Hello all, this is my first document published here, so please give me (useful) feedback!
This is the first chapter, I will add more later, probably by 3/16/11.
Thanks and hope you all enjoy.
Curt Lane looked around the large portal chamber and to the circular recess surrounded by coils of heavy metal that facilitated the portal. Nothing had changed since his last trip... how many years ago had it been, again? Neither did he remember nor did he care to. He was much older now, much wiser, and that was what counted. He sighed and shook his head; when he'd last ventured through the portal, it was experimental. Now, soldiers went through the portal every day, traveling from this side of the globe to that. This time, he knew, the portal was set to take him to the 'beachhead' in China that had been established using transport through the portals. China had finally gone and done it; declaring war on the US, and the USAF had sent Curt's sorry tail to go establish an airbase. Last time he'd gone through the portal, he was a first lieutenant, this time, though, he was a major general and had a lot more than his old squadron to care for.
He walked down to the end of the chamber as his escorts went through the portal. He snapped his neck as he stepped on the 'plank' (a metal platform that went through the portal so one could walk through) and crossed through himself. He felt the plank vibrate under him right as he went through the portal. He didn't pay any attention to it until he realized that it was taking far too long to cross the black between the portals. He cursed to himself and kept walking; turning around between the portals was not an option. He walked out of the other portal and turned around, preparing to run back the other way. The portal destabilized and collapsed before he could get through. He cursed again, much more loudly.
He slowly swiveled around, examining his surroundings. The area was filled with ancient trees, standing massively tall. The undergrowth was not crowded, but covered in dark green grass and some bushes growing in a patch larger than his eye could see to his right. Vines grew up some of the trees, stretching for the sky and attempting to reach the sunlight that averted their presence. It looked much like some of the southern forests near where he'd grown up in rural North Carolina. Maybe that was where the portal had spat him out. Maybe.
Something rustled in the bushes. He didn't have time to draw his sidearm before it came running out. It was looking behind it and crashed right into him. It tumbled over him as he examined it, trying to figure out what the the heck it was. It had a body shaped much like his, but very lean and a little shorter than he. That was about as far as the similarities went, however. Its hands were tipped with claws, its legs ending in paws and its whole body covered with fur. Perched atop its head were two large ears, now laid back as it examined him in the same way he examined it. It looked like someone had made a hybrid of a human and a fox, actually.
It started to try and run, finally over the shock of running into him. He grabbed its arms by the wrists, keeping the thing's claws away from him and wrapped his legs around its, pinning it. That hand-to-hand combat training I whined so much about is paying off, he thought. "Alright, answer me, what are you?" he asked, looking the... thing... right in its yellow eyes.
It looked at him like he was an idiot.
"Answer me!" he shouted.
"How do you not know? I am a Keidran. You know, that race your people hunt down and enslave?"
Curt let three or four of the vilest words he knew surface. The thi... Keidran, he corrected, tried to free itself from his grip to no avail.
"What's the hurry?" he asked, in no particular hurry himself, the little creature much weaker than he.
"You'll figure it out anyhow, but I'm running from my owner. His control spell failed. He was no good at magic," it answered.
Curt just took the reference to magic in stride. Why not magic? If there were half-human, half-animals, why not magic? "You don't worry about him, then. I'll take care of him if you promise not to go flying off if I let you go. I'm not as young as I once was. I don't feel like chasing you down."
It nodded, somber and nervous at the same time. They both stood up and Curt drew his sidearm, a 9mm Beretta, pointing it in the direction where the little Keidran had come from, figuring its owner would be coming from the same direction. Sure as the world (Curt made a note that he wasn't very sure of the world), he did, huffing as he emerged from the bushes at what Curt would have called doubletime; half walking, half running. He was looking down, following the Keidran tracks through the brush. Skilled tracker, Curt thought. The other man looked up for half a second; looking where he was going, then looked back down. He paused in his tracks and looked back up, not quite believing what he saw.
"That's my bloody Keidran! She ain't yours!" The man, clothed in dirty brown robes, shouted at him in a accent that sounded half British.
Curt's nose twitched. The man had been drinking; he could smell the alcohol from three feet away. Judging by the way the Keidran's nose was sampling the air, it had drawn the same conclusion.
The man looked Joe up and down, apparently surmising that he wasn't a match for Curt, who was a head taller and much heavier- and heavier with muscle, not fat. "What is that, a bloody wand?" he asked of Curt's gun. "Only students need wands. I'm no student," he said and assumed what Curt thought was supposed to be a fighting stance.
"Yeah, you're fine. He sucks at magic anyhow, much less when he's drunk," the Keidran told him in a reassuring deadpan tone.
