Modified animals with human minds roam the jungles and savannas, each kind generally keeping to their own, but the trailcutter of the mighty water buffalo-like brohoov must explore other options when he learns there’s a traitor in their midst, causing fatal stampedes at every turn…
(reading time: 1 hour, 12 minutes)
Panic in the Mumgrass
“Stampede!” a voice shouted. Hundreds of others joined in calling out the word and took off running. The herd’s countless hooves pounded the mumgrass they were grazing on moments before into a thick choppy pulp. Calves called to their mothers in the confusion, unsure where to run. One of the older beasts tripped and rolled onto its side; a second later it was trampled to death by its distracted kin.
The calls to flee took a moment to reach the back of the herd, since this group of Brohoov was over six hundred strong. When it did, the herd’s leader, Dodarka, growled to himself, Not again! He was forced to join in as the horns of those behind him pushed and shoved forward. It didn’t matter how much authority he carried as TrailCutter, it would take an act of god to stop a stampede before it ran its course. That meant an hour of running until everyone’s legs burned and their breath came in great gasps of mist that shot from their wide nostrils like jets of volcanic gas. It meant everyone would need a little more food to recover their strength. It meant innocent dead, crushed in the storm surge of stupid fear.
Dodarka worked his way to the edge of the thundering mass and examined their surroundings. The mumgrass was not high enough to conceal anything; his herd’s massive appetite had seen to that. The tree line was hundreds of feet away and no fanged beasts seemed to lurk in its shade. The deep, cold, and clear waters of the BoldIce Lakes were far behind them, so no trap sprung by a crocodilian could’ve caused the run. The shadows of the Scavendors gliding above on their massive dark wings were printed on the backs of the fleeing creatures, but not even Brohoov calves were frightened by them. It was unusual to see them here so soon though… Normally the birds with dead breath waited for other predators to finish eating before they descended on the gristly scraps. Dodarka wondered if one of the shadows belonged to the traitorous Rocleed.
“What are we running from?” Dodarka demanded. He knew the question would go unanswered. There was too much confusion for the Bivine to function. The flat rubbery end of another Brohoov’s tail smacked him in the face. The tails were very useful for swimming and swatting away flies, but hazardous in close quarters; they were just one of several features humans added to ancestral Earth’s water buffalo in order to create the Brohoov. His kind also carried bright blue horns that appeared to be full of water, smoother and more water resistant coats, and most importantly, brains that could hold and play with the light like crystal prisms. That light then shone through their eyes brightly, letting any engineered animal see if its fellows were intelligent, or simple like the creatures of yore.
The herd ran for another forty minutes until they came upon a copse of trees with thin branches and broad purple leaves. It was enough of an obstacle to make everyone slow down and start to listen again. Dodarka quickly sent a message across the Bivine: ‘TrailCutter order: slow to a stop’. Since Brohoov mouths and tongues couldn’t handle speech, they relied on their brains to pass messages back and forth. Each member of the herd knew it was their duty to re-think whatever orders they heard from nearby minds in order to spread them to everyone else. This network, the Bivine, was a much better option than trying to ‘shout’ messages to individuals who could be anywhere in the sea of muscled black shoulders and blue horns.
The message sank into the herd, gradually reducing their run to a stroll, to a directionless amble, and back to the milling around they’d all been enjoying before the call. Dodarka looked back at the path they’d just run and spotted two bodies in its wake, victims of the panic and not predators. The only animals that showed up to feast were the Scavendors. Anger tightened the muscles in Dodarka’s neck. His back teeth, each the size of sand dollars, ground against each other. He stamped a hoof and swung his horns in frustration. Some of the others backed away and gave him space to rage.
The rules! Dodarka thought to himself, Someone shatters the rules! Someone disrespects me! There’s a murderer!
Two things were needed for the unhappy trip to the Syama den. One was a pair of fine warriors to fight alongside him should diplomacy fail, and the other was a gift to soften the hearts of Rhizome’s biggest cats.
Dodarka had both with him as they journeyed far from his herd. Boulders surrounded them like the foreheads of buried giants. Anything taller than a Brohoov made them nervous, especially since Syama were fond of pouncing onto their backs from tree branches or ledges and biting into their spines. The gift they brought with them would hopefully prevent that; its sweet scent would drift up over the boulder’s edges and enter the noses of any hiding Syama, placating them.
The other supplies Dodarka brought flanked either side of him until the narrowing of the boulders forced them to march in a line. One warrior, the leader of the convoy, blocked any sight of the other two Brohoov from the front with her truly gigantic shoulders. Her name was Holokeem and she was brovawn: which meant she carried a ‘double-muscling’ mutation that sculpted her body into a lean but massive fighting machine. The way she could topple trees with one swing of her neck made her a perfect candidate for the position of HerdGuard… and her tendency to remain calm under pressure was vital in such chaotic times.
The last member of their party was Champlo, a fat small-horned Brohoov whom Dodarka had recently appointed FriendKeeper. It was the FriendKeeper’s duty to maintain peace between the bright-eyed species and to make sure they all followed the rules set down by their ancestors before the star smokers left Rhizome and the rest of mankind returned to the food web. Despite his experience with the more exotic animals, Champlo was not too keen on walking into the den. His head whipped back and forth quickly, checking for predators as if they were a cloud of flies around his head.
The rocky corridor was quiet except for a group of small birds with bright red beaks and yellow rings around their eyes that pestered Dodarka, landing on his ears, neck, and nose. They were Feklee, derivatives of ancestral Earth’s oxpeckers. The bright-eyed ones assailed him with telepathic questions while the rest just picked parasites from his nostrils and ear hairs.
“We haven’t seen you here in a long time,” one chirped.
“Only stupid cows come here,” another commented.
“Or those who want to die!” a third added before picking a tick out of the gooey corner of Dodarka’s left eye. He blinked and shook his head, causing the birds to flap away for a moment and then re-land on him.
“We come prepared,” he said defensively. He held up the leaf-wrapped bundle gripped in his tail, which contained many shoots of a yellow dusty plant.
“Stumble nip!” A Feklee declared. Dodarka could not remember which one it was.
“Oh the cats will love that. The only time they let us pick at them is when they’ve had some,” another said.
“Yes, they’re so boring! Always grooming themselves… we have nothing to do!” the third Feklee complained.
“Makes our eyes go dull,” the second chimed in again.
“Like the gray mold,” the first one compared.
“Gray mold?” Holokeem asked. A few of the birds flew over to her head.
“Yes,” The Feklee said in unison.
“Gray blobs! When they coat our eggs our chicks hatch with dull eyes. We can’t share wisdom with them. So now we watch the eggs all the time.”
“All the time,” they chimed together.
“Uh oh,” one Feklee said. “Getting close. Bye bye stupid cows. Thank you for the food.” With that the Feklee fled into the tree tops. Dodarka noticed that very little sunlight broke through here and the shadows seemed to grow lithe. The feeling of being surrounded was on them in seconds. They were being watched, but the Syama would not show themselves until the Brohoov actually entered the den.
When the corridor finally opened up into a circle of stone ledges, thirty pairs of eyes, like flickering candle flames, appeared from the shadows. A few pairs were more like stars, staring down from the canopy as if perched on the shattered edge of a celestial sphere.
“You’ve caught me in the middle of a shower,” one pair of eyes said. It was seated on a central pillar and wrapped in muscles and fur. The fur was a creamy white color interrupted by black patches around the feet and face, like the creature had been sniffing through a pile of coal dust. The pattern was a gift from the humans, a sentimental reminder of the domesticated Siamese cat. The creature lifted one of its front paws and licked at its armpit passionately. The sight put a thick musky taste in Dodarka’s mouth. He’d found the PrideKing.
The PrideKing rolled onto his back and pressed his ears flat against the cool stone. His head lolled to the side and his eyes rested on the bundle held in Dodarka’s tail. “What is that?” he asked coyly.
“A gift for you PrideKing Zuglon,” Dodarka declared. “I hoped it would let us calmly discuss your pride’s heinous crimes. I’m now realizing I should have brought something to calm myself. Seeing you here, preening yourself like death’s crow, fills me with rage. I’m tempted to skip the trial and gore you now.” He bellowed and stamped his hooves, causing some of the smaller Syama to rise from their napping positions, hiss, and begin to prowl around the three steaks that had invaded their home.
“Tactful,” Champlo nervously commented. He wouldn’t back down from a fight but, all the same, he wanted to leave without paying a blood toll.
“Tact is for star smokers,” Dodarka growled before bucking and making the ground shake. Yellow dust clouds erupted from the stumble nip when Dodarka whipped his tail. Zuglon sniffed at the dust and rolled his eyes up to his ears. His whiskers twitched as he yawned and stretched, while remaining firmly off his feet.
“What crimes would those be?” he asked nonchalantly. “Has our little Nawgy been nibbling on the bones in your sacred graveyard again?” Zuglon eyed a young female Syama accusingly.
