Deinonychus

 

We all have a dinosaur deep within us
just trying to get out. - Colin Mochrie
 
A Short Story by
Nathan Gregory
 

Our first few days traveling were uneventful. Our stopovers had been meticulously planned. Support runners accompanied, handed us off, and fresh ones met us as planned. A complicated dance arranged by Stapleya via the 'Bedrock Telegraph.' No word of our stranded couriers. By now they must be dead, presumed victims of the day-walking predators. Surviving one night was unlikely. Weeks, quite impossible.

 

        Nekomata is hot and fecund. It rains frequently, virtually every night, oftentimes violent and lasting hours throughout the night. Daytime rains are less frequent and milder, but cooling and welcome. Running is challenging due to the heat. I discovered a new experience, running in the rain on Nekomata.

 

        I've never been a pluviophile, a rain-lover. Rain on Earth often means slogging through mud and muck and is usually cold besides being wet. Then we have lightning and thunder, which impart their own particular joys. Including tornadoes.

        They have civilized rain on Nekomata, as it usually comes at night while the inhabitants rest. When it does come during the day, it's not cold, just a sweet, pleasant shower. The well-maintained trails show little mud and muck. Drenching in fresh rain instead of my own sweat felt wonderful and refreshing. A bottle of cherry scented shower gel would have been the perfect compliment.

 

        On the fifth day we were running the final leg, approaching the castle nearest the site of our first Portal. We both felt rather stressed as we approached stone-sheltered safety. This had been a long and tiring run, over forty-five miles by the map, our longest and most dangerous thus far. It was dangerous for more reasons than the mere distance.

 

        The falling population of the Nekomata has emptied many castles. Abandoned and dark, their provinces grown uninhabited and wild. We hoped to save three days travel time by cutting through such a region, skirting a dark castle. We could have gone around it, making shorter runs at the expense of more days en route. In hindsight, this time-saving shortcut appears ill-advised.

 

        This region is seldom hunted, the trail ill-maintained. Roadside markers are often absent or hidden by overgrowth. Once we had to climb over a roadblock created by a fallen tree. The work the fur-people put into maintaining their roads is astonishing. The stark contrast before us clarifies their obvious meticulousness elsewhere. Without attention, this trail will soon become impassible as nature reclaims it.

 

        Tomorrow we make the run to the Portal location. That distance is just over fifteen miles from tonight's safe harbor. There we hope to collect our weaponry and thence continue. The next evening's safe-haven resides a similar distance further on. Tomorrow must also be a grueling day. We not only run some thirty miles, but we must stop half-way. We must incur unavoidable delay; precious time spent searching for our weapons materiel.

 

        We must also search for the remains of the unfortunate who cached it if any. We can afford but limited time on site. Today's run had been a strenuous forty-five miles. Although less isolated and less total distance, tomorrow's nevertheless is a demanding route.

 

        Another factor is that the Portal nexus of our interest, being so far from a living castle, is unfamiliar. Although near the main trail, it is too distant from any castle safe-haven for practical use. Only a capable runner could use it, making the long run to safe harbor. Inconveniently located and infrequently opening, it languishes unused.

 

        This Portal's rare redeeming feature is that when open, the flux stream is uncommonly robust. Robust enough to transport non-living materials, even cold steel. When not abused by overloading, that is. Once overloaded, when it would next open becomes unpredictable. It may be months before it will again be usable.

 

        Teena and I had settled into a comfortable routine. We alternated taking the lead and setting the pace vs. following and watching our six. She had bloomed in the last few weeks. Grow Juice and vitelotte agreed with her, especially when combined with vigorous exercise. No one would mistake her for an ingenue, but she looks younger, stronger and healthier every day. She began to resemble Fitz’s image of his pulchritudinous Amazon. I had come to develop similar feelings for her as well. I tell myself I am not overwhelmed by her charms as he appeared to be, by his own telling.

 

        I won't claim that she was the love of my life, that I felt about her the way I had my dear Estelle.

 

        Had? Still do! No one will ever fill that void.

 

        Nor had I fallen into a slobbering, pheromone-induced trance, as Fitz described himself. We found comfort and release in each other’s arms. Need there be more?

 

        If so, why?

 

        In any case, age to a lover is a matter of mental attitude; it cares naught about the steady march of catabolism. Fitz's Teena was young and vivacious with a zest for life. The Teena I met had the appearance and manner of one whose long life is all but done. Appearance does matter, if the calendar doesn’t, whether we like to acknowledge it or not.

