by Mark Van Sciver
© Mark Van Sciver -- all rights reserved
It was snowing.
Not hard but steady. It was the kind of snowstorm that make objects appear hazy and unfocused no matter how close to them you seemed to them. It was the fine dry snow of fall. It hung lightly on the branches, highlighted the greens, brown, and blacks of the trees rather than draping them in coatings of heavier snow and ice. That would come later in January and February.
The stillness of the scene was shattered by the sound of tree limbs and bushes being uprooted and broken. Up the side of a tree covered hill came the sound of the chase, the eternal dance between predator and prey. You could follow the progress of the chase from the sounds. It was getting closer.
Suddenly a creature appeared on the crest of a hill. It wasn't big, only slightly higher than five feet and weighing no more than 150 pounds. Its body and forearms were covered in primitive feathers, although one look at its snout packed with sharp saw-edged teeth would immediately dissuade anyone from mistaking the creature for a bird. It favored its right side, using its forearm to cover and support a ragged patch of torn and bleeding flesh.
It had the large black eyes with a bright yellow iris. A bipedal animal, it possess sharp claws on both its arms and legs, although the second toe of each foot was capped with a large saber-like claw to tear and slash. It lifted itself up as high as it could on its legs, using its tail to balanced itself. It lifted its snout into the wind and drew in air from each direction trying desperately to ascertain the location of its pursuer. It's excellent binocular vision caught the tiniest movement on the left. Like radar, the creature focused all its senses. There it was . . . the beast . . . its stalker!
The prey was getting tired. It was miles from safety and desperately tired. It knew that if it rested much longer its stalker would have more than enough time to move in for the kill. But as it moved to the far side of the crest, it realized that it had made a mistake . . . a fatal mistake. Whether by accident or design, it had been driven by its hunter up a hill which ended with a sheer rocky cliff side and a sixty-foot drop. It couldn't go forward, and retreat was no longer an option. From the opposite direction, the beast could hear the low rumbling growls of the predator. Realizing that all its options were up, the prey lifted its head. "Auk. Auk. Auk," it called as if to say, "I am here."
To anyone but a paleontologist the beast would have seemed a creature from a nightmare. Only the trained eye would have seen it for what it was . . . Troodonitdae Tetanurae . . . Troodon . . . a creature that last stalked the forests of Canada in the late Cretaceous but who, with the arrival of the Martian Flu, had made a surprising reappearance.
From the Troodon's only avenue of escape, its pursuer emerged. It was more than twice the size and nearly six times the bulk of the theropod. It moved the calm assurance of a creature that knew its kill was guaranteed. The Grizzly rocked its head back an forth, then it rose on its hind paws, stretching itself to its full ten-foot height. The dinosaur extended its arms in a posture that was both defensive and aggressive. If it was going to die, it was going to die fighting. It had been more than 65 million years since the last time mammal and saurian engaged in the dance of death. That time, mammals emerged as the clear winners. In a grotesque replay of the past, it seemed as if mammal would once again triumph. As Troodon braced for the final assault, the snow blew harder.
All in all, snow was rather typical weather for the hinterlands of Manitoba in early November. Here, even in the 21st century, a person could still get as far away from civilization as was possible. From this point, in any direction, it would take a man on foot weeks of arduous travel before he reached even the most primitive settlements. Miles and miles of still trackless woods, bogs, lakes and rivers. And no people. None.
Standing alone in the great Canadian woods on a day like today, even the dullest man could imagine himself in the company of the "voyageurs" -- those hardy 17th and 18th century French-Canadian trappers of the Hudson Bay or Great North West Company. Only the night sky betrayed the year as 2036, for even here in the middle of nowhere, you couldn't help but notice all the satellites flicking across the skies after dark. Still, it was nature as raw as you were going to get on Earth these days. It was perfect country for big game hunting. It was perfect country for a SCABS predator.
Since the earliest days of SCABS a number of lion, bear, cougar, fox, and wolf animorphs had indulged in this most primordial behavior. But a few unfortunate and highly publicized incidents -- such as the great Bambi massacre of 2019 -- forced state and federal governments to pass a number of restrictive laws governing SCABS hunters. All but a few grudgingly accepted their restriction to a few clearly marked SCABS game lands. After all, as your canines are crushing the larynx and severing the jugular of a 12-point buck, the last thing you wanted to be thinking is "Gee, I sure hope that this isn't Jim from accounting."
A few SCABS predators were even further limited by law. SCABS wolves, for instance, are forbidden either as individuals or as packs to enter or roam in any park or territory with an already existing indigent wolf population. This restriction harkens back to another high profile story from the early days of SCABS, when one Delbert Torres of Hoboken, New Jersey, organized the first known SCABS wolf pack.
It was Delbert's epiphany that SCABS was God's manifestation of the concept of universal brotherhood. With SCABS, it was literally possible for a lion to lie down with a lamb. As founder and leader of the Hoboken pack, Delbert was elected as pack leader by popular vote. Weekend runs through upstate New York and Pennsylvania convinced the pack they were ready for greater challenges in the wild.
He led his followers into the great American west -- to Yellowstone National Park. Without mentioning to the rangers who admitted them, Delbert and his followers (still in human form) had determined to make contact with one of the wolf packs that had gradually reestablished themselves within the park boundaries over the past 25 years. For two days, the natural wolves wisely managed to avoid Delbert and company, but it was perhaps inevitable that their paths would cross.
