The Last Herd
A cold wind swept across the dry grassland in the cool of late afternoon. The autumn season was ending, and soon the deathly cold of winter would set in. But the creatures of these frigid steppes were adapted to survive the long cold, but not all could make it through the winters.
Of the creatures on these windswept plains, one of the greatest were the saiga. Though small in stature, the antelopes were forces against the cold of winter, refusing to let bitterness of wind or deepness of snow stand in their way. With their trunk-like noses to warm their breath, and their thick woolly coats, the saiga herds braved the winter in an endless cycle every year to reach their breeding ground, where a new generation would be born, to continue the saiga’s part in the great circle of life.
The saiga, once, long ago, were a spectacular sight in the vast migratory herds. But then a terrible enemy arose, more deadly than any wolf or lynx. The Enemy had strange, deadly weapons that shot sharp black pellets, which poisoned a saiga’s blood and soon killed it. The saiga had no way of knowing when the Enemy would attack, and soon small herds were being killed. The Enemy didn’t even eat the meat, only took the pelts and horns. Why? the saiga questioned. Why would they kill, and not make it just by eating the meat? Why do they take more than they need? But the saiga would never get their answer.
It soon became clear that hunters weren’t the only threats brought on by the Enemy; herds of saiga returned from the migrations to find their former grazing lands overrun with strange, unfamiliar creatures, brought there by the Enemy, who had built strange structures and planted strange, tall grasses in rows. The saiga herds were willing to share their land with the strange creatures, but they spoke an alien language, and harshly drove the saiga away when they attempted to make peace with the newcomers.
The saiga assumed that in time, life would return to normal; that the newcomers would stay on their lands, and the saiga would still be free to continue their way of life. And thus the herds ignored the Enemy’s devices, and kept to themselves and their herds, the way they had always done.
But the saiga had been wrong. Life did not return to normal, and it began to become worse; outriders began reporting entire herds being attacked and slaughtered, all for the horns and fur and nothing else. And the alien creatures began to encroach, taking over the saiga grazing and breeding fields and claiming it as their own. The saiga could do nothing to assert themselves, as these creatures were all stronger and heavier than them, and did not follow the ritualistic rutting style of the antelopes, in which each stag only sought to make his rival submit, not truly harm him.
These deadly encroachments, coupled with a deadly plague and a series of several particularly harsh winters and dry summers from which there was nowhere to turn, began taking the saiga. Whole large herds began dying off, and not enough young were being born to help the numbers. Deep down the saiga knew that the Enemy was on the warpath once more, almost determined to kill their herds off until none remained. The saiga began to lose hope; they could not fight back, and thus their future as a species seemed bleak.
Now, in the year 2035, there is only one reported herd of saiga antelope left in the wild.
Russian steppe ~ 2035, late autumn
A bitter breeze blew gently over the grassy ground, small banks of thin snow already permeated the grassy steppe. The grass itself was mostly brown and dry, dried from the coldening temperatures. Still, life persisted.
Feeding on what they could chew of the tough grass, the herd of saiga were building up the rest of their fat reserves for the icy winter ahead. Already their fur coats had thickened and turned from chestnut to white, and around their necks thick wooly manes had begun to appear. There were 10 adult females in the herd, and only nine adolescent calves; the rest had all died earlier in the year.
Once, a herd like this would have been much greater, with enough calves to ensure the next generation’s survival. But disease, overpredation, and the cruel doings of the Enemy had forced them to move northward, toward colder climates. Over time they adapted, but not by much.
At the head of the herd, the alpha stag grazed on the tasteless brush. His trunk was thick, and his horns curved long and smoothly from his skull. For years he had kept his herd alive, and his name was Calf. Marking his right ear was a shiny clip of some kind, which the stag couldn’t remember how he got. Calf had fought for the right of his harem, and he’d won it year after year. But the Enemy had taken scores of them, until only this many remained.
But(and thank the steppes), Calf was not the only stag left; in his herd, flanking the sides and taking up the rear, where four more stags. Their names were Hoof, Rut, Sheep, and Grass. Calf had allowed them to join his herd as outriders, as they pleaded they had no herds and would’ve died, and they obeyed Calf’s order that they not attempt to mate with his females.
