Contest #227 shortlist ⭐️

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Science Fiction Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

tw: animal gore, gun violence


“When’s the last time it snowed here?” Christine asks as she’s filling the food trough. I hold off on answering so I don’t have to compete with the pour of alfalfa pellets and the frantic scramble of the pronghorn to get to their meal.

“In July? Never.” I hate discussing the past; it’s littered with landmines. “It’s supposed to be monsoon season. But even in the winter, it hasn’t snowed like this since…I don’t know…2024 or ‘25? Over a decade ago. I remember I uploaded a video of a golden eagle perched on the back of a fawn, eating it alive one peck at a time, and the cliffs were encased in ice. Filmed it at Antelope Hills. Morbid, but my son was fascinated by that clip.” Boom, stepped on one already. I slurp my coffee to warn Christine against further inquiry. It tastes like shit. I must’ve asked her a hundred times to use the setting for automatic brew, but she insists on starting the machine manually when she rises at 4 AM, and it’s always burned by the time I get to it.

“I was still in elementary school then,” she grins wickedly. “Feel old yet?”

I don’t have a snappy comeback. Quiet in the refuge is nothing new, but with snow coating the dunes and icicles forming on the needles of the saguaro cacti, it’s become a vacuum. “Snow is porous,” I say instead, and judging by the lines in Christine’s forehead, she’s worried she offended me. She didn’t, I’m just not in the mood. “It absorbs more sound. That’s why it seems so hushed out here.”

Right on cue, Bella smashes her skull into Ric Flair, who won’t budge out of the way to let her eat. The rest of the herd starts bleating, egging her on. “Tell that to these guys,” Christine chuckles, yanking Ric out of the way by his horns. Then, almost in deference, she brushes the frost out of his coat. Always fretting over the smallest details, Christine. Except, apparently, when it comes to coffee.

“They’ve never seen snow before. Look at Luna, she’s baffled!” The Sonoran pronghorn is the fastest land mammal in North America, with top speeds approaching sixty miles per hour. But it can’t jump worth a damn. Watching Luna try to leap up and chomp the flakes makes me snicker despite myself, her toothpick legs wobbling like a first-time ice skater every time she hits the dirt.

Christine checks her smartwatch. “They’re here. It’s about to get a whole lot noisier.” Before I know it, the place is swarming with people. Veterinarians, biologists, volunteers of all stripes. I rally them with a speech about the nobility of conservation in the modern age, then organize them into groups: one to load the pronghorn onto the stretchers, another to administer the vaccines, and a third to clamp on the ear tags. The first to go is Ric Flair, tagged with 42, a number I will forever associate with Douglas Adams. In a way, Ric is part of the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, at least insofar as Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge is concerned. He’s only the forty-second pronghorn to graduate from our breeding program since it was restarted in the wake of the last extreme drought.

“Goodbye, Ric,” Christine calls, and I can tell by the choke in her voice that she’s feeling it, too. We’re setting our babies loose in the desert. Doesn’t matter that for the first few weeks, they’ll be contained within a one-square-mile radius to get acclimated, and won’t be released into Yuma proper until we take down the fence, at which point they really will be at the mercy of the wild. It still feels contrary to our goal. Like we’re banishing them to the darkness.

“Is it true what they’re saying?” I ask Christine, figuring her for the type to keep up with the news. “You can look directly at the sun now without going blind?”

“Have you tried it?”

“Would I be asking if I had?” I snap. She flinches and I feel a hard pang in my gut. I shake my head. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be short with you. It’s just…the state of things now. Sometimes it gets to me.”

“I understand,” she says smoothly, in a way that tells me she’s grown accustomed to members of my generation lashing out. As the crew is prepping Bella for her shots, Christine approaches and hooks her slender elbow through mine, triggering a cascade of goosebumps up the back of my arm. I don’t have a crush on her; I’m old enough to be her grandfather. But it’s been a long time since anyone touched me. “We’ll do it together.” She cranes her neck up at the sky, and I follow her lead. Through the patch of clouds, the sun glows in a dim, white orb, like a light bulb wrapped in gauze.

