OF DINOSAURS AND MEN
Sammy doubled over, hands on knees. A stitch bit into her side and she closed her eyes while she took a moment to breathe. She wobbled and locked her arms to brace her legs.
A flutter behind sent her wheeling around.
Just a bird. No need to get spooked. She’d lost the monster, although she wasn’t sure when that had happened as the heat had subsided some time ago. She’d kept going though, just in case.
The forest was still. The only sounds audible were those of birds and insects flitting and buzzing around under the mushrooms.
She’d been properly petrified. She couldn’t deny it this time. Even her dad would have legged it from whatever that was.
She should keep moving. She straightened up and tottered on her feet. She needed water. She dropped her head forward, back between her knees, and waited until the tattoo in her skull finished drumming.
And now she was hearing things. Faint splashing and gurgling. She poked her index fingers in her ears, wiggled them, and took them out. The noise was still there. She surged forth, dragging her leaden legs onwards and down an incline. She scrambled through mushrooms, creepers and scratchy bushes, towards the sublime sloshing and burbling noise. She staggered to a halt in view of a stream, and gulped down a sob.
The stream snaked along the bottom of a barren and shallow gulley, its circuitous course winding through large boulders on its banks.
As she approached the river, the soil took on a coarser texture and the shingle transitioned into prickly pebbles that had her performing an oo-ah hotstep to the closest smooth boulder. From there, she used the other boulders as stepping stones to reach a rock in the middle of the stream. She rolled up both pyjama trouser legs, sat down and dipped her feet in the water. The first electric tingle of icy water whooshed up her legs; freezing and painful, but exquisite, too. Sammy slipped her hands into the water, pausing to savour the anticipation, and left her hands submerged as the crystalline liquid flowed in and around her fingers. She pulled her cupped hands up into the air and let the water rain down over her face and neck. She shivered. Bliss.
Then she drank. Water had never tasted so good. She drank heavily until her thirst had been quenched, then she took her feet from the water and sat cross-legged on the rock.
Esther had told her not to mess with the Midnight Emerald Dial by herself. But she had, and she’d been transported to another world. This place definitely wasn’t the Garden of Eden Esther had spoken of, though. It had to be somewhere else. What if there were hundreds of combinations on the dial? Would Esther be able to figure out how to get her back from here? Her chest constricted. She had to calm herself. Getting upset wouldn’t help. Be positive like Mum.
She really needed one of Mama’s pep talks right now. Keep positive, keep smiling. Sammy wiped a tear from her cheek. Time to move on. She’d lost the creature but it would be looking for her. It might even be in the area. She was like Arnie in Predator. He hadn’t given up. He’d fought and triumphed and managed to ‘get to the choppa’. But Sammy’s adrenaline-fuelled flight had exhausted her energy, leaving an all-consuming weariness in its place. She lay back on the boulder. She’d get going in a bit. She just needed to close her eyes for a minute.
She sat up with a start, bleary-eyed and groggy. Something was coming. A faint thudding, getting louder. She got up, her legs stiff.
She wasn’t moving quick enough and now the thuds were vibrating the rock underneath her, large ripples bouncing back and forth across the surface of the stream.
She hobbled down, sloshed through the water and stumbled up towards the forest, head reeling. She needed to hide, but she wasn’t going to make mushroom cover in time.
She turned to see two towering mushrooms on the far side of the stream bend, then snap at their bases as a dinosaur-chicken with a shell on its back shouldered its way through them. The mushrooms splintered as they hit the ground, firing spongy chunks of fungus into the air.
The dinosaur kept coming, blasting water from the stream as its feet slammed into the river bed.
Sammy tripped and fell. She scrambled backwards on all fours.
And the creature stopped.
Sammy collapsed on her back, her chest heaving.