The drunken -former- owner of the Keidran growled, a gesture Curt thought rather absurd.
"Maybe not a student. Maybe a master who's after precision," Curt said coolly. "Is it like any wand you've seen? It's specialized, for just what I need." He paused for effect. "Now, run on, pretend this never happened and I won't hurt you."
For a wonder, the drunken man fell for the bluff and grumbled as he did what he was told, sulking off through the bushes. Curt let out a sigh of relief. "I thought drunks were supposed to be more prone to doing stupid stuff?"
"I think he's been a drunkard long enough to tell the difference between what the alcohol tells him he can do and what he can really do," the little Keidran said, its ears sagging in relief.
Curt but nodded, though the thanked God in the back of his mind. Good thing, he thought, I don't have much ammo. He did a mental double-check; he had forty rounds for his pistol. He remembered that he had brought his long gun too, which had more or less unlimited supply of ammunition thanks its technology, and let out a mental sigh of relief. Curt walked over to his duffel bag, which had flown off when he was practically tackled by the Keidran. He looked over at the Keidran as he opened the bag. "You got a name?"
"My master calls me Jocasta."
"What's your real name?"
"I like that one better anyhow. Come on, we need to move, he'll probably send the cops after us," Curt said as he pulled his long gun out of the bag and draped the rifle's strap over this head and looped his right arm through it. He put the bag over his shoulders by the handles.
She looked at him as they started walking away. "Where are we going?"
"We're going parallel to your path; we just can't stay too close to it. I have no idea where you were going- heck, I don't know where we are now."
"You're new here, aren't you? What happened? You didn't know what I was and it sure doesn't look like you know magic; that's no wand," she said, paused, and added, "Master must've been drunk."
"Yeah, you could say that I'm a bit new. I was... well, actually, what I was doing is classified, but something went wrong and it spat me out here. I don't know if it's another planet or an alternate reality. Either way, there are no Keidran and there is no magic where I come from."
"Where are you from then?" she asked, an eyebrow raised.
"It's a place called Cheyenne Mountain in a nation called the United States of America. That's not important. Where are we now and, while I'm at it, where are we headed?"
"We're just south of a human town, headed toward Keidran territory. It's about thirty miles south of here, past a ridge of mountains. Or at least we were. I guess I'm your slave now."
"No!" he said, almost shouting. Michaela was taken a bit off guard by it, though Curt didn't know if it was because she was surprised of his tone or his refusal to take her as a slave. He made sure to check himself and continued, "Slavery is wrong. My people did it once. We'll never do it again."
Michaela smiled, a smile very much of relief. It was a cute smile, he thought, though her fangs showed. Curt re-surveyed her now that he had a second to do so. She wore a gray cloak, but it was covered in the browns and splotchy reds of mud, the greens of grass and the wear of time. She had a mostly unkempt mop of red hair around her ears on the top of her head. Her face was outlined with white, she had a small snout for a nose, and it ended much as one would expect, with a small patch of wet skin. Around the white of her face, her fur was a light red, with a white stripe on her throat that ran down below her cloak and more than likely covered her belly. It took him a second to realize that she was giving him the same look over. He grinned, realizing that she probably didn't know what to make of him, either. He didn't wear robes or cloaks like all the other humans of the world probably wore, but instead loose green digital camouflage ABU (Air Battle Uniform) pants and jacket with a matching officer's cap. The mere pattern was impossible for the world, Curt guessed. What does she make of me? He asked himself.
Michaela looked the man who'd more or less saved her life up and down. She realized that she didn't even know his name. She would ask soon, but he was so strange. He didn't wear robes like she'd expect most any human to wear, but loose pants and a thick, loose fitting shirt, much like she sometimes saw Keidran slaves with better owners wearing, though he had the sleeves neatly wrapped up past his muscular biceps. Both items of clothing had many, many pockets and were covered in a pattern of tiny squares of colors varying from faded greens to light black arranged in tiger-like stripes. The pattern had to be made by magic, but she thought the man said that his world didn't have magic. She needed be wary of him, she realized; she'd gotten too comfortable around him; he might be lying about his origins. He carried two black things, one on his hip, one in his hand, that were made of metal and he carried like weapons, but couldn't possibly be; they weren't capable of being anything more than clubs if they were. He was tall, very tall, probably 6' 6", dwarfing her 5' 4" former—oh, that word felt good to think—master. His head was topped with graying blond hair that was very short, probably shorter than her fur. He had a tan bag thrown over his shoulders like it was some kind of pack, but it was unlike any she'd ever seen. She supposed that, if he did come from another world, that would make him strange to her. She reflected for a bit, thinking that if he was strange to her, how strange she must be to him.
