The litter had been laid in the traditional way, as it had always been done and always would be done. The mother left without sadness, regret, or remorse. When she returned to the nesting place in four months’ time, she expected no more than five out of fifteen of her litter would be alive to meet her. Looking at two of the smaller sacks she reconsidered; probably only four. She had carried them within her body for almost a year now. It was time for them to decide who was strong enough to live and who wasn't.
The litter sacks were lumped together in a teardrop formation and held together with a thick membrane that would keep them that way until the firstborn chewed his way out, thereby releasing the rest of his litter-mates.
A cloudy liquid filled the sacks and provided nutrients for the small dark masses that occupied the center of each one. Bound together by a communal umbilical cord of sorts, each individual teardrop would try to siphon nutrients from the others. In a litter this size, it was likely that at least four of the litter would be completely used to feed the others. Two would be so nutrient-starved they wouldn't survive the final stages of birth. Two or three more would be the runts of the litter and of those, one would be lucky to live long enough to be reclaimed when their mother came back. The rest would fight among themselves or band together as a pack in order to survive.
The Shirka had been a spacefaring species for almost three hundred years. Their written history dated back almost ten thousand years. And with all of their technological advances, they easily could have made it so every fetus in every litter survived, but that wasn't their way.
The Shirka were a strong species and had quickly tamed their planet once they became sentient. Each female was capable of bearing ten or more cubs per litter every two years of their adult life, if they wanted to. They realized early on that if they abandoned their natural ancestral birthing practices, they would quickly overpopulate their planet.
They were also a species that was very in tune with nature, and that harmonic relationship called for sacrifice. Every species on the planet had to be sacrificed to another species at some point. Without this sacrifice, nature would not survive. Every plant and every creature fed the environment somehow, even the cubs of a Shirka litter.
This process of weeding out the weak had kept their species strong and the planet in balance since time immemorial. The ones who survived were strong physically or mentally and sometimes both. This is the way it always had been and always would be.
The litter had been left in the forest four months ago to finish its incubation period. Three would definitely be in competition for the alpha role. Five of the fifteen sacs were completely used for nutrients and a sixth was used just enough to kill its embryo. There were four runts, one particularly smaller than the rest.
The would-be alpha that was closest to the outer membrane started to feel something that he hadn't felt before. This sensation, though new, was immediately recognized as hunger. The sacs had stopped feeding them almost three days ago in order to prepare their hunger to be strong enough to make them chew through their protective and potentially deadly outer sack layer.
His lips curled back and he bared his teeth for the first time in his predatory life. He had exceptionally long fangs for a cub, which worked to his advantage. Even so, it was difficult to get a good bite on the sack as its natural shape curved away from his mouth. In the end, he settled on chewing through his umbilical cord and eating it so that as he chewed and swallowed, it brought the sac closer and closer to his mouth until it was chewed instead of the cord.
He finally breached the outer layer and felt the cool morning air on his muzzle. He was cute by any species' definition of the word. Cute and absolutely deadly.
At this point, he was less than a half meter tall, lanky, covered in matted fur and exhibiting a temporary tail. Shirkas were a little oddly balanced as younglings and the tails helped stabilize them. As they grew older, the tails became part of their lower spine and essentially absorbed into their adult form. Some female Shirkas didn't lose all of their tail after puberty and this was commonly thought of as a sexy trait.
Shirkas had a rounded head, much like a Grizzly bear from Earth, and a muzzle that resembled a wolf's. If a human had ever seen a Shirka before they knew about alien life, the human would have probably thought they were looking at a real life werewolf.
They usually reached just short of three meters in height and looked thin for their size. They had no body fat for insulation; instead, they relied on a very adaptable system of fur that was self-regulating depending on the environment. It could thicken the undercoat in a matter of hours or shed top layers in minutes if necessary.
