This is the third round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these submissions, it’s the letter “C”.
Readers have until the publication of the next story (about two weeks) to vote for their favorite story in each round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on the voting rank.
For each letter, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “C” as submitted by its author.
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Copyright 2020 — (Gary Broxson)
(2,121 words – approx. reading time: about 8 minutes based on 265 WPM)
The tranquilizer dart sang across the compound, lodging in the armored flank of the male rhino. As a second dart pierced his hide, Lazzo was already feeling the effects of the first. His brain fogged, his balance faltered, and his breathing slowed—blackness. His hearing lingered as his brain registered the deep grunts and high-pitch wails of his mate, Kara.
oooo oooo ooooo ooooo
“I’m so sorry about Kara. She was so beautiful…and hairy. I’m told she did not suffer. The bushmen mercifully shot her before they took the horn.”
“What’s done is done,” he replied. “And now there is one.”
“Yes, Lazzo, you are now the last of your kind. The only living Sumatran rhinoceros in the world.”
Jane Hathaway hugged the creature’s large, bony head, cupping her fingers behind its flicking right ear. This was a soothing gesture she had not learned in zoology or biology courses at Miami University or even as a protégé for the great Ron McGill at the Miami – Dade Zoological Park and Gardens. Jane had listened to the animals she tended and had, like an attentive lover, explored their bodies and minds, discovering their deepest secrets.
“It’s my fault, you know,” Jane whispered into the orchid-shaped ear. “If I had returned sooner from Jakarta, this wouldn’t have happened. They kept me bouncing from one Borneo bureaucrat to the next. All of them begging for bribes for permits and passports. Fortunately, Jameer heard the commotion and was able to run off the poachers before they got to you too.”
Lazzo, snorted. He nudged the crying woman gently, soothing her as she had done him. “If they only knew what I know,” she continued, this time with anger. “That you are a portal to our past. You are linked to the earliest species to walk the earth. Not just a descendant, but truly linked.”
The rhino’s black eyes glazed over. He traveled back in time in his mind. Every bit of his DNA recorded and recalled each succession of his kind, going back before the lands shattered and drifted apart. Back before the great Sky Fire had wiped out nearly every living thing. His breed had been giants among giants. Horns had sprouted from bone spurs, and their species had flourished. It alone had made the difference between the 99% extinction of all animals ever to creep, slink, or fly upon the earth. Their magnificent horns were a deterring defense that few creatures challenged and a wicked weapon of offense when weaker males needed culling.
Returning to the present, Lazzo’s eyes shone black again. Abysses of ancient and untold depths. “Our time is over, Jane.” The voice of the rhino played in Jane’s head. She had learned to tune it to any frequency, so she chose to hear it in the lilting narrative voice of Morgan Freeman. “My species branched out, thrived, and lasted much longer than most. But we failed to evolve past our horns. Our eyes are weak, tempers short, legs stunted, and our hide is thick enough to resist the land dragons of old. Dragons that have long turned to dust and bone. But not much good for anything else. I am an…” The word came out strangely alien, but Jane was able to translate it to…”anachronism.”
“It’s the horn,” Jane’s said, eyes wide with excitement. “I’ve got sedatives, painkillers. I could take it off. Without it, they will let you be.”
“Be what?” Lazzo snapped, his voice booming in her mind. “A cow? Just what is a rhino without a horn?” His tone relaxed. He sensed he had frightened the girl.
“Kara is dead, Jane. Along with her was the only hope for our species. Even now, the reaper birds are devouring her body, and I sense they are beginning to circle mine.”
“But there’s got to be a way,” Jane sobbed.
“Humans,” Lazzo snorted again. “You don’t know when to stop. We watched as you climbed down from the trees, always searching for more. Rocks turned into sticks, then spears and swords into guns. Your fears made you clever and strong. But when you ascended the throne as king of all animals, you couldn’t stop there. You killed each other because we were no longer sport enough for you. For all your cleverness, Jane, you cannot save me. Just as this horn is no longer able to save my kind.”
oooo oooo oooo ooooo
Life went on at the reserve. Ecotourism doubled when word got out that Lazzo was the last Sumatran rhino. Jane smiled as she accepted their donations, understanding that the money might save other endangered creatures. But she seethed inside. She hated them; she hated herself; she hated humans.
Lazzo had forgiven humanity for wiping out his family, had conceded to the loss of his entire species. Such noble qualities could scarcely be found in Jane’s world inside the fence. Jane often found herself thinking, What if we had never climbed down from those trees, never wielded a rock or sharpened a stick? What would this planet be like? She obsessed with this idea. She spoke to Lazzo about it. She began to formulate a plan.
Jameer gave Jane a ride into Jakarta in a mud-colored International Scout. There she spent the day at the city library, researching medical books, botanical and zoological articles, and arcane websites. She went to an apothecary who answered Jane’s questions when ringgits exchanged hands. This and other indignities made Jane more and more determined to follow through with the plan.
Three days later, Jane returned to the reserve. She sought out Lazzo, who was grazing near the electric fence-line. “We’ll use it against them,” she told the old bull. “It’s called the Anthropogenic Alley effect.” She caressed his horn as she spoke. “It’s a different form of greed, you see. As a species nears extinction, the last few, or one, becomes more and more valuable. Your horn is the last one. It might as well come off a frick’n unicorn. There is no price too high, no distance too far for the animal kings.” She then mapped out the details of her plan.
