“What do you mean “The transfer of the Raptor went wrong?” It was fool proof – I designed the mechanism myself. For example, you couldn't even harm it if I pointed out where to hit and how hard. Ergo. Fool proof.”
Tony looked up from his bank of monitors to frown at the nervous looking man in front of him.
“Yes, sir. But…” The man took a look at Tony’s face and stepped back, swallowing nervously. “Maybe you should look at the footage?”
Tony swung back to the screens.
“Yes, sir?” The voice coming from the ceiling seemed to discomfit the man even further, and Tony smiled grimly. He was well aware of the rumours that circulated among the Park’s staff about who (or what) JARVIS was.
“Run footage from the Raptor move.”
The screen in front of Tony lit up, and he watched, forehead creased in consternation, as the scene unfolded.
He’d done his best to make the cage and enclosure Raptor-proof; the weak point in the whole process was always going to be the transfer.
The Raptor seemed to pick up on that, and when the door to the cage was lifted, it pushed hard and managed to create a gap of a few inches between it and the enclosure. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for the Raptor to reach out and hook one of the staff with such speed the man didn’t even have time to fire his gun.
Tony stopped the footage with the wave of a hand.
“What happened to him?” he asked.
“He died,” the man said. “Sif ate him.”
“The Raptor.” The man deliberately avoided eye contact and Tony frowned.
“Stop giving them names,” he said. “I’ve been through this before – they’re not humans, or pets.”
The man shuddered.
“Trust me,” he said. “I know that.”
Tony turned back to the screen, unheeding, as the man left the room. It seemed that his information had been right – Raptors were fiercely intelligent and horribly vicious. Of course, the person who had told him that had drawn some highly unflattering comparisons between the Raptors and Tony, but since Tony had been firing him at the time, he had dismissed the words as meaningless vitriol.
Now, though? Well, maybe the Raptor’s intelligence hadn’t been overstated.
“JARVIS?” he said, grim lines set on his face.
“Call Coulson. I think we’re going to need him.”
Phil looked up at Steve, mouth quirked up in its customary smile.
“I told you,” he said. “I had a call from an old friend who wanted my opinion on his latest project.”
“And you brought us because?” Steve waved his hand towards the other people in the helicopter.
“I have my reasons,” Phil said.
Steve sat back, forced to be content with this. He had no idea what had prompted Phil to assemble this group, but he trusted the man. Time spent together in the army would do that for you – even if they hadn’t served together for years now.
Instead Phil had gone on to some never-fully-explained enterprise, and Steve had worked his way up in the army, specialising in combatting bio-engineered threats until his discharge eighteen months ago.
They’d kept in touch, though. Steve had always been grateful for Phil’s amused and supportive presence as he’d tried to rebuild his life after… well. After. And Phil had never tried to patronise or minimise what had happened. Even if his hero-worship had been uncomfortable for Steve to understand, Phil had been a good friend, and if he asked Steve to do something? Steve would do it.
He had no idea what motivated the others. A slim, red-headed girl Phil had introduced as Natasha, who looked like she was in her twenties until you actually looked in her eyes, was deep in conversation with a young man who Steve thought might be called Clint. Sat opposite them, with his attention firmly fixed out the window on the ocean passing below, was a tall Nordic looking chap. He’d asked Steve to call him Thor. They’d been chatting for nearly ten minutes as they waited for take-off before Steve had realised he was talking to Donald Blake – one of the foremost experts on applied bio-engineering.
Seeing Steve’s gaze, Phil smiled.
“A deplorable excess of personality, that one,” he said in an undertone, and Steve bit back a laugh. “And I suspect his English teacher was a bit too fond of Shakespeare.”
“I noticed,” he replied. “Smart guy, though. Knows his stuff.”
“He does,” Phil said. “But I was once trapped in a caravan in New Mexico with him, with a hangover, and it’s not an experience I am keen to repeat.”
“Hey, Coulson.” Clint’s voice cut across the conversation, and when Steve looked up he saw that both Clint and Natasha were watching Phil with inscrutable gazes. “Who’s the friend we’re going to see?”
There was an edge to Clint’s voice that Steve didn’t like, but Phil seemed unruffled.
“Tony Stark,” he said, and Steve frowned.
He knew of Tony Stark by reputation; had been lucky enough to work with his father when Steve had been starting out in the army, back before Howard’s death. He’d never have described them as friends, but Howard had given him the first break that had allowed him to pursue a career in bio-engineering.
It was a mixed blessing – it was Howard Stark after all – but no-one could deny that any young researcher who Howard took an interest in would be able to forge a career. Howard, at the end of the day, was the man who had almost single-handedly bio-engineered the weapons that had brought World War Two to an end.
Tony Stark, however? Not the same man as his father. Not even close.
Steve had seen the press coverage, the Expos, the go-go dancers, (the x-tube videos – but Steve put those, very firmly, out of his mind) and although Tony seemed to have inherited his father’s genius, it was subsumed by his ego and an almost overpowering desire for attention.
It didn’t seem that Clint was overly impressed by Phil’s answer either. He fixed him with a glare before turning back to Natasha and continuing a conversation in a tone too low for Steve to be able to hear.
Phil shrugged at Steve and looked out the window.
“We’re nearly there in any case,” he said, and as Steve and the others looked, they saw the green trees and steep slopes of a small island in the ocean.
“Pepper!” Phil brushed past Steve and embraced the perfectly put-together woman who was waiting to greet the chopper. Thor climbed out, his eyes wide as he looked around him. Steve paused, waiting to see if Clint would want to get out first, but Clint was completely focussed on Phil, who was kissing the woman’s (Pepper’s?) cheek.
Steve climbed out just as Phil pulled away and looked round.
“Steve? Meet Pepper… I mean, Virginia Potts.”
“Miss Potts.” Steve held out his hand, and she took it with a smile.
“It’s Pepper, please.” She turned. “Natasha, I’m so glad you’re here, and you must be Dr. Blake?”
“Well met!” Thor said, finally looking away from the plant that had commanded his attention. “This is a most impressive place. There is vegetation here I had never expected to see outside the pages of a book.”
Pepper smiled, as though this was hugely amusing to her.
“If you like the plants here,” she said, “just wait until we drive to the research lab.”
It was not till the Jeep left the trees behind, though, and pulled out into a clearing of rolling fields that Steve noticed, and…
He stood up, braced on the Jeep’s roll bar to see better, and felt Clint freeze beside him as he turned to see what caught Steve’s attention. Natasha followed suit, and Steve was sure that Phil and Pepper both knew about this, because their smug amusement was almost palpable. Thor was the only one who hadn’t noticed; he had a leaf in his hands and was holding forth in an excited tone and so Steve did the only thing he could think of – he grabbed Thor’s head, turning him bodily until he was facing the same way as the rest of them.
