At first, they assume the rifle she carries is for show. No one actually uses projectile weapons anymore, do they? It’s just part of the costume, they tell themselves, like her crisp white hat and pressed jodhpurs and shiny black boots.
Later, as the hippogriffs circle closer to their open-sided buses, the kind you used to see laughing tourists riding on their oh-so-expensive photo-safaris, they find comfort in the fact that she is armed.
After all, those leonine paws have claws sharp enough to eviscerate a man, those beaks – adapted from birds of prey, she explains – can snatch a bleeding leg of lamb right from her hand.
“Let’s hope they don’t miss,” she says, with a sort of half-chuckle.
She wants you to think she’s kidding.
You force yourself to believe in her white-toothed smile and shining brown eyes.
Finally, you make it to camp – all those white tents on wooden platforms, reminiscent of ancient photographs – the two-dimensional kind – of hunters who came years/decades/centuries before you, who captured their quarry with rifles and crossbows instead of tri-d cameras and holographic video recorders, who celebrated the end of a day with beer and barbecue, and posed with their prize corpses, all sweat and pride and cluelessness.
But there is no beer here, only tea – proper black tea with milk or lemon – and instead of barbecue they are offered a selection of grain dishes, root vegetables, and textured protein.
They watch as the pilot of their bus folds the wings against the wind and tethers it to the ground. They continue to watch as he produces a staff, traces a circle around the camp, lines the circle with coarse salt.
“Stay inside the circle,” she warns. “We’ve had a couple wild bovines stray close to the campsite, but the salt-wards will keep them out.”
Someone asks if they can trust the magic of a guy named Gary.
“What choice is there?” She counters rhetorically. “You trust the gun of a woman called Marcy.”
They agree she has a point.
And so, they eat and drink, they share stories of who they are and why they’re there, and finally they disperse, coupled up, to the tents, where one by one the lanterns are dimmed.
No one expects the wind to pick up. No one expects the rain that follows. The storm is unscheduled.
Still, they huddle together in the biggest tent, terrified, but dry, until morning, and hoping for safety in numbers.
It’s the pudgy accountant who hears the bells first. Deep, and kind of tinny. It’s his wife, the one with all the wrong clothing and that ridiculous straw hat with the daisies bobbing on the brim, who realizes the wind has stopped. “I hear… mooing.”
As dawn breaks they venture beyond the opaque canvas walls.
Gary is nowhere to be seen. The salt circle has been trampled by hooves. And there, by the flipped-over carcass of the bus, is the creature who caused it.
It takes them a while, because farm animals have been extinct since the twenty-second century, before magic was weaponized and the whole world changed, but they identify it as a cow.
“We used to eat these creatures,” Marcy tells her frightened charges. “Raise them and slaughter them and eat their meat. History books say they used to be gentle… “
“What now?” Accountant-guy looks ready to piss his khaki shorts.
“We wait. And hope it’s not hungry.”
Days later, a cleanup crew finds the bloody remains of the safari group. They watch the video from the one intact recorder and shake their heads. “Wild cows ain’t nothin’ to trifle with.”
They stay in the area for a while, shooting pictures from within their heavily protected trailer.
Just before they pull out, they see it. A cow, standing placidly under a tree, munching on the remains of that absurd straw hat, the woman’s perfectly coiffed head ignored between its front hooves.
“Oh, my gods,” the communications officer says. “We better call for backup. The cows are killing people to protect their grain again.”