By Phaedra Mintun
Scottie stood on the porch, huffing to regain his breath. S'more leaned his poundage on the step's railing, with Rick sitting on the step below him, staring back along the path toward the forge. They had run the entire distance checking over their shoulders for pursuing robots, but they had not been chased. Cook stood out in the yard, peeling away stretchy patches of the orange goop that had dried over his skin and clothes.
Sticky sauntered out of the house and perused them with his bright green eyes. "I have located some very good rum." He waved a bottle as evidence. "I found it near a boat, behind a goat." He guzzled straight from the bottle. "Which is funny. I prefer to keep mine in me sock below me co-" He paused and looked from face to face, first opening his eyes wide, then squinting. "Didn't Finn leave with you?"
Rick didn't take his eyes off the path. "He got captured."
Sticky sat down on the step next to Rick and offered him the bottle. Rick took a deep swig and passed it back to his captain. Scottie had recovered from their retreat. "Finn said they need food and water. How are we going to get it to them?"
Dylan and Edwin appeared in the doorway. "What are we going to give them might be a better question. The kitchen's empty."
Everyone sagged. Rick finally spoke up. "We need to come up with a plan. Didier looked like he hasn't eaten in a while. He isn't going to last much longer. Oscar and Finn are in there with him and are gonna be in the same boat soon. We have to get them supplies and get close enough to talk to Didier so he can tell us how to stop those damn machines!"
Scottie shook his head. "How d' we get close 'nough? Soon as those tin cans spot us we'll be taken or shot."
Rick looked up suddenly. "Only if we're people!"
Cook's piggy eyes disappeared into the ground beef of his face as his brows knitted skeptically . "You plan on becoming a ground squirrel an takin' 'em your nuts?"
Rick shook his head. "I was thinking more of a horse!"
Stickywicket patted Rick's shoulder with a long white hand. "Ambitious, but it isn't the size. It's how you use it."
Rick ignored Sticky. "I think we could build a horse costume and fool them into ignoring us."
Scottie shrugged, "It's worth a try."
They searched the house, looking for things they could use to make a horse costume. Dylan and Edwin brought down an old brown bedspread that they had found in the attic. S'more delivered a mop head made of grungy string to be used as a mane. Cook and Rick had searched the lab for enough wire to create a framework for the head and worked together to bend it into shape, as the twins stood back and offered a steady stream of suggestions. Scottie did the sewing. He had plenty of experience with a needle and thread from mending sails. By evening, they had a floppy costume, made to be inhabited by two men, which slightly resembled a child's drawing of a horse.
Scottie held it up and raised an eyebrow invitingly. "Who's going in?"
Cook eyed the droopy blanket horse. "I'll go pack up the supplies." He walked toward the kitchen.
Rick stepped forward. "I'll take lead."
Edwin shrugged. "I'll go 'long."
Dylan patted his brother roughly on the back. "Putting your talents to use! Always knew you had it in you!"
Edwin squirmed his way into the hind position. He had to stand bent at the waist, making up the horse's rear and middle. Scottie and Dylan held up the front of the horse while Rick climbed in, fitting his feet through the front legs and putting his head into the frame they had built to look like a horse’s long face. Scottie and Dylan closed the gap, covering Edwin's bowed red head. Scottie stood back and studied them. The horse's head was slightly crooked and the thick brown material hung awkwardly in all the wrong places. Dylan's face split with a wicked grin and his hand snapped out and slapped his brother’s bottom through the fabric. "YAW!"
The back end of the horse jumped forward. The front feet shuffled slightly. "Get your head out of me arse!" Rick's muffled voice exclaimed.
"Nothin' I'd like better!" Edwin retorted. The hind end wobbled backward.
They spent a few minutes sorting out how to walk, during which time the horse’s skin crawled like a sack full of kittens. Eventually, they could move around without crashing into each other and in a fashion that was at least somewhat horse-like.
