Fiction Friday: Dinocalypse Forever – Chapters 12 & 13

Dinocalypse Forever

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CHAPTER TWELVE

Professor Khan was feeling conflicted. He felt as if he should be longing for home. His library. A proper cup of tea. His clothes, for heaven’s sake! Certainly, he missed all of those things and would be quite pleased to find a little cache containing them. But to his great consternation he found that he was enjoying himself. In the jungle. Peeling fruit off trees and shoving it into his mouth before another primate could snatch it from him. Warning the others off from his meal with a snarl and a hint of fang.

What would the Provost of Harvard say if he saw one of his lecturers engaged in such primitive behaviors?

The Professor didn’t know.

More alarmingly, he wasn’t sure that he cared.

Maybe it was something in the air, some primal tang that took him out of himself. Brought out those instincts he’d worked so hard to suppress. Made him more like…him. Gorilla Khan.

Not the Professor’s father, regardless of what anyone said. His maker, perhaps. His sire, even. But Gorilla Khan had no concept of paternal love. Sacrifice. All of the gifts he’d tried to give his son were things the Professor didn’t want and never would.

Or so he told himself…

But the life of Jochi—short as it had been—was pleasant enough. The Professor found that the longer he played the part of aggressive, dominant ape, the easier it was to maintain. He’d managed to cow everyone around him by a pantomime of anger and fury, and now they let him eat in peace. He’d convinced them all of his danger without ever having to land a blow.

It was all rather easier than he’d expected.

When the curiously-flattened Siamang ape approached his tree, the Professor swung out to meet him. Bared his teeth in aggression. Shook his massive fists. Made a show of it.

But the Siamang merely puffed out its throat bladder and stared him down.

The ape was somehow familiar. After a moment’s thought, the Professor placed the face. This was Chirrang, almost unidentifiable without his armor. Its loss was rather regrettable. The Professor had always thought it looked nice. Sparkly.

The Professor knuckled his way over to the Captain of his sire’s forces and grunted a hello. Tried to remember himself. He was Jochi, not Son-of-Khan. Definitely not the Professor. And Chirrang already suspected his true identity, so he had to play his part to the nines if he was to maintain it.

“Yes?” he demanded, as rude as he could be. “What do you want?”

Chirrang sniffed. “The Great and Mighty Khan has seen fit to promote you. You are to take charge of one of the fungal fields. The slaves grow lax. Lazy. Make them work harder. That is, if you can manage to tear yourself from your tree, Jochi.”

The Professor tried to look eager, but it came out rather sickly. Slaves? No amount of deception was worth enslaving innocents. But if he did not maintain his position, he would be unable to help them break free of their chains. He would be useless to his friends. No, the illusion must be preserved at all costs. Only then could he do the right thing, and his own fate be damned.

His mind made up, the Professor resisted the urge to convince Chirrang that he was the best gorilla for the job and would in fact make Gorilla Khan quite proud. That was the kind of thing that a civilized creature would do. The Professor’s modus operandi. Jochi, on the other hand, would want to get to the action as soon as possible.

“I need weapons. Troops,” he said. “Then point me to the fields.”

Chirrang blinked but recovered quickly. Gave an oily little grin. “Of course. You can have any of the soldiers here. Fine troops, all of them.”

The two of them surveyed the fruit grove. About twenty primates milled about, and it was clear at first glance that they were not the best that Gorilla Khan’s army had to offer. They were stunted or fat, lazy or cross-eyed. They hid here in an effort to escape the wrath of the Conqueror Ape, or to shirk their rightful jobs in favor of eating and lazing about. Either way, to go into danger with them at his back was a surefire way to get killed.

Khan almost protested, but he caught himself just in time, closing his mouth with a snap. This was what Chirrang wanted—to spur him into discourse and cause him to break his subterfuge. Besides, this was a good situation, yes? With such horrible recruits at his back, it would be quite logical for Jochi to lose control of the slaves. All of them might be freed, and he would have firm justification.

All he needed to do was play it right.

He snorted. Knuckled his nose. Thought as hard as he could about the thump of jungle drums.

Bum da dum da dum.

“You think I can’t lead them?” he said. “Watch me.”

Chirrang watched with wide eyes as the Professor lumbered over to a particularly bulbous chimpanzee squatting in the mud and promptly cuffed him upside the head.

“Line up!” he bellowed, throwing his arms out. “We go to battle. And I’ll personally deal with any deserters, so don’t even think about running!”

