Time: About a month after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
Lost. Where had the pink spiny gone? Max reared up in the shadow of the display cabinet, testing the air. He wasn’t picking up particle traces of any of his large people. Other large people would scream and pick up large things to hit him with when they saw him. He wasn’t safe without his own large people. Maybe he could call to them if he needed to. He did know all of their calling names even if he called them something else in his head.
He scurried under the display cabinet to hide.
Big feet went back and forth in front of his hiding place, but none he knew. It had been such an exciting morning, riding in the cloth cave that the pink spiny carried on his back sometimes. They had gone in and out of many large people caves, each one filled with different scents and wonders. In the cave of food scents, both the pink spiny and the very large bird-wing person had given him sweet food bits. Delicious.
Intriguing shiny things of metal and wire filled this cave, much of it behind glass. Max liked to touch, to scent things up close when exploring. Things in glass cages were no fun. His antennae waved and shivered, picking up an attractive vibration. There it was again. A short burst at a specific frequency. Curiosity overcame fear and Max scurried under the cabinet toward the source of the vibrations.
When he peeked out at the other end, he spotted another millipede standing on top of another glass cage nearby. It looked like a millipede at least with its long, segmented body and many legs. Quickly, when the space between was empty of large people feet, Max hurried across to the next case and scrambled up the side. The other millipede didn’t move as he approached, no waving of legs or antennae. Max touched it carefully and understood why. It was metal and wire, too.
The short burst of vibration came again, meaningless in its regular repetition. Max sang a different frequency for the millipede, just to see if it could hear him. In the time it took to wave his antennae twice, it answered him, echoing his note back to him. Max reared up, waving his legs in excitement.
He tried two different frequencies for different durations. The metal millipede gave them back to him. So exciting! Max began to sing short phrases and his new metal friend never faltered. He clambered over the metal back, and rubbed against the metal abdomen, stroking with feet and antennae in his delight.
The sequences became more complex, complete strings of communication Max had learned from his pink spiny person. While the metal millipede couldn’t imitate all of the sounds, it echoed all of the frequencies and pitches perfectly without even a waver. It was so wonderful, Max forgot entirely about the large people in the shop who were not his.
“Holy mother of transistors! What is that?”
The voice wasn’t familiar and it was too close, followed quickly by a high-speed blast of air from some device. Max held on tight to his metal friend, but the second blast knocked him sideways. He scurried away as something heavy cracked down against the glass cage. Panicking, he shrieked, “Leeeeeoooopoooollll!”
Screaming all the way, he managed to scurry under a complicated metal thing as the large person tried to whack him. Soon, to his relief, he heard peeping that he recognized and a familiar large person voice.
“Please don’t do that, sir. He’s with us.”
His bird-wing person tried to scoop him up from under his hiding place, but Max scurried back to his metal friend. He just wanted one more song.
“Looks like Max made a friend there.” Small horn person had arrived as well. That was good. Things happened around small horn person.
“What… is that?” Bird-wing person asked.
Small-horn person came close to peer at the metal millipede. “Locator beacon. It’s designed to ping back whatever you send out. Good for distress signals and traffic control, that sort of thing.”
“But it’s singing with Max.”
“Hmm, yes. Seems to be a new model. Learns sequences instead of just echoing back.”
Pink spiny clambered up to join them. “Father, Max likes it. Could he keep it, do you think? To keep him busy?”
“It’s not something we need—”
“He does seem rather attached,” Bird-wing person said softly.
“Ness, for sulfur pits’ sakes, it’s a rather pricey bit of tech!” Small-horn person let out a slow breath. “Fine. Get everyone out of here. I’ll meet you back at the ship.”
Max found himself picked up and stuffed back in the cloth carrying cave despite waving all his legs in protest. All the way out, he kept sending notes to his metal friend until he no longer picked up on the vibrations being returned. Then he curled into the smallest ball he could manage, feeling empty and tired.
A feeding time or two later, back in the home caves, Max still refused to come out. They had taken him away from something wonderful and he wouldn’t be able to make them understand. He tucked his head farther under his segmented body.
“So where is he, my dear?” Small-horn person was there, in the cave Max shared with pink spiny.
“Won’t come out for me. He seems terribly depressed. What do you have there?”
“Something to cheer him up, I hope. But it stays here in your cabin. And if Ms. Ivana complains about interference, we’ll have to turn it off and bring Mac in for a look.”
The cloth cave shifted as someone turned it upside down and shook it. “Was it hard to steal? Distraction or snatch and grab? You did steal it, yes?”
Small-horn person came into view as Max lost his grip and tumbled out onto the floor. He was holding something wrapped in cloth and he was laughing. “I’m hurt! My son has no faith in me. Of course I stole it, Leo. Simple misdirection. Sometimes sticking to the classics is best.”
As small-horn person uncovered the object, Max trilled in delight, rearing up to wave his legs in the air. He raced over the hand and arm holding his metal friend in thank you, calling out, “Shaaaaa-aaaaxx!”
“All right, Maximillian, all right. You have your…well, whatever it is to you, it’s obviously important.”
Joyfully, Max began to sing to the metal millipede again, thrilled to have his notes returned to him phrase for phrase.
“I think it’s pretty,” Pink spiny said. “But I don’t recognize it. The song they’re singing.”
Small-horns cleared his throat. “Odd choice that. It’s an old song. Some Enchanted Evening. Wonder where Max picked that up?”
Of course Max knew where he’d learned it. Small horns often sang it when he went into his cleaning cave. For some reason, he didn’t think he should tell anyone that.