Early night was a good time, the calm before the storm. The heat rising from the ground kept the locals quiet for the first few hours; time to sleep, or read, or just contemplate. Currently I was contemplating murder. Should I suffocate my partner with the trash bag or shoot him up with a morphine overdose? Anything to stop the snoring. My thoughts were interrupted by the Ambulance rocking to the right. I turned and stared into the face of a good sized lion staring expectantly. This I remembered was why you keep the windows up. “What?”
“I don’t mean to scare you, man, I just—” The lion’s reply was interrupted with a loud belch.
“Back up, man.” I gestured with one hand while covering my nose with the other. The mix of rancid meat and booze that permeated the lion’s breath was horrendous. The lion pushed away from the window but still had his paws on the door. “Back up!” The lion dropped off the side and took a few steps rearward. “What do you want?”
“I don’t mean no harm, man. Can I get some change to get something to eat?”
“What? You’re a lion, go hunt something”
“Man, I got TB. I can’t catch anything. Come on, anything you got I’ll take.”
That seemed true enough. Enhancement had not saved the big cats from the diseases of Africa and I had no doubt he would take anything other than a bath or a job. “I’m sure you would. I don’t have anything for you.”
At that the lion started looking past me and I realized Nick was looking over my shoulder now. “How about you, man, can you help me out?” Nick shook his head and managed to light up a smoke in the same gesture. I suddenly felt my day brightening exponentially with lions to the right of me and cancer to my left. “Hey, can I get a smoke, at least?”
“I thought you had TB?” I waited for an answer. The lion just stared past me, as I was no longer of interest. Nick handed a cigarette over. I snatched it and flipped it to the lion’s feet. He lipped it up and disappeared around the back. “Lions.” Lions were always a problem, had been for my entire paravet career at least. The ambulance leaned to the left suddenly and now Nick had the lion in his face. He cracked his window.
“Let me get a light.” The lion spoke out of one side of his mouth while the other side stuck the cigarette through the opening in the window. After Nick lit the end the lion dropped down and walked away into the darkness.
Sure lions had responded to enhancement better than any other species, but what had they done with it? Elephants had prospering communities; chimps practically owned the entertainment industry. What did lions do?
“721,” the radio came to life a half hour later, signaling the games had begun.
“21, go ahead.”
“Emergency response. Tenth and Robert Mugabi. Person down, unknown problem. Third party caller.”
Nick shifted into drive and we lurched into the air. As the ambulance struggled to stabilize on its well-worn ground skirt we headed towards an island of lights in the distance. The tall grass gave way to broken pavement as we crossed into the outskirts of Okavango City. Just a block inside the concrete, on the sidewalk in front of a liquor store, was five hundred pounds of the biggest waste of lion I had ever met. Even before Nick had set the truck down, I was out the door with flashlight in hand. I walked up and tapped the beast on the shoulder. “Brutus!” Nothing but snoring in response. I tapped harder. “Brutus, wake up.” Still nothing but snores. I dug through the mane and found an ear. Pinching it between my thumb and flashlight got a shudder. I twisted a bit more and he opened his eyes. “Brutus, you can’t sleep here man, get up.” Brutus rolled to his belly and stared blankly, slowly registering my presence. “You’ve got to go somewhere else.”
“I can’t,” Brutus slurred.
Brutus held up his paw revealing a thorn. I shrugged and reached for my Leatherman. When the surgery was over I could hear the sirens of Animan Control in the distance. “So, Brutus, unless you’re going to the vet or the pound you need to find a new place to sleep.”
“What’s wrong with sleeping here?”
“What’s wrong is that concerned citizens drive by this corner and call 911 sending me out to wake you up.”
“Well, where am I supposed to go?”
“I don’t care, try the woods.”
“It’s dark out there, man, and there’s crazy people out there.”
“You’re a lion, Brutus!”
“Man, I’m old. I can’t see well.”
I held my hands up in frustration and shook my head. When I looked back Brutus was gazing past me. I turned around expecting to see Nick and for the second time that night I came face to face with our cigarette bumming lion. “What do you want?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders in answer. “Get out of here!” He turned and shuffled off. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a disposable pen light. “Here,” I said placing the light between Brutus’ lips. “Now you gotta go.” Brutus got up and lumbered off unsteadily. Halfway down the alley he fell over in a pile of trash. I shrugged in defeat; at least he was out of sight. I turned back to the truck and reached it just as the boys from Control arrived. I waved them off and got back in. Nick was looking at me furiously.
