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[For easier reading, engage both the aA and Pilcrow (¶) symbols at the top right of the chapter.]

Mahrham and I spent some of the last day practising as usual with the net, much to the delight of most of Gwor's clan as we raced noisily up and down with the thing whirling around our heads. We succeeded in capturing nearly all the bushes we pursued, stopping in disgust when despite Mahrham's shriek of 'No! … Not that one!', my last victim proved to be a robust croki-bush and we were forced to spend a good while cautiously removing the net from its clutches.
After I'd stowed the net away, we went to check on Tamori's progress with Horban to find him labouring over a larger, leaf-lined version of Fyrsh's vegetable dish, up to his elbows in a revolting, smelly goo. I had no difficulty in recognising the hairy brown fruits and leaves, which Tamori was mashing into a paste. He looked up as we approached and grinned at the expressions on our faces, saying it was very soothing and we should try it. Neither Mahrham nor I showed the slightest hesitation in refusing his offer and Tamori left the repulsive mess to seethe and churn as he cleaned himself off with some leftover mud.
'Come. See what lorrits have done.' He beckoned us towards the nearby bush currently serving as a support for Horban's skin.
'Is he nearly ready?' Tamori smiled at my eagerness and nodded, holding up four fingers.
'Lorrits do good work. Make skin soft but still need dribsi cure many days.' He held up both hands except one thumb. 'Fold Horban up in dribsi. First time come out today. Horban get good wash, dry under Ifshah.'
I gathered from this that Horban had been salt-cured for seven days, then washed and dried. He was about to get his final treatment of sticky brown sludge and wouldn't be ready for another four days. Tamori showed us the back of the skin where the lorrits had stripped off anything remotely edible, leaving a soft, smooth surface. He pointed out that the hair was still firmly embedded in the hide, indicating that the curing process was proceeding well, with no signs of rot.
'Look good,' he waggled firmly. 'Make good skin for David.' He dragged Horban off the bush, draping him over one arm.
'Come; you help Tamori.' He grabbed both of us by an ear and led us protesting shrilly towards the bowl of brown muck, now bubbling with thick, pasty explosions. After scraping the embers away from the bowl with a stick, he sat us on the sand, spread the skin out hairy side down and handed each of us a flattened, paddle-like piece of wood. We watched as he scooped some of the paste out of the bowl and smeared it thickly over the skin, making sure every part was covered. He motioned us to start, smiling as we proceeded to make quite a mess of ourselves. I think the simmering bowl of goo had a mind of its own, as it would lie there deceptively quiescent while we spread the stuff around, but as soon as I reached out my paddle to scoop up another lot, it would choose exactly that moment to erupt muddily all over my fingers.
When we'd completely covered the skin, we folded it over so the sticky surfaces were together and started covering the first half of the hairy side. This was much more difficult than the other side as the paste had to be worked right down through the hair onto the skin itself and took a deal of effort. I was quite tired by the time Tamori pronounced himself satisfied with the side we'd done and folded it over again, exposing a new quarter of hairy skin. We sighed and got on with it, while the stack of hide got thicker and smaller, until Tamori looked up and smiled at us, saying he'd finish the last bit himself. One thing I now knew for sure - if I'd known what was going to be involved in making a garment out of Horban, I'd have taken his knives and belts instead.

The next day dawned wet and miserable, one of the small, unpredictable storms having moved in during the night, making everything moist and sticky. Ifshah had still not risen by the time we were all packed and ready to leave, three or four of Gwor's clan having visited the spring in the forest to fill all the waterbags.
We travelled at a reasonable pace, with Ifshin set and Ifshah high in the sky and quickly drying everything out by the time we reached the little camp where I'd had the fight with Porrhin. However, we paused only long enough to refill our waterbags before continuing on to where we'd made the temporary camp near the colony.
As we got closer to the campsite, I started to notice changes in some of my companions. They looked increasingly uneasy and I saw a few of them taking tentative sniffs in the air. The nearer we got, the more worried they looked and even Mahrham was having difficulty hiding his concern. I was beginning to get really scared. The Ifshiri could smell something nasty and I had an awful sense of foreboding as we passed the small campsite and started to climb the last hill.
I saw Tesharah and Mahrham exchange a quick look and Tesharah frowned, nodding faintly. Mahrham came to an abrupt halt and said we would wait just below the brow of the hill while the others went to check that everything was all right. He and I both knew by now that everything was far from all right and I jumped off his back and ran towards the hilltop.
'No, David!'
Mahrham caught me before I reached the summit, pulling me to the ground in a diving tackle. I was already screaming with pain, knowing what the clans were going to find; what they had smelt from so far away. Even I could smell it now.
'Mahrham … !'
'Shrrrr, my David. Shrrrrrr …'
Mahrham tried to comfort me, cuddling and kissing me gently, rocking me in his arms, but when Fyrsh returned, ashen-faced and unsteady with shock, it confirmed what I already knew. Despite his own distress, he tried his best to help me as well, but I could feel myself shivering with sudden cold and it started to get dark …

