Bernard woke with a start a sudden sting against his shoulder making him hiss and jerk upright. He felt like he was coming out of a dream, a nightmare, that lurch as you feel as though you’re falling. He wasn’t and it hadn’t been a dream. The pale, naked girl drew back from him as he sat up and mutely pointed to his shoulder. He twisted his head to look and found his shoulder was caked with blood. She’d torn the sleeve from his shirt while he slept to expose the wound he didn’t even know he’d had. It was clean lined, like a razor cut, scarily so. She pointed, mutely, to the wound and he simply nodded. Let her do whatever she wanted, he was at her mercy out here.
He caught the smell of those white flowers and watched her pop their flowers into her mouth, chewing them loudly, mouth open, white teeth clicking together. Then she drew the paste it made from her mouth on her fingertip and smeared it against the cut. It stung and he doubted it was sanitary, but she must have known something. As she slipped away from him again, crawling across he floor of… wherever he was, he finally thought to look around him. He’d been in shock and it had been dark when she’d brought him here, he’d passed out when he got her – he thought – but now he could see.
It was a dome, geodesic, half in, half out of the ground he thought. It was overgrown with creepers but some of those creepers were the very thing casting light inside here. Pods on the creeper were glowing with a yellow bioluminescence and more plants of different kinds wound and tangled over the golden, metallic surface. The ‘door’ was a hexagon, overgrown like he rest of the dome and there, where she parted the creepers, the dim natural sun of the forest floor shone through.
He swung himself from the bed, there were two, side by side, and stood. He moved his arm, stretched his shoulder. The pain was already gone and he moved closer to her. She seemed even paler in the light, chalky skin and feral red eyes as she twisted back to look at him. Rested and calmer now he noticed she was a woman and he flushed and glanced away. “Thank you. You probably can’t understand me but thank you. You saved my life.”
She smiled and made a pointing gesture, over-arm, as though pointing far into the distance.
“I think I understand. Yes. I came from a long way away. I need to get back there.”
She nodded as though she understood and pointed to where his pack lay. There were other packs and satchels too. Those of his dead colleagues. Covered in their blood. Bernard winced and crossed himself, offering a brief prayer to the dead and then hunched over the packs, rooting through them. Water, food and medical supplies. Everything else could be left. He couldn’t do anything if he didn’t survive. If he did… well, then he could come back in force. A whole new hominid species, new plants and a golden metal that cut like a straight razor. He had to survive to come back.
Water bottles, food, there was one more thing, just as important. Perhaps more important. The AKs hadn’t done Fred and Ray much good but still, a machete wasn’t going to cut it against those things in the jungle. He emptied his bag out and clutched the FN P90, the sub-machine-gun he hadn’t been able to reach the night before. He only had a couple of magazines but he’d feel better lugging it around. Just in case.
She snorted, derisively, as he hefted the gun and checked it over and then unwrapped her own gear from a fur that sat on a golden trellis to the side. There was her knife and he saw now it clung to her golden belt by itself, as though magnetised and to it she added a pair of long-handled axe-like weapons. Finally, over her back, she strapped a pack that looked like a folded, burnished, copper leaf, it’s strap between her breasts making him flush again and look to the floor.
She checked her weapons, checked her strap and then beckoned to him with a grunt, bending low to duck out through the creepers into the jungle beyond. Bernard followed, blinking in the light of the clearing. None of this made sense. The chalk-white girl, the black beasts, the golden metal, even this dome. Maybe he was sick? Delirium, fever? It made as much sense as anything but there was no point fighting it.
The girl beckoned with another grunt and a curt jerk of her hand and he fell in behind her, following her footsteps as she slinked between the trees with an ease that made him jealous.
She seemed to know precisely where to step, how to turn, the rate she moved was incredible and despite following her as best he could he kept falling behind. Every time she ducked back to find him her scowl deepened and her mood became worse. He wished they could talk, that he could explain but there was no way to talk to her. He had just resolved to talk anyway, for the sake of his own sanity when she stopped, abruptly, making him bump into her and then pressing her finger to his lips. The universal sign for silence.
Bernard peered over her shoulder along the slender animal trail they were following and saw what had brought her up short. There was a sickly, sweet, rotting scent on the wind and before them on the trail was a fire-hardened spear of wood, impaling a half-dozen animals, human and otherwise, all in a state of rot but untouched by scavengers.
“The bad guy’s territory huh?” Bernard whispered and the girl clamped her hand over his mouth and butted his forehead with her own. She really, really wanted him to be quiet.
Inch by careful inch they took a path away from that territorial marker. Bernard realised that he recognised the body, what was left of it. Christ, the doctor, an ignoble end to be impaled as a warning but in sparing them a meeting with the shadow creatures perhaps he had done one last service.
Even with her speed it was slow going, especially now they were off the trails and especially with Bernard stopping often for water and for rest. She seemed to need little of either and was steaming with impatience, champing at the bit, stamping her foot irritably every time he stopped.
She was hissing and clucking her tongue at him for the hundredth time as he stopped again, swallowing a mouthful of water and leaning back against a tree when he tuned her out. What was that? What was it back there, in the trees? He frowned and focussed, squinting his eyes to pierce the growing gloom as the sun began to set again. He was exhausted and overheated, barely able to think straight. His vision swam and then settled, focussed in.
Two amber gemstones peered at him from behind her, buried in the undergrowth, perhaps eighteen inches apart, shining and bright. Then they blinked. Bernard raised his hand and pointed. Habit made him say “Behind you” and she did turn. Just as they eyes moved.
A great cat like nothing Bernard had ever seen before. It rocketed out of the shadow trailing creepers and vines, whiskers forward from its sable-furred face, lips back from great fangs liked furred scimitars, paws widespread with claws hooked forth to snatch at skin and flesh.
She barely had time to react and went down under the beast, dragged along under it as it thundered across the jungle floor. He saw her wrap her legs around the giant cat, her arm around its neck, snatching for her dagger from her belt.
He wasn’t going to stand there like a useless lump this time. He yanked the gun up to his shoulder and drew a bead on the animal as it stopped, shaking its barrel body to try and hurl her off.
The trigger didn’t pull. Safety catch.
He fumbled, panicked for the little button that would let the gun fire. She was clinging for dear life onto the beast, hand in its fur, yanking and pulling on it as she drove her sharp golden dagger deep into the cat’s side over and over before its wild shaking finally tore her free and sent her tumbling against a tree.
The beast licked the blood from its flank and gave a long, low, guttural growl. Head down, paws outstretched, tail back straight and twitching. It was going to pounce and for all her skill and for all the sharpness of her blade he didn’t see how she could win.
The gun shoved back into his shoulder, a staccato hammering as he put a dozen rounds into the creature’s side. It twisted in the air and landed, heavy, right in front of her and her brows leap up her head as the big cat came to a halt, panting, twitching at her feet until with tears in her eyes she stabbed her blade through its skull and brought it to stillness.
“I couldn’t let it kill you…” Bernard backed away as she came storming towards him with a look of deep upset. She pressed her finger to his lips and shoved him back further, with an exasperated shrug.
“BANGBANGBANGBANG?!” she shoved at the gun with her hand and rolled her eyes.
“It was going to kill you,” Bernard insisted, looking her in her unsettling red eyes, trying to put across his sincerity as best he could.
She sighed and then pressed her lips to his forehead. “Thank. You” the unfamiliar words fell from her mouth uneasily, but it still made him smile. Then she pressed her finger to his lips again and took his hand, leading him on down the trail. They weren’t going to be able to stop tonight.