by Jennifer Lee Rossman
Zairiss was going to kill the asteroid, the last of three the skywatchers insisted would annihilate all dinosaurs on her planet.
She had to; there was no other choice, not if she wanted to finally, officially, until-the-end-of-forever ask Jax to be a bonded pair. And she did want that, very much so.
Even though their species had evolved substantially from the little velociraptors who didn’t even use tools or complex languages, raptor society still hinged on tradition, so the courtship dance was vital. The two of them, committing themselves to each other no matter what their parents thought about two females being mates, the sky erupting in fireworks.
All they had to do was dance away the last night of being juveniles, after she saved the day with two inventions: a mechanical pteranodon she would fly and the star-rock—a meteor with curious explosive properties that had crashed to Earth long ago. Zairiss thought it ironic, how they would fight the flaming space rock with another space rock. And yet poetic.
And then her father had to go and ruin everything.
First, she thought he worried that she herself would fly a pteranodon instead of a remotely piloted one. But his concern was far more theological than logistical as he argued whether they should stop the asteroid.
“It will be Kalitherry all over again,” he insisted. “Another Madrin.”
The first flight of drone pteranodons, which had attacked the first asteroid months ago, succeeded in partly destroying it, but its corpse crashed into the island of Kalitherry. Thousands of raptor lives vanished in an instant, without preparing for the afterlife. And without their courtship dances, those juvenile raptors would be shorn from their would-be partners forever. Madrin had been the second failed mission. The horizon still burned from that disaster.
Her father addressed the council. “The third asteroid is unstoppable, bigger than the first two combined. Sent from the gods themselves. Would we rather use our final days in a futile fight against their will, or take this time to make peace and guarantee our place in the heavens?”
The council agreed. They would savor what time they had, ensure that the juveniles performed the ritual dance and went to the afterlife in mated pairs.
Zairiss roared at the elders, most of them long past hunting age, and clicked her dangerously sharp middle talon on the ground. “No! I refuse to go extinct!”
Her father narrowed his eyes, looking down his long snout. “It’s not up to us. It’s the natural order of things. The gods create dinosaurs, they give sentience to dinosaurs, they kill dinosaurs. Look at the fossils. The same happened to the ancient stegosaur communities, and the allosaurs. One way or another, extinction comes for us. The afterlife finds a way.”
Zairiss snarled, and regretted it when she saw the murder in her father’s eyes. Social hierarchy was a delicate ecosystem. Were she a hatchling, rather than a juvenile at the cusp of sexual maturity, he would’ve eaten her to save himself the trouble of raising such an insolent chick.
But not now, not with her so close to her first mating season. Not now that she could fight back.
And oh, her predatory instincts raged. She needed to fight, to rip something apart. But not her father. Despite all the adversity between themlately, this was the parent who had raised her, who had taught her to hunt and told her there was no prey too big for her to tackle.
“Father, remember when the tyrannosaur packs united into an unstoppable army? Did we bow to the afterlife then?”
Her father tilted his reptilian head. Zairiss’s talons had barely formed back then. She’d thought raptor-kind was done for, but he’d commission the mechanical pteranodons that ultimately crushed the tyrannosaur hordes. He’d shown her that stubbornness against a larger foe could yield victory. The gods favored those who went down fighting. Where had her hero gone?
“This is different, Zairiss. This time, the sky hunts us.”
“Why did the sky bestow us with the star-rock, if not to use against this threat?”
She hissed at her father’s silence, then exited the council chamber. He’d directed the Kalitherry and Madrin missions. Guilt had made him overcautious. But she was going to save the world and dance with her mate.
Zairiss peeked over the metal body before her to see Jax preening herself, ignoring the other pteranodon beside Zairiss’s. Jax had been born with the longer, more iridescent plumage typical of males and took great care to trim the longest feathers into a more feminine length.
“So, I’m sorry we’ll miss the dance,” Zairiss said, her voice echoing in the cavernous belly of the mechanical pteranodon. It was bigger than the living versions they’d been modeled after.
She squinted in the dark, scrambled deeper within until her tail brushed the outside. It seemed all the parts were here, but the technicians stopped assembling when her father and the council had issued their decree. So many wires, so many buttons. Chaos…
“Wait. Why are we missing the dance?”Jax asked. “I thought you would announce your intention to be my mate then.”
“Yes, Jax. but first, we must save the world,” Zairiss replied, fumbling for the ignition switch.
“We’re going up?” Jax screeched. “I… I thought maybe we were sending the machines remotely.”
