Jiro stared at the Malsain talking over his unconscious father. The Malsain with light green scales pointed at Daichi, then gestured back in the general direction of the ship.
Jiro scowled. If only he had his tradutor to translate.
The Malsain kept eyeing and gesturing into the forest as they rapidly spoke. To Jiro’s fearful mind, each word and glance were a reference to him. How long until they started searching for him? Would they kill Daichi before or after the search? They hadn’t carried him to their camp to mend his leg after all.
As if in confirmation, one of the Malsain kicked Daichi in the side.
Jiro bit his lip, forcing himself not to yell in fury. He had to act soon. But do what? He had failed at every turn today. Another failure would cost his father his life. Maybe cost him his own as well.
He yearned to rush into the camp shooting, but that desire was the ravings of his panic. He could never take them on with one good arm. Logically, he knew success depended on a good plan. The sooner he developed one, the better his father’s chances, and his own.
Forcing himself to retreat, Jiro carefully inspected the ground before each step to avoid making the slightest sound, though he felt like a coward skulking away.
Once he felt he’d put a safe distance between him and the Malsain, he marched south rather than returning west. He needed to find a weapon or tool he could use to his advantage. He doubted he would find anything worth using among the wreckage of their ship.
Noboru had taught him to survive; skills passed down from their father. Thanks to his brother, Jiro knew how to find water, build a campfire with only wood and tinder, and create a temporary lean-to shelter. Perfect, if he needed to hide from the Malsain until rescue arrived, but of little help to his father.
If he had his tablet, a 3D printer, and supplies, he could have made a light grenade. He could have used a mini drone to spy, or perhaps to lure one or both away. All were staples of any academy mission, but he had none of these thanks to his father’s ban on technology in hunting.
Why did Daichi insist on this? He was the chief technologist on the PSA council!
Daichi worked with the scientists to turn their latest research and development projects into practical applications, then helped facilitate their production and delivery to all of PSA. He ensured that the latest technologies were in the hands of officers in the field. Yet he wanted nothing to do with those same technologies when hunting. He refused to allow tablets – even though Jiro could have used one to send an emergency signal to Wodan – because they also allowed them to search a 3D map of Herne to locate any animal they wanted to pursue.
Cheating! he called it. What Jiro wouldn’t have given for that 3D map right now!
His father insisted on minimal technology because he wanted to limit their advantage, which Jiro couldn’t rationalize with his father’s role as chief technologist. Why did he love and embrace new technology in every other aspect of his life?
Up ahead, a growl caused Jiro’s heart to skip a beat. Stiff as a rusting tin-man. Jiro searched the trees as far as the fog let him. A second and third growl followed, but not Jiro realized they came from young animals. Cubs.
Where there are cubs, a mother will be found as well, if not a pack.
Jiro ducked behind a nearby fir tree. His tablet and 3D map would’ve helped him determine how many adults were around and where.
More growls from the cubs drew his focus further south to a small cave. Panther cubs wrestling with each other. From this distance they looked like panther albus, white panther, a sort of cross between a lion and a panther. Much larger than either, though. Double the size.
The cubs, not more than a few months old and roughly twenty pounds each, had near-white fur, which helped camouflage them in the fog, or when it snowed.
No adults visible.
He scanned in every direction, including meticulously checking the trees for more panthers. Once he felt reasonably sure of their absence, a crazy idea crossed his mind.
“Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu,” he whispered.
To take the saying literally was stupid. If he was wrong about the mother, and perhaps even if he wasn’t, he might end up cat food. Still, he needed a crazy idea to get rid of the rogue Malsain. Only a few hours of daylight remained.
Continuing to scan his surroundings, Jiro slipped the strap from the rifle over his head so that it rested on his pack, then stealthily advanced toward the den. The cubs, consumed with wrestling, remained oblivious to his presence. They bit and tackled each other, growling as if to warn the others that they were the most dangerous creature alive. In other circumstances, Jiro might have enjoyed their childish bravado.
He closed to within ten feet, then charged. He was upon them before they even sensed him. The cubs tried to scatter at the last moment, but Jiro snagged one by the scruff of its neck. Cub in tow, Jiro raced north toward the Malsain camp.
The cub squirmed, but Jiro gripped it firmly behind the neck like a mother would. When it realized it couldn’t escape his grasp, the cub whined. A gag would be nice right about now.
I’m begging to be eaten.
Jiro contemplated tossing the cub aside and abandoning his insane plan. But was the risk any greater than taking on two rogue Malsain alone? He needed some sort of surprise to tilt the showdown in his favor. At the moment this seemed his best option.
