The storm hit with such intensity that Siris wondered if they had finally ventured out of their ancient tomb in time to see this world’s apocalypse. No one had wanted to stay inside, or even close to the opening, of the Samsara’s pitch black interior, however, so when the storm did arrive, it caught them in the open. The group had successfully navigated their way down the treacherous hill and waited in an exhausted bunch while Siris and Cato searched the area for a spot that resembled some form of shelter big enough to accommodate the eighty-four children.
The sky grew darker and darker, and when the rain came in a sudden sheet, Siris had been just about ready to give up, but a shadowy spot in the rock face to his left caught his attention. He whistled softly, and Cato perked up and cast a questioning gaze at him. Siris headed toward the spot and Cato caught up and then ranged ahead like a scout tasked with flushing out any potential ambushes.
Siris’s clothes were soaked through within the first few chilly minutes of exposure to the torrent and his low shoes were more slipper than hiking boot. He had to stop and rescue one or the other from the sticky mud on several occasions before he reached the cave mouth. He wondered if this spot was any better than the ship. Those giant bat things were probably in here as well, but he suspected that the main reason that no one wanted to stay the night there was because it felt like a mausoleum. All of their parents were there, long dead and staring out from their transparent coffins.
Despite the clear potential danger of this cave, it…felt better than the Samsara. He pulled a glow stick from his pack and reluctantly snapped it. He’d have to figure out something better for their lighting needs.
He walked into the dark and was pleased to find that the cave was actually better defined as an alcove. At one point he jumped as a splay of shadow swung across the far wall. He calmed when he realized they were cast by a bundle of sticks and larger branches that were stuffed in a crack halfway up the rock face. Some creature’s nest. From the look of it, it could be a large bird like a hawk or maybe a squirrel. The space sloped up and into the rock face so that it would stay dry, and it only ran about one hundred deep. He threw the glow stick into the back corner to mark it for him when he came back with the rest.
On his trudge back to the spot he’d left the group, Cato suddenly ran forward, barking into the stormy gloom.
“Cato!” Siris called. He didn’t see anything that the dog could have been chasing but he was afraid for the dog. Any kind of monster could be out there, and Cato’s undeniable courage could easily get the dog killed. Siris ran after him at his best pace through the mud, slipping and cursing the whole way.
Siris suddenly heard something over the raging storm and his barking friend… Screams.
He scrambled forward again only to slip and fall once more. Cursing, he pushed himself back up, but he felt a thick branch under his hand and he pulled it up from the mud. It was heavy and sturdy, about four feet long, and a far better weapon than the wrench.
Siris fought his way into the small clearing where the huddled children stood in a disorganized half circle, backs against the rocky face they’d just climbed down. Three giant dark gray lizards encircled the screaming children. The lizards reminded Siris of the Komodo Dragons of earth, but these seemed far more aggressive because humans did little to intimidate these creatures. As Siris watched, one darted forward and gripped a random child’s leg and pulled. Through the heavy rain, Siris couldn’t make out details, but he heard an anguished cry that tore at his heart.
Cato, up to this point, had been threatening the lizards from the far side, successfully dividing the creature’s attention between him and the few humans in the group with improvised weapons, but when the lizard began dragging the struggling child away, the dog jumped into motion.
The giant Cane Corso was dwarfed by the lizard, yet the fearless dog darted in and grabbed the long tail as it whipped from side to side. The lizard dropped the child and hissed, then turned and bit at Cato, but the dog dodged back out of the way just in time. Another child ran forward, screaming an angry war cry and gripped the fallen child by the arm, then tried to pull him to safety, but the lizard was not willing to give up its meal so easily and twisted its sinewy head back to the bloody leg.
Siris ran forward and smashed the thick branch across the top of the lizard’s head with all of his strength. The branch vibrated his hands painfully with the shock of the impact and the lizard sagged satisfactorily. Cato, encouraged by Siris’ success, ran forward again and ripped into the lizard’s neck. Rather than being knocked unconscious or killed outright by Siris’ blow, it must have just been stunned because when Cato gripped it in his powerful jaws, the lizard began twisting and ripping, trying to get free. Luckily, Cato’s grip was perfectly placed, and the lizard's own jaws couldn’t rotate enough to find purchase on the dog.
The lizard’s clawed feet dug at the ground and threw clods of mud in all directions. It was big enough to drag and even roll Cato under itself, but the dog was determined, and perhaps realized that if he released the creature now, it would be over for him. Siris struck at the lizard's twisting body as the two fought, but his blows did little to help his friend.
The lizard’s fight seemed to be ebbing slowly but in its death throws a hind leg reached Cato’s shoulder and raked it with razor sharp claws. The dog yelped and released the giant lizard in surprise and in that moment, Siris brought the branch down again onto the creature's head.
This time it slumped, motionless to the mud, but Siris hit it several more times to be sure. He looked up, searching for the other two lizards, but only caught a glimpse of their tails disappearing into the shadows in full retreat.
