Posted on November 8th, 2019 by Kuari
by Kuari and Kathryn Harper
The forest was unfamiliar, stretching in every direction. There were no nav points, nor were there even any maps. They had no data at all, not even any devices to create any. There was only what one could see and hear, smell and touch. Even so, life remained hidden within the thick brush, peering out at the alien that walked amongst it.
The only similar situation Kuari had been in was years ago, in a randomly-generated simulation in one of her Marine courses. They were given no armor or devices of any kind, with the goal being just to survive. Even then, it was just a simulation, with safeties and a computer that would respond to what was commonly referred to as an “out” command. Here, there were no safeties, no computer. This was real, or at least she had to assume it was.
She was no stranger to the real thing in away missions, however she had always had a commbadge, and usually a ship in orbit above, awaiting her call. When the stress began to get to her, Kuari’s response was to reach for her commbadge, but it wasn’t there. She had to keep reminding herself that as far as she could tell, she and Kate were alone.
The air was colder now as the sun was setting behind the trees. She had no armor as she tended to have as a Marine, not even a uniform. At least she wasn’t without fur like Kate was, but Kuari’s fur had not grown long in preparation for a winter, so it only kept in the heat so much.
The cave they had found had been their first real accomplishment as they had walked for hours through the forest, having yet found no water sources or natural shelters. They could have taken the time to fashion something to keep out rain and wind, but that would take time away from searching, and they had chosen to keep looking for water or other people. She and Kate had reluctantly agreed to stay at the cave only because their remaining daylight hours were few, and the trickle of water they had found at the back of the cave would have to be enough.
Kuari suddenly stopped, catching a whiff of something with fur. She put her nose to the air, turning her head in an attempt to locate the source, listening carefully with perked ears. The steady drone of insects was growing in volume, with more joining the chorus as nightfall approached. So many sounds and smells on this planet were unfamiliar, and she had not actually hunted down something by scent in a long, long time. Kuari felt woefully inadequate as an alien to this environment, one used to life on a starship, warm and well fed, but if the opportunity to capture a fresh meal of meat presented itself, she wouldn’t pass it up.
Some time passed, following the scent as best she could, and her nose eventually led her in the right direction. The pungent smell was stronger now, so Kuari began to creep slowly, low to the ground so as not to be seen. She couldn’t see much through the thick brush, and it was all she could do to step carefully and not make a sound. Unfortunately, she wasn’t careful enough and snapped a twig.
A sudden rustling ahead startled her. As she watched, plants shivered violently in a path leading away from her. Kuari’s lack of experience caused her to hesitate, and she growled to herself in frustration. Desperate to catch up she took flight, but whatever she was chasing was quick to change direction and she landed too far.
Adrenaline was now raging through her, and it was all Kuari could do to watch her footing as instinct caused her to hyper-focus on her prey. She ran, cornered, feinted and leapt in a mad chase, only using her wings to clear large objects, cutting off the animal’s path and forcing it to change direction yet again. Finally, Kuari pounced near where the motion stopped, but nothing moved and all she could hear was the sound of her own labored breathing. Panicked that she had lost it, she bellowed loudly. This worked, as a scurrying started off into a clearing, the animal having nowhere else to go.
Kuari could finally see it. As she gave chase, the form of a small, oversized rabbit-like creature fled with all its waning might, tired and vulnerable in the open space. The Rucara’s much longer gait carried her close to her quarry within seconds. Ready for the rabbit’s change in direction, she cornered with the creature and her long neck gave her the reach necessary to gain a solid grip across its back with her jaws.
It stopped struggling almost immediately. She had bitten down harder than she intended to, but in this case it was probably a mercy. The taste of blood was a shock, and Kuari just stood in place for a while, finding it difficult to calm herself down. She needed to take this back to Kate. The kill still in her mouth, she looked at the sky. If she didn’t go now, it would be difficult to find the cave. Stretching out her wings, Kuari got her bearings, turned in the direction she thought she should go, and took flight.
