Life Thief

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Chapter 18

Every Vitaeraptor looked the same to Fr. Antonie. Equally ferocious, equally ugly. Their unmatched speed and agility left him cold, rather than impressing him. Even their fans of colorful feathers did not move him, as he saw in them only the parading of every worldly vanity that had ruled the computer mind that designed them.

So he did not know that this was the wrong raptor by looking at it. He knew by the look on Quincy’s face. It was the singular look of shock and betrayal, shadowed by the acute realization that he was about to lose his life.

“Shoot it!” Quincy shouted. “This isn’t my animal—it’s going to kill me!”

But no one shot it. Clifton and Jathan were on their feet, shouting, but two guards restrained them, and no one heard what they said over the shouts and exclamations of the crowd, many of whom had climbed onto the benches in the confusion, to see better.

Fr. Antonie felt pinched by helplessness as he rose to his feet, Lyric hanging onto his arm. He felt the terror in her tight grip on his sleeve. The simple black cassock he wore was woefully inadequate preparation for anything he might otherwise do to help Quincy—and so he did the only other thing he could, with his free hand gripping the crucifix that he wore on his scapular. “Ecce Crucem Domini…”

A healthy animal in the wild, Fr. Antonie knew, would have already leapt and disemboweled its defenseless prey in one kick. This one was wary—eyeing the noisy crowd behind the gate—getting its bearings in a strange environment as the etorphine wore off. But its murderous eyes were a moment later fixed on Quincy, who was in its reach, and it snarled as it quick-stepped closer. A couple of precious seconds, that was all, and it would—

Quincy, balancing on his good leg, lifted his shaking hands to his mouth and cupped them. He let out a chirping hoot, a call vaguely similar to one that Fr. Antonie had heard raptors make. The raptor paused, just for a moment.

Quincy tried to take a step back, but his injured knee betrayed him and he tumbled to the ground as it gave out. The raptor shrieked, and charged him.

“No!” Lyric screamed, and letting go of Fr. Antonie, she plunged blindly through the crowd towards the fence. He rushed after her, and a pair of guards with guns crossed his vision. He could grab one of the guns, kill the animal—

Another shriek suddenly echoed across the farm fields, scattering through the air almost like it came from every direction.

The raptor stopped mid-charge, its attention diverted by this new threat, and it appeared torn for a moment. Snatch its prey and slink away? But to where? Its yellow eyes scanned the fields, and then it straightened up suddenly, hooting and screaming excitedly.

Then Fr. Antonie saw it. On the nearby struts of the huge metal fence, another raptor sat, perching like a bird, ignoring the clusters of deadly-looking barbed wire that wound all around the topmost metal rungs. Its crest and wings, indeed all its feathers, were flared out aggressively, and it snarled and shrieked. With a leaping bound, it cleared the fence, catching its fall from the considerable distance with outstretched arms and tail. Landing in a low crouch, it tucked its feathered arms close to its sides and shot at top speed towards the other raptor.

The other raptor got the message, and it turned and fled, leaping over Quincy to escape into the farm fields. Quincy didn’t move—he was curled into a tight ball, his arms over his head, his knees up to his chin. The charging raptor paused as it reached him, still screaming challenges after the departing animal, which hooted back in reply.

“It’s Sparky!” Lyric shouted. “Sparky!”

Fr. Antonie did not recognize the animal, but then he saw, as it bent down to nudge at Quincy harmlessly, that it was wearing a harness. “Fugite partes adversae,” he gasped.

Lyric grabbed the bolts of the gate, struggling to open them.

“Lyric, no!” Fr. Antonie reached out to stop her, but a guard beat him to it, wrenching her away from the gate without any facade of gentleness. She cried out, fighting to get free. The guard wrapped her in his arms, pinning her struggles, and pulled her away.

“Quiet!” Glenn was shouting. “Order! Everyone, sit down!”

But no one would. The whole crowd was glued to the dramatic scene out in the fields. “It was going to kill him!” “That other animal chased it away!” “What’s it wearing? Is that a bridle?” “Amazing!”

Quincy slowly unwrapped one arm from his head, and shakily crept a hand up to the raptor’s face. He gripped the harness that strapped its head. “You damn fine beast,” he whispered. “You know they’re going to kill you now, don’t you?”

Glenn stood up on a bench in the confusion and signaled for attention. No one paid attention to him but the guards, and as he caught their gaze, he pointed first at Quincy, then at the harnessed raptor that bent over him. Then he drew a finger across his throat. The guards hesitated, looking at each other, but as Glenn repeated the gesture, they turned and walked to the gate, sliding the barrels of their guns through the bars. Sparky noticed this immediately and snarled.

“What are you doing?” someone cried out. It was Ernestine.

“We’ve seen the demonstration,” Glenn called. “We are putting the animal down now.”

