Mother looked nothing like me: no scar across her forehead, no feathers or scales, and she didn’t have wings, a tail, claws, or a beak with an insatiable craving for flesh. Her skin was pink and supple, her head topped with a crown of glossy black hair. All of the other humans called me Hesperonychus monstrous, or dinosaur, but Mother said I’m her baby.
Most of my surgical modifications were completed when I was a naïve hatchling, but the microcontroller in my brain didn’t prevent me from learning that Mother was more of a monster than me.
All of my mornings used to be the same. Ravenous, I would call for Mother when I smelled her sweet scent and heard her footsteps clacking in the hallway. By the time she approached my enclosure, I would be shrieking and racing back and forth, lunging at the glass wall and kicking up dirt. Even when I tried to be patient, my rapidly growing body willed me to feed, feed, feed.
She’d unbolt the door and roll in the metal box. When she opened the lid, my flanks would quiver, but I wouldn’t pounce. As I watched the prey wriggle and skitter away, my beak would fill with saliva. I wasn’t allowed to hunt until Mother said, “Kill.”
The goo beneath exoskeletons was almost as delicious as salty, coppery, pulsing muscles, but the exhilaration of the chase really made my heart race. After I’d crunched and swallowed all of the bones, Mother would give me a cuddle.
Sometimes a caress became a pinch, a pet became a slap, and if I’d been very naughty, the collar around my neck would give me a zap, but I didn’t understand the meaning of true agony until fangs tore through my own flesh.
By the time my feathers had grown over most of my scars, my wings were strong enough to lift me off the ground. Hearing Mother’s praise made me screech with joy.
“Follow the light,” she said, pointing her baton at a tree. The red beam shone upon the leaves. When I got close to the target, she swiveled the light, illuminating the top of another tree.
If I obeyed all of her commands, she rewarded me with treats and pets, but one day, while I was munching on a juicy mouse, she hooked a leash to my collar, and snapped a muzzle over my beak.
I shook my head, but couldn’t free my beak. Lifting my right forelimb, I tried to slash the muzzle, but my claws wouldn’t tear it.
“No, Baby!” she said.
A zap from my collar made my muscles spasm. Urine trickled down my leg.
She said, “Will you be good?”
I whined, more from shame than pain.
She said, “Get in the cage.” She pointed at a metal box on wheels. It was barely bigger than me.
After I hopped in, she shut the door, and pushed the box out of my enclosure. Usually, the carts that I rode in were made from wire, but this carrier was solid metal, except for one ventilation slit in the door, and slits at the top of the box.
Anxiety made me breathe faster. I pressed my face closer to the ventilation hole, and saw we were passing other glass-fronted enclosures. Something covered in grey and brown feathers flew past a tree. Was it a dinosaur like me?
Another set of footsteps joined Mother. Slap, drag, slap, drag. The human sounded heavier, and his gait was uneven. He must be injured. His scent was stronger than Mother’s, sour, like something inside him was rotting.
He said, “The park’s locked down.”
Mother said, “Dome secured?”
He said, “Of course. You think I’m an idiot?”
The man wasn’t shouting, but his angry tone made my chest constrict. I clawed at the box, wanting to protect Mother.
She said, “It’s okay, Baby. We’re almost there.”
Through the slit, I saw the man opening a door.
Mother pushed the cart through the door. Instead of entering another hallway, we seemed to be inside of a larger pen. The lights were off. I squinted, trying to see into the distance. My nostrils quivered. So many new scents!
Thunk. The cage that I was riding in unlatched. A warm breeze ruffled my feathers.
Mother tugged on my leash. She said, “Come out, Baby.”
The ground felt strange beneath my feet. The surface was hard and warm. It wasn’t dirt, like the inside of my pen, or slippery like the floor in the laboratory.
The man with the limp walked back towards the laboratory.
Mother pressed a button on my leash, unwinding it. She said, “Up, Baby.” She raised her hand, and pointed her baton. The red beam was brighter than usual, but it only cleaved a narrow path through the darkness.
Eager to please her, I flapped my wings and took off. Higher and higher I rose. The pen we were inside was huge! The ceiling so far away!
I heard the sound of splashing water and saw hazy lights. As I got closer to the pool, I saw shapes wriggling in the water. I sniffed the air, sensing the presence of flesh. Eager to feed, I angled my wings and descended.
Mother’s baton light jerked to the left and flashed, commanding that I return.
I shrieked, begging Mother to let me hunt.
All of a sudden, the water lights disappeared. A loud ringing noise made me yelp.
A surge of heat jolted my neck as the collar gave me a zap. I circled back, and flew towards Mother.
