Natalie groaned, her eyes fluttering as her dormant mind swam into consciousness. Her fingers reflexively grasped, clawing at the loosely packed soil on which she lay. Her tired eyes opened, her fuzzy vision clearing as she took in the world around her. There were trees with bristled tufts in lieu of leaves, the grass beneath her was verdant yet pallid, and a brook babbled contently somewhere beyond her immediate line of vision. As she lifted her head off the soil that had become her pillow, she saw a pastel lavender sky hovered miles above with two suns, one slightly smaller and darker yellow than the other more Sol-like star, and three moons appearing as glowing white chunks of rock in the sky.
She was definitely not on Earth anymore.
Her throat felt parched as desert sands and, when she cleared it, it started to ache. Her first prerogative was to quench the suddenly overpowering thirst; she'd figure out where she was later. She winched herself up into a sitting position, another groan escaping her lips as muscles, rubbery from lack of use, complained stridently at being disturbed. She hesitantly managed to haul herself to her feet, using the trunk of a nearby tree as leverage. The bark had a curious, almost velvety, feel as she leaned on it and attempted to get her bearings.
The brook called to her sweetly, reminding her why she'd gotten up in the first place. She began to stumble through the trees, her body aching, but she emerged by the brook. The water was clear, flowing over the large pebbles that made up its bed. Small fish, no bigger than her index finger with scales that reflected a rainbow of colours, swam through occasionally, on their way to lay their eggs in deeper, more nutrient-rich waters. Such clear life-bearing water should be safe for drinking, she reasoned to herself.
Only now was she aware of the pack that was strapped to her back. She slipped the loops off her arms, letting it fall with a dull thud onto the forest floor beside her. Zipping it open, she found the barest minimum of survival supplies afforded her by those who had stranded her here: a sharp knife, durable drinking cup, a thick blanket and ration bars. In addition, there was a package of items that just barely qualified as a first-aid kit.
Sighing in disgust at the sorry excuse for medical supplies, she snatched up the cup, and experimentally dunked it into the brook. She only levered enough water into the cup to cover just the bottom of the container. Sniffing awkwardly at the cup and, finding no unpleasant smell to alert her of something untoward, drank the contents slowly to whet her whistle.
Her suffering throat relaxed when touched by the coolth of the water and, when it was satisfied, her stomach began to demand its share. This time filling the cup completely with the stream's water, she also pulled out one of the ration bars from her backpack. The ration bar was tasteless and hard but it, along with the much-needed water, was a simple meal that would suffice.
For now. She had no idea what she'd do when all her rations finally ran out. Her semesters in med school had never prepared her for anything like this, had never prepared her for the "front line". Her lessons had taken place in the hospital school, with clean white walls protecting her from the dangers of the world outside. She felt so ill-equipped to fend for her own survival.
There was a snapping noise in the distance, and her head whipped toward the source of the sound. Someone – or something – had stepped on a twig, alerting her to their presence. Instantly wary, she instinctively drew the knife out from her survival kit, clutching its handle like a life raft.
A portion of the thick hedge of bushes rustled, and a man appeared from them. He was tall; all broad shoulders and long, muscular limbs. He had the deepest, most brilliant blue eyes she'd ever seen on a man, his head was capped by soft blonde waves, and his complexion was – to be polite – extremely fair. He looked as if he'd never seen the sun.
She instantly felt relieved. She wasn't alone now; someone else was here too. She sighed and dropped the knife back into her bag, glad she didn't need to use it.
"I'm sorry I startled you," his voice was quiet and soothing, and its alluring yet lazy timbre fascinated her. He was addressing her in Bakta, a sort of compounded creole language spoken by slaves of many worlds, and used by their masters to issue orders. She, like many human slaves culled from various countries on Earth, had learned it out of sheer necessity. With various torture implements used by the Invaders to school those who were required to learn, it was next to impossible to avoid the lessons. Even so, it was a simple enough language to speak, and it actually sounded poetic flowing from this man's tongue. "You shouldn't be out here alone. There's a settlement a few miles north of other 'colonists'. I'll take you there, if you'd like."
She nodded dumbly. When she finally found her voice, it sounded shy and girlish. "Thank you. I'm... I'm Natalie." She stood and awkwardly thrust out her hand in greeting.
He captured her hand but, rather than completing the shake, simply held it. His touch was far cooler than she expected – Poor circulation? she wondered -- and his grasp was delicate as if he were taking hold of the crown jewels. Yet, she could undeniably feel the strength in his hold, in the fine motor control, as if only his conscious effort to be gentle on her were preventing him from mishandling her by sheer accident.
"Well, Natalie. It's nice to make your acquaintance. I'm Nick." A shiver coursed through her when he spoke her name. It was certainly not fear, but a frisson of attraction, however faint. Admittedly, after all, she'd have to be either blind or dead to be ignorant of his good looks. Even the standard-issue boring gray jumpsuit they both wore seemed more interesting on him; accentuating the shape of his musculature in a way that, ludicrously, only seemed to enhance his attractiveness.
Then he smiled, and she knew she was done for. It was a reassuring sort of smile that lit up his eyes and gave him a certain boyish charm that she found incredibly magnetic. She knew she should have been wary of him – all those childhood warnings about not talking to strangers – yet she felt incredibly safe with him. Somehow, she just knew she wouldn't come to harm so long as he was present. And, frankly, she was better off risking it with him; whatever wild animals were present in these woods wouldn't be so discerning.
He dropped her hand, and she mourned the loss of the brief contact between them. "Get your things, Natalie. It's going to be a bit of a walk."
