The Changed by Dee Caples -- Chapter 4
Division of Spoils
Cobby had been the first to get back to the warehouse and when Pericles arrived he found a hullabaloo going on over the motorcycle. Everyone was impressed, even if they thought it stunk. Manda unscrewed the gas cap and her nose wrinkled. “This doesn’t smell like gas,” she remarked.
“I think it’s modified to run on just about anything,” Pericles said. He got down and inspected the battery. “This is powered by solar cells. If any of our cans still hold viable fuel these will be a great help.”
He saw that the smallest were asleep on top of and under the desks, curled into the open-front crates. The older children came forward to ooh and ahh over the solar-powered headlights of the buggy. They climbed over it and hastily untied the bodies so they could begin skinning them. Pericles killed the lights and the skinners complained. “We must conserve the batteries. The last thing we need is to have it in the sunlight charging when we need the battery the most.” Grumbling about dirt getting on the meat, they drug the bodies outside to dress them by starlight.
“This is a fine thing,” Kellus said, circling the buggy. His shortened snout flared and his tongue snaked out to lick a smear of blood. Making a face, he spit and pointed at the street fighter being dragged away. “That one is not fit to eat! He’s been feeding on his own kind and it’s ruined him.”
Pericles helped unpack the things he’d taken and joined them to the pile growing at Kellus and Manda’s feet. Manda lifted the thick piece of leather that had a bag at either end and dumped it out. A canteen, a spool of wire and a bottle tumbled out. Kellus caught the bottle handily before it could shatter. He unscrewed the lid and sniffed. “Ug! I think it’s alcohol. Menius!”
The healer, a dog-man and one of only four first generation left, came forward and gave his opinion on the find. “It will be useful to clean wounds.”
Pericles reached toward the bag. “I would like to have that. For my part.”
Manda withheld it and pointed toward his corner. “That is is your reward. Do with her as you wish.”
Kellus frowned at her. They didn’t always see eye to eye but kept things on an even keel for the good of the tribe. “He brought us these motor machines and meat. He should have the bag if he wants.”
“If he had left the meat in the desert alive we wouldn’t have to worry about the humans coming to look for it.” She glared at Pericles. “His decision to protect the human female has put us all in danger. Menius can make more use of it than him.”
“Menius can,” Pericles agreed and watched as the dog-man received another gift. Kellus looked at the leather jacket Gato had wanted but been unable to wear. He called a cat-woman over and said, “For your son.” He gave the wire to the most skilled of the weaver women and the canteen to a dog-boy that had none.
There came an excited whoop from two dog-boys and Pericles whirled around. How could he have forgotten the guns? One of them held the pistol. The other was stroking the rifle. He walked toward them, his voice soft. “Give those to me.”
Kellus and Manda could be heard growling and hissing behind him. Kellus rose, reaching out a hand. “Give them over. Now. Carefully.”
“What are they?” one of the dog-boys asked.
“Guns,” Pericles answered.
Kellus took one and Pericles the other.
Kellus sniffed the end of the rifle barrel with extra caution, moving his nose toward the end only to withdraw it sharply, as if afraid a bullet was going to come out of it. “I smells like the air did that day,” he rumbled.
The dog-boys jigged on their feet, arms waving. One said, “If the humans do come, we’ll kill them!”
“No one is using a gun here!” Manda shouted, swarming to her feet. Her blazing eyes took in not only the eager boys but anyone else who was watching. “When we fled we made an agreement. No guns for The Changed!”
Kellus held up a hand. “We know nothing about guns, about how to use them. It takes skill to stop someone who’s charging at you, even if you’ve fired one before.”
“Go to bed,” Manda ordered the dog-boys. “You’re too foolish to be around these.” They moved away with shoulders slumped.
The three elders squatted and studied the guns. Kellus looked up at Pericles. “Do you know anything about them? Your hands would be best adapted.”
Pericles shook his head. “Even if my hands are, I’ve never used one. All I know of them is what I saw on television years ago. And we don’t have any more bullets. It would take those and practice to become good at shooting.”
Manda nodded her head and seemed pleased. Her secret love had been killed in the run from the scientists. Mating had not been allowed for The Changed but she and Delleck had found a way. It had produced no kits and she had to be content as mother to all now. “I think we’re of one mind here. The guns can’t stay. Pericles, in the morning carry them away and tell no one what you do with them.”
“I think that’s wise. If the humans do come, it won’t do to have them still here. They could be used against us.”
Pericles spotted the flat black box, reached out and took it. Holding it out toward Manda, he tightened his fingers around it. “I will take this.” He rose to his full height. Manda’s face was disdainful and angry from fear for her kind. Normally she had nothing but a respectful tone for Pericles for he was their strength and had one of the most intelligent minds. “It wasn’t wrong to save the human,” he said.
Kellus shook his head in a woebegone fashion. “What will you do with her Pericles? She’ll be a disruption. Surely you aren’t thinking of mating with her.”
He felt his face go hot and was glad it was dark. “That’s not why I did it."
“Then why?” Manda asked. It seemed she truly wanted to know. “We’re all in danger now.”
Pericles slipped the black box down the back of his pants. “To honor those who died to save us.”
From the distance came the sound of whining motors returning. Pericles stored the guns then went outside and waited for them to arrive. Aces had something on his head that Pericles couldn’t identify. He grinned widely, an all human mouth in a feline face that had no hair on it whatsoever. He was second generation. “That was fun!” He pulled the thing on his head down over his eyes. It was a leather-like strap and two round things tinted like the darkened shield on the helmet Pericles had worn. “Look! Think they’ll let me keep these?” he asked, throwing his arms wide.