“I swear I haven’t my king,” the female said nervously with a slumped head.
“Oh don’t sulk Nawgy. You’re too pretty for that. I know it wasn’t you.” Nawgy’s head lifted as Zuglon reassured her. “Isn’t she adorable?” he purred to Dodarka. “She’ll be joining my harem next year. Just needs to ripen a little more.”
“Zuglon!” Dodarka roared.
“Oh yes, my unthinkable, unspeakable, unforgivable crimes… which are?” The cat asked, seeming genuinely curious.
“Some of your hunters have been scaring my herd. They’ve started stampedes and left innocent dead. They didn’t even have the decency to eat the bodies.”
“My hunters hunt Dodo… I don’t know why you expect them to stop. Remember the rules? Your human ancestors decided they wanted to be cows; who knows why. I guess they liked the peaceful life: endless hours ruminating and dropping great wet piles of dung to mark that endless occasion.” Most of the Syama snickered. One young male with two black spots on his neck merely stared at Dodarka with hungry eyes. “My ancestors,” Zuglon continued, “preferred a life with some thrill. The thrill of the hunt! And it is our hunting that prevents you waddling stomachs from reproducing until you graze our jungle into a desert. So where is the crime? Should we be saying ‘pardon me’ before biting your sweet throats?”
“I told you,” Dodarka seethed, “There’s no throat biting. Just false alarms. Bad jokes that kill my kin and waste their flesh, which is an insult I won’t be willing to bear much longer!” He was seconds from charging. Champlo desperately wished the stumble nip would calm and disorient him the way it did the Syama.
Holokeem, on the other hand, held no opinion either way. If she was ordered to fight, she would fight. She was confident that whichever human that chose this path those thousands of generations ago, chose to have a machine siphon them out of their ape body and into an engineered Brohoov form, knew what they were doing. People and Brohoov had fought for her chance to live this simple natural life and she would not begrudge its sunlit ups or its bloody downs. At least she wasn’t a star smoker, desperately hopping from star to star in a tin tube, fighting to stay alive in a small selfish world of machines, laws, and paperwork.
“We all understand that you must hunt,” Dodarka conceded. “The ticks must drain, the Zebreeze must run, and the Nilogut must wait in ambush in watering holes. But… it is against the ancient rules for you to kill for no reason. Why are you doing this? Does it amuse? Are the hairballs no longer enough of a surprise?”
“Hmm… come to think of it, I haven’t had a hairball in months,” Zuglon mused. Dodarka gave a war cry. Cracking the boulder Zuglon rested on would not be impossible for an enraged Brohoov. “Why don’t we hold off on bashing our skulls against the rocks,” Zuglon suggested in his closest tone to placation. “Especially since Roonpell just redecorated for me.” Another female Syama rubbed her head on Zuglon’s chin and purred. “Your anger is warranted Dodo… but it’s not my kin. No one goes out without an order from me, and no one in this pride ever goes alone. You’re mooing up the wrong tree.”
At first Dodarka did not want to accept the answer. He grunted and lowered his head as if to charge. The tips of his bright blue horns slid across the edge of Zuglon’s pedestal with an unpleasant sound and left deep scratches.
“Dodarka,” Champlo said, interrupting the tantrum. “We’ve entered his home and falsely accused. The gift. You would expect nothing less from him.”
“I suppose,” Dodarka replied. He flipped his tail and tossed the bundle to Zuglon. It smacked the PrideKing in the face and left a splash of yellow dust across his nose. The big cat did not seem to mind; he immediately chuckled and batted at the bundle like it was a three-quarters-dead weasel.
“Thank you,” he said sincerely and licked some dust from his nose. A few of his females stuck their faces into the bundle while their king’s paws were off of it and came back out with calm looks in their eyes. One of them stumbled off the pedestal and rolled in the grass like a kitten. Dodarka, Holokeem, and Champlo turned to leave. They were about to reenter the narrow corridor when Zuglon called after them. “Wait!” he shouted. Whatever he had to say, it still wasn’t important enough for him to get to his feet. The three Brohoov returned to their positions beneath the pedestal. “Have you any other leads on this… murderer?” the PrideKing asked.
“No,” Dodarka admitted.
“I don’t know why you always assume we have to be hostile to each other,” Zuglon said. “I consider you a dear friend Dodo. What’s good for you is good for us. I must confess that things have been going oddly for us as well.”
“How so?” Holokeem asked. If something was disturbing the natural order of things, if it wasn’t just some prankster youth or mad predator… that concerned her greatly.
“We’ve been having trouble keeping eyes bright in my pride. It seems two of every five kittens these days is nothing but beast. They follow orders just fine, their mothers love them all the same, but there’s nothing of our ancestors in them.”
“It’s not unusual for some to be born with dull eyes,” Champlo said with slight offense. “My firstborn is natural-minded.”
“Not this many,” Zuglon snapped. “And some of my kin have lost their brightness. One day they will pontificate on the nature of existence over a nice disemboweled Zebreeze and the next they’re mute and incapable of conversation or basic arithmetic. It concerns me.”
“On the way here some Feklee mentioned there’s a gray slime covering their eggs and making the hatchlings dull,” Dodarka shared.
“Most troubling,” Zuglon said. Silence filled the clearing as the big cat stared off into the canopy for a moment. “Perhaps a trade is responsible for the stampedes Dodo.”
“What do you mean ‘a trade’?” Dodarka asked. Having the eyes of so many predators on him was fatiguing. The one small male with the two black spots licked his lips.
“You do not know of trades?” the PrideKing asked. “I suppose you wouldn’t. You cows are most often satisfied with your comfortable and repetitive lives.”
“Do you have a point?” Dodarka asked. “Because I have two.” The TrailCutter cut two streaks in the loamy Earth with his horns, easily breaking some roots with a pop sound.
“A Trade is a tool left to us by the humans, much like the magnets in your stomachs,” Zuglon explained. “Except this one is built into our heads. Though most animals are satisfied with the species their ancestors picked for them, some take issue with their body. On occasion a bird may decide it was meant to be a turtle. A snake might be convinced he’ll be more comfortable as an eagle or a variety of antelope.”
“That’s just a phase,” Champlo said. “The ancestors knew best. Every adolescent grows out of their desires to fly, or burrow, or…”
“Kill,” Zuglon finished. All three cows looked greatly taken aback. “Oh yes,” he went on. “Some herbivores can never get rid of the idea that drawing blood, drinking it, would give them immense pleasure. So sometimes they trade. They only need find a willing partner who is likewise unsatisfied. Then they stare into each other’s eyes like lovers and… trade.”
“Impossible,” Holokeem whispered.
“And just maybe,” Zuglon said, ignoring the whisper, “a predator has traded his way into your herd. Maybe he is enjoying his new peaceful lifestyle but just can’t get rid of his killer’s instinct. He can’t drink the blood anymore… but he can watch the fear and the chaos. Get drunk from it.”
Dodarka was about to say goodbye when a pair of fangs suddenly sank into his shoulder. The pain was minor thanks to his thick leathery hide. Before he even turned to see the wound, Holokeem had charged and flipped the offending cat high into the air with her horns. The small Syama tumbled and twisted in the air like a fish before landing on its feet. It was the small male that had eyed them hungrily the whole time. It seemed out of breath and its hair was raised. Though its eyes were alive with moisture and fear, Dodarka now noticed they were dull. The small trails of blood on his shoulder were already darkening. The muscles underneath it twitched and shrugged off the last of the pain.
“My apologies,” Zuglon mewed. “These dull-eyed ones don’t understand diplomacy. He will be banished.” The now-banished male hissed and spat at the cows. Two weeks ago he had been a poet, entertaining his kin with thousands of memorized verses. Beauty was foreign to him now, like a seedling trying to comprehend the gravity that kept it from growing into the sun.
Once out of the shadowy trees, the three Brohoov noticed the sun had dropped low and seemed to be bobbing on the horizon line like a floating nut. Complete darkness would be on them in a few minutes. The sky of Rhizome was not like the sky of ancestral Earth; there was no pollution. Without the smog of cars and factories and without the endless bleeding lights of streetlamps and high beams, the stars burned in the night sky with remarkable intensity. They were the follicles of the gods, erupting with light and heat: the waste products of infinity. As the sun sank and the stars appeared, Champlo used their patterns to guide the party back to the herd.
The day’s grazing would be finished and the herd would be settling down in a familiar clearing. They often slept there, in the shadow of a human ruin. Champlo turned them slightly and took them through grass so tall that they appeared to swim through it and hold their head above the gentle ‘tide’ the breeze instilled in it.
They now followed the beak of the constellation Mynapayt: the great crane. Following the feathers on its left wing would take them to the mountains. The right, to the floodplains. When Champlo was learning the stars in his youth, the great crane used to have feet. Now the two stars that made up that part of the bird had gone dark. The star smokers had crippled the great crane. Champlo looked up again and saw the crane’s eye suddenly turn blood red. The sight filled him with fear and sadness, so much so that he stopped walking. He considered letting himself drown in the swaying grass.
