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Life Thief

By MishticalOne All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Scifi

Chapter 1

I hate the way they smell.

From their movements they look quick, almost graceful. Capable. They come in a feathered profusion of colors. Beautiful. But the smell gives them away—the hot, fetid stench of rotting meat.

“Don’t worry about it, Lyric.” Quincy fixed me with a crooked grin. “These things will be our ticket to freedom.” He put a calloused hand—boldly—on the bars of the cage. One of the animals whipped its head around, bird-like, its calculating gaze fixed on him. I looked at it out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t see the other animals… just that one, standing too close, balancing on muscled legs and a long stiff tail like it was about to pounce. Oh, and the smell.

I shuddered. “I don’t like them,” I whispered.

Quincy dropped his hand from the cage bars and turned towards the far wall. “I know you don’t. But, kiddo, they’re what we’ve got to work with.” Kicking aside a frayed rag of carpet, he bent down to retrieve a pair of thick, elbow length leather gloves, sewn with metal plates and scraps of chainmail.

The animal behind the cage bars lowered its head, its dark yellow eyes narrowing. I sat still, tense, perched on the stool half hidden behind the straw bales. “Quincy…”

“Shh,” Quincy crooned, pulling on the gloves. “Don’t worry.” He took a step towards the cage, reaching for the latch, which had a heavy lock and weight on it. Rusty metal clanged as he started to lift it.

A terrifying howl ripped through the air, as two more of the stiff-tailed animals flung themselves from the recesses of the cage, crashing bodily into the barred gate. I screamed. “QUINCY!”

But he hadn’t moved. One of the animals gripped the bars in rows of sharp teeth, a mouth full of them in a pointed snout. It snarled, foamy slather dripping over Quincy’s armored hand, still gripping the latch.

They can’t get out, I told myself, putting a gloved hand over my rapidly pounding heart. They can’t get out…

“It’s okay,” Quincy said. His drawling sing-song made me feel a little better, but it seemed not to make a dent in the cold hatred of the creatures in the cage. They didn’t struggle, or rage, or throw themselves uselessly at him. They just stared. Waiting.

Tears sprung to my eyes, blurring my vision. Hastily I fumbled my protective goggles up onto my head. “Quincy… they’re not…”

“I said it’s okay, kiddo.”

“No, it’s not.” I struggled to keep my voice from rising. “They’re monsters… those things CAME from the Revonet… it made them. To kill us. You can’t…”

Quincy was unfazed, keeping eye contact with the animals. “The Revonet is long gone, honey. It’s not controlling them. They’re living animals, that’s all.” He smiled, and continued on in the same friendly, soothing voice. “This kind is Vitaeraptor pinnategens. Very smart. Complex social communication and bonding. Large enough to ride, small and agile enough to climb the bulwarks and stay hidden.”

I shook my head. “They’re killers. I’ve seen what they can do.” I really had. There wasn’t a person of any age in any of the three cities that had not been exposed in some way to the horror of dinosaur attacks. There were worse animals out there than these raptors, though. Bigger. Meaner. Some were huge, with long necks, like serpents on trees. They existed only to feed on humans. I had never been near the bigger ones. I hoped I never would be.

“Yes, they’re killers. That’s why we need them. Look, Lyric.” Quincy dropped his hand from the latch and pointed to one of the animals. At his motion, all three sets of reptilian eyes flicked to his hand, soft snarls bubbling in their throats.

I looked. Three animals. Though they stood deadly still now, I knew they could move so fast that I would hardly be able to see them. They were feathered, like birds, with long crests on their heads, arms, and tails. I looked more closely at the raptor that Quincy was pointing to. Then I saw. A system of what looked like leather straps bound its head, neck, and torso, with hooks and buckles like climbing gear. “What is that you’ve got on it?” I asked.

“Kind of like a bridle or a harness. It allows me to handle the animal safely,” he said. He put his gloved hand on the latch of the cage again. All three of the dinosaurs leaned almost imperceptibly forward, the feathered crests on their heads lifting slightly. The nauseating stench of rotten meat hit me again.

“Don’t!” I cried.

Quincy unlatched the gate. With a clang and rusty creak, it swung open.

~*~*~

The climate was different now, than it had been, a hundred years ago. Some said it was because of the massive release of chromium and mercury from the toxic sludge left behind when the last of the Revonet was destroyed. Hundreds had died, and the survivors had pushed out of valleys and into mountains, away from ground water, away from the ocean. Jathan always thought it would have been colder outside, but it never was.

On the edge of what had been Montana, Idaho, Jathan examined the large, healthy leaves of what ought not to have been a heliconia plant. He didn’t often come out in the exposed surface. Working in the tunnels with the steam drills, he was used to things being dark, wet, and hot from the fires. Climbing out among the fresh air and sunshine after a long night’s work lit by buzzing electrical lamps, Jathan wanted to feel air that was dry, cold, and invigorating. Increasingly, though, he thought that it felt just as muggy outside, though it was not as warm.