Ifshin was rising when I awoke and Ifshah had not yet set, the twin stars casting a golden glow onto the pall of black smoke I could both see and smell, rising above the colony site. I screamed in anguish and Mahrham was quickly beside me, clasping me to his chest as my tears made a soggy mat of his hair. I sobbed and moaned while he purred deep in his throat, trying to soothe me with his rocking. He felt me move and looked down sadly into my eyes.
'Are they all …?'
I screamed again as he slowly waggled his head, then drew me back into his chest, cradling me and gently licking my forehead until my heaving and sobbing started to subside. I don't know how long we sat there while I gradually came to the realisation that my family and friends were all dead and I was the only human left on the planet.
A shadow fell over us, Mahrham and I both looking up to see little Horla standing there, tentatively holding out his hand. I took it and cried into it and he crouched down, patting my head softly as another bout of sobbing racked my body. I felt him tugging gently and looked up through the tears as he gently pulled me out of Mahrham's arms and into his own, where I made him just as damp as I had my wonderful Ifshiri mate.

Eventually the tears stopped. I remember I drank a lot of water and even managed to eat some of the meat Horla offered me. I'd finished half of it before I realised it was pork and dropped it with a shriek. It was almost as if I'd been eating Jake himself and three or four Ifshiri quickly moved aside as I vomited forcefully into the flames and collapsed onto my knees, twitching as if I was having a fit.
I think I must have blacked out again because I was back in Mahrham's arms on the little knoll above the campfire, listening to his gentle buzzing as I awoke. My stomach convulsed and I promptly threw up again, Mahrham holding me effortlessly out to the side until I'd finished and I must have lost consciousness yet again.

I was hungry and thirsty when I woke, but had hardly realised it before Mahrham was feeding me mendri juice. My body wanted to start crying again, but I decided to control it and almost managed it. I tried to think logically but images and horrors kept flashing into my head, mostly of my own imagining; although I'd assumed Eater had been responsible, no one had yet confirmed it.
I started to feel ashamed of myself. I'd spent half a day or more screaming my grief when my own clan had lost Porrhin and our new friends had lost Horban by my own hand. In truth, I'd been responsible for both their deaths, as Porrhin would not have been here had I not injured him. But of course if I hadn't done what I did, then I wouldn't be here, so like an Ifshiri should I had to let the past be the past.
I clamped down on the images and ate some of the leftover pork. Mahrham told me the others hadn't had time to hunt and Tesharah himself had suggested they eat the dead animals rather than burn them … I was threatening to collapse in tears again as I thought about what they had been burning but succeeded in containing them.
Then I realised what the pork meant. Nobody would eat the meat unless it was reasonably fresh … I wanted to go and look; to check. Maybe someone had survived, hidden? Mahrham nodded slowly. They had searched every inch he said, but we would sleep first and then search again if I wished. He cuddled me as the tears flowed anew.

I was having a dream. I knew I was dreaming but I couldn't figure out why. Horla was looking at me sadly across the fire, then pointing down at the body and nudging it with his foot while Gworshi and Gworal looked on …
I woke up with a start, almost breaking Mahrham's jaw as I sat bolt upright. Gworshi, Gworal. Horban, Horla. That's what Gwor had meant by 'now he had no one left to take care of him'. No wonder the poor little thing had been so upset - I'd just killed his big brother.
I think Mahrham must have thought I'd gone mad as I shot out of his arms, yelling Horla's name. I hunted all over the camp until I found him, half-awake, huddled on his little blanket under a bush. I crouched down in front of him as he looked up at me with his usual nervous glance and held out my hand as he had done to me. He let me pull him into my arms and I hugged him and kissed him as he cried.
'David is sorry, Horla,' I said, gently stroking his neck. 'David kill Horla's brother.' I felt a great deal of tension leave my body when Horla waggled his head sadly, suddenly feeling a strange calm as I cuddled the little Ifshiri, at last shedding his grief for his dead sibling while I watched the last wisps of black smoke rise from the fire on colony hill.

We left Gwor's clan at the campsite while the six of us went to do a final check of the colony. On the way, Mahrham confirmed it had been Eater and that the attack had probably been only two nights before. He asked if I wanted to hear the details and I nodded wearily but told him to tell me anyway.
Most of the colonists had been in their beds, presumably asleep; hence the assumption the attack had happened at night. They'd counted the bodies, he said. The animals had confused Gwor's people at first, particularly the pigs, but they'd sorted them out in the end. Thirty-seven people. Some of them had died almost instantly … but others hadn't. The pigs had survived the longest, apparently. Of Porrhin there was no sign at all, but his knives lay jumbled around his bed, all the previously leather-bound ones now haftless.