Grass was oldest of the stags, an elder by saiga standards. He was the one Calf trusted most, and walked by his stag’s side when the herd moved. Hoof was the youngest, and had strong legs and was swift of foot. He could outmaneuver even the most tenacious of lynxes. Rut was an aggressive stag; he hated the Enemy with a burning passion, and saw them in every rival, making him fearsome and violent in battle. Sheep was only a little older than Calf, and had renamed himself some time ago, when he fought a defeated an aggressive sheep stag that threatened his herd. The sheep stag died from exhaustion, and Sheep took the name in a show of pride and honor. The four stags would die to defend the calves and females, and would follow Calf to the edge of the steppes.
As the wind picked up, Calf grunted for the herd to move on, and so they did. Their hooves clacking on the cold ground, the last herd of saiga once more began their long journey toward their wintering lands. They could not afford to go too far south, however, as that was where the Enemy lurked.
As they went onward for the next few days, Calf continually let out long, moaning calls that echoed over the surrounding steppeland. Sheep and Grass would often join in with the chorus, calling out for any of their kind, in hopes that they’d be answered. But there were no answers; no saiga came in sight over the next hill, and the only moans the herd received were their own echoes.
After several days of traveling, Calf called for the herd to stop and rest. The females laid down on grassy patches with their calves, while the five stags stood guard in a circle. Sheep bounded to the crown of a large boulder dotting the steppe, giving him a better vantage point. Grass hunkered down among the females to rest his old bones, while Calf stood in front, beside his favorite female, Breath, who was one week pregnant with his calves. He was especially protective of her at the moment.
While Calf was occupied with watching the landscape, Hoof was shirking his watch. He eyed one of the younger females, who had birthed her first calf the spring before. It had only been one, a foal, who was now more or less independent. Both Calf and Sheep were distracted, and Rut was grazing.
Hoof made his way into the resting herd. Most of the females and calves were grazing or grooming themselves, and didn’t take notice. When Hoof came up to the resting female, she looked at him, but otherwise paid no heed.
Hoof began snuffling the ground around the female, casually getting closer to her. He could smell that she was in estrous, not surprising since the breeding season had started shortly ago. The female turned her head when Hoof began snuffling up to her hindquarters, delicately touching the tip of his trunk to her hip region. The female grunted, enjoying the attention. Hoof spread his forelegs and carefully began to position himself over the female, when a harsh honk and the clatter of four charging hooves interrupted them.
Hoof looked up to see Rut trotting toward him, his head lowered in a threatening posture. The young female wisely got to her feet and fled, but Hoof snorted and pawed the ground, challenging Rut back. The two stags then charged, ramming into each other and locking horns, pushing and shoving with all the force of their being. Hoof and Rut were entrapped by the drive to mate, and were set on fighting over the very right.
Suddenly, the rutting match was broken up when both stags were knocked on their sides, scrambling back to their feet. Hoof and Rut looked up to see Calf aggressively standing over them, his head lowered and his horns bared. He needed to enforce his dominance on any who stepped out of line, and the two young stags had just done so by targeting one of his harem.
Calf snorted and stamped the ground, raising his head regally. Rut and Hoof stood up slowly and grunted softly before trotting back to the edges of the herd. Instinctual urges often got in the way of one’s rational thinking, but Calf would have none of it. Not in the mood for any more disturbances, Calf ordered the herd on their feet, and led them away south, making sure the other stags stayed on the flanks.
Many days passed, and the herd still moved onward. Calf constantly called out, hoping to hear the response of another herd in the distance. But alas, his efforts were all in vain. Long ago, the saiga herds would congregate into one of the most spectacular migrations ever seen on the planet earth. But Calf’s herd saw none of their kind as they went; they should’ve been joined by several herds now. Calf’s explanation was that the migration patterns had been disrupted by the Enemy’s efforts, but that the herds would soon join at the breeding ground down south. The other stags, especially Grass, advocated his thoughts, and the females and calves were just as convinced.
