As I ran, I thought. Running was a good time for thinking because it was really easy for me. I was built for it. Ma said I was born to run, and Pa frequently complained that I didn’t have more meat on my bones. Pa didn’t really understand why I liked running; he was a big man, and strong. He would have been bigger and stronger if he hadn’t had so many ribs broken by a horse rolling on him when he was my age. As it was, Pa couldn’t run without pain, and hard work hurt him, but he did it anyway. ‘Work wouldn’t do itself’, as he liked to say.
I met Ted, the Hershel family’s youngest son who could ride, on his pony as I ran up the Hershel family road to their farmhouse. The ten-year-old was commendably serious and didn’t waste any time. He was headed down their road to the main road, and called out to me as soon as we were within loud talking distance.
“You got locusts too?”
I slowed to a jog and responded. “Yes. Scattered forerunners. You’ve seen them too?”
He nodded energetically and his pony shied a little bit as I ran around it. With a quick tug on the reins, a couple throat clucks, and a pat on the neck, Ted had his mount under complete control. I paced Ted and his mount as they trotted towards the road, and a second or so after his pony was under control, he spoke again. “Pa saw the first one about twenty minutes ago. He told me to go tell the Countyman and everyone on the way into town.”
“I’m doing that now. Can you go the other way?” I asked.
Ted stared at me. “No. Pa said…”
“Ask your pa. Tell him I asked you to go the other way on the road for two hours. I’ll get word to town and the neighbors faster than you can, but we need to tell people the other way too, if they haven’t already seen forerunners.”
“I don’t want to question Pa, Allen.”
“Please go. Ask your pa if I told you right. Tell him what I said. Tell him I told you to ask him.” I looked at Ted’s plump pony. It was definitely not an endurance breed. “I can outrun your pony into town, and your pa will know it. But I can’t run both ways.”
Ted looked me up and down as I jogged next to his pony, clearly trying to make a decision. After a moment he tugged his reins, and his pony slowed and turned back up towards the house. “I will ask Pa. You will tell everyone on the way into town, and the Countyman?”
As I pulled away from Ted, I called back to him. “Yes. I will. Except the prism tower. The Countyman has to authorize signal, and they don’t have crops there.”
Ted’s pony was already trotting back up the path. We were out of easy talking range, so he waved at me with a wide overhead swing of his arm as he went to go find his pa. My family was on very good terms with the Hershels, with blood relations three generations back. I was certain that Ted’s pa would agree with me.
I grinned a little to myself. After all, it was his eldest son, Kale, on one of their horses that I had raced into town and beat last year. Not by much, but I beat him. If Ted had been riding the same horse, it probably would have beaten me. Ted’s fat pony would collapse trying to match me over twenty kilometers.
When I got back to the road, I stopped jogging and started running again. In a few seconds, I had carefully metered my steps and breathing into my best pace short of a sprint. I could run three minutes then jog five and run again until my body sugar was depleted. On the next jog I’d eat half of one of the flatbreads. I hoped it was one of the ones with a bit of sugar inside.
Marza’s family road was the second homestead on the way into town. As I jogged up their road and got close to the house, everything seemed calm. Marza’s granpa was sitting on a rocker on the front porch, whittling something, rapid, sure movements of his hands that stopped as he looked up to watch me approach.
“Have you seen the locusts yet, sir?” I called out.
Mr. Gonzalez just stared at me for a second like I was an idiot before shaking his head as he stood, banging his right fist into the side if the house and yelling “Felisha, come here now!” as he carefully stood and walked down the steps to meet me. “No. Show me.”
Trust, then verify. It wasn’t a question. Mr. Gonzalez knew I wouldn’t come here and say that without proof, but he’d ask for the proof anyway.
He swiped his glass knife reflexively back and forth to clean it on his leather pants before sheathing it as I stopped moving in front of him, jogging in place so I wouldn’t tighten up.
I pulled one of the dead bugs out of my swine treat bag and handed it to him. He traced the outline of the insect with one finger while muttering “Wrong year.” After touching the locust, he lifted a finger with bug juice on it next to his nose and sniffed.
Marza’s ma, Felisha, appeared in the doorway. “Yes, Pa, what do you need?”
