Gina didn’t remember much of what had happened after her jeep had gone into the ditch, but according to the doctor who was shining a light in her eyes she had been found by a couple motorists wandering along the road, dazed and covered in blood. The last thing she remembered was the hopper crashing through her windshield and the world spinning crazily, and then she was taking a reflexive swing at the young nurse trying to stitch up a nasty gash above her right eye and having to be physically restrained until she realized where she was. Thankfully, the kid had good reflexes and her swing had missed. Between those two events, everything got fuzzy.
“Now with both hands touch your fingers like this,” the doctor said, and demonstrated by touching his thumb with each finger in rapid succession, then reversing the sequence. Gina’s attempt to replicate the process was a little slower and clumsier than she’d have liked, but she managed. She felt like she was operating her body by remote, and the controls had not been properly calibrated. She almost didn’t notice when the doctor told her to stand up and hold her arms out with her eyes closed, and as she returned them to their original positions after he’d move them (or at least she tried to) she tried to remember what had happened. Obviously she must have gotten out of the jeep and started walking, but what else? Had there been a pressing reason, or had she just been loopy from taking a knock to the head?
The doctor was just finishing up testing her coordination when there was a knock on the wall of the exam room and an orderly pushed the heavy curtain aside. “Got a visitor here,” he said, and then stepped aside to let Gina’s father through. His eyes went wide when he saw his daughter.
“Gina, are you alright?” he asked as he nearly bowled the doctor over on his way over to her. “What happened?”
Gina saw he was looking over her with horror in his eyes and looked down at her clothes. Her shirt was soaked through and stiff with dried blood, and her bare arms were streaked with it. For what felt like the first time she noticed how crusty her face and neck felt and how stiff and heavy her hair was, and she realized she must have been practically drenched in gore when she’d arrived. Much of her skin had been wiped clean as the medics looked for cuts, but it had done little to improve her appearance. “I hit a hopper,” she said finally. “I think.” Now that she’d noticed it, the coppery tang of all the blood on her filled her nostrils. It was terribly annoying, and she suddenly wanted a shower.
“She has a slight concussion and we had to stitch her forehead up a bit, but otherwise she’s fine,” the doctor explained.
Martin stood before his daughter and put a hand on her head. “How you feeling, benne?”
Gina flinched her head away from his hand when his fingers touched the large bump there. “I’m fine, ow!”
Martin smiled and turned to the doctor. “So is she good to go?”
The doctor nodded, and turned toward the curtain. “I think so, her concussion doesn’t seem that serious. Just make sure she gets plenty of rest, and no driving for a couple days.”
Gina laughed mirthlessly. “No problems there, my jeep’s out in a damn ditch.” When she started to get to her feet the doctor motioned for her to stay put and said he’d get her a wheelchair, but she waved him off. “I’m fine,” she said, “I’ve been taking blows to the head for years.” Then she hopped off the exam table, and promptly fell to her knees and vomited.
“Sorry I missed work,” Gina said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Martin said. “I was able to get Denny to cover for you.” They’d left the hospital, and were headed towards Sakko along one of the city’s busier avenues.
Gina sighed in annoyance. “The animals hate Denny.”
“So what happened, anyway?”
Gina’s face lit up. “Oh, you’ll never believe it!” she said enthusiastically. “I found the animals, and-…” She stopped suddenly, and her look of excitement slowly turned to one of horror and frustration.
“And what?” Martin glanced away from the road to look at her. “What is it?”
Gina threw back her head and let out a loud, three-syllable “Fuck.”
“What?” Martin asked again.
“I think my gun and my camera are still out there in the jeep,” she said.
Rinchen and Vestal, Gondolend’s twin moons, shone full and bright in the night sky like two spotlights, reflecting the light of the distant sun with enough brilliance to illuminate the Samara far below. The two satellites moved through the sky in perpetual lockstep, Vestal in fact a trojan of the more massive Rinchen riding at its L4 point, both moons always along the same plane and sixty degrees off from each other. Each covered in a thick layer of ice, the moons reflected so much sunlight that on nights like this it never stopped being twilight.
The brilliant moonslight glinted off of seven-inch fangs as the giant threw back its massive head and yawned. After their encounter with the small, noisy creature earlier that day the two giants had settled down to sleep in the shade of a stand of acacias, and now their avian metabolisms demanded food. One after the other the animals rose to their feet and stretched, extending their legs and twisting their heads this way and that before raising their snouts and sampling the air. Though they were unaware of it they had one of the strongest senses of smell ever evolved, and should be able to detect prey from miles away. Almost as one, both heads turned to the southwest. There was something very interesting in that direction. Silently, they set off across the plains towards the scent.
In the light of the full moons, the large eyes of the scrat seemed a bit overkill. The slender, leggy groundbird that stalked through the ferns and grass on the hunt for large insects and small mammals was a different genus from the domesticated variety, larger and stronger and more suited to tackling bigger prey. Though they were relatives of talonorns like the yurgovuch, ranang, and figrin, scrats employed a much different hunting style. While talonorns were robust grapplers, they were only fast over short distances and poorly suited to extended pursuits. They were ambush predators, best suited to darting out from cover and latching onto their prey before it could escape. Scrats, with their shorter arms, longer legs, and slender builds, were not grapplers. They were runners, well adapted to chasing after small, agile prey.
