Life Thief

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Chapter 9

The late morning sun was white and weak, but the mountain breeze was warm enough that Fr. Antonie was working up a sweat under his coat. Lyric had had a wonderful time listening to his explanations of all the weaponry he was carrying, but now she sat silently perched on the highest hillock of the monks’ survey peak, tensely watching the valley below. There was no movement, no real signs of life visible in the trees from up here.

Far away, in the lowlands of the ruins, Fr. Antonie saw a plume of smoke. That was rare, but not unheard of. A few miles behind that one, he saw another strip of smoke that ran parallel. Two smoke plumes at once was more unusual.

Lyric saw it too. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing.

“Smoke plumes,” Fr. Antonie said. “They’re made by one of the dinosaurs.”

“A big one?”

“Yes. One of the biggest. They don’t appear very often. I’m concerned that I see two of them.”

“Two dinosaurs?” Lyric leaned forward, peering through her goggles as if straining to see the dinosaurs from so far up.

“Two smoke plumes,” Fr. Antonie said. “I’ve never heard of two of them being in the same vicinity. These are only a few miles apart.”

Lyric frowned, pushing her goggles up onto the top of her head. “What does it mean?”

“I don’t know,” Fr. Antonie said, “but look—“ he pointed. “You can see a flock of birds up there around one of them. That’s also unusual.”

“I hope Quincy isn’t down there,” Lyric said sadly. “But I’m afraid he is.”

“It’s also possible that Containment Authority found him,” Fr. Antonie said. He turned in a slow circle, giving another calculating sweep to the area to make sure it was clear of threats. “If not, well—ah, look. Our friends have arrived.”

“Friends?” Lyric stood up and turned around to look. Down below them, in the Pious Valley, the kentrosaurs kicked up a stir as they lumbered, bellowing, away from the south end of the valley. Two armored cars were pulling up the road, raising clouds of dust.

“Some of the monastery’s observers,” Fr. Antonie said. “In response to the flare.”

Lyric stretched up on her toes, gazing down with wide eyes. “I didn’t know they still brought cars out here. There aren’t any tracks.”

“They have diesel engines, not steam,” Fr. Antonie said. “They’re more like bikes—steered manually. Can’t go as many places, but they’re a lot safer. See all that armor? That’s reinforced chromium and steel alloy.” As the two of them watched, the cars rolled up to the monastery, stopped, and disgorged about six people each, all in a mish-mash of popular fashions and protective gear. Brother Augustine, at the door, was standing to greet them. Each of them came up to shake hands—it was hard to tell from this distance, but Fr. Antonie thought that there were a few women in the group as well as men. “I wonder,” he said.

“Wonder what?” Lyric wanted to know.

“Who they are,” Fr. Antonie said. “I’ve met plenty of observers, and they’re good and devoted friends of mine. They come from all walks of life.”

“They don’t just wait for flares to go off?”

Fr. Antonie laughed. “No,” he said. “They have lives of their own. They just keep an eye out—and some of them have access to resources, like those cars.”

“I thought cars on the surface was a thing long gone,” Lyric said. “Ever since we built the underground railroads.”

“You’re right,” Fr. Antonie said, “it’s fallen into disuse. But the vehicles are still around for emergency use.”

“Is this an emergency?”

“Letting off a flare can indicate that,” Fr. Antonie said, “but actually, the flares are color-coded for level of urgency.”

“Was the flare we set off an emergency code?”

“No, it was a lower level color.” Fr. Antonie smiled. “High enough to bring people as soon as they could easily come, but low enough not to make them hurry too much.”

“Quincy could be dead out there!” Lyric said.

“He could be,” Fr. Antonie said, gently, “but he could also be alive. There’s no way for us to know, right now. But that’s why these people are here.”

Lyric’s face dropped in relief, and she pulled her goggles back on. “Good. I’m going to go and talk to them.”

“One more sweep,” Fr. Antonie said, and he turned back to look over the mountain. After a few seconds, he turned to Lyric and nodded. “We’re clear. Let’s go.” He picked up his rifle, and Lyric jumped down from the rocky peak she stood on. The two of them wound their way back down towards the valley.