In the end, it wasn't Delbert who found the pack, but vice versa. The seven Hoboken wolves were entertaining themselves by howling in a natural cul-de-sac and listening to the echoes when they noticed that they were effectively surrounded by eighteen wild wolves. Delbert was no animal behaviorist, but even he was able to pick out the pack leader, a large off-white alpha female.
With a joy in his heart, Delbert openly approached the female with bright eyes and tail wagging. He unfortunately had forgotten two rather important facts about wolves: one, the female had risen to pack leadership, not by popular vote, but the rule of claw and tooth; and two, wolves are territorial. She didn't tolerate strangers in her territory.
Her first lunge took out his throat and it's doubtful he was even aware as the pack tore him and four others to bits. They found so little of Delbert's carcass that it was said that for the next month rangers buried wolf feces whenever they came across it, just in case it used to be Delbert.
But that was then, and this is now. Any SCABS who went big game hunting in the deep woods as a predator had to have completed rigorous courses in animal behavior, survival skills and tracking. Manitoba also made you sign waivers relieving the state of responsibility if you wound up as some other creature's supper.
Although most herbivorous animorphs knew better than to venture onto gaming lands during hunting season, the authorities had, nonetheless, developed a fail-safe mechanism to prevent accidental SCABS on SCABS attacks. Before going into the bush, every SCABS is required to have a subdermal device implanted in his or her forehead. The devices stay inert unless they come within 30 feet of another device. When activated, they vibrate until you move out of range. The device has been credited with prevent more than one unfortunate incident. All in all, government and technology had done all it could to make hunting safe . . . at least, safe for the predator. But this was still the wilderness and you had to leave your "city ways" behind to survive on your own.
As far as Manitoba was concerned, civilization was something that happened in other places. The century hadn't been too kind to Canada so far. Years of division and strife between Quebec and the rest of the country culminated in its succession in 2006. Its loss left a great physical as well as psychological wedge between the east and western halves of Canada. Half-hearted attempts to keep the rest of the nation together failed and Canada balkanized completely by 2012. Several eastern provinces formed a confederation with Ontario. And Nova Scotia even applied for statehood with the United States, but withdrew its application when it became apparent that its southern neighbor was itself edging toward national dissolution as well.
Western Canadians were a more independent lot. Most western provinces elected to go it alone. British Columbia was rapidly becoming the Hong Kong of the 21st century. Its financial markets and role as a banker for much of the world made it an economic powerhouse.
Manitoba, on the other hand, lacked every essential needed to go it alone as a country of its own, except for the sheer willpower of its people. If they didn't have it -- or couldn't get it or make it on their own -- their response was "To Hell with it; I didn't need it anyway." This kind of independence made Manitoba a haven for those people who still wanted to sample or live life in the raw. If you had the will, the ability and skill to make it on your own in the wilderness, than Manitoba was for you.
Oh yes, you needed money, too.
Manitobans, being a practical people, realized very quickly that there were fools out there in the world who would pay them for the luxury of sleeping in an unheated cabin, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, and shitting in an outhouse. And if some "damn fools" wanted to pay to live like that, who were God-fearing Manitobans to deprive them of it? Over the past 15 years, the independent state of Manitoba attracted hunters and fishers from around the world, all eager to sample the pristine beauty and abundant game of the region.
The state kept tight controls on who received permits and how much game was harvested but, so far, the arrangements had worked out to the mutual benefit of everyone concerned. Manitoba got much needed revenue. The animal populations were kept thinned and healthy. And a number of city slickers animorphs got to live out the ultimate hunter's fantasy in specially set aside hunting lands for SCABS. Manitoba became the Mecca of hunting trips, and a particular haven for SCABS predator species. It was one of the only refuges in North America where a SCABS predator could live out the thrill of a real hunt in a natural environment.
One such fool who had come to Manitoba that fall to hunt was wearily trudging up the leeward side of the eleventh hill he'd climbed since before daybreak. The snow wasn't deep yet, but it was still slow going since the Troodon had to move cautiously. It had to keep upwind in order to ambush his prey. He paused just below the rim of the ridge and pushed his snout into the air, drawing in what he hoped would be the scent of a deer herd he was stalking. Below him was a narrow valley where he planned to hunt the remainder of the day.
His olfactory senses told him there was nothing ahead, so he risked a brief stand on the summit. The creature standing in the snow was a form unseen for more than 65 million years -- at least until the advent of SCABS. It can be said without irony that if an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, then the evidence of extraterrestrial life in an Antarctic meteorite ushered them back in.
The Troodon hooked its right claw in its mouth, nervously picked at its teeth, in a gesture that was wholly human for a creature so far removed from humanity. To be accurate, the creature was more than a dinosaur -- his correct designation would be a herpa-morph. In other words, a person whose SCABS-induced abilities gave him the power to change his physical form into any number of different reptilian manifestations. Although by no means common, there were, at last report, well over 1,100 known herpa-morphs of varying proficiency in North America alone. This particular herpa-morph was named Deenihan.