He watched as they came, limping and lurching and moaning in fear. Deep in his belly, he felt a stirring of fright himself, but he didn’t let it show. Instead, he continued on with his best Gorilla Khan impression. Which was all too easy to maintain.

“Move!” he yelled.

They moved.

* * *

The fungal fields were worse than he’d imagined.

And he hadn’t expected them to be all fun and games.

He stumped up to the edge of the glowing green growth. Tried to look impressed. Undaunted.

What he really wanted to do was have a nice retch into the bushes, but he resisted the urge with effort.

The growth stretched as far as he could see under the canopy of dark leaved trees. Eerie green light bounced off their undersides, like an underwater world turned sickly with mold. The fungus grew everywhere. Monstrous spore pods dripped with squirming tendrils of wet and dripping slime, letting out a steady plop plop plop that sounded like congealed rain. Warty ropes of fungus climbed the tree trunks and hung down from the canopy, disgorging puffs of musty pollen into the curdled air. No surface was left uncovered by the all-consuming slime.

And slipping and sliding among it all were the slaves. Dirty. Emaciated. Their long limbs like sticks, skin stretched to the breaking point over jutting bone. Slick with fungal secretions. Empty eyed and hopeless.

They were not human. Their eyes were too large, their bodies too long and taffy-stretched. Pointed ears. Tiny, almost vestigial mouths.

Atlanteans.

Professor Khan had never had the pleasure of making an Atlantean’s acquaintance, but he put the pieces together quite easily. As his ragtag squad of troops began to let out howls and screeches in an instinctive urge to dominate, he watched as the slaves winced, ducked their heads. The ruckus pained them.

Was it the noise that hurt them, or something else?

Were they psychic?

If so, he could use that to his advantage, perhaps.

He sent the thought out with all the mental weight he could muster. Shouted it in the caverns of his mind.

Atlanteans, I am here to help you, he thought. On my signal, you must run.

One of the slaves looked over her shoulder, eyes wide, as if she’d sensed something strange and was searching for its source—

But the others failed to respond at all. Frustrating, that.

Perhaps his mental reach wasn’t as strong as it could have been. He tried again, pushing all of his heart into it—

His desperation to help them.

His fear for them.

They had to be ready, or his best efforts might be for naught. If they could not run, he could not save them.

The wave of desperation left him panting in its wake, and now a few more heads turned toward him. Large eyes wide in faces lit by the coruscating green glow of the fungus. Faces illuminated by shock…

And hope.

After a moment, one of the guards stepped forward and cuffed a staring slave. Knocked him to the ground in an ungainly sprawl. Slipping and sliding in the muck, trying to stand with weak limbs that would not comply. The ape raised his arm again, eager cruelty on his thin lipped face.

“Get to work, slaves!” bawled the Professor, drawing all attention to himself before the creature could strike. He leapt atop the slick remains of a tree stump dotted with patches of mucoidal cilia. Held his arms aloft in a posture of dominance. Glowered with all his might. Tried desperately to summon the jungle drums. But he was too sickened by the cruelty before him to lose himself in that rush of power. Too eager to rush out and care for those poor unfortunates to summon up the aggression of his baser nature. Now, when he really needed the drums, they would not play. He was left with nothing but his wits. He feared they were not up to the task but dared not let the emotion show on his face.

“You are lazy!” he shouted, trying to quell the butterflies in his breadbasket with sheer volume. “You are weak! Gorilla Khan demands more fungus, and more fungus he shall have. All who fail him will answer to me!”

The slaves scurried to do his bidding, including the one who had been face down on the ground. The Atlantean was limping, but he was vertical, and that was triumph enough.

Now what? The Professor would just have to hope that the slaves would flee when the opportunity presented itself. None of them appeared to be restrained. So what kept them from running away? Could they run at all?

He glanced into the trees. Ah. He could see the guards placed at steady intervals throughout the fields, swinging on the mycological vines dotting the landscape. Ugh. It made Khan’s hands feel greasy just thinking about it.

Well. Now what? He could have snuck the slaves out past his ragtag group of soldiers, but the guards in the trees might be better trained. Less likely to follow his orders. More likely to spot his true intentions. So what could he do?

A slave stumbled past, weaving under the heavy weight of the burgeoning sack strapped to his back, and went down on one knee, barely catching himself with a hand in time. Tried to get up. Couldn’t.

The rotund chimp he’d berated earlier, still seething, took this opportunity to vent its frustrations on someone smaller and weaker. “You lazy piece of meat!” bellowed the chimp, shaking its fists in threat. “By Jove, you’ll get up and do your work, or I will make you get up and do your work!”

