And those beetles had been smaller, about half his own size. These -- he'd never seen any so big. The one he faced he literally faced, its compound eyes on line with his own, even as it squatted over the sand. Its mandibles were twice as long as his arms and three times as thick. He could hear the bile leeching from its mouth, spattering on the ground, a beetle's digestion being notoriously foul and prolific; some beetles, he knew, had developed the ability to spit this bile at their prey, beginning to dissolve their flesh before they had even been bitten. And the smell in the air, which he should have recognized, that steaming, near-boiling ichor emanating from the spiracles on its abdomen, which was usually reserved for enemies. Unfortunately, Pulmeks usually qualified as both food and foe.
He wasn't sure why he hadn't been attacked yet. He could hold his breath for some time, but the lack of blinking was becoming a problem, his eyes starting to tear and his vision blur. He risked a blink, quick, to clear them. And the beetle still didn't move. But why? He was alone, clearly no threat, obviously could be food.
And the other beetles. He risked another move, a slight turn of the head. There had to be twelve or thirteen, a sizeable swarm. Why had they not turned towards him? Why were their antennae laid still? They all simply squatted on the sand, the wings concealed and their rears turned down. Their eyes were open -- in fact, to his knowledge, they had no eyelids to cover them -- but didn't appear even alive. Yet, he could smell and hear their breath, their stomach acids. So, they weren't dead, nor recovering from injury.
Apparently, he decided, even beetles needed to sleep. There was really no other explanation. He only knew beetles during the heat of the day. Now, nearing the darkest part of the night, past the setting of the moon and before the rising of the sun, they seemed to have gone somewhat dormant. Perhaps it was the cold, or the lack of light, or even simple exhaustion. He couldn't be sure. But -- he risked another move, a slow wave of one hand -- they clearly weren't reacting to his presence at all. And this presented him with a perfect opportunity to do what a proud warrior always did when outnumbered, outarmed, and vulnerable. Namely, take the quickest escape route he could find.
The best option seemed to be around to his left. The beetles were largely concentrated to the right -- nine in that direction -- and were partly buried by the blowing sands on that side. To the right, he could clearly see four beetles, plus the one immediately before him. Which made fourteen, he noted, correcting his previous count. So, he needed to sidle around the one in front, cut left around the next, bear a wide semi-circle around the next three, and that would get him to the other side of the swarm. At which point, he could pick up the pipe's trail again and continue on his way.
Easier thought than done, of course, and the moon was already starting to fade into darkness. He didn't have much time. Carefully, he picked his feet up, one by one, settling them back down, step by step, trying not to disturb the dunes and the piles, hoping not to awaken the beetles with the rasp of sand against sand. He kept his breathing slow, deep and even, held his body fixed as he moved, arms loose and hands up. No sudden moves. No quick turns. No flinching. Every muscle in his body controlled, he moved around the first beetle, closed in on the second.
Now he was starting to sweat. The heat of the desert hadn't drawn it from him, but the tension and real fear that he felt was taking its toll. He couldn't remember when he had last drunk any water. He knew he hadn't eaten for too long. His right foot started to tremble and he paused for a dreadful moment, not five centimeters from a sharp, segmented foreleg, willing it to still, to stay under his control until he was passed. Then it could tremble as much as it liked, his whole body could spasm for all it was worth. But for now, he needed control.
He reasserted it, and kept on. Around the second beetle. Cutting to the left. It shifted its midleg slightly as he went by, and he almost snapped his head towards it, but choked off the reflex at the last moment. The leg stilled, and he went on.
According to the plan, this next was the easy part. Having passed the first beetle, gone around the second, he simply had to walk in a smooth, wide semi-circle around the remaining three, and that would leave him on the other side of the swarm. Then they could sleep, he could walk on, and, at a safe distance, give way to the panic that he was doing his best to staunch with sheer will. For now, he was winning that fight, and only had to win for about another minute. He was almost there.
And, with a gurgle and a scrape, the pipe pulled free from the sand. Petros watched in horror as, almost with a mind of its own, it slid past two beetles, grating on the sand as it moved, the beetles stirring with antennae coming to life. It hooked on the rear leg of another and, with a yank, the creature tumbled to the ground. Its wings snapped out, the sound echoing in the empty desert night; wings whirring, legs kicked, it shot sand around on its fellows.
As one, the swarm awoke. Petros, having no choice, tried to run. He almost made it.
The last beetle of the three he had been circling caught his right ankle in its mandible, digging in with terrible strength, cutting tendons with ease. He pivoted around the joint, suppressing a scream as he felt the bones grind, drove the heel of his left foot into the lowest segment of one mandible, and felt a certain satisfaction as it cracked, causing the beetle to loose its grip and rear away. But even this slight attack, a delay of only seconds, was enough to give the swarm time to find him, scent him in the air and hear his scurrying on the ground.
