Life Thief

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Chapter 7

The ruins. As the crags and valleys of the mountains withdrew their shelter, there was nothing to shield the expanse that stretched out across the rolling foothills. Even the trickling riverbed, as it wound its merry way north out of the mountains, seemed to utterly vanish under the gleaming remains of the metropolis that had once been the brainchild society of the Revonet.

Streamline snarled under her breath. The raptors took in the whole landscape with their calculating eyes, their heads darting back and forth, bird-like. Under their energetic clawed feet, the impenetrable road showed not a scratch. Quincy didn’t move; he clung to Sparky’s harness, leaning heavily against the raptor’s taut, powerful, but feather-cushioned back. The pain in his left ankle throbbed, and the stiffness of muscles plagued him everywhere with cuts, strains, and bruises.

An eerie sense of isolation kept buzzing in the back of his mind, a sense of regret and confusion. He felt as though his confidence had been drained out of him, and his tired mind continued to mull and press at options, searching for a framework to bring it back. His experiment was a success. But it had successfully trapped him. Yes, he was alive. He had thought for sure he was dead. Death had stared him in the face with the eyes of an animal whose only existence was to hunt humans. An animal he did not, and could not, control. And on top of that, he was beginning to realize, with mounting trepidation, that he had lost what vestiges of control and command he had had over his own group of animals.

Hours later the scene kept haunting his mind. Sparky had screamed a challenge from somewhere, but Nova had been the first there, deadly strong claws and rancid odor pummeling his bones, the working ligaments of all his limbs. The sour stench of death was everywhere in his mind. He hadn’t been ready to die. Not ready at all. By the time he opened his eyes and realized he wasn’t dead, even as he strained to see in the awful darkness of that smell, of the snarls and snuffles of animals that weren’t trying to kill him. They had defended him. His pants were damp. He had wet them. Yet even as he lay there completely helpless they didn’t kill him. The night wore thick with the far away cries of animals, the bellows of kentrosaurs, the low roars of stygis, the shrieks of raptors.

He had laid there for hours, until light began to tinge the sky. He couldn’t stand; with his ankle, moving was painful; doubtless Nova had kicked him in her flying leap. When he could see, he saw the enormous, sickle-shaped claw of the middle toe of a raptor foot. Sparky was standing in front of him. Letting out a breath, he reached a gloved hand up slowly. Thank God he was wearing his protective gloves. The lower strap of the harness was all he could reach. Sparky moved; dragging him as soon as he had hold of it.

Wincing, he let go. The raptor stopped moving. Again he grabbed painfully at the harness. This time Sparky didn’t move; Quincy was able to drag himself to his feet. The light was so sparse he could hardly see. The bike was there, sprawling on its side, and he thought he saw the box of lab equipment there too. He tried to set weight on his ankle, but a sharp pain shot up his leg and he let out an involuntary yell. All three raptors hooted and shrieked in response, but Sparky still didn’t move.

“You damn beasts,” he whispered. He couldn’t see; his eyes were misting over and his limbs were shaking with terrible tremors. Usually he was used to the rotten stench that clung to the raptors, but right now it was turning his stomach. Deep breathing didn’t help, with three of them close around him. He was so glad Lyric was safe. He didn’t care, at the moment, if the Transgenic Authority found him or not. He should have been dead. Injured as he was, he needed help. He leaned back, struggling not to put weight on his injured ankle, and slowly released Sparky’s harness.

“Get outta here,” he said. “Get.”

The raptors just hooted at him in response. The sound had an eerie quality, more expectant than their usual snarls. All three bobbed their heads, watching him. The feathered crest on Sparky’s head was erect.

“I said GET.” Quincy slapped Sparky on the thigh. A brief snarl, and then more hoots. But they still didn’t move. Quincy shook his head. Maybe he could drag himself back to the building… maybe. But what would happen then, if these animals were still following him? If another squad came? He imagined himself wasting away in the back shed, waiting for rescue, while the dinosaurs killed…hunted… every human being that came close.

Still he had to try. He hobbled a step, and cursed as his foot slipped on another rock. Unable to catch himself, he fell forward—right into Sparky. The animal had backed up to block his fall, and Quincy gripped the leather straps, holding himself steady. What were they doing? As the light continued to fill the sky, he saw that Streamline was perched up on the bank of the riverbed. She let out a shriek. The other two hooted in reply.

