Ark was young, with all the hallmarks of a boy who was not rushing towards puberty with all the speed and grace of a half-blind bull. He had barely lost the last vestiges of his baby fat a month ago, and he guarded his polyplastic toy soldiers with vicious care. In accordance with Lennegian traditions, he still wore his fair hair woven into two small braids that hugged the sides of his head like a comforting thought, leaving the rest of it loosely tied back. He wormed a finger in between a braid's tight sections, scratching his head. Against those same traditions, he refused to cut his hair, and braided it himself. In spite of this and other allowed coddling on the part of his caretakers, he did dress himself. But he was still very young.
Contrary to popular thoughtin the form of gossip he heard through the air ventshe was not stupid. Easily manipulated maybe, but he did not personally choose to see it that way. His relationship with his caretakers was one of carefully balanced give and take. Of course, he preferred to do the majority of the taking, and liked to think that was generally the case. It was almost like a family from a book or an FMV, he often mused, except there were less hugs and missions replaced chores.
Some of those missions, like this one, were inordinately boring. He sat perched atop an outcropping that jutted out of a yellowing hillock, watching the buzzards circling overhead. One of them, obviously ancient, and even more obviously the smelliest thing Ark had ever been near, had taken its own perch on a rock not far from him. It wheezed like an old jeep and occasionally fidgeted arthritically. The entire flock had been following Ark for at least an hour before he'd stopped at the hillock, and he couldn't understand why.
The elderly one glanced at him with crusty eyes stricken with cataracts and who could tell what else. If it had been human, it might have started announcing its life story in a loud voice, along with all of the things wrong with today's youth and how the carrion they got in its day was so much better than the poor sort of dead flesh these days. Ark would have been inclined to disagree with that last bit if he'd been given the opportunity. He was no vulture, so he couldn't say anything about the quality of the food they got, but he could certainly point out that they'd been getting more of it.
Speaking of which.
He scratched his head again, closer to the base of his neck, and found a bug bite. It would just distract him, so he willed it away, then looked at his chronometer. In about eight clicks, the station would have the rendezvous point set up, waiting for him to come back. Feeling as prepared as he ever bothered to be, he hopped off the rock and hit the slope at a dead run. Interesting objects he'd collected on the journey out bounced inside his zipped pockets and he'd only gone half a klick before his teeth started rattling painfully in his head. But he couldn't slow down, let alone stop. It'd be easier to try and fly, though that would inevitably hurt. He was his own avalanche accompanied by a surrounding cloud of dead grass and dirt.
Cacophony broke out behind him, making him spare a glance at the sky. The vultures, even the old one, were following him again. Ark snapped his gaze back down to where it was supposed be, idly wondering why the other vultures hadn't already eaten the old sickly one. He didn't know much about animals, but it didn't seem logical.
He was getting closer to the target now, but not close enough. The distance wasn't important to his task, he could have completed it from his bedroom, but his caretakers didn't know that, and he didn't intend to clue them in. Other than to give them a false view of his ability, he needed the closer distance for visual confirmation. Even though he was sure they knew that he knew they monitored his missions somehow, they always grilled him mercilessly in debriefing.
There. This was close enough. He could see people leaving their houses, clasping hats and briefcases. They made Ark think of ants, but that was nothing new or unusual. The buildings weren't very technologically advanced, but they were well-maintained, and the soil was evidently clear of toxins. One of the residential structures closer to him had a few children attached to a large front window. They were younger than Ark, making faces at a man who had just exited the building they were in.
Curious, Ark imitated one of the faces, just to see if he could. He wiped his dirty hands on his pants and used his still-dirty fingers to tug on his cheeks and widen his mouth. He couldn't keep it up for long, it made his eyes and gums feel dry.
The alarm in his chronometer beeped, telling him that he was going to be late enough to annoy the caretakers, but also that he had a job to do. "G'bye," he said to the sight laid out in front of him. It could have happened slowly, for dramatic effect, but Ark had done this so many times, he was out of ways to make it interesting. The faces in the window didn't gradually change to expressions of horror, peace or surprise. One moment they were there, gigging and drying their eyes out, and then they had all fallen out of view. People who had populated the streets now littered them. Ark willed the sun's heat to increase, nudging the decomposition process.
Soon after, he was climbing back up the hillock and towards the rendezvous point, planning what he would have for lunch. The vultures were gorging themselves, which reminded him that he had missed breakfast.