Brett Abbott sat at his desk, a mug of coffee clutched tightly in his hand. The last week had been uneventful, a series of mundane incidents, easy to deal with and quickly resolved. Frankly, the job was starting to grow boring. He'd joined the Queensland Animal Control Unit because he wanted to help the people, to root out the wheat from the chaff and deal with ... problematic animals. Now, a mere five months into his career, he found himself becoming as jaded as the crooks he once caught.
It was going to be a long Thursday.
The morning dragged on, and with each passing moment Brett's boredom grew. The job was a far cry from his years as a copper in Sydney, where every day, even on the dullest day, provided an opportunity to catch some of the city's most notorious criminals. He'd been privy to some of the worst criminal acts imaginable. But in Queensland, it felt as if everything was a slow-burning fuse. There were no explosives, no car-bombings, no bloody hostages. No, this was empty in comparison to police work.
And now the phone was ringing.
Sergeant Abbott sighed. It was probably something incredibly mundane, like a possum. Hell, even a cat stuck in a tree wasn't so farfetched. Maybe it would give him something to do for a change, like a nice little break from the mundane.
"QACU, Brett Abbott speaking. May I take your name and address?"
"Hello?" asked the frantic voice of a young woman on the other end. "This ... this is Kate McVie. My address is 34 Lambton Road. It's ... my husband ... I think he's just been attacked by a crocodile."
Abbott paused. Now this, he wasn't expecting. "What's your location?" he asked.
The woman choked on her words as she tried to speak. "The ... the banks of the ... oh, Christ. Sorry. The banks of the Styx River, Charon Point Conservation Park."
Now, Abbott wrote down their location, forwarding it to the appropriate authorities. "Stay on the line, ma'am," he advised. "I'm notifying the law enforcement agencies and our professionals. There'll be a zoologist on site: Madeleine Hutch. I need you to remain in the line until they arrive, okay?"
The woman took a deep breath and tried to regain her composure. "Okay," she said.
"How is your husband? Is he conscious?"
"He's ... he's conscious, but he's not lucid. I didn't see it happen, but ... his goddamn arm's gone."
Abbott cursed under his breath. "The paramedics should be with you in a few minutes, ma'am. Just remain calm. Deep breaths."
The sight that greeted the paramedics was nothing short of gruesome. The victim of the attack, who Katie McVie said was named Paul, was lying in a pool of his own blood. Rimming the wound were bite marks, and their shape and size were enough to confirm the suspicions of the attending zoologist, Madeleine Hutch.
It was probably a big saltie.
"We're going to have to take him down to the clinic for an X-ray," said Dr. Hutch. "And I don't think there's any doubt about it being a saltie. The spacing of the bite marks, the inferred size of the animal, the attack on a human, they're all indicative of a very large saltwater crocodile."
Paul McVie was lying on the operating table, his skin as pale as death, his eyes open but staring, unfocused. Katie bent down and stroked his hair, trying to comfort the man.
"Don't you die on me, Paul," she said. "I promise I won't leave you." Glancing towards the ambulance, Dr. Hutch said, "There's a good chance he's gonna make it. But don't get your hopes up just yet."
Picking up her medical equipment and packing it into a small suitcase, she started to walk back over to her dusty Vauxhall Astra. There was something that wasn't quite right about the attack, something implacable. Maybe it was the way the trail of blood started so far from the lake shore—salties were typical grab-and-submerge killers, while this sort of behaviour was a lot more like a Cuban crocodile or something. But there weren't any that big, and there weren't any living in the Charon Point Conservation Park.
Hutch was about to climb into her car, when she heard the sound of an engine in the distance. Turning around, she saw a black Ford Transit speeding through the dusty bush, moving slowly and carefully towards them. It came to a halt, and a man stepped out. He was clad in a t-shirt, with a symbol shaped like an eight-point star. On his dusty black coat, the word WAPG was inscribed.
"Dr. Madeleine Hutch?" the man asked. "Vic O'Grady. I'm with the Wildlife Attack Prevention Group. We're a government funded organization that deals with invasive species."
"Why haven't I heard about you?" Hutch asked.
O'Grady shrugged. "We're not usually the most publicized of organizations," he said. "Most of our work is conducted under the radar."
"Why would that be?"
"If you heard about an invasive spider, would you want to cause a national panic or deal with the problem discreetly?"
