Only the smattering of clouds broke up the canvas of blue sky–sky that should have seen a shuttle come through at least three days ago. Tommy Riley, of the Atlanta Rileys, wasn’t used to being kept waiting. His bodyguard and valet, Harley, had considerable more experience in that area.
"Damn it! What’s keeping them?" Tommy asked.
Harley shrugged. "I wish I knew, sir."
Tommy nodded. He didn’t like it, but there was no way Harley could possibly know. He was lashing out and Harley was taking the brunt of it, as usual.
The two were getting low on supplies. Two tents, a fully stocked first aid kit, and a pile of empty ration packets were all that was left of what they brought with them. One box of nutrient-rich ration bars, but that wouldn’t last.
Tommy examined the rations. His eyes darted to the single box, then to Harley, then back. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, willing himself to calm down. Feeling he’d succeeded, he opened his eyes slowly…then saw the single box of rations and felt his heart start racing again
"What the hell are we supposed to do?" Tommy asked.
"My job is to keep you safe, sir. I will continue to do that to the best of my abilities."
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
Harley sighed. "It means I’ll do what I can to make sure you’re in the same shape you’re in now whenever our ride actually does show up."
"Obviously, but how?"
"We’ve got to keep our strength up, sir. Looks like hunting might be needed for more than sport," Harley said, bracing himself.
"Eat real meat?" Tommy screeched.
"I’m afraid so, sir."
Tommy soured at the thought.
"Sir, there’s only so much I can do. I can’t create soy rations and we don’t have vat-grown meat. The human body needs protein,"
"Don’t push it," Tommy said. "I understand the logic. I don’t have to like it."
Harley smiled. "Very good, sir."
"And who will be dealing with the carcass?"
The smiled faded. "I’m afraid you will, sir. I am simply unequipped for stripping down an animal. I’ll be happy to prepare it to your satisfaction, however."
"What do you mean ‘unequipped’?"
"I don’t know how to clean a fresh kill. You, however, are very adept at skinning your trophies. The process is sufficient enough for me to work with," Harley said.
"Ugh," Tommy said, throwing up his hands. "What do we pay you for?"
Harley mentally rolled his eyes. He’d heard those same words a thousand times. He was still fairly certain that the younger man was joking. He hoped.
Tommy crouched behind the fallen tree, his rail gun resting on the log. He’d seen dozens of Damien beasts in this area a few days before. He passed by them; he’d been hunting trophies then.
The first of the animals came into the clearing, followed by three more a short time later. Named after the scientist who first discovered them, the six-legged creatures had long ears like a rabbit but were closer in size to a bobcat than any rabbit Tommy had ever seen, with jagged bony plates poking out along the spine through the green and gray fur.
He steadied his breathing. The rail gun’s holographic crosshairs rested on the largest of the four’s head, just fifteen meters or so away. As he had done countless times before, he squeezed the trigger.
The metallic dart shot through the magnetic coils. At over 800 meters per second, it was more than enough to drop the small animal instantly.
"And Mother thinks I’m worthless," Tommy muttered with a smile as he walked up to his kill.
Harley was busy doing something as Tommy approached, though Tommy had no idea what and no desire to really find out.
"Dinner," Tommy boasted.
The other man looked up from his task. "Well done, sir!" he said with a smile.
Tommy hung the animal from a stand and began to dress the animal. His monomolecular knife was more than he really needed for the task, but he had brought it for tougher game. Too bad it’s all I’ve got, he thought, worried he would damage the molecule thick edge somehow.
As he cleaned the animal, he felt nauseous. I really don’t want to do this.
"Well done, sir," Harley said. Tommy jumped, not having heard the other man walk up.
"Damn it! Don’t sneak around like that," Tommy said.
Harley smiled. "Very sorry, sir."
Tommy took a deep breath. "Think this will do?"
"Of course. I’ll get the fire ready and get started."
Tommy nodded. He walked over to the upright water canister. There were some nasty bugs in the water on this island, so everything went through the filter built into the canister. Tommy turned the spigot sticking out of the side on and washed the blood off of the blade. Once it was cleaned to his satisfaction, he placed it back in its sheath on his belt.
Tommy’s stomach growled. "Hungrier than I thought," he muttered. Harley nodded as he piled sticks for the fire.
Another growl filled the air, this one a bit lower. Harley laughed. "I’ll get it taken care of soon enough, sir."
"That wasn’t me," Tommy said, his eyes wide.
The two men turned in the direction of the noise.