It was a herd of Brachiosaurs – or it was unless Steve was having a particularly vivid hallucination. He thought he might be right though; everyone in the Jeep was watching the strangely graceful movements as the creatures grazed, and Steve felt a leap of pride. In his line of work he only tended to see the destructive side of bio-engineering, this was something different.
“I can’t believe Stark did it,” Phil said, and Steve looked round at him. “I mean, I know he was working on it, but…” Phil gestured and whistled.
“Dinosaurs? Stark managed to breed dinosaurs? And you knew about this?” Steve knew he sounded like one of Stark’s fangirls on Tumblr, but frankly he wasn’t sure which part of that sentence needed the most emphasis.
Phil laughed. “I’ve heard rumours,” he said; beside him Pepper chuckled. “By which I obviously mean that Tony has bragged at great length throughout the process.”
Steve was reluctantly impressed. He’d never have guessed that Stark had the genius (or the staying power) to achieve this.
“It’s something special,” he said, and he thought, from Phil’s laugh, that Phil at least had heard everything that Steve hadn’t said.
He grabbed Pepper by the arm, pulling her off to discuss something in a low tone that involved an impressive amount of arm waving. Steve stepped from the Jeep, his awe evaporating in favour of the more familiar irritation that Stark inspired. Strangely the sensation was comforting. If Stark had been approachable or pleasant in real life, Steve wasn’t sure his worldview could have sustained the shock.
“Asshole,” Clint muttered as he joined Steve to grab their bags from the back of the Jeep.
“Yeah,” Steve said, biting back a laugh. “But, hey. Maybe he didn’t take finishing classes at MIT?”
“Maybe he doesn’t need them? I mean, how important are social skills when you friends are robots and test tubes?”
“I guess I’m a bit surprised though,” Steve said as he hefted his kit back over his shoulder. “Howard was always such a…”
“Oh, do continue.” Stark’s voice cut through their conversation and Steve spun round. Stark was tight lipped and his eyes were flashing with anger. “It’s always educational to find out that my social skills are at fault – especially when it’s discussed behind my back by my guests.”
Steve blushed. “I’m sorry, Mr Stark. I didn’t…”
“Didn’t know I could hear? Yeah. I got that.” Stark turned on his heel and clapped his hands. “Come on, everyone! Time is money. Stow your bags by the welcome station there, we’ll deal with them later, and let’s go to the labs.”
He tried to tamp down his anger – arguing with goons would achieve nothing – but the quip about his father had cut deeper than he’d care to admit.
“Coulson.” He beckoned the man forward to walk with him. “Who are these motley lot?”
Phil smirked. “The tall, blond is Dr. Donald Blake, he…”
“Yeah. I know. I’ve read his stuff. Why does he want to be called Thor though?”
“No idea. It’s a nickname or something. I find it best not to ask sometimes.”
“And them?” Tony gestured to where Mr Shoulders McAll-His-Friends-Are-Robots was listening intently to a lady who would either get him slapped with a lawsuit or by Pepper. Possibly both. Pepper might have seen the light about their relationship, but she still had feelings about respectful attitudes to women, and Tony knew better than to push her.
“That’s Natasha Romanov and Clint Barton. Given what you said on the phone, I thought it would be best to bring some weapons.”
“They don’t look like much,” Tony said, and Phil grinned.
“We’ll see how you feel once you’ve had a chance to see them in the field,” he said. “But I’ll tell you now – those two are the best hunters you’ll ever see.”
Tony shot him a hard look.
“I hardly think that will be necessary,” he said. “I asked you to come over to check safety measures, not kill my stock.”
Phil shrugged. “I know how these things can get out of hand, Tony. In any case those two will be happy to go in the paddocks with the animals and track their movements, which will give you a much better idea of where the weak spots are in your defences.”
“If there are any weak spots,” Tony said, but Phil just assumed his long-suffering look and didn’t reply. “What about tall, blond, and studly over there? He a hunter too? Or did you bring him as bait?”
“That,” Phil said, his cheeks pinking slightly. “Is Captain Steve Rogers. He’s here as a special favour to me.”
Tony blinked. He’d heard about Rogers of course, who hadn’t? The Army had gone all out in making him a poster-boy for the American ideal. He hadn’t expected him to look quite like this though – he’d suspected the perfection of the face and body that stared from a hundred campaigns were the result of Photoshop rather than nature. Now, faced with Rogers in the flesh, he was forced to reassess that, which meant that…
“Why, Coulson, you devil. You brought a booty call with you. I don’t know whether to be impressed or insulted – all you ever had to do was ask, you know.” He shot Phil his best Look (complete with wicked grin and fluttering eyelashes), but Phil seemed unruffled.
“I wouldn’t do that,” he said.
“Why?” Tony pressed his hand to his heart. “Am I not man enough for you? Wait, are you planning to hit me with a sexual-harassment suit? Because, Coulson, baby, you should see the size of my settlement.”
At which point Tony tripped over and in the ensuing kerfuffle rather forgot about Captain Steve Rogers.
“I’m telling you, Pepper,” he hissed as he tried to recover his injured dignity by stalking ahead to lead the group. “I was tripped.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “Who would have tripped you up? And why would they bother doing it now? It normally takes at least half an hour for the Stark charm to provoke violence.”
Tony looked round surreptitiously. Phil was walking next to Rogers, who looked too gormless to have tripped anybody up – hell, he was probably the kind of man who helped kittens across the road and rescued little old ladies out of trees – but Barton and Romanov looked like trouble, and Barton’s expression was suspiciously close to a smirk.
Phil just looked quietly amused, like he’d expected this all along, and Clint and Natasha were impassive, taking in the scene before them with identical assessing gazes.
“So,” Stark said, turning to look at them. “This is where the magic happens. Well, I say magic but it’s all science and genius.” He snorted, an oddly ungraceful sound given his earlier bluster, but maybe his fall had shaken him. “I guess that’s close enough to magic for you lot.”
Steve bristled. He may not be a lab worker, but he was well used to seeing what the scientists came up with. He could remember the teeth and claws of the genetically-enhanced monsters that were released routinely as part of war, and forcibly repressed a shiver.
“How did you find the DNA for the dinosaurs?” Clint asked, bending down to peer at a screen.
“Mosquitos,” Stark answered. “Preserved in amber. They fed off the dinosaurs, landed on branches, and were trapped in the sap. It was just a matter of finding them and extracting the DNA.”
“Sounds imprecise,” Clint said. “How did you know what DNA you had found?”
“We could guess to some degree, once we’d started, but a lot of it has been trial and error.”
Steve looked up as a dark-haired man joined them. Wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a lab coat, he looked every inch the stereotypical researcher, even down to his tousled hair. Stark poked him in the side and grinned.
“As Dr. Banner said, we started out using what we found, but as we’ve progressed we’ve been able to more accurately predict the DNA we find, and adjust our research accordingly.”
Dr. Banner nodded. “I’ve been in charge of sequencing the genes, identifying the DNA we extract, and,” he paused for a second, “filling in the blanks in order to make the DNA viable to use in eggs. It’s this work,” he gestured “that has allowed us to produce the animals you’ve seen, and will see on your visit here.”
