Lyza scampered along through the grass along the edge of the stream leading towards Hillman territory. If any of them were about, and they caught her here, she'd never see her tribe again. Still, she was pretty sure they'd be preoccupied at the moment with the giant metal bird that had flown overhead. After all, it had landed on the edge of their lands.
The going was tough here, but she knew from previous journeys downriver that the Rivertons would spot her easily if she attempted to approach. The only other means of travel was directly towards the sheer cliff wall, and climbing that was a fool's errand. She was planning to go around, scale a more gradual ridge that she knew, and then make her way straight towards the desert.
That was before she heard the sound. It was a thumping and swishing as if some incredibly huge creature was approaching from almost directly ahead. It sounded almost like one of the big lizards crunching through dry leaves, only about a hundred times louder. Accompanying it, also, was some kind of tinny sound that could have easily been mistaken for music. It was almost whistling, but no one could make such sounds carry so far and with such power.
She was standing amidst several clumps of weeds, including a lonely dandelion, with little or no cover available. There were rocks, but none large enough to hide herself. Though it seemed impossible to hope to defend herself against something as large as what must be approaching, she set her spear and waited, trying to swallow her fear.
Nothing, however, prepared Lyza for what came out of the bushes ahead. Accompanied by a loud thumping that almost shook the very ground itself, a massive pair of legs strode forward towards her. Though they were clad in white pants and tall, thick-soled boots, she somehow knew these were the legs of a man, someone so huge she couldn't see all of him. Somewhere up there, she thought as the gigantic feet crunched through the rocks just a few inches from her position, there had to be a torso and head attached to the rest of that body.
As the walking colossus strode past towards the stream, she turned to follow his passing, awestruck beyond words. She didn't feel fear any more. All she could think was how the ancient legends were true. There really were giants in the world! And here was one now as proof of that fact.
He stopped just a couple of yards away and dipped his hands down into the flowing water. From her position, Lyza could see all of his back and his black, closely cut hair. He was wearing some kind of white coveralls, which seemed foolish in this heat. She also realized he was whistling to himself, the source of the strange music she'd heard earlier.
She discovered, with some abruptness, that she was shaking all over. His presence was so surprising, so shocking, that it left her in a cold sweat. He was so huge! It was as if a mountain had come to life, taken the form of a man, and strod past her. She realized in a detached kind of way that he had narrowly missed crushing her underfoot as he walked past. He probably wouldn't even have noticed if he'd accidentally killed her. Would he even care? Was the life of someone so small compared to him even worth anything?
She was torn. She wanted to run straight up to this giant and ask him who he was, and why he'd returned. Yet another side of her warned that he could be dangerous. If he wanted to, he could probably decimate her entire village with but a thought. All the tribes combined together couldn't do more than annoy such a monstrosity!
In the end, she decided it would probably be best to head back to her people to warn them the giants had returned. Unfortunately, he was now blocking the way. If she tried to get past him and he spotted her, who knew what would happen?
Still, she figured she'd be better off finding better cover somewhere until he left. As long as the giant had his back turned, she could move safely, so she rushed across the field of rocks towards a slope where several larger boulders loomed. This would surely provide a hiding place, she thought. At least, hunkered up near the largest block of stone, she could be reasonably sure he wouldn't step on her if he started walking around.
She found a nice depression to hide in, up against the rock, and watched him through the grass. He seemed to be leaning back now, and he'd removed his boots in order to put his feet in the water. His whistling continued, and while she didn't recognize the tune, it was at least cheerful.
Then, almost directly behind her, something growled.
* * * * *
Jim wriggled his toes in the cool stream, letting the water play over them as he played with the stones that lined the bottom. It had been far too long since he'd enjoyed such a simple pleasure. None of the worlds in the Centauri system had boasted liquid surface water, so it had been more than twelve years since he'd been able to do anything like this. He almost wished the stream were larger, so he could jump in and take a dip under the hot sun.
He leaned back and whistled to himself. In the distance, he could hear birds singing in the trees, so he let his own sound die out. Bird calls, he thought. Well, that at least was evidence some life still survived on Earth, even if humans were gone.
He looked down into the crystal clear water, curious about the possibility of fish, and after a moment he spotted a few. They were just minnows, but that meant the stream probably wasn't contaminated, either. What could have possibly happened to kill off all the human beings on Earth? Or had this been some sort of mass alien abduction, or something even more crazy than that?
As he sat there, mulling over the possibilities, he suddenly realized he could hear something else. It was a growling sound, only very, very soft. It seemed to be coming from behind him. He turned, seeking the source of the noise, suddenly afraid that some sort of predator might be stalking him.
He needn't have worried, he saw immediately. The sound was coming from a little furry animal, about the size of a rat, but tailless. It was chasing something through the grass, something that looked strangely familiar. It was moving away from him and in a moment was lost in the undergrowth.
He was about to turn back to the water when something made him pause. The brown animal was not a rat, but what was it? He glimpsed it for a moment as it bounded through the green plants further downstream. It looked almost like a bear, Jim thought. But that was crazy. It was way too small for that!
Now curious, Jim stood up, shook the water off his feet, and followed along after the creature, looking down in the grass until he spotted it again. It seemed to have cornered its prey between two large rocks, and was rearing up to make the kill. It did, indeed, look an awful lot like a miniature bear, maybe three inches high or so.
With little effort he reached down and grasped the beast in his right hand. It roared and clawed at him, drawing a thin trickle of blood from his thumb. "Ow!" he exclaimed, keeping the animal in his grip despite its struggles. "Wow, you really are a bear, aren't you?" he asked it, keeping its claws away from him by holding it securely along its back. "How'd you get so small, I wonder? Were they doing some kind of genetic work on animals or something? A miniature circus, maybe?"
Finally the bear twisted in his grip and bit down on his finger. Annoyed, Jim tossed it away, into the stream, where it swam away in confusion. In a moment it had pulled itself up onto the far shore and scampered off.
"All right, now let's see what you caught down here," said Jim, looking down at the two rocks. When he saw the tiny woman cowering there, grimacing in pain from the claw marks on her shoulder, he almost fainted on the spot.
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