Kevin Michael Deenihan, a.k.a. Copernicus, Cope, Coops, or Lizard Lips, mentally cursed the weather, his luck, and life in general. His current form, with its broad skull and wide eyes, gave him excellent vision to survey his surrounding, unfortunately he wasn't much interested in looking at trees, and as far as he could seen in any direction there was nothing but a broad unbroken swath of forest.
The weather and constraints of time had forced Deenihan into the choice of his present form. He'd spent the better part of the past year saving up for this trip. Last year, he and Harvey Lembeck, Donnie Sinclair's doctor son-in-law, had spent two glorious weeks roaming the Manitoban wilderness as modified Velociraptors and had quickly bagged their quota. Since the licenses were very expensive as well as sold in three week segments, Deenihan and his friend decided to hunt separately this year to stretch out the experience as much as possible.
And Deenihan's time was running out. He had less than four days left before a "bush bird," one the government-owned bush copters, would fly in to pick him up, and he was dangerously under quota. The government had placed an interesting twist on the business of hunting. It literally employed hunters to cull the wildlife that inhabited the bush. This kept the populations from getting out of hand, thus reducing overgrazing and sickness among most herbivorous species. This meant that a hunter -- or in this case a predator -- was not just licensed to kill games, but was penalized if they missed their assigned quotas. The larger games species harvested were taken by the government and used to feed native people, or sold in the exotic game meat markets of the world. Hunters not only paid to hunt, but paid if they failed to kill. Deenihan was several hundred pounds light in his quotas for deer. Like most big game hunters -- SCABS or not -- he'd concentrated his early efforts on his bigger trophies -- three moose and five elk. He had used the form of a Utahraptor to bag the moose, relying on it's awesome toe claws, lightening speed and nine-foot height to counterbalance the moose's greater size, weight and deadly antlers. His kills were quick and clean. They had to be to count toward his quota. After each kill, he marked the carcass with a small electronic transmitter from a pellet injector that was strapped to his left forearm. Once activated, a low-level homing signal was sent. Special drone retrieval units would be dispatched within 12 to 24 hours to pick up the game
Deenihan had killed a deer his first day in the bush but had not marked it. Instead he fed off his kill for the most of the first week. He'd repeated this strategy the second week, relying on the carcass for food long after it had slipped into the realm of carrion. Living this way was part of the experience for Deenihan who purposely packed only prepared foods he particularly hated, hoping this would add incentive to his hunting skills.
He'd switched to deer hunting toward the end of his second week, changing his form as well as his hunting tactics. He assumed his favorite deer predator form Deinonychus -- the "Terrible Claw" of the early to mid-Cretaceous -- and he would have stuck with this light, efficient hunter had the weather proved more tractable. But after 15 days of glorious and unseasonable fall weather, things had turned ugly. First, an arctic cold front blew in and temperatures dropped from balmy 30 and 40 degree days to a bone-chilling 10 degrees in less than six hours. Then, it began to rain and sleet. Finally, the weather settled into freezing temperatures and intermittent snow. Deenihan reluctantly concluded that he was going to have to change his hunting tactics. To most people who have grown up on a steady diet of Hollywood films on dinosaurs, the great saurians were cold blooded, slow moving behemoths that lived in tropical rainforests. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Even before the advent of SCABS, paleontologists had long speculated that some species of dinosaurs were fast moving, intelligent creatures. Some, including most of the raptors species, tended to be warm-blooded as well. They were also well-adapted for living in temperate climes.
Deenihan, who had manifested SCABS at an earlier age than most, was a great favorite among paleontologists since he had the ability to mimic many different forms of saurians. While he had a personal and deep-seated preference for theropods, he would, on occasion, manifest some of the smaller species of sauropods, thyreophorans, ornithopods or marginocephalians. So far, no animorph had yet developed who could assume the form of any species over a weight of approximately a ton. Perhaps one day the earth would tremble again with the sound of the great thunder lizards, but for now, the earth belonged to the smaller varieties.
With the weather not cooperating, Deenihan had shifted from stalking to ambush as his hunting style. Although an active Deinonychus could stay reasonably warm by moving, he was literally freezing his tail staking out game trails waiting for the deer herds to meander by. Besides, his hunting claws, so fearsome and deadly, were damn near unmanageable on slick and icy rocks. After six miserable hours in the woods, Deenihan concluded a change had to be made.
Returning to his base camp, he enter the simple lean-to shelter that served as his changing area. The shelters were designed so that most SCABS predators could open and close them with a modicum of difficulty. Twenty minutes later, he had shifted back to human. He rested a moment, but quickly turned focusing his thoughts on achieving the form he saw in his mind's eye. He began to feel the familiar sensation as his body shifted and rearranged itself. Keeping his mass to approximately 150 lbs, his neck elongated and his overall shape grew more and more bird-like. His head, although clearly reptilian, looked remarkably similar to an ostrich. Although this particular "ostrich" had a snout full of teeth instead of a bill.