But deep down, Calf and the others were all uneasy. Instinctively, saiga expected to be nestled in a huge crowd by this time, relatively safe from any attack by predators. But Calf’s herd was completely exposed and sparsely defended, vulnerable to an attack. Another danger would soon come upon the herd: winter. Much further north than their ancestral rage, the cold came earlier, and the saiga were soon plagued by bitterly cold strong winds, and icy rain that soon became whipping flurries of stinging snow. Still, Calf pushed the herd on, desperate to keep them all alive. He would not give up.
The herd stood in a tightly-packed circle in a snow-laden field, a stinging wind whipping their fur. It was too cold to keep moving, so the herd had to hunker down and wait out the cold snap, relying on their thick coats and air-heating noses to make it through.
The calves and pregnant females stood in the center, as they were the most important to the herd’s future. Calf had forced Breath into the very center to keep her safe, while he, Sheep, Rut, and Hoof stood on the outside, taking the brunt of the icy gusts. Grass was beside Breath; he was too old to fight the cold as much as the others, but he could still do something to help; Grass showed the females how to dig down into the snow to help shelter themselves from the wind, and soon a shallow pit had been dug all the way to the dead grass beneath the snow. It wasn’t much, but it helped.
The saiga stayed huddled together, silent against the cold, their long, hot breaths being the only sign of life from their bodies.
By morning, the wind had stopped, and the air was still. Calf blinked in the bright morning light, shaking off the dusty coating of snow that covered his pelt. He honked to awaken the herd, who grunted and snorted tiredly, and shook the snow off their backs. As the tight circle dispersed, it was noticed that one female did not stand up. She was still on the ground, ice crystals covering her fur, and no breath came from her. The female had frozen to death in the night.
Rut and Hoof looked down on the body forlornly; it was the young female they had ended up fighting over, days ago. The female’s adolescent calf approached the body, and began stroking her face with his trunk, as if trying to awaken his mother. When she did not respond, the calf hung his head.
Calf grunted for the herd to keep moving, and they quickly got in step, trudging after him through the deeper snow and leaving the dead one behind. They could not afford to stop. Hoof, at the rear of the herd, stopped for a moment to gaze back at the still body as a light snow began to fall.
The herd hadn’t gone far, when the wind shifted, carrying a whole slew of scents to Calf’s nose. Among other things, he smelled wolves.
Calf honked in distress, alerting the herd just as the carnivores came sprinting over the ridge. The females cried out in terror and broke into a run. Calf grunted to the other stags, who hurriedly herded the frantic calves and females back to the herd and tore off over the snow-covered ground, the wolves right on their heels.
The wolves growled and barked, baring their monstrous teeth as they flanked the herd on one side. Rut grunted and shouldered the females hard, turning them in the other direction to get away. The saiga were fast, but the wolves’ aim was to run them to exhaustion.
Suddenly, Grass stumbled and fell moaning into the ground, throwing up a flurry of snow. Calf stopped in his tracks and charged back, leaving the herd running frantically. The wolves were on the old stag in moments; Grass tried to get up, but his leg had been badly bruised in the fall and he could not run.
A wolf pounced and pinned the old saiga down, and Grass honked in terror as he felt the canine’s claws dig into his flesh. The wolf growled and prepared to deliver the killing bite to Grass’ throat, when a growling snort erupted from the furious Calf in a headlong charge, crashing into the wolf and knocking it into the snow. Calf grunted and snorted aggressively, pounding his hooves and lowering his head in a show of his horns. Grass struggled to his feet behind Calf, moaning in fear at the wolves surrounding them and closing in.
The snarling wolves slunk closer and closer, and there was no escape for the two saiga. The alpha wolf howled and pounced at Calf, jaws open wide, when out of nowhere, a white blur burst through the circle of wolves and rammed into the leader in midair, sending them both to the ground in a honking and barking tumble. The saiga honked and bucked the wolf in the skull. It was Hoof! Another wolf pounced, but was rammed over by Calf. The wolves pounced, but the three saiga fought bravely, lashing out with their sharp hooves and ramming wolves in the ribs, but they were still far outnumbered. Suddenly, a thundering of hooves rose over the noise, and a chorus of furious honks distracted the wolves. Calf and grass looked out to see the entire herd charging toward the wolves, Sheep and Rut galloping ahead, leading the cavalry!
