To keep your appetite whetted, as I know it’s been a while, here’s the first chapter from Fire and Bone, the sequel to Bestiarii, which will be out later this year…
The big black SUV glided to the curb and paused, like a large bird on a narrow perch. The bulky driver was in a suit, with wraparound sunglasses. He looked in every direction for potential problems, but on such a busy street, with vehicles and pedestrians everywhere, scanning for threats had as much to do with spotting people or objects that didn’t fit into the normal human ebb-and-flow as anything else. The SUV’s armor would stop anything short of a rocket-propelled grenade. They’d had to pass through several roadblocks manned by military and police just to approach the building, but still.
“It is fastest for you if you go in here,” Manuel said, nodding toward the mirrored glass lobby doors of the high rise. “They are expecting you. I have to park in the basement garage.”
In the back seat Seamus looked around as well, but didn’t see anything that caught his eye. He patted the driver on the shoulder. “Thanks Manny.”
Seamus got out onto the concrete sidewalk, dragging the small backpack off the seat, and closed the door, squinting. Compared to the cool dim interior of the Chevy the heat and glare on the Mexico City sidewalk made it seem like he’d accidentally taken a detour to the surface of the sun. He was dressed in a navy blue polo shirt over a pair of khakis. The Raven PMC crest was on the breast of the shirt. He had a pistol openly on his right hip. He slung the backpack over his left shoulder and strode toward the front entrance. Manny waited to pull away until Seamus was entering the building, the front of which had been bomb-proofed long ago. Well, nothing was truly bomb-proof. Perhaps “bomb resistant” was a better moniker.
There was one man in a blazer behind a desk just inside the front door, and three uniformed security personnel on the far side of a metal detector. There was an X-ray machine next to it, with a small conveyor belt.
“Señor?” the blazered building employee said politely, his eyes darting from the pistol on Seamus’ hip to the Raven logo on his shirt and back. Seamus knew that between his short hair, athletic build, and European mein he looked exactly like what he was, the very model of a modern Major-General. Or a gringo interloper interfering in affairs Mexicanos didn’t need any help with, gracias, don’t let the door hit you in your milk-white arse on the way out of the country. He was a proud and professional private military contractor in current terminology, mercenary in the original vernacular, escarabaja in the local lingo—beetle, due to their armored uniforms. Escara, for short, which conveniently also meant scab.
“Seamus O’Malley, here to see Señor Echevarria,” he said with a smile.
“Yes, Señor, of course,” the man said, and gestured toward the X-ray and metal detector. The conveyor belt on the X-ray machine kicked into motion with a hum.
Seamus set the backpack on the conveyor belt and strode through the metal detector. The alarm was muted, almost polite. Seamus looked from the uniformed guard in front of him, down to the pistol on his hip, back up at the man, and shrugged. The guard held a hand up, but before he could say anything, the man operating the X-ray machine made a strangled noise as he stared at the video screen before him. He stood up from his stool and stepped over to the conveyor belt as Seamus’ backpack rolled into view.
The guard pulled the backpack off the belt, took hold of the top of the main flap, and pulled it down. The backpack peeled open like a banana, revealing the stubby black lines of the suppressed submachinegun inside.
“Señor,” the guard said, looking up at Seamus, sounding as if his feelings had been hurt.
Seamus gestured at the Raven Private Military Corporation crest on his shirt. “I’m not here to empty the rubbish bins, lads.”
“Yes, sir, but you will have to check your firearms with us before you go up,” the guard in front of him said. There was a smile on his face that didn’t reach his eyes.
“Do I know you?” the X-ray technician asked Seamus.
Seamus looked over at him. “I don’t think so, this is my first time here.” He looked back at the guard in front of him, the dead-eyed man who seemed to be the senior operative. “I did mention I was here to meet with Señor Echevarria? Gordito. The chap who owns the building?”
“Yes sir, but you will have to check your firearms with us to get into the building. There are no exceptions, Raven or no.” There was no room for doubt in his tone. He rested his hand casually on the holstered pistol at his waist. Seamus pretended not to notice. He knew he could draw and shoot all three of the guards in their heads before the man behind the desk produced whatever weapon he was sure to have hidden.
“I do know you,” the guard manning the X-ray machine said, frowning at Seamus.
“I’ve always liked to think of myself as exceptional,” Seamus said to the senior guard. He smiled as warmly as he could. “So I’m afraid they go where I go. Perhaps you could call upstairs, check with Mr. Echevarria? Or his head of security, Beni Trujillo? I’m sure Beni can straighten this out.”