The claws on his arms and legs lacked the size and ferocity of his Deinonychus form, but they were more than suitable for the work at hand. Inside of fifteen minutes, the form of a man had been replaced by the shape of the Troodon. This form was lighter and faster than a raptor but no less deadly given its name meant "Wounding Claw." To make his hunting experience a little more comfortable in the inclement weather, Deenihan added a "twist" to his transformation. Long ago he discovered that he had the ability to force adaptations of a species along its evolutionary path. This meant he was able to push the size, mass and features of many of the species he chose to become. For instance, he had discovered that one of the earlier forms of theropods -- the Eoraptor -- naturally secreted an enzyme in their salvia that inhibited blood coagulation. Deenihan found this a useful feature as a predator and incorporated it into all his raptor forms. Though Troodon were unable to produce the enzyme, he did discover that he could trick his Troodon form into growing feathers. This proved a remarkably useful adaptation for remaining warm in cold and wet weather, and an excellent trade off for Deinonychus.
Although it was already past noon, Deenihan was not ready to call it a day. Troodon's large eyes allowed him to hunt in effectively with a minimum of light. He quickly covered the four miles to reach the edge of his deer hunting grounds. He carefully skirted edge of one of the innumerable glacial ponds that dotted the landscape. These ponds, through small in size were deceptively deep and treacherous especially now that they were covered in thin coats of ice. In a blinding snow, it was easy to mistake them for solid ground. More than one hunter had fallen through the ice of a pond like this and drowned.
He knew that a small herd of deer moved along this path almost every late afternoon in bad weather on the way to their bedding grounds. With any luck, he might be able to take down one or two this evening. He moved slowly and cautiously into an ambush point he had made just off the main deer run. His mottled feathers of browns, reds and greys blended in excellently with bracken in which he was concealed. In his immediate rear was a small ash grove, which he used for cover as he paralleled the game trail to different ambushes. He settled in to wait for the herd.
The time passed slowly. Deenihan was squatting on his haunches using the insulation of his feathers and his own body heat to stay warm. He periscoped his head around, relying on his keen eyesight to spot any telltale movement. It was getting on toward dusk when he caught a glimpse of deer moving down the path.
He had chosen this ambush in particular because the game trail ran directly down the center of a small valley with steep slopes. Any deer caught here could only go back or forward. Deenihan was relying on the terrain to box his prey and allow him to take a couple of deer. He was at least as fast or faster in the short run while in Troodon form, so he was counting on downing a deer at the ambush and chasing down another before losing the herd.
The herd moved steadily but cautiously, stopping every few yards to check their surrounding and to nibble on the brush. Deenihan let nearly three-quarters of the herd pass him before he made his move. He felt all the muscles in his sinewy legs tense . His long neck leaned forward, almost perpendicular to the ground as he extended his forearm claws in front of him.
He chose his target, passing up several bucks with racks for a large, fat doe. He was after meat, not trophies. Like a bolt from a crossbow, he went from stationary to nearly 40 miles per hour in less than 10 yards. The herd began bugling as they saw and heard the Troodon bearing down on them. Deenihan's vision was locked solely on his prey. His middle toe claws swiveled as he prepared for the leap that would carry him along side of the doe. As he drew along side the terrified deer, he dug in his left leg and swung his right leg in an arc to sever the jugular.
As he drew abreast of a cluster of teaberry bushes, a large brown wall of fur rose above him. He only had a glimpse of the huge paw that caught him on the left side of his rib cage and sent him spinning end over end for nearly ten yards.
Deenihan lay on his side in the middle of the game trail. Breathing made his ribs ache, but at least he was still breathing! A bear -- a Grizzly bear -- stood upright in the clearing, bellowing. In abject panic, deer spun all around it. But the bear ignored them. Deenihan only cognizant thought at the moment was to marveled he was still alive. He concluded the bear's first blow had been partially blocked and cushioned by the teaberry bushes. The bear dropped on all fours and began to move toward him.
Cautiously, the Troodon moved his legs and arms noting that they seemed undamaged. Base camp and safety meant getting by the bear. Deenihan didn't want to try it in the close confines of the valley, so that meant retreat. He didn't even hesitate. In one motion, Troodon was up and running. The bear roared and gave chase. Deenihan stole a glance over his undamaged shoulder and noted how quickly the bear seemed to be lost from sight.
He stopped after a quarter mile, confident that he'd escaped. He craned his neck to examine his wounds. The good news was his outer wounds were superficial. He'd lost quite a patch of feathers, but the cuts looked more like damage from the bushes than a bear's claws. The bad news was the pain inside him convinced him that, at the very least, several ribs must be bruised or broken. He lowered his head and brushed his snout into the snow -- no sign of blood -- so he didn't seem to be bleeding internally. But there was more bad news; the pain from his damaged ribs would severely limit the speed and the distance he could cover. He could still sprint if he had to but now, but it would only be a sprint. And he suspected his top speed was only a little more than that of the bear.
Deenihan waited another 20 minutes before deciding to risk trying to make it back up the valley toward his camp. He moved very cautiously since the bear now had the upwind advantage. He'd gone less than a hundred yards before the bear made another attempt.
"Jesus!" Deenihan thought. "It's hunting ME!"
This time he would take no chances. He didn't stop until he was out of the valley and into the hills beyond. Over the next two hours the drama repeated itself, Deenihan would stop, think himself safe, only to find the bear had anticipated his movement and direction. Only his size and quick acceleration saved him. But each time, he was a little more tired and moved a little more slower than the time before.