Feeling that they were as prepared as they were going to get, Rick and Edwin climbed out of their horsey attire and the group set off for the forge.
While everyone else had been working on the horse, Sticky and S'more had been sorting through everything that looked like it might be a projectile weapon. As they walked, S'more handed out weapons and they discussed their plan. Rick and Edwin would be inside the horse with the few supplies they had managed to scavenge from the house, packaged in corked glass bottles, which they hoped would survive the electrical fence. Sticky, Cook, Dylan, S'more, and Scottie would spread out around the clearing hiding in the underbrush. If the robots showed any signs of suspicion toward the faux filly, their job was to distract them.
Right before the bend in the path that would put them in view of the forge the groups split up. Rick and Edwin climbed back into their horsey get up, and the rest of the group left the path to find hiding places in the underbrush at the edges of the clearing. Sticky, Cook and Dylan went off to the left, while S'more and Scottie went right. Scottie moved slowly, trying not to make any sounds that would give them away as he moved along the forest floor. Scottie was surprised with the silent ease that S'more managed despite his bulk. The huge Samoan motioned that he was going to move forward, taking up his position and that Scottie should continue on, positioning himself closer to the creek.
Scottie found a place that offered good cover, but gave him a clear view of what was happening in the open space in front of the forge. The mechanical men were still pacing around the clearing, guarding the electrical prison. Inside, Finn and Oscar were sitting on the ground beside a prostrate Didier. Scottie settled into his position in the bushes near the creek. In the evening quiet, he could hear the soft hum of the mechanical workings inside the droids. One of them still had bits of the orange goop stuck in the treading of his wide feet, the sticky substance had picked up bits of twigs and grass. Another guard had several dents on his head and shoulders. Scottie assumed this was the enemy S'more had done battle with.
The makeshift mustang meandered into the meadow. The robots turned toward the scuffling noise. Scottie heard a faint questioning neigh come from the horse's bowels.
Scottie held his breath.
The sentries turned away and continued marching their drills.
The lumpy blanket pony slowly galumphed toward the glowing lacework of electricity. Scottie worked to keep his breathing slow and steady, his blaster propped and ready to fire if they had any problems. His nose tickled. He ignored it. The horse sashayed up beside the blue dome. The tickle in Scottie's nose got worse. He tried to get some relief by scrunching and unscrunching his nose like an epileptic bunny. It wasn't helping. Scottie looked around. There, just beside his right boot, he spotted a small cluster of pale pink flowers. He groaned internally. It was rock-jasmine and he was terribly allergic to the pollen. Twitching his nose, he looked back at the field. Rick and Edwin were standing beside the scarab-made prison. The horse’s head was hanging lopsided and tilted back at an unnatural angle. Scottie adjusted his gun so he could rub his itching nose. He held his breath, trying to ward off the imminent sneeze.
Finally, the front of the horse turned away from the prison, folding bizarrely before the rear managed to straighten out. It quickly clomped back toward the path. Scottie gave a sigh of relief. His eyes welled and the tingling in his nose grew in intensity. He rubbed at his face, but it was too late. The pressure had built. His sneeze echoed through the pine trees.
The orange-footed warrior bot rotated in his direction. He felt it lock onto him with its view ports. Scottie braced his gun against his shoulder, aimed the long trumpeted barrel at his opposition, pulled the large red lever back to cock, just as Sticky had instructed him, then pulled back on the blue lever at the bottom. A massive hail of brightly colored marbles blasted out the front. They pinged and ricocheted off the brass armor of his attacker. Scottie made a frenzied run through the underbrush toward the path.
A symphony of bangs, pops and rattles filled the air, underlined by a long, drawn out rumble like the wet flatulence of a bull elephant. A yellow cloud bellowed through the clearing, the scent of sulfur saturating the air. Scottie gagged as he ran, spitting out wads of brimstone-mulled phlegm. The underbrush cleared and Scottie weaved onto the path. His eyes watered rotten egg whites down his cheeks.