Brother Augustine was pointing north down the mountain as they walked up. Two men and a woman stood near him, listening intently. “They had reason to suspect that—“ He stopped talking to smile at Fr. Antonie and Lyric as the two walked up. “And here she is, this is Lyric. You know Father de Vries.”

“Indeed I do,” the larger man reached out to shake Fr. Antonie’s hand.

Fr. Antonie grasped his hand firmly. “Welcome, Bryan. Laura, Terro.” He nodded at the other two standing there. “How are you all?”

“Good.” Bryan flipped the goggles on his helmet up and smiled. “I’m glad it’s Saturday. Thinking about spending the night here.”

“Ah, if we have the luxury, yes,” Fr. Antonie said. “Your task may be a slightly touchier one than indicated—if you’re willing, of course.” Standing behind the priest, Lyric bounced anxiously on her toes.

“Always.” Bryan’s expression turned serious as he glanced past Fr. Antonie towards Lyric. “What’s up?”

“I’m sure Brother told you,” Fr. Antonie said, “this girl needs an escort back to the Undermine. I was willing to provide this myself, however… she has a concern.”

“Quincy’s out there,” Lyric said. “My uncle.” She pointed back the way they had come, to the north.

“Quincy is wanted by the Transgenic Containment Authority for harboring dinosaurs and running electricity above ground,” Brother Augustine said. “Father, here, informed us that they had a squad out yesterday morning; they stopped at St. Vito’s to hear mass.”

“Squad run into some trouble then?” Bryan reached up with one hand and rubbed his chin.

“We don’t have any information on the squad,” Fr. Antonie said. “They could be fine. They were only supposed to be out for a day, but didn’t have it in their itinerary to stop here; they could have already found her uncle and brought him back to the Undermine. I went up to the survey point, and I didn’t see any signs of people, however—there are two smoke plumes down several thousand feet, in the ruins, just a few miles apart.”

“Two?” Brother Augustine asked.

“Two,” Fr. Antonie said. “I’ve never heard of that happening. Tyrannosaurus ignirugiens is too rare and too territorial for that.”

“Then maybe,” Bryan said, a thoughtful frown crossing his face, “maybe someone’s hiding down there and built a fire.”

“Quincy,” Lyric sniffled.

“It’s a bad idea,” Brother Augustine said. “Fires attract ignirugiens. Competition, you know.”

Bryan sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Dangerous,” he said. “But we can take a skeleton crew down. Send Lyric here back with Clifton’s crew in the other car. We’ve got etorphine, and we’ve got nets. It’s not safe, but I’d hate for someone to be trapped down there. If someone is, he might already be dead.”

Lyric wailed.

Fr. Antonie laid a hand on her head, and she quieted, sniffling. “It’s all right,” he said. “We’ll find him.”

“I’m coming with you,” she said, hiccuping.

“That’s a terrible idea,” Fr. Antonie said.

“Absolutely not,” Bryan said.

“No, I need to,” she begged.

“You’re just a child,” Bryan said. “What would your parents think if we risked your life like that?”

“I’m not a child, and my parents are dead! I only have Quincy and I don’t want him to die too!”

“Sweetheart,” the woman, Laura, who still stood next to Brother Augustine, spoke up. “Some of us have experience looking for people, and fighting dinosaurs. I don’t think you have that kind of experience. There will be a better chance for your uncle if we’re able to focus our entire attention on finding him, and not have to worry about you being hurt.”

Lyric was silent. It seemed this line of reasoning resonated with her.

Laura smiled. “You know we want to find him as much as you do. We’ll do our absolute best to find him. But it’s extremely dangerous down there. We wouldn’t want to lose you, as well.”

Lyric looked at her, then at Fr. Antonie, throwing frantic glances between the rest of the people present. She drew herself up, taking a deep breath, as if struggling to control her emotions. “Okay,” she said.

