The Center Cannot Hold

I do not own the Jurassic Park franchise or any of the characters thereof. I am not profiting monetarily from the distribution of this story. I do own this story and all parts thereof, except for the characters. All rights reserved.

The more time Robert Muldoon spends in labs and classrooms and such, the more he appreciates that he gets to work outdoors. When the jungle is your office building, you don’t have to put on an ID tag, go through security or have your hands and clothes specially decontaminated. Robert’s had to do all of those things in the past twenty minutes, and he can’t say he enjoyed them. Now, as the short old man leads him through a room full of busy, white-coated men and women, syringes and beeping machines, for the first time since he left, he wonders if they’d take him back at the preserve in Nairobi, in case this turns out to be something he didn’t expect. He wonders if any of what he’s seeing is confidential, if his new employer would let him step back and consider whether working in a lab like this is worth his admittedly high new salary, when they approach a tabletop, lined with straw, containing several large eggs and surrounded by heat lamps. “This is our hatchery,” says John Hammond cheerfully. “You’ll be watching the animals in these eggs, if all goes well.”

Robert groans inwardly. Watching baby birds? Taking care of bird eggs? This is not what Hammond promised him, not at all. These aren’t the eggs of any kind of reptilian predator. He’s about to open his mouth and back out of this venture, but Hammond raises a hand. “I know, I know,” the old man says, stopping his accusations before he’s even spoken them. “But you’ll see in a moment. I promise. This is not what it seems.”

“Ostriches or emus?” Robert asks, evaluating the size and shape of the eggs. Hammond only laughs giddily. Bloke’s lost it, he thinks, pushing his hat off of his forehead.

“Look!” Hammond says suddenly, and points to an egg on the far left of the table; it’s trembling slightly. “Henry!” he calls. “Henry, one’s hatching!”

An Asian man in a white coat is already striding over, pulling on rubber gloves. “Robert, this is Henry Wu, our chief geneticist,” Hammond says, gesturing to the scientist. “Dr. Wu, Robert Muldoon. The game warden I told you about.” Robert reaches out for a handshake, but Dr. Wu shakes his head and smiles apologetically.

“Have to be very careful about what touches the newborns,” he says. “The extra security’s only for now. I’ll be able to rest easier when he have a larger population.” He walks over and kneels in front of the table, eye-to-eye with the egg. Hammond waves Robert over, and the three of them look at the egg as it shakes harder and harder. Henry’s face is full of apprehension and Hammond’s is full of glee, and Robert is entirely unimpressed. The only exciting thing about being close enough to watch an ostrich hatch, he knows, is the anticipation of the mad dash you’ll have to make when the mother sees you around its nest. After a few silent minutes, a head bursts through the top, and bits of eggshell fall as the hatchling breaks apart its egg. “Excellent,” Dr. Wu says, getting up and running to grab something from his desk. “I’ll test its vitals.”

“There you go, little one,” Hammond coos when the newborn, covered in red fluid, is entirely out of its shell. He picks it up in his wrinkled hands and lifts it up so that Robert can see. The tiny creature doesn’t look like any bird he’s ever seen. It has a pair of what looks like tiny claws, and its snout is boxy; no wings or beak at all. Pointy teeth line its little mouth. He can’t figure out what he’s looking at until it hits him. He remembers the picture books of his childhood and the skeletons in natural history museums. He can’t figure out what the species is, but the type of animal is clear.

Robert’s jaw falls open. The baby squeals and wiggles its legs.

xxx

“Don’t they ever claw you?” Robert asks. “That sickle claw is a weapon, I know it.”

It’s been three months since he saw the raptor hatch; whether this is the same raptor, he doesn’t know. “Sometimes they nip,” answers Gerry Harding, the park vet; he seems like a decent enough coworker, and they’ve had a couple of drinks together on the mainland. He wiggles the rope toy in the air, holding it slightly above the juvenile velociraptor. The animal, gray with dark streaks on its back, leans on its hanches, wiggles its tail and jumps in the air, snatching the toy out of his hand. Both of his hands free, Harding shows Muldoon the bandages on his fingers. “But it’s accidental. They trust humans, they don’t think I’m prey.”

“You sure about that?” Robert asks, watching the little dinosaur claw at the toy and thrash it around in its jaws.

