Siris hummed “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel while he put the gear back in his pack. He’d had it playing in his head since he woke up. He was fine with it. It helped him calm down and it reminded him of his father. Richard Tarak had taken to everything American upon their arrival in Virginia and classic rock was among his most avid loves when it came to his new culture. Siris remembered listening to the stereotypically American music for hours while working together in the shop.
The company had done its best to blur the lines of culture and patriotism, pushing for, instead, a single world filled with a single people. Richard had railed against this strategy almost as often as he had listened to his favorite music. He theorized that it was impossible to keep so many people of varying histories content while the CSM erased their identities.
Siris didn’t know about any of that, but it did seem that the shareholders had little to worry about, especially what kind of music was acceptable to listen to so when the CSM overlords had decreed that such music was forbidden, they didn’t bat an eye. The only thing that the decree changed around the Tarak house was the volume at which they listened.
A plaintive whine escaped Cato who laid close by. He watched Siris with bright eyes. Iris had done a good job on his wound, but a spot of blood showed on the otherwise white bandage. He would have to do something about that soon. He doubted that the dog would sit idly by while he was tortured with a needle and thread, but it was dangerous to leave the wound open.
“It's okay, Cato, I’m not going anywhere.” The dog tilted his head slightly at the mention of his name. Cato’s eyes shifted to look over Siris’ shoulder and a low grumble escaped the dog's jowls.
“Hey, Janitor.” Geoffrey’s voice came from behind. Siris turned and rose to his feet, pack in hand. “Where’s the rest of it?” the boy asked. Siris couldn’t bring himself to think of Geoffrey as a man though he was nearly the size of one.
Siris was legitimately confused and his body language communicated the question better than words could. What was he talking about? Geoffrey sighed angrily, put out at having to explain himself. Siris thought that the boy must be too closely related to cro magnon man because he clearly preferred communicating in grunts.
“The rest of the ship. Where is it? Where’s our food? Water? All of it?” He stated this like an accusation, and Siris couldn’t help but feel under attack, which he was sure was Geoffrey’s intent.
“I don’t know, Geoffrey. Do I look one thousand years old to you? How would I know?” Siris knew that his words were a mistake as soon as he’d said them. The boys who backed up Geoffrey looked surprised by Siris’ defense and excited, as if awaiting the violence that was sure to come. They didn’t have long to wait.
Geoffrey feigned amusement at Siris’ words and then reached up and pushed him, two-handed, backwards. Siris stumbled back, windmilling his arms and dropping his pack. He fell over Cato who yelped and then rose to his feet and ran at Geoffrey, snarling growl on his lips and hackles raised.
Geoffrey yelped in terror and danced back, but he couldn’t outrun the dog and in his rush he stumbled into and over the other boys who scrambled back in equal fear to their leader. Cato latched on to Geoffrey’s leg and the boy screamed.
Siris got up and ran over. He grabbed the dog's collar and yanked but there was no dislodging the teeth.
“Let go!” Siris yelled. Children were screaming, crying and cowering in the corner. In their minds the dog seemed to have gone from their savior to their destroyer. Siris yanked again and again, but all of a sudden he saw stars and he felt like he had bitten his tongue off. He fell, completely dazed, to the ground.
Tyrone stood above him with a broken pipe from the Samsara. He didn’t waste time gloating over him however, but turned the pipe on Cato. Through Siris’s blurred vision he saw Tyrone swing twice, and Cato’s growls quieted. Siris wanted to yell. He wanted to go to Cato and help him, but his eyelids were too heavy and darkness crowded in.
Somewhere in there, voices interrupted his fugue state.
“Are you sure about this Geoffrey?”
“Come on Ty. He’s a Yakka. A Yakka that doesn’t know his place. There’s no room for that in this new world.” Geoffrey’s voice.
“Besides, maybe those things won’t attack the rest of us if they get full on these two.” Devon laughed.
He was being dragged by his ankle through the mud.
A pale understanding faded in, and he slowly became aware of his surroundings. He was alive, evidenced by his throbbing head. He sat up and instantly regretted it. Nausea would have made him puke had he had anything in his stomach.
Siris looked around and spotted Cato’s still form a few feet from him. He crawled to the dog and gently probed for any sign of life. The dog stirred and whimpered in his sleep but wouldn’t wake. The poor dog’s head was bloody, as was his wounded shoulder. The bandage that Iris had so carefully wrapped around his friend had been pulled away during the struggle, or perhaps in the intervening kidnapping…dognapping…whatever.