“Isn’t this dangerous?” Steve asked. “Gene manipulation is far from an exact science yet, and I’ve seen more than enough of what its results can be.”
“There have been one or two unexpected developments, yes,” Dr. Banner said, “but we seem to have those under control now.”
Steve wasn’t quite sure he trusted this; Dr. Banner’s fingers were tightening convulsively on the bench in front of him, but he didn’t know the man well enough to call him out, so he smiled tightly and followed Stark as he led them on.
“Let’s go to the hatchery. You can see their innocent, reptilian eyes as they emerge from the egg.” He nudged Phil in the ribs. “You’ll feel right at home. It’s like being at the first day of law school.”
They all looked suitably awed at least as they went into the warmth of the hatchery. There was a batch that were due to hatch at any minute, and Tony let the others wander round while he went to check on them.
“The eggs here,” Dr. Blake (Thor, Tony corrected himself) said. “Do they supplement the wild breeding programme?”
“There is no wild breeding,” Tony said. “The risks are too high, and I wanted to keep control.”
“How do you manage that?” Barton asked. “Sex-ed classes? Awkward formals? Braces on the teeth of the teenaged dinosaurs?”
Tony grinned. “All good ideas, but nothing so crude. No, we decided to make all the dinosaurs female, ergo, no breeding. We create the eggs, then leave them with an adult female to raise. Allows us control, but will give the illusion of a natural environment, and allow herds to form naturally.”
“What sort of dinosaurs have you bred?” Romanov asked, looking round the eggs nestled under the warmth lamps.
“Oh, most of them,” Tony said breezily. “The important ones anyway. Now, if you look at this batch here, I want you to see…”
“You only bred herbivores though,” Barton said, standing on his tiptoes to look at the eggs moving slightly behind Tony.
“Well,” Tony said. “Not as such.”
“You bred carnivores?” Phil said, his voice incredulous as he fished in the pocket of his jacket for his phone. “You crazy son of a bitch. Of course you did.”
He dialled a number and held the phone to his ear.
“What are you doing?” Tony said.
“Reporting to Fury, of course.”
“Oh come on.” Tony pulled the phone away and cancelled the call. “At least see the rest of the island before you tell your lord and master.”
“Indeed, Coulson,” Thor said. “We are here now, and we should at least look.”
Phil hesitated. “I’ll have to tell him eventually,” he said. “But since we are here…” He turned back to the table where a small, beak-like muzzle was poking through the eggshell and so missed the look of smug triumph on Tony’s face. Steve didn’t miss it though.
This would be an entertainment venue, so help him god. Yeah, his father had founded Stark Industries to provide genetically engineered “products” for the army, but Tony wanted no part of that. Not any more. Not since Afghanistan. He rubbed his chest absently and looked at the display screen in front of him.
The weather display wasn’t promising, and he frowned. It wouldn’t make much difference to the tour, but the animals were less likely to be active in bad weather.
He turned round to where the group were waiting. Phil, Romanov, and Barton were talking together in low voices, and Thor was making polite conversation with Rogers.
“There’s a storm coming,” he said. “It’s not liable to hit for a couple of hours, but you might want to hold off on the tour until the morning.”
Thor laughed. “It would take more than a little thunder to deter me!”
“What about the rest of you?” Tony asked. “Willing to get a little wet in exchange for seeing what we can do here.”
Phil shrugged. “Why not?” he said. “We’ve been through worse.”
“Excellent,” Tony said. “I’m going to stay here, but Dr. Banner will… Bruce? Bruce!”
Dr. Banner appeared from the lab, blinking at Tony.
“I did. Will you go on the tour with these guys? Talk them through the animals?”
“Sure.” Bruce shrugged, unfazed by the request. “Don’t you want to do this bit though?”
“Storm,” Tony replied. “I want to be here where I can keep my hands on the controls. Also, it’s shift change, and Pepp’s decided that she needs to visit the mainland for some trivial reason.” He scratched his head. “Her mother’s birthday or something. God knows how the minions will cope without her high-heel of authority keeping them in line.”
Bruce sighed. “Figures,” he said and turned to the others. “He can say what he wants about genius and science, but Pepper’s the one who actually makes this place run properly.”
Tony grimaced at him. “Loyalty!” he said. “You could at least pretend to side with me.” Bruce looked unrepentant and Tony shrugged at the others. “You see how I suffer, but the show must go on. Decide which car you want into kids, and let’s get this show on the road.”
The rides were comfortable and roomy enough so that even Steve could stretch his legs out as they pulled away from the visitors’ centre. Thor was busy fiddling with some of the tech in the front seat while Phil looked on with the indulgent smile of a pre-school teacher.
“Should he be playing with those?”
“Humm?” Phil turned his attention to Steve and smiled. “Oh, yeah. He’ll be fine. Stark will have designed anything to be robust enough for children to mess with on the tour…” There was a worrying crack from the front seat, and Thor looked at the two separate parts of binoculars in his hands with confusion. Phil shrugged. “And if he didn’t, well, he’s rich enough that he can afford to replace a few toys.”
Steve must have looked unconvinced because Phil patted his arm. “Think of it as a robust consumer test,” he said. “It’s easier that way.”
“Yeah.” Steve looked at the crestfallen expression on Thor’s face. “You’re probably right.”
“Welcome to the tour of Jurassic Stark!”
Steve jumped and looked round. On the back of the headrests and on the visors screens had blinked into life and were showing the smiling face of a cartoon dinosaur.
“I am the Starkosaurus Rex, and I am going to be your guide on your trip of the Park today.”
“Phil?” Steve couldn’t keep the creeping edge of horror from his voice. “Is that Stark?”
“I think so?” Phil cocked his head to one side and considered the screen. “I mean, it’s a cartoon – I’m fairly sure Tony doesn’t have a tail like that in real life – but his voice… sure.”
“Oh. Good.” Steve steeled himself. It was just good to know he wasn’t losing his mind.
“What’s that?” On the screen a small, purple dinosaur joined the Starkosaurus Rex. “As my good friend, Tonyceratops, says – you need to keep your eyes peeled. These dinosaurs are cunning and they hide real well. So make sure you watch closely, kids!”
Phil sighed. “Yes, Captain. The Triceratops has a goatee.”
“Jesus.” Clint’s voice crackled out of the radio. “How is this my life? Phil? How the fuck did you talk me onto this trip?”
“Quiet, Barton.” Phil looked oddly smug. “You’re getting to see Stark make an ass of himself. You know you want to be here.”
“Yes, sir?” And say what you want about his AI, the sound of his voice comforted Tony, reminded him that he was in control of this operation.
“Got any data about the storm?”
“It’s onscreen now, sir.”
“Excellent.” Tony ran a few predictions. The tour might need to be cut short, but none of this should be a problem.
Tony looked round and saw one of the animal handlers waiting by the door with an uncomfortable look on his face.