A real-life dinosaur. That was the only thought going around in her head. One that looked nothing like the ones she’d seen in movies or killed in video games. It had no eyes, just a bulging forehead like a dolphin’s and two leaf-shaped ears the size of car bonnets on either side of its head. Its skin was covered in tan, mottled scales, but on its cheeks and down the length of its flank it had white, fur-like feathers that transitioned to red and blue around its thighs. The dinosaur stood horizontal, like a T-Rex, with small, feathered arms at the front and big, muscular legs that it used to carry a golden shell, the size of a terraced house, on its back. The shell itself was egg-shaped with a pointed apex and had another, smaller, golden egg two-thirds the size of the first joined halfway up its side.
And the creature wasn’t attacking her.
“Soubh be khear!” A man’s voice.
Sammy followed it to the top of the second, smaller egg. Jutting out from it like a ship’s prow was a long, pointed balcony, and leaning over the railing was a young guy wearing a black turban. In
one hand he clutched a brass telescope and with the other he waved enthusiastically.
“Matounhm ke kumaikitan knam?” he called.
“I don’t understand,” Sammy shouted back, and received a sharp static shock to her left temple. It caught her by surprise and she staggered, trying to make sense of what had just happened to her.
“Wait there,” the man said. “I’m coming down.”
Sammy rubbed her head. She’d become dizzy again and knelt down until she got her balance back.
The man appeared at ground level behind the dinosaur and came over.
“Are you feeling all right?” he asked when he reached her. He was wearing a black waistcoat with a white silk shirt and trouser combo that were both so white they made him look like he’d stepped out of a washing powder commercial. He had a long nose and a pursed mouth but he had beautiful hazel eyes that smiled when he did. He rolled back and forth on his heels with his hands behind his back.
Sammy rubbed her neck and got to her feet, feeling surprisingly okay again.
“You’ve got yellow hair,” the man said, “and these are interesting clothes.”
“They’re pyjamas,” Sammy said, staring past the guy at the feathered monster waiting patiently behind him.
“Pyjamas,” the man repeated. “We don’t get to see the latest clothes styles on our side of the forest. I’ll have to look into these ‘pyjamas’, as you call them. They look exotic.”
“They’re what I wear to bed. I don’t normally leave the house like this.”
The man watched her a moment, then snapped out of it. “Where are my manners?” he said. “My name’s Mehrak Omid.”
Sammy paused. Should she tell him who she was? He could be anyone.
Mehrak smiled. “Are you going to tell me your name?”
What difference would it make? “Samantha Ellis,” she said, “but you can call me Sammy.” She held out her hand.
The man didn’t take it. “Your name sounds familiar. Should I know you?”
“No,” Sammy said. She took her hand back. “I’m not from here.”
“Well, no one is from right here. We’re in the middle of nowhere.” He paused. “How did you get here?”
“I don’t know. I was messing around with the clock hands of a glowing emerald bracelet that was under my mum’s bed. Then it exploded and it must’ve knocked me out or something because I woke up here.” She looked up at the dinosaur. It had its mouth open and was angling its ears back and forth on their stalks. “Where am I?”
“You’re somewhere near the centre of the Fungi Forest, a little over two days’ travel from Honton Keep.”
“We’re not on Earth any more, are we?”
“Of course we aren’t.” Sammy exhaled and stared at the floor. “I’ve been teleported to a strange planet, in a faraway galaxy.”
Mehrak put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure we can get you back to Earth.”
“Really?” Sammy pretended to straighten up so Mehrak’s hand fell away. She didn’t feel comfortable with this strange guy being so familiar and edged away, closer to the mushrooms.
“Sure. Tell me which towns are closest to Earth. We’ll figure out how to get you there.”
Sammy turned away. She pulled at the hood of a waist-high mushroom. Tiny glowing spores drifted down from the disturbed gills, like dust particles caught in sunlight. It reminded her of home and the sun’s rays that slanted through her bedroom window on summer mornings.
“So are you going to tell me where Earth is?” Mehrak asked.
Sammy pointed up. “Probably somewhere up there. Earth is my world.”
“Yeah. Where we have blue skies and no giant mushrooms.”