Each hand had five fingers with retractable claws. An opposable thumb came from the center of their wrist near the palm of their hand, a dew claw that evolved into that position and allowed them to become more than forest-dwelling predators. Their feet were naturally padded and had stubby claws that weren't retractable.
Overall, they were a formidable enemy and they enjoyed battle. The Shirka almost never ran from a fight but they almost never started one, either. As they expanded through their small portion of the galaxy, they never fought other species for resources or planets. Shirkas were firm believers in a code of honor that forbade them from taking what wasn't rightfully theirs. Some species had mistaken this code of honor for weakness and tried to take resources from the Shirkas. Although the Shirkas were no stranger to defeat, they never lost a single planet, asteroid or solar system they had claimed for themselves. This was a lesson the humans would eventually learn the hard way.
And now the cubs were fighting their first battle, escaping the membranes that kept them safe and fed them for over a year now. Once the first cub breached the membrane, the remaining fluid in the sacks would start to drain and the self-contained ecosystem would stop supporting them. They had a little over an hour to get out before they would start the slow metabolic suffocation that would kill them.
Once the first cub was out, he looked around. Shirka cubs emerged from the sacks as fully functional predators. It took only a few steps before he understood what his body could do and how to make it move. A shriek in the distance caused him to crouch and growl in the direction he heard the sound. Another predator, he was sure of it.
It was time for a decision. He had several options to choose from, as his ancestors always had. He could eat the pups that weren't out yet, use them for his very important first meal. He could leave the litter and strike out on his own; they were taking so long to emerge and every minute he stayed here was another minute that a predator had to find him. He could help his siblings escape their sacks but that may save the weak ones who weren't supposed to survive. Or he could stay with his litter, watch over them, wait for them, and protect them as best he could if danger found them.
No Shirka was ever judged on the decision he or she made after they emerged. If their mother returned to find one cub left and he had eaten the rest of his siblings, it was what he felt was necessary to survive and she would not hold it against him. Shirkas never discussed their birth decision with anyone outside of their family, ever.
This cub decided to stay and protect his family. He wasn't going to help them emerge, but he would give his life to defend them if needed. He was hoping to get a kill before they emerged so he could present it to them and secure his position as alpha. Emerging first didn't automatically make you the alpha, but it helped.
No sooner had that impulse crossed his mind than he heard an excited yelp behind him. His first sister had mostly emerged, with one leg still left in the sack. She yelped to get his attention and he came over. The look on her face was fairly obvious. Help me, brother.
The first cub growled a negative and gave her a few short barks of encouragement.
Even though they were fully formed and aware, they still hadn't been taught advanced language and verbal skills from their parents. All they had at this point was their instinctual communication that was based on body language and basic primitive sounds. But she got the point. Do it yourself. I know you can!
She was going to bite him at some point for that but she had to get out first. The umbilical cord was wrapped around her ankle and she eventually chewed herself free, just seconds before her second brother freed himself.
Three down, six to go. Over the next twenty minutes, three more emerged, including two of the runts. Of the three who remained, there was one any betting Shirka would've called an alpha. The other two were the last runts, with one of them being the smallest from the litter.
The bigger runt was having problems breathing and losing strength as he struggled. His brothers and sisters were barking encouragement but he just didn't have it in him to continue. He gave up. His body went still and he slowly faded away into unconsciousness and eventually death. His brothers and sisters didn't mourn him: he was a quitter—he still had life in him and he gave up. They turned their attention to the two remaining litter-mates.
The once would-be alpha was near the center of the sacks and that's what had been hampering his progress. He was fighting his way through the sacks but he was losing steam; he wasn't sure whether he was going to make it. He wasn't going to give up, though. He would die trying; he knew that unequivocally.
He finally broke the surface with his nose. Fresh air, the first his lungs had ever felt. The internal metabolism that had kept him alive without actually breathing had already come to an end so this breath of air was the sweetest thing he had ever or would ever smell.