“You here to tell me that the Apatosaurus have grown wings?” The man shook his head. “The fences have been attacked by iron-mites? No? Oh god, the Starkburgers. They weren’t made from 100% organic dog were they?”
“Not that I know of.”
Tony nodded. “So it can’t be that bad. What is it then?”
The man swallowed nervously. “When Edward was… compromised earlier…”
“Edward?” Tony tried to remember the name, but came up blank. “Do I know an Edward?”
“He was the technician who was moving the Raptor.”
“The one who was eaten?”
“Exactly.” The man looked slightly relieved he didn’t need to say the words. “Anyway, when earlier… happened he was carrying his StarkPad.”
“So?” Tony shrugged. “They’re issued to all staff. I’m sure I can cope with one of them being broken.”
“It wasn’t broken.” The man shuffled his feet. “It’s… missing.”
“We think it might be in the Raptor cage.”
“Eh.” Tony switched his attention back to the screen. “So it’s lost, or broken, or whatever. I hardly think a dinosaur is going to be able to use Stark Tech anyway.”
Phil grinned at the radio, even though Clint couldn’t see him. “I don’t think so. Is there a problem, Barton?”
“Well, I think Natasha is about to enter a killing frenzy, but apart from that, we’re good.”
“Dr. Banner?” To give him credit, Phil didn’t sound even slightly concerned.
“Do you think there’s any imminent risk of bloodshed?”
“Well, Tony’s not here…” Steve could almost see the wry look on Dr. Banner’s face. “So I think we’re fairly safe.”
“In that case, Barton, sit back and enjoy the tour.”
“You seem to know them very well,” Thor said, turning round in his seat, and Steve could see Phil stiffen slightly.
“We’ve worked together a long time.“
Thor seemed to accept this and returned his attention to their surroundings. A short way ahead of them was a huge gate, obviously designed to impress, with the words Jurassic Stark emblazoned across them.
Steve whistled under his breath. “He doesn’t do anything by halves, does he?”
On the screen, the Starkosaurus Rex capered and announced that they were about to enter the Park. Phil grinned. “Damn right he doesn’t.”
“I suppose we should be grateful that there wasn’t a real Starkosaurus waiting to greet us,” Steve said, and heard the crackle of Dr. Banner’s laughter over the radio.
“Not yet, there isn’t, but just you wait till the Park’s open to the public.”
Phil looked at him, his mouth pressed into a thin smile. “Can you doubt it, Steve? We’re just lucky that he hasn’t thought of Starkburgers.”
“He has.” Steve could hear the long-suffering patience in Dr. Banner’s voice, even without being able to see his face. “And Starkcash. Trust me – there’s not much that Tony misses when the mood takes him.”
“Don’t ask.” Phil put his hand on Steve’s arm and squeezed it. “And for God’s sake, don’t go into the gift shop if they’ve built that yet. It’ll just upset you.” He didn’t, Steve noticed, move his hand.
“So, are you two brothers-in-arms?”
Steve looked up – he had almost forgotten that Thor was in the Jeep.
“We were in the army together, if that’s what you mean?” he said, cautiously.
Thor nodded, seemingly satisfied. “You have the comfort together of men who have fought by each other’s side.”
“Oh, it was hardly that,” Phil said, and to Steve’s shock a faint blush was colouring his cheeks. “Captain Rogers is a legend. I was just lucky enough to be able to offer him support when he was… well,” the flush deepened on his face. “When he needed it in Myanmar.“
Steve turned towards Phil, slightly shocked at this. “I didn’t know you’d been there,” he said. “I mean, you were in the hospital afterwards, but I thought that was Fury wanting to keep an eye on me.”
Phil pulled his hand back from where it had still been resting on Steve’s arm, and suddenly became very interested in the trees the Jeeps were passing. “Yeah, well, I was involved in the battle,” he said, his voice studiously calm, “and I couldn’t leave you after that, so I… hung round.”
“Why?” And, in all honesty? Steve didn’t like thinking of that time, but Phil was reacting in a way that Steve would never have anticipated. There was nothing of the quietly smiling, capably aloof man in Phil at the moment. Instead he was blushing and flustered, and Steve wanted to know why.
“It was an honour to help you,” Phil said, his attention still firmly focussed away from Steve. “I mean, I watched you while you were sleeping. I mean, I was, I was present while you were unconscious, after the battle.” Phil closed his eyes. “Just, you know, it's really just a, just a huge honour to have you come out here with us.”
Steve blinked. That was the darkest time he’d lived through. He’d been the only one of his company to survive – and it had taken him months to start to believe that this wasn’t a bad thing. The Army’s campaign to make him the face of the ideal warrior had just made everything more difficult, and Steve had been desperately lonely, unable to go back to what he had been before, and not comfortable moving on when everyone he met saw what he represented rather than the man behind the posters.
Phil had been an easy presence who had helped Steve to readjust to a world without the people he loved, and Steve had treasured him – did treasure him – for that, but there was obviously more going on, if Phil’s reaction was anything to go by. He made a mental note to talk to Phil about this when they got back to the base. For now he smiled, a little shyly, at Phil and pretended not to hear when Clint said way to act like a creepy stalker, Coulson, his voice cracking through the static of the radio.
“The Euoplocephalus is a herbivore who uses its spiked tail like a club to defend itself in battle. With fossils dating between 76.5 and 67 million years ago, it’s assumed to have…” Steve tuned it out. The information the Starkosaurus was spouting was interesting and all, but it didn’t come close to capturing the majesty of the animal. For something that should have been extinct tens of millions of years ago, it looked remarkably at home; majestic and somehow familiar. Steve watched it for as long as the Jeep paused, ignoring the conversation he could hear between the two groups, and turned to watch it for as long as he could as the small convoy moved on to the next enclosure.
Thor frowned slightly as they pulled off. “I would like to have seen more of the vegetation that animal was eating,” he said.
“Botany is your speciality?” Steve asked, and Thor nodded.
“Yes, and impressive as these animals might be, Stark is truly a genius if he has recreated the plants of the Jurassic age.”
“It’s about time someone recognised that.” Because of the Starkosaurus’s commentary it took Steve a moment to recognise that this was Stark’s voice coming over the radio. “I keep telling everyone – genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, but they only ever seem to hear the middle two.”
Next to Steve, Phil smirked. “We’re all suitably impressed, Tony,” he said. “So, stop fishing for compliments.”
“Sorry,” Stark said, sounding anything but. “Can’t stop and chat. Storms to prepare for; extinct species to revive; fortunes to make… that sort of thing.”
Steve hid his smile behind his hand and watched the trees as the Jeeps slipped silently on.
Tony raised an eye at JARVIS’s words. “And so they should. Even without my genius, don’t you know how much this Park has cost me?”
“To the cent, sir.”
“Well then,” Tony paused to wish that he hadn’t enabled the AI to be quite that sarcastic. “In that case, you know that they should damn well enjoy it.”
