The truth was that Levine—brilliant and fastidious—was drawn to the past, to the world that no longer existed. And he studied this world with obsessive intensity. He was famous for his photographic memory, his arrogance, his sharp tongue, and the unconcealed pleasure he took in pointing out the errors of colleagues. As a colleague once said, “Levine never forgets a bone—and he never lets you forget it, either.”
Field researchers disliked Levine, and he returned the sentiment. He was at heart a man of detail, a cataloguer of animal life, and he was happiest poring over museum collections, reassigning species, rearranging display skeletons. He disliked the dust and inconvenience of life in the field. Given his choice, Levine would never leave the museum. But it was his fate to live in the greatest period of discovery in the history of paleontology. The number of known species of dinosaurs had doubled in the last twenty years, and new species were now being described at the rate of one every seven weeks. Thus Levine’s worldwide reputation forced him to continually travel around the world, inspecting new finds, and rendering his expert opinion to researchers who were annoyed to admit that they needed it.
“Where’d you come from?” Guitierrez asked him.
“Mongolia,” Levine said. “I was at the Flaming Cliffs, in the Gobi Desert, three hours out of Ulan Bator.”
“Oh? What’s there?”
“John Roxton’s got a dig. He found an incomplete skeleton he thought might be a new species of Velociraptor, and wanted me to have a look.”
Levine shrugged. “Roxton never really did know anatomy. He’s an enthusiastic fund-raiser, but if he actually uncovers something, he’s incompetent to proceed.”
“You told him that?”
“Why not? It’s the truth.”
“And the skeleton?”
“The skeleton wasn’t a raptor at all,” Levine said. “Metatarsals all wrong, pubis too ventral, ischium lacking a proper obturator, and the long bones much too light. As for the skull . . .” He rolled his eyes. “The palatal’s too thick, antorbital fenestrae too rostral, distal carina too small—oh, it goes on and on. And the trenchant ungual’s hardly present. So there we are. I don’t know what Roxton could have been thinking. I suspect he actually has a subspecies of Troodon, though I haven’t decided for sure.”
“Troodon?” Guitierrez said.
“Small Cretaceous carnivore—two meters from pes to acetabulum. In point of fact, a rather ordinary theropod. And Roxton’s find wasn’t a particularly interesting example. Although there was one curious detail. The material included an integumental artifact—an imprint of the dinosaur’s skin. That in itself is not rare. There are perhaps a dozen good skin impressions obtained so far, mostly among the Hadrosauridae. But nothing like this. Because it was clear to me that this animal’s skin had some very unusual characteristics not previously suspected in dinosaurs—”
“Señores,” the pilot said, interrupting them, “Juan Fernández Bay is ahead.”
Levine said, “Circle it first, can we?”
Levine looked out the window, his expression intense again, the conversation forgotten. They were flying over jungle that extended up into the hills for miles, as far as they could see. The helicopter banked, circling the beach.
“There it is now,” Guitierrez said, pointing out the window.
The beach was a clean, curving white crescent, entirely deserted in the afternoon light. To the south, they saw a single dark mass in the sand. From the air, it looked like a rock, or perhaps a large clump of seaweed. The shape was amorphous, about five feet across. There were lots of footprints around it.
“Who’s been here?” Levine said, with a sigh.
“Public Health Service people came out earlier today.”
“Did they do anything?” he said. “They touch it, disturb it in any way?”
“I can’t say,” Guitierrez said.
“The Public Health Service,” Levine repeated, shaking his head. “What do they know? You should never have let them near it, Marty.”
“Hey,” Guitierrez said. “I don’t run this country. I did the best I could. They wanted to destroy it before you even got here. At least I managed to keep it intact until you arrived. Although I don’t know how long they’ll wait.”
“Then we’d better get started,” Levine said. He pressed the button on his mike. “Why are we still circling? We’re losing light. Get down on the beach now. I want to see this thing firsthand.”
Richard Levine ran across the sand toward the dark shape, his binoculars bouncing on his chest. Even from a distance, he could smell the stench of decay. And already he was logging his preliminary impressions. The carcass lay half-buried in the sand, surrounded by a thick cloud of flies. The skin was bloated with gas, which made identification difficult.
He paused a few yards from the creature, and took out his camera. Immediately, the pilot of the helicopter came up alongside him, pushing his hand down. “No permitido.”
“I am sorry, señor. No pictures are allowed.”
“No pictures,” the pilot said again, and he pulled the camera out of Levine’s hand.
“Marty, this is crazy.”
“Just go ahead and make your examination,” Guitierrez said, and then he began speaking in Spanish to the pilot, who answered sharply and angrily, waving his hands.
Levine watched a moment, then turned away. The hell with this, he thought. They could argue forever. He hurried forward, breathing through his mouth. The odor became much stronger as he approached it. Although the carcass was large he noticed there were no birds, rats, or other scavengers feeding on it. There were only flies—flies so dense they covered the skin, and obscured the outline of the dead animal.