His head was almost out but his right leg couldn't move. As the sack dried and hardened, it had started to twist around his leg. He pulled and clawed but couldn't get free. He was so tired now, so lacking in energy. At least he was breathing but that was a small comfort if he couldn't fully escape the sack.
He suddenly felt a nibble at his trapped foot and he strained to see what was going on. The little runt was trying to chew his trapped foot. He couldn't believe it; the little guy was trying to make sure that neither of them got out alive! He growled and barked angrily at the runt but there was nothing else he could do.
The runt looked around and saw how much farther he needed to go before he could escape. So much chewing left; he didn't think he would make it. He watched his stronger brother give up and die right next to him. If his brother gave up, what chance did he have?
He decided that being the runt didn't mean he had to die like a runt. He was going to fight, until the end, no matter what. He resumed chewing and looking for paths that had already been established by his litter-mates. The problem was, as the sack dried it constricted, hardened and became much more difficult to chew through.
He felt a strong vibration off to his right and was able to turn enough to see one of his brothers struggling to get free. Part of the sack was quickly drying and constricting around his brother's ankle. He wasn't going to make it.
The runt looked around and saw a possible pathway for him to get out. The sack was still moist in that direction and there were obvious gnashed areas in it where a few others had already chewed through. He might be able to make it that way.
Might be able to. He didn't like the way that made him feel. He was certain that his brother wouldn't make it out and that he only might make it out. Without any more thought, he made a decision.
He began to claw towards his brother and chew with everything he had. When he reached his brother's ankle, he started to rip at the sack tangled around it. A few bites ended up nipping his brother but he couldn't help that now. He wanted to make sure at least one of them made it out alive.
The runt heard his brother growl and bark and immediately knew that his intentions were misunderstood. He kept chewing and clawing until he could feel the ankle becoming less encumbered. Then in a snap, it was free and his brother rolled from the sack and rolled over on the ground, completely exhausted.
The cub looked back to the runt still trapped inside the sack and realized what his brother was trying to and ultimately succeeded in doing. The runt had sacrificed himself to save his brother. And the runt continued to claw and move his jaw, trying to chew the sack, but it was obvious that his attempts would fail.
The rest of the litter was standing around their defacto alpha, watching the runt make his last few attempts to free himself. The would-be alpha jumped to the sack and was going to help his brother but was stopped by the first brother. The alpha growled and made his intentions clear. He must do it on his own.
The would-be didn't even need to think about it; his primal instincts kicked in and he lashed out. He was weak, very weak and hadn't been resting like his alpha brother had been after he first emerged. His first swipe was easily ducked and the alpha countered with a light bite to the would-be's belly. No damage but enough pain to show that he was serious.
The would-be was also serious and knew he was prepared to kill one brother to save the other. A simple show of force and resolve wasn't going to be enough and he didn't have the time or strength to commit to an all-out fight. He feigned an attack and when his brother went to a guard position, the would-be rolled away and latched on to the sack and begin to tear at it from the outside.
He had made several openings in the sack before the alpha was back on him and trying to make him stop. The would-be latched on to a chunk of the sack and told himself not to let go no matter what. He added his front claws to the attempt and tried to dig at the sack with all his might.
The alpha couldn't let his decision be challenged, not this soon after emerging. He went for the throat and latched on. He didn't want to kill his brother but he was willing to hurt him, badly if necessary.
The would-be was directing all of his energy and all of his focus on saving his brother, so he didn't last long against the alpha's attack. He was pulled away after having made some progress in his attempt. When he was able to right himself once more, he was faced with the alpha staring him in the eye and growling a warning. Enough!
The would-be was trying to think of his next move but had a sinking feeling he had already made his last. As he looked beyond the alpha, he saw the rest of the litter making their own move. They were coming together and working to free the runt. With their combined effort, they had their brother out in just a few seconds.
