Project Uncia by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt

The new Planet Scumm is here!

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While she sleeps she dreams of cold. Deep cold that clings to the nostrils and whiskers, cold that seeps into the ears. Not the cold of home, but the cold of the between place. The dark place, with its distant, tiny lights. She moves through the cold, but it is not her cold. It is a cold without snow.

An alarm sounds. She is on her paws in an instant. Anxiety pumps into her system. Her cubs are in danger. She does not know how she knows this, nor has she ever mated. But the alarm awakens every maternal instinct within her. She must find her cubs.

A two-legger comes in. Her hackles rise until she recognizes his scent. She has no love for the two-leggers and their strange things and their strange smells. She does not like what they have done to her. But something within her tells her that she needs this one’s help to find her cubs, so she endures it. For now.

An opening appears and beyond it she sees her waiting harness. She does not like the harness and backs away from it. The two-legger makes soft, soothing sounds and touches something in his hand. Awareness floods into her. She needs the harness to save her cubs. She does not like it, but she steps through the opening and into the thing. She likes it less when the two-legger fastens it around her.

The harness hisses and bites into her back. She shakes her head. Suddenly she is… more. Her sight is more intense. Every sound is amplified. She can smell the two-legger’s fear. There is danger here, even in the deep cold. Something pumps into her from the fangs of the harness. She calms, but remains alert.

The two-legger inserts tubes into her nostrils. She lets out a mrowl of protest and tries to paw them off. They stink too much of two-leggers and two-legger things. Somehow he has tied them to her head. They do not come off. She must endure the stink.

The two-legger ruffles her fur. The harness does not let her turn to bite him. Not a hard bite, just enough to let him know she does not like to be touched, but the harness does not let her. He leaves her, and the opening disappears behind him.

This part. This part she remembers. This is her least favorite part of all. The walls close in around her. She crouches low and still they come. She is small as can be, and it seems the walls will crush her. The walls shrink down around her, and the world shakes, shakes so hard she fears she will be shaken off from it.

And then she is falling.

Her stomach turns with her and her claws unsheathe, though they find no purchase on the floor. Her ears ache–she is falling so fast. She cannot tell which way is up and she snarls in terror. The enclosed place grows warm, and her cries more desperate. The enclosed place whips about like a predator trying to snap the neck of its prey. She is its prey and she screams.

The place stops falling, but she is still moving. She bounces against the walls, and though the harness absorbs some of the impacts, it does not cushion all of them. Then the enclosed place is still. An opening appears with a soft hiss. The hiss of a predator too tired to fight any more. She shakes off her bruises and slinks through the opening.

She is home.

She bounds in the snow a few times before she realizes that this is not home. The smells are off, but it is more like home here than she has seen in a long time. She runs over the snow, her broad feet sending up little white plumes. Every muscle rejoices.

The tubes in her nostrils feed pure air to her lungs as she runs. She hardly smells the strangeness of this place. Then another scent hits her. Her cubs. The scent of her cubs makes its way to her around the tubes in her nostrils. They are not close, but they are not far either. They are hurt. And they are in trouble. Something is between her and them. She does not know the scent, but she can tell that it is big and it is a predator. The air in its direction stinks of blood.

She must be quick. She must be clever. She must find her way to her cubs before the predator-thing finds her. She heads for the tree line, nostrils flaring as they scent the air, ears pivoting to catch the slightest sound. Shadows dapple her body. To save her cubs, she must become one with the shadows.

She reaches the trees. Like the air of this place, there is something wrong about their scent too. There are no little scents, no scents of birds or rodents, no scent at all of the little prey that make the trees their home. What does it mean?

Branches tangle about her limbs. They lift her into the air. She snarls and snaps, but they lift her toward a maw that opens in the side of a tree. A vertical maw that stinks of rotten meat.

She snaps and snarls and claws and tears. A branch breaks within her jaws, and she spits out blood that tastes like pine sap. The remaining branches whip her into the air, but strength flows into her now. She will not be the tree-thing’s meal today.

