Steve Asten, Founder and CEO of DinoLand Enterprises, Inc.
Steve is pouring himself a cup of coffee in the reception area of the security office.
He’s finally got a moment to himself: Tony’s in the conference room with the two cops, the parents of the missing boy huddle in the waiting room and Perdita has scurried off to wherever she goes to deal with problems.
He stirs sugar into a DinoLand mug, tastes the coffee, rips open two more packets of sugar and empties them into the mug as well. It had been shaping up to be such a good weekend. Steve has the food executives almost literally eating out of his hand. If he can keep this missing child thing under control — and he’s reasonably certain that he can, kids go missing all the time, after all — he can probably keep the businessmen interested.
But he has a bad feeling about whatever Doug’s problem is. Doug isn’t an easy employee: he’s never wasted an opportunity to argue with Steve about the dinosaurs, or to corner him for more money for the zoology team. Despite that, Doug has never missed a function he was ordered to attend, even if he sulked like a child while he was there.
Steve dumps another packet of sugar into the coffee and stirs. He takes an experimental sip.
He turns to see Tony’s chatty employee staring at him from behind the security desk. He’s only met her once and has already decided to fire her, but her name bubbles up to the surface of his consciousness: Fran. He’s got an excellent memory for names, one of his gifts.
“I have Doug Dalena on the phone for you, Mr. Asten.”
“Great. Transfer it over here.” Steve points at a phone near him in the reception area.
The phone rings. He feels the eyes of the parents on him and turns from them, taking a sip of his coffee.
“Doug. I have what — 10 missed calls from you on my phone? What was so important that you missed our dinner meeting tonight?”
He’s quiet for a minute as Doug yammers into his ear.
“I don’t check voicemail. Tell me right now, and keep it short.”
Doug launches into what is obviously a rehearsed speech.
“She did what? Ah.”
What he hears is troubling, to be sure. Steve will have something to say about not getting the news about his dead employees earlier this evening. He listens intently for a few minutes. Doug is predictably distraught; once he begins to repeat himself, Steve cuts him off with a loud laugh, making the parents in the corner of the waiting room jump.
“Not sure what to do? Well, that’s easy, Doug, isn’t it? I’ll be right over.”
He hangs up his phone and smiles at the parents and Fran. Then he stuffs three more packets of sugar into his pockets and strolls out, whistling.
Steve turns right out of the security complex and heads for the hills, where the brachiosaurs are kept. They’re on the other side of the park, and it can take a while to get over there, unless you’re the owner of the park.
It’s midnight. He steps briskly past the main gift shop and the cafeteria. Out in the park, pairs of flashlights are moving through the darkness, cops and security personnel, searching for the missing child. Steve waits for a pair of bobbing lights to pass in front of him, and then steps quickly into the shadow of the triceratops pen.
It’s not a quiet night. The air smells different. Bad. It’s a strong, cold, oily odor, mingled with the exhaust from a team of trucks, because that is how Doug is towing a sedated Big Girl into The Barn. That’s dangerous work. She could stumble and fall on her way into The Barn. She could fight the sedatives and go berserk. A wrong move and she’ll squash her handlers like ants. Again.
Steve skirts the pen, climbing a guardrail and taking a shortcut behind a row of concession stands. As he passes close to the bars of the enclosure, he hears the triceratops family rustling around in their prehistoric shrubbery, hooting like big owls. By this time, they’re usually asleep.
The other dinosaurs are disturbed as well. Occasionally the ground trembles; the brachiosaurs in Pens One and Two, upset by the turmoil earlier this evening, are restless. The residents of the luxury Bedrock Condos, on the other side of the park won’t get much sleep tonight.
Steve’s house is over there, too, but it doesn’t matter. He’s never been much of a sleeper, and he’s always done his best work at night. When he was a young man, he slept in his car all day and drove all night, just so he could think. He liked the unchanging scenery best: cornfields and deserts and plains. Nothing but miles of sky and road and the tires of his car, vibrating against the highway. Once he ran out of desert in the middle of a particularly good chain of thought. Rather than drive into the town he saw approaching, Steve pulled a U-turn in the middle of the highway and headed right back into the way he’d come.
Steve passes through a maze of darkened attractions and comes to the edge of Jurassic Boulevard, DinoLand’s central thoroughfare. On the other side, the park’s new glass-walled museum reflects the beams of two flashlights.
Steve pauses in the shadow of the concession stand and waits for the officers to pass. Behind the museum looms The Rex, DinoLand’s gigantic roller coaster, and behind that, the hills, and Pens One and Two. Steve can see that the floodlights in Pen One are on. He can see the female brachs’ necks as they wave back and forth, agitated. Only the allosauruses in The Pack are quiet. It’s their natural state; they only make noise to celebrate a kill. They remind Steve of the coyotes he used to hear in the desert: dead silent until the kill is made, and then all hell breaks lose, then silent again.
