From the Stars to the Stone

Summary: Stranded in remote Siberia, a Soviet cosmonaut faces a primitive hunter out for his blood.

Yuri Leonov felt the capsule jerk backwards as the descent began. This reentry felt worse than the prior time he'd done it, especially due to the absence of his old mentor, Aleksei. With only his training to fall back on, he ensured the angle of his approach was correct. As the Soyuz-T capsule returned to its mother planet, he felt the gravity and shock of deceleration press upon him like a ton of boulders upon his torso. Not only did he bear the physical burden of the gravity and deceleration, but he also bore witness to secret weapons tests in space. Pushing his recent memories to the back of his mind, he once more ran his calculations to ensure he'd descend safety. Beyond the sky, his fortune danced upon the whims of indifferent cosmic forces.

Unknown to the brown-haired, blue-eyed cosmonaut, a man a world away was dealing with those same forces in a different manner. He was a lean, bearded man with hair never cut by metal blades. His name, as his old tribe called him, was Khul. He wore leather and fur of beasts he'd slain on his own, using weapons he'd made himself. Like the fire-hardened bow and obsidian tipped spear, he was a relic out of time. His most lethal weapon beckoned him forward, towards the top of an incline. Redfang, a wolf he'd raised since he was a pup, howled at the white-hot star falling to Earth. Realizing it was slowing, he sensed something was amiss. With bow in hand, he set out to find where it fell. When stars fell, they bore rich treasure.

Unbeknownst to the nomad, the falling star was no meteor. Yuri came in hotter than he hoped, and he performed an emergency air-braking maneuver to avoid ending up as a stain on the distant mountains. With the stomach-churning nausea of a roller coaster ride, he stabilized the craft as it slowed to a survivable velocity for the parachutes. The heat-shield was no longer burning like a white-hot supernova, causing him to wipe the sweat from his brow. He loaded a flare cartridge into the TP-82, a space pistol given to cosmonauts. As mission control would not be able to retrieve him for at least a day, he'd give out a signal to anyone in the vicinity. He opened the door, and greeted the fresh air of the motherworld with a deep breath and pyrotechnic display.

Yuri saw he'd crashed into a sea of trees that grew as old as Slavic folklore and as tall as Moscow's apartment blocks. Light filtered through the opening in the canopy he'd created like the wound of a radiant sun-beast. Immediately, he recalled his lessons on wilderness survival. While the capsule would serve as a suitable shelter, he deemed it fitting to build a signal fire. Seeing the tree branches broken by the descent of his spacecraft, he saw the ample kindling his quick thinking indirectly provided.

Yuri retrieved the machete that doubled as the stock to his weapon. He gathered fallen branches in the gnarled, bulbous roots of a pine tree that resembled a giant fingerbone. He shuttled back and forth, noting the sun's descent from its midday apex. He heard the birdsong resume in the forest, as though he'd been an interloper in some strange natural symphony. While he spent little time in the woods, he smelt something shift over the wind. He heard something rustle in the underbrush, and he heard something growling.

Yuri loaded two shotgun shells and a rifle bullet into his TP-82, snapping the breech shut. He pivoted around as the bear stumbled into view, sprinting like something startled it. He saw a red gash on its hind leg as it ran, as though something more fearsome drew blood. Now in a panic, the scared creature saw him as an obstacle. As adrenaline raced through him, he knew it would only end one way. Stepping back into a shooting stance, he narrowly avoided a paw swipe that would have eviscerated him. He fired everything he had into the bear's head, and hoped for the best.

Yuri felt the recoil sent the weapon flying back, as though it was struck by an invisible hammer. The bear's head vanished in a mess of scattered carnage and matted fur. The report of the gun echoed through the trees for a few seconds longer, each repetition diminishing in amplitude like the discharge of distant artillery. He reloaded the weapon and examined the scar on the bear's backside. There was a straight, but superficial, cut across its hind leg as though from a clean blade. Hearing a wolf howl seemingly answer his gunshot, he wondered if he was not alone in the woods.

Khul beheld the metal craft that descended from the heavens, curious as to its functionality and purpose. What was enough to stir his anger was not the trespass of intruders on land only he dwelt on, but the symbols that adorned the hull. He saw the red star and hammer and sickle, the insignias that adorned the soldiers that forcibly removed his tribe from their native lands. He was forever separated from them after that day, retreating further into the wilderness to evade their grasp. They forgot about him, but such latent hatred never left him.

Thus, Khul tested the man that sprang from the strange machine. While he'd heard of machines that flew, he'd never seen ones like the capsule that flattened the trees with its landing. When its pilot emerged and busied himself with the mundane task of collecting firewood, he put the first plan of his attack into motion. With a quick show with his bow and Redfang's howling, he'd driven the typically skittish bear from its cave. While the intruder had a gun, he was nevertheless ignorant as to the terrain. Khul spent his life here, sleeping in its caves, beneath the boughs of titanic trees, and under the star-filled sky. He would not surrender it to the icons of his half-forgotten enemy.