"I don't know," Hutch admitted. "It depends."
O'Grady nodded. "Exactly," he said. "We'd prefer not to take such chances. We'd like your help in dealing with this situation—we suspect that we're dealing with an escaped Cuban crocodile."
"That would make sense," Hutch said, "If they didn't grow up to half the size of the average saltie."
"You know your stuff, I see," O'Grady said. "In either case, we'd like your assistance. I can't speak for this case, but there's been another incident about ten miles upriver. A young woman was mauled to death by something." He adjusted his sunglasses. "Something that wasn't a saltie."
The woman that lay on the table was in her early twenties, about five-foot-eight, blonde hair and hazel eyes. Her clothes, a Spandau Ballet t-shirt and faded jeans, were stained with blood. A huge gash over her stomach revealed gnawed muscle, rended organs, and crushed bone. A cursory glance at her arm revealed much the same pattern of injuries—minus, of course, the organs.
"Her name was Katarina Petrov," said O'Grady. "Twenty-three years of age. She was on vacation from Moscow. Graduate student at Moscow Art Theatre School."
Hutch grimaced as she regarded the body. The attack had obviously been one of incredibly brutality, ferocity unmatched by most animals. There was no room for error in a situation like this: this was definitely an animal attack. And unless Hutch figured out what they were dealing with, it would happen all over again. Reaching out a gloved hand, she placed a hand on the corpse's arm and turned it over. The pattern of bite marks. The size of the wounds. The spacing of the bite marks. It was all wrong.
"I don't get it," she said. "The modus operandi of any large crocodile is to drag its prey beneath the surface and dismember them using a death roll. But the pattern of injuries its more like what you'd see from a Komodo dragon or something. She was killed and eaten on land. Cuban crocodiles don't feed like that. They feed like the other brevirostrine crocs."
O'Grady raised his eyebrow. "Brevirostrine?"
"Short-snouted," Hutch said. "Think gators and crocs, rather than gharials."
O'Grady nodded. "And you're saying this wasn't a Cuban crocodile?" Hutch shrugged. "I don't know," she said. "Something that big? And on land, no less?"
For a second, O'Grady looked ahead. Finally, he let out a low sigh. "All right," he said, his voice a little lower. "I can show you more data of you want. You're on the right track."
"What do you mean? Did you know about this—"
O'Grady gestured for her to keep her voice down. "Listen," he said. "I'll bring you to the WAPG facility. There's some information there that I'm sure you'll find interesting."
Two hours. Two goddamn hours. It had been that long since they started driving, and O'Grady hadn't said a thing since. It made Hutch anxious for some reason.
"The WAPG doesn't exist, does it?" she asked.
O'Grady looked up for the first time, and said, "Didn't take you long." "It's not hard when you're sitting in silence for two hours straight." "Sorry for that," O'Grady said. "Got a lot on my mind at the moment. My ... my wife and I are getting a divorce, you see. She's taking our two kids, Millie and Ben. It's been rough."
"Yeah," O'Grady said. "She wants to remarry, take herself and the kids off the grid and find a new life. I don't know what I'll do. I'll probably go back to Sydney when the money runs out. Maybe do some more research. I was thinking about taking a degree, or maybe getting a job as a zookeeper or something to that effect." He paused and hesitated. "Anyway," he said, "I suppose you'll want to know who I actually am. Who I really work for."
O'Grady took in a deep breath. "My organization is a multinational, government-funded organization dedicated to defending the general populace from the creatures and/or pathogens that emerge from what we call 'temporal aberrations'. Rips in the space-time continuum. As for the rest, that'll have to wait."
After that, the two of them drove in silence. Hutch was taken aback by how nonchalant the guy was about this whole thing. Was he insane? Was he fucking with her? Was he actually telling the truth?
All questions that O'Grady did his best to not answer.
Then again, if this guy was actually messing with her, he'd have to be a great liar.
The black van pulled up outside a large metallic building, like a military outpost, nestled deep within the confines of a dense forest. O'Grady pulled the keys out of the ignition.
"All of your questions are about to be answered," he said, unlocking and pushing open the door to the van.
Hutch climbed out through her own door. She glanced up at the building's facade. It was like surprisingly high-tech, replete with enormous surveillance camera turrets and machine gun towers. It was surrounded by a high wire fence topped with razor wire. There were signs around the perimeter of the fence, warning not to trespass and that the area was protected by armed guards. The place just plain creeped her out. But she needed to go inside.