“I promise, we’ll do our best to find him and bring him back,” Bryan said. “And the squad that’s out hunting for him too. No doubt the squad is equipped to take care of themselves—but it’s never a surety, out there.” Leaning back, he peered up at the sky. “It’s still early afternoon—we’ve got plenty of light left. We’ll have to off-road a bit to get the road that runs out of the mountains, but we should be able to get down there to investigate before dark.”

“We can’t drive in the dark,” Laura said, in a low voice.

“I know that, Laura,” Bryan said. “We should be back before dark. We have almost six hours of daylight left.”

“Quincy is camping,” Lyric murmured. “He’s—“

A shout rang suddenly across the valley. “Hey, you there!”

Another voice chimed in. “We need help over here!”

Fr. Antonie turned as one with the others, everyone shading their eyes to get a better look. Moving far more quickly than they should have been able to with what they were carrying, two men, one dressed and masked in full Authority surface gear, and one in regular clothing, were walking around the kentrosaurs, which, besides wary grumbles and annoyed stares, didn’t seem too bothered. Between them, they carried a gurney, like a long stretcher. A third man lay on the gurney. Trailing behind, there was a fourth man, also in Authority gear. He held a rifle at ready, but his head was carried low and his shoulders slumped in exhaustion.

As the strange outfit drew closer, Fr. Antonie recognized the men as being from the squad that had stopped at St. Vito’s for morning mass. And the second man carrying the gurney was Jathan. Fr. Antonie pushed his hood down, and ran towards the men.

Bryan pulled his gloves on, hurrying after, Terro following. Two of the men from the other car ran over to help as well. “Is this man injured?” Bryan called as he ran up.

Fr. Antonie ran up in time to get a good look at the face of the man being carried. It was blue, puffy, and the eyes were sunken. The man was a corpse. Fr. Antonie crossed himself, and whispered, “Propitius esto, parce ei, Domine!

“No,” the man in the front said, with a glance at the priest. “He’s dead.”

“Dead? Oh, no… let me help.” Bryan reached out to take the handles of the makeshift gurney, and the man gladly let him take over. Jathan staggered, and one of the other men ran over to relieve him as well.

Fr. Antonie stood by the corpse, his hands laid together, his thin form bowed down an incongruous sight in his protective coat, loaded with explosives. “Propitius esto, libera eum, Domine…”

“How did he die?” Terro leaned over the corpse, inspecting it. “He’s been dead a while…”

Ab ira tua, a periculo mortis…

“It was a… a…” Jathan’s voice halted.

“It was a dinosaur. A Cryolophosaurus something,” the man who had been relieved stared coldly from the eyeholes of his face-plated helmet.

A mala morte, a paenis inferni, ab omni malo…

“There’s not any marks on this body,” Terro said.

“No, there’s not,” the man snapped. “It sucked the life right out of him. He died of cryogenetic hypothermia.”

“Good for you, to bring him back,” Bryan said appreciatively. “That must have been a very difficult hike, and dangerous.”

“A potestate diaboli…

“We holed up overnight,” the man said. “We weren’t going to risk walking. We never saw the rest of our squad. Said they’d meet us back here last night. They’re either dead, too, or they came and went last night, assuming us dead. Have they been here?”

“The monks would know. We just got here today, in response to a flare.” Bryan said.

Per nativitatem tuam, per crucem et passionem tuam…

The man turned to look at them, then at the priest who stood there muttering prayers. “What are we waiting for?” he said. “I’ve got some classified material that I need the monastery to look at, too.”

Bryan, Terro, and the other man exchanged glances, then glanced uncertainly at the priest.

Fr. Antonie raised his eyebrows, and stopped his prayers. “Forgive me,” he said. “I don’t mean to hold you up. You’ve been out all night. This man’s soul has departed; there’s no rush here. We can bury him properly soon.” He waved a hand and stepped back out of the way.

Bryan nodded, and he and the other man hefted the gurney. The group continued their brisk march towards the monastery.

“Anyway,” the man said, as they walked, “we saw the flare. We just didn’t want to start until sunrise. We took watches.”

