Buddy sighed as he kicked a gourd against the side of the nest and watched it bounce off once again. This game was no fun when he had to play it by himself. Mom and Dad still had him be spotter when the family went fishing sometimes, but now that Tiny and Shiny and Don were getting older and were supposed to be learning how to fish for themselves, he was left at home more and more while his brother and sisters practiced finding fish on their own and avoiding predators like crocodilians.
Speaking of predators, he was supposed to be practicing his own hunting, but he'd met nearly every creature near Pteranodon Terrace big enough to be worth eating at one point or another, which just made it too weird. He'd tried asking Annie and her mom and dad for advice about how to eat someone whose name you knew on one of his regular visits to learn "important T. rex stuff" but their advice basically boiled down to "get over it and maybe stop talking to potential prey."
Buddy loved meeting new dinosaurs and other species, though, so for now he was stuck eating a lot of carrion. Also the usual fish, though he knew it was getting hard for his family to catch enough to feed themselves and sate his growing appetite, so he felt bad about the hunting thing. He sniffed the air with his powerful T. rex nose once again, but no hints of potential carrion reached him. He could smell a troodon, though, heading towards the nest.
"Halooooooo there!" Mrs. Conductor called as she got closer, even though she wasn't all that close yet. Buddy had reached about half of his fully-grown size, and you could see him from quite far away.
"Hello, Mrs. Conductor," Buddy replied politely, concentrating hard on not roaring accidentally in mid-sentence. Annie's dad said that happened to all male T. Rex's at about his age, and not to be embarrassed, but that didn't actually stop it from being embarrassing. "What are you doing at Pteranodon Terrace?"
"Oh, I'm just delivering something your mother asked me about the last time I saw her," she replied, waving her left foreleg, where she was clutching what looked like a small book. "Is she home?"
"No, she and Dad and Tiny, Shiny and Don are all out fishing." Buddy squinted at the horizon. "I think they're on their way back now, though."
"There's that wonderful tyrannosaur eyesight being put to good use," Mrs. Conductor warbled. "I suppose you're catching lots of animals thanks to that and your keen sense of smell now that you're almost grown up."
Buddy didn't know what to say. Maybe he should lie and say yes, but Mom and Dad had taught him that lying was usually wrong and a bad idea, and Mrs. Conductor was a troodon, which meant she was a predator, too, and also one of the smartest dinosaurs. Maybe she'd have a better answer than Annie and her parents.
"Not really," he sighed. "I mean, I can catch them, -I've been practicing - but, well, how do you do it? Eat other dinosaurs when you've met so many amazing species and made so many friends while traveling on the Dinosaur Train?"
"Oh, Buddy," she trilled sympathetically, "I know it can be difficult. Why, just last night, the mammal Sonny-Boy and I caught made such a racket begging us to let her go home to her young it was a relief when-"
"Never mind," Buddy quickly interjected. He wondered if he wasn't a very good Tyrannosaurus Rex, since he couldn't stand to even listen to a story like that. He wondered if he could figure out a way to only eat carrion for the rest of his life. He turned to his curiosity about the book Mrs. Conductor had brought with her to change the subject. "What did you bring Mom? Can I see it?"
"Well, I don't see why not. It's just the course catalog for Big Pond Community College; she asked me to pick one up for her the next time I was at Big Pond station."
"Course catalog? What's that? And what's a college?" Buddy had never heard of such a thing. It was amazing how, no matter how many times his family visited the Big Pond, there was always something new to discover there.
"Well, Buddy, a college is a special place where lots of dinosaurs get together to teach and learn about different things. There are classes about all kinds of subjects, whatever dinosaurs need or want to know, and this book is a list of the classes at BPCC, as they call it."
"Really? A special place just for learning new things? That sounds so awesome! But Mom already knows lots of stuff; why would she need to go there?"
"Well, I don't know everything, Buddy," Mrs. Pteranodon squawked from behind him, where she had landed without his noticing. "Hello, Mrs. Conductor."