 

        Having some inkling of her actual age blunted our affair, I suppose. That her appearance reinforced that gap was no doubt a factor too. I was hyper-aware of the vast gulf in our ages, unlike Fitz.

 

        I had anguished that Estelle was an older lover. That seems almost humorous now.

 

        One night not long after Stapleya had recited the Tale of Edda, I broached the questions that tale had raised. At first, she would not speak of it, then I asked about the legendary beheading of her lovers.

 

        Teena snorted at that.

 

        “Fairytales!” she had said, as she sputtered, laughing at my question. “Human beings are hardwired for stories. The tall tale is an art form, one that occurs in every culture. Anything billed as a 'Legend of…' is a fish story, trust me.”

 

        She snickered a few more times before continuing. “Remember, these folks do not have much entertainment. Tall tales entertain and remember those gone before. Even in Edda's day, males were too useful to behead casually. I would never have permitted it anyway. Besides, you have spent time with these people. Can you see them doing such a thing?”

 

        (HUH? Wouldn't have permitted?)

 

        I cracked a quizzical smile. “I had wondered, it feels so contrary to their nature. How do you know the 'legend' was just a tall tale?”

 

        “Because I was there. My son was her lover, and the father of all her children. I have many grandchildren from Edda. She was a fertile mother, just as Stapleya was in her time. Both produced many many children. The true story of Edda and her life and family is preserved in Stapleya's library, much of it in my own hand.”

 

        Teena had met Edda! More than met, she became her mother-in-law. That means Stapleya is her direct descendant too. Is that why she appears so young and virile for a manifold grandmother? Good genes?

 

        Despite my questions, Teena clammed up. She keeps her secrets it appears. I could not estimate how long ago Stapleya's distant, multiple-Great Grandmother had lived. But it was clear it had been several generations. The most I could get out of her was that it occurred when she had first visited the Nekomata.

 

        Estelle had been an infant compared to Teena. What did that make me? Aren't there laws? I know our misalliance in no way implies I am an immature child. Still, you must admit such disparity is remarkable. I began ruminating on why I am only taking much older lovers.

 

        Was this some deep-seated psychosis?

 

        I brooded all that day over the questions that line of thought had opened. We had entered the final stretch; the trail was smoother, and we were pushing ourselves to compensate for lost time. We were behind schedule.

 

        Twice during the run mother Nature had wet us down. But she had been parsimonious with her cooling spray, little more than a light misting. We had exhausted our supplies and were pushing curfew. The sun was low and our support runners delinquent. No clue why, but their absence raised deep concern.

 

        We hoped to be behind cold stone soon. Our supplies gone, we were running on our reserves, weak, tired and exhausted. We were pushing curfew, uncertain of the remaining distance to our sanctuary.

 

        Lost in introspection, Teena caught me unawares when she slammed on the brakes. She stopped, and I plowed into her from behind, almost causing us both to fall. Braced in a rigid fighting stance, she did not go down, and I somehow managed to keep my feet.

 

        Rigid in fighting pose, her bow nocked with a clutch of arrows at the ready. She was zoned, in the flow, hyper-focused on what she had spotted ahead. I looked down the trail to where she was aiming and saw why.

 

        I froze. Panic. Sheer terror!

 

        My inner voice screamed, Oh! Fuck!

 

        Teena whispered, “Back to back. There will be another; they always travel in pairs.”

 

A considerable distance ahead in front of us stood a giant chicken. Well, that was my first impression. This 'chicken' was a dozen feet, beak to tail, as tall as Teena and must have weighed at least two hundred pounds.

 

        A deinonychus!

 

        It was standing over and pecking at something in the pathway. Well, not really a chicken and it doesn't have a beak, a difference I'm too busy to debate. Yeah, it has fearsome-looking teeth: two points for you, nit-picker.

 

        It had not yet turned its attention on us. If it had, we would already be dead. Our life expectancy measured in seconds as it was — no one saw a deinonychus this close and lived.

 

        Time stopped. For a half-blink I could not move, my feet riveted to the ground. Staring my imminent death in the face, my body locked solid, unable to move or breathe.

 

        Fight? Flight? Frozen, I could do neither.

