Form without substance.
Light without a source.
Me, but not me.
A burst of crackling electricity, like summer lightning.
I staggered forward a few steps, momentum unchecked by the teleportation device. My foot hit something immovable and I sprawled to my knees.
They’d told me not to run. I was a little freaked out at the time, though. Maybe I hadn’t paid attention as much as I should’ve.
But how could I not be freaked out? Thanks to a treaty with an alien alliance, I’d been selected to get beamed across the galaxy to an alien world.
Random chance or fate had decreed my DNA to be compatible with an alien.
And due to some stupid treaty, I’d been sent here.
I shook my head to clear it, skin tingling as if I just touched a live wire.
The guy at the testing center had told me the law of conservation of matter and energy meant my momentum would transfer to the destination.
But he wasn’t the one who’d be beamed across the universe.
If I’d thought too much about the fact my body would be sheathed in energy and then transmitted millions of light years away, I’d never have gone through with it. Treaty or no treaty.
So instead, I’d decided it’d be easier to run and jump in, like a terrifying leap from the high dive.
That was a mistake.
Slowly, I dragged myself to my feet. I stood on the worn stones of a circular dais, surrounded by a dense jungle.
It sort of looked like the jungles in adventure movies back on Earth.
Except it was completely, totally wrong.
Colors and scents had a strange, odd tinge which made me mistrust my senses.
I spun in a circle, physically and mentally. Coming in alone in the middle of a jungle wasn’t what I’d been told to expect, not at all.
There were supposed to be people there to greet me, right?
Instead, I appeared to be alone on an alien planet.
The sky was the wrong shade of blue.
The air felt different, too.
I felt different. Higher gravity? Lower?
I tried jumping, but honestly everything was just too much to take in to try to figure it out.
Seriously, it wasn’t what I’d planned for this week.
I’d minded my own business, running my dog walking gig in New York City and making enough money to pay rent and eat.
It wasn’t a great life, but it was my own.
Of course, none of it mattered in context of my current predicament. I was alone in an alien jungle. The more I thought about it, the more I realized somebody had made a major mistake.
The only question I had was: how big was the mistake? Had I been sent to a different place on Kagath than I was supposed to arrive at?
Or was I in a totally different alien world?
Why wasn’t anyone here?
A flash of seized me, causing my breaths to come in ragged gasps and a sweat broke out on my body.
If I’d been stranded on an alien world, then how would they ever find me?
I checked my communication device, a small rectangle roughly the size of a cell phone, but it’d shorted out or something and the screen stayed dark.
Did it need a charger?
My bag wasn’t with me either.
I had no equipment, I was all alone, and I had no idea where I was, not even what planet I was on. My luggage probably made it safely. I was the one who’d been lost.
Pull it together, Nina.
Panic wouldn’t do any good.
Should I stay or should I go? Should I remain at the stone dais and hope a rescue was imminent?
Or should I try to find my way out of the jungle to some semblance of civilization?
I studied the dais beneath my feet for clues. Smooth gray stones shot through with specks of lavender, clearly worked by the hands of an intelligent being.
There were people on this planet. Or there had been.
I just needed them to come find me.
Because going out into a jungle alone with no equipment was tantamount to suicide.
I sank down on the gnarled, exposed root of a thick trunked tree. Its bark had lovely purple highlights breaking up the dark brown of its coarse surface.
Somewhere a sound like a bird call, but tinged with exotic strangeness, echoed in the sky. It didn’t sound very big, but I shivered with fright nonetheless.
“I miss my dogs.”
My voice sounded hollow and tinny to my ears. Maybe a side effect of the teleportation, or perhaps because of the sound absorbing qualities of the stone dais.
Maybe because I was afraid.
Something bounded out of the wood, startling me to my feet. About the size of a rabbit, the creature had a body shaped like a swollen bowling pin with two bent back, thick legs. I saw no sign of any forelimbs.
The creature hopped like a rabbit, coming a bit closer to where I stood.
Its little black eyes glittered in the half light as it turned its head as if puzzled to find me there.
“Hey there, little guy,” I cooed. “Aren’t you adorable? I don’t suppose you have a master you can take me to?”
It made a cute little chittering sound and hopped nearer. I squatted down to make myself less threatening, holding my hand out, palm facing up.
The creature hopped a bit closer, slitted nostrils testing the air. It stopped about two feet from my outstretched hand.
I wished I had some treat or something, but then again I’d no idea what that thing ate. Given its size and cute fluffiness, I found it hard to believe it ate meat.
Until its head tilted backward like a Pez dispenser to reveal double rows of sharp teeth. Green saliva trickled out of the stalactite like teeth, perhaps a venom of some sort.
I leaped back and snatched up a rock off the ground. I flung it at the creature, but it reacted like lightning and my errant missile bounded away into the underbrush. The creature hopped a few feet away, stopping in the knee high grass to peer out at me.
