01. The Garacat
01. The Garacat
Light laid back in the thick, soft grass and gazed up at the sky. Propped up on his elbows, he wondered what it would be like out there. Probably the same as here. There was no reason for it not to be the same, other than a foolish boy’s imagination. He gazed at the oceans and land masses sprawled out overhead like a blanket. It was rare to see it all so clearly; both hemispheres had to have cloudless skies at the same time to see the Other Half. Tens of thousands of open miles stretched between Light’s home and the other side of the world but on days like this, it seemed so close.
The radio next to him crackled to life. “We’ve got a wall breach on the western side of the compound. Doesn’t look serious, but should be addressed. Wouldn’t want the local wildlife to find it.” Light closed his eyes and thought about staying in the warm afternoon sun for a nap. “And if anyone’s seen Light, we could use him over here.” Ugh. For a moment he debated not going. A cool breeze from the north swept down over the flat, grassy plain. With a sigh he sat up and stuffed the large black handheld radio into his knapsack. It’s fine, the clouds are coming in anyway. Off in the distance, dark clouds gathered rapidly. On the way back to the compound he glanced back at the sky above, hoping to see one last glimpse of the Other Half. The corners of his mouth turned down in a look of disappointment. Gone already.
It was a long walk from the power station to the compound. Why they were separate at all was a mystery to him, but if he had to guess, it might have something to do with the temperamental weather patterns. Lightning storms were dangerous, and common. Either way, it was not a fun trek to check the meters.
The area around the compound was dense jungle. There was a twenty foot buffer zone between the concrete and steel fence around the compound and the surrounding jungle, where all the trees had been cut and cleared. Lately, the local wildlife was more active, and thick brush now encroached upon the wall; it was far too dangerous to risk. Light checked his position by memory, and turned right. There was no road from the compound, so he grabbed a large stick and used it to push vegetation out of his way, both to make it easier to see where he was going and scare away any small creatures lurking about. He much preferred the open fields, where you could see something coming at you from far away, but there was also nowhere to hide. The cover of the jungle allowed them to stay hidden from unwanted company. There were other settlements, but there was no contact between theirs and the others; they were too far away for radio contact. For all he knew, they’d been overrun decades ago. Light tried not to think about that.
He found the wall. Six feet of cement poked out from the ground, many feet thick and almost as tall as he was. The base of the wall extended far underground, to keep out any burrowing creatures that might attempt to infiltrate the compound. Atop the base at twenty foot intervals were thick steel pillars, and between each of these, round horizontal bars with cables running through the center so that even if the bars failed, the steel cable would allow for more give and would not snap. He followed this, the buffer zone still holding well in some places, not so well in others.
It was easy to spot the breach. A massive kapok tree had fallen against the fence. From here, Light could hear the twang of the cables as they fought to support the weight. The topmost one was beginning to pull free from the concrete pillar. If it snapped, it could kill someone. Frayed threads of wiring poked out. Three members of the maintenance team worked frantically on the kapok with laser cutters, while a fourth in a big yellow mech loader moved the pieces.
“What happened?” Light asked, inspecting the tree. It was well over a hundred feet tall, and it had felled numerous smaller trees in the process.
“No idea,” one of the workers said, wiping sweat from her brow. “No one saw it happen. There was a deafening sound of wood splitting, and then the ground shook. Looked outside and here it was.” She went back to using the cutter to remove one of the limbs. This thing was too big to move all at once, too big for the one loader they had. The only way this was getting out of here was in pieces.
Above, the sky boomed with the first crack of thunder. We don’t have much time. It was best to avoid the fence during storms. But leaving the tree where it was...that was simply too dangerous. A breach in the wall spelled death for the compound’s inhabitants.
“Are you guys going to be okay finishing this? I’m going to have a look at the base.” The nearest worker gave him a thumbs up, and Light turned his back to them and pressed back into the jungle. The first droplets of rain hit the large, flat leaves around him. It was a comforting sound, but not now. There were certain creatures that only came out with the rain. I’d better make this quick. The path around the fallen tree was not nearly as easy to navigate as he’d hoped. If anything, it was worse. Cracked trees and squished bushes littered the ground around the kapok.
Finally, the base. At first glance it appeared as though the tree had just fallen over. Huge clumps of moist earth clung to the roots of the tree. The rain fell harder now, down through the canopy above. A drop hit him in the eye, and Light winced. He reached up to wipe off his face. Wait a second...
Deep gouges covered the bark around the base of the kapok tree. It looks like someone took a knife to it. Another rumble of thunder broke the otherwise silent forest. This time, the ear-splitting crack of lightning nearby followed it. Out of time. Between the growing darkness and the storm, it was getting hard to see. Light ran his fingers along one of the grooves in the kapok bark. Serrated? The sinking feeling in his stomach was further exasperated by the sound of unnatural rustling behind him. There was only one animal in this area with serrated tusks. And they do not play nice.
The garacat growled behind him. Light was frozen with fear, though his brain screamed at him to run. The compound was a hundred feet away. I’ll never make it that far. He frantically scanned the area, but the only thing he could see was the kapok tree. It was pouring down rain now. He could see the misty breath of the garacat swirling around him. He didn’t have to see it to know what it could do to him. If you were lucky enough to stumble on a smaller one, you’d still be looking at an ugly feline five feet from paw to shoulder, with foot-long tusks that looked like a kid’s drawing of a pine tree, tiered and flared out. And right now, it was breathing down his neck. Garacats didn’t have good eyesight in the sunlight, but it was dark now. This was their prime hunting time.
Light could almost feel the cat’s muscles coiling up, ready to pounce. The venom in their tusks smelled like ammonia. Before he could think about how stupid he was for being out here after dark, Light lunged forward...under the tree in the tiny space between it and the ground. The garacat sprang at him with a deep-throated growl, and narrowly missed him. Light scrambled to the other side of the gargantuan tree and grabbed onto its slick roots. Muddy water careened off them in little rivers, the moist dirt sliding from them like meat off a bone. That’s going to be you if you don’t move your ass. He managed to hoist himself up, frantically climbing the giant base. His only hope was that the garacat wouldn’t be able to climb up after him. Their tusks were deadly, but their claws weren’t meant for climbing trees.
He slipped, and almost fell. The garacat circled the tree and swiped at him. Idiot. You left your pack at the fence. The animal’s paw barely missed him as he swung his other leg up and out of reach. The bark was wet, but rough enough that he could still find handholds. Light almost laughed when he realized he was holding onto the tusk marks on the tree. Okay. Now what, genius? The garacat howled, and Light whipped his head around to look. He lost his balance completely, and fell back to the ground, flat on his back. The air was forced from his lungs, and he gasped. Around the end of the tree, the animal circled towards him, teeth bared.
Wet leaves clung to his shirt and arms, the rain coming down so hard in his eyes and mouth that Light could barely breathe. A peal of lightning illuminated the dark forest, striking something close enough that Light smelled the electricity and burnt timber. Dazed, he saw the giant cat with its striped grey fur bristling as it readied to pounce once more. I’m going to die. In the debris, Light’s hand brushed against a thick splinter from one of the fallen trees. He grabbed it eagerly, and held it in front of him, eyes closed.
A loud crack drowned out all the other sounds, but it wasn’t lightning.
“What the hell are you doing out here? Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
Light wiped the water from his face, pushing the sopping blonde hair out of his eyes. “Maya.” She shouldered her rifle and held out a hand to help him up. The garacat lay lifeless a few feet away, shot through the brain. “Remind me to never piss you off.”
She grinned. “Let’s get back before you do a repeat of your damsel in distress routine.”