Mr. Gonzalez pointed at the locust I was holding out for him to see, and she went pale as a cloud before visibly shaking herself. Her hand shot out like a whip, reaching inside the door to grab the horn there, quickly drawing it to her mouth and blowing three short blows, waiting a few seconds, and then three more. I heard at least five horns reply, and then Marza’s ma blew one long blow for the main house. Almost everyone used the same patterns up to four blows. Some farms used more complex patterns, but almost everyone used the same basic patterns. If you were born on one farm and married into another, not knowing horn signals could be a real problem.
Mr Gonzalez handed the locust back to me, saying “Keep it. You’re going to the Countyman and telling everyone on the way there?”
“Yes, Sir. Except the prism tower.” I said while I struggled to put the bug back in the swine treat pouch while jogging in place.
After a half second looking at me, meeting my eyes, he nodded. “You sent someone the other way, or do we need to?”
“I met Ted Hershel who was on his way into town. I sent him to his pa and told him to explain to his pa that Ted should go the other way. I think he will.”
He nodded. “Felisha, send Pako to the Hershel farm and make sure Ted was sent the other way. If he didn’t, we’ll probably see him any minute now, but I want to be sure someone goes the other way. Tell Pako that if Ted did go into town, he’s to go away from town and tell people like Allen asked Ted to do.”
I was hoping to at least get to wave to Marza, but she was probably at one of the fields with her border collies and chickens. Without a four-blow alarm, she would be penning her chickens before coming to the house with the dogs.
Mr. Gonzalez made a shooing motion with his hands, with a little smile as he caught me looking down their road past the house. “Go. Unless you need water or a little food?”
With a loud sigh that made Mr. Gonzalez and Marza’s ma both smile, I said “No, sir. Leaving now.” As I turned, and started jogging for real rather than in place, the two of them started talking rapidly, planning for the emergency harvest. As much as I wanted to see Marza before the insanity of an emergency harvest, I had to go.
As I got up to speed, Marza’s Ma called out. “We’ll tell her hello for you.”
I waved a big wave over my head and called out a heartfelt “Thanks!” I didn’t look back. Turning an ankle would not be good.
Marza’s granpa was smarter and knew more than most of my teachers, I was pretty sure. Rumor had it that when he was young, he had been a speculator in New Singapore across the inner sea, and found an old house foundation from the ancient days in a jungle. In that house, he had supposedly found a sealed carbon shell that had a real motor in it. A motor, at least two kilos. A huge chunk of metals from around the time of the Albert Incident.
Supposedly, he sold the shell and motor to the Medical Guild. The shell would have been filled with alcohol and used for bug-free metal storage. The metals would have been made into needles and scalpels. The story was a little supported by the fact that he could talk rings around just about anyone about geology and soil management. Everyone came to him when their crops didn’t grow right so they could talk about what to do to amend the soil.
Marza said he was teaching her soil chemistry which we would certainly need at our own place. I had never done well in chemistry, but Marza had been almost perfect every year. She even did well in the elective metallurgy and metal storage class in the last year before we graduated, which few people ever bothered taking. I had taken an advanced genetics class instead, hoping that I’d be able to translate the academics into useful knowledge with my swine and Marza’s border collies and chickens.
I didn’t know if it were true that Mr. Gonzalez had found an ancient motor, and it didn’t matter. I’d never asked, because I didn’t need to know and it felt like prying. It was more fun to imagine the story was true. I think that might have been one reason he liked me, because I never asked him about it.
When I reached the main road I kept jogging for a minute while I ate half a flatbread, which had sugar and cheese in it. Ma was awesome. I took a couple drinks of water from the cameltote and sealed it, jogged about another thirty seconds, and then started running again.
The next three family farms didn’t know about the locusts. We weren’t close to any of them, so I didn’t stop to chat. I handed whoever was at the house a locust, told them I was headed into town and the Hershel and Gonzalez families were spreading the word out of town. I didn’t have to say anything else. Horns were blowing at every farm before I left the porch.