Worse, he was stuck in Troodon form until he could reach some place of safety long enough to return to human form, and that meant base camp. He doubted, given his condition, he could manage more than a morph to human. It took considerable effort and energy to transform. Once he shifted back to human, he'd be wounded and naked. His only hope lay in staying Troodon until he escaped from the bear. But dusk was coming on and he had been driven by his pursuer far beyond his normal hunting areas. He was in terra unfamiliar and his energy reserves were nearly exhausted. But still the Grizzly pursued him relentlessly.
The Troodon made it to the crest of yet another hill. It was running on instinct now. The human part of its consciousness had allowed the animal to take over. Only flight could save it from the bear. It held its forearm to its side, attempting to hold its damaged and broken ribs as immobile as possible. It looked down and saw small drops of blood in the snow.
"My blood," Deenihan thought.
He had used the last reserves of his energy in a sprint he hoped would put enough distance between him and the bear. He knew the Grizzly was tenacious, but he hoped a one- or two-mile run would finally discourage the bear and make it look for easy -- and slower prey. He waited for five minutes, using the time to rest. He was just beginning to think he'd done it when his binocular vision caught the tiniest movement on the left. Like radar, the Troodon focused all its senses.
It was there . . . the beast . . . its stalker!
If he still possessed human vocal chords, Deenihan would have cursed. Instead he turned to find his way down the other side of the hill. It was then he discovered he had made an error -- potentially a fatal error given his circumstances. Whether by accident or design, the bear had been driven him to the edge of a rocky cliff and he faced a drop of more than 60 feet to the bottom.
The hill top was bare and rocky. It was also very slick from the earlier sleet. It sloped slightly toward the drop-off, so Deenihan move cautiously to keep himself from slipping. He was trapped. He couldn't go forward, and he could no longer retreat.
For the first time in the pursuit, Troodon permitted itself to think the unthinkable . . . it's options were up . . . that this was where it -- no, HIS life -- would end. He was surprised at his calmness. He didn't feel angry or cheated. He also didn't feel like rolling on his back and waiting for the final blow.
His mind was clear and focused. He thought of SCABS and what it had given to him. Sure, he was lucky. He had control. He wasn't trapped in an unwanted form or shape. He was going to die in a way that seemed almost natural and holy. He was at peace.
"Predator . . . prey," he thought. "The only difference is which side of the teeth you're on."
There were no more thoughts of family or friends. No wishes or regrets. Deenihan was ready. He called out to the bear. He wanted him to come. "Auk. Auk. Auk," he cried, as if to say, "I am here."
From the Troodon's only avenue of escape, its pursuer emerged. It was more than twice the size and nearly six times the bulk of the theropod. It moved the calm assurance of a creature that knew its kill was guaranteed. The Grizzly rocked its head back an forth, then it rose on its hind paws, stretching itself to its full ten-foot height. The dinosaur extended its arms in a posture of defense. If it was going to die, it was going to die fighting. As the Troodon braced for the assault, the snow blew harder.
The Grizzly moved closer. Troodon waited for his chance. If the bear rose up again, for a split second, he would be off balance. The bear obliged him and started to rise. Deenihan catapulted himself forward, not to kill, but to wound. It was all he could hope for given the circumstances. He ducked under the massive front paws and attached himself just to the right of the bear's underarm. His forearms and left leg dug deeply into the bear's side and back while his teeth latched onto the flesh just below the shoulder. He used his free foot to slash at whatever part of the bear came within reach of his claw. Deenihan's aim was perfect, the bear's claws couldn't reach him, but that wouldn't last long.
Hot steaming gouts of blood spattered across Troodon's face and body as the bear spun about in an attempt to dislodge him. He felt the bear slipping on the icy rocks and just as it fell, Deenihan pushed loose. The bear fell hard on it stomach, its legs akimbo. Troodon ran in and laid a wicked slash across the bear's face with its foot, but the bear was faster than expected. It pulled back enough so the claw caught it across the top of its skull rather than its face. Off balance, Deenihan's feet slipped out from under him and he skidded under the snout of the enraged bear.
The bear grabbed him at the ankle joint of his right leg and stood. Deenihan used this split second to grab the top of the Grizzly's head with his fore claws. For a brief moment, there was a Mexican standoff. The bear couldn't loosen its grip on Troodon's leg and Deenihan dare not try for a better grip. The bear's nose, buried in Troodon's belly shot hot jets of breath on either side of his ribcage.
It couldn't last much longer. The bear still hadn't completely closed its jaws on Deenihan's leg, but it was just a matter of time. He looked about for what he assumed would be his last view of the world. Then he noticed his game tag marker was still attached to his left forearm. And his left forearm was . . .
He didn't think, he just did. Jamming the arm forward, Deenihan pushed the pellet ejector and fired a game marker into the eye of the bear. With an almost human scream, the bear dropped, rolled, and stood almost in one motion. It spun its massive head around and Deenihan felt himself tear loose. He crashed into a boulder and heard an audible "SNAP" as his left forearm broke.
He staggered to his feet trying to orient himself on the bear. The Grizzly was pushing the damaged eye socket into the snow, mewling in pain. Deenihan saw the bear had gone further down the slope toward the cliff. When it attempted to rise, Troodon summoned his remaining strength and launched himself forward. But this time, just before impact, Deenihan curled himself into a ball and struck the bear in between the shoulder blades.
