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A short story by

Kal-El Bogdanove

By noon Rin was getting impatient. They'd stumbled onto two other hunting pods, a pair and a group of six, and each time Shaw had taunted the mutalisks and laughed like a man possessed as he put them to slaughter.

"Shaw!" Rin shouted into the vidscreen as Shaw finished blasting the last bug with his crotch-mounted laser. Good gravy!

"What is it, missy?"

Rin ignored the diminutive. "I could've driven out here and gunned down muta strays with my dad's old AGR-14, but it was my understanding you were gonna take out a spire for us."

"We're following your little scientist's heading." Shaw snickered.

"The heading is correct. If they're not within a klick of here—right over that rise—I'll tear up my credentials!" said Champlain, growing petulant. "Besides, every kill counts. They're certainly not breeding. Not without a hatchery."

The hunters pressed for the ridge, and as they crested it, Rin could see the sweeping valley and the massive tabletop mesa that dominated it.

"Wow!" said Champlain, too rocked by grandeur to remain surly.

"That's Anvil Rock," explained Rin. "Choss was settled first by a group of back-to-the-land commune types 'bout a hundred years ago. Called themselves the "Anaranjado Noventa" — the "Orange Ninety" — even though there were about two hundred of 'em. They thought this rock was some kinda sacred place to take a spirit journey. No one's been out here as far as I know since the centennial, when I was about seventeen—"

"Look!" shouted Champlain. Shaw banked left down the hill, and Rin whipped out her binoculars and followed…

There, at the bottom of the valley, hiding in the shade of the mesa… was the spire.

It was way bigger and grosser than Rin had imagined, a claw-footed thrust of cartilaginous bone the diameter of a redwood tree Rin had seen in a pic-tome as a girl. The stem supported a pulsating, membranous sack with a gently respiring circular vent in the top.

Like the Devil's arsehole, thought Rin, hearing the voice of her dad in her head. And it's huge.

The entire overhang of Anvil Rock was bristling with rustling wings and ovipositors—Rin couldn't count how many. Then, moving to the indecipherable rhythms that govern a flock, the horde took flight.

There were tons of them, a screeching, flapping cacophony of gnashing teeth and scrunching spiked protrusions. They filled the sky, a terrifying cloud of death, shrieking, "Tekeli-li!" Come and die.

And as the hopelessly huge horde settled around the spire again, Rin thought, We're gonna need more goliaths.

"I thought it might be something like this," muttered Champlain. "Your Anvil is probably laced with mineral deposits. They would work like iron-ball paint on ancient stealth craft, confusing radar imaging. No wonder we never caught this spire on any satellite scans. No wonder your sanitation teams missed it! The mutalisks were likely attracted by its roosting potential, but they lucked into a perfect hiding place."

"Maybe it wasn't luck at all. Maybe they wanted to hide from your satellites," grumbled Rin.

"No, no. Mutalisks can't grasp concepts as complex as radar imaging," Champlain replied.

"I thought you said it was hard to tell what they do get and what they don't," said Rin.

Champlain remained silent, staring out at the massive flock until Shaw grunted, "All right. Champlain, let's get your monkey ass off my back and into the LAV with the pretty marshal. We'll send these overgrown black flies to meet their slimy maker."

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