Life Thief

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Chapter 2

“Oh, God,” Jathan groaned, staring into the puddle of vomit. “Oh, God…”

“God is here,” a voice said from across the room, “and so are you.”

Jathan looked up, blearily peering into the building he had fled into. The outer walls were thick, made of poured concrete and stone, and there were tall barred windows. Next to one of these windows, gazing out with folded arms, a thin man in a black cassock stood, his features sharp, his expression pensive. A cool silence sat above rows of pews, a scrap of carpet running through the space towards a raised platform and altar against the wall. A lone candle flame burned in a red sconce by the tabernacle, and Jathan blinked, his eyes widening. This was a church. With a priest. A church? On the surface?

A darting shadow passed by the window that the priest stood before, and a large, scaly head peered in sideways, malice emanating from its yellow eye. Jathan cried out, but the priest didn’t even flinch.

“Ugly, aren’t they?” he said, softly. “They used to not come up so far. They used to stay in the valleys.”

“Oh, God,” Jathan said, again. That yellow eye leered at him.

The priest turned finally to look at Jathan. “It’s all right,” he said. “They can’t get in here.”

“Are… are you sure?” Jathan swallowed hard. The sour taste of vomit was still in his mouth.

“Absolutely,” the priest said.

Jathan shook his head, and started shaking again. It seemed he saw darting shadows at every one of the tall, barred windows. Their inhuman screams rang in his ears. He moaned.

The priest watched him, and then, seeming to move slowly and disinterestedly, pulled a purple stole from his pocket and draped it around his neck. As he dug around in the voluminous pockets of the black cassock, he addressed Jathan. “Now, then, they’re just animals. That’s why they are still alive, when the Revonet and its constructions are gone. Life, you know, is an enduring thing, yet so fragile. What do they call this kind, again?” He pulled a small red book from one of his pockets and flipped through it.

“It’s… it’s a… Vitaeraptor pen… pen something.” Jathan struggled to recall. They said that the Revonet had engineered ten species, but Jathan had only seen a few of them.

“Robber of life,” the priest muttered thoughtfully, his eyes again on the scowling creature outside the window. “Et nolite timere eos, qui occidunt corpus, animam autem non possunt occidere…” The side of his mouth quirked slightly. He looked down at his book, turning a page, and continued mumbling silently, as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

Jathan stared at his pool of vomit and sighed. Oddly, he felt better. They couldn’t get in. The priest’s lack of fear of them was reassuring to that point. In fact, it seemed like maybe they were losing interest. The one at the window was gone. Surely they had gone off to seek other prey…

“Here, take this.” The priest was next to him now, holding a cup of water. The purple stole and the book had disappeared. “I’ll get a mop.”

Jathan faltered, taking the cup. “Oh… Christ… sorry about the mess, Father…”

“Not a problem at all,” the priest said. “Anyone would react the same. That’s what we have a mop for. Drink that, we’ve got plenty.” With a swish of the cassock he walked off, but not before Jathan noticed that he was wearing black combat boots.

Jathan shook his head and sat back, trying to process the events of the last couple of minutes. He sipped the cup of water, swishing to rinse out the sour taste of vomit. Those creatures had been waiting for him in the bushes. He’d been lucky; something in him had known. He’d had the flare gun, it had kept them from catching him before he could get to the church, where the door was mysteriously open…

The priest bustled back in, painting an odd picture with his thin, austere frame, draped in renunciant black, carrying a rusty old dustpan, a mop, and a bucket. “Here, let me do that,” Jathan said, putting the cup down and starting to try and wobble to his feet.

“No, no, you rest,” the priest said, waving him off. Jathan sank back down, and the priest cheerfully went about cleaning up the mess.

“Thanks, Father,” Jathan said, slowly picking up the cup again. He drained the rest of it and sighed. “You’re right, I think. We didn’t used to see them up here very much. Mostly there’s the Kentrosaurs up here with us, because they don’t like the currents and dioxides from the housing remnants. You don’t think they’re running out of food in the valleys?”

“I doubt it,” the priest said, mopping up the mess. “There’s bigger critters down there, and they haven’t come up. Maybe there’s still some radioactive fallout going on. Like you said, there’s already animals up here that don’t like it down there. A couple of generations, maybe they’ll all figure that out.”