He traded a smile for the hard stare of the man for several seconds, until the guard nodded to the man behind the desk. Behind him, Seamus heard the man pick up a phone. All of them stood there awkwardly for several long minutes, Seamus looking bored, until the faint hum of opening elevator doors sounded nearby. Beni Trujillo walked into view shaking his head. He wore an immaculate off-white suit and seemed to be fighting back a smile.
“A gringo with a strange accent causing my men irritation, refusing to give up his guns before seeing Señor Echevarria. Guns, plural. I didn’t even need to hear your name to know it was you,” Beni said to Seamus.
“Irishmen have no accent, ‘tis the rest of the world that suffers from a speech impediment,” Seamus explained, smiling. The two men shook hands firmly. The expensive suit was perfectly tailored to fit Beni’s trim build, and Seamus couldn’t spot any telltale bulges even though he knew Beni had to have a pistol on his belt.
“I know him. I’ve seen him before, but he says he’s never been here. So why is he so familiar?” the X-ray guard said to Beni in rapid-fire Spanish, assuming Seamus wouldn’t understand him.
Seamus turned to the man. “Perhaps you’ve only ever seen me naked and it’s the clothes that are throwing you off?” he replied in Spanish liberally colored with Irish vowels.
The guard’s eyes opened wide, and he seemed ready to jump over the conveyor belt and pummel Seamus when Beni held up a hand. “Naked,” Beni agreed, staring at the guard, then looking pointedly as Seamus. “Holding a machete, wasn’t it?”
“And bugger all else,” Seamus agreed.
“¿El hombre con el tyrannosaur?” the senior guard said, jerking his head backward as if he’d been slapped. He’d thought Seamus looked familiar as well, but had been unable to place the man until ‘naked’ and ‘machete’. A dirt- and blood-streaked naked man holding a machete and screaming in the face of a roaring not-quite-adult tyrannosaurus rex wasn’t an image easily forgotten, no matter how blurry the helicopter gun camera photo was. “Puta madre.”
“That was my reaction at the time as well,” Seamus said amiably. Officially all the genetically-engineered dinosaurs populating the famed Pangaea amusement park-slash-prehistoric zoo in northern Mexico had been killed when the communist guerrillas of La Fuerza had attacked it twenty years earlier, but of course the truth turned out to be far different. Still, Seamus hadn’t been expecting to dance with a T. rex in his altogether.
“You’re the escara who rescued Señorita Echevarria from La Fuerza?” the X-ray man said to Seamus. The guards exchanged a look.
Seamus tilted his head toward Beni. “With more than a little help.”
“Why were you naked?”
“La Fuerza thought I’d be easier to chew.”
“Did you kill it?” X-ray man asked, his eyes wide. “The tyrannosaur?”
Seamus shook his head. “I buried the machete in its snout and ran like a nancy.” He waved his hand toward the front doors and the sidewalk beyond. “It’s still out there somewhere.” The gazes of all three guards followed his hand, and they stared through the tinted bomb-resistant glass expectantly, as if the dinosaur could stroll by on the sidewalk at any second.
Beni walked over to the table and looked down at the submachinegun stowed inside the backpack. He sighed loudly and shook his head, then zipped the bag back up, lifted it, and handed it to Seamus. The bag was surprisingly heavy for its size.
In the elevator the men stood side by side, staring at the closed doors as they rose toward the penthouse. Beni frowned. “You were, how do you say it, taking the piss with them, no? About the dinosaur?”
Seamus shook his head. “They never found its body, so it got out of the compound. I never saw it after I hit it with the machete and ran away.”
Seamus made it sound cowardly, but Beni knew the man had run away from a dinosaur…into a big estate house filled with guerrillas. Killed his way—still naked—up to the third floor and Señorita Echevarria. Whom he’d then guarded until help arrived, first in the form of Beni, Manuel, and un inspector con los Federales, followed shortly by dozens of the mercenaries who, on behalf of Los Estados Unidos, were helping Mexico fight its civil war. He gestured with his chin at the backpack in Seamus’ hand. “Better than a machete, but wouldn’t you want something more powerful? That fires pistol cartridges, no?”
Inside the pack Seamus had a Heckler and Koch MP5K PDW, which was a short-barreled 9mm submachinegun with a folding stock and a stubby sound suppressor, called a silencer by twats who didn’t know any better. The gun was far from silent when fired, it just wouldn’t cause immediate hearing loss. He already had enough of that. The design of the MP5 itself was almost a century old. This sample—which he’d found in the back of a Raven armory, nearly new—was almost fifty years old, which practically made it an antique.
