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THE CRUCIBLE OF A SPECIES

(Deleted scene from the Novel)

Pfc. Ed Saren was supposed to be watching the AutoSentinel emplacements on top of the berm as they passed by. He was looking for breaches in the fence or any debris that might block the defensive firing capability of the security stations. This was not an easy task in the dark of night and to make the job just a bit harder, he was the last marine of the four-man foot patrol.

It was a gorgeous, moonless evening with the stars so bright he could see in the cleared areas of the berm without his helmet’s nightvision. The air was cool and the dinos that he had to worry about were out there on the other side of the fence. Some nights you didn’t mind being out on patrol and this was one of them.

On the other hand, this was a different way of walking patrol and Saren didn’t like it. It felt wrong to be travelling so close together. They drummed it into your head in basic, “keep your spacing, pull back …” Nope, he didn’t like it one bit but then, these were Lt. Esperanza’s orders. Saren quickly scanned the surrounding scrub brush before instinctively risking a glance down to where his foot would place its next step. Automatically he shifted slightly so that his boot would avoid cracking the dry, small branch in his path.

Guess the lieutenant felt we’re safer if we stick close together, his thoughts wandered a bit. Makes sense in a way. After all, nobody’s gonna be shooting at us. Still …

The blow came from behind, whiplashing his head, knocking the breath from his lungs and throwing him into the back of Pfc. John Estes. Flat on his belly and mad as hell, he turned his head in time to see a brown mouth filled with white, shiny and very sharp looking teeth heading his way. Reflexively, he swung at it just as a black blur ripped across his field of vision and rolled him over with a painful kick to the side of his hip. Whatever had been on his back was off him now and he rolled to his other side. Somehow, through it all, he hadn’t lost his rifle and he pushed to swing it around as fast as he could. Something behind him grabbed and twisted his rifle, pulling the barrel to the side. Blind anger fired inside him until he saw Pfc. Sara Hsu. She was standing above him with a wide grin, calmly holding back his rifle. “Easy there Saren. Some devil dog you are, you let something hit us from our backside.”

Saren looked behind Hsu. A small dinosaur lay sprawled on the ground between them. Tom Simpson smiled over at him, “It may be more than six feet long but it don’t weigh much more than the retriever I had when I was a kid. I managed to lay it out flat with the butt of my rifle. What-do-ya think Saren, supper tomorrow?”

“Well, it caught me off guard.” Saren grumbled as he used his rifle to brace himself and climb back onto his feet. None of the others offered him a hand. “Guess I was thinkin’ of other things. Sorry guys.”

Hsu used one hand to drag the dromo over towards Saren, “It seemed to like you so you get to carry it. Grab your dino and string it up for portage back to camp. Estes, give him a hand getting it on his back. Simpson, see if you can do a little better in the tail-end Charlie position.”

A few moments later and they were ready to continue when Hsu looked across her team one last time and stopped, “Wait a sec, Estes and Saren get over here. Just take a look at yourself Saren. You want to be the laughing stock of the platoon? Pull off the feathers from that damn tail that’s hangin’ out like that. You look ridiculous and what’s worse, I guarantee they’re gonna trip you up at the worst time.

“Come on you guys and move it. The lieutenant will have our hides if she thinks we’re dawdling around.”

They returned to camp after checking the perimeter. Hsu reported to Lt. Esperanza, “All is intact along the berm. Seems to be properly sealed from the big ones but we’re running into a lot of those little dinosaurs.”

“Little yeah, but when they run in packs they can be nasty.” The lieutenant observed.

“Actually, ma’am, we were just attacked by an individual. Come over here Saren and show her what you caught. Two things saved Saren, he had his body armor on and, see this? The dino has one of the big claws missing from this foot.”

“I haven’t seen that type of dino before but I’ll eat anything if it means I don’t have to draw ship’s rations. Good work, Hsu.”

“Always glad to help, Lieutenant. We’re going to turn in now unless you’ve got more for us.”

“Nope, that’s it. By the way, Saren, you caught it so you get to gut and dress it out. Aw, cut the sour look. Tomorrow you get first choice in selecting the chunk of meat you want.”

“I’ll get right to it after I grab a quick bite to eat, if that’s okay Lieutenant?”

A half hour later, four very tired marines picked up their rifles and crawled into their fart-sacks, turned on the odorless bug repellant and fell asleep. Private Saren had forgotten about gutting the dinosaur still lying beneath his field jacket.

Saren woke in the middle of the night. It was very dark outside but he could hear cloth tearing and some scratching.

Where did that sound come from? Saren slowly opened his eyes. Nothing was in front of him. There it is again. Doesn’t sound too close, maybe I can get my rifle.

Slowly he slid his arm out of the sack. His rifle was where he had left it at the top of his roll. With one hand on the grip, he slowly turned over on his back while trying not to draw attention with any sudden movement. As he watched, the marine saw a dark figure rise up from the ground on the other side of the camp. Pale moonlight reflected off sharp white teeth as it rose almost to the height of a man but it didn’t look like any human he had ever seen. The apparition wobbled around uncertainly and then slowly ambled off towards the forest.

Saren sat up and flipped on his LED gun-light. Two glowing eyes turned to glare back at him. They stared into the light, mesmerized by its brilliance for just a moment and then, with a shrill screech, took off at a run. In the light of the newly risen moon, Saren saw the bare, featherless tail brightly reflecting the moonlight as it flitted back and forth between the sleeping marines. “Hey you, stay right where you are,” he shouted as he slid out of his bag and sprinted after it.

