by Rajiv Moté (Science fiction fable, 3,800 words)
The voices of dinosaurs filled Casuistry Vale, singing the praises of the Great Accord as they did every Summer Festival, celebrating the Gift of a common dinosaur language and the treaty that ended the war between predator and prey. Among the broad-leafed pavilions dotting the stamped-down plain, the Sauropods trumpeted devotionals and the Pterosaurs circled and wheeled, shrieking their accompaniment. All the herds took up the tune. Participation showed commitment.
Chhronk mouthed along. A bull Triceratops who had endured many Summer Festivals, he understood the power of ritual to bind together different herds. But he had no voice for singing, and he only passably wrangled the Gift language. His mate Chha-chhuk was better; still, he’d have rather listened to her sing an old Ceratopsian chant. Strength. Resolve. Righteousness. But those songs were from before the Accord, before Chhronk was hatched. They had no place in this hard-won peace.
The herds preferred not to mix, even those whose ancestors fought on the same side, but for the Summer Festival they genuflected together. It looked unnatural, but Chhronk knew overcoming their worse natures was the point. Festival was a display of peace-bringing power, like a Ceratopsian bull who made the others in his herd lower their horns. But there was no bull here, only an invisible Accord, mightier than all by simple agreement. It demanded more obeisance than Chhronk ever had when he led his herd.
Near the assembly, stone barriers stood in rows, ready for the Games. The Games were worth the gathering. Chhronk wondered if any of the young bulls this season would exceed his breaks in a single charge. This was a Game of tangible might–and skill. Form was everything. One had to square up to the target, eye horns aligned with neck, back, and tail, and aim through. The real target was beyond the one you saw.
Eight summers past, after his win in the Games, Chha-chhuk had butted him out of the Vale and into an intimate glade. They’d since been inseparable. Chhronk brushed Chha-chhuk’s frill with his own and gestured with his horns toward the cycad rows and the forest beyond. She clicked her beak, but her frill blushed prettily. The songs would continue until the sun reached its zenith. They accepted the necessity, the rightness, of the Accord, but there were more pleasant ways to pass time until the Games. They lumbered past the lines of Ceratopsians, Theropods, and Ankylosaurs, ignoring the mutters and glares.
They walked away from the patriotic clamor, then farther still, until the cycad patch gave way to quiet forest, and the forest opened into a meadow. Chhronk and Chha-chhuk rubbed frills again, but her eyes suddenly widened. The flush of her frill paled.
A fence of timber and stone ran along the forest edge. With its straight lines and crisp angles, it seemed builders with tool-grasping forepaws had maintained it. A stream ran under the fence and widened into a pond. Oddly accented voices spoke in honking Gift that carried over the water.
The dinosaurs within the fence were tall and two-legged, with wide, flat snouts. The females had mottled brown plumage, the males were crested and iridescent. Their tails lashed and their feet stomped, frothing the water. From what Chhronk could make out, they honked “Too soon! Too soon!”
“They’re Hadrosaurs,” Chha-chhuk said. Wonder touched her voice.
On their journey to Casuistry Vale, the Ceratopsians heard the unintelligible honks and grunts from the marshes they’d skirted. Hadrosaurs–they believed–hadn’t the Gift of language, nor of thought. For what was thought without words? It was a mercy they didn’t know they were but food for the Gifted carnivores. The Great Accord did not protect the Ungifted.
Yet here they were, speaking language. Clearly Gifted. The implications alarmed Chhronk.
The Hadrosaurs clustered at the enclosure’s far side, bobbing heads, fluffing feathers, gesticulating and shouting. Another voice piped up from behind the fence where they gathered. “Back! Get back!”
Chhronk recognized that accent. His frill darkened even before the Hadrosaurs parted, revealing two toothy Theropods at an open gate. Standing in villainous crouches, they were shorter than the Hadrosaurs, but broader, with powerful bodies and massive jaws. The tiny spines along Chhronk’s back rose in ancestral alarm. One Theropod carried a long bundle of leafy fronds. He flogged Hadrosaurs who got too close, and tossed fronds to others, as one would feed the elderly. The other led a queue of Hadrosaurs out of the pen, two hens and two cocks, tethered one to the next by woven vines around their necks. Chhronk’s spines quivered.
The biggest male Hadrosaur honked something loud and unintelligible, and then in Gift said, “The chicks are too young! Leave the hens! Take me instead!”
“The herd can raise the chicks,” the Theropod with the fronds said. “And you’re the orator! Nobody else could tell your herd’s story half as well. It’s Festival, after all.”
