Pangaea, Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

The swamp may have been breathtaking, but it’s nothing compared to the area they come to when they get past the woods and come to a wide, open plain. Under the walkway, a lake glitters in the orange light of the sunset, and beyond it appears to be a valley. A river flows a couple of hundred feet away. But the scenery isn’t what makes Anna let out an excited squeal and run over to get a closer look—it’s the sheer number, there must be sixty, of hadrosaurs, drinking from the lake, busily defending eggs or small, squirming shapes that must be their babies in what must be nesting grounds beyond the lake, honking to one another, walking in pairs or groups throughout the territory. Ian quickly looks over the landscape and mentally catalogues the species of dinosaurs; some beige-colored maiasauria are in the nesting ground far away, snuffling at their nests. Below them, drinking from the lake, are five hadrosaurs, and a few more are far in the distance, near the other side of the building, presumably at their nesting area as well. Corythosaurs, red crests on their heads, are scattered all around. A pair of parasaurs, gray with bright yellow crests, are gathered at the lake, drinking in silence. Near the woods, several dark green edmontosaurs, quadrupedal and with rows of tiny spikes on their backs, are tending to a group of egg clutches, and more are drinking from the lake below them. One of them raises its head and loudly honks; Anna jumps. “Is he defending his territory?” she asks, backing up. “Does he want us to leave?”

“No,” Emma says, and points to the edmonotsaur nest a few yards away. One of the animals at an egg clutch perks up immediately and lets out an answering honk. The two trade calls for another minute or so, and then the one that had been drinking gets up on two legs and heads over to its nest. The sounds are familiar to Malcolm, but they’re still completely strange, as if they’re the songs of an alien race. The two edmontosaurs honk at each other quietly when the first gets to the nest, and then they both begin piling chunks of grass and leaves from nearby trees on their eggs. “That’s to keep the eggs warm,” Emma tells her. “Those two are a pair-bond. They’ll be parents very soon.”

“They love each other,” Anna says sentimentally.

“They mate for life,” Emma says, smiling.

“Like penguins?”

“Exactly. They have quite a few avian characteristics. Even the non-avian ones.”

“You, ah, said there were baby maisauria here?” Ian prompts.

“Yes,” Emma tells him. “The animals all tend to breed around the same time of year. There are hatchlings of almost every species in this area right now.”

Anna perks up. “Babies?”

“Very adorable ones,” Emma says.

“How old?”

“A few baby maias hatched yesterday. The parasaurs’ hatchlings are all about six weeks old.”

“Can we go see them?”

“Of course. Right this way.” Emma turns and, once again, starts walking down the hallway. Ian and Anna catch up, Anna looking back at the many animals that fill the open space, Ian staring grimly ahead. Emma falls into step beside him. “You’re quiet, Doctor,” she says. “Any more questions?”

He shakes his head. “No.”

“How uncharacteristic of you.”

“I know all I need to know,” he says shortly. She smiles, satisfied, and begins walking next to Anna, pointing out a few animals and telling her about feeding habits and territory protection. As they pass over the river, Ian shakes his head; Emma must think he’s admitting that he was wrong, that he’s taken by the place, that he’ll beg her to endorse it before they even leave. Quite the opposite is true, but he can let her bask in her ego for a little while. He has more pressing things on his mind; all that’s left to do is come up with a convincing enough way to present his argument, and he’ll—

“Do they fight a lot?” Anna asks, in front of him. “Over territory or anything?”

“Occasionally,” Emma answers. “Mostly at first. There were a few scuffles when they were first introduced, but everything fell into place by generation three. Luckily, the especially bad ones isolated themselves.”

Ian stops for a second, and then begins walking again, listening to their conversation. They’ve seen heavily-armored dinosaurs, ones with huge horns specially evolved for skewering, ones big enough to knock other dinosaurs over like block towers, ones that deluded people have hypothesized could use infrasound as weapons—what could be especially bad compared to that, excluding some kind of carnivore?