When I was about a mile from town, I saw a familiar sight. A gigantic grey shape on the road, with a heavy six-wheeled cart a little way beyond it. I slowed from a run to a jog when I was thirty or forty meters away, because Teak’s eyesight wasn’t good, and I didn’t want to get her upset. Everyone knew that you had to slow down on the road to pass elefants. Especially if they had calves. Most road crew elefants were elderly, too old to move massive logs. Sometimes, however, an injured cow would be young and healthy enough to still bear calves, and capable of working with the road crew. Any elefant with the ability to walk easily was an amazingly powerful puller. Even the largest paving stones were inconsequential weights to elefants that could still walk at all. Logging and roadbuilding were the only two major jobs that elefants did though. They were less efficient than smaller draft animals for simple pulling. In a job that required both pulling and lifting and carrying though, they were worth their weight in aluminum.
As I approached, Donal, Teak’s mahout waved at me. Teak was carrying a stone from the cart towards Kristof, who was pouring a little sand into the hole next to the broken pieces of an old paving stone. I stayed about five meters away, jogging in place while Teak finished carrying the stone to where Kristof was waiting for it. The harness strapped onto her upper tusks supported the large stone slung in the rope net which she set daintily on the ground with Donal’s encouragement. Kristof slid the stone out of the rope net and scratched Teak’s trunk. Teak rumbled briefly, and playfully tugged at Kristof’s hand with the end of her trunk.
After setting the stone on the ground, and having her brief conversation with Kristof, Teak stretched her trunk towards me, and rumbled a little more. I recognized it as a greeting.
“Hello, Teak!” I called out to her. “Donal and Kristof good day to you as well, of course.” I nodded to them. They both smiled, Donal with a huge grin, Kristof with a little smirk. It was a little joke between us three that I preferred Teak’s company to theirs. I had been a sullen and angry thirteen year old the first time I had been assigned to the road crew for fighting. The second and third times, I had actually somewhat looked forward to the ‘punishment’ of working on the road crew around Teak, because she was fascinating. At least as smart as my swine. Much smarter than dogs. She was more emotional than swine too, apparently happy to do things just because Donal asked her to. Not that she didn’t love her treats.
Kristof stood, and moved to the side, so Teak could approach me directly. I pulled an acorn treat out of my swine treat pouch as she slowly approached, stretching out her trunk like a huge arm. The two little finger-pincers at the end of her trunk gently touched the palm of my hand as she felt out the shape of the treat and secured it. Teak loved acorn treats. I had taught Donal how to make them, since white acorns were so easy to get around here, and banana trees, which Teak adored, didn’t grow here. He and Teak were from over a thousand kilometers south along the shore of the inner sea, in New Ecuador. There were few oaks in the tropical regions, and the ones that were there were usually in the outskirts, not where most of the lumbering industry took place.
Slapping his hands on his pants, Kristof called out to me. “Legs, it looks like you’ve worked up quite a lather getting here. Is everything OK?” He was giving me a serious look, clearly a little confused by my presence.
“Locusts, Kristof, early and in an off year.” I pulled out one of my remaining dead locusts and handed it to him. Teak snuck her trunk in to see what we were trading and Kristof let her smell it for a second. She lost interest in Kristof’s hand with the bug, and her trunk shifted towards my midsection, getting closer and closer to the swine treat pouch. I scratched her trunk with one hand and pulled another treat out of the pouch. “One more, Teak. One more.” Teak bobbed her head up and down slightly and rumbled. I gave her another treat.
Kristof looked over at Donal. “Start hitching her now. We need to get her back to her paddock with her pond so she can get away from them in the water.”
Donal nodded. “Thank you for the warning, Allen. Teak would thank you too if she knew what was coming.”
“No problem. I would have told you anyway, but I remembered that you said Teak hated locusts. Still no clue how bad the swarm will be this year, but the frontrunners are normally no more than six or eight hours ahead of the main swarm. I saw two over the road in the last thirty minutes. You will start seeing frontrunners soon, guaranteed. I would help you hitch Teak and get moving but I have to tell the Countyman, and then run back to the farm to help with the harvest while there’s still something left.”
Kristof looked at me with a frown. “Your pa didn’t let you ride into town?”
I shook my head. “We need the horses there, and we only have draft breeds anyway. I’m faster than them on the run to town, not to mention a run to town and back, and Pa knows it.”
As I finished saying that, I thought to myself. Even if Edward doesn’t. If I don’t hurt myself, he’ll know it for sure today.