Two more beetles came at him, one from either side, legs skittering and mandibles scything the air. He dodged one with a quick roll, nearly came up into the mouth of the other, avoiding it only with a quick spring, re-breaking his ankle before it could fully heal. He landed badly, wrenching his wrist, but came back to his feet, favouring the injured side and keeping his hands up and ready. The beetle on the right lunged, bile spewing from its mouth and spattering on the ground. He threw his right arm up, protecting his eyes and mouth, and took a glob of the foul spew on his forearm, where it quickly burned through to the bone.
The beetle on the left had regrouped, latching its mandibles around his left bicep, digging in and drawing blood. Having little choice, Petros threw himself back, the mandible dragging down and nearly stripping the flesh from his upper arm before it pulled free. His ankle had healed by now, but his arms were both useless, and the remainder of the swarm was closing fast. Petros jumped again and landed on the nearest of the beetles, kicking out at its eyes, managing to burst the right. But, when he tried for the left, the beetle hurtled suddenly sideways and he lost his footing, tumbling back to the ground.
He rolled as he landed, came up against the side of another beetle, grabbed hold of its midleg with his right hand, the forearm regrowing skin over new muscle, and flipped himself up onto its back. He braced himself on his knees and drove one hand into a spiracle on its abdomen, howling in pain as the steaming chemicals stew within blistered his flesh in seconds. But, clenching what was left of his fist, Petros allowed the beetle to buck him free. As he fell off, his fist ripped through the beetle's skin, spilling the boiling ichor onto its rear legs, which crumpled and dissolved into a vile black goo.
That was three injured, one likely blind, one crippled, and one merely weakened. Petros thought he was holding his own, though. But he had neglected to remember the time. Caught up in the heat of battle, surrounded by beetles, he had not seen the failing moonlight and lengthening shadows. And then, in a moment, he saw nothing at all. The moon had set, leaving only the inadequate light of the few pale and distant stars.
His fight went from desperate to impossible. Deprived of his sight, he could only react to the touch of the beetles. He couldn't anticipate their attacks, couldn't defend himself quickly enough, couldn't find their weak points with his fists or his feet. He felt one beetle grab on to his throat and brought both fists up, prying the mandibles apart and squeezing his head through the gap. Then another grabbed him by the stomach, cutting through muscle and into the organs below. He tried to wrestle free, tried to flip the beetle off its feet. Then another grabbed his throat. He jerked his head towards the mouth -- what he thought was towards the mouth -- and, miraculously, popped his head free. But the one around his gut simply tightened its grip, and he felt his legs go dead as it cut through his spine.
The rest was nothing but pain. He knew that he screamed, kept screaming as the beetles swarmed over him, tearing away his limbs, cutting into his organs, sucking at his eyes and tongue. He felt the mouth of one close over his hand, almost caressing him as it got hold, then felt the arm suddenly end as the mandibles closed and cut it away.
For some reason, though, they didn't kill him. Perhaps they couldn't tell he wasn't killed. After all, they couldn't see any more than he could -- had been able to, when he still had eyes -- and their antennae could only sense movement and sound. When his screaming stopped, as his lungs were devoured from his chest, and his movement ended with the last of his limbs ripped away -- maybe they simply couldn't find him in the deep night. Or, perhaps, they simply weren't that hungry. They had been startled awake, after all, had reacted mostly on instinct to the presence of a possible enemy, possible prey. They hadn't sought out food, but hadn't wanted to let it go by when it was so close at hand.
Whatever the reason, he was still alive. Without lungs, he was drowning, but only for a short time. They regrew, filled with air, fed his starving brain. His other organs also began to regenerate, slowly filling the wreck of his torso: stomach, kidneys, liver, spleen. All the soft parts that the beetles had enjoyed slowly began to return. As the muscle began to regrow, so, too, did his spinal cord, and as it did the pain began to increase, apparently without limit. Unable yet to move, the root nerves still spinning themselves together, still unable to scream, all he could do was endure, feel the endless, searing agony of his body remorselessly returning itself to health and vitality. All he could do was wait, and suffer, and strive, as best he could, not to go mad.
His eyes were among the last to return, useless as they were in the moonless night. But still, it was comforting to have them. It was comforting to lie on the cool sand, his fingers and toes stretching and separating, the last of his body healing, and just let himself cry.
Eventually -- he didn't know when, having lost all sense of the passage of time -- he made himself stop. No one would come to save him. He had two choices. Lie here and indulge in his suffering, until the beetles -- or worse -- returned to finish him off. Or get back up, keep moving, and fight on.
Lefent Petros chose to fight. He didn't have much left. The extensive regeneration after the swarming had depleted most of his energy. He didn't even trust his legs to bear his weight. But, he could get to his hands and knees and, like a newborn, he could crawl. So, blind in the darkness, he picked up his head and began to crawl.
