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Drone Chase

Chapter One

Huddled in a down parka, with my hands held to the campfire, I glance down the slope to make sure my parents are still on their walk. Affirmative: Their bickering voices — they haven’t stopped fighting since we moved here — are disturbing the afternoon peace of the mountainside. Next, I peer at the little red tent a few feet away from me. My sleeping grandfather’s unlaced hiking boots are sticking out from under the flap. In fact, the whole tent is shuddering with his snoring like a half-inflated balloon.

Zzz-zzz. The sound lifts my mood. It’s a good thing whiskered old mountain men need afternoon snoozes. Here at last, an opportunity to escape this boring, chilly campsite in the Canadian boonies.

It’s not the first time this city boy has been hauled unwillingly here, into a desolate land of granite peaks, waterfalls, dodgy wildlife, and monster trees, but it’s definitely not somewhere I feel at home. For one thing, dark woods scare me, and this place has endless trees. I hate trees. They have a bad habit of eating my drones.

Camping in general, in my private opinion, sucks. Who willingly goes for a hike in the sticks in May? Give me Central Park muggers any day over perilous predators hiding behind giant, moss-draped trees. I’m a New York City guy through and through.

I reach into the beefy backpack Granddad has saddled me with — “It’ll toughen you up,” he said — and touch the cellphone-sized drone the old man and my parents don’t know I’ve smuggled along. It’s a perfect antidote to the eerie woods.

“Remote-control toys are for kids,” Granddad ruled in his Irish brogue last month when my parents and I arrived. “They’re for city-park shenanigans. Got to get you in shape, teach you about woodsmanship, pry you out of that workshop o’ yours. Real life is the mountains, kid, and I’m going to teach you and yer city mom backcountry survival and appreciation for nature.”

Like that’s going to happen. As far as I can tell, Granddad has hated my “city mom” ever since she “stole away” his son to the other side of the continent. Given her high heels, makeup, New York personality, and lack of enthusiasm for the outdoors, in his mind she’s beneath his contempt. Which caused friction on our vacations here as far back as I can remember. But now that we’ve actually moved here, it’s way worse.

Sitting close to where we’ve strung up the food bag on a rope between two trees — “to make it fierce-hard for bears to reach it, grandson” — I pull out my fifteen- hundred-dollar store-bought drone kit: bird, batteries, and remote. The drone is four wavy rings joined by a centre that resembles a small bug. I call him Bug. The 250-millimetre, one-pound device can fly for about twenty minutes before he conks out. Then, clever robot that he is, he automatically returns to me. Another thing: He folds so neatly I can slip him into my jeans pocket. As in, I can hide him from Granddad’s sharp eyes.

We’re with Granddad because Dad tore us away from New York City. Granddad, an expert hunter and outdoorsman I admire but will never be like (as he reminds me regularly), lives in Bella Coola, in northern British Columbia. Bella Coola (population 150) is located in a mountain valley on a saltwater inlet maybe sixty miles — or I guess I should say a hundred kilo metres, since I’m in Canada — east of the Pacific Ocean, in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. Dad says we had to move here because Granddad’s health is “failing.” Failing? To me, the dude is stronger and more stubborn than a ninehundred-pound grizzly — and grizzlies actually live in the forests around here. Granddad is a headstrong taxidermist who stuffs and mounts dead furry animals for clients. So disgusting.

According to Dad, Granddad’s terminal cancer means he doesn’t have many months to live. It’s true he’s not as tough as he used to be, but there’s still plenty of griz left in him. And while he afternoon-hibernates, I’m outta here. Yes, I’m supposed to stick close to camp, and yes, the woods are full of dangerous stuff that scares me to death. But the trees aren’t dense and dark right around camp, and it’s a chance to launch a drone, which is what I’m all about.

I grab the bear-spray can and stuff it into my designer moto jeans pocket. Though I definitely hope I won’t meet a nasty bruin, I pretend I’d have the nerve to fire the peppery stuff into one’s face if I had to. Slapping away early-spring flies, I follow a path to a small clearing. Concentrate on the drone, not where the forest gets darker just up the slope. And don’t freak out if you see a bear. That ended badly last time.

I unfold the drone’s arms and click in all four propellers, or props. Next, I give the 4K-sensor mini-camera a quick wipe-down, attach it to the body, and set the drone on the dewy grass of the clearing. After charging up my radio-sized remote controller for takeoff, I take a big step back and a deep breath and throw the throttle stick up. Yes! My slick graphite baby rises on cue and hovers in front of me with a happy hum.

A surge of excitement ripples through my body, like it does no matter how many times I do this. Flying allows me to de-stress, to take a break from missing my New York City friends and worrying about Mom and Dad’s recent arguing or Granddad’s cancer. When I’m flying my drones, even ominous woods turn into my happy place for awhile.

When the machine reaches four hundred feet (picture a forty-storey building), I admire Bug’s bird’s-eye view from the mini-tablet, slid onto my remote controller. Then, like the ace pilots I admire, I hit the throttle of the remote, tilting and thrusting till even I can appreciate Bug’s camera view of the crazy-tall trees, seriously blue sky, and icy glaciers that look like someone has spilled green Slurpees all over the mountaintops. I spot hairy mountain goats hanging out on a ridge and a real live eagle swooping high above them.

Imagining myself as a miniature pilot in my drone, I bank left, barrel-rolling for the crowds below, dogfighting with the drones of my New York City friends, Arlo and Koa. What I wouldn’t give to be back there with them.