When Holokeem looked back and noticed he had stopped, she called out for Dodarka to do the same. Dodarka turned and then followed Champlo’s gaze into the heavens. He saw they were again being plundered.
“Why?” Champlo asked, on the verge of tears. All bright-eyed animals understood the importance of the stars. They were as vital as the trees and the wind. “Why do they eat our sky?”
“Because they’re monsters,” Holokeem said flatly.
“I don’t know why they didn’t stay on Rhizome,” Dodarka thought out loud. “Too proud I guess. Too proud to admit they would destroy everything if they kept going. And now they’re eating our stars in search of fulfillment.”
“It’s the hands,” Champlo said with a voice that quivered like a stick bug holding onto a twig during a cyclone. “Too proud to give up their hands like we did. The hands that gave us the irresistible power to destroy.”
“Rhizome is as it should be,” Holokeem said. “We’re above the grass and under the Syama. No room for pride.”
“Speaking of no pride,” Dodarka said as a dark shape flew overhead. The sun was so close to gone now that the shape was all but invisible, and its glide, all but silent. Dodarka only noticed because of a powerful anger that boiled in his stomach any time a Scavendor was around. And only one Scavendor would seek him out specifically, at least until he died and rotted for a while.
“What do you want Rocleed?” he asked coldly. Holokeem and Champlo looked about in confusion until they managed to barely make out the black bird’s shape. The gentlest whoosh sound indicated the Scavendor was circling.
“I’ve heard about the stampedes,” Rocleed said softly. To Champlo, who had never met the bird, its voice sounded very old and worn: the kind of voice a being might have after fighting a losing war for a decade and who saw the points of his enemy’s weapons even when they weren’t there.
“No doubt you’ve eaten from its victims,” Dodarka accused.
“I have,” the swooping shape said without shame. “I have information that might help you.”
“We don’t need your help,” Dodarka said and gestured with his horns to make his fellows start marching again. Rocleed followed quietly for a few minutes, letting Dodarka’s temper subside.
“The information is a gift from the spirits. It was given to me by… Pompiya,” Rocleed said. The name sent Dodarka into a rage. He stuck his horns into the ground and pulled up mightily, tossing grass and huge clumps of loam into the air. Rocleed turned on his side in the air to avoid them.
“Given to you!?” the TrailCutter howled. “Given!? Stolen you mean! Stolen from her skull or her chest by your clacking, rasping, screeching lock pick! She would never give anything to you!” Rocleed made the mistake of soaring a little too close and thinking his silent feathers would protect him. Dodarka never lost track of the bird. Despite the blackness, Rocleed’s wings burned in his vision like a wildfire. He swatted at the bird with his tail and sent Rocleed tumbling and squawking into the grass. The bird picked himself up out of the dirt, flapped the leaves and twigs out of his wings, and took off. Dodarka watched to make sure the Scavendor did not circle back.
“What did he mean?” Champlo quietly asked Holokeem. “How could he have information from Pompiya? She’s been dead for months.”
“And Dodarka visits her bones every day,” Holokeem responded. “She had four calves by our TrailCutter.”
“But she was killed by a Syama,” Champlo said. “Why is he angry with that Scavendor?”
“They used to be friends,” Holokeem said. She was growing weary of whispering. To such a powerful beast, it made her feel like she tiptoed pointlessly around something that couldn’t harm her. “They shared wisdom and talked about spirits. The Scavendor have great knowledge of death and the moments leading up to it. And some say… the moments after.” She looked over at Dodarka, who was still far enough to not hear, watching the direction Rocleed had flown off in. “But when Pompiya was killed… Rocleed fed on her flesh. It is in their nature to do this but Dodarka saw it as betrayal. As if Rocleed had killed her. Now they do not speak.”
“I wouldn’t forgive that either,” Champlo said and looked upon his TrailCutter with a new understanding of his anger. “Dodarka,” he called out to the somber Brohoov. “We’d better get back before the star smokers have the rest of our map for dessert.” Dodarka turned and rejoined his companions. The herd would help him forget Rocleed. Nothing cleared the mind like the bivine, which shared the laughter and warm thoughts of his entire herd with him. Which dissipated his fears and shattered the icy brittle parts of him that held back the passion for life.
The party crossed a ridge and spotted the ruin just in time to catch the beginning of the panic. At first only a few Brohoov were on their feet, but they rose from their slumber in exponential numbers. The last of the sun’s light vanished, sending phantoms of panic hurtling through the herd like meteors. As the cows lacked the Syama’s natural night vision, their world became one of sound. Cries and moans crashed into each other. The sound of stamping defined and shook the ground. Dodarka could hear the minds of his herd. He picked up only the loudest echo of the bivine at this distance. Stampede.
“Not twice in one day!” he shouted. Denial couldn’t stop his herd though. They were no longer milling about. He heard them start to run; he could practically hear the sound of their rationality being tossed away like the cookware from a sinking ship; only this time they were doing it blind. They ran through an indifferent darkness, home only to Syama and some creatures so terrifying that a nightmare of them might kill you in your sleep.
Dodarka followed the sounds. They were running… left? Yes… No! Less than two miles to the left of the ruin was a great stony drop, the western border of their grazing territory. If they kept on that path, and with terror holding the reins, his entire herd, his family, would careen to their deaths. This could not happen. Not while Dodarka was TrailCutter. And he still had two loyal warriors who weren’t gripped by the mob mentality.
“Holokeem, I need you to run ahead of the stampede. Find the cliff’s edge and try to fill the bivine with warnings.” Without a word, Holokeem took off. The muscles in her legs were so powerful that they kicked up entire plants and their roots. Every stomp was a furious thunder clap. The thought that the stampede would just carry her with it off the edge occurred to her, but was so inconsequential as to join the upturned dirt and shrubs in her path.
“Champlo, run alongside and do the same.” Dodarka ordered. His other companion nodded and rushed to flank his kin. Dodarka had a different plan. With no light to guide them, his people would latch onto anything as a sign of safety. All he needed was a little light. A little star power to reveal the path, to return the brightness to their eyes.
He called up his clearest memories of the area. The human ruin was nothing more than a few pillars, piles of rubble, and rusted metal plates. Any machines there had lost their light a millennium ago. The plain was largely empty of anything but Mumgrass. There were a few bushes with poisonous berries… A few ground-creeping vines often plagued by bracket fungus… some blue mushroom rings that occasionally migrated around… and the hive!
In their cleverness, the ancestral humans did not want the engineered animals they would put themselves in to have to deal with some of the minor irritations of ancestral Earth. Like bee stings. So now the bees harvested pollen at night so the day grazers did not have to worry about their venom. One of the ways the new bees, now called Ledzer, were adapted to embrace the moon was a liberal addition of lightning bug DNA. The Ledzer now glowed a mesmerizing blue and turned the fields into a sparkling, but still poorly lit, scene. And the Ledzer couldn’t help but spread this luminescence to their honey, which looked like something their moon might sneeze down to Rhizome in great globs. Rhizome provides, Dodarka thought.
He galloped away, relying on his memory to point out the hive in the blackness. The sound of the stampede grew louder and Dodarka felt the ground shaking. If he wasn’t careful, the stampede might envelope him as well. There was no certainty that being caught in the telepathic screams of the group wouldn’t overwhelm his own mind and force him to join in the chaos.
The darkness proved more disorienting than he’d hoped. One minute the herd seemed to be beside him, and the next they were just a few inches behind him. The bivine wailed from both sides. I can’t get swallowed up, Dodarka thought. He had to isolate the din, keep it at horn’s length. He broke away from the loudest cries and collided with a Brohoov in the process. He stepped on the unfortunate animal and kept going. He had to get out of the mass, at all costs. A few more cows needed to be shoved out of his way, but he managed to put some distance between him and the invisible clamoring cloud of hoof beats. Dodarka pulled ahead of them and scanned the blackness. There were only individual Ledzer floating along… There had to be a…
Dodarka spotted a cloud of excited Ledzer funneling in and out of something. It had to be one of their hives, suspended in the body of a bush. The TrailCutter forced more power into his legs. He swallowed great burning breaths and tried to picture the gusts of air hitting his heart and pumping to his blazing muscles. Somehow, he picked up speed.
He was a Brohoov, not a human. There were no hands to collect the honey or spread it on a tool. There was no machine to protect or guide him. The funnel of lights drew closer. He could see each individual Ledzer now, spiraling out of the hive to peacefully collect pollen. They were not bright-eyed creatures, so he would never be able to apologize for destroying their home. Dodarka was not human. That was the sacrifice they made. He had only his body. Only his horns. Only his lungs. Only his momentum. His will. All the tools he could ever need.