The sound of heavy footfalls pounded behind him. Scottie's lungs were revolting, protesting their ill treatment by holding a strike. The vrooming hum of the lightning gun powering to life behind him sent flocks of goose bumps migrating down his spine. He waited until the last possible second. The charge of electricity spiked every hair on his body. The net of blue light snapping through the particles above him as he dove to the ground. Scottie lay flat, his face pressed into the loose soil of the worn forest path. He held his breath and mentally begged the robot to leave him for dead.
A thundering crack ricocheted through the forest, followed by a shuddering creak and the soft whoosh of tree branches bouncing as a tree struck by the robot's lightning gun fell. Scottie stayed frozen, listening for signs of life from his comrades. Branches and underbrush were being thrashed somewhere farther into the woods. Closer at hand, an orange-smeared metal foot came into Scottie's limited view.
The low buzz of the robot's weapon sounded directly above him. Scottie rolled over. The honeycombed barrel of the massive piece of hardware and the towering brass machine were beautifully framed by the high stretching treetops, glittering night sky, and the bright glow of the full moon that hung just above the construct’s shoulder. Scottie closed his eyes and took a deep breath, savoring the sweet spring air, the spice of pine, and the hint of smoke stemming from the fallen tree. As far as last breaths went, this wasn't the worst. Scottie held it, waiting for the inevitable blast of shocking death. A few seconds passed. If he knew he was going to have this much time he would have made more effort to escape. Scottie opened his eyes. The robot was still standing above him, but its round head was tilted back toward the clearing, as if listening intently. The gun poised above him no longer hummed, but instead offered a soft fizz of stored power. Scottie began moving slowly, like a sloth sneaking out its bedroom window, pulling himself along the ground, away from the robot.
The brass body spun, facing back toward the clearing. Scottie froze his creeping escape and tried to look inconspicuous. The thrashing in the woods came nearer. Someone was crashing through the thicket toward the path. The robot seemed unaware. It stood in the center of the path, looking back toward the forge. Dylan came thundering out of the boscage, flailing his long lanky arms. Green pine needles clashed with his bird's nest of bright red hair. His freckled face was hidden under a mustardy coating of powder. Dylan waved emphatically toward the house and Scottie leapt to his feet. The two of them charged toward the house, leaving the guard standing like a brass statue behind them.
Scottie caught a whiff of sulfur a few seconds before the full weight of the smell hit him like a brick of brimstone. He gagged. The stench of the cloud in the clearing had been horrible, but this was like swimming in the excrement of hellhounds! He continued to run, trying to breathe only through his mouth, but each time he was forced to suck in air, the taste of rotted eggs melted over his tongue, and demon farts burned down his throat.
They burst out into the front yard of the chalet. Dylan never slowed his pace as he flew across the yard and bailed into the trough in the goat pin. He scrubbed ruthlessly at his face. Scottie staggered up to the porch. S'more was bent over, grasping the railing as he chugged air. Cook lay flat on his back in the grass, his honey-baked ham of a head slick with sweat, glistening in the moonlight. Scottie pulled in the clean air, trying to wring the putrid particles out of his lungs. He sat down on the porch steps, and rested his elbow on his knees.
An awkward form moved through the shadow on the path. Scottie pulled himself upright and nudged S'more, alerting him to the presence. They both stepped out into the grass watching. The mass moved out of the shadows of the trees and into the glow of the moon. Scottie recognized the gleam of red hair. Edwin was still clothed in the back end of the horse costume. His long, lean legs were bowed as he struggled under the weight of an unconscious Rick, who he cradled in his skinny arms. Rick's legs were still through the horse costume, but the fabric had been pushed down around his waist and the head dangled, grotesquely flattened, from his waist. Rick's close-cropped blond hair was matted with blood, his long arms were covered in abrasions from elbow to wrist, and breath rattled in and out his bleeding nose.