“That’s smart of you,” Bryan said.

“Thank you for your help,” the man said. “I’m Oscar, by the way, this is Jathan—“ he pointed, “—and this is Edward.” The man trailing the group with his gun nodded in acknowledgement.

“We’re very glad you made it safely,” Bryan said.

“So am I,” Oscar said, darkly, “so am I.”

“And who is…?” Terro inclined his head towards the corpse.

“That WAS… Frederic. Frederic Hayden,” Oscar said.

The group drew up to the monastery doors. Lyric stood there next to Brother Augustine, twisting her gloved hands together nervously.

“Welcome, my friends,” Brother Augustine said. He saw the corpse on the gurney, also, and crossed himself, a flicker of concern passing across his brow.

“Thank you,” Jathan said. “We… we’ve…”

“Have you seen or heard any news of a Transgenic Authority squad passing back through here to the Undermine?” Oscar asked.

“No, no one has come up here except the group you see out here,” Brother Augustine said. “The Authority squads don’t usually pass through here, though.”

“Not usually,” Oscar said, “but they told us they would meet us here. That means they never made it.” He shook his head and, pulling off his face-plate, spat on the ground angrily.

Brother Augustine looked down at the ground, then back up at Oscar. “Why didn’t they come back with you?” he asked.

Oscar shrugged. “Omer wanted to keep hunting our man,” he said.

“No,” Lyric whispered. She was staring at the helmets and weapons of the men with obvious fright.

Brother Augustine looked at Bryan. “Why don’t you take him around to the outbuildings. We’ll get him prepped for burial.” Bryan nodded, and he and the other man carried the gurney off around the side of the long cloister. Terro and the other men from the observers group followed to help.

Oscar turned and eyed Lyric. “Who’s this?” he said. “This isn’t the girl they said was at our man’s depot, is it?”

Lyric’s eyes widened, and she took a step back, slipping on the stairway.

Fr. Antonie stepped forward to steady her, but stopped as she caught her own balance. He glanced back at Oscar. “From what I understand, yes. The monks found her nearby on the mountain, running like a pack of raptors was after her.”

“Good,” Oscar said. “We’ll need to ask her some questions. After I get one of you to help me with this.” He pulled a smooth box out of his pack.

Brother Augustine stared at the box for a minute, and then nodded. “We can take a look at that. All of you, come inside. I’ll have someone get a meal together for you.”

“Thank you,” Oscar said. “Much appreciated.”

“Thank you,” Jathan echoed. Edward nodded. Brother Augustine unlocked and swung the monastery doors open, and led them inside.

Lyric hesitated on the steps, and Fr. Antonie paused, giving her a questioning look. “When are we going to find Quincy?” she asked, in response to his glance.

“Soon,” he said. “There are a lot of men missing, it turns out. Bryan and Laura are going to take their car out to search. Come inside, my dear. You aren’t going with them. The Authority men need to ask you some questions, anyway.”

“About what?”

“Presumably about your uncle’s project,” he said. “Did you recognize that box the man was holding?”

Slowly, Lyric nodded.

Fr. Antonie smiled. “Then you can help us solve this mystery,” he said. “You wanted to do that, didn’t you?”

Slowly, she nodded again.

“Good,” Fr. Antonie said. “You’re very smart—you’ll do a good job helping Brother Paphnutius.”

“What about you?” Lyric asked.

“What about me?”

“Are you going with them? To look?”

Fr. Antonie hesitated, and turned to look out over the valley. “I almost feel like I should,” he said. “Men are dying out there.”

“Go,” Lyric said, pulling off her goggles. “Please go.”

Bryan and the other men returned from around the building. “We’re ready to move out, Father,” Bryan called. “Myself, Laura, and Terro will go. Clifton’s team wants to stay here.”

Lyric looked at Fr. Antonie. He quirked half a smile at her, and turned to the group. “I’ll go with you, if you don’t mind,” he said.

Bryan stopped, looking uncertain. “Are you sure?” he said. “It’s going to be dangerous.”

“Do I look unprepared for danger?”

