Straw Man

I try to stay calm.

I touch the dirt; let it run between my fingers. I can hear my blood pounding. For the third time this week, I am going to die.

Im crouching in a field of golden wheat. Literally, in the fifteen-foot high plants tower over me, the rough bristles of their ears swaying gently in the breeze. Youd never see me from the ground. From the ground, I am well and truly hidden.

Not so from the air. The day dawns red and clear, a sky like crimson cellophane. Thirty hours into morning, and not a cloud in sight. Nothing to obscure their vision. They can see me, I know they can. Its only a matter of time.

The waiting is the worst of it. Crouching here, naked as a worm, just waiting around to have my guts ripped out; to stare at them, steaming in the sun, as I lie dying in a bloody mess among the wheat. Twice already this week. The anticipation is terrible. Why wont they come?

Kill me already, you blasted beasts.

Now, now they come. I can hear the sinewy flap-flap of their wing beats. Heres how it starts.

I run. My feet pound into the dirt, but Im quiet, quiet as I can be. I do not cry out their hearing is good, and the hunt would be over in an instant. Im running and weaving between the stalks of mutant wheat, expertly, gracefully, like an Old World feline. Ive got to keep them distracted for as long as I can. Ive got to make the chase last.

This is what I do.

Ive talked to the other runners; weve swapped stories in the office. Ive heard the tales they tell. Back in the Old World, another time ago, they say the people made scarecrows to guard their fields. The wheat was smaller back there, and the sky was blue, and the crows were tiny things, not even half as big as a man. They were afraid of us, so the people hung straw men in their fields to keep them away from the crop.

What an age that must have been! Now we run and die to keep the crows distracted, to buy a few more minutes of safety for the busy farmers that feed us all.

One of the birds cries out. Its that awful screech they only make a few seconds before a kill. And the calls for me; its my death theyre crowing for.

Now. Here come the heavy wingbeats, the cawing, flapping descent. Theres a wet, sick sound as the talons find my back, and then Im gone.

I wake up in the cloning vat. My eyes sting immediately, and my mouth is filled with bitter amniotic fluid. Electricity burns through my nerve endings. I can still feel a phantom pain in all the places where the crows tore my flesh.

I step out of the vat, sighing deeply, and begin to towel myself down. Im done for the day. I notice Ed heading through the front door, out into the field to take my place. I give him a little nod that says, Run well.

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Xander Bennett rearranges words for fun and profit. Read a preview of his new book at www.cagescomic.com.

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