“Chha-chhuk?” Chhronk’s voice wavered. “What are we seeing?”
But she was already galloping along the fence toward the other Theropod who led the four Hadrosaurs into the trees. “Come on!”
Chhronk charged after her. They reached the treeline together, and stopped in a spray of dirt when they came to a three-walled shed. Chhronk’s nostrils flared at the sudden odor of blood. He had been near predators who killed Ungifted animals for food. It was distasteful, but permitted. But these Hadrosaurs had the Gift. Killing the Gifted was never permitted. It was wrong.
Chhronk and Chha-chhuk rounded the blind and stared. The necks of the four Hadrosaurs stretched low, their tethers looped around a log. The Theropod attended to each neck. As she crushed the last captive’s spine in her jaws, he died with a feeble honk.
The Theropod didn’t even look up at Chhronk and Chha-chhuk. She just began skinning her victims with her claws. Methodical. Bored. Unrepentant.
“This is criminal,” Chhronk said, froth flying from his nostrils. He looked to his mate, whose eyes held fury.
“On the count of my horns,” she said.
He clicked his beak in agreement.
“Long. Long. SHORT!”
During the wars that were but a tribal memory, the Ceratopsians had a motto: “Care for the living before avenging the dead.” They burst from the trees and charged the fence.
Timber and stone cracked, but held. It was a strong fence. They turned, trotted back, and squared themselves. Form was important.
“What are you doing?” The Hadrosaur “orator” threw himself against the split timbers, trying to push them back into place. A group had assembled behind him, honking nervously.
“We couldn’t save those four,” Chhronk said.
“We won’t let them have another,” Chha-chhuk finished.
The orator puffed himself up. “You’re violating the Great Accord!”
Chhronk blinked in confusion. “But you have the Gift…”
“None may prey on a herd with the Gift,” Chha-chhuk shrieked. “That’s the first rule in the Accord!”
The orator raised his voice for the benefit of the cowering Hadrosaurs behind him. “By what right do you destroy our home?”
The orator made no sense. Chhronk pronounced the Gift words carefully. “You can escape to the marshes before sundown. Others of your kind are there.”
“Not our kind,” the orator said, with what Chhronk could only assume was scorn. “That kind lives without law or purpose. No better than animals.”
“Didn’t you see what just happened?” Chha-chhuk said.
“You aren’t helping,” the orator insisted.
“They’re eating you!”
“Only some of us!”
That stopped Chhronk and Chha-chhuk cold.
“You think we’d fare any better in the marshes?” the orator asked. “The Gift counts for nothing there. There, we flee the Gifted and Ungifted alike. Here we’re fed and sheltered. We get berries, sometimes. Some of us are taken, but the herd thrives. It’s part of the Accord.”
“It isn’t,” Chha-chhuk said.
“It can’t be,” Chhronk said.
“Ask them,” the orator said, panic entering his honks.
The Theropod pair loped toward them. Out of the forest came two more, picking their way through the undergrowth.
“Like the old way,” Chhronk said in the Ceratopsian tongue. They had practiced this only in play, as children, reconstructed from the old chants. Chha-chhuk took her place behind Chhronk, back-to-back, horns level. Aim through.
“You’re causing an incident,” the orator said frantically. He backed away from the fence, and the Hadrosaur flock dispersed noisily.
“Shoo!” one of the Theropods shouted. They had stopped their advance. Hadrosaurs were one thing, but full-grown Ceratopsians were quite another.
The dinosaurs glared, each waiting for the other to give an excuse. Chhronk and Chha-chhuk picked their targets. Old ways or new, meeting problems head-on was the Ceratopsian way.
“Leave, or we’ll call a tribunal on you!” That was the female–the butcher. The murderer.
A tribunal? The Theropods had violated the law. Hadn’t they? Even with his blood up, even with the outrageousness of the situation, Chhronk didn’t like this confrontation. He was no Iguanodon to recite the law. He’d missed something important.
“Not if we call a tribunal on you first,” Chha-chhuk said. As much as it galled, Chhronk and Chha-chhuk did the one thing the law would permit. They turned and walked away, displaying their unarmored rears to the predators. Daring them.
Chhronk stood back from the three Sauropods to look them in the faces, his head lifted as far as his frill would allow. The boldest Ceratopsian couldn’t comfortably face a Sauropod. No Theropod would fare better. Chhronk supposed that was why Sauropods made up the tribunals.
