Excerpt from Inertial Catalyst (Archeons, book 5), by James L. Steele

Available wherever books are sold

[cover art by Valentinapaz ]


It was the nicest city Nipe had ever been to. She and Ekal had been living here since the convention five months ago, and she still marveled at it. They had been to cities in which the people guarded themselves against the Relians, and they had been to cities where the people welcomed them with eager scents. Portland, Oregon, was perhaps the friendliest of them all, and she had been fortunate enough to find a compatible human here.

No matter where they went, people in Portland were so eager to talk. It wasn’t unlike being in the contacted universe again, even with the twinge of fear in some people’s scents. It couldn’t be helped, as the idea of alien life was still new to them, but it had been so refreshing to find so many people curious and eager to get to know them.

Nipe sat next to Veronica. The fox wore a loose-fitting shirt and a pair of shorts, both black. The shorts she understood, but she did not have visible breasts unless she had a child on the way, so she still couldn’t figure out the purpose of the shirt, and why male foxes weren’t expected to wear one.

Ekal, her raptor, stood on the other side of the woman who had taken them in, watching her drink. Nipe’s tail wagged. The human body was still a great mystery to them. Their immune system was barely developed compared to a Relian’s, and by extension their bodies seemed entirely unaware of substances it should eject. Poisons, toxins, pathogens—it assimilated them all instead of kicking them out.

Alcohol was one substance the human body should have known not to tolerate. Veronica was fond of the stuff. She liked the hard drinks, the light drinks, the mixed drinks, everything except wine. Right now she was drinking vodka mixed with some sort of flavored syrup while chatting up the bartender.

Ekal had tried some the first time Veronica had brought her here, and the reptile’s body had rejected the alcohol minutes after she swallowed. In human society, it was rather poor taste to vomit in the street, but the bathrooms here were too small for a theropod. She had been the butt of every joke in every bar in the city since, but playfulness came from their scents, so they had accepted her unusual limit in good humor. Ekal suspected seeing a predatory reptile humiliated in this way helped a prey species feel more comfortable around her. People often called her a dinosaur, quoting lines from Jurassic Park, and she took it in stride, but she wished humans had a better frame of reference for her species than the velociraptors in a monster movie.

Nipe never became intoxicated. Her body filtered out the alcohol immediately. She had infinite tolerance and thus equal fame in the city. She only drank to be part of the company Veronica kept, and to experience the taste of substances that did not exist anywhere else in the universe, contacted or otherwise.

Veronica was talking to the bartender and a couple others about the movies. People still raved about Men in Black, still laughed at Batman and Robin and The Lost World. They had a new movie to laugh at, Spawn, and the jokes flowed like the beer from the tap. Right now they were talking about Gattaca, which was still in theaters, and a welcome change of pace.

Ekal and Nipe laughed at all movies, and they never tired of telling people how cinema looked from their point of view. They could see the spaces between the frames of film, as well as the zipping of the electron gun on a television. Everything sounded forced and fake. None of the characters had a scent, so the emotions and situations on display felt hollow. The audio always sounded clipped above and below, making every line of dialogue feel as if it came from a far distant place. Many of the people in Portland seemed interested in knowing what aliens thought of movies and TV, but most considered it a fleeting curiosity. They didn’t want to know why it was so easy to trick the human mind through acting, but next to impossible to trick a Relian.

Veronica got up from the bar and mingled with the crowd for a while. She sat down at a table with a bunch of her other friends, cradling her drink. Ekal and Nipe followed. The fox sat next to her, snatched someone else’s drink from his hand, and swallowed half of it. One of Veronica’s friends beckoned Nipe to sit in his lap. She switched places and plopped down. Justin was his name. Ekal scented him from across the table and confirmed the alcohol had gone straight to his crotch, as it always did. Justin had slept with Nipe several times, and his scent was still good, so she allowed him to be close to her fox.

The story of Ekal and Nipe’s planet being destroyed, and the two of them were there to witness the antisphere tearing it apart as they fled through a portal to another planet and were trapped there for years until the Archeons Rive and Deka found them, had long ceased to be interesting to the bar crowd. Even the more immediate parts about the Relians seeking a new home here on Earth, and how the conventions were meant to help raptors and foxes find suitable humans to live with so they wouldn’t be settled in some district of one major city. The Relians found it rather telling that Veronica’s circle of friends chatted about the movies instead of something real which happened to the entire known universe.

Space Jam came up once, and that led to television shows for children. Power Rangers generated almost as many jokes as Spawn. One woman cleared space to speak and told everyone about her little girl being so into Ren and Stimpy it was scary. Another man at the table brought up his kids being obsessed with Pinky and the Brain, but he didn’t mind, since he recorded it and watched it while the kids weren’t around.

“Why don’t you watch it with them?” Veronica asked.

“The last thing they want to do is watch their favorite show with their father!” he said.

Everyone laughed, took a drink to that.

Justin held Nipe at the waist, felt under her shirt. Nipe moved with him, grinding against his hard-on, which was not obvious visually, but he smelled aroused, which encouraged Nipe to grind harder.

This was a near-weekly ritual. She and Ekal suspected Justin had a thing for fur, and that he would have come to live with Veronica just to be around Nipe if he could, but Ekal wouldn’t allow it. The man was good for sex, but not for a companion, and she had told him that more than once, both while he had been sober and drunk. He seemed to understand, though Ekal could tell he did not really believe her.