The wolves had no time to react before the herd trampled into them, butting and kicking in a mass, reuniting with Hoof, Grass and Calf before the stags led them in a retreat toward the nearby hills. They had the strength together to fight off the wolves, but could not muster the courage for long enough.
Fortunately for the herd, the wolves had given up and went trotting back over the ridge. They knew better than to risk injury by going after prey that would fight back.
Many weeks passed as the herd moved on through the deep snow. During their migration, predators had inevitably taken a toll. They got lucky with that one encounter with wolves; so far two females and three calves had been taken by lynxes and wolves, but thankfully the Enemy had never reared its ugly face. Calf trotted steadily at the herd’s head, leading them onward. Hoof, Rut, and Sheep flanking the sides of the herd. Grass, however, was beginning to lag behind. Calf constantly had to honk for him to keep up, but the old saiga’s age was catching up with him, and the claw wound he’d sustained from the wolves did not help. The seasoned stag had begun to develop a limp, and couldn’t keep pace with the others like he used to. But he knew the fate that befell stragglers, and pushed himself to keep moving.
The journey was long and exhausting, especially for the old ones and any females currently pregnant. Try as he might, Calf simply could not keep the other stags' mating drive at bay, and Hoof and Rut had managed to sneak it with at least a few females when the herd rested. Calf didn’t know it, but this was good; most of the younger females in the herd were his own daughters, and he couldn’t mate with them, of course. Different fathers allowed some diversity, and for the most part inbreeding would be avoided in the future.
That is, if there was going to be a future.
Again and again as they traveled, the stags called out echoing moans that drifted through the sky, calling out to any herds lost in migration. But none answered. Calf was sure that they would find more saiga once they reached the wintering ground, and the herd would disband, the stags rutting over the rights to their own harems, and Calf claiming more for his herd as some left and others stayed. He was determined to keep Breath by his side, however, no matter what. He had been a part of the rut for years, what reason did he have to think the other herds wouldn’t be there?
The winter dragged on. The herd was able to find enough food by digging into the snow for dead grass and chewing on any dry brush the found. They began stopping only when the wind was too strong or cold for them to power through, and started moving slower in a tightly-knit group, trying to conserve and share heat when on the move. The herd continued heading south, even though the looming threat of the Enemy rose with every kilometer traveled. Some days, Calf could even smell the sick, poisonous residue of the Enemy’s demonic metal behemoths in the wind, said to tear open the earth itself and devour rocks and soil.
Still southbound the herd traveled, and as they went food and water started becoming more abundant, and the cold lessened just slightly. The instinct to rut was rising in the stags and their noses were beginning to swell, with the exception of Grass, who was much too old by now. The stags now focused on building up their strength rather than stealthily courting females, as they would get them anyway after eventually winning a rut. Everyone knew Calf would succeed his challengers this season, but that wouldn’t stop Rut from trying.
Sheep was looking ahead to becoming stag of his own herd like he once was, fighting for their rights once again, as he did before which earned him his name. Hoof, as the youngest mature stag, was optimistic about claiming his own harem of females for the first year. Grass, however, was merely looking forward to retiring at a ripe old age. He intended to stay beside Calf to help keep order in seasons to come.
One day, after many long, cold weeks of travel, Calf caught a familiar scent in the breeze. He stopped and inhaled deeply to be sure, and the herd mimicked him. Except for the youngest, all the saiga recognized that smell: it was the scent of their ancestral breeding ground.
Elated, Calf bellowed a long, honking moan and hastily trotted up the ridge, the herd right behind him. Finally, after many long months of traveling through the barren landscape and the frigid cold, all while dealing with fearsome predators and a treacherous climate, they’d at last reached the very place where the first herds had rutted, and gave rise to the next generation. Finally they’d made it home.
When the herd reached the crown of the ridge, the saiga looked out over the beautiful, windswept steppe...only to see a vast, empty valley, devoid of any life save the dry grass and scrub.
This made no sense; the herds were all supposed to be gathered here, but there were no other saiga in sight. The herd filed down the ridge and everyone looked about, seeing no other saiga for miles. There were not even any hoofprints in the thin snow blanket. No scent lingered, only those brought by the wind.
