Life Thief

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Chapter 3

“These are incendiaries,” Fr. Antonie said, handing Jathan a neatly wrapped package with several taped-down fuselines. “I don’t have anything really explosive, unfortunately, but there’s plenty of gunpowder. Here’s a few revolving rifles, and there’s a gatling here…”

“A gatling.” Jathan walked up to the rather large and heavy piece of artillery.

“Yes, that, it’s hand-cranked, and I’ve got nerve gas grenades here, too.” Fr. Antonie hefted up a case of what looked like cans of compressed air. “We had electricity strung up here at first, but that went down because we haven’t installed underground cabling yet, and the Kentrosaurs tear it up. But I don’t really need it. I have plenty of candles and gas lamps, not to mention there’s a boiler and radiator.”

“So you can shoot them with bullets, eh?” Jathan ran his hand along the shell grooves of the gatling.

“It’s actually easier if you set them on fire or blow them up,” Fr. Antonie said. “Bullets don’t take them down easily unless you get a really direct head shot. So I’ve got these shells, here—“ He held up a cross-hatched metal shell, sized for the gatling barrels. “It’s hollow, and filled with gunpowder. This cap on the end has mercury fulminate. That explodes on impact and triggers the entire shell to explode. I have them for the rifles, too.”

Jathan stared. “Where did you get all of this stuff?” he asked.

Fr. Antonie smiled wryly at him. “Probably the same place you did. One of the buildings in the compound here is an emergency military supply shed. The transgenic squad recommended that a percentage of the supplies be kept in each of the buildings, and while we could technically have remained exempt—I believe the abbey did—there was no need to. People in need, like yourself, do come through here.” He shifted the case of gas grenades under one arm and handed Jathan a revolving rifle. “I’m sure you’ve got better stuff down in the tunnels, but this should do to chase your friends off. In fact, we probably won’t need to actually use most of it… they’re pretty smart. They’ll know what our business is. Come on.”

Jathan took the rifle, tucking it under one arm with the package of incendiary grenades. He followed the priest as he led the way back up the stairs, following a narrow, fortified hallway that curved around the main room of the basement, almost like a wall crawlspace. The two of them came above ground again in the shallow entryway before the massive concrete door.

“I don’t hear them,” Jathan said.

“That might mean they’ve gone,” Fr. Antonie said, “or it might mean they’re still here. Ready?” He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and tied it around the lower half of his face.

Jathan put down the rifle and tore free one of the incendiaries he was carrying, ripping off the tape that held down the fuseline. Pulling a lighter from his pocket, he paused. “If we open the door,” he asked, “will they try to come in? Or should we go out after them?”

“You wait here,” Fr. Antonie said, “and I’ll go out.”

“Are you sure?” Jathan felt beads of sweat start to break out on his forehead as Fr. Antonie swung the bar latching the door up, and cracked the door inward.

“Absolutely,” the priest said, and, pushing the door open wider with one booted foot, stepped out.

Jathan’s fingers slipped on the lighter trigger. Not yet, he told himself. Wait til they

“I see one,” Fr. Antonie called. “It’s right in front of me. Half-hidden in those bushes.” Jathan skirted closer to the door, looking out. The priest seemed to be taking his time with the grenades, priming two of them. “Get ready, Jathan,” he said. “Their hunting style is cooperative. There’s going to be others that you can’t see, while this one distracts us.”

“Ready,” Jathan mumbled. He felt his hands beginning to shake.

Fr. Antonie glanced over his shoulder, and drew back his arm, preparing to throw the grenade towards the animal in front of him. A blood-curdling scream cut through the air, and suddenly there were two more of the animals, charging the priest from each side, out of nowhere.

Fr. Antonie did not throw his grenade at the decoy raptor, instead pivoting and flinging both grenades hard into the ground at his feet. They exploded into hissing plumes of smoke. The charging raptors caught the vapors, and, shrieking in rage, staggered and backed away. Fr Antonie, holding the cloth over his face, waved at Jathan.