Even so, it was clear that this had been a substantial creature, roughly the size of a cow or horse before the bloat began to enlarge it further. The dry skin had cracked in the sun and was now peeling upward, exposing the layer of runny, yellow subdermal fat beneath.
Oof, it stunk! Levine winced. He forced himself closer, directing all his attention to the animal.
Although it was the size of a cow, it was clearly not a mammal. The skin was hairless. The original skin color appeared to have been green, with a suggestion of darker striations running through it. The epidermal surface was pebbled in polygonal tubercles of varying sizes, the pattern reminiscent of the skin of a lizard. This texture varied in different parts of the animal, the pebbling larger and less distinct on the underbelly. There were prominent skin folds at the neck, shoulder, and hip joints—again, like a lizard.
But the carcass was large. Levine estimated the animal had originally weighed about a hundred kilograms, roughly two hundred and twenty pounds. No lizards grew that large anywhere in the world, except the Komodo dragons of Indonesia. Varanus komodoensis were nine-foot-long monitor lizards, crocodile-size carnivores that ate goats and pigs, and on occasion human beings as well. But there were no monitor lizards anywhere in the New World. Of course, it was conceivable that this was one of the Iguanidae. Iguanas were found all over South America, and the marine iguanas grew quite large. Even so, this would be a record-size animal.
Levine moved slowly around the carcass, toward the front of the animal. No, he thought, it wasn’t a lizard. The carcass lay on its side, its left rib cage toward the sky. Nearly half of it was buried; the row of protuberances that marked the dorsal spinous processes of the backbone were just a few inches above the sand. The long neck was curved, the head hidden beneath the bulk of the body like a duck’s head under feathers. Levine saw one forelimb, which seemed small and weak. The distal appendage was buried in sand. He would dig that out and have a look at it, but he wanted to take pictures before he disturbed the specimen in situ.
In fact, the more Levine saw of this carcass, t
he more carefully he thought he should proceed. Because one thing was clear—this was a very rare, and possibly unknown, animal. Levine felt simultaneously excited and cautious. If this discovery was as significant as he was beginning to think it was, then it was essential that it be properly documented.
Up the beach, Guitierrez was still shouting at the pilot, who kept shaking his head stubbornly. These banana-republic bureaucrats, Levine thought. Why shouldn’t he take pictures? It couldn’t harm anything. And it was vital to document the changing state of the creature.
He heard a thumping, and looked up to see a second helicopter circling the bay, its dark shadow sliding across the sand. This helicopter was ambulance-white, with red lettering on the side. In the glare of the setting sun, he couldn’t read it.
He turned back to the carcass, noticing now that the hind leg of the animal was powerfully muscled, very different from the foreleg. It suggested that this creature walked upright, balanced on strong hind legs. Many lizards were known to stand upright, of course, but none so large as this. In point of fact, as Levine looked at the general shape of the carcass, he felt increasingly certain that this was not a lizard.
He worked quickly now, for the light was fading and he had much to do. With every specimen, there were always two major questions to answer, both equally important. First, what was the animal? Second, why had it died?
Standing by the thigh, he saw the epidermis was split open, no doubt from the gaseous subcutaneous buildup. But as Levine looked more closely, he saw that the split was in fact a sharp gash, and that it ran deep through the femorotibialis, exposing red muscle and pale bone beneath. He ignored the stench, and the white maggots that wriggled across the open tissues of the gash, because he realized that—
“Sorry about all this,” Guitierrez said, coming over. “But the pilot just refuses.”
The pilot was nervously following Guitierrez, standing beside him, watching carefully.
“Marty,” Levine said. “I really need to take pictures here.”
“I’m afraid you can’t,” Guitierrez said, with a shrug.
“It’s important, Marty.”
“Sorry. I tried my best.”
Farther down the beach, the white helicopter landed, its whine diminishing. Men in uniforms began getting out.
“Marty. What do you think this animal is?”
“Well, I can only guess,” Guitierrez said. “From the general dimensions I’d call it a previously unidentified iguana. It’s extremely large, of course, and obviously not native to Costa Rica. My guess is this animal came from the Galápagos, or one of the—”
“No, Marty,” Levine said. “It’s not an iguana.”
“Before you say anything more,” Guitierrez said, glancing at the pilot, “I think you ought to know that several previously unknown species of lizard have shown up in this area. Nobody’s quite sure why. Perhaps it’s due to the cutting of the rain forest, or some other reason. But new species are appearing. Several years ago, I began to see unidentified species of—”
“Marty. It’s not a damn lizard.”
Guitierrez blinked his eyes. “What are you saying? Of course it’s a lizard.”
“I don’t think so,” Levine said.
Guitierrez said, “You’re probably just thrown off because of its size. The fact is, here in Costa Rica, we occasionally encounter these aberrant forms—”
“Marty,” Levine said coldly. “I am never thrown off.”
“Well, of course, I didn’t mean that—”
“And I am telling you, this is not a lizard,” Levine said.
“I’m sorry,” Guitierrez said, shaking his head. “But I can’t agree.”
Back at the white helicopter, the men were huddled together, putting on white surgical masks.