Then again, the Walther P99 on his hip was just as old. It had belonged to his father, and most of the finish had been worn off the slide. Seamus was shocked it had made it through so many years of fighting in Mexico. With his free hand Seamus reached up and popped the magazine release on the Walther, and brought the freed magazine up for Beni to see. The front of the bullet was three metal edges, almost knife-sharp, reminiscent of the Daimler-Benz logo. It tickled him to think he’d be imprinting people with the world-famous Mercedes trademark every time he pulled the trigger. Although he’d yet to use this actual ammo in a serious social situation. Identical ammo filled the five 30-round magazines he had in the bag with the MP5.
“Armor piercing,” he told Beni. “From the Black Hills in Los Estados Unidos. Goes through soft armor like butter. Not the hard armor plates, especially not the new ones we’ve got, but those will stop even rifle bullets, so I’d rather have something short and light and maneuverable when I’m in town.” He hoisted the backpack. The little MP5K was his favorite bullet hose…after Leonidas, his personal heavy-caliber battle rifle, which had gotten him out of some serious scrapes. Which he’d left in the car with Manny, so it wasn’t too distant.
There was a pretty secretary behind a gorgeous wood desk which looked more a work of art than a work station, then a short hallway, then some suitably impressive red wood doors. Beni opened one and stood aside to let Seamus enter first.
Eduardo Manuel Echevarria, Gordito to the press, Eddie to his friends, was coming around from behind his desk, a big smile on his face. The windows behind him looked out on downtown Mexico City from sixty-five floors up.
“Sergeant O’Malley, so good to finally meet you in person,” he said, beaming. He was the same height as Seamus, but thicker, and with much more gray at his temples. The two men shook hands. It was while his hand was clasped in both of Echevarria’s that Seamus was ambushed from the side. The hug took him quite by surprise.
“We can never repay you,” he heard, the voice behind his neck fighting back a sob. He turned his head as Rosita Echevarria let him go, stepped back, and wiped at the tear sneaking from the corner of her eye.
“Señora. And here I thought your daughter was the pretty one,” Seamus said to her. She’d gained fame and the attention of a much younger Eduardo Echevarria while an actress. They now had three beautiful grown daughters, and Gordito was the richest man in Mexico, a country that was now, maybe, hopefully, going to see the end of a civil war that had been raging for most of twenty years.
“Oh, Tina said you were a charmer,” Rosita said. She planted a big kiss on his cheek, then stepped back. Beni stood off to the side, watching, not saying anything, a tiny smile touching the corner of his mouth, almost imperceptible if you didn’t know him.
“Señor, Señora, I apologize for not meeting you before this.” He had talked to them on the phone twice since the incident in question. Two months earlier he’d been in a helicopter crash with their daughter and several other civilians. Their mismatched group had spent several days being pursued by guerrillas through the mountains of northeast Mexico. Even for a veteran of the Paras, who’d spent over a decade as a private military contractor, those few days had been memorable, even before the FRAP guerrillas tried to feed him to Chico, their pet T. rex.
Eduardo let go of Seamus’ hand and waved his, two of his short fingers adorned with thick rings. “I am Eddie. To the man who saved my Margarita?” He gestured at himself and his wife. “Eddie, and Rosita. You are family. Please.”
“If you insist.”
Eddie sat on the front of his desk and regarded Seamus with his bright eyes. “You have been very busy, yes? As have we all. Thanks to you, and many others, Timotéo was killed, along with two of his generals. Without his leadership the remaining generals have been ineffective. Arguing, we have heard, vying for power. None has been able to take charge, and so they are in disarray. La Fuerza has been on the run. Struggling.”
Seamus nodded, and looked back and forth between the man and his wife. “I’ve been doing my part to end this war. It’s what I was in the middle of when I got the call to report here. Kicking their disorganized arses left and right. Not that I’m not happy to meet both of you, but I suspect there’s more to this than a social call.”
Eddie smiled. “When you got the order to come here. It was from your commanding officer in Raven, si?”
“Colonel Kresge? Yes.” Seamus frowned. “In fact, he said to call him once I was here with you.”
Eddie nodded. “Perhaps you should do that now.”
Seamus dug his satellite-enabled Raven-issued encrypted Sirion S5 Datapalm out of his pack and punched in a number, wondering exactly what was going on. “Kresge,” he heard in his ear.
