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Brandon Pilcher

Breakout for Home

Philip J. Covington, CEO of Global Petroleum Inc., smirked when he strutted out of his limousine and laid his eyes on the new museum. It amused him how literally his contractors and architects had taken the word “museum” when designing the place. The building’s Romanesque portico of marble columns, gleaming silver from the moonlight, seemed more evocative of a prestigious old museum nested deep in his native London than a solitary edifice erected in the central Texas heartland. They had even gone so far as to decorate the premises with trimmed hedges and topiaries to reinforce the illusion of prestigious aristocracy. Or perhaps those were meant to disguise the distant landscape of prairie and pipeline tracks.

Not that Covington truly had a problem with any of it. He would rather feel at home than be reminded that he was in the rustic middle of America.

There was one feature he noticed that contradicted the structure’s predominantly Neoclassical pretensions. Poking up from behind the museum’s main body was the dazzling summit of a glass dome. Covington did not remember arranging for anything like that when he first ordered the building’s construction.

“Mr. Covington! You’re even more on time than I expected.”

Elias Marshall hurried down the museum’s front steps and offered his plump hand for a shake. Except for his weathered suntanned complexion, the Texan local appeared as a figure of glossy white, from his three-piece suit to his cowboy’s hat and boots of faux snakeskin down to the holster for his revolver. Even his hair had turned white to match his fashion sensibilities. It was all in stark contrast to his pale-skinned, dark-haired, and black-suited superior.

“That would be Sir Covington to you, Mr. Marshall,” Covington said, placing special emphasis on his English accent for the American’s hearing pleasure. “But I must say I admire what you’ve assembled together so far, at least from the outside. A bit incongruous with its surroundings, but I suppose a place like this could use a bit more, shall we say, class?”

Marshall chuckled with a slight touch of nervousness. “Trust me, sir, you haven’t seen what we’ve got in store inside.”

Covington was about to shake Marshall’s hand when a faint, prolonged moan reverberated from somewhere, followed by the apparent rattle of window panes. The noise reminded him of a whale’s song, except it eventually trailed into a rumble more like an elephant’s. At least it was a more pleasant sound than the country music his limo’s chauffeur had been playing all night.

“What the bloody blazes was that?” Covington said. “Some sort of machinery?”

“No, that’s from the big greenhouse we have behind the museum.” Marshall pointed over to the peak of the glass dome. “A little surprise we planned for you. The kids should love it way more than any of our other exhibits, for reasons that shall become obvious. May I give you a sneak peek tonight after our little tour, Sir Covington?”

Covington nodded. “Why not take me there straight away? I’ll inspect the rest later.”

Together they went through the museum, following corridor after corridor that lit up automatically with their entrance. The exhibits they passed ranged from diagrams explaining how fossilized marine organisms became petroleum over millions of years, models depicting the process of extracting, refining, and transporting the oil, and then screens and walls of text explaining how the new pipeline nearby would be far safer and more environmentally friendly than those silly tree-huggers, social justice warriors, and restless “Native American” savages would have the public believe. Of course, the language the displays used was far more politically correct, but Covington had always wished he could throw far viler terminology at those troublemakers.

The last hallway he and Marshall went down ended with a closed doorway twice as high as the rest, framed by blocks of dark stone that tapered towards the top for an almost Egyptian-looking slant, unlike the straight Greco-Roman pillars that prevailed elsewhere in the establishment. Little braziers mounted on the sides flickered holographic flames while the entablature above had bold red letters impressed into it that read, “Welcome to the Fossil Age”.

Covington snickered. “What do you have in there, Godzilla?”

“Not quite, sir. Just wait and see.”

Marshall clapped his hands, and the doors opened with a grinding sound effect playing alongside a looping track of tribal drumbeats. Out wafted a gust of humid and balmy air that carried with it the fragrance of tropical flora together with the mustier odor of decaying leaves.