I wonder, if I climbed higher, he thought. Straightening, he adjusted his work harness, checking not his tools but the flare gun and stun stick he always carried with him on the surface. Of course, the perimeter was routinely watched by brave souls, and he only went out when the coast had been clear for a few hours. But you never knew what could happen.

Jathan leaped up on a craggy rock above the steel gates, his deep-treaded work boots easily catching him many footholds. There weren’t many trees here, for visibility reasons as well as resource ones, and higher up, the breeze blew more vigorously against his skin. It felt good. Farther down the mountain, terraces had been cut, and were better guarded and fortified than the highways up here. People did come up here, but as most of the mining was done inside the mountain, there was no consistent need for excursions to the higher elevations.

He paused on the slope, turning back to look over the sweeping expanse of rock and encroaching rainforest. Far across the landscape, even to the horizon, you hardly would be able to tell that fifteen years ago a sweeping city had covered almost everything. Grid lines, neatly arranged city blocks and compounds, the census squares where the network of Revonet modules had housed themselves, all of it had been… overgrown.

Jathan shook his head. A mixture of relief and regret swam together in his mind. So much had changed. So many had died. And yet now they were building something better, something more real, more human. It was still terrifying, but it was a different kind of terror. It was a terror you could do something about. It was the difference between the terror of being caught in a trap that you couldn’t escape, and the terror you had a chance of running from. A terror that—

A low call sounded below him on the mountainside. Jathan’s hand went to his stun stick, but he waited, peering down into the foliage. If it was a Kentrosaurus he would have seen it—they were pretty big, and there weren’t a lot of trees here. He tried to place the sound, without success.

The call sounded again, then turned into an agitated cry. Two answering screeches split the thin, steamy air. Jathan felt his stomach heave. He knew what creature the answering challenge was from. Re-strapping the stun stick to his belt, Jathan began to scramble down the mountainside back towards the gates, as quietly as he could, heart pounding. He cursed under his breath as his foot hit a rock, sending it crashing into the bushes below.

He vaulted over a small precipice, and then suddenly stopped. Between him and the road to the gates was a slice of thick rainforest, and something about it froze his innards. His feet refused to move him any farther. Despite the cool breeze, he felt beads of sweat break out across his forehead. What was wrong? He couldn’t see anything, hear anything… except for the omnipresent chitter of insects, everything was as silent as the tunnels were in the early morning before the diggers woke up.

Jathan lifted a foot to try and step forward. The wind shifted, and a sour, rotten smell wafted up towards him from the direction of the gates. Not that way, his mind screamed. It was a foreboding he could not ignore. He stepped backward instead. There was another road, not often used, that wound around the mountain. There were buildings up there, on the surface, and they might be somewhat fortified. He’d never paid a lot of attention—he came to the surface to get away from construction, and from people. Carefully, Jathan crouched down and slid backwards, feet first, over the shallow precipice. He could take the small winding valley to the road. He could do it as quietly as possible, and maybe—

A dark silhouette suddenly appeared above him at the edge of the precipice. Taller than a man, scaled and feathered with a long stiff tail, the thing looked right at him, and snarled. Jathan turned and ran.

His boots pounded heavily on the stony floor of the gully, his terrified breathing coming in deep gasps. He heard it behind him. Heard them behind him. Jathan half stumbled as he frantically tried to dislodge his flare gun from his tool belt. Then he had it free, realizing in the same moment that the chances of anyone seeing it and being able to help him before he was in the jaws of those animals was, at best, miniscule. Pivoting, he turned and fired the flare gun down the gully behind him. The relative darkness of the craggy valley was suddenly lit with a blinding yellow flash, and he saw how close the animals were—three feet, at most, already taut to spring—they shrieked as the flare hit their eyes. Jathan didn’t pause to look any further. He kept running.

He threw himself around a sharp corner, and found himself on the road that wound up into a small compound of buildings. They were thick-walled and sturdy. One of them had a tower—and Jathan saw that a thick concrete door stood open in the front of it. He did not stop to question his luck, but tore up the road and flung himself through the door, turning and slamming it shut. It had a metal bar. He barred it. And just in time, too—he heard the animals’ angry scream outside, a heavy body flinging itself against the door. The door held easily.

Jathan gasped. He was still alive. They hadn’t gotten him. His legs turned to jelly underneath him, and he stumbled down onto the floor. His hands shook and his stomach churned. Don’t throw up, he pleaded to himself, don’t—but his nerves were too shot and he vomited the contents of his lunch across the wooden planks of the floor in front of him.

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