled with the vibrations of the roaring!
He rolled into a protective crouch over Ahni—oh fuck, she was still trussed, yesterday was not a nightmare! Great animal legs trampled among the bushes he saw through a gap between the ground and the flapping tent.
You delivered us into a game? he thought at the life-suit. He jerked loose the life-suit’s zip and shoved the hood up and out of his way. Couldn’t trust any damn thing the life-suit told him. Bet Youk is doing this in his hide-out. Why pick on me? I didn’t cast him out.
The animal brayed and slobbered its stinking breath over him where a corner of the wing flapped loose. Sard fell back. It’s real? The animal is a real animal? He scrabbled to his feet, semi-crouched under the wing, froze. Couldn’t think.
The Ahni’s voice came. “Srese-brother! It’s-a-camel-animal!”
Will the great thing attack the kite? Trample us? Why is Ahni still talking to me? Words from long ago history lessons sprang into his mind. One-humped, feral over a large area of the continent. He dragged Ahni from where he thought the animal might step next.
“Sard! The-tent. Bird-to-fly-away.” Ahni stared wildly past Sard at the flapping kite.
Her eyes were fever bright, he noted before realising what a flapping billowing tent meant. The wind had got up finally? He ditched his other half-assed plans. This was his chance. They could escape for the best reason in the world, an attack by a wild animal?
He wriggled into the harness and made quick lark-headed loops to what bridles he could reach, two on each side would have to do. He concertina’d the wing loosely behind him.
The slobbering roar overarched them. “Enough!” Sard punched at the infernal gape—his knuckle hit a chain hanging from the camel’s lower jaw! A domestic animal?
A gust of wind took the wing from Sard’s quick containment and billowed it up over his back. The camel skittered back with mad eyes and a different note to its bawling. “Yeah, just back off!” But coming fast, he now saw, was another. A braver animal, he wasted time thinking. Two more roars sounded in the distance. “Ahni! Come on! We’ve got time!”
The canopy filled and lifted Sard onto his toes. The wing was about to take off. How could Ahni get up, trussed as she was? He bent. “Arms around my neck, hurry! We can make it!”
“Sard, leave me. Leave me,” she cried. She wriggled up the hollow’s wall, scrambled to her knees and then her feet. She started to run.
How can she run? The wind swept him into her. To save her being bowled over, he grasped her around the body with his hands and knees. “Quick, turn around! Loop your arms over my head!”
The wind walloped under the wing and they were dragged face first over the saltbush. “Hang on!” Sard kicked hard at the ground. The next gust will get us up.
A pair of fists came out of nowhere and squeezed his arms. Sard’s hold around Ahni weakened. He shouted. “Ahni! Grab the lines!” She screamed a helpless bird cry as she slipped from his arms. His strength was sapped, hers fever-burned.
Somewhere below him and out of sight she cried joyfully. “Kes! Kestrel!”
Kestrel? Who’s that? Sard swung confused as the wind gusted and he rose high and free. Must have misheard. “Ahni, I’ll be back as soon as I can! I’ll find you!” he yelled. What is there for me otherwise?
— — — —
Brassy sky, red gravel, and a dozen tussocks of spinifex grass kaleidoscoped as he bounced over the plain, the wind that gusty. He pushed at the ground when it came at him with now a foot, now a hand, all the time willing that the wing take him properly into the air.
Then the wind dropped altogether. The wing wilted and Sard with it. When he’d fought from among its folds, he was alone with only the ridge of home in the distance, and a singing silence. He’d fallen between two clumps of spinifex, his only luck so far. A raptor hovered overhead.
His victorious escape with Ahni in his arms had ended with her caught by a clay face—though he didn’t recall that the man actually wore a clay mask—and Sard scudding witlessly along the ground. I refuse. My adventure is not finished. He bundled the wing furiously into his pack. He would trail the clay faces to a good ambush point so he’d be able to explode from behind a rock, startle the camel carrying his beloved into skittering so that she could fall into his arms. Shouldn’t be too hard. He’d practiced everyone of these moves in the virtual performances back home.
Sard pulled the life-suit’s hood back over his face as he’d need the suit to spare him the brunt of the sun. Handy too that it would salvage his sweat and so be able to save him from dehydration. Thumbs hooked behind the straps to steady the pack, he took off through the spinifex, angling into the direction where Ahni said the swamp lay. A contested place where both the clay faces and Ahni’s people rested, it made sense as the place to make for. A raptor, same or different he didn’t care, kept station overhead.
The problem was that he had to choose directions, left or right, around every tussock in his way. Hours went by with the life-suit helping him only with that, it telling him the time passing, with him like that bug crawling over a tabletop. The weight of the pack was a joy-killer, though there was nothing in it that he didn’t need, he decided a couple of times.
When he finally stopped for a break, it was due to his legs. Like they were on fire? I have got to sit down have a break have a bite to eat. He punctuated each thought with an action. Shucked off his pack. Sat down. Explored the pack for something good to eat. Drank a long draught from the water bag. Ate some of Greg’s health bars. Mm-mm, can that man cook.
He lay back against his pack, shut his eyes. He might even have slept if the life-suit hadn’t decided otherwise and let him swelter. Damn. What is it with you?
< A dangerous place to stop, in sight of the home ridge. >
I’m nowhere near home! Been walking for hours!
< Nevertheless. >
He was quarrelling with a bit of Youk’s programming? That’d be right. Just like quarrelling with Youk himself. But, never the fucking less I should have a look. See if I can see any familiar landmarks. See how good my map reading is. All that.
He grinned, cheered by his take on his troubles with the damn suit. He hauled himself to his feet and walked to a little rise. Might as well take in the scene from up here. Ha ha ha. Good one, Sard. A rise all of thirty centimetres above the plain?
He looked all about. Practiced the old-time compass points by staring into the north. Nothing he recognised there apart from blue distances fronted by saltbush. Red dirt. East. Mmm, ditto. South? Give me something to recognise. Okay, yeah, in the southeast is that low old mountain. But funny it’s no nearer than it was yesterday? Move along, Sard-man. In the south proper? Not even the a roll of dust brown up by a camel. There remains only the west.
In the west lay the dark shape of the home-ridge, near enough that he could see smoke rising from the moldeckery. A bad taste flooded his mouth. His gut griped and sent reflux. Why?
< I’ve taken over the functions of this suit and you need to ask? So stubborn—such a know it all—so much self-praise. A good dose of fear might wake you to the danger of hanging around too near ridge. >
As before, the life-suit python squeezed him to the ground. < Taking you from the horizon. >
Sard crawled to where he had left the pack. Is this all about Youk, how I bested him? His revenge?I’m supposed to think I’m the fool? That I wasted all my time and energy purposely?