But Fr. Antonie had seen who Glenn had pointed to. He heard Lyric crying behind him somewhere. Still at the gate, he turned to the nearest guard and lashed out with one foot, catching the guard in the midsection with a heavy combat boot as he grabbed his gun in the same motion. He had just swung the butt of the weapon up and cracked the man’s armored jaw with it when the other guards abandoned their shoot-to-kill order to rush him. Of course there were too many. He had known that. Black and red flashed across his vision with a resounding crack as they slammed their own weapons into his head, grabbing his arms. He heard the crack of a gunshot, and then he felt a new pain—like a white-hot spear deep inside his gut, flaring out with unimaginable pain.

The crowd started screaming, and the guards clamored for order. Glenn leapt down from the bench where he had stood, and stalked over to Fr. Antonie. “I’ve just about had enough of you, de Vries,” he growled. Fury dripped from his usually calm voice. “You aren’t really a priest, are you? You’re really a usurper—you want to tear down the Authority, don’t you?”

Fr. Antonie smiled. His mouth was full of blood, and the pain that screamed in his insides was making it hard to stay standing, despite the grip of the guards on him. A usurper? Certainly not. But it didn’t matter now. They had already killed him. “Vicit leo de tribu Juda, radix David,” he whispered. “Ora pro me, Sancta Dei Genitrix.”

Out of the corner of his red-hazed vision, he saw the raptor moving behind the fence, dragging Quincy who clung to its harness. It was a strange dance that almost looked as they had performed it before; the raptor crouched low and Quincy pulled himself up against it. Its large size came in handy as it stood; Quincy’s feet—bare, as the Authority had kept him in prison—left the ground. The moment they did, the raptor flitted out of sight with its passenger.

Fr. Antonie closed his eyes. Glenn was shouting something at him again, but it sounded very far away, and soon the painful red haze of his fading senses gave way, not to darkness, but to a strange light that filled him with peace.

~*~*~

“Quiet!” Glenn shouted. “Order! Order!” But there was no order. People were shouting, crying.

Jathan felt something strange fluttering in his chest. It took him a minute to realize that it must be his heart. It just felt so different.

“What have they done?” Clifton was murmuring. “What have they done…”

“He was a revolutionary,” Glenn was shouting. “He was a usurper. He was dangerous! You know how he lived aboveground away from our infrastructure…”

But no one was listening. The gaunt corpse of the priest, carried by the guards that were trying to push through the crowd to get it back to the city as quickly as they could, couldn’t be hidden from the crowd that pushed around, ignoring the threats and the guns, to get a look. The black cassock hid the stains of blood that had wetted it around the midsection. One of the thin hands still held the crucifix on his scapular, and an unearthly calm suffused his bloodied features.

“They shot a priest!” someone shouted.

“It was just an accident!” someone else cried.

Oscar, pulling off his helmet, slowly stepped away from the throng.

“Oh, how awful, oh, my poor son, don’t look…” Ernestine was whimpering. Oscar didn’t answer her, and for a long moment, he didn’t stop looking, but then, finally, he tossed his helmet on the ground, along with his gun.

“Let’s go, Mom,” he said. Putting a hand on Ernestine’s shoulder, he nodded at Folen, and stomped off back down the tunnel, leaving the groundlock open behind him. His parents followed him.

Jathan tried to move his feet, but he couldn’t. The crowd swarmed around him, following the Authority guards who carried Fr. Antonie. It seemed like every single person in the crowd was talking, or shouting at the guards. Several people were weeping, even sobbing.

Two of the guards pushed back through the crowd, scanning the fields through the bars of the outer gate. Only then did Jathan drag his gaze over and think to look for Quincy and his raptor. Had they shot them? Was Quincy all right? But Jathan couldn’t see anything. No raptors, and no Quincy. Gone. But he saw Lyric over there. She’d broken away from the guard who held her in the confusion, and stood there, holding into the bars. She wasn’t wearing her gloves; her knuckles were white.

Jathan, with another effort, managed to move his feet. He crept through the crowd over to Lyric. His insides felt cold, stunned. They had shot Fr. Antonie. He couldn’t believe it. The man had saved his life, he had probably saved countless lives, and now he was dead. “Lyric?”

“He's gone,” she whispered. Jathan could barely hear her above the commotion, but he looked where she pointed—just in time to see a flash of the sun off of the long tail feathers of a raptor as it disappeared over the high steel fence.

“Are you sure?” Jathan asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I saw him.”

Jathan swallowed hard. With treatment like that from the Authority, Quincy probably wouldn’t come back. Jathan reached out a hand for Lyric’s shoulder. “Lyric, maybe we’d better—“

She looked up at him suddenly, her eyes squinting as she tried to keep tears from spilling out of them across the red scratches on her face. Jathan found the words freezing in his throat. He couldn’t remember what he had been about to suggest. What was there to suggest?