“Colonel? Sergeant O’Malley. I’m here with Señor and Señora Echevarria. Is there something I needed to know?”
“Yes, Sergeant. You’re being reassigned. I’m pulling you off the Raven tac teams and sticking you on an EP detail. The Echevarrias have all the information.”
“Sir, I…” Seamus tried to choose his words carefully. “While I appreciate a change of scenery as much as the next bloke, I really think—”
“Sergeant, this is not my decision. This decision was made above my head. I was not consulted on it, I was just informed of it, and am just passing it along. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Kresge was now one of the highest-ranking men in Raven, so if he was being ordered around like a lackey…. Seamus glanced at the richest man in Mexico. A billionaire. One of his daughters—not Tina—was married to the Attorney General. The President of the country had become personally involved in the rescue efforts of Echevarria’s daughter as well, tasking CISEN, Mexico’s intelligence agency, to assist. “Yes sir.”
“Whenever that assignment is over, report back to me.”
If there’s still a war on, Seamus thought, but instead replied, “Yes sir.” He disconnected the call and looked at Echevarria, still sitting on his desk. “Apparently I’ve been seconded to you?”
Eddie smiled warmly. “I am told there is a price on your head, no? One million American dollars. For killing Timotéo.”
Seamus nodded. “Yes. For my head,” he said drily. “Two million if they get it still attached to my body and I’m breathing.” Eduardo and his wife traded a look. They hadn’t heard that detail.
Seamus nodded. “Si, Señora. Due to, perhaps, an excess of enthusiasm on my part. A mistake.” Which is why he traveled everywhere heavily armed.
“That photo you took of yourself, smiling, with Timotéo dead behind you. Naked?”
“His penito hanging out como un nariz de un ratón?” Rosita added, nearly spitting.
Seamus fought a smile. Nose of a mouse? As good a phrase as any to describe the guerrilla leader’s diminutive equipment. “That’d be it, aye. A bit of indiscretion, taking that thumbs-up selfie, caught up in the heat of the moment and all that, but I didn’t think it would make the rounds, and ultimately be seen by those FRAP bastards. Should have known better. Which is why I’ve got this badger about my neck.” He gestured at the short-trimmed beard he’d grown to help camouflage his face. It had a tinge of red in it, a fact of which he was secretly delighted. He couldn’t do anything to camouflage his accent, however. Seamus looked from the man to his wife and back. “The whole world thinks I slotted him. And I have not said differently. To anyone.” He glanced over his shoulder at Beni who gave him a slight nod.
“Yes, we know,” Rosita told him. “And we thank you. Tina she has…struggled, somewhat, with what she did.”
“She did nothing wrong. She did what she had to. His pants were down for a reason. Her gutting him with his own knife was exactly what he deserved.”
The parents of the girl in question traded another look. “Yes,” Eddie said. He cleared his throat. “Tina, she has received threats, many threats. Because she was there, at la hacienda where Timotéo was killed and La Fuerza attacked. Because she is my daughter. She has good men about her, protecting her, but we asked for you specifically. And with that price on your head, and la diana, what is it…”
“Bullseye,” Beni said from the back of the room.
“Yes, bullseye on you, Raven decided getting you off the front lines might be the best thing.”
“I’m being binned? Thrown away?” Seamus added, when he saw they didn’t understand his meaning. “No offense, but I’d rather be where I can do the most good, and I’ve never been good at much but soldierin’. EP work, executive protection, is not my specialty. I’ve done it, but….”
“Think of it as a well-earned vacation,” Mrs. Echevarria told him. “Tina has finally finished all of her field research and studies and now she needs to spend several weeks writing her thesis. Plus, she never really took any time off from her studies after what happened, did you know that? So she’s due for a vacation as well.”
“She has a full-time protection detail,” Eddie told him. “We’d just like you assisting the detail, and working as a Raven liaison. And La Fuerza has put a bounty on her head as well, five hundred thousand dollars, for being complicit in Timotéo’s death.”
Seamus’ eyebrows perked up, because he hadn’t lied to them, he had not told anyone outside the room that it was in fact Margarita ‘Tina’ Echevarria who had killed the leader of Fraternidad Progresista para un Mexico Nuevo, the not-so Enlightened Brotherhood for a New Mexico, as he was trying to rape her. Seamus had taken credit for it specifically to keep her out of trouble. “Complicit?”