“Hmm,” Justice Golgomera said, her only preamble a sonorous hum that primed her tree-tall throat for speech. She and the other two Sauropods held court in the Vale. Only pockets of singing remained. Two of the Theropods were already there. They must have run the moment Chhronk and Chha-chhuk turned their backs. “I’m told you two are responsible for property damage. During this Festival of unity, no less.”
“Property damage?” Chhronk quaked with outrage.
“These Theropods have done murder,” Chha-chhuk said. “Preying on herds with the Gift. There is a fence. It’s… obscene.”
“Hmm,” Golgomera said, casting glances at the two Sauropods who completed the tribunal, and at an Iguanodon who grazed at a discreet distance. “Exirax?”
The Iguanodon waddled over in front of Golgomera and sat back on his haunches. “Of course, Madame Tribunal,” Exirax said in a precise, lilting accent. To hear them tell it–which they often did–the Iguanodons were among the oldest herds, having employed their talents of social organization to weather not only the wars, but an even earlier cataclysm. “To come together is to survive,” was one of their many aphorisms. “To build together is to thrive.” The Gift was given by the Iguanodons, whose command of languages allowed them to craft the common tongue all the thinking herds could speak. The Gift allowed communication. Agreement. Accord.
“The fence, Theropod property, is the matter before this tribunal. You’ve called it obscene. Did this judgment lead you and your mate to damage–”
“They use it to imprison Hadrosaurs! Gifted Hadrosaurs. Whom they eat!” Chhronk swung his head side to side, imagining his left horn impaling one Theropod, his right horn piercing the other. He wondered if he could take them both in one charge.
“I understand your interpretation of the Great Accord might lead you to–”
“Not interpretation! First law! Gifted herds are NOT–”
“Hmm, silence, Chhronk!” Golgomera’s bellow shocked Chhronk into stillness. “Listen and learn. Nothing truly important is so tidy.”
“Yes. Well,” Exirax composed himself and took on a lecturing tone. “The Great Accord is more than the rules we recite at every festival. Those, as the Madame Tribunal indicates, are insufficient to govern a civilization. Accords between herds are also enshrined into law, such as those between Theropods and Hadrosaurs.”
“Impossible,” Chha-chhuk said, her horns swinging back and forth like Chhronk’s. “No herd would enter an accord to be eaten. It’s absurd. And… and… Obscene.”
“You Ceratopsians have your skills,” Exirax continued. “Your contributions, even if occasionally misdirected.” The Iguanodon ignored her glare. “Most herds do. Our Games celebrate that truth. It is also true that some herds lack the skills or power to contribute. But they are not without utility. They can still serve the cause of civilization.”
The Theropods nodded. “The Ungifted herds dwindle,” one said. “The mammals are small. There is not enough prey.”
Chhronk’s guts knotted.
“Under an Accord between herds, conditions are honored allowing both to thrive. The number of Gifted prey that are harvested will never–”
“Gifted prey?” Chha-chhuk said. “Those words don’t belong together!”
“Hmm. That is… simplistic.” Golgomera’s bellow sounded nearly abashed.
Even Exirax’s tone took on a gentleness. “Alas, sometimes they must. To prevent starvation. War. Extinction on a greater scale than we’ve ever seen.”
“Our herd has fought wars,” Chhronk said. “We have the strength to win them.”
“Strength you have.” The Theropod flexed his foreclaws. “But not quite enough skill.” Chhronk noticed one claw on each of the bipeds’ forelegs closed opposite the others, in a grip. The Theropod seemed to call attention to that detail.
“Fences and farm tools aren’t the only things we can make,” the other Theropod said.
The three Sauropods shifted uncomfortably and made the ground tremble.
Exirax cut in smoothly. “So much the better if we put all our unique skills in service of building up civilization, not tearing it down.”
“Hmm,” Golgomera said, echoed by the other two, a hum that vibrated Chhronk’s horns.
“All the herds know this?” Chha-chhuk asked, astonishment plain in the pale cast of her frill. “All the herds accept this?”
“Those who engage with society and the Accords know,” Exirax said, his snout raised sanctimoniously. “But for those who don’t, it is sufficient to have faith that the system works, and enjoy its fruits.”
“There was a time, Justice Golgomera,” Chha-chhuk said, “when your herd stood with ours against this.”
“Hmm, at a terrible cost,” rumbled one of Golgomera’s tribunal.
Exirax cleared his throat and stood upright in full lecturing posture. “Please, humor me. Imagine there were no Accords. If the wars had continued, what might be the outcome?”
“We’d drive the predators from our lands. Or destroy them.” Chhronk snorted to punctuate the point.