It had taken a while to scavenge the large pile of branches and twigs in front of her, but Kate finally judged it to be sufficient to get them through the night, provided that she could put her survival training to use. Having had no food today, she was tired and hungry from her exertions, but there was no time to rest until the priorities of survival were addressed, and that meant getting a fire going. Kate knelt at the cave mouth and began to stack the largest of the branches, laying two down parallel to each other, then two more on top of that, perpendicular to the first two to form a square, repeating until she had a box a few layers tall. Inside of that, she added smaller sticks and twigs, leaning them against each other, with an opening in the middle that she filled with dry leaves.
Now came the painful part. Kate stood and plucked out several hairs from the back of her head, continuing until she had enough to twist together into a red strand. She tied this to each end of a small curved branch that she had pulled off a live tree, taut enough to cause a slight bow. Kate retrieved another stick she had set aside from the pile, about a half a meter in length, and twisted it into the bowstring one time before placing the completed bow drill on the ground next to the makings of a campfire. As if to remind her of why she was literally pulling her hair out to create a fire, the wind picked up and raised goosebumps all across her fair freckled skin, sending a wave of shivers through her body.
“Alright, I get it,” she answered through gritted teeth, her resolve to succeed strengthened. Picking out a fairly stout dry branch from the extras, she hefted the semi-sharp rock she had found on their journey to this cave and began to hack at the wood. After several strenuous minutes, Kate finally managed to wear a rough groove into the branch, which she filled one end of with more bits of dry leaves. Picking up the bow drill, she placed one foot on either side of the branch to keep it from rolling, then squatted above it and began to spin the drill in the groove, using the rock to apply downward pressure to the top of the spindle.
The mechanical advantage construed by the bowstring caused the spindle to spin faster and with less effort than it would take using her hands alone, and after a few minutes, an ember began to glow beneath it. Kate brushed the tinder closer and began to gently blow, not wanting to scatter it, and her efforts were rewarded with a small flame. Suppressing her excitement, Kate methodically moved the burning tinder to the larger pile inside the wooden structure, then grinned as it too caught fire. Soon, the flames had spread from the kindling to the thicker branches, and Kate was welcoming its heat to her chilled body. Now, she could finally rest and wait for Kuari to return, hoping that her friend would bring something to eat back with her.
Fortunately, it was not long before Kate could hear flapping wings approaching, just as the evening twilight started to deepen. Instinctively, she stood, defensively brandishing her walking stick and sharp rock until she could verify that those wings belonged to her companion.
Kuari approached the fire, its light making it easier to pinpoint the cave mouth in the waning light. She had landed a short distance away, not wanting to accidentally blow out the flames with her wingbeats. Dropping the carcass from her mouth near the fire, she stretched her cramped jaws and gratefully sat near the warmth of the fire.
Kate relaxed once it was apparent that the approaching figure was indeed Kuari, and she made no effort to cover herself; it would have made no difference since they had awakened in this state, but even then, it had not been awkward for them. Neither of their native cultures had any innate issues with nudity, so Kate’s lack of clothing was nothing Kuari had not seen while they were alone together in the locker room before or after their regular swims over the years, and Kuari generally did not wear anything to swim no matter who was present. Not that their situation gave them any choice in the matter, but at least embarrassment and modesty were simply non-issues for the Risan and the Rucara, their lack of protection against the environment notwithstanding. The day’s work had already left Kate with several scrapes and scratches to add further annoyances on top of the cold, but those became secondary concerns when she saw that Kuari had been successful in her hunt.
Kate’s face brightened as Kuari dropped the dead animal, and she sprang over to take a look, then wrapped her arms around her friend’s neck and hugged. “Kuari! You are back safely, and with food! Thank you!”
Kuari smiled and wrapped an arm around Kate’s back, but she was careful to keep her messy mouth away from her. “And you got a fire going to cook it! The warmth feels really good. It should keep the chill off tonight. Do you have enough wood?”
With a gesture to the decently-sized pile of branches and twigs that she had stashed just inside the mouth of the cave, Kate replied, “I think so. At least, I hope so. I was running out of light, so it will have to do.”
Nodding, Kuari looked back at the dead animal. “If we need more later, I can find some. For now, let’s figure out how to cook this.” Hooking open the pouch low on her belly with one thumb, she reached inside and pulled out three apple-sized fruits. “I also found these in the trees on my way back.”
“Oh, how fortunate! I hope they taste good.” Kate hastily reached for one of the fruits, her rumbling stomach getting the best of her, but a sudden thought of Kuari’s welfare made her pause. “Wait, you do not eat much meat, so perhaps you should have them?”
