Perdita Patrone, Vice President of Communications, DinoLand Enterprises, Inc.
I swipe through the access gate to get home. The Bedrock Gardens condominium complex is dark. It should be; it’s three in the morning.
The gate swings open and I step through, purse in one hand, heels in the other. The walk home from my office is only 10 minutes when no one’s in the park, but that was an extra 10 minutes in heels that I couldn’t stand, so I’m ruining my stockings on the asphalt.
Tonight has been one of the worst nights of my career; I was on the phone with Tobin Jones, the reporter from our the local paper for a good hour, denying allegations (No, Tobin, a dinosaur has not eaten anyone, yes, it’s just a missing child case, the mother is distraught and made an irrational accusation. No, one of our dinosaurs, to the best of my knowledge, has not gone berserk, why would you even ask that?) only to discover after I hung up with him, that yes, in fact, a dinosaur did go berserk, and four employees are dead.
Then I had to call him back.
All that, on top of the fact that my boss decided to spice up our big business dinner by serving one of the dinosaurs as our main course, and, that in a few hours, I’ll be expected to meet those same business guests, and explain last night’s tragedy.
It’s been a hell of a night, but tomorrow isn’t looking any better, and I’m bone-tired.
I’m almost home when I realize that I’m not alone; another person is slogging home through the shadows, a man. I can’t see him clearly, but I can tell from the way he’s walking that he must be exhausted too.
Our paths have almost intersected before I recognize him.
“Doug,” I say and he stops suddenly before realizing that it’s me.
“Oh, go away,” he says and starts on his way again.
We don’t get along. We never have, but I feel horrible for him. I’ve had a bad night, but his has been so much worse. The animals are his children, and those were his employees who died.
He stops on the sidewalk and faces me. I become aware of the silence around us, in the condos and in the park. That’s the thing about being in the middle of Pennsylvania farmland. Even with a dinosaur zoo right next door, it can get very dark and very quiet.
“I just want to tell you how sorry I am,” I say. “About your team, and about Big Girl. Steve came by my office. He told me he had to put her down.”
I hear Doug take a ragged breath. “He shot her in the head.”
I hadn’t known that. I glance past Doug out to Pens One and Two, where — if the lights were on — I’d be able to see the remaining brachiosaurs in the Herd.
“A team of butchers are cutting her up in The Barn right now. For meat,” he says.
My stomach flops. “Oh.”
“Just like he did with that little male he took from Pen Two last week,” he says, and his voice isn’t sad anymore, it’s brittle. “The one that was served at your dinner tonight. The dinner you were mad at me for not attending.”
“Steve told you?”
“I heard, tonight, from the butchers.” His shadow is standing so still that he might be a statue in the gloom. “I know you don’t like me, but we’re co-workers. We see each other every day. Did you know about this?”
“I had no idea that he was going to serve dinosaur meat tonight.” It’s the truth, but Doug isn’t satisfied with stopping there.
“Did you know that he was planning to kill the dinosaurs for meat?”
I want to turn and walk away, but I take a deep breath instead. “Yes.”
His laugh is short and humorless, just like most of the laughs I’ve heard from him, but this one is different; the air’s gone out of it. “Of course you did.”
“Doug,” I say, “This upsets me, too.”
He holds up a hand. “I don’t want to hear it. I really don’t.”
We stand in the darkness for a moment.
“I really am sorry,” I say. “I am. You don’t have to believe it, but I don’t want Steve to do this. I love the dinosaurs. I’ve always loved them.”
“Okay.” His silhouette shifts and I imagine him crossing his arms. “Did you eat the meat tonight?”
The dinosaur meat was the last thing I ate, just one bite, hours ago.
I shuffle from one sore foot to the other. “One bite, I swear.”
“So yes, then.” Doug’s shadow begins to slouch away.
“Wait.” The words start tumbling out of me before I can stop them. “I didn’t want to. I had one bite because the entire table was watching me, waiting for me to take a bite. I couldn’t even taste it, but I’m the vice president of communications, Doug. I’m his second-in-command. I had to.”
Doug whips around and marches back to where I’m standing. I smell his awful aftershave from the party, faint under the smell of alfalfa, sweat, blood and dinosaur shit. “Oh, poor Perdita. You always have to, don’t you?” His voice rises. “Have you ever said no to Steve? Even once? You don’t want to, but you are always keeping his secrets, making excuses and now you’re eating the damn meat.”
This is too much. It’s been a terrible night, and now Doug Dalena — the person I’ve been pitying, the same person whose bad decisions account for one third of the crappy night I’ve had, actually — is yelling at me. Blood rises to my face; I feel like my head is buzzing.
“It’s my job,” I say through gritted teeth. I intend it to be a whisper, but it comes out a shout. A light in a window nearby snaps on. “People have to do things they don’t like for work, Doug. That’s why it’s called work.”
Doug’s voice falls back into its normal register. He sounds weary. “Of course. The ‘it’s my job’ argument. I shouldn’t expect anything else from you. Talk is cheap, Perdita. You know what’s cheaper? Saying ‘oh, it’s my job. I have to,’ when you could stop him.” He turns and stalks off into the darkness.
