Chugir was forty years old, weary, and damaged by bad booze.
The booze problem he blamed on the Drinkards. For months, he had been stalking a Drinkard and extracting almost pure alcohol from its body.
“Almost” pure. People were saying it was Chugir’s own fault, that he pushed the Drinkard too hard, until the booze it produced came out polluted. “Bad metabolism,” they were saying. Chugir wasn’t greedy. Each day, he’d been sharing with others the clear drink which he pressed out through the Drinkard’s metal tubes.
But this particular morning, the booze made him sick and he threw up blood. The others carried him to a Fixard, the common type spotted on the grass plains, and shouted for help until one of the Fixards heard them.
A small Fixard, a quick one with ten thin spiderlike legs, came crawling and stuck a tube down Chugir’s throat — while the others held him still. It hurt, but only for a few seconds. When the tube was retracted, red with Chugir’s own blood, it had repaired the hole in his stomach.
Chugir cursed and kicked the machine; it chirped angrily and fled through the tall grass. He shouted for the Drinkard, threatened to turn it into a cooking-pot, but it had already escaped.
While Chugir lay resting and drank from his water-bottle, his group began to discuss rumors heard from other passing groups. They were nine people in Chugir’s group, most of them younger than he was. Two of them were his own sons, but he had stopped caring for them a long time ago. Their mother — what was her name again? — had left Chugir for another group.
The area in which the group now lived was called “the land.” There had been a rusted signpost by the old trail which went through the area, but no one could quite recall the name on that sign — and then a herd of Sententers had eaten the signpost, including the poles on which it stood.
Sententers appeared frightening but were harmless to humans, and thoroughly stupid; all they cared about was metal. All day long, while the sun hung in the gray sky and gleamed in the solar panels on their backs, they chewed dirt and gravel. They had four short legs, oblong bodies and tails that dragged along the ground. Their incessantly chewing heads were blind; like most other metal creatures, they navigated by smell. And during nights, when they lay still, the Sententers shat out gravel mixed with purified metal threads.
The group’s only worry was that a Sticker or a Chopper might come upon the territory. Neither kind had been seen for years, but the monsters lived on in their memories and tales. Chugir heard the youngsters talk about what they had seen and heard from other wandering groups: someone had spotter a Chopper, quite recently, a few days’ marches away.
The bravest of them, a spotty-faced boy called Farty, said he would construct a weapon and kill every Sticker and Chopper who dared approach the group. Chugir noticed that the kid’s boasting impressed the women. He snorted and struggled to his feet.
“That’s fancy talk, Farty,” said Chugir with his gravel voice. “An’ what’re y’gonna use for a weapon? A branch? Y’gonna dig a pit for the Sticker to fall into? I’ve heard that kinda talk before.”
Farty glowered at the bearded older man. “I’m makin’ me a weapon’o metal. Steel, or plate. A blade, or a nail, on a long stick.”
Chugir chuckled, and the pain in his stomach made him cough. “Shit,” he said. “Then y’better hurry up. Cos’ soon as y’got yer ‘metal weapon,’ the Sententers’re gonna smell it, yeah. An’ they chew it up real fast, yeah. Nah, fuggedaboudit. Only safe thing is to go into water. Monsters hate water. Makes’em rust, y’know.
“Y’seem pretty rusty yerself,” said Farty. “Whaddawe keep draggin’ you along for? If yer so goddamn smart, why don’tcha manage on yer own.”
Chugir got mad, and strode over to Farty. He was taller than the boy, and bigger. The endless walks had given them all a good condition. Chugir sized Farty up.
“Mebbe y’think yer old enough to take over? I don’t see many hairs on your chin, Farty. Wanna count’em with me? One… two…”
“Take it easy,” said one of the women. “We can’t fight now. We gotta cooperate and have a plan if the Choppers come.”
Chugir and Farty exchanged threatening stares; their gazes promised to settle the score at a later occasion. But Chugir was scared; his knees felt weak after the surgery, and he wasn’t sure whether he could actually beat Farty. The monsters worried him less than his own group. Farty was the oldest of his sons, and the one who most resembled him; that scared him most of all.
It was the four women in the group who did most of the talking, and who came up with a plan: they should find another group and join it until the danger was over. The greater their numbers, the stronger their defense.
Chugir gave his approval and the group started moving toward the lake, where groups used to gather.
The weather was favorable; the eternally gray skies made no noises. The temperature was, as always, just right. Chugir remembered the fairytales about the Seasons of the Year, but didn’t understand them. No one believed it had once been so cold that the trees and grass died, and frozen clouds fell from the sky.