Her cloak itched her and chaffed against her fur. It stunk, too. She'd been using it to mask her scent in the event the humans brought dogs or other Keidran to track her down. She realized that she no longer needed it, the man in the strange green—darn it, she still needed to get his name—would protect her. She very badly wanted to take it off, but she didn't want to impede their progress, would he look down on her, punish her, if she took time away from travel? Why was he even traveling with her? He didn't know where she was going, not really. She didn't know the answer to any of her questions, so she kept walking at the fast pace the man moved at. She reminded herself that she still needed to ask his name.
Finally, she forced herself to ask, not knowing why she had to force herself. "I haven't asked, but what's your name?"
"Curtis, but you can call me Curt."
She nodded and kept walking alongside him. After a couple seconds' pause, she finally asked, "So, Curt, do you always walk this fast?"
He stopped dead in his tracks. "I'm sorry! I didn't even think about it! I'm used to the military. The prime principle there is 'hurry up and wait.' I'll slow down."
She made her best attempt at a warm smile; she'd always been told that her fangs ruined it. "It's alright. I've just been on the move for most of the day, it's wearing on me."
"Next time we come to a clearing, I'll set up camp as best I can. I don't have much; I was supposed to be going to a city. Fortunately, I've learned the hard way that you always, always, pack a survival kit of some form. I think I've got an emergency blanket you can use."
"Thanks, but I won't need it. I'm used to sleeping under the stars," she said, her mind going back to unpleasant times in an outdoor cage or a slave wagon, rolling and bumping as she tried to sleep.
"I'm a Southern" -she could practically hear the capitalization- "gentleman. If you don't use the blanket, neither of us will." He sounded a bit demanding, and she almost took offense until she realized that he was treating her like a real woman, giving her courtesy, something no human had ever done for her.
He's probably just naïve, she thought with a sigh, "Very well, then. Thank you."
He nodded, smiling; clearly glad she'd taken the offer. He looked up and around him, "Gets dark fast here, don't it?"
"Yeah, that's what I was counting on. I can see much better in the dark than any human can," she said, recalling her escape plan in more detail than she really cared to.
He grinned, but it looked like a grin suggesting that he might just be able to, too. She figured she was misinterpreting, but she couldn't know; the man was from another world, wasn't he?
She saw the trees part ahead at about the same time Curt did. She let out a sigh of relief; her paws were killing her. He grinned, looking a bit relieved himself. She wondered what he'd been doing, who he was, before whatever had went wrong had, well, went wrong. She didn't know what had gone wrong, but she slowly realized that she was glad it had as they came upon the clearing.
She simply fell backwards onto the soft ground, exhausted. Curt, however, ever the practical man, surveyed the area. "As good a place as any," he declared and let the bag on his back drop to the ground. He shifted the large black... thing... he had been carrying in front of him so it hung from behind his right shoulder by the strap attached to it.
Michaela sat up and begun to pull the filthy old rag of a cloak off. Curt looked over, his face showing nothing but shock. She paused. He was about to exclaim something before his face relaxed and he rolled his eyes, probably realizing that she was covered in fur and that her removing her clothing wasn't anything odd. He went back to getting things out of his bag. She shrugged and finished removing the rag she wore. She took in a deep breath, the air suddenly fresher. She noticed Curt's scent for the first time thanks to the removal of the block on her senses. It was unlike any of her world, smelling sweet and spicy. She subconsciously leaned closer, trying to place the scent.
"There it is!" he exclaimed, pulling out a shiny little packet. He looked over at her, and, finding that she had slowly crawled over to him, now only feet away, drew back a bit in surprise. Like he seemed to do with everything, he took it in stride, tore the packet open and handed her the shiny little thing.
She realized that the packet was actually clear and what he had handed her was the actual shiny object. She decided to pull a page from his book and shrugged it off. It smelled putrid at first, but the odor quickly went away. She looked at the shiny thing again, trying to figure out what he wanted her to do with it.
He laughed, realizing what she was doing. "You can unfold it now, but I'd advise you don't until we bed down. It has a nasty tendency to blow away if you unfold it too early," he said.
She looked at it and found that it actually had a large crease down the middle of its side. "Oh," she muttered as she slowly unfolded a piece of the thing, being careful not to tear it while trying to figure out what it was. "This is the emergency blanket you talked about, then?"
"Yep," he said, smiling. "Now, we need to build a fire. Something tells me that if it gets dark that fast, it'll get cold equally fast."
She nodded, "Yes, it does. Very cold."