"Hello there, Pteranodon family! Did you have a good fishing trip?"
"Oh yes," Don responded immediately. "We all caught at least eight fish, and together Tiny and I caught this really big one! It's for Buddy." He and Tiny flew over to drop the fish, which was indeed so large the both of them could barely hold it up. Buddy swallowed it in two large bites. "Wow, Buddy, you must be really hungry!"
"Yeah," Mr. Pteranodon broke in, "it's a good thing you and Tiny were able to catch such a large fish for his T. rex appetite!"
"Well, okay," Tiny said, "Maybe Dad helped us to catch the fish. Just a little bit of help! We did most of it ourselves."
"I couldn't help because my talons were already full," Shiny explained.
"It was delicious," Buddy said, "however many of you it took to catch it. I didn't find any carrion around today."
"That's okay, son," Dad said encouragingly. "Tomorrow's your day to visit the Tyrannosaurus family, so you're sure to be able to fill up then."
"Yeah, you're right. I still liked the fish a lot, though. Thanks."
"Anyway!" Shiny abruptly took over the conversation, as she often did. "What were you talking to Buddy about, Mrs. Conductor? It sounded really interesting!"
"Oh, I was just telling him about the Big Pond Community College, Shiny. I brought the course catalog for your mom to look at."
"A college is a place where dinosaurs get together to learn things," Buddy explained. "I think it sounds really cool!"
"Super amazingly cool!" Tiny agreed. "It sounds like the sort of place Team Pteranodon should go! We're the best at learning things! Besides Troodons, of course, since they're the smartest dinosaurs," she added, so Mrs. Conductor's feelings wouldn't be hurt.
Suddenly Mr. and Mrs. Pteranodon were surrounded by their four children, Buddy towering over them all. "Please, Mom and Dad, may we take the Dinosaur Train to the Big Pond to learn new things at Big Pond Community College? Pleeeeeeaaaaase?"
Their parents glanced at each other. "Well," said Mrs. Pteranodon, "I was thinking that I could start taking some classes at BPCC myself, now that you kids are old enough to look after yourselves most of the time, and I don't know if you're old enough to enroll in a college class…"
"Shouldn't be a problem," Mrs. Conductor put in. "My grandson Gilbert's going to be taking classes there himself. There's always space in the classes for bright and curious young minds!" She patted Don on the head.
"Mom, if Gilbert's going to be there we have to go too," Shiny said. "He's sooo smart and sooo funny and we're his best friends! He'll want to have us in class with him!"
"Shiny, Gilbert might be taking classes you wouldn't be very interested in, honey. That's one of the nice things about college; you just choose subjects that interest you to learn more about," Mrs. Pteranodon explained.
"Does that mean we can go?" Buddy asked.
"I suppose one class each wouldn't hurt," Mr. Pteranodon said. "But you kids should know that college isn't just about having fun. There'll be studying and tests and a lot of hard work if you want to get good grades."
"What are grades?" Don asked. "How do I know if I got a good one? And what's a test?"
Mr. Pteranodon opened his beak to begin answering, only to be interrupted by a blast of the Dinosaur Train's whistle. "We can answer all your questions on the train, kids. C'mon, we'd better hurry over to the station!"
Once they were aboard the train and settled into their usual car, the ringing voice of Mr. Conductor grew near, also as usual.
"Tickets, please! Tickets! Hello there, Pteranodon family. Where are you headed today?"
"Hello, Mr. Conductor! We're on our way to the Big Pond to sign up for classes at Big Pond Community College!"
"Are you, now? What a coincidence; my nephew Gilbert is enrolling in classes at BPCC, too."
"I know!" Shiny squawked. "Your mother told us when she dropped off the course catalog; that's how we found out about BPCC. Where is Gilbert? Do you know what classes he's taking? I bet it's something really interesting!"
"Did somebody say my name?" Gilbert called from behind Buddy, where (understandably) nobody had seen him. "Here I am! Hi, Buddy, Tiny, Don, Mr. and Mrs. Pteranodon. And uh, hey, Shiny. You look, um, really shiny today."