Calf anxiously called out, Sheep and Grass quickly joining him. The stags’ moans echoed across the steppe, and slowly faded with no response from any direction. Calf called out again and again, this time the entire herd joining in, grunting and moaning together in one sad, lonely cry for others of their kind.
Still, no answer. Slowly, gradually, the cold, crushing truth began to unfold in the deep of every saiga’s mind:
They were all that was left.
They were the last, the last herd of saiga, the only remnant of their kind in all the steppes. A long, cruel period of silence followed, more painful than even the slash of a lynx’s claws, and stung more than even the sharpest of blizzards they’d endured on the steppes. The saiga could not explain this crushing pain, but they all felt it; they were the last saiga, the last of a once proud species.
And they were all alone.
Calf heard a snorting growl from behind him, and turned to see Rut, his head lowered and his hooves pawing the ground.
It was a challenge. Rut was driven instinctively to fight, but no other dominant males remained. He blamed the Enemy for all of this, and his burning hatred was becoming entwined with his aggressive instinct. Rut honked threateningly, and Calf was forced to accept the challenge.
Grass, Sheep and Hoof herded the females and calves back as Calf stood sturdy and stalwart adjacent Rut. He lowered his head. Rut snorted and swung his head back and forth, before charging, his horns sharp and long. Calf breathed out as he heard Breath honk in fear, and reared up and burst into a charge, his hooves pounding wildly on the snow. The herd watched in stunned silence as time seemed to slow down.
With a clatter of horns and hooves that broke the air of the steppe, the two stags clashed.
Calf felt the jolt of his physical equal in Rut slam into him, the force momentarily pushing them both back. Calf forced his feet into the ground and pushed against his opponent, who pushed back with all his might, and the strain on both was insurmountable. Calf broke the horn-lock momentarily and reared up, bringing his head down on the enemy stag’s. His opponent nearly lost footing, but quickly regained it and pushed once more, but Calf pushed back first, forcing his rival back several steps. The saiga stags battled furiously, one forcing the other back only to be outmaneuvered and forced to the other side by the other. Calf fought with calm and focus, and sought to bring no harm to his rival, but Rut was different: he saw the Enemy in each rival he faced, and his hate empowered him. Calf was his opponent. Calf was the Enemy.
Calf grunted harshly as Rut brought them both to their knees, facing the ground. Their horns were locked together, so whichever way one turned, the opponent was pulled the in other. Rut snorted and reared back onto his hooves, kicking up a cloud of snow and dust that blinded Calf. Calf broke the lock and shook his head, only to feel Rut slam into his head head again, nearly pushing him off his hooves. Again Calf retaliated, both stags snorting out hot, angered breaths as they pushed and shoved and scraped the dirt.
The herd watched in torn silence, as the fight raged on for hours. They didn’t know what to do; they knew Calf was the leader they needed, one who looked out for all of them and put the herd before himself, as they had seen Calf do so many times. But if Rut arose victorious, the herd would be his, forced to be by the ways of the saiga. But if they followed Rut, Grass knew, he would become abusive and commanding, and the herd would never prosper, dooming the saiga species. But what other choice did they have?
Calf snorted. He was losing his strength, but he kept on holding his ground. Rut was a younger stag, and was outlasting Calf in battle. But Calf would never give up. This was his herd.
Calf snorted and clenched his teeth, drawing in hot breaths rapidly. He then reared up and roared, and came crashing down on Rut, the blow even chipping off the tip of the latter’s horn.
Rut fell to the ground, and Calf barely regained his balance. The seasoned stag snorted deep breaths, coming down from the rutting high. Calf straightened his legs and raised his head, and turned back to his herd, shifting his focus from Rut.
Calf was ready to return as stag of the herd, when again he was rammed hard in the shoulder and knocked off balance. Rut growled and snorted in anger. He was beyond reasoning now. The younger stag charged again, trampling Calf over as he tried to stand. Calf moaned, exhausted, but Rut was consumed by his rage and butted the older stag over and over again. Calf tried to push back, but he was already badly bruised, and another solid blow from Rut’s head was enough to send him reeling, colliding with the snowy ground.
