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PLANET OF DINOSAURS
K. H. Koehler
Copyright © 2011 by K. H. Koehler
“Sasha, I really must insist that you come out at once and stop acting like a child!” Lord Albertus Strange stated in a severe voice—or as severe as he was capable of, with regards to his only child.
“I am not acting like a child. And I am not coming out!” Sasha Strange insisted from behind the closed door of her bedchamber.
She paced across the vast expanse of hardwood floor in her fine white debutante dress and white satin slippers, turned on her heel when she reached her equally white, four-poster bed, then started back across the room, trying to find a way out of her predicament. She had to think fast. Only one hour ago, during supper, her father had stood up amidst the diners at their table, tapped his water glass with a silver knife for silence, and announced his daughter’s engagement to the odious Lord Sirius Quinn. Everyone at dinner had been shocked at the news, including Sasha herself. Like them, this had been the first she was hearing of the engagement.
Sasha stopped at the locked door, facing it soundly. She clenched her little white-gloved fists at her sides, took a deep, trembling breath, and said, “Father, I will not be marrying Lord Quinn! He drinks, he gambles…and…and he’s a terrible boor!”
“Sasha, be reasonable, girl! You are nineteen years old. Do you want to become an old spinster like your Aunt Margaret?”
“Aunt Margaret raises horses and is quite happy in the country.”
“Aunt Margaret is a scandal. And I will not have my daughter lollygagging about with horse manure on her boots. Now open the bloody door!”
Sasha gasped. It was the first time she’d heard her father use such foul language! She took a deep breath, steeled herself, and opened the door. Maybe, she thought, she could make her father see reason if he realized how this arrangement distressed her. Sasha was not above a little manipulation, especially when it was her future on the line.
But the moment she cracked the door open, Lord Strange saw his chance. He stuck his foot into it and nudged it all the way open, glaring down at his daughter with disapproval. Sasha was not moved by her father’s bluster, despite the fact that he was a large, robust man and could easily swing her over his shoulder and carry her downstairs, if he was so inclined. He stood an inch shy of six feet and filled out his suits very well. He was deeply tanned despite the sunless London weather and his ears were bright red. He had steely hair, long sideburns and a well-trimmed mustache. He liked riding and hunting. In his time, he had made many a young lass blush, including her mother. Back then, he’d had a reputation as something of a rake, though Sasha found that very difficult to believe, considering how stern he was.
Sasha, on the other hand, was willowy and pale, small for her age, though very strong. Many summers riding horses at Aunt Margaret’s stables had seen to that. Her mother had often said she resembled a little Dresden doll, her ceramic white skin made whiter still by the dark ringlets that framed it, her slightly upslanted eyes huge and dark and contemplative. When Sasha was seven years old, she’d caught the consumption. Her mother and father, understandably concerned for her health, had sent her to a sanatorium in the South of Wales. The doctors there had been very talented, and the air good, and within a year she had made a full recovery and had returned home. By that time, however, her mother had fallen ill to the same sickness and passed on. Sasha had left home ill and returned fit but motherless.
Her father had seen to it that Sasha’s childhood from then on had been sheltered and rigorously controlled. He hadn’t allowed her to attend finishing school or academy like other girls for fear she might strain herself unnecessarily. Instead, he’d given her tutors and trainers and his vast library of books. For many years she’d been locked away in the Strange Manor like some princess in a tower in a fairy story, with only a once-yearly retreat to her Aunt Margaret’s horse farm in Lancashire for physical activity.
She’d had her books, but little else in the way of human contact. And as she grew from a willowy child into a sturdy young woman, she most certainly had no suitors. Yet despite these things, it had not been a bad childhood. Her father was protective but loving, his books her best friends and playmates. Sasha had read all of them at least twice. She liked books by Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen, of course, as other young women her age did, but she absolutely adored books of science and romance—Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, in particular.
Her curiosity grew, and she began wondering about the viability of the machines theorized in fiction by Mr. Verne and Mr. Wells. Her father indulged her, of course, and this Sasha took full advantage of. Armed with her father’s extensive coffers, she began designing a number of curious devices in the conservatory, the only room in the house large enough to contain the steam machines necessary to carry out her experiments in sound waves and electricity. Once, she’d managed to light the entire manor house on electric lights for one whole day, though that was the exception, rather than the rule. For the most part, Sasha’s experiments had not been very successful.