"Hello, Gilbert," Shiny replied breathily. Then there was a strange pause while she and Gilbert just stared at each other.
Tiny rolled her eyes at Buddy. "Gilbert," she said, "we were just wondering what class you were going to be taking at college."
"At BPCC? Oh, Geometric Topology. It's essential if I want to understand how the Time Tunnels work, which is essential to becoming the next conductor of the Dinosaur Train!"
"Oh," said Buddy. That had never come up when they were younger and practicing to be Junior Conductors. "What kind of a class is Geometric Topology?"
"It's a kind of math. My grandmother's been tutoring me, since she knows all about being the conductor of the Dinosaur Train, but she says topology was always her weakest subject when she was in school, so I ought to take a class from a professor instead."
"We're going to take classes at BPCC, too, Gilbert," said Shiny. "Maybe I could take Geometric Topology, too! Then we could see each other all the time."
"Shiny, honey, I don't think you're ready for advanced mathematics," Mrs. Pterandon said gently. "Mrs. Conductor hasn't been tutoring you, so you won't know everything you need to get started."
"Well then, Gilbert can just tutor me," Shiny asserted. "You'll help me, right, Gilbert?"
"Uh, I don't know, Shiny. Your mom's right that this isn’t a beginner's math class." Gilbert blushed as Shiny gave him a sad-eyed, pleading look. "But you're really smart," he continued quickly. "I'm sure you could pick it up with my help."
"Then that's settled," Shiny announced. "I'm going to take a class with Gilbert."
Mrs. Pteranodon looked like she was about to open her beak and start trying to reason with Shiny once more when Don interrupted. "Mr. the Conductor, did you go to BPCC, too?"
"Oh no, Don," Mr. Conductor said. "I went to Troodon Tech, in Troodon Town. Most troodons do, especially if they want to get a job working on the Dinosaur Train! Gilbert will go there, too, someday, once he's taken some prerequisites at BPCC."
"What's a prerequisite?" Tiny asked.
"Well, Tiny, a prerequisite is something you have to know before you can do something else. Shiny, for instance, has none of the prerequisites for Geometric Topology. Classes that are prerequisites are usually the foundations for other, more advanced, classes."
"Oh," said Buddy. "So when you went to Troodon Tech, you learned all about how the Time Tunnels worked, and in those classes, you used stuff like the math that Gilbert is taking?"
"Oh, yes. Topology helps us understand and describe the shapes of the wormholes inside the Time Tunnels. You see—"
"Woah," said Don. "The Time Tunnels were made by worms? They must've been really big ones."
"No, Don, that's not what—"
"I mean, I guess I always knew a tunnel was a kind of sideways hole, right? Or maybe more like two holes that meet in the middle. But I hadn't thought about who had dug them."
'Don, giant worms did not dig the Time Tunnels," Mr. Conductor said firmly. "Troodons did, and then we manipulated space-time inside of them to place the things we call 'wormholes' which aren't really holes, exactly, and have nothing to do with actual worms."
Don looked thoughtful. "Well, that's really confusing. Can I take a class about the Time Tunnels and wormholes at BPCC, mom?"
"Well, Don, I don't know if you know enough about physics for that sort of class."
"He could always take 'Time Tunnels for Tourists'. It explores the concepts behind the wormholes, but there isn't any math. It's a very popular class," Mr. Conductor suggested.
"Alright! Shiny's taking Topology, I'm studying Time Tunnels; what are Buddy and Tiny going to take?"
"Do they have music classes at BPCC, Mr. Conductor?" Tiny asked.
"Of course they do, Tiny," Mr. Pteranodon piped up. "In fact, I took a music class when I was at BPCC."
"Dad, you went to BPCC?" Buddy asked, surprised.
"Yes he did," Mrs. Pteranodon said, "and so did I. It's where we met!"