“What bad ones?” Anna asks before he can.

“You’ll see them in a second,” Emma says, and stops; they’ve gone around a bend, and ahead of them is another forested area. Malcolm cranes his neck to look above the trees, and he can see snatches of a glittering lake and a different forest. The building forms a sort of rectangle, with the corners rounded, and they’re standing on one of the short sides. “This is their territory. Two species—it’s not too dense for a big region like this, and if these fellows would share their space, we could fit another species or two in here. But they won’t.”

Ian and Anna both search the ground below with their eyes; there are no animals to be seen, even when they look into the woods. The forest is fairly dense; they can only see a few feet in. “Where are they?” Anna finally asks. “Are they in the woods?”

Emma looks for a moment. “No, I see one. No, two.”

They look again, harder this time. Ian doesn’t see anything. “I don’t,” Anna says.

Emma steps next to her, pointing her finger at a particular tree. “Look very closely, right there.”

Anna squints, and then opens her eyes in surprise and says, “Holy crap. I didn’t know they could do that.”

“Do what?” Ian asks.

Emma steps next to him and points at the same spot. “Right over there. See it?” All he sees for a moment is an evergreen tree, casting a shadow on the darkened ground, but after a moment, he can see that something’s not right. The air in front of the tree trunk seems to be rippling.

Suddenly, from the far left, a deep call, somewhere between a hadrosaur’s honk and an elephant’s trumpeting, echoes through the air, and the air in front of the tree trunk moves, taking the trunk with it—what? And finally, Ian can clearly see a gigantic animal walking across the grass. The image of the tree and its shadow remains on its body, fading after a moment to a deep green. “It’s like a chameleon,” Anna says, awed.

Iguanadon,” Ian and Emma say at the same time. The dinosaur keeps walking until it meets another animal, slightly bigger and of a darker color but very similar in appearance. The two make those strange noises at one another and begin to head for the woods when another animal emerges, and they stop. The new creature looks like an ankylosaur at first glance, but as it comes out into the open, it’s obviously of a different species; in between the plates of armor on its back, spikes emerge, making it look less like a tank and more like a very dangerous porcupine. It walks past the iguanadon, which step out of its way to avoid its clubbed tail and make annoyed noises at it. The animal snorts in reply, ignoring them and beginning to graze on the grass in front of it. It lifts its head after a moment, looking up, raising its head higher and higher until it’s looking up at the walkway. For a brief second, its eyes meet Ian’s; the look on its face seems more contemplative than aggressive, although it doesn’t have the cow-like look of a hadrosaur. It looks back down, pauses, and then lowers its head and charges directly at the glass wall.

Ian shouts in surprise and, out of instinct, yanks Anna by the hand to the other side of the walkway. He pulls her away, hearing her yell something in protest, and starts running for the exit. He looks back after a moment and is surprised to see that the walkway is entirely intact, not crashing down like he expected it to be, and that Emma is standing in the same spot, her arms folded and one eyebrow raised. “Where’s the fire?” she asks.

“That thing just charged us,” Malcolm says breathlessly, marching over to her. He points at her angrily, grabbing Anna’s hand tighter when she tries to pull away. “There’s no way the glass didn’t at least crack. We could have died, you know that? You—you say you maintain so much control and that you can keep these animals contained, but, uh, you turn your back for one second, you don’t keep your eyes on an animal that’s an apparent danger, and everything just goes crashing down, just like—like chaos theory says it—”

She calmly puts her hand on his wrist and lowers his arm. “Calm down, Doctor.”

“What do you mean, calm down? Were you even—even watching when that happened? You know, that animal is basically a big, spiky tank. It probably just broke the glass, and—and if it really wants to-”

“It did not,” Emma says in a patient voice, “break any glass. See for yourself.”

Malcolm looks over the railing, finally letting Anna go, and looks down. “I can’t see the glass, we’re right above it and it’s behind us.”