The herd was all in shock. Calf had been defeated in the rut.
Rut held his head high and grunted, looking down on his former stag as he struggled to his feet. Calf, his head hung low, moaned softly and accepted his loss. The herd swiveled focus from the beaten Calf to Rut, who stood triumphantly as the herd’s knew stag.
Suddenly, a call was heard over the heavy silence. The call of a saiga. The whole herd turned to a hill at the end of the valley, to see another animals their same size climb to the top and look in their direction. The saiga call came again.
The herd called out joyously, calling to the newcomer. Rut joined, asserting his authority. But Calf and Grass felt that something was wrong, very wrong.
More figures arrived on the hilltop, but instead of a saiga’s moan, they let out rapid harsh bays, seemed to directed at the herd. Calf drew in a sharp breath and his eyes widened. They were not saiga.
Suddenly, a piercing shot shattered the air, and Rut had no time to even honk in agony as something small and hard buried itself in his shoulder in a burst of red blood, and the stag collapsed.
The herd froze as Rut screamed and writhed in pain on the ground. Hoof grunted in alert as the figures on the hill came sprinting down after the saiga, followed by a pack of roaring beasts on circular legs. The herd grunted and flailed about in horror.
It was the Enemy. The Enemy had found them.
A roar went up among the frantic saiga, calling to them all. It was Calf. Calf ordered the herd to make a run for it, before helping Rut off the ground. He would never leave the other stag to the Enemy, no matter what.
The saiga tore off in a frantic group, the savage barking of the dogs terrifying them even further. Calf hurriedly pushed Rut forward, but the wounded stag could hardly move without grunting in pain. Rut tried not to run on his wounded leg, but his mind was somewhere else. Why, in all the steppes, would Calf save him? After he defied Calf’s command, and finally fought him in blind anger, the stag still found him worth saving?
Another shot fired. Rut honked in terror and sped up, Calf keeping pace behind him. They were just keeping ahead of the monstrous dogs, the smell of Rut’s blood driving the carnivores wild. Calf kept pushing Rut ahead after him, determined to save them both. Rut and Calf were soon able to catch up with the herd, the other stags flanking the back and urging the others to keep moving.
The saiga managed to outrace the Enemy, and Hoof was galloping ahead, leading them toward a river where they could swim across to escape. The Enemy fired their dreaded boomsticks, just missing the herd as the stags herded them out of range. The saiga’s superior speed kept them well ahead of the Enemy, but the dogs were another story. Almost as fast as wolves, they quickly caught up with herd, snapping at the saiga’s heels and panicking them even further.
Breath was desperately keeping up with the others, the weight of her calves slowing her down. Calf was trying to get to her, when suddenly Breath let out a scream of pain, reaching Calf’s ears over the herd and the Enemy, and she lost her footing and fell over.
The herd left her behind, all except Calf. The stag reeled and rapidly turned back, galloping back through the herd. Breath honked in distress as the dogs came back for her, and to make matters worse her stomach ached and she felt a wetness on her hind legs. The shock and stress of the situation had triggered the birth of her calves.
Breath called out for Calf in horror, and her stag grunted back as he charged past the dogs. Calf reached her just in time as a dog pounced, only to be run down by a furious thick-nosed antelope. Calf stood over Breath and savagely roared at the dogs as they surrounded the two saiga, drool slathering their ravenous jaws as they snarled in anticipation.
Calf honked and kicked out at one dog with his hind legs when it made a bite for Breath, only to stomp at another when it attacked from the other side. Calf grunted threateningly and thrust his horns left and right, but the dogs lashed out relentlessly, and Calf was quickly tiring.
Hoof heard Calf’s cry of distress, and the young stag knew he had to help. He grunted to Sheep, telling him to lead the herd to safety, before galloping ahead and looping back, charging straight toward the circle of dogs. Sheep grunted for the herd to keep moving.
