The Tyrant Lizard (and Her Plus One)
By John Wiswell
Dinosaurs don’t want to kill you; they just don’t care that you’re there. More people have been sat on by brontosauruses than have been eaten by all the theropods combined. Since I joined security on the archipelago, 82% of dinosaur-related human casualties were from tourists who got too close during mating season. And the four times I’ve seen a deinonychus attack someone, they’ve always left them uneaten. Why? For the same reason bears and sharks tend to leave victims alive: because humans taste like shit.
The easiest way to survive is to not come here at all. You may remember my crew from the news three years ago, when the government sent us to claim these islands in the name of democracy or whatever. I only took this job because I was drowning in bills and going deaf. Opportunities were short. It was an exciting six months, before Congress cut our funding and left us with zero evac and zero back-pay. Now I literally can’t afford to leave.
If you see my Senator, please tell him Ms. Plover sends her finest expletives.
Nowadays my job is managing the food for my fellow orphans. The government is gone, but food suppliers keep dumping here. We get airdrops of grain and meat-like substances that were too low-grade for corporations to sell in the Americas. Thanks to regulations, they pocket write-offs by dropping their garbage on the lawns of dinosaurs.
I’m on my way outside to paint when the tripwires go off, letting me know I have heavier company than usual waiting outside. I left my brushes and pigments outside and instantly fear for them. Painting is the one respite I have out here, even if my Tumblr has three followers. In high school Mr. Dennett said I lacked ability and discipline, but I do it for myself, not for the memory of teachers who neg their students. Dinosaurs are less opinionated about amateur Fauvism.
The tripwire trembles two more times, waving colored flags, and then I’m sure it’s the ducks outside. See, the ducks don’t care that I’m here, but they love discount bulk grains. I feel the vibrations of their feet thudding on the concrete outside as I grab my trusty vuvuzela. The ducks are probably going after the cargo containers again.
When I say ‘ducks,’ I mean hadrosaurs. They are some of the most social critters on the island, and if you drop crumbs on the ground once, they’ll follow after you honking forever for more that you don’t have. It’s no surprise they evolved into ducks.
So I head outside with the vuvuzela that I stole from a drunken David Beckham impersonator at the only sports game I ever went to. I come out blowing – the sudden loud noise usually spooks the ducks into fleeing the premises. I have a back-up alarm, but this usually does the trick.
There are no ducks. First I look to the jungle, expecting them to flee south to the river. Then I check the parking lot, which is similarly vacant. This is weird. Hadrosaurs always dumpster dive in flocks.
A single tail juts from inside the garage. The other ex-employees forgot to close the shutters after picking up their shipment, and a dino got in. Something with a way bigger tail than my ducks.
Standing halfway in the door, I give another blast of the vuvuzela. The tail ignores me, swaying as its owner munches hips-deep in a frozen fast food smorgasbord. I grab a chunk of asphalt and hurl it at the tail.
That gets her attention. She turns quicker than a hadrosaur, just like evolution ordered. She reels on my door with fifty teeth and breath that gingivitis has nightmares about. She’s a zhuchengtyrannus, the archipelago’s dominant brand of tyrannosaur, and she’s definitely looking at me. Her gaze makes me drop the vuvuzela. It plunks to the ground as I reach for my phone and swipe for the only app that still works.
I am over 90% deaf in my good ear, and the rumble of her footsteps is fully audible to me. The earth shakes, the vibrations traveling up my entire body. I can hear her with my feet. She is as close as she needs to be to turn me into a cautionary tale.
I hit the emergency app, signaling every light and siren in the compound. It’s an overcast early morning and suddenly the parking lot is painfully bright from floodlighting, and the klaxons drown out anything for two square miles. That spooks the zhuchengtyrannus, who bangs her head against a cargo container, denting it deeply, and then she sprints directly at me.
This is my fault, hitting an alarm that makes the critter run in whatever direction she’s facing. The mix of light and noise might as well be a hurricane, and anything alive runs from it. My dumb ass made an off-brand T-Rex charge directly at me. I dive indoors, the heavy steel slamming behind me, and pray to a god that I otherwise don’t admit believing in.
I hyperventilate, hugging my sides. Trampling is a huge human-killer. How lucky was I to make it out of that alive?
When my fingers stop shaking, I swipe the alarm off and poke my head outside. My Cretaceous visitor is gone, leaving behind a trail of crushed cars. She must’ve hauled tail out of here.
