Jiro woke to a pounding headache. He lifted his arms to cradle his head, but his right arm convulsed, forcing a gasp from his lips. A large rock dug into his side. What happened?
“Jiro. Jiro, are you okay?” Daichi’s words, laced with pain, brought Jiro wide awake.
Jiro pushed himself up with his left arm. His head throbbed even more. He closed his eyes against the pain, trying to make sense of where he was and why, then looked for his father.
Daichi lay at the bottom of a steep slope that was covered with loose rocks. Several feet away lay a rhino boar. Jiro panicked momentarily until he realized the boar lay still, its head angled awkwardly in a way that made Jiro shiver. A wave of rocks surrounded the boar.
“Jiro, thank god,” Daichi said. “I feared you were–”
He couldn’t finish the sentence. He sat a little further uphill, red-faced, back against a boulder, his body tensed with pain.
“What happened?” Jiro asked. He felt disoriented and had a vague memory of falling.
“You fell…down…hill,” Daichi replied through clenched teeth. “Knocked you…out.”
Everything came rushing back to Jiro. He groaned, this time not from the pain. Why was he so stupid? He had fallen down the steep hill while chasing the boar.
“How…do…you feel?” Daichi asked.
Jiro closed his eyes again, breathing through the pain in his head and arm. He tried to move his arm again, but the slightest movement sent daggers shooting through it. While trying to avoid moving his arm too much, he examined it. His shirt was untorn and he didn’t see any blood staining it, but he thought it might be broken.
“I’ll be fine,” Jiro lied, too embarrassed to admit he was hurt. “What happened to you?”
“Tried to…come down…after you. Lost…my balance.”
Daichi made no effort to move or stand. Jiro realized his father was hurt, too. Gashes were torn in a few places on his pants.
“Are you ok?”
“My leg, it’s broken,” Daichi said.
Jiro didn’t see any blood on his father either. Nevertheless, a fresh wave of guilt washed through him. His recklessness had not only hurt himself but his father as well.
Will he ever bring me hunting again? Jiro thought.
Determined to fix this mess, Jiro used his left arm to support himself. Little rocks cut into his palm as he climbed to his knees, then to his feet. His body ached all over.
His childhood instinct was never to approach his father when he screwed up, and this was a monumental blunder, but he forced this feeling down and moved over to his father. “Let me help you up.”
“No.” Daichi shook his head. His rifle lay in his lap. “I can’t…climb…hill…with broken leg. You’ll…have to go back…to the ship. There’s…a transporter…in back. You need…to get it and come back.”
“I won’t leave you.” Jiro reached up to tap the tradutor in his left ear to turn on the emergency frequency, but the small earbud was gone. He felt around in his mouth with his tongue. The thin, dime-sized disc was also missing. Jiro silently cursed himself. “I lost my tradutor. Do you have yours?”
Daichi shook his head. “Swallowed the disc by accident. Not sure what…happened to the earbud.”
Great! So neither of them had communication devices, all because he had not wanted to settle for hunting a sloth.
“You have to go back…to the ship alone,” Daichi continued. “You can…make it.”
Jiro didn’t want to leave his father here with his broken leg, but with only one good arm, Jiro couldn’t help him up the steep hill. He might not make it up himself. He had to try, though. He had to fix this.
His light rifle lay next to his pack, partly buried by rocks during the fall. Jiro hurried over to them and examined the rifle carefully. It appeared unbroken.
At least I didn’t destroy everything.
His pack, on the other hand, had a broken strap and a hole in the side. Holding his right arm protectively to his chest, Jiro stepped on the pack’s straps so that he could unzip it with his left hand. All that remained was his water canteen, his hatchet, and a single nutrient bar, along with several small rocks and a handful of dirt.
Jiro scanned the ground nearby and spotted his first aid kit. He started to rush over, but each step jolted his right arm, so he slowed to a measured pace, which helped a little. When he reached the kit, he bent his knees, trying not to jostle his right arm, and grabbed the kit and cautiously opened it. The kit held bandages, gauze, alcohol cleaning wipes, gloves, and pain medication. He silently thanked his mother for forcing him to bring the kit with him.
Carefully rising to his feet, Jiro closed the kit and returned to his father. “I’ve got disinfectant and bandages. Do you need some?”
“Leave them and get going,” his father said.
“I can’t leave you hurt like this,” Jiro said, trying to think of another way to get help.
“You never chase after a wounded animal,” his father snapped. “If it had hidden and you cornered it through the fog, it would’ve charged. You could’ve been gored before you saw it.”
Jiro recoiled from the anger in his father’s voice.
His father’s tone softened. “You can fix this. You have to get to the ship.”