“It is.” Dr. Banner answered, and even over the radio Steve could hear a thread of tension running through his voice. “We can’t control the movements of the animals, even though we track them, of course, so this is one of the methods we are trialling.”
Steve looked at the goat tethered far enough beyond the fence that they could see it despite the steep drop from the track down to the enclosure. He felt curiously tense, but the goat seemed oblivious, munching happily at the grass near it.
“It seems a little barbaric,” he said, and could hear a muffled snort (probably Natasha from the sound of it) from the other Jeep.
“It’s a work in progress,” Dr. Banner said. “We don’t want to frighten the children by seeing an animal killed, but the T. Rex is dangerous and we can’t risk bringing the tour through the paddock.”
“I must admit, I do want to see it,” Phil said. “It’s the thing you think of when you say the word dinosaur, you know? All that brutality and strength… it’s admirable.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen them close up,” Dr. Banner said, his voice tight. “They’re unthinking beasts, driven by their instincts, and you should pray you’re never faced with one.”
There was something there, Steve thought, some incident that Dr. Banner didn’t want to share or even think about. He thought about what he knew of T. Rex and shivered. Whatever Dr. Banner had faced, he was obviously both brave and lucky to have survived it.
“How long do we have to wait?” Clint said, and even without seeing him Steve could tell he was bored and chafing to get out of the Jeep.
“Until the Rex gets here,” Phil said, but Steve could see the smile on his face.
“Don’t worry, Clint,” Dr. Banner said. “We won’t be here long. With the storm coming, Tony won’t want us waiting here for more than a couple of minutes.”
He was right. The Jeeps pulled off after a little while leaving the goat unharmed and unconcerned in the clearing.
Pepper’s voice startled Tony and he looked up from the feed of the Jeeps.
“I have no idea what you mean,” he said. “Nothing’s wrong. What could possibly be wrong? Nothing, that’s what.”
“Of course not,” she said, her not-taking-any-of-your-bullshit-face firmly in place as she perched on a chair next to him. “That’s why you’re frowning like I scheduled an investors’ meeting on a science day.” She nudged him with her shoulder. “I know you, Stark. So, spill.”
“You know me too well,” he said, sighing. “Shoulda got rid of you years ago.”
Pepper snorted. “Like you could cope without me.” She smiled at him, robbing her words of sting. “If I could survive being in a relationship with you, I’m not sure there is anything you could do to make me leave. And I recognise the patented Stark-evasion techniques when I see them, you know, so are you going to tell me what’s wrong or am I going to have to beat it out of you?”
She raised her fist and grimaced threateningly, and Tony couldn’t hold back his laughter.
“It’s stupid,” he said, glancing back at the screens, “but this isn’t how the first tour was meant to go.”
“No?” She rested her head on his shoulder so she could see the screens. “How was it meant to go?”
“It was meant to leave them breathless with wonder.” Tony glanced at her. “Don’t giggle, Potts. It makes you look like a Catholic school girl.”
Pepper wiped her hand over her face, leaving it impassive. “Please continue.”
He huffed, but she didn’t giggle again, and he looked back at the screen where he could see the boredom on the faces of the group. “All they’ve seen is one spiky animal that could have been replaced by a robot with no one being any the wiser, and one goat.” He looked at her. “It’s not even worth the price of admission. They hadn’t even seen any of the insect or mammal life we introduced to give the illusion of a natural environment.”
“It’s early days,” Pepper said, “and the Park isn’t ready for tours yet.”
“But it’s close to it,” Tony said, “and at this rate I’ll only be able to market it as a destination venue for the golden years crowd.”
“You’ll work it out,” she said. “I have faith in you.”
He knew she did, which was what stopped him from palming her off with a glib comment. “But what if I can’t?” he said, quietly, afraid that voicing his fears would make them happen. “What are we going to say to the Board, Pepp? You know the market they’ll see for the animals.”
“We won’t let them.” Her voice was firm. “I oversaw the paperwork for this island myself. No one is able to use anything you develop here for military use, Tony.” She looked him in the eyes. “The only way that any of these animals will see a battlefield is if they manage to get a plane off the island and get to one under their own steam.”
Tony put his arm round her, finding comfort in the familiar fit of her body against his. “It’s important to me, Pepper.”
“I know,” she said, relaxing against him. “Which is why I am here with you and not in New York heading up my own company.”
“Don’t make me say the feelings-words, Potts.”
She laughed. “God forbid.” She pressed into his embrace. “It’ll work out, Tony, and even if it doesn’t, I think you underestimate the Board. They know what you went through in Afghanistan, and no one wants you to keep designing bio-tech weapons.”
“So far,” Tony said, his chest twinging at the mention of Afghanistan, an echo of the pain that had accompanied his kidnap, escape, and recovery. “That’ll change if the profits drop off.” Pepper’s silence was as good as agreement. “I need to prove that bio-tech can be used for more than just weapons. You know that.”
“And you will. This isn’t even the trial tour, Tony. We’ve got plenty of time to sort out problems.” She tightened her hold into a hug before pulling away. “Do you need me to stay?”
“Humm?” He looked up from the screen. “Oh, yes. The mainland. No. You go. You have stuff to do, and there’s a storm scheduled which’ll keep me busy.”
“And you don’t need a hand?” Pepper looked concerned.
“Of course not! Look, you’re right. It will be fine, I just wanted to wow them.” He put his game-face on, unwilling to admit how much he’d wanted to throw those overheard words back in their faces. Pepper did know him too well though.
“You will,” she said, pulling him into a rough hug. “You’re Tony Stark, baby. That’s enough to impress anyone.”
He laughed. “Sure, Pepp. And you’re not biased at all.”
“Of course not.” She kissed his cheek and pulled away. “I’ll see you in a few days, okay? Do try not to get into any mischief while I’m gone.”
“Sure thing, boss.” He sketched a quick salute at her as she left the room, wishing for a second that he’d asked her to stay. It was a selfish impulse though, and worse than that – needy, so he turned back to the screens and tried to forget his disappointment in favour of double-checking his preparations for the storm.
“What’s he doing?” Dr. Banner said, and Phil frowned.
“He saw the vet with the Triceratops and just left.”
Dr. Banner sighed. “It could be worse, I guess. At least the vet’s there.”
“So, can we join them?” Clint sounded hopeful and even Steve would be glad to stretch his legs, so he heard Phil’s resigned sigh with relief.
“What do you think, Dr. Banner? Is it safe?”
Dr. Banner snorted. “Safer than staying here if the look on Natasha’s face is anything to go by,” he said, and the doors to the other Jeep swing open and Clint and Natasha emerged slightly before Dr. Banner.
The climb down to the vet was steep, though not the sheer drop that had guarded the Rex enclosure. The air smelt heavy with promised rain, and the vegetation was very green and lush as they pushed through it. And the Triceratops…
Not all his years on the battlefield, not all his experience with genetically engineered animals had prepared Steve for this.