“I hope not,” Jathan said. “But we can’t go clean anything up down there with things trying to eat us at every corner.” He turned his head, doing a scan of the windows again. No sign of the raptors. He looked back at the priest. “Why was the door open?”

“I saw the flare,” the priest said, straightening up, bucket in hand. “I figured someone was in trouble, so I opened the door.”

Jathan stared into the empty cup he held. Part of him still thought he ought to get up and help the priest clean up his mess, but the rest of him didn’t want to move. “Thank you,” he said. “It… probably saved my life.”

The priest nodded. “That’s my business,” he said. “I’m sorry you had such an ignominious welcome. Welcome to St. Vito’s Church, by the way. I’m Father Antonie de Vries.” Deftly shifting his mop and bucket into the crook of one arm, he held out a hand.

Jathan shook the priest’s hand. “I’m Jathan Russell,” he said. “I’m from the Bitterroot Undermine, working on the expansion project.” He peered at the priest. “Your name sounds Dutch. Are you Dutch?”

“Might have been, once,” Father Antonie said. He readjusted the cleaning equipment. “I know the Bitterroot Undermine well, and I’m glad they’re expanding it. People can stay safe there.”

Jathan nodded. “I assume you have your reasons, but I’m curious. What are you doing out here, out in the open? Why not be in the caves, where it’s safe?”

Father Antonie grinned. “I could ask you the same question. No digging to be done up here.”

“I needed some fresh air,” Jathan said. “But you… you’ve like, got a church here. And you just stay here—all by yourself?”

“No, no. The caravans do circle the mountain, you know that. There’s an abbey around the way, a few miles, farther up. I’m in between, at the supply crossroads. You saw the other buildings. It’s kind of a waypoint.”

“An abbey? Like a monastery? With monks?”

“Yes,” the priest said. “Now, I’d love to chat more, but let me put this stuff away, and I’ll—“

Something slammed into the door of the church, heavily. Concrete dust fell from around the hinges. Jathan scrambled to his feet, which fortunately had decided to hold him up this time. Father Antonie leaned over to peer out the narrow windows that flanked the door. “Looks like our friends have returned,” he said.

“You don’t, um, have any weapons here, do you?” Jathan asked. His mind was racing as he eyed the door, looking for any weak spots, any sign of structural wear.

“As a matter of fact,” Father Antonie said. “Come see what I have in the basement, and I bet we can find a way to get you back home.”

~*~*~

Lyric woke to the sound of birds. Fanciful chirping and trilling rode in on the warm, fresh breeze that drifted through the open window. Open window? Lyric was abruptly wide awake, and she sat up, pushing her sleep-messed hair out of her face. She had been curled up on a pile of sackcloth on top of some crates, sleeping as though the window wasn’t wide open. Stretching her stiff limbs, she climbed up and pushed the window closed, latching it. It was made of wood reinforced with steel, and swung outwards. You couldn’t see through it. There was no glass. But even in the darkness of the holding shed she felt safer with it closed. There were animals out there.

Lyric turned to squint into the darkness. “Quincy?” she called. The shed was sizable, but it smelled like a barn. A sour, rotting barn. Further down past the cage was a wide, open processing floor. Like a threshing floor, but there were no crops here. Her voice traveled, muffled at first by the straw and the boxes and tanning hides, then echoing across the large floor past the cage. There was no answer, except the unsettling growls from the cage.

It’s early, he must have gone out to do something important… Lyric climbed down from her makeshift bed on the crates. Two pairs of eyes in long dark heads stared at her from the cage. Lyric tried not to glance their way as she walked to the message station.

Nothing more than a shallow shelf nailed to the wall, the message station sported a telegraph station, a bell, an empty phone jack, and a couple of pens by a pad of paper. A quick scrawl, in Quincy’s handwriting, graced the top sheet of the notepad. Lyric picked it up.

Lyric,
Gone out with Sparky. The others are fed. I’ll be back soon.
- Quincy

Lyric put the note back down and looked over at the cage. The raptors were still watching her. Just two of them, though. Where had he taken the third? She shook her head. She still found it hard to believe they hadn’t shredded Quincy into pieces when he opened the cage door last night. Did he drug them? Did they trust him because he fed them? Were they biding their time, knowing they couldn’t escape the shed by themselves?