Calf dodged a dog’s bite to his leg and grunted loudly, betraying his exhaustion. He was almost close to collapsing, when a charging dog was hit with a flying kick by all four hooves and was sent reeling. Hoof honked and retreated from the circle of dogs, who turned their attention to him as he charged in again, ramming a dog much larger than he on its back. Hoof ran circles around the dogs, dispatching several before they could attack, drawing them away from Calf and Breath.
Then another shot fired from a boomstick, and Hoof felt a stinging pain sear his left ear as he tumbled over. He had been unrealistically lucky the pellet hadn’t hit his skull, going straight through his ear, but immediately the dogs were upon him. Calf honked in horror, when a grayish-white blur rocketing in out of nowhere sent the biggest dog headlong to the hard ground.
Grass roared as he furiously rammed and kicked every dog around Hoof into submission. The old stag still had some fight in him. After getting to his feet, Hoof and Grass ran to the aid of Calf and Breath. Breath certainly could not give birth here, and she forced herself to stand up despite the increasing pains of labor. Calf stood against her for support, and the four saiga hurriedly ran after the herd just as the four Enemy zoomed after them on their metal beasts.
The saiga were faster, but Breath slowed down every few moments from advancing contractions. The Enemy were gaining on them, firing their boomsticks at the fleeing saiga, and their dogs were not far behind.
Led by Sheep, the herd was quickly coming up on the river. The only one to look back was Rut. He saw Calf, Breath, Hoof, and Grass soon to meet their end at the hands of the Enemy, and a single thought ran through his head:
This is their fault. The wrongs must be righted. One must be sacrificed, for the good of the all…
Rut let out a mighty roar and turned, his hooves skidding on the ground, and he galloped back faster than any saiga before. Ignoring his shattered shoulder blade and the many bone fragments piercing muscle, Rut pounded his hooves rapidly over the steppe.
Calf looked out as a furious cry echoed through the air. He spotted Rut charging toward them, his head lowered and his horns pointed straight and deadly. The four saiga ducked their heads as Rut bounded clear over them, honking for them to run as he thundered head on toward the Enemy, running down a baying dog like it was a blade of grass and making a beeline for the Enemy in the lead.
The Enemy’s narrow, slanted eyes widened at the sight of the furious antelope galloping at him like a wild bull. Rut leaped into the air, crashing into the Enemy and throwing it off the metal beast. Rut thrashed and kicked wildly, beating the Enemy with his hooves in a show of raw, brutal rage. One of the dogs clamped its jaws onto Rut’s flank, but the stag kicked the hound square in the jaw, breaking it. Rut heard the cries of the Enemy and the click of a boomstick behind him, and before the deadly shot fired he shut his tearing eyes tight and roared out into the sky, telling Calf that he was sorry, and to take care of the herd.
Calf moaned in pain as he and the others finally caught up with the herd and followed them into the river, quickly swimming across. His pain was for Rut, who let them save themselves by sacrificing himself. He had given them time, and he had given his life.
On the other side of the river, Calf, Breath, hoof and Grass reunited with the herd. They were safe now, and lucky to escape with all their lives. The Enemy stopped their pursuit at the riverbank, unable to cross. They stood, cursing at the saiga in some alien speak. Anger flowing through him, Calf stomped his hoof and roared back at them, cursing them as well for everything they’d done to the saiga, invading their home, killing for no just cause, driving them to the very edge of extinction, and now the murder of Rut, whom he and Grass had perhaps been wrong about. Suddenly, one of the Enemy shouted in anger and fired the boomstick, aiming straight at Calf.
In seconds, Grass bolted and rammed Calf away just in time, the pellet embedding itself deep into the elder’s chest.
Every saiga screamed as Grass collapsed to the ground, a thick stream of blood pouring from the fatal wound. Calf looked down into his old friend’s eyes, silent in horror. Grass looked into Calf’s eyes, and uttered a slow, deep moan on his dying breath.
“Take...care….of them...Calf. Save...save us all...” And then, the elder Grass died.
Calf nuzzled the dead face of Grass, moaning in sorrow as the clip on his ear inexplicably began to emit a high-pitched beep.
Suddenly, the wind picked up, and a very loud whirring noise alerted the herd. Calf turned to the edge of the hill to see what the noise was, when a huge, screaming metal beast rose over the hill, hovering in the air. At the sight of the flying monster the herd went wild with fear, and the Enemy and their dogs fled. Even they were afraid.