Nipe reclined against his chest, felt behind his ear, rubbing that spot that drove him wild. The others at the table were still talking about kids these days and the TV they watched. This gradually slid into the music they listened to. Veronica had no husband or children, but she listened to the others at the table talk about what was going on at home.

Justin’s scent was now so strong it was all Ekal could smell. Nipe knew it was there, too, and that it affected her mood. On most planets in the contacted universe, it was perfectly acceptable to have sex with a Relian canine in public, even if sex was not a public act within the native culture. Here on Earth, humans considered sex something that must remain out of sight and preferably out of hearing and smelling range of anyone else, even with a fox.

Nipe rose from Justin’s lap, wagging her tail. Justin adjusted himself and rose from his seat as he followed Nipe to the back of the bar. Ekal tapped Veronica on the shoulder. The human turned and noticed Justin following a red and white tail. She smiled, raised her glass, then turned back to the group.

Ekal walked after Justin just as Nipe opened the bar’s rear door. The human was already undoing his belt. He pushed open the door with his free hand. The raptor held it open with her neck and stepped outside. It was cold out here, and a back ally in autumn was usually the last place anyone would want to have sex, but Justin liked that Nipe kept him warm.

The fox was already against the wall, shorts pulled down. Justin pulled it out, clearly having planned this, as he wore no underwear. He held Nipe and kissed her on the neck, burying his face in her fur as the cold wind blew through the ally. Nipe pushed backwards with her hips, telling him to hurry up. Justin felt under her shirt with both hands. Nipe wasn’t sure why; she had no tits to grope, but he seemed to like the nipples under the fur. Nipe pushed her hips back into his a few times. Finally he angled himself and slipped in. Nipe felt instantly relieved. She had been eager for days.

Ekal stood just four feet away and watched. The first time she had done this, Justin had been spooked and almost couldn’t keep it up, but he had come to understand who Ekal was to Nipe, and that nothing happened to the fox without her raptor there to make sure she was all right. After the third time, Justin accepted it as part of the deal, and now he barely noticed the theropod watching them at all. Sometimes he made passes at Ekal when he was drunk enough, but the raptor remained untouchable.

Nipe braced herself against the wall. She’d been told this was one of the dirtiest places one could do it in human society, but human references didn’t matter much to her. Justin laughed about it. He would rather take her home, but Nipe never seemed interested in taking it somewhere else, so he had followed her lead. She seemed happy to keep their relationship within the realm of bar-buddies, so this was the best place to do it.

Ekal smelled something on the other side of the ally. She turned and scented it harder. A car had parked in the ally, blocking it off. Someone stood in front of it, holding a gun.

“Nipe,” she said. “Something’s wrong.”

Still moaning from Justin’s last thrust, Nipe looked in the direction Ekal was facing.

A shot fired. Ekal flinched and screeched but did not fall. She looked back at herself. Feathers stuck out of her thigh. She looked back up the ally. The man was still there, reloading the gun.

Justin pulled out and stuffed himself back in his pants as he nudged Nipe toward the door. Two more shots fired. One hit Justin in the leg, and the other hit Nipe’s torso. Other shots hit the wall and bounced off the door. The first man ran up the ally, and five more sets of footsteps trotted up the other side. Someone inside the bar pulled the door shut and held it. Justin yanked on the door, banging on it and shouting.

Ekal snarled and screeched at the men and women approaching. She ran around Nipe and Justin and stood between them and the approaching humans. The people wore large coats and ski masks, far too much for the weather, but not entirely out of place either. They slowed their approach, all eyes on the reptile.

She began to feel numb. The sensation began at her hip and worked its way up her spine. Her legs began to wobble, and she turned to Justin. He was sliding down the door, slack-jawed and dreamy-eyed. Nipe had fallen on top of him, eyes already closed.

Ekal managed to stay upright and lunged at the attackers. They leaned backwards as a group, holding position twenty feet away. She turned to the lone man on the other side of the ally, the one who had shot her. He stood fifty feet away, aiming his gun at her again. She opened her mouth and screeched at him.

Another shot. This one hit her in the chest, and now the numb feeling spread from that point. She lost control of her legs and collapsed to the dirty asphalt, which emboldened the people in the other group. They ran along the wall straight to Nipe. Three of them picked her up, and they carried her down the ally to one of the cars.

Ekal screeched and tried to stand, but she was moving in slow motion.

The man who had shot her twice strolled up and stood over her. His coat was thick, and his orange ski mask did not obscure his contemptuous scent. He knelt closer, looking her in the eye.

“Don’t take it personally. This isn’t about you or her. It’s about all of you.”

Ekal wanted that scent rotting in her stomach. She raised her leg, flexed her killing claw, and slashed the man across the shin. Her claw struck bone. Ekal smelled blood. The man cursed and fell to his hands and knees. Ekal pulled herself across the asphalt, moving in slow motion toward him. A few men and one women were running up the ally from the car, shouting to him.

The man on the ground crawled and turned toward the car he came from. Even drugged up and mostly numb, Ekal was faster. She caught up to him and reached for his face. A claw slid through his skin easily and struck solid bone. He wailed and writhed as she gripped him. Ekal crawled up the rest of the way, opening her mouth. The others had caught up to him and were now piling on top of her. She felt another needle pierce her scales, and now she felt entirely disconnected from herself. The asphalt didn’t feel like anything. Air felt like water.