Whoa! A nasty gust of wind catches my little guy. I do my best to keep him steady. But my remote controller starts beeping like crazy, warning me that Bug is losing connection to the controller because of wireless interference. Next thing I know, he is spinning out of control toward a tree. My fingers yank on the joystick, but I can’t get whatever’s loose to reconnect.

I hit the return-to-home button in a desperate attempt to save Bug. He doesn’t respond — Nooo! — just clips a branch and free-falls toward the ground. At least I see where he’s landed. Stumbling through the brush, I head that way, trying not to trip over stupid roots or slip on damp moss.

Phew! He is not so far away, just into the woods, on a small hillock of dirt half blocking a hole in the base of a giant cedar. In fact, my baby has parked himself partway into the entrance, like he’s shivering and wants a garage. As I sprint toward my flying machine, I see no cracks or breaks. I sigh in relief. We just might’ve gotten lucky. Except — my stomach tightens as I draw closer — for the smoke coming out of Bug’s far side. Wait, no. Not out of the drone. Out of the garage. And not smoke but —

No way. Breath! Someone or something is inside the tree breathing in the chill air. Something with a wet, black nose. Behind the nose, a massive bear’s head pushes out of the gap and gives an unholy growl, deep and menacing, like a Rottweiler crossed with a sasquatch.

My eardrums vibrate like a subway’s running through my head, and terror electrifies every nerve. But even through the panic, I reach forward to scoop up my drone. I’m that kind of dad. Then I stagger back, tucking him into the back pocket of my jeans.

“Most o’ the bears around here are still asleep,” Granddad told my parents and me before this weekend’s camping trip. “To be sure, if we do run into one, climb a tree quick smart if it’s a grizzly. If it’s a black bear, drop face first to the ground, wrap yer arms around yer head and neck, and play dead. Never, ever run.”

Every cell in my body screams, Run. But channelling all the self-discipline I can, I force myself to freeze as the bear emerges. Grizzly or black bear?

I recall Granddad’s lectures. “Grizzlies have upturned noses, small ears, shoulder humps, and long, straight claws.”

I have no idea which brand this girl is, but she’s one big customer. Seven feet tall, hairy as Chewbacca, and smelly as rancid oil. No more than fifty feet away, she’s clacking her teeth, flaring her nostrils, and making a sound like whoosh. Worse, two cubs the size of full-grown St. Bernards bound out of the tree like fluffy puppies, tumbling around Mama’s very large ass.

While frantically weighing my options, I stand tall, meet the bear’s eyes, and attempt to project calm instead of terror. Being the kid of two veterinarians, I know a thing or two about animals. It’s super important they don’t sense panic or fear. In my parents’ clinic, I’ve always had a skill for calming dogs. My parents call me the animal whisperer.

So, get a g-g-grip, Ray. Ref-f-frame the situation. Use h-h-humour. After all, I’m not a morning person either, and I’ve disturbed this brute and her babies from their long winter nap.

A side glance reveals a tall evergreen with low, sturdy branches that even a gymnastically challenged slackwad might be able to scramble up. With one hand on my bear-spray can, I take a step toward it, super slow-mo.

“Never get between a sow and her cubs,” Granddad always warns. “Just talk to the beast respectful-like as you back away.”

“Sorry, Blondie,” I say in as even a tone as I can manage. Blond equals grizzly, my half-paralyzed brain informs me. “My little drone didn’t mean to wake you up. He was just crash-landing.” I chance another step toward the tree. “He wasn’t going to hurt one of your little ones.”

The bear stomps her front feet, flattens her ears, gives me a spine-chilling glare, and lowers her head straighton. I know in my gut she’s going to charge. As my spongy knees miraculously support the final two steps to the tree, I leap onto the first branch and struggle to do my first pull-up since last year’s sophomore gym class, where I was pretty useless. Then I scramble upwards, fuelled by rocket-booster-grade adrenalin.

With a roar that sets pine needles quivering, Mama Bear lunges and in one bound reaches the tree. She raises her hairy shoulders high and rests her massive paws against the trunk just feet below my flailing silver running shoes (new, and purchased at great expense from Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market in Manhattan).

My heartbeat ups by a factor of three, my teeth form a death clench, and sweat streams out of my pits. Her next bellow is loud enough to wake up the valley and raise all three hairs on my chest.

When she quiets for a second, I try to speak to her calmly, like I do to upset dogs in our clinic. “I’m planning to stay up here till you go back to sleep or a rescue helicopter shows, okay?” Talking to animals: yeah, it’s a thing in veterinary clinics.

Then I screech, “Mom! Dad! Granddad! A bear!” Maybe I shouldn’t have wandered away from our campsite after all?

The cubs peek out at me from behind their mother’s tank-sized body. To keep my panic in check, I shift my eyes to one of them, a little guy trembling like a toddler hidden in its mother’s skirts. Its whimper tugs at my heart. It’s like a carnival-prize giant teddy bear, with a cute brown nose and very pink mouth, which opens wide to emit a wail like a baby’s.

It might be five minutes. It feels like an hour. I clutch the tree’s upper branches with moist hands and watch the mother bear as she watches me. I half wish I hadn’t shouted. The last thing I need is my unarmed parents or weakened grandfather scrambling up the slope right now.

I catch movement from the corner of my eye and hear three blasts.

I cry out as the sow drops heavily to the ground, bleeding from the front of her steep forehead. She lands on the cub who was wailing, trapping it beneath her giant bulk. I turn my shuddering body toward my grandfather, who is standing there holding a rifle, looking proud.

My chin trembles and my shoulders quake as I look from my murderous grandfather to the second panicked cub as it scampers away, then halts as if torn over what to do. The one beneath its mother is bellowing in pain. A cold heaviness creeps into my chest.

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Mr. Universe

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