Quincy still felt his limbs shaking. Their behavior was making him nervous. He felt sweat beading across his forehead, and he started talking—anything to calm down, regain control. “Look, kids. I’m hurt. I’ve got to get back, and I can’t have you killing anybody who walks up. How ‘bout we go back—nice and easy—watch it Sparky—and I put you three back in the cage? Cut you some kentrosaur steaks. Of course, I’d rather you all three just run off so you don’t get killed.” The raptors hooted in agreement.

Quincy took a deep breath. What other choice did he have? Reaching across Sparky’s back, he took hold of the other side of the harness, and, bracing his good foot, clumsily dragged himself onto the animal’s body. He had done this a hundred times before… but it wasn’t very easy with a sprained ankle and who knew what else. Sparky stayed stock still, stiff-tailed, head turned as he eyed Quincy.

“All right,” Quincy said, once he was securely situated. “Home.” He whistled.

All three raptors exploded in a chorus of shrieks and hoots, spun, and dashed down the riverbed. Down the riverbed. Heading northeast. The opposite direction from his building, and from the Undermine.

No—“

The sinking feeling that pinched his gut as they had carried him farther and farther away didn’t leave when they had finally paused, far down the road to the ruins.

Yes. He had been successful. They would not kill him. Of course, he had never put himself in a position of such vulnerability before. You just don’t test fate like that. But it was a hollow victory, a victory of dread. His own animals had kidnapped him. He told himself they were just acting protectively as they would any member of the pack. They were, deliberately it seemed, removing him from the reach of his fellow human beings, which they still viewed as prey or even, possibly, as threats.

Quincy stared out over the ruins, shimmering spires and arching highways linking enormous complexes. And all of it oddly tainted, dimmed, by the huge overgrowth of jungle that choked the roadways, strangled the spires, and spread pompously across the walls and windows of every building. Once it had been home to many people, families. This had been a farflung town—heading north to Missoula would have revealed a conglomerate of civilization even more staggering. All of it ordered decently well by the prescriptions of the Revonet.

Decently well, that is, until the deaths started.

New animal populations that promised a revitalization of the shriveling ecosystem that was left around the ever-growing human and computer expansion. New animal populations. That promised what? A revitalization of the ecosystem? Human beings were on the food chain! The death tolls continued to climb. People began to panic. But the Revonet wouldn’t grant permission for them to relocate to the larger cities. Blocked transportation, hung up with computer codes, left people in the wake of the growing terror.

Quincy shook his head hard. That was all over now. It was gone. The Revonet was gone. Only its… new animal populations… remained. There were no people left here. The towns and cities in the lowlands had been completely taken over by dinosaurs. People thought raptors were frightening. They were nothing compared to the things that lurked below. Things that, on his previous forays into the ruins, Quincy had sometimes seen, and more often been lucky enough to avoid.

He had seen a Tyrannosaurus ignirugiens once. From far away. It had not seen him, and that was why he was still alive.

He wasn’t sure if he knew why he was still alive now.

The raptors growled softly at one another. Quincy started to shift his weight, to slide off of Sparky, but the animal side-stepped, unbalancing him. “Sparky,” he snapped. “Hold still.” Even so he realized it was useless. He couldn’t walk. He was miles away from any human habitation now, far beyond where any patrols or supply caravans would pass. Unless the Transgenic Authority squad knew to track raptors in a riverbed, they wouldn’t find him either. He was nothing but dinosaur bait out here.

Dinosaur bait, and a dinosaur captive.

~*~*~

It was late in the evening when Fr. Antonie saw the flare. It shot up high in the sky, a bright flash that trailed a cloud of yellow smoke. It came from up the mountain, from the Valley of the Pious, where the monastery was. Fr. Antonie slowly crossed himself—he was in the middle of saying Compline—and took the time to finish his office. The smell of incense had long since soaked into the cement walls from frequent use. In the peaceful silence before the tabernacle, the holy heaviness of the protection of his own interior by grace and obedience alone, the world outside with all its troubles would drop regularly away.

It was a lucid heaviness, an invigorating one, that spurred to action. Fr. Antonie finished the office and tucked his breviary into his pocket.

But not even Antonie de Vries would travel up the mountain alone at night. He waited until morning. The crisp dawn had barely begun to illuminate the compound before a thin figure, a long armored coat and hood over his cassock, stepped from the church, shutting the door securely before him. The alien visage of a gas mask peered out from under his hood.

Plasmator hominis, Deus… qui cuncta solus ordinans.

Stun stick. Rifle. Pockets full of incendiaries and nerve grenades. The dust swirled from the road under his boots as Fr. Antonie swung in a slow circle, deep-set eyes behind the mask taking in every shadow.

Humum iubes producere reptantis et ferae genus.

Silently he slid the gun down and lifted it to line up the sight. A hissing snarl came from the trees below him.