Jathan fumbled the lighter again, managing to light the fuseline on the incendiary he held.

“Throw it!” Fr. Antonie called, and then he was running past, back into the building. Jathan did. He heard another screech, and thought he saw some flames, but the smoke from the gas grenades was so thick he couldn’t make out much else. Fr. Antonie appeared at his side, and the two of them pushed the door shut and barred it.

“Good job,” the priest said. “Just in time for Vespers, too.”

“Are… are they dead?” Jathan put his lighter back in his pocket, leaning forward to peer out the tall, narrow barred windows that flanked the door. He still couldn’t see anything but smoke.

“If they stayed in the smoke, they’ll be incapacitated,” Fr. Antonie said, untying the handkerchief from around his face. “But usually they’re too smart for that. Unless you caught one with the flames, they probably ran.”

“You don’t suppose it would be safe for me to travel, would you?” Jathan couldn’t keep the uncertainty out of his voice.

“I think we’ve reasonable expectation that it won’t ever really be safe,” Fr. Antonie said, thoughtfully. “But we can maximize your chances. You take that stuff with you—that rifle will only really be useful if you see them before they see you, but the incendiaries will make them think twice.” He covered his mouth with the handkerchief as a brief fit of coughing shook him. “So… so will that nerve gas.” He smiled.

Jathan sat down in a pew as Fr. Antonie busied himself packing up the various types of grenades for Jathan to take with him, then drifted down to one of the side altars to light the candles. He looked as if he hadn’t a care in the world but to sit down with his breviary, and certainly not as if he had just been battling dinosaurs. Jathan sighed.

“Feeling all right?” Fr. Antonie asked, walking back to the back of the church to address him. He kept his voice low.

“It’s just strange to me, still,” Jathan said. He kept his eyes fixed on the tabernacle. “These animals are so dangerous. And now they’re following us up out of the ruins, into the mountains. I’m not so young that I don’t remember how people died before we evacuated the lower elevations. Things are much better in the Undermine, now. Safer. More stable. People are starting to be able to raise families and live normal lives. Of course, everyone’s pale and we have to supplement the water. Maybe someday we’ll fix it that we can live above ground… without having to live behind fortifications with stores of military equipment to fend off attacking monsters.”

“In a more peaceful world,” Fr. Antonie said, “it would be that way. The church bells would be ringing the hours, and mining would be the dangerous job, rather than growing food.”

Jathan laughed. This priest was a romantic about his religion. But that was all right. It was a quaint picture, and it stood surprisingly well against the harsh realities that snarled at his door… or were stashed in his basement. “I doubt that will ever happen,” he said.

“Probably not,” Fr. Antonie said, “but real peace isn’t based in whether or not there are deadly predators knocking at your door all the time. Of, course, when you’re being chased by hungry Vitaeraptor pen… what were they called again?”

“Something like that,” Jathan said. “We call them raptors for short.”

“Raptors, all right,” Fr. Antonie said. “Thieves. Thieves of life. When you’re being chased by hungry raptors, what do you think about?”

Jathan stared at his hands, flexing them into fists as they started, involuntarily, to shake. “How much it’s going to hurt to die,” he muttered.

“But you ran,” Fr. Antonie said, “you looked for a way of escape.”

“Of course I did,” Jathan said. “And I lucked out, thanks to you.”

“Don’t you suppose that every human being that was still alive, before the Revonet was destroyed, was thinking about those same things?”

“Well, yeah,” Jathan said. “But we didn’t have any options of escape. We lucked out, again. Technology overestimated itself.”

“Indeed, by the grace of God, it did!” Fr. Antonie clapped his hands together. “We had no hope of escape with those odds. Who would have thought that one of the Revonet’s own creations would destroy it? You can be sure that it didn’t intentionally program a gene sequence into a living creature that would give it the ability to hunt down and destroy anything giving off an electrical impulse signal. A mutation miracle, it was!”