Someone was pulling his mask off, and another person was pulling him away from Ekal’s hand. The mask fell free and dangled from her claws, and they dragged him away, screaming. She had pierced his left eye, and blood was everywhere. They hoisted him up to his feet, grabbed his gun, and walked him to the car. Ekal’s hand fell. Her vision felt numb as well, and she slipped away. She felt someone running back and kicking her a few times, and then the ally fell still.
    ​ 2

The spacetime sphere opened in the alley at six o’clock in the morning, and Secretary Rhine and the tan and grey raptor stepped through. It closed behind them, and Rive’s nose took him immediately to the blood on the asphalt, individual splatters marked by plastic cones with numbered pieces of paper taped to them.

On the other side of the alley, a uniformed police officer ducked under the crime scene tape and approached them. CJ turned to face him, briefcase in one hand, faxed documents in the other.

“Lieutenant Slim?” she called.

“Ms. Rhine, Archeon Rive. Nice to meet both of you. I’m sorry it has to be like this.”

CJ met him halfway and shook hands.

“I read your reports,” she said. “Have you checked all the hospitals?”

“I had a couple officers blanketing the area, checking all ERs and clinics. Nobody’s reported any eye injuries yet.”

CJ walked to where half-metal theropod was scenting.

“We got statements from everyone in the bar,” the lieutenant continued. “The blood we collected is being analyzed. Ekal, the raptor, worked with the boys to produce a composite image of the guy she wounded. We have the darts they used.”

“Yes, darts, lieutenant?”

“Full of morphine.”

They stopped in front of the cones. Rive sniffed around, crouched low.

“Morphine is a controlled substance,” CJ said. “Only hospitals have it.”

The lieutenant nodded. “We’re looking at employees of nearby hospitals, trying to find a match to the sketch. No fingerprints were recovered. Everyone at the bar checks out as a regular.”

“Your report said someone held the exit door closed from the inside. Did anyone see someone come in and leave in a hurry, or without buying a drink or talking to anyone?”

“Nobody noticed. No one saw the cars either. The crime was very quiet. If not for Ekal wounding one of the suspects, we might not have anything to go on at all. Chief called you here because he thought you’d want to be in the loop. Any talents this guy can bring to the team would be a help.”

Rive turned to him, rising to full height. “Ekal already told you what she knew from his scent, did she not?”

“Yeah. White male, late thirties, brown hair, brown eyes. Describes half the people in the city.”

“Not his appearance, his scent.”

“Scent testimony isn’t exactly evidence, Mr. Rive.”

“A wound like that would need to be treated right away,” CJ said. “He must be in a hospital by now. Are you sure nobody’s found anything?”

“So far, nobody has called.”

“Is there a chance hospital staff are covering for him? If they got morphine from a hospital, it makes sense they’d give him care under the radar.”

“Somebody would notice. Let me take you to the station. You can interview Ekal and Veronica and look over the evidence. You’ll meet the people working on this case.”

He turned and led them down the alley to a patrol car blocking it.

Rive walked by the officer’s side. “Has anyone asked why these people would want to kidnap a fox?”

“Sure we have. Until we know who these people are, it’s all wild guesses ranging from a prostitution ring to illegal fur trading.”

“Ekal testified the man she wounded told her not to take it personally. That this was about all of us. She thought he was referring to all Relians.”

“Any idea what it means?” Lt. Slim said.


“What’s your hunch?” CJ asked.

“I need to be sure I have all the information before I say.”

Rive ducked under the crime scene tape, CJ and the officer two steps behind him.

    ​ 3

Nipe woke up in a large room, cold, thirsty, head swimming. Her clothes were missing. She rose from the concrete floor, scenting the dusty air.

She was in a cage. The vertical bars reminded her of prison cells she had seen in movies and television shows. Four walls of bars enclosed within a larger room of concrete and steel. The bars ended in a drop ceiling with a hatch built into it. She walked up to the bars, which looked pristine.


Her voice echoed. She smelled nothing alive in here. The vent blew warm air inside. Electricity hummed. She turned around and faced the rear wall. A tripod stood outside the bars, a camcorder mounted on it, plugged in, red light visible on top.

She heard footsteps overhead. Loud, angry voices shouted above the drop ceiling, and the sound of a dog snarling and barking.

Sounds of metal clanging.

Sounds of cursing and snarling.

The hatch in the ceiling opened, and something lowered into Nipe’s cage.

“What’s going on? Where am I? Ekal! Ekal!”

A large dog kennel attached to a thick rope descended. The door of the kennel was attached to a string leading out of the hatch. The kennel lowered all the way, and now Nipe saw the rottweiler inside. The dog had bite marks up and down her muzzle, some of her fur was missing, and she smelled starved and terrified. At the sight of Nipe, the dog snarled.

Nipe backed away. The kennel touched the concrete, the rope attached to the gate yanked upwards, and the door opened. The dog bolted out of the kennel.

Nipe screamed, dropping to all fours and dashing along the wall. The dog veered for her. The cage was only large enough for her to run three strides in any direction, so she leaped at the bars and tried to climb them. The dog latched onto her tail and shook it. Nipe fell to the concrete and landed on the dog. She lunged for Nipe’s arm and clamped down. Nipe bared her teeth and growled at the dog, reaching for the neck.

