“You be careful,” Gwen calls out after me. That’s her signature line, her way of saying she wants to see me come back in one piece.
I tighten my grip on the laser, a pretension of defense. I am wearing the yellow suit that has browned with use — the perfect camouflage against the grainy yellow sand. I know where they have kept the food, I’ve been tracking it for days now. But it will take me a good two hours to trek there, and at least double the time to make the journey back. I have to work alone. We are too few in number to risk joint raids any more.
I begin my journey, half-walking, half-running, standing still whenever the hint of a shadow threatens with its darkness. I keep to the sides of the Road. It towers nearly ten feet high, and is paved with brownish yellow round rocks. I can feel the reverberations jangling my bones every time the Fralgon go walking by, their three pairs of massive feet crunching down like earthquakes. There are very few of them out at such an early hour, and I am making good progress. The twin suns are beginning to heat up the ground, and I feel the perspiration trickling within the suit, sticky as the Fralgon’s spit.
The journey is uneventful. I reach the storehouse, slip in through a crack in the door, and pause to breathe in the wonderful aroma of the Graak. I have no time to lose. I unzip my knapsack, tear off huge chunks of the fresh soft Graak (but not before I have stuffed myself, I cannot help it), and squeeze it all into the bag that now looks too small. I am drooling, the great mouthfuls of Graak I am chewing are making me dizzy with sweet pleasure. I think of the delight that will shine like candles in little Stevie’s eyes, I think of Gwen’s satiated sigh, and I grow reckless in my pillaging. I shove great pieces into my suit, my shoes, wherever I can find a place.
I can barely lift the bulging knapsack, and when I try to stand, I totter dangerously. Still, I cannot take the risk of coming back here. And I cannot go back to the thin faces of my emaciated wife and child with a meager booty. I must get this all back safely.
The suns are stinging with their heat. I keep to the sides of the Road, but my knees buckle and I fall often. That is not good, for the aroma of Graak grows stronger with the heat. And though the quantity I carry is miniscule by Fralgon standards, they will not hesitate to kill me. My best friend David died like that before my very eyes, stomped on by a huge Fralgon foot, his head squashed into a mound of Graak. As I crumpled in a corner, my reaction was that of relief: that it was him and not me. There were tales of how some of the men were held captive, stuck in boxes with holes in their sides, Fralgon offspring teasing with their clumsy pincers. Roy was the only one who had managed to escape, but he didn’t talk to anyone and one fine day he hung himself — they said he couldn’t take the nightmares any more.
It is my fault that I don’t pay attention. With the heat making me weak, and thoughts of death swarming me, I don’t notice the shadow that suddenly clouds or the foot descending. It is only at the last minute that I escape the sickening crunch of a Fralgon foot. I dart into a nearby crevice, but it is too small for me and my load. The foot is coming down again, looming destruction. I make a mad dash for the next crack, my heart hammering against my ribs like a prisoner trying to escape. I crash to the ground, my knapsack snapping and rolling away, my left leg pinned down under the weight of the Fralgon foot. I scream in agony, in desperation, in loss. For a fraction of a second the Fralgon weight is removed, and that is enough. I roll into the dark niche, my leg uselessly trailing behind me, blood squirting like a fountain all over. Sorry Gwen, I think, thick tears clogging my eyes, just before all goes dark.
The man places his wrapped offering on the table, and bows his way out.
“Not Graak again!” Stevie whines, and Gwen gives him a thwack on the side of his head. He’s grown soft, I think. Perhaps I should send him on a raiding mission again.
The Fralgon, my men tell me, are trying to work out a way to wipe us out completely. Our raids are defeating them, they’re losing considerable quantities of Graak. My men say this with a fervour shining in their eyes, pride and respect in their voices. I can sense their meaning: we owe it all to you.
I think of the leg I lost, the loss that made me invalid, the desperation to keep from starving to death, the plans and scheming, the doubts and suspicions, the skirmishes and victories, the Graak mounds growing in our warehouses, the riotous celebrations.
Gwen smiles at me as she strokes her swelling belly.
For the first time since our grandparents landed on this alien planet after escaping from a self-destructing Earth, our numbers are increasing. We will grow from strength to strength, I think. We will run. We will hide. We will prevail.
Anitha Murthy is a lazy dreamer, pretty content with life.