Hishuch! The papery shell of the hive was skewered on Dodarka’s right horn. He did not slow down. Bright blue honey dripped down over his brow and into his eye. A hundred Ledzer landed on his neck and face and stung mercilessly. The pain could not have mattered less. The venom was washed down the drains in his veins by pure adrenaline, pure concern. He shook his head violently, ripping the hive open like a scroll and sending the bulk of it to the ground. Much of the Ledzer colony then abandoned Dodarka’s head to investigate their destroyed home. They were trampled to a pulp by the stampede. Some of the Brohoov now trailed bright blue hoof prints: the graves of the Ledzer.
The TrailCutter’s head shakes had covered his forehead and both his horns with the honey. Everything around his eyes was now a beacon, the only buoy in a sea of darkness. The Brohoov at the front of the stampede saw it. They watched, transfixed. Whose horns held such angelic light? What cow could run that fast?
Dodarka’s attention was drawn by a lone voice separate from the bivine. He could hear Holokeem calling out, urging everyone to slow. They were running out of room. Dodarka was struck with the sudden realization that he might be fifty feet from the cliff’s edge or ten. He lifted his horns and bellowed into the dark sky. It was a sound both defiant and commanding, a sound that could pull the star smokers back to Rhizome and then shame them underground.
“You must all follow me!” He ordered the bivine. Even in the panic, none of them could avoid obedience. Dodarka veered away from Holokeem’s voice and kept barking orders. The mass of minds complied and turned towards the pair of blue horns. They followed the horns as they pulled the herd in a great circle, a circle that grew tighter and tighter until all the space to run was gone. The group coiled itself into peace like a millipede falling into a dream.
Many of them failed to realize they’d been so close to a lethal fall until they awoke the next morning amidst the arrow-flying, bow-snapping sounds of accusations.
In the early hours of Rhizome’s wet savannah, the Brohoov herd had built a circular chamber with their bodies. Two lines of cows walked in opposite directions around it, walling the bubble off like some cellular organelle, an organelle eager to expel its toxic waste.
In that courtroom bubble, Dodarka stood as judge. Holokeem and Champlo were his bailiffs. The accuser was an older female with graying frizzy hair on her shoulders named Artemilk. She’d raised the calves of others, on account of her own infertility, for generations. She loved them all dearly but the moment they entered adolescence they became troublemakers she needed to keep an eye on. Every day she floated little ideas, pearls of punishment, across the bivine. Some youngsters were playing too rough. Some youngsters were flinging dung with their tails. Being too loud. Being disrespectful. She called for the same punishment every time.
“Banishment!” Artemilk bayed. “Lonely miserable banishment TrailCutter! The little rat deserves it!”
“No!” The little rat cried out in his own defense. He was a small thin-shouldered Brohoov who didn’t even have full horns yet. What horns he had were new and uncracked, like spring twigs. His large nose sparkled with moisture and dripped with fear. “I didn’t do it. I mean… I just did it when everyone else did it. I didn’t send the alarm!”
“Double banishment for lying about it,” Artemilk amended. She turned to Dodarka to hear his judgment, since she had clearly just given the lad a fair trial.
“What is your name?” Dodarka asked the accused.
“Somsom,” the boy responded quietly.
“And why did you start the stampede Somsom?” There was no emotion in Dodarka’s voice. For the moment, whatever he thought was hidden behind his deep dark pupils.
“I didn’t,” Somsom insisted. “Maybe… maybe I was one of the first ones to pick up the alarm but I didn’t start it. I heard ‘stampede’ in the bivine so I did my duty. I repeated it. Then I ran…”
“That’s a dung-covered, fly-bitten lie,” Artemilk countered. “Everyone was snoring away. I was up because my front left ankle was acting up again. I was shaking it out a little when I saw little Somsom’s head here pop up out of the dirt. He looked around, obviously checking to see if anyone was watching him, and then he did it. He poured that ‘stampede’ nonsense into the bivine.”
“If he was looking for witnesses, why did he not see you Artemilk?” Champlo asked.
“You males never see females,” she responded bitterly. “Especially us old ones. And because I’m barren I’m practically invisible. No male ever sees me even though I’ve raised their calves. Even though I’ve contributed lots of wisdom to the bivine.”
“Sour grapes,” Holokeem whispered to Dodarka. The TrailCutter hushed Artemilk and then slowly circled Somsom, whose legs shook violently like he was trying to stay upright during an earthquake. A group of Feklee dropped in, but knew to stay off those involved in the trial; it was difficult to conduct business while beaks plucked parasites out of your nostrils and off your lips.
“Wonderful,” Artemilk said as she watched the birds groom the cows making up the courtroom’s perimeter. “I’m missing my morning cleaning because of this troublemaker.” Dodarka circled Somsom a few more times. The young male lowered his head in supplication and whispered prayers of mercy.
“Who are you praying to?” Dodarka asked plainly. “What spirits will hear you? Perhaps the ghosts of the six Brohoov killed in last night’s stampede? Perhaps your prayers will fill the holes they leave in the bivine?”
“I didn’t do it,” Somsom mewled. His leg shaking grew worse.
“Then why is Artemilk accusing you?” the TrailCutter asked.
“I don’t know,” he cried. “She’s confused. Maybe she did it! Maybe she’s framing me!”
“The nerve!” Artemilk declared, suddenly holding her nose very high, as if she never wanted to smell any foul thing upon the ground ever again. “Triple banishment!”
“Really Artemilk,” Champlo said out of irritation, “What does that even mean?”
“It means he has to go three times further now,” the old Brohoov snapped. Champlo rolled his eyes. Dodarka finally stopped circling and stared into Somsom’s eyes intensely for a few silent moments. He tried to see into the boy’s mind, but his shaking made it very difficult. Still he stared. He searched for a spark, a bolt of thought, a drip of foreign soul, anything that might leak through Somsom’s disguise. Could a predator fake fear so well?
“What are you really?” Dodarka asked Somsom. Everything grew quieter. The Feklee stopped cleaning and chattering. They hopped over to the heads and shoulders of the tallest Brohoov to watch the exchange. Even Artemilk couldn’t think of anything to say. The cows in the perimeter maintained the circle, but were no longer marching. What was their TrailCutter saying? The bivine went flat. The loudest sound was the telepathic whimpering of Somsom.
“What?” he asked out of confusion. A rope of snot leaked from his nose and his shaking sent droplets of it everywhere.
“I know about the trade,” Dodarka bluffed. “Where is the real Somsom? What species are you truly?”
“I don’t understand TrailCutter,” Somsom said. “I am Brohoov. What else would I be?” Little questions popped back and forth in the bivine now. Had their TrailCutter gone mad?
“Don’t lie to me,” Dodarka said, the first tugs of anger pulling at his neck muscles.
“I’m not lying,” Somsom sniveled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I heard ‘stampede’. I hear it all the time… but I usually ignore it because I know there’s nothing there. But it was so loud last night! I had to shout it! I had to run!”
“What do you mean ‘you hear it all the time’?” Dodarka asked. He took a moment to listen to the bivine and heard only fluttering questions. There were no calls to run.
“Lots of Brohoov shout it and never get caught,” Somsom whined. If his legs shook any harder he would fall over. “I hear them shout it every day. At night. While we’re grazing. While we’re drinking! Cows playing tricks on me! Making me think there’s a Nilogut in every puddle! Why don’t they stop? Why don’t you stop them TrailCutter?”
Dodarka took a few steps back. He looked to Holokeem and Champlo for ideas, but they were as confused as he was. Perhaps something had gone wrong with the trade? Maybe whatever animal now lived in Somsom’s body had broken a few pieces of its new cow brain while trying to squeeze itself inside: the side effects of wearing a disguise that didn’t fit.
Things went quiet again. A breeze passed through and its delicate touch on Dodarka’s skin calmed him. He saw the Mumgrass, with its clover-like blades, dance around the hooves of his kin, with the exception of a few plants stuck together by Somsom’s nervous nose drippings. All of a sudden he felt cruel, like he had just gored the boy nearly to death. He pictured the disappointed stare of his deceased mate. She would not think much of him now, berating a child for information. If there was a liar somewhere feeding poison into the bivine, this was not the way to stop them. Seeing him torture Somsom might even be pleasurable for whatever fiend had traded into his ranks, like watching a stage drama. Maybe it was all it could do to avoid laughing raucously into the bivine.
“Calm down young one,” Dodarka soothed. “You will not be judged unfairly. Steady your feet. Lift your head.” Somsom did as he was told and swallowed a great deal of the phlegm in his throat.
“You’re not banishing me?” he asked hopefully.
“Not without evidence,” Dodarka said.
“Attacks on the bivine don’t leave evidence,” Artemilk complained. “I can’t believe you’re letting him go! Not even half banishment?”
“That’s enough out of you Artemilk,” Dodarka said sternly. The elderly cow quieted some but could still be heard muttering complaints as she stormed off.
