Fear of Falling
I hate my job. I snap a hatchling ptero’s neck easily between my thumb and forefinger. I hate it ten times more during Brooding Season, if that’s even possible. I work on the Grounds Crew. We take all the line rejects and make fertilizer out of them. We used to shoot the pteros full of anesthesia to make us feel better about breaking their necks. Then the scientists came along and convinced us that they feel nothing once their spinal cords have been crushed. I don’t believe them. Especially when I’ve seen tails and wings and claws flailing around for hours after we’ve put them down.
Being here makes me feel like a reject too. They’ve been rejected for being too aggressive, too thick skulled, too big-boned, too runty. Too. Too. Too. I’ve been ostracized by being the youngest in a family of ten. After the second boy, you must stop caring what comes next. And being the seventh, and last, son is even more disappointing. Daughters you can marry off. Sons you must give out land and money to bring their wives into the family. Not much left when you get to seven. It’s better than having your neck broken with the flick of a wrist, I’ll give you that.
I toss the tiny winged lizard into the bin behind me. Once it’s full — it won’t take long this year because we’ve got about a million hatchlings to sort — the sensors will wheel it out and replace it with an empty one. The smell of irony blood, sour albumin, and the slick heat of an early summer press down all around me. Between the crack of one neck and the wild grab for another, I glance at the clock on the wall. Quitting time’s not for hours. There’s a neo down the line. She’s a girl. We don’t get many girls on Grounds Crew, and I can see why when she leans away from her conveyor belt and vomits.
The motors start up again and a new batch of pteros start slipping down into our workspaces off the sorter. There’s a loud thunk into my space. It’s a ptero the size of a cocker spaniel, maybe even a boxer puppy. This one was rejected for being too big and probably dangerous. I’m only half paying attention when I grab it around its neck, my fingers sliding down its long neck, still wet from hatching. I feel the sharp sting of boney beak and razor baby teeth slice through my glove and into my knuckles.
“Rex!” I shout, stripping off my glove. A solid red gush of blood runs down my exposed flesh. I raise my arm up above my head. Blood races down my arm. “Medic!”
The offending ptero wastes no time in plotting an escape. In less than a second, it’s hopped up on the edge of my workspace. The sunlight from outside bleeds through the thin membranes of its wings showing pink and pearly in the light. It stretches them wide, attempting to fly. With a clumsy step and flailing wings, it hops up. For a split-second, I’m actually hoping it does take flight. Hunting down wild pterodactyls is one of the things I love most about winter. A season that’s eight months away. By the cut into my skin and the glint in its eyes, this one looks to be one mean mother-rexer and its pinfeathers haven’t even started to show yet. The perfect hunt to look forward to all those long months.
The ptero hovers in the air for a blink of an eye before hurling down into the soft ground that’s littered with pieces of bone. It tucks its wings up high and without looking back, rushes toward the daylight like a velociraptor in heat. I drop my hand and chase after it, my heartbeat thumping painfully down my finger bones.
I don’t know why I bothered calling a medic, the medics never come back here anyway. Even with all the moving parts, they’re much more interested in the animals that are chosen to live. It’s probably a good thing because I decide I’m going to save the escapee dead-set on making it outside. I follow its movements with my eyes, quickly calculating how long it’ll take to reach the exit. No one else on the Grounds Crew notices anything. Music must be blaring through their headphones to keep them from noticing the racket issuing from its little body.
A shadow moves across the opening, the ground shakes causing tiny pebbles to bounce around. The little lizard ducks down, hides its body behind a post. Smart. It doesn’t know beyond that opening is a stegocart, but it’s protecting itself. That seals my resolve to help it. The stegocart moves again. The shadow passes, but the ptero doesn’t move. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the attack to come in the absolute stillness. Instinct is definitely stronger than the nurturing that never happened.
We both wait, quiet, with muscles trembling right under our skin. When it moves, it’s with a knowing purpose and a kind of grace. I slip out into the alleyway behind it. The Hatchery is one of the last main buildings before the jungle spreads out its verdant fingers. It’ll be harder to follow the ptero here. I’ve gotta make my move now.
Stealthily, I sneak up behind the little ptero and swoop down from above. The attack was simply delayed. A good lesson for the lizard to learn now instead of making itself into a meal for a hungry-o-saur.
“Gotcha!” I exclaim, pouncing onto its tawny skin.
Instead of cowering and rolling over like a submissive creature, the ptero strikes out with claws and teeth. My brand new tri-top leathers are crisscrossed and ripped in places. Should have known better, but I’m going to make this little girl, I can now tell by the markings across her beak, mine. She whips her head around on her long neck and her beak clips my forehead. Blood runs down my skin and into my eye. It stings like a nettle bush.
I punch her in the mouth. It almost breaks my good hand. We squirm some more until I’ve got her wings pinned beneath my knees, both my hands pushing her huge beak down to the side. A strange thought strikes me, and I rub some of my blood into her skin with my thumb.
“Obey,” I say, calmly, but clearly. “Obey me, and I’ll set you free.”
She flicks her eye at me, blinks once, and goes completely still. I hesitate for a second before releasing her beak. Then I gently take my knees off the soft folds of her wings and crouch back. She flips over onto her feet and regards me first with one eye and then the other. Her wings dip down. She remains placid. Waiting. I reach into my pocket and pull out the last of my brachio burger.
The crinkle of the wrapper instantly grabs her attention. Swifter than I ever gave her credit for, she dips in and steals the burger right out of my hand. This time though, she doesn’t leave a scratch. With a quick flip of her beak, the entire thing disappears down her throat. She rubs her back against my shin. I’ve never been allowed this close to a living ptero unless I’m about to kill it. My breath catches in my throat. Then I start to laugh when I feel her beak testing the inside of my pocket.
I playfully swat away her head, “You ate it all.”
She looks at me, expecting more meat to magically appear or something. I laugh again. There’s a rustle in front of me, then the huge head of an allosaurus breaks through the leaves. My little pterodactyl tries to make herself blend into the lush foliage all around us. The movement catches the allosaurus’s eye immediately and in one quick crack and a crunch, she’s gone.
There’s no time to mourn or scream before I’m on my feet, running as hard as I possibly can for the wide open door of the Hatchery. That damn stegocart must have lured the carnivore in.
I can’t even scream out a warning, I’m putting everything I have into my survival. But I get into the Hatchery a few seconds before the allosaurus bellows low and loud at me. That, and the stealthy movement, sets off the perimeter alarms and the metal bars slam down between us.
A hot tear I didn’t know I was crying dribbles down my face. I squeeze my injured hand as an excuse for crying. This is the last day I’m spending in this filthy soul-sucking place. It’s a promise I make to myself and intend on keeping.
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