She needed to see.
The doors creaked open with the sound of blaring sirens. Large, corrugated metal sheets, like floodgates, slowly parted to reveal a large room, more like a warehouse than anything else.
"There it is," O'Grady said. "After you."
Slowly, tentatively, Hutch walked into the enormous building.
The inside of the building was well-lit, spacious, and yet eerily quiet. Hutch's footsteps echoed as she walked, as did O'Grady's. There were various machines and computer stations here and there. A few people with headsets were standing at workstations, and they didn't look up as the two walked by. There were various departments on either side, such as 'TEMPORAL RESEARCH', 'GEOGRAPHICAL RESEARCH', 'QUANTITATIVE RESEARCH', and finally, 'BIOLOGY DEPARTMENT'. O'Grady knocked on the door to the last one.
The door creaked open, and a man looked out. "Who's the girl?" he asked.
"She's with me," O'Grady said. "She's the zoologist the police assigned to the Charon Point notosuchian case."
"Notosuchian?" Hutch blurted. "Aren't those things extinct?"
O'Grady raised an eyebrow.
"You thought I was joking, didn't you?" he asked. "That stuff about temporal aberrations and creatures? It was all legit."
Hutch's mouth hung open. "But ... how? How could that stuff actually happen?"
"Maybe you'd better sit down," said the man in the room. "The name's Murtagh, by the way."
"Hutch. Dr. Madeleine Hutch."
The two shook hands, and then Hutch found herself being ushered into the room.
The room was sizeable, with all manner of adjoining corridors and rooms, and a large computer station. In the centre was a large round table, with a set of chairs around it. Hutch sat down in one and gazed around the spacious room. O'Grady sat down in front of her, and fumbled for a tablet of some sort.
"The full story, then," he said. "We're not called WAPG. We're CRONUS. Our founder, a scientist by the name of Wolfgang Geddings, compiled evidence that rifts in space-time allows animals and microorganisms from both the past and the future to leak into the present day. Most of these 'temporal aberrations' open to other places and times in Earth's history, but there have been two incidents where they open to places we can't even identify. Not this planet, that's for sure."
He paused for breath. "As of today, the 17th of April, 2020, there have been 156 recorded temporal aberrations. The U.S. branch of CRONUS isn't doing so well—most temporal aberrations there open in the country, so any creatures that emerge are never found. Heck, the government barely even believes them now. But it's easier to find things in the outback." He fumbled for something in his pocket. "And that brings us to this." O'Grady passed a slip of paper across the table. Hutch unfolded it and stared at the image. It was of a riverbank, with a boat on the water. Her eyes scanned the image, but nothing looked off.
Until she looked in the treeline.
The creature there was more dinosaur than crocodile. It stood on four erect limbs, its stocky body deeper and thinner. Its skull was like one of those early depictions of Tyrannosaurus rex—deep, boxy, and yet also thin. Large teeth, somewhere between those of a crocodile and a dinosaur, protruding like tusks.
"What you're looking at," O'Grady said, "is Barinasuchus arveloi. The biggest and most recent of the notosuchian crocodiles. What you're dealing with isn't a saltwater crocodile - it's this guy. And that's why you're here. You're a scientist—a crocodile scientist, no less. Dr. Hutch, you're the only person in Australia who's in the right situation for this. We need your help. So, what do you think?"
Hutch just stared at him, dumbfounded. "It's ... it's a lot to take in," she blurted. "What makes you think I'm the best person for the job?"
"It's not necessarily that," O'Grady said. "It's mostly because you're in the right place at the right time, really."
"Okay," Hutch said, slowly. "What do you want me to do?"
O'Grady smirked a little. "We'll need help establishing camera traps in the right places," he said. "Since you're a biologist, we were hoping you could help us."
The boat bobbed gently on the water as O'Grady surveyed the forest from the water. Hutch decided on a more direct approach, setting up a small camp in the woods from which to perform her own observations. Camera traps were littered through the woods, motion-activated to trap whatever appeared. There'd already been a few sightings, but they were nothing more than the odd brush-tail possum. As the night advanced, the marsupials' activities became more and more frantic. They busied themselves with finding food directly in the camera's line of sight. Hutch watched it all with increasing disappointment.