There were few people at the house that she could discuss her interests with, but many science journals available, and it was through one such magazine advertizing for pen pals that she became acquainted with an American scientist named Dr. John Ulysses of the University at Cornell, a new and very excitingly academy in the United States. Unlike so many others who dismissed her wild theories, John took an interest in her admittedly amateurish work in sound waves and mechanics. He himself was trying to invent a practical power generator. Together, via letters sent overseas, they both slowly began work on what John called a Tuning Machine—she at Strange Manor, he had University. It was John’s hope that he might one day create an unlimited source of energy using high-frequency oscillations.
By this time, Sasha had turned eighteen years old, and her father was becoming increasingly worried that she was too cloistered for her own good. He admitted to making a grave error in isolating his headstrong daydreamer of a daughter and made a great effort in throwing debutante parties in the hopes that Sasha might find a viable suitor. Unfortunately, most of the young gentry who attended these lavish parties found her much too…well, strange to be of interest. They did not understand her talk of Tesla coils and Electromagnetic motors, or her admiration for such things as deep-sea submarines and time machines. They were appalled by her demands for a full library of books and a laboratory to experiment in. One curious young suitor played with her steam-powered electric machine and was shocked nearly to death, coming out of it with a full head of white hair. All and sundry slipped quietly out the door and scurried to their carriages, never to be seen again.
A desperate Lord Strange began looking toward older gentlemen for a decent match for his daughter. He knew a small number of available lords who, if not young and virile, were at least steadfast, strong-willed and of a proper status for Sasha. But each of these Sasha stalwartly rejected. Lord Pemberton was much too old (fifty, at least!), Marquis Bonnevet was French and did not bathe at all, and Count Drogo of Romania couldn’t speak a lick of English.
Finally, at wit’s end, Lord Strange invited his old friend Lord Sirius Quinn to the latest in the long line of what was becoming colloquially known in polite society as “Sasha Parties”—a term many unmarried English and European men of status regarded with fear and dread. Sasha anticipated the usual farce, of course. Her father would introduce the two of them, highlight Sasha’s beauty and finer talents, and see what interest the middle-aged Lord Quinn might take in his daughter. Sasha, for her own part, would remain polite but aloof. They would dine, speak of trivial things, and Lord Quinn would leave scorched like the others.
She had not anticipated a wedding announcement over roast beef and red potatoes!
“I simply cannot marry Lord Quinn,” Sasha stated, then turned to march across the room to her bed. She dropped down, her skirts mushrooming out about her, and took her favorite doll Elizabeth into her arms. Newton stirred on her pillow, stretched, and bumped his head against her hand. She pet the orange tomcat, holding him and Elizabeth against her like shields that might protect her from her father’s ridiculous machinations.
Lord Strange sighed wearily. He stood with his hands braced against the casting of Sasha’s door as if he might rip the whole house down upon them like Sampson pulling down the temple in the Bible story. “I assure you the stories you’ve heard about Quinn are greatly exaggerated by the press.”
Sasha raised an eyebrow at that. “Papa, ever since you announced his imminent arrival, I’ve been reading the Times quite studiously. Lord Quinn has been taken into custody by the police at least twice for drunken behavior and once for assault! What kind of husband is that for your daughter?”
Lord Strange looked uncomfortable. “Lord Quinn is a very…complicated man.”
Lord Sirius Quinn was tall and as thin as a snake, with terrible reddish eyes and even redder hair and a perpetually unsmiling face. He looked like Lucifer himself! According to the paper, his fortune was in jeopardy due to his drunken behavior and bad gambling habits. He was nothing more than a gold-digger hoping to seize the Strange fortune for his own dubious needs! She thought about bringing this up as well, but her father looked so hurt and desperate, Sasha felt her throat close up and her heart break at the sight of him. For once, he didn’t look very strong or robust, and she realized he was a hunched old man deeply afraid for her future.
“Sasha, my darling,” he said, stepping toward her and pitching his voice as reasonable as possible, “you must realize I won’t live forever.” He took her tiny hand in his much larger one. “If something were to befall me, what then would become of you, my darling?”
Sasha thought about that. Her Aunt Margaret was old and not in good health these days, so the farm was no refuge, should she find herself alone. And she had no other family. Well, there was her Uncle Mycroft, her father’s brother, whom she hadn’t seen since she was a child. But her father and Uncle Mycroft were estranged. According to her father, Uncle Mycroft had an unnatural predilection for indecently young women. Her father’s death would spur Uncle Mycroft to seize Strange Manor, and as a young, unmarried woman, Sasha would have little holdings on it. In fact, she’d likely become his ward, and she shuddered at the idea of sharing a house with such a lecherous old man.
