Life Thief

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Chapter 6

The silence in the halls was still profound; Lyric almost felt like a little child again, creeping around the echoing, sunlit stone. The sunlight had an eerie, alien quality, leaping here and away again, interspersed with the long shadows of the architecture and the moving kentrosaurs outside in the valley. Lyric had become used to softer, less obtrusive light; the womb-like caverns of the enclosed Undermine had a similar silence but a more protected one.

A questioning groan from one of the animals sounded far away, outside the thick stone. It seemed not even to pierce the air in here. Even the exchange of outcries between the placid herbivores and the invading raptors last night had felt oddly far away, as if no sight or sound could penetrate the inviolability of the monastery walls. The shrill, sour terror of the quick, feathered creatures, that had so consumed her mind with fear, seemed like it could not touch her.

She had done what the monk suggested. She had prayed, and asked the thing that most distressed her mind: that Quincy wouldn’t find her here. He hadn’t; the raptors had left. But she almost regretted it. Quincy was all she had. It wasn’t that she didn’t want him to find her. She just wanted him to get rid of those dinosaurs first.

The morning sun moved again, spilling into a large pool on the entryway floor as Lyric carefully pushed the front door of the monastery open. She was startled to see a monk perched there on the heavy stone balustrade. It was the same one who had been there at the door yesterday, she thought. She couldn’t remember his name. They had weird, long names. Brother something.

The breeze was cool today; it stirred the monk’s cowl and beard as he smiled at her, a hearty crinkle turning up the corners of his eyes. “Good morning,” he said. “Sleep well?”

Lyric fidgeted. “Yeah,” she said. She had slept in and felt much more refreshed for it, but it seemed like the monks had been up for hours already. Her gaze carried past the monk on the balustrade, down the stone steps, into the trampled valley, moving with kentrosaurs, stretching long back towards the cresting opposite peak, around which the raptors had come last night. “He’s really gone?”

“It seems so,” the monk said. “I walked the whole valley this morning to see what I could find. Nothing but raptor tracks, and this.” He held out a pair of goggles.

Lyric stifled a yelp. “Those are mine,” she whispered, and reached for them. The monk let her have them, and she turned them over in her hands. They were dirty, almost sticky, with what she did not want to imagine. She had tied her hair back this morning; she pulled the goggles on over her head, blinking at the world through the smeared but familiar thick glass. Quincy had insisted on gloves and goggles while she was with him, not just in case of need of handling the electrical and steam equipment, but also for doing any sort of work around the dinosaurs. Their dust and terrible smell was omnipresent, and they had a habit of attacking the cage bars. At least a little protection was expedient.

“It seems,” the monk said, “that your friend Quincy dropped them off for you.”

Lyric sniffled, and pushed the goggles up onto her head so that she could wipe her eyes. “He’s not that bad,” she said.

“Whatever he’s doing that is… let’s say highly questionable,” the monk said, “I’m sure he cares about you. He probably wanted to make sure that you were all right, since you ran off by yourself.”

“I couldn’t—“

“I’m not saying you didn’t have good reason,” he said, “but anyone would worry. It can be pretty dangerous out there. I’m glad Brother Paphnutius saw you and brought you up. Will they miss you, at the Undermine? Is someone looking out for you there?”

“There’s just Quincy,” Lyric mumbled. “He had clearance to have me aboveground with him.”

“Clearance to do what?” the monk asked.

“I… I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think he’s supposed to have the dinosaurs. He talks and acts like it’s all very important, though.”

“Did the men who showed up say who they were?”

“Transgenic… containment?” Lyric tried to remember.

The monk nodded as if everything had just come together. “I see. That makes sense. They’ll be sending another investigation out probably today, then, if their fellows didn’t… come back.”

Lyric shivered.

“We’ll say a prayer for them,” the monk said softly. “That’s no way to die. We pray every day for those who are in danger from these animals. The remnants of the designs of the Revonet live in them.”

“Even them?” Lyric pointed at the kentrosaurs.

“Yes,” he said, “but even they were used for a good purpose, in the ineffable plan of God.”

“Why would God plan all this? It’s awful.”

“Awful, to provide a living key to breaking the Revonet’s control?” The monk smiled.

“But why let it happen in the first place?”

