As a young girl, Portia Oakeshott dreamed of becoming a dinosaur veterinarian, caring for the reconstructed Australian dinosaurs roaming the preserve near the south pole of her home planet, New New South Wales.
Today, caring for dinosaurs means tending to a female Minmi—a minnie—mindlessly tending a clutch of eggs smashed and devoured by an unknown predator. Back at base, caring for dinosaurs means identifying the predator. Before it wreaks more havoc on the fragile ecosystem of the preserve.
Sample of “Minnie and the Trekker”
Minnie and the Trekker
Behind the stalk of a fern as tall as a man, Portia Oakeshott stretched prone on the soft ground of the cycad forest. The thick smell of fecund soil filled her nose. A small stream trickled nearby. Mosquitoes buzzed around her ears despite sprayed-on repellent and her waving hands. Stella Australis A, hanging low in the sky to her left, to the north, filled the forest with slanted shafts of red-orange light, like the stained-glass windows of a church filled with funerary lilies.
Even when he whispered, the voice of McAdams, the field ecologist, carried over the sounds of chirping fliers and rustling foliage. “There she is, where that adventure trekker said she was, down to the meter.” He aimed his chin toward a brown, rounded shape looming over the fallen bole of a palm-like cycad. The shape looked like a boulder.
“Take a squizz.” McAdams handed Portia the binoculars.
Propped on her elbows, she moved the binoculars to her eyes. Servos hummed as the lenses adjusted focus past the fern’s drooping fronds and onto the rounded shape a hundred meters away.
No doubt it was a minnie. A female Minmi paravertebra novacambrianovaaustraliensis, a four-legged herbivore that off-world tourists said looked like a midget stegosaurus that lost its sail-like armor plates. When Portia heard that, she gritted her teeth and gave a polite smile to make her grandmother proud.
Lines of bony protrusions studded the minnie’s back from neck to tail. More protrusions, smaller and spikier, surrounded her face like an elizabeth collar. The soft jaw and nasal ridge tapered to a snout as dainty as one could imagine on a creature three meters from nose to tail and weighing a third of a ton.
But her face—
“My God, she looks in horrid shape.” A mouth cracked and dry. Sunken cheeks. Sunken eyes, too, blinking slowly against a troop of blue-black flies buzzing and swarming over her.
Portia’s blood ran cold. The last thing a dinosaur veterinarian wanted to see. Was the minnie dead?
The dino stirred her head. The flies scattered. Relief washed through Portia. But only for a moment. The dino lay its head against the cycad’s trunk and its eyelids slid shut. One by one, flies returned to its face.
Portia scanned with the binoculars. The minnie’s shriveled flanks rose and fell with quick and shallow breaths. She hid her belly behind her four legs, each bent on splayed knees. Her legs formed walls, her body a roof—
“She’s sitting on a clutch of eggs.”
McAdams lifted his digger hat with its buttoned-up side brim. His other hand brushed graying, wavy hair back from his forehead. “Too right. The only question is, which is sick? The minnie or her eggs?”
“Only one way to find out.” Portia shrugged their tranquilizer gun off her shoulder. She held it out to him.
“You don’t want to take the shot?”
“I’ve taken it to the range at headquarters, but I’m not as good a shot as you.”
He took the trank gun. She twisted onto her side. Something woody jabbed her in the ribs. She lifted the flap of her hip pack. A line of trank darts with a rainbow of colored bands showing weight ranges. She pulled out the dart ringed with yellow and held it in front of her eyes.
“What do you make her weight? Three hundred kilos?”
His bulging eyes peered at the minnie. “More like two-fifty,” McAdams said.
Too much sedative might slow the minnie’s brainstem enough to stop her heart. They could always increase the dosage if they had to. Portia squirted a quarter of the dart’s volume onto the ground. She handed over the dart, then focused on using the instep of her right boot to scratch at something biting her left leg just above the ankle.
