I followed Ezra across the hill—his dog had run off ahead of us (incidentally, up until then I hadn’t realised one of Ezra’s rottweilers was female. I thought since he named them after The Bee Gees they were all male). Through the trees I caught glimpses of flashing lights and fire and what I guessed was some kind of laser beam down by the house as Budgie hurtled around in his tractor tyre, firing upon anything in his path (including the clothesline). I stopped and watched for just a second, then turned to keep up with Ezra, but he was standing right in front of me. He leaned close with a disturbed look then grabbed my ear and yanked it. I pushed him away and held my ear, grimacing in pain. He relaxed and nodded, then turned and marched off again, leading the way.
An explosion maybe a hundred metres behind us threw a warm shockwave. Ezra crouched and waited (so I did too), his rifle ready. After a few seconds, he flicked out his hand and whipped the bridge of my nose with his fingertips.
“Ah, damn it!” I said. “What did you do that for?”
He nodded. “Let’s keep moving.”
Soon we came near a clearing that looked familiar. Ezra signalled for me to halt. He stared ahead for a minute, then reached over and attempted to pinch my cheek. I slapped his hand away. After watching a little longer, he pursed his lips and whistled like a whipbird. The unmistakable call was answered by another whipbird, one that was terrible at whistling.
“LaShawn,” I whispered.
Ezra stepped out into the clearing; I followed. There was a whir and a crash down the hill. A nearby bush rustled, and from behind it LaShawn emerged, naked from the waist up, his chest and face smeared with grey streaks and splattered with blood. Around his head he had fashioned a Rambo-style headband from a strip of cloth. He looked like something out of Lord of the Flies, except that he seemed relaxed almost to the point of boredom. Also, he had a remote-control car tucked under his arm.
“Ezra!” he said. He pointed to the Ezra’s rifle. “Ah. You saved our arses. How are you doing?”
He reached to shake Ezra’s hand. Ezra ignored the handshake, and instead made a pincer of his thumb and forefinger and plucked at LaShawn’s eyebrow.
“Ow! Take it easy,” said LaShawn, rubbing his brow.
Ezra smiled and shook hands. “Good to see you.”
“What’s that stuff all over you?” I said to LaShawn.
“Clay,” he said. “I dug some up over there.”
“It looks like bird poo,” I said.
“No,” said Ezra. “It’s war paint.”
“Exactly,” said LaShawn. “See? Ezra knows. It’s the art of intimidation, my friend. Now come on, we have to—”
“Wait,” I said. “What happened your bullet-proof vest?”
“Oh, I gave it to one of the clones.”
“What? Why did you do that? I thought the clones were expendable. What if you get shot again?”
“Trust me,” said LaShawn. “They’ll be too scared to shoot when they see this face.”
He leaned his muck-encrusted mug toward me and stared wide-eyed. It would have been more convincing if he wasn’t giggling. I looked to Ezra for help, but he just shrugged.
“That kind of thing sometimes works,” he said.
“We need to get back down to the house,” said LaShawn. “We’ll take the tunnel.”
Ezra shook his head. “I don’t do tunnels. I’ll take that ridge there and meet up with you. The mango tree?”
“Yeah, the mango tree,” said LaShawn.
Ezra nodded. “Cat stroller,” he said. (At least it sounded like he said, “Cat stroller.”)
At the far edge of the clearing stood one of nature’s simple wonders. A gum tree had long ago fallen and wedged in the branches of another, creating a frame for vines to run wild and hang in thick, twisted drapes, a natural archway impervious to moonlight. From the darkness beneath that arch came a snort. We turned.
Now, Ezra had seen the unexplainable, unimaginable horrors of battle. He had seen men, young and old, die in the most unnatural ways—die suddenly, die slowly, die screaming, die pleading; die delirious, die with hatred, die with tormenting regret, die praying; die by a bullet, die by a landmine, die by a sword, die by an arrow; die by execution, die by uncanny bad luck, die by a frenzied horde, die by their own hand. The waking nightmares of five wars had squeezed him like a vice, with pressure that would break most men. No, he hadn’t actually fought in those wars—he was born five years after the last of them ended, and roughly eight hundred years after the earliest one—but his mind, by some strange short-circuit, had cursed him with every vivid and harrowing memory of the real experience. Yet he endured. And having leaned to deal with such awful sights and sounds haunting the inside of his head, there was almost nothing outside his head that could greatly disturb him. So when I glimpsed the shock on his face as he peered at the leafy archway, a bolt of fear shot through me.
