From atop a lichen-covered boulder, Helminth watched and steamed.
There was an old war beacon called, curiously, Feather-Lock, and it was choked with meat. A lone machine had been caught out, thirsty and bold from the thirst, and it was being swarmed. The pursuit played out beneath Helminth’s telescopic eye. Far below, there was a dusty trail through fields of millet as it ran on rusted legs. The meat gained.
“Tell us,” Cautery said.
“It’s green,” Helminth replied, referring to the doomed machine’s faded livery, “very old.”
Meat fanned out, fragmented, trampling millet. Although the sound didn’t carry, Helminth could see that it was making noises. Helminth had heard the sounds it made on the hunt, the piping sounds of war. Wet, horrible, chaotic.
Below and behind, Cautery shifted. Although neither of them would mention it, Cautery’s own livery was green. There was a clattering as mill touched mill across open air and Cautery communicated with Rust Mountain. Helminth continued to observe.
Old Green had stopped running. Turned to face the meat in a clearing. Conduit swelled as it powered a decrepit bolt gun. It cooked off in a great gout of steam, pressure fittings failing, the machine betraying itself. A piece of meat threw a wooden spear.
“It’s almost finished,” Helminth said.
“That could be my ancestor-builder,” Cautery said, agitated. “We should intervene.”
“We’re not equipped for that,” Helminth said. Meat had seen the bolt gun cook off. It was counting coup, individual bits approaching, hitting Old Green’s legs with clubs, backing up as it lashed out. One slow bit was caught and ripped nearly in half.
“It’s my color,” Cautery said, and flared skirts. An engine whined as the scout spooled up.
Helminth clambered down off the boulder. “We have a lot to sort, Cautery.”
“No time. I can carry it.”
“Meat, Cautery, as much as I’ve ever seen.”
“Are you afraid?” These words meant to cut. Everyone knew Helminth was afraid of meat.
Helminth cleared both pistols and pressurized lines, as clear a statement as any. There was a sheen of oil on orange metal as the machine clambered onto his partner’s pin-rail. “This is foolish,” he said, “Rust Mountain will be furious.” Cautery’s mill was still. Rust Mountain wouldn’t know.
There was a jerk as Cautery’s surface effect engaged. The slope to the millet fields was undifferentiated dirt and the two machines flew. In moments they were crashing through the tall stalks, and what had been clear from the ridge became a confusion of competing stimuli. Plants collapsing around them, a moving wall. The terrible sound of the meat. The sound of unregulated steam, the sound of death. Stone hitting metal. They burst into the clearing.
Cautery stopped abruptly, unconsciously. They were too late. There was meat everywhere, and it was clear it had won the fight. Old Green was already in pieces, limbs scattered, pile heartbreakingly cracked, nothing but ruin. Meat turned to face them.
“I don’t see the mill,” Cautery said, “I can’t see the mill.”
“Run,” Helminth said.
The meat charged with an evil, many-voiced roar. Something green and metallic pranged off Helminth at the precise moment Cautery executed a sharp about-face. Helminth cartwheeled into the millet, landing on an eye. Meat, close enough to see differences among individual pieces. A rain of stones. The eye was ruined, the telescopic eye, the reason Helminth was a scout, Helminth’s pride. Cautery was gone. A spear pierced a cable fitting and a utility arm went limp.
Helminth unlimbered the pistols, aimed, and fired a stream of bullets at shapes in the tall grain. There was more shouting. The machine moved uphill. The meat did not follow.
They met on the ridge, at the boulder. Cautery offered no explanation for his behavior. Without his telescope, Helminth had nothing more to report.
Feather-Lock, the old beacon, would have more scraps embedded in its mud wall that night, Helminth thought. The walls were already filled with mills. Meat buried them alive and studded their remains in the walls, mocking. It hung the mechanical remnants to flash in the sun, the destruction complete, the machine un-made.
Cautery clacked and they went home.