Zairiss chirped sharply. “Over Kalitherry and Madrin, the remotely piloted pteranodons couldn’t move fast enough. I can’t install the signaling devices anyway. I hunt things. I don’t invent.”
“You could die. We both could.”
Zairiss had thought of that. Had hardly thought of anything else. Death was the true apex predator inexorably stalking you, always on your tail. There was absolutely no stopping it from devouring you one day. In this, her father was correct. She just didn’t think that final reckoning was coming just yet.
Zairiss twisted to better reach a component. “We’ll die anyway if we don’t, and I’d rather risk my life trying to save everyone. But I understand if you want to stay grounded. I can take the asteroid myself.”
“I just… the dance is important.”
Why was Jax so afraid? Her inventor-family had pioneered these metal pteranodons. That’s how they’d met. Zairiss’s father had approached Jax’s parents to build flying machines against the tyrannosaur hordes. Seeing Jax take-off in one was enough to make Zairiss volunteer for training—turned out she and Jax were the best pilots the newly-minted raptor wing force could muster. They’d become lead bombers, war heroes in adolescence.
“Fly with me, Jax. That pteranodon over there is yours, if you’ll have it. Hunting as a pack is better.”
“Zairiss, the courtship dance might be our only chance to commit to each other.”
“I know, but stopping the end of the world seems more important than frivolously dancing the end of my life away.” Zairiss paused, carefully loading her stolen star-rock fragments into the launch-tube. It only took a small amount of whatever chemical it contained to create an impressive explosion, and she wouldn’t get a second chance. The Madrin mission had made that abundantly clear: these asteroids moved faster than anyone had realized. She’d have to get really close.
“You’re set on doing this, aren’t you?” There was an oddly hollow crooning to Jax’s question.
“I’m afraid so. Hey, do you think I have enough star-rock?”
Zairiss crawled out, her claws scratching on the metal. Jax was gone.
Frivolous. She’d called the dance frivolous.
She wanted to smack her head against the flying machine’s hull. Compared to the asteroid, the dance was frivolous. But it was obviously still important to Jax.
First her father had abandoned her. Now her mate.
If the asteroid had been scheduled to strike any other day, any other moment, the dance where Zairiss officially and in front of everyone asked Jax to be her life-mate would have been—should have been—the moment all other moments would be judged against until the end of time.
She could go after Jax. She was about to, but she looked up. The first stars had begun to poke through the evening sky, and one of them was coming for her. She had work to finish.
The council spared no expense putting on the most extravagant courtship dance the Cretaceous had ever seen, clearing a large swath of land and decorating with exotic flora from the farthest reaches of Gondwanaland. Powerful lamps crafted to look like jars of fireflies gave the dance floor a glimmering ambiance. Fruit nectar drinks and hors d’oeuvres made from the finest triceratops specimens sat opposite a raised platform where the chorus vocalized in harmony.
Zaire’s watched the revelers from the hilltop, pitying them. Their freedom, their faith, their ability to dance carelessly into an adulthood they believed they would never live to see.
To them, Zairiss was forsaking her one chance at adulthood. If she didn’t participate in the ritual, she would enter the afterlife eternally a juvenile, little better than a hatchling.
Maybe she didn’t want to be an adult if it meant surrendering so easily. The asteroid grew larger by the moment. She crooned, rubbed her head against the empty flying machine beside hers—her missing wing, her better half—then ducked inside her fuselage.
She froze. She had only left to quench her thirst at the river, but that had apparently been long enough.
All the star-rock fragments—and the firing tube she’d loaded them into—were gone.
Zairiss stalked onto the dance floor with murder in her eyes, her muscular chest heaving with slow, deep breaths. Not noticing her, young raptors circled their partners, nipping at each other’s flanks and fanning the iridescent plumage on their heads and tails. The atmosphere here was different from what she’d seen from the hilltop, the carefreeness of the courting raptors carrying a certain desperation. They had to be young and in love and hopeful, had to, because it was all ending.
From down here, Zairiss saw that the firefly-lamps served a purpose besides romantic illumination: it brightened the area so that star growing ever larger in the night sky couldn’t be seen. It made it easier to pretend tonight could last forever.
“Where is my star-rock?” she roared.
Dozens of raptors turned to her and hissed.
Her father emerged from the crowd. “You stubborn, foolish hatchling—”
Zairiss screeched. “Yell at me after I save your life! Where are my star-rock fragments?” It had to be him, or one of his followers. He may have turned soft lately, but he was smart enough to figure out her plan and sabotage her.
