P’rao adjusted his angle and dropped like a stone until his talons just hovered over the wispy grasses. He flexed his claws and twisted to see Meech on his right, just now descending to a skimming altitude. Beyond his friend, the green wall that marked the edge of safe territory loomed. Glossy leaves waved, snapping like deadly flags and gleaming in the low sunlight.
Death waited just inside, and it meant to spread if they let it.
His claws tightened, snagging a tuft of errant grass and ripping the twisty roots free from their territory. He liked that sound. It reminded him that the plains were free and safe to his people. It reminded him that they had a hand in keeping things that way.
Meech tore at his own tufts, and they filled their claws with the strands until they could hold no more. When they angled up, the two milkers left a clean swath of dirt in their wake, a long strip of fresh border to keep the Master plants out.
P’rao cawed and lifted into the warmer rays. He fluffed at the shoulder and enjoyed the warmth alongside his small triumph. They weren’t actual milkers just yet, more like juniors in training, but their horizon was as bright as the desert behind them. Eventually, they’d brave the jungles with the rest of their kind.
And what would Tr’lia think of that?
He clicked his beak and snapped his long flight feathers, banking sharply toward the baskets where the grasses were collected. Once they’d been safely uprooted, the aeries had many uses for the sparse fibers—not the least of which was nest building.
Meech was right, damn it. He had mating on the brain. Mating and a bright yellow breast that might not relish the idea of him sneaking into Master plant territory.
“You missed, idiot!” Meech squeaked at his shoulder. “You dropped that load back on the ground.”
“Huh?” Prao twisted his neck around and spied his mistake. The cart minder already pecked at his lost strands, stuffing them into the basket and murmuring curses in his direction. “Ooops.”
“I can’t imagine what distracted you.” Meech waited for him to bristle, and when he refused added softly, “or who.”
The stork at the cart bounced on long legs and clapped at them, but P’rao angled again, circled wide and then dove in for another pass along the border. He flattened his quills tight and streaked far enough ahead of Meech that he didn’t have to hear his friend’s grumbling.
His second pass ended with both his fists overflowing with grass. He’d stretched his claws a bit, but this time, the fibers ended up neatly where they belonged, the cart minder ignored his delivery and Meech kept his beak shut.
The grasses always invaded first. Invisible roots wriggled out from the jungles, hidden beneath the hard-packed plain and only bursting into view when their sub structure was well established. They opened the way for the higher ups, for the plants that could use their nodes and pathways to organize, to plan a more significant advance.
A bare border was a safe one, and P’rao dove again with his resolve set even more firmly. They kept the plants at bay. They trimmed to borders, and eventually they’d brave the long flights over the jungle, the dangerous missions into the heart of Plant territory to retrieve medicines, fruits and seed for domestication and controlled food production.
Their lives depended on this much. All their lives and any future he might hope for. He made two more passes to Meech’s one and then tucked wing and dropped behind the line of carts for a drink and a moment’s rest.
The grass carts filled slowly. This stretch of boundary had been weeded only a few weeks prior. Their team had been assigned for maintenance more than anything, but still they found spiky grasses wandering into their world.
P’rao drank from the minders’ buckets, leaned against the back of one cart and watched the Rhino beetle in the traces of another shift its weight from one leg to the next. It’s gigantic, domed carapace shimmered like the distant leaves. Emerald green, metallic and harmless compared to the foliage it resembled. Even with the heavy horn protruding from the beast’s head.
Meech landed between them, his dust puffs blocking out any further view of the draft beetle. P’rao ignored his grimace, the nasty clacking of his friend’s beak. He let his gaze drift instead out toward the jungle in the distance. The green wall shimmered in the sunlight, but just then, something about the way the fronds moved spoke of more than hot air and unreliable vision.
He stood up and craned to see better, bouncing and arching his wings for takeoff.
“Where are you…” Meech started a question, but the words died as quickly as P’rao’s intended flight.
The both froze and listened to the jungle howl. The cart minders stopped fidgeting. The flights still in the air banked away from the green swath, from the wall that trembled and danced now, screaming and hissing at them in the frenzied speech of many joined plant minds. A wave rolled across the leaves, down the horizon in one serpentine ripple. The scream rose in volume, and the foliage broke at the top.
One, giant green orb lifted from the canopy. It snaked straight up on a fat stalk lined with wispy hairs. The cranium twisted, turned left and right and then focused on their position. Even at this distance, P’rao judged just that head to be four times his size, at the very least. The sight of it set his plumage spiking. His beak ground together at the same instance the Master plant opened its huge, sticky maw and howled its fury to the sky.