Nodding, Kristof pointed to the wagon, which had a huge wooden water box with a waxed leather interior built into it with water for Teak. Between the stone and the water in the wagon, it took an elephant or an eight-ox team to haul it. There was also a big leather tote of boiled, salted water for humans to drink. “Get some water if you need it.”
I shook my head. “Thank you, but no. I’ve still got a half cameltote, and only about two kilometers to get to town. If I drink my own, I get lighter.”
“Suit yourself.” Kristof turned back to the work site, thought for a second, and said “Donal I’m going to seat this last one then help you. I don’t want to leave a wrong-fit stone.” He picked up a flat piece of wood and a wooden mallet, and measured the flatness of the new stone compared to the ones next to it. After a moment’s thought, he lifted the thick stone with his hook-end tool and put more sand underneath before letting the stone back down and tapping it with his mallet and measuring again.
“Goodbye Teak!” I called out as I started jogging off.
Teak knew what ‘goodbye’ meant, and gave me a brief trumpet farewell as she waved her trunk in my general direction.
Smiling to myself, I started jogging towards town instead of in place and pulled out the second half of the first flatbread, and finishing it off with some water before I started running again.
During the rest of the run, I thought about how lucky I had been to work with the road crew instead of some of the other community labor I might have been assigned to. Net mending or stone breaking would have been horrible. The Countyman had assigned me to the road crew for a day the first time, three days the second time, and a full week the third. Pa had been upset the first two times and livid with me the third time.
The third time I fought in school, the Countyman brought me to the farm and sat me down with Ma and Pa and we had a deadly serious conversation. The Countyman made himself clear. If I fought three times after becoming a legal adult at sixteen, I would be forehead branded and sent to one of the prison colonies for the rest of my life. That was the law, and if Albert caught us violating it, we would accrue community demerits. If a claim was made that a fight had been forced by one fighter on another in a way that one of the fighters could not allow to pass, the Countyman would request Albert’s assistance from the glass sphere sitting next to the big picture window in the Countyman’s residence. Albert could read people like books, and his word was final.
I tried to defend myself saying that I wasn’t trying to establish control over other young men like some sort of monkey, I was pushing them back from their attempts to establish control over me. That had gotten me a withering look and short, angry speech from the Countyman. “Allen, that’s my job. If people push you, it’s your responsibility to tell me. I straighten it out. That’s why Albert’s orb is in my house, not yours. If I don’t do my job conscientiously and fail more than a few times, Albert will find another house where someone else will do the job right. If he doesn’t find a good person here in this town, he will call someone from somewhere else in the county, or even the world to come here and take my job AND my house. Part of me doing my job right according to Albert is me handling things before Albert has to be involved. If I tap on that orb three times to get Albert’s attention, I failed.”
Ma and Pa had made agreement noises and nodded at that, not actually saying anything. Their words came later. Pa worked me hard in the fields for weeks after that night, and Ma was very careful saying anything to me when Pa was around. When Pa wasn’t around, Ma quietly explained to me that her family had several convicted fighters. It was one reason she had been an old maid, because fighting seemed to run in her family. She had been sent to marry Pa, because nobody in Pa’s family had been convicted for fighting in over two hundred years. Pa’s family was also a low birthrate family, and her family was a high birthrate family. This was the first generation in Pa’s family with more than two live born children for five generations.
“Yes, you, Allen. Stop.”
The Countyman’s red brick house was no more than fifty meters away. “What? Sorry. Thinking.” I said out loud as I jogged in place and turned to the voice, recognizing it as I played it through my head again. The Countyman stood in front of the butcher’s shop, a thin paper wrapped package in hand.
“You’re running to my house?” He looked at me with a piercing stare, and pointed at himself. “I’m right here. Speak now, unless it’s something you have to tell me in private.”
Shaking my head, I replied. “Not secret sir. Definitely not secret. Early locusts.” I pulled a couple locusts out of the swine treat bag, and held them out in an open palm.
The Countyman reached out a hand and touched the locusts, picking one up and looking closely at it before putting the dead bug back in my hand and cursing.
That was the second person who never cursed that I had heard curse that day. My face apparently showed that he had startled me, but I said nothing.