“Yeah,” Jathan said. “Yeah, it was. There was no reason that should’ve happened. We didn’t get lucky with any of the other monsters it made, though. And they still might kill us all off. Revonet still might win, in the end.”

“We aren’t dead yet,” Fr. Antonie said, “and we are infinitely more free than we ever were before. Every institution collapsed when the Revonet did—except the Church, obviously. The one-world empire has fallen. We can live as human beings again, we can raise families. Human beings had given up their autonomy to a directing computer system. The Revolutionary Network! It was going to eliminate disease, crime, social problems, war. That was the idea. But it didn’t work.”

“No,” Jathan said, “because the Revonet’s algorithms showed it that human problems could only be eliminated with the elimination of humanity.” His voice took on a bitter edge.

“And you see what a skewed conclusion that is,” Fr. Antonie said.

“Well, yeah,” Jathan said. “Only something as stupid as a computer would come up with that. The whole goal of getting rid of humanity’s problems is to make humanity better, so people can live happy lives.”

“Ah, if only we could blame our own creations! It was human beings that programmed that computer, even if they did it after the pattern of a far more sinister intelligence.”

“You make it sound like human beings should be eliminated,” Jathan said.

“Not at all,” Fr. Antonie said, “but we should certainly recognize our responsibility for our own destiny. As long as we’re alive, we have our will, we have the freedom to live according to our conscience. We have the freedom to do the right thing. We have the freedom not to despair.”

“Until the raptors do catch you,” Jathan muttered, gazing out the window again. The darkening sky was still and expansive, and no ominous shadows interrupted the rays of the sinking sun.

“That’s true,” Fr. Antonie said. “None of us are guaranteed tomorrow. All of that is in God’s hands. But He controls all of this. He made us for a purpose. He made life itself. Not even the Revonet could make life, and, indeed, it was life that betrayed it.”

“So you’re saying that nature is more powerful than technology?” Jathan asked.

“No,” Fr. Antonie said, “I’m saying that there’s a point to all of this, a design, and that if we fear the Author of life, we don’t have to fear anything else.”

Jathan bit his tongue to avoid saying something rude. The priest could think that if he wanted to. Well, it was his job to think like that, wasn’t it? Besides, he wasn’t so off in la-la land that he wasn’t keeping weapons in his basement. Jathan’s gaze drifted back to the window. The shadows were definitely getting longer. “I… hate to intrude on you further,” he said, “but would it be okay if I waited until morning and did another clear-out before I go back to the Undermine? It’s going to be dark soon.”

“Absolutely,” Fr. Antonie said. “There’s plenty of spare cots in the basement. I’m not much of a cook, but I can throw together some dinner as well.” He started to put his little black breviary back in his pocket.

Jathan waved a hand. “No, go ahead, do your Vespers thing,” he said. “I can wait. I’ll wait as long as I need to.”

~*~*~

“Lyric, no, don’t!”

Lyric wasn’t listening. She tore away from Quincy’s grip and ran. Quincy felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach as Nova and Streamline both swung their heads quickly around, following the girl’s panicked flight.

Quincy leapt, throwing himself between the animals and the fleeing girl. “Don’t touch her!” he said. He stood straight and tall, holding a hand out. He wasn’t worried about himself. He knew they would not attack him. But he wasn’t sure if the mitochondrial bonding catalyst extended to his blood relatives. Lyric was his deceased brother’s child, which might be close enough, but a young girl running from them in terror would be almost irresistible. The Revonet had designed these creatures to favor human prey.

Streamline turned her attention back to him with a snarl. Nova continued to watch the fleeing girl, but she stayed in place, her body lined up and rigid as if ready to leap into pursuit.

“Good girls,” Quincy said. Straightening, he leaned his weight back on one heel, chewing on his lip thoughtfully. He didn’t want Lyric running through the woods alone. But neither did he feel secure enough to chase after her with the raptors loose. He peered over the tops of the trees toward his facility. It hung squat and wide, visible from directly above but not much from any other direction.