By the time they reached the lake, the sky had begun to darken. Already from a distance they spotted swarms of Lighters drifting about by the water. Lighters resembled insects but were bigger, and inflated themselves like glowing balloons. Occasionally a bang was heard, when a Lighter overheated and the gas it contained exploded. A few Sententers lifted their blind heads, sniffed after the recently dead Lighter, and slouchingly started to saunter behind Chugir’s group, toward the lake.
Chugir greeted the people he recognized, and embraced Hully, a group-leader he was friendly with. Bottles of watered-down booze were passed around, and people clustered around campfires to eat what the Gatherees had gathered for humans. No one cooked food; there were no Cookers nearby.
After a while Farty grew impatient, and wanted to talk about the monsters. Chugir slapped him so that Hully and her people laughed, and asked: “Have y’seen any Choppers lately?”
The voices and laughters quieted down. “We saw one, maybe two, a few days ago. Away by the ruins.”
“What were y’doin’ there?” Chugir demanded to know.
“None’o yer business.”
Chugir accepted the answer, and said he intended to stay by the lake until the danger had passed. Hully asked him to spend the night with her, and he wasn’t the kind of man who said no to a lady. And her secretive behavior had aroused his curiosity.
During the night, when Hully got tired and wanted to sleep, Chugir whispered persistently in her ear: “Tell me about the ruins.” He usually avoided them, but everybody knew there was treasure there, if one searched long enough.
Eventually, if only to be allowed to sleep, Hully mumbled that she had been hunting for Drinkards in the ruins. It was the monsters that made her give up. But the Drinkards her people had seen there, were the finest in the land: fat, near bursting with finely ripened booze, too heavy with their load to run away.
Chugir’s mouth watered when he thought about it.
Next morning, after eating the leftovers from the previous night, he brought up the subject with his group: he wanted to go to the ruins and catch Drinkards. Everyone but himself got upset, at first. But Chugir knew how to persuade people. After an hour, he had Farty and two other men joining him on his expedition; they were just as fond of the booze as he was. The rest of the group would not leave the lake for a while, so the four men went ahead on on their own.
It would take them two days to walk to the ruins — faster if they found a Glider, but those were rare. Chugir made sure that Farty walked in front of him, for he did not quite trust the kid.
In the morning of the second day they ran into a herd of Sententers, who were grubbing about in the ground not far from the ruins. Farty was acting edgy, probably scared of monsters, and took it out on the Sententers. He picked up stones and started to throw them at the grazing metal creatures.
“Piss off! Go somewhere else, stinkin’ tin-shitters…”
Chugir let him have his way; the Sententers barely reacted to the stones that bounced off their metal-wire skins. No human had ever managed to harm a Sententer; they were four times larger than a grown man, and too heavy to be pushed over.
In the midst of the ruins lay the big hole, which led to old tunnels. No one went there; it was too dark. One searched among the long shadows of gray walls, where rows of square holes gaped. It was said that humans had once lived there, but Chugir didn’t believe in fairytales. He believed in what he could see, feel and taste: booze in several colors and flavors.
One of the men said, after they had searched heaps of rock and concrete: “Ain’t it strange? We ain’t seen anything at all in the ruins. Not even a Sententer. They jus’ stay outside the ruins. Y’reckon they’re scared’o the monsters too?”
“Sententers’re too dumb to be scared,” Chugir said dryly. “Jes’ once I saw a crazy Siever attack a lone Sententer. The Siever stuck like a fly against the Sententer’s back. An’ there it sat all day, slowly crawlin’ toward the neck. When it reached the head, the Sententer bent its neck… an’ crunch! bit the Siever in half!”
Towards dusk, the men got frightened and started to retreat, despite Chugir’s exhortations. He could swear he was feeling the lovely liquor-fragrance from a whole flock of full-grown Drinkards, and very close. Chugir moved ever closer to the big hole; the fragrance got stronger there. He peered into the gloom among shattered walls, and spotted a gleam. There was no time to lose; night wasn’t far off.
He lunged at the gleaming shape and threw his arms around it. They tumbled, and the multi-legged metal thing peeped in terror. But he pushed it onto its back, and its legs flailed in the air. Chugir cackled joyously; he could hear the liquid slosh inside the being’s cylinder belly. Instinctively he he groped for the softer spot in a Drinkard’s body, that one should press to milk the booze. Chugir was damned thirsty and wasn’t going to wait any longer.
With the obsessive determination of an alcohol-thirsting man, he squeezed in the round button and opened his mouth wide to received the alcohol that would squirt out of the Drinkard’s abdomen…
A metal pellet hit Chugir’s forehead; one pellet flew out of the creature’s metall ass and straight into his mouth. Chugir immediately let go of the creature — he realized it wasn’t a Drinkard, but a related type, perhaps a Baller — and tried to cough up the metal pellet.
He felt something hard slink down his gullet and into his stomach; he swallowed and let out a belch.