"At least you've still got your fur."
She shook her head. "It's my summer coat. Not very warm at all."
He nodded and started digging through the bag again- just what all did he have in that thing? "Here," he said, handing her a coat patterned just like the shirt (that was a shirt, wasn't it?) he wore.
"Won't you be cold then?"
"Naw, I slept through nights colder than this with only a t-shirt. I got a jacket and a shirt on," he said as he unrolled the sleeves on what must've been the jacket.
She nodded and put the coat on. It was massive on her, but it was very warm and smelled very, very sweet; fresh. It was part of what she smelled on Curt. What was that smell? She was about to ask Curt, but when she looked up, she realized that he was nowhere to be seen, probably off to get firewood. She looked at the coat again, finding that it was lined with very smooth fabric that felt like silk, though Michaela didn't think it was, and it was covered in pockets, four on its front, with one on the sleeve for reasons she couldn't see.
She started to feel devious and crawled over to Curt's bag on all fours, careful to stay quiet for reasons she didn't quite know. She smelled so many different odors coming from it, some sweet like the coat, some very foul, almost like the oil soldiers used to coat their swords. There was one odor, very faint, like the one she smelled on Curt; spicy. There was another, which she realized was like the blanket she still held in her hand. She didn't know the scent from anywhere, but she knew it smelled horrible.
Moving beyond scent, she felt the outside of the bag its self, a fabric she recognized as canvas, the same fabric as the tent under which she'd been auctioned off to her first master. She looked inside it and started going through it, feeling and sniffing each item, finding mainly clothes, some of the pattern and material Curt and, she realized, she, wore. Some of the garments were blue and of an itchy kind of fabric that wasn't wool, folded very neatly, and some, folded less neatly, were white or tan and very thin. There were also some of the pattern she wore, but tan instead of green. She realized that all of the clothing smelled sweet like the coat she wore and figured that the smell was some kind of soap. She nodded, satisfied with the reasoning.
One of her ears, turned up and alert, heard something in the woods. She went back to where she had been sitting and started looking at the blanket again, pretending to be captivated by its shine and otherworldliness, hoping to draw on her looks as an ignorant slave girl.
Curt came out of the forest, carrying a lot of wood of various sizes, and sat it all down in the center of the clearing, five or six feet from the bag. As he leaned the larger pieces against each other, standing them up like a cone, he glanced over at her. "Went through my bag, didn't you?"
She gritted her teeth, grimacing, her fangs showing very clearly. Her ears drooped of themselves. Her voice shook as she asked, "How'd you know?"
"For one, I'd go through the bag if I were you. For two, I wouldn't leave a pair of underwear sticking out of the top," he returned in monotone, never looking away from the fire he was building.
"I'm so sorry," she said, her voice weak. "You won't hurt me, will you? Please don't. I'll go, leave you alone. I'll never trouble you again. I'm so sorry."
He didn't say a word, which worried her. Instead, he stood up, his face absolutely blank, and walked over to her. She couldn't read anything from his body language, clearly trained to hide his feelings. He keeled down to where she sat, legs crossed, face in her hands, ready to burst into tears. He began to raise his arms. She closed her eyes and winced, waiting to be struck. She didn't know how he would hit her. A punch? A slap? How?
Of everything she expected to feel, what she actually did feel was not one of them. She felt arms wrap around her, under her arms, hands that came up behind her and rested on her neck. It was a hug, but not a romantic hug, not a hug like a sibling would give, but a hug like someone might give at a funeral. He gently pushed her head into his shoulder. She rested it there, taking in his scent, now so calming. Tears ran down her face, onto his jacket, but she was silent, taking in the moment. Curt somehow knew all the pain she'd dealt with every single day as a slave and exactly how to calm her.
"It's over now," he whispered. "As long as there is breath in my lungs and blood in my veins, you'll never be a slave again. You are free."
Curt sat on a large log in front of the rather impressive fire he'd built. Michaela sat beside him, half asleep, her head lying on his shoulder. She held the stick of the match he'd used to light the fire. She'd thought it was magic at first, but he quickly explained the chemical reaction by which it worked. She was somber now, clearly so tired, but she refused to go to sleep, instead resting her head on him.
Curt knew that she was tired from running and walking all day with him, but he didn't think that was why she was so tired. The main tiredness that afflicted her was probably Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, though she didn't know it (and, upon second thought, she probably didn't know what PTSD was, anyhow). Her body wasn't yet ready to sleep, and her mind no doubt whirled, but she was still tired.