As soon as the lights pass him, heading back toward the allosauruses, Steve crosses the boulevard, unlocks the museum’s front door and sets off across the main floor, under skeletons of plesiosaurs and pteradons, purchased from museums. He’s still annoyed the Doug wouldn’t help him establish populations in DinoLand, but that doesn’t matter now.
It’s his park, but he’s careful not to be seen by the police officers. He’s never really liked cops. Too many of them moved him along in his youth. They’d looked down on him, thought they were better than he was. But that never bothered him then, because he knew the truth: he had vision. They might have called it vagrancy, but he’d spent his time on the road feeding that vision, coming up with the ideas that would put him on the map.
It was as if, once he’d driven enough, and seen enough yellow dashes pass beneath him, the doors of the universe would open themselves to him and allow him to walk around in its big collective brain. He had access to the knowledge of every creature that had ever lived, to the wisdom of the entire universe. It was all available to him, but he didn’t have a big enough brain to hold it all. So he wrote notes. When he hit on something he absolutely, positively could not forget, he would reach across the passenger seat and root around in the garbage there, looking for a scrap of paper and his one pencil, sharpened almost down to the eraser. There were some small tragedies: occasionally he’d lose an idea. Bumps in the road would render his handwriting illegible. A gust of wind once scattered his ideas all over the desert. Steve spent half a night frantically attempting to collect them all in the dark. Oh, it pained him when an idea got away. He hated to think that a small, precious sliver of the world’s deepest wisdom was fluttering around on a dark highway someplace. What if some drifter found his scrap of brilliance? The thought of someone else thinking ideas meant for him still maddens him. Sometimes he finds himself eyeing other entrepreneurs with suspicion. When he met the CEO of a major software company recently, Steve questioned him closely about where he’d been in the ‘70s. He was certain the man was lying when he said he’d never hitchhiked in New Mexico.
He strolls back into the museum — past eggs, fossils and the digging station for children — and lets himself through a door in a mural of the dinosaurs that once populated North America, into a hall, and through another door. A stairwell opens in front of him. Steve fumbles for a light switch, finds it, and descends two flights to the basement. A few golf carts are parked nearby. Wide, tall tunnels head off to the right and left. It smells like animals and alfalfa down here. This side of the park is built up over underground tunnels for the animals and caretakers. It’s the easiest way to get cattle into the allosaurus pen. He can hear rumbling, the kind of noise only a large animal can make. Steve jumps into a golf cart and heads off down a tunnel toward the sound. Sometimes he wishes he could go back to his life of driving and thought, just drive out of DinoLand and head for the nearest desert, but that’s impossible now.
The walls are quaking. Steve drives up an incline and around a bend, to see a huge loading bay, outlined with light. All the noise —the sounds of men shouting, a big animal bellowing and machines roaring — is coming from here.
He presses a button and the door raises just enough for him to drive through. The vaulted ceiling of The Barn opens above him like a cathedral. A huge tail soars back and forth above his head.
“Hey,” Steve leaps off the golf cart and shouts at a red-eyed young man who is cleaning some equipment nearby. “Where is your boss?”
Doug looks worried, bless his adorable little granola heart. He keeps glancing up through the office windows at the big female, Big Girl, he calls her. Steve can see that she’s injured. She’s struggling in her restraints and her whips back and forth, too high off the ground to do any damage, though when she connects with the walls, The Barn shakes. He looks back at Doug. “Dalena. I expected you at dinner after the party.”
Doug gazes up at Big Girl. “We had a problem. As you know.”
Steve leans against a workbench and shakes his head. “What I know is that you created the problem. If you had come to the dinner meeting as you were supposed to have done, we wouldn’t have four dead men and an injured brachiosaur.”
The air goes out of Doug. “If you want my resignation…”
“I do not.” Steve crosses his arms. “I need someone to clean up this mess.”
The brachiosaur bellows again.
“I understand. You said you had a way to clean up this mess.”
Steve nods. “Where do you keep the tranq guns?”
The vet, who has been dithering nearby, takes this opportunity to butt in. “She’s been tranqued, Mr. Asten.”
Steve ignores him. The big female’s tail connects with The Barn again. A corkboard falls off the wall nearby.
“This way.” Doug turns and leads Steve to a nearby closet.
Steve opens the door and looks around. Arranged on the walls are all the weapons he’s bought or developed to control the animals he’s created. Some of them he hasn’t seen in years. It’s like going through a box of forgotten toys.
“Oh my god,” he says, clapping his hands together. “Is that my old elephant gun with the depleted uranium shells? Oh it is. Hello old friend.” He lifts a .458 Winchester Magnum off the hooks on the wall and turns it over in his hands. “Are you loaded, girl? Of course you are.”
This gun was the one Steve kept in the science buildings back when he was building the prototypes for the dinosaurs. Never knew when he’d need it back then. Come to think of it, he might be needing it again soon. He slings it over his shoulder.
Doug, who has a past with elephants and elephant guns, appears to be uncomfortable. “The tranq guns are over here. Can’t we just use the one mounted on the wall in The Barn?”