 

        Then the adrenaline hit, the fatal demon of fear departed, and I felt my own flow begin.

 

        In a whirl, I dropped my pack, unlimbered my sword, grabbed a handful of arrows and nocked bow. I whirled to face 180 degrees away, alert for its companion. My movement had caused it to look up, hiss and turn toward us.

 

       I scanned the forest for another giant chicken and listened for any rustle. Nothing. There should be another. They hunt in pairs. One draws out the prey, while the other sneaks from behind as the unwary victim watches the one in sight. They are smart hunters, for birdbrains.

 

       Well, so are chickens, far smarter and more vicious than most city-dwellers would believe.

 

       Birdbrains. Right.

 

       The Deinonychus started forward rather slowly, as though uncertain whether it intended to attack. My head was corkscrewing from the imminent threat in front to probable danger behind. Dividing my attention front and rear, I was checking both sides on each turn.

 

       As the beast took another step, Teena loosed her first volley, grabbed a fresh hand and fired again. And again. It kept coming, picking up speed even as Teena's missiles found their mark. It looked like a pincushion, but they barely pierced the skin, a mere pinprick. She had tried for the arteries in its neck and its eyes and had drawn blood.

 

       The eyes are improbable targets at this range, not that you want them closer. A shot square in the eye has a chance of penetrating the peanut brain. Not only are the eyes minuscule targets, but the bobbing head is unpredictable.

 

       Despite the difficulty, Teena scored. One eye blinded, though the tiny organ behind it remained untouched. The beast screamed in pain and anger, then charged. Blinded in one eye and bleeding, it charged in rage and fury.

 

       Deinonychuses are not considered fleet-footed. Don't bet your life on that though. Attempting to outrun a predator is a poor strategy. Ask any Gazelle. Although faster than humans, deinonychuses are nowhere near as speedy as their smaller cousins. Velociraptors well earn their name. Though much smaller, those 'chickens' can sprint over 40 MPH, and they hunt in packs, not pairs.

 

       When stressed, my mind retreats into absurd humor. Such as “Why did the Dinosaur cross the road?” Answer; “The Chicken joke hadn't been invented yet.” Yeah, like that. Ain't the human psyche something?

 

       I held my stance for a moment, reserving my own arrows for our chicken's unseen sister. Teena was reloading for another volley as it came closer and closer. Watching the contest, I realized we're outmatched, negotiating from a position of weakness. Arrows are poor bargaining chips.

 

       Time to open a more intimate dialog.

 

       I'm not easy, but I can be had with the right approach, a candlelit dinner, some soft music. This gal is not making the kind of overtures that endear me. I must respectfully decline the invitation to dinner. I shall send the Lady Tyrxing with my regrets.

 

       I launched my volley, drew my Lady and shouted to Teena, “Watch our six,” as I guided the Lady Tyrxing into battle.

 

       Teena whirled to watch our behind for the missing monster, her last volley at the ready. The wounded nightmare was still coming, albeit slowed by the arrows it had absorbed. Weakened and bleeding, it came on, angrier than ever. Seeming mortally wounded, it must die soon, though not before killing us. These beasts do not quit easily.

 

       Our only hope lay in two prospects; that my Lady could end this beast, and its truant sister remained absent.

If sis was hiding and about to join the fight, we had zero chance. One of these monsters is more than enough.

 

       The beast charged with a blood-curdling screech. I answered with an adrenaline-fueled battle cry of my own, the blood-curdling vehemence startled even me. I charged with my Lady in full lunge, a suicidal move against a skilled swordsman. Deinonychus though lack swordsmanship skills. And swords; although they have their own weapons and methods.

 

       My audacity and my scream of rage appeared to unnerve the beast. It hesitated an instant and turned its head so the remaining functional eye looked square at me. This was its fatal mistake, as it gave Teena an opening for her last volley.

 

       As we closed, Teena's fire took the beast full in the face, ending its remaining eye. Despite two missiles to the eye-socket, the pygmy-sized brain still functioned.

 

       Damn it!

 

       Guided by sound, scent, and inertia, the beast charged. Not yet admitting defeat, blinded and wounded, it came on, fury undiminished.

 

       I probably should have turned tail and run. Adrenaline was driving, and I was in the zone. I couldn't have turned away if I tried.