Bryan eyed the armored coat, the belts of explosives and incendiaries, the rifle and stun stick slung across the priest’s back. “I guess not,” he said.

“I might as well go,” Fr. Antonie said. “They won’t need me here, and men might be dying out there.”

Bryan nodded. “Come on, then,” he said. “We’ll get loaded up.”

They had left the armored car running; the diesel engine burning steadily. Bryan walked around to the back of it and opened the trunk hatch. “We’ve got shoulder belts for safety,” he said. “This car’s not bad at off-roading, but it’s really bumpy. The shocks aren’t that great. So you might not want to wear all of that stuff while we’re riding. We have insulation in the back here for stable explosives and whatnot. Don’t worry,” he said, at Fr. Antonie’s questioning look, “there’s access from the interior. We won’t need to expose ourselves to get armed.”

The back of the car was already packed down with etropine guns, nets, rope, stakes, first aid kits, tarps, and many other useful items, but there were places in the spring foam for more supplies. Fr. Antonie stripped off his weapons and incendiaries, and packed them in carefully.

“How’s the fuel, Laura?” Bryan called.

“Great,” she said. “We could run this for another three days.”

“And the integrity?”

“One hundred percent. Terro checked her over before we left, remember?”

“Let’s get going, then.” Bryan waited as Fr. Antonie stepped out of the way, and he slammed the trunk hatch shut. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and two smoke plumes. We’re not going to be stealthy. But hopefully we’ll be unfamiliar enough that we won’t read ‘immediate prey’ to whatever is lurking down there in the ruins. Anyone want Father to hear their confession before we go?”

“I went before we left,” Laura said.

“I do,” Terro said, raising a hand. “I meant to once I got here.”

“Come on, then,” Fr. Antonie pulled his stole from his pocket, kissed it, and put it on. As he and Terro walked away from the group, he glanced back. Lyric was still standing on the stairs to the monastery. Go inside, Fr. Antonie mouthed at her. But she stayed where she was. She stayed there while they finished the confession and went back to the car. It wasn’t until Bryan revved the engine and they actually pulled out, that, glancing out the barred side window, Fr. Antonie finally saw her run inside the tall front doors.

“Hang on, everyone,” Bryan said. The kentrosaurs were staring at them with beady eyes as they pulled away, picking up speed. The armored cars—and the bikes the squads used—had nothing electrical about them. They ran on hand-cranked diesel engines, and had no lights or other electrical luxuries. Nothing to upset the massive herd that careened quickly out of sight as the car bounced and charged down the makeshift dirt road that wound down the mountain towards the north.

Fr. Antonie hung on. Bryan hadn’t been exaggerating about the lack of shocks, especially when they left the road and plunged straight into the woods. It was actually quite alarming to his stomach, and Fr. Antonie shut his eyes, hearing branches and foliage being crushed by the large, treaded tires. A few minutes later, the terrifying bouncing and jarring leveled out, and he opened his eyes.

“That’s going to leave a few bruises in tender places,” Laura said, with a resigned sigh.

“You better be hoping that all you get on this trip,” Terro said, “is a few bruises.”

“We’re on the throughway now. Smooth sailing down to the ruins. Whoa…. what’s that?” Bryan slowed the car, steering it around a large, ash-colored shape sprawled in the road.

“It’s a dinosaur,” Laura said.

“Dead,” Terro said.

“Odd,” Bryan said, “why wouldn’t there be scavengers all over that?”

“That could be the squad’s Cryolophosaurus,” Fr. Antonie said. “Looks like it’s half blown apart.”

“Scavengers don’t eat those?” Bryan asked.

“I really don’t know,” Fr. Antonie said. “I don’t know of any reason why they wouldn’t, unless there’s some chemical in their flesh that’s toxic or indigestible.”

“But they didn’t die here,” Bryan said. “Where did they go, I wonder?” He picked up speed again as they passed the dead dinosaur, cruising easily along the smooth, hard road. He shifted the engine into a lower gear as the road began to slope down steeply.