After all that, I need a smoke and a canvas, and there haven’t been cigarettes on the island in years. It’ll take hours of painting to really calm my nerves.
I look around for my paints for several moments. Did I leave them by the cars? I’m worried the bag has been crushed until I see a single smear of pink across the asphalt. The smear leads into the jungle.
The Queen of the Lizards stole my paints.
I keep walking in circles, looking under wreckage I’ve already checked. Denial is easier than imagining a terrified monster accidentally snagging a bag of painting supplies on her notoriously tiny arms.
You think it’s hard finding cigarettes out here? Try buying a paint brush set. Try mixing your own pigments from scratch. I’ve been stretching out these supplies for years, and now…
So shut up about me going in the jungle. I go because I’d rather get trampled out there than live in safety without art, and if you don’t understand that, then you’re what I don’t miss about not living in human society anymore.
It takes me half an hour to track to her den. It seems bizarre that I’ve never seen her before if she lives that close. Then I notice all the newly crushed ferns. There are no bones from carrion, or feces anywhere around. Although it smells like feces and then some.
The zhuchengtyrannus lies on her belly, flattened out across the earth, facing northwest. She’s over thirty-five feet long, with a coat of red and black quills along her spine. She’s not a proper t-rex, but I dare you to call her a knock-off to her face.
My fiber-weave paint bag is stuck to one of her toes. Her body shudders painfully, and I’m grateful to be coming from the south-end until she rips one. My eyes water so badly that they almost squirt out of my head. It’s like if Hell had an Axe Body Spray.
This isn’t a healthy lady. Her guts are full of chemically treated meat-like product that humans haven’t evolved to digest, let alone critters from 65,000,000 years ago. The Queen of the Lizards is sprawled out in pain because she’s got indigestion. Taco Bell makes us all feel mortal an hour later.
I finish dry-heaving, thankful that she doesn’t rouse at the sound. I creep up to her left foot – both straps of the paint bag are wrapped around one of her claws. It doesn’t look pulverized, the bag resting atop of the foot instead of beneath the heel.
This will be easier when she passes out. I check around her right side, trying to make out her eyes, and a dry fern cracks so loud that even I hear it.
Not so much the twitch of an eyelid. The irritable monster keeps staring forward like she doesn’t hear a thing. She just wants today to be over.
I look at the fern under my shoe, and remember blowing the vuvuzela at her. Did she run from the sirens, or just from the light show?
“No way,” I say despite myself, and she doesn’t seem to notice. Her ear canal doesn’t twitch in response to a sound right next to her.
This zhuchengtyrannus is deaf. Deaf like me.
I actually raise both palms and slowly lower them in ASL for “Calm.” My first urge is to teach her to sign with her tiny hands. Or, her one remaining tiny hand – I can’t go erasing disabilities, not even those of dinosaurs.
She’s missing her right arm, her scales puffy out around scar tissue. She has deep grooves down her flank where other critters have hit her over the years. This old lady has led a life. A deaf hunter. A disabled queen whose Handicapped Spot you’d better not steal.
That’s when I decide to help her out. Zhu is technically my neighbor, and I have an idea.
Crocodiles let Plover birds into their mouths to peck scraps from their gums. The birds are so small that they’re worth not eating in exchange for the pleasure of having someone else do your flossing.
That’s why my Tumblr handle is “Ms. Plover.”
It’s a quick trip back to the compound for supplies. I mix a garbage bag of Dino Pepto: stomach-settling drugs from back when the park worked, reptile-friendly antibiotics, and some of that chemical the fast food joints use to make a microwaved patty smell fresh off the grill. Theropods hunt on smell anyway.
Within three seconds of sticking the bag under her snout, Zhu bites into it and throws it back like a Jell-O shot. She does it so fast that I’m stuck there in her line of sight. If she wants to eat this Plover bird, she can.
I sign “Calm” again, more to myself than her.
Zhu returns her head to the ground like she’s dismissing the maid. Is it weird to be offended that a dinosaur didn’t make eye contact?
I linger behind some trees until her shuddering subsides, hoping I haven’t killed her. I was barely trained for security. I’m definitely not a vet.
Two tugs later, my paint bag slips free from her foot. The inside of the bag is very blue – two tubes of that have burst. That it’s pure blue is a relief, because that means none of the other colors broke. I’ve painted enough skies for a while anyway.
I spend the entire hike back to the compound thinking of what to paint. That makeshift dino den would be nice. There were some gorgeous views in the jungle, and if Zhu sticks around, no smaller predators will mess with me if I go back out there. Plus I can spend months just sketching the way she crushed those cars.