“Holokeem, have someone watch the boy carefully and keep him near the edge of the herd,” the TrailCutter ordered. Holokeem nodded and escorted the boy out of the now-dissolving courtroom. Dodarka started off as well.
“Where are you going?” Champlo asked.
“To the Edge of Life,” he replied over his shoulder. Champlo did not follow. A visit like that was a solitary task; communing with the dead always was.
The Edge of Life existed as a tiny pocket of forest on the furthest fringes of the herd’s grazing territory. The trees around it had gray smooth bark, like the finish on fresh human gravestones. Their leaves were a deep blue that dyed the sunlight passing through them an eerie color, giving the Edge of Life a serene look, but one that also seemed easy to disturb, like the sand at the bottom of a pond. It was the appropriate place for Pompiya to rest.
And rest her remains did, along with almost every Brohoov from the herd that had died in the last twenty generations. His father and mother were here, their bones mixed together so that even death couldn’t keep them apart. The previous TrailCutter, a male named Goddo, had been brought here by Dodarka himself.
Brohoov valued the bones of their family and ancestors more than any other objects. They valued them more than the Mumgrass that nourished them. Brohoov always returned to the scenes of death, after allowing the human-enhanced cycle of nature to reclaim the skin, muscle, and organs; then they picked up the bones with their tails and took them to the Edge of Life before placing them delicately in the pile. Bones would be retrieved from even the most dangerous places: submerged Nilogut dens, unstable caves, the shores of QuickMud ponds… If the remains were identifiable, the skull would be placed in a circle with those of its closest kin. These circles decorated the ground, acting as satellites for the main bone pile, which was now stacked so high that it resembled a jagged snow-covered peak.
Dodarka entered the Edge with soft steps. With a grace that defied reason, he made his way towards the bone pile without snapping a single white relic underfoot. All 4,000 pounds of the TrailCutter moved silently. His eyes moved along the bones, trying to recall each face the skulls used to wear. For almost every set of remains, there was a cow magnet mixed in as well.
About the size of an ancestral human’s hand, the magnets were silvery capsules that, upon maturity, became part of all Brohoov. They were gifts from their human forerunners to keep them safe. The humans that used to live on Rhizome, so like the nicotine addicts that puffed away at small fires, could not help themselves from polluting the planet’s surface. Shreds of plastic, chunks of packing foam, and shards of metal would always litter the ground no matter how much the growing grass tried to obscure them. The metal was the worst hazard for a Brohoov; it was easy to absent-mindedly swallow a rusty nail while grazing. Death was common among ancestral Earth’s cows that did the same thing. Maybe they got tetanus or maybe the metal ripped holes in their digestive tracts. Either way, it was slow and miserable.
So the humans left behind huge piles of magnets for the bright-eyed Brohoov to swallow. These magnets remained in their stomach’s largest chamber and collected any dangerous bits of metal they might swallow. Dodarka tried not to think about the magnets often; it disturbed him to picture the small scrap heap that always sat inside him. He imagined that star smoker ships probably looked something like them as they fire-belched their way from planet to planet and star to star. He stepped over a magnet with thirty soda can tabs attached and stopped at the edge of the bone pile.
There she was. Horns still brilliantly blue, the skull of Dodarka’s mate Pompiya stared back at him from a low tier of the pile. He tried not to let the skull reflect his own emotions, tried not to see disappointment in those empty eyes. That was the key to making the Edge of Life work: you had to forget about yourself. You had to forget you were alive.
Brohoov for generations had claimed the ability to glean information from the ghosts in the bones. Whether the ancestral humans had actually left some mechanism for this, some kind of thread of the bivine running under a bone’s surface like water under tree bark, no one knew. It was probably just the result of Brohoov hopes. Any wisdom found was probably just the result of a calm reflective moment in the presence of death. Probably.
Regardless, Dodarka was sure he could speak with her; if she would allow it. He took a deep breath and gently placed his forehead against hers. The horns touched and vibrated softly, like tuning forks whispering to each other. Dodarka hummed the song of the dead, both in the bivine and in his physical throat. The resulting sounds were of an incredibly low frequency that passed through all the bones, wave by wave, and awakened the souls inside, if there were any. The melancholy tune faded away after a few slow verses. The bell had been rung. Now he waited for any sign of his lost love. He kept his eyes closed and his forehead joined to hers.
A light wind whistled through the holes in her skull. She speaks, Dodarka thought. Touch me with your voice sweet Pompiya. Let your bright eyes shine through the black waters of death. He waited for a response. For some reason he felt like weeping. She seemed further than usual. All of those resting around him seemed… sleepier than before. The TrailCutter could not bear the idea that perhaps the spirits were leaving Rhizome, or the idea that he’d lost some of the brightness in his own eyes and was slowly losing the ability to sense them. The wind whistled again.
Yes my mate? Dodarka urged. He pressed his head to hers a little more. Another gust of wind. This one was different. It had the thup sound of feathers in it. The TrailCutter knew who it was without taking his eyes from Pompiya’s.
“She is trying to tell you something,” Rocleed said, ‘but not through that skull.” The Scavendor sounded older than usual. Wrinkled globs of yellow goo sat in the corners of his eyes. His neck drooped, as did the warty yellow and orange skin hanging from it. His great black wings folded to his side as he perched on the mound. Scavendors were heavy birds but the bones did not even shift under his weight.
“There is no greater insult to my ancestors than you squatting on top of them,” Dodarka seethed, eyes still closed. He would have roared and flailed at the bird if they were anywhere else, but the bones deserved more respect than that. They earned their peace.
“Fine,” Rocleed said and flapped his way over to a low hanging tree branch. “Will you listen to me now?”
“No,” the TrailCutter said, although he did lift his head and open his eyes to look at his former friend.
“Please,” the bird said. “What I have to tell you is bigger than your hatred.”
“Nothing is bigger than my hatred,” Dodarka growled.
“Maybe that’s why Pompiya is not speaking to you,” Rocleed said sharply.
“What do you want?” Dodarka asked, somewhat disarmed by the truth.
“Just to talk. I’ve been trying to talk to you for almost a season.”
“And you look ragged for it,” Dodarka commented on the bird’s shabby appearance.
“All the Scavendors are suffering,” Rocleed said. “Death has soured this season.”
“I thought you liked your meat with some white fuzz on it,” Dodarka quipped.
“I do,” Rocleed said plainly. “I don’t mean the meat. I mean death itself. I’ve told you before that we Scavendors are closer to death than any of the other engineered animals. I’ve heard a thousand dying wishes. I’ve agreed to tell friends and family dark secrets as I picked at the bloody edges of the confessor’s mortal wounds. It is a dark existence, like staring into water and seeing only sinking objects and no reflection. But it is my existence.”
“What is your point Rocleed?” Dodarka asked.
“My point is that Pompiya gave me information in her passing.”
“She would never!” Dodarka frothed. Restraining his anger now was putting him in danger of popping a blood vessel. “Why would she tell you anything while you drank the last of her blood?” He stamped softly, a rather impotent gesture. He quickly checked to either side to see if he’d accidentally broken a bone and gotten himself cursed.
“She did not tell me anything,” Rocleed admitted. The bird stood silent for a moment, as if checking to make sure the branch was entirely out of Dodarka’s reach. “The information came to me through her flesh.”
“You’re a vile… monstrous… You consumed her dying wisdom? The last true words of my mate melted in your gut?!”
“Not quite,” Rocleed consoled. “We used to discuss this Dodarka. Have you forgotten the stories we shared? My stories came from my meals. They were passed from the dying, through the sangwine, and into me so that I might share them. It is the gift the ancestral humans gave the Scavendors.”
“The sangwine?” Dodarka questioned.
“Like your bivine,” Rocleed said simply.
“And you… took one of these stories from her flesh?” Dodarka asked.
“I received it,” Rocleed corrected.
“What did you… receive?” Dodarka asked. His teeth ground together on the last word.
“She was full of voices,” Rocleed said. He closed his eyes as if hearing those voices again. He stuck his beak up to the sky. “She was full of voices that she kept locked away. As life left her… those voices escaped. They howled through her mind, through her body, through her blood… and in turn they howled in me for a while. The voices so plagued me I could barely fly.”
“What did they say?” Dodarka demanded.
“Stampede,” Rocleed said. “Stampede. Stampede. Stampede.”
“Liar!” Dodarka shouted and bucked futilely. “How can you say she was one of the ones causing stampedes? She died a season before they started!”
“Do with this information what you will,” Rocleed said. “Whether you discard it or not is not my responsibility. I suggest you think about it. Keep your wits about you my old friend. Something has soured death. Those who pass now do not accept their fate. They die in confusion. Full of fear.” With that Rocleed spread his wings and launched from the branch. The specter of death vanished over the canopy and left Dodarka alone with the bones.