 

       The Lady Tyrxing sang a magnificent aria as we closed, her song the center of my hyper-focus. I felt time slow, and my sense of action and awareness merged. As the beast neared, I was wholly in the flow. It felt as though a supernatural force took control, guided my moves.

 

       I ducked, rolled and lunged with all my might, dropped and rolled aside. The final lunge was near orgasmic. Long evenings polishing the razor's edge paid their dividends. The beast fell, beheaded in a single blow, although not before a monstrous claw gashed my side!

 

       Motherfucker! My inner voice screamed. Aloud, I grunted something indecipherable as I fought to stifle the inner voice. Profanity ill-serves women, I tell myself.

 

       It was a dying blow, weak and ineffectual, else I would not be telling the tale. Nonetheless, I shall require something more than a band-aid.

 

       As I regained my feet, Teena leaped to my side, still in warrior flow, her last arrow nocked.

She's kidding, right?

 

       Between us, we had put over twenty arrows into that beast. Other than blinding it, the projectiles had an almost insignificant effect. What did she hope to stop with a single shaft? An aggressive rabbit?

 

       With a bloody hand, I passed her my few remaining missiles. I could not use sword and bow simultaneously, and my Lady was the better negotiator.

 

       Despite my wound, I remained upright for the moment, sword in hand. I held the other hand against my wet side, perhaps to keep my organs from falling out. Perhaps stem the bleeding.

 

       We held that position for several heartbeats, scanning, listening. Beginning to feel weak, I turned my attention to my wound, noting with relief that my injury was less than I feared, although on a stone-age planet without antibiotics, it was quite severe enough. At least the blood was seeping and not gushing, so there were no severed arteries.

 

       My feeling of weakness likely was from the adrenaline crash and fatigue, not blood-loss. Though my side was a red-splattered mess, the actual volume of blood was trivial. I am amazed we are alive. A human against a Deinonychus has the slimmest of chances.

 

       But then, I AM a warrior!

 

       We're not safe yet; there should be another. Teena was retrieving arrows from the corpse, sorting and dividing them between us. I restocked my belt loops and prepared for another round.

 

       Wounded and weakened, it was unlikely we would survive another. We intended to, and doubtless would, fight to the death.

 

       Minutes dragged on. Blood trickled down my thigh. The sun moved inexorably toward the horizon. Even if this were the sole day-walker, her nocturnal cousins would quickly join us. We had to get behind cold stone, and soon.

 

       Deciding we were not under imminent attack, Teena retired her weapons and turned to my injury.

 

       “Not exactly a scratch,” she mused as she examined my wound, “but not too horrific either. Peritoneum creased, no penetration. No internal organs punctured. I'm glad Stapleya provided a good first aid kit.”

 

       Teena cleaned my wound with a burst of sterile water under pressure. I'd best not elaborate. A battlefield procedure I learned about in basic but had never seen used in practice. Surprised by her technique, I presumed she had practiced. I wondered when in her long life that had been an important skill.

 

       Aiming comes easier to males. Yes, I know, gross, but it is sterile. Counterintuitive, but effective.

 

       I gritted my teeth against the pain as she stitched up the gash. She then applied a poultice made from the dregs of our GoJuice. I won't elaborate that either. The poultice eased the screaming pain a little. Finally, she wrapped a tight bandage cut from our water bladders around my waist. Teena apparently had significant experience with battlefield medicine.

 

       She asked, “How's that feel? Do you think you can travel now?”

 

       I winced. “I think I can travel; I just hope these stitches hold.” We could use a roll of duct tape about now.

 

       With that, we started off at a slow trot. We needed to run pell-mell, the sun is getting low. I gritted my teeth to ignore the pain. We passed the spot the Deinonychus had been pecking at when we first saw it. It was a bloody battleground. We found what became of our greeting party.

 

       And the beast's sister.

 

       Good for them that they had managed to kill one of the devils, although it cost them their lives. Four humans and two Deinonychus died here today, two humans survived. A good outcome in the annals of human-dinosaur intercourse.

 

       Teena grabbed more arrows from the corpse as we passed. They had given a good account of themselves. They had killed the beast, although it died far too slowly after wounding.

 

       We picked up the pace as well as I was able. As I realized my intestines were not in danger of falling out, I pushed myself, ignoring the pain. Dusk was heavy when the Castle came into view. Thankfully, it had not been far. I was getting wobbly from fatigue, adrenaline, dehydration and possible blood loss. We were already outside way past evening curfew.