“Enough!” The Professor spoke before he could think better of it. All eyes snapped to him, and for a moment he groped for justification. Why would Jochi care if one of his apes berated a slave? He saw no answer, nothing he could say that would make sense.

The silence stretched out uncomfortably. All eyes were on him. It was the perfect time to stage a slave revolt, but Khan was frozen. He could free these slaves, but he would sacrifice his disguise. And without it, how would he get close enough to the portal to return home? It was an unwinnable standoff, but his mind refused to give in. Kept searching for an answer that would solve everything.

“What?” demanded the chimp, his courage bolstered by his leader’s obvious conflict. “What do you care about some stupid slave?”

“Yes,” said a voice from the edge of the fields, “why is that?”

With a sinking feeling, the Professor turned to see the still armorless Chirrang. The jealous captain had tailed him, by god!

And he’d brought Gorilla Khan to watch his rival’s abject failure.

“One might wonder,” continued Chirrang, “why the great Jochi cares at all for the fate of a piece of Atlantean trash. One might wonder if he is truly as loyal to the Great and Mighty Khan as he claims to be.”

The Conqueror Ape did not leap to his rescue this time. Did not move. Did not speak. Eyed him with caution and careful speculation.

The Professor could almost feel his subterfuge crumbling around him.

But it was worth a try. He looked at the prone, pitiful figure of the slave collapsed on the ground before him. Possibly dead. And he knew he had to try. More to the point, he had to succeed. And his only way out was logic. Argument. An iron-clad justification for his actions.

Then: suddenly he had it.

“This slave does not belong to you, chimp,” he said, glaring ferociously at the chimpanzee. “He belongs to the Great and Mighty Khan. And if the Khan wishes this slave to harvest fungus, then you may not interfere with that until the Khan says so.”

The chimp snorted. “The life of one slave isn’t going to matter to the Khan.”

There! The Professor saw his opening and nearly leapt for joy. But he restrained himself, and merely dropped his voice to a near whisper.

“Who are you to presume to know what the Khan does and does not want?” He paused for effect, then lifted his voice again. “The Khan’s word is my breath and blood, and I shall do nothing but what the Khan commands. If the Khan wishes this fungus to be harvested, then I will give it to him. If he wishes for it to be harvested faster, then your removal of one of his slaves from the work detail is an impediment to his wishes, and that is not acceptable. Stand back and let the will of the Khan be done!”

Slowly, carefully, he reached down and lifted the slave to his feet. The Atlantean staggered woozily until the Professor relieved him of his heavy burden. The sack smelled of rot and sweat and sickness. The Professor turned away, pretending not to care as the slave tried desperately to return to his work before one of the apes decided he was of no use any longer.

He set the sack at Khan’s feet.

Knelt there.

Tried not to hate himself for it.

“Your wish is my command, master,” he said.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Jet felt much better with his belly full of the strange tuberous fruit he’d found on the shore of a great lake that stretched farther than the eye could see. Comet seemed much steadier too now that he’d filled his gullet with fish. The two of them took to the air with glee, learning together how to ride the currents. The flight was different than his usual excursions with his jetwing. Better, because it was shared.

For a while, the two of them just flew. It seemed like forever since Jet had let go of worry and fear. Since he’d enjoyed himself. Since he’d laughed. It felt good, more like himself than he’d been in a long time. Seeing Sally turned to her Shadow side had sucked something out of him, something hopeful. But now? It felt like he was finally becoming himself again.

And Sally—the real Sally—his Sally—needed him. His friends, his family, his home. They all needed him. He’d always been content to follow the lead of others, but now they were gone. Now it was just him, and he would have to find a way to fix things. It all seemed so overwhelming, but he would make it happen. One step at a time.

Reluctantly, he urged Comet to cease arcing and wheeling in the sweet air of the higher currents. To drop lower. To start looking for the companions he’d lost.

Fun time was over. Duty called. It was time to save the world. Again.

But where to start looking? He’d lost track of the cliff where he’d landed. Was it that one to the left or to the right? And even if he found the correct cliff, whichever Centurion had ended up there certainly hadn’t sat around waiting for him to find them. They knew their duties as well as he.

His best bet was to scour the land for signs of trouble. Activity. Centurions made things happen. All he had to do was watch for something happening, and he’d find them there.