“You just stay right over there and we won’t have any problems, you and me.” I picked up another rock just in case. “You hear me?”
Something jumped out of the tree line.
Another of the creatures. They sniffed each other, and then turned their mutual attention to me. They crept out of the tall grass, stalking me like a cat stalking a mouse.
“I said get away!”
I hurled the stone and they both bounded back, but not as far as the first time. A low growl escaped their throats, so deep and rumbly that I felt it in my stomach.
Another of the creatures joined the first two, this one a bit larger with dull black fur instead of brown. It made a chattering noise and suddenly the tree line was alive with the little monsters.
I spotted a twisted, fallen limb on the ground and snatched it up, wielding the timber like a club. The closest creature received a swat, but it didn’t seem to do much more than push it away a few feet.
“Stay the fuck away from me! I mean it! I don’t back down from Dobermans and Rottweilers, and I’m not backing down for you.”
The creatures turned and fled, streaming back into the tree line. For a moment, I felt a rare boost of confidence.
“Yeah, that’s right. And don’t come back—”
A thunderous roar split the air behind me. I spun around, raising my improvised club in the air before me.
A pair of eyes the size of basketballs glared out at me from the foliage and I saw the vague outline of a black furred shape beyond, something that looked similar to an Earth bear but three times the size with long, pointed ears.
Six legs, too, I noted as it trundled into the clearing. Its claws scraped against the stones of the dais, each one as long as my forearm.
It opened its maw and roared, the volume of air in its lungs so great it blew my hair back.
Am I about to die?
Fear paralyzed me, rooting me to the rounded stones of the dais. The monster pushed its way fully into the clearing, moving with liquid grace which belied its bulk.
No time to run now.
I watched, transfixed with horror, as it raised a paw the size of my torso high into the air.
I threw an arm up in reflex, though such a pitiful barrier would do nothing to stop my death.
The monster’s claws descended.
Then a golden humanoid shape blurred into my field of vision, interposing itself between me and the creature.
I tripped and fell hard on my rump. My jaw fell open as I witnessed a fur-covered person built like a pro wrestler blocking the descending paw with a rounded shield.
The monster recoiled, snapping its paw back. Blood spattered onto the stones. I noticed my rescuer wielded a short, curved sword in the other hand, wet with crimson. I hadn’t even seen the attack.
The stranger turned his head toward me, a lustrous mane flowing like water with the motion. I gasped, because his face was a mix of human and feline features.
His nose had the black velvet look of a cat, but his mouth appeared quite like my own, albeit with more pronounced canines. His whiskers twitched as his amber eyes bored into me.
He turned toward the monster and bent into a half crouch, a shield held defensively before him. The big monster’s eyes narrowed. It tried to move around him to get to me, but he sidled along to keep himself between me and the beast.
My hero took a half step backward to avoid the monster’s next attack. His foot hit my calf and he stumbled slightly.
“I said get back!”
He rounded on me, eyes narrowed and burning with irritation.
I scrambled back in a crab walk until I slammed into the rough bark of a tree trunk.
The lion man turned around and roared a challenge at the beast. The huge monster reared up on its thicker hind legs and swatted with the other four paws but my savior leaped over the lowest, twisting his body in the air like an acrobat.
He landed in a crouch and I winced at the sight of blood running down his side. He hadn’t quite avoided all of the creature’s attacks.
The lion man leaped into the air, and I do mean leaped. My jaw fell open in awe as he launched himself a full twenty feet in the air.
His sword darted out at the monster’s face and the answering howl of pain meant his weapon bit deep.
The six-legged beast dropped down to all of its paws and tore away from the clearing, half its face covered in blood. The lion man stood at the ready even as it fled, as if expecting it to come charging back at any moment.
Once the sound of crashing foliage faded into the distance, the lion man relaxed.
He ignored me completely and went to grab a thick leaf wider than my body. I watched as he used the leaf to clean the blood from his blade. His side seemed to have stopped bleeding already.
Neat trick, that. Super fast healing.
“Um, hey. Thanks for saving me.”
He started and turned his gaze over his broad shoulder. His glare sent a shudder down my spine. I couldn’t make heads nor tails of the inscrutable light in his eyes.
“My name is Nina, by the way.” I realized I was babbling, but I couldn’t stop. “Obviously I’m not from around here. Um, do you know the way out of this jungle, by chance?”
He didn’t respond at first. Then he let out a snort and turned his back on me.
The lion man made for the edge of the clearing and disappeared into the treeline without stirring so much as a leaf.
It was insane that somebody so big could disappear so easily and quietly. He had to be pushing seven feet tall and not slender like a basketball player, either.
More like if Wilt Chamberlain and Arnold Schwarzenegger got put in a blender along with an escaped zoo lion.
I only stood there another moment before tearing off after him. I quickly caught up, following the same thin game trail he used.
“Hey, slow down!”
I struggled to keep up. He just kept eating the terrain with those mile-long legs of his.
“Come on, please slow down,” I panted after only a few minutes. “I can’t keep up.”