The alpha looked back and was enraged with what he saw. They had defied him; they had made their own decision and saved a weak brother. A runt even. With the act already done, there wasn't much he could do. Shirkas weren't punitive by nature so he had no plans to hurt any of them for what they did. He would just accept it for now.
The would-be and the alpha walked together to their litter-mates, now a pack. They looked at the runt, who didn't seem to be breathing. The would-be got down on all fours and nuzzled his brother. No reaction. He licked his brother's face. No reaction. He laid down next to his brother and curled up with him. If his brother was going to die, he wasn't going to die feeling alone. The would-be watched as the rest of the pack joined him on the ground, surrounding and protecting their runt brother, giving him warmth and hopefully peace.
The would-be wasn't sure how long they had been laying there but the alpha was getting impatient, pacing back and forth and looking at the setting sun. When darkness came, so did the predators. The pack had been lucky that their birthing sack hadn't been found and eaten by the creatures of the forest and the alpha didn't want that to change now that they were born.
He sensed this was a delicate time for the pack and he didn't want to lose his standing. Instead of a forceful order, he tried his best to make a heartfelt whimper. I know what he did for you, but we have to go.
The pack looked at him and didn't respond. The alpha knew it was too late; he wasn't the alpha anymore. He was the has-been and the would-be was now the alpha. They would follow him.
The has-been had had several hours to think about the decisions his pack had made so far and he was actually leaning toward siding with them. The more he thought about his runt brother's sacrifice, the more he realized the strength it took to do what he did rather than try to save himself.
He could either leave his pack for turning away from his leadership or join them under their new alpha. The has-been walked up to the group and added his body to the mound. He pushed his muzzle to the center in order to smell the runt and add that scent to his memory so he would never forget his brother.
As he took in a deep breath, he felt a little dry tongue lick his nose. A low whimper followed and the rest of the pack became aware that their runt was not dead after all. The mound moved away so they could look at their brother and he looked back at each of them. Joyful whimpers started moving around the circle and the whimpers turned to barks of excitement.
They needed water, food, and shelter fast. Night was already on them and the predators could be heard in the distance. Water would normally be the first thing they went for but given the circumstances, shelter was the priority. The new alpha sent out the has-been and his strongest sister to scout for shelter. The rest set up a defensive posture to the best of their ability.
They started to think like a sentient predator and not just a tooth-and-nail predator. They had opposable thumbs to put to use. They gathered rocks and kept them nearby. Shirkas' genetic memories were advanced enough to give the cubs a basic understanding of defensive tool use.
The two scouts returned quickly and indicated they had found shelter. The group helped the runt to his feet and took turns assisting him to the shelter. The small cave was cool but at least dry. It would provide shelter and a defensible position with the drawback that there was nowhere to run to if things got bad. The cave was their final stand for the night, one way or the other.
Two of the cubs checked the cave a second time to make sure that no other predators were hiding or had slipped in during the time it took the scouts to come and get the group. They didn't find any predators but got lucky and came across two prey animals that they made short work of and proudly presented to the alpha.
The alpha grinned and affectionately nipped his two siblings, the human equivalent of a high-five or butt slap. The alpha then took one of the animals and presented it to the two hunters who had killed it. He then took the second one and placed it next to the runt. Usually the alpha ate first but this one was leading by example, showing that he thought the pack was more important than he was as an individual. Keep the hunters strong and protect those who deserved protecting.
The runt nosed the animal back to the alpha and turned his head. No.
The alpha gave a low growl and the runt just turned his head farther and presented his back to the group. No.
With a low sigh, the alpha took two bites of the animal and passed it to the next cub, who also took two bites and passed it along. It wasn't until everyone had taken two bites that the runt took his share. The two hunters ate their kill without sharing. No one thought less of them for it: it pays to be a winner. Rewards were given for a reason. They had eaten more than anyone else, so they decided to take guard duty without even being directed to.