“She was there, that is all they know. But that is enough. They already hated her, and me, enough to kidnap her in the first place.”
Seamus sighed. Bodyguard. To a girl. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. “How long?”
“Let’s say…a month.”
“A month?” He bit back profanity and forced a smile.
“Manny will be joining you,” Mrs. Echevarria told him helpfully.
At his continued frown, Eddie said, “Would it help to know that you won’t be spending the month here but rather in Cancún?”
The roar of a Hydra jumpjet taking off shook his office, and Aarne Anders pressed a palm over the earpiece so the client—potential client—wouldn’t be distracted by the noise overhead.
“You come very highly recommended.”
The comment made Aarne smile. “Well, thank you, Mr. Miller. You said it was Jacob Baumgartner who recommended you to us? He booked a lovely two-day hunt with us last year, if I remember correctly. A successful one as well.” Aarne slid an expensive fountain pen into its holder and leaned back in his chair, tugging down the front of his vest. While he was still in the habit of wearing three-piece suits, the headquarters of PaleoSafari, Inc., were not impressive at all. An eight-by-ten foot office in an unmarked building on a Raven PMC base in southern Texas that did not, officially, exist. Across from his desk a large topographical map of Mexico was pinned to the wall, and his eyes roamed over it. “Near Monterrey, if I remember correctly. Is Mr. Baumgartner a friend?”
His office didn’t need to be opulent. He did all of his business by word of mouth. Generally, by the time he met his clients, he already had their money. The few times he met with clients before sealing the deal, he went to them. He was the maid, secretary, CEO, janitor, and accountant of PSI, all bundled up into one jovial ginger-haired package.
Aarne heard a snort. “No, he’s my lawyer. But he’s as much of an outdoorsman as I am. And I was out to his house last month, and saw his full body mount of that giant raptor. I assumed it was a fake, a movie prop, I know he does some work for the Hollywood types. The feathered tail threw me off. But he insisted it was real, and gave me your contact info. Before I called you I did some research. I’m still having a hard time believing it.”
“The not-so-secret story of Pangaea’s escaped dinosaurs is getting less and less secret every day,” Aarne said with a thin smile. Two Texas ranchers had posed with the body of a not-quite-full-grown Richardoestesia Gilmorei they’d shot not one hundred miles from where he was currently sitting. Of course, all the imbeciles in the media had referred to it as a velociraptor, never mind that the size, the coloring, even the jaws were all obviously wrong for a raptor. “The lovelies keep breeding, and spreading, with a speed and intensity which varies depending on the species, of course. Sightings now all the way from Oklahoma to El Salvador. That Utah is the largest of the raptors, and Jacob Baumgartner got an exceptional specimen. Over seven hundred kilos. And it nearly killed him, did he tell you that story?”
“Yes. He says he still has nightmares. And that he’d pay twice as much to do it again, except his wife forbids it.”
“That was a night stalk. Generally you have to hunt raptors at night, using goggles and scopes. Coelophysis—everyone calls them seals—look a lot like smaller raptors, but they’re daytime hunters. What kind of hunt were you interested in? Raptors, like your attorney? Unusual herbivores like Massospondylus, or protoceratops? We’ve got those protos all over, and as our hunts go those are quite reasonable. Not quite like hunting a meat eater, I’ll grant you, but a beaked dinosaur crest on your wall doesn’t look like anything but.”
“I presume you have a list you can send me of available hunts?” Aarne noticed he didn’t ask about the cost. Chances are, if you had to ask, you couldn’t afford it.
“Of course. Species, where they’d most likely be found, and when. It varies somewhat with the season, and even after twenty years their numbers are still thinner than the creatures who haven’t been MIA for a few million years. It makes me wonder where we’ll be in a century or two, how thick these extinct breeds will be in the Americas, how far they’ll have spread.” He stared up at the plain ceiling in thought, then shook his head.
“Anyway, PaleoSafari, Inc., contracts with several professional hunters situated around Mexico who track various species. I’ve got a client out right now near the Tampico wetlands, going after a Dimetrodon. Which isn’t even a dinosaur, truth be told, they died off some forty million years before the dinosaurs arrived. But he’s obsessed with that sail they’ve got.”