The lion man stopped and turned toward me, rolling his eyes. Apparently, that expression was universal between our worlds.
“Are all humans as weak and slow as you?”
His voice was somewhere between a growl and intelligible speech. I was reminded of Clint Eastwood before he turned into a mummy.
I wilted under his stern gaze and speech.
“I’m sorry. I’ve never been in the jungle before. I’m not even supposed to be here, you see. I was supposed to be sent to a population center. At least, I think that was the plan.”
His eyes burned hard and hot as coals. Then he snorted and turned his back, walking away from me again. This time, though, he slowed his pace enough that I could keep up.
It still remained far from a casual stroll, but at least I wasn’t being left behind.
I hurried my pace for a half dozen strides, ignoring my aching calves, walking abreast of him. He didn’t look at me, but I could tell he knew I was there.
“So, ah…what’s your name?”
He didn’t respond immediately. His hand reached out and grasped a stout branch blocking our path. He bent it back, careful not to break it though I knew he had the strength to splinter the branch into kindling.
Then he turned back to me with an expectant glare. I finally realized he’d held the branch out of the way for me and ducked underneath.
Once I reached the other side, he finally spoke.
“Nice to meet you, Reo. I’m Nina, in case you’ve forgotten. So, how’d you find me? I wound up teleporting to the wrong planet.”
“No, you didn’t.”
He shook his head, still not looking at me. His gaze remained focused down the path ahead.
“I didn’t? But if that’s so, how come no one was there to greet me? I was told specifically that I was supposed to meet people there.”
He paused, turning to me with his leonine features.
You know what? I was shocked by his appearance at first, but now I think he’s actually rather handsome. Very distinguished, too. This is no barbarian, despite the fact he’s not wearing much clothing.
It was true. He wore a leather breechcloth keeping his rippling torso and thick legs visible. I’m pretty sure the circumference of his muscular thighs was greater than my waist.
“The teleportation device malfunctioned. You should’ve arrived safely in the palace. Instead, you were sent to an old rallying point half a day away.”
I pursed my lips into a frown.
“Wait, what? How’s that possible? I thought Mahdfel tech was infallible.”
He turned a brief glare my way.
“How the fuck should I know? Do I look like a scientist?”
“No,” I agreed. “You look like a warrior. I’m assuming you’re a man at arms, or a guard for Prince Nafaria, the man I’m matched with. Am I right?”
He flinched a bit at the prince’s name, but otherwise didn’t respond.
We walked for what felt like hours, but probably was only one, if that.
Going through the jungle proved harder than I would’ve thought. The game trail wasn’t a sidewalk, it wound crazily through the jungle.
He took it all in stride, but I had a hard time keeping up.
I almost collapsed with relief when he called a halt next to a steep river bank overlooking a blue ribbon of rushing water. I settled onto a moss covered rock and sighed, rubbing my calves. I thought I got a good workout as a dog walker.
It turned out, not so much.
I guess all those paleo enthusiasts who think you should run up hills and crap have a point after all.
Reo reached into a leather pouch at his side and withdrew what looked like dried fruits. He handed me a few, and I was surprised when my belly rumbled.
I bit into one and it tasted a bit like a fig, but maybe with a bit of plum thrown in as well.
He then handed me a sloshing leather bag. When I looked at it suspiciously, he spoke.
“Water. Drink. I can’t have you collapsing. I’m not carrying you.”
I unstopped the top and tilted it back, noticing the waterskin had a patch branded into it. It appeared to be a cat’s paw clutching an ax and a sword, their blades pointing out in opposite directions.
Name brand? Or a royal seal?
More and more it seemed likely Reo must be one of the prince’s guards.
The water was warm and tasted of leather, but it was wet. I guzzled half of it before I worried I was rude. I handed it back to him and he shook his head.
“Keep it for now.”
He leaped up onto a boulder taller than I without apparent effort. Then he crouched down, nose testing the wind, rounded ears moving independently of each other on top of his head.
He’s certainly not Mr. Congeniality. But he saved my life and now he’s taking care of me. I’ll have to ask the prince to give him a commendation or something.
Maybe he’s not as mean as he seems?
A dark shape skittered across the sky, darkening the river with its shadow. He stood up, body tense like a bow string and watched it go, trailing smoke in its wake.
“Was that a ship?” I asked.
He growled in response.
“Suhlik.” He spat the word like it was a curse. I felt a shiver travel down my spine.
Suhlik were the ones the treaty protected us from. Reptilian and coldblooded as the snakes they resembled, the Suhlik were galactic boogeymen for good reason.
“We’ll take a slight detour,” he growled, still watching the direction the ship went. “It can’t be helped.”
I started to ask where we were going, then thought better of it. I didn’t think I wanted to know the answer.
Most sane people ran from the Suhlik. I got the feeling Reo had the exact opposite plan in mind.
Oh boy. This day just keeps getting crazier and crazier.