With the front of the cave protected and the interior scouted out, there wasn't much left to do but wait for morning. Some rocks had been brought with them and a few more found in the cave. The rocks were staged for quick use in case of an attack during the night. The pack laid down together for warmth and comfort, and quickly fell asleep. The final stage of emerging from their sacks was very tiring and the group didn't get as much food as they should have on their first day. Tomorrow would have to be different.
The predator had been watching and waiting. A cave full of cubs would be a good meal, even if she only got one of them. The two on guard duty were strong and alert. Eventually they would tire and either fall asleep at the mouth of the cave or get replacement guards. The predator's primal instincts hoped they fell asleep at the mouth of the cave so she could just run by and grab one, absconding into the night with her dinner. She settled in as close as she dared and waited. Patience is what keeps you fed in the forest.
The cub felt himself nodding off more than once. He looked at his sister and she seemed much more alert than he felt. He nudged her and motioned to the mouth of the cave and then back to the sleeping pack. You stay here. I'm getting us replacements.
She chuffed in agreement and went back to scanning the forest.
The predator saw the exchange and began her short stalk to the entrance of the cave. She didn't have the higher intelligence to know exactly what was happening but her primal instincts told her that something was changing and she needed to take advantage of that change.
As she got closer, she saw the male cub leave the mouth of the cave and the female repositioned herself just a tad farther back. Guarding the cave by herself now, she wanted to be a little harder to get at if something attacked her. But the predator was bigger and her reach wouldn't be hindered by the cub's adjustment.
Her instincts didn't let her ponder how long the cub would be alone or understand that a change of guard was about to happen; it just told her to move now and quickly. She went from a stalk to an all-out sprint in less than a second and was cresting the lip of the cave just a couple of seconds after that.
The female cub was startled but ready for an attack. Unfortunately, no matter how ready she was, the predator was more than she could handle on her own. The first swipe of her powerful paw opened the cub's face up and knocked her almost unconscious. Had she been even a millisecond slower in dodging the attack, the predator's claws would've hit their intended target of her carotid artery and killed her.
As it was, she was in no shape to fight and was dragged from the cave with ease. The much larger predator had the cub in her mouth but was unaware that her blow had not hit its mark. When she saw the spray of blood and the cub go limp, her instincts told her that the job was done. Time to take the cub to a tall tree, hide her kill high up in the branches, and see whether she could come back and grab one more cub before the night was over.
The has-been woke from sleep at the rough nudge from his brother who had been on guard duty. One eye opened and he looked to see the cub standing there, deciding who else was going to get woken up. With a second cub picked, he nipped her rump because a simple nudge didn't seem to work too well on the last cub. She gave a small yelp and quickly got up to face him with her teeth bared. That worked much better.
The two newly awakened guards started to walk towards the mouth of the cave and had gotten close enough to see a huge predator grab their limp and bleeding sister. Without hesitation, the has-been took off at a dead run towards the attacker. The predator was normally faster than the Shirka cubs could hope to be but she was slowed by having one of them in her mouth.
The has-been's sister was faster than he was. She passed him and slowly began gaining on the predator. As they ran through the forest, the has-been was vaguely aware of the fact that they hadn't sounded an alarm at all. The rest of the pack was probably still back in the cave sleeping. He couldn't stop now and go back; he would be leaving his sister without help and there was no way she would win the fight they were about to engage in. His own breathing was hard and fast so he couldn't let out a good loud howl for help but he did the best he could do between ragged breaths.
The cub that had woken his reliefs had already joined the sleeping group and was trying to stay awake to wait until his sister joined them. She was taking forever. Did she decide to stay with them for added protection? He would give her a few more minutes before he dosed off.
As his eyelids got heavier and barely still open, he heard a faint howl. At first, he thought it was a cry for help from another newly emerged pack because it was coming from so far away. But the second, even fainter howl, struck him as familiar and he knew it was his brother, the has-been.
All fatigue forgotten with a surge of adrenaline pumping through his body, he jumped up and gave several loud and commanding barks. Get up! Danger! We need to go!