They passed through the open gate onto a wooden walkway held up on stilts over the ground, with pairs of tiki torches providing genuine firelight along the railing. Overhead arced the dome of glass that Covington had seen earlier, but only upon entering its interior could he appreciate its vast and towering scale. The space it enclosed would have easily dwarfed the rest of the museum! Speakers hanging interspersed between the glass panes played the unending chorus of a primordial wilderness, with bird-like squawks and screeches punctuating the chirping of nocturnal insects.

And then there returned the echoing moan Covington had heard earlier, but louder and deeper than before. His flesh trembled all the way down to the bone.

Beyond both sides of the walkway grew a verdant savanna of ferns with scattered cycad, tree-fern, and monkey-puzzle trees. Dragonflies fluttered around little ponds fenced with horsetail reeds while flies buzzed over balls of wet rock mottled with white fluid and shreds of leaves. At least Covington hoped those were only rocks. They had more than an uncanny resemblance to bird droppings and exuded a much more potent, pungent odor.

“You sure spared no expense on the scenic authenticity, Mr. Marshall,” he muttered. “I could’ve sworn those were real dung.”

“Oh, those are real, all right.” Marshall pointed up ahead, where the path ended in a circular plaza like a cul-de-sac. “Look over there.”

Covington squinted past the railing on the walkway’s end until he caught a glimpse of a broad and scaly surface rearing up from the other side, shimmering like a wall of pebbles from the torches’ light. As he traced the contours of the form before him with his eyes, he could hear the crackling of soil beneath heavy footsteps and the rustle of leaves attached to creaking trees.

His pace slowed to a stagger until he gave into the paralysis of incredulous shock. The only muscles Covington could move were his blinking eyelids.

He could confuse the hulking behemoth for nothing else. The long and tubular neck with a tiny head, the rotund torso supported by four legs like pillars, and the even longer tail that hovered over the ground with the tip twirling like a lasso. All in all, the beast must have surpassed all but the very largest whales in mass.

Covington would have taken it for an animatronic like one would find in countless museums and theme parks around the world. But then, with a smooth fluidity too flawless for any machine, the animal craned its neck up to browse from one of the monkey-puzzle trees.

“What the bloody hell is…that?” Covington forced himself to say at last. “Is that real?”

“Every bit of flesh, blood, and bone in him is real, I tell you,” Marshall replied. “Like you said, we spared no expense. Not even when it was more expensive than the museum itself.”

“I can easily imagine why…but why? Why would you bring a bloody dinosaur, of all things, into this?”

“Why not? We deal in fossil fuels after all. Of course, as you know, most oil comes from tiny sea critters rather than dinosaurs. But if you’re going to win hearts and minds over to your new pipeline, you might as well win them over with the kind of fossil they love. Most of all the kids.”

The dinosaur turned away from its meal and lowered its head right down to where Covington and Marshall stood, examining them with little coppery eyes while sniffing them like a curious dog. Covington froze still again when the creature’s snout brushed against his suit.

“At least it’s the plant-eating kind,” he said. “What do you call them, Apatosaurus?”

“Actually, mate, this one’s a Brontosaurus excelsus. Closely related, but the paleontologists now consider them different genera again.”

It was a woman who had addressed Covington. Her khaki shorts and top hugged her tall and slender, dark brown figure while wavy black hair streamed beside her face underneath her slouch hat. She marched down the walkway up to the Brontosaurus and gave the cracked scales on its muzzle a gentle stroke of her hand as if it were a horse, murmuring soft words into its earhole.

“Sir Covington, I’d like you to meet Charlotte Elanora, a tough Aboriginal gal from down under,” Marshall said. “She led the team to capture our big attraction back in the Jurassic, and now she’s its primary caretaker.”

“His primary caretaker,” Elanora corrected him. “I named him Big Ben, after my old man. Ain’t he a handsome bloke?”

“A Brontosaurus named Big Ben…it’s alliterative, at least,” Covington said. “How can you tell his gender though?”

“Easy. You can’t see it so well in this lighting, but the males tend to have brighter purple stripes than the females.” Elanora tapped the nape of the dinosaur’s neck behind its head. “Though if we’re going to keep him penned up here, I think we ought to get him a mate soon. Wouldn’t you want that, Big Ben? A nice and pretty sheila to keep you company?”