The Countyman’s lip turned up a little as he looked at me, but he didn’t say anything for a second. “Follow me, Allen.” He ran to his house. The Countyman ran.
He was a slow runner though. Short legs and a bit overweight. I just jogged after him. He barged into his house, slamming open the door, standing in the doorway as he called out, loudly. “Jen, Sven, come here NOW!”
After a second, his son and daughter, fraternal twins, barreled down the stairs from the second story of the house.
The Countyman’s wife called out from the back of the house. “What is it dear, what’s the yelling for?” I heard her walking towards the front of the house as the twins skidded to a halt in front of the Countyman at the front door. I kept jogging in place slowly on the brick walkway next to the front porch stairs.
“Locusts, Mary.” The Countyman turned to me. “How many do you have?”
I answered. “Four left sir. I gave one each to people that wanted solid proof to show their families. I had eight when I started.”
The Countyman turned to his son. “Sven, get two of the locusts from Allen and take it to the town horn. Blow once to get Buk’s attention. Do NOT forget to put on the earmuffs. I don’t want you deaf. Whoever shows up, show them the locusts. Do not let them take them. When Buk shows up, show him the locusts and tell him to blow to mobilize for emergency harvest.”
The town horn was a very large vuvuzela horn. Easily a dozen feet long, made from a single split log, and then glued back together again. A good blower could be heard all the way at our farm, twenty-one or so kilometers away. If you were close to it when it was blown by anyone, it hurt. A powerful blower could deafen you permanently if you were close and didn’t have ear protection. We didn’t use vuvuzelas on the farm because they scared the animals. Badly. Buk was a barrel-chested man and a very powerful blower. The nearest three prism towers would be able to hear it, and would be closely watching for signal.
After finishing his instructions to his son, the Countyman turned to his daughter, handing her his ring of office. “Jen, run to the prism tower, and tell them to signal all three adjoining stations. ‘Locust sighting.’ Stay there until you get conformation from all three stations. Once you have it in writing, run back to me.”
Sven was still standing in front of his pa, hopping from foot to foot. “Uh, Sir.”
“What? What are you waiting for?” The Countyman snapped.
“Sir, you’re blocking the door.” Sven said, with a little grin.
The Countyman went motionless for a second then stepped aside and ruffled his son’s head as he sprinted through the door towards me.
I moved to the side as Sven ran by me, handing him the two locusts as he headed towards the town center about a hundred meters away down the road.
Jen ran by me a second later, heading back the way I had come, putting her pa’s glass ring with the thin band of something shiny on one of her own fingers. I had never noticed that the Countyman’s ring had metal in it. Not like I had ever been regularly in direct contact with him, but one does tend to notice metal.
After both of his children ran into the road, the Countyman turned to me. “Son, you can stop jogging. You’re here.”
I shook my head. “I can’t risk tightening up sir. I have to run back and help with the harvest as soon as I’m done talking to you.”
“You ran here from your farm, and you’re running straight back to your farm?” The Countyman looked at me, puzzled.
“Yes sir.” Most people really didn’t understand how good I could run. Not even after I outran a horse. Saying that out loud would just be bragging though, so I let the Countyman think.
After a second, he sighed. “I’d rather have you here, but I can send town kids and Messenger Guild runners to make sure nobody’s being a fool and ignoring the emergency harvest. Would you like a sugar tea?”
Without hesitation, I agreed. A sugar tea would be incredible. “Yes, sir. I’ll take a sugar tea, happily.”
The Countyman turned towards his wife, but she was already moving into the house. “One sugar tea coming up, Allen. You’re running. No milk.”
“Thank you ever so much!” I called back into the house.
I pulled the last two locusts out of my swine treat pouch and hopped up onto the porch, handing them to the Countyman, and then hopping back onto the walkway, wiping my hands on my pants and then the tails of my shirt with a grimace. I didn’t want to get locust goop on the Countyman’s cup.
The Countyman stared at me wiping my hands. He blinked in confusion and then looked at the locusts and grinned. “Mary will appreciate that.” He paused. “You’ve shaped up quite a bit in the last year, Allen. I’ve heard that there might be a house-raising soon for you and Marza?”
