Cryptozoica is a contemporary thriller, blending elements popularized by the TV series Lost, with speculative science and the exotic high adventure which are the hallmarks of my Outlanders series.
When a group of people are trapped on an island in the South China Seas, they find themselves not only engaged in a battle for survival, but also entangled in a web of ancient conspiracy that holds the final, terrifying truth of the origins of life on Earth.
Cryptozoica is my take on the classic Lost World theme, with strong scientific underpinnings. Shortly after visiting a dinosaur exhibition at the Museum of Natural History in NYC, I asked myself : “What if an honest-to-God lost world, a real-life version of Skull Island was actually discovered—not 100 years or 70 years ago, but right now? What effect would such a discovery have on the world’s scientific disciplines and religious beliefs?”
Aside from the scientific theory and philosophy, Cryptozoica is a stage for all the trademarks that have made Outlanders so popular for so many years–blazing action, adventure in exotic climes, secret societies, suspense, beautiful heroines, femme fatales, colorful heroes, ruthless villains, and some really bad-ass dinosaurs.
The sound of the Alley Oop’s engine rose in pitch and the craft churned forward. The Stinkosaurus leaned over so its upper body was parallel to the river, its forelegs lashing out.
Crowe spun the wheel, veering to port, but the creature’s three-fingered forepaws slapped against the stern of the Nautique, the long talons penetrating the fiberglass, vinyl and steel hull with loud squeals and pops. The saurian gripped the boat tightly, as it slowly straightened up, water sluicing down its armored hide. In the suffused sunlight, the creature’s scales glistened like a coating of molten metal.
The boat tipped upward, the bow rising like a whale leaping from the depths. A great geyser of water spumed from the engine as the vessel’s stern was pushed beneath the surface. Everyone staggered, grabbing chair-backs and handrails. McQuay screamed as he clutched at a chair with one hand but kept the other on his camera. Everyone else added their own panicky shouts to his screams.
Bai Suzhen lifted the Casull, but the deck underfoot pitched violently and she fell to one knee. She was forced to drop the pistol to keep from sliding astern. The revolver skittered down, but Honoré scooped it up with her right hand.
The predator’s massive jaws opened and its head dipped forward. The jaws closed on McQuay’s torso. Screaming in agony and terror, McQuay was torn away from the chair and lifted upward. His shrieks ended abruptly when the creature shook his body violently from side to side, like a puppy would shake a chew toy. Trapped between the vise of the creature’s jaws, the man’s arms and legs flopped as if they were filled with paraffin.
Bracing her feet against a chair-back, Honoré held the pistol in a two-fisted grip and squeezed off a pair of booming shots. Even at virtually point-blank range, the heavy caliber rounds did little damage to the monster’s upper thorax. She could not draw a bead on the Stinkosaur’s eyes, its really vulnerable points, because of the way it wagged its head to and fro.
But the bullets stung it, and drew little patches of blood on the scales. With a liquid snarl, the creature drew back, releasing its grip on the Alley Oop. The keel splatted against the surface and the boat shot forward wildly, like a cork spewed from a champagne bottle. Crowe fumbled with the wheel, trying to turn it. The bank, thick with marsh reeds, rushed up with appalling swiftness
The boat plowed through a mud-flat, rocking to a halt when the prow skated upward at thirty-degree angle, wedging itself between a gnarled pagke root and a thicket. The engine stalled, acrid black smoke curling up from the enclosed inboard module.
Kavanaugh struggled to his feet, helping Mouzi up. Bai, Crowe and Honoré slowly stood, shaken and very nearly paralyzed by shock. Silently they stared at the Stinkosaurus standing in the center of the river, examining the bloody corpse of Chet McQuay hanging limply in its paws.
The man was only recognizable as a human because of his dangling arms and legs. His upper body resembled a crimson-seeping mass of freshly slaughtered beef, gutted and flensed.
The creature’s head bobbed up and down, rolling its tongue within its maw. Kavanaugh was reminded of the way his childhood dog, Ajax acted after he had been given a peanut butter sandwich.
Then, with a sound like a man sneezing but many times amplified, the animal spit out a small object. It sailed across the river and splashed down in the shallow water very near the boat. Before it sank out of sight, they recognized McQuay’s treasured Sony ENG camcorder.
In a voice pitched low to disguise the tremor of fear running through it, Crowe said, “We’d better get the hell out of here before Stinky remembers us.”
“I thought the vision of those Tyrannosaurs was keyed to motion,” Kavanaugh whispered.
