The sun rising over the horizon was what woke me. Since Nasoj's curse had befallen me, the hardest of adjustments I had to make was the lack of eyelids. Instead of just closing my eyes, I now had to concentrate on ignoring unwanted images. This meant that the light of the dawn usually roused me.
Running a clawed hand along one of my long antenna, I still marvelled at how I was able to follow the procession of my hand along the appendage's length, even after the anntenna disappeared behind my head. These were strange, alien eyes, and they were not the least of what had been done to me. I was now an insect. Sure, I was five feet tall and stood upright, but when it all came down to it I looked very much like the bugs I used to chase in my youth. I stared down at my skin, now covered by a thick layer of hardend chitin. The flesh now covered in dull black armour, broken only by the bright red blotches and stripes that ran along my exoskeleton.
Head, thorax, abdomen. Four wings. Antennea. Five limbs, and a scar where the sixth used to be. All the parts that make up an insect, and all of it part of me.
Shaking my head vigorously, I tried to clear the morning's thoughts from my dreamy mind. If I continued on that path I would let doubt about my fate slip into my mind, and when stuck in a place where the mind is so apt to wander, I would rather spend the day pondering more upbeat things. I have always considered myself well adapted to my change, but every now and then some doubt still slipped in.
Rising from the small pallet I had been sleeping on, I stretched stiff joints, my arms reaching upward and my long abdomen curling into a cresent shape between my long thin legs. A flutter of my wings to loosen them, and a another shake of the head and I was ready to face another day in this place.
The room had not changed much since the day before. A small wooden shack, about thirty feet across. A gentle breeze blew in through large windows, their only covering a screen of fine wooden lattice work. Through these windows I could see the small deck that surrounded the building. Beyond that was only the gently swaying tree tops. Actually the tree tops were swaying about ten feet below the deck.
I never did like heights, and spending a week trapped in a signal tower was not my idea of a great time. Soldiering had never truly been my forte and, after a particularily bad experience on patrol, I had almost removed my name from the list of reservists. For some reason I am still not sure of, I never did and ended up here.
When I received the notice that the 33rd Light Irregular Infantry, my reserve company, had been ordered to assemble at the barracks, I felt a little excitement. I don't know why. Maybe it was the thought of getting out of the keep. Prehaps I was just looking for a chance to take revenge for the loss of my arm. I was forced to flee from that fight and maybe I was looking for a chance to make up for it. Maybe it was just the pride I felt in helping, even just a little bit, in the defense of the civilized world.
When the forty memebers of the 33rd Light assembled on the parade grounds that morning, I was unsure what to expect our marching orders to be. I knew it wouldn't be patrol. A company is too large a unit to effectivly act as scouts, and besides, there are usually a lot of volunteers available for patrols, and the need to activate reserve units for that duty is rare. In fact, most members of the 33rd went out on patrols as part of their regular routine. Prehaps a Lutin encampment had been discovered and we were being sent to take care of them, or there was a supply caravan that needed an escort through the pass.
Of course, I was wrong. I guess I think too romantically of the life of a warrior. While standing in the hot sun on the Parade Gounds, Captain Mesurensa revealed that the company was being ordered to relieve the garrison at White Hill Tower for a week, allowing the company there some R&R time. White Hill Tower was one of the outforts that existed in the mountain pass that Metamor occupied, providing lookout posts and bases of operation for long range patrols. The Tower itself was a relic of the ancient Suielmen Empire, rebuilt recently in an attempt to bolster our defenses against another invasion from the Giantdowns. Many of these ruins existed in the valley, and those that could be, were rebuilt and put to use by the Duke.
For a while it seemed that the mission would not be all that bad. A week in a small castle, keeping watch over an area not frequented by Lutin raiding parties. It seemed almost too good to be true. Then it was announced that the 33rd would also be manning the signal towers that allowed the fort to communicate with the Keep. Between White Hill and Metamor were two signal towers. This allowed simple messages to be sent back and forth. My platoon had been lucky enough to pull that duty, so I now found myself spending a week stuck above the tree tops.
The normal crew for a signal tower was three or four people, but I found myself manning Tower 7 with only one other soul to help me. It seems that someone had decided that one squad would be be enough for both towers, so there was a grand total of the five of us between the two of them.
So far, it had been three long days filled with six hour shifts. Six hours spent standing on the roof watching for the signal lantern at White Hill or Tower 2 to the south of us. After that,six hours off where you ate and slept while the other person in your crew took over. A simple and boring job. See a light, watch the signal flashs and send the message on down the line.
