The breeze from the west made the prairie grass undulate and move simultaneously like the velvet coat of a giant beast. Even the grassland flowers, miniscule dots of blue and purple, bowed and swayed in concert with the tall grass. The warm breeze bathed my senses in the sweet, earthy, smell of the grassland. My hair, grown longer from the neat crop I had kept while in space, was shaggy enough that I had to hold it back from my face to clearly view my surroundings. The breeze, ever mischievous, wound childlike fingers through my growing locks, twisting knots and snarls into the longest parts.
“See something, Jen?” Andrew’s gruff voice startled me. I had been too busy watching the grass to notice how close he was.
“No, just stretching.” I flashed him a too-bright smile. Although the stretch had been my excuse, I was secretly still awed by the concept of so much space. Every moment I got I found myself outside, stretching as wide as I could, marveling at this still new feeling.
“Well, finish stretching and get back to your samples. I want everyone back in the force fence well before dark. “he looked at the time display on his portable com-unit, “You have less than six hours.”
From behind Andrew, Nigella Bronston rolled her eyes and smiled at me. Six hours was at least four hours more than we needed to collect our samples. I calculated it to be ample enough time to allow for my brief sightseeing.
Andrew was still glowering at me, so I placed my hands on my lower back and leaned on them. My spine popped three times with a satisfying cascade of cracks. Andrew returned my lazy smile with a look of disgust and stomped away through the waist high grass. Nigella and I waited until he was out of earshot before we both laughed.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have turned him down.” Nigella’s sarcastic smile glittered up at me from the edge of the stream. She was carefully packing her sample bottles into her pack.
“And have him dogging me all the time? No, thank you.” I sighed and crouched back down over my pack, pulling another sample bottle out. “I think I prefer sullen and aloof.”
“he was so sure you wouldn’t say no.” Nigella snickered, slinging her pack around her shoulder. “he’s a prick, Jen, everyone thinks so. Don’t lose sleep over it.”
“Oh, I’m not. Don’t worry.” I smiled up at her as she stood.
“I’m going back to camp to get more bottles. Nick’s right there if you need anything.” Nigella nodded somewhere towards the edge of the forest. She grinned down at me, “He’s taking a piss. Dare you to scream.”
“I don’t wanna see his AI’s, ‘Gella.” I rolled my eyes at her and she grinned before trudging off through the grass in the same direction Andrew disappeared.
Nigella, short and curvy with dark features, had a thing for Nick Walker. He was, I surmised, too tall to notice little Nigella if she walked past. To compensate, Nigella would purposely cause trouble to catch his attention. I didn’t understand it, but she persisted anyway.
I had been working for some time before I noticed that something around me had changed. I sat up, blinking in the sunlight, trying to place what it was. Nothing obvious struck me as I looked around. The brisk breeze still flowed over the top of the grassland and met with the forest edge, ruffling the ferns that made up the boundary. The sunlight had shifted only slightly, but that was nothing to alarm me. I sat back on my heels, looking just above the top of the grass and could see Nick about four feet away, startling myself.
“ Oh there you are.” Clearly, I had startled him too. “Something wrong, Jen?”
“Not sure. Something changed.” I smiled at him, “Maybe it was just that I heard you.”
“Probably. I came up because I couldn’t see you.” Nick smile over the top of the grass at me. “Sorry I startled you.”
“It’s ok.” I smiled and bent down over my work again. I still couldn’t shake the eerie feeling, but tried to remind myself that it had only been Nick.
I had finally begun to focus on my work when a strange noise caught my attention. It was a soft thump, followed by a humid chuffing sound. I realized that if all of the other sounds hadn’t stopped I never would have heard it. Then, I thought, why had all the other sounds stopped. I was lucky I had the few seconds to form both of those thoughts because what happened next was so fast that I cannot be sure what is accurate and what parts I filled in.
First, the chuffing sound came again from directly behind me, this time answered by a similar sound immediately to my left. Second, I heard the ever so quiet crunch of a foot being laid stealthily on the grass. Third, a strong hand grabbed my right arm and yanked me first to the right, where I stumbled, then upright and forward to the tree line. We didn’t stop there, but vaulted straight up into the trees, the strong hand dragging and shoving me up further into the tree until they stopped me at least twenty feet up. An arm pulled me securely against a very bare, very warm, heaving chest. Whoever it was held me so tightly against him that I could feel his heart beating through my shoulder blades, but I wasn’t about to complain.