“Well, I hope I am,” Gerry answers. “It’ll make it a lot easier to keep them under control if they do.” The raptor, with a flick of its neck, tosses the toy back to the veterinarian, who shakes his head in disbelief and tosses the knotted rope again. “I didn’t teach her this. She taught herself. Smart little buggers, aren’t they?”

“All I’m saying is that this doesn’t seem like the kind of animal that we want angry at us.” The raptor jumps and catches the toy in midair, chirping victoriously.

“Let’s hope she stays playful, then,” Harding sighs. He rolls up his sleeves and reaches for a cooler. “All right, snack time.” The dinosaur seems to recognize his words, drops its toy and stares at Gerry expectantly. He pulls out a raw steak and tosses it over; it lands with a splat on the floor, and the raptor plunges its snout in. “At least we’re not teaching them to hunt live prey,” Harding says as he wipes his hands on his shirt. Robert sits and watches as the animal, with only a few bites, tears its meal to pieces.

xxx

“Everybody ready?” Muldoon shouts. His entire blue-suited team stands at the ready, tasers in hand, as the forklift lowers the enormous raptor cage. When it touches its platform, they all spring into action. Some shove the cage forward, some stand by the entrance to the enclosure to make sure it’s not getting jammed in at an angle, and some stay by the cage, tasers trained on the hissing animal inside. “Raise the gate! Tasers on full charge!” is Robert’s first command, and he shouts others, most of them lost in the noise of the crowd, as they push the cage through the opening, into the pen.

“Almost got it! Keep pushing! Keep pushing!” he yells; the cage is getting a little stuck near the end. He joins the men shoving it forward, and after a lot of pushing, straining and aggravated yelling, the cage slips in and someone lowers the gate. Robert pulls out his key ring and turns a lock on the cage; the door springs open, and the velociraptor runs out into its new home. He lets out a long, loud sigh.

“One down,” he says, “seven to go.”

xxx

Robert wipes sweat off of his brow as he keeps his eyes on the seven raptors in the enclosure below. They’ve had a few days since the newest one’s been let in, and the animals as a whole don’t seem to have adjusted nicely. They’re constantly trying to break out of their habitat, making loud screeching noises in the wee hours of the morning and growling threateningly at their game warden. He and his team did everything they could—introduced them one by one, monitored them day and night to make sure there was no fighting going on, fed them much more than they ought to have—but the damn animals are causing as much trouble as possible. That’s not to mention the territory disputes that, judging from his knowledge of African carnivores, will come very soon. He’s about to have his hands full, and he isn’t paid enough already. Robert glumly rests his chin on the blue walkway railing. Sure, he appreciates a challenge, but frankly, he’s beginning to miss the lions.

“How are they, Robert?” Hammond asks, leaning on his cane as he comes up the stairs. Muldoon straightens up as he sees the old man, smiling cheerfully as always. So much going wrong, there’s only person left smiling in this place, he thinks.

“I don’t think we should do the transfer tonight, John,” Robert says.

“Why ever not?”

“Look at them,” he says, extending his arm. “If they keep at it, they’ll break out soon. Do you want another angry raptor in there with them?”

“The fence is highly electrified and very stable,” John assures.

“Yes, but do you know it’ll be enough when the big one’s in there? And they’re on the verge of fighting already. If we introduce another contender for territory and resources—”

“Robert,” Hammond says, putting a hand on his arm. “I’ve given you a very large team. You can manage this. I know you can.”

“I—”

“Everything will be fine, dear boy. I promise.” He turns and hobbles down the stairs before Robert can get another word in. Muldoon sighs and turns back to the raptors below, three of which have their heads back and are making those deep gurgling sounds at each other. Three things Robert Muldoon is becoming accustomed to are his schedule, the animals he works with and not being listened to.

xxx

“I don’t believe it.” Robert puts his head in his hand and rubs his eyes. “All dead but three.”

“Why did you let her kill them?” Hammond shouts, his voice hysterical. The rest of the staff, all gathered on the platform above the raptor pen, avoid looking at either man, either fidgeting with their lab coats or wiping the morning fog from their glasses.

“It was almost over when Control saw it happening,” Muldoon snaps. “It was three A.M, John, you were asleep, too. And even if I’d been there, you wouldn’t have let me stop it, because you won’t bloody let me shoot them!”

“I can’t believe this!” Hammond throws his hands up. “Five priceless animals dead. Why would the Big One possibly want to kill them all?”