A meal of six rats wouldn’t fill my stomach, but Mother started withholding food. People walked past my enclosure, but they didn’t feed me, even when I shrieked.
My mouth watered when I smelled flesh burning. Not rodents. The creature must’ve been a lot bigger. I sniffed the air, savoring the scent of bubbling fat.
The man with the limp walked past my enclosure. He was speaking into a little box. “Three more to put down,” he said, pausing to scratch his head. “No, too risky. They don’t follow commands.”
I trotted closer, and scuffed my feet against the dirt, churning up dust.
The man backed away from the glass and said, “Two more days. That’s all I can give you!”
I lunged, slamming my body into the glass wall, but it didn’t crack.
The man stumbled backward, and stared at me.
My side ached, but when I stretched my wings, the pain didn’t get worse. I opened my beak and cried, begging to be fed, but the man limped away.
When you’re starving, even the most docile baby can become ferocious. I raised my foot, and scratched the glass, but my claws only left dirty marks.
I used my other foot, slashing, over and over, but the glass wouldn’t break. Panting from exertion, I stared at my surroundings. There must be something to eat!
I pecked at tree trunks, but couldn’t find bugs, and there weren’t worms or grubs underneath the shrubs. Desperate for food, I flapped my wings, propelling myself up to bite leaves from a tree. The dry texture and bitter taste made me snarl.
Scratching my claws against the dirt, I dug a hole, working off my fury. When the hole got as deep as the top of my feet, I struck something that was too hard to dig through.
I moved closer to the nearest tree, but the hard thing was under the dirt there, too.
Finally, Mother tapped on the glass. I stopped digging and cocked my head. The door didn’t open, but I heard Mother’s voice through the glass. She said, “Baby has to work if she wants to eat. Are you ready to hunt?”
“Hunt,” meant food. I exhaled a big breath and honked.
I climbed into the rolling cart, and Mother pushed it towards the other end of the laboratory, away from the smell of cooked flesh.
We passed shiny metal tables that had clear boxes on top filled with things that looked like the rocks inside my enclosure, except they were smoother.
The sound of humming machines got louder, and I smelled something terrible. Not bitter like the leaves I’d eaten. A stench that made me want to leap out of the box, but Mother had closed the door. I trembled, and my wings hit the side of the box.
Mother said, “We’re almost there.” She put one of her hands next to the door, so I could sniff it.
The ventilation hole was too narrow for me to lick her, but I inhaled a deep breath. Her sweet scent calmed me.
When the cart stopped rolling and the box sprang open, I stepped out. I tried to follow Mother, but she shut the enclosure’s door, locking me inside. There were no trees or rocks, no dirt under my feet. Sniffing my surroundings, I paced. My claws made a scritch scratch sound against the slippery floor.
Through the glass wall, I saw Mother remove her jacket and put on a white suit that covered her body, even her hands and feet. Then she put something over her face that looked like the metal bucket that she used to hold worms, except I could see her eyes.
Above my head, I heard a voice that said, “Are you ready to hunt?” It sounded like Mother, but she was still outside the enclosure. I sniffed the air again, but didn’t smell flesh, just the nasty smell.
The voice said, “Kill.”
I trotted towards the other end of the enclosure, but I didn’t hear squeaks or skittering feet.
All of a sudden, I heard a thunk behind me, and a roar. I spun around and saw a huge beast! It ran on four legs like the rats, but was much faster.
I’d never hunted prey that was bigger than me.
Mother pointed her baton at the creature, shining the red light on its fur.
Instead of attacking, I flapped my wings, soaring towards the ceiling, but my collar gave me such a strong shock, I lost control of my muscles. Spasming, I slammed into a wall and slid to the floor.
“Kill!” Mother said.
I stood, but my legs were wobbly. Holding my wings out to make myself look bigger, I screeched.
“Good Baby. Kill!”
As the furry creature bounded towards me, I smelled a foul stench. Black goo dripped from its fangs.
Before I could gather the courage to attack, the monster roared and leapt at me.
I raised my wings to shield my face and skittered backward, but I was too slow.
Fangs sank into my chest, penetrating my feathers and scales.
I jabbed at the furry head with my beak, but the skull was too tough to crack.
The monster’s snout burrowed deeper, its teeth tearing through muscle.
I shrieked and raised one of my feet, trying to gouge the belly, but I struck only air. I slashed my foot again, and my claws tore fur and shredded flesh. Cold fluid splashed on my feet and feathers. It stank worse than anything I’d ever smelled.
The beast snarled and released its grip, backing away from me with feathers protruding from its jaws.
Springing forward, I flapped my wings and leapt onto the beast’s back.