The boy. The child that the lizard had intended to eat was Peter. Iris held him in her lap. She was sobbing, but her tears were camouflaged by the downpour. Peter was unconscious…or dead. He was very pale, but when Siris knelt next to them, he could see the boy’s chest going up and down. He touched the boy’s neck, feeling for a pulse. It was slow. He didn’t know how many was good under the circumstances, but it seemed far slower than it should have been.
“We need to get him out of this rain.” Siris yelled to be heard over the storm. Iris took a few seconds to answer, stealing herself, but just nodded finally instead.
Cato came, limping, over. Blood ran down from his shoulder. If it was just him and Cato, Siris would have been tempted to bandage the dog then and there, but he had to get the rest of them to the alcove. He put his hands under Peter’s lifeless body and lifted.
Siris was exhausted, but so were the rest. He couldn’t expect any of the others to do any better, so he carried Peter to the alcove, losing both shoes as he went. The children, only slightly mollified by the disappearance of the other lizards, trailed in a trembling line of wide-eyed specters behind him. They searched either side of the column for any sign of danger as they walked, which was a good thing, Siris thought, but the looks on their faces placed them somewhere near hysteria on the scale of emotional wellness and he wondered how long before they broke and fled in all directions, screaming.
They finally made it to the alcove and Siris laid the boy next to the glow stick in the rear. The rest came in and slumped to the ground, utterly exhausted. Their bodies had done nothing for two-thousand years so the amount of effort they had put out in the last couple hours had been taxing in the extreme.
“Why is he asleep?” Iris asked. Siris could hear the intense exhaustion that she was suffering, slur her words.
“His body has been through a lot. Far more than it is used to, that is for sure. Maybe it just needs a rest.” Siris didn’t really believe his own words, but he didn’t dare voice his theory. Iris didn’t really believe them either. He could tell. But she grabbed a hold of them with all the hope in her and nodded vigorously.
“Yes. That is it. He must just be tired.” She said shakily.
Siris poured the contents of his backpack out onto the dusty floor and pulled out a few bundles of bandage, along with antibiotics.
“Those lizards looked like Komodo Dragons.” He said.
“I thought that too.” She agreed. Siris nodded.
“If they had some kind of bacteria that they gave him, like the dragons do on earth, then these should help with that.” He held up the concoction of antibiotic injections. She nodded enthusiastically again, pleased that something was being done for Peter. Every action they could take for him seemed to give her hope.
Cato sauntered over and laid down heavily beside him and began licking at his wound.
“Stop that, Cato. You’re not helping it by doing that.” She said, and came over to the dog. She scratched behind his ear. She started working on the dog’s wound, while Siris worked on Peter.
“These probably need stitches.” Iris said.
“Just bandage him up for now. I’ll count it as a win if he’ll let you do that. We can try and stitch him up later. On a good note, I don’t think Peter needs any. None of these look especially deep.” Siris bandaged up his leg as best as he knew how and tied it off. He put two fingers to the boy's neck to check his pulse again and was shocked at how hot he was to the touch.
“He’s burning up.” Siris mumbled. “Get his clothes off.” He stood and ran the few steps to where he’d seen the nest of branches and began pulling them out.
He piled the branches by Peter and formed what he believed would be an efficient fire though he had little practical experience with such things. He had started fires before, which was probably more experience than anyone here had, but he had done so with lighters. Now he was having to cobble something together from what he had, and time was his enemy.
His first thought was the flashlight. It had a hydrogen fuel cell. The hydrogen itself wouldn’t degrade, but the thing didn’t work, therefore the problem had to be in the connectivity of the wiring. Probably corroded. If he could get the hydrogen out in a steady stream, maybe he could use it to start a fire.
He looked at all of the different objects on the ground and then went to Iris’s backpack and upended it onto the ground as well.
She let out a knee-jerk “Hey!” but fell silent again, recognizing his need for something he wasn’t seeing. Something that could save her brother’s life.
A can, rusty and pocked lay on the ground. He picked it up and took his multitool to it. He had it open in a minute and dumped the contents on the ground. They wouldn’t be safe to eat now anyway. Using the hole-punch tool he stabbed six small holes in the bottom of the can and set it to the side.
He picked up the flashlight and pulled off the outer housing, then removed the wires. That done, he now held a basic fuel cell. He located the input valve where hydrogen could be pumped in, or let out. He didn’t have a connecting hose so he used the hole punch and pressed on the valve until a slow trickle of gas escaped. What he was doing was dangerous, there was no doubt. If he pressed too hard on the valve and allowed too much out he could blow himself up when giving it a spark, or he could accidentally light it now and that would be that.
He placed the small cell inside the can and then took his tool and the wrench he had used earlier and hit them together above the can. He hadn’t expected anything with the first strike, but the luck of the Gods was with him and a surprisingly steady jet of blue flame rose from all six of the holes he’d punched in the can’s bottom.
He smiled and slid the can under the pile of branches. The fire was burning bright and warm within minutes and the Samsara’s ghostly children drifted over like moths, searching for a piece of the warmth and comfort that it put out.