Kuari tossed her head in a short nod. “You eat that one. The tree is not far. If they are good to eat, I will get more. I didn’t want to be greedy until I knew I would eat them. I doubt they will give the nutrition I am used to aboard Atlantis, though, so…” She looked down at the large furry carcass. “…I’ll eat some of this, but you can have most of it.”
As soon as Kuari had offered the fruit again, Kate took it and hungrily bit into it, finding the flesh to be fibrous and resembling a peach, while the taste was tart with a pleasant underlying sweetness. After swallowing, she nodded at Kuari. “Not bad. I hope it is not poisonous, but beggars cannot be losers.” Taking another bite, Kate indicated their meal-to-be and said through a mouthful of fruit, “Can you, uh, skin and gut that? With your claws, maybe?”
The Rucara pulled a face of distaste, but nodded anyway. “Yeah, I’m sure I can.” Picking up the carcass, Kuari studied it for a moment, then looked around and found a spot further from camp where she could make a mess. She then proceeded to experiment at taking it apart. It wasn’t a fun process, but it was sort of fascinating at the same time. She used the distant light of the fire to see what she was doing, carefully extending one claw from her paw to keep the hide in large pieces in case they could use it later.
As Kuari went to work, Kate devoured the rest of the fruit and, after licking her hands clean of the sticky juice, ventured as far away from the warmth of the fire as she dared to watch Kuari dissect the creature. Her eyes grew wide at how easily Kuari’s claws tore through the hide and flesh; at some level, she knew that the Rucara had formidable natural weapons and was fully capable of using them, but Kate had never personally witnessed the act. Her lovable dragon friend was an effective predator, when she had to be, and Kate found herself even more grateful that Kuari was a trusted ally.
Kuari looked up at Kate as she pried open the ribcage to remove the guts. “Find something to use as a spit and I’ll skewer it. I don’t want you to have to get your hands dirty with raw animal.”
Startled out of watching the grisly display, Kate nodded and ducked inside the cave to find a suitable spit. She selected a long branch that was already broken to a rough edge, and then grabbed her rock to help shape the point. After a few angled strikes, the point was somewhat sharper, but still crude, so she continued to hone it until it was the best result that the primitive tool could provide. Taking a moment to appraise her handiwork, she let out a noncommittal “eh” before carrying the spear out to Kuari.
Taking the sharp stick with approval, Kuari carefully speared the carcass lengthwise, then handed the clean end to Kate with a smile. “Here you are, one ready-to-be-cooked whatever-it-is. With any luck, it will taste like bacon.”
“I hope it does!” Kate laughed. “But I think that if I hope for that, I will only set myself up for disappointment. Still, thank you.” She gratefully accepted the meal-on-a-stick and headed for the fire to cook it.
Some time later, they sat by the fire with full stomachs and a pile of bones next to them. “It was not bacon, but I do not think that was half bad,” Kate mused. “It could have used some salt and pepper, at least.”
Kuari didn’t respond, choosing to prioritize chewing on a bone over talking. She eventually managed to splinter one and looked at the tiny column of marrow within, then offered it to Kate. “Here, you should take some marrow, too. It’s good for you.”
Kate took the bone and regarded it with a scrunched nose for a moment before deciding that she was in no position to be picky. With a shrug, she dipped a finger into the exposed marrow and tasted it. Surprised to find its rich taste to be pleasant, Kate let out a happy “Mm!” as she swallowed it. “That is not bad! Thank you.”
“Sure.” Heaving a big sigh, Kuari lay down on her side, her belly facing the fire, and closed her eyes. “I’m exhausted. I haven’t been this physical in a long time.”
“Me too,” Kate agreed as she slurped the rest of the marrow. “Running and swimming and playing sports are one thing, but today was a lot of hard work, and that really can be draining.” The topic reminded Kate of her thirst, so with a glance back into the cave, she stood and added, “I am going to get a drink,” before retreating into the darkness to find the trickle of water.
The thought of playing instead of surviving made Kuari think about their crewmates. Were they all safe aboard the ship, she and Kate being the only two down here? Why were they here? How did it happen? She mulled these thoughts over for a little while, not for the first time this day, before finally speaking once Kate had returned. “I hope everyone else is all right.”