Two yellow eyes pierced through the green curtain. A shadow shifted through the foliage as it moved toward them. A cat-like creature, as tall as Tommy’s chest, padded into the campsite. Its hair was gray and brown, striped like a tiger with spots like a leopard mixed in. The beast boasted six powerful looking limbs, each of which terminated in a massive paw. Its claws were each as long as Tommy’s knife, and ended with a wicked point.
"Sabercat," Harley whispered. "Stay still."
The creature snarled, its front teeth resembling curved swords.
Tommy’s heartbeat intensified, as if it were trying to burst out of his chest. He darted his eyes from side to side, trying to work out a plan. His rail gun was to his right, next to Harley. He had nothing.
The sabercat roared. The noise caused Tommy’s stomach to clench as he shook.
"Steady," Harley whispered. The sabercat stared at Tommy, its mouth curled in a snarl.
Tommy opened his mouth to speak. The cat pounced.
The massive beast knocked the young man to the ground. Tommy’s head slammed into the hard-packed dirt. The cat’s huge paws were on his shoulders and its hot breath stank as its muzzle brushed against his face.
He threw his hands up, placing his right hand near the animal’s nose, the bottom on its lower jaw. He held it back with all of his strength. "Do something!" Tommy yelled.
Tommy looked over at Harley and saw his rail gun was already in the older man’s hands. He was trying desperately to fire, pressing the trigger stud rapidly.
Damn biometrics, Tommy thought, straining against the massive animal. The beast snapped its mouth. His right hand slipped. The sabercat slung its head. Tommy’s left hand lost its grip on the jaw.
Tommy threw his arms up, trying to shield his face. The beast’s head jerked to Tommy’s left, the butt of the rail gun hanging in the air where the animal’s head had been.
The sabercat turned and jumped off of Tommy. It landed against Harley with crash and repeated its attack on Harley. The older man slammed the rail gun into the animal’s mouth as he held onto the stock and fore grip.
The high tensile polymer cracked as the creature bit down.
Tommy pushed himself up into a crouch. He looked around for a weapon. My knife, he thought, drawing the molecule thick blade just as the polymer shredded into countless splinters.
Harley slammed the two pieces of the rail gun against the animal’s head. Stunned, the sabercat shook its head, its paws pinning Harley to the ground.
Tommy rushed up and grabbed the animal around the torso. He found the perfect spot and slammed the blade through the animal’s rib cage.
It roared but didn’t move. Tommy thrust again and again until the animal jumped off of the servant.
Harley pushed himself up until he was kneeling. The sabercat circled around, its yellow eyes locked on the two men.
Neither man dared move.
The cat turned to lick its wounds.
"Run?" Tommy said.
"Run," Harley answered an instant before sprinting for the tree line.
Tommy moved a heartbeat slower, but caught up quickly. "There’s…a river…this way," he said, panting.
Behind them, the cat roared. The two men crashed through the thick jungle as vines grabbed at their ankles and limbs crashed against their bodies and faces, the narrow barbs tearing at their skin. The minutes stretched as Tommy felt his legs grow heavier and heavier. He felt like his lungs would explode any second, but he didn’t dare stop.
They burst out of the tree line, barely stopping themselves before going over the 30-meter high cliff. Tommy looked over the edge at the rushing water beneath. He gasped as he said, "I don’t remember this."
Harley looked down. "We’re going to have to jump."
Tommy looked at his servant. He was going to ask if the man had lost his mind until the sabercat roared behind them. It was close.
"All right," he said. This is going to hurt.
"On three," Harley said. "One. Two. Three!"
As the older man finished, both jumped off. The air rushed past them as they plummeted toward the water. Tommy’s vision was clouded in an instant as the murky water closed over his head.
Tommy fought his way up and broke through the surface. Above, he could see the sabercat looking down. He looked for Harley. The big man was struggling, his hands flailing about. I’d have thought he could at least swim, Tommy thought. It was his braindead plan, after all.
Tommy swam over to his thrashing servant, wrapping his left arm over the man’s left shoulder, his hand under the right arm. "I’ve got you," he said.
As Tommy swam forward, he felt the drag of the extra body behind him. Harley was relaxed as he was pulled along behind the man he was supposed to be protecting.
The two men reached the opposite shore. The riverbank was completely covered with stones worn smooth by centuries of rushing water, the jungle about a dozen meters away.
Gasping, Tommy said, "You can pull your own self up. Damn, you’re heavy!"
Harley lay on his back, staring up at the sky. "I…I, uh…," he stammered.
Tommy crawled a few meters away from the river. "You what? Spit it out, man," he said. He was exhausted and not in the mood for stuttering subordinates.