“I don’t know,” Robert says wearily, and as Hammond stammers angrily about hard work and lack of attention, he looks out into the habitat. Lying on the dirt in dark pools are the bodies of two velociraptors, bloody slashes at their throats and stomachs. He looks up, and it takes him a moment to notice the still, silent animal standing in front of the enclosure’s woods. He recognizes it immediately. This is the creature responsible for tonight’s massacre. The Big One seems to have been looking at him this whole time, and as Robert stares into its amber-colored eyes, it regards him calmly. It cocks its head ever-so-slightly to the side, and even though it’s just an animal, incapable of true communication, the message it wants to send is very clear.

Your move.

xxx

So far, Muldoon hasn’t had to use his rifle, but if the opportunity presents itself, he won’t hesitate to change that. He grips the gun, finger on the trigger, and keeps it trained on the velociraptor. Right now, she isn’t doing anything except walk around her enclosure, but when she isn’t doing anything, she’s planning something. He can see it in her eyes. The gears are always turning in her head.

She’s been pacing ever since she and the others leapt at the fence for the first time today. Even after a year, the attacks on the fence haven’t decreased. They seem random, disorganized, but there’s an underlying schedule, he knows it. They haven’t attacked the same place twice, and it’s starting to look systematic. They’re looking for weaknesses, and the more escape attempts they make, the more worried he gets that they’ll find one.

Finally, she sits down, curling her tail around her body as she relaxes next to a bush. She glances up and sees Muldoon, gun trained on her. She makes a soft warbling sound and lays down her head, closing her eyes. He doesn’t let her leave his crosshairs. She never stops planning, even when she sleeps.

xxx

“So yeah,” Megan says, stirring her drink. “Game warden, that’s awesome. Where do you work? San Jose Zoo?”

Robert rubs his eyes; he hasn’t been getting very much sleep lately. He’s gotten in the habit of staying behind when the workers’ ferry goes to the mainland at night, and he tells himself he’ll watch the raptors for a little while and go to bed. But when he’s about to head off, Big One starts signaling to her packmates, as if she’s telling them to get ready for something, and he has to stay and keep an eye on them—who knows what they could be planning to do when he’s not looking? “Private nature preserve,” he mumbles.

“Cool,” the girl says. He just met her a few minutes ago; she’s pretty, with long brown hair and a friendly face, and seemed as good a companion as any for his first night off in a while. Robert raises his hand and orders another beer as she continues, “I wanted to be a vet when I was little. Wanted to play with cats and dogs all day. But nope, now I’m just a boring old banker.” She laughs a little. “What do you work with? Lions, tigers, bears?”

Muldoon sips his beer, glances at the stool next to him and jumps. Instead of Megan, Big One is perched next to him, baring her teeth and snarling. She leans forward, getting ready to pounce, and Robert ducks—

“You all right?” Megan is waving her hand in front of his face. “Hey, are you okay?” She looks deeply concerned. “You freaked out for a minute. Everything all right?”

Robert shakes his head and drops a ten-dollar bill on the counter. “I need to head out.” The raptors have been alone for far too long already, and they could be up to anything. He puts his hat back on, nods to the bartender, gives Megan a wave and hurries out the door. He needs to get back to the island right away.

“‘Bye,” she calls after him. Her voice trails off into the darkness.

xxx

The cow’s moos turn to screams and then gurgle into silence as the three raptors tear into its large body. Robert watches one raptor in particular. Keeping his gun trained on her as always, he carefully observes Big One, how she makes quick, deep slashes with her right claw. How she snarls at the others if they come near her portion of the kill. How her eyes dart around while she eats. How she pauses for a moment between bites.

He’s memorized these things, having seen the raptors eat so many times over the past two years, but he has to watch anyway. He has to keep a close eye on them, because no one else really knows what they’re capable of. Nobody but him will watch Big One, so he has to stay with her, watch her hunt, keep the crosshairs of his gun trained on her. He can never take his eyes off of her. The moment he turns his back will be the moment she… well, he doesn’t know exactly what she’ll do if he doesn’t watch her.

But he does know that he can never stop watching.

xxx

“Who’s hungry?” Hammond asks the group, chipper despite the spectacle that’s just unfolded. He ushers four people off of the platform, three men and a woman, all of whom look visibly sickened. Right as the last member of the tour group is about to descend the steps, a curly-haired man clad entirely in black, Robert grabs his arm. The man jerks, surprised, and looks back.