The Grizzly fell forward in a heap and between the fall and the momentum, began to slide forward on the sleet-covered slope. Sensing its danger, the bear tried the to stop itself, but it was too little, too late. It went over the cliff without a sound.
Deenihan could scarcely believe his fortune. He rose painfully to his feet. Though his knee joint seemed wrenched, the leg the bear had in its mouth appeared unbroken. The same couldn't be said for his left arm, as even now little hot pins of burning pain were starting to reach his brain. Troodon moved as close to the site of the bear's fall as he dared and listened. From below he could hear the soft groans of the bear, but they stopped after a few minutes and all was quiet. The snow had stopped. It was time to get back to camp.
It was after midnight when he reached the area of his campsite. He was grateful he had chosen Troodon as his form. Its large eyes made it easy for him to find his way home in the dark.
Deenihan was not looking forward to resuming human form. The transformation alone would take longer because of his wounds and he didn't relish stumbling around nude in snow and freezing weather trying to get his clothes back on. But there was nothing for it because as versatile as Troodon was, its claws lacked the dexterity needed to operate the emergency help beacon in his tent.
He skirted the edge of the glacial pond that separated him from his camp. But then the night breeze carried a familiar scent . . . a bear! His camp was completely destroyed. His tent, his provisions, even the lean-to were gone. He had to assume the bear had found his camp after he left it yesterday afternoon. It must have struck out on his trail after leaving camp. Funny, Deenihan thought, I didn't know grizzly bears were that tenacious -- or wouldn't be already hibernating by this time of year.
He poked forlornly around the ruins of his tent. Not one useable scrap of clothing or food remained. The bear had even gotten his jumpsuit from the lean-to. Worse, his emergency beacon was nowhere to be found. "So I'm stuck," he thought to himself. He was going to have to make it for at least two more days, until they came for him. Hunting was now out of the question. He had to hope that the bear had missed his carrion stash. He would make his way to the tree where he'd hung the deer carcass in the morning and feed. He thought, with a little luck, he'd make it until help arrived. One part of the lean-to was lying on its side just off the ground. Using his good arm and leg, Deenihan dug out enough of the snow to allow himself to crawl inside. Like a great bird on a nest he curled himself into a sleeping position and dreamt predator dreams.
The following morning he painfully extracted himself from the ruins. Every muscle and every wound ached. He forced himself to move. It took him over an hour to reach the deer carcass. Other carrion eaters had found it, but there was enough left to keep him going, and there was no sign that the bear had been there.
He rested after eating. He was sluggish and his head drooped forward. It was only a mile or so back to camp, but it might as well have been a thousand. He put one weary foot in front of the other, not even looking where he was going. A light breeze was blowing. A scent reached his nostrils and his head snapped up and looked wildly around. He heard the growl. Less than fifty feet from him was . . . the bear!
There was no mistaking his enemy. Its side was coated in frozen blood. A great flap of skin hung over one side of its head. And sticking in the remains of its ruined eye was the marker tag still sending out its signal. But it had suffered even more from its fall. Its rear legs dragged uselessly on the ground in back of it. Still, it did not hesitate but immediately began to move as fast as it could toward Deenihan.
The chase was afar cry from the graceful ballet of yesterday. Today it was sheer determination -- one to kill and the other to escape. Deenihan was running on empty and he knew it. Even partially paralyzed, the bear was going to get him. He neither had the strength to run nor to fight. This time, the bear would win. He was in sight of his camp. Perhaps the authorities would find enough of his body to return home. He hoped so.
He was almost done. The bear was ten feet in back of him. Deenihan was at the edge of the pond, although you could barely see it under the snow. It was almost over now. He could feel the bear's breath at his back. Then he had an idea!
Without thinking he turned and ran across the bare snow. The Grizzly followed, it knew it had him. It lunged its gaping jaws at haunch. Even if it missed this time, it wouldn't the next.
Suddenly there was a large cracking sound. Troodon threw itself flat. The bear hesitated and in that moment, the ground opened up under it. With a splash it dropped into the freezing waters of the pond. It clawed at the sides of the ice, but each attempt fail. Its useless legs dragged at it and in its weak condition, it dipped under the water. It rose back up three times and three times it sank. It did not rise a fourth time.
Troodon looked back only for a moment at the black hole in the ice. Then he began to crawl forward on his belly, distributing his weight as much as possible, until he was sure he was on solid ground again and stood up. He was no longer sure he was going to survive. Two days until help with no food or shelter meant death in his condition. But even that thought didn't bother him any longer. He'd stared down the maw of death so often in the past 24 hours, it no longer held any terror for him. His only real thought was he wanted his body found. He wanted people to come here and see what he had accomplished on his own . . . one-on-one -- predator to predator.
Lifting his broken arm, he injected himself with a marker pellet. Then he crawled back under the remains of the lean-to. He looked out toward the hole in the ice, although already freezing over again, his sharp eyes could make out a patch of frozen fur. He slept.
Nine hours later, a retrieval drone landed in the clearing not far from Deenihan's camp. A collector tractor was dispatched and attempted to get at the bear but its sensors warned it the ice was unstable. It then went toward the other signal it was receiving, but once again, it was thwarted because the carcass was underneath the remains of a shelter. Then its sensors picked up the unmistakable signal of a SCABS sub-dermal transmitter. It's limited AI couldn't sort this one out, so it did the next best thing. It shut itself off and sent a distress signal.