"I don’t think I can," Harley said.
Rolling onto his seat, Tommy asked, "What do you mean?"
Harley closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "I hit something when we hit the water."
Tommy raised an eyebrow. "Hit something?"
Harley nodded.
"You good?" he asked.
Harley turned his torso so that he was facing Tommy. The older man’s legs lay limp on the stones as he shook his head.
"What is it?" Tommy asked, unsure of what he was seeing.
"Well," Harley replied, "a little more than halfway down, I hurt like hell. A little below that…"
"Below that, what?"
"Nothing," the big man said.
"So you’re fine?" Tommy asked, blinking in confusion.
Harley shook his head. "No, I’m not. When I say I feel nothing, I mean nothing. It’s like my legs aren’t there."
Tommy gathered sticks and limbs from near the tree line. Harley lay on the stones a short distance away. This isn’t my job, Tommy thought, shooting glares at his employee.
He dropped the sticks and plopped down. "Can you at least build a fire?" Tommy barked.
Harley shook his head. The movement sent a tear streaming down his cheek.
"Does this kind of thing heal?" Tommy asked.
The silence of the pause only accentuated the noises of the surrounding jungle. "Not on its own. If we can get back to civilization, maybe. Here? Now?" He shook his head.
"So what am I supposed to do?" Tommy said.
The sorrow in Harley’s eyes evaporated into anger. "Grow the hell up, that’s what."
"Excuse me? You can’t talk to me–"
Harley interrupted, "And I’m out of a job. What else are you going to do?"
Tommy’s mouth hung open in surprise.
"I’ve watched you for years. You trade in on your family connections, but what the hell can you do for yourself? Not a damn thing. And it’s been my job to make sure you don’t have to," Harley said, his volume rising. "Well, guess what? I can’t anymore, so you’re going to have to man up and do something for once."
The younger man sat there in silence. Iridescent bugs buzzed around his mouth. He swatted at them, his eyes never moving from the other man.
Harley stared up at the cloudless sky. "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gone off like that."
Tommy broke his gaze away from Harley and looked across the river. "It’s true," he whispered.
"What?" Harley asked.
"I said it’s true."
Harley nodded. "Yeah, it’s true. It doesn’t mean I should have said it like that." He shrugged. "Hell, it’s not like it’s your fault."
Tommy looked up at the sky. It was getting darker. "Then whose fault is it?"
Harley said nothing. He didn’t have to.
"So, how do I build this fire?" Tommy asked.
The older man rolled to his side to talk Tommy through the process. When they were ready, he produced a blastmatch and handed it to Tommy. "Light it. Right there at the base, where you’ve got all the small stuff," he said.
Tommy did as instructed. The blastmatch threw out a flame like a jet engine firing up, catching the small nest of twigs and shavings. He removed the blastmatch and watched in amazement as the yellow flames flickered up the kindling. The fire soon reached up, the glowing flame kissing the larger sticks until they too were alight.
Never before had he felt pride in accomplishment. Here, with just someone talking to him, he had done something. His lips curled up in a smile, revealing his perfectly white teeth. The pride rushed into him and surprised him.
"Nice," Harley said, offering his own smile.
Tommy shook his head. "This is stupid," he said. "It’s just a fire."
Harley shrugged the left shoulder–the right was busy holding him up–and said, "Have you ever made a fire before?"
Tommy shook his head.
"Then accept it. You did it," he said.
"Yeah, but you walked me through it."
"So?" Harley responded. "Could you do it again?"
Tommy nodded.
"Then you’ve done something you couldn’t have done yesterday. More than that, you can do it tomorrow too," Harley said. After a brief pause, he continued, "Yes, it’s small, but it’s yours. Now, the trick is to make it small for you."
The younger man raised an eyebrow in question.
"It’s a big deal to you, right? You did it, and you’re thrilled with it. Kind of like the first time you bagged your first animal, right?"
Tommy nodded.
"Earlier today, when you brought dinner in, how big a thing was that?"
"It wasn’t."
"Exactly," Harley said. "It was small because you’ve done that same thing so many times that it’s routine. The trick is to make something like this routine too."
"All right, whatever," he said with a soft chuckle as he threw a small log on the fire.
The two men tried their best to sleep, trusting the universal aversion to fire to keep them safe. All around them, the jungle bustled with activity. Guttural screams and animal calls echoed through the dense foliage. The long night stretched on as neither man dared sleep.
As dawn brightened the Ararat sky, Tommy sat up and gazed over the river. The roar of the sabercat tore through the jungle from the opposite bank.