But Calf honked defiantly at the flying beast. The Enemy were inside of it, he knew, and by the steppes themselves he would not leave the body of Grass to be defiled by them. Unwilling to abandon their leader, the herd stayed with him as Calf stood his ground in a show of courage never before seen in a saiga. An Enemy inside the beast aimed a boomstick at Calf, and suddenly Calf felt a small sting on his flank, which soon faded as his body began to relax and his mind cloud up.
Calf wobbled on his legs, and let out one more defiant cry, before collapsing on his side to the herd’s horror. The last thing he heard before slipping into unconsciousness was an Enemy’s voice as the monster touched down.
“Call the General! We got ’em!”
Calf awoke groggily with a mumbling groan. He lazily peeled open his eye to see that he was in an alien place, strapped to a cold surface and unable to move. A bright light shined overhead, and he could vaguely hear the voices of other creatures around him.
Calf lifted his head tiredly, seeing several strange, upright creatures moving about a spacious chamber he did not recognize. He didn’t recognize the upright creatures either; with the heroic exception of Rut, no saiga had ever gotten close enough to the Enemy to see them clearly.
Calf looked around groggily. Surrounding him were more tables, each one holding a saiga. His herd. He anxiously raised his head to see that Hoof, Sheep, and Breath were all alright, just asleep. Breath was resting on a special table, and several of the strange creatures surrounded her. Calf grunted to her, unwittingly alerting the strange creatures of his awakening. They spoke amongst each other briefly, and one approached him, holding a small, pointed object in his hands.
Calf, too tired and confused to struggle, merely watched as the creature carefully plunged the sharp end into his flank.
“Easy, fella. Easy.” She said, gently rubbing Calf’s neck. Calf felt another blanket of serenity cover him, before slipping into blackness once again.
Calf awoke to the sound of bird calls in early morning. He had no idea how long he’d been out, but he assumed it was a long time. He stood to his feet as soon as he felt enough strength in his legs, and the first thing he saw was his herd lain upon the grassy ground around him.
They seemed fine, and were slowly waking as well. As they groggily got to their feet, Calf observed that all of them had had their furry coats cut short to spring length, and two very small calves were struggling to stand up beside Breath.
Calf hurriedly trotted over to his female, and she moaned in relief upon seeing him. She then felt two little snouts prodding her belly, and looked down at the pair of newborn saiga calves who honked hungrily to their mother. Responding instinctively, Breath turned to let them nurse, and they latched onto her teats immediately.
The rest of the herd had all shaken themselves awake and surrounded Calf and Breath. Sheep and Hoof came up beside Calf, grunting in confusion. Calf and the herd then looked around. None of the saiga knew where they were, but it resembled the steppe in early springtime. There was green grass underfoot, bird songs in the air, and the air was warm and fresh.
The saiga then heard a grunting call, and turned to see another saiga, a stag, standing before them, but something was off. Apart from its chestnut spring and summer coat, the stag looked almost exactly like Calf.
The stranger saiga bowed his head in greeting, and acknowledged Calf as stag of the herd. Calf then asked where they were, and the lookalike answered that they were in Home, and went on to explain that Home was a gift, from beings known as the Kind Ones. The Kind Ones defied the Enemy, the strange saiga detailed, and let saiga live in Home freely. Calf’s herd all blinked; did this stranger lookalike say that there were more saiga?
Just then, the pounding of hooves was heard, and the herd looked out to see another herd, not much bigger than theirs, frolicking over the grassland in the distance. The Calf-doppelganger turned, and beckoned the others to follow to the other herd. The saiga were hesitant, but then Calf spoke to them.
Calf said that they had come through so much together, and that they should embrace this chance at a new start. The Enemy would haunt their nightmares no longer, and hope for the saiga had finally returned to them. Calf then took the first step into the future, and Hoof, Sheep, Breath, and her new son and daughter immediately joined his side.
The herd followed them into the light; they would honor the deaths of Rut and Grass by continuing onward, never relenting, and embracing the future that awaited them.
They would be OK. All of them would be.