“Blue skies?” Mehrak frowned, then snorted. “Where are you really from?”
“I’m not joking.” Her dad wouldn’t let someone disrespect him like that; although he probably wouldn’t argue with a guy who had a dinosaur at his back.
“How did you get here, then?” Mehrak crossed his arms.
“I told you already. The bracelet brought me here. I dialled the gold hands to midnight, and then it exploded.”
Mehrak didn’t say anything further, but he didn’t look convinced. “Would you like a lift with us?”
“Us?” Sammy said. She couldn’t decide whether she should be upset with him or not. “Who else is with you?”
“Louis,” Mehrak said, gesturing behind him.
“I don’t see him. Is he inside the shell?”
“No. He’s carrying the shell. And it’s not a shell, it’s a cottage. Well, I call it a cottage; technically it’s a caravan.”
“That creature is Louis?”
The leaf-shaped ears on the dinosaur’s head rotated and bent, each ear moving independently of the other and creating a series of poses.
“Yes, I know,” Mehrak said to the dinosaur. He turned back to Sammy. “Louis doesn’t respond favourably to ‘that creature’.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realise he could … you know, with his ears.”
“He’s a giant gastrosaur,” Mehrak said, adopting a patronising tone. “It’s what they do.”
“Yeah. And, obviously, I don’t know what one of those is. Because I don’t come from here. You ever heard of an elephant?”
“I have, actually. I’ve read about them. They’re extinct.”
A tendril of warm air slipped out of the forest and looped around Sammy’s neck. “Okay. I’ll go with you,” she said.
“Now you’ll come?”
“Something’s chasing me.”
“Something?” Mehrak stiffened. “What sort of something?”
“A tall, skinny thing in a black cloak.”
“I couldn’t see what it looked like exactly. It was person-shaped but taller.”
Mehrak let out his breath and seemed to relax. “Did you see it in a ghost village?”
“Er … yeah, I suppose. It was deserted.”
“A survivor. Most people don’t survive long in the Fungi Forest. But some hermits do. He was probably chasing you out of his territory.”
“I don’t think it was a person. It moved really weirdly and was really hot and burnt everything.”
“Survivors are strange – you’d have to be to live out here – and the forest can get hot at times. Did he say anything?”
“It said it wanted to help me, kept talking about ‘others’, like it had friends or something. It wanted me to meet them.”
“Definitely a survivor, and definitely crazy. His friends are probably a collection of funny shaped rocks.”
“So, you don’t live in the forest?”
“Certainly not. We’re just travelling through. You’re lucky Louis smelt you.”
“Relax. Louis has an amazing sense of smell; you aren’t smelly. Well, you are smelly but probably in a nice way.” He flushed and cleared his throat. “Anyway. What I mean is Louis smelt that you were all alone so we took a detour to come and rescue you. There’s probably not another human being within six hundred stadia.”
“Six hundred stadia? That sounds like a really long way.”
“It’s a good two days’ travel for Louis and that’s if he keeps a steady pace going without too many breaks. Not easy with a cottage on your back, as you can imagine.”
“And you live in there?” Sammy stared up at the golden eggs shimmering in the mushroom light.
“Of course.” Mehrak paused. “Come with us. I can’t have you dying alone in the forest on my conscience.”
“What if my mum comes after me?”
“You’re sticking with that story, are you?”
Sammy folded her arms and glowered at him.
Mehrak sighed. “It’s too risky to hang around here. Louis and I only passed this way because it’s the quickest way to the Keep.”
Sammy said nothing.
“Look. The forest’s huge. Even if your mother followed you in, you’d never find each other again. Platoons of soldiers have entered the Fungi Forest and never been seen again. You’re lucky to still be alive. Your best bet is to head to the closest big city and hope your mother makes it there too. Honton Keep is the nearest and biggest. And you’re in luck because that’s also where we’re heading.”
Sammy looked up at Louis and the shell caravan. What other choice did she have?