Tommy ventured into the jungle. For hours he searched until he finally had what he needed. Two long, relatively straight branches served as the base, with smaller logs lashed across it for support. One was a little longer, extending out half a meter on either side. Harley had talked him through the lashing, but he felt the pride of the previous night swelling within him once again.
"You ready?" he asked Harley.
The older man took a deep breath and nodded, but his eyes revealed his fear. Tommy reached down and pulled the injured man onto the construction. Harley screamed out in pain.
"Sorry," Tommy apologized as he lay the other man down on the logs, then wrapped and tied a vine around Harley’s chest. Tommy picked up the two poles as Harley wrapped his arms around the extended log.
"This is going to suck," Harley said. "Just keep doing what you need to do."
Tommy nodded as he walked downriver. He had been on this island long enough to know that there were two rope suspension bridges that spanned across the river. Built to remind visitors of darkest Africa in bygone days of adventure, they weren’t the most stable way to cross the rushing water below. However, they were well maintained, and Tommy knew they were the only way to cross the river.
Hours went by as Tommy pulled the big man on the travois. Their frequent stops became even more frequent as what little endurance Tommy had evaporated. By the time he had the bridge in sight, his feet were dragging with each step.
At the bridge, he could go no further. "I’ve got to stop," Tommy said, panting.
"How far from the bridge to camp?"
"Far enough. Hopefully we’ll be there by nightfall," he said. "Hopefully."
Harley nodded. "If not, we’ll do what we have to. Hopefully the ‘cat won’t be there waiting for us."
Tommy shot the other man an angry glance. "You had to bring up that possibility, didn’t you?"
Tommy forced a grin. "It’s fine," he said, and then stood. "Let’s get moving."
"Then let’s get on with it," Harley said.
Tommy picked up the poles and began walked across the rope bridge. The archaic design swayed with every puff of wind, and with each step, the section of the travois dragging behind jumped, causing grunts of pain from Harley.
"I’m sorry," Tommy said.
Harley said nothing. Tommy didn’t imagine that the other man was up for saying much at the moment.
The second Tommy’s foot hit dirt instead of plank, the worst was over for Harley. But as Tommy walked down the trail, the dappled sunlight peeking through the canopy of leaves above them, he continued to hear Harley grunting in pain.
"What’s wrong?" he asked.
"Stomach," Harley groaned. "Cramping bad."
Tommy’s mind flashed back to the river. He recalled Harley gasping for air, half out of the river. "Shit," Tommy said, realizing Harley must have swallowed some of the river water. "Got to get you back to camp quick."
It only took Tommy a couple of hours to reach the campsite. It had been wrecked. The tents had been shredded, and the water filter lay on its side, the metal casing heavily dented.
Tommy’s eyes scanned the wreckage., He exhaled in relief when he saw the crate with the red cross on the side, resting at an odd angle a dozen or so meters from where he had left it.
He laid Harley’s travois down next to the crate and tipped it upright. Harley groaned and clutched his stomach. "I know. I need your hand though," he said to his bodyguard.
Tommy took Harley’s hand despite the big man’s resistance, and placed it in a slot near the top of the crate. A snap, followed by Harley wincing told him that the blood testing was underway.
A monitor on top of the crate, miraculously intact, showed a green status bar. The red indicator inched along the status.
Finally, it emitted a series of three beeps. A door opened in the front and popped out two capsules. Tommy snatched them and put them in Harley’s hand. "Need water?" he asked.
Harley nodded.
Tommy sat the water filter upright, relieved to hear the telltale sloshing within. He picked up a metal cup from the dirt, rinsed the lingering dirt out, and filled it up.
The injured man popped the capsules in his mouth and took the cup from Tommy. He tipped the cup and drained the contents in a single swallow.
"Nanites should fix you up pretty quick," Tommy said, patting the other man’s shoulder. He felt strange. Harley was supposed to make him feel better, not the other way around. It wasn’t like Harley was in any condition to do anything else right now, though Tommy had secretly hoped that the first aid crate would have something that could fix the other man’s spine. Pride in accomplishment was all fine and good, but he was ready to get home.
He sat next to the injured man and waited for the groaning to subside. The nanites were specially designed for the kind of intestinal parasites found on Ararat.. The question was, how bad was it? The more parasites, the longer it would take for the nanites to do their job.
Before long Harley’s eyes closed, his breathing deepened, and he drifted off to sleep.
Tommy smiled.
By the time Harley woke, the only light was from the stars above and the roaring fire a few meters away.
"Guess you remembered last night," he said.
Tommy smiled. "Yep."
