But suddenly, his vision flared red, and Ashley was gone from his arms. In confusion, he opened his mouth to protest this, but what he got was a pain in his head, and a blindingly bright view of trees high above him. He was waking up from a dream. He hadn't really been making out with Ashley in the dark safety of his cabin. In reality, he was lying on the cold earth, stretched out beside a dead campfire, with forest surrounding him on all sides. A sunbeam had shot down and struck him in the face to wake him. Now the question was, what the hell was he doing here?
Gingerly, cause he felt a little sick, he got to his elbows and looked around. Sure enough, woods, as far as the eye could see. But pain still lanced through his skull whenever he moved. That was more than a little concerning. Some unfamiliar pressure made him reach up to touch his forehead, and there he found a makeshift bandage. It was a bandana, rolled into a strip, and tied around his head with a wad of bloody kleenex beneath. He could feel the wound throbbing. He'd hit his head somehow, or maybe someone had attacked him. Whatever the case, here he was now, injured and alone in the wilderness. Then he looked down, and saw that maybe he was not alone...
"Ashley...?" he called out in a tentative voice. Her yellow fleece sweater was draped across his lap, and there were signs someone had been sleeping beside him. Barely a moment went by, then he heard a twig snap behind him in the distance. There was a muffled, "Coming!" and he twisted to see Ashley picking her way out of some berry cane.
She was dressed for the outdoors, in jeans, hiking boots and a t-shirt. Unlike Andros, she looked relatively unmarked.
"Hey," she greeted him brightly. "Welcome back to the world of the living. How do you feel?" She crouched beside him to check her bandage-work, dropping a lumpy plastic bag at their feet.
"Alive," he said in answer. "How should I feel?"
"Alive is a good place to start," she replied. "You remember what happened, don't you?"
He chewed his lip for a minute, and came up blank. "Refresh my memory."
Ashley frowned in concern, but began to recap their adventure. "We fell off an embankment while we were out for a walk. I hit dirt, but you busted your head off a tree stump. It was dark out; I almost couldn't tell if you were alive or not.."
The memory of that fear shone in her eyes. Andros searched his own mind for that moment, but all he came up with was a vague memory of falling--running out of ground and tumbling, terrified, into darkness. For some reason, he and Ashley had been outside walking at night.
"Where are we?" he wanted to know.
"On Earth, about fifty miles from Angel Grove. We're here to see my Grandma at her cabin."
Those words brought it all home. He and Ashley had taken a break to go see Grandma Hammond at her mountain cottage. The property was in an old redwood forest, and Andros recalled his amazement at the size of the trees. KO-35 had been terraformed only a hundred years before his birth. Nowhere on that world were there trees as magnificent as these.
He recalled the day before, setting out after supper for a walk in the forest. They had gone to the mountain pond where fat frogs bobbed in the water. Then they climbed to a scenic overlook so they could watch the sun set on the mountain. That was a scene Andros would never forget; Ashley bathed in such light that could turn her skin to gold. The smell of pine wafted everywhere, filling them with peace and tranquility as the sun winked out behind a faraway peak. Then they held each other till their rock turned cold and it was time to go back home.
But that proved to be a more complicated matter in the dark. Somehow they must have followed the wrong path, because Ashley became acutely aware that they had gone too far. When they tried to double back, they lost the trail completely, and began to face the possibility of spending the night out there. They nervously started looking for a sheltered spot to camp.
That's when they walked off the edge of a massive old stump that jutted out of the forest slope. They went tumbling into a pool of black shadow, and that's where Andros's memory ended.
With a sigh, he rubbed his eyes and nodded. "I remember now. What time is it?"
"About ten o'clock," said Ashley. "Someone should come looking for us soon.
"Is there anything to eat?"
"Yeah I found black caps over there." She looked around for that plastic bag, and offered its contents to Andros. He saw that her lips were stained with the same dark juice that was now getting all over his fingers.