“And now scarecrow, for you a heart,” I joked.
“Man, are you nuts? That was a lion out there!”
“Two, actually, what of it?”
“Look, I don’t care what you think of them, they’re still dangerous. Wait for the boys in blue next time.”
“If we waited for Animan Control on every call we would never get anything done. Besides which they would just talk him into going to the ER. This way he’s only wasting our time, and less of it.”
“Is it worth your life?”
“What’s he going to do, steal my beer?” I laughed. “Oops, left it at home. King of the beasts? Overgrown niphead pussycats.”
“Predators,” Nick reminded me.
“Obsolete tourist attractions.”
Nick shook his head at me. “They say they’re the smartest animals now since enhancement.”
“Actually, we’re the smartest animals, Nick. Yes, they responded well to genetic drugs, so what? What do they do with it? Drink, sleep, fuck, and beat up their families. Wow, that’s an enhancement for you.”
“They’re not all like that.”
“Yeah, when’s the last time you were inspired by a lion? I mean really impressed, not in an after-school-special-he-overcame-his-challenges kind of inspired. When have you ever thought, ‘god, I wish I was a lion.’”
“Okay never, but maybe if they were able to live like lions they would be different. Maybe if they could still hunt?” Nick shrugged. “I don’t know but maybe.”
“They’d be too busy hunting the nip to—”
“721.” Interrupted again.
“Emergency response. Baboon Park. Leopard fight in progress.”
“21 clear,” answered Nick. “Please have Animan Control en route.”
“Leopards,” I crowed. “Now that’s a respectable animal; independent, reclusive, never calls 911.”
“This one did,” Nick responded to my jibes.
“Bet you lunch it’s a third party caller, non-leopard.”
Nick just shifted into drive and we glided down the street. He didn’t take the conventional route back the way we came and across the plains, he was going straight ahead. The pavement dropped away and we drove towards a break in the trees. Flying the canals was dangerous, and if Nick were a rookie driver I wouldn’t have gone for it. The canals were quick but there was always the chance of hitting a hippo. Hippos remain a basic species, too stupid to dodge traffic, but strong enough to knock it over and totally intolerant of accidents.
Despite my arguments, Nick’s point about the hunting was true. After enhancement lions faced all sorts of challenges. Many of the staples of their diet had also been enhanced, making them citizens and therefore off limits as prey. If that wasn’t enough, the lions were generally outnumbered by everyone. In a democracy that doesn’t work to your advantage. The buffalo in particular were merciless in their pursuit of legal sanctions. Some even called for reparations for millions of years of predation. The biggest blow though was a general restriction on hunting. It seems it wasn’t enough for the lions to avoid the intelligent Animan, they also had to avoid hunting the non-enhanced in any area where they might disturb herbivore Animan. Since the Lions were so outnumbered, hunting-free areas grew exponentially year after year until most lions subsisted off processed meat from the store or, more often, the state.
Sure enough, I was right about the caller. A zebra mare with a pair of foals stood talking to the cops as we arrived. “This is the third night in a row for this nonsense,” I heard as we walked up. The cop looked at her patiently, notebook in hand. “My children can’t sleep like this, I tell you.”
“So if it’s happened three nights in a row why did you call us today?” asked the AC officer.
“I don’t get involved in leopard business as a rule. But this has to stop. Tonight they went on for a long time and I think this one over here is hurt bad.” She gestured with her head to the left.
“Well, did you see anything, ma'am?”
“No, those leopards are hard to see but they sure make a racket when they fight. Are you going to put a stop to this or not? I can’t sleep, my children can’t sleep, this ain’t no way for decent people to have to live. I think all of them, lions, leopards, the whole bunch ought to be locked up or moved away or something.”
The cop sighed and turned towards the direction she had indicated. We followed him into some trees and looked around. “I’m up here,” came a voice over our heads. Looking up I saw a leopard that had obviously got the worse end of a serious social discussion. One eye was swollen shut and his shoulder was bleeding.
“What’s going on, sir?” asked the officer. The leopard shrugged in answer.
“You all right up there?” I asked.
“Yeah, man,” he answered. “I’ll be okay.”
That was enough for me and I turned to go. Nick was more persistent. “Well, come on down and let us check you out. It looks like you need stitches.”
“I don’t believe in human medicine,” said the leopard. “I’ll be all right, thanks.”