“It’s so pale.”

 “I’d call it beautiful if I wasn’t so concerned about its impact on our ecosystem,” she sighs. She doesn’t seem at all bothered by the snowflakes sticking to her glasses. “Like an umbrella a million miles above. We haven’t been this unified in an effort since banning CFCs in the 1980s. The Sunshade Accord brought together every developed nation on Earth to create the components using materials invented by AI in our 3D printers, which were then assembled at the International Space Station and launched to Lagrange L1.”

“Well, that certainly was a sentence.”

 Christine laughs. “And obviously, it’s working! We’re cooling down.” She blinks and glances away, tracing the progress of the crew as they work to release Bella at the boundary. “Probably still not a good idea to stare for too long, though, Mister Joe. The shade cuts out most of the harmful UV rays, but not all.”

“We have a problem,” says a young man in a dark green uniform bearing the emblem of the Arizona Game & Fish Department. He brandishes a telemetry tablet. “Number forty-two has disappeared.”

Christine’s hairline visibly retracts as her eyebrows raise. “What do you mean disappeared? What happened to Ric Flair?”

“I’m not sure. This app tracks the iridium tags in near-real time. But Ric’s blip here–” He indicates a lattice of geodesic lines that represents the Growler Mountains. “–vanished just a few seconds ago.”

“We lose the tag, we lose the data…” Christine groans.

“You sure it’s not a glitch in your computer?”

The kid looks at me like I insulted his mother. “That would be a highly specific glitch, sir. Look–you can see Bella’s blip here, number forty-three. It’s moving out from the pen.” I lift my eyes to find the crew setting her loose. The doe lurches off of the stretcher and bounds away into the mist, gone in a breath. Apprehension seizes my chest. On the screen, the blip slides into the treeline, hesitates, then glides away in the same direction Ric went, towards the valley. “I’d say something out there is hungry. Something big.”

“What, like the Chupacabra? Or maybe with this weather, the Abominable Snowman?”

“No…a Mexican gray wolf or a bobcat…”

“You must be new. Coyotes and bobcats do have a taste for pronghorn, but they don’t bother with the adults. Know why? Because they’re fast as lightning. And wolves help the herd by keeping coyotes at bay, giving the fawn enough time to mature. Apart from humans, the Sonoran pronghorn’s worst enemy is disease. That’s why we give them so many shots.”

“Maybe it is a human, then,” the kid tries. “A poacher or something.”

“Could be people. We do see human trafficking in the desert from time to time. But poachers? Nah. You're thinking of big horn sheep. There's no market for pronghorn.”

“Well, something is going on…” mutters the young man, face hunching into a wad of dismay. “Now Bella’s blip is acting weird. She’s stopped moving.”

Christine trains her gaze on me, and I know what she’s expecting me to say. The weaker part of me wishes I’d never left my bed. “Guess we better go out there and take a look.”


***


There are only three roads leading out of HQ, and none of them are paved. We trundle down Charlie Bell in an ATV, holding onto the bars for dear life as we’re tossed around like rag dolls. I’ve never seen the desert look so ghostly. It reminds me of the forts my son used to build in our living room: white bed sheets thrown over the palo verde and ocotillo and mesquite, transforming them into the strange shapes of an alien planet.

“They could’ve fallen in a mineshaft!” Christine shouts over the wind. “There’s a few out here still uncovered.”

“Both of them, though?” I counter. “I can’t speak for Ric, but Bella is definitely smarter than that!”

“I’m just spit-balling, Mister Joe.”

