His voice, cracked and dry from extended periods of silence, creaked from his throat, “Hello?”
The noises in the deep verdant forest ceased abruptly. Fearful, he waited, listening for the sound of footsteps to come again. But there was no return of the sound, in fact, there was no sound at all, not even animals calling out to one another.
The grizzled man, still young looking after all his time in the wilderness, called once again, licking his lips, this time, to ease the words past, “Hello? Is there anyone there? Anyone?”
He lowered his tall, lean frame to the ground, squatting in the springy moss-like growth of the forest floor. He peered into the undergrowth, searching for any plausible explanation for the sound that couldn’t have been there.
As far as he knew, he was the only person left alive in the world. Oh, the first few years there had been more. Enough to almost make a new society work in the suddenly enlarged world. But slowly, over the last decade or so, all the survivors he knew about had disappeared. Some had died, and been buried or burned, but most had simply vanished between one day and the next. He’d been wandering, alone, for close to two years, he figured.
Nature had claimed most of what mankind had stolen, but every so often, he would find someplace where men had tried to hold onto that semblance of civilization. Even in those isolated areas, where buildings still stood and gardens still flourished, untended, he had encountered no other people.
So the heavy footfalls tracking him in the deep woods had startled him. Startled him enough, even, to forget his natural wariness. Like a fool, he’d called out, maybe in his loneliness, expecting another traveler, another true human craving contact.
But that wasn’t what he got. He got nothing, at all. Not a voiced reply, not more footsteps, not a friendly face peering through low-hanging branches. Instead, he got a wave of fear, washing over his ragged clothes and his rail-thin body, fear that whatever time he’d had left in the world was about to run out.
His heart raced, his pulse climbing rapidly up his body to roar in his head, screaming in voiceless fear. He kept his body low, his head swinging back and forth, searching for a way out, a way to safety.
Spying a narrow path through the thick vegetation, he scampered across the meager clearing, shouldering through the heavy branches of the evergreens, seeking safe passage. He stayed low, his legs and knees used to propelling his hunched body forward against the ravages of nature and beasts. His eyes scanned the forest floor continually, looking for deadfalls, animals, and other sources of danger.
He didn’t see the booted feet until the legs they were attached to halted his momentum. His long body fell backward. His large-pupiled eyes ran up the strange body in his way, from heavily booted feet to slender hips, then the small waist and tightly bound breasts, up to the heart-shaped face and the raven curls tumbling about delicately rounded ears.
“What do we have here?” The woman wondered aloud, perfect white teeth flashing in the darkness of the overgrown forest. “A survivor, yes?”
Her accent sounded off, wrong. Not the American accent he’d come to know from this part of the world. The words were English, but the lilt of her tongue was anything but. It wasn’t anything familiar to the grizzled man, who in the civilized world of long ago had been a student of languages.
He stared up at her, his body tensed for flight. But she just smiled at him, her eyes sparkling with some inner light. The longer he stared, the more her eyes sparked and swirled. He never saw the beasts circle them. He never heard her harsh, guttural command. He saw only the whirl and dance of galaxies in her eyes.