Five hundred feet out, and the garage stinks like herbivore. I come running, and right around the bend, those damned ducks are banging on the cargo containers. They smelled the grain. They’ve swarmed around, at least three separate flocks converging on one of the cargo containers Zhu had breached. I’ve never seen so many ducks in one place. The pavement is slippery with their guano.
If I don’t get rid of them right now, we’re going to lose the entire food supply. As much as I hate my neighbors, I am not letting them starve. Fuck, the herbivores are going to kill us all.
A vuvuzela is not going to fix this. I could hit the alarm, but with this many ducks around, their own stampede will kill a lot of them, and their carcasses will turn my compound into destination dining for carnivores. I pull out my phone, hesitating over what the hell to do as two hadrosaurs manage to pop the door off the next container. It swings open, and immediately a dozen more of them drive their heads into the food bins.
I turn around to pace and the biggest blur in the world charges past me. I hear her roaring, hear it from my hair to my toes, and Zhu rips into a hadrosaur’s belly. Just as nimbly, she uppercuts a second one with her snout, sending it into a wall before going for the kill.
The ducks spook, hopping over the cargo containers, going in all directions but hers. Zhu chases a third one down, catching it by the tail and drawing it into her mouth like spaghetti. I’ve never in my life imagined a dinosaur being treated like spaghetti. I’m in absolute awe of this creature.
The absolute awe lasts about a minute, before she starts barfing all over the parking lot. She was healthy enough to hunt, but not to eat.
If you feed a duck once, it’ll follow after you honking forever for more that you don’t have. Zhu didn’t honk, but she had followed me back to the feeding grounds. Her hips shudder and she glances at me.
I sign, “Calm.”
It’d be anthropomorphizing to say she gives me A Look. With that mouth, she always has A Look.
But when I sign again, she lays down on the asphalt. Then barfs up half-digested hadrosaur.
She’s such a pitiful sight that I want to hold her hair while she barfs. Not that she has hair. Her quills are like anorexic feathers, quivering with her discomfort.
I let her rest outside, my personal attack dog. As she alternates between zoning out and nibbling on her leftovers, I sit on the crushed hood of a car and paint. She left me enough red and brown pigments to do her royal likeness justice. It reminds me of Burgess Meredith sitting on the steps of the last library on earth.
“Time enough at last,” I say. I spend the afternoon making Twilight Zone jokes at a deaf carnivore
My surprise is that the paintings of a barfing dinosaur get shared a ton online. Weirdos from around the world message me about prints. T-shirt sites steal my art while I’m busy making new pieces. The internet loves paintings of the big lady doing mundane things, like flossing on my clothesline, or falling asleep between the solar panels in a way that looks like she’s tanning.
Two months later, I have a Patreon. I start it to be able to afford new paints, especially blue since most of the time I’m painting her from a low perspective and the sky sneaks in there. Demand for art is draining my supplies until the first wave of pledges hits.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably surprised that I’m surprised. I guess this is when I’m supposed to thank my Patreon subscribers. Thank you for supporting the Ms. Plover Project. I hope you like the next piece. Some locals heard I’d “tamed” the beast, and I think this painting captures the terror of them learning they were very wrong indeed.
She’s not housebroken, and neither am I. We’re a couple of misanthropes. She spends her days prowling for wildlife that doesn’t make her as sick as fast food, while I paint our way out from under a crap economy. In a few months I could afford transportation off this glorified tar pit. I might visit my Senator.
Although I’m not leaving without my emotional support animal. Does anyone know an airline with a generous policy?
Alien Invader or Assistive Device?
By John Wiswell
Probe was more of an anthropologist than a celestial object. It hit the planet’s atmosphere, coming out of sleep mode as friction tried and failed to burn it up. Probe had come too far to go that easily. After breaching the atmosphere, planetfall was easy. Mostly, you just fell.
It landed on the north side of a marsh, with as quiet a splash as it could make. Mud still got everywhere in its smart metal fibers. Probe shifted its metal body into sundry shapes, strenuously trying to shake off the filth. Getting messy was the worst part of arrivals.
Hopefully nobody had seen that.
Utah’s snout followed the funny rain’s descent until it landed in the mire. The utahraptor blinked and sniffed in its direction, until whatever it was glinted metallic. Metal tasted terrible and always broke their teeth. Utah had to get back to hunting.