Now she was speaking the dog’s language. The rottweiler let go of the fox and backed away, displaying her teeth. Nipe rolled to all four legs and snarled back. The dog barked at her, fur raised. Nipe raised her fur and barked louder. The rottweiler growled and circled her. She was starving, and she smelled like she had been through a lifetime of this and was alive today only because she had climbed over the dead bodies of everyone she had ever met. Her scent filled Nipe from head to tail. She knew what the dog understood, and there was only one way out of this.

Nipe leaped at the dog. The rottweiler snarled and then clamped Nipe’s muzzle. She reached under the dog’s jaw with a hand and clawed downwards. It forced the dog’s mouth open for a split second, then she held the dog’s muzzle between her jaws. Nipe’s bite was stronger, and seconds later the rottweiler dropped to the concrete, whining in agony.

Her first thought was that she had shown this dog who was dominant, so she could let go. Her second thought was this dog would wait until Nipe’s back was turned and then leap on her and go for the throat.

That rottweiler scent... She hated it. It was a threat to her life, and she had to get rid of it or it would destroy her.

She squeezed as hard as she could. Something cracked in the dog’s muzzle, and she urinated on herself. Nipe opened her mouth up and dove for the throat. She tore it free as she jumped away.

Nipe sat on the concrete, back against the bars. She smelled new scents outside the cage and whipped around to face them. Three men and two women stood against the far wall on the other side of the bars. She recognized their scents. She rose to her hind legs and held the bars, still snarling as the flesh and fur worked their way down her throat.

“Where am I?”

Nobody answered.

“What are you doing?!”

They smiled. One of them broke away and stood by the tripod. He removed the camera and walked around the cage, watching the view screen.

“Do you have any idea what almost happened?!” Nipe screamed. “Where’s Ekal? Where’s my raptor? Do you know what happens to me if she’s not around?!”

One of the men smiled, his scent full of disgust.

Nipe snarled and pounded on the bars. She gnawed one of them and then howled at the men and women. She screamed at the man holding the camera.

“I’m prone to reverting! Do you know what that means?! Have you ever seen a fox revert?! I need Ekal! I’ll kill all of you if she’s not here! I can’t stop myself!”

The man holding the camera clearly wanted to get closer to Nipe’s face, but he remained just out of reach.

    ​ 4

Ekal paced the police interview room, her scent as panicked as her breathing. Veronica sat in one of the chairs, hand on her forehead, eyes closed. The clock on the wall read nine a.m. Rive followed Ekal with his eyes as she paced the length of the room. The other officers didn’t want to be in the same room with her right now, and they didn’t know how Veronica could be so comfortable with a dinosaur pacing like a caged lion. CJ watched through the small two-way mirror, standing beside lieutenant Slim.

“I didn’t smell anyone at the bar who hadn’t been there before,” Ekal was saying.

“Was it routine to go to the back alley with Justin?” Rive asked.

“It happened almost every week. Nipe never wanted to wait. Nobody minded what they were doing.”

“Somebody knew you three would be out there. Do you know of anyone who would want to take her away, or why?”

“I don’t know! Rive, if she’s alone for just a few—”

“That’s why you’re coming with us while the secretary and I help the police find your fox. If Nipe has reverted, it should be you who brings her back.”

Veronica raised her head from her hands. “Why would they do this? Where would they take her?”

“I will look into that. I have a few ideas.”

“What?” Veronica asked.

Rive turned and addressed the mirror. “The kidnappers would have to know a fox can revert to her old ways if separated from her raptor too long. They would have taken her somewhere they believe could hold a fox. I want to look at public records of building sales and leases. I also want you to expand your search to hospitals out of the city and state. Partner with other districts and have them visit their hospitals. Anywhere within a reasonable distance for an injury of that type. I have good reason to believe the kidnapper’s intent is to force Nipe to revert.”

“Force her?” Lt. Slim said to CJ. “What on Earth for?”

Rive walked to the door and opened it. Ekal followed him. Veronica rose from the seat, still holding her head. The metal raptor rounded the corner and looked directly at Lt. Slim.

“What makes you so sure of the motive?” asked the officer.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you the truth, so I will say I was privy to a conversation that prepared me for this. Please expand your hospital search. Tell me, officer, if you had to keep a violent animal penned up, where would you go?”

“Plenty of buildings in town it could be done.”

“Give me addresses, and I will need sales records for the previous six months.”

“Whoa, Mr. Rive, that kind of thing takes weeks to collect and authorize.”


“It’s police work.”

“A reverted fox is more dangerous than an earthquake. This is not some missing persons case you’re dealing with. People will die if Ekal doesn’t find her fox, and that is not a threat.”

Lieutenant Slim did not look as moved as he should have been. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Rive stepped up to him. “If we have to, we will scent the whole city on foot until we find her.”

The lieutenant nodded and yawned. Rive huffed as he walked by him, Ekal following just behind. CJ turned and ran to catch up.

“What conversation are you talking about?”

“The one that happened just before Deka, Sonjaa, and Kylac left Earth. I heard a man talking about something like this happening. I believe this is deliberate.”

They turned a corner. CJ was having a difficult time keeping up with the raptors.

    ​ 5

Nipe shivered in the corner of the cage. She wasn’t cold, but the smell of blood was starting to make her feel good. She fought it by conjuring memories of Ekal’s scent to force her lower mind back where it belonged.

She had killed three more dogs over the previous day. All of them had been lowered into her cage via the kennel. Occasionally the hatch opened and water poured from the ceiling. It was the only drink she had besides the blood of the dogs. After the first day, she realized no food was coming; the dogs were meant to be her food. She loathed it, but she relented. Their meat was sour from months of fear and rage. She hoped it would always repulse her.

