The chipmunk chittered something at him. Despite the violent pangs of hunger clenching in his belly, Randy tried to suppress thoughts of eating the little critter. It wasn't that he had a thing against eating meat - though he liked to think he practiced more consciousness regarding the flesh of other sentient beings than some might - it was simply that he had no confidence in his ability to catch the animal even if he made the attempt. He wasn't much of a hunter to start with, and the chipmunk's quick, nervous motion bespoke an instinctive caution so deeply ingrained it regarded every animal as a potential predator. It had taken ages for the critter to approach, during which period Randy hadn't moved a muscle nor even dared think a hostile thought, not wishing to startle it away. He was just glad to have company, any company.
"Well, little buddy," he murmured, "Is it just you and me in this forest? Or is there anyone else around?" The animal cocked its head, as though trying to make sense of what he'd said, and then hopped onto a rock near Randy's foot. It stood there for a while, poised to flee for cover at the slightest indication of threat, and then hopped off the rock and took a few tentative, zig-zagging bounds along the length of his leg, hopeful perhaps of finding something tasty near what to it was merely a large, inexplicably motionless (perhaps dying?) animal. He wondered if it had ever even seen a human before. Quite the feat, if it hadn't, with so many billions of his kind crowding the planet.
But then, it's world and his were very different ones, same planet or no. What did the chipmunk make of the stars, shining overhead while they huddled together in their nests?
Randy sat as he had done for the past hour and more, with his back braced against the lumpy trunk of an ancient oak tree whose gnarled canopy spread out above him like a ceiling through which he could just make out patches of blue sky. He'd stumbled across the old tree at the end of several hours of aimless walking, and it had seemed as good a place as any to rest for a bit, and think over what to do next. Not that it was so easy to think when you hadn't eaten in, what, two days? he reflected, watching enviously as the chipmunk picked up an acorn and started worrying at it. His last full meal, if you could call it that, had been the bus-stop ham sandwich he'd saved for supper yesterday. Ah, yes, and the scraggly raspberry bush he'd walked into this morning, which had scratched his arms and hands all to hell before he realized what he'd found, and annoyance turned to joy. The berries were young, most of them still green, with ripe red berries dangling from only a few brambles, but those ones he'd found had been like explosions of flavor within his mouth. He'd savored them, pausing at the bush and lingering over each berry, quite possibly the very best berries he had ever tasted.
Still, raspberries didn't go very far towards filling him up.
Finding something objectionable with the acorn, perhaps, the chipmunk discarded it and hopped around to the other side of the tree. "Must be nice to have the privilege of being picky," Randy remarked.
He wondered if he'd ever be found. It was hard to imagine he wouldn't be ... eventually, he'd pass out from hunger and fail to awaken. The insects and the coyotes and the raccoons and the mold would have their way with his body, and eventually, six months, a year down the line, some rich man's family with a camping license and a GPS map and all the right gear would stumble across his brown bones.
That was assuming he didn't get seen by Watcher. He knew there were drones overflying this area, and observation blimps, and of course the ever-present satellites. Hard to say what sort of resources they'd deploy to capture him, but ... he'd tweaked their noses pretty hard, and slipping away as he'd done would have only piqued their desire to capture him. All it would take would be for one of any of Watcher's mobile eyes to catch a clear glimpse of him, something the facial recognition algorithms could sink their teeth into, and a team would be dispatched to take care of him, he had no doubt. He'd likely survive a bit longer in that scenario, and while there was a part of him that yearned for the hot meal and shelter it implied.
The part that was in charge, though, had no desire to extend his life in exchange for his freedom, and because of that he'd made sure, wherever he'd gone over the past few days, to keep to whatever cover was available. And who knew? Maybe they were so pissed that if they caught him they'd just dispatch a predator to fry his ass with a sidewinder. Either way he figured it was a good rule of thumb to just stay under the trees, and always head away from highway sounds. Always.
It was surprising how many of them you encountered.
Well, he wasn't dead yet. He'd fasted before, or 'detoxed' in the fashionable terminology, gone a week on nothing but water and a nasty little mixture of cleansing oils and herbs, and he'd pulled through though it had made him sick as a dog by the end of it. In essence, this was no different.
Something flowed past his eyes, jerking him from his reverie. Blinking, he looked around him, searching for the source of the movement but finding nothing save tree branches rustling in the gentle breeze, and the shadows cast by the mid-afternoon Sun.
A twig snapped behind him, and he whirled his head around to find himself staring at a hulking grey brute of a wolf poised across the glade, staring at him. He froze, thoughtless, the whole of his being contracting around this single terrifying fact.
A wolf. I hadn't expected a wolf.
The thought flashed through his mind that wolves were generally pack animals, and thus there were probably more of them ... where? Behind him? He'd seen a documentary on Animal Planet, one time, and he seemed to remember a segment describing their tactic of sending one of their number to put the holy fear of hell into the prey, thus spooking it or them into the certain doom of its several lurking companions, just out of sight and probably downwind (Randy was a human, though, city born and bred, so 'downwind' was sort of irrelevant as far as he was concerned ... and he wondered if they were smart enough to have figured out that irrelevancy.) At any rate, the hair on the back of his neck prickled.