Right now, this particular scrat was investigating a promising rustling sound among the dry grass. The groundbird approached slowly, stepping carefully so as not to alert whatever it was that was making the sound. As it approached, the familiar scent of a multituberculate reached its nostrils. The scrat lowered its head and unfolded its clawed wings, readying itself for the pounce. Suddenly there was a new sound, and a new smell. Heedless of the scrat or its hunt, the two giants strode across the moonlit prairie, following the scent of blood and meat. The scrat hissed and its prey bolted as they blundered through the scene, taking only the most cursory notice. Then they were moving on, leaving the scrat to try to find the foraging multituberculate again.
With sharp, serrated teeth the iyenna tore into the flank of the dead dormoth calf. Not far away the rest of the herd could still be seen silhouetted against the indigo sky, moaning and trumpeting softly amongst themselves as they moved away into the twilight. The iyenna turned its ridged head in their direction, then bolted down a hunk of flesh. It was a young male, barely adult size, and had only recently been driven out of the family group by his big parents. He was still fairly inexperienced when it came to hunting and killing his own prey, and this was his first substantial meal in several days.
The iyenna had nearly stripped one hindleg when the two giants arrived. With his snout covered in the calf’s blood, the iyenna hadn’t smelled them coming, and had been too intent on scarfing down his prize to notice their approach until it heard the deep, basso honk. Acting on instinct the iyenna raised his head and snarled, before he saw just how much bigger than him these two newcomers were. Each easily twice his size, he knew there was no way he could resist them. He’d once seen an iyenna his size torn to pieces by two big females, and they were smaller still than these giants challenging him for his kill. They honked at him again and advanced with their big jaws open, and the iyenna was forced to retreat. As he turned back for a final defiant howl the two giants descended upon the dormoth carcass with a loud crunching of bone.
The giant prodded her again with its snout, knocking her back into the mud. She tried to scuttle back away from the beast, but it stepped on her legs and pinned them under its foot. The mud underneath was soft enough that the bones were not broken, but her knees flared in pain as they were forcefully hyperextended under the giant’s weight. The giant’s breath was hot in her face, its growl a hellish thunder. This is it, Gina thought as the giant drew its massive head back, I’m not getting out of this alive, as those massive jaws opened and rushed towards her, drawing her into that hot black-
Gina’s eyes opened. Her heart was still pounding from the dream, and she was acutely aware of a cold damp spot on her pillow where she’d drooled in her sleep. With a tired groan she rolled onto her back to stare at the moonslit patterns on the ceiling. She went to run a hand through her sweaty hair, but winced and pulled it back when her fingers hit the knot on her head. Though it had gone down somewhat, it was still sensitive. She sat up on the couch and looked out the open window at the front yard. She was in her father’s house in Sakko, where he’d insisted she spend the night so he could keep an eye on her. The neighborhood outside was still, silent but for the distant chirping of crickets.
With a quiet curse she threw the blanket aside and got up. After using the bathroom, she padded across the first floor of the darkened house to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water. As she drank Gina stared out the kitchen window at the bushes outside the neighbor’s house, wondering just what she planned to do about her giants. They were new to science, that much she was sure of. She couldn’t imagine how, but that was the only conclusion she could come to. Over the years she’d collected field guides to animals from all the countries of Gondolendia and those beyond the Barrier, and she could say with a fair bit of certainty that she’d never seen anything like those giants in any of them. She couldn’t imagine how anything that big could have escaped notice for so long, but apparently they had.
The first step was getting her camera back. While she doubted it had survived the crash, she at least hoped the memory card was undamaged. From there, assuming she could retrieve them, she would probably show the pictures to Thaddeus Whittington, her old zoology professor at Darwin University and a close friend of her late granduncle Stanley Pike, the legendary Gondolendian explorer. As a respected figure in the scientific community Whittington would surely have the necessary connections to get a formal description of the animals published. She allowed herself to fantasize a bit, wondering if he would name them after her. That would make her entire decade, to be immortalized in the name of an animal she had helped discover.
The nightmare now forgotten, she put the empty glass on the counter and headed back across the house to the living room. First of all she needed to get out to her jeep to retrieve her camera, rifle, and anything else she wanted before calling the tow company, and she wanted to get out there as soon as possible before anyone else happened to come across it and poke around inside. That only left her a few hours left to sleep, so she’d better get to it.
The iyenna was wary. The prospect of a free meal was enticing, especially after being robbed of its kill, but beneath the carcass’s scent was something else. The smell was faint, but clear enough to be recognizable as one that signified potential danger. So the iyenna hung back, deeply sampling the air as it tried to determine if any of the small, noisy creatures that had killed so many of his kind were still around.
The animal was relatively small, not even five meters long, but it had not been touched by scavengers and was more than enough of a meal for an iyenna of his size. Normally he wouldn’t even look twice at these animals, protected as they were by sharp-edged plates, long, wicked spikes, and a surly attitude; they were simply too well-armed to be worth the effort. This one however, being already dead, was significantly more appealing.
When it was satisfied that all was safe, the iyenna ducked its head and sank its teeth into the carcass. Suddenly something cried out and the night exploded. The iyenna yowled and reared before the blinding flashes of light and deafening cracks of sound, and he felt sudden, jabbing pain in his neck and chest as several small, fast somethings drove hard into his flesh. The iyenna panicked, turning to flee the way he’d come. There were other bursts of pain in his thigh and the base of his tail, and then once again he was retreating across the plain, running hard to put as much distance between himself and whatever it was that had attacked him as possible.
Back at the blind, the hunters frantically rushed out of hiding and pulled away the netting that obscured their pickup truck. Headlights blazed out across the darkened prairie as the engine roared to life, and in a billowing cloud of dust the pursuit was on.