Her heart pounding, she walked up to the cage, peering up at the animals. They looked back at her, stone still. Well, almost stone still. She could see their thigh muscles tighten as their ankles bent ever so slightly. Like they wanted to pounce. She looked down at the ankles, at the huge, wicked claw that topped each foot. She looked back up… and up… at their still, crested heads. They weren’t small. Neither was that smell… mild. Lyric put a gloved hand over her mouth and nose. At least he had fed them. They would probably be chewing the cage bars and making awful sounds trying to get to her, otherwise.

The bell at the message station dinged, and Lyric turned away from the cage. That would be the door. Picking up her skirt, she ran past the cage, over the wide floor. In the dark recesses of the southwest corner, a boiler hissed at her as she passed, and the round faces of pressure gauges stared blankly. Fireboxes glowed underneath it. It wasn’t really a furnace; it was rarely cold enough out here to need heating. The boiler made steam to power the phones, lights, the incubator, and other devices. It powered the locks on the doors. Lyric had asked Quincy why he needed steam pressure to lock doors.

“Stronger than a thousand pound metal bar,” he had said. “Nothing will open that door, and even if it gets destroyed, the pressure from the boiler will keep funneling the steam. Whatever walks through that destroyed door will get burned pretty badly.”

She had to turn off the pressure valve to the door before she could open it. But she wanted to look out first. Climbing onto a crate stacked beneath a sliding metal panel high up in the wall, she slid the panel back and peered out. Hardly larger than a ruler, it was difficult to see out of. It wouldn’t be Quincy, he knew the overrides for the valves. Who was it, though?

Three—no, four—figures stood outside the door. They were dressed in long thick coats sewn with welded metal, and metal helmets with faceplates. They were armed with stun sticks, guns, and what looked like ammo belts full of some kind of grenades.

“This is the Transgenic Contingency Squad. Open the door!”

Lyric crouched where she was, fighting rising terror. She didn’t know who these people were, or why they were armed to the teeth. She wished Quincy was here.

“We have infrared sensors. We know you’re there. Open this door!”

“I can’t!” she shouted through the view slot.

All four men swiveled immediately to face the sound. “That’s a kid,” one said. “Maybe the poachers aren’t here.”

“Not just a kid.” One of the other men adjusted his gun, aiming the rifle at the view slot. “It’s a woman.”

Lyric, terrified, scrambled down off of the crate, and ran back across the wide floor. The bell at the message station back by the cage was dinging again. The telegraph was clicking this time. It was printing something.

“Open this door, NOW!” the shouted demand was muffled from back here, but Lyric knew she didn’t have much time. She snatched up the printed piece of paper as soon as the clicking stopped. It had one line: LYRIC OPEN WINDOW NOW QUINCY.

Lyric did not have time to worry about if the message was really from Quincy. She darted past the cage, climbed up on the stack of crates, unlatched the window and threw it open.

Nothing. No one was there. There was no sign of Quincy. Lyric thought she could probably squeeze out; it wasn’t a big window. She looked back over her shoulder towards the raptor cage. The animals were snarling, running back and forth, agitated. They weren’t looking at her, but towards the front of the building. If she just left them here, would the men let them out? Or kill them?

“Quincy!” she called, out the window. No answer. Torn, she climbed down and ran back across the building to where the men still shouted at the door.

“OPEN this door, or we’ll blow our way in!” The voice of the man who had been holding the rifle was cracking with frustration.

“I said I can’t!” Lyric ran up to the door, her voice becoming shrill with fright. “It’s pressurized. What… what do you want?”

“Turn off the pressure, now, or—” the man said, but he stopped speaking suddenly, as if someone had cut him off.

“Look, ma’am.” Another one of the men spoke up. “We’ve got some information that there’s people here harboring dangerous transgenic organisms. You ever seen a dinosaur kill someone?”

Lyric tried to answer but her voice caught in her throat.

“It ain’t pretty, sweetheart. Do you have dinosaurs in there?”

“Yes, but—“

“We can protect you from ‘em. Let us in.”

Lyric’s eyes filled with tears. She wished Quincy were here. He would know what to do. “I can’t,” she said.

“Why can’t you, lovely? We ain’t gonna hurt you.”

“Then why do you have guns?” she said, choking back a sob.

“Those are for the dinosaurs, honey.” The man’s voice took on a tinge of impatience.

“You can’t kill them, they’re Quincy’s!”