An angry roar filled the forest. The mother was on his trail.
And holding the cub with his one good hand prevented him from wielding the rifle.
No more calm. No more patience. Probably as stupid a plan as they come, but he had chosen his prey. Now he had to reach the camp.
Another roar of fury was followed by a second. Closer now. The roars came from slightly different directions behind him. At least two pursued him, then. Tossing away the cub wouldn’t save him anymore. Plus the Malsain had heard them coming by now and would be on guard.
Jiro spotted the cave, then the Malsain. They had drawn their short rifles and were searching for the oncoming growls. He hoped the fog helped to obscure him.
Lady luck wasn’t on his side. A moment later they fixed on him and started shooting.
Laser shots struck trees to Jiro’s left and right, but he ran on. Before he reached the clearing around their cave, he tossed the cub at one Malsain with every ounce of effort he possessed, then ducked for cover behind a tree. Successive laser blasts shattered the side of the tree behind him.
The shots were followed by screams from a Malsain, combined with angry hisses from the cub.
Then Jiro saw the white panthers closing in.
Coming out of the fog, they looked as large as SUVs. The panthers bared their teeth, ready for a fight. Jiro unslung his rifle and propped it on one knee to steady it, ready to fire if attacked by a white panther.
The three panthers raced into the camp, straight for the cub and the shocked Malsain.
More rifle fire filled the air, and a panther howled in pain. Jiro scrambled up and turned to shoot, but the rogue Malsain had already fled their camp, one panther in pursuit.
A second panther grabbed the cub by the scruff of the neck and limped from camp, its rear left leg bleeding. Jiro felt guilty for the wound, but he couldn’t have exactly asked for their help, and it may have saved his father’s life.
The third panther sniffed his father’s leg. Jiro quickly aimed over the panthers head and fired. The panther spun toward him and growled. Jiro fired again and the panther leapt after its companion.
The way now clear, Jiro rushed to his father’s side. “Dad. Dad.” Jiro dropped his rifle and grabbed a shoulder, shaking his father. “Dad, are you okay?”
Slack-jawed, his father remained unconscious. What else had the Malsain done to him?
“Dad, wake up.” His words came out as a half sob. Had he waited too long? “Please!”
Jiro searched his father for other wounds besides his leg, but found no evidence he had been shot or stabbed. He was still breathing at least.
At that moment Jiro remembered Noboru telling him that their father always kept smelling salts in his pack. He had done so ever since a hunting accident with friends long ago. Jiro stood and scanned the camp. The brown pack rested against the wall just inside the cave.
Retrieving the pack, Jiro dumped the contents on the ground. He snatched up the first aid kit. Inside was a bottle of smelling salts.
“Thank you Noboru,” he whispered.
Unscrewing the cap, Jiro held it up to his nose and sniffed. An overpowering wave of ammonia hit his nostrils, causing him to lurch back. He felt like he had drunk a dozen sodas in an instant, flooding him with energy. Potent stuff.
Jiro hurried back to his father and waved the bottle under his nose. His father didn’t twitch. Jiro fought to control his terror and tried again. This time, Daichi’s head rolled to the side, then his eyes popped open. He gripped Jiro’s arm until it hurt, and his wide eyes were disoriented.
“Dad, it’s me,” Jiro said. “You’re safe.”
He glanced east, searching for the Malsain, but there was no sign of them. Safe for the moment. How long?
“You have to go. Get away!” Daichi said. “There’s a rogue Malsain.”
“Leave me. Escape.”
“I can’t. We have nowhere to go.”
“What do you–”
“The ship is destroyed.” Jiro spoke over his father. “I can’t call for help, and the Malsain will return soon. We need a place to hide.”
Jiro recapped the smelling salts, then replaced it in the first aid kit and stuffed his father’s things back in his pack. He slung it over his shoulder along with his own pack and rifle. Grabbing his father’s left arm, Jiro pulled. Despite only using his left hand, lances of pain surged through his injured right arm while helping his father up. Jiro gritted his teeth and breathed deeply, refusing to cry out.
“Lean on me.” Jiro placed his father’s left arm over his shoulders and they hobbled from camp. His father’s body squeezed Jiro’s throbbing right arm, but it was the only option.
His father couldn’t make the steep climb to the north, nor had Jiro spotted any possible shelter to hide them. He was not about to head east toward the Malsain, so that left south. Back toward the white panthers.
As they made their escape into the forest, Jiro chuckled to himself. “Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu.” To catch the cub, he had entered the tiger’s den.
(Part 5 coming next week!)