Curt wasn't ready to sleep, either. For one, he had several hours of jetlag to accommodate for; it was much later here than it had been when he left the US. Mainly, however, his mind whirled. He'd promised Michaela (he truly did love that name) that he'd never let her be a slave again, and he wasn't sure he could hold that promise up. He was but one man; could he truly protect her forever? And what if the US found a way to rescue him? He couldn't take her with him, she'd become a slave to science and would probably never leave Cheyenne. That was no life for her.
Thinking of home made him instinctively pull a photograph, the only one he kept aside from his ID, out of a breast pocket. His wife and two daughters smiled back at him so pleasantly from many years ago. It was the last photograph he had of all of them before the kids left the house.
"That's a good painting," Michaela said slowly and softly. "They yours?"
Curt didn't tell her that it was a photograph; he didn't care to explain. Instead, he replied, "Yeah. They were mine."
"They were killed by weapons you've never heard of in a war you've never heard of between nations you've never heard of," Curt said, fighting back tears. His family had been hit in the Chinese nuclear first strike.
"They were military? Those kids look too young."
"They weren't too young, they'd both grown up and left the house, but they didn't follow me into the military, they saw how hard it was on a family," he said, shaking his head, "And said that they'd never do it to their family. Judith (that's this one) was pregnant with a little boy. My grandson. Esther was engaged. He was a good man, I thought. The only one I ever approved of," he paused to wipe the silent tears from his eyes, "Our enemy had nothing to lose, so they made sure we lost everything. Their economy had collapsed and their government was crumbling, so they decided to go down fighting." Curt almost said 'go down in flames,' but there were no aircraft here, so he guessed that that figure of speech wouldn't be here, either.
"That's terrible, I'm so sorry… I can relate, though. I had my family taken from me, too. Or, more like, I was taken from my family."
"Yeah. How old were you?"
"Barely three, but that's not very young for us. We age much faster than humans."
"You were still a kid, though, right?"
"Yeah," she said, clearly not following him.
"Kids have an extraordinary gift to bounce back, to keep going. When you're 50- something, you have a whole lot of trouble bouncing back."
She looked at him in shock. "You're how old?"
"I knew humans lived a long time, but I had no idea. You look so young."
"We have a lot of advanced medicine where I come from. Humans here probably don't live as long as I would've," he said, realizing that healthcare here was probably pretty low-grade, too, unless, he wondered, magic was useful as a healing tool.
"Oh, yeah, what year did you say it was where you come from?" She asked sleepily.
"Two-thousand and sixty-four," he said, making sure to space it out, not because she was stupid—she was far from it by what he'd observed—but because she'd never heard a date pronounced 'twentysixtyfour,' as he did. "And what year did you say it was here?"
"I think master said it was 118 last time he mentioned what year it was. I'm not sure," she said and yawned.
The yawn, apparently contagious, spread over to Curt. "Alright," he said, "time to get to bed."
She nodded and pulled the emergency blanket he'd given her out of a pocket on the coat he'd also given her. Her ears drooped, which Curt took to mean she was tired. She slowly unfolded the blanket, apparently trying not to rip it with her claws. Once she had it large enough to fit her small frame, she (literally) curled up under it.
When in an unfamiliar or hostile environment, soldiers usually traded watches throughout the night. Curt figured that, as light a sleeper as he was and as fast as he had to wake up on normal Air Force duty, he'd be fine should anyone come on their site. He put small hearing aids in, made just for this purpose, and turned them all the way up. The least little noise would wake him with those in. He pulled a pair of ABU pants and a large towel from his duffel bag. He sat the pants, still folded neatly, on a spot of ground about three feet from the fire and laid down. He flapped the towel out over him and begun to lay perfectly still, as he would for hours, his mind turning, trying to make sense of all the information he'd taken in over the past day. He heard Michaela rustling every once in a while, the emergency blanket making a racket each and every time.
Finally, he drifted off into a nervous sleep. The little hearing aids in his ears beeped and vibrated gently, waking him up without disturbing anyone around him at precisely 0600 the next morning (they synced with his watch, which he'd set to the sun), again, just like they were designed to do. Generals weren't supposed to carry the things, but Curt had managed to keep them through all of his promotions.