Occasionally, men and women stood behind the bars and observed her. Sometimes someone picked up the camera and recorded her from different angles. The men and women on the other side of the bars never spoke to her.

It had been hours since the last dog dropped. She could hear them upstairs, snarling at each other, barking, wrestling for dominance. She counted at least six sets of paws above her. She hated the noises they made. She was starting to hate their scents, which made her shiver even more. The last few times she had reverted, it happened so fast there had been no time to think about it. This time it was happening slowly, and she felt herself coming closer and closer to the abyss—plenty of time to ponder what was about to happen.

A man opened the door and stepped into room on the other side of the bars. He had a hose. He turned on the nozzle and washed the blood out of the cage, as well as the panic scat and Nipe’s urine and bodily waste. His face was neutral, but his scent was full of terror. He had probably drawn the short straw today, so he got this job.

“You know what’s happening, don’t you?”

The man pretended not to hear her.

“Please don’t do this to me. Once I fall off the edge, you can’t bring me back. Only a raptor can. If I get out of here, I will kill all of you, and I won’t be able to stop myself. If I escape the building, I will kill anyone in scenting distance, and I won’t be satisfied until everyone around me is either dead or bleeding.”

The man turned away from her. He sprayed a turd out of the cage and into a hole in the wall.

Nipe stood up and held the bars. “You think these bars will hold me? I will get out.”

The man turned. She gasped and held onto the bars as he raised the stream to her face. Nipe shouted as the water bored into her fur.

“Bars won’t keep you safe! Nothing will! Without our raptors, foxes are the most horrifying form of life in the contacted universe! We don’t sleep until everything around us is dead! I promise you’ll be the first one I kill when I get out of here!”

He walked closer, holding the spray on her muzzle. Nipe held tighter, letting her arm take most of the force.

“I won’t wait until you’re dead to eat you! I’m starting to like the smell of blood already! It’s making me happy!”

He aimed the spray back down to the floor and pushed the last of the blood and shit out of the cage. He then turned the water off and began pulling the hose back with him to the door.

Nipe sagged on the bars, panting, looking at him under her arm. “I’m not too far gone. Sex would keep me from reverting for a while. Wouldn’t take much. Just undo your pants and get me through the bars. It’ll help me a lot. Please...”

The man’s face wrinkled. He gathered the rest of the hose and pulled it through the door, then slammed it shut.

The overhead hatch opened. Nipe slid down from the bars and stood halfway between biped and quadruped. Another dog was coming. His scent was repulsive. She wanted all those dogs over her head to bleed so they couldn’t hurt her again.

    ​ 6

Rive flipped through records of condemned buildings in the old parts of town. Some of the records had photographs, and he committed all of them to memory, along with addresses.

It had taken a painfully long time to acquire these records, two whole days since he first asked. He had already read through the statements of everyone at the bar on the night the kidnapping happened. Nobody had seen anything unusual. It was normally such a friendly place. Everybody knew each other, and it was so relaxed and calm there. There hadn’t been any serious crime in the area in years.

In the middle of this room, Justin Isewell sat in the chair. CJ sat across the table from him, flanked by a couple deputy officers.

“Are you sure you don’t remember anyone strange in the bar that night?”

“There was nobody unfamiliar that I could see. But I wasn’t really watching. I was more interested in Nipe.”

“I understand you two are close.”

He smiled. “I’m her favorite. It’s weird for me.”

“Why is that, Mr. Isewell?”

“Because I’m gay.”

“Oh. I see. If I may ask, how did you become involved with Nipe?”

“We met at that bar. I was curious about her. We got to talking. The longer I was with her... Caught me off guard. I’ve never met a woman I wanted to get close to. Something about her. I hear foxes can do that. I’ve done things with her I never thought I’d do.” He laughed.

CJ smiled. “Can you think of anyone who might want to hurt her?”

“Nobody. I wasn’t the only guy she slept with. Everyone loved her, and I don’t mean that in a dirty way.”

“Were any of her other partners at the bar that night?”

“Half the men in that bar had been with her at least once. Half the women, too. She wasn’t afraid to move things along. Someone knew we’d be out there. They were ready for all of us. I can’t imagine anyone who had been with her being part of this. Especially if they knew Veronica. She used to be so withdrawn. She’d come out and drink, but would usually sit alone.”

“Why did she sit alone?”

“Lot of breakups. Lot of disappointment. Most of it I don’t even know about. Then Ekal and Nipe came along. They helped her through that. She recovered, and now she’s joined up with everyone again. It’s like the old Veronica is back. Haven’t seen her in years.”

The door opened, and lieutenant Slim poked his head in. “Madame Secretary, we have a break. A hospital.”

CJ stood up. “Did you find the wounded man?”

“It’s worse than that. He’s in critical condition.”

Rive looked up from the stack of papers. “Take us to him. Ekal and I will identify him.”

“Where is he?”


“That far away?” CJ said. “Get us a map of the area. Rive can make a way much faster.”

An hour later, lieutenant Slim and CJ walked through the doors of the hospital. A doctor and someone in business casual clothing leaned on the front desk. At the sight of two dinosaur-like creatures behind the humans, the two men straightened up.

Lieutenant Slim held up his badge. CJ flashed her ID as well.

“What’s the story?” said the lieutenant.

The men shook hands with everyone, nodding to the raptors. The theropods bobbed necks in return.