The first conscious thought Troodon later remembered was the feeling of being shaken and his name being called. Then he slept again.
The next thing he remembered was a room of bright lights -- a hospital -- and people shouting at him again.
"Mr. Deenihan! Mr. Deenihan!" a voice -- a man's voice -- called to him.
"We need you human again, Mr. Deenihan! Can you become human for us, please?"
"I can do human," he thought groggily. "Easiest thing in the world."
And once again, he slept.
It was a sound -- a beep, beep, beep -- that brought him back to consciousness. He opened his eyes and looked around. The beep was coming from a heart monitor that was hooked up to him. A nurse was sitting in a chair beside his bed reading a magazine.
"Where am I?" he croaked.
"You're all right, Mr. Deenihan," a soothing voice told him. "You're at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg. You were injured very badly in a hunting accident, but you'll be fine now."
Reassured, he drifted back to sleep.
A week later he was allowed to sit up and move around by himself. In addition to a multiple fracture to his left tibia and ulna, the Grizzly had also broken six of his ribs and left him with gashes that took 32 stitches. Once the doctors pumped him full of enough antibiotics to make sure he didn't develop pnuemonia, he was left pretty much on his own to mend.
He still limped from his wrenched ankle, but even that would heal in time. He was tempted to assume a herpa-morph form, since any number of then healed at faster rates than humans, but he decided he was still too weak to attempt it.
One afternoon just before Thanksgiving, two men came to see him. They introduced themselves as Inspector MacInnes and Constable Brody with the Manitoba Mounties. They'd been assigned to interview him and make a report on his attack. Over the course of the next two hours, they walked him back through every memory he had of his trip into the bush and his subsequent encounter with the bear.
When they were finished, MacInnes closed his palm pad and asked Deenihan if he was up for a short trip. His doctors said yes, and Deenihan dressed. They took him to a nondescript building which turned out to be the police warehouse. They took him to the basement. Handing him a parka, they opened a large door leading to a refrigerator unit. In the center of the cold room were four gurney tables all lashed together. On top of the gurneys was an object covered with a tarp.
Deenihan knew what was under the tarpolin, but when Brody pulled back the cover, he nearly fainted.
The creature laying on the table was large, female. weighed several hundred pounds, and was covered in brown fur. Its side was lacerated and a great gash had cut the skin on the top of its head. Its left eye was destroyed as well.
It was also human. At least, partially.
"It was ... She was ... SCABS," Deenihan stuttered.
He put his hand to his forehead, where his transmitter would be. "But it never went off . . . But surely she realized I was SCABS. Why did she attack?"
"Ever heard of the Army of Gaia, Mr. Deenihan?" MacInnes asked. "No."
"I didn't think so. The Army of Gaia is an even more radical off-shoot of Animal Amnesty, believe it or not. Thank God, their numbers are small. Their philosophy is to hunt the hunter -- to make them know how it feels -- to be on the receiving end of a bullet, arrow or, in your case, tooth and claw."
"Her name was Lydia Maun from Keeokuk, Iowa. When we found your camp our first assumption was a SCABS predator -- you or Ms. Maun -- got carried away with the hunt and tried to kill one another. I can tell you now that for a few days, you were the chief suspect in a murder investigation. But then we couldn't find any records of Ms. Maun entering Manitoba, let alone getting hunting permits. When we couldn't find any trace of a sub-dermal beacon on her body, we started to suspect a deeper plot. So we went back to your campsite and began an all out search for her home base. It took some of our best trackers, but we finally found her lair. It was quite well hidden."
"Until you killed Ms. Maun, we had no idea the Army was operating in Manitoba. You've created a lot of extra work for us, Mr. Deenihan. Now we're going to have to go back over the past several years and re-examine any missing hunter cases or death by animal to see if we have additional murder cases to pursue." "What happens now?" Deenihan asked.
"We'll keep Ms. Maun's death a secret and wait to see in anyone enquires after her. If so, we may have a shot at breaking up any more unauthorized "hunting" expeditions by the Army."
"That's all?" Deenihan added. "What about the other hunters -- SCABS and norms -- what about them? Aren't you going to warn them?" "Of course not. That could have a negative impact on the state's primary industry. No, we'll run a few more patrols. Beef up border security and do more undercover surveillance, but nothing that might make people back off from visiting or hunting."
"It's business," MacInnes added with a shrug.
Deenihan looked down at the body on the gurney. She didn't look so formidable now. He wondered if he would have been as scared . . . or so exhilarated . . . had he known she was SCABS. He suspected so. She had every intention of killing him. She damn near had. His speed and brains and beaten her brains and size. But it had been close. Very close.
MacInnes replaced the cover over her body and turned off the light. The cold in the room was making Deenihan's arm and leg hurt. He was tired. It was time to go back to the hospital and rest. He's be leaving for home in another week or so. It would be nice to be back among friends. It began to snow.
"By the way, Mr. Deenihan," MacInnes said. "The Game Commission asked me to remind you to stop in their offices before you leave Winnipeg. While we are most sorry for your difficulty with this year's hunt, there is the matter of your quota shortage. You'll need to make an additional payment before you leave Manitoba."