“Indeed. No more Theropods in the land and no more tools for cultivation. Starvation. A new war among competing herbivores. Extinction.” Exirax held up his forepaws, with their stiff, stubby toes and shrugged an apology. Where the Theropods had an opposing claw, Exirax had only a bony spike. “Now just suppose the predators won. They couldn’t drive you out or destroy you, of course. Not without facing their own famine and war. So it would be fences over all the land. There would be farming, yes, but the crops would be feed, and we all would be livestock. Those of us who weren’t so dangerous to be killed outright. Again, extinction.”
“Those are not the only choices.” Chha-chhuk pawed the ground, her frill rippling maroon and scarlet.
“Quite right!” Exirax said triumphantly. “That third way is the Great Accord. Civilization. Rules, compromise, and balance. The best for the most. Peace is a calculation.”
“Where are the Hadrosaurs in this calculation?” Chha-chhuk asked. “Who speaks for them?”
“They speak for themselves. In their own Accords.”
Chhronk had heard the orator’s words, but he could not believe any herd would consent to be used in such a manner. “Law is law,” growled Chhronk. “But right is right.”
Golgomera reared up to her full height. “Hmm, law and right are the same. Exirax explained this. If one has no faith in peace and civilization, one can walk away. The marshes are filled with animals who walked away. They live in an unending war. There are no treaties with animals.”
The Ceratopsian herd parted to give their past champion a better view of the Games. A young bull Triceratops addressed the first barrier. His form was flawless. His charge shattered three in a row, one behind the other, almost without slowing. He cornered as if weightless, and demolished a line of three more.
“He’s going to complete the square,” Chhronk said.
Chha-chhuk watched Chhronk more than the contest.
She worried needlessly about his pride. That didn’t bother Chhronk. This young bull, or some other, would beat his count. So what happens when your talent, your usefulness, fades? This does not mean they are without utility, the Iguanodon said. For predators to survive, someone must serve as prey. He was sure there was no Accord requiring an old-timer Theropod to be butchered to nourish the soil.
The young bull smashed the third row, but stumbled while cornering. Chhronk knew the next barrier would stop him. He felt neither pride for his own record nor sadness for the contender. It was just a game. A distraction. Others decide our real worth.
Dinosaurs of any herd could compete in any Game, but the Sauropods always won the feats of strength, the Theropods constructed the cleverest artifices, the Pterosaurs built the tallest towers, and the Iguanodons were the most gifted extemporaneous poets in any language. The Ceratopsians, of course, were the breakers. To what end? Everything about the Summer Festival took on a sinister cast since the revelations at the fence. They genuflected not to a strong, just leader, but to a vicious compromise.
“Do you think we could have beaten those four Theropods?” Chhronk asked.
“Your blood’s up,” Chha-chhuk replied.
“What if there were no Accord. If we had to choose what was right, in the moment, with no Iguanodon to say…”
A Styracosaurus took the field, smaller than the Triceratops, but frisking with energy. He hit the targets hard. A natural scrapper. A little discipline to his form, and he had a champion’s potential. A warrior’s.
“The Iguanodons made this civilization topsy as a Pterosaur tower. Everything leans on everything else. Knocking out one stone could topple it.” Chhronk snorted. “But it must not topple, right? Or worse would follow. For everyone.” None can enter into a true accord with jaws at his neck.
Chha-chhuk seemed to choose her words with care. She always spoke her mind. Yet now she hesitated. “Did you hear what happened to the herds from Crooked Valley?”
Chhronk clicked his beak at the sudden change in topic. He never paid attention to gossip from abroad.
“The dam that kept the river from flooding the valley during the rains was rotting at the foundations. By the end of spring, it was leaking. There was talk of patching it, or filling the gaps with gravel. But the Ceratopsians in Crooked Valley believed nothing short of a new dam would protect the valley. So they broke the dam.”
Chhronk snorted. “And a late storm flooded the valley before they could build a new one?”
“No. The Ceratopsians felled trees for the new dam, and the other herds, seeing that there was no other choice, joined the construction. The new dam was completed before a late storm struck.”
“So all the herds learned their lesson about tearing down the bad, and building something better from the ground up.” He regretted his tone, but this was no tower or dam. It was an entire civilization. There were no fables to guide him here.
“No, Chhronk. There was a dry storm. Lightning struck the trees and set them ablaze. Many died in Crooked Valley.”
Chhronk stared at her. “It was all for nothing?”
“Not for nothing. None could have said death would rain down from above. The Ceratopsians did the only thing they could do, lacking that knowledge. They did what they thought was right.”
In a slow, lumbering march, Chhronk and Chha-chhuk led the Ceratopsians away from the Vale.
