Oscar brought the plastic bag to his mouth and tugged, spitting out the torn cover. Then he poured the contents into the barrel of the gun he held in his other hand. “Just hold still,” he said to the eight-year-old girl who stood next to him. “It won’t be interested in us if we don’t move.”
“You’re moving,” the girl observed.
“Yeah, but only a little,” Oscar replies as he reached into his pocket, retrieved the weapon’s operative projectile–a copper ball about the size of a golf ball–and dropped it into the barrel. It made a soft clunk as it came to rest against the powder he’d poured into the chamber.
“Why is it staring at us that way? Is it hungry?” Oscar felt the girl’s hand reach for his as he tapped the gun’s stock against the ground–softly–to settle the powder.
“No, they don’t eat the way we do,” he responded as he brought the gun up and sighted it. “Cover your ears.” When he saw in his peripheral vision that she had her ears covered, he pulled the trigger. The gun roared and kicked; the animal shuddered as the projectile entered at the side of its wide throat and exited through the belly. Thick green blood–only it wasn’t really blood–began to ooze from the entry wound, but the animal continued to stare stupidly at the two of them. “Do you hear anything?” Oscar asked.
The girl closed her eyes, and there was a moment of silence before she opened them again. “Nope.”
“Nothing?” Oscar dared to take his eyes off the animal and look skyward. “I thought I saw a couple of them flying around.”
“Yeah, they’re up there. They just haven’t noticed yet.”
“They didn’t hear the gun?”
She shrugged. The animal appeared to realize now that it was injured–its head descended and came to rest on the ground, although it continued to stand on its three legs. It raised the forward leg, as if to take one of its two-cycle steps, then lowered it again; the knee there buckled and then the animal fell over on that side. “One of them heard that,” the girl said.
“Are they coming?”
Again her eyes closed for a moment. “Yep.”
“Where?” Oscar’s head was up, scanning the sky. “I don’t see them.”
“They’re coming from over there,” she pointed to the east, and Oscar concentrated his view on that side of the sky.
He heard her take a step. “Don’t get too close to it,” he said. “And don’t touch the blood, it will burn you.” The girl approached the animal, crumpled awkwardly as it had fallen, and she circled around it, away from the still-oozing wounds. Oscar continued to scan the eastern sky, and then he saw them: three small black specks in the sky, followed at some distance by a fourth. “There they are,” he said.
“Yeah.” She wasn’t watching the sky; her eyes were fixed on the animal. She was observing the red hide, and then she reached out and touched it. “I thought they were covered in fur.”
“Those are scales, like a fish,” he said. “Will they land?”
“Not while we’re here.” She stepped away from the animal, turned, and reached up toward the eastern sky, her eyes closed, her head thrown back. Her arms moved slightly, and Oscar knew this was part of the method by which his daughter could and did communicate with the approaching birds–the Morki, the sentient lifeforms at the top of the Chremotha ecosystem. He watched her as the Morki took up a holding circle a thousand feet above them. After a few moments, her arms came down and she opened her eyes.
“Well?” he said.
“Come on.” She stepped off toward the west, threading her way through the knee-high undergrowth toward the blue-trunked trees at a short distance. “They won’t be able to hear me in the woods.” Oscar followed, and in a few minutes, they were at the edge of a small growth. The trees weren’t trees; the trunks were copper sulfate crystals, which grew from the substrate under the topsoil, pushing their way up and extended by the sulfate-laden rainfall. At the tops, moss-like creatures that filled a niche somewhere between animal and plant life encircled the trunk, grasping it, trading mobility for the safety of height. The copper sulfate blocked the Morki’s perception. While they were near the trees, they wouldn’t be heard.
The girl sat down on the bare ground under one of the trees and motioned to her father, who sat down beside her. Across the field, they could see the top of the animal, crumpled there where they had left it, and above, the four Morki were descending toward it. Oscar watched the largest of them, a female, swoop around and alight on the ground. Her two heads moved in coordinated fashion, one scanning around, monitoring the area, while the other pecked at the animal’s red hide.
“Can you hear them?” Oscar asked. The other two females had landed now and joined their sister; the juvenile, a male, continued to circle over them.
“Yes,” she said. Her eyes closed and her arms reached out toward them. The Morki gave no indication that they were aware of the young human probing them from among the trees. “They don’t know we’re here. The oldest one is wondering where we went, but the other two have forgotten us already.” The girl smiled. “The older one is asking the boy to look for us, but he doesn’t understand.” A moment of silence, then she laughed. “The older one just called him an idiot, and that female there with the hurt wing, she told her to shut up.” Another moment of silence as the girl’s smile grew. “They’re arguing about it now,” she said.
Oscar reached back and retrieved a bag which was tied to his sling. He opened the bag and pulled out small crumbling squares of food. “You want a–”
“No!” the girl said, her eyes still closed. “They can smell that–” But it was too late; all three of the females had already noticed the scent of the food, and their monitoring heads, the ones that had been scanning while the feeding heads pecked at the dead animal, spun around and stared in their direction. The girl’s eyes popped open and she rose. “Drop the food here. We can go deeper into the woods.” She was already moving while her father scrambled to do as she instructed. The juvenile male had already swooped over and down, making his way toward the food lying on the ground as the two humans scampered away. It landed, and as the monitoring head looked over at the females for reassurance, the pecking head picked up the largest square and it took off, flapping heavily. It rose a few feet and leveled off toward the females; when it got there, it dropped the square and ascended, reassuming a circling pattern above them.