********** EPILOGUE **********
It was the day after New Year. A man in a woolen muffler and parka limped upstream against the flow of the crowd on the sidewalk of the city. The day was overcast and blustery. The man's left arm hung in a sling around his neck.
A cab pulled up along side him and a voice called from the backseat. "Hey, Coops! Need a lift?"
Deenihan looked up, recognized a friend and nodded. Smiling wanly, he slid inside the cab.
"Yeah, thanks, Scribs, I was getting pretty tired."
"Jesus, Coops, you look like Hell. I haven't seen you since before Thanksgivings. You been in an accident or something?"
"Yeah, an or something.'" he replied.
The Scribbler knew Copernicus' moods and let him be. He knew Coops would tell him what had happened when he was up to it.
Although they rode in silence, Deenihan knew where they were going. As they turned off of Fourth and on to Blount Street he could already see the sign . . . the humanoid pig standing upright in top hat, waistcoat and tails wearing dark spectacles and carrying a white cane . . . and the words "The Blind Pig Gin Mill -- D. Sinclair, Prop." The cab deposited them out front and they entered. It was still early evening yet the pub area was already full with activity.
Between his weeks in the woods and his solitary recovery, Deenihan was uncomfortable in the crowded bar. His eyes swept across the room, "Predator. Prey. Predator. Predator. Prey. Predator. Prey. Prey." he whispered automatically to himself.
"Ja'say something, Coops?" the Scribbler asked.
"No. Just thinking out loud."
Many of the bar's familiar patron closed around Deenihan adding to his feeling of claustrophobia. Although it was just his mind playing tricks on him, he imagined he could catch the scents of the various animorphs around him. There was the wolf Wanderer, and the catwoman Rydia. When Sleeper the deer paused to shake his hand, the hairs on Deenihan's neck stood straight up. But these were his friends and they could sense that their friend needed his space and they backed off. He moved off to a nook where he could sit by himself and yet still be surrounded by friends.
A heavy but familiar hand touched his shoulder. He turned and looked up into the large brown eyes of Donnie Sinclair. The Auroch-headed man motioned quickly with his fingers. Deenihan unconsciously translated the pub owner's sign language.
"No Donnie, really, I'm fine," he said.
Donnie merely tilted his head. In that one gesture you could read four or five different thoughts on the owner's face ranging from concern to I-don't-believe-you.
"You know me too well," Deenihan said. Then he began to speak, to tell of his experience in Canada. Soon, everything gushed out of him in a torrent: The hunt. The chase. His desperate moves and counter moves against the Grizzly. And finally, his victory.
"And you know what, Donnie," he concluded. "What I never told the authorities. What I've been afraid to admit even to myself was . . . God help me, I enjoyed it. I was scared -- terrified of dying, yet I don't ever think I felt more alive. It was the greatest rush I've ever felt. And then I find out that the bear wasn't really a bear and . . . "
Deenihan pinched his bottom lip with his thumb and index finger. Slowly tears formed in his eyes. With voice choking, "Jesus, Donnie, when they pulled that cover back over her body, do you know what went through my mind? Do you know what I said to myself?"
Now the tears and the words tumbled out together. "Couldn't swim. Couldn't fly. I win. You die."
"That's what I said to myself. Jesus, what kind of sick son of a bitch am I, Donnie? That woman's dead on the table and I'm gloating. I can't get those words or the picture of her face out of my mind. I keep trying to find forgiveness somewhere, but I don't think I will. I even stopped by St. Timothy's this evening and lit a candle. But I can't tell you whether I lit it for that woman . . . or for me."
Donnie rose to give Deenihan a few minutes to compose himself. He returned with a small tumbler. Deenihan knew it was a single malt Scotch. Donnie leaned over and lightly patted the herpa-morph's cheek. It was his way of telling Deenihan that no matter what he thought of himself, Donnie knew better -- that Donnie was and would always be his friend.
Deenihan turned the tumbler around thoughtfully with his fingers. For the first time that evening, he listened to voices in the bar. Somebody had just bought a round and people were calling for a toast.
"To 2037!" a woman shouted.
"To the pack!" howled one of the Lupine Boys.
"To women everywhere! God bless'em!" brayed Jack deMule
. "To hunting season," whispered Kevin Michael Deenihan, draining the Scotch and turning the glass upside down on the table.
Thanks to Raven for pointing out an error. Troodon translates as "Wounding Tooth" not "Wounding Claw." Copernicus was originally going to be a Deinonychus throughout the story until I came across a wonderful layout on Troodon and changed my mind. I guess I had Deinonychus on the brain and Troodon on my typing keys. Hi to all the old timers on the list. I hope Bob Stein and Jack DeMule are keeping things lively. Thanks also to Copernicus who let me do horrible things to him in print and who remained a good sport. He also lent me the new TSA address so I could post this story. I have a number of other stories in various stages, but I'm a very slow writer. Thanks also to the folks who have written to me over the months I've been gone. Sorry if it takes a while to get back to you, I sometimes go a week or so without checking my email and I don't always have an answer to some of the questions :). Best to all,
Website Copyright 2002-2005 Michael Bard. Please send any comments or questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org