“We’re getting complaints from your neighbors,” said the cop. “What’s going on between you and this other leopard?”
“Man, I’m just protecting my property. Where were you when that big bastard was stealing my stash?”
“Your stash?” asked the cop.
“Over there,” the leopard gestured at another tree.
“Someone robbed you?”
“Not someone,” the answers getting louder now, “that big leopard across the street stole it.”
“How do you know it was him?”
“Look at those claw marks on the trees. That didn’t come from no baboon. And there’s only one leopard I know with claws that big.”
“Okay, so what’s missing?” asked the cop.
“Mostly food. A little cash.”
“Nip?” asked the cop looking intently.
“Man, do I look like I do that shit?” answered the leopard disgustedly.
“No. Leopards never do it, they just sell it.”
“Man, fuck you. Do you want to investigate my robbery or do you want to bust my balls?”
“Okay, but I’m going to need a look at your stash in order to file a report.”
“Do what you got to do. I ain’t got nothing to hide.”
“Just out of curiosity,” asked the cop, “you ever heard of a bank?”
“Man, I’m a leopard; we keep things in trees, okay.”
The AC officer called for a detective and a print team to check the claw marks. We walked over to the other leopard’s grove. This leopard pad was a different set up all together. Viewed from the outside it was a just another collection of trees. Inside, however, was primitive luxury. It brought to mind those safari camps of the well-to-do that were often pictured in the history books where the books reminded everyone of how horrible we had been to animals before enhancement. There were lights in the trees and three huts in a half circle with air conditioners running off a generator. A small campfire warming skewers of fresh meat completed the circle. On the other side of that fire was a leopard print couch. As we got closer I saw that the couch contained a leopard perfectly camouflaged against it. The leopard sat up and I saw that he was indeed a big leopard. Lying next to him was a young female leopard. “Take a walk, doll,” said the male, and the female slipped off the couch and went into a hut. “How can I help you gentlemen?” he asked.
“Hey, is that real leopard?” I said pointing towards the couch. I got a sneer in response.
“You get in a fight today?” asked the cop.
“I was attacked and I defended myself.”
“Do you know anything about his stash getting robbed?”
“Wasn’t me, man, was a lion.”
“Yeah, you know lions, always trouble.”
“Lions don’t climb trees,” remarked the cop.
“This one does. Enhancement man. He’s learned and adapted. Sneakiest lion I ever saw. He’s hit me twice already. Why do you think I got all the extra security?” The leopard nodded upwards. In the trees, manning the lights, several baboons stared down at us. They were invisible as we approached because they were behind the spotlight casings. In our new position I could just make out their outline and see the eyes, but I couldn’t tell if they were armed.
“You hire baboons?” The officer shook his head. “Baboons working with leopards, what next?”
“It’s a new world, man,” said the leopard. “I’m an equal opportunity employer.”
“What do you do for a living exactly?” asked the cop.
“Oh, security, repo, hunting. You know, leopard stuff.”
“Leopard stuff, you mean sneaking around, robbing stashes, nip, that sort of stuff?”
“That ain't what I said,” answered the leopard. “Look around, do I look like I need to rob stashes?”
“Well, then can I take a look at your stash?”
“You got a warrant? No? Then I guess not.”
“All right then, I’ll let the detectives talk to you. You ever been arrested?”
“Once or twice.”
“Good,” said the cop, “that will save us from having to take a claw print.”
“You can take them if you want,” answered the leopard, “they won’t match. It was a lion, I’m telling you.”
As we got back in the truck I said, “I think I’m in the mood for some good old fashioned un-enhanced chicken.”
“I was thinking Chinese,” Nick responded.
“It’s your dime.”
There is a critical time that all in the emergency veterinary service must face daily. That is the time between when you pay for your food and when you actually have it in hand. I’ve never discovered what property of the digestive system makes hunger intensify once cash leaves your hand, but our wait in the Chinese take out stand was filled with the usual apprehension and fear of interruption.
“21,” Nick groaned into the radio.
“721. Lion attack, Mbogo Homes. Animan Control on scene.”
Mbogo Homes was a mystery to me. Why would anyone name a lion project after a word that means buffalo? Nothing made sense down here anyway so I had long since given up wondering. As we pulled into the project all we had to do was head for the flashing lights. There were AC patrol cars everywhere. We followed the general trail of boot prints and walked into an apartment. Inside a lioness was acting hysterical while two others tried to calm her down. “Ma'am!” said the cop standing in front of her obviously exasperated. “Can you just tell me how this started?”