Circling the trunk of the tree was a feline-like animal with suede fur that reflected the light of the forest. The effect made the animal nearly invisible. It emitted growls and whines, stretching up a far as its lanky body would allow. Enormous claws, six inches long, raked the already rough bark of the tree and exposed the yellow-red pulp beneath.
It could see us, this hunter, watching me with orange eyes that focused and refocused as it tried to decide how to get to me. My savior, arm still holding me firmly, leaned forward around me and emitted a growling hiss from behind clenched teeth. The creature below froze, orange eyes widening for a millisecond, then dropped down to all fours and melted back into the grassland. The sunlight hit the suede hide of the animal and it turned from the green-black forest color to the golden color of the grass, allowing the animal to become completely invisible once it slid into the tall grass.
I lowered my eyes from where the creature had passed into the grass and was about to turn to my savior when a dark stain on the soil caught my eye. The grass was red, splattered with blood, in a trail leading to the right where I could see a dark boot lying partially out of the grass. I gasped, realized it must be Nick, and struggled to go to him.
“No. There is nothing you can do. You must wait.” The voice in my ear was male, heavily accented, but the words were clearly recognizable. I froze and he spoke again, “ The cats, they will not have left. They wait for you to take your dead.”
I turned and finally looked up at the man, nearly falling out of the tree as I gaped at him. Green-gold eyes glittered down at me from a dark skinned face. They were large and iridescent, adapted to seeing clearly in low light. His face was narrow, but had a masculine squareness to it that made me certain of his gender. Dark hair graced the top of his head, temples, and fell in regal braids around his shoulders. His skin, which I first thought was a uniform dark color, was in fact dappled shades of dark and light. The effect in the uneven light of the forest was a near perfect camouflage. Even the dark ink tattooed on his arms, shoulders, and chest did not ruin the effect.
He shifted uneasily and I dropped my gaze, realizing I had been gaping up at him. I turned my eyes to his tattooed arm, which rested on a neighboring branch. It ended in a long, elegant hand with what looked like black claws where human fingernails should have been.
Somewhere deeper in the forest a shrill whistle sounded and my strange companion jerked his head around. He narrowed his eyes and returned the call, whistling through teeth so white they glowed against his dark skin. He turned back to me, fixing me with green eyes.
“I must go. Your people are on the way. He must have sent and alarm to them.” He touched my arm gently and watched my face intently. “Do not tell them I was here.”
I nodded, hearing the calls of Andrew and Nigella filtering through the forest edge.
By the time we had returned to our central community I had my story so well rehearsed that it came out like it had actually happened. Those who needed to hear listened in silence as I told of how Nick had saved my life by sacrificing his own. I even was able to shudder and avoid describing the attack by saying I was too busy following his order and climbing up the tree to have seen it. The creature, which I had seen in great detail, I was able to describe very well, being certain that I described its camoflage and surprise tactic as well as possible. Of all the secrets I had to keep, I was thankful this was not one of them.
After I had given my description of the carnivore to the xenobiologists, who rendered a very accurate illustration while I talked, Natasha rose to escort me back to my home Despite the tragic nature of my discovery, the xenobiologists were eager to study the predator more. Some part of me hoped it was to learn how to avoid them, but the reality was sitting like a cold block in my stomach.
One look at Nigella’s face indicated that at least one person would properly mourn the sudden end to Nick’s brave life. Her normally animated and mischevious face was drawn and bleak. Her lively dark eyes were dead and bleary from crying, practically black holes in her head. She lay her head on my shoulder as we left the main building, leaning on me as I put an arm around her while we walked. Tragic loss was something I was far too familiar with and I knew it would be a while before she wouldn’t feel that painful emptiness in her chest.
Iliana, Nigella’s older sister, met us half way to her home. With sympathetic eyes she lifted Nigella from my shoulder and I watched the two shuffle away.
Natasha walked me to my door, giving me a gentle hug and kiss. The advantage to having known me since I was a child was that she knew when to inquire and when to let me just deal with my emotions. I was too tired to talk now and she could see that. What she couldn’t see was the list of things I had to ponder, things I wasn’t sure yet I should tell anyone.