She held Elizabeth close for a moment before standing up. She made a decision then, something reasonable, something to placate her well-meaning father, if not her own heart, which would forever belong to Mr. Verne and Mr. Wells. “I will spend half an hour in the drawing room with Lord Quinn, but no more,” she announced. “After that, he absolutely must leave. I shall do my best to consider him a viable candidate for a husband. But if he proves himself unsuitable, you absolutely must break the engagement.”
“But if you reject him like all the others, my darling, will you consider further candidates of my choosing?” He stroked her hand.
Sasha bowed her head and hugged her doll close. “All I can promise is that I shall do my best to be fair to Lord Quinn.”
Sasha went cautiously down to the drawing room where Lord Sirius Quinn waited to court her. She opened the great oaken double doors, stepped inside…and struggled to suppress a shudder.
Quinn was tall and rangy, nothing like the dashing suitors in the books she had read. He slouched in his chair, face pale and freckly and remote as he stared into the hearth, a glass of her father’s finest whiskey in one hand. His unfashionably ginger hair was mussed as if he’d been running his hands through it, and he was dressed in a black mourning suit that suited him rather well. Villains always wear black, she thought to herself as she stepped into the room and curtseyed properly to the lord. Even his name was appropriate, Sirius from Osiris, Egyptian god of the underworld. She forced a smile.
Lord Quinn looked up, regarding her with watery blue eyes rimmed by dull crimson haloes before forcing himself to stand. He gave her a courtly, if empty, nod. “Sasha.” He sounded bored to pieces.
“Lord Quinn,” she said and extended her gloved hand.
He looked at it as if it were a snake that might bite him, dutifully took it, kissed it, and led her to the opposing wing chairs by the hearth. Her father joined them after a few moments and they all sat together in a civilized manner and took refreshments. Her father had his nightly brandy, Lord Quinn had his whiskey, and Sasha took tea. They sat in unbroken silence while the drawing room clock ticked solemn ticks and solemn tocks. Her father lit a cigar. Lord Quinn took more whiskey. Sasha shifted uncomfortably in her seat, picked up her petit point from the basket next to her chair, and did a few stitches, not very well. Lord Quinn politely inquired about her interests, and Sasha explained about the Tuning Machine that she had built in the conservatory, making her father cringe back in his seat as if blows were falling upon him. Lord Quinn seemed unperturbed, disinterested. He did not ask to see it.
Finally, her father could take no more of this. “I think you’ll be very happy together,” he announced. “I think you will make a fine couple and will be good for each other.”
“I’m sure we shall,” Sasha agreed, not very enthusiastically, and snapped the thread she was sewing with her teeth, making her father cringe even more. She might have pointed out that he had nothing to fear; Lord Quinn had long since passed out in his seat. Newton took that moment to wend his way into the drawing room. Sasha jumped up. “I should take Newton into the kitchen and see if Cook has any scraps for him. It was good meeting you, Lord Quinn.” She curtseyed respectfully.
Lord Quinn snored rather dramatically.
Sasha carried the cat away, Newton hanging over her shoulder and hissing at the sleeping lord.
How bad could marriage to Lord Quinn be?
Sasha sat at the table in the pantry where Cook normally prepared their meals and watched Newton lick up his milk from a bowl on the floor. She would marry Lord Quinn to please her father and protect herself from Uncle Mycroft, and she’d likely never have to see him. He’d be too busy cavorting every night at gambling halls and pubs. It might even work to her advantage. She could work on her experiments and never experience a distraction. She could read her beloved books all night and never see her husband. Except…well…
“I don’t want to marry Lord Quinn, Newton. I don’t want to marry anyone.”
Well, that wasn’t strictly true. When she thought of marriage—not practical marriage, but fairy-tale marriage, the kinds of marriages that really ought to happen to young women—the image of the husband that came to mind was Toby Hallowman, their stableman.
They’d practically gown up together, Toby having come to them as a boy of seven from a nearby workhouse. He’d been thin and sallow back then. Now he was twenty-one, and tall and lean and muscular, with brown hair that fell in a froth over his brow and a permanent summer tan and the most amazing brown eyes. What’s more, he was good to the horses, always making certain the mares she rode in the frosty early morning were in good spirits before lacing his fingers together and bumping her up into her saddle. Her father’s carriage horses never bore whip marks like so many other lords’ horses, and every resident of their stable was properly shoed and groomed every day, even when it rained. Toby loved the horses.
Galvanized by such thoughts, Sasha jumped up and ran for the courtyard door. The lights in the stables were still burning, which meant Toby was still there. He hadn’t gone into London for the night, thank goodness. She needed to see him, needed to talk to someone she understood. Lifting her skirts, she scuffled across the pavilion to the stables and ducked inside, where he’d thoughtfully hung a long line of lanterns on hooks. Toby always kept the stables properly lit in the event she came visiting unexpectedly.