The wolf growled at him, tail wagging in excitement, and as it poised to leap Randy's hand went for the knife he'd kept under his jacket, which so far on this excursion had been used only for cutting down spruce branches to make into a little shelter at the end of the day (something he hadn't done on the first day, having been more intent on getting as far away as possible from the highway, but had thought of better the second day ... especially as he'd been hiking for a lot longer, on a mostly empty stomach, and had wanted to take a rest anyway. It wasn't like he could go that far without hitting highway, anyhow, so, that's just how it was.) It had been just as well he had, because it kept him mostly dry while a three-hour soak settled in, blotting out the waxing moon that otherwise by that time would have been high in the sky.
The wolf crouched down low, gathering itself, it's growling intensifying to a rumbling snarl, and Randy whipped himself around as fast as his aching body was able into a crouch, keeping the tree between him and the wolf, and holding the knife ready on his exposed side.
He had no illusions about being able to take down the rest of the pack, not in his state, with just one knife against their several powerful tooth-filled maws. Once the rest of it closed in he was a dead man, but that was when and this was now, and now was where he tried to keep himself.
Right now, he figured there was no reason he should make the wolve's meal for the next couple of days easily obtained. Such cheap convenience would cheat the wolf of a fabulous challenge.
The wolf leapt to one side, so that the tree no longer stood as an obstacle, and an instant after landing made another bound and came straight at his flank. Randy rolled as it landed on top of him, and, thrusting upward with the combat knife, felt the blade pierce up into the wolfs' side and at the same time rip through its flesh as the animal's own momentum carried it forward. The beast howled in shock and pain while hot blood washed over his hand, and it struggled off of him and ran away, limping, into the underbrush.
Randy lay on the forest floor, panting, his heart racing as time decompressed itself. He examined his body, was surprised to see that aside from a few scratches on his arm and a slight tear in his jeans he was unharmed, and rolled up again into a crouch.
He considered running, but thought better of it. There would be several of them out there, no telling where they might be. Run and they'd follow, and he had no doubt they were faster than he was.
So he steadied himself inside, found a point of inner stillness from which to observe this peril, and keeping his senses extended he slowly raised himself into a more upright position. Not to run, no, but not crouched down, either, because they might interpret that as cowering ... and fear would draw them circling in just as surely as panic would invite them to come loping after (something else he knew only from books and movies, and thus desperately hoped might actually be true). Instinctively, he placed his body into a fighting stance, legs planted one in front of the other but ready to move quickly into a new position, one arm forward and free, defending, the other back and holding the knife, thumb along the blade and edge pointing out from his body.
Randy had almost never been in a real fight, and he'd had very little hand-to-hand combat training and what little he'd received was largely recent. Still, he'd seen enough martial arts movies and played enough fighting games to have picked up through osmosis some of the basic forms, and he hoped his clumsy imitation would at least serve to mimic the appearance of a deadly warrior. It wouldn't fake out a human, but it might just a wolf. They weren't, after all, all that intelligent.
He held the stance, waiting, head scanning slowly around as he kept his senses alert and kept his mind focused on the simple insistence that he would go down fighting, re-directing the fear that threatened to spring from his heart into a passive and vicious acceptance of unchangeable fate.
Partly occluded through the branches ahead, he saw the soft white circle of a day-risen moon, round and full in the sky.
What the wolves did next was up to them.
He held the pose for what seemed like a long time, but nothing came for him and boredom started to settle in. Once it latched onto something he'd read one time about predators often taking a pass on healthy young males of a species that put on an impressive display of virility and, thus, show themselves to be dangerous prey, he set about demonstrating what he would do if a wolf came for him, shadow boxing his way into an imaginary brawl. The wolves continued not to come and his movements became larger, more expansive, with wide sweeping arcs of the knife ranging high and low, brief frenzied bursts of stabbings, and the occasional kick, punch, and even a headbut thrown in for good measure.
A throttled shout caught him entirely by surprise, and he whirled about to find himself staring down a small, half-naked and filthy child, a skinny boy of perhaps nine or ten who was regarding him with abject terror, eyes wide and hand raised to his mouth in rebuke of his voice's involuntary betrayal.
Randy immediately banished the imaginary brawl from his mind, dropping the knife to the ground and holding up his hands, holding friendly thoughts in his heart, hoping it would show through his eyes. "Easy there," he said reassuringly, "I was just trying to scare some wolves that attacked me." The boy eyed him suspiciously, his gaze flickering up to meet Randy's but drawn inexorably to the blood-soaked hand and spattered shirt. "I think they're gone now, though," he added, smiling, trying to catch boy's gaze but succeeding only in another darting glance.
"______", the boy said, and it took Randy a second to process that he hadn't understood a syllable of it, by which time the kid was shaking his head and running as fast as he could in the opposite direction.
"Hey!" Randy called, "I didn't mean to scare you!" The kid didn't come back, though, and - hope surging at the thought that he might have found people, somewhere, who might help him - he took off after him.
The knife lay, forgotten, in the loam on the forest floor.