All of the work and the meal had kept Kate’s mind from wandering, but now it focused squarely on her wife. Lexy, like all of them, had received survival training and could take care of herself, but these situations could be fickle; even the most rugged survivalist could run into bad luck and not find anything to help keep themselves alive. Kate hoped against all hope that Lexy was safe and sound aboard Atlantis, commanding the ship and working hard to find them, but she had her doubts and could only wish that her wife was not alone in the wilderness. “Since there are two of us here instead of just one, I would guess that there are more of us elsewhere,” she speculated. “Maybe we will find someone soon.”
“Yeah,” Kuari replied in a sleepy voice, “maybe.” She opened her eyes to help her stay awake. “I would prefer they all be aboard ship, but if others are here, we have to find them and help them soon.”
“Agreed. Anyone else trapped here is not as lucky as I am to have a Rucara huntress with them.” Kate regarded her companion for a moment, noticing how tired she seemed, and then offered, “I will take the first watch. You get some sleep.”
Kuari closed her eyes sleepily. “Aye, Captain…” she trailed off. A couple of hours, that’s all she needed, and then she would be alert enough to take over.
The temperature was falling as the night deepened; a freeze was not imminent, but it was uncomfortable enough as evidenced by their visible breaths. The fire helped ward off a truly miserable night, but by no means could make up for Kate’s complete lack of thermal protection. Once Kuari’s eyes closed, Kate wrapped her arms around herself as an intense primal shiver coursed through her, prompting her to notice that the fire could use a bit more fuel. She fetched several more of the thick branches from inside the cave and decided not to sit back down on the cold ground, slowly pacing around the fire and alternating which side of her faced the heat, still hugging herself to try to keep warm.
The fire popped loudly, stirring Kuari enough to hear what sounded like Kate’s teeth chattering together. Was she still cold? Of course she would be, as it was much colder than she was used to, and she didn’t even have any clothes. Opening one eye, Kuari spotted Kate standing nearby. “Do you want me to keep you warm?” she offered in a murmur, raising the wing not pinned to the ground in an inviting gesture.
“Really?” Kate asked hopefully, the prospect of a warm wing for a blanket being quite enticing at the moment, but she didn’t want to assume Kuari would be comfortable with the close contact. Although she had ridden on Kuari’s back before, and their frequent swims had resulted in a few underwater wrestling matches, Kate felt it best to double-check. “You do not mind?”
“Of course I don’t mind. It’s my duty to protect you, in any way, ‘Captain Harper,’” Kuari assured, amused Kate would even think she had to ask.
Captain of what, Kate idly wondered, but she resolved to not dwell on that uncertainty for now, instead deciding to accept Kuari’s offer, getting the sense that it was made as much out of friendship as it was her XO’s keen sense of duty. Perhaps, in this case, they were the same. “Alright,” Kate answered with a smile as she started toward Kuari, but the hide of the animal that had provided their meal caught her eye. Without being dried and cured, it would not last more than a couple of days, but for now, it could certainly be of use. Kate darted over to retrieve it, then returned to Kuari, spreading the hide furry side up near her wing before sitting down on it, grateful for a barrier against the cold ground.
Kuari was glad to see the hide she had carefully kept intact being put to good use. She waited until Kate settled against her, just behind her arm, and draped her forearm over Kate’s legs. Kuari roused further in shock, her eyes widening. “You’re as cold as a stone!” Settling Kate into the crook of her wing, Kuari cocooned her protectively with its leathery expanse, the warmth of the fire radiating pleasantly across it.
“Believe me, I know!” Kate answered with a laugh as she curled up against Kuari’s side, remaining upright so she could keep watch. The Rucara’s warmth did more than just physically warm her; it was heartwarming as well, inspiring Kate to gaze up at the unfamiliar stars, reflecting on what they had overcome so far. After enduring such a rough day, Kate felt that as a team, they had a good chance of survival from being able to rely on one another. “But I will not be for long. Thank you, my friend.”
As Kate’s temperature warmed up, her weight and proximity became a comfort to Kuari. It wasn’t long before she was again fully relaxed, feeling safe under Kate’s watch, the steady crackling of the fire lulling her to sleep.