Toby sat on an overturned bucket with his broad back to her, carefully oiling a harness.
“Toby,” she said, “the most horrible man is here. Have you seen?”
Toby immediately stood up and turned to face her. His entire face lit up with a lopsided smile. “You mean Lord Quinn.”
“Yes,” she said, wrinkling up her nose. “He’s as pale as a Morlock and as heartless as Captain Nemo.”
“You and your books.” Toby shook his head and grinned as his eyes took in the full sight of her still dressed in her debutante dress. He had read many of the same books as Sasha. In fact, Jules Verne had brought them together in the first place. One of the first things Sasha had done was teach him to read, starting with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Since then, she’d shared book after book with Toby. Right now, they were sharing Moby Dick. Toby was smart, understood the concepts and devices in the books they read, and was always happy to help her with an invention. If she could have chosen anyone to marry, she would have chosen Toby in a heartbeat, though of course she knew her father would never approve such an arrangement. Toby had no status.
“I wish I was more like you, Toby,” she mused, watching him hang the shining harness on a hook near the ceiling among the other tack.
Toby shrugged his broad shoulders. “No, you don’t.”
“I do! If my Papa wasn’t a lord, I could marry anyone I wanted.” She didn’t know if that was strictly true, but there had to be more freedom away from the gentry. “We could even marry, and then you could be my assistant in the laboratory.”
Toby laughed at the fantasy and turned around. “I’ll be your assistant, even after you marry. You know I’m forever at your service, Sasha.” He said it solemnly, with a deep bow, a kiss of her hand, and a big grin that was so infectious it had her smiling in return, even though she was in a positively unsmiling mood.
She thought about his offer. “Will you come now? I’d like to show you the Tuning Machine.”
Toby glanced at the oil lamps on the walls. He could always tell what time it was by how much oil remained in them. “It’s rather late, Sasha.”
“Just for a few minutes! After this terrible day, I’ll never get to sleep. And it’s already done. I want you to be the first to see it!”
“I can’t resist you, Sasha,” he said as she took his hand.
They raced each other back inside and up the stairs to the third floor of the manor where her father’s conservatory was located. It was a huge space with a glass ceiling, set up long ago with an array of telescopes. Her mother had once had an intense interest in astronomy. But now a great deal of the space was filled with Sasha’s notebooks, workbench and experimental devices, many of which stood dusty in dark corners, a testament to Sasha’s learning curve when she first embarked on becoming an inventor.
In the center of the room squatted the enormous Tuning Machine, which she had finished only a few short days ago. Much of it had been constructed with a combination of organ parts, a printing press, a typewriting machine, plus a number of odds and ends mostly borrowed from the manor. Attached to the machine via wires were two great Tesla coils that Sasha had redesigned to emit not electricity but sound. Once the Tuning Machine was cranked up and running, it was possible to encourage the two orbs atop the Tesla coils to produce song and images by running one’s fingers over them. The idea of high-frequency sound waves to generate power had been John’s theory, though much of the design of the machine belonged to Sasha. John had a similarly constructed machine in America, and Sasha wondered if it was possible that John’s machine could generate such a wide variety of images.
She had no idea where the images came from. She was still exploring the mystery of it, but she hoped to share her findings with John in her next letter.
Sasha explained the function of the machine to Toby as he circled it, touching the chimerical design on all sides. With Toby as her audience, Sasha began cranking the giant clockwork wheel. Once she had it at a sufficient speed, it would run on centrifugal force for more than an hour. She positioned herself before the two Tesla coils and extended her hands, her fingertips just touching the orbs. As always, she felt a rush of excitement as the machine powered up, its gears clicking and clacking along with an almost hypnotic speed.
Newton, always up for an adventure, raced into the room and jumped up onto the embroidered seat of a nearby chair to watch the proceedings, his tail switching cautiously.
Sasha felt a tickle of electricity from the orbs, a sensation like a hum throughout her entire body. The serene humming quickly deepened and soon she could feel it deep inside her bones like an ache.
Toby smiled, his face full of light and wonder.
Sasha played her fingers across the orbs. The music that came out of them was not music in the traditional sense; rather, it was like birdcall, or the sound of a rushing stream—natural, elemental. Sasha moved her fingers to make the pitch change, and it wasn’t long before the Tuning Machine was at full power, the gaslights of the old mansion flickering, and the space between the two coils growing foggy and shimmery with pinpricks of light.