A bellowing cry sounded from the direction of the facility. Streamline and Nova both immediately went rigid with interest, the feathers that coated their heads and necks flattening as they went completely still, looking towards the sound. Quincy swore softly under his breath. He’d hardly stepped away and already they were thronging. Kentrosaurus nigruforas. That was the hazard of keeping an electrically-powered building, although in his case, it provided a steady food supply for his animals.

Which, expectedly, were already slavering greedily at the prospect.

“Go on,” Quincy said, waving a hand. Immediately the two raptors took off like a shot through the jungle, heading for the facility. Quincy waited half a beat before slipping off into the trees in the direction that Lyric had run. While he would have preferred to get at least the females locked up, it was too dangerous out there.

As he jogged through the trees, keeping an eye on Lyric’s rather noisy trail of broken fern branches and torn leaves, he adjusted his leather helmet, pushing his goggles up onto his head. Just before the break-in, he’d come back from a foray with Sparky, the male raptor, and had left the animal outside the shed window while he had snuck in to release the females. He shook his head. They hadn’t attacked Lyric. They had gone straight for the squad. That, at least, was hopeful.

Quincy slowed, and paused, as the trail ended at a deep valley cut into the stone. It looked like a dry riverbed. Had she crossed it and climbed right up into the other side? Or had she followed it?

Quincy cupped both hands around his mouth. “Lyric!” he shouted. His voice echoed against the rocks, though it was quickly swallowed up by the profusion of plant life growing in densely on every side. “Lyric!” he shouted again.

The chittering of insects and the trills of birds were all that answered him. Quincy held still, straining to listen. Nothing.

He climbed down into the riverbed, and combed the banks on the other side. Nothing. He walked down it a ways. Still nothing. How far could she have gone? Was she hiding, perhaps? Quincy sighed. He didn’t want to imagine the look on her face if he brought a raptor along to sniff her out. But it was looking like he might have to do that.

“C’mon, Lyric,” he muttered, turning in another full circle in the middle of the riverbed. “Where are you?” Then he sighed, muttered a curse, and climbed back out to run back towards the facility. He had already wasted too much time looking. The victorious shrieks of the raptors wafted over the trees, warped by the steamy air, but fully recognizable. He heard Sparky with them as well.

Quincy crested the rise that overlooked his building, and he winced. The door stood flung open, and was barely still on its hinges, the metal twisted. Sprays of drying blood spattered the wall around it. Quincy’s gaze followed the gravel pathway that wound around the building to the dead hulk of a Kentrosaurus, hardly recognizable underneath the greedy feeding frenzy that the three raptors were engaged in on top of it.

Kentrosaurus wasn’t any taller than the raptors were, but it was bulkier, on its armored, four-legged frame. They were actually extremely hard to put down. Not that raptors had a difficult time putting down anything. Nonetheless, he would have to check all the wiring. It looked like the animal had tried to get inside.

Quincy walked past the feeding raptors and through the damaged door. Scraps and shreds of bones, cloth, and welded armor plating were all that was left of what looked like a squad of four men. Four men. And he’d left Lyric alone here. How could she have known what to do? She hadn’t even known to leave the window open. He saw her goggles over by the fireboxes, no doubt dropped in the scuffle, and he picked them up.

He walked past the mens’ remains and into the back shed, picking up the first aid kit, the transponders, and two leather harnesses that he slung over his shoulder. Picking up his protective gloves, he slid them on. He was going to have to move things to the next step sooner than he had anticipated, but it couldn’t be helped. Not with law enforcement on his tail like this. But first things first. He had to find Lyric.

“Sparky! Nova! Streamline!”

Three blood-smeared snouts popped up from the dead Kentrosaur, their malice-charged gaze fixed straight on the lanky, weathered man who approached them. Sparky, more brightly colored and with longer feathers on head and tail than the other two, hopped stiff-tailed up onto the carcass, his jaws open in a defiant cry.