A week or so hence he had another client heading south on a safari, one not so tame as hunting a slow-moving fish-eating water lizard like Dimetrodon. Not only was the game itself a bit spicy, but so was the locale. A little far south for Aarne’s taste, La Fuerza still was a presence in that part of the country, but the client had insisted, and paid handsomely for the chance to risk his life. A famous but aging Hollywood actor, known for doing his own stunts on-screen and engaging in extreme sports all around the world. Apparently bagging one of the Pangaea Big Three—T. rex, triceratops, or brachiosaurus—was on his bucket list, and he was willing to pay whatever it took. And stay in the field until the hunt was a success. Aarne normally would have been hesitant to engage in what sounded like a disaster in the making, an ego trip in every way, but for one thing….
Randy Max (born Randall Maxwell Schmidt, three Oscar nominations to date but no wins) had been touring Army bases in Oman with the USO eight years earlier when the FOB he was visiting was attacked by a horde of Caliphate berserkers. The attack was, eventually, repelled, with a huge number of casualties on both sides. And that would have been the end of it as, uncharacteristically, Max had refused all interviews about the incident. Then shaky video surfaced of Max during the pre-dawn attack, braving enemy fire, dragging badly wounded soldiers to cover and defending them with their own rifles while they were patched up by medics. To this day he had refused to answer any questions about the attack, but the soldiers he’d pulled to cover credited him with not just saving their lives but with perhaps a dozen kills during the human wave attack. And the man had gone back out on tour with the USO every year since. A lifetime ago Aarne had done his own time in Chad fighting the Caliphate, and very happily took Randy Max’s money and wished him success. And meant it.
“Of course, hunting dinos is no different than Dall sheep, there’s no guarantee you’ll get one. We’re not on a high fence ranch, shooting animals in the literal equivalent of a petting zoo, all these animals are out in the wild. Although we do have a long list of satisfied clients. Our PH’s are rather good at getting their clients on animals. At that point it’s up to you.”
The success rate of PSI’s clients was very high, but not quite perfect. His biggest failed hunt, so to speak, had been the safari he’d booked for Roger Rudd and his son earlier in the year. The two had never even met up with their professional hunter. The Raven helicopter they’d hitched a ride on was brought down by guerrillas in what Aarne had learned was a kidnap attempt. He still didn’t have all the details, Raven was a bit closemouthed about such things, and Roger Rudd hadn’t been too forthcoming either. He’d told Aarne only Raven personnel had died in the incident. Rudd hadn’t been angry or upset with Aarne or PSI…but he had expected a refund.
“And this is all legal? No problems with the Mexican government?” Miller asked.
“Ah, yes. Of course, of course, perfectly legal. But things have changed since Mr. Baumgartner trekked down. For a number of years the authorities in Mexico were sticking to the official story, that all the dinosaurs were killed when the guerrillas attacked the park those many years ago. So anyone selling hunts for animals that didn’t exist would be engaging in fraud. All of Jacob’s paperwork and licenses indicated he was coming down to Mexico to hunt mule deer, if I’m not mistaken. If he happened to shoot a Utahraptor in the course of his travels…well, there’s no law against shooting an animal that, technically, legally, doesn’t exist in the wild. It required a few bribes here and there, especially to get the taxidermied animals out of the country, but such is the cost of doing business.”
“But, as I said, things have changed. First, some of those creatures have had the audacity to wander beyond the borders and get themselves noticed. It’s hard to shout ‘Fake!’ when it’s a truckload of uniformed American Border Patrol agents who have run over an errant velociraptor and then posed for photos with it.”
Tim Miller laughed. “Yeah, I saw that.”
“Second, and perhaps most importantly, one enterprising soul in the Mexican government took it upon himself to research the princely sums countries in Africa were charging to hunt lions and elephants and such. And assumed PSI, and my one addled competitor, are charging similar amounts to bag these Jurassic beasts. Of course, governments always want their cut. So…while nothing has been announced publicly, your hunting license will list the exact animals you intend to hunt, so no more wink-wink nudge-nudge necessary. However, our prices have gone up a tic, to line the coffers in Mexico City in their ongoing war against poverty and the occasional communist insurgent.”
The door was open, so she knocked on the doorframe. Marie Bernard, the head of her department, looked away from her computer screen, and blew stray hair out of her face. “Oui?” She looked very harried.
“I need ten minutes. Ten…five? Five uninterrupted minutes,” Sadie Simon said, holding up a hand with her fingers spread. Her accent marked her as a native Parisienne. She was thirty-six, nearly six feet tall, slim as a reed, with long dark hair. Her doctorate was in entomology, earned in the very university where she now taught, École Pratique des Hautes Études, one of thirteen constituent schools in the Paris Sciences et Lettres Research University, known to everyone as PSL.