Jiro nodded. Ashamed, he held out the canteen. “Do you want the water?”
“Still got mine.” His father patted the pack that lay on the ground beside him.
Jiro retrieved his own pack and rifle. On the way, he got a better look at the boar, its neck broken. His first kill had come from chasing it over a cliff. He imagined the jeers from classmates when they found out.
Slipping the pack with its one good strap over his left arm and grabbing the rifle, Jiro turned back to his father. “Back as quickly as I can,” he promised.
Jiro used his rifle like a cane as he climbed the hill. The loose rocks covering its steep slope threatened to swarm down at the slightest provocation, forcing Jiro to take a slow, measured pace. Even still, rocks occasionally slipped out from underfoot. With one wrong step he would bury his father under an avalanche. He moved several feet over before resuming his climb. He checked vainly in either direction, finding no path back up the steep slope, so he kept pushing forward, one cautious step after another.
At the summit he leaned on his gun, breath coming in gasps. He wanted to rest, but he had no idea the extent of his father’s injuries. Daichi had a rifle and charges, but what if the dead boar drew a pack of sabre-toothed cheetahs? Unable to flee, could his father fight them off alone?
That gave Jiro pause. What more could he do to help his father? He had to get back to the ship at some point. They both needed real medical attention. He had to send a distress call to Wodan.
Jiro trekked toward the ship, searching for prowling animals. But the swirling fog hid everything. He passed by the trees where he had first seen the boar. With their leaves gone for the winter, they looked like the hands of some buried giant, desperately reaching for anything to grasp to pull itself up out of the ground, or maybe for a victim to drag underground.
He shouldn’t have tried to match his brother. Hunting a giant sloth sounded great now.
Midmorning had arrived by the time Jiro spotted the ship through the fog. Relief washed through him, and he picked up the pace. Then furtive movement near the door stopped Jiro. A figure examined the ship. A couple of boulders nearby offered cover, and Jiro quickly darted for them. Once he was safely hidden, he peeked around them.
A Malsain. The green, lizard-like alien walked around the ship, likely searching for a way to break in. The Malsain was more than a head taller than Jiro. What was a Malsain doing here? Malsain rarely hunted for sport.
Jiro considered asking the Malsain for help, but felt reluctant to reveal himself.
The fog cleared for a moment, revealing a black tattoo on the Malsain’s greenish-yellow scales. Not a tattoo. A brand. A skull branded the back of its hand.
A rogue Malsain, here on Herne.
Jiro fought the urge to run. Rogue Malsain had a nasty reputation. Outcasts from their own kind. Considered desperate scavengers, they attacked any time they had the upper hand, usually wounded men and women or even isolated children. In his present state Jiro was the perfect target.
Jiro debated running back to his father and warning him. But he may not have the time. The ship offered their sole means of escape or communication. How could he get rid of the Malsain? He was beyond shooting range, assuming he could even aim with his left arm. Maybe it would give up on breaking into the ship and leave.
The creature stalked behind the ship, probing for a way inside. Jiro moved to the right side of the boulders to try to catch sight of the Malsain again.
The Malsain suddenly fled. Jiro frowned, wondering what had scared it away. The ship didn’t have an automated defense system.
And then the ship exploded.
Jiro stared, his mind frozen. Then his thoughts raced. Their ship destroyed. A great big fireball. Their hope of escape gone. Their ability to call Wodan for help obliterated. No more supplies. No more shelter. They were alone. Stranded.
A second explosion rocked the ship. The destruction proved too much for Jiro. He turned and fled. He charged south, desperate to get back to his father. Almost immediately he realized he should have checked for the Malsain before running. Had it seen him? Too late now.
Jiro risked one glance over his shoulder. No sign of the Malsain, but he had no time or cover to make sure. Instead, he ran as though the Malsain was after him. The sooner he reached his father the better. Daichi would know what to do.
Jiro sped past the trees where he had first spotted the rhino boar. He had been an idiot. Ruined everything. He started to panic, to feel overwhelmed. He couldn’t catch his breath.
His father’s maxims surged to the front of his mind. He clung to them, reciting. “A calm hunter is a safe hunter. A patient hunter is a successful hunter. A smart hunter chooses his game rather than being chosen by it.” He repeated them over and over, especially the first one. Those words held his fear at bay. It didn’t go away, but it no longer threatened to engulf him.
At that moment a sixth sense told him that he neared the ledge. He slowed. He would not go hurtling over the side twice.
Checking behind for signs of pursuit, Jiro found nothing but the light fog and a barren landscape. He turned back and searched intently for the drop. He spotted it a good ten feet away. Jiro jogged over to the edge and peered down the hill.
His father was gone.
(Part 3 coming next week!)