Benny rumbled and then let out another of his moaning bellows. The volume of the call almost burst through Covington’s eardrums now that had had gotten so close to the dinosaur.

“Truth be told, I think he’s homesick,” Elanora went on. “Though I suppose he’ll be safer in captivity. You can’t see it from this side, but on his left thigh he has some scratches from an Allosaurus attack. Allosaurus, by the way, is one of the big meat-eating dinosaurs, though they’re a bit smaller and nimbler than the Cretaceous T. rex.”

“Good thing we don’t have one of those in here, then,” Covington said. “Now this is all lovely and magnificent, but don’t you think it might be, well, a bit of a challenge to keep him in this place? We’ve all seen those movies, if you know what I mean. Not to mention, the sheer cost of maintaining a beast that big…”

Marshall wrapped an arm around Covington’s shoulder and laughed. “Like I said, it’ll be the biggest draw we can throw at them. The admission tickets alone should pay for everything. And besides, the Brontosaurus is a gentle plant-eater. What could go wrong with his kind?”

##

After a week’s passage, the Global Museum of Petroleum and Energy finally opened to the public at ten in the morning.

It did not happen without controversy. All the social media sites had already swarmed with criticism that the entire project was little more than Global Petroleum’s attempt to propagandize and manipulate people into supporting its corporate endeavors, most especially its new pipeline across Texas, while overlooking the consequences of those undertakings. The day the museum opened, the encroaching protestors numbered in the hundreds. Only the small army of cops and security guards that Global Petroleum had recruited kept the demonstrators away from the premises and the connecting highways with their tasers and weaponry.

Insulated from the chaos outside by the glass dome of her greenhouse, Charlotte Elanora had gleaned all these developments from the social media feed on her phone. She wouldn’t dare admit it to anyone else at the museum, but she could only concur with the protestors about the industry her employers represented. They, after all, made their profit from having the atmosphere be flooded with greenhouse gases, fracturing the earth to the point of triggering earthquakes, and desecrating the homes of various indigenous peoples with pipelines that would foul the soil and waterways whenever they broke.

And then there were the alliances they forced between democratic nations and the most oppressive and fanatical theocracies. Not to mention the wars they instigated through their political connections, most infamously the one in Iraq. All of it to obtain that hell-born black gold that had cost so many lives…human as well as animal.

Not even the mightiest tyrannosaur, or the most cunning velociraptor, could intimidate Elanora as much as the men and women on whom her livelihood, and that of her family back in the outback of Australia, depended.

The doors to the greenhouse opened over half an hour sooner than she had anticipated. They must have cut the museum tour short to herd the antsy visitors towards the climactic attraction as soon as possible. Even as she stood at the far end of the greenhouse’s walkway, the clamor of chattering adults and squealing children reached her ears past the ambient noises the speakers played. The only sound louder than the distant throng was Big Ben’s grumbling growl as he hauled his weight up from sleep.

Underneath the warm glow of the ascendant sun, his pebbly hide dazzled with a brilliance seldom displayed by any animal in the modern world. Vivid stripes of violet and red, speckled with black spots, streaked down his bluish-gray body from the top all the way down to his cream-white underside. Not even the crisscrossing scars on his left thigh could blemish the brontosaur’s natural beauty. If anything, they enhanced it as testaments to the robust durability of Big Ben’s species.

He curved his neck sideward to face the incoming horde of visitors and puffed an anxious snort out of his nostrils.

Like a tsunami over a beach, they swept over the path until they filled its entire length and breadth between the rails. A forest of waving arms held up phones and cameras, their clicking almost disturbing the greenhouse’s tranquility even more than the audience’s gasping voices. Big Ben shook his head with a growl while beating the earth with his foreleg.

“It’ll be OK, mate” Elanora whispered from the corner of her mouth. “Stay put.”

It did not take long for the crowd to jostle with itself as people wormed their way forth for a closer look at Big Ben. Over the racket of cursing, punching, and cries of pain, Philip J. Covington and Elias Marshall took turns shouting commands for everyone behind them to calm down and behave.