The TrailCutter looked down and saw that in his fury he’d broken one of the ribs upon the ground. He bowed his head and whispered a continuous apology for ten minutes. He returned to Pompiya’s skull even more confused than before. Had Rocleed been telling the truth? Did his mate never tell him that she was plagued by voices? Were these voices her own? Dodarka cursed himself for not asking more questions of Rocleed.
How could I not notice? He thought. Pompiya did have a quiet nature to her. ‘The wonders of nature deserve contemplation rather than chatter,’ she used to say. Dodarka contemplated the eye holes in her skull. How wonderful it would be if they filled up again, if her mind was once again glowing with life. Not even the wind whispered now.
As Dodarka bowed his head to once again try to connect to his mate, he heard something. He also felt it. It was small… and weak… but he grew more aware of it every moment. The sound buzzed like an invisible insect inside a bubble of glass. He scoured the ground for any sign of it and saw Pompiya’s leg bones and rib cage. The sound came from under the ribs; very delicately, Dodarka lifted his mate with his tail and checked underneath her.
The buzzing came from her cow magnet! He leaned his head in and out. It was most definitely the magnet. Why had he never noticed this horrible grating sound before? He leaned his head in again and examined it, noticing some unusual features… Any magnet he had seen before was featureless metal, but this one had swirling patterns engraved in it, and there was a thin green light wrapped around the middle. Beyond that, it also looked much newer. The magnets had been laying exposed to Rhizome’s weather for countless generations, so they naturally had a faded color and numerous scratches. Yet, here was Pompiya’s magnet looking fresh off the assembly line.
Are the ancestral humans trying to tell me something? Dodarka wondered. No, they would not send such an irritating message. It rattles in my ears. The magnet must just be a reject. Something that slipped through the machines of the past unnoticed. Maybe that buzzing made Pompiya vulnerable. Distracted her long enough to let that Syama too close…
Dodarka placed her ribs back down and touched heads with his mate once again. I’ll be back tomorrow, he thought. He delicately walked out of the bones and away from the Edge of Life. Although his thoughts often went to a dark place that replayed the sight of Pompiya’s neck being punctured by Syama fangs, he never blamed the cats. They weren’t his friends; they were merely living their lives. In fact, that dark thought gave him a dark idea. If he could not catch the murderer, he would enlist the services of a more cunning investigator.
It looked like another stampede was going to start at the edge of the watering hole. Brohoov started to stamp and thrash, with some even wading neck deep into the water. After all, the only thing Syama hated more than rain was swimming.
The temporary panic gave way to confusion when the bivine rattled with questions. Is that our TrailCutter? What’s he doing with the cats? Why is he bringing them here?
“My wives and daughters aren’t interested in getting their teeth kicked out,” Zuglon said to Dodarka as he slinked alongside the TrailCutter.
“Don’t worry,” Dodarka said, “they’ll calm down when I explain things.” Zuglon’s eyes were held nearly shut to block out most of the midday sun, so it was difficult to read his expression. In truth, Dodarka did not know how his herd would take it. Surely Artemilk would be screaming ‘quadruple banishment!’ from somewhere in the back.
His greatest fear was that they would lose their minds and take off or drown themselves before letting him utter a word. He briefly regretted having Zuglon bring so many of his hunters; Twelve cats was larger than most of their hunting parties. Zuglon was by far the biggest and was the only male present. His alpha and beta females flanked him and each of them had four or five daughters in tow. It certainly didn’t help that the younger cats licked their lips every time they looked at a Brohoov. Champlo rushed up to the group, panting, and tried to dissuade Dodarka with quiet arguments.
“My mind is made up FriendKeeper. Go calm everyone so they may hear my orders,” Dodarka said. Champlo backed up slowly and eyed Zuglon warily.
“I’m surprised at you Champlo,” Zuglon crooned with slimy false sweetness, “We’re such good friends after all.” Champlo bowed his head and returned to the herd.
By the time the TrailCutter and the cats reached the herd, all of the splashing and mooing had been replaced by a dead silence and placid waters. Every pair of big watery eyes was on them. Zuglon dismissed his females to ease the tension, sending them over to lie in the soft moss reeds near the water’s edge. One of them immediately started trying to bat small fish out of the shallows with her paw.
“Kin,” Dodarka started. He tried to keep his voice from quaking. Any weakness in his words would invite criticism, perhaps even a challenge to the TrailCutter title from a younger stronger male. “You all know we’ve been cursed this season. Cursed with fear. Cursed with false panic. Someone cries tiger when there’s nothing but grass for miles. They make us stupid. And we in turn… kill each other out of fear. I will not be known as the TrailCutter who stood idly by while this happened.”
“So you’re just getting it over with by feeding us to the cats?!” someone shouted into the bivine. The complaint was seconded and echoed several times.
“No!” Dodarka boomed and stamped his foot. The Bivine went as flat as the water behind it. “They are here to help.”
“I already caught the perpetrator,” Artemilk said self-righteously. “Whiny little Somsom!”
“I am not convinced of his guilt,” Dodarka said. “We have no proof that his version of the story is a lie. The Syama are here to conduct an investigation, to give us the proof we need to be certain.”
“What can they do that we haven’t tried?” Champlo asked out of genuine curiosity. “My TrailCutter,” he added at the last moment.
“A fine question Champlo. The Syama can hear our speech but they are not vulnerable to an abuse of the bivine. Words of panic will not multiply and ring in their ears. They will manage to keep their heads when we cannot.”
“And what good is that?” A Brohoov demanded.
“They will identify the one responsible. Zuglon has agreed to have his hunters patrol through our herd for the next few days. If anyone calls stampede, the cats will be able to pinpoint the guilty without being overcome by the instinct to run,” Dodarka explained.
“The cats have agreed to do this because?” a fit male with a shining coat and low hung horns asked. He was exactly the kind of male that might be able to gore Dodarka out of his role as leader. “Are you paying them a wage of Brohoov meat? For every ten they protect they get to devour one?” The bivine erupted into an angry cacophony. All sorts of mud were flung at the TrailCutter’s feet. Dodarka had the sinking feeling he would not be able to shut down this wave of anger. Luckily, Zuglon stepped up. The cat’s voice still invoked enough terror to silence the mob.
“I can see where you’re coming from,” the PrideKing admitted. “After all, it is a very hot day and I would love a nice vein of fatty Brohoov blood to quench my thirst. But, for the sake of both our peoples I will settle for water for the time being.” Zuglon strolled towards the watering hole; the herd split down the middle to admit him. The soft pads of his feet should have sunk into the shore’s mud more than they did. Instead of moving like a lumbering mass of teeth and muscle, he glided silently along like a stingray on the ocean floor: disturbing not the ground nor the air. The silence of his movement impressed the Brohoov herd and stilled their minds further. Zuglon lapped at the water’s edge passionately. He lifted his head and sighed, refreshed. “Aaaaaahhhhhh.” Glistening droplets of water rolled down his muzzle.
“Dodarka’s temporary truce is a good idea,” the PrideKing said. He turned away from the water, sat on his haunches, and looked the herd in its thousand eyes. “Something is happening on Rhizome. Some… force… seeks to dim our eyes. I’ve seen it growing worse and I’m not prepared to sacrifice my kin to it because of something as easily surmountable as fear. I want to catch your murderer because it might give us a clue. This hunt could reveal a scent trail to the true enemy of Rhizome. We would appreciate your cooperation.”
Silence. A few frogs leapt into the water. The scaly knobby head of a Nilogut, like an Earth crocodile but with the hood of a cobra, drifted by. Zuglon paid it no attention. He was much faster than any river beast.
“It does seem to be the best option,” Champlo said.
“A plan with very bright eyes,” Holokeem added in a neutral tone, unsure if that was good or bad.
“Such fast friends we’re becoming,” Zuglon purred. “Unlike some species I know.” There was a sudden explosion of water as the Nilogut struck. It got nothing but a mouthful of mud as its hundred teeth snapped together audibly. Zuglon was already leaping through the air in a spinning arc. The PrideKing landed silently on his feet, facing the unsuccessful reptile. The Nilogut rose up onto its hind legs in a pose of intimidation and spread its yellow-striped hood wide. Zuglon simply ignored it, turned around, and walked away. The Nilogut slammed back to the ground and dragged itself back into the water. “Is everyone coming?” Zuglon called over his shoulder. His hunters and the grumbling Brohoov marched after him.
Things went very poorly at first. Zuglon’s younger hunters didn’t seem to understand that playful nips at Brohoov heels wouldn’t be taken as such. Several posturing matches happened that day and often overlapped. Cats hissed and roared and stalked around a few scared cows who grunted and waved their horns like battle axes. Dodarka did his best to break up the fights and send both parties in different directions.
He moved the herd into the Lush Pond, one of their favorite grazing places. The cats didn’t much appreciate it because the sweetweed that grew there was immersed in several inches of cold water. They shook their paws off with every step and grumbled. One of them even hit a deep spot, disappeared from view, and then shot, twisting, out of the water like a trout being reeled towards the hungry sun.