“Look.” Terro pointed.

Bryan put the brakes on and stopped the car. “It’s a marker!” he said. Pinned to the trunk of a tree that was trying—and failing—to grow over the immense road, a small, fluorescent flag of tape hung fluttering lightly.

“I bet you the squad put that up—I bet they left a trail, knowing they might need reinforcements.” Terro leaned eagerly against the barred glass of the car’s window.

“Awesome,” Bryan said. “That makes our job much easier. Let’s go!” With a grumbling roar, the car jumped off on its way down the road.

Sure enough, every hundred yards or so, there was another flag pinned. Several flags later, the wide throughway had wound almost completely down the mountainside.

“They must have been going fast,” Laura said. “Did they have bikes?”

“Oscar briefed me,” Bryan said, “and they did, although they left them a ways back. Perhaps the remainder of the squad went and got them.”

“Safer than being on foot,” Terro said. He leaned close to the window again. “Look at that… do you see that?”

As the car vaulted over a small rise in the road, its passengers caught a jolting glimpse of the ruins, spilling out through the lowlands.

“There’s our smoke plume,” Fr. Antonie said, as soon as they had leveled out again and slowed enough for him to point at it.

“That’s where we’re headed, then!” Bryan turned the car along the street, passing underneath a defunct electric railway. They rolled past a manufacturing plant, and turned onto a road lined with streamlined, practical-looking cottages. They could have been grain silos for all their creativity, except for the fact that fake plastic flowers filled small window boxes on each side of them. Their doors and windows were in various states of close and open, but it was immediately obvious that a fire was burning in one of them.

Bryan stopped the car. He and Terro glanced at each other. “I’ll take a look,” Terro said.

“I’ll go with you,” Laura said, pulling her face-plate down. Terro crawled into the back of the car, passing forward pressurized guns and a case of darts. The two of them loaded the guns.

“Be ready to go, if something happens,” Terro said. Bryan nodded, and Terro and Laura swung the door of the car open and jumped out. They straightened up, pivoting so that they were facing out from each other, guns at the ready. Slowly they scanned their surroundings, as they inched towards the door of the burning cottage.

Fr. Antonie watched them, his heart hammering. He murmured Aves under his breath. The towering buildings loomed in scattered rows around the lone group of people as they stretched arrogantly towards the sky. They hardly seemed to notice the cracks in their foundations, the trees and vines that had grown into them and were climbing their struts and supports. Instead they stared proudly, vacantly, boasting alloyed construction materials that would outlast at least the lifetimes of any human being who happened to witness their compromised glory.

A flock of what looked like birds roiled across the sky, their raucous calls echoing eerily through the streets. Terro and Laura pushed open the cottage door and ducked inside.

The seconds stretched by, one after another. Fr. Antonie and Bryan watched and waited, silently but for the priest’s whispered prayers. The seconds turned into minutes. Bryan joined in on the Aves.

And then the two of them reappeared, unharmed. They slipped back to the car, opened the door, and climbed in.

Bryan let out a sigh of relief. “Find anything?”

“Scorched inside, plants still burning. There wasn’t anything else, except a few charred bird remains—this one was the most intact.” He held up a creature that sprawled suddenly in his grip; feathers charred and black along its clawed, winged legs and arms. The eyes were burned out of the long, pointed head, and the long tail flapped against his arm.

Bryan started. “What is that?”

Sinornithosaurus peccatis,” Terro said. “Pretty sure.”

Fr. Antonie shook his head. “Peccatum meum contra me est semper,” he murmured.

“What were they doing in a burning house? Did you find anything else? Any other remains?” Bryan asked.

“No,” Laura said. “But someone started that fire. The flags led here. Didn’t they?”

“They go down that street, actually.” Bryan pointed.

Fr. Antonie leaned forward, looking with the rest of the crew down the street towards the manufacturing plant.

“Oh, Jesus,” Laura murmured.

A hundred yards down the street, an industrial bike lay twisted on its side. Hopping up and down on it as if in angry fury were two Vitaeraptor pinnategens.

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