There's someone playing a five-string violoncello far off in the middle of the ruined city and the noise drives you crazy, war-beast, chained thing, I can tell from how you toss your head and buck at your masters, how your eyes grow even more fiery when the noise drifts, carried to you on the wind, on the backs of the desert jinn, scurrying along and leaving pawprints for you to find in the morning. You gnash your teeth about when you wake and the sun breaks the clouds down and packs them away for the day. More marching. You tire of marching; your limbs are too gangly and too armored; your flesh locks heat in.
War-beast, I am coming to stave your head in and eat your heart. I have had no meat for five years; I have lived off of emergency rations and hope and nuclear fuel. I am so prosthetic you cannot digest me. I am fate.
Your masters (there are five, if you have not bothered to count, or have counted and then forgotten again) take turns in the saddle, resting their legs. They are small ratty things with long jezzails and snouts unsuited for the sand. I am so much better — my parts hardened and enamel-sealed, my lungs filtered and my air clean. Why should I not have that saddle? Why should I not embroider on your skin and leave the scraps for my jackdaws? War-beast, I want a cloak made from your soft bits. It will keep the sun off my poor head so much better than this old thing. It is old and black and sticks out like a sore thumb during the day.
Days I keep myself buried, powered off, sonar sucking a tiny tiny bit from my batteries and keeping you pinged. I open my mouth and eat the sound and let it flow over me and try to crush and know it must fail.
Whoever plays the violoncello must have some wizardry in their fingers for the sound carries much farther than it ever could. The noise floats over the desert from miles away. We have left the city behind five days ago but it sounds just as loud as it did then. Like ghosts whispering over just the next dune.
To sate my curiosity, one day I power on and get my sensors going. I point everything in the direction of the sound and wait and listen.
There is a blip following us, war-beast. It is gaining on me just as surely as I am gaining on you. It pings like metal and tastes like salt and sand and smells like the one time I ever went to the sea. My heart is too old for worry. It just pumps. You should worry, but what is the point? You will sour your meat.
War-beast, I will tell how it will happen. I will crest the dune in the middle of the night. This is where my ragged black cloak helps, woven of twelve midnights a long time ago, when they could be had for pennies. Your masters will see the stars blot. They will unlimber their jezzails and fire and I will slump and bleed and die.
They will come near and prod at me and I won't move.
They will turn me over, grunting at how heavy and clanking I am and I won't move.
They will take off my cloak and I will rise and tear them apart and you will wake and glower and feel a thread of relief in your heart that finally, finally there is some action to be had.
I knew someone with a violoncello once, but I do not recall if it was five-stringed. They put themselves into that instrument; it hung over their back like crabshell and they could tuck themselves into it whenever they were frightened. It didn't help but admittedly it made them feel much more at home.
This person's hand could splay open and reveal forty extra fingers with which to play their violoncello. They were very good at it; I had the pleasure of listening once, when I stayed at their same caravanserai and they were in a gay mood. It sounded like the music does today, soft and angry and like knives in air, the little parting sound as the air is cut.
I jilted them and they never forgave me. I wonder if fate tracks me, playing a violoncello, coming to exact revenge? Perhaps they will find me too hard to crack. I am so much more divine than I was before, if we define divinity as percentage of body being metal. The good kind, too. All I need is a nice, soft cloak made from your skin; mine is old and worn and needs replacement. Is it so much to ask? It is so white and soft and precious; I will take much better care of it than you've been doing. You are clumsy now, war-beast. The last five fights have hurt you dearly, though you do not know it. Your checklist runs along limbs then weaponry then organs but never cares for your hide; it is not too late to save it, and I can kill you without moving a muscle, without ruining your coat, without spoiling the meat. I can patch the holes with parts of my own; we match, war-beast, we match.
War-beast, once we would have sallied toward the music and taken its violoncello for ourselves; we would have ripped and torn and devoured whatever tracked us and then left its carcass for the gulls, flung it into the sea to let the rust take it. War-beast, once there was no fear in your five-chambered heart, anodized against pain and regret and greatness. What is there now? You nip at your tail, growl at your masters. You can feel me nearby just as I can feel you, clambering in my femurs, shaking in my ribs.
War-beast, our fight is already over. Your monomol claws and viral teeth and guns and gear are nothing to me, for I can turn you off with a gesture, a word. And if you do manage a strike it is nothing; my skin will close over it and there will be no trace, not even a scar. War-beast, you have lost, and when I am through with you we will go together as we have always meant to, we will go sally forth and ride over the hills and I will see with these eyes what follows us.
This morning the music is very, very close indeed.
Audrey Rhys is a psychotherapist from Oregon, but has recently moved to Florida for a warmer perspective on things. She is currently working on a novel.