The animal that came out of the water was the size of a hippo. The size of two hippos. Squat and fat and bow-legged with a camouflaged, heavily armored back.
"What the hell is that thing?"
"It's a nodosaur," the civilian said, which was no fucking help at all.
What the animal was, was a fucking living tank. Moss-colored articulated plates marched down a tubby body, protecting a wide belly striped with red and black and yellow. The animal hauled itself out of its wallow, water splashing off spines like the shoulder-pads of a cartoon warlock.
The nodosaur dug its massive front legs into the mud. It did a sort of aggressive pushup and shimmied from side to side, showing off those shoulder-spines. Its tail lashed up, then sideways, a serrated blur longer than Andrea was tall. No horns, no pawing at the ground, no snorting, but this thing still managed to look like an angry bull.
"It isn't a 'T-rex,'" he sneered, "It eats plants. Him big lizard no problem. Get it?"
Beady yellow eyes rolled, complicated plates around the mouth opened in a threatening hoot.
Andrea reached out to yank the idiot away from the monster and that was just one threatening movement too many.
The nodosaur charged. Those powerful forelimbs dug into the ground and catapulted the huge animal toward them. The dinosaur slewed sideways and spikes as long as Andrea's legs rushed toward them.
Instead of skewering him, the spike bashed into Larsen's powersuit, slamming him back against Andrea's chest. She pulled her and Larsen aside, but the tank-animal ground around in a circle, smashing through shrubs, spiked tail whistling. It swiveled to face them, braced its powerful legs for another rush.
Andrea got a firmer grip on Larsen's shoulder, the fingers of her powersuit extending. Her eyes darted around her HUD. She couldn't jump up: trees in the way. The slope was at her back. Grapple with the beast with one hand occupied? No way. Extreme measures would also scare some sense into Larsen and whatever other dumb animals lived in these woods.
FIRE PARTICLE CANNON, Andrea blinked, MED STRENGTH.
Her free hand jerked up in the stiffening plates of the suit. The palm glowed.
The nodosaur threw itself at her like a roided-out linebacker. Andrea dodged another swing of those deadly shoulder spikes, targeted, tracked...
A high-power laser shot from Andrea's hand, cavitating the air into a tube full of vacuum. Energy flashed down the spiral tracks in her suit's arm, dragging with it an iron pellet smaller than a grain of sand. By the time it exited under her palm, the pellet was travelling several times the speed of sound. Even in the near vacuum left behind by the laser, friction melted the iron into a bolt of red-hot, lighting-fast plasma. That's what the manual said happened, anyway.
What Andrea actually experienced with her puny human senses was a flash of light, a crack of thunder, and a vicious slap of recoil that blew the two of them through two trees and across the creek.
The echoes had mostly died down by the time Andrea and Larsen made it back to the smoking trench her particle cannon had cut into the jungle. Bit by bit, the forest noises started back up again.
Larsen tromped to the pile of carbonized meat at the end of the glass-lined trench. He nudged it with his suited toe and it slumped over, steaming. "Nice. So in the future, would you please refrain from vaporizing the wildlife?"
Steam trickled off the heat-sink blades of Andrea's right forearm. It made a good prop to wave at Larsen while she said, "I was protecting you."
"From what? We're wearing powersuits you, you meathead." He beat a hand against his chest. "We're invincible."
"Invincible?" The shove Andrea gave the ungrateful little shit would have broken the ribs of an unsuited man. Battle-suited Larsen just went over on his ass. Andrea leaned over him, waving her nightmare-arm. "'Invincible' is what we said in Zimbabwe. And we were in mil-spec suits with helmets. What if that thing had hit you in the face, huh? Hey, I'm talking to you."
But Larsen wasn't paying attention. He was still on the ground, staring horror stricken at the cave Andrea's p-beam had excavated into the side of the mound.
"For Christ's sake, get up." Andrea's heart pounded, her suit flexing and growing around her like a deadly extension of her body. It had been too long since she'd felt this good.
Except Larsen seemed to have forgotten all about her. The paleontologist had his hands in the crumbling earth under the layer of vegetation she'd scorched off. "Fuck," he said.
"What is it?" Andrea demanded, "What's wrong?"
Larsen just scrabbled in the cracked fragments, and pulled out a shell-like object the size of his palm.
"Larsen, if you don't tell me you're all right, I'm going to pick you up and throw you back...to..." Andrea's eyes finally focused on chunk of clay. Two painted eyes stared back at her from a painted face. A painted human face on a piece of pottery dug out of the steamy soil of the Age of Dinosaurs.
Larsen wasn't crying. He was panting with rage. "This whole hill is potsherds. We must have parked on top of a goddamn midden hill!" He was on his feet now, powersuit smeared with mud and bits of impossible detritus. "Goddamn it. It's all wasted. Nothing we saw was the first time people saw it. Nothing we saw was even real. Civilization in the Cretaceous? This place is a joke." He slashed the air and Andrea instinctively tensed, but Larsen only hurled the shard at a tree. "You piloted us to the wrong fucking universe!"
Andrea bent down and picked up another bit of pottery. Stylized men brandished spears at a monster with a huge, toothy snout and tiny arms. "These are human beings. Colonists."
"Are you saying this place is some kind of," Larsen threw up his hands, "what? Lost time colony?"
"I'm saying," said Andrea, "it's a lot more dangerous than I calculated. We need to get back to the time machine."
"What? Why is this stupid timeline dangerous?"
"Because it has people in it." A flex of her suited legs blew her off the ground and up the slope of the hill. Andrea could only hope she wasn't already too late.