“Because we have autonomy. The ability of choice comes with the freedom to choose evil. God is a gentleman, Lyric. He created us for himself, but doesn’t force us to conform. We are free to destroy ourselves.”

“It was the computer that wanted to destroy us,” Lyric corrected him.

“Who made that computer? Who programmed it?”

Lyric shook her head. “It was wrong,” she said.

“It was,” the monk agreed. “But within life itself God has his stamp, and he provided us a way out of our own folly. Now we pray, only pray that every human being that still remains would have the strength and the grace to hold fast, in the face of death and danger, to making the right choices. This world is a desolate place without the leaven of righteousness and truth. Like hard, flat bread—no yeast, right? Leaven makes it rise. And then life is sweet. One purpose of our life, as monks, is to stand still, while others work and rush by in life to provide for and protect human society. To stand still as a reminder of the purpose of everything human beings do.”

“You stand still? Is that what you do in there all day?” Lyric frowned.

The monk laughed. “Not literally. We stand still in the sense that we follow the same rhythm every day—we rise at the same time, we pray, we chant, we work, we pray again, we work, we eat, we pray, we go to bed—every day it’s the same, according to ancient traditions. By traditions, I don’t mean the curriculums of the Revonet. This is far older.”

“How old?”

“Thousands and thousands of years old. A way of life that’s been kept and passed down from long before computers were even invented.”

Lyric shook her head. “No computers… that means no dinosaurs, at least. Back in the time before cows went extinct.”

“Yes, so I’ve heard. I wasn’t there.” The monk smiled, and nodded at the goggles on her head. “So you’ve got your equipment back, and we don’t know where Quincy and his dinosaurs are. We can assume there will be another transgenic containment squad visiting his place.” Thoughtfully he tapped his ring finger against a wool-robe-clad knee. “He probably won’t be there. But I’m not sure he would come back here. I’m not sure the squad would stop by here, either.”

“Am I stuck here?” Lyric asked.

“For the moment, I don’t think it’s safe for you to leave by yourself,” he said. He gazed at Lyric as she began to pull her face into a heavy sigh. “I’m sure we can find a way to occupy you until someone comes up here, or until we’re able to take you back to the city. What were you studying in school?”

“Chemistry,” she said, “and history.”

“Excellent topics,” the monk said approvingly. “Would you like to see our library?”

Lyric hesitated, then nodded. Books were a scarce commodity in the Undermine, and what was written down or printed was all from memory by the survivors. Whatever digital libraries had existed before the crash of the Revonet, they were gone, or at least no one could access them now.

“I’m on duty to watch the door,” the monk said, “but if you go inside, go the right, and follow the cloister down, there’s a hallway to your left. Go down that and the library is at the end of it. Brother Paphnutius is there right now. Might even be playing around on his guitar if you’re lucky.”

“Are monks supposed to play guitars?” Lyric asked.

“It’s certainly not our main duty,” the monk said, “but it’s all right to relax the mind once in a while. We have some sheet music—old notation—in our library. He catalogues it.”

“What else do you have?” Lyric was curious.

“Go and see,” the monk said with a smile.

Lyric shrugged, and turned to go back inside. She closed the door behind her as quietly as she could, and padded down the stone cloister. The sun was getting higher in the sky, now, and winked invitingly against the plain tapestries and other sparse decoration that spotted the walls here and there. She passed by the statue of—what had Brother Paphnutius called her? Our Lady? Blessed Mother?—, and then by another doorway. Lyric brightened. She had figured out earlier that morning that this large hall was where the monks ate their meals. She poked her head in. An older monk, his face wrinkled up in a big smile, was tottering in a steady glide around the room as he swept it. Probably she wouldn’t be able to grab a snack or anything. She ducked back out and kept walking.

The big double doors at the end of the hall that the monk had indicated were even more massive than the front door. Tall and solid, they reminded her of a vault. Could she just walk in? Lyric thought she’d better try knocking first, so she raised a hand and rapped on the door with her knuckles.

No answer came immediately. Lyric fidgeted. Then the sound of a latch being thrown and a bolt drawn back echoed from behind the big door, and it creaked open. Brother Paphnutius peeked out, the round tip of his nose poking out above his fanning beard from under his cowl. “Hello, Lyric!” he said. “Come to see the library?”

“Um, yes,” she said.

