- Aurora -
“We should go back. It's getting dark.”
Caroline tries to keep her voice down, which is probably a good idea. Sounds don't travel far in this jurassic jungle, but our voices are as alien here as this planet is to us. In the dense undergrowth, there could be a predator lurking just three feet away, itching for its first taste of stranded Earthling linguistics students.
“Just this last try,” I counter, trying to sound more confident than I really am. “Sunset is a good time for this. They usually come at night.”
Caroline looks around with nervous jerks of her head. “Let's just not stay out here until it gets dark for real, okay?”
I just nod and keep climbing the hill.
The animals we call not-sheep are a good source of both meat and furs, and I've kind of promised Sophia a nice pelt for her to wrap the baby in after she gives birth. I'm hoping to bag a real nice one today.
The not-sheep are exactly that: not sheep. They don't have any wool, but they kind of look like sheep and they're one of the few species here that have thick fur and aren't too insanely dangerous to encounter, so I've specialized in hunting them with my bow and arrow. They're usually easy to spot, too, because their fur is a yellowish white.
From this hill, I have a good view of a clearing where I've spotted one or two of them on previous occasions. It's a little further from the cave than I'm comfortable going, but having Caroline with me is making me braver than I usually am on my own.
Or stupider, most likely. It's not that she's an expert hunter or anything – it's just that now that I have an audience, I want to seem cool. Hey, I'm only human, and on this weird dinosaur planet we were dumped on after we were abducted by aliens I feel more human than ever before. In a very vulnerable kind of way.
We reach the top of the hill.
“Let's keep our heads down,” I suggest. “We're pretty visible against the sky right now.”
Caroline immediately squats down and shields her eyes with one hand. “Okay.”
In her coarse dinosaur skin dress she looks just like a stone age woman. Which is pretty much what we all are right now, I guess. We haven't seen shampoo for about nine months by now, not to mention decent shoes or jeans or a phone or foundation or bras that will actually do anything other than chafe and annoy.
I know I look just like that, too. The girls say I remind them of Xena, Warrior Princess, with my short dress and dinosaur skin bracelets and long, dark hair. I can't see it myself. Xena didn't have a bow and arrow like I do. She had something else, like hollow frisbees or something, that she would throw. And she was a little bit more competent than me. But I guess she's a good choice as a role model, and I sometimes notice that I try to behave a little more like her. As in, what would Xena do?
The clearing is empty, but I'm not giving up hope. Many of the creatures that are not dinosaurs like to come out at twilight. I suppose the dinosaurs are less active during that time, so the risk of being eaten by a not-velociraptor or not-pterodactyl is a tiny bit smaller than in broad daylight.
But Caroline is right – we really want to get home before it gets dark. Being outside our cave in the dark is plain suicidal.
I may not be as tough as Xena. But being stuck on this planet for three-quarters of a year has made me tougher. Right now, I genuinely want to shoot a not-sheep. Even if it means killing what is essentially an innocent animal, skinning it and gutting it and then carrying it home. Back on Earth I would agonize over swatting mosquitoes. But I promised Sophia a really good fur, and I want to keep that promise before she gives birth. Which could happen at any time.
“Nothing yet,” I whisper. “We'll just wait.”
On one hand it's kind of cool that I've hardened so much. On the other hand, I really wish I wouldn't have had to become this hardened. If ever we get back to Earth, I will never again take the produce aisle for granted. Or paved roads or cars or indoor plumbing.
I squint towards the horizon and the alien sun, trying to guess how long we have until we really have to make our way back to the relative safety of the cave.
Okay, very relative. Nowhere is safe on a planet where dinosaurs roam around like they own the place.
I take an arrow out of my quiver, notch it on the bow and glance over at Caroline. She's hardened too, but in a different way. In the beginning there would be some sore sobs coming from her sleeping enclosure at night. But now she's accepted that we're here, if not forever, then certainly for the long haul. She's up at dawn every day to cook breakfast for us, and she's the one who keeps the cave nice and tidy. And she does a lot to keep the mood light in our little tribe, easily defusing little fights and making us laugh. She always had a mild manner, but now there's more confidence behind it. Or so it seems to me.
Whatever. I'm just glad I'm not here alone.
In the twilight the sun makes her blonde hair shine. Wasn't Xena's sidekick blonde, too? What was her name? Gabrielle? Something like that. It's been a few years since-
“Something's moving!” Caroline hisses and points.
My head snaps around and I squint, reflexively tensing and drawing the arrow back, getting ready to fire.