“Dr. Malcolm?” Muldoon asks.

He steps up, puts a hand on his hip and leans against the railing. “Yeah?”

“You’re the mathematician Mr. Hammond brought?”

“Chaotician,” Malcolm corrects. “Got a problem?”

“Listen,” Robert whispers, leaning forward. Big One is eating leftover chunks of cow with her pack, and she might not hear him, but it couldn’t hurt to be careful. “Hammond isn’t happy.”

“Could’ve fooled me. The guy thinks—thinks he’s half-Walt Disney, half-Santa or something. Can’t say he doesn’t look the pa—”

He cuts him off. “He says you have a theory. One that says this park won’t work. Will you tell me about that?”

“Simple enough,” the doctor says, adjusting his glasses. “You’ve got, ah, a whole system full of huge, angry animals, and sooner or later, they’ll break out and raise hell in this place. And personally, you know, I’d go with sooner. It’s fundamentally flawed because you’re trying to control nature, and it should be—should be obvious by now that that’s impossible.”

“But you’re saying animals will break out,” Muldoon presses.

Malcolm nods emphatically. “And that’s only in the beginning stages. One breaks out, the others follow, everything goes to hell. You’ve got a disaster waiting to happen here.”

“But you do have evidence to back this up,” he presses. “There are scientific predictions that the animals in this park will break out soon. That we have reason to be concerned.”

The mathematician snorts, amused. “Concerned, yeah, that’s a word. But if I were you, Ranger Rick, I—I’d be more than concerned. I’d be running for my damn life.” He looks out at the raptors, eating what remains of their lunch. “Testing the fence systematically, you said? Problem-solving intelligence?”

“That’s right,” he answers gravely.

“Well, there’s your problem.” Malcolm turns around and leans against the railing again, squinting in the sun to look at the game warden. “If my predictions are correct, we’re heading into a Malcolm Effect here. That’s a highly unstable period where the slightest change in a system can, ah, bring about major changes, often undesirable ones. And if there’ll be major changes around here—animal breakouts, uh, in your case—then you’ve got some pretty likely catalysts in there.” He points his thumb over his shoulder.

“I’m just glad I’m not alone in this,” Robert says; no one’s listened to his concerns about these animals, and now finally, finally, someone can back him up.

“Oh, believe me, you’re not. I’d keep an eye on those things.”

“I already do,” he tells him. “Even when they aren’t doing anything… they plan, you know? I can see it. I can see it in their eyes. They’ve thought it all out. They know exactly what they’ll do when they break out. One day, she’ll find a little hole in the fence, and if I’m not there, all hell will break loose.”

Malcolm tilts his head. “Why are you whispering?”

“Just a habit,” Muldoon says, realizing how his voice has dropped. “She’s probably gone already. I just don’t want to risk her hearing me, you know? Don’t want her to know I’m catching on to her.”

“Who’s “she”?” he asks, looking bewildered.

“The Big One. You know, the big raptor? She’s the pack leader. The one I’m worried about.”

Dr. Malcolm nods, stands up straight and pats Robert on the back. “You have fun with that.” He heads down the steps and strides off in the direction that the others went.

Muldoon watches him go. He doesn’t need to look behind him, at the pen. Big One is right below the platform, looking at him. He can hear her.

xxx

This is the moment. He’s been waiting for so long to take her down, and there she is, right in front of him. She can’t see him or hear him—she’s taking a drink, completely unaware that she isn’t alone. He carefully aims at her head. The Big One will never, ever know what hit her.

She can growl and plan and jump at fences all she wants, but in the end, right here, out in the jungle with nowhere for either of them to hide, they’ll see who really has the advantage. In just a second, Robert Muldoon is about to take down his greatest enemy, and it will be a triumph.

Because she’s not the greatest predator around here. He is.

He feels a warm jungle breeze on his cheek and thinks about moving so it won’t distract him, but when he turns his head, there’s a snout, and it’s blowing hot air right on his face. And he sees a pair of eyes, which he’d know anywhere. This is Big One.

She wins, he thinks, and almost laughs at himself. Look at that. She caught me off guard. They use this strategy with their prey, and now they’re using it with him. She’s caught him by surprise, and he realizes in a fraction of a second how wrong he was. She’s one step ahead of him. She’s outwitted him. She’s won their deadly game of chess. How very, very cunning.

“Clever girl,” he whispers.

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