Far out across the fields, the other raptor was still milling around, furtively, almost sullenly. It continued to eye the gate. Jathan frowned, watching it.

“Why did they do that?” Lyric asked.

“Do what?” Jathan asked.

“Put a wild raptor in there with him. They were trying to kill him, weren’t they?”

Jathan shook his head. “I suppose they must have been. But if they wanted to do that, I don’t know why they didn’t just… shoot him, or something.” Lyric looked away quickly, and Jathan cringed. “Sorry.”

“Where’s Quincy?” It was Clifton, coming up to them, his eyes red and hollow. He scanned the fields. “I couldn’t… see what happened.”

“He and Sparky went over the fence,” Lyric said. And then she started crying. “Did they kill Fr. Antonie?”

“Yes, honey,” Clifton said. Pain streaked his voice. “We’ve got to get back into the city. We’ll go to the church. They’ll take him there. I don’t want you staying out here.” He looked up, and met Jathan’s gaze. The weird emptiness still filled Jathan from the inside out, and he didn’t know what to say. Going back underground sounded unbearable. But where else was there to go?

“Right,” Jathan said, finally. “It’s not safe up here. I don’t think they’d let us stay up here. They’ll be clearing us all back out.”

“I don’t like them,” Lyric said. “They’re terrible.”

Jathan looked past Clifton towards the crowd, and the Authority guard that had moved through the lock and down the tunnel. He’d seen Oscar storm out. It had been eerie. “Maybe not all of them are that bad,” he said. “But there’s bad people everywhere, Lyric.”

Outside the gate, the raptor had disappeared. No, there it was. It was slinking between the crop rows. Wheat, corn, kale and collards, tropical tubers of various sorts. Trellises of tomatoes and of beans. What was the Authority planning to do about that? All of the guards were flanking the crowd, except—

“Let’s go,” a cold voice broke into Jathan’s thoughts, and an armored guard with a gun stepped up to them, one gloved hand reaching to separate them from the bars of the gate. “We’re quarantining this area.”

Clifton nodded, and shot a glance at Jathan. “Come on,” he said. Putting an arm around Lyric’s shoulders, he steered her away from the gate and towards the departing crowd. Jathan followed, the last of the guards closing in behind him. They were the last ones out. The heavy groundlock slammed shut behind them, pinching out the last of the trickles of daylight.

Glenn’s voice echoed through the dark tunnel, seeming to fade in and out with the flickers of the gas lamps. “The Authority would like to apologize for this unfortunate accident. Revolutionaries and lawbreakers often have noble ideas, but they don’t often have the best judgment of safety and security.” The crowd was quieting at his words, many of them nodding in agreement, or at least resignation.

The guards lit torches as they left the lighted tunnel, and soon enough they arrived at the huge inner groundlock that led into the city, its massive steel doors gleaming in the torchlight. The hot air of the tunnels mingled smells of burning coal, oil, and that wet stench of death that was still lingering. Not that it smelled any better than the Undermine itself, Jathan thought, as the crowd walked through the groundlock. Everything smelled like soot and fire. More so, the closer they came to the city.

Soot, fire, and low slung buildings, pinned up against the cavern walls for extra support. At a word from Glenn the crowd began dispersing along the city streets, slowly heading to their various destinations. The Circuit Board, the market district, the residential neighborhoods… no one felt like being out and about just now, and the crowd was gone in minutes. Clifton, however, never broke stride, following the Authority guards. They were heading for the church.

The church itself looked nothing like the heavily reinforced concrete structure that was St. Vito’s, at the compound aboveground. This church was spindly, tall, decorative. Impractical. It jutted a steep spire on a tower above the hunched buildings around it. St. Vito’s was like a bunker, not standing out at all—though it had been very orderly and even beautiful on the inside. Fr. Antonie had—no, Jathan didn’t want to think about that. Who would be at St. Vito’s, now? Or was the church in use to be only this one, occupied by people who, dull-headed after many years, never even saw the sun?

Jathan followed the guards inside, and a priest came up to meet them. Clifton was suddenly there, Lyric at his side, and he and Glenn spoke in low voices to the priest. No doubt about burial, or some religious ceremony, or something. Jathan pushed past them, and saw again the stiffening, black robed body of Fr. Antonie, a waxen hand still holding his crucifix. They hadn’t even covered him up as they transported him.

Jathan pushed past them and walked into the church. Long bamboo-wood pews spread out in columns before him, and gas lamps burned behind sheets of colored glass cut into surprisingly beautiful art. Jathan didn’t know the religious figures in the pictures, but the soft colors of the illuminated glass was calm, soothing. You could almost forget you were underground, or, more accurately perhaps, that there was anything wrong with being underground. Far down the aisle, the altar stood, a candle in a red sconce burning.

Numbly, Jathan slid into a pew. He sat down, put his face in his hands, and, to his own surprise, began to weep uncontrollably.

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