“It’s the same old reason as always,” she said. “He wants to kill the children so me and my sisters will have sex with him.”
“So he’s the new pride leader?” asked the cop.
“He ain’t my pride leader,” she answered. “I don’t need another man. I just want to raise my kids."
Having lived through enough of these scenes I was bored already. “Hey, anybody hurt here?” There was a general shaking of heads and I turned to leave. One of the cops stopped me and said the perp needed some attention. We went over to the patrol cars and lying on the ground, all cuffed and smelling strongly of pepper spray, a male lion moaned his displeasure. “There is nothing I can do for you, bud,” I started. “That stuff just takes time to wear off.”
“Man, you gotta help! It burns! I can’t breathe!”
“You’re breathing fine or you wouldn’t be yelling at me,” I answered. I put my stethoscope in my ears and listened to his lungs just to make sure.
When I was done Nick started asking him questions. Nick was always generating paperwork for me. “What’s your name?” Nick asked. The lion answered with a gargled mixture between a purr and a growl.
“Not your new name.” I said, “The one on your license.”
“Leo,” the lion answered.
“Oh, your parents were original,” I half laughed.
One of the cops handed Nick the lion’s ID, bringing a halt to the questioning for a while. He then turned to me and said, “He’s got a dart in his back.”
Lion darts, or restraint darts as they have been politically renamed, were a wonderful invention. The dart had a wire that made it act as a big tazer knocking lions flat. The darts also injected a cocktail of Haldol and Versed to keep him down. They also had a barbed tip, which meant they had to be cut out. This wasn’t too difficult to accomplish in the field. The trick was getting a pepper sprayed lion to lie still while you did it. Despite the challenge, we were on our way shortly, after a quick slice of the scalpel and some minor suturing.
“You got anything for the spray?’ asked the cop with the license. “He has to ride in the back of my car all the way downtown.”
“Try Johnson’s baby shampoo. It’s the best neutralizer,” I answered.
“You got any?”
“Why don’t you guys carry that?”
“Why don’t you?” I asked. That got a blank stare out of him. You can sum up the trouble with, and the need for, the public safety apparatus in four words: "That’s someone else’s job." In fact, you can sum up most of life's problems that way.
Walking back to the truck I couldn’t help but express my sense of humor. “Why is it always Leo, or Aslan, or Mufasa? Does everyone have delusions of grandeur? Where’s Lambert, where’s Clarence, where is the cowardly lion, I ask you?” Nick ignored me and drove towards food.
We managed to eat this time, but at a different place since we were far from where we started. This meant Nick had to pay off the bet twice, once for the lost meal and once for the one we got. With food in his belly Nick becomes philosophical. “You ever read Aesop?” Nick asked as we were pulling away.
“Once or twice, why?”
“You ever hear the one about the lion who wanted to get married?”
“Let’s see… The lion wants to marry a human girl and the father is afraid to say no, so instead he expresses fear for his daughter. So the lion removes his teeth and claws to appease him and they just laugh at him for it.”
“That’s the one. Did you ever think about what that story's about?”
“Well, I believe the official explanation is ‘love will tame the wildest.’”
“Yeah, well, I got a different take on it,” Nick explained. “I think these lions today are all just like that lion.” I raised my eyebrows in interest. “They’ve given up their claws and teeth, figuratively speaking, and no one respects them. Nor do they know what to do with themselves anymore.”
“Well, that’s interesting, Nick,” I responded, “but I have an alternate opinion.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?”
“He who gives up his teeth and claws deserves all the pain and suffering he can get.”
Nick let out a disgusted sigh at that. “You thought of that yourself did you?”
“No, it’s actually from Ben Franklin.”
“Ben Franklin said that?”
“Well, it’s paraphrased,” I answered. “The actual quote is he who trades freedom for security deserves neither.”
Nick was quiet for a while after that, but then he started up again, all psychological this time. Nick read a lot and couldn’t help but share his opinions about his partners. “You know, man, I don’t think you really hate lions.”
This was true. My feelings about lions ranged from frustration to disgust, but I never really hated them. Yet I was intrigued by his statement, so I sat back and gave Nick my most inquisitive look. “Oh?”
“No, I think you hate yourself.”
I responded with a head tilt and thoughtful frown to egg him on further.