The first moving image that appeared was of a deep emerald green forest, not perfectly illustrated, but like a broken painting seen through a fuzzy dream. Figures moved in the picture, men darting through the trees on horseback, archers with bows and men with broadswords. A war was being fought in some other place. A warrior raised a blood-slathered sword over his head and emitted a silent battle cry as he charged toward his enemies.
Toby was left speechless by the sight, but Sasha felt the image was much too grim. She moved her fingers and the tune and image changed. Now she saw the surface of some grey, pocked foreign world, with a tiny glass city cradled in a giant-sized crater. Large airships darted overhead, as fast as wasps. This picture was much more pleasant, if a bit dull. She moved her fingers again. Now she saw a primordial jungle with large creatures slithering beneath the undergrowth. Start-bright eyes glowered out at her, hungry eyes…
Sasha lifted her hands off the orbs and turned to find Lord Quinn slumped in the doorway. His sudden appearance surprised her. He was the absolute last person she’d expected to see standing in her father’s conservatory. He’d obviously been drinking heavily because he was weaving dangerously on his feet. He took an unsteady step forward, then stopped to grasp the back of a settee to orient himself. “Sasha, I need to speak with you at once,” he said, before venturing another drunken step. “Your father said you’d likely be here.” He looked about the conservatory populated with its many bizarre devices with some dismay. “It’s terribly important.”
“Lord Quinn,” Sasha began, eyeing him angrily, “Because of my father, we will be seeing quite a lot of each other in the near future. So I really don’t see what we have to talk about now…”
“It’s important, I assure you. It’s about the wedding…I…” He’d reached the chair that Newton was crouched on. The cat, understandably upset about the strange man grasping at the air around him, screeched and jumped at him. Lord Quinn jerked his hand back. The cat jumped down and arched his back fearsomely. “Bloody beast…” Quinn began, trying to kick the cat away, but the motion only unbalanced him. Before Sasha could give warning, Quinn, standing within easy reach of Toby, had gotten hold of the boy’s arm in a desperate attempt to regain his balance. The motion offset Toby, who tried to jerk his arm back, and the two pitched forward…straight into the moving picture of the jungle.
Before Sasha’s very eyes, both men vanished.
She experienced a moment of disbelief, followed by panic. She rushed forward, but stopped abruptly inches away from the Tesla coils. Her first instinct was to utter a cry for help, except that the conservatory was on the third floor of the mansion, and almost no one was up here at this hour. There were no servants, and her father was likely preparing for bed. She might have very little time, she realized. The two men could be in terrible danger…wherever they’d gone. Her invention had caused this anomaly. She needed to help them immediately. Taking a deep breath, she dropped to her knees and reached into the shifty, dreamlike field of the picture. “Toby!” she cried, hoping to feel the familiar warmth of his hand.
A sudden, powerful gust of wind ripped her hair right out of its coiffeur. It was like being sucked into a swirling vortex. Before she could even scream for help, the darkness beyond the picture had its claws in her. Her long dark hair was dragged relentlessly forward and the rest of her followed, her skirts flying up around her face, obscuring her vision. The vortex swallowed her whole…
Sasha screamed. And screamed again…
When next Sasha opened her eyes, she saw a clear, summery blue sky burning high overhead. It reminded her of the meadow behind the manor house, and at first glance she thought perhaps she’d fallen asleep while lying on a blanket, reading a book. She’d done so often enough in the past. Except that there was something peculiar about the trees overhead. They didn’t look like the alders, silver birches and grand oaks she was used to. These looked frilly and exotic, like something from the South Seas, or something she’d seen in drawings in her archeology books. She sat up slowly and looked around. Strange birds she didn’t recognize were cackling overhead and unseen creatures were hooting busily to each other in the trees. She knew there were no queer cackling birds or hooting tree creatures on the manor estate.
Jungle growth closed in on all sides of her, thick thorny bushes, tall, upright frond-trees, and low, ground-clutching bushes with great red and orange orchids she had never in her life seen growing on the shores of England. It had to be a dream; there was no other logical explanation. She closed her eyes and lay back down on the leaf-littered forest floor. She was just dreaming. If she closed her eyes and waited long enough, she’d wake up. And then everything would be normal again.
She waited. And waited.
But nothing happened. Nothing changed.
“Bloody hell, get it off of me!” a panicked voice shouted.
The sound galvanized Sasha. She jumped to her feet in the midst of the possibly-not-a-dream-jungle and turned her attention on some furious bushwhacking going on not ten paces away from her. Leaning forward, she started parting the undergrowth when Lord Quinn jumped out of the bushes with what looked like a giant beetle attached to his back, its carapace a slick oily black, its antenna flickering over Quinn’s head of disheveled red hair. It was making the most frightening clicking noises! Sasha squeaked and jumped back at the sight.