The creature thrashed and snapped its jaws, then flopped onto its side. Struggling, our bodies slammed against the floor. The beast was burrowing its snout into my haunch, and the pain was excruciating.
I jabbed my beak at the head. The fur was soft, but my beak bounced off bone. I struck again, piercing an eye.
“Kill!” Mother said.
I jabbed again, and again, until the beast had finally stopped moving.
“Good Baby!” Mother said.
My head feathers were so slick, black fluid was dripping into my eyes. I tried to run towards the glass, but my wounds made me stumble. Before I could stand, cold water sprayed from the ceiling and soaked my feathers. It tasted bitter, not like the water that Mother gave me.
Shivering, I looked for shelter, but there were no trees, only the cart. I crawled inside.
I rubbed my beak through my wings, trying to clean off the tacky liquid from the monster’s eye.
Mother kept watching me, but she didn’t open the enclosure.
When I was drenched, the water stopped spraying from the ceiling. I heard heavy footsteps approaching the glass wall, and I saw the man with the limp walking towards Mother.
Mother said, “You got the tranq? She’s going to need stitches.”
I heard a thunk coming from behind me. Expecting to see another monster, I jerked my head around, but it was just a rat.
Phhhhht. A new sound made me turn back towards Mother. I felt a sharp pain and screeched. A little stick was stuck in my shoulder. I tried to grasp it with my beak, but when I moved, I got so dizzy, that I collapsed.
Gasping, I struggled to stand, but my legs would only twitch. My eyes drifted shut. Straining to stay awake, I heard the door open, and footsteps walking towards me. I smelled Mother’s sweet scent, and other unfamiliar humans.
Something touched my neck. I opened my eyes and saw four humans wearing the white suits. One of them had a long metal stick that was pointy on the end. Fear made me lash out. With my remaining strength, I raised a foreleg and slashed through fabric and flesh.
Moonlight streamed through the skylight. I blinked, focusing on my surroundings. I was back in my usual enclosure. The trees near me seemed to be bending. I shut my eyes, and opened them again. The trees looked normal. Beyond the glass wall, the laboratory was dark. No sounds of people. Only humming machines.
I’d never been so thirsty. My chest and haunch were sore. Patches of feathers were missing where the monster had bitten me.
When I walked towards my water bowl, dizziness made me sway. I slurped until the bowl was empty. My stomach rumbled, but there was no food near the water bowl, not even a worm or a beetle grub.
Exhaustion made me collapse before I could crawl behind the bushes, so I slept out in the open, beside the water bowl.
I woke to the sound of footsteps. Mother was watching me!
Honking to greet her, I trotted towards the glass wall. When I got closer, I saw a woman with yellow hair, walking towards Mother.
I hid behind a tree.
The other woman said, “How does she look?”
Mother said, “Her mobility’s good, considering the wounds.”
“Any signs of infection?”
“No seepage from the incisions.”
Mother said, “It’s too early to tell.”
Humans stared at me through the glass, but they’d stopped bringing me mice and rats.
When Mother walked past my enclosure, she acted like she didn’t notice me, even when I flew back and forth, swooped from the trees to the ground, pecked rat, tat, tat against the glass.
Bark from the trees didn’t taste any better than the leaves.
So cold, I shivered in a patch of light that streamed through the skylight, plucking feathers from my breast, sucking on the fluid from the base of the quills.
A clattering noise woke me. Peering from my hiding place behind a tree, I saw a metal box by the door of my enclosure. It was bigger than the cart I usually rode in. Maybe there was food inside!
The box was open at one end. I gobbled up a pile of worms. Chomping vigorously, I shrieked in gratitude.
The box slammed closed, trapping me.
Scooping the last of the worms into my beak, I swallowed them quickly.
The box was too small for me to pace. I scratched my claws against the sides.
Footsteps approached, the clacking of Mother’s feet. I squealed in relief.
“Are you ready to hunt?” Mother said. She wheeled the box towards the door, over the threshold, down the shiny hallway past the tables, and into the white enclosure.
The cage opened after Mother left, but I didn’t climb out.
I heard a thunk, and smelled the same stench that had come from the furry monster.
My collar gave me a shock.
I darted from the box.
A man lurched from a gap in the wall. When he saw me, he growled.
The wall behind him slammed shut.
He moved more like an animal than a human, twitching and jerking, sniffing the air as if he was hunting for prey.
I scuttled backward.
Mother said, “Kill.” She pointed her baton at his face. The red light made him pause, but then he charged at me. As he got closer, his teeth chattered. Black goo seeped from his mouth.
I swiveled my head, glanced at the glass wall, and counted three humans with Mother.