Qui magna rerum corpora, dictu iubentis vivida…

The rifle cracked, the gunshot splitting the still morning air. Cries and bellows of animals, and the shrieks of birds wafted from the forests, most of the sounds far away. From behind, silently, a stiff-tailed shape leaped through the air, deadly claws angled towards the thin man in black.

Ut serviant per ordinem…

Fr. Antonie pivoted, his stun stick thrusting between the animal’s jaws. A plume of gas exploded in its face, and its momentum continued to carry it, writhing and thrashing in mid-air, to crash in a paralyzed heap at the priest’s feet.

Subdens dedisti homini.

Fr. Antonie did not stick around to wait until the animal began to stir again. He swiftly went up the road, the gas mask he wore giving his long-robed appearance a freakish, alien countenance. He heard a few shrieks from the trees, and then again, farther away, as if in retreat.

The sun continued to climb steadily in the sky, and the cool mountain chill of the morning began to give way to the steamy heat that not even the mountains escaped, these days. The few miles’ walk to the monastery was on a steep incline, and Fr. Antonie took it slowly and strategically, along a practiced route, avoiding certain areas, keeping close to the vantage point of ridges along the peaks.

It was just about time for Terce when Fr. Antonie came vaulting up into the valley. A kentrosaur jerked its head up, startled at this strange black figure, and bellowed. Other small, beaked heads lifted to stare, but after a tense moment of confusion in the herd, the animals relaxed and turned back to their grazing. Fr. Antonie wound his way through them, heading for the door of the monastery.

“Brother Augustine,” he said, and pushed his hood back, peeling off the gas mask. A warm smile creased his face. “Glad to see everything’s still standing. I saw your flare last night.”

The monk standing by the door returned the smile, holding out a hand. “Father de Vries,” he said. “We are always blessed by your timely responses.”

Fr. Antonie grasped the monk’s hand in his reinforced glove and gave it a single shake. “Is something wrong? The observers will probably show up later in the day, but is there anything I can do?”

“Actually, the reason we sent the flare up,” Brother Augustine said, “is that we have a refugee staying here with us. Brother Paphnutius found her on Thursday while he was out doing survey. She’s fine, but she’s distressed about her uncle, who is out on some very bad business. We aren’t equipped to escort her back to the Undermine, or anywhere else.”

“Bad business, huh? What sort of business?” Fr. Antonie raised an eyebrow.

“Harboring dinosaurs.”

“Interesting,” Fr. Antonie said. “I had a group of men from the Transgenic Authority at morning mass yesterday. They were out on investigation of someone who was harboring dinosaurs aboveground.”

“Well,” Brother Augustine said, “it sounds like Lyric’s uncle will be apprehended safely, then.”

“I’m not so sure, myself,” Fr. Antonie said. “They seemed like they could handle themselves, but a man who is harboring dinosaurs might be all kinds of unpredictable. They said he had released the animals to kill the previous squad.”

“That’s what Lyric told us,” Brother Augustine said. “She was there. She saw the whole thing.”

“Oooh.” Fr. Antonie sucked in a breath. “You don’t suppose they might come and arrest her as an accomplice?”

“She’s fifteen years old, Father,” Brother Augustine shook his head. “And terrified. I think he took her out there without her really knowing what he was doing.”

“No doubt they’ll question her at least.” Fr. Antonie pulled off his gloves. “I’d like to talk to her. Lyric, right? If need be I can escort her home, as well. But I may not need to. I suspect the squad will be back this way once they have their man.”

“By all means,” Brother Augustine said. “She’s in the library. And yes, her name is Lyric. Go on in. Take that stuff off, first, though.”

“Thank you, Brother.” Fr. Antonie smiled as he shed his coat and his weapons. Brother Augustine stepped over to unlock the outdoor bunker. The priest carefully stashed his volatiles and mask, draping his armored coat and hood over his arm. “Does Father Columba ever let you off of door duty?”

“Not this week.”

“Then serve God with joy and gladness, my friend.” Fr. Antonie signed a blessing over the monk, and Brother Augustine dropped to one knee in acknowledgement, pushing the door open for him.

The monastery was as clean, spacious, and good-smelling as ever. Fr. Antonie straightened and took a deep breath. He truly would spend more time here, if not for his duty at the compound and St. Vito’s. Duty was far sweeter, but Fr. Antonie could enjoy the brief visits his duty allowed him. He hung his coat on one of the hooks in the entryway, and breezed down the cloister, his treaded military boots echoing a staccato as he walked.