Swishing their long, feathered tail, Utah wavered for balance on their injured left leg. The chunk Alpha had bitten from it was not healing right. If they didn’t eat soon, it’d fall off like their right arm had.
Further up the hill, a brown hippodraco munched on low cedar branches, ignorant of the utahraptor pack surrounding it from cover. It had clearly eaten well. The pack could feast on a thing that size for days.
Utah lowered their snout close to the earth and pushed a chunk of stone up. They had used stones to trick so manyof their prey over the years. They turned, readying their tail for the swing, when their leg wound opened further and their entire body seized. They squawked despite themselves, and gave their position away.
It was the first call for empathy Probe had ever heard. Probe wanted to oblige. It dissembled its nanites into a pool of metal to come up with the friendliest shape. This was Probe’s first first contact, and it would not mess it up.
Before Probe could reshape, the giant herbivore bucked from its dinner of bushes and made for the foothills. Three more carnivores like the disabled one sprang up to chase, but too late.
This was Probe’s chance to blend in with a whole family of locals. It tried to speed up its transformation.
Utah collapsed onto a thorny bush, struggling to push themselves up on their one arm. Their thigh felt like fire that wanted to burn itself off.
The other utahraptors prowled near, lead by Alpha. Alpha grunted twice, padded up with their teal feathers standing on end. They still had some of Utah’s thigh stuck in their teeth from Utah’s previous mistake.
Utah fought their injuries, heaving up just to bow their head and show remorse. Their throat clicked softly in pain, ready to hunt all night to feed the pack.
Alpha darted in, jaws sinking around Utah’s left hip. The fire burned white hot. Utah’s severed leg fell down the slope. They fell a moment later.
The creature hurtled toward Probe, screeching in what sounded more like agony than the joy of discovery. Probe’s nanites were still too loose to catch it, and the creature plunged head-first into a flooded trench.
None of the creature’s family came to help when they coughed. The family departed northwest, following the herbivore.
The disabled creature bled enthusiastically, getting Probe terribly dirty. And still they squirmed, clawing at the slope of the hill, trying to follow their kin. They kept pushing the joint of their lost leg against Probe’s metal form, as though willing themselves to stand again.
It unraveled two thousand semi-metallic fiber clusters from its bank, plugging every tissue fissure it found. It duped nerve clusters to mimic instinctive walking patterns. There wasn’t any flesh that Probe’s smart-metal couldn’t plagiarize.
Probe worked quickly, eager to finish and clean the gore off itself. It was so sticky.
Utah bit the stupid metal thing. Their teeth shattered, and worse, then the metal got in their mouth and started replacing their broken teeth.
At least the metal teeth let Utah bite the metal thing easier.
They tried to run away from their new leg, but it was part of their gait now. Utah tore up the slope, the leg helping the whole time. It was a funny, thin leg. It didn’t even have a claw.
Probe rewrote the foot and sprouted the sharpest blade this planet would ever see. Utah could shave neurons with it if they wanted.
This was fun work! The Second Law was to help out a host culture, ever since one planet had turned an exploratory probe into a chair. That probe revolutionized recreation for its culture and set the standard for anthropology. No decent probe wouldn’t want to be sat on.
Probe was elated when Utah manually tapped their new claw on the ground. They’d been bonded for seconds, but Probe could feel Utah’s desire to test it out.
It also felt Utah about to swoon.
Utah staggered, nearly toppling down the slope. The blood loss and infections were taking everything. Hunger gnawed at their belly, and the chill of sickness made even their veins feel ravenous.
Their olfactory senses had been defective since infancy. When they sniffed this time, metal poked into their snout, whispering new senses to them. They sensed things northwest – things that immediately made Utah salivate. Soon they ran for the hunt on an alien leg.
Probe barely had to tailor its design given how rapidly Utah adapted to it. Together they cut through woodlands, and stalked below the bush line of a grove, feathers close to their skin. As far as Probe knew, Utah had hunted in the same pack for a year and a half. It expected they’d struggle to hunt alone.
Before them was a field of gastonias, herbivores with spiny shelled backs. Bulky parents sheltered plump young as they grazed on grasses. Probe experienced a lifetime of Utah’s memories of how gastonias tasted, and the relief of gorging on them after long fasts. Probe almost felt hungry itself.
On the opposite side of the herd, hunched in a ditch, were three more utahraptors. They all had teal feathers, and one had Utah’s blood on their mouth.
Probe sensed them. It pinged Utah.
They checked the gastonias, and then their former pack, all artlessly clustered in the same ditch.