“I’m not asking you to agree,” Levine said. He turned back to the carcass. “The diagnosis is settled easily enough, all we need do is excavate the head, or for that matter any of the limbs, for example this thigh here, which I believe—”
He broke off, and leaned closer. He peered at the back of the thigh.
“What is it?” Guitierrez said.
“Give me your knife.”
“Why?” Guitierrez said.
“Just give it to me.”
Guitierrez fished out his pocketknife, put the handle in Levine’s outstretched hand. Levine peered steadily at the carcass. “I think you will find this interesting.”
“Right along the posterior dermal line, there is a—”
Suddenly, they heard shouting on the beach, and looked up to see the men from the white helicopter running down the beach toward them. They carried tanks on their backs, and were shouting in Spanish.
“What are they saying?” Levine asked, frowning.
Guitierrez sighed. “They’re saying to get back.”
“Tell them we’re busy,” Levine said, and bent over the carcass again.
But the men kept shouting, and suddenly there was a roaring sound, and Levine looked up to see flamethrowers igniting, big red jets of flame roaring out in the evening light. He ran around the carcass toward the men, shouting, “No! No!”
But the men paid no attention.
He shouted, “No, this is a priceless—”
The first of the uniformed men grabbed Levine, and threw him roughly to the sand.
“What the hell are you doing?” Levine yelled, scrambling to his feet. But even as he said it, he saw it was too late, the first of the flames had reached the carcass, blackening the skin, igniting the pockets of methane with a blue whump! The smoke from the carcass began to rise thickly into the sky.
“Stop it! Stop it!” Levine turned to Guitierrez. “Make them stop it!”
But Guitierrez was not moving, he was staring at the carcass. Consumed by flames, the torso crackled and the fat sputtered, and then as the skin burned away, the black, flat ribs of the skeleton were revealed, and then the whole torso turned, and suddenly the neck of the animal swung up, surrounded by flames, moving as the skin contracted. And inside the flames Levine saw a long pointed snout, and rows of sharp predatory teeth, and hollow eye sockets, the whole thing burning like some medieval dragon rising in flames up into the sky.
Levine sat in the bar of the San José airport, nursing a beer, waiting for his plane back to the States. Guitierrez sat beside him at a small table, not saying much. An awkward silence had fallen for the last few minutes. Guitierrez stared at Levine’s backpack, on the floor by his feet. It was specially constructed of dark-green Gore-Tex, with extra pockets on the outside for all the electronic gear.
“Pretty nice pack,” Guitierrez said. “Where’d you get that, anyway? Looks like a Thorne pack.”
Levine sipped his beer. “It is.”
“Nice,” Guitierrez said, looking at it. “What’ve you got there in the top flap, a satellite phone? And a GPS? Boy, what won’t they think of next. Pretty slick. Must have cost you a—”
“Marty,” Levine said, in an exasperated tone. “Cut the crap. Are you going to tell me, or not?”
“Tell you what?”
“I want to know what the hell’s going on here.”
“Richard, look, I’m sorry if you—”
“No,” Levine said, cutting him off. “That was a very important specimen on that beach, Marty, and it was destroyed. I don’t understand why you let it happen.”
Guitierrez sighed. He looked around at the tourists at the other tables and said, “This has to be in confidence, okay?”
“It’s a big problem here.”
“There have been, uh . . . aberrant forms . . . turning up on the coast every so often. It’s been going on for several years now.”
“’Aberrant forms?’” Levine repeated, shaking his head in disbelief.
“That’s the official term for these specimens,” Guitierrez said. “No one in the government is willing
to be more precise. It started about five years ago. A number of animals were discovered up in the mountains, near a remote agricultural station that was growing test varieties of soy beans.”
“Soy beans,” Levine repeated.
Guitierrez nodded. “Apparently these animals are attracted to beans, and certain grasses. The assumption is that they have a great need for the amino acid lysine in their diets. But nobody is really sure. Perhaps they just have a taste for certain crops—”
“Marty,” Levine said. “I don’t care if they have a taste for beer and pretzels. The only important question is: where did the animals come from?”
“Nobody knows,” Guitierrez said.
Levine let that pass, for the moment. “What happened to those other animals?”
“They were all destroyed. And to my knowledge, no others were found for years afterward. But now it seems to be starting again. In the last year, we have found the remains of four more animals, including the one you saw today.”
“And what was done?”
“The, ah, aberrant forms are always destroyed. Just as you saw. From the beginning, the government’s taken every possible step to make sure nobody finds out about it. A few years back, some North American journalists began reporting there was something wrong on one island, Isla Nublar. Menéndez invited a bunch of journalists down for a special tour of the island—and proceeded to fly them to the wrong island. They never knew the difference. Stuff like that. I mean, the government’s very serious about this.”
“Worried? Why should they be worried about—”
Guitierrez held up his hand, shifted in his chair, moved closer. “Disease, Richard.”
“Yeah. Costa Rica has one of the best health-care systems in the world,” Guitierrez said. “The epidemiologists have been tracking some weird type of encephalitis that seems to be on the increase, particularly along the coast.”
“Encephalitis? Of what origin? Viral?”