Steve picks up two boxes of ammunition. “No, the wall-mounted gun is behind her. We need to be able to shoot from the front for this.” He heads to the back wall, humming, and grabs the first big tranquilizer gun he sees. Like all the guns in this particular closet, it’s kept loaded. He slings that over his shoulder as well. Out in the Barn, Big Girl bellows again.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Doug remains firmly planted in the doorway. He’s such a pain in the ass. “Why do you need the elephant gun?”
Steve sighs. “I’m taking it with me. And let me remind you that it’s my gun and my park, so I can do that.”
Doug doesn’t move. “We really need to talk about what happened earlier tonight.”
“We sure do. But tell your story, walking, huh? We need to take care of our girl out there, and fast.”
Steve brushes past Doug and heads across the office. Doug turns to follow. Heads turn as they pass.
“As I said earlier,” Doug says, “we’ve lost four people. We need to contact their families. We need to do something for them. And Big Girl appears to be in season; that’s the reason for all this. We need to talk about strategies for containing her and the other females when they go into season.”
Steve nods and opens the door onto the Barn.
The Barn stinks. Big Girl’s tail whips back and forth over their heads. SLAM. SLAM.
Steve looks around. Clusters of pale employees dot the Barn floor, trying to keep their feet while attempting to tend to their usual tasks. He stops and waits for a break between Big Girl’s bellows.
“Let’s get these people out of here, Doug. It’s dangerous. We don’t want to lose anyone else.”
Doug nods and calls over a subordinate. The man nods and heads off to the nearest group of employees.
The stairs that lead to the top of Big Girl’s stall, where her head is tethered, is across the Barn floor. Steve moves toward it, mindful of the gigantic feet that have caused so many problems lately. Doug jogs after him.
“Look,” Doug shouts, “I know we have a lot of work to do. We should probably decide whether we want to let them mate or not.”
Steve nods and heads up the stairs. He has a good five flights to ascend before getting to the ladder that will take him to Big Girl’s feeding platform and he doesn’t want to waste his breath. Doug, on the other hand, is young and in shape and keeps talking as he climbs.
“And there are obviously real problems with allowing them to have a mating season, but there’s a lot for us to learn from this. Maybe we wait this one out, out of respect for the dead and to see if she’s okay, but next time, just put one male and one female in a pen together and see what happens.”
Steve is pleased to see that the floor below is now clear of any personnel. He takes a deep breath and tackles the last flight of stairs.
“Doc doesn’t think she’s sick. But we still don’t know much about her condition. We’re worried that her injuries might be too much for us to treat, but we’ve got to try. Doc has some ideas. We can brief you later.”
Steve nods as he crests the final flight of stairs and leans on the landing, panting slightly. To his right, the big body of the brachiosaur trembles and stamps. He takes a deep breath, makes sure the guns on his shoulder are secure and starts to climb the ladder to her head.
Doug climbs after him, still talking.
“We also have a PR problem,” he yells. “We can close the pen to viewers tomorrow morning, but the EMS workers and the firefighters saw the aftermath. I don’t know how we’ll hide it from the public. The families will obviously know.”
The men haul themselves onto the platform. It’s a small metal stand, level with Big Girl’s swaying, bellowing head. They’re up there with an uneaten bale of alfalfa. Steve leans on the guardrail to catch his breath and unshoulders the guns. The Barn yawns below them.
“We will have to make a statement, Steve. To the public,” Doug says between bellows.
Big Girl noses in a little to investigate. She recognizes him, Steve knows. She remembers his scent, from back when she was a little thing in the science buildings. He lets her come in close, even though her head nudges them far back on the tiny platform, almost against the wall. He can see that she is heavily sedated. Her eyelids have wandered halfway over her eyes.
“Good girl,” says Steve. He pats her nose and feels beside him for a gun.
“Steve,” Doug says, but Steve is quick. He has the elephant gun on his shoulder, and in a moment, it’s between her eyes.
The shot echoes in the suddenly silent Barn. Big Girl’s long neck sways first one way and then the other and then the big body lists to the side and comes crashing down on the Barn floor.
Steve turns to Doug, standing there with his mouth open.
“There’s our statement. It’s the only appropriate statement we can make when a creature has killed four members of our community and your team.”
Doug looks sick. He sits down hard next to the bale of alfalfa.
Steve picks up the unused tranquilizer gun. “Now. I don’t want to hear arguments and I don’t want to see your resignation on my desk in the morning. As I said earlier, I need someone to clean this up, and if we’re being honest about this, it’s your mess.”
Doug doesn’t move. He’s staring at Steve with a combination of fear and what looks like hatred. Steve moves to the ladder, where space opens out behind him. If Doug wanted to avenge Big Girl, it would be so easy up here — just one push — but he just sits and stares.
Steve descends a few rungs and stops when his shoulders are level with the platform.
“We have investors coming to tour this facility in the morning. I suggest you get moving with the clean-up. I will send someone to help. It will be a butcher. A team of butchers, actually. Because we’re selling off the dinosaurs as meat. That’s what you missed at the meeting this evening. You really should have come.”
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.