"Yup. Our eyes met across the classroom in Aerodynamics and I just knew I had met the pteranodon I wanted to spend my life with. I even proposed to your mother right on campus, at Lover's Log, overlooking the Big Pond, at sunset."
"It was very romantic," Mrs. Pteranodon squawked. Buddy saw Shiny sigh and eye Gilbert dreamily.
"Aerodynamics? Is that about flying and how it works?" Buddy asked.
"That's right, Buddy," Mr. Pteranodon confirmed.
"Well, then, I have a hypothesis," Buddy announced. "My hypothesis is that Aerodynamics is the class I want to take at BPCC."
Tiny dissolved into giggles. "That's not a real hypothesis, Buddy!"
After just a few weeks of classes, Buddy couldn't decide what the best part of college was. Of course, it was super-cool to get to take the Dinosaur Train by themselves to the Big Pond. Mom and Dad had decided not to take any classes after all, and had declared that if the kids were old enough for college classes, they were old enough to take a short trip on the train without either parent.
Aerodynamics was really interesting, too. Buddy really missed the days when Mom or Dad could pick him up and fly him from place to place. He'd thought learning about how pteranodons and other winged dinosaurs glided or flew would help connect him to his family, and he was starting to get a crazy idea that just might work to do that more than he'd thought possible. His Aerodynamics instructor, Professor Confuciornis, was very encouraging, too.
But Buddy also enjoyed the extra-curricular opportunities at BPCC. For instance, today he had a very important meeting to attend after classes.
"You head back to the nest without me, guys. I have to go to the weekly COCUACOOC meeting. I'll get a later train."
"Coe-coo-ah-coo-que? Lah-lah-loo!" said Don.
"COCUACOOC. Coalition of Carnivores United Against Consumption of Other Creatures. Turns out there are a bunch of other meat-eaters who have questions about hunting and eating other creatures, just like me!"
"Oh yeah? That's great, Buddy! So what do they do instead of hunting?"
"Well, I still don't really know," Buddy said. "Some of them only eat carrion, but we haven't talked about diet choices very much because for the last two meetings we've been debating whether to change the name to CACC – Carnivores Against Consuming Creatures."
"For two meetings?" Tiny squawked. "Doesn’t that mean the same thing? And it's shorter."
"I thought so, but apparently it lacks the 'evangelical nuance' of COCUACOOC. Plus it's less fun to say."
Just then, Shiny and Gilbert came hurrying up from the direction of the library. Shiny was looking a little … smudged, and Gilbert's conductor's cap was askew. "C'mon, guys, we're gonna miss the train! Hurry up!" She took off, flying in the direction of the station, and Don and Tiny followed.
Gilbert gave Buddy a quick smile. "Gotta run if we're gonna catch them, right?"
"You go ahead, Gilbert. I have a club meeting to go to."
"Okay, see you later then, Buddy!"
As Gilbert turned to go, Buddy added, "And you might want to fix your hat!"
It was the end of the semester, and Buddy was exhausted. His final project and studying for the final exam had taken more time than he'd thought possible, and more than once he'd been grateful that troodons were nocturnal so there were plenty of late, and very very early, trains back to Pteranodon Terrace.
Timewise, it was a good thing COCUACOOC/CACC had dissolved after only a few meetings due to irreconcilable ideological differences. Once some of the members had pointed out that consuming carrion was still, technically, consuming a creature, and demanded the club as a whole take a zero-tolerance herbivore stance, the end was inevitable. And unfortunately, it hadn't been any help at all to Buddy in resolving his issues with being an ethical carnivore, other than making it clear that he would have to compromise in some way.
At least he'd done pretty well in Aerodynamics; Professor Confuciornis said he'd achieved a better grade for his final project than any other non-winged student he'd taught. This afternoon, in fact, his whole family was on the Dinosaur Train to visit the Big Pond and see his final project. He hoped they'd be surprised and pleased.
Of course, it wasn't just him who had something to show off today; Tiny was planning a big performance of the one-act opera she'd composed for her final project in Music Composition. Don said he had some big news, too. Only Shiny had been awfully quiet lately. Buddy suspected 'tutoring' with Gilbert hadn't been enough for her to pass her class.