The sweetness of the grasses did mostly placate the Brohoov, as their TrailCutter had hoped. It was much like taking a class of unruly human children to an ice cream shop for the evening. Even Dodarka helped himself; he dipped his muzzle deep into the water and pulled up a few blades of the grass. Each one had a little yellow bulb at the end bursting with a saccharine scallion flavor. Tadpoles, freshwater lancelets, minnows, and small shuffling crabs sneaked between the plants to avoid the champing Brohoov teeth. An Amble Tree, a derivative of Earth mangrove capable of movement, took huge slow steps through the Lush Pond with its smooth gray roots. Both the Brohoov calves, with their light blue horn buds shining like pearls, and the youngest Syama hunters played in its shade. No one knew if the Amble Trees had brightness in them. If they did they kept it to themselves. Dodarka guessed they didn’t, or they would probably swat at the rambunctious children splashing between their legs.
Everyone savored these precious hours of tranquility. Everything was as it used to be, shining like the first generations of Rhizome. At their happiest they all felt immense joy, but also a little awkwardness in their bodies. This was when their eyes shone the brightest, so the animal parts of their mind were busy napping. It could make even the oldest and wisest Brohoov stumble about like a newborn calf.
Dodarka and Zuglon even found a vegetable mat that was mostly above the water to rest on. The two leaders exchanged happy stories of their own bravery and their wildly exaggerated sexual conquests of mortal goddesses. Zuglon laughed heartily. Dodarka responded with laughter of his own, for he’d never heard those particular sounds from a Syama. The big cat’s laugh was like the yawn of a fire that bounced out of the hearth and giddily set a room of dry furniture ablaze.
Like the sweetweed though, it could not last. Once their playful energies began to wane, the murderer went back to work.
Early in the evening, as the Brohoov cleared out the last of that batch of sweetweed, everyone grew weary of wet ankles. Most of the plants had been stripped away, leaving just a shallow pond with plenty of stirred up mud. The whimsy of the place had been temporarily trimmed, like an ancestral human cutting away its flowing locks to gain a sense of professionalism.
The two species marched out of the pond towards the steep hill that would take them back up to the mumgrass and the human ruin. Dodarka led the way, wondering if the murderer wouldn’t strike with the Syama around. Whatever creature traded into my ranks wouldn’t be that foolish, he thought. It would be scared that it couldn’t cause enough of a panic to hide its own shouts. After all, everyone already knows the Syama are nearby. We’re practically rubbing shoulders.
“Nilogut!” Someone screamed in terror. The bivine barely twitched. There were no Nilogut in the Lush Pond; it was much too shallow.
“Who said that?” Dodarka bellowed. He looked out into his herd and saw a Syama hop up onto a pair of squirming shoulders. We’ve got him, the TrailCutter thought. Finally.
“Giant Scavendor!” another voice cried. This one was distinctly female. What? There’s no such thing! Another Syama pounced on a Brohoov that was quite far from the first one. The Bivine quivered and stayed that way, like the wing beats of a damselfly. Big cow heads swung from side to side and hooves pumped up and down in indecision.
“Quake!” yet another voice alerted. Most of the Brohoov immediately misinterpreted their own shaking legs as the shaking of the ground. The back of the herd started to push forward and force them all up the hill. Those still in the water splashed and frothed the edge of the pond into a gritty foam. Those near the front were forced up a side of the hill they wouldn’t normally touch; it was far too steep. One cow tried to turn back and was immediately rolled up onto its side and bucked between the shoulders of bigger animals as it fell downhill, mooing fearfully the whole way.
“QuickMud!” another Brohoov yelled. The voices came from all directions. They had different tones. Different sexes. Different ages. It sounded as if the whole herd was the murderer and it had decided to just squeeze its own neck until there was no more fear.
“Stampede! Stampede! Stampede!”
Dodarka all but lost sight of the Syama in the chaos. There was a flash of cream-colored fur here or there but it was overwhelmed by the haunches of a Brohoov a second later. Zuglon was nowhere to be found. If the cats, acrobatic as they might be, got trampled, the plan would be a failure. He had to stop his herd before they reached the top of the hill. If they did, there would be nothing but plains. Their panic would run wild and unhindered through the wet savannah.
“Holokeem!” the TrailCutter called out. No answer. His best enforcer was lost in the panic and most likely, a part of it. More cows rolled down the backs of their brethren and back to the bottom of the hill where they splashed like cannon shot. A few were bound to be dead already. Someone knocked over the Amble Tree, which fell slowly into the pile of squirming bodies.
A shadow near the top of the hill caught Dodarka’s eyes. Scavendors had gathered up at the edge and were eyeing the group. The fools, the TrailCutter thought. They’ll only heighten the panic. He charged up the hill as fast as he could, separate from the herd, in order to force the birds to leave. A misstep sent a rock tumbling down the hill, but not before it stung his rear left ankle like the blunt venomous end of a giant hornet. The pain had to be ignored. He breathed like there was a great storm rumbling in his stomach and sending a tornado from chamber to chamber. Only a TrailCutter could’ve climbed that hill that rapidly, as only a TrailCutter carries the breath of his herd with him. Only a TrailCutter has the power to break the tide of fear against the boulder of his duties.
Once the ground leveled out he lowered his head and charged at the perched black birds. They did not budge. Instead, they looked down at their own talons. Dodarka glanced that way as well. Bones. They all held bones. Not just any bones… These were pristine. Cared for. Sacred. Bones from the Edge of Life! They taunt us with our own fate! Dodarka raged. They seek to trap us in visions of death. His fury only intensified when he saw Rocleed among them, Pompiya’s skull held by the horns between his talons.
For a moment, Dodarka feared his anger would make the veins in his mind burst and pour blood out of his eyes and ears before he could reach the traitor. His eyes stayed clear though, clear enough to see the sad brightness in Rocleed’s eyes. It was a light like no other: somber and reflective. It was the kind of light that bounced off snowflakes. The kind of light that rained down on blackened forests devastated by fire like an apology from the gods. Dodarka saw Rocleed’s plan in that light. Every Brohoov valued their ancestors, often more than their own life. The TrailCutter stopped short.
He looked into his friend’s eyes and nodded. Rocleed returned the gesture. Dodarka turned and stood with the birds, looking down at his people as they tried to claw their way up the hill with blunt hooves. Their eyes were so wild. So scared. So dull.
Dodarka felt like bellowing, like ordering them to stop, but he remained stoic even as the roiling mass of muscle and horn approached. Flecks of mud hit the Scavendors, but the birds did not react. They stood with their wings wrapped tightly around them, looking like the black tears of a depressed planet about to drip from its surface and into the unfeeling heavens. The Brohoov had to stop. They had no choice. If they rampaged through the bones and turned them to dust, it would be over. There would be no brightness left in their eyes. Once respect for the dead was behind them they would be nothing but animals. The running would stop an hour later and no one would remember why it had started, what their names were, or why the setting of their star was so beautiful.
Not even in its antiquity had humanity had a greater victory. Never in their countless lives as naked primates had the species so resoundingly trumped the shadowy corners of its nature. The bones stopped the Brohoov. They stopped the stampede cold, as if a blizzard wind flew by and frosted their boiling brains. The calming wave passed through the bivine so fast that it could be described as a single instant of comprehension. Once the first row saw the bones, they all saw them. Even those in the very back instantly bowed their heads in respect, even if that meant blinding themselves in the mud.
They would not disrespect the sacrifice. Rhizome was not a place of fear. It was a place of bright eyes and infinite goodness.
The Syama had stuck to their word admirably. In the first moments of the panic, the hunters cornered all the Brohoov that had declared invisible threats. The smaller cats stayed perched on the shoulders of their suspects the entire time, biting and digging their claws into their flanks in such a way as to not seriously injure them. Zuglon had even grabbed one personally.
Back up on the mumgrass, the Brohoov formed another courtroom in their ranks, this one much larger than the previous one; it needed to be to hold all six accused.
The Syama had each guilty Brohoov lying on the ground. The cat’s fangs were perched on every throat like the edge of a guillotine, just waiting for the order. Dodarka and Zuglon examined the prisoners. Zuglon’s alpha and beta females trailed him while Dodarka had a small council of elder Brohoov off to the side.
“Six culprits,” Dodarka said, astonished. “Six trades.”
“I don’t think so,” Zuglon said, his gaze burning holes in the incarcerated cows.
“A trade was your theory,” Dodarka reminded.
“Yes but… they just don’t happen this often. Unless your herd is the most miserable group in the history of Rhizome…”
“They’re all young,” Dodarka noticed. Every prisoner was still a juvenile. This was especially evident when they whimpered. Two of them bawled like infants despite being the oldest two captured.
“They’re not that young,” Zuglon added. “They hardly look tender at all.”