The man didn’t answer her, but she heard them talking to each other. She couldn’t make out what they were saying. But then she heard a sound she did understand. The snap of a grenade being primed.

“I’m opening the door!” she shouted. “Just let me figure out how to turn off the pressure!” She was running too quickly for the pressure valve to hear the muffled laughter outside the door.

There was a hiss of steam as the pressure on the door released, and the latch clicked as it unlocked. Lyric barely had time to turn back around to face the door before a booted foot slammed it open, and the four men rushed in, straight towards her. The man holding the rifle swung the butt of it around, catching her hard in the jaw. Lyric went sprawling. Pain shot through her head and down her neck. Someone grabbed her hair and hauled her up, and she cried out.

“Stop!” she cried. “Please—!” She found herself staring up, blurry-eyed, at one of the face-plated helmets as one of the men loomed over her.

The man slapped her across the face hard. The pain shot stars through her vision as her head snapped against the man holding her by the hair. “Where are they?” the man who had slapped her shouted.

“Gary, put her down,” another voice said. “She’s just a kid. She doesn’t know what’s going on.”

The grip on her hair released and Lyric tumbled to the slick floor. Dizzy and sobbing, she crawled away from the men.

“Check those fireboxes,” one of the men was saying. “That’s an incubator. Clear this side of the room. Destroy whatever you find.”

Lyric struggled to her feet and bolted towards the back shed, her breath catching in gasping sobs. She was no stranger to terror, young as she was—few people these days were. But she had never been attacked by people before. Why wasn’t Quincy here?

The men were shouting behind her as she stumbled towards the shed. A darting shadow crossed the light in front of the shed door, and Lyric froze to the spot. The dinosaurs—

The two raptors streaked out of the back shed, heading straight for her. She screamed, a loud, piercing shriek. Then they were on top of her, rushing past her. One of the animals swung its head into her as it passed by, knocking her across the floor farther than the strike of the gun butt had. The air flew out of her lungs with the impact of the long head, and she tumbled, over and over. She couldn’t see anything, but she heard the sounds—awful sounds. The bloodthirsty shrieks of the raptors, and the dying screams of the men. Lyric lay where she landed, frozen, trembling. She would be next.

Strong hands lifted her up. She cried out in terror, and started to struggle.

“Lyric, it’s me! Quincy! Hold on!”

“QUINCY!” Lyric stopped struggling and clung to him as he pushed himself up, cradling her, and ran for the still open door. “Did you let—did you—“

“Later!” he said—and tore through the door out into the steamy jungle.

“Quincy, they’re out—!”

“Shh, I know. Don’t worry. My God, what happened to you?” Panting heavily, Quincy had slowed and stopped in a copse of thick vegetation. He set her half on her feet, supporting her with one arm as he pushed her blood-matted hair out of her face with the other, gingerly.

“Ow, ow, don’t—“ Lyric whimpered.

“Damn it, and it’s not like I had time to grab the first aid kit. Did those men do this to you?”

“Uh huh—OW!”

“Shh, I’m just trying to see the damage. Can you see? Can you move your jaw? Okay, good.” Quincy sighed in relief.

Lyric worked her jaw again. It hurt. “Quincy… who… who are those people?”

“Transgenic Contingency,” he said. “The only law is against harboring animals inside city perimeters. We’re not inside them. But there’s been, as you know, lobbying to kill all the animals created by the Revonet. Wild, harbored, doesn’t matter.” He sighed. “The only problem is, we don’t have the means to kill them all. Most of them are… much stronger than anything we’ve got to use against them.”

“That’s why you want the raptors,” Lyric said. She sniffled and turned her head away. “But they’re still eating people.”

“Yeah… yeah,” he said. “I’m sorry about that.”

“At least they’ll be gone now. They’ll go away, won’t they?” Lyric tried to reach for her goggles, but they weren’t there. She had lost them in the scuffle somewhere.

Quincy was glancing back over his shoulder. He didn’t answer.

“Quincy?”

Quincy’s voice was quiet. “There there, Streamline. Hey, Nova. Good girls. Good…” He put a hand over Lyric’s mouth.

But it wasn’t the pain in her jaw that had made her start to scream. It was the two long, feather-crested heads that suddenly parted the plants behind them, their jaws and long teeth covered in blood, their breath as sour as death.

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