The dromaeosaur bolted for the woods, slipping and sliding with each tight turn because of the loss of balance from the missing tail feathers. Saren dove and managed to grab its ankle and the dinosaur bounced hard, flat on its face. The dromo instantly twisted, raking its claws down his arm with a foot that should have had a five-inch killing claw on it. It twisted back to bite the hand holding its ankle and an anguished screech filled the camp as Saren managed to grab it by the neck.

The marine looked up to see the lieutenant standing over him, “Guess you didn’t finish the job, Saren. This guy seems pretty spry for someone who was supposed to be gutted and ready for cooking tomorrow.”

The dromo stopped resisting and the marine saw resignation and fear fill its eyes, “Thank God I grabbed the foot with the claw on it. If the other leg had a claw like that then my arm would have been shredded.”

“Okay, so finish the job and Saren, you finish gutting it like you were supposed to.”

Saren broke in, “Ah, what the heck. Look at its eyes, Lieutenant. The poor little guy’s scared and he’s had a rough night.”

“I think you just don’t wanna have ta gut it.”

“Look at it. I can’t do it in after all it’s been through. Have a heart.”

“Oh, all right but it probably means stasis rations for supper tomorrow. Let it go but do it carefully. It may be missing one claw but its teeth are nothing to fool with either.”

Saren set the dromo down on the ground. It didn’t move for a moment. “Go on, get outta here.” He nudged it with his foot. The small dinosaur stood and bolted six feet down the trail before turning to look back at them for a moment and then took off across the camp. Its flight was clumsy and it slipped several times, unbalanced by the loss of its tail feathers. The marines watched the dromo disappear into the forest, its white, bare tail tip flinging through the air as it scrambled into the woods as quickly as it could.

Sara Hsu was the first one to break out laughing. Saren looked at her for a second before all of the marines were also laughing at the sight and then he began laughing so hard he had to gulp air between the words “That poor thing, I hope it can grow those tail feathers back real fast.”

The entire platoon was up as a result of the commotion. A red horizon over the still dark inland sea foretold the imminent start of another day as they began to setup morning breakfast.

Pfc. Sara Hsu walked over to the squad, “Saren and Estes, you guys follow that dino’s trail. I want to see how it got in here through the sentinels. Go on, I’ll square it with the lieutenant.”

“Look behind you Sara. Over there, by that short palm across the clearing.”

Sara turned around. Through the long shadows of the sun just peeping over the horizon, she saw the figure, “Well I’ll be darned. It’s our little bare assed, one clawed friend and it seems very interested in our breakfast. It don’t seem particularly scared after what just happened to it.”

“Nope, but it did learn something. It’s not charging in, trying to grab one of us for breakfast.”

As they watched, John Estes lifted an armful of MREs from the storage bin labeled, “Meal, Ready to Eat” and turning, noticed the dromo watching from the bushes not fifteen feet from him. He set the boxes back into the bin and walked over to the stasis box, opened it and pulled out a flank of meat left over from last night’s dinner. He held the meaty leg up while softly calling over to the dromo, “Here you go fella. Come on, I can see you’re hungry. Come on over and get it.”

Cautiously, the dromaeosaur stepped out of the bushes nervously staring at the other marines moving about the camp. It took another step out towards Estes and hesitated. “I ain’t chucken it over. You’ve gotta come and get it.” Estes softly cooed as he waved the leg back and forth so the smell drifted across the open space.

Quick as a serpent, the dromo lunged forward, grabbed the leg and ran off into the woods.

“That was about the dumbest thing I ever saw, Estes.” Hsu called over towards the marine.

“What the hell was so dumb about it? It’s by itself, has a claw missing and now, thanks to us, it can’t run very well. The poor thing’s just hungry.”

“But it’s a puken dinosaur? Just what were you thinking of?”

“I think you’ve been watching too many vids, Hsu.” Estes shouted as he went back for a second load of MREs. “In any case, it’s gone now and I didn’t give it any service issued food so you can’t report me.”

Hsu replied, “You just fed the thing. Do you really think it won’t be back?

“Look around you. None of these animals are particularly afraid of us. Even the little ones are constantly running through camp. Oh, it’ll definitely be back. It’s found a source of free food. You just watch.”

Estes wasn’t giving up, “Didn’t you ever have a dog, Hsu? It can’t be that much of a problem. I’ve got work to do, stop buggin’ me.”

Hsu watched as Estes returned to his work. A group of six small birds, barely knee high scrambled around the marine’s feet as he walked. Then Hsu remembered they're weren't birds. They're six dinosaurs with that particular hip structure that the doctor had described to the platoon. They had feathered arms with hands at the end of them instead of wings. These didn’t have the raptor’s killing claw like Saren’s friend did but that only meant they were a little less aggressive, a little less likely to try and take a finger with the next handout.

Sara Hsu turned, rolled up and stowed her sack, Guess we can live with that. If they’re as big as we are then they weigh less than half of our weight. Haven’t see any that a half-way decent marine couldn’t handle. Question is, how long is it gonna be before they want us to go outside the perimeter and bring in meat for the whole expedition? You know it’s gotta come sooner or …

The alarm sentinel went off pulling Hsu from her thoughts. Her gaze switched to the control panel and a chill ran down her spine as she saw the barrier breach warning. Down on the other end of the berm, two of the auto-sentinels had shut down. The sounds of Pulsar firing rose above the jungle but Hsu didn’t need to be told what was happening as the ground beneath her feet began trembling.

There was a breakthrough and, with the number of perimeter sightings they’d had in the last few days, it was obvious just what was happening down there. The big ones, the tyrannosaurs were in the camp and they were out for blood.

 

End Excerpt

© Copyright 2016, Terrence Zavecz, All rights reserved.

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