Brother Paphnutius gave the door a shove, swinging it open further. “Come in, come in.” Lyric followed him in, and looking around, sucked in her breath.

The room was enormous, with double stone walls and barred windows like the rest of the monastery. Books, scrolls, and files filled walls of shelves that stretched all the way to the ceiling. Stacks of datastream chips were laid out in rows in certain sections. Desks, writing implements, and machines that Lyric guessed must be printing presses lined the walls that were empty of bookshelves. In the center of the room was a brick wood stove. It wasn’t burning; the ashes were cold.

“I’ve never seen so many books,” Lyric said.

“No one has, not anymore,” Brother Paphnutius said. He sat down on the chair he had vacated to answer the door, flipping through a sheaf of papers dotted with lines and several series of small black notes. Leaning to one side, he picked up the guitar that had been leaning on his chair, cradling it in his lap.

Lyric listened to him play for a few minutes, as he studied the pages of music on the stand before him. It was quiet music, simple, with a few pure harmonies that seemed to happen simultaneously on the twanging gut guitar strings. It made a nice background to what she really wanted to do, which was look at some of the books. There were so many, she didn’t know where to start.

The guitar plucked rhythmically. Lyric turned in place, casting her gaze from shelf to shelf, from barred window to barred window. She stopped for a minute, her skin jumping suddenly as she felt sure she saw a malevolent avian eye staring at her from a long-jawed head in one of the windows. Just as soon as she thought she saw it, it wasn’t there. Maybe it had never been there. She could have imagined it. Already her mind was trying to fill with the awful images and sounds of the men whom the animals had killed. She pushed them away. Nevertheless, her heart was pounding. She shivered and rubbed her arms.

“I know it’s a little chilly in here,” Brother Paphnutius said, apologetically. His long fingers slid off of the guitar’s neck as he paused his playing.

“It’s not that,” Lyric said. “It’s just… I keep thinking I see them.”

“See who?”

“The raptors.”

Brother Paphnutius nodded. “I understand. They wouldn’t really be able to get close to the building, though, without the kentrosaurs raising a fuss.”

“Are you sure?”

“They’re pretty good at smelling predators,” Brother Paphnutius said. “I wouldn’t worry.” He smiled. “You’re worried, though.”

“I don’t know what Quincy did to them,” she said.

“They don’t attack him,” Brother Paphnutius said. “Is that what you mean?”

Lyric nodded.

“Did he train them—raise them up from eggs?”

"I don’t know. But he had lab equipment, and electricity, in the back shed. He’s not supposed to have electricity. Not up on the surface.”

“No,” Brother Paphnutius seemed surprised. “I’m surprised the kentrosaurs don’t come along and knock it out.”

“They try,” she said, “but there’s not a whole herd or anything. He just feeds them to his raptors.”

Brother Paphnutius shook his head. “That’s a dangerous game to be playing. I wish that he could have gotten permission and better facility for it.” He ran his hand thoughtfully over the guitar strings. “You were out there for an internship with him, but he didn’t tell you if he raised them, or what the rest of his process was?”

“I wasn’t out there for very long,” she said. “Just a couple of days, before the men showed up. He was trying to get me used to… to the animals.”

Brother Paphnutius seemed lost in thought for a minute. Then he pulled a couple of sheets of paper from the stack in front of him and laid them on his stand. “We talked about animals the other day,” he said. “I know the computer made these ones, but think about it: what did it make them out of?”

Lyric further pushed thoughts of the animals and Quincy out of her mind, trying to recall her history lessons. “I think it didn’t make them out of nothing. There used to be all kinds of animals. They evolved in the world, naturally. So the dinosaurs are made of animals that also used to live, that nobody had seen. Gradually a lot of animals became extinct, and only a few types were left by the time the last of human nations was put under the governance of the Revonet. Dinosaurs were extinct for a long time, but they used to be the dominant species on the planet. A long, long time ago. They were terrifying. That was why the computer re-created them; so that they would replace us.”

“Yet they’re still only animals. They aren’t intelligent. They can’t reason, they can’t build cities underground, they are merely brute beasts, big and powerful and deadly, yes, but do you really think they’ll prevail? We already have the Undermines. People are safe from dinosaurs there, aren’t they? We have our monastery, here, and we live next to a whole herd of kentrosaurs for a reason. There’s just certain rules we have to follow, rules of a nature that might be a little contrived by a computer, but they are consistent natural laws nonetheless. These animals wouldn’t be alive otherwise.”