My crewmate was not in the small room, or out on the deck. Looking at the ladder in the corner, I assumed that he was on the top of the building, up with the lantern. Climbing the first few rungs on the ladder, I opened the hatch leading to the roof. Sticking my head through the small door, I saw Jorge leaning on the rail staring out over the forested vale spread out before him. The ferret-morph's gaze was facing north, fixed on the imposing sight of White Hill Tower several miles distant, a single stone spire sitting a top of a flat topped limestone hill. Pulling myself through the hatch, I walked over and stood beside him.
"Uh, The signal is flashing at Tower 2." I noted, tapping Jorge on the shoulder and pointing to the signal tower just visiable to our south.
Jorge stumbled and shock his head fircely, seemingly coming out of a trance. Black masked eyes blinked rapidly as he began to move mechanically towards the signal lantern. Seeing a perfect example of someone who was suffering from exhaustion, I put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him before he could move two steps.
"You go inside, get something to eat, and then get some sleep. I'll get the message." I told him. "Consider yourself releaved for this watch."
With a nod, the mustalid moved towards the hatch and shuffled down the ladder. Once Jorge had dissappeared from the roof, I went over to the lantern. Releasing the latch of the lever that controlled the shutter, I quickly checked the mechanism. Once I was sure it worked, I reached in to a box at the base of the lantern and drew out a small flint and a steel. Opening the top of the lantern, I struck the steel to the fint and watched as a few glowing sparks settled into the wick, ignighting the oil saturating it. A few seconds latter, I was rewarded with a bright glow. Fires in a wooden tower were dangerous, so the lanterns worked off of some strange concoction that the Keep's alchemists had created. It glowed as bright as a regular fire but its flame produced very little heat.
Once the lantern was ready, I flashed an acknowledgement to the other tower, and a quick appology for the delay in the response. Once that was sent, my concentration was fully occupied with watching their lantern and writing the flash sequences down on a small piece of slate. Once the 'end of message' code was sent, I flashed a 'message recieved' and a 'goodbye' to the southward tower.
Turning the lantern on its swivel, so it now faced towards the stone tower of White Hill, I began working the shutter once more, signalling the prescence of a message to their signal crew. A few minutes later I recieved the acknowledgment from White Hill and began to send the message on to them.
Finished with the message, I locked down the shutter and smothered the flame. Stowing the flint in its box, I went back down into the building to check on Jorge.
Once off the ladder, I saw him sitting at the crude table in the middle of the room. Sipping from a mug, he indicated the steaming kettle on the small stove sitting in the corner. Grabbing a mug, I made my way over to the stove. The smell of coffee danced over my antennae as I poured the dark liquid into the cup. Settling into a stool across from Jorge, I took a careful sip of the hot drink. With some coffee in him, Jorge was starting to look a little better. Still exhausted, but at least he now seemed to be aware of his surroundings.
"Sorry, I didn't make a hot breakfast." were my partner's first words of the day, as he pushed a small plate of cured meat and dry bread towards me. "Hey, shouldn't you be on the platform watching for messages?"
I made a point to ignore the remark about breakfast. When we arrived and found only one pot in with the paltry cooking supplies, we reached an unspoken agreement that coffee was more important then warm food in the morning.
"I can see White Hill fine through the window," I replied pointing over his shoulder, "And I am sure you can see Tower 2 from there, so lets just enjoy our meal. Then you can get some sleep and I can sit on that tower all morning and learn new meanings of the word bordom."
With that I reached into the pile of food and pulled out a chunk of meat. It was salty and tasted of harsh smoke. Not exactly the greatest, but then, I do not think I have ever heard of any army that issued decent field rations. Breakfast went quickly and quietly. I finished my coffee, grimacing at the taste of grounds in my mouth. Working my jaw in an attempt to lossen some of the grit didn't help. I make a mental note to teach the young man the trick of adding a little salt to make the grounds settle to the bottom of the pot.
After cleaning the dishes, Jorge made his way to the sleeping palette and I made my way to the roof after reminding him to releave me in six hours.
Back on the roof platform, I spent a few minutes just looking around, enjoying the panaramic view such a vantage point offered. As I said earlier, I am not one for heights, but give me a beautiful view such as the one I now had before me and I could overcome that easily. The day was warm, but not hot. A steady breeze was blowing, keeping the air fresh and clear. Gental puffy cloud were rolling across the blue sky. A sea of green spread out in the valleys that dropped off on both sides of the hill that the tower occupied, and an impressive backdrop of mighty mountain ranges came together to form the pass.
Even a view as beautiful as this could not hold my attention for long, and pretty soon I was bored. When in this situation, I look for something to do. Anything.