Quinn swung around, his blue eyes wild and unfocused. “Get…it…off, girl!” he commanded.
So Sasha bent down, picked up a half-rotted log lying at her feet, and when Quinn turned his back, she used both hands to hit the beetle just as hard as she could. It made a wet, crunching noise that made Sasha flinch. Lord Quinn and his beetle landed face first on the jungle floor and lay still.
“Oh dear.” Sasha dropped the log that was dripping with black beetle juices and stared at Quinn lying there unconscious. The squashed beetle was roughly the size and shape of one of her father’s silver serving trays, and it was that fact—more than anything—that convinced Sasha that she was probably not in England anymore. In fact, she didn’t think she was anywhere anymore.
“Sasha? Sasha, are you all right? I heard you screaming,” said Toby, emerging unharmed from a copse of the peculiar jungle trees, palm fronds brushing his cheeks. With his work shirt open at the throat and the sleeves rolled up, he looked rugged, bronzed, and relaxed—and much more at home in the jungle than Lord Quinn in his sunless white skin and dark, severe suit. Long hours of work with the horses had turned Toby’s face a burnished golden-brown, and his sun-streaked brown hair was wild from their sudden trip through…well, whatever portal she had opened. He stopped when he saw Lord Quinn lying so still on the jungle floor. “What happened to him?”
Sasha gestured at the fallen man. “He wanted me to squash a bug. So I did.”
Together, Sasha and Toby got Lord Quinn up and propped against one of the exotic tree trunks. He was still out cold, and there seemed to be a nice-sized goose egg growing on the back of his head, but at least Sasha hadn’t killed him. Toby joked that that was either good or bad, depending on how one was looking at things, but Sasha didn’t laugh. She was starting to feel bad about Quinn.
Toby bent low and slapped Quinn across the face, using more force than was necessary, in Sasha’s opinion. Almost immediately, the bright blue, bloodshot eyes flared open and Quinn let out his breath and exclaimed, “Dear God!” Then he started panicking all over again. “Is it off? Is…it…?”
“It’s dead,” Sasha told him, indicating the bug parts scattered all over the jungle floor and, presumably, on the back of Lord Quinn’s suit as well. She nearly rolled her eyes in exasperation. She’d never seen a grown man react so nervously to a tiny bug. Well, maybe a not-so-tiny bug, but still…
Lord Quinn took one look at the remnants of the beetle, turned his head, and vomited all over Sasha’s slippers, making her leap back in alarm. His breath wasn’t roses, that much was obvious. He smelled like the inside of a cheap tavern. “Bloody hell,” he said when he’d recovered. “I hate bugs!” He ran his hands over his face and hair, mussing it further. “I swear I shall never again drink your father’s whiskey, Sasha.”
“You shouldn’t be drinking so heavily in the first place!” Sasha exclaimed, attempting to stay downwind as she contemplated her ruined shoes. Toby looked surprise; he’d never expected her to speak so plainly, and neither had she, but Sasha had a feeling that the normal rules of polite society no longer applied here…wherever they were. And if she was going to be stuck in this…whatever this place was…she was bloody well going to speak her mind! She patted at her loose, mussed hair, attempting to fix her coiffure, then realized the futility of the gesture. Her combs were gone, her hair too heavy to manage, and now her shoes were ruined beyond repair!
Sighing, she sat down on a log and waited for Quinn to recover. “Why do you drink so much, Lord Quinn?” she asked. It was not that she much cared, but she was curious nonetheless.
He eyed her savagely. “It helps me deal with…things.”
“Loose-tongued, opinionated women, for starters.”
Toby gestured at their surroundings. “Could we discuss this at a later time?” he pleaded. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the bleeding jungle! What are we going to do about this situation? Where are we?”
Sasha sighed and clapped her gloved hands around her cheeks. “I’ve no idea.”
“You made the picture, girl!” Quinn shouted. “You said nothing about it being a…a doorway to some godforsaken jungle!”
“That’s all it was!” Sasha insisted, clenching both hands into fists in her lap as her mind whirled to try and make sense of their predicament. “It was only a picture!”
“Obviously not,” Lord Quinn sneered, glaring up at them both.
Oh, she wished she could discuss all this with John! Maybe he would know how they had gotten here, and how they might get back.
“What jungle is this?” asked Toby, using a stick to prod at the remnants of the giant beetle. “Do such things as these live in Africa, or South America?” At least he’d read enough of her books to know where they might be.
“There are no insects like these in Africa,” Quinn insisted.