As plans went, it wasn’t terrific. But he did like the flying around part, so it would do for the moment. And it gave him a chance to scope the land. The area they were in was rather free of dinosaurs, which seemed strange. Not that he was complaining. But other than the handful of saurians he’d seen in the nesting grounds, he’d barely seen any creatures at all. It was as if they’d been driven away. Or had fled—

Perhaps they knew something he didn’t?

Then he spied something in the distance: a straight line in the wild of the jungle where no straight lines grew.

Fences. Glittering strangely with a savage electricity. He tried to wheel Comet closer to one, but the Pterosaur shuddered in pain before they even neared one of them. Refused to fly overhead.

Strange. Were they meant to keep creatures out…or keep them in? Perhaps that explained why wild dinosaurs weren’t roaming the land. This was…Gorilla Khan’s territory? Which meant those were his eggs—

The Conqueror Ape’s plan clicked into place with bone-deep certainty. But what to do about it? What could he do, without the aid of his fellow Centurions? It was more urgent than ever that he find them. They were outnumbered as it was. They needed to watch each other’s backs.

As Comet wheeled and turned, Jet noticed a smooth curve of…something. It arced over the distant trees. Massive. Glittering in the sunlight.

A dome?

Perhaps he would find the others there. He steered Comet in that direction, but the dome was impossible to reach without flying over one of the fences, and Comet refused to do it. Jet couldn’t force him and wasn’t sure he wanted to. Who knew what would happen? They could be fried right out of the sky.

Wait! What was that…greenish light off to the right? Perhaps he could get there without harming Comet.

They turned, wheeling in instinctive concert, and went to investigate.

Sadly, they couldn’t get as close a look as he wanted. The glow crept along the edges of a thick stand of trees with wide, impenetrable leaves. Comet refused to land atop them, and was in fact proving to be a bit of a ‘fraidy cat. Jet didn’t hold it against him, given that the Pterosaur was still a newly hatched baby, but it was frustrating. No amount of coaxing could get the dinosaur to attempt to breach the trees.

Fine then. They’d just have to go around.

They swung closer to the ground. Jet could see the land glowing green with some kind of growth, similar to the fungal collars worn by the psychosaur invaders back home. Moving figures dotted the mold-covered landscape.

Spotted them. Pointed!

Shouted warnings—

Fired—

Fwip! Jet heard the spear split the air mere inches from his head, felt the rush of air parted by its passing. Ducked, as if that would help. Urged Comet into a wheeling, irregular pattern which was more difficult to hit. Scanned the ground below as it swung in dizzying circles.

He had to know who was attacking him. He had to be sure that they held none of his friends hostage. Only then would he flee.

Another spear zinged past. Went wide.

But there were more of them.

He could see apes on the ground, more than he could count. And there! The familiar hulking form of Gorilla Khan stood at one end, flanked by his retainers.

It couldn’t be—

That gorilla was not Professor Khan. The Professor wore spectacles and a kilt. The Professor hated his father. The Professor wouldn’t stand there as a puffy-necked ape handed him a spear. The Professor definitely would not fling it into the air.

It whizzed past.

Their eyes met. Jet was certain that this was his friend—but even if he was right, what could he do? Had the Professor missed on purpose? Was he infiltrating the enemy camp? Was he collecting information?

Or had he done the unthinkable and switched sides?

Even worse, had the Great Khan cloned himself yet again and with better success?

The possibilities tumbled through Jet’s mind like a child’s blocks down the stairs. Distracting him. He didn’t even notice when more spears filled the air.

Comet shrieked in pain, bringing him abruptly to the present. The world tilted as they spun out of control.

“No!” shouted Jet as they tumbled out of the sky. “Pull up, Comet! Pull up!”

His frantic adjustments carried them out of range of the spears, but the Pterosaur couldn’t remain aloft much longer. His left wing was torn. Crippled. They had to land.

Jet could only pray as they plummeted toward the ground.

Comet’s grip weakened, and Jet slipped from his grasp. Nearly fell. His scarf snagged on one of the Pterosaur’s talons, choking him. His lungs contracted. Burnt with their need for oxygen as he clawed at the constricting garment. Desperately, he unwound the fabric from around his throat, further tangling it on the avian dinosaur’s leg. Took a deep, gasping breath—

Slid out of Comet’s grip.

He struck the ground hard. Dirt filled his mouth. He tumbled out of control, down a slope. Branches and trees whipped his face, cracked under the pressure of his body.

Then he was airborne.

He landed in the river with a splash, struggling, gasping for air.

The water carried him away.


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