So far, the Barinasuchus was a no-show.
After a long while, Hutch just decided to call it a night. After sending a quick broadcast to O'Grady, she rested her head on the sleeping bag she'd brought with her and closed her eyes. She thought about the events of the past few hours. Until midday, she thought she was dealing with a routine saltie incident, but extinct land crocodiles? How often did that happen?
Hutch lay there for a while, looking up at the flimsy fabric of the tent. If the Barinasuchus tried to attack her now, it would have no trouble bursting inside. All she had on her was a knife. Would that even be enough? The thought of it made Hutch a little anxious, but she tried to keep those thoughts at bay. She needed sleep after the tumultuous day she'd had. O'Grady was already on lookout duty. She didn't even get a chance to fall asleep.
There was a buzz of static from one of the monitors in the tent as it flickered to life. Hutch practically leapt to her feet, scrambling over to the monitor.
And then she finally saw it with her own eyes.
The Barinasuchus was easily the length of the very largest salties—at least six metres, she guessed. It stood on four erect, pillar-like limbs, its tail long, almost dinosaurian. And as for its head, concealed by vegetation, she could already tell that it was just as monstrous as the rest of the creature.
Hutch fumbled for her radio, plucking it from her pocket and raising it to her face. "Hey, O'Grady," she whispered. "It's here. I've got it on the camera trap."
"Got it," O'Grady said. "Keep your eyes peeled." He paused. "It's outside the bloody tent!"
From outside, there was the sound of bushes crashing, branches cracking, and then a low snort. Her eyes shot open as she listened, and the snuffling and snorting came ever closer. It sounded like the heavy, hissing breaths of a very big crocodile.
This was it.
There was the noise of a tranquilizer gun firing, and a moment later the tent collapsed in on itself, the boxy skull of the Barinasuchus smashing through. Hutch yelped, fabric tore as the notosuchian bellowed, its hot breath steaming up the air around it. Pupils more like those of a bird than a crocodile fixed on her, and its huge jaws snapped shut mere centimetres from her head, spraying her with saliva. Another gunshot.
Hutch pulled out a knife and waved it in the air, sprawled on the floor as the giant notosuchian loomed over her. Its jaws slowly opened, its front left leg raising into the air. It had her cornered now, so it could afford to be slow about it. The Barinasuchus lunged for Hutch, and then she swung the knife with all of her strength. There was a painful squelching noise, and then a pitiful moan from the Barinasuchus. It pulled back, bellowing, as the knife lodged itself in the notosuchian's eyeball. More gunshots.
But this time, they weren't tranquilizer darts.
Finally, the Barinasuchus slumped to the ground. Lifeless. Hutch scrambled to her feet and looked at it. Definitely dead. She'd seen enough. Staggering out of the tent, she looked across at O'Grady, who stood in the boat, holding a different gun. A sniper rifle.
"Good ..." Hutch yelled, breathless. "Good timing."
She glanced down one last time at the carcass of the Barinasuchus, its one good eye side with shock. The scientist in her felt disappointment. It was specimen in the prime of life, healthy and large. But her rational mind quickly overruled that.
She was just glad that it was over.
Madeleine Hutch was noticeably exhausted when she came into work the next day, and Brett Abbott, who had been visiting the zoological institute for more information on the crocodile case, picked up on that straight away. He was always the sort of person to take note of any unusual behaviour, and honestly he was a little concerned. So when Hutch sat down in a nearby chair, he gave her a friendly, if concerned, smile, and walked over.
"You must have had a long day yesterday," he said. "What's up?"
Hutch stared straight ahead, her expression blank. She looked as though she'd rather be anywhere but at that moment. "You could say that," she said. "Things hit the fan a lot harder than I was expecting."
"Things? What do you mean?"
"Big saltie," Hutch lied. "Wildlife rangers in Charon Point took it down."
"Huh," Abbott said. "You sure you're alright?"
"I'm fine," she said, sharply. "I just need some time off. To sort out my head."
"I'll leave you to it," Abbott said, rising to his feet. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Walking towards the door, Abbott took a deep breath and pushed it open. He didn't believe what Hutch said at all. Once a copper, always a copper, and because of that he considered himself a pretty good judge of character. There was something more going on here, and he was determined to figure it out.
One way or another.
Written by Palaeontologica