The semi idled in the rush-hour traffic, the driver occasionally swiping an arm across his perspiring forehead. “Man, I hope that thing’s alright,” he muttered. The vet sat tight-lipped and silent beside him.
Inside the trailer, the raptor stirred. He’d been sedated for this trip. If he were awake, he’d try to move within his crate. He could break his long, stiff tail, or give himself a head wound, rubbing and bashing against the metal walls, or injure himself in a myriad of other ways. And so he’d been forced into slumber.
Dreams played across his unconscious mind, memories confused and chaotic.
One memory that often came was filled with pain and fear:
Waking from the first forced slumber he had ever known, waking to find that his great curving claws were gone, and all he had left were the painfully smarting stubs. He knew very well that they had been there, and he knew the claws being gone was very bad. He knew the purpose of his claws: to fight, to injure, to kill. He had battled his brothers and sisters, all of them clumsily leaping and kicking. And he knew that now, because he had no claws, he was in peril. He could not hunt, could not even defend himself.
Or so he thought.
The traffic began to loosen up. Xavier decreased his pressure on the brake, allowing the truck to inch forward. He blew out a breath. Dr. Esther Crane sat tranquill beside him, unflappable as usual. “Better late than never,” she said with a smile.
The 28-year-old woman’s long hair was dyed bright pink and rich purple, and was often woven into a braid, as now. Intense was the best word Xavier had found to describe her. She took her job very seriously, and took the best possible care of all her charges. And yet she rarely showed any anxiety.
The unexpected congestion on the freeway had alarmed Xavier Nichols, and as the minutes had dragged by, he’d grown more worried. If they took too long reaching the Cypress Complex, the sedative would wear off. Judging from the behavior he’d already seen, this animal could prove difficult to unload awake. Esther could give it another dose, but he knew as well as she that the less drugs in its system, the better. The raptor was already very stressed, and sedation only stressed it more.
The vehicles in Xavier’s lane sped up and dispersed. Pressing the accelerator down, he prayed that they would make it before the raptor woke up.
As the truck began moving in earnest, another memory, tied to the first, surfaced in the raptor’s mind. He was larger, but still growing, not as quick or agile as a hatchling, and still without the wisdom of an adult. New humans had taken him. He was no longer free to roam about their house. He was confined, a hard plastic floor beneath his feet, steel grid-patterned bars hemming him in.
The human started tossing in small creatures purchased from pet stores: gerbils, guinea pigs, mice, lizards, rabbits. As much as possible, the man fed the raptor live food. It needed to learn how to kill without its claws.
A live gerbil was thrown in with the young male raptor. He had only ever eaten dead food, and was intrigued by the moving, breathing, not-human, not-kin creature. He approached, and the thing ran. Instinctively, he leapt.
The gerbil held firmly beneath one foot, the raptor bent his head, his jaws worked, and the small thing’s life ended. His first kill.
Beeep beeep beeep beeep. The semi sounded its warning as it backed up. Xavier Nichols menuevered carefully, aligning the back doors with the pen’s gate, getting as close as he could. Finally, he parked and, pulling the key from the ignition, jumped down from the cab. Hurrying around the front, he opened the door and offered a hand to Dr. Crane. Graciously taking it, she alighted, then strode purposefully towards the back of the trailer, where a cluster of employees had already gathered. A young woman hurried past Xavier, and he greeted her. “Hello, Ms. Holling.”
“Hi, Mr. Nichols,” she replied, continuing past him. Xavier could already see Fatima Villa, the manager of Dinosaur Conservation & Rescue League’s Cypress Complex, standing ready to meet the vet.
“He’ll be waking up soon,” Dr. Crane informed the DCRL employees. Xavier Nichols stood apart from the group, leaning against his truck. The 30-year-old man had just helped to unload the heavy metal crate, and was still breathing heavily. Mercifully, the occupant hadn't needed a second dose of sedative.
The raptor woke slowly; the forced slumber loosened its hold.
He was in a crate.
The door was open.
He rose sluggishly, and took a step forward. Then another. And another. Smells poured into his nostrils. Humans. Many. Alive. He took another step towards the door, and his toe stubs collided with the unyielding metal sill, sparking pain and a growl. Carefully lifting his feet over the sill, he placed them on something soft and green. Lowering his head, the raptor examined the ground. The green was alive, but not a creature. He vaguely remembered his first home, how there had been green alive not creatures scattered throughout the house. A strong smell came, very close. Creature. Dead. He approached the animal carcasse warily, looking around for a challenger. He wasn’t usually fed until after a fight. He couldn’t sense any creatures close enough to be an opponent. Neither could he sense the man who fed him. He was always close.
The raptor began to eat.
There are cries and murmurings as the raptor emerges. Since Xavier had already seen the animal’s condition, he wasn’t surprised, though he definitely had been earlier.
The raptor’s appearance was a strange mix of beauty and unsightliness. A Utahraptor, his body was larger and heavier-built than other raptor types. Because of rapid breeding by illegal owners, colors that wouldn’t have been dominant in a wild setting had become prevalent. This male was a metallic, albeit dull, dark silver. Running along the top of his body, from the tip of his tail to the end of his snout, was a streak of blue scales about a foot wide. He was thinner than he should have been, but Dr. Crane had declared that overall, he was healthy, and what he needed most for a successful recovery was plenty of food and as little stress as possible. One more detail, not immediately apparent, added to the already shocking impression he’d made . . .
“Look at his toes, Rachel!” A young man exclaimed.
Fatima Villa, the manager, turned to Dr. Crane. “Can you amputate those stubs?”
“No,” the vet answered, her colorful braid swaying as she shook her head. “He needs those to balance. He’s having a hard enough time without the sicles.”
Fatima frowned. “You’re sure he won’t do better without them? He just looks like he’s in so much pain.”
“Yes, I’m sure. We need to leave them.”