The sand tingled on his new fingers as he crawled, new nerves firing for the first time. The shuffling scrapes of his knees were the only sound he could hear, other than his own breathing. He allowed himself to relax, at least slightly. The beetles, if they were around, would have already attacked a source of this much noise. For now, at least, he was safe. So, he kept crawling, slowly and deliberately.
After some time, his questing right hand went to pull him along and touched only air. He let it drop down, about a half-metre, if his sense of place was still reliable, and it hit flattened ground. He dug his fingers in. The sand wasn't just flattened, it was compressed -- and damp. As if something heavy had lain there for some time, something which had leeched some water into the ground.
It had to be the trench that the pipe had been lying in. He remembered the pipe had moved, and that was what alerted the swarm. But he had expected the winds to have filled in the trench by now. Apparently, they had not. And that, at least, gave him a direction to move in.
Thus Petros moved on. His movements grew slower and more deliberate, as the last of his energy ebbed away. He knew he couldn't die from being tired, although he was exhausted past all experience. He knew he couldn't die from being hungry, although he was now ravenous, nor from being thirsty, even though his throat felt drier than the sand he crawled along. He couldn't die from these failings, but they could make him stop. He could stop crawling, lie down in the sand, and wait for something to come along and kill him.
He picked his head up, shook it. Somehow, he had been lying down in the sand, the winds had even blown a fine dust over him. Fatigue, hunger, thirst -- they were taking their toll. He surmised he had passed out briefly, his brain simply refusing to continue to drive his body onward, forcing him to rest. Well, now he had rested. And he kept moving on, sliding one hand forward, then one knee, then the other hand, then the other knee. And repeat. And repeat.
And he was down again. He let himself lie in the trench for a moment, his breath blowing the sand, his eyes clogging with grit. Struggling, his arms and legs shaking, Petros pulled himself back up to his hands and knees, then up further, to just his knees. He felt sand cascade off his back, and knew he had been down for longer this time, the winds blowing more over his prone form.
He was sure he would fail, eventually. He wouldn't die -- he wasn't nearly old enough to die -- but when he couldn't move any more, he would be buried by the sands, and then either devoured by a worm or choked by the crushing weight of the desert itself. He found this thought didn't frighten him. What disturbed him more was the thought of not discovering the truth about Cene's plans, not being able to show her and Adir and Swith and Jian that he hadn't died at the failed ambush of the worms, not being able to return in triumph to the enclave and receive his just reward from Zdeti.
Being killed didn't frighten him. Failing did.
Petros forced himself up. He staggered as he did so, his knees impossibly weak, his legs quivering and frail. He compelled them to strength, imposed his will upon them as best he could. They denied him, nearly buckled and dropped him. Somehow, he stayed standing. And refused to fail.
He took one step forward -- more of a slide than a step, barely able to pick his foot off the ground. But his leg didn't shake as he set it down. His knee didn't collapse. In short, his body obeyed his will, for now. And so, he took another step. Step by step, he picked up speed, from a slow shuffle to a careful walk. He kept following the trench, now almost filled with sand, but his feet could still feel the compressed base where the pipe had lain, and he used that as his guide.
He walked on through the deep night.
In time -- he still had no idea how much -- he saw something ahead. He actually saw it; not just in the faint glimmer of the starlight. It was the beginning of the sunrise.
Petros stopped and watched. He knew he shouldn't, and should just keep moving. As the sun came up, so would the desert heat and the searing winds. His fatigue would worsen, and the trench would fill faster. But he couldn't help it. He just wanted to see the sun rise, even if it might be for the last time.
It didn't disappoint him. The first rays over the horizon were pale orange, the next brighter, the sand ahead of him starting to gleam in the light. Then came the yellow bulk of the sun, and he found himself reaching a hand towards it, feeling its warmth spill out onto the empty, rasping world of grit that surrounded him. It grew higher in the sky, the faint lines of its rings darkly visible across its surface, and Petros turned his head to follow it. Then, he turned his head down, towards the remains of the trench. The winds were indeed picking up now, and the sand had almost obliterated all trace of where the pipe had been. But he saw the direction it was heading, still mostly straight.
He took that heading, as best he could in the empty desert, and continued to walk.
As the sun kept rising, life returned. He saw a worm break the surface of the sand in the distance, to his left, and what he thought was a swarm of beetles hovering just over the ground to his right. A cloud of wasps drew close to him, buzzing and darting near his head. He kept his eyes largely fixed on the ground, though, glancing up only occasionally to watch for danger. All signs of the trench were gone now, and he could only hope that he hadn't deviated from its path. He had tried turning about as he walked, to see if his current path was straight in relation to his trail, but had given it up as hopeless. The wind which now roared across the desert was removing his traces as soon as he made them.