Just then, Mr. Conductor entered their car of the Dinosaur Train, but he wasn't saying, "Tickets, please." Instead he was shaking his head, looking grim, and repeating, "I just don't understand, Gilbert. How could you fail Geometric Topology? You've always been so good at math! How could this happen?"
In her seat in front of Buddy, Shiny began to squirm uncomfortably. Don's obliviousness, however, was more than up to the task of explaining.
"I don’t think Gilbert and Shiny went to class much, Mr. Conductor. I saw them nearly every day behind the library when their class was supposed to be meeting."
"Behind the library?" Mr. Conductor asked. "And what were you doing there?"
"It was the short route to the library after my class finished. I'd fly over and see Shiny and Gilbert in the same little clearing surrounded by conifers. The one with a view of Big Pond and a nice big log to sit on."
"Oh, Lover's Log," Mr. Pteranodon said, at the same time that Mrs. Pteranodon squawked "Lover's Log!" and Mr. Conductor said, "Not Lover's Log!"
The awkward pause that followed, in which Gilbert blushed to the roots of his feathers and Shiny hid her face behind a wing in embarrassment, was broken by Tiny saying, "Oooh, busted!"
Don continued on, disregarding the bombshell he'd dropped. "It's okay, though! Gilbert can retake Topology with me, next semester! I'll make sure he goes to class, Mr. Conductor."
"Well, uh, thank you, Don, but why would you want to take Geometric Topology next semester? Time Tunnels for Tourists should've explained everything without any of that pesky math."
"Oh, it did," Don confirmed. "But that's my big news. The professor said I had the best intuitive understanding of the wormholes that power the Time Tunnels of anyone he's ever taught, including in his classes at Troodon Tech. He told me it would be a disgrace if I didn't become the first non-troodon Tunnel Engineer to work for the Dinosaur Train."
"Oh, that's wonderful, Don!" Mrs. Pteranodon enthused. "Your father and I are so proud of you."
"Imagine that. My son, a Time Tunnel Engineer. Imagine the look on Larry Lambeosaurus's face when I tell him!"
The Lambeosaur family had moved away from Pteranodon Terrace nearly a year ago, when they'd started to feel worried Buddy would eat them, but that didn't stop Mr. Pteranodon from wanting to one-up Larry.
"Yes, imagine that, Gilbert," said Mr. Conductor scoldingly. "Why, Don could even become the first non-troodon Conductor of the Dinosaur Train if he doesn't do anything stupid like fail his classes because he considers engaging in courting behavior a more productive use of his time."
"And I can hardly wait to see what Buddy has to show us!" Mrs. Pteranodon chirped. She didn't want to scold Shiny until they were back at the nest. "What did you say it was called, Buddy?"
"It's an airplane, Mom. Well, this first model is more like a glider."
"And what does an airplane do, Buddy?"
"Well, Professor Confuciornis agrees with me that, using Bernoulli Brachiosaurus's principle, it is theoretically possible to build a device, called an airplane, that will let me, well, fly. Right now I need to take off from a cliff, that's why it's just a glider, but with more work and some tweaks, I can build something that will actually fly, just like you do."
"Oh, wow, Buddy!" said Tiny. "Then you could migrate with us across the Great Western Interior Sea to Appalachia! That'll be so amazing!"
"You really built a plane all by yourself, Buddy? That's really neat," added Don.
Mr. and Mrs. Pteranodon looked at each other, overcome with emotion. "Oh, Buddy, that's more meaningful to us than I could begin to say," Mrs. Pteranodon finally said. "I miss the days when you could fly with us so much. This is such a wonderful idea you've had."
"Thanks, son," Mr. Pteranodon added.
"Mr. Conductor better watch out, though," Buddy said. "Right now the model is only just big enough for me, but someday I might build one big enough to hold passengers, too, and then the Dinosaur Train will have some competition from the Dinosaur Plane!"