The bellow that Big Ben let out next drowned out all other sound within the greenhouse, rattling the panes of glass high above. With a slam of his front legs, he shook the stilts that held the walkway up. Even Elanora had to grab the rails to preserve her balance.

“Whoah, that was awesome,” a college-aged boy in the audience said. “Get him to do that again!”

“No way in hell, kid!” Elanora snapped. “He’s under enough distress as it is.”

“Oh, come on, Miss Elanora!” Marshall said. “These people have paid through the nose for spectacle. Why not give them a little extra thrill to go with it?”

Elanora stepped away from him and crossed her arms in defiance. “You’ve gone mad, even more so than before. I’d rather set him free than indulge in your bratty demands!”

Covington’s face flared bright red as he pinched her elbows with both hands. “You will do as we say. Or shall I have to put you in your place, you swarthy Aboriginal bitch!”

There resounded the most deafening roar Elanora had ever heard from Big Ben. The panes making up the greenhouse’s ceiling cracked from the booming force of the brontosaur’s voice, with sharp shreds of glass raining down on everyone. With cuts slashed down their faces and clothes, the spectators screamed in their frantic stampede to leave the area.

“Look at what you’ve done, Charlotte!” Covington yelled over the panicked din. “If you had only complied­—”

Big Ben swung over and yanked the CEO of Global Petroleum off the walkway with his peg-like teeth and hurled him across the greenhouse until the Englishman crashed through the dome. Blood dripped from the edges of the hole through the glass that Covington left behind.

“I’ll teach that big lizard some manners!” Marshall whipped out his revolver and fired away at the dinosaur’s breast.

The only sign Big Ben showed of being even the least bit injured by the bullets pelting his thick hide was his roar of retort, and even this sounded more furious than agonized. Lowering his neck and drawing it as far aside as possible, he slammed its side into the walkway’s supports, splintering them in half. Elanora sprang off the railing and seized onto the trunk of a tall cycad while the end of the path collapsed, taking Marshall down with it. His hollering cry broke into a death rattle together with the cracking of bones.

A team of museum guards raced into the greenhouse, armed with rifles aimed at Big Ben using red laser pointers. Yet none of them had a chance to shoot before the brontosaur spun himself around and barreled away, smashing through the greenhouse walls into the world outside.

Elanora’s arms shivered around the cycad she clung to. The worst-case scenario, the one that kept her awake with dread far more than any other, had happened at last. And only she could fix it.

##

It was almost four in the afternoon on the plains of central Texas. Although the sun had long sunk westward from its zenith, its dry heat still baked the expanse of rolling yellow grassland that sprawled beyond all horizons. From west to east across the prairie, there wound and zigzagged the metallic series of oil pipes that Global Petroleum had recently installed. Without it, there would have been no museum with a big greenhouse to hold Big Ben hostage.

As Charlotte Elanora had deduced from the tracks that he had pounded into the ground, the brontosaur had spent the whole time since his escape following the pipeline. She could only guess what his compact little brain had been thinking. Perhaps he believed it led to somewhere of interest, such as a waterhole he could drink from in this heat. Or maybe he wanted to find a way around it. Regardless, Big Ben had proven far faster and far more elusive than anyone would expect for an animal weighing well over twenty tons. After six hours’ passing, Elanora had yet to see him again.

She prayed to the gods of her people that nothing had happened to him. Or that he had wrought no more destruction of his own. The nearest settlement lay over one more hour of walking away, but that was by human standards. Nobody but the gods themselves could predict how fast a Brontosaurus could get himself into trouble again.

Elanora stopped to rest beneath the shade of a young cottonwood tree and pulled out her canteen for a cool sip. Another cottonwood standing beside the first had a huge hunk of its foliage stripped off the branches, with a few more brontosaur tracks winding towards and then away from it. Elanora’s stomach felt a kick of queasiness. Cottonwood trees were flowering plants, and flowering plants would not evolve until a few million years after the Brontosaurus went extinct at the end of the Jurassic Period. Big Ben might get sick from engulfing so many of those.