“Well, there’s no hole,” Emma says, still irritatingly patient. “No broken glass. And, in any case, we have alarms. If an animal got anywhere near breaking out of their habitat, we’d know immediately.”

Malcolm scans the ground for any sign of glass shards. There are none there. But something else is missing…

“Do they do that a lot?” Anna asks, concerned.

“Sometimes,” Emma answers. “The Euoplocephalus have been doing it for the longest. They’re aggressive animals by nature. That’s why we had to put them and the iguanadon in this section together, away from the other animals.”

“Where is it?” Ian asks.

Emma turns. “Pardon?”

“Where did the euplocephalus go?” Ian asks. “I didn’t see him walking back into the woods.”

“You had time to move,” she explains, “and so did it.”

“Not that quickly.” He points to the woods. “Did you see when it came out? He didn’t walk, ah, that fast. He couldn’t have been going faster than four, five miles an hour before it was charging. And if he had run back into the woods—he’s, ah, wide enough that the trees would be swaying. And those trees haven’t moved a millimeter.”

Emma sighs, growing aggravated. “Well, he’s in here somewhere, I’m sure. Anna, there are a few new baby paras. Would you like to see them while we still have daylight?”

“Yeah,” she says, glancing at her dad; Ian’s rubbing his forehead with two fingers, still trying to process what just happened. She taps him on the shoulder as Emma starts walking forward again and mouths, You okay? He inaudibly sighs and nods. Truthfully, he’s seen this exact type of behavior in confined animals before. It’s a common occurrence, not usually this late into the process, but still common—but he’s only seen it on a computer screen, being done by a simulated creature, in a contained world with no consequences. Now that it’s real, now that he’s seen the animal charge directly at them and now that the only thing between him and an angry, club-tailed manifestation of aggression itself is a couple of inches of glass, it’s a completely different story.

“They’re camouflaged again,” Anna says, pointing to the woods. The two iguanadon have, indeed, vanished, but she points to a spot between two trees, and a few inches of scaly skin are much more readily visible. “And she says they aren’t lizard-like.” They grin at each other, an irreverent, I-knew-I-was-right look that Ian figures must run in the family, and follow Emma around the bend. They make a wide right turn, and when they get past the forest—no more animals are visible, they must be in the woods— Ian can see across the clearing, and notices that they’re parallel to the other side of the hallway. It feels like they’ve walked for miles. Well, they have lots of room to live in, if nothing else, says a voice in his head that he immediately silences.

“So why are the iguanadon dangerous?” Anna asks, making Emma stop. “Why do they need to be isolated? They don’t look too bad.”

“They don’t look that way,” Emma says, exhaling, “but they were a nuisance. Did you see their thumbs?”

Anna shakes her head. “I didn’t look that close.”

“Well, they have a thick, sharp spike on their thumb,” Emma tells her. “And apparently, it makes a decent weapon. We tried to get them to live with the hadrosaurs at first, but when territory disputes started, they had an unfair advantage with those spikes. The things are like steak knives, and when they use them, they go right for the jugular. They killed two animals before we intervened—because it was completely necessary, we didn’t touch anything else—” she says to Malcolm before he can say anything, “so we had to move them to the woods. Same with the euoplocephalus. They look like ankylosaurs, but those two species can’t live anywhere near each other.”

“Were any ankylosaurs killed?” Ian asks.

Emma nods. “Quite a few. They did nothing but fight with each other. Luckily, we could separate them before it was too late, and they could live alongside the iguanadon without too much conflict.”

“How long ago was this?”

“About four years ago.”

“How long are their lifespans?” Anna asks.

“Varied,” Emma answers. “About—oh, seventy-five percent of the second generation is still alive today. They’ll evolve longer lifespans soon, I’m sure.”

“Let me just clear a few things up,” Malcolm says, stepping forward. “What about the first-generation dinosaurs?”

“Bred in a lab,” Emma says, “and raised in an adequate environment. We put them in here,” she gestures toward the glass, “about when they reached sexual maturity.”