Despite a few long minutes of adrenaline-fueled vigilance, Yuri lowed his guard after the bear attack. He'd tried to dress and skin the bear as best he could, and remove the remains from his landing site. The last thing he wanted were wolves coming to claim the meat. As he had sufficient rations to last a week, he moved the carcass several hundred meters to the south, as to keep the scavengers away from him. He'd kept the gun on hand, but removed the machete from the stock to start clearing brush. As dusk approached, he had yet to make his signal fire.

Yuri acclimated to the scents and sounds of the woods to some degree, but he could not help feeling he was being watched. There was the occasional rustle in the underbrush, the odd smells on the wind, and the occasional breaks in birdsong, as though someone else was moving throughout the valley. He'd heard of Siberian natives and nomad tribes before, but they'd likely have investigated by now. He wondered if he'd stumbled into some untouched forested valley, sheltered from the Great Patriotic War, the Cold War, and the Space Race. He wondered if it would be a preferable life to his own. Reflecting on the excitement only a rocket launch could bring, he made his decision.

Yuri took pauses during his labor to make quick walks around the perimeter with his gun in hand. If the intruder was hostile, they'd made no moves, but he was certain they were not friendly. He set dead, dry branches around the perimeter of his camp, as to alert him if any unwanted company arrived. Due to the precautions he took for the signal fire, he retrieved an item he'd hope to keep covert as a potential fire starter. Instead, he headed into the capsule for the night. He hurled the machete inside, and then he heard something skittering through the woods.

Yuri turned to see a lone wolf darting through the underbrush, its eyes reflecting like nocturnal pools. It walked towards the edge of his camp, but it did not cross the threshold of dried twigs. The animal took a step towards him, and then it lunged. He fired his gun, but the wolf did not stop. He hurled himself back into the Soyuz capsule, trying to draw the door closed on its face. Something impacted the door as he closed it, and he saw a flint-headed arrow rebound into the brush. The wolf, now with blood running down its slavering maul, leapt for his jugular. The wolf bit into his arm, causing him to curse out loud. He slammed the door in its face, and the wolf laid in a blooded mess outside the capsule. He heard it mewling for a bit, he heard someone step over the dried wood, and he heard a wet squelch silenced the wolf permanently. Then, he heard someone pounding against the door.

Outside, Khul was livid with rage. The intruder had mortally wounded Redfang, his companion of many seasons. His lupine companion cried like a wounded pup, calling out for the only family he ever knew. He blamed himself for the loss, as he could have ended the spaceman's life at any time. Instead, he'd decided to wait until he had a clean shot, or delay his attack until the spaceman was tired and vulnerable. His heart full of sadness and fury, he used his spear to end his best friend's suffering. It was the least he could do. While he did not know how the door mechanism worked, he knew the occupant had to emerge at some point, perhaps to deal with his wounds. In this battle of attrition, he finally had the upper hand. He would not let Redfang's sacrifice be in vain.

Yuri cursed himself as he realized the radio was malfunctioning. He knew they were taking their time rescuing him. With the savage outside the door, he knew it was a stalemate. He wondered if his rations would be sufficient to get him until they arrived. Even the first aid kit was depleted after he treated and bandaged the wolf bite in his forearm. Even though the spacecraft survived reentry, he wondered if a particularly clever caveman would be able to find some weakness in the hull. With ammunition for his TP-82 exhausted, he knew he had once chance to confront his foe. Why this man hated him so, he had no idea. As the wrapping outside the hull grew louder, he came up with a final gambit. Like his earlier landing, bold plans were in a cosmonaut's blood.

Yuri opened the door cautiously, as though another arrow would come in. He'd wrapped himself up in his spacesuit, the closest thing that he could use for armor. Another arrow came, but it ricocheted away. He assumed the savage was testing his resolve. He stuck his helmeted head outside, and he beheld his tormentor for the first time. He was a thin, wiry man, clad in furs like those of the Inuit and Siberian natives. He beckoned him over, readying his surprise.

Yuri drew his secondary sidearm as the savage nocked another arrow. He aimed at the hunter's eyes and fired. The tungsten flashbulb in the laser revolver ignited like a miniature sun, causing the hunter to avert his eyes. While intended to blind spacecraft and satellite sensors, it worked with cruel efficiency on human eyes. With a shrill ululation, the hunter dropped his bow and instead charged furiously with the spear. With a flailing thrust, he aimed at where he thought the spaceman was.

Yuri swung his machete, trapping the spearpoint against the capsule. He pulled the weapon closer, bringing the blinded man crashing forward on the ground. He threw his whole weight, and that of the suit, atop the prone caveman as he bound his hands in rope. Patting his prisoner down, he removed the stone dagger from the caveman's coat. With his prisoner secure, he set him down outside the capsule, and tried to communicate with him.

By the time the search parties found them, Yuri and Khul were sitting around a signal fire conversing in broken Russian. The cosmonaut had an inkling for the caveman's vendetta against him, and he'd given him some of his rations and treated his wounds as a peace offering. As they were shipped off for debriefing, Yuri insisted Khul be kept from the KGB or criminal sentencing, citing his knowledge of the local environment. In the years that followed, the two became the strangest of friends, kindred souls from the stars to the stone.