he manticore lifted his face from his paws, blinking. He yawned. Miniature storm clouds drifted from his mouth—tiny lightning bolts flashed. The clouds retreated as he closed his jaw. He smacked his lips.
The volcano cave was warm. It was a good location for the eggs. Scattered around the cave were pieces of emerald husk. His brothers and sisters. He had been last—too late for the fight.
She had never returned. The humans must have been too strong.
He shifted and stood on all fours. He stretched both paws forward, pointing his rump to the sky. His scorpion tail whipped the air. He squeezed the dirt and rocks with his claws. One. Two.
That felt nice.
He opened his wings and beat the air once. His weight lifted for a moment. He felt stronger. Could he take flight?
He flapped again, feeling the rush of air. Yes, he thought. This could be the day.
Genetic memories swirled in his head. He had grown much. He should be able.
Sadness washed over him. His mother. His brothers and sisters. The entire pride was gone.
He was distracted by the grumble of his stomach.
He snorted, a single gray cloud flickering from his nostrils. It was time to go.
He gave his wings another experimental flap. He looked up to the opening and the blue sky beyond.
He grinned. This was it. He flapped his wings once. He rose off the ground. He kept flapping to hover in the air.
He pushed from his shoulders and started to gain some altitude. With a sudden rush of excitement, he pushed with all his might. He spread his wings.
He exploded into the blue.
A primal rush filled him. He spun into a somersault. The wind tickled and caressed his fur as he swam. He hooted a laugh. This was it!
His memories were on fire. He was where he was meant to be.
His wings fluttered as he practiced soaring. He climbed, feeling the burn of his muscles.
It all came so natural.
He closed his eyes. The sun was warm on his face. The wind was cool as it rushed through his fur. His stomach lurched as he began to descend again.
He snapped open his eyes and his wings. His body jolted to a stop. Jungle stretched below. Trees. Mountains. Rivers. As far as he could see in all directions.
He was free to go in any direction. He was free to hunt and eat.
He smacked his lips again.
He frowned. There was no one to share this first with.
The pride was gone. He felt very alone.
Kerr squeezed hard, but light got inside his eyelids. His head throbbed. At first, the medication from the suit had constricted his pupils. Now that was gone, too.
There was no sense of time. He drifted.
Was anything holding him aloft? Was he floating? Falling?
He grimaced. Pain threatened to split his skull. Everything hurt. The bullet impacts from earlier hadn’t penetrated the suit, but he was bruised to the deep.
He gritted his teeth.
He still wasn’t breathing. His nostrils were still clamped shut. There must not be air in this place.
How long had it been?
OXYGEN LEVEL: 1%
FUEL LEVEL: 1%
SYSTEM SHUTDOWN UNDERWAY
The bad news scrolled up one line at a time on his eye and then faded away.
What happened during a system shutdown? He was already feeling pain.
As if to answer his question, his lungs began to burn.
He expanded his lungs, testing. No air entered his mouth. His throat constricted.
He was calm. He was at peace. He told himself that he was exactly where he should be.
He was ready to die.
The sensations around him changed. He felt no wind or air, but he was moving. It was like fingers pulling at him. His body pitched forward. He began to tumble. His stomach turned.
He tried to open his eyes, but the light was still too bright.
He was moving faster and faster now.
His ears popped.
Like flipping a switch, the light was gone. Darkness and cool air splashed against his face.
He smiled for a moment, but the sensation was short-lived. Suddenly he smashed into the ground. Kerr ignored it as he tumbled forward.
He landed hard on his back. Cool air filled his lungs in a rush. He gasped and sucked in as much as he could handle.
OXYGEN LEVEL: 2% AND RISING
FUEL LEVEL: 1%
Kerr grunted and shifted onto an elbow.
He opened his eyes.
He blinked. Still darkness.
He looked behind to see the slash of light shrink into nothing.
The Portal was gone.
He was alone in the dark, but he couldn’t help but smile. Glorious air filled in his lungs. Emotion bubbled in his chest. He laughed. It dissolved into hacking and coughing. The movement shot pain through his chest but he couldn’t stop. He massaged his side and laughed even harder. He was giddy.