We clear the basalt mountains and enter the valley. By the time we reach the nameless road that runs south to the El Camino del Diablo, all three of our faces have been rubbed raw by the cold. In a season that normally sees temperatures exceeding a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The cactus flowers have all closed up shop. No sign of any bees or scorpions or curved-bill thrashers. “This is the last location sent by Bella’s tag,” says the kid, whose name is either Simon or Sebastian; I can’t remember which, and I’m too embarrassed to ask. I climb out of the ATV–knees popping, the cold punishing my joints for a lifetime of manual labor–and walk up the road to where it bends before straightening out for the long trek to the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. I caution the youngsters to watch their step; there’s unexploded ordinance in the area. Christine and Simon/Sebastian exchange a glance, and I know what they’re thinking: are we about to find chunks of pronghorn scattered everywhere? But the closer we get to the fence, the sparser the vegetation gets, with little sign of anything besides rocks.

“Hey, I’ve got something here!” Christine calls. In the dusting of snow on the sand, two sets of tracks veer off-trail into an alcove. We follow them. Twenty yards in, we hear a strange, high-pitched whirring noise bouncing off the boulders.

“What is that?” the kid asks.

His question is answered a second later as we round the bend. Ric Flair and Bella lay strewn in the grass near a forage station, riddled with an unconscionable number of bullets. Ric is dead, his tongue lolled out of his mouth, eyes gone to glass. Both ears blown off. Bella is still breathing, but raggedly, her fur matted in dark red. A wound in her right shoulder sprays blood in the air, sprinkling the rocks and giving off steam. “Oh, God…!” cries Christine. Sensing our arrival, Bella begins to moan, a horrible, desperate sound that rips through my entire being.

The whirring is a drone. It hovers fifteen feet overhead, propellers undeterred by the weather, a black metallic smudge against the white sky. It’s equipped with an automatic rifle. Instinctively, I shield the youngsters with my arms. “Stay back.”

The kid from Game & Fish is trembling against me. “Is that thing from the Air Force? What the hell is it doing here?”

I sling the hunting rifle off my shoulder. It might as well be a relic. Bolt action with no safety. I double-check the chamber, then make my way to Bella, stuffing down the part of me that wants to kneel beside her and cradle her in my arms. I point the barrel at her head. She goes quiet, her black eye rolling up at me, taking small, rapid breaths. “Everything is okay now, honey. It’s over. You’re going home.”

I pull the trigger. The shot claps hard in the alcove and stabs at my ears. Bella goes limp.

“Mister Joe?” urges Christine. I turn around and see someone coming in from the road. A tall man in camo fatigues. He stops in his tracks. Takes in the sight of us, the pronghorn, the drone. Like me, his head is too big and his nose too bulbous, turning an otherwise handsome face into something of a caricature.

“Ah, there it is,” says my son, like he’s retrieving a frisbee he lost in the backyard somewhere.

“This is you?” I ask, fury rising out of me in a red-hot flare. “Look what your fucking robot did, Jacob!”

“Nice to see you, too, Dad. This drone is controlled by an algorithm, not me. I’m just the errand boy sent to fetch it.”

“You’ve got ten seconds.” The ejector is broken, so I have to shake the spent shell out of the chamber before loading a fresh one. Then I lift the iron sights to fix on the hovering monstrosity.

Jacob scoffs and reaches into his rucksack to pull out a remote control as big as the electronic keyboard I got him for his fifth birthday. “Always so dramatic.”

“Seven. Six.”

“Of course, you immediately blame me. The whole world draws a curtain over the sun, and the United States Air Force has to scramble to test its weaponry in new conditions, but yeah, it’s my fault.”

“Three. Two.”

“Mister Joe…” Christine’s hand falls gently on my wrist. My finger trembles against the trigger. How is she not outraged? All those weeks and months we spent raising and nuturing Bella and Ric, only to see them slaughtered by some idiot with a computer. And the sheer hubris of my son to hop over our fence and march in here like it’s we who are encroaching on his work, because defending the country is far more important than a couple of silly antelope, right? It makes me want to tear out what remains of my hair. “Remember what you told me when we were helping Bella be delivered, and I was losing it because the cord was wrapped around her throat?”

“No, I don’t.”

“You said: cooler heads prevail. Then you reached in there with a Bowie knife and cut her free.”