 

       As we approached the Castle, a watcher in a window high above the entrance spied us. She blasted a riff from a lepatata just like the ones used at Castle Stapleya. We approached the big front door, already secured against the night beasts.

 

       We banged the door and shouted. Despite our noise, there was no response. They were not about to open for us. Hard to blame them, entire castles have died that way. Opening for unfortunates trapped outside past curfew risks the entire castle. Once closed for the night, the big front door is not opened for any reason.

 

       Protocol calls for sacrificing anyone trapped outside. A harsh protocol from my perspective. Though harsh, better to lose those outside rather than expose the entire castle to risk. Our surviving the night requires an alternate solution.

 

       As we stood by the door agonizing over the conundrum, a T-Rex thundered in the distance.

 

       The big boys were awake!

 

       Night predators would be upon us in moments. We were near panic when the bugler sounded again. I looked up as a rope dropped from another, lower window.

 

       Our running had, predictably, loosened my stitches. My battlefield bandages were a bloody mess. The exertion of climbing a rope did not portend betterment.

 

       Considering the alternative, I accepted the challenge. I dropped weapons, belt, pack, everything. We would retrieve them later if we survived. The pain and further aggravation of my injury mattered not. It was nothing to the prospect of meeting that obnoxious loud-mouthed fellow bellowing in the distance. Or as more likely a flock of Velociraptors, though just as fatal.

 

       Teena grabbed the rope and held it while boosting me up. Even with her help, not an easy climb. They say pain is what lets us know we are alive. Each pull left me more alive than the last. I screamed thru gritted teeth. I could feel stitches tearing, the wound opening. Gushing now, blood was making a slippery mess of the rope. I felt faint and suspected adrenaline and dehydration might not be the cause this time.

 

       About half-way to the window, I faltered. Teena saw my weakening and shot up the rope. She levered herself underneath me as I sagged, piggybacking my weight on her shoulders. Pushing upward with surprising strength, she boosted my faltering carcass toward safety. Hands grabbed my arms as I neared the high window and pulled us both into the upper chamber. As we landed on the cool stone floor inside, I swooned a dead faint.

 

       Illuminated by a sharp pain-prick, I came wide-awake moments later. Someone was restitching my wound. Weak and light-headed, the pain made me retch.

 

       “Tell me a joke,” I quipped between clenched teeth, “if you're going to have me in stitches.” No one laughed.

 

       Teena grunted at my gallows humor as she passed me a drinking bladder and commanded me to drink. I did and soon ceased to worry about the surgery. The taste was familiar, something more than Grow Juice was in that particular bladder.

 

       Hours later I awoke to the sounds of rain. It was dark, the middle of the night. My wound cleaned and bandaged, my body bathed, and I slept in a fresh, clean bed. Teena lay beside me, also fresh and clean after our ordeal. Noticing my slight movement, She reached out and took my hand. “It's okay, we made it,” she whispered, “sleep and heal.”

 

       Our hosts were heartbroken to learn of the loss of their friends. That two of the day-walkers had also died gave slight solace. Observers had only documented two day-walking Deinonychus, though we suspected more. It's a big world and distances between castles are huge. That we had helped kill such monsters was a victory. The bad news is that the known day-walkers were last seen over 100 miles away. It’s likely these were not them.

 

       The fact is, we don't know how many there might be. So far there've been no day-walking T-Rex spotted nearby. The only known day-walker of that species was last seen months ago and hundreds of miles away. As far as anyone knew, the one we heard, along with any of her relatives, are nocturnal. But don't bet your life on that hypothesis. Arrows and a sword are less useful than a roll of toilet paper against a T-Rex.

 

       The next morning Teena retrieved our equipment as soon as the door opened. Our packs were the obvious casualty. Night creatures had torn them to shreds, no doubt drawn by the scent of GoJuice and Journey Cake.

 

       Our weapons weathered the nighttime dangers with scant detriment. The arrows and knives scattered about. Some arrows trampled, scratched and damaged, a bowstring broken. The damage was minor, arrows and bowstring easy to replace. The packs too, we could replace.

 

       The Lady Tyrxing lay where I dropped her, still in her thick scabbard, unharmed. The scabbard itself sustained significant scuffing but was otherwise undamaged. I embraced her, cleaned and polished her blade and oiled her leather belt and scabbard. She had earned some TLC.