It’s difficult to care much for a man like the pilolite I rescued, but in the emptiness of time his is just one more kind of hell. I had to choose our shelters to account for him. It was like keeping an abused dog. I tied him up every night, as much to prevent him cutting my throat in my sleep as to keep him captive, but his puling and writhing in the night made every safeguard imperative. Protective cover. Visibility. Escape routes. Light sleep. No compromises.
I could get nothing from him for days, and then only gibberish about his Pilo. He didn’t care about his cohorts, every one of them dead. He didn’t care about his next meal. He only cared about the abhorrent ball of flesh he used to feed upon, taking in strange deenay and scattering his own with that repugnant organ of the Desiderasha.
We traveled up to the Elgleggen Swath where plants menaced travelers more than animals. A kuriet tipped me of some cotspurrels eking out their survival in the area. I’ve always met well with kuriets, I don’t know why, but he knew me and I described his brother, so he opened up.
Cotspurrels fed off each other. A long lost children’s tale told of such sharp-toothed creatures feeding off of the innocent, but these exchanged with each other, every visible section of their muddy skin covered in bite scars. There faces looked like flesh-eating fish, big eyes and pointed teeth, and they twisted their bodies like serpents when they moved. Their settlement consisted of papery walls hung on vines, wide aisles between them, converging on an open area. In the center was a plant with giant, oily red leaves I’d never seen before.
I prepared myself for the obscene from these cotspurrels, but seeing them assembled into a frenzied mob feeding off each other twisted my scalp. Even the pilolite skulked quietly instead of mewling while we were there.
I managed to get one of them aside, my hand ready on my forty-five pistol. He was single-minded and fearless, the desire to bite into me plain on his face. I asked him about visitors and eased into any recent little girls.
“It may be so that she is here,” said the cotspurrel. “I do not see one for the other, but they are all so good.”
“I’m going to check your people to see,” I said. “Let them know I’ll be coming through.”
The saliva dripped down his chin. “You can find her if you join in.”
“Your friend looks interested.”
I saw intelligence in the pilolite’s eyes for the first time since I’d rescued him. He looked at the cotspurrel with fearful intensity.
“He’s not for sale.”
The cotspurrel showed his teeth, a sight that might peel the skin off one’s neck.
I knew I couldn’t threaten him. “Let me see what it’s like. If I like it, maybe I’ll join.”
His upper lip quivered. “You will like it. It is good, very good.”
The pilolite hugged my arm as I checked all shelters from one side to the other, finally coming to the feeding pile of cotspurrels. I waited as some left and others joined. From time to time my heart would lurch at the site of a smaller body, but it was never my Enta, or even a child. Only forms grown small with age. At its thinnest I could see all of them, and Enta wasn’t there. I have no shame in saying I held back a sob as relief poured through me.
“It’s very good,” said the cotspurrel from before. “Taste us. Join us.”
“I’m leaving now.”
He lunged at me. I pulled my gun and shot him in the eye.
“Let’s go.” I grabbed the pilolite by the arm and ran, but he kept up enough that I didn’t have to pull. Cotspurrels followed a short distance, but gave up before long. We rested in an open space where the plants couldn’t reach us, and I built a fire for the oncoming night.
The pilolite huddled in front of it. “Is that how you see me?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Like those cotspurrels. Am I like them?”
I nodded. “In many ways, yes.”
“I…” He shuddered. “What….” He drooped his head between his legs.
“It doesn’t have to be like that any more,” I said.
He swayed his head back and forth. “It’s what I am. I want the pilo. I want to find one. I have to find one. Is that what I am?”
I walked over and crouched next to him, my arm on his shoulder. “Maybe not. You’ll have some time to come back to yourself. Do you remember your name?”
He looked up at me, a bleakness only seen in this emptiness of time. “I… I don’t.”
“Then I will give you one.” I put one hand behind his neck, and turned his chin up to mine with the other. I looked into his eyes and wondered about this man. What is the sum of him after the the loathsome organ stole so much from him? Searching for his depths, the name came to me.
“You are Trace.”
Trace’s eyes widened. He nodded imperceptibly and tremors went through him. He curled up on the ground and closed his eyes in quiet sleep. Tomorrow I would question him about the child of my heart, but I let him sleep until then. I didn’t even tie him up.
Rustling woke me in the dead of night. I sprang to my feet and listened. Trace was not in his place, but my eyes adjusted to his form on the other side of the fire. He’d moved a few steps away, his back to the fire, and he sobbed. Not the pathetic whimpering of a beaten dog, but the weeping of a man feeling his loss.