Cato had lost a lot of blood, and Siris was worried for him. More worried, probably, than he was for the entire group of shareholders combined. Well…maybe not Iris and Peter. They seemed okay for CSM stooges, but if it came down to the two of them and this dog, Siris would probably save Cato. She had been very clear, after all, about where he stood with them, but he had hoped that after he’d saved Peter from the dragon she would come around.
The fact that he and Cato had been exiled so shortly after, proved that she hadn’t fought for him. Maybe that wasn’t fair. Maybe she had.
“Yeah, and maybe she loves you.” He would have laughed at his own joke had his head not hurt so bad.
Inspecting their surroundings, Siris recognized where they were. It was the small clearing where the dragons had attacked the group at the base of the hill leading up to the ruins of the Samsara. He remembered now the words he’d heard in that hazy moment while he was being dragged.
He looked around the clearing, anxious that he’d see the triangular heads of the giant lizards from the night before. Well, not night. He didn’t know what to call the circadian time frames that humans had defined for millenia. What did you call morning, day, or night when it was all the same?
The storm had passed and the sun was shining in a reassuring glare that revealed a clearing devoid of threat, but he did spot the dead dragon, the one that Cato and he had killed. It had been torn into by other animals in the…night, perhaps by the two other dragons that had been present when it had died. They did look scary enough to be cannibals, Siris thought.
They would probably be back for another helping before long, and it would be prudent for the two of them to be far away when they did.
Siris stood, and swayed. He bent over and put his head down between his knees and breathed slowly until his dizziness passed. He cursed Geoff and silently prayed that the bully would get an infection from Cato’s bite while he waited for the feeling to go away. It didn't, not fully, but the rustling of foliage to his left pushed that particular worry to the back of his mind.
Nothing appeared above the ferns and creepers that tangled the jungle floor, but he did spot a divide in the leaves. A kind of canyon that formed among the plants, and it was coming closer. Ferns fell in a moving path toward Cato and him.
Siris fell to his knees and shook his dog, but the animal was beyond the ability to acknowledge him or the danger that approached. Cato was at least one hundred pounds, probably more like one-thirty, and Siris doubted if he could carry him, but he put his hands under the dog’s muscular body and heaved.
It was extremely awkward, the limp body hung and the loose skin, characteristic of the Cane Corso breed, made holding onto the dog a chore, but Siris pulled his friend away from the edge of the forest toward the hill that led up to the ancient ship far above. They had just made it to the steep base of the hill when the snake’s giant head broke through the wall of plants.
He supposed that a scientist probably wouldn’t call this a snake. There were probably some qualifying criteria that this creature was missing to be categorized as such, but it sure looked like one to Siris.
Its head and jaws looked a lot like the python of earth, but as it came, Siris noticed a fringe on its neck as well as tiny legs along its sides that, at the moment, it wasn’t using. The thing’s giant tongue flashed out, tasting the air. It sensed Siris and Cato and opened its massive jaws.
The fringe around its neck tented out on either side of its head like a cobra, or one of those weird lizards from that cartoon that Akil and Yunna always watched. The snake darted forward and its body encircled the dragon’s corpse, claiming it for its own. The fringe around the animal’s head shivered threateningly and it hissed.
Siris had to give it to the snake, its ability to communicate was impressive. Its meaning was undeniable and Siris, holding the big dog in trembling arms, backed up the hill as quickly as the terrain and his load would allow. The snake eventually determined that the two of them would not challenge it for the corpse and set about the task of swallowing the thing.
After one hundred or so feet, Siris turned and set Cato on the slope above him and took a short break to catch his shaky breath. Siris took one final deep breath and bent down. The steepness of the hill had actually helped him get the big dog onto his shoulders, draped behind his neck, with both sets of legs gripped in each hand.
Siris scaled the incline toward the ship. He didn’t love the idea of going back into the dark interior, but after seeing what was outside he figured, the bat-like things were a pretty minor threat. He was soon exhausted and soaked in sweat, but he hummed “Stuck in the Middle With You” and lost himself in the work. He hadn’t even noticed Cato had woken until he felt the big dog's slobbery tongue lick the side of his sweaty face.
He smiled, relieved that his friend had awakened.
Siris set Cato down just inside the curtain of hanging vines. The shade that the Samsara’s interior provided was a blessing, and despite everything, Siris was happy to be alive.