Honoré shook her head. “That’s only a theory and a specious one at that. Besides, it’s not a Tyrannosaur…it’s a Majungasaur, of the family Abelisuridae and sub-family of Carnotaurinae. Late Cretaceous fossil remains have been found on the Indian subcontinent and Madagscar. While the animal is occupied, we should quickly and quietly collect everything useful and make ourselves scarce.”
The five people carefully recovered their weapons, the first-aid kit, the metal case containing Darwin’s journal, several bottles of water and the box of power bars. Crowe removed an emergency survival kit, a tightly latched waterproof vinyl box. While they worked swiftly and methodically, the Majungasaur seemed content to stand in haunch-deep water and nibble at McQuay’s body.
The crunching of fangs into bone and the moist sound of flesh being chewed seemed unnaturally loud to Kavanaugh, but he hoped the noise would cover the scuff and scutter of their activity. He felt bile rise in a burning column in his throat when the giant saurian ripped out a chunk of cloth, flesh and viscera from McQuay’s midsection and tugged at the intestines as if they were strands of pasta.
Honoré Roxton’s face paled by several shades and her lips turned the color of old ashes, but she maintained a composed and controlled expression. But to Kavanaugh’s surprise, Mouzi looked as if she were on the verge of fainting or throwing up or both.
One by one, they climbed out of the upward-canted Alley Oop onto the marshy riverbank. Crowe said softly, “We still have Belleau’s satphone, so we can call for help.”
“The trick is to stay alive until help arrives,” murmured Bai Suzhen, holding her appropriated jian sword in her right hand.
As Mouzi clambered out of the boat, carrying both the carbine and the first-aid kit, she put her foot down on a slippery stretch of reeds. She stumbling, sliding down the bank toward the river. As she tried to regain her balance, her finger closed around the trigger of the carbine.
Although the shot went ricocheting up into the trees and wasn’t overly loud, the Majungasaur jerked erect with a startled snort. Its head swiveled on its neck like a gun turret. Everyone froze in mid-motion.
The carnotaur stared at them unblinkingly for so long that Kavanaugh began to wonder if Honoré’s dismissal of the vision-keyed-to-movement theory wasn’t too hasty. Then, the loose flesh at the animal’s throat vibrated, and from its blood-flecked lips issued a hissing, rumbling snarl.
The Majungasaur thrust its head forward, opened its jaws wide and voiced a ferocious roar that combined the worst aspects of a trumpet, steam valve and the howl of a dying dog. Its tail swept back and forth, whipping the water to froth.
“Ah, shit,” rasped Crowe.
The Majungasaur dropped McQuay’s mutilated corpse into the water and charged the riverbank with long, hopping steps. Water splashed in sheets before it.
“Run!” shouted Honoré, wheeling around. “Try to keep among the trees!”
The five people plunged into the rain forest, ducking under a canopy of overlapping ferns. The carnivorous dinosaur clawed its way up the bank, making a panting noise like a laboring engine.
The Majungasaur pounded across the ground toward them, lowering its head and opening its jaws wide, crashing through the undergrowth, showers of leaves flying in its wake. The ground shook to the saurian’s thundering tread, the clawed feet tearing up great clods of earth, its counterbalancing tail held straight out behind it.
Kavanaugh glimpsed Honoré stumble and nearly fall, catching herself on a tree. She dropped the case holding the Darwin journal. The carnotaur turned its head toward her. Kavanaugh whirled around, diving low, knocking Honoré off her feet into a thicket. Both of them rolled and tumbled, head over heels. Unable to slow its charge, the gigantic reptile crashed into the trunk of a tree with a splintering impact, stumbled and wallowed clumsily in a copse of vegetation.
Honoré and Kavanaugh staggered to their feet. More quickly than either person expected, the Majungasaur untangled itself and with a roar of fury, pivoted around to face them. Kavanaugh fought down a surge of panic. Although he had proved his courage hundreds of times in his life, the creatures of Big Tamtung did not seem like animals—they were like demonic forces unleashed from some unknown, nameless hell that pursued him for their own vicious reasons.
Honoré and Kavanaugh turned and ran. Ferns and thorns whipped at them, the needled tips of coniferous shrubs scored red lines across their arms and faces. Drooping lianas snagged at their necks and heads, but they fought free.
Behind them thundered the reptilian leviathan. Ripped up by the taloned feet, divots of the soggy earth pattered down all around like a rain. His lungs straining with the effort of breathing in the thick, humid air, Kavanaugh warred with the fear that ate away at his nerves like acid.
He and Honoré burst through a barrier of foliage, ignoring the sting of thorns on their bare arms and hands. The monster came crashing after them like an out-of-control locomotive.