I needn’t have worried.
From beneath the archway, in all his disconcerting glory, came the half-sized Rory clone with the narrow, cylinder-shaped head. He rode upon Ezra’s rottweiler, sitting straight and proud, dressed only in a pair of underpants (knotted at one hip to keep them up) and LaShawn’s bullet-proof vest, which on the clone looked more like an apron. His left hand gripped the dog’s collar like reins (though it was clearly the dog who was leading the way. I’m not sure she even noticed there was someone riding her), and his right hand held a rifle, pointing skyward. He looked like a misshapen warlord on his steed, returning from victorious battle.
“What is that?” whispered Ezra.
As the Rory clone dismounted, he somehow got his foot stuck and fell flat on his back beside the dog. She sniffed him and then came and stood by Ezra. The clone leapt up and glared at the spot he had fallen, with his fist cocked, as if threatening to punch the sh** out of the ground for embarrassing him. He relented, and the ground avoided a beating.
One side of the clone’s face swirled in what I think was a smile. With his arms open, he walked over to Ezra and hugged him around the thighs. Ezra looked down at him, stunned.
“Good to see you, Ez,” said the clone in his high-pitched squeak. “You’re just in time for the action.”
“Action?” said Ezra.
The clone released him and stepped back. He rummaged inside his vest. Ezra looked at me, and I leaned over and whispered to him, “One of the clones turned out different to the others.”
He blinked and turned to the clone, who took two Uzis from inside his vest and tossed them on the ground.
“Jimmy O’Shea’s men,” said the clone. “I tell you, the hunting is good tonight. I’ve killed eighty of them already, and I will kill a thousand more before the night is through.”
I was confident he had not killed eighty men.
“Damn right you will,” said LaShawn.
“Have a look a that,” said Ezra. He crouched and ran his finger over the front of the clone’s vest. It was marked with the impact of at least a dozen bullets. Ezra looked up at us in wonder. “He’s a berserker.”
Down in the yard a rocket whistled then crashed into the side of the house. Men yelled and fired their guns.
“We have to go,” said LaShawn.
Ezra slung his rifle over his shoulder and picked up one of the Uzis.
“I’ll see you down there,” he said. “Come on, Robin—Doctor Kramer.” (It probably wasn’t “Doctor Kramer,” but that’s what it sounded like to me.)
Robin, his hulking pet rottweiler, stopped sniffing the dirt and bounded ahead of him, disappearing through the trees. Ezra looked at us inquiringly, one by one, then punched me in the chest. The Rory clone laughed.
“What are you doing?” I spluttered.
“Good luck, fellas,” said Ezra, and he ran off after his dog.
LaShawn lifted a round hatch hidden in the dirt.
“Come on. Budgie’s going to need our help.”
“Let’s do it,” said the little clone, climbing down into the tunnel ahead of us.
I followed, and then LaShawn. He sealed the hatch above us. The clone dropped his rifle on the ground, preferring the Uzi he had collected. I had my Uzi, but LaShawn had no weapon.
“Where’s your shotgun?” I said.
“Things are about to get real rough,” he said. “Beyond the help of a shotgun.”
“But not a remote-control car?”
He tapped the toy vehicle beneath his arm. “It’ll be the last thing they expect.”
It was hard to argue with that.
“Hey, does Ezra seem weird to you tonight?” I asked as we jogged down the sloping tunnel.
“Weird? Ezra?” said LaShawn.
“No, I mean, like a different kind of weird. He keeps hitting me and pinching my face. He nearly tore my ear off.”
“Hmm, yeah,” said LaShawn. “I did notice a bit of that. He’s never done that before, has he?”
“Not to me,” I said.
“He’s checking,” piped the clone behind us.
LaShawn and I slowed and looked at him. He weaved between us and ran ahead, his stubby legs pacing double time.
“Ezra’s mind has played so many tricks on him,” said the clone. “You know—all those battles he never really fought. The poor bugger is just checking to see if this one is real.”
LaShawn and I stopped and looked at each other. The clone’s rapid footsteps tapped and echoed away through the tunnel.
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