“Dammit… Farty!” No one answered. It looked like the others had abandoned him, and it was getting very dark. And then he noticed the large shapes that moved about the edges of the big hole. It couldn’t be Choppers; those were much smaller and thinner…
A heavy, lazy stomping of many metal feet — dozens of them — grew as the shadows slowly moved up from the big hole.
Chugir’s legs trembled and he peed himself with fear. The shadows had long necks and tails… it was a herd of Sententers! They lived underground too, beneath the ruins, digging up the ancient metal tubes that existed everywhere in the earth.
Chugir relaxed somewhat. There were not after him. But something about their numbers, and how they were closing, in made him nervous. He started to jog between the tall, almost black ruin walls, where the rows of square holes appeared to be staring at him.
He tripped on something and fell swearing to the ground, on the grass-covered straight road which led out of the ruins. He crawled back on his feet, with his eyes focused on the road ahead — and saw that it was blocked by even more Sententers. They were on their way into the big hole. From their blind heads, thin antennas shot out, and the antennas spun excitedly in the air. At once the creatures’ steps fell into a joint rhythm, as if they shared each other’s thoughts.
Chugir rushed aside, in among the piles of square boulders, and climbed them to shake off the creatures. He stepped on a loose rock, tripped, and fell several feet.
“Shit!” Chugirs right ankle burned with pain when he tried to stand on it. He dragged himself onward, while the rhythmic stomping of the Sententers grew louder, until he felt the ground vibrate with each stomp…
And so a cricle of metal necks rose around him; he was completely surrounded.
“Go away!” he croaked, tossing his arms about. “I got nothin’ you want! Nothin’… noth…”
His voice died away, and he realized his big mistake. Desperately, he stuck two fingers down his throat and tried to make himself throw up the pellet — but it had already reached his intestine. The Sententers’ sightless heads sank down at him, and their mouths opened. In the last dim light of dusk he saw, coughing and gasping for breath, how rows of sharp blades glittered in their jaws.
When the many blades were very close to his body, Chugir’s scream could be heard all the way to the lake. And none of the people there could help but wonder what new monsters had taken Chugir, and might hunt for them.
Chugir opened his eyes. It was pitch dark. He heard nothing, not even the sound of a Sententer walking. They had stopped. Why? Then he understood. When the sun went out of sight, the Sententers had gone to sleep where they stood, just like they always did. He got up on all fours, and crawled off between the immobile, fat, rust-smelling metal bodies. He shivered with more than fear; it was cold.
He’d made it! Farty had abandoned him. That kid was going to get a surprise when Chugir came back… and a well-deserved thrashing.
But he couldn’t stand on his injured foot. There was nothing he could use for a crutch. Chugir had to crawl all the way; if he waited until dawn, the Sententers would be awakened by the sun and catch up with him. It had to work; the road to the lake lay open. Slowly, slowly, he crawled on the thin grass that grew on the cracked, petrified asphalt.
Chugir stopped thinking; he moved in a trance. Dream and waking state blurred into one. His legs and arms got numb; he couldn’t quite tell whether he really moved, or imagined himself moving. And it was so damned dark. He couldn’t make out the horizon. But he followed the smell of grass.
At last the light returned; Chugir glimpsed the horizon. He was still on the grass-covered road. He ought to be seeing the lake now, he thought. There was no feeling left in his injured foot, and he didn’t dare to touch or look at it.
Suddenly sunlight broke through the perennial haze, and clear light sieved through the air, past the ruin walls, and blinded his sore, drowsy eyes.
Some thirty feet away, the sun glittered in the armor plating of the Sententers’ backs; they started moving, filled with the Sun’s power, and their blind heads sniffed the air for metal. Chugir’s eyes watered. He looked around, and realized he had been crawling in circles for the whole dark night.
As the oblong, thoroughly stupid metal lizards slowly lumbered toward him, he began to strain all he could for a bowel movement. He was going to shit out that bloody metal pellet before the Sententers tore up his gut to get it.
Chugir screamed with pain and terror while he squatted and squatted… and something ruptured in his midsection, and he gasped and stopped screaming. He shut his eyes, buried his face in his hands and listened to the dragging, scraping steps of the Sententers in dawn’s early light.
Many, many sharp metal teeth cut into his stomach. Someone screamed, but he wasn’t sure who.
The people by the lake gathered in a cluster, and waited for some terrible monster to emerge from the ruins. They waited half a day.
Finally, they saw a flock of Sententers come and slowly spread out across the plain.
The people relaxed. Everyone knew Sententers were completely harmless to humans.
SHORT BIO: A.R.Yngve
Swedish writer, illustrator, ex-cartoonist and satirist. Published in Sweden and China. Has written and published radio plays, comics, novels and short fiction.
Many of his novels and stories can be read for free at his website: http://aryngve.com