He slowly got up, ignoring the protest his back and knees made as he did so. He folded the towel up and threw it and the folded pants into his duffel bag. He rebuilt the fire, which had almost, but not quite, died. He kept it low, only wanting to burn off the firewood he'd gathered and not yet burned—but also in an effort to ward the morning cold off. His long gun was still propped up against the log he'd set up as a bench. He picked it up and shouldered it. He picked up the only stick he didn't plan to burn and held it as he dug through his bag. He finally found his small survival kit and opened the little bag. Inside it was a small reel, about three quarters of an inch thick and two in diameter. Around the outside of the reel were a hundred and eighty feet of fishing line. He took about ten feet off and cut it with the knife in his boot. He used a clove hitch to tie it to the very end of the stick and dug around in the survival kit until he found a small plastic container, 5"x3", sectioned off in small compartments, containing various hooks and baits. He wasn't about to go digging for worms, so he took a piece of his best artificial bait for fishing in streams and attached it to the end his line (the bait had a hook built in). He pulled out a small bobber, halfway attached it to the line and wrapped the line around the stick, slung it over his left shoulder, pocketed the bait container and walked to the stream forty or fifty yards out in the forest to the east of the campsite, where Michaela still slept pleasantly and peacefully.
He unrolled the line and sat his rifle at the base of a tree. He looked at the depth of the water where he intended to cast to and set the bobber to a little more than half of the depth up the line on his makeshift rod. Using his thumb to keep the extra line in check, he cast the bait out into the stream, landing the bobber just where he wanted to. His mind flashed back to pleasant memories of cane pole fishing (where he'd learned to fish without a reel) with his father and grandfather, and more recent ones of fishing with his daughters and wife. Judith, the older of the two, always had been a bit of a tomboy, she loved to fish. Esther, however, took after her mother. She could fish just fine, but she never could touch the fish or, for that matter, the worm.
He also, more faintly, recalled stunning his survival training instructors with the skill as the bobber was jerked under the water. He jerked the stick back with his right hand, finding, to his surprise, that he had hooked the fish. He grabbed the line with his left hand and pulled the fish in. He repeated the exercise four times, only having to cut the line once. He hated it when fish swallowed the hook, but it was life. He rebuilt the fire when he got back to camp, making it level. He fileted the fish (being sure to recover his lost hook, there was no telling how long he'd be stuck in the wilderness with a very limited supply of them) and started cooking them in the pan from his mess kit. He took a deep breath in. They smelled very good.
Michaela woke up to her nose telling her good things and her mouth drooling. Fish, she thought with a smile. She crawled out from under the silver blanket under which she'd spent the night very warm. She saw Curt sitting on the log, bent over toward the fire. Hearing her, he looked over and smiled. "Good morning," he said, "how'd you sleep?"
"Better than I have in many, many years. You?" she asked, trying to keep as warm a smile as she could on her face.
He chuckled, "Like crap, but that's fine. I had a lot to think about."
"You never moved though. I thought you were sound asleep."
"No, many years in the military have taught me how to sleep without moving. You rollover in any of their bunks and you fall face first on the floor."
"Oh," she said, having no better answer.
"Ah, look, they're done," he said, grinning as toothily as any human could. Michaela felt her tail wag and her ears stand up of themselves. He pulled the pan he had the fish in out of the fire and sat it on the log beside him, to the opposite side of where he had that black thing propped up. On the ground in front of him was a medium-sized pot filled with other pots, pans and plates. He took one of the plates out, put two fishes' worth of filet on it and handed it to her. He did the same for another plate, but kept it for himself.
She grabbed one of the filets with her left thumb and forefinger and ate it whole. She gulped it down and did the same with the next one. She had the next one over her mouth when she noticed the look on Curt's face; a mix of horror and fascination. "What?" she asked, looking at him questioningly.
She noticed the fork (she'd had to clean enough of them to know what a fork was) he was holding by the teeth, with its handle turned out to her. "Oh."
He shrugged as he turned it around, holding it by its handle and started eating himself. Just like he did with everything else, he just took it in stride. What all had he gone through to learn that kind of adaptability? Michaela realized that she didn't want to know but she'd probably find out anyhow. She proceeded to eat the other filets in the same manner as she'd ate the first couple and watched as Curt ate his; she'd never seen a human eat before. Her master always locked her and the other slaves in a small room before he ate. When he finished, he gave them his scraps and as little food as he possibly could. She suddenly realized that Curt had not only fed her the same amount as he had ate, but he'd given her a plate before he made his own. She suppressed the urge to hug him. Curt ate fast, but it seemed awkward to her, as he cut squares with the fork, speared them, and shoveled them into his mouth.
As soon as he finished and sat the plate down, she practically tackled him with a hug, knocking him off the log and into the grass behind it.
"What the heck was that for?" he asked, almost sounding mad, but more surprised.
"I'm sorry… You didn't like it?"
"No, you took me off guard. I like it just fine," he said, smiling, "but, again, what was that for?"
"What do you think? Rescuing me, but mainly for treating me like a person. Nobody has ever done that."