We had reached the drawbridge which was down, but I didn't yet know if there was any significance to the fact. As we crossed it I tried to avoid looking at the fire still smouldering in the far corner of the compound. I knew they were gone, but I still found it hard to believe Mum and Dad and little Jake weren't going to come running up to welcome us.
That it had been Eater was obvious, because defunct grey units lay everywhere, some of them already starting to disintegrate. The colony itself was half demolished; everything organic had vanished, from the paint covering the walls to the insulation on all the wiring. Any exposed rubber and plastic components had been taken, causing much of the equipment and many installations to fall into barely identifiable heaps of disconnected rubble.
Having satisfied ourselves that nothing remained alive, the next task was to see if anything was left of Fred. The corridors to the control room were too blocked with debris for Tesharah or Tamori, so Mahrham and I left our four clanmates to rest while we struggled through the ruins.
Fred was completely silent. His outsides had disappeared, exposing a gleaming, metallic finish and all the wires had been stripped bare. Most of the LCD screen had vanished as well, leaving something I just didn't recognise. One look at the keypad told me it wasn't going to function and all the plastic buttons and panels had gone. I looked inside one of the carriage ports and my heart sank. I pressed the sharp metal end of the power button more in hope than expectation but wasn't surprised when nothing worked. Fred was as dead as his human companions.
I'd almost forgotten Mahrham was behind me and jumped when he took my arm. He was pointing at the printer, hardly recognisable with all its plastic parts missing. There were two sheets of paper lying on the desk in front of it. The top one had 'DAVID' printed on it in big, faint letters.
The message underneath was short:

Compound under attack by Eater. Drawbridge up. Don't know how it gained entry. Sensors going out already. Turned off signal drones. Good luck, Centauran.
Your frie

I realised the stupidity of it even as I was doing it. Fred was a machine, just a jumble of stuff and you don't cry like a baby over a jumble of stuff. But I did of course. For Fred and for Jake and even for Porrhin, who I'd succeeded in killing after all.
And then the date hit me. Typical Fred; he always dated everything. Yesterday had been my sixteenth birthday. I told Mahrham and he patted my shoulder as I looked up at him and smiled through my tears. His expression said 'we are done here' and I waggled slowly, gratefully accepting a little hug before we left.
My last mission before leaving the compound was to find anything immediately useful. Mahrham had already collected Porrhin's knives, leaving only two things I could think of that I wanted; lenses for Tamori's eyes and antibiotics for Horla's ears. The wooden lenses box also contained some simple frames and a testing kit, so I decided to take the whole lot. It was a bit heavy however, so Mahrham put it in one of his bags. As far as treatment for Horla was concerned, I just took a small selection of antibiotics and fungicides marked 'broad spectrum' as I hadn't the faintest idea what was wrong with him.
Logic told me I should leave all the stuff where it was and bring Horla and Tamori to it, rather than it to them, but although I knew I might have to return for something at a future time, right now, I just wanted to leave and get as far away as possible.
Before we left though, there were still some things to take care of. I wanted to check the drawbridge to see why it was down. Although it was possible one of the colonists had lowered it, I thought it unlikely.
We'd all been taught exactly how the drawbridge operated and at first glance, I couldn't see anything wrong with it. Most of it was made of metal and wood; even the ropes were cellulosic and of course, Eater had touched none of it.
Then I saw it. Or rather, I didn't see them. The chocks holding the pulley in place were gone. It was really quite simple. They must have been made of something organic, some sort of plastic or rubber perhaps. Eater had eaten them and down came the drawbridge.
But of course, that wasn't the way Eater had got in. It was the way it had got out. We knew Eater couldn't tunnel, so it had to have spanned the moat somehow. Then with a jolt, I realised what it must be; what those irritating, niggly thoughts of 'something about sonta' and the pool in the cave had meant.
My perplexed clanmates followed me as I raced outside over the drawbridge, running around the edge of the moat, looking up into the sky. Halfway round, opposite the rear of the farm and the silage pit, I found it. Sonta had hung its trap from a limb spanning a croki path and I had even watched Eater as it tried to reach us in the pool by using overhanging branches.
The trunk of the tree was at least fifty feet from the moat but sixty or seventy feet up, one massive bough stretched right across the water and over the fence to perhaps ten feet within the compound. Tesharah and Tamori looked up as I pointed at the limb; they didn't have to say anything, but just waggled slowly. We examined the trunk of the tree and the others around it and the effects of the passage of millions of tiny legs were obvious. Eater must have tried all of them until it found one that worked.

We left the colony to rejoin Gwor's clan and I didn't look back. I don't know whether Mahrham could tell from the expression on my face just how hard I was trying to absolve myself from blame. If I'd thought more about sonta; about the tendrils of Eater dangling over the pool … if only I'd said 'it can climb trees'.
If only …
I shook my head in frustration. It was the past. Ifshiri didn't carry the baggage of the past around to torture themselves with and for someone aged just sixteen, I'd certainly collected some baggage.
I thought back to what Fred had called me …
Centauran …
Fred never said anything for nothing. The clue was that he'd turned off the drones. He'd left the planet to the Ifshiri and me, with no signals to guide more seeding-ships.
Just like Tesharah, Fred had been well aware that seeds grew.
And like Tesharah, he'd known that sometimes they grew into weeds.

[To be continued.]
Link to part 20: [link]
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