His moaning song interrupted the silence of the plains at last. However, its higher than normal pitch suggested plaintive wailing, as if he had indeed fallen ill. Or lonely. Either could happen to an animal lost in a world one hundred and fifty million years after its own.

Unslinging her tranquilizer rifle, Elanora sank prone into the prairie grass and crawled down the trail of tracks. She halted to press herself even lower against the earth once she spotted a big purple form with a twirling tail lumbering into the distance, parallel to the pipeline as before. Since Big Ben’s head had been pointed away from her, Elanora had to roll sideward to get a view of it through her gun’s scope.

“I don’t want to do this to you, mate, but you have to come home,” she said under her breath as she aligned the crosshair’s center with the back of the dinosaur’s skull. “This might sting a little bit.”

She pressed the trigger.

It missed. Big Ben cocked his head up with a startled roar and sped up back into his panicked jog, brandishing his tail like a twirling club. This time, he broke straight through the pipeline.

It split at the seams with the creaking groan of metal being turned aside. The crude oil gushed out without relent in torrents of viscous black liquid washing like a flash flood across the land. Elanora ran up a hillock of higher ground to avoid the waves sweeping towards her.

Over the raging rush of the petroleum, she heard Big Ben’s voice blaring out shrill, and then a thunderous, splashing thud. She could not hold back her shriek of terror. “No, Big Ben, no!”

Sprinting down the hill and leaping over the pipeline, Elanora found her fear confirmed. Big Ben had slipped over the slick oil and collapsed onto his flank. Struggling to hold his head over the black muck, he bellowed and roared in an overwrought frenzy of distress.

Further away, Elanora saw that some of the oil was flowing into a stream across the plain, blackening its waters. Critics had argued that it would happen sooner or later, but never would she had anticipated that it would happen the day the museum opened. Or that Big Ben, her sweet beloved Big Ben, would be involved in it.

No, it could not be his fault. Big Ben was an animal that knew not which era he was in. Global Petroleum had only itself to blame for having him torn away from his home into the modern world, and for constructing the pipeline that would end up polluting a whole river system in Texas. But then, they could not have brought the brontosaur in without Elanora’s help. And the pipeline would not have burst had she not fired at him. It was not only anger and despair that chewed away at Elanora’s soul. It was guilt as well.

She could do little if anything about the spill. That would be on Global Petroleum or the state authorities to address. But she could do one more thing to right everything she had done to poor Big Ben.

With another shot of her rifle, she launched a red-plumed dart into the rear of the dinosaur’s head. As Big Ben’s movements slowed, and his bellows stretched out to gentler moans, Elanora walked through the oil up to him and cradled her arms around his head, stroking the skin as a mother might stroke her baby. The song she hummed to him was an ancient Aboriginal lullaby her own mother had sung for her.

Except for the shutting of his eyes and the heaving and falling of his flanks with breath, the brontosaur had fallen still.

“You’re going home, Big Ben,” Elanora whispered to him. “You’re going home. And you will never have to miss it again.”

##

When Big Ben opened his eyes again, the world around him had changed once again. No longer did he see a prairie of grass swamped with black oil. In its place, there spread a vast savanna of ferns, cycads, tree-ferns, and ginkgo and monkey-puzzle trees. But there was no dome of glass overhead, nor was there any stilted walkway of wood supporting those troublesome two-legged mammals. Instead of speakers repeating recorded sounds, he heard the squawks of real pterosaurs darting after real insects. Next to him flowed a river of clear water fringed with horsetails, from which a herd of long-necked brontosaurs like himself drank on the other side.

He trumpeted a song of joy as he waded through the water to rejoin his mates. For he was back in the Jurassic, over one hundred and fifty million years before the time he had been abducted to. No longer did he have to spend his days in a cramped greenhouse with nothing but those cruel and obnoxious primates to keep him company. Instead, he would live the rest of his life the way his kind always had.

Big Ben was back home.

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