The megaraptor pack moved through the juniper woodland with impeccable grace. Gliding silently among the trees of a Montana hillside, they threaded their way through hip-high sagebrush as if the six individuals were a single entity, a flowing front of vapor filtering through the vegetation like a dawn mist.
In the lead, the alpha female raised her head to its full height of nine feet, sniffing the morning air. At the front of her long, fang-lined snout, flaring nostrils took in the sweet smell of sage and juniper branches warming in the sunlight. But the megaraptor was following another scent on the light breeze: the enticing aroma of prey.
She made a faint chut-chut noise deep in her throat, warning the others to silence, then slowed her pace and lowered her long, feathered neck into a tight S-curve. With her head just above brush-level, her feathered dinosaurian tail stretched out straight behind her in fine balance, she advanced carefully on ostrich-like legs, setting her feet down gingerly on the dry grass. Sickle-shaped slashing claws on the inner toe of each foot twitched in anticipation of a killing strike . . .
The pack slowed its fluid motion as it emerged from the scrub woods onto the edge of a green meadow. The lead megaraptor's pulse quickened. Her prey was in view! The intended victim, a two-legged species she had seen before but never killed, was walking on the moist grass of a small prairie just beyond a long white, wooden obstruction dividing the field from the woodland.
But the alpha megaraptor paused, working her powerful reptilian jaws in a fit of uncertainty. She recalled with an avian, eagle-like intelligence that she had attacked this sort of prey once before. The pack had cornered two of these creatures, the other slightly larger than this one . . . As the pack had rushed in for the kill, the larger mammalian creature had raised its arms and held out a long stick that suddenly made a loud noise and flashed fire from one end, followed by harsh-smelling smoke. The pack's previous alpha female had fallen in that moment, thrashing in a death agony that seemed related somehow to the stick, the fire, the noise and smell.
The new alpha sniffed the aroma wafting from her intended victim. The breeze carried sweet, female, healthy scents that made drool drip from the alpha's fangs, but she was vexed by the sight of a stick in one of its hands and a faint smell she could not ignore. Mixed with the attractive aroma of prey was the slightest trace of the weapon's deadly smoke.
Yes, the prey could be reached easily and run down. But there would be no ambush, no final leap onto the startled victim, no slashing foot-claws, no clamp of jaws on flesh. No sweet taste of blood. The alpha sensed that she or one of her pack would fall first, when the creature's weapon roared. She licked the saliva from her jaws, settling in to wait for the creature to become separated from its stick weapon.
Kit Daniels loved the green grass scent that rose from the pasture on this sunny Montana summer morning. She walked out along the white equestrian fence toward the end of the pasture, inhaling the fragrant breeze and letting herself be lulled to a state of greater calm than she had felt in quite a while. Nothing disturbed the beauty of the small valley where her father's ranch lay. Birds twittered in a nearby paper birch grove and a pair of small, delicate, black-and-white pterodactyls flitted past her like swallows.
Kit paused to watch them only for a moment as they careened in search of flies or mosquitoes. She had other, more important business farther out in the pasture. Lucky appeared about to go lame. The old brown quarter horse mare had been frisking around the pasture like a filly and the excess activity had told on her aging left front leg. Can't blame her, thought Kit, with all the excitement around here. After all, no ranch Kit had ever seen was home to a family of nesting parasaurolophuses. Parasaurolophi? she puzzled. The long-crested duckbilled dinosaurs, Rufus and Henrietta, had arrived just two weeks before when the spaceships of the invading Kra army had released them on the nearby high prairie. The two elephant-sized creatures had wandered here and broken the top rail off a section of the fence circling the pasture, stepping over it to stake their nesting territory in the grassland not far from the house. They had proceeded to make themselves quite at home, digging up a! nest mound twenty feet across, laying eggs, and moseying to the barn to steal hay out of the loft whenever they felt like it. This was good, Kit knew, because the parasaurolophuses were pugnacious enough to keep their nesting and feeding territory tyrannosaurus-free.
The yearling triplets, last year's brood, had accompanied the adult pair when they arrived from-wherever the heck they came from-a crater at the south pole of the moon, so people said. As the parasaurolophus triplets raced past, going from four-legged to two-legged in a thundering sprint with Lucky galloping in pursuit, Kit gave out a sharp whistle any ranch hand would have been proud of. The noise had no effect on the undisciplined ducklings, but Lucky's trained ear made her turn, letting the parasaurolophus yearlings go their way. She trotted to Kit, favoring her left foreleg, and halted a couple of paces away.
"Good girl," Kit cooed. She leaned her M-16 automatic rifle against a fence upright and walked the few paces to the mare, patting her on a graying flank.
The alpha megaraptor raised her head to gauge the distance between the prey and its stick.