The animal was massive, easily as big as a rhino, and when Steve laid a cautious hand to its flank, it was warm. He caught his breath, overcome with awe. Thor was deep in an involved conversation with the vet, while Clint and Natasha were scanning their surroundings with watchful and appraising eyes, but Phil seemed similarly affected. Steve turned to him and smiled.
“This sure is something, isn’t it?”
“It sure is.” Phil laid his hand next to Steve’s, but his attention was completely on the dinosaur, and for a long while they just stood there, listening to it breathe, while around them the paddock rippled with a susurrus of life.
It was only when the first drops of rain fell that Steve realised how long he had spent there. He looked round. Clint and Natasha were still watching the long grass, both of them now armed to the teeth, even though Steve would have sworn they hadn’t been carrying any weapons when they left the Jeeps. Bruce was standing with the vet, deep in conversation and their attention turned towards Thor, who seemed to be rooting happily through a large pile of…
“Yeah,” Phil muttered. “That’s exactly what it looks like.” He headed off with a sigh towards Dr. Banner and the vet, and Steve gave the Triceratops a last pat and followed.
“Yeah. Agreed. We need to pull the tour back now; if they’ve finished their fieldtrip that is.” He squinted at the footage. For some reason Thor was shoulder deep in a heap of dinosaur dung while the others were gossiping like mothers at a coffee klatch. “Patch me through to Coulson.”
“Tell me there’s a reason for this?” he asked as soon as Phil lifted his cell to his ear.
Phil turned and flashed a grin right at the camera Tony was watching. “You need a reason, Stark?”
“I sent you out on a harmless little tour of my Park, and yet there you all are – treating it like a walking safari and making the grossest mud pies in existence. So yes, Coulson, I need a goddam reason.”
“Calm down, Tony.” And Tony had no idea at all whether Phil used that tone because he knew it irritated the hell out of Tony, or if it was just an unlucky coincidence. “You asked some of the world’s experts on this sort of thing to take a trip through your Park, and you’re surprised when they want to get their hands dirty?” He shook his head at the camera. “You’re slipping if you thought that would work.”
“Yeah, well. Call it optimistic hope or something, Coulson, but seriously, you need to be heading back now before the storm hits.”
He saw Phil nod before checking where the rest of the team were.
“Agreed,” he said, and raised his voice. “Dr. Banner? Captain? Thor? We need to get back in the Jeeps and head back to camp now.”
Thor frowned at him. “I wish to stay with the animal. I think it’s been eating the berries on the plants, and it needs treatment.”
“That’s what I employ the vets for,” Tony snapped. “Let them deal with this.”
“Dr. Blake has been very helpful,” the vet said, looking round, unsure where the cameras were. “And this should only take another ten minutes or so if he’s right. I can drop him back to base when we’re done.”
Tony sighed. He knew a losing battle when he saw one. “The rest of you though…”
“Yes,” Phil said, not letting him finish. “Back in the Jeeps.”
Rogers and Bruce nodded and started to head back to the track without comment. Tony saw Phil nod at Barton and Romanov and they turned back as well, though they kept scanning the surroundings for movement, and Tony noticed that they didn’t lower their weapons all the way back to the vehicles.
“What happened to riding with Dr. Banner?” Phil asked, and Barton gave him a look.
“A seat comes free in the cool car and you want me to ride with Dr. Banner while he tries to scare Natasha with stories of how dangerous the dinosaurs are?” He shook his head. “Man, you’re losing your touch if you think that’s even a choice.”
Phil grinned. “Far be it from me to dissuade you,” he said. “But so help me God, if you keep asking if we’re there yet, you’ll be walking back to base – I don’t care how dangerous the animals are.”
“You love me really, sir,” Clint said, swinging himself through the window into the front seat of the Jeep.
Phil smiled at him, the expression softening the lines of his face, and when he saw Steve watching he only shrugged.
The storm was probably about ten minutes out when the lights flickered, and Tony looked up, frowning.
“JARVIS? What was that?”
“I don’t know, sir.” For all that JARVIS was a computer programme (albeit a brilliant one) he sounded concerned. “I’m getting code input I shouldn’t be seeing.”
“What the hell do you mean?” Tony was seriously concerned. He’d been careful with security on this project – the animals were his babies, and he sure as hell didn’t want them getting into the hands of the Army or weapons manufacturers. No, he rubbed his chest. He’d learnt that one the hard way in Afghanistan. He’d taken every precaution. Locked down the systems so that the only way to access them was from within the system – from within the island. The whole thing was totally self sufficient, and there was no way that it could be hacked from the outside.
Which, of course, left the unpalatable option that one of his staff was doing this. He frowned. No matter how careful he was with recruitment and background checks, someone always got greedy sooner or later.
“Where’s it coming from, JARVIS?”
“My readings show that whoever’s doing this is using a StarkPad. It seems to be registered to the island, sir.”
“So whoever it is, it’s one of the staff?” Tony asked.
“Or someone using one of their Pads, sir,” JARVIS corrected. “We have had one go missing recently, after all.”
“That Raptor?” Tony laughed to himself. “Not fucking likely, no matter how intelligent the keepers say they are.”
“I am not suggesting the animals are breaking into the systems, sir,” JARVIS said, his tone making it plain that he was humouring Tony. “But it was a convenient excuse for a pad to be missing, and it made sure you didn’t bother looking for it.”
“Well, shit.” Tony frowned. “How bad is this going to get?”
“I don’t know, sir. I am monitoring the input and trying to isolate it, but whoever is behind this is highly intelligent and you would be best to prepare for the fact they may succeed in compromising me.”
“Not on my watch,” Tony said, his mouth set into a grim line and already clicking open screens to do what he could to combat the threat. Anyone who tried to mess with JARVIS was about to find out just how much of a bad idea it was to take on the genius that was Tony Stark.
“The animals were impressive though,” Steve said, and Clint hummed in response.
“It’s a shame we didn’t see the T. Rex,” he said. “I wonder if the goat is still there?”
“You’ll see soon enough,” Dr. Banner said over the radio. “We’re only a few minutes from the enclosure.”
“What’s the plan from here?” Steve asked Phil.
“Get an early night, I guess, and go out again tomorrow. We should complete the tour at least before we start running evaluations on the risk levels.”
“How are we going to do that? Go into the enclosures?”
“It’s risky,” Phil said. “But I don’t see another way to do it.”
Clint snorted. “Risky? This is nothing compared to Budapest.”
Dr. Banner laughed dryly. “You say that now, when all you’ve seen are the herbivores. Just wait till you see some of the big animals.”
“You say that, Banner, but I’ve not seen any sign that…” Clint broke off as the Jeep shuddered and came to a halt on its tracks.
“What’s happening?” Phil asked, suddenly fully alert. “Stark? Are you listening in?”
“I am,” Stark said, sounding stressed. “Things have got a little… unpredictable here, Coulson. I’ve lost the visual feed. What’s happened?”