“How the bloody hell would you know what lives in Africa?” Toby shouted, which set both men off into a new round of arguments.
Sasha felt like screaming and insisting that it was indeed only a picture she’d been making, not some…portal into an unknown jungle world. But Quinn was right. It was obviously more than a picture. People did not fall into pictures. They were not pulled through pictures. But how could this be? She and John had never even postulated such a ridiculous thing! She sniffed. She knew crying would fix nothing, so instead she stood up and stamped her foot for silence. Toby and Quinn, presently involved in a shouting match, barely heard. “Please, stop, both of you!” she cried. “I don’t know where we are, or how we got here. But it’s obvious we’re very far removed from any kind of civilization. And arguing about it won’t help!”
The two men stopped shouting at each other and turned to look at her.
“We’re not in South America,” said Sasha in a softer voice, venturing a few steps into the jungle before stopping. “And I don’t think this is Africa, either.” Palm fronds seemed to embrace her and insects buzzed about her ears. Fecund life was everywhere, but not the type of life she had read about, even in the most exotic places on earth. She touched a flowering vine with blooms of a glowing green color she wasn’t sure even existed on earth. A dragonfly with a wingspan as wide as a bird’s buzzed up to her, then away. “We may not even be in our own world anymore.”
“Is that even possible?” Quinn demanded to know.
“I don’t know!”
“Don’t yell at Sasha, you pompous lout!” Toby interrupted Quinn.
“How dare you…”
They started arguing again, but Sasha hushed them. “Hear that?” she said, raising a hand.
“I hear nothing,” said Toby.
“Yes, exactly.” The bird twitters had ceased abruptly, and the hooters had vanished, leaving the jungle eerily still, with only the irritating, tepid buzz of insects to fill the silence. Sasha waited, holding her breath.
And then, out of the jungle, she heard it for the first time, a sound that would change her life, and the lives of her friends, forever: a deep, nasal trumpeting, like the sound of a child blowing through a conch shell, only much, much louder. It froze all three of them in their tracks and sent a quivering, primal fright crawling down Sasha’s back. She had never heard such a sound before, and, she realized after a moment, she never wanted to hear it again.
She turned slowly to Lord Quinn. “Can you stand?”
“I think so,” Quinn said softly, sounding as cowed by the noise as she felt. Slowly he shimmied up the tree until he was standing in a semi-upright position. His hand went to the back of his head, wincing when he encountered the lump there. “What is that sound?” he said in a hushed tone.
Sasha was trembling all the way down to her slippers. “I think it would be in our best interest to move on.”
“Move on where?” Toby asked, his eyes darting around the jungle with alarm. “Where is there to go?”
The unfamiliar jungle stretched out around them in every direction, as frightening and alien as a dream. But not as frightening as that sound. They started following what looked like a rough animal path cut through the undergrowth. Behind them, the trumpeting sounded again, making their hair stand literally on end. It sounded much closer this time.
“I really don’t care much for that noise at all,” Quinn admitted as the thin limb of a tree whipped him in the face, leaving a red mark.
Sasha struggled as some thorny bushes caught the hem of her gown, for once in full agreement with Quinn.
They instinctively started picking up their pace. Foliage whipped them as they tunneled through it. Something snaked under Sasha’s foot and she jumped, then forged on regardless. She did not like snakes, but she wanted to put distance between herself and that terrible echoing noise. She had to get away from that sound. Toby and Lord Quinn started pulling at the foliage hanging before them like ragged curtains, being less careful about snakes or other creatures and a lot less quiet. Excited insects buzzed into their faces, then away, some gigantic. At first, they noticed them, then they all started concentrating on making more headway and worrying less about things flying into their eyes and ears.
The trumpeting noise sounded again. This time it was almost deafeningly loud and the vibration made the trees shake and the earth tremble under their feet.
“I really don’t like that noise,” said Quinn.
Around them the forest buzzed, birds took sudden flight, and foliage crackled alarmingly as large bodies tunneled through it at panicked speeds. Some large creature like a saber-toothed crocodile broke through the undergrowth to their left and dashed down the animal path, so intent on escape that it didn’t notice them at all. Sasha nearly screamed, only cupping her hands over her mouth at the last moment, which resulted in a mouth full of flies that she quickly spat out. A pair of creatures that looked like reptilian forms of gazelles galloped past them. She saw them only for a moment before they disappeared into the trees.
Again with the trumpet. The sound was on their very heels now, blasting down their necks.
Quinn said something she didn’t catch. “What?” she cried.
“Stop!” He grabbed her by the wrist, pulling her up short so she nearly stumbled. “It’s herding us!” he shouted, and Toby, hearing, slid to a stop beside her.
