“He would not kill me except he were musth. Then would he kill me before any one in the world, because he loves me. Such is the custom of the elephant-folk; and the custom of us mahout-people matches it for foolishness. We trust each our own elephant, till our own elephant kills us.”
— “My Lord the Elephant,” Rudyard Kipling
Steve Asten, founder and CEO of DinoLand Enterprises, Inc.
Steve Asten is strolling through one of the cavernous science buildings in the employees-only section of DinoLand. Like a man who has let himself into an apartment he’s lived in for years, he’s kicked off his shoes and hasn’t bothered to turn on the lights. He hums a little as he makes his way through a warren of labs and storage facilities. He is pleased with himself. It’s been a good day all around; his party went well, his business proposal went well and — with the annoying exception of Doug not showing up — the dinner went very well.
He’s got to drop in on Doug tonight; Perdita said something about an “animal situation” in The Barn, but he’s in no rush. He has something else to check up on first. He removes a card from his pocket and swipes it through a reader at the warehouse door. A light by the reader clicks from red to green and he swings the door open.
The hall on the other side is dark, but it doesn’t matter. He knows the way. He lets the fingers of his left hand brush the wall as he pads down the hall. One door. Two doors. Three doors. The tile of the floor is cold beneath his feet. Four doors. He turns to the right, sees the small green and red lights of a card reader and runs his card through. There is a hissing noise. He feels the pull of air. He counts to three and walks through.
Once again, he thinks, the future itself seems to have thrown its doors open for him.
The doors seal shut behind him with a clank and a hiss. He stands for a moment, enjoying the cool, odorless, moist air and the near-silence of generators and fans and coils being heated and cooled. The hum soothes him in the way the sound of car wheels on the highway used to soothe him when he was a young man.
Steve smiles. Even back then, when he was living out of a car, scraping together change for gas and food, so hungry sometimes that he considered rummaging in the trash for food, even then he knew that he was destined for this.
He stands there for a moment, inhaling the sterile air, then stretches out his arms into the darkness of the laboratory.
“Hello kids,” he says. “I’m back.
Doug Dalena, chief naturalist at DinoLand Enterprises, Inc.
Doug stands at the top of the hill in Pen One looking down on the wreckage. The brachiosaurus enclosure looks as if a giant toddler has had a tantrum, leaving broken toys strewn all over the grass. Two mangled Jeeps lie smashed into the ground. Two teams of men with backhoes labor to pull them out, the workers glancing nervously at Big Girl, sprawled unconscious nearby. The huge brachiosaurus is tied down like Gulliver in Lilliput, her huge chest laboring for breath but restless even under sedation. She is bleeding, both from the dart wounds, and from the gashes she got when she toppled onto the excavator. The excavator lies next to to her, in pieces, the arm still clutching the bale of alfalfa in its claw. It took four tow trucks to drag the machine out from under her. Doug wonders how much that maneuver exacerbated her injuries.
He watches Big Girl nervously. He’s worried about her spending too much time on the ground. Creatures her size are not meant to lie on their sides. He desperately wants to see how badly she was cut by the excavator, and he’s frantic to get the pen cleaned up and her into The Barn, so the rest of the females, still corralled in a corner of the pen by a pair of Jeeps, can once again be allowed run of their enclosure.
He knows, however, that he must risk Big Girl’s weight crushing her lungs or her heart. She has to stay on the ground. Pen One is full of outsiders: drivers of wreckers, bulldozer operators, EMTs and Fire and Rescue, who cut the remains of Alfie and the four men in the Jeeps out of their vehicles. Neither the first responders nor the Herd, shifting restlessly at the other end of Pen One, are pleased about sharing an enclosure and Doug just wants to get the pen cleaned up and all the outsiders safely away.
Then, he thinks, looking at the remains of Alfie’s excavator, then the hardest part of this clean-up — the phone calls, the meetings, the funerals and the damage control — will begin.
His thoughts are interrupted by the sound of sirens roaring up the access road towards Pen One. The police. Making all the noise they can on their way into the park. Just what Doug doesn’t need.
Doug’s worry gives way to rage. He begins running toward the pen’s gate, waving at the nearest firefighters.
“Get them to turn those sirens off,” he calls. “They’ll spook the rest of The Herd.”
But the sirens don’t stop at the gate to Pen One. Instead, three squad cars fly by the pen on the utility road. They are headed directly into the park. Doug stops near a fire engine A couple of firefighters, already uneasy about parking in a dinosaur enclosure, are listening to the police frequency, their faces pale.
Perdita Patrone, vice president of communications at DinoLand Enterprises, Inc.
I cannot get him on the phone. I’ve been trying and trying. I called his cell. I called his house. I even called his office, in the rare chance that he’d stopped in there. But since he walked out of the Ordovician Room earlier tonight, Steve is nowhere to be found.
I ran out after him, but he was gone. Now, I’m pacing back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, clutching my heels in one hand and my cell phone in the other. I’ve managed to put off the reporter for the moment, promising him that yes, I will try to get in touch with Mr. Asten and get back to him, but now I have bigger problems, because Anthony Santagata, our head of security, has called me in what passes for a panic with him.