He was alive.
He was breathing, and he was alive.
He felt alive.
His fingers throbbed with pain. He was still holding on to the metal brief case. He tried to let go and discovered he could not. He used his other hand to pry it free. It clattered at his side.
He felt delight. It was like escaping with a treasure.
He massaged his pounding hand.
He struggled to rise. Shaking muscles felt like they had nothing left to give. He had been a crash dummy. He had run a race for his life.
Knees buckling, Kerr fell back to the floor with a whoosh. He was rubber—angry burning rubber.
He managed to sit back on his knees.
His eyes were starting to adjust. It was still pitch, but he could make out the ground. Chunks of rock littered the floor.
The suit was no longer adjusting his eyesight. Would his LENS still accept verbal commands?
“Ok, LENS: night vision.”
Words on his eyes argued with him.
LENS COMMAND CANCELLED
ENERGY LEVEL INSUFFICIENT
Kerr pursed his lips in frustration. He would refuel if he knew how. He muttered, “Never. Any. Instructions.” He shook his head.
He blinked and squinted. He rubbed his eyes. Nothing helped. He needed a light.
Now he could make out the silver briefcase.
Did it contain anything other than the Gift?
He took hold of the case handle, and sucked in a sharp breath. He switched to his left hand and hauled it onto his lap.
At his touch, the small keypad lit up.
His finger hovered over the numbers. He was afraid for a moment that he had forgotten to code.
He smiled and punched in the number with his thumb. He took special care to enter the hash sign first. Three wrong combinations would lock the keypad for five minutes.
The case clicked. The lid swung up by itself. Kerr grinned. Small LED lights illuminated the case. Miniature spotlights displayed the contents with pride. Custom black foam cradled each piece. Velcro straps held them in place.
The metal and glass cylinder featured prominently in the center.
The green liquid seemed to glow by itself. It was in the shaped like an old-fashioned syringe. Scary needle on one end. Plunger and metal rings on the other.
Dr. Kerr shivered. It was symbolic. Right?
The med-box was right next to the cylinder. Then for a terrifying moment he wondered if the syringe was functional, just in case. He shivered.
He quickly took in the rest of the case. Supplies were pressed into the top of the case.
There was a scalpel. A metal flask with a screw top.
He assumed it was full of water, but his hand froze before he grabbed it. If that were a working syringe, then it might be full of rubbing alcohol. He wasn’t thirsty enough to check.
Then there was a white pouch labeled with a red cross—a first aid kit. There was a green metal box. Unlabeled. Metal clamps held it closed.
A small, transparent box held three brown, plastic-wrapped beauties. He recognized them as standard field rations—moist, tangy, gritty, melt-your-gut field rations. He couldn’t stand the things. Complete nutrition in a single square? It was like chewing gravel. Kerr would rather starve or skip a meal rather than gum down one of those gritty things.
And yet he couldn’t tear his eyes away from them. The light of the case glittered on the clear plastic box. It glittered like a diamond. The brown masses inside looked enticing. Kerr found his mouth watering, and he felt very hungry.
He didn’t know what he was doing. He set the case down, popped open the plastic box with a thumb, and ripped into one of the wrappers. It was open with a twist. He shoved the entire square into his mouth.
His teeth pressed into the brown wetness. His mouth exploded with flavor. He felt a small rush of joy. Tingles of juices wrapped his tongue and hummed at his taste buds. A single tear rolled down his cheek.
It was a decadent dessert. It was something he had never imagined he would feel. He was eating a field ration. Willingly.
Before he knew it, he was eating through another. And another.
Empty wrapper lay crumpled beside him.
He groaned in satisfaction as warmth filled his stomach.
“Better Food by Science,” He giggled. Why was it so good?
Words flashed across his eyes.
ENERGY LEVEL: 4%
MOLECULAR SYNTHESIS UNDERWAY
At least that was something. Each field ration equaled 1% of the fuel he needed. Food really is fuel. How about that?