Her father’s lips curled in a sharp-toothed sneer. “Maybe ask your intended mate, the one you said you were going hunting with every time you went behind my back to work on those metal pteranodons. She must still be about; she was here earlier.”
No. Jax would never.
Zairiss had called the dance frivolous, possibly stolen Jax’s only chance at becoming an adult before the world ended because, if she was being honest, Zairiss didn’t even know if she could kill an asteroid. Would Jax really lure Zairiss to the dance by stealing her star-rock? In many ways, she was just as obstinate as Zairiss was. Raptors of a feather…
Zairiss’s father saw her hesitation, and like any good predator, he pounced. “It never would have worked anyway, daughter. The gods want us to reproduce, even in the afterlife. That’s what we’re here for. As a pair, you and Jax aren’t… useful… in that regard. Now, there are many eligible young males in need of a partner—”
Zaire’s lashed out, striking her father across the face with her fore claws. How dare he use the end of the world as another excuse to hate her mate! She considered pointing out that while Jax hadn’t been born with the capacity to lay eggs, she could, biologically speaking, still produce offspring with Zairiss, but doubted that would do much to change his mind.
“Jax isn’t useless. She and I had the most kills in the tyrannosaur war.”
He snarled at the pain, but said nothing. It was their way, hatchlings fighting parents for dominance. “I’m doing this for you, daughter. I want you to have a good afterlife. You can’t cross over as a juvenile. You’re being foolish! Stubborn!”
“If I am foolish and stubborn,” Zairiss hissed, “it’s because I’m your offspring. I was hunting tyrannosaurs as a juvenile. You taught me to! You are so sure it can’t be done that you would let us go extinct rather than try because you think this is what the gods want. Well, we may go extinct one day, if we can’t adapt to what they throw at us, but that day is not today because we have the technology to prevent our own extinction. If Jax…”
Zairiss snapped her jaws shut. Hadn’t her father just said Jax was around?
“Where is she? Where’s my mate?”
“She never stayed,” a juvenile said. “She found her parents. They screeched at each other. Then they ran away together.”
“They what?” Zairiss’s father went into a frenzy. “And they have star-rock?”
No. Not just star-rock. The firing tube. If Jax wanted to stop Zairiss, all she had to do was take the star-rock. But she’d disassembled the firing tube. And… why would Jax come to tear her parents from the festivities? Her inventor parents?
She grabbed his talons. “Father, you don’t mean what you say about Jax. Otherwise you wouldn’t have let us carry on as we did. Fear clouds your thinking. But we’re going to save you. We’re going to save all of you. I love you.”
Zairiss smiled with all her fangs, then ran to the hilltop as he yelled after her.
Zairiss soared close to Jax’s pteranodon, watching the asteroid’s light grow ever brighter through tinted glass.
“Jax,” she transmitted over her communication device.
There was a static hiss, then, “Zairiss? What is it?”
“You really had me worried, disappearing on me, then stealing my firing tube.”
“There was no time. First, I had to procure more star-rock. Then I wondered if we could also improve the firing mechanism. I needed your firing-tube to show my parents, so we could modify our design accordingly. Like you said, you hunt. You don’t invent. But we do.”
Zairiss had returned to the hill to find Jax modifying both pteranodons. Both firing tubes were removed, replaced with… launchers. These not only contained the greater star-rock yield Jax had gotten, but could fire from farther distance. They actually might survive this.
“Target is approaching,” Jax said.
Yes, approaching fast, burning furiously through the atmosphere. Yet Zairiss knew she would never be able to focus if she didn’t set things right with her mate. “I shouldn’t have called the dance frivolous. Will you… dance with me now? Here? In the sky?”
Jax did a barrel roll. “Of course I will.”
The flaming rock tore through the clouds, roaring louder than the tyrannosaurs they once hunted. The attacks at Kalitherry and Madrin had destroyed its brothers, its harbingers, but now the true predator had come.
Zairiss and Jax opened fire, ducking and dodging chunks, their live-piloting skills letting them evade death. They screeched like warriors as finally, the last asteroid fragment shattered.
It may not have been official in the eyes of the elders, but Zairiss and Jax danced together in a night sky that erupted with fireworks and uncountable shooting stars, finally, officially, until-the-end-of-forever a bonded pair.
About the Author
Jennifer Lee Rossman is sometimes too preoccupied with whether or not she could make Jurassic Park references, and doesn’t stop to think if she should. She is autistic, queer, and disabled, and so are most of her characters. Read more of her work at jenniferleerossman.blogspot.
About the Narrator
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.