“Came in by helicopter last night. Wouldn’t say how it happened. His left eye is punctured. Apparently someone else tried to treat the wound but didn’t do a good job. It’s severely infected, and the infection has spread to his circulatory system. The pilot didn’t know him. Was under orders to bring him here.”

“Where’s the pilot?”

“In the break room. Local police detained him.”

“Please take me to him,” said Lt. Slim. “This is Rive and Ekal. They know the man’s scent, and they will tell us if it’s the same man.”

The doctor waved for the theropods to follow. CJ followed Rive. Lt. Slim walked with the business casual man down a different hall.

The doctor turned a few corners, opened a few doors, and then led them to an intensive care room. As soon as the raptors entered the room, they both growled.

“That’s him,” Ekal said.

“Is he in any shape to talk?” CJ asked the doctor.

“You can try, but keep the dinosaurs out of the room, please.”

CJ stepped inside. Rive and Ekal backed away and stood in the hall.

The man in the bed had gauze over one side of his face. His leg was also bandaged and elevated. His remaining eye was closed. CJ picked up his chart. He had been admitted under the name Calvin Basil, and someone had noted that he had paid for treatment up front in cash.

CJ stood over him and cleared her throat.

“Mr. Basil.”

The man opened his eye but did not speak.

CJ decided to cut straight to the chase. “I know how you were injured. You were abducting a Relian canine, and her raptor defended herself.”

He closed his eye.

“The police here took your prints and faxed them to Portland. They identified you as Kevin Parson. You were part of a couple dog-fighting operations in the past, arrested in four states. Soon they will match your hair and blood to a crime scene in a back alley in Portland a few days ago. Did they tell you this wound might be fatal?”

He lay still for a moment, then he nodded.

“My name is CJ Rhine. I’m not the police. Where did they take Nipe?”

He did not speak.

“Why did they take Nipe?”

No response.

“What are you doing in Sacramento?”

He laughed weakly. “Because the nurse couldn’t help me.”

“What nurse?”

“She works for us on the side. Gets us our drugs. Makes it easier to deal with the dogs. If I had gone to the hospital right away, I might not be in bad shape. But... Couldn’t risk it.” He opened his eye. “Will you be my lawyer?”

“You might not live long enough to need one. How did you get to Sacramento in the first place?”

“He sent a chopper. I paid him cash. Hoping the cops wouldn’t look this far.”

“Where is Nipe? Why did you take her?”

He smiled. “You’ll see.”

“You know what happens if she reverts, don’t you?”

“Once they have what they need, they’ll abandon the place. Then you can do whatever you want with the bitch. I didn’t want the job, but money talks.”

“Who hired you? What job?”

“I don’t know who hired me, but... he paid us a fuckload of money... to... it.”

CJ looked at his IV. The morphine drip had started.

“Thank you, Mr. Parson. I promise we’ll be in touch. I hope you recover.”

“Bullshiii... You wan me dead. Everyone duh...sss...”

His eye closed, and he drifted off. CJ turned and left the room, stopping in the hall. The raptors looked at her eagerly.

“We heard him,” Ekal said. “What now?”

“We let the police and the doctors do their work. I hope he lives so I can send him to prison.”

Lieutenant Slim was walking up the hall, notepad in hand. CJ led the way to meet up with him, and they stood off to the side as doctors and nurses passed them, doing double-takes at the raptors.

“Nothing useful,” he said. “Pilot works for a private company. He was given the order to land outside of Portland, pick up a man, and fly him here. He doesn’t know anything else. I got his employer’s number. We’ll call up the ranks, get phone records, see if we can find who paid them.”

“Do whatever you need to do to tie that man to the crime scene. Rive and Ekal already identified him. He’s in no shape to talk, and he’s not saying much anyway.”

“Did he say what they wanted with her?” Lt. Slim said.

“Only that we’ll find out soon enough.”

    ​ 7

The dogs just kept coming. One every few hours. They seemed to have an infinite supply up there. When the hatch opened, she looked up eagerly for another scent to destroy. Dogs now cowered in front of her; they didn’t even want to fight, only to escape. Nipe had torn the kennel apart when one dog refused to come out, and now they threw dogs down the hatch. Sometimes they landed without breaking any bones, sometimes they didn’t. It was all the same to Nipe now. As long as their living scents were in her nose, anxiety filled her.

She tore them apart, whether the dog was moving or not. She had done this several times, and now a new dog fell from the hatch and landed on his side. He yelped and rose to his feet unharmed, snarling at Nipe.

Blood matted Nipe’s fur from head to tail now. She rolled in it after every kill, getting as much on herself as possible. Blood smelled so good. It was the only thing that calmed the anxiety and made her happy.

This dog’s scent filled her with rage and terror. She lunged for the dog and grabbed him by the forepaw. She chewed until something snapped. The dog limped away, tail between his legs, whimpering and leaving a trail of urine. The piss was a plea for mercy, and the dog was bleeding, so Nipe backed away and allowed him to live for now.

The side door opened. Five new scents walked in, all of them wearing ski masks. Nipe snarled at them, lunged at the bars and reached through, trying to claw them. They remained by the wall. One of them picked up the camera. He walked around, recording her from different angles. She followed this man around her cage, reaching for him, snarling and yelping. His scent was not wounded, and it made Nipe furious. She wanted it dead.

After a few minutes recording this, the man handed the camera to someone else, who turned it to the cage, while the first man stood before it.