They laid there in the grass, her beside him, the sun just starting to peek out of the trees. "You know, I always thought that I had a hard life, but I don't think I had any idea. No matter how bad things got, at least people still treated me fairly. I was still a person, I can't imagine how it would've been had I not been able to count on even that," he said, looking off with a fixed glaze.
"My life wasn't that bad," she said, "Master wasn't the worst I could've had. He wasn't abusive except when he was drunk. He never had to beat us because of the control spells. I hear that there are some that would rather have the joy of breaking slaves the hard way," she said and winced, "Oh, and he sucked at magic, which was good because it provided some comic relief when the spells failed. Oh, and because it let me escape to you," she said and hugged him again.
"You're attaching me to your freedom," he said.
"Yes, I am," she said and smiled playfully and devilishly, no longer caring that her fangs showed.
"That's the problem. You're not attaching it mildly; you seem to be attaching it romantically. There's a name for the condition, but I don't remember it."
"I don't see the problem," she said, rolling on top of him, straddling him on all fours, still smiling devilishly. How could she make herself any more appealing to him? She was already nude. No, she still had his coat on. She shed it, "It's getting hotter out here, isn't it?"
"No, you're getting warmer," he said, flatly, looking her in the eyes, a gesture she still didn't like.
What had she done wrong? How had she offended him? He acted like he liked her, but he didn't anymore. It had to of been something she'd done. But what? Getting on top of him like she had? Tackling him? No, he said he didn't mind that. So it had to be getting on top of him. She slowly resituated herself, lying beside him, tears coming to her eyes. "What did I do, what… Was it?" She finally asked.
He didn't respond with words at first. She felt his arm, so large and muscular, go under her neck and diagonally under her back. He pulled her light body over halfway on top of him, part of her chest and head resting on his. She wouldn't call it a hug, but it was somewhat. He rubbed her back, again, knowing exactly how to soothe her.
But she thought that getting over him had been what got him mad at her in the first place. Humans are so confusing, so undeceive, she thought. She could still smell that spicy aroma that hung on Curt, still so calming, despite everything else.
Finally, he replied with words. "It was nothing you did. I don't hate you and I haven't stopped liking you, but I don't like you like you clearly do me. You don't really like me either, you'll find. You like freedom. Because I am freedom to you, you like me, too."
It made sense, but she didn't want to believe it. She liked Curt. He probably thought of her more as a little sister or, maybe one of the daughters he'd already lost. That wasn't how she wanted him to like him, but it would do for now. She finally relaxed, her head sitting lightly on his chest, her ears flopping out. She turned the one closest to his chest down to face his chest. She heard his heartbeat, so strong and clear. Her tears were dry and she wasn't sad, but she didn't know how to feel. She wanted to be sad because Curt didn't like her, but she wanted much worse to be happy because she was free—oh, that word felt good!
"C'mon, we need to get going. We need to clean up camp and get out of here, they're probably tracking us. We can't afford to waste time."
She sighed, feeling her ears droop. She walked over to the blanket she'd slept under and stared at it blankly. How was she supposed to clean it up? Wad it?
"Fold it up in the exact opposite way you unfolded it," Curt said, voice raised, from across the small campsite. She smiled and felt her ears perk up. Curt had known her for less than a day and yet he somehow seemed to know just what she was thinking. She wondered how he did that as she fussed with the blanket.
Curt pulled his folding shovel out of its holster on his belt, unfolded it, and packed the remaining ashes from the fire down. He slid the plug of grass he'd dug out for the fire pit back over onto the fire pit. He used the shovel to pack it down. The majority of the ashes were spread out all over the campsite in layers far too thin for any eye to perceive, the log had been rolled out into the woods and he'd chucked the wood that hadn't burned completely into the stream. It would take a heck of a tracker to find the campsite now. The Air Force taught me well, he thought with a smile.
He looked over and found that Michaela had finally finished folding the emergency blanket, finally being the operative word. He'd cleaned up the whole campsite in the time it took her to fold it up, but he didn't mind, he suspected that she'd get a whole lot better at it by the time he got her home.
She handed him the little silver square and he began to stuff it into his duffle bag, but paused. He pulled an ABU jacket out of the bag and handed it, along with the blanket, to her.
"What's this for?" she asked timidly.
"For one, it blends in with the forest very well. For two, those two lumps on your chest are incredibly distracting. For three, you'll look like you're mine; these are the only jackets like this on the planet, after all. You're not, but anyone who comes upon us don't need to know that."