Lifting the lantern off of its stand, I opened it up and had a look at its workings. It was pretty obvious that the last crew that had manned tower Tower 7 had not been cleaning it regularly. There was various pieces of debris in the oil resevoir, the shutter needed grease and the lens was covered with a think black coating. I suppose that one of us should have noticed this when we arrived, but there had been few messages in the last three days, and we had not paid much attention to the lantern. Sending the message from Tower 2 had tipped me off to its real condition. A quick (and quiet, to avoid waking Jorge) trip down stairs supplied me with the latern's tool kit. An hour later I had replaced the oil, cleaned the lens, greased the shutter mechanism, and even polished the brass case.
Now, with the lantern back on its mount and nothing more to be done, boredom began to creep in again. The patterns the wind created in the forest canopy became hypnotizing, and I slowly lost my self in the dance of the leaves. A trance is better then bordom I guess, because I did nothing to stop my entrapment in their spell. Another hour lost before I could pull my eyes away, and only because the signal lantern at Tower 2 lit up again.
It was a standard message this time, a weather report coming from the Keep warning that a storm would be passing through the area in the next day or so. After passing the message onto White Hill, I stood against the railing, studying the landscape. This time though, I was trying to keep my brain active as I studied the landscape and thus avoid the trance I had slipped into before.
I found myself naming the sea of trees that surrounded me; A forest of paper birch and spruce surround the tower, poplar of some kind in the distance. By the way the leaves were moving in the wind, it was probably trembling aspen. A nice stand of red pine running along the top of an narrow ridge. I wondered if the timber crews knew about that. They could get some really nice poles and spars out of it. I thought I saw some ceder lining a stream running through the valley, but the distance was making it hard to see, and my view was blocked by the larger willows.
Time had past, and the boredom was held at bay for another few minutes. What now? Look at the birds? I could see a few larger birds soaring through the sky, black speaks against blue. Raptors probably, though at that distance it was impossiable to tell what kind. When I looked down, I could see smaller songbirds flittering amoung the surrounding branches. The small area cleared of trees around the tower gave me a view of the almost one-hundred foot drop to the forest floor. The birds were moving between the brances, obviously enjoying their existance, while I stood on top of the tower and watched for a flashing light on the horizon. I sat and pondered how those soldiers that manned these towers full-time managed to stay sane with nothing to do. Most of the people who were assigned permanant duty in the towers were veterns who were no longer fit for active duty due to age or injury. Maybe they were just happy to be able to serve anywhere.
Another message inturpted me. This time going from White hill to Metamor. It was in one of the secret codes, which probably meant that they were sending in reports from the patrols in the area. They always reported in at White Hill, never here. A signal tower could not offer a scout the comfortable bed and decent meal they could get at the fort. Besides, there is no-one who knew the secret codes that they used in their reports, so there was no reason for them to come here.
Before I coould sink once again into a brain-numbing excuse for a way to pass time, the hatch opened and Jorge's furry head popped up, looking almost refreshed from his nap.
"It isn't noon yet. You don't have to get up for a few more hours." I told him after a quick glance guaged the position of the sun in the sky.
"I know. Couldn't sleep. Mind if I join you?"
"Not at all."
"So what are you doing?"
"Counting trees" I replied, waving out my three arms to indicate the wide expanse of forest that surrounded us.
"Sounds like a good way to pass time. How many do you have?" responded the ferret-morph, a small grin appearing on his short muzzel.
"Two million, three-hundred and fifty-four thousand, six-hundred and twelve." I answered jokingly. "Just think, at this moment we could be back at Metamor going through our normal daily routine. Instead we get to experience all this excitement."
"What is it that you do around the keep?" he asked.
"Gardening mostly, but I also spend time studying plants. And you?"
"Scribe. Joined the reserves for the little bit of extra money, but I spend most of my days pushing paper to keep our well oiled machine rolling. I guess I was lucky. Good scribes are in a short supply. Many of us animorphs had to give up our profession when we lost our hands." As if to demonstrate his point, Jorge help up his hand. "You see, I ended up with what I would call a paw-like hand. I could adapt and got my penmanship back with a little practice. Others weren't so lucky. They ended up with hand-like paws, and could barely hold their pens, let alone write."
The conversation stopped for several minutes as both of us just stood there, each looking off into the distance from the top of our little tower. Looking over at Jorge, I noticed that he was staring down, off the edge of the tower.
More silence on the roof of the tower. I don't think I had anything more to say to Jorge, and I don't think he had any more to say to me. Standing there, we leaned against the rail, and watched the world float by around us.
"Your shift is over, you know?" says Jorge, finally braking the silence once more.
"Maybe you should get some sleep."
"Good Afternoon then." I said as I straightened up and made to head downstairs, "Oh, by the way, keep your storm eye open. We got a weather report in from the Keep this morning. Looks like rain."
And with that I left Jorge to his watch while I tried to catch a few hours of blissfull oblivion.