Claudia couldn't tell that the sizable lump on the highway shoulder was a body. Not at first.
She was traveling 110 mph on I-80W through a solitary stretch of Nevada. Sage, silvery tan, gold and light brown, splashed across the expanse of desert ringed by snow-covered dark mountains. The pale sky mirrored the land with great swathes of silver-lined gray clouds. The windswept silence was immense as ferocious heat boiled off the pavement and radiated from the afternoon's piercing yellow-white sun. She had heard it said that the desert spaces of the world were where the Djinn came to dance.
Afterwards, she never could say why she'd stopped to investigate. She'd simply obeyed an impulse, slammed on the brakes and reversed. No other vehicles were visible on either side of the highway, and she was the only thing alive. Or so she'd thought.
Her 1984 BMW came even with the lump. Her heart sank as she stared at it. It was some sort of canine, an unusually large one. Not that she was any judge of breed, but it had to be a domestic animal. It certainly wasn't a wolf or a coyote. The body was muscular, with a large, powerful chest and a long, heavy bone structure that was still graceful, and a wide, well-proportioned head. The dog had taken some horrific damage. Its neck was thick and swollen, and its dark brown and black coat scored with large raw patches.
She wondered what it was doing in the middle of the desert, if it had been hit or if it had been traveling unsecured in the back of a truck and fallen out. Possibly both. She hoped it had died fast.
One of its huge front paws twitched.
She slammed the BMW into park and grabbed her water bottle before her brain caught up with her actions. As she lunged out of the car, she shed the insulation she had worked so hard to acquire, shifting through an invisible barrier to fully enter into and connect with her surroundings.
She fell to her knees beside the dog. Hell, forget unusually large--it was freakishly massive. She might not know much about dogs, but she knew few breeds reached that size. Bigger than a German shepherd, too heavy for a Great Dane, it had to be some kind of mastiff. Damn, it was not only alive, but it looked like it might be conscious. It was panting fast and shallow, muzzle open and tongue lolling. Its eyes were closed, the surrounding muscles around the eye sockets tense with suffering.
"Good Christ," she said. The wind roared through miles of solitude and snapped away the words.
She eased a hand under the dog's head, lifted it and tried to trickle a small amount of water into its mouth. It had a set of wicked chompers, white, strong teeth as long as her fingers. Hard to tell if it noticed or reacted to the water. She thought not.
Claudia was a bit taller than the average woman, with a weight that fluctuated between 140 and 145 pounds. The dog was easily half again her size, perhaps 200 or even 220. No normal human woman could hope to lift that kind of dead weight into the back seat of her car, but Claudia was not quite a normal human woman.
She had a Power that manifested as telekinetic ability, but it was just a spark, so she had to be touching whatever she chose to use it on. She could manage a bit of telepathy if someone was standing close enough to her, and her spark might be enough for her to travel to an Other land, one of those magic-filled places that had formed when time and space had buckled at the Earth's formation. Might or might not. She didn't know. She'd never tried.
As far as Power or magical ability went, her telekinesis wasn't much, but it did allow her to do a few interesting things. For one thing, she might be able to boost her lifting capacity enough so that she could get the dog into the back seat. Unfortunately, its injuries were so severe, she would probably kill it when she tried to move it.
She thought of her .40 caliber Glock. The gun was stored in the trunk of her car along with her suitcases and camping gear. She never underestimated the impact of a single, well-aimed bullet, for good or ill. One shot, one kill, as the sniper in her unit used to say. In this case, it would be a mercy to put the dog out of his misery. Death had to be better than this slow, solitary expiration in the desert.
Putting him down might be a mercy but everything inside her rebelled at the thought. She set her jaw. If the dog didn't die, she would get it--she glanced down the dog's body and discovered that not only was he male, but he hadn't been neutered--she would get him some help.
Once she made the decision, she moved fast. She dug through the canvas bags of camping supplies in her trunk until she located the ground tarp. Refolding the plastic into a smaller size that the dog could still fit on, she left enough room to grasp the edges. Then she laid the tarp on the ground beside the animal.
The next ten minutes felt like enduring a two-year tour of duty. The dog's suffering was a gravity well that held her anchored to its wretchedness. The wind blasted the bare skin of her arms and face with tiny stinging grains of the scorching pale sand. The sand had crusted the raw edges of the dog's wounds, until she moved him and the wounds reopened. They bled brilliant, glistening crimson that trickled through the pale ivory-gold of the crusted sand. Normally the two colors looked lovely together.
She talked to the dog, random words of encouragement, and she exercised her extensive vocabulary of swear words as she strained her leg and back muscles along with her telekinesis. At last, she managed to shift him onto the tarp and then into the back seat.
During the worst of it, the dog opened his eyes and looked at her. The intelligence and the bright pain in his eyes were twin spears that shoved into her heart. When she finally slid into the driver's seat again, she had to clean off her hands and wipe at her own wet eyes before she could see enough to start the engine.
The dog didn't die.