Without waiting for a response, he took off towards where he thought he had heard his brother calling from. The rest of the pack got up and followed without question. The runt was tired but the food he had and the rest, along with the shared adrenaline surge, was enough to get him up. For being so small, he was actually one of the pack's faster runners and was close to the lead in no time.
The cub in the lead was just running on instinct; he didn't quite understand what it was telling him but he didn't stop to argue with or think about it. He was rewarded with a strong scent of his pack members who had passed through this area before him. The scent had blood mixed in it along with another he hadn't smelled before.
His instinct gave him another nudge, this one in the opposite direction. His instinct told him that the new smell was bad, something big and strong, something that would surely kill him. This time he ignored his instinct and listened to his heart instead, that told him to keep going no matter what.
As the cub closed the distance to her much larger target, she began to realize that she would have to do something once she reached it. She faintly heard the barks and howls from the rest of her pack, so she knew backup was on its way but still not all that close. She would need to slow the predator down so they could catch up with her. Alone she wouldn't win, but the pack should be strong enough if they could only get there in time.
The predator didn't have a tail, so she was aiming for one of its legs. She just needed to close the gap by a meter and then she should be able to grab it. The plan was simple: bite and hold, don't let go no matter what. Her brother, the has-been, was close enough behind her that he would be able to add his teeth and claws to the fight within seconds as long as she didn't let go.
She felt the foot of her target graze her muzzle as she closed the distance. Add just a little more speed, she wouldn't have to maintain it but for a few meters and she knew she could hold out that long. The gap was closed and when her head was directly alongside the striding leg of her opponent, she adjusted to her right and closed her already gaping jaws around the upper part of the predator's leg.
It took a few strides for the much larger animal to realize that she wasn't going to be able to shake the cub from her leg. Those few strides had moved them close to five meters farther and her passenger was hanging on through the pounding it was taking.
The predator had two choices at this point: drop her food and run away or stay and fight. Hunger and safety were two very strong instincts that often conflicted with each other. Both were directly related to survival, which was the strongest instinct of all and impossible to fight in and of itself. Hunger was the winner today, even if by only a small margin.
The predator dropped her food and whipped her body to the right, nearly avoiding the trunk of a large tree. The cub attached to her left leg was not so lucky, as planned, and was thrown into the tree so hard that a piece of its fruit fell from one of the higher branches. That should take care of her passenger. But to her surprise and regret, it hadn't.
The has-been saw his sister clamp down on the beast's leg and a smile crossed his muzzle. He let out a short but supportive bark to let her know that he was right behind her. When the predator swung right, the has-been saw her drop the injured cub to the ground in a heap. The has-been passed over his sister without checking her; she was either dead, dying, or not, and that wasn't going to change so he pushed on towards the known threat.
As his other sister was slammed into a tree, he saw the predator look back towards her own leg to look at the clinging cub. That moment of inattention to the has-been gave him the chance he needed to choose exactly where he wanted to bite. The neck wasn't an option as it was turned away from him, so he went for the soft underbelly and bit down. At the same time, he raked his claws across the animal's chest.
The bite barely broke the skin of his target and didn't cause nearly as much damage as his instincts told him it would have. Later in life, the cub would learn that in this particular animal, females had extra bone structures in the abdomen in order to protect the womb from attackers. The bone structure did its job well, though the bite did cause pain and reminded the predator that she needed to divide her attention among her threats.
The predator reached back with her front leg and swiped the cub away from her abdomen, causing only minimal damage to him. She turned and snapped at him but missed. The dazed but ever vigilant cub on her leg refused to let go and stayed on through all of it. The predator tried shaking the cub off but that only caused her teeth to do more damage as she was shaken back and forth.
The predator changed her mind; safety was now more important than hunger. She might still win against the cubs but she was definitely going to take more damage in the process and no predator can afford to take days off from hunting in order to heal. She just needed to get that damned cub off her leg. She turned to bite the cub anywhere she could get to.