“We seem to have stopped,” Phil said. “Any idea why?”
“I’m fairly confident there’s nothing to worry about,” Stark said, and Clint groaned. “But someone seems to have hacked the systems here and it’s obviously stalled the tour.”
Steve frowned in concern at Phil’s raised eyebrow. “This is serious then?”
Phil nodded. “Say what you like about Stark, his systems are notoriously hard to crack.”
“Obviously not hard enough,” Stark snapped. “Look, I’m going to try and get the tour running again to get you back to base, but if that doesn’t work then I’ll try to hack the Jeeps’ controls so that you can drive them yourself.”
“We can’t just walk back to base?” Steve asked. “It can’t be more than a couple of miles.”
“Well, yeah,” Stark replied. “That’s an option. Except it might be possible that the hacker’s targeting the security systems from what I can see, and if that succeeds there is nothing to stop the animals from getting you apart from the wire fences.”
Clint grinned and started to reach for his jacket, but Phil batted the back of his head.
“Message understood,” Phil said. “We’ll stay here for the time being then.”
Clint huffed, but subsided in his seat, maintaining his sulk for all of thirty seconds before he started pulling out the various bits of kit from under the seats. Phil sighed in exasperation, but he looked fond rather than angry and Steve hid his smile by looking out the window.
He could see something white moving in the clearing below the track, and was puzzled before he caught the sound of bleating, and realized they were back at the T. Rex enclosure. He watched the goat, more concerned with the reasons why anyone would hack into Stark’s systems than in the conversation that was buzzing between the two Jeeps.
He could see the military potential of these animals – could also see that Stark was dead-set on not allowing them to be exploited that way. The primary concern had to be that this was either espionage or an outright military attack, infiltrating the Stark systems either for the research or to lower the security systems far enough to allow a team access to the island so they could just steal some of the animals.
Steve sighed. Unfortunately his experience with army bio-research meant he knew that either of these were viable prospects if the military had got wind of what Stark was doing here.
He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn’t register the vibrations of the window against his forehead for a moment.
“Guys?” He pulled himself upright. “Is the island prone to earthquakes?”
“No,” Dr. Banner said, his voice strangely tight. “That’s the vibration of one of the Rex approaching.” He cleared his throat. “It must be… attracted to the sound of the goat even through the rain.”
Clint moved over to the other front seat peering through a pair of binoculars he’d found.
“Cool,” he said. “Night vision. You wanna take a look, sir?”
Phil leant forward, but shook his head. “You hold onto them. And use the damn strap, Barton. You know you’ll lose them otherwise.”
Clint grinned, slipping them over his head. “It’s like you know me, or something,” he said. “Remind me to tell Stark I like these though.” He fiddled with a button on the side of the glasses. “They even give you information about the animals. Did you know that lady Rex were bigger than the men?”
Phil smiled, indulgent, and even though he wasn’t bouncing in his seat like Clint, it was obvious he shared his interest.
Steve couldn’t blame them. Even with the hacking and the problems to the tour, Steve felt a thrill of excitement at seeing an animal like this in the flesh. He shifted himself so that Phil could lean against him and see out the window properly, ignoring Clint’s snort of amusement.
He caught sight of movement in the trees, but Clint had already put his hand on Phil’s arm, directing him to where the animal was clearly waiting.
“It’s testing the air,” Dr. Banner said. “Waiting to see if there are any other big predators around before it comes out. It’s likely to be the juvenile female – none of the others are that careful.”
“How many others are there?” Steve asked.
“Only one,” Dr. Banner said. “Sorry – I forgot the other one wasn’t there anymore.”
“And do you have any other big carnivores?” Steve asked.
“No, only the Raptors, though they can hardly be called large.” Dr. Banner sucked the air in over his teeth thoughtfully. “They’re vicious though, but it would take a large group working together to bring down a full-grown bull Rex.”
“I thought you only bred females?” Phil asked, and Dr. Banner laughed coldly.
“We did, but things at the start weren’t as precise as they are now, and I ended up picking up all sorts of interesting facts I never expected to.”
“Are the Raptors in the Park?” Steve asked.
“No. Their keeper says that would be a bad idea,” Dr. Banner said. “He insists they’re too intelligent to be allowed the free rein that the others have and they need to be kept isolated.”
“Aw,” Clint said. “They take away all our fun.”
Phil snorted, but made no reply, and Steve turned his attention back to the goat, still browsing, unconcerned, and just about visible through the rain.
“Does it know we’re here?” he asked. “Or will the rain mask us?”
Dr. Banner snorted. “It wouldn’t care,” he said. “These things don’t reason – they’re mindless beasts who’ll chase down anything that moves.”
The trees parted as the Rex pushed into the clearing, moving surprisingly fast for a creature of its bulk. Steve whistled. “That’s small?” he asked; it must have been nearly thirty foot long.
“Yes,” Dr. Banner said, voice tight, as the animal seized the terrified goat with its forearms and tore into it. “That’s small. And it doesn’t care if we are here at all – the only thing it cares about is if there’s a bigger Rex around who might challenge it.”
As if responding to his words, the Rex paused and moved its head this way and that, as if searching for a scent.
“Tony?” Dr. Banner’s voice had a hint of desperation creeping into the tone. “I know you’re busy, but is there any chance you’ve managed to give us control of the Jeeps? Now would be a really good time to get out of here.”
Steve could see Phil frown and he was concerned. Dr. Banner sounded worried, almost afraid, and Steve wondered what he knew that they didn’t.
“…should be able to… modified what I can…” Stark’s voice was obviously stressed, and the radio crackled and hissed, losing part of what he was saying in the static. “Shit… like security’s out… try to repair the comms...”
“Great.” Dr. Banner’s relief was almost palpable. “Natasha, can you drive us? Phil…”
“Barton can drive,” Phil said, nodding to Clint. “Let’s get this show on the…” Whatever Phil was about to say was lost, as the Rex raised its head and roared – a visceral noise that made the hairs on Steve’s neck stand on end.
“Shit.” Steve heard Dr. Banner’s sharp intake of breath, but it was Natasha who spoke. “Phil? I think Dr. Banner has a problem here.”
“Get out of there, Natasha” Stark said, his voice clear now despite the interference on the line. “Leave him and get to the other Jeep. Coulson, wait till she gets to you then get the hell back here.”
“What about Dr. Banner?” Steve could hear the concern in Natasha’s voice. “He doesn’t look well…”
“Leave him.” There was more than an edge of panic to Stark’s voice now.
“I don’t think that’s app…” Steve started, but he was cut off by Natasha’s scream. Clint sat bolt upright, completely focussed on the other Jeep.
“Phil…” he started.
“I see,” Phil said, though what he saw, Steve had no idea. He could make out nothing but a sharp jerking of the other vehicle, and one of the doors flying open. “What the fuck is this, Tony?”
“You have time for this now, Phil? Seriously? There was an accident – mistakes were made. Now, just get Natasha and get the fuck out of there.”
