“That sign back there—what did it mean?”
Tomás Estéban’s sudden query broke the meditative silence in which both men had been traveling for the last forty minutes or so.
“Just a warning about wildlife in this area,” muttered Owen. He realized he was getting hungry and felt fatigued by the monotonous motion of the car and the harsh, inhospitable view; it was almost time for another break.
Close to another six hundred miles had been consumed since their encounter with the state trooper. Now the lowering sun blazed redly on the horizon before them; scrubby dead brown plains and occasional slight hills stretched on either side, relieved by intermittent scattering of short, dark shrubs and cacti.
“It looked different than the others,” Tomás insisted. “Something about staying in the vehicle at all times.”
“Are you sure?” MacIntyre grew more alert at this comment. Was the volume turned down too low on the control panel, had he missed a warning update? Addressing the control screen, he commanded: “Hazard update, current location.”
‘El Malpais Game Preserve,’ chimed the pleasant female voice uncurling through the vehicle’s speakers. ‘It is recommended to maintain current speed and avoid unnecessary stops.’
MacIntyre began scanning both the road ahead and the plains to the left and to the right.
‘El Malpais Game Preserve is owned and maintained by a multinational consortium of the world’s most dedicated bloodsport enthusiasts,’ the voice continued to inform them sweetly. ‘It incorporates portions of land previously designated as a national conservation area and is currently under the management of Maxim Fedorovich Balakin of Global Consumer Industries.’
“Balakin,” scowled Tomás. “I met him at a company function last year. He’s loathsome.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” agreed MacIntyre. “Keep your eyes open for anything interesting.”
They traveled another ten miles through the empty landscape.
“Tell me more about Balakin,” asked Owen eventually. “I’ll bet you have lots of great stories.”
“He’s an acquaintance of my brother’s, actually,” Tomás muttered softly, with an edge of distaste. “They’ve worked together in the past, making stock for preserves like these.”
MacIntyre raised a brow. “ ‘Making’ stock? Don’t you mean breeding stock?”
Shaking his head, Tomás slumped down a little farther in his seat. “No, I meant ‘making’. They’re all lab-created, to avoid the wildlife protection laws.”
“Hmm…I did not know that,” Owen commented. “How interesting. And weird.” They drove for a few minutes longer before MacIntyre asked, “Dinosaurs—have they looked into those? I saw a crazy old movie about that. Did you ever visit any of the labs yourself?”
“No, I haven’t. I don’t know about any dinosaurs,” said Tomás with distain. He tapped the passenger window beside him. “There’s something over there—,”
There was movement off to their right. A herd of swiftly running creatures was moving parallel to the highway and less than a hundred yards away. The creatures blended well with the plains, only their black and white throat markings and black horns breaking up their massed shapes against the dusty backdrop. Their long sunset shadows trailed and flickered behind them over the scrub-dotted landscape.
Tomás sat up in his seat and watched them with marked interest. “What are they?” he asked. “Some kind of deer?”
“Pronghorn,” said Owen briefly, manually reducing the vehicle’s speed somewhat.
“They’re running from something—!” Tomás announced.
The undulating cloud of racing shapes abruptly changed course even as he spoke; sweeping sharply southwards and cutting without warning across the asphalt directly in front of the car.
“Oh, fuck—,” exclaimed MacIntyre.
There was a violent, sickening thud, a wild swerve of the car and the shriek of tires jerking to a shuddering halt. The windshield was obscured by a heavy, buff-colored body; even as they watched, it started to slide downwards, sprawling across the hood of the vehicle.
Stunned, they both sat speechless for a moment. Then Tomás ventured, “Do you think it’s alive? I’ll check—,”
“Stop!” thundered MacIntyre. “Stay in the car!”
The other pronghorns were fleeing, skittering and bounding across the freeway. The men watched in disbelief as a large, muscular, golden-brown shape, snaking close to the ground, now surged in among the confusion.
The African lioness checked her stride, turned and made straight for their vehicle. She leapt onto the hood, the car dipping and rocking under her weight.
Macintyre reflexively gripped the wheel tighter, Tomás grasped the door handle. They both watched in fascinated horror as, with ears back and a baleful glow in her eyes, the lioness seized the stunned buck by the throat, clamping it in a powerful, suffocating grip. A fang pierced an artery and a squirt of deep red shot up past the sunset-gold sky. The antelope’s slim legs twitched a moment, then stiffened.
The lioness backed down, dragging the carcass off the front of the car. She pulled it forward a yard or so past the front tires and began loudly ripping off bleeding chunks of flesh and springy tendons. Three more gold-brown shapes loped warily up to join her. Deep growls, and the vicious sounds of rending and crunching, could be heard clearly through the vehicle’s closed windows.
“Holy shit,” breathed MacIntyre.
Deathly pale, Tomás made a slight noise of agreement.
The remaining pronghorns had nearly disappeared off towards the southern horizon. The lionesses showed no sign of moving out of the way. Just before the end of the car hood, between the circle of hunched big cats, the buck’s newly-exposed ribcage gleamed darkly in the orange light of the sinking sun as the body was rocked and jostled by the competing predators.
Leaning in closer to examine the blood-smeared windshield before them, Owen ran his hand shakily over the glass, feeling for any cracks.
“Seems okay,” he concluded. “This is a damn sturdy little car.”
Starting the engine, MacIntyre slowly backed up, turned into the empty lane, then drove at a walking pace past the feeding lions. He accelerated with caution, then more quickly. Soon they were back up to speed and continuing westwards.
“Guess we’re lucky your friends aren’t making dinosaurs, after all, ” he said with a weak laugh after a few more miles.
Tomás gave a slow shake of his head, suddenly looking very tired. He sank dejectedly a little further down into his seat. “They’re not my friends.”
Owen threw him a taut, calculating gaze, noting how ashen the other suddenly looked. Tomás was grimly contemplating the rapidly lengthening shadows of deep lavender streaking the desert as their vehicle raced inexorably forward.
------excerpt from Echoes Through Darkened Glass, (c) 2020 S.Kirk Pierzchala. Available here!