Brother Paphnutius reached up and tapped his forehead. “God gave man the power of reason. Made in his own image. We don’t need to be afraid. Not of animals. Even when there weren’t dinosaurs, there were still dangerous animals. Sometimes they killed people. Were people afraid? No. More often it was the people who killed the dangerous animals. No size, strength, strange powers, number of teeth nor power of jaw is a match for the determined mind of a human being. That is the reality that your friend Quincy is leaning on, in trying to… train these raptors. He’s just… well, he’s not doing it right. He’s got a skewed view of what he’s doing. He’s putting his project above human lives, and that’s wrong.”

“I don’t see why we wouldn’t be scared of dinosaurs,” Lyric said.

“Well, there’s a healthy respect and a humility to be had,” Brother Paphnutius said, “that’s true. But here’s something else I want to show you.” Setting his guitar down, he stood up again, and crossed to one of the bookshelves.

“Where did you get all these books?” Lyric wanted to know. “Nobody has books.”

“Many of them, believe it or not, we have written or printed ourselves,” the monk said, “mostly from datastreams, when we could still access datastreams. Others are copies made of books that have been carefully preserved. There’s some old stuff in here, and newer stuff as well. We have Dr. Hal Blevin’s treatises on genetic re-creation. We have Dr. Lavern Quinn’s maps of cyborg experiments. Those failed, as we all know. We have Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Pliny, and Virgil and the great pagan philosophers. We have the writings of the Church Fathers and Doctors. We have Aristotle, Plato, Clement, Origen, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine… ah, here’s what I wanted to show you.” Brother Paphnutius pulled out a book. “The Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian.”

“The what?”

“Venetian. He was from Venice. An ancient nation bulwarked by the sea, one of the longest-running unconquered empires in the history of the world. Until it finally fell, as all nations and empires do.” Brother Paphnutius carried the book over, flipping through it. A few pages were already bookmarked; he handed the open book to Lyric.

Lyric took the book gingerly, looking at it. Leather bound, the smell of paper and ink carefully block-printed into letters on the page. One long paragraph was highlighted.

Here are seen huge serpents, ten paces in length, and ten spans in the girt of its body,” the passage read. “At the fore part, near the head, they have two short legs, having three claws like those of a tiger, with eyes larger than a fourpenny loaf (pane da quattro denari) and very glaring. The jaws are wide enough to swallow a man, the teeth are large and sharp, and their whole appearance is so formidable, that neither man, nor any kind of animal, can approach them without terror.

Lyric agreed wholeheartedly. But she kept reading.

Others are met with a smaller size, being eight, six, or five paces long; and the following method is used for taking them. In the day-time, by reason of the great heat, they lurk in caverns, from whence, at night, they issue to seek their food, and whatever beast they meet with and can lay hold of, whether tiger, wolf, or any other, they devour; after which they drag themselves towards some lake, spring of water, or river, in order to drink. By their motion in this way along the shore, and their vast weight, they make a deep impression, as if a heavy beam had been drawn along the sands. Those whose employment is to hunt them observe the track by which they are most frequently accustomed to go, and fix into the ground several pieces of wood armed with sharp iron spikes, which they cover with the sand in such a manner as not to be perceptible. When therefore the animals make their way towards the places they usually haunt, they are wounded by these instruments, and speedily killed.

“Huh,” Lyric said.

“People were hunting these huge dangerous creatures,” Brother Paphnutius said, “long before they even had guns. You see what the human mind is capable of? We can observe them, observe their habits, and use that knowledge accordingly to outsmart them. I was out tracking the herbivore populations yesterday, when I saw you. We keep tabs on the animals. We highlighted this passage because it reminds us of our place in the universe—above them. They are amazing, wonderfully wrought. We are even more so. Our responsibility is far greater, the work we have to do far more difficult and perilous. But God will help us do it.”

Lyric closed the book and handed it back to him. Brother Paphnutius took it. “There’s nothing in there,” Lyric said, “about trying to live with them. Just killing them.”

“Perhaps that is what should be done with creatures like that,” Brother Paphnutius said. He smiled. “There’s a reason Quincy isn’t trying to use an animal ten paces long.”

“How long is ten paces?”