“I need Steve out here,” says Tony. “My guys can’t find him anywhere and this lady just called the cops.”
Tobin Jones, reporter for the Waterford Gazette, hadn’t been kidding: a mother does believe that her son has been eaten by one of our dinosaurs. She and the boy’s father are sitting in Tony’s office right now. Tony is a retired New York police detective. Very little gets him upset, but tonight there is the faintest edge to his voice.
“They’re not leaving until we find the boy,” he says. “My people have looked all over the park. Perdita, I’m not sure what to do here. We can’t find the kid, not right now, not even on the security feeds from when he disappeared. I don’t know how that’s possible. Of course we’ll work with the police, but she’s convinced he ended up in a dinosaur pen. I keep telling her that could not have happened.” He sighs. “I need Steve here. Or Doug. Or someone. I can’t get anyone on the phone.”
I think, with a sinking feeling, of Doug’s serious animal situation from earlier in the evening. Is this what the people in The Barn were talking about? Did a kid somehow get past layers of precautions and security measures and slip into a dinosaur pen? I almost mention it to Tony, but think that it might be better if I keep my mouth shut for now. All the same, I think, gritting my teeth, I too would like to get Doug on the phone right now.
“Okay,” I tell Tony. “I will be right there.”
Doug Dalena, chief naturalist
Doug’s cell phone has been buzzing all night. First security. Now Perdita. He hasn’t picked up the phone; he’ll deal with them soon enough. The only call he’s made has been to Steve, and Steve isn’t picking up.
One of the teams of EMTs has finished with the two men in one of the Jeeps, and, while the rest of The Herd looks on warily, hooting softly, the ambulance, lights off, drives slowly to the gate and backs out, onto the utility road. The EMTs know, thinks Doug, and firefighters know, and soon the people at the hospital will know, and then the families of the men and then the town and then the world. DinoLand will never be able to keep a mishap like quiet. He’ll probably have to put Big Girl down. He’ll probably have to put all the dinosaurs down.
Jack appears at Doug’s side, holding a sheaf of papers..
“You could not have predicted this,” he says, although his expression is grim. “Doug, if I’d had to pick a dinosaur that might run amok, it would not have been her.”
Big Girl is a favorite of the entire team. She is a favorite of the people who came to the park too. Kids love her, and Steve has capitalized on it: she’s a cartoon, a plush toy, on tee shirts. But none of those people, he thinks, none of those people who buy those toys and wear those shirts, love Big Girl like I do, he thinks. None of them love her like Alfie did.
“We each trust our own elephant, till our own elephant kills us,” he murmurs.
Jack glances up from his paperwork. “Excuse me?”
“Never mind,” Doug shakes his head and takes the papers. “What do I have to sign here?”
But as he looks through the papers, mechanically signing waivers and forms, Doug’s brain keeps repeating the words: We trust our own elephant, until our own elephant kills us.
The words are part of a quote taped to the wall near his favorite workstation in The Barn, a passage from a Kipling story. He’d put the quote there as a reminder of his days at the Texas Elephant Sanctuary, but it’s a reminder of something else too.
The owner of the Texas Elephant Sanctuary made Doug read the story when he was hired there as a 20-something just back from working with wild elephants and rhinos in Africa. During the years he spent in Texas, Doug had learned that Kipling’s words were true. He once saw a bull elephant attack and kill his favorite handler. The elephant had always been friendly with the man, greeting him at the gate, rummaging in his pockets, and behaving as if the two had been friends all their lives. The young Doug envied the handler his relationship with the old bull; Doug loved the elephants with all his heart, but none of them ever seemed to do more than tolerate him in those days. Then the old bull went into musth and had to be isolated; an elephant sanctuary is not a breeding program and an elephant in musth, driven by hormones, will attack even its own family members. The unlucky handler had entered the elephant’s reinforced pen to bring food one day, the elephant snapped his restraints and no human is fast or strong enough to withstand an elephant. Doug was one of the handlers who helped sedate the creature. He thought he’d learned his lesson that day. Apparently not. He’d seen handlers seriously injured and two killed in his time there, but nothing on the scale of what Big Girl had done.
Doug’s work with elephants was what had brought him to DinoLand. At the age of just 28, he’d been made the director of animal care at the Texas Elephant Sanctuary. That was the reason he was hired at DinoLand; he had the biology degrees for the position, he knew how to deal with big animals, he had held a position of responsibility, and he’d been young enough not to be bound by convention.
“I like young people,” Steve had told him, when he called to offer Doug the job. “They have the right energy for the job. They aren’t afraid of new directions or bold decisions.” Doug had beaten out a zookeeper with 30 years of experience for the job. He’d been proud of that: when he took the position five years ago, he’d considered himself to be unafraid of anything, and this job had been the making of his already-promising career.
Now, standing in Pen One, staring down at the ruined vehicles, he wonders if he was truly prepared for the job: I was too confident, he thinks, I wasn’t afraid enough of the risks, I trusted my own elephant.
If you’d like to see more art from Max Farinato, visit his site here. If you’d like to read more of A.J.’s work, visit her site. Want more serial fiction from Geek Eccentric? Visit MAJK’s steampunk epic To Live a Dragon’s Age.