Aces was his best friend. Foolhardy but full of courage, he was a father of three and often acted as young as his offspring. “I don’t see why not.”
Geeter climbed off the three-wheeled vehicle and began untying the trailing tarp. “We swept the desert floor as best we could determine.” Going over to the butchered bodies, he sniffed the air and rumbled low in his throat. One of the cat-women was already getting up to spread her share of the skin over one of the pallets so it could dry. Geeter’s wife came over and offered him a dripping piece of meat.
Aces dumped a pile of spoils in front of Kellus and Manda then came over to him, chewing and licking his palm. “Not bad for human. A little stringy, maybe. You not having any?”
“Too much like eating one of your first cousins, huh?”
Pericles made a clamping motion with one hand, silently indicating he should shut up. Aces laughed and ran out to help a doggish one drag away the body Kellus said should be buried in the desert. Te waved him over, a skewer of meat and a cup of water in hand. “Here is some snake. I fed the human.”
“Asleep.” She patted his arm and indicated for him to sit a moment. Crossing arms over legs, she watched him devour his snake. “You and I must convince them to let her stay if she wants to. They’ll drive her out and she’ll die alone out there in the desert.” He looked into her kind face. She smiled, flashing her fangs. “I’m not first generation so I’m no judge of people but I think she’s a good one.”
“I hope so,” Pericles said. He stood up and handed her the skewer and cup. “Thank you.”
Te bid him goodnight and he went to his corner, sliding the black box from his pants. Glancing at the sleeping girl, he sat down and sniffed it. A faint electrical scent came from it. There was something familiar about the thing but he couldn’t remember what. Along the slim sides were tiny raised buttons. He pressed the lower one and it did nothing. He pressed and held the one above it. Nothing. His sensitive fingers felt a hole at the top and a bigger hole at the bottom. There was another button and he mashed it. The front of the box came alive with light.
Pericles stared in wonder and tried to pick up the light. It stayed in the box but the little pictures moved. He pressed his finger over one and it jumped out at him, then a loud squawk of music erupted from the box. Pericles hooted and dropped it to the floor.
“...sad and lonely. You need a change from what you do all day. Ain’t no sense in all your crying. Pick it up and throw it into shape.” Pericles picked it back up, remembering now. He had seen them before, heard the music and voices that came from them. People had put great store in these, held and messed with them all day.
He heard Danna sit up behind him but she stayed where she was. The noises that came from it might be musical instruments now that the man had stopped singing. The Changed played music, too, but not like this. It managed to sound aggressive and smooth at the same time. Something made a blowing sound and he thought he heard a drumlike beating. The screen glowed less brightly now and the man sang again. “That’s why you need...that’s why. This is what you need. I’ll give you what you need, give you--”
The screen went black and it stopped playing. It fell dead. “Oh,” Pericles sighed. He’d just captured something undefinable from so long ago, a recollection of the man Rick, holding a box like this, dancing in his white coat among the desks in the lab. Pericles had watched and clapped. Rick had been one of the good ones.
“You never heard music before?” Danna asked.
He looked over his shoulder at her. “We play music. I don’t know why, but we don’t sing.” He held up the box, black and silent now. “I know what this is now. They were called cell...cell phones. The humans would use them to talk to people in other rooms, even far away. And they’d play music on them.”
Danna put her chin on her upraised knees, her posture still defensive. Smiling a little, she looked away to the far wall. “I’ve heard that song before. My mother must have known a thousand of them. She could sing, too. When she’d put us to bed she’d sing me and my brother a different song every night.”
“Where’s your brother now?”
Her eyes became sad then very cold. “I don’t know. He and Daddy fought a lot when he got grown. One day they started hitting each other. Lenny left and never came back. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.”
Pericles didn’t want to intrude on her when she didn’t volunteer further information. Holding out the cell phone, he asked, “Do you know how to make it play again?”
Danna shook her head. “Someone in Dirty Town could put them on a different power source and make them work. They’re very rare. I don’t know about those things. Don’t know much of anything. I can read and I have a book that I draw in sometimes. I guess I know how to do that.”
“The book of drawings is yours?” She nodded, her chin dropping back to her knees once more. “I’ll see if I can get it back for you.”
He rose and went to Kellus and after a minute came back holding the book. “Perhaps you’ll allow the others to examine it. It’s yours but we like to learn new things.” He paged through the book, at the life-like renderings of birds and trees and people. One drawing was of a human hand, open, the palm spider webbed with lines. He glanced up at her. “We don’t take things that don’t belong to us. When the time’s right I’ll give the knife back to you.”
She shook her head. “I’m not going to use it on anybody.”
“You demonstrated your ability to protect yourself earlier today.”
“Yeah. Protect myself. That doesn’t mean I’m a violent person.” Color rose in her cheeks and she tossed her head, sending her light hair falling around her shoulders, down the faded blue of the pancho blanket. “Never mind. You don’t know what my life’s been like.” She turned her back and lay with her face to the wall.
He stood up and dangled the book over her shoulder until she took it. Closing her eyes, she made a little ball of herself, arms pillowing her head. Pericles went to the other corner of his room and sat down with his back to the wall. He smelled, rather than heard, her tears.