I heard another growl, but the noise came from my throat. Extending my sickle claws, I leapt on my prey.
His teeth chomped on feathers, but they couldn’t pierce my scales.
By the time the man had stopped twitching, my head crest was coated with slime.
Water sprayed from the ceiling, but I didn’t get into the box. I kept staring at the glass wall, watching Mother. She lifted a stick. A little hole in the glass opened. Phhhhhht.
After the tranq wore off, I knew what to do. Humans were easier to hunt than the furry monster.
The woman with the yellow hair shoved the man with the limp and sprinted into the hallway. She tasted sweet.
The tall man with the pointy stick ran faster than Mother, but I chased him and slashed his belly.
Mother tried to lock me in the white room, but I slammed my body against the door, and forced it open. The alarm was ringing, but it didn’t drown out the sound of her shrieks.
Down the hallway she sprinted, heading for the door that led to the big pool of water with the wriggling things. She skidded to a stop when she reached the door, and tugged the handle. It rattled, but didn’t open.
Her fear smell got stronger. I licked my beak and snorted.
She pressed her hand on a box on the wall beside the door. Beep. The door swung open.
I was close enough to slash her, but pawed the floor instead.
“No, Baby!” she shouted. She pushed a button on the controller hanging from her belt, and my collar gave me a jolt.
Pain fueled my rage. Leaping with my sickle claws outstretched, I pounced, knocking her to the ground. The door started to close, but thunked against her legs.
She screamed and tried to crawl away.
My beak grasped her neck. Crunch. Her throat made a gurgling sound as I lapped the coppery essence.
More fluid splashed me, but it was cold, not warm. I stopped feeding, and sniffed the air. Icy drops pelted my face and body, but they didn’t taste bitter like the water that sprayed from the ceiling in the white room.
The alarm had finally stopped ringing. It was dark in the big pen, like it was when Mother had me fly to the pool. I heard a whooshing sound in the distance that made me tremble.
Stepping over Mother’s body, I retreated into the laboratory. The sound of my claws, scratching against the slippery floor, echoed down the hallway.
The man with the limp was lying where he’d fallen, in a puddle of blood. My belly rumbled, urging me to feed, but I’d only swallowed one more bite of flesh before I began to retch.
The gory puddle that sprayed from my throat had an oily sheen and an acrid stench, like the furry monster and the first man that I’d killed, but not as foul smelling.
My gut kept heaving, though it was empty. Finally, breathing hard, I raised my head.
Something was shrieking, and it wasn’t a human. I cocked my head, listening. The cries were getting louder.
Roaring, I bounded towards the sound.
The first pen that I passed had trees inside it, like my habitat, but I didn’t see any animals. In the second pen, I glimpsed a flash of fur behind the shrubberies. The creature wasn’t as big as the furry monster that had attacked me, but panic made me skitter away from the glass. Sliding across the floor, I crashed into a table.
A flicker of movement caught my attention. The rocks in one of the clear boxes were cracked. Baby dinosaurs! Bald patches of grey skin showed where their pinfeathers hadn’t grown in, but their eyes were open. Tiny jaws clacked, begging to be fed. The hatchlings stood on their hind legs and had sickle claws like me, but they didn’t have beaks or wings. So many babies, trapped.
I was tall enough to reach the box without having to jump on the table. I jabbed it with my beak, but it didn’t open.
One of the raptors inside the box snapped at a smaller sibling, chomping on a forelimb. The other dinosaur hissed and wriggled, but couldn’t break free. A trickle of fluid streamed from the wound.
I roared and swatted the box. My claws made a grating sound as they scratched the surface, but the box didn’t move or break.
The dinosaur that’d attacked its sibling opened its jaws, and looked at me. For a moment, all of the babies were silent. Then the aggressive one led the shrieking chorus, and hopped up and down, scratching the side of the box with its sickle claws.
I slammed my forelimb into the box. Crack, a big fissure appeared. Swatting it again, I tore off the top. Shards flew through the air.
The wounded dinosaur screeched when I grasped its belly with my beak. It would’ve been easy to crush the delicate bones, but I set the baby on the floor, and reached for another.
I was raised to be a monster, but I wanted to be a mother. Mothers should protect their babies, even if they looked different.
This story previously appeared in Litro 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Alicia Hilton is an author, editor, arbitrator, law professor, actor, and former FBI Special Agent. She believes in angels and demons, magic, and monsters. Her work has appeared in Akashic Books, Best Asian Speculative Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Neon, NonBinary Review, Unnerving, Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 4, 5 & 6, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. Her website is Alicia Hilton. Follow her on Twitter @aliciahilton01.