The other man returned his smile. "Thanks."
"For what?"
Harley said nothing.
"No, seriously? Why are you thanking me?"
"Going against your nature," he said quietly.
Tommy raised an eyebrow. "We’re kind of in this together. There weren’t any other choices, were there?"
"Not how your family handles things," Harley said.
Tommy glared. "Shut the hell up! My family has paid you well for over a decade. You need to show some damn appreciation," he said, his face intense.
Harley smiled, a dark glint in his eye. "Yeah, they paid me. So what? I’ve seen what your family does. Do you even know why we’re here?"
Tommy’s glare softened a moment before his gaze shifted to the dark ground. "I know what Mother said," he said, little louder than a whisper.
"That’s not what I asked," Harley said.
Tommy kept his eyes on the dirt, but shook his head after several moments.
"It wasn’t for you. It was for her," Harley said. "She thought you would screw up her chance at reelection."
His gaze shot toward Harley. "I never have before," he said, his anger returning.
"No, you haven’t. You’ve always been a little…impulsive, though. The concern was that you’d have another moment like New Orleans, so it was best to keep you out of sight until after the election," Harley said.
He remembered New Orleans. He remembered the back of the police car pretty well too. The rest of the night? Not so much. Luckily for him, the press had some pretty detailed descriptions.
"That was months ago," Tommy said.
Harley nodded. "Yeah, it was. In politics, that’s not long enough if something happens to bring it back up, so your mother sent you out here."
"You know that? Or are you guessing?" Tommy asked.
Harley searched for words. "I know. I heard her talking to Marcus right before they sprung it on you."
"And you didn’t say anything?"
Harley pushed himself up and forced himself on his side. "Why would I? Remember, I work for your mother, not you."
"I thought you were my friend," Tommy said resentfully.
Harley laughed. "Friend? Really? I’ve kept your stalkers away, talked to girls for you, and all of that, but I was being paid to do that. Hell, the only reason you bothered to learn my name was so you knew what name to yell when you wanted something."
Tommy looked away as he tried to hide the tears forming in his eyes.
Harley sighed and dropped his head back against the dirt. He covered his face with his hands. "You deserve better than that."
Tommy picked the tears out of his eyes with his fingertips. "No, I don’t. Not really."
"You do."
"Not yet. But I will."
The rest of the night passed by in silence, broken only by the occasional pop from the fire.
The next morning, their stomachs were growling. It had been a day and a half since they’d eaten. "I’m going to see what we’ve still got around here," Tommy mumbled.
Harley nodded.
Tommy dug around the campsite wreckage, finding a couple of meal bars. In theory, these provided all the nutrition they would need for a full day. As far as vitamins and minerals were concerned, they probably did. Unfortunately, they also tasted like cardboard and fought hunger worse than Chinese food. Still, it was better than nothing.
He handed a bar to Harley, then walked over to the opposite side of the fire to eat his.
Tommy bit. "We’ve got more important things to deal with."
"Oh?" Harley said.
"Yeah. For example, this magnificent feast is all of the food I could find around here. We’re gonna need food."
Harley nodded in agreement. "We are, but we’ve got time."
"How much?"
"Rule of threes. Three hours without shelter, depending on the weather. Three days without water. Three weeks without food."
Tommy’s eyes widened. "How the hell do you know that?"
"Survival school. There’s a reason I was hired as your bodyguard, you know."
"Which was?"
"Six years in the Marines."
Tommy was impressed. "No shit?"
"No shit," Harley replied.
"Alright then, so we’ve got three weeks. I’d rather eat a little more often than that," Tommy.
"I can understand that," Harley said. "But without a weapon, hunting’s going to be tricky."
Tommy looked at the sky and groaned. "You had to remind me," he said.
"I’m just your little ray of sunshine. There’s another option. Hopefully."
Harley nodded. "See if you can find my pad."
Tommy stood and walked toward the ruin that had been the tents. Inside, their spare clothing had been shredded. He dug through the remains of Harley’s belongings until eventually he found the black rectangle and carried it back to the other man.
"Here you go. Don’t think you can order a pizza on this thing out here," Tommy said.
"Not part of the plan," he replied. "A couple of downloads I made before we left might come in handy." He pushed a button on the side and the pad burst forth in color as it powered up.
The downloads were apps for survival techniques. They focused on the sections on trapping animals. Another file contained a list and video files of edible plants in the region.
"You’re going to have to do it," Harley said.
Tommy nodded. He knew that surviving here would mean more work than he had ever put forth before. Of course, the alternative wasn’t a thrill to think about.