Michaela clearly wasn't sure how to take that one, but she didn't say anything. Curt guessed that her cheeks were probably turning red under her white fur. She reminded him of his wife with that nervous smile and, well, her whole demeanor; she wasn't naïve, but she still managed to be playful and cheerful despite all. And, moreover, she was tough, bouncing back from most anything life could throw at her. He zipped up his duffel bag and watched her put the jacket on out of the corner of his eye. He slung his rifle hanging loosely in front of him and put his arms through the handles of the duffel bag again. Michaela was sniffing the jacket as she tried to get it to fit properly. Like the coat he'd lent her last night (which he was still beating the fur off of), the jacket was designed to fit large, though Curt helped her roll the sleeves up so it wouldn't chaff her fur as badly. He hoped that its loose fit and smooth lining wouldn't bug her too much.
"How's that?" he asked.
"Wonderful, thank you," she replied.
"Alright, let's get moving, then," he said.
Hours later, they were still walking, though Curt had to be very careful not to get up to the stiff march he'd learned in the Air Force; Michaela couldn't walk that fast for long. The handles of the duffel bag dug into his shoulders; the bag wasn't made for hikes and didn't have the handles for it. Or maybe Curt was just older than the last time he went for a long hike. Or maybe, just maybe, it's a bit of both, he thought. It probably was, too; he'd gotten softer in his tenure as a general. When you weren't in the field, you tended to slack on the fitness requirements. Fortunately, Curt hadn't slacked too much, he was still very fit for a man of his age. He suspected that he'd need that fitness on this world.
Michaela walked beside him, still occasionally sniffing the jacket he'd lent her. She'd somehow combed that mop of hair she had had down to the point where it looked halfway decent with just her claws; she'd been working on it most of the way they were walking. He'd made a note that the next time they were in a town, he'd get her a brush and maybe a comb for the both of them. He'd been given gold coins for his trip in China- after their economic collapse, gold was the only currency there- and he intended to use them to buy supplies (and a framed pack, hopefully). After he ran out of the coins, he didn't know what he'd do, but he hoped that he'd have Michaela back to her people by that time. After he got her home, he had even less of an idea of what he'd do. Curt habitually thought in both the long-term and in the grand scale. This situation was forcing him to think in the short-term and the small scale because he had no information, no intelligence, no data, no nothin', about this world. He had to make his decisions as he came to them, something very foreign for an Air Force general. The stress, physical and mental, was wearing on him slowly.
Michaela, on the other hand, probably hadn't been happier in years. He envied that slightly, but tried to keep focused. They kept walking, for the most part in silence; Michaela was panting (quite literally) and had a lot of trouble talking thanks to it. Curt had, for the most part, shut off his mind, walking mechanically and attempting to not allow his thoughts to reach back to his home and his family. They still did, far more frequently that he'd of liked. He remembered when he thought about killing himself; for what had he to live? His family was gone, his country, his world, in ruins. Finally, the Air Force told him that they were launching a joint attack with the Army and Marines on land via the portal. He'd then decided that he'd live for revenge, to avenge his family. He had, launching strategic bombings with remote UAVs and securing the beachhead in the air. He was going to get more revenge personally when he traveled through the portal.
But now what? For what did he live now? The promise. He'd promised Michaela that he would protect her and he would for as long as he was alive. He didn't know how he would, but somewhere deep inside, he knew.
"Ah," he said when he saw a break in the trees, "That looks like the edge of the forest. There should be a town down there. I can get some supplies... And some lunch."
"But what about me?" Michaela asked him.
"You can stay here."
"You said they were following us. What if they find me?"
"I said that they were probably tracking us. They may not be. Your other option is to come with me into the town. As far as I know, there is no third option."
"I don't want to go into a town! That's a human town!"
"Listen, it's your decision. You can stay here, or you can go into the town. It's a lose-lose for you, I know. You have to choose the lesser of two evils. I cannot tell you which is lesser. I can tell you that I'll be there to protect you if you go into the town."
"Then I'll go with you," she said distantly.
"Alright, hold on, I'm going to conceal my bag," he said. He put the bag behind some bushes and sprayed deodorizer over the whole area.
She wrinkled her nose, "What is that?"
"Wait for it," he replied.
She started sniffing again, "It's gone."
He grinned, "Exactly. It's designed so you can hide your bag or mask your trail from tracking dogs." He shouldered his gun and motioned to Michaela. "C'mon. The faster we get down there, the faster it's over with."
Her ears drooped and her tail went between her legs. Her whole body shook. It wasn't a reply of words, but it told Curt far more than any words could've.
"It will be okay. I will not let anything happen to you. You have to trust me," he said, making an attempt at being firm but not aggressive.
She nodded, taking in a deep breath. "Let's go."