And then he heard the moan. The sudden sound startled Kerr. The unpleasant smell of wet copper filled his nostrils. His head jerked. He breathed in, pressed his lips together and listened. Now he could hear the unmistakable sound of breathing—struggled and slow. Was it sleeping? Was it bleeding?
Kerr felt naked. He was in a dark cave. He was in pain. He had no idea where he was.
Now he wasn’t alone. Was it a wild animal? Kerr looked around. The motion was futile. He couldn’t see anything more than a foot away.
The breathing didn’t sound right. Labored? He cast his gaze in widening circles as his vision adjusted to the dark. It was rocks, boulders, dirt, more rocks. Blood?
It was too dark to see any color, but the spray of darkness across the dirt and rock left little to the imagination. His eyes followed the trail of blood to a cave wall. A jumbled pile of fabric quivered.
It could be a person. Kerr hopped a step closer. He held still and listened again. The shape was the source of the raspy breath.
He grunted in pain, hopping to a kneel. His hip popped. The painful jolt sent him stumbling sideways. He steadied himself on the floor. Somehow, he managed to get his other leg under him. He almost lost his balance again. He leaned into a stagger. He stopped and held still with his arms outstretched. He took one ginger step. Then another. Now he was more stable.
He moved forward, each step a new agony. He reached the pile of fabric. Letting his legs go, he fell to the ground. It was a man.
Kerr carefully peeled back the fabric, checking for wounds. He didn’t have to look far—the robes were matted with blood. The face was caked in red. Careful not to move the head, Kerr felt around behind it. It was warm and soft.
Kerr considered his options. The man had a blow to the head—possible concussion. He was actively bleeding. That was the most pressing matter.
Was there anything he could do for this man? Mornings at the hospital flooded back to him. Purple bodies rushed in on gurneys. He was overwhelmed and powerless again.
See Blood? Must Act.
What could he do? What could he do?
The med-box. He looked back over his shoulder. He should have brought the med-box with him.
At least he could have gotten some basic vital signs.
He limped quickly, there and back.
The more he moved, the less he ached.
He set the briefcase on a boulder and let the lid open. He snatched the med-box in shaking fingers.
The injured man was dressed in dark, brown robes. Religious? Monk? It was wool. It felt rough. Kerr folded the man’s arms away and sucked in a breath. The robe was shredded in front—wet with blood.
Kerr ignored the gore. He waved the med-box in the air above the man. The black screen flickered to white. The Union logo flashed for a moment. Then a line of words filled the small readout.
Kerr frowned. Blood pressure was low. Heartbeat was slow. Oxygen saturation was low. Electrical impulses were weak. Internal temperature was too high. There was a high possibility of internal bleeding. The brain was swollen.
Kerr whistled. This man was all kinds of messed up.
If something wasn’t done soon, this man was going to die.
Now what? He looked around, thinking.
He was in a time of civilization, but not modern technology. The man had a leather pouch at his waist, but Kerr doubted that he would find any help there. He didn’t even look.
The man groaned in his sleep. His breathing was still labored.
He looked toward the cave entrance. It would be nice to have some water to wash these wounds. His small first-aid kit was not going to cut it.
Kerr angled his briefcase toward the other side of the cave. He could see nothing of note deeper in the cave.
He considered his two options. He nodded and turned back to the cave opening. When all sides are darkness, move to the less dark area.
He left the case open on the boulder and stood.
As he left the main cave, the walls narrowed at first. Then the walls widened into a tiny cave, ten meters across. It was getting brighter.
Now he could see the cave entrance before him. Bright sunlight spilled over a jumble of boulders. Kerr took in a deep, fresh breath. Outside was mountain and blue sky.
Kerr squinted in the brilliant light. A breeze ran through his hair. He took a deep breath. He shielded his eyes with one arm and stepped out into the sunlight.
He stood on a flat platform overlooking a rocky mountain. The mountain was buried in thick jungle below. Far, far below. A narrow footpath wandered back and forth down to the jungle’s edge.
He looked to the horizon. Waves of heat rose from the jungle, making the distant blue mountain shimmy and shake. Kerr scanned right. Thick, impenetrable jungle. Kerr scanned left. More jungle.He was in the middle of nowhere.