The berries were more than edible, and he ate them all, knowing there were plenty more in the bushes nearby. They took the edge off his grinding hunger, but he couldn't help wishing for some of Grandma Hammond's sumptuous beef stew. Now he turned to watch Ashley as she settled down and began to poke the cold fire.
"What kind of predators live out here?" Andros asked. She gave him a look of disdain. "Did you have to bring that up? Probably lots. Rattlers and foxes and bears."
"And wolves too I bet," she said, taking a cautionary glance around them. She acted as if by mentioning these wild menaces, she might bring them down upon herself and Andros. Suddenly, as if on cue, a wolf cry drifted towards them on the breeze, striking cold terror into both of them.
Andros sat frozen. "Remind me why we didn't bring our communicators."
"We had to hide them. Grandma asked too many questions."
Ashley slowly got up and turned in a circle, scanning the trees for the source of that sound. "It really could be miles away," she reasoned. "Those howls can carry quite a distance..."
They both jumped when another howl came, this time very close indeed.
"I can't fight Ashley," Andros warned. "Not like this..."
"I know, I know..." She began frantically searching for a weapon-grade stick. Andros took up the fire-poker. Together they waited in terrified suspense, while the sound of breaking twigs reached their ears. This would be no predictable space monster; this was a living creature of the wild. This was a predator, and a natural born killer. This was...
A German Shepard...with a man holding the end of its leash.
"HALLO there!" hollered the man, when he spotted the two campers. Ashley waved, and Andros deflated with relief.
Their savior was a tall, cyllindrical sort of person, wearing a bright orange hunting vest and jeans that barely held on beneath his beer gut. When he got closer, Andros could read 'John Deere' written across his cap. The hyperactive dog bounced and jerked its leash, clearly ecstatic at its discovery.
"Kathy Hammond's got the whole town looking for you two," said the man. "Is everybody ok?" He eyed Andros's bandage while he tried to keep his dog from knocking the Red Ranger over.
"I'm okay.." Ashley said, then gestured to her companion. "He took a fall and hit his head. He stayed unconscious all night and most of the morning."
"Well, as long as you're both alive, we can get you to a hospital," said the mountain-man. He unclipped a radio from his straining belt and and turned away to report his success.
The Yellow Ranger crouched next to her companion again, sheilding him from the dog while they listened. Andros leaned over and whispered, "How long will they keep us at the hospital? I need a neural diagnostic back on the ship."
"I dunno," Ashley shrugged. "Lets hope you're well enough that they don't waste their time treating you. At least we can get something to eat while we're there." That was good enough for Andros.
The mountain man finished his radioing and turned to the youngsters again. "Well everyone's been notified you're safe, and your Grandma will be waiting at the hospital, young lady. Now we gotta get you both out of here. Can you walk, son?"
"I can try," replied Andros. With Ashley's help, and no thanks to the dog, he levered himself off the ground and got shakily to his feet. One arm firmly hugged Ashley's shoulders.
"That's the way," said the mountain man, pleased. "Now we gotta hustle and get to the road where the trucks are. Some of the men say they heard the wolf pack nearby."
This prompted both Rangers to freeze.
"Wolf pack?" echoed Ashley nervously.
"That's right, a couple of the men heard the leader howling just a minute ago. You must have heard it too."
"We thought it was your dog. Well, first we thought your dog was..." But the mountain-man interrupted them with a glance. "We're all gonna be dogfood if if we don't get ourselves back to civillization. Let's go!"
As quickly as possible, they started off the way the mountain man had come. No time was wasted on chit-chat now. Andros tried valiantly to keep pace, but his equillibrium was lost. He stumbled every twenty paces, and wasted precious time getting on his feet again.
"Would the wolves really attack us?" Ashley panted.
"Not if we keep outta their way. We're almost there."
Another fifty paces, and they could see the mountain road, a muddy brown line in the foliage ahead. They could also see the glint of car windows in the sun. The rescue party was waiting for them.