Over the pounding of the creature’s footfalls and their own hearts, they heard the snap-and-crack of gunfire. The Majungasaur’s charge slowed and it turned to bite at the place on its thigh where a bullet struck. From somewhere in the forest, Crowe and Mouzi shouted wordlessly, trying to draw the animal’s attention. It lurched to a halt and snarled, then licked at the bullet wound with a black, slimy tongue.
Kavanaugh and Honoré raced through a cluster of ferns, slapping the fronds aside–and nearly pitched into empty space. They dug in their heels, grabbing one another, rocking to clumsy stops. Directly in front of them the lip of a gully sloped downward for twenty feet. At the bottom of it spread a very smooth and invitingly open space of dark green.
Panting, sweat stinging his eyes, Kavanaugh said, “Maybe we can lose that goddamn thing down there.”
Too winded to respond, her breasts rising and pressing against her perspiration-soaked shirt, Honoré shook her head. Bending over, she picked up a rock and tossed it down to the floor of the gully. It splashed against the green expanse and sank from view.
Swallowing hard, hands resting on her knees, she husked out, “Quagmire.”
“Bad for us and old Stinky.” Kavanaugh drew his Bren Ten from its clip-on holster at his waist.
Honoré stared at him uncomprehendingly through the tangled screen of her hair. She started to speak, coughed, turned her head, spat, and asked, “You mean to lure it down there.”
Kavanaugh nodded. “I don’t think we’ll be able to get away from it for very long. Listen—“
They heard the tramp of heavy feet, the crash of undergrowth and deep-throated, snuffling grunts.
“It’s hunting us, sniffing us out,” Kavanaugh continued, dropping his voice to barely a whisper. “Even if we sneak past it and hook back up with the others, it’ll get wind of our scents and stalk us wherever we go.”
“How can you be so sure of that? When did you become an expert on carnotaur behavior?”
Kavanaugh drew in a breath, common sense and pragmatism overwhelming the residue of panic. “I’m not, but I’ve been around this part of the world on enough hunting parties and expeditions to get a good idea of predator psychology. Do you know how Komodo dragons hunt?”
“Like Stinky, they rely mainly on scent and what’s known as a ‘Jacobosen’s organ’, a vomeronasal sense. That means, with a favorable wind, they can sniff out prey up to six miles away. They’re stalkers by nature, they take all the time they need. They’re patient…they don’t mind waiting. In fact, they’ve been known to get ahead of their prey and then charge out from ambush. Stinky apparently has an issue with one of us—and I’m betting it’s me.”
Honoré straightened up, raking her hair out of her eyes. “Majungasaurs and Komodo dragons aren’t motivated by personal vendettas, Jack.”
“Maybe not…but maybe whatever—or whoever—is nudging Stinky along has one.”
Honoré blinked at him in confusion. “Are you proposing that this attack was planned?”
“And the kamikaze dive of the Quetzalcoatlus and maybe even the Deinosuchus.”
“I think you’ve been out here in the tropics so long, you’ve let your imagination run rancid. There was blood in the water, remember, and McQuay’s wound had begun bleeding again, too. You said yourself that the Stinko—Majungasaur—hunted around the river banks.”
“Yeah, but I never heard of one camouflaging itself before.”
“That was probably due to foraging at the shoreline and it just picked up a covering of detritus by accident. I’m sure that wasn’t a deliberate act.”
“I wish I could be. What’s that old saying: ‘once is happenstance, twice is coincidence and three times is enemy action’?”
“That applies to mobsters in Chicago, not dinosaurs.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Kavanaugh replied impatiently “What does matter is we’re going to have to take action if we plan to stay alive on this island long enough to get off it—unless you just enjoy running around screaming like an extra in a Japanese monster movie.”
“No,” she stated stolidly. “I do not.”
“All right, then. Let’s go do something about it. How many bullets does that cannon you’re packing have in it?”
Expertly, Honoré popped open the cylinder, spun it, slapped it back into place and announced, “Two.”
“Let me handle the musketry, then.”
As silently as they could, they retraced their steps, alert for any sounds, but they heard nothing but the inquisitive cheep of birds. They entered a small glade and looked all around.
Worriedly, Honoré said, “Perhaps it decided to give up on us and go after Captain Crowe, Mouzi and Bai Suzhen.”
Kavanaugh nodded as if he considered the possibility, and turned slowly around, on the verge of calling out for Crowe. He had just opened his mouth when the Majungasaur crashed through the foliage, running at full speed with its head low, jaws wide in an unmistakable posture of attack.
Honoré cried out incredulously, “It was laying in wait for us–!”