Pang zip. She looked up.
The minnie’s head lifted from its resting place against the fallen cycad and turned toward her flank. The yellow-banded trank dart bobbed against the sliver of belly exposed between a line of bony protrusions down her back and her thick, folded legs. Then the minnie’s head drooped and her eyes gently shut.
Portia and McAdams stood. He held out the trank gun. His real rifle, one with the caliber and muzzle velocity to take down a six-meter Australovenator, clanked against his shoulder.
She brushed dirt, bits of leaf, and crawling insects off her multipocketed shirt and cargo pants, then took the trank gun. She slung it over her shoulder and walked half a step behind him through patchy undergrowth. Mosses as slippery as banana peels covered flat rocks. Gnarled mushrooms smeared umber and ochre stains along the sides of her boots.
The minnie smelled like the chimera built up from lizard, elephant, and ostrich genes that it was. As pleasant as a zoo on a cool spring day. The minnie’s flanks rose and fell with the tempo of slow pastoral music. A raspy gargle sounded in each breath. Still, her unconscious face looked almost peaceful.
What had driven her to this state? Less than a day, roughly thirty hours, since the adventure trekker, backpacking alone through the dinosaur preserve after paying hefty fees to both the company and his insurance carrier, called the company’s field office in Tallis. Though taken at a range of eighty meters, his photos and video matched what Portia saw.
As Portia and McAdams drew closer, other odors crawled into her nose. Sulfur and rot. She wrinkled her nose and ignored the odors as best she could. First, attend your patient.
She pulled a scanner from her medical kit. She touched the minnie’s back between bony protrusions. Skin like boiled leather. The minnie didn’t flinch.
“You got the right dose,” McAdams said. His voice boomed, but the minnie remained motionless.
Portia aimed the scanner’s infrared and acoustic ports at the proper spots on the minnie’s neck and belly. Her neuronal interface projected the results onto her optic nerves as a translucent panel floating above the dino’s back. Heart and respiration rates slow, but not acutely dangerous. Body temperature normal enough.
Another item from her medical kit, a blood analyzer. She pressed the extractor patch against the minnie’s side with her palm. A green light blinked on the patch. She stepped back, wadded up the patch around its central bump of hardware, and wedged the patch into the base unit.
More data popped into her vision. Blood sugar low. Ketones high. She could look at the rest later. Right now, it only mattered that the starving minnie’s body had started digesting itself.
Not moving even for food or water for days at a time… only one thing could compel a female of any species to that extreme. “How do we take a look at her eggs?”
“I’ll have a go.” McAdams unslung his rifle from his shoulder. Portia’s breath caught until he wedged the rifle’s stock between the minnie’s rear foot and her flank. He grunted and groaned. After thirty seconds of prying, he pulled the minnie’s rear foot far enough for Portia to see the eggs the dino sheltered.
And for the stench of decay to billow out.
Portia gagged. Her long fingers pinched shut her nostrils. “Strewth, are they all dead?”
McAdams lay flat and peered underneath the minnie. He squinted, then reached for a flashlight from one of the pockets of his cargo pants. Though the flashlight was the size of his little finger, one click of its button threw sharp-edged whiteness into the hollow between the dino’s belly and the ground.
“I’ll loan you a squizz through my eyes,” he said.
“Sure.” Portia stepped back a meter from the minnie and turned for fresher air. She inhaled deeply without gagging. Recentered, with a thought she opened the video feed from McAdams’ optic nerves.
Five leathery eggs, each the size and oblong oval shape of a football, each one half-buried in the soil. Each one broken. The top of each egg littered the ground. Horizontal gouges and dangling slivers of casing showed something had repeatedy slashed across each egg. Columns of bulldog ants, so large they seemed a perfect match for the dinosaur preserve even though they still existed on Earth, marched up and down the eggs porting bits of the outer casing back to their hives.
The light jumped and the view angled—McAdams moved his head for a better view.