Utah nosed a chunk of granite away from the bushes. They didn’t need the metal for this. They set up the rock, swung their tail, and batted the granite high over the bushes, sailing over two baby gastonias.
The granite thudded against a cedar near the ditch, and the three utahraptors startled upright. Two of them squawked, and while chips of granite pattered to the ground, the gastonias all stared at their predators. They honked, shielding their young and whipping up into a stampede in the opposite direction.
Utah’s bushes were in the opposite direction.
Utah arched low until a gastonia calf strayed too close. Their new claw worked perfectly.
Utah’s pack approached, with Alpha coming closest. Their nostrils quivered, sniffing at Utah as though disbelieving it was truly them. Utah turned their body away and continued feasting. Probe was impressionable, but still approved the snub.
Alpha shimmied their hips and raised their hind-feathers up in fan patterns. They were more than impressed. They shuffled and turned to one side in an invitation to mate.
That’s when Probe learned two things about its host:
- They were asexual.
- They were vengeful.
Utah spun around, flashing their mechanical foot blade.
Then Probe was dirty again. Alpha’s fluids got everywhere, even between Probe’s micro-fibers. It was going to be a chore cleansing itself.
It began the cleansing process, only to be interrupted by Utah’s tongue. They licked the metal knee clean, then got the thigh. Their own scales and feathers, Utah left a mess. It was like they intuited Probe’s wants and had given it a gift.
Probe responded in an equation that wouldn’t make sense to any native life.
It was going to love being a leg on this planet.
By Tina Connolly
I had not previously read either of these stories by John and I am absolutely delighted by both of them. I love how they have elements in common but both go entirely different directions. Tyrant Lizard deals with something that John is particularly good at, finding the potential for stories that have not yet been told. In this case, what if the Jurassic Park-style island simply gets abandoned, but, yanno, due to bureaucracy slash public outcry, we end up with a caretaker dropped on the archipelago, willing to feed the orphaned dinos only slightly rancid fast food meat. I loved how our protagonist finds a way to bond with the poor, tummy-upset creature, and how that in turn improves her own life. (I mean, I can absolutely imagine those amazing “slice of life” paintings and would totally support that Patreon.)
Meanwhile, we have a different symbiotic relationship appear in “Alien Invader or Assistive Device?” I was absolutely delighted by the concept of the Probe whose best idea of anthropology is “first, do some help.” Well, their second law anyway. Because, it’s NOT by changing the culture they find–it’s by changing themselves to be what’s needed. To be thoroughly delighted if you become a leg, or a chair. Yanno, I keep saying “delight” but that’s what I come back to so much with the joy in both of these stories. In each case, there is an absolute joy in the two sentient beings finding each other, meeting each other at the place that they are, and building a beautiful, mutually assistive companionship for the future.
Some Escape Pod round up news for you, in case you have missed it, but CatsCast is now live! Find them on twitter at catscastpod. Aaand, all original fiction published by CatsCast–that’s a tongue twister!–will be available for everyone for free, and additional CatsCast episodes will be available exclusively to Patrons at the Premium Content level and above. So hop on over to the Patreon and check that out.
Next, we are truly thrilled to receive Hugo nominations for Escape Pod for best semiprozine, and for our esteemed editors Mur and Divya for editing. We are also thrilled to be on the amazing Ignyte ballot for best fiction podcast. Thank you so much to everyone who nominated us for the Hugo, and to the jury for the Ignyte. These are true honors.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution non commercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please, go forth and share it.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Jim Henson, who said: “There’s not a word yet, for old friends who’ve just met.”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
John Wiswell is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. He is a Nebula winning author of many short stories. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, the LeVar Burton Reads podcast, Tor.com, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Additionally he has previously had work on Pseudopod, Podcastle, and Cast of Wonders; Escape Pod episode 840 marks him making the grand slam of Escape Artists shows. He’s giddy about it. He is currently working on a novel about other disabled monsters. He has loved dinosaurs for longer than he’s loved humans, and dreams of one day being eaten by a t-rex. He can be found on Patreon at patreon.com/Wiswell.
About the Narrator
Karen Menzel (née Bovenmyer) earned an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches and mentors students at Iowa State University and Western Technical College. She is the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writers Association Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship. Her poems, short stories and novellas appear in more than 40 publications and her first novel, SWIFT FOR THE SUN, debuted from Dreamspinner Press in 2017. Karen’s website is at https://karenbovenmyer.com/. Karen was an assistant editor of PseudoPod team from 2018 to 2021.