“And they bred in here. Two generations have lived entirely in this place. No exposure to the outside world, besides, ah, your idea of what’s absolutely necessary.”

“Now you’re getting it.”

“So none of the first-generation dinosaurs are still in here.”

“There may be one or two, but I recognize generation numbers when I see them, and I don’t see older dinosaurs very often. So, no.”

“One more question,” Malcolm says. “Do these animals ever, ah, change their diets?”

“How do you mean?”

“I am referring,” Malcolm says, “to cannibalism.”

Emma raises an eyebrow. “I would be very interested to hear your definition of ‘herbivore’.”

“So there is none.”

Emma sighs. “No. The animals do not eat each other.”

Ian nods, equally as aggravated. “Good to know.”

They walk a few more feet before Emma holds her arm out and says, “Look here. Right here.” She points to a nesting ground full of Parasaurolophus, all of which are quietly honking at each other and tending to their nests, all of which are filled with squirming babies.

“Is that one vomiting on its nest?” Anna asks incredulously; she’s referring to one para that’s standing over its nest with its head tilted back, making some kind of loud gagging noise that comes from deep within its chest. “I know they must have different digestive systems, but still, stomach acid would make it really-” She stops and winces when the animal leans forward, letting a thick, sludgy, green mass fall out of its bill and into its nest, where several tiny, squeaking baby paras scramble over each other to gobble it up. “That’s. Um.”

“Unpleasant?” Emma’s laughing a little. “It’s not pretty. But they aren’t old enough to chew plants yet, so their mother has to feed them that way.”

“Vomit still seems really unhealthy,” Anna says, deliberately avoiding looking at the nest where the babies are eagerly lapping up their newfound food, their mother standing above them protectively. Ian, not particularly put off by what they’re eating, looks more carefully at the babies. Their gray skin is pulled taut over their little bodies, their crests are nothing more than stubby protrusions on the backs of their skulls, and their eyes are dark and enormous. Their heads are too big and their bodies are too small; they look like tiny aliens, almost like little, otherworldly xenomorphs. He finds himself quite liking them.

“It isn’t vomit. It’s just ground-up water and plants. Ground up in the gizzard and fed to her young, just like a mother bird.”

“Still gross.”

“Still gross,” Emma agrees.

Ian clears his throat. “Maybe we, ah, should leave this general area.”

“Why?” Emma asks, clearly tired of listening to what he has to say.

“If that euoplocephalus didn’t want us in his territory, then maybe—maybe a mother dinosaur wouldn’t like us in her territory and, ah, near her young.”

“I thought the dinosaurs couldn’t see us?” Anna says, a bit alarmed.

“They can see us,” Emma tells her. “But they know we can’t go near them, so they don’t care. Like how you aren’t afraid of being landed on when you see a hawk circling in the sky above you.”

“Then why did he look at me before he charged?” Ian asks.

“It didn’t look at you before it charged,” Emma scoffs.

“He looked right up at us,” Ian insists. “He even looked right at me. I—I know we were his target. You saw the whole thing, or, ah, at least, you should have.”

“It’s getting late,” Emma suddenly announces. “It’ll be completely dark soon. I think it’s about time we called it a day. Anna, are you hungry?”

She glances at the nest, where the babies are feeding. “Not anymore.”

“How about the two of you go and have dinner at our restaurant,” Emma says, ignoring her. “Then I’ll have someone show you to your hotel rooms.”

“Can we come back tomorrow?” Anna asks. “I want to watch the iguanadon some more.”

“Of course,” Emma says, beginning to lead them back the way they came. “You can even take the automatic tour. Of course, if you’re interested in lizards, you might be more interested in seeing the Jurassic section. The dinosaurs there…”

Ian tunes her out as he walks down the hall. They pass the wooded section again, and although he looks very carefully at the trees, shaded in darkness, he doesn’t see any animals. It’s entirely empty; there’s not an animal in sight in the most dangerous part of the jungle. Somehow, that makes it even worse.

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