“A pace is about three feet,” Brother Paphnutius said, and in demonstration he turned and took ten long, quick steps back towards the bookshelf. With each step he took, Lyric’s eyes grew wider and wider. As frightening as the raptors were, she never, never wanted to see a dinosaur that big. Oh, there were dinosaurs that big, and bigger, so everyone knew. But they stayed in the ruins, in the lower elevations. She still didn’t want to see one.

“How wide is ten spans?” she squeaked.

Brother Paphnutius turned and held out a hand, stretched with the palm raised. “About the length of my hand here, from the tip of the middle finger to the wrists. Eight inches or so. Ten of these—“ Tucking the book under his arm, he started to walk his hands through the air, one after the other, until he had counted ten.

“That’s too big…” Lyric said.

“Not too big for it to be observed in its habits, tricked, and killed, though,” Brother Paphnutius said with a grin, and he went to put the book back on the shelf. “Don’t you think people kill dinosaurs nowadays?”

“Well, yeah,” Lyric said. “But mostly we hide from them because there’s too many of them.”

“And so far, a systemic extermination or reliable defense hasn’t been found, is that it?”

Lyric nodded. “That’s why Quincy wants to use the raptors. He wants to use them to protect people, and kill the other dinosaurs, the bigger ones that we wouldn’t be able to train.”

“It’s not a totally off the wall idea,” Brother Paphnutius said. “We use the kentrosaurs for something like that, indirectly. But raptors are creatures of far different habits. The way he’s trying to do this might be outright dangerous and very ill-advised.”

“He kept them in a cage,” Lyric said. “But he would let them out, he would take them outside with him. Usually one at a time. He didn’t let them all out until those men showed up. They don’t attack him, and they… well they didn’t attack me when they were loose, either.”

“So he has that good of control over them, that he can select who he wants them to attack, even when they’re loose?” Quincy raised his eyebrows. “That’s pretty impressive. I wonder how he accomplished that.”

“No, he told me that he can’t do that,” Lyric shook her head. “But I don’t know why they didn’t attack me. They ran right past me to the men.”

“The grace of God, perhaps.” Brother Paphnutius smiled.

Lyric shook her head. “He was doing something else. Something weird. I don’t know what, though.”

“You said he had lab equipment, and electricity. Was he doing something with that?”

“Probably.”

“But what, I wonder,” Brother Paphnutius gazed up at the high stone ceiling, criss-crossed with crude arches. “These animals are genetically engineered anyway. Maybe he’s altering them? I’m not a scientist, though. I’m not sure that’s even possible without the technology the Revonet used to have. Even if it were possible, it’s probably a very bad idea. We don’t have computers to track what’s happening with something that complex. It could have terrible unintended consequences.”

“He didn’t have a computer,” Lyric said. “I don’t think. Just a set of funky looking little machines. It looked like stuff from an earlier time, you know, before everyone had to leave the ruins, they have pictures of that stuff in the books. But I think if he could change the raptors into helpful animals he would, and they wouldn’t look and act like that because it’s too dangerous.”

“I wonder,” Brother Paphnutius said, “where do you suppose he got that equipment? There’s no Undermine anywhere that has the technology to make the stuff from the Revonet laboratories. Nor do they want to.”

“I didn’t think about that,” Lyric said. “He must have got it from somebody who got it from… down below.”

“Or he got it himself.”

Lyric shook her head vehemently. “It’s too dangerous down there. Quincy wouldn’t go down there.”

“How do you know?”

Lyric just kept shaking her head, her eyes filling with tears.

Brother Paphnutius said no more, but he stood there, one hand on his chin, stroking his beard, as if lost in thought. “Hmm,” he said after a minute. “Hmmm.”

Lyric wiped her eyes and turned back towards the bookshelves. She didn’t want to think about that. Even if Quincy had gone down there, he had made it back safely, and probably knew better by now. He wouldn’t go back. He’d gotten what he needed. Unless more men came and destroyed it. Or the kentrosaurs destroyed it while he was gone. He said that was always a problem. What if that happened and then he did have to go down there? What if the men they sent chased him down there?

Brother Paphnutius was still standing off by the bookshelves, lost in thought. Lyric wiped her face, and pulled her goggles down from the top of her head over her eyes. Taking her gloves from her pocket, she put them on. “Quincy needs me,” she said.

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