“I think somewhere you’ve lost your teeth and claws and don’t know what to do with yourself. I think you’ve lost respect for your job and take it out on your patients. And it ain’t fair to them or me.”
“Hmm,” I responded. “Now that you mention it, I think I hate my mother and father as well. I think I’ll retire now and go grow roses or something. Any other advice, Dr. Spock?”
“Yeah, quit. Retire. Find something else to do before you drive me and yourself insane.”
“Well, I tell you what Nick, you step up and trade those EVT numbers for medics and I’ll step down and leave it all to you.”
“No rest for the wicked,” as I keyed up. “21.”
“Lion Attack. Corner of Simian and Abbey. Multiple calls, possible multi patients.”
Nick looked at me in alarm. “Hyena Town!” was our simultaneous exclamation.
I have often wondered why God created lions. And I have often come to the conclusion that it must have been to kill hyenas. The legendary warfare between the two species had continued long beyond enhancement until one day the world had had enough. In a major “stop the violence” campaign, also known in less polite circles as the "get these damn hyenas off my lawn" campaign, an old solution was brought forth. The hyenas were given a reservation. The state provided the hyenas with a large tract of land complete with stocks of un-enhanced game, and security to keep out the lions. Of course the lions resented all of this, as they made up too small a voting block to have their own land grant, but they really hadn’t lost out. It took the hyenas a short decade to render their paradise into a slum. Wild hyenas were efficient eaters. They ate everything up to and including the bones. Being hyenas with a free meal ticket, however, they ate the choice and left the rest to rot. It got so bad that for a time the EVT’s kept losing personnel to Hyena Town hazmat, as there was so much need to clean up the carcass-ridden reservation they were paying top dollar to anyone willing to do it. Add to that a population boom, fueled by the combined forces of zero competition and zero murder by lion, and pretty soon the hyenas had traded their lush forests for a jungle of concrete and glass.
Of course, every goodhearted lion still held genocide in mind for hyenas, as did all hyenas for lions, but the forces of authority had eliminated the natural solution to both problems. They say that the two species share such enmity because they are food competitors. Today it seems to me they compete over nothing but sleaze. As in all things, an individual hyena cannot compare in that category to a lion, but the problem was that you never dealt with an individual hyena. I have been to car accidents in Hyena Town that were apparently so catastrophic that they shook the earth with the force to give squads of sidewalk bystanders whiplash. I have delivered little hyena babies to the tune of laughing males crowding around for a free peep show. I have even beaten hyenas off of other hyenas that were comatose from drugs or seizures and unable to protect themselves from theft. Lions were lions, but Hyena Town just sucked.
We had a good distance to cover, so we took a shortcut through the canals again and came in through the H’town back door. The back door is also affectionately known as the “ass end” because, like most state projects, conditions suffered in direct proportion to the distance from the public face. As we cruised past lewd graffiti and marula speakeasys, I could see the familiar wake of offal in my mirror. Finally the alley we had been traveling poured us into Broadhead Highway. Nick turned so sharply that we almost slid across a lane, and then he picked up speed and began eating miles. As we topped a big hill I could see a commotion of hyenas a few blocks away in the Little Five Points of H’town. I could also see that we were going to be the first on the scene. This meant I had to quickly assess things and decide how many more units we really needed. Too few and you lack manpower. Too many and someone else does.
Nick pulled up hard at the intersection and I took a quick look around. I could see hyenas milling about making that chatter that sounds like laughter. Most of them weren't hurt, but were likely bystanders or witnesses. There were several that were injured, though. I counted eight in various levels of walking wounded status. Some were actually walking, others sitting, but all with relatively minor wounds. Well, wounds that could keep for a few anyway. Then on the sidewalk I spotted a small group of girls huddled and wailing over some object on the ground. I took a longer look to see what possession had them so upset and then realized I was gazing at another hyena. This one was a different story. She was a mess of matted hair and blood, and breathing in gasps.
In the distance I could hear sirens, more than one. I took another quick glance around the scene to double check myself and made a decision. "Change of plans," I said to Nick who looked up at me as I grabbed a backboard. "We’re taking the critical and leaving the rest to whoever’s next." He followed me to her and helped clear the wailers. I could see it was another young female, somewhere between adolescence and the twenty something equivalent in hyena years. She had one big bite mark encompassing her neck and chest. As I looked her over, pink bubbles blew out of a hole in her chest. I put an occlusive dressing over the opening, and looked for more. Nick helped me slip her onto the board and then we loaded her into the truck. Nick started reaching for the IV kit but I stopped him. "I got it, just go."