Although my surprising savior had told me not to say anything to anyone about him, I knew I couldn’t keep that secret. I also was fairly certain that there had been others there, of his kind that is. Who to tell was also an issue. I couldn’t tell someone like the governor, but perhaps I could tell Tom and Natasha. Tom would know what to do next, I assured myself.
I entered my home and shut the door behind me, locking it securely. Finally, I could stop moving and let the impact of the last 24 hours events hit me. I didn’t have long to wallow in the backwash.
“ You are not well.” I had only heard his voice once, but the tone, inflection, and accent were alarmingly familiar
My eyes popped open and there he was, standing in the middle of my living space. He was very tall, easily seven feet from the bottom of his bare feet to the top of his braided head. He wore leather breeches that ended at his knees and nothing else. The dim light above my kitchen unit reflected across the contours of his chest revealing a well built, if lanky, man.
“How are you here?” I stayed frozen at the door, relieved that he was not between me and it.
“Your fences are made to keep animals out, not men.” He spoke with the edges of his generous mouth curving upwards in a sly smile.
“Why are you here?” I could feel the waver in my voice and swalloweed hard trying to get rid of it.
“I was worried. I wanted to know that you were safe.” His brow furrowed as he spoke, eyes glowing gold in the kitchen light, “You are not well, your skin is white.”
“It’s been a very long day.” My mind, still reeling from the first set of events was now threatening to spin totally out of control. “How did you…?”
All of a sudden I blanked, chewing my lip and watching him. I knew that there were questions I needed to ask him, but my brain wasn’t working very well and they slipped away as soon as they formed. There was a man standing in front of me who couldn’t possibly exist, but he was there. I knew he was real, but why, and how he had gotten here from being so much farther away just hours before I just couldn’t form the words to ask.
His brow furrowed further and he stepped closer, taking my shoulders and guiding me to one of two small chairs in my living space. He pushed me gently into one of them and crouched on the floor in front of me his face etched with concern
“You are too tired.” He touched my face with a clawed hand and I found it soft and warm against my cheek.
“How are you here?” I asked him again, still trying to make sense of the confused muddle in my head.
“We have been here since the first time.” He said gently.
“ You are tired, I will tell you later.” He still looked concerned.
Gently, he slid his arms under me and lifted me from the chair. My feet literally tingled in my boots the moment my weight was taken off of them. I lay my head on his shoulder as he carried me the short distance to my bed and lay me down. By the time I registered that I should complain at the very least, he had removed my boots and lay my cover over me.
“Wait” My eyes were so heavy that I could only hear him move away.
“ I am here.” I haerd him bend down beside me.
“What is your name?” I think that’s what came out. Sleep was making my speech sluggish and slurred.
“ Euan” he spoke his name with a heavier accent, and then asked, “What are you called?”
“Sleep now, Jennae.” I felt pressure on my head, and remembered nothing else.
I awoke in my clothes not entirely sure how I had gotten into my bed. I had to sit up and blink for a few minutes before the impact of the previous days events came back to me. I decided that I needed to take a shower not only to help focus my thoughts, but also because I knew I had not bathed properly for at least a day and a half.
I slid out of bed and made my way to my little shower room, shucking my clothes as I went. The steam from the hot water felt so lovely as I stood beneath the stream, letting the water force the dirt out of my hair and off of my body. I took a longe than normal shower, safe in the knowledge that we had a practically unlimited supply.
When I finally left the steamy shower room, wrapped only in a towel and feeling significantly more human than I had in a while, I could see the sky through my front window just barely touched with color. I dressed in clean clothes and slipped outside. I walked slowly through the calm mists that clung to the earth around me, hearing the crystal sound of bird calls through the pristene morning air. Sunlight had barely begun to peak over the horizon and I found myself caught with the sudden urge to watch it rise. I pulled my shirt closer around me and quickened my step in the direction of the landing field, where my view of the horizon would be the least obstructed.
Having spent all my life space bound, I found myself constantly surprised and delighted at the simplest aspects of planet life. I had been awake at all hours of the day before, but the daily cycle of sun rise and sun set had never defined my days. Up to this point, sunrise was only terminology, but not an experience.
I found the stillness of the early morning peaceful. No breeze stirred my hair or rustled the grasses on the landing field. The bird sounds were distant, but rang clear through the still air as if the tree they were sitting in was just beside me, not meters away.