He found the girl in the library, sitting up on a bench and staring out one of the windows. An open book that yet looked unread sat at her side on the bench. She was small, her light brown hair pulled messily to one side with an elastic. She was wearing a dressed-down version of the popular modest style that most women in the Bitterroot Undermine adopted these days, with a floor-length skirt, blouse, and a decorative scarf tied round the neck. Her clothes were thicker, made of more utilitarian materials, and her blouse was untucked, lacking any bodice or vest. She also wore elbow-length work gloves, and had a pair of protective goggles slung around her neck by an elastic band.

“Lyric?” Fr. Antonie shifted his weight to one side, clearing his throat. One hand dipped involuntarily into the pocket of his cassock to the bottle of holy water he kept there.

The girl jumped up, turning around to face him. “Have you come—oh.” Disappointment crossed her face, then confusion as she looked him over. “I thought you were a monk. But you aren’t a monk.”

“Not exactly, no,” Fr. Antonie said. “I’m a priest. I work at a church south of here. I saw the flare last night, so I came up this morning to see what was wrong.”

“You walked?”

“Yes.” Fr. Antonie smirked. “I walked.”

“Alone?”

“Yes.”

Lyric’s eyes grew wide. “How?”

“I could show you,” Fr. Antonie said, “but Brother Augustine made me leave all of my guns and grenades outside.”

Lyric burst into a spontaneous giggle, then covered her mouth to quell it. Fr. Antonie smiled. “What’s that you’re reading?” he asked.

Lyric turned around to look at the book that lay on the bench. “It’s Dr. Blevin’s chemical analysis of the prospective behavior of genetically modified organisms and their proteins.”

“So you’re an intellectual, eh?”

“Well,” Lyric mumbled, “not really. I’m just trying to figure out what Quincy did.” She looked back at the priest. “He’s my uncle. He’s in trouble and he needs help. Can you help me find him?”

“I think,” Fr. Antonie said, “that there’s a Transgenic Authority squad out looking for him. They might even have found him.”

Lyric shook her head. “No, he’s in trouble. He’s got those dinosaurs. They killed the first squad. They might have killed this one too.”

Fr. Antonie gazed into her earnest face. “What, then,” he said, “do you imagine I could do about it? They might just as easily kill me.”

“Well,” she said, “you walked here. And you’re a monk. I mean, a priest.”

He smiled. “What does my being a priest have to do with it? If anything, my being a priest means I should stay at my church, serve Mass, and pray for the squads out there fighting dinosaurs.”

“No,” she said, “you’re different. They won’t kill you.”

“On the contrary,” he said, “I’ve heard that they won’t kill you.”

Lyric fell silent, staring at the ground. “I don’t know why,” she said. “I think Quincy did something to them, with his smell, some chemical influence, so they don’t attack him. And he’s my uncle so maybe I have the same smell.”

“Doesn’t God work in mysterious ways?” Fr. Antonie mused. “Smart. If you were a lightbulb, the kentrosaurs would have snuffed you out.”

Lyric giggled.

Fr. Antonie folded his arms and smiled. “Anyway, you don’t need to rely on me. I’m the closest, so I got here first, but there will be others showing up in response to that flare. If the squad found your uncle—if they didn’t get killed—they’ll probably drop by here, too, and you can go home with them.”

“No,” Lyric said, her face becoming drawn and serious again. “I think… I think he’s going to the ruins. It would be too dangerous for them to follow him.”

“Why ever would he go there?”

“If the squad seized his equipment, he would want to get more,” Lyric said. “So that he can keep training dinosaurs.”

“I don’t want to question your analysis,” Fr. Antonie said, “because you were with him in the midst of this experiment of his. But there’s really no way that we can know who out there now is dead—or alive. If he has powerful animals with him that won’t attack him, he is, perhaps, a bit safer. All we can really do is pray.”

“I already prayed,” Lyric said. “I don’t want to pray! I want to help him!”

Fr. Antonie held up a hand gently. “Of course you do, Lyric. Do your parents—“

“My parents are dead!”

“Ah, my dear, I’m sorry. Forgive me.” The priest smiled sadly. “If I had an easy way to contact that squad, I would. I saw them yesterday morning. They were well-equipped. I’ll tell you what—I’ll go up to the top of the peak, where the monks do their surveys. I’ll see what I can see. You can come with me, if you want. It’s safe enough up there.”

“Yes, let’s go.” Lyric pulled her goggles on. “Take your grenades, though.”

“I will, my dear, I will. I hope you’ve had breakfast.”

“Yeah. Can we go now?”

“Very soon. Let me inform Father Columba.”

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