Through the rain, Steve could see that Dr. Banner was lying in the mud by the Jeep, his body taut with pain.
“Shit,” Clint said, his voice almost awed. “Is he growing?”
“Looks like,” Phil said. “Can you see Nat?”
“No.” Clint frowned. “I’m going to get her.”
He was gone almost as soon as he spoke, slipping from the Jeep silently, leaving Steve and Phil to watch in growing horror as Dr. Banner’s contortions became more frantic.
“Jesus,” Phil said. “Stark? Is Dr. Banner turning into a dinosaur?”
The comms were patchy as hell, JARVIS was almost completely out of action, and the juvenile Rex had obviously triggered some territorial instinct in Bruce that was forcing him to transform.
Frankly, Tony thought, things couldn’t get much worse.
He flicked desperately through the screens in front of him, trying to monitor what was happening with Bruce while keeping the hacker from getting into the core of JARVIS’s programming. Forced transformations were always hardest on him – when he chose to shift he had much more control. Tony knew though that Bruce would have fought this every step of the way. He would never transform in front of outsiders, Tony found it hard enough to persuade him even when he could control all the variables.
Tony always found it fascinating. To be able to transform into a bull T. Rex was amazing. It might have been the result of a freak accident back in the early days of their work, but the implications were astonishing if only Bruce would embrace the change.
Now, though? Yeah. Even Tony could admit this was not the time.
He could see Romanov scramble from the Jeep, her face distorted by fear. She still had a few seconds to escape, but Tony knew that once Bruce finished transforming he would be fast and strong and once he fixed on Romanov, she stood no chance against him.
He wasn’t worried about Bruce – the other guy was able to shrug off any attack – but unless Phil had taken his warning to heart and got the group out of there he couldn’t see this ending well.
His heart sank as he saw the other guy straighten, all trace of Bruce now gone, and fix his eyes on Romanov. He just hoped that she was as good as Phil had told him. Whatever skills she had – she was going to need them now if she wanted to stay alive.
“No,” Phil said. “If I go and help, can you distract him?”
Steve nodded. “There’s a flashlight under the seat here. You get them back here and I’ll have the engine running.”
“Right, then.” Phil shot him a grin. “I did promise that the trip would be interesting, didn’t I?”
Despite everything, Steve couldn’t stifle a chuckle. “Yeah. I can hardly say you lied.”
He waited for Phil to climb out before he clambered into the front seat, snagging his backpack as he moved, and looping it over his arm. It might have been a trivial thing, but he felt better with it to hand – he’d never got out of the habit of keeping it packed with things he might need, and right now he needed all the reassurance he could get. At least the Jeep started easily though, and he spared a thought to thank Stark for apparently considering the possibility that this might be needed, before he turned on the torch and leaned on the horn.
The animal’s (Bruce’s) eyes fixed on him almost immediately, and it swung round, lowering its head and bellowing at Steve. For a second Steve froze, overwhelmed by a primal need for survival, but then he saw Clint reach Natasha, pulling her close and gesturing back towards the Jeep and Steve knew he had to keep the animal’s attention to give them a chance to get back to the vehicle.
He leant on the horn. The Rex roared again, then started to charge forward. Steve braced himself, but the Rex easily pushed the Jeep off its tracks. Steve hung on as it spun, waiting till it came to a rest before checking where the animal was. It was behind him now, standing between the Jeep and Natasha and Clint. Phil was in the narrow space between the Jeep and the lip of the Rex enclosure, and shit. This was not going to end well.
The Rex lowered its head to charge again, and Steve realised that this wouldn’t work. With the animal’s attention on the Jeep, he couldn’t get the others into it and drive off. The only hope was to abandon the vehicle and try to get to the other Jeep.
He waited till the Rex was picking up speed, before he opened the door and threw himself clear, rolling to break his fall as he heard the Jeep hit the wall of the enclosure.
He didn’t wait to see what happened to the Jeep – he launched himself into a full out sprint towards Clint and Natasha. Behind him the Rex roared again, and when Steve risked a glance over his shoulder, he saw the sweep of the Rex’s tail knock the Jeep clean over the wall and into the enclosure.
He knew, remembered reading, that Rex could reach speeds of over 30 miles an hour, and as Natasha and Clint started to run ahead of him, as desperate as he was to escape the beast, he knew they had no chance of escape. There was nowhere to hide, no chance they would be able to get into the other Jeep and drive off before the Rex reached them and took them out. All Steve could do was to keep running and to brace himself for the impact of the animal’s teeth that he was sure was coming.
Phil’s voice cut through the storm, and Steve, turning his head to see what was going on, stumbled and fell.
Phil was advancing, his pace steady and expression impassive. He held a flare in his hand, its light shining through the rain.
“Over here!” he shouted, and raising his hand above his head he started to run in lazy zig-zags in the other direction. The Rex looked almost comically confused for a second before it turned and started lumbering after Phil. It was so close that its tail swept over Steve’s head and he flattened himself into the mud to avoid it.
“Phil! No!” Clint sounded desperate and he started to run after the animal before Natasha caught him.
“No, Clint! Leave him. You know he’ll be fine. It’s Phil.”
Clint turned round, a stormy look on his face, but he stopped running and offered a hand to Steve, pulling him roughly to his feet.
“We need to get off the road,” Steve said. “But the only place I can see is the enclosure.”
“We’ll be safe enough in the trees,” Clint said. “At least until the storm passes. What do you think, Tasha?”
“I do not care provided we get out of here,” she said, and though her voice held all its usual dignity, Steve could hear how badly shaken she was. Clint seemed to hear it too, because he pressed a hand to her shoulder and passed her a gun.
“Come on, then,” he said. “Let’s get out of here before it decides it would rather make a meal of us.”
He led the way, Natasha following him, and Steve at their backs, making sure they were still alone. It only took Clint a minute to find a tree that suited his purposes and Natasha turned to Steve.
“I could use a boost,” she said, and Steve knelt down, lacing his hands together. Beside her he saw Clint tense.
“Guys?” Clint said. “You might want to hurry this up a bit.”
Natasha paled, but she stepped gracefully into Steve’s hands and used the boost he gave her to leap, cat-like, into the tree. Clint flashed him a smile and scrambled after her, swinging himself round so that he hung from the lowest branch by his knees and he could offer his arms to Steve.
Steve leapt and caught on to him, and though he did so with significantly less grace, he made it into the tree as well. Behind him the Rex roared, and it sounded like frustration and rage.
Steve risked a glance backwards, and drew in a sharp breath. The Rex was barely a hundred feet from them, and it was completely focussed on where they were in the tree. And over the stubby length of its arm, fluttering like a parody of a white flag, was the blood-stained cloth of a white shirt.
They paused for a moment, frozen in horror at the implications of this, then the animal – Bruce – charged and there was no time for anything but to scramble to the tree trunk and down into the unknown risks that awaited in the enclosure.