The thing about trauma is that it is fixed by blood and surgery, two things I don't have in an ambulance. It is also time sensitive, so the key strategy is to get moving towards a hospital. The challenge is to do that while performing all the supportive tasks that keep the patient alive long enough to benefit from the trip. So as Nick was lifting off I was already working. The fact that I hadn't found my patient in a pool of blood was the best thing going for her. I searched her quickly for any major bleeders. There were lots of wounds but nothing squirting. Somehow the attack had missed major arteries, probably the only reason she was still alive. Her breathing was getting worse so that was my next priority. I grabbed a laryngoscope in one hand and an endotracheal tube in the other. Laryngoscopes are normally used to intubate humans who, by standing erect, have evolved one of the most crooked air paths in nature. The laryngoscope is a like a metal flashlight with a sophisticated pry bar attached. It is used to more or less straighten out the human airway so that you can see the trachea. In other words, it renders the human airway into a more quadrupedal state. Quadrupeds, hyenas for instance, are much easier to tube. You simply open their mouth wide and pull out their tongue to get a good tracheal view. Trouble is that by the square inches hyenas have greater bite force than a lion, which makes for a nasty place to put your hands. So I use the scope a different way, wedging it between the teeth on one side to prevent mishaps. The tube passed easily enough and I hooked up the auto vent. Listening to her lungs afterward I could hear good breath sounds on only one side. The injured side was virtually silent. I checked her pulse and found it weak and tachy. These things together indicated that she had air trapped outside of the injured lung. I took out a large bore IV needle and found a spot just above her third rib from the top. When I pushed it through the chest wall I was rewarded with a hiss of hair and an immediate improvement in her breathing. I listened to her chest again and heard good sounds everywhere. Rechecking the chest dressing I saw pink bubbles coming out from the edges. I ripped that off along with a good patch of the hair that was interfering with the seal. I followed that up with a quick pass with the clippers and then applied another dressing. The seal worked better on skin and I saw no more bubbles.
I was standing in order to have better access to the chest, and that’s when the ambulance dropped about two feet and lurched hard to one side. "Starboard," came Nick's belated warning. "Sorry. Hippo!" I’ve been ambulance surfing long enough that that didn't throw me off too much, but it did tell me that we had entered the canal again, which meant we were getting close. Strangely enough, ERs really don’t like surprises, so I keyed up my shoulder mike and called the hospital. As they took their usual time to answer I moved back up to the neck and started working the clippers so I could get a better look at those wounds. She had been very lucky. Nothing but minor lacerations, carotids intact. She must have gotten her neck behind the canines. Mostly she had crush injury and thus possibly a broken neck, but she had moved her limbs enough that this didn't seem to be the case. When the ER got back to me, I had moved on to shaving around her jugular, and as I gave a brief report I slipped an IV into it. I had about a minute of travel left so I looked over her body one more time and then put another IV into her forepaw. When we pulled on the hospital ramp she had a good pulse and was breathing on her own.
I walked out of the ER and found Nick hosing out the back of the truck. One complaint that never changed between partners was that I could really mess up a truck.
“They took her straight up,” I said in greeting. “We made the hour, man. She very well might make it. Thanks for the gas.”
Nick nodded thoughtfully. “You really think she’s got a chance?”
“Yeah, I do. She’s young and healthy, but she sure took a beating back there.” I gestured with my head randomly, even though back there was too far to really register on my sense of direction.
“And yet you’re glowing’” He said. I looked at him puzzled. “You’ve been a curmudgeon all night, and now nothing but glee.”
I shrugged, “I like to work.” He raised his eyebrows at this. “I like the real work, Nick, when it matters.”
He nodded again. “Does it ever make you wonder why you have to be elbow deep in blood to be happy? Doesn’t that seem like a disease when you really think about it?”
I might have replied with something sarcastic or degrading, but as it was, his remarks caused me to look at myself, not internally but at my clothes. I really was elbow deep in blood. So, “shit!” was my reply.
With that I headed into the facilities for a wash and change. On the way I made a little mental calculation, sort of a cost benefit analysis. It was never enough for me to just wash out the blood and wear it again. Most diseases are non-zoonotic, that is they don’t cross the species barrier, but enhancement had included human DNA and that blurred the interspecies line. So the shirt was headed for the trash. I finished my change and computation simultaneously and looked in the mirror. “Broke even for the night,” I said to myself. “Just should have stayed home.”