“Stop him?” I scream into the shadows. “You think I can stop him? Have you met him? You really think I can stop Steve? Wait, Doug. How?”
Steve Asten, Founder and CEO of DinoLand Enterprises, Inc.
It’s 3 a.m. and Steve Asten has had a busy night. He’s been from the Barn to Perdita’s office to Tony’s office and back to the Barn again to make sure that the butchers were cutting the big brachiosaur into nice, manageable cuts of meat. He wants something to show the food executives in the morning and quite frankly, he’s more excited to show them meat than a berserk animal the size of a parking garage.
Now, he only has a few hours left, but that’s still enough time for his work.
“Hello, kids,” he announces to the lab, the tanks, the test tubes, the freezer, the slumbering cells all around him.
They are all his children, quite literally. That’s one of those trade secrets he’s kept from even his own employees, and it delights him whenever he thinks about it.
He pauses by a tank to examine a floating form. Two arms, two legs, one head, but an abdomen covered in tentacles. He’s still sleeping. Steve doesn’t know if he should ever wake that one up, or if he’d even wake up at all. He made him for the hell of it, with no plans, a genetic doodle.
There are at least 30 aimless projects like that down here; ideas Steve came up with while playing around with his own genome, climbing the branches of all the evolutionary possibilities within himself. Most of them have been failures; they’re in the tanks or the freezers or went straight to the incinerator, but one of those projects? One of them worked out and Steve is so excited about it.
He finds it hard to believe he was ever this excited about the dinosaurs. Lately, they tire him, with their needs and their ceaseless demands for food and water and proper habitats and the puzzle that is their ongoing veterinary care. They’re tedious. They’re old news, and often he wished he skipped them entirely.
He has to remind himself that they were an important first step, for himself and for everyone else: Steve learned valuable things about atavism from the dinosaurs, and the world learned to expect the impossible, where Steve Asten is concerned.
He makes his way to the back of the lab, where a large pet crate sits, placed far from any furniture or equipment. Inside is a creature the size of a large dog, with a leathery ridge down its back, snoring gently on a pile of little rocks. He’s relieved to see that it’s finally asleep. It can be a terror when it’s hungry. At first glance it looks like another of the dinosaurs, but a closer look shows that it is no such thing. It’s covered in scales, rather than skin, and although it has four legs and a tail, a pair of wings is folded tightly against its body.
Steve sits down, Indian-style, on the floor nearby and feels around on the floor for the clipboard and pen he’d left there earlier. He is so proud of this little dude — he’s spent the better part of three years refining the genome, working on the shape, the biology and, of course, the wings.
The wings. He smirks. Doug thought he’d prevented him from introducing flying dinosaurs to the park, but he couldn’t have foreseen this — frankly, no one could — a flying dragon.
It’s not the first; he grew and put down so many prototypes before this guy hatched. It’s still a baby, and he doesn’t know if the wings work yet, but there’s another, more exciting development, something even better than functional wings, something that Steve wasn’t even sure was possible.
The dragon rolls over in its sleep and kicks at the air, mouth hanging gently open. From this angle, Steve can see directly into its face. Every once in a while, there is faint blue spark at the back of its throat. A biological pilot light.
He grins, and cautiously moves to the side, so that he’s not right in the line of fire, just in case.
He’d been playing around with genes, experimenting, seeing if he could create a reptile that spits gas the way some creatures spit acid, seeing if there were any way to create a spark using electric organs, like those found in electric eels. He hadn’t had high hopes — electric fish pack a high voltage because they live in water — but he thought what the hell, why not try it.
There were no results in any of his prototypes. Until this morning. This morning, he noticed his project sparking. And then there was flame.
It wasn’t impressive — not like dragon fire on popular television shows — at first, it was more like one of those things you use to light a grill, and by lunch it had become more like the flame on a gas stove. Not impressive, but still, it was flame. Actual dragon fire. Something no one has ever seen before.
Steve had been so excited. He wanted to show someone, anybody. But there was no one to show. This is his personal lab. No one comes in here — not even to clean — and no one knows about his projects. He likes it that way.
But he likes to show off more.
That had been a mistake. Still, if he had to make a mistake, it was probably best to make a mistake when you’ve got an impossible dragon in your secret lab.
Steve feels around in his pocket and brings out the tip of a shoelace. The end is charred. He throws it into the cage, onto a large pile of ashes in the corner.
He makes a note on his clipboard. Dog crates from the pet store aren’t going to cut it anymore. He will have to move Zippo into a fireproof tank; a big one.
And that’s it for DinoLand in 2014, kiddos! Max and AJ are taking a break for the holiday season, but we will be back in February with Chapter 11.
Will Perdita try to stop her boss? Will Doug quit and return to the elephant sanctuary? Or will Steve Asten go Full Targaryen and set his dragons on them all? Find out on Sunday, Feb. 7 when DinoLand returns!
Hungry for more dinosaurs?
Desperate for more dragons?
Read MAJK’s steampunk epic To Live a Dragon’s Age.