“Knock it off, Sparky,” Quincy said. He bent down slowly, setting down the things he was carrying, his careful movements belying the careless commanding tone in his voice. “I’ve got a job for you three,” he said. Straightening, he held Lyric’s goggles in his hand. “We’ve got a girl to find.”

All three of them, heads bobbing, with excited little quirks in their throats, crossed the carcass to approach him. Quincy reached out his free hand and grabbed Sparky’s leather bridle. The animal snarled, bucking his head, but Quincy held on. He’d taught the animals not to chew the harnesses off by soaking them in capiscum oil, but it was difficult to get them to sit still to have them put on.

Quincy put Lyric’s goggles around his neck and set about harnessing the two females. They resisted him with great enthusiasm, dodging, twisting, even holding their breath so that he couldn’t tighten the straps. Quincy kept silent, except for the occasional sharp word. Sweat was pouring down his brow as he concentrated. This was taking too long, but he wasn’t sure enough of the strength of the bonding catalyst in regards to Lyric to leave them completely loose. He didn’t think he would be able forgive himself if one of his animals killed his brother’s child.

Finally, he got both females harnessed. Latching the first aid kit onto Streamline’s harness, he glanced up at the sun. It was much later than he would have liked. Quincy could only hope Lyric had found a hollow tree or a cave to hole up in safely. “All right,” he said, with a sigh. “Let’s find her. But remember—“ he unslung the girl’s goggles from around his neck and held them out to the animals, “—don’t eat her.”

The raptors sneered at him, and busily sniffed the goggles. “Got it?” Quincy asked. “Good.” Tossing them back around his neck, he took hold of Sparky’s bridle again. The hot, stinking breath and foamy saliva slid out of the animal’s mouth over his gloved hands. He could understand Lyric’s fear of them. They really were terrifying creatures. But that was precisely the reason why they could be so useful.

“Come on, boy,” he said, and lifting up one foot, braced against the harness to vault himself onto the animal’s back. The two females snarled and hooted, and Sparky growled. “Let’s go!” Quincy said. The three raptors howled with glee and took off like a shot, Quincy clinging like a monkey to the male’s back. In seconds they reached the riverbed, cleared it easily in one leap, and, pivoting, kept running along its bank. They moved at a very fast clip, and a couple of minutes later Quincy could tell they were eating up the miles. Miles? How far had Lyric gone?

Quincy’s facility was located far out in the Bitterroot mountain range, down in a valley several miles from the nearest underground city. Though it made getting fresh supplies more difficult, it was closer to the ruins, and thus farther away from the suspicious view of the local government and citizenry. At least law enforcement usually had their hands full where they were.

Suffice to say, there was really no safe place within easy walking distance. You could climb higher up the mountains, where the rocks were more bare and precarious cliffs and steep drops threatened your every step, but Quincy didn’t make a habit of doing that and as far as he knew, nobody else did, either.

But the raptors were climbing. Up the crest of the tall peaks. The riverbed grew smaller and disappeared. Quincy began to have his doubts that the raptors were really following her scent. She was on foot; they should have caught up with her several minutes before. The plants were thinner up here, bunched more closely to the ground, their leaves smaller. The raptors slowed to a trot, hooting and snapping at one another. The steep ridge they were following now looked almost like a road.

And, in fact, it proved to be. The dinosaurs wound around a steep cliff that towered above them, and began to jump and howl, sending loud calls echoing among the peaks.

“Shhh!” Quincy hissed. But the animals didn’t listen. Sparky’s body underneath him was taut and rigid with excitement.

Before them was a massive stone building, cut half into a cliff face, built tall against it, sporting long corridors, arched buttresses, sheltered terraces full of crops, and a lone bell tower with no bell in it, towering over the rest of the edifice.

Then Quincy saw the reason for the raptors’ enthusiasm. Scattered among the grassy brush around and about the building, was what looked like an entire herd of Kentrosaurus. Squat, four-legged, with small heads, vertically plated backs, and long, muscular tails bristling with deadly looking spikes, the animals were, each and every one, staring with unmitigated fury and affront at the three predators that had just appeared in their territory.

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