Those blood stains were often called rookie marks, but in ten years I hadn’t lost them. When I fought for life it was all out, and lesser things became ethereal. It had cost me, but never more than I could afford. Still, Nick was right, I was glowing. For a person who has experienced this sensation so often, I remained ignorant of its source. Was it adrenaline? No, I had lost that response to trauma long ago. The challenge? It didn’t seem all that challenging anymore. Or maybe just the feeling that I had really been useful? I don’t know, I often think I am too jaded to get that feeling now. Because what really was useful? If she lived, chances are she’d be a burden on the state or, worse, another hyena whore. But despite everything, I believed in the hope of youth. I believed she had some chance and I would give it to her and to everyone who really needed me. And I hated everyone who didn’t and still asked me to do more.
Yet I knew it was deeper than that. It was something I knew but never voiced. I needed the lions, you see. I absolutely craved them. Early in my career the lions were my favorite people, because they were simply the best trauma producers in town. I could always depend on the lions to give me that glow, to provide me with that sense of usefulness in the world. And these days I hated them, for more than any reason, because they had stopped living up to their end of the bargain. They had grown soft. They weren’t killers; they weren’t king of the beasts. They were overgrown pussycats who needed to be woken up from a drunken stupor. Adult teddy bears who wanted me to hold their hands. The beast was burned out, and what was left sickened me. Deeper still, I knew Nick was right. This was a disease. This was wrong thinking. Yet how could a man walk away from that usefulness? How could you turn away from such a glow?
With no need to hurry we took the long way back, using the dirt roads that skirted the marshes rather than going through them. Along the way we passed numerous alleyways leading between the trees. These were water routes for buffalo and other hoofers who liked to live traditionally. As we passed by, one shadow caught my eye. “Stop,” I said. Nick looked at me and applied the brakes. “Back up to that alley.” He complied and I got a better look at a strange but familiar lump way down at the other end. “That’s a body”.
“It’s somebody sleeping.”
“I don’t think so. Let’s take a look.” We pulled down the path kicking up clouds of dirt with our jets until we couldn’t see. Nick stopped and, when the dust cleared, our headlights revealed a good size buffalo on his belly at the end of the trail near the water. I got out slowly and approached him. Buffaloes sleep on their feet so I knew he wasn’t sleeping, but still I approached with caution. Despite my feelings about lions, I do have a healthy dose of fear of buffalo. Not all of them, of course, but these old loners had a nasty and well earned reputation. They angered easily and were very hard to calm down once they got started. I could see he wasn’t breathing and when I tapped his forehead he was cold.
While I was checking him out Nick had radioed for AC and soon another set of headlights joined ours. The officer walked up next to me and shined his light down.
“Natural?” he asked hopefully.
“Not at all,” I answered. His eyebrows lifted at that. I gestured for him to crouch down next to me and pointed at the nose. “You see that pattern of cuts and bruises?”
“That’s a lion bite.” This seemed to confuse him. “He didn’t rip a big hole because that wasn’t his intention. This is a suffocating bite, blocks the mouth and nose. But here’s the more interesting move.” I pointed at some scratch marks on his left horn. “That’s where his right paw was. He pulled him down by the nose but made sure he fell on his horn so his neck would snap.”
“Huh,” said the cop. “You seen this before?”
“I read a lot. And I’ve seen a lot of old nature films. Mutual of Omaha. That sort of thing.”
“Well, if a lion killed him, why hasn’t he been eaten?” That was a good point. I pondered while I looked for any signs of dining.
“Maybe we scared him off,” said Nick. AC’s eyes grew big and wide as they met mine.
I flashed my light outward thinking maybe we were being stalked. What I saw was much worse. My light reflected off water—and several pairs of large round eyes. “Hippos!” we all exclaimed, realizing the answer to the perp’s absence. As one we sprinted for the cars and hopped in. Hippos were not to be taken lightly. I heard the cop calling for an elephant squad over the radio and the dispatcher answered that she would advise Fire. We sat for awhile then thanking our luck that we saw the hippos before things got ugly. Shortly thereafter I heard the rumbling of the fire department coming through the jungle. Nick looked into the mirror and his eyes got as big as the hippo.
“Shit!” was all Nick could get out as he slammed the rig in gear and we swerved up and right. “Those aren’t elephants!”