For a little while I can't see anything. The low sun has made my vision blurry and there are little spots dancing in front of my eyes. Then there's movement among the dense trees. Something lighter than the surrounding jungle. In the orange twilight it's hard to tell. It could be a not-sheep.
The familiar rush fills me, and I get tunnel vision as everything but the prey disappears from my mind. At these moments, I almost understand why some people on Earth hunt for fun. It really isn't like anything else.
That creature down there is standing still. That's a good thing. Not-sheep will stand still for long periods of time, just listening for predators. That makes them easier to shoot. I'm not that good with the bow, and shooting at a moving target is not really my thing. As in, I couldn't hit the side of a barn moving at one mile per hour. Except not-dactyls, I suppose. I can hit those flying horrors fine when they're attacking my friends. Anger makes me more accurate, for some reason.
The prey down there is mostly hidden behind a bush, but my arrow will fly through the foliage like it's not even there, and the iron tip will do the rest if I hit the not-sheep in the main mass of its body. It seems their entire bodies are weak spots and they'll just keel over when as much as grazed.
Okay. That's definitely a whitish creature down there. Not moving much. I know of nothing else on this planet that will fit that description.
I slowly stand up and pull the arrow all the way back, breathing in deeply and holding my breath. I aim for what I think is the middle of the prey, about two feet above it to compensate for gravity.
“No, don't!” Caroline suddenly exclaims, but it's too late. I let the arrow go in the same moment.
There's a hard thud and a full two seconds of silence.
The jungle is filled with an angry roar of pain. It sure doesn't sound like any not-sheep I've ever heard.
An icy coldness spreads down my back and into my stomach.
Caroline bounces to her feet and puts a hand on my arm. “That's not a sheep!”
I lower the bow, feeling a sudden urge to just get the hell out of there, while at the same time being so mortified I freeze up. “Fuck!”
Caroline turns and runs, dragging me with her. “That's a caveman!”
For a little while the world is all rocks and leaves and whipping branches and panting and whimpering as we run down the hill as fast as we can, crashing through the jungle, racing away from whatever it was I shot. Or whomever.
We stop briefly and listen, but all I can hear is the loud thuds of my own heartbeat. I want to cry. I might have shot a man.
No. I definitely shot a man. That roar was human. Bassy and outraged. Surprised and hurt.
And right before he cried out, I did get a glimpse of his face. Or rather, his eyes. A radiant blue among all the green, like two shining sapphires.
“Fuck,” I repeat with a growing lump in my throat. “I think I shot a guy.”
Caroline looks at me with disbelief. “Didn't you see that it wasn't a sheep?”
“The sun was in my eyes. I was blinded. He was ... the leaves ... fuck!” That last word comes out like a sob. What if I killed him? What if I've straight-up murdered an innocent caveman? I'm sure Xena never did that.
I'm shaking all over, and tears are burning in my eyes. “Should we go back and check if he's okay?”
“No! If that guy isn't alone, his friends will kill us. We have to get home. Now!” Caroline grabs my wrist and drags me through the jungle again.
She has a point. Cavemen rarely go out into the jungle alone. And some of them are just bands of raiders. Being plain killed is actually not the worst-case scenario here.
We run as far as we can, and when we finally have to slow down I'm breathing hard and my panic has changed to a terrible mix of fear and regret. I want to throw up.
“Shit. What if I killed him?”
Caroline takes her sweet time replying as we walk as fast as we can, panting hard.
“Then we might. Have a problem,” she finally says, still out of breath. “His tribe will. Come looking. And we've left. A pretty obvious. Trail for them. To follow. Let's just get home.”
I shut up and quietly curse my stupid bow. And my stupidity in shooting before I could see the target clearly. And my great aim. Shit, why have I practiced so much with the bow? What did I think that would accomplish? Shooting not-sheep is the easiest thing in the world, it doesn't require any training!
The rest of the walk back home is probably the worst time I've had since the first day on this damn planet.
The sun has set when we get close to our cave, and I'm pretty much just a wreck.
Before we leave the woods and go inside, we both stop and check out the clearing. Some of the girls are now bringing fucking dactyls home to what was supposed to be our safe cave. Huge flying monsters that we fear more than anything else, even if the one that Heidi and her husband Dar'ax keep riding is supposedly tame and nice.
It's nowhere in sight, and we can see the other girls sitting outside the cave, eating dinner.
Caroline walks towards them, and I slink after her. We have to tell them what's happened and that we can expect uninvited guests at any time. They will not be happy.
And it's all my fault.
I've never felt less like Xena.