But suddenly, a low growl rumbled from the German Shepard's throat. This dog was no wolf, but his growl was enough to get anyone excited. "What's his problem?" Andros worried.
The mountain man ignored him. "What's up Jake, whaddaya smell?" Jake the dog continued to growl at the cars up ahead. The mountain man let himself be pulled forward, despite Andros and Ashley's incredulous stares.
Then a horrid smell struck them all simultaneously. It made Andros want to throw up. It was the putrid odor of blood and freshly gored intestines, and it was accompanied by the sound of ravenous eating.
Andros was dizzy with fear and nausea. He wanted to sink to the ground and hide, but Ashley's grip was like iron. She was tensed to run if anything should attack, and she was prepared to drag Andros right along with her.
The mountain man seemed frozen. While his dog fought the leash and snarled, his face became pale with panic. Andros looked from him, to the road, then back again, then to the road once more when he thought he saw movement...
Trotting this way and that around the rescue trucks, were dozens of blurry gray shadows. They moved like ghosts, darting about and stopping to feast at vague splatters of red in the road. The smell still assaulted Andros's senses. The dog kept fighting. The trees seemed horrified and everyone remained frozen in paralyzed fear.
Until the leash broke.
With a snap and a snarl, Jake's tether gave way and the dog became a tawny blur, racing in to break up the feast. Suddenly barking was everywhere as the grey blurs scattered. The mountain man yelled, "Jake! Dammit, come back here!"
But when he realized what he'd done, he turned and bolted. He had given them away to the wolves. Andros and Ashley watched him lumber away as fast as he could go, and then they watched a grey blur streaking through the green foliage behind him. Ashley opened her mouth to scream.
Then the mountain man's own scream echoed to the treetops instead.
Andros suddenly made a choking sound, bringing Ashley's attention back again. She heard it before she saw it; the biggest wolf of them all, stalking towards them. It was a fearsome monster, coarse grey hair rippling over corded muscle; all of it moving liquidly, guided by two penetrating amber eyes. Together, they moved away from it until they heard more movement behind. The wolves had surrounded them. There would be no escape for the outnumbered humans.
The idea of telling Grandma Hammond about the communicators suddenly didn't seem so bad.
Then the lead wolf lunged, a demon's snarl escaping its throat. Andros saw those eyes, and a flash of fang, and then something struck him and slammed him to the ground. Ashley was torn away. As he reeled from the blow, he heard her start to scream, and the bushes began to thrash closeby. He heard wolves snarling and flesh ripping, but could not force his body to get up and stop it. He was as sluggish as chilled blood, and could move no faster than the speed of it oozing from a wound.
Andros's eyes widened then, when he felt hungry teeth at his throat...
"Oh God Andros, I'm so sorry..!" said a voice closeby. He turned to see Ashley in bed with him, perched on one arm, looking down with concern. She held the blanket up with her free arm to cover her bare breasts.
All at once, Andros recognized her Grandmother's mountain cabin, and felt the warmth of the glowing fire. They were here on vacation, taking care of the place while Mrs. Hammond was visiting friends in San Francisco. Andros glanced down at the wolfskin rug, then felt the gentle bite marks on his throat.
"You tell me wolf stories all night long, then this is how you choose to wake me up in the morning?"
She looked tremendously ashamed. "I am soo sorry, I didn't mean to give you nightmares with those stupid old stories. There aren't even any wolves in this part of the country."
She caressed his chest and he began to feel better. Then he heard his stomach rumble loudly.
"Was that a hungry growl, or is there something else you're after?" she asked mischievously.
"Hungry, actually. It's gotta be almost breakfast time."
She shrugged. "We could get up now if you want. How about I teach you how to make pancakes?" As they climbed out of bed and found their hastily-discarded clothing, Andros shook his head.
"Is there such thing as wolf stew?"