“I’m not surprised so few in our herd knew,” Chha-chhuk said in their own tongue. “We were defenders, once. Our frills guarded more necks than our own.”
“I’m surprised at how many did know.” Chhronk’s frill flushed as crimson as Chha-chhuk’s. “We’ve forgotten ourselves. Our songs are just wind.”
Chha-chhuk clicked her beak. “Yet here we are.”
The Ceratopsian voices all around them muttered and moaned. Their conversations rehashed the arguments Chhronk’s and Chha-chhuk’s words had sparked in Casuistry Vale. But they walked with purpose, the forest thickening. One-horns, three-horns, five-horns, frill-horns–they had all listened to Chhronk and Chha-chhuk. They all agreed to follow. Even those who had known, and swallowed their shame.
Chha-chhuk began to chant in their own tongue, her voice rising above the herd’s rumble. After a moment, Chhronk took it up, careless of his singing voice, heartened to hear it spread. An old battle hymn, passed down by generations who had never known battle. Right was right, no matter the cost: war, famine, or even extinction. The sky could rain death tomorrow.
When the fence came into view, Chhronk’s chosen vanguard lined up on either side in the gaps between trees. Chha-chhuk’s own squad, including the scrappy Styracosaurus, stood ready to defend them. Nervous honks floated across the water. There was no hiding the Ceratopsians’ scent. Stealth wasn’t their purpose.
“Square up!” Chhronk bellowed. Horns, neck, back, tail. “Aim through. This is no game.” But it was what the Games had trained them for. Chhronk let the tension build in tendon and sinew and then whistled through his beak. The line surged forward like wind-driven thunderheads. He barely felt the timbers splinter, the stone explode. The roar could have been from the broken barrier, the trampling feet, or the rush of blood in his ears. They aimed beyond the fence, at a target bigger and more terrible than anything they’d ever faced. An entire civilization, built upon secret horror.
Abruptly, Chhronk’s charge halted. It was as though he’d hit an unseen, unbreakable barrier. He turned his head to check on the vanguard, and pain swamped him. Drowning liquid filled his lungs with each gasp. He was impaled. A row of sharpened stakes had somehow leapt up, just beyond the fence. At just the right angle to take him in the throat.
“Chha-chhuk,” he tried to call, but all that came was a bubbling rasp.
The ground trembled. Amidst the honking Hadrosaurs came a deep, booming voice. “Hmm. So you’ve chosen war.”
Chha-chhuk was behind him. She wouldn’t have been caught. She could still fight.
“When you attack the law, you attack civilization. Hmm. Civilization must defend itself.”
The ground shook. Great footfalls came from out of the forest. In his darkening vision, Chhronk saw a huge, taloned foot plant down in front of him. Like the Theropods they’d faced together, but bigger. Much bigger.
“This is a herd of animals,” Golgomera boomed. “Hmm. By the Great Accord, you may feed.”
Chhronk had talked himself into this plan. He had embraced the idea of dying for what was right, and convinced others with the old, inherited stories. Strength. Resolve. Righteousness. But as his vision dimmed, that conviction fled. Hot words in Casuistry Vale weighed little against the real terror that flooded his mind like the blood in his lungs.
Chha-chhuk was behind him. The one thought he could grasp. She could still run.
Much like how I felt about Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl,” I had to exorcise Ursula K. Le Guin’s parable/utilitarian thought experiment “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” from my troubled mind. In that story, Le Guin posits a perfect, happy society that’s predicated on a horror of an injustice. In the way of thought experiments, we are given assurances that any attempt to right the injustice would harm the perfect society. Indeed, the injustice is the price of the perfection.
“The Ones Who Charge the Fence” is a grappling with “Omelas”–with dinosaurs. Predation is the most primal form of exploitation, and it helped me create a society with a plausible hidden price of keeping herbivores and carnivores together in a functioning society.
“Omelas” was a story about individual conscience, but “Fence” factors in power. There was a version of the story where Chhronk’s idealistic attempt at rebellion was where we left the story, uncertain about the outcome, but assured the the deontological Triceratops would rather tear down the utilitarian dinosaur paradise than let an injustice stand. But that was a cop-out. During the recent years when agitators of all political persuasions rode a righteous high to tear down institutions, it was dishonest not to show that idealism (righteous or misplaced) and a willingness to break thing weren’t enough to topple power structures. Power defends itself.
Is that a satisfying ending? No. (And certainly none of the 23 editors to which this story was submitted thought so either.) But I’d argue it’s real. And it’s complicated.