I made my way past the two transport ships that were parked neatly facing the stretch of grassland used as a temporary runway and walked out into the wide open space before them to stand just close enough to the force fence to see clearly through it. The horizon was now a brightening shade of pink and I knew the sun would break over the edge in a matter of minutes. The shades of colors, starting as a brilliant orange/pink at the edge of the horizon and fading gently into dark blue , were so beautiful. From space, sunrise across a planet was simply marked as the light from the nearby star moving in an even line across the surface of the planet, a uniform brightening of the planet surface. The experience on the surface was much more dramatic as light trickled over mountains and hills, through trees and into ravins while the sun slowly rose above the edge of the world in the far distance. Drops of condensation would catch the light before the rays hit the blades of grass and give everything a touch of glitter before the warmth of the sun caused the dewdrops to evaporate into mist. The mist, which moved over the ground and through the woodlands was like a living creature, moving on silent but swift feet to escape the on-coming daylight. I could feel its wet fingers stroke my cheek as the first breeze of the day ruffled my hair and chilled my skin.
I heard the soft sound of feet on grass behind my shoulder and turned only slightly, expecting to see maybeTom or even Andrew standing behind me. Instead, a pair of bare, mottled feet with black nails stood just behind my right foot. I looked up at him, not startled this time, but welcoming his company. He smiled at me and nodded to the horizon, where the first glitters of sun were breaking over the edge of the night, the dawn of another day.
“You will miss the best moment.” His voice, calm and serene, did not break the solace of the early morning but seemed to flow through it, like water added to a stream.
I turned and watched as the sun broke over the far away hills, squinting in the bright light that made its way in uneven tendrils over the land around me. The warmth bathed my face and I smiled, dropping my arms from around my shoulders as the heat, tentative and soft, filtered through the mist and chill to caress my skin. The gold of the sun continued to break over the horizon, bathing the world in heat and light. The mist, which had barely rolled across the open grassland before the sun had broken over the horizon was now in full retreat from the sunlight, like a nocturnal creature returning to its daylight resting place. The forest was now fully awake and thriving, the leaves twitching and quivering more from the activity of the birds and other creatures moving about behind them than from the breeze that was now awakening and running tangled fingers through my hair.
“Euan.” I turned, and he was gone. I could see people moving between the buildings, the early risers who were starting their day.
That was not the last time I saw him that day, but I could not talk to him, not without drawing very serious attention to myself. I would see him literally sitting on top of a building, just out of sight, watching us. He would look back at me when he caught me looking up at him, and slide out of view. It aggrevated me more than anything else because I knew, from his expressions when I caught him watching me first, that he knew I wanted to question him inside and out. At no point during the day was I able to try to talk to him.
Finally, around early afternoon, I forced myself to ignore him and decided to work in the green house instead of out in the gardens, where I could not be seen nor would I find myself looking around for him. After a very short while I found myself safely lost in my work, not feeling the constant irritation of being watched or wanting to watch him.
Nigella was working with me, methodically performing her tests and daily duties in a silence. She looked horrific and I had told her earlier that she didn’t need to work today, if it was too much.
“No, Jen, I have to work. Please.” Her chocolate eyes brimmed with tears and I just nodded. She needed to be doing something, anything, to keep her mind off of Nick. So, instead of arguing with her, I choose to work in the greenhouse with her, quiet company to her misery and sympathetic to her pain. I could give her nothing to make her feel any better except to let her work and be another living being in the room with her, assuring her that she was not alone.
After about an hour Nigella told me she taking her samples to the main botany building and left. I heard the greenhouse door shut with a muffled thud behind her and thought myself alone in the greenhouse, left to finish my sampling and testing alone. I should have known better.
“What are you doing?” Euan’s voice was so close to my ear that I jumped and had to bite my tongue to keep myself from exclaiming something profane.
“Don’t you knock?” I scowled up at him once my heart had slowed down.
“They would hear me.” His grin was unapologetic and I fought the urge to hit him. It’s always a good rule never to hit anyone bigger than you, especially if they are not from the same species as you.
“Of course they would.” I smirked up at him before turning back to the root sections I had been slicing.
“What are you doing?” he furrowed his brow as he looked down at the slicer I was using.