The pack was arriving with the runt almost in front now. He could see the has-been circling for an advantage and his sister hanging on to a leg as she got bit repeatedly by the predator. The overconfident beast was losing to only two cubs; the runt knew the pack was going to win this but he wanted to prove himself, prove he had been worth saving.
The lead cub started to slow so he could take a more coordinated attack with the has-been, who was reevaluating his strategy as his instincts had been wrong on his first attack. The runt sped by the lead cub and barreled full-bore into the predator, using his shoulder to knock the beast off balance.
As the predator fell, the runt stood fully on his two hind legs and jumped onto the predator's chest. The beast was already so much larger than a regular-sized cub that the runt seemed impossibly small in comparison. The runt yelled out a battle cry, the first semi-sentient vocalization anyone in the pack had made yet. It was the equivalent of a human child's first word.
The beast snapped towards the runt's face so he tucked his head into his opponent's chest. The runt then began using his hands to swipe at the predator's throat. The Shirka's retractable claws were a completely voluntary action so they stayed sheathed unless the Shirka intentionally deployed them. Inexperience and bloodlust kept the runt from deploying his claws so his slashes did no damage to their target. In hindsight, if his claws had been out, he probably would've killed the predator in short order. As it was, that didn't happen and his error would become a lifelong cause of teasing from the rest of his pack. The teasing was always with the respect that came from a family's love, but still teasing regardless.
As the alpha approached, he actually chuckled to himself as he saw the runt uselessly slapping the much larger and deadlier opponent. By now, most of the pack was tearing into the predator and the alpha joined in as soon as he was able to find an open spot on the dying animal.
They tore with teeth and claws, blood and gore was flung all around them. When the predator stopped fighting back, the pack's bloodlust began to slowly ebb away. When it was all over and they stood back looking at their first pack kill, the alpha looked around the circle at his siblings and felt pride.
The has-been was the first to go back to his sister who had originally been the prey in this fight. He found her still unconscious and bleeding from the face but it wasn't that bad. Her fur had done its job and matted around the wound while adding its anticoagulant outer cells to the mixture, helping the healing process.
With help, he brought his sister to the pack's kill and laid her next to his other sister, who was still dazed from being bashed into the tree trunk more than once. In all, the pack had suffered very minor damage and achieved a great victory. They were all proud of one another and exchanging nips of congratulations.
The runt saw the new threat first. Out of nowhere, two more of the predators emerged from the forest and took up positions on either flank of the pack. Their kill was either a part of the newcomers' pack or the two were just opportunists and saw the already dead easy meal and the other potential meals standing around it.
The alpha was filled with confidence at their victory but he wasn't going to let that be their downfall. Two skilled predators with a planned attack could do a lot of damage to his pack. The alpha moved to stand in front of his two wounded siblings and motioned to the rest of the pack to do the same.
Shirka cubs used all four limbs as legs more often than not; as they grew and their structures changed, they would switch to a more bipedal lifestyle. For now, the pack followed their alpha and stood as tall as they could and puffed out their chests. The seven cubs seemed more formidable than they probably were, but they were willing to back it up with everything they had left in them and that was obvious.
The formation that protected their injured pack members left their latest kill unprotected and available to take away. The alpha looked at the predator he assumed was the alpha of the two and then looked at the carcass. It's yours, but leave us alone or else. He punctuated his offer with the deepest growl he could summon and his pack joined in.
With the entire pack of cubs growling and baring their teeth, the alpha predator looked to the fresh kill and decided that a fight wasn't worth it, especially when at least two days’ worth of food was waiting to be carried off. The predator shifted towards the offer but never took his eyes off the pack. When he reached the carcass, he stood by while the other predator grabbed the prize and dragged it into the forest. The transaction complete, the alpha predator backed into the shadows and left.