* * *
The walk was peaceful, for the most part, and they gradually eased into more friendly conversation. It seemed, from Nick's point of view, that the dropping of people onto the planet was in a scatter-shot fashion... and she had been the farthest out, so far. Or rather, she was the only one to have been discovered so far away from what appeared to be the hub of the colony drops.
Natalie felt a flare of resentment at the notion of this unwilling colonization. She longed for home, for her family. She wanted to taste Earth cuisine again and visit Earth's many libraries; things she'd taken for granted before the Incursion. The life she could have had on her own home planet had been ripped from her hands, her dreams of finally becoming a doctor shattered. She was so angry, she wanted nothing more than to hit something repeatedly. A punching bag of some sort would have been ideal at that moment, but was unfortunately not available. As it was, her teeth were now set in a grinding motion.
She grasped Nick's hand as he carefully led her down a rocky slope. The slope was gentle enough, but the boulders weren't quite so accommodating, requiring judicious navigation of the area.
He stopped by what appeared to be a now-desolate makeshift camp. There were some charred remains of wood logs in a heap and surrounded by a tight circle of stones. She hadn't realized they'd traveled so far until he encouraged her to sit on the blanket he unfurled for her onto the soft mossy ground. She happily accepted, uttering a soft "oof" when her tired legs seemed to give out underneath her, just before her backside connected with the blanket. Nick himself chose to sit on a boulder, after collecting another assortment of kindling for a new fire. Dumping the tinder into the center of the fire, he took up two of the stones and repeatedly struck them together in a very methodical fashion.
She watched with keen interest as sparks began to fly into the air, conjured from the repetitive contact between the two rocks in his hands (big, nicely-shaped hands with long tapered fingers, she noted). Within a matter of minutes, he had coaxed the beginnings of a fire from the stones and into the wood.
Must be some sort of flint-type rock, she thought to herself, as he set the stones back down in the circle and gently blew on the sparks to encourage the flame to build. Of course, geology had never been her forte, so she didn't concern herself with the correctness of her guess. Whatever the case, her new companion had clearly picked up a few survival skills here and there.
Curiously, she only then realized the sky had gotten darker, similar to Earth's sky during a solar eclipse. Only one sun was still present in this more alien firmament – the smaller deeper yellow sibling – and two more moons had made their appearance on the southern horizon. Despite the dimmer light, she could still see quite clearly, and was fairly certain that, if she had a book, she could read the text without much effort in this light.
It was beginning to get a little chilly, and she glanced at her companion before opening her backpack. "Are you sure you don't need your blanket?" she asked. "It seems a little unfair for me to have yours as well as mine."
He shrugged the notion off. "Don't worry. Unless it's a temperature only a polar bear could love, cold doesn't bother me. You need the blankets more than I do."
Her responding shrug mimicked his. "Fair enough." She pulled out her own blanket and draped it around herself to ward off the slight chill. Being rather petite and slight made her more vulnerable to the elements than someone larger and more naturally "insulated". She could never stand the cold, even if it was the middle of spring on Earth. He smirked in amusement at her, but she didn't care. Being warm and comfortable was all that mattered to her, at the moment.
"Are you hungry?" he asked, his quiet voice now comfortably familiar to her. "I was planning on doing a bit of hunting."
Natalie nodded, her face coloring briefly from embarrassment. "Yeah, actually. Those ration bars they gave us are dreadful."
Nick chuckled softly. "All right then. I'm not really hungry myself, yet, but I could do for some exercise." He stood. "Just stay right here and relax. I'll be back in a little bit."
She nodded and he left, walking into the distance and seeming to almost dematerialize before her very eyes. However, she merely shrugged and put it down to a minor hallucination brought on by not having slept well in some time. Life, after all, had not been easy for anyone after the Incursion and, when trouble loomed, a good night's sleep was usually the first thing to go.
But it did seem strange to her that such a skilled survivalist would leave his knife behind.
* * *
For awhile, there was nothing but quiet all around her. The smell of the burning wood in the fire wafted to her nose, along with the piney smells of the surrounding forest, as if to comfort her in her solitude. Creatures that sounded similar to crickets were making chirping noises in the twilight.
All was quiet, that was, until she heard a distant growling of a predator followed by the death shriek of some animal she couldn't identify. The horrible sound of that cry seemed to echo in her ears, and she pulled the blanket she swaddled herself in tighter around her body – ludicrous, as if the fabric would somehow protect her from whatever that beast was.
Moments later, she heard the now familiar beat of Nick's footsteps, followed by a dull rustle. He must be dragging a carcass behind him, she thought. I'm glad whatever that... thing... was didn't get him. Aloud she said, "I heard some noises, like some animal was attacking another one. Did you see it?"
His face had an expression on it she couldn't immediately decipher. "No," he replied, with an odd sort of calm to his voice. "It mustn't have been close enough for me to get a look at it."
For some reason, the perfectly reasonable explanation didn't settle well with her. Attributing her unease to her nerves, she did her best to set it aside and think nothing more of it. Hunger might be playing with my mind, she reasoned.
She ate well, after Nick had skinned the animal. Curiously, he had declined the meat of the animal he killed, even when she offered to share her portion. Nor did she get a good look at the creature as he was skinning it, and she remained unsure of how it had died. However, the meat tasted excellent – certainly an improvement over those dreadful ration bars, anyway – and she went to sleep in the blankets with a full stomach. But as she hovered between dreams and wakefulness, she couldn't shake the feeling that was nagging her. In her tiredness, somehow, she knew.
He had lied to her.