“What are you doing?” she cried.
“It’s herding us,” he repeating. “That creature is herding us!”
“How can you know?”
The trumpeting was almost upon them, the sound followed by a low, trembling growl that sounded like a thunderstorm was moving upon them, though no cloud was visible in the achingly bright blue sky. “Follow me,” he said and started back the way they had come. “Follow me if you want to live.”
She let Quinn steer her away. She didn’t know why, except he seemed to know what he was doing. Toby followed, but only because he was following her, she knew. Quinn hurried them back down the rough little path they had made. The alcoholic stupor seemed to be lifting and his eyes were suddenly fierce and wary. Before long, he stopped them before a tree with low-hanging branches. “Can you climb?” he asked.
“Yes.” She was slight, and she’d spent a long childhood climbing trees at her Aunt Margaret’s, so it was no trouble at all. Quinn made a saddle of his two hands. “Up you go,” and he bumped Sasha up to the first branch. Toby, who was tall and young, with long arms, swung himself up onto the limb beside Sasha with the dexterity of a monkey.
Quinn had some difficulty. He was wiry but middle-aged, and not as sober as he could have been. He grabbed the limb and slid off. Sasha leaned down and grabbed his sweaty hand. Toby took his other. “Hurry,” he said. “Hurry, please.” Together, they pulled and wriggled him up the tree, no small task; he was heavier than he looked. The three of them took a moment to catch their breath, then went to work on the next limb, scrambling up the tree and into the higher bows as quickly as they could. It was terrible, sweating, grunt-worthy work, but they managed it, Sasha making it almost to the top first.
And good thing too, because within minutes something enormous barreled out of the trees like a huge, living, breathing locomotive, though it was larger than any locomotive that Sasha had ever seen. Its wake was enough to rock their whole tree side to side, and all three of them clung madly to the swaying branches as the monstrous…thing…charged through the jungle in pursuit of the various creatures fleeing through the underbrush.
Sasha started scrambling higher, kicking at branches and snagging her long skirts, tearing them mercilessly as she grappled the branches over her head. She didn’t mind in the least; she had to see what creature had inspired such dread in the whole forest.
“Sasha, be careful!” Toby cried in warning from below, but she ignored his cries. She’d been climbing trees since she was a little girl. She considered herself an expert tree-climber.
After some leg work, she found herself above the tree line where she was finally able to get a good look at the creature dashing through the jungle only twenty or thirty meters away. It was a bipedal creature of over twenty feet in length, in her estimation. It looked robust, with powerful hind legs and an enormous head that swung side to side like a heavy pendulum as it made those ragged trumpeting noises. Its head was broad, bony and almost skull-like, the dark, mottled, reptilian skin pulled taught. Two long, bony ridges topped its eye sockets, with another, longer, bony horn riding over its snout. Its teeth were almost ridiculously large, and armor-like spikes ran the length of its spine and down the long, whiplike tail. Despite its enormous size and considerable girth, it ran with astonishing grace and speed, driving a small herd of smaller animals ahead of it. It reminded Sasha of how lions hunted on the Savannah, according to her zoology books. The big male lions herded prey animals into groups of waiting females, which did the killing almost exclusively. She wondered if Quinn had read the same books.
The smaller animals—they were a mixed lot of tall, thin-legged bipedal reptiles with long necks and ground-hugging, almost mammalian beasts—topped a tall ridge…and there was the second predator she thought might be waiting in ambush. It resembled the first creature, which she finally recognized as a form of predatory theropod called a Ceratosaurus, discovered as fossil remnants in the Americas only a few years prior—her science magazines were certainly useful now!—but it differed in size. This creature, the female, was least ten feet longer, bulkier than the sleek male, with an enormous horned head that looked capable of swallowing a third of her mate in one bite.
Sasha scurried out onto a thick branch to see what the pair of hunters was up to.
The male drove the prey animals on, making those startling trumpeting noises that shook the whole jungle, while the female lunged, opening her enormous, slavering jaws and crunching up at least half of the onrushing animals whole before pouncing on those trying to escape. Her speed and dexterity were amazing for her size. This was nothing like the lumbering prehistoric creatures she had read about in the periodicals.
Sasha shivered, realizing how easily they could have been like those poor animals, gone in one gulp, had Quinn not encouraged them to climb this tree. She wondered how he had known what was to come; he didn’t strike her as the kind of man who followed science journals. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she leaned out further on the branch and watched as the two creatures picked off the escapees, their jaws snapping like giant, bloody animal traps.
Too late, she heard a sharp snap as the tree limb gave way beneath her. Then she was in freefall.
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