Marie leaned back and worked her stiff neck from side to side. She had two doctorates, and for a decade held the PSL record for the most time in one year spent in the field. Now, she couldn’t remember what the sun on her neck felt like. She glanced toward her fourth-floor window. It faced north, and seated at her desk she could see nothing but gray sky. If she went to the window and looked down she could see an elevated Métro line and Boulevard Saint-Jacques below that. The school building was on the border between the 13th and 14th Arrondissement, just south of the center of the city. An uninspiring commercial and residential area. Beyond the Métro line were trees, apartment buildings, a few commercial buildings, but nothing visually exciting. The Louvre, the Tour de Eiffel, any structure with interesting architecture or historical significance, they were hidden from her view or were all kilometers away.
Among her other duties, Marie ran the SIEB—Systèmes Intégrés, Environnement et Biodiversité PhD program. All told she had ninety people under her supervision, seemingly bent on making sure she died of stress before her fiftieth birthday. A fast-approaching date of which she was fully aware, and dreaded. Twenty-two of those ninety people were professors like Sadie, although she at least liked Sadie, and the two women got along.
“You can have five minutes, and then we’ll see,” Marie said with a smile.
“What have I been saying for years?”
“That you hate American food? That your students are getting dumber every semester? That corporate patents are strangling medical advancements? That the gutters should be electrified so any men pissing in public would be electrocuted? That Monet was vastly overrated? There’s a long list.”
Sadie walked into the room, a tablet in one hand. She stepped around behind the desk and set the tablet down. “That there were sauropods, in the wild, in Mexico.”
Marie stared down at the photo of the American police officers posing with the corpse of a feathered dinosaur. Some sort of raptor, apparently. The area looked very arid. “I’ve never argued that. There’s been too much anecdotal evidence.” She nodded at the tablet. “I saw that last week. There have been a few others that were obviously authentic.”
“And what else have I been saying?” Sadie said. She swiped her finger across the tablet, and hit the play button.
The video showed a cloud of beautiful butterflies, their wings yellow with gold and red highlights. They were in the air, the sky bright blue behind them. Then they moved down, and a crowd of laughing children came into view, holding their arms up and dancing excitedly. Some of the butterflies were brave enough to alight on the children’s outstretched arms.
“Merde,” Marie breathed, her eyes wide. The butterflies’ wings were as wide as the children’s bodies. Wider. “This is real?”
“From a local news broadcast.”
Marie looked at the dark skin of the children, and their clothes. “Where is this?”
“Veracruz, Mexico. It’s on the gulf coast, on the Caribbean. Those old videos, of Pangaea, you can see butterflies just like these in the exhibits with the animals.”
“Yes, I know, you’ve told me on several occasions. But you could never be sure of the scale.”
“Are you sure of their size now? Their point of origin? Because I am.” She leaned in. “Look, the corporation which owned that park, they never admitted to resurrecting anything but dinosaurs, no mention of plants or insects, but one look at photos and videos from their animal exhibits and anyone with a background in the appropriate sciences knows the truth. The ground was covered with extinct species of ferns and benettites, cycads and gymnosperms. And now these.”
“The Queen Alexandria’s birdwing has wingspans in excess of twenty-five centimeters. It is not Jurassic, or even paleolithic, they are flying about right now.”
“Does that look like a Queen Alexandria birdwing to you?” Sadie said, stabbing her finger at the video, which had now looped. “Do you recognize those markings?” Marie had spent a number of years engaged in lepidoptery.
Her department head frowned. “There are over seventeen thousand species of butterflies around the world, I don’t recognize most of them. Especially since I’ve given up butterflies for this.” She waved a hand around her office.
“Well, I put our bio-imaging software on this,” Sadie told her, “and it could not identify it. The computer compared it to our database, which includes over ninety percent of all lepidoptera species, and couldn’t find a match. I appreciate you playing Devil’s Advocate, but you know I’m right. It’s bigger than a QA birdwing anyway, by at least ten percent, with a much bigger surface area on its wings.”
“Okay. Let’s say I agree. And?”
Sadie nodded, eager to move on. “I found this video three days ago, and have been doing research. These butterflies, they are migratory. They come through Veracruz every year about this time, and have for four, maybe five years in a row. And their numbers are increasing. The Queen Alexandria doesn’t migrate. Only one known butterfly species is known to make two-way migrations, Danaus plexippus plexippus, and these aren’t Monarchs. As you well know. They apparently take a rest in Veracruz. They are in the area about two weeks, then move on. Which means I’ve got at least a week before they’re gone.”