The pack relaxed a little but each one was arguably a little disappointed that they didn't get to fight a second time. With the latest threat gone, the pack gathered up their wounded and started back towards the cave. On the way back, they scented some prey animals and three cubs broke off to get some food. The small hunt was successful and each member got a couple more bites to eat before settling down in the cave for the rest of the night.
The next day, they found water and more food. Over the course of the next month, they set up a camp around their cave and made defensible positions that they had to use more than once during that time.
They increased their size by at least twenty-five percent each. With a much larger than normal pack size, they were able to take down much larger game and eat more per cub. Most cubs only gained fifteen to twenty percent mass before their mother came back for them. The runt had actually grown to the size of a normal Shirka cub, though he was still much smaller than the others in the pack.
They also ran into a couple of other new packs and had the chance to practice their socialization skills. The other packs were much smaller in number and physical size but they were still doing well for themselves in the forest. Without the need for the packs to compete for resources, they got to engage one another in positive ways: wrestling, racing, climbing, and grooming to name a few. Early socializations such as these tended to foster lifelong friends and bonds that often led to the pairing of mates.
On a particularly sunny day, the runt was basking in the sun while lying atop a warm boulder. One of his sisters was near him, their heads touching at the ears. They still didn't have advanced language skills and didn't know any words, but each pack developed its own basic style of growls, grunts, and barks that meant something to them.
The runt grumbled and sighed. This is the best.
His sister silently replied with a smile and snuggled closer. Pack-mates that stuck together after emerging were almost always extremely close to one another and absolute best friends for life. The runt was and always would be closer to his alpha brother than anyone else, but no one minded their shared bond.
The alpha walked up and took the spot between his brother and sister. The pack was big enough in number and physical size that they were almost never bothered anymore by other predators. They never let their guard down but they did get to enjoy more relaxing times than most cubs did.
As the three napped in the warm sun, a new scent floated to their noses. They each stood immediately and inhaled the deepest breath they could to make sure they got as much of the scent as possible. They looked at one another in unison and then took off on all fours towards the scent.
The rest of the pack was already on the move and the three caught up quickly. The runt was now the fastest in the group and he passed his brothers and sisters with ease. As they reached the nest they emerged from over a month ago, the scent became overwhelming.
The runt saw her first and let out an excited bark as he slid to a stop in front of her. More frantic barking. Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom!
The adult Shirka looked down and saw her first son. “You must be my alpha!” she said with pride. “So big and strong. The first to come and meet me. Now, where is the rest of your pack?”
No sooner had she finished her sentence than she heard the trampling of feet coming towards her. A lot of feet. When the first daughter crested the hill, followed closely by seven siblings, the mother was shocked to say the least. “Wait until your father sees THIS. We have a lot of hunting to do.”
She knelt and sniffed each cub to make sure they were all hers and no strays had entered the pack. Yup, all hers. She wouldn't be leaving any strays in the forest today.
She looked to her litter and found her alpha. “You did this to me. So many mouths to feed!” she said with a smile. “You kept them alive and brought them to me. Only the strongest of alphas could have accomplished a pack of this size. You will be a great leader someday.”
Gathering up her cubs, she led them out of the forest to her transport. All around her the excited pack was barking. Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom!
“If you guys keep this up for the entire trip home, I swear your father will eat at least one of you.” Among Shirka parents, this wasn't an idol threat; it was an extremely possible outcome.
Many years later...
Beast then looked up and saw his brother standing before him. “I've missed you, brother.”
“You did well out there today.” The brothers embraced. “Runt.”
This short story is an excerpt from the full-length novel "Extinction" in which Beast is battle-hardened Marine assigned to a Special Forces Unit. Beast’s team is on a top secret mission, into the heart of enemy territory, that will decide the fate of the galaxy. If you liked reading about Beast, you can find more character biographies at Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iTunes and Smashwords. Of course you can also buy the full novel and read all of the biographies along with a great story that ties them all together. Enjoy!