“Yes, they’re all within six seasons of each other,” Dodarka said, ignoring the ‘tender’ comment. He noticed that one of the prisoners was again Somsom. He addressed the youths with all the authority he could muster, which wasn’t very much after the day’s stress.
“Why have you all been doing this? Why do you murder your kin with panic?” he asked. The youths exploded into complaints, excuses, and sobs. They all mooed at once, exacerbating the mold-like headache growing behind Dodarka’s eyes. He ordered them to explain themselves one at a time, only to find the same story repeated all six times. It was the same story Somsom told the first time. They had no intent. They weren’t the first ones. They all heard voices shouting to them to stampede.
With six accounts to pick apart, Dodarka and Zuglon quickly noticed something. These young ones were not hearing the voices just in the moments before the stampede. They heard them always. They were plagued by them like it was the buzzing of flies between their ears. For fear of being labeled sick, they had never spoken up. After all, when an infection was obvious, Brohoov often had to leave the herd to avoid exposing the others.
“This is a very unusual infection,” Dodarka said to Zuglon. “A disease of voices? I’ve never encountered such a thing.”
“I thought you cows heard voices all the time when you roll in those bones,” Zuglon said.
“That’s very different. Those voices… they don’t stay with us. They’re not hostile.” Dodarka’s thoughts turned to the Scavendors, who had carefully flown the bones that saved his herd back to the Edge of Life a short while ago. Something buzzed in the back of his mind. A memory. A key. A key that shook with an unpleasant sound.
“Keep the accused isolated, but do not harm them,” Dodarka ordered his herd. “I will return shortly.” He turned to Zuglon. “Would you accompany me please PrideKing?”
“Where are we going?” the cat asked.
“To the home of the real murderers.”
The path took the two males through human ruins and to a great pipe jutting out of the ground. The grass that grew there was dark and limp, like old wet spinach. The pipe was covered in rust and had its jagged edge weathered down by generations of wind, rain, and sun. It overflowed with metal capsules that littered the ground in a great pile next to the pipe.
“I see. This is where you get your magnets,” Zuglon said.
“Yes,” Dodarka confirmed. “Every season, after a calf no longer needs the protection of its mother, but before it’s old enough to mate, it comes here to swallow a magnet. That way it gains the ancestral humans’ protection from the metal they left behind.”
“I know,” Zuglon said. “Nothing ruins some good entrails like biting into one of those. So, why are we here? I can see Brohoov viscera any time I please.”
“Every Brohoov you caught today would have swallowed their magnet recently. They were at that age.” Dodarka and Zuglon approached the pile of magnets and examined them closely. Zuglon’s hairs stood on end and his whiskers twitched involuntarily. He pulled his head away from the magnets.
“What is that dreadful sound?” he asked.
“The murderer’s confession,” Dodarka said. Zuglon looked at him, waiting impatiently for the explanation. “That noise you hear is the voices that plague those young Brohoov. I’m guessing it gets much worse when it’s inside you.”
“I don’t understand… all Brohoov have magnets.”
“Not these magnets,” Dodarka said and gestured with his horns to the pile. Most of the metal capsules had the strange markings, green stripe, and polished look that he had seen on Pompiya’s. Only a few looked old and harmless like the one he had swallowed when he was much younger. “These ones with green stripes weren’t here when I came for a magnet,” Dodarka said. “Back then they all looked very old and didn’t make noise.”
“How did this change come to your attention?” Zuglon asked urgently. He seemed to shove the information into some mosaic in his head like a puzzle piece, though it didn’t quite fit the hole.
“When I visited the Edge of Life last, I found my mate’s magnet. It was like these new ones. A Scavendor, a very good friend of mine, told me that in her last hours Pompiya confessed to hearing voices that urged her to stampede.”
“But I thought these panics were a recent happening?”
“They are Zuglon…” Dodarka said. He didn’t want to admit how the real problem seemed to be creeping in on them like poison gas. You can’t gore poison gas, no matter how sharp your horns are. “I think this has been building up for a long time.” He swallowed and stared at the menacing green light of the magnets. “Someone added those new ones, a few at a time. That’s why my beloved Pompiya was the only older Brohoov to have one. There were less of them here when she came to swallow one. By now… most of our youth probably have voices in their heads, tormenting them. And I bet the voices have been growing louder lately too. The blooming of hideous underworld flowers… Even now these sound louder than the one I found in the Edge of Life.”
“So what will you do?” Zuglon asked. The day’s last rays of light faded and the stars came fully into view. Now Dodarka could only see Zuglon thanks to the sickly green glow splashed across his face. “Will you banish all of those who hear voices? I will put them out of their misery for you… my friend.”
“No, that won’t be necessary,” Dodarka said with a slight laugh. He couldn’t tell if Zuglon really thought that was a favor. “We have a plant: raw-throat rooglu. It’s a red flower that we tend to avoid because, once eaten, it makes you vomit up everything. And I mean everything.”
“I don’t need the details Dodo,” Zuglon said with a grimace.
“Oh but you do,” Dodarka said with another little chuckle. “That plant is torture. It feels like everything you’ve ever eaten is rolled in chili seeds and then spewed out of your throat and nose. It’s absolute misery for several hours… but it should bring those magnets back out. Then we can replace them with some of the old ones that are left here or perhaps some of the others at the Edge of Life.” Dodarka sighed. His herd was safe.
“You misled me,” Zuglon said, staring at the stars. He was seated on his haunches and his tail curled open and closed. He didn’t blink. It was like he wanted to pounce on one of the bright dots in the sky and put out its fire in the waters of his stomach.
“Yes,” the cat said, eyes still scanning the sky. “You said you’d found the murderer. These are merely the murder weapons.”
“Yes I suppose so,” Dodarka admitted. Brohoov weren’t the most forward thinking species, so he let the cat explore the thread of thought like a housecat batting at a string.
“Unfortunately… these magnets fit my theory,” Zuglon said.
“The theory that explains everything that’s happened lately. That explains the fear that attacks Rhizome.”
“Again, what theory?” Dodarka asked the PrideKing. He almost didn’t want the cat to answer this time. He had the sense the cat was about to reveal some other problem he wouldn’t be able to gore his way out of.
“The star smokers,” Zuglon said, half growling and half whispering. Dodarka joined him in staring into the night sky. “Tell me,” the Syama continued. “Have you noticed what ancestral man’s other branch has been up to lately?”
“Just eating our stars,” Dodarka said. “It’s what they’ve always done.”
“I’m afraid not,” Zuglon said. “They’ve doubled back.”
“What do you mean?” Dodarka asked loudly. His eyes flitted across the sky looking for the clues Zuglon seemed to see.
“I have my pride track the stars constantly. On their first pass, smokers turn a star red. On their second… that red star goes out. They are returning on the same trail they left from. Maybe they’ve found a dead end. A distance too great to cross by stealing star life. So maybe… and this is just my personal theory… they’re coming back.”
“What does this have to do with the magnets?” Dodarka asked, hoping to poke a hole in the fabric of the idea with his horns.
“Every species is encountering something like your magnets. I’ve heard stories of gray slime, metal insects, machine-shaped ghosts… and they’re all spreading fear in the engineered animals.”
“But why would the Star Smokers do that?”
“I’m afraid it’s just pure speculations past that,” Zuglon said. “Just feline instinct. But suppose the star smokers haven’t changed since they left. They’re still always dividing into groups and attacking each other instead of accepting the grand radiance of our food web.”
“Okay,” Dodarka said. “Supposing that…”
“Maybe one of these groups thinks it would be wrong to plunder Rhizome. They want to honor their agreement and leave us be. And maybe the other group doesn’t care. Maybe they want our food, our water, and our land and don’t care if they have to destroy us to take it. In which case, they would greatly benefit from sending machines ahead of them to terrify us.”
“What good is that?” Dodarka asked, a little angry. If he had to be full of fear, he should at least know why. If the theory got much more complex without ending he could safely discard it as the daydreams of a bored and stumble nip-addled brain.
“Fear is like fire,” Zuglon explained without reacting to Dodarka’s agitation. “It spreads and consumes our minds, leaving nothing but ash in the breeze. If they can make us scared enough… and stupid enough… the eyes of every animal on Rhizome will go dull. There will be nothing left of the humans in us. And if that happens… And if that other group of star smokers hides their hand in it, Rhizome is doomed. No star smoker will care if they’re just killing beasts. The groups will unite, destroy our world, and move on, feeding desperately like some venomous shrew that will curl and die if it dares to sleep.”
The silence wrapped around Dodarka, smothering him. Then he realized that it wasn’t silence… the noise of the magnets hung in the background. The TrailCutter stared at the stars. His eyes drank in the sad light from the red ones, left half-eaten and gasping by the star smokers.
Dodarka tried not to be afraid, tried not to remember how humans deforested and deboned everything in their grasp with their metal-tipped claws. He tried.