“A week? To go there? To Mexico? It’s at war!” Marie was astounded.
“How many times did you go to Africa?” Sadie asked her. “When has that continent ever known peace? I want to follow that swarm and find their home. Can you imagine what else might be there? What else has spread from the park? Veracruz is five hundred kilometers from Pangaea, although Monarchs migrate much further than that. This time of year they’ll be heading south, and I’m curious to see how far they go, where they’ll end up. Look, none of the other dinosaur parks have reanimated any insects. No flying animals other than Pteranodons. Only a few plants, and those large and unusual for park guests to ooh and aah over. While they didn’t publicize it, Pangaea seems to have tried to replicate the dinosaurs’ environment with plant mass and insect life, and in that aspect it was unique. I’ve heard just as many rumors about giant griffinflies, Meganeura, Meganisoptera, as I have butterflies. So have you. A wingspan this big.” She held her hands two feet apart. The prehistoric flying insects had four wings and resembled modern dragonflies. She’d seen photos purporting to be of those massive insects in the wilds of Mexico, that she believed were real, but either the size of the animals in the photos or the authenticity of the photo itself was in question. Off-the-shelf CGI programs now allowed the average person to make realistic videos of nearly anything with just a few hours work at their computer.
“All the park records are sealed up, and there’s no comprehensive public record of what they did, or list of what plants and animals they reintroduced, much less what survived the attack. But if Meganeura monyi or any of the other extinct genera have been brought back, I’ll find them when I find those yellow beauties, I’m sure of it.” She gestured at the tablet. “And then maybe we can get an answer to the oxygen question.”
Marie nodded slowly, frowning. Giant insects like the butterflies in the video and the rumored Meganeura shouldn’t be able to survive, not in the current era. As paleobiologists understood it, prehistoric era insects were able to grow larger because the oxygen content in the atmosphere was higher, thirty percent compared to the modern twenty percent. But that was only a theory. If the scientists working for the biocorp which owned Pangaea had in fact brought back those massive griffinflies, she wanted to know how they’d done it. Was the hypothesis about oxygen wrong? Or had they somehow altered the creatures’ DNA to allow them to function in the modern era? Another competing theory was that the hyperoxic Paleozoic atmospheric density was drastically different, not just facilitating the growth of large insects but allowing those enormous flying insects to get airborne with less effort.
“So what are you asking?”
“Doesn’t the department have any grant money left over? I wouldn’t need much. We’d be out in the field, in tents, for most of it. I’m sure flights aren’t too expensive. Country at war, after all, as you said.”
Sadie smiled. “I’d like to take Karl along.”
The department head gave her a look. “I bet you would.”
“He’s smart, has a degree in the field, and he’s young and strong, so I wouldn’t be a woman by myself in a war-torn country, if you’re really worried about that. And…we wouldn’t need two tents.” She flashed a quick smile.
“How old is he?”
“Aren’t French women supposed to take younger lovers? Time honored tradition. Look, I think you know how important this is to me. I’ve even got time saved up. If I had to, I could put in for a sabbatical.”
“The Monarch migration takes months each way.”
Sadie was excited. “Yes! And none of them live long enough to make the round trip, it usually takes three or four generations. Which means its imprinted on their genetic code. If these prehistoric butterflies have a multi-generational migration pattern….” She was wide-eyed at the scientific possibilities.
“It could mean nothing. Maybe they were made with Monarch DNA.”
Sadie had considered that possibility herself, but wouldn’t be so easily put off. “When I capture samples and bring them back, we can put the sequencer on them, and find out. If their genome is patented or trademarked, it should be on a public registry somewhere, probably listed under a generic product name to hide what it truly is. Registered to some shell corporation no one has ever heard of. A little research, into the company who registered the patent, or the date, and that should be enough to lead us to Meganeura, and any other plants, insects, or animals the company brought back but never acknowledged. This is bigger than just butterflies.” She paused. “It would get the university a lot of publicity.”
Marie sighed and shook her head. “Do you even speak Spanish?”
Sadie lifted her datapalm and spoke to it. “Excusez-moi, monsieur, ou se trouvent les toilettes?” Her palm’s translator program waited until she was done speaking, then from a speaker they heard, “Disculpeme, Señor, donde esta el baño?” in perfect Spanish.
Marie rolled her eyes. “When you are in the field les toilettes are behind every bush. Let me see what I can do.”