It lets her go. She rolls in the snow to clear some of the sap-blood from her fur. She knows the danger now and plays a chase game with it. She breaks into a dancing run, moving in and out of shadows, close enough to the trees to have some cover, not so close that a tree-thing might snatch her again.

The big predator scent grows stronger. She angles her approach to it, trying to scent out her cubs beyond it. She could make a wide circle around it, but her cubs are in danger. She must get past the predator quickly.

She crouches down in the snow. The big predator’s lair is ahead of her. No other place stinks so strongly. She inches up the hill, and peers over the top.

The fur of a bear hangs down over armor plates that smell like two-legger things. It stands upright like a two-legger, but its face sports the fangs of many, many serpents. If it sees her and catches her, it will kill her and eat her. She knows this for a fact.

Her tail flicks behind her as she considers. The serpent-head pivots,and it holds something in a paw. A thing that looks like the two-legger things that spit death from afar. Like the two-leggers, the big predator will not play fair.

She will use that to her advantage. She has only the beginnings of an idea, but already she moves. She snarls and charges down the hill, faster and faster. She ducks to the side, and the death-thing churns up snow where she was a moment before. She launches herself at the big predator and knocks it to the ground.

Claws and teeth are everywhere. Claws and teeth strike against metal. Only on its shoulder do they hit home. The big predator roars in pain. She hurt it, did not kill it. Good. She bounds off its chest and runs from it. She does not have to look behind her to know that it gives chase.

She runs in, zigs and zags. Blood courses through her veins. She is alive. Every thrum of her heart tells her so. She is alive. Every ache in her muscles tells her so. She is alive. She still dances the beautiful, awful dance of life and death. She is alive.

The death-thing misses her again. The predator howls in rage. She must not be too fast. She must dance closer to the jaws of death than she ever has before. She must dance this dance if she is to save her cubs.

The death-thing strikes a rear paw. A glancing blow, but still she tumbles nose over tail in the snow. The predator slows, its serpent-fanged mouth grinning in anticipation. It puts away the death-thing and draws instead a long metal fang.

She limps, but she is not as hurt as she pretends. The two-legged predator closes in on her. She scurries just out of its reach. It nears again. Closer. Closer. The predator raises its long metal fang.

Branches twine around the predator and lift it into the air. The metal fang twirls from its paw into the snow. She darts away as fast as her wound will let her. Part of her wants to see the outcome of the struggle, but the scent of her cubs urges her onward.

She still must be careful. She investigates the den of the two-legged predator. There is no spoor of a mate. The scent of another predator-thing is several days old. Hopefully she will have found her cubs before it returns. Something flows into her system to help blank the pain. She is so close to her cubs now.

A fence surrounds an open area. One quick spring and she is over it. Her cubs. She should be able to see her cubs now. Instead she sees two two-leggers. The kind from home, not the big predator kind.

One lays prone in the snow. The other kneels and shakes him.

“Koshkin! Wake up! The search-and-rescue cyborg is here.”

She does not understand the words. The prone figure moans. He is hurt. He looks like a two-legger, but he smells like a cub. Perhaps the two-leggers changed him the way they changed her, only more so. It does not matter. She must save him.

The other two-legger tries to help her, but she warns her off with a growl. The two-legger harness around his body makes a passable scruff. She drags the not-cub across the snow. She is tired. Cold above, she is tired. Fire floods her veins and she grows strong again, but she knows this strength will not last.

The two-legger takes a two-legger thing from her harness and makes an opening in the fence. Inch by inch she drags the not-cub to a clearing. She is so tired now, and the fire inside her can give her no new strength. She rests her head and forepaws on the not-cub’s chest. She does not trust the female two-legger, but she is so tired.

The next sound she hears is the roar of a big two-legger thing landing in the snow. They want to take the not-cub from her, but she growls them off and hauls him up the ramp herself.

They will take him from her, eventually. They always do. But she will keep him safe until they are up in the big cold again. She will eat. She will groom herself. She will sleep, and dream of running in the snows of home.