“It might work,” Lazzo nodded. “But you’ve got to promise me one thing.” He whispered the price into her mind.
They started out together early the next morning. Jane straddled the beast, maintaining balance by gripping the cords of red hair on Lazzo’s back, a prized characteristic unique to his species. Deep into the jungle, they trekked. Lazzo used his mighty horn to uproot rotted stumps while Jane filled a jar with plump, white grubs. Threaded on the jungle branches, a black mamba hissed its warning. Jane snatched the snake behind its head and milked the venom from its hypodermic-like fangs into a rubber-covered vial. Lazzo rammed his head and horn into a large Kapok tree. The canopy overhead shuttered with each crash. Insects rained down around the base of the tree. Stepping gingerly, Jane examined the stunned creatures like a woman at a bizarre salad bar. She opened another jar and began stuffing it with exotic bugs and bristling spiders.
“I think we’ve got everything we need,” Jane said, as she checked Blue tarantula off her long list of items. “You know,” she started, “if this works, you’ll never even know it. Doesn’t seem very fair to you.”
“Jane, my friend. This is no longer about me and my kind. My mate and my ancestors are grazing in the Great Savannas far, far from here. This is about saving you and your kind—from yourselves.”
Jane mounted the broad-back rhino, and they returned to the reserve. The experiment would begin the next morning.
That night, Jane crushed the ingredients and mixed them with minute amounts of venom and glandular excretions. The tinctures were heated and strained and distilled to their most pure, powerful form.
Jane mixed the elixir into a bucket of rotting vegetables, a favorite of Lazzo’s. He looked at the woman and lowered his head into the trough. “How long will it take, Jane?”
“We should give it a couple of days. The apothecary said it would be quick, but we better make sure. We’ve only got one chance at this.” Lazzo agreed and finished the meal.
“It’s time for you to keep your promise.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want, Lazzo? The whole plan might fall apart out there. Inside the reserve, I can control the variables.”
“Jane, you humans have been controlling the variables, as you say, far too long. It’s time to open the gate and let nature take its course. I will fulfill my part of the plan, but I’ll do it my way.”
Jane used a remote to de-electrify the fence, then she unlocked the gate and gestured farewell to her old friend. Before Lazzo left, Jane cupped his ear and whispered, “Will this be part of your legacy? Will this become an enduring memory to your kind?”
Lazzo snorted, “This will be greater than the great Sky Fire of days long gone.” Then he trotted off into the jungle, away from the safety of man.
The following day, Jane announced to her small staff that she would be going into Jakarta for supplies. Jamir declined her request to drive, mentioning that a branch had fallen onto a section of fence, and repairs were needed.
Lazzo strode proudly through the thick undergrowth, once again lord of a land that time had only brushed. He veered off the beaten path and carved his way deep into the tropical flora, breaking branches and leaving unmistakable Ace-of-Clubs shaped hoof prints. When he found the old Kapok tree he and Jane had visited, he began work on his part of the plan.
Scarlet parrots launched from a nearby Brazil nut tree, mimicking the strange voices they heard coming along the broken path. The jungle went silent. Three armed men dressed in khakis hacked their way into the clearing surrounding the battered Kapok tree. Cautiously, they approached. The tracker put his fingers into the deep grooves along the base of its trunk. They looked at one another for explanations. Finding none, they all looked up into the tree for clues.
The earth before them erupted with mud, leaves, branches, and noise. An ululating call to battle rose from the ground as the giant rhino emerged from a half-buried ambush position. It charged, swinging its horn like a broad sword. The men panicked. They scrambled up the Kapok tree, just as the rhino reached their previous position.
Lazzo crashed into the tree as he had done with Jane, but the poachers held tightly to higher branches. Again he pounded and again. The tree shook. One of the men took a rifle off his shoulder and chambered a large caliber bullet. He sighted the rhino below and tightened his finger on the trigger.
A large spider, shaken down from the triple canopy, plopped onto the shooter’s arm. Instantly, fangs punctured his dark skin, and fire flowed into the wounds. The man instinctively swatted at the tennis-ball size spider and lost his balance. As the man fell, Lazzo’s horn went up.
Lazzo took a moment to snort at his victim. He recognized the man from the reserve; Jane called him Jameer. Lazzo also recognized the coarse, red band used to tie back the man’s thick hair. It was the back hair of a Sumatran rhino, a female. Lazzo raised his hoof just as a shot rang out. The two other poachers had seized this moment to react. They would split the bounty two ways instead of three.
Jane had seen the vultures circling in the days ahead but refused to go into the jungle. She chose to respect her friend and remember him as he had once been. She did, however, keep her eye on the latest news out of China, the largest importer of illegal and endangered animals. She knew Lazzo’s horn would go to the highest bidder, the animal king. She also knew that the horn and the rest of Lazzo’s body was infected.
Two months later, the first reports surfaced from Wuhan, China. A new type of virus, transmitted from animals, had taken hold and was spreading fast. People were panicking; people were dying. The virologists believed the epidemic was a strain of rhinovirus that had mutated and evolved into a deadly new flu. They assured the public that everything was under control, but others have called this pandemic a society crasher, one that might usher a return to the stone-age.
(PS. Dearest astute reader, I am sure you already know this, but sometimes we need reminding: A large group of rhinoceros is called a Crash.)
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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