“Just the other day she was coherent and friendly. Now look at her. Do you want this living in your neighborhood? Do you want it near your children? Do you...”

    ​ 8

“...want it serving your food, or working in your office?”

The man on the tape was shouting over the sound of the fox in the cage in the background. CJ, Rive, half the police officers in the building, Ekal, and Veronica huddled around the tiny television. Most of the humans stood slack-jawed. The fox on the tape was drenched in blood and clawing the air through the bars, trying to reach the man narrating the scene.

“We’re sending this footage to every news outlet in the country. Someone will report it. Someone will show the world the truth of what we’ve let into our homes! You can’t hide the truth forever!”

Lt. Slim paused the tape.

“This was delivered to a local news station this morning. They called us as soon as they saw what was on it.”

Rive turned to the other officers. “I know where they are. I want only lieutenant Slim and Secretary Rhine to accompany me and Ekal.”

“How do you—?” Lt. Slim started to say.

“The interior matches a description of an abandoned factory I saw in the records. You’ll want to check its history to find out who owns it. Take us there and hope we’re not too late.”

Rive turned and bolted out the door.

“To save her?” CJ called.

“To save the kidnappers.”

    ​ 9

Nipe noticed only one set of footsteps overhead. This made her feel better, but she would not feel safe until all of them were bleeding or dead.

The camera was gone. Nobody had come to hose down the cage, or bothered to clean up the blood. Nipe was aware of human scent above her and around her, and it filled her head with rage that only the smell and taste of blood would calm.

She had two crippled dogs in the cage with her. They didn’t fill her with anger because they were limping and bleeding. One had been bleeding off and on for more than a day. When it stopped, she bit it again, and she felt much better when the blood flowed. They cowered every time she shifted positions and stayed on their side of the cage all the time.

The hatch opened again. Sounds of the last dog scuffling and whining and protesting filled the room. Nipe smelled humans up there—more scents that enraged her. She had to find them and destroy them before they destroyed her. She crouched under the hatch and leaped. The hatch was just barely out of reach. She landed, leaped again. The hatch came closer. A dog slid over the opening and fell through. Nipe waited for him to land on the concrete, stepped on his wounded body, then leaped again. Her head peeked above the opening, and she grabbed it with both hands.

She was in the middle of another cage made of chain link fence. The floor was slick in blood, fur, and dog feces. Several men crouched behind the fence, holding brooms, shovels, or long poles. They leaped backwards when they saw Nipe at the hole.

Nipe brought her hind legs up and leaped out of the hole straight for the shovel-holding man. She jumped on the shovel and climbed it to the man’s arm and sank her teeth into it. The man howled. Nipe grabbed him and pulled him into the fence. Other men gathered around the cage and began beating her with broomsticks and shovels.

She released the man and snarled at all of them. She leaped at the fence and clamped down on the metal. The links bent and snapped. She spat out the metal. The men scrambled around the room and poured through the doorway. Nipe grabbed the metal and pulled outwards. The fence bent and twisted, and the links started to snap. The human scent became stronger than ever. Rage filled her muscles.

She bit and pulled, opening a ragged hole in the fence, and climbed through, the metal scraping her skin, gouging it deep. She rose to her hind legs and followed the scents.

Nipe found many. Some held knives. Others had guns. They couldn’t use them fast enough, and she snuffed them out one by one. When the last one was dead, and their blood filled her nose, she sat down and relaxed. She smelled nothing in here that could harm her.

Her tail wagged.

    ​ 10

The patrol cars pulled up to the old factory. Rive and Ekal opened the back doors and then dashed up to the entrance. It had a padlock on the front doors, and Rive and Ekal waited for the policeman to come. He carried a pair of bolt cutters. Lt. Slim clipped the locks, and Ekal threw open the doors. She caught the scent and disappeared inside.

Rive turned to CJ and the lieutenant. “We’ll come back when it’s safe.”

The metal raptor took off after Ekal. Lt. Slim stood by the door and drew his pistol. CJ waited ten seconds, then ran in the direction Rive and Ekal had gone.

CJ followed Rive’s tail around a couple corners. She passed a human body, neck torn open, blood dry. Flies covered the corpse, and they swarmed when she approached. She ignored them and followed the sound of clicking claws on old tile flooring.

She ran down a flight of steps and came to an open door just as raptor claws ceased to click. She heard growling and stopped at the doorframe. She peeked around. This basement area had prison bars running from floor to ceiling, and they formed a large cell in the center of the room. Outside the cage, on the other side of the room, stood a Relian canine.

CJ remembered Nipe from the conventions. She had spoken to her several times before she and Ekal found Veronica. Here she was now, covered in blood, hunched halfway down to all fours, snarling at Ekal. Rive crouched on the other side of the room, cutting off her retreat.

Bones, blood, and feces littered the interior of the cage. Skulls, femurs, spines. CJ recognized them as dog bones, some still slick with blood, and some had body parts attached to them.

Nipe snarled at Ekal and swiped a forelimb at her. Ekal lunged and collided with Nipe, sending her to the hard floor. The fox raised her arms and legs and raked her claws on Ekal’s underbelly. The raptor was trying to lie on top of the fox, but Nipe thrashed too hard. She wiggled and rolled out from underneath the raptor, smacking her across the snout with her claws as she backed away.

She ran toward Rive. The raptor kicked her with his metal foot, throwing her against the wall. The fox snarled at him. Rive backed away and screeched at her.