A few wasps stung his neck. He was too tired to swat them away, and let his body heal away the poison. He knew this was risky, as it continued to deplete his dwindling reserves, but it consumed less effort than trying to bat the wasps away. Besides, these were small, nothing like the predatory monstrosities that swarmed near the enclave. He could handle their stings.
Hours passed. As they did, Petros found himself moving slower and slower. Even at tis extreme, past what he had thought was the limit of his endurance, he refused to allow himself to stop walking. So, he moved slower. But he kept moving. The wasps swarmed faster, stung him harder. The pain was minor compared to what he had already suffered, and so he easily endured.
Then the wasps moved away. That was unusual. He had never known wasps to leave prey alone unless compelled. Looking up from his own trudging path, Petros saw that he had, inadvertently, come to the middle of a herd of cows. He stopped walking. This could be difficult. Unlike beetles or worms, cows were not overtly hostile, at least not usually. A few had attacked the enclave to his memory, but the creatures had simply battered themselves senseless against the wall. Zdeti had concluded that they were probably diseased, and had them shot and burned at the wall's base. Mostly, cows kept to themselves, wandering the desert from scrubby grass patch to grass patch, surviving on their own inner stores of fat and, when necessary, battling and feeding on bugs.
They weren't large creatures. The nearest one barely came up to his elbow, and the rest of the herd -- twenty or so -- were no larger. Their bodies were thick and stocky, slabs of muscle covered with horny plates, and their legs were short, keeping them low to the ground. One curled its lip at him as it tramped by, baring a set of heavy fangs. Petros kept his hands down, his own mouth closed. No sense in riling the beasts, especially in his current condition.
The wasps had left him alone to torture the cows, which turned out to be a foolish plan. The cows easily plucked the wasps from the air, their heads twitching this way and that, jaws snapping open and shut around the insects. In few minutes, the swarm was gone, and the cows continued to mill about. Petros wasn't sure what they were doing and, having no real idea where he was or where he was going, decided to watch them for a time.
There was no clear leader in the herd -- which, he supposed, made it less of a herd and more of a swarm. But “swarm” didn't seem the right word for animals such as these, true animals rather than bugs. They were wandering here and there, always staying within the same ten-metre radius or so. He couldn't see any point to the movement and surmised that it was meant to be pointless. In other words, the cows were waiting for something.
He didn't have to wait long to see what. After ten minutes of waiting, without any clear signal, the cows formed a rough wedge. The leader of the wedge waited for the others to be in position, looking back occasionally as it did, and then led them away at a slow march, in a curving path off to the right. Shrugging to himself, Petros followed. At the very least, the cows would keep the wasps off his back and, should worms or beetles loom, he could let them fight with the cows while he did what little he could to escape.
After another hour, with the sun cresting its highest point overhead, Petros saw where the cows were leading him. They were heading to an oasis, the lush green of the vegetation and deep blue of the pool standing out starkly against the sheer white of the billowing sands. He did not, as much as he wanted to, run for the water. The cows were leading the way still, and he was in no shape to battle a herd. He would have a better chance of taking what he needed if he could establish that he was no threat to them. And that would require taking his time, allowing them to start to eat, and then cautiously approaching, without any move that could be considered hostile.
So, he waited. The cows drew away from him, entering the oasis. Their wedge disintegrated as they did, some pulling away to feed on a nearby bush, others grazing on the tall grasses, still others bowing their heads to the pool. And he drew closer, walking slowly with hands held loosely at his side, head slightly bowed. He wanted to seem docile, non-threatening -- actually was quite docile, the earlier trembling having returned noticeably to his limbs -- and made sure to walk slowly and deliberately, with no quick moves.
The cows barely noticed him. Feeling a little foolish at wasting such caution on the creatures, Petros approached the oasis. Still ignored by the cows, he bent towards the pool and drank quickly and deeply. He felt the effects of this sudden rehydration almost immediately -- his stomach churned and his arms spasmed violently. He doubled over, fighting the urge to retch, and his vision started to swim. But he refused these consequences. He had come this far, and would not allow himself to fail here. And, in a few moments, he had healed. His body drew on the salt stores it still had, flushed some of the water, and, gradually, the symptoms faded.
Petros stood up, feeling better than he had since leaving the enclave yesterday, and looked around. The oasis was quite substantial, he found. The pool itself was nearly a hundred metres across, and it was surrounded by deep vegetation on all sides. Vegetation which, to be fair, the cows were doing the best to tear apart, but even at the rate they were going, it would take days before the oasis was stripped bare. Beyond the oasis, to his right, was an outcrop of rock, barely visible above the desert surface. And standing in front of it, fortunately looking in the wrong direction, was a familiar figure.
It was Agnant Adir.