I swallow hard. Damnit, Christine. Don’t make me cry in front of my kid.

“Listen to her, Dad. She’s smarter than both of us combined." It doesn’t matter, anyway. She’s stalled me long enough for Jacob to fly his wicked machine back where it came from, zipping out of view behind a peak. Traitor.

“The refuge is not currently open to the public. You’re trespassing.”

“Just here to collect government property. I’ll be on my way shortly.”

Staring at the carnage, Simon/Sebastian says, “Why did it shoot them?”

Jacob nods at the phantom sun. “It’s the light. It’s screwing with everything. Navigation, strike zones. My guess is the drone mistook the iridium ear tags for targets.” Christine says something about reporting this to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Jacob responds in a steady tone of compliance, but I’m barely listening.

I'm staring at the beargrass stained by Bella's and Ric's blood. It doesn’t look normal in the light of the Sunshade, cast into molten silver. As if they're just another pair of machines that ran their course.

I bite my hand. Otherwise, I might use it do something I can't take back.


***


In the week that follows, correspondence between departments leads to a small internal investigation. The Air Force sends a form letter apologizing for the mistake, with promises to reimburse our program for any losses incurred. I tell Christine to write back that until the Sonoran pronghorn population has returned to well over four hundred, they better not step foot on the refuge again. “And if any more of those flying rat traps show up, I’m going to blast them with a blowtorch.”

To make me feel better, Christine suggests we have Christmas in July. She dresses HQ in tinsel, hangs lights, and puts a miniature white tree in the break room, lining it with presents. Over cups of hot cocoa one morning, we open them. She made me a scrapbook filled with pictures of Ric and Bella, from their problematic births, to bottle-feeding them in the pen when their mother was sick, to those last days leading up to their release, full grown and healthy and strong.

“There’s one more…” she says, handing over a small box wrapped in green paper and adorned with a golden bow. “It’s not from me.” The tag reads:

To: Dad

From: Jacob

I stare at the gift for a long time. How would he know we’re throwing this mock holiday unless Christine told him? I can’t imagine what’s inside. The longer I study it, the less I care to find out. My son said the drone was controlled by an algorithm, but I looked it up on the Internet: the Air Force uses algorithms for unmanned aircraft, not for small drones like the one that killed our babies. Which means he had to be piloting it. And it wasn't an accident. “Why?” I ask out loud, my heart splitting in half.

Misinterpreting, Christine leans into view, eyes shimmering behind her glasses. “It’s a peace offering, Joe. He’s your son. He wants to reconcile.”

I shake my head. That isn't what he wants. I get to my feet, knees protesting louder than ever, and stride to the garbage can. Whatever Jacob was after, he got. Maybe now he is feeling sorry, realizing he took things too far. I don't care.

I throw his gift in the trash.






December 06, 2023 20:53

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6 comments

Sara Thomas
07:40 Jan 12, 2024

This is great! Why do I always like the cranky characters? Haha!

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Philip Ebuluofor
18:21 Dec 18, 2023

Congrats.

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Mary Bendickson
17:52 Dec 15, 2023

Lots of dy amics at play. Congrats on the shortlist.

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Danie Holland
13:17 Dec 11, 2023

When I read the prompt for this, It invoked "warm and cozy." Enjoyed how this story was none of that. 'The whole world draws a curtain over the sun, and the United States Air Force has to scramble to test its weaponry in new conditions' - I thought this concept was interesting. I think I missed something important with the father/son dynamic though. It definitely could be the fact that I'm a bit dense sometimes. I had trouble understanding the son's motivations for killing the animal if it was indeed intentional. "I remember I uploaded a...

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15:38 Dec 11, 2023

I did not establish a clear motive for Jacob other than sadism, and a desire to provoke his father. I was hoping that would contribute to the tone of vacuous cold. Thanks for the thorough read and commentary!

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Danie Holland
16:23 Dec 15, 2023

Congrats friend, you are on a roll!!! 💜

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