A curious rivalry had developed as a result of enhancement. You see, rhinos are nature’s firefighters. Long before genetic science started working on them, rhinos regularly stamped out fires on the plains of Africa. No one knows why, but that’s what they did. For obvious reasons elephants were better suited for the job. Still rhinos insisted on their place in the fire department, and being unlike elephants, that is to say not too bright, they had few other job skills so, much to everyone in public safety’s chagrin, human resources always found a place for them. Unfortunately, in addition to the deficiencies already mentioned, rhinos are myopic.
The arrival of the rhinos was accompanied by a loud crash and the cursing of the AC officer who apparently lacked Nick’s reflexes. Nick winced, I laughed. “Whew,” I said, punching Nick in the shoulder, “dodged that paperwork. Is the cop all right?” The cop appeared to be fine as he immediately rolled down a window and started screaming at the rhinos trampling his crime scene. Then all hell broke lose as the hippos decided to defend their turf. What followed was about ten minutes of sheer chaos as the two groups of titans clashed, head and tusk. I watched, howling with laughter, as the body was trampled and the crime scene turned into churned mud. Finally the elephants showed up and calmed everyone down.
We dressed a few wounds on the rhinos and checked the cop for injuries then left the scene. It was late and things were finally quieting down again, time for an end of shift nap. We pulled into a quite spot, off the beaten path and nestled between a grove of trees and a huge termite mound. We were just stretching the seats back when we heard a thump in the back. We looked at each other, Nick at me with alarm and I with annoyance. Someone had slipped in the back while we were dressing rhinos. That happened sometimes, a homeless guy or a drunk looking for a place to sleep.
“Hey, you can’t sleep back there!” I yelled. Nick turned and looked through the passage to the back. Then he yelled as someone grabbed him. I grabbed my big light and started back. He may be annoying but nobody beats up my partners. I saw Nick sprawled face down on the stretcher with a lion standing on him. “All right, buddy!” I said rearing up to smash him on the nose, and then I saw his eyes. They were wild, not a speck of humanity there, and it hit me then; the dead buffalo, the attack on the hyenas, it all added up. There are stories, urban myths really, of feral unenhanced lions roaming the jungles. I never believed them, but at that moment I decided I was looking at one.
No one beats up my partner, but even more so, no one eats me. Not the noblest rule to live by, but "live" is the important word in that notion. I was back up front and out the door even faster than I had fled the hippo. Slamming the door behind me, I ran for the trees. I heard the crash of glass and the metal of the door straining as with a great weight, but by this time I had reached the nearest tree. Up I went, six feet, eight, and in a flash I was pulling myself up a good twelve feet off the ground. And then it hit me, the leopard stashes!
Something viselike grabbed my foot and I was instantly yanked back the way I had come. I hit the ground hard and had the wind forcibly knocked out of me. I could feel my diaphragm spasm in pain as I was rolled over. I looked up and saw three inch fangs dripping over my face. Just as I began to catch my breath again a giant paw stepped on my chest and crushed it out of me. I didn’t see my life flash before me, all I saw was that terrible death grimacing at me. Gasping in carrion laced breath against the weight on my chest I managed an appeal. “Oh God…please!”
“Thank you,” said the lion. And with that he turned and walked into the trees. I watched him go with a mixture of awe and confusion. I recognized him then. I had seen him twice more that night. Vaguely I realized that the carrion breath had contained a hint of tobacco. I turned and looked back towards the truck. Nick was looking cautiously out the side door, obviously bruised, but obviously alive. I looked back to the jungle’s edge where the lion had disappeared. “Thank you?” I wondered. “What the hell?”
It was sometime later that I figured out that sarcastic thank you. The truth was in that Aesop story you see. The truth of tooth, and claw and respect. In the end, the lion’s share is fear.
It is a dream I had during my last tour at Grady EMS in Atlanta. If it is about anything it is burnout, which is a state of mind that can be characterized as having played god and come up short. It's a weird mix of frustration, and hubris, and powerlessness, and dreams of dead kids. It's also when most medics quit. Someday I will get around to writing about what happens next, when you survive burnout and keep playing. That's a weird mix of serenity, deep confidence, and goodwill towards man. But that's another tale.
Copyright © 2015 Whit Williams
Whit Williams is a writer, a medic and a swordsman. He has never actually treated a lion, but once lent a hand to a fish in the Okavongo. He currently lives in Atlanta with an army of dogness and a tactical detachment of cats.