Ekal grabbed the fox’s neck in her jaws and picked her up. Nipe thrashed and howled. The raptor slammed her to the floor and lay on top of her before she could wiggle away. She held her head down by the neck and lay still. The fox snarled and struggled, but her limbs thrashed helplessly in the air, unable to find anything to scratch or grip. Rive ran up to her, held her wrist with one hand and the other arm in his jaws. Her legs were the only things free to move.

She lay on her fox for five solid minutes. The snarls and screams gradually yielded to calm breathing. Another minute later, CJ heard a voice she distantly recognized.

“Ekal...” Nipe said.

Rive released the fox’s arms. Ekal rose, nuzzling Nipe’s snout. The fox sat upright. She looked as drained as she sounded.

“Ekal,” she repeated, gasping. “They had dogs. They wanted me to revert. It felt good. It felt so good...”

She pushed her muzzle into Nipe’s chest. Nipe wrapped her arms around her and breathed her scent.

Rive turned around and looked at CJ through the bars.

“It’s safe now. Come in.”

CJ stepped into the room. “Holy mother of God.”

Rive folded his hands close to his chest. “A fox without a raptor. This is what they are without us. It can be even worse. I brought back many foxes from the old ways. Before my metal, I was even more afraid than you are now.”

“And they’re all like this?”

“Most. Some are more prone to reverting than others. We teach our foxes how to divert these impulses into other things. The result makes them overly sexual, but it frees the higher mind to work. The instincts are never far below the surface. They can assert themselves at any time. A raptor’s scent keeps their higher mind active. This is what happens when they revert.”

CJ looked through the bars at Ekal and Nipe. The fox stood now, leaning on her raptor. Ekal moved, licking the fur on her neck, and Nipe limped with her.

“I killed them,” she was saying. “They’re all dead. All of them are here. They can’t hurt me.”

“It’s not your fault,” Ekal said, leading her around the cage. “I’m here now. I won’t let you stay that way.”

CJ backed away.

Rive approached her. “Remember this is what she always was. This was not too far under the surface. Same for all intelligent creatures, but Relain canines especially. Their animal nature is so close to the surface. It’s why we live in pairs. Relian theropods have been helping the canines overcome these instincts for so long the raptors have developed an instinct to help foxes.”

Ekal led her fox to the door. CJ held still. Nipe paused in front of CJ, scented her, reached up, licked her face, then followed her raptor up the stairs. CJ had frozen.

Rive had walked around the cage and stood in front of CJ. He nudged her with his snout. CJ unfroze and turned to the cage. She walked around it, observing it from all points in the room. She stopped at the spot where she recognized the camera had recorded Nipe. Rive still stood at the door, visible through the bars.

“The bars are new,” CJ said. “Someone gave them a lot of money for this. It’s too elaborate. They didn’t do this for some crusade to reveal the truth, and they didn’t just take the money and run. They were promised something else. They must have been. Rive, this isn’t over. There’s going to be a lot of questions. Maybe a trial. We won’t be able to keep this out of the press.”

“Will you represent her?”

“I can’t. I’ll be seen as too biased. And who knows how many other people they sent tapes to. Someone will leak it. Even if we tell the whole story, people will only see that, and they will be scared out of their minds.”

She took a few more steps, observing the cage. Rive followed her with his eyes from the other side of the room.

“Kevin Parson told me as soon as they got what they wanted, they’d leave. They hadn’t left. What else did they want? Was the tape the whole point, or was there more?”

Rive remained where he was and spoke across the room, through the bars, over the dismembered dog remains.

“I believe capturing a reverted fox on tape was the goal.”

“Why? What are they getting out of it? What was the point of this?”

“As they say here, follow the money,” said the raptor. “If we’re lucky, someone made a mistake, and we can find out who gave them funding to do this. Whoever wanted it done also wanted the press to have it in reserve, ready to broadcast at a moment’s notice. They want the people to be outraged and scared. It will be used as an excuse for the people in government to make life for the Relians very difficult. Taking this to trial will achieve the same thing.”

“What do you know, Rive?”

“I don’t know anything. I’ve only heard rumors.”

“What rumors? What are you talking about?”

“I will tell you when I know the rest of the story. As soon as Ekal and Nipe recover, I want to interview them, along with Veronica and Justin. He said some interesting things earlier, and I’d like to have them on tape.”

“Interview?” She glared at him through the bars. “How can you think about interviews now? Rive, we have a nightmare of legal trouble ahead of us. We’re talking murder, manslaughter, kidnapping—how are laws meant for humans supposed to apply to Relians? How far can you take self-defense before it becomes murder? Do the same limits that apply to humans also apply to Relians? Are there special provisions for foxes who revert, and will there be charges for someone who causes a fox to revert, and are foxes responsible for their actions when they do? These are questions that are going to the Supreme Court. I need to prepare cases—I need to get attorneys ready for this.”

Rive bobbed from the waist. “I believe it’s time to learn how the Relians and the humans they chose at the conventions are getting along. The people who paid money to have that tape made have heard, and they are scared. I am sure this incident was planned in order to draw attention away from how well things are actually going.”

The raptor turned and walked through the door and up the stairs.

CJ stared through the bars. She heard police sirens in the distance. She gripped one of the bars. It was easy to imagine what Nipe had been through. All she had to do was help others feel it, too. She had already thought of three angles for Nipe’s defense.

Excerpt from Inertial Catalyst (Archeons, book 5), by James L. Steele

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