“Preparing sections of the roots for microscopic evaluation. I’m slicing them to only one or two layers of cells so the digitical microscope can penetrate into the cell structure.” I stood back from the machine a little so he could watch.
“You don’t just see, do you?” His question confused me and it must have shown on his face, because he took my hand and said, “I’ll show you.”
He curled his fingers through mine, his palm pressed against the palm of my hand. I felt a strange tingle spread from where his palm touched mine through the deepest part of my arm, up my neck, and engulf my head. My senses suddenly changed, as if touching him had brought my world into a clearer focus. He reached out and touched the barest edge of a leaf of the plant I had been sampling.
It all happened so fast, I found myself clinging to his hand in a death grip and leaning against him as if I couldn’t figure out which way was up. The images behind my eyes were beyond amazing. I was actually experiencing the life structure of the very plant he was touching. I saw and understood everything about the organism from the hairy tendrils of roots to the somas on the leaves that gulped carbon diozide, to the very chlorophyll structures that absorbed the sunlight. I could feel the light being converted into power deep inside, feel the cells absorbing the energy into themselves, feel them grow and divide. I could feel the very power of life as it throbbed through the plant and I was awestruck.
I didn’t realize he had let go of my hand until the visions behind my eyes faded. I was leaning against his chest, staring at the potted plant as if it were going to walk across the preparation table and roar at me. I started to giggle and he lifted me back, looking down at me with a strange expression.
“That was AMAZING.” I couldn’t stop giggling. Nor could I stand on my own. Slowly, Euan lowered me down to the floor where I sat looking at him with my elbows rested on my knees. It took me a moment to readjust, to bring myself back into my own world.
“You are not well?” he seemed concerned.
“I’m good. I just need a moment.” I was still grinning like a fool, but at least the giggles had stopped. My mind kept replaying the experience, digesting the rapid inflow of information. Something, an arrant thought, popped into my head and came out of my mouth, spontaneouslly, “You use this plant as a tea.”
“Yes, it calms.” He narrowed his eyes at me, and I bit my lip. “You cannot do this.”
“No, I can’t” I could feel my body equalizing and lowered my legs down so that I was sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor of the greenhouse. He seemed to be pondering this, watching my face but I could see his mind mulling this over behind his gold and brown flecked eyes. He reached out and touched my face, settling himself on the dirt infront of me.
“Who are you? How are you here?” I curled my hand around his wrist and he dropped it, so that his hand rested on my knee.
“I am like you. I am human.” He still viewed me with such a strange expression.
“That’s not possible. I can’t do that. I don’t look like you.” I shook my head.
“But we are. My people, they came from the stars looking for a new world. They came here and settled in the forest, in the Caves of Light.” He looked down at where my hand cupped his on my knee, and touched the much paler skin of my palm. Another tingle ran up my arm but nothing more happened. “We settled here, but had to move after the Fever broke out and the children were changed. My parents were one of the Changed.”
“Fever?” Something rang in the back of my head and, suddenly, it clicked. “You’re a descendent of the First Colony. They reported an outbreak of a disease, a fever, before they dissapeared.”
“Yes, the Fever. It changed the children, then the adults. They could not live here, like this, any more. It changed them, changed our people.” He looked up at me.
“It gave you this ability?” I could find no other word to use, but indicated his hand.
“I do not know. I only know what we were taught as children.” He smiled sheepishly at me, “History is not my favorite subject to learn. The Elders tried to teach me, but I could not stay indoors long enough to hear all of it. But the Elders know the whole story and they tell every generation.”
“Could I meet them?” I was tentative to ask him. This whole idea was amazing, and maybe he was not telling the truth, but somehow I knew he was being honest.
“I will ask.” He gave me another sheepish look, this one a little more serious. “they do not know you are here.”
“What about the others who were with you?” I remembered the bird calls that were not bird calls the day Nick was attacked and I had met Euan.
“They are a hunting party. My father made me join them. I do not like to hunt, but he said I should go with them and be useful.” Behind my eyes, I could see an image of a man, like Euan, but older, with gray streaked through his braids. I could feel the respect Euan felt, the images and emotions coming through my contact with Euans hand. he curled his fingers through mine and smiled at me, “I have done something. I do not know if meeting them would be a good idea. I didn’t think their stories were true. They are so old, the Elders, and some of what they talk about to each other makes little sense these days.”