I know I blushed. The Countyman grinned again, and the town horn let loose with a single high-pitched scream. The rapidly quavering sound seemed to crawl across my skin like something alive. We both winced and every dog in town protested, howling. I knew how they felt. I really wanted to be out of town before Buk blew the horn.
“I hope that fool son of mine put on the earmuffs like I told him to.” The Countyman muttered as we both rubbed our ears briefly.
I didn’t comment. Sven was a year behind me in school. He would graduate next year. I didn’t know him well, but I knew that he wasn’t bright. I noticed that I had stopped jogging in place when the horn startled me, and started again before I could tighten up.
The Countyman looked at me. “Have you considered the Messenger Guild for a year or two, Allen, to build up a little nest egg before you start your farm?”
I took a second to make sure I wasn’t saying anything in a tone that might be considered angry. “No place for my swine there, sir. I looked into it in school at the job fair.” The Messenger Guild had pestered me for a month at school after I won the race. I could understand why, but after I told them no three times, it got annoying.
A rounded shape in a tan apron appeared at the door and I watched the Countyman’s wife carefully walk down the stairs. She was a lot younger than him, and clearly still young enough to get pregnant. I hadn’t even noticed she was pregnant before.
She handed me the heavy glass mug. I was grateful. It was clearly not good glassware. It looked a lot like what we had at the house. Judging from the heat of the glass I would be able to drink the tea without needing to cool it.
I stopped jogging in place and took a quick sip to test the temperature. It was warm but not hot, and very sweet. I could taste honey and lemon in it too. I drained the glass in three deep swallows and held the glass up for a couple more seconds while the thick liquid sugar goop at the base of the cup drained into my mouth.
Thanking her for the drink, I started jogging in place again as I handed her the mug. “Thank you very much Ma’am. I really appreciate that, especially the honey and lemon.” Honey was fairly easy to get. Lemons not so much, at least not around here where they would die overwinter. Lemon wasn’t extravagant, I’d eaten chicken with lemon twice at the pub on Harvest Day with the family, but we never had lemon at the house. We got our vitamin C from blackberries, persimmons, and other fruits we found in season. Ma made preserves and jams so we would have a winter vitamin C source. Some of the vegetables from the garden were pretty good sources too. Lemon was tasty though. I carefully avoided smacking my lips.
“Go, get back to your farm, Allen. Thank your pa for sending notice, and thank you for getting it here so fast.” The Countyman waved his hand in farewell and stepped to the base of the steps and offered an arm to his wife as she started climbing the stairs. She took his arm, more from habit than need, as far as I could tell.
I nodded “Thank you, sir. I’ll tell him.” I turned and jogged back the way I’d come, taking stock of the situation. I didn’t have to stop and tell anyone anything on the way, so I’d get home faster than I got here. Maybe an hour and ten minutes or so, without interruptions. I sloshed the cameltote. A bit less than half full. I’d eat Ma’s second flatbread when I was about halfway. The sugar tea was already hitting my system. I could feel it. After I was on the road, I started running, thinking I hope I get out of town before Buk gets to the horn.
I caught up to Jen as she was running towards the prism tower. As I passed her, she slapped my backside and wolf-whistled. “Marza’s a lucky girl, I can see, Allen.”
I slowed a bit and turned, starting to jog carefully backwards, grinning at her. It was always nice to be paid a compliment, even if it was a little catty. “Afraid I can’t comment on Marza being lucky, Jen, but I seem like a nice enough guy to me.”
She laughed, and started running faster. I noticed she wasn’t breathing hard. As I realized what she had done, I turned away from her before she could see me get angry. She wasted time and ran slow so she could intercept me. I shook my head. Minutes matter. She risked people’s lives to make a pass at me.
Hoping I wasn’t projecting my anger in my voice, I called out without turning. “Sorry Jen, I have to hurry home.” I started running again, pushing myself a little so I would quickly get out of range of Jen’s efforts at conversation. It was almost always nice to be paid a compliment.
As I left Jen behind, I heard the angry noise of locusts in flight and watched four locusts fly across the road in quick succession. By the time I was halfway home, I could see dozens of locusts in the air at any given time.
All of a sudden, I understood why the ancients sometimes turned to prayer.