Garden of Eden

Title: Garden of Eden

By: Liz

Rating: PG-13 (it gets a little gruesome at one point, but it's nothing graphic)

Disclaimers: Everything in this story is being used without permission, it's not mine, please don't sue.

Dedication: For everyone over at The Lost World discussion board, one of the greatest groups of people one could ever "meet." And as always for my beta, Kate.

****

Garden of Eden

"Ugh, I don't even know why I agreed to come along," Marguerite Krux muttered, slapping at a bug that had just landed on her arm.

"Come on, Marguerite," John Roxton said with a smile. "I thought you were dying to get out of the treehouse."

Marguerite glared at him, but said nothing, refusing to admit to him that he was right. Heavy rains had kept the five explorers confined to the treehouse for the past four days and each of them had been anxious to get outdoors once more.

"Besides, we'll need everyone's help to carry back whatever food and water we collect, not to mention any samples Challenger may find," Veronica spoke up from in front of Marguerite.

"Oh, good," Marguerite said sarcastically. "Manual labor. Now I'm really glad I came."

Behind her, Roxton smiled to himself. In spite of her complaining, he was really glad she'd come along. Roxton was turning over in his mind whether or not it would be wise to voice this opinion when the sound of a branch snapping nearby caught his attention.

Ahead of him, Veronica had stopped in her tracks as well, causing an irritated Marguerite to walk right into her back. "Is there a reason you just stopped short in front of me?" Marguerite asked impatiently. "Or are you just –"

"Shh," Veronica cut her off. She looked back at Roxton who nodded, letting her know he'd heard the noise as well.

Ahead of Veronica, Ned Malone and George Challenger stopped when they realized the rest of their party was no longer walking behind them. "What's going on?" Ned asked softly, recognizing from the tenseness in both Veronica and Roxton's bodies that they had heard something.

Veronica pulled her knife from her boot and held it in an attack ready mode as Roxton lifted his rifle to his shoulder. "Sounds like we've got company," Veronica said.

"Oh great," Marguerite muttered, pulling her pistol from her holster. "This little outing just keeps getting better and better."

Ned and Challenger both readied their weapons as well, keeping their eyes on the surrounding jungle. "Do you know where?" Challenger asked quietly.

"It sounded like it came from over there," Roxton said, pointing to the left. Veronica nodded in agreement.

"Should we wait for them to show themselves?" Ned asked. "Or-" He never got to finish what he was going to say. His hand flew up to his neck and he crumpled to the ground with a slight moan.

"Ned!" Veronica dropped to her knees next to his prone form, but a moment later she, too, collapsed, her body slumping over Ned's unconscious form.

"Good Lord!" Challenger exclaimed. "Malone! Veronica!" He leaned over to get a closer look at the two, then turned to Roxton and Marguerite. "They've been hit with darts!" he cried. He took a step towards Roxton and Marguerite, but his knees buckled and he fell to the ground, unconscious as well.

"Get down!" Roxton grabbed Marguerite and pulled her down into the tall grass with him.

"Oh, I'm really going to give who or what ever is shooting at us a piece of my mind," Marguerite promised, looking down at her now muddy clothing disgustedly. "Where are they coming from?" she asked Roxton.

He shook his head. "I'm not sure. They could be all around us."

"Well there's a truly uplifting thought," Marguerite muttered, raising her pistol. "All right, try doing that when we can see you!" she yelled, firing a shot into the trees.

"What are you doing?" Roxton demanded, grabbing her hand. "Don't be foolish. You're just going to waste your bullets."

Marguerite pulled her arm away from him. "Well I don't see you doing anything," she shot back. "And I am not going to just sit here all day in the mud waiting for something to happen."

Just then three men emerged from the jungle before them and began to walk towards them. "See?" Marguerite said to Roxton triumphantly. She popped up from her hiding place in the grass with her pistol pointed at the three men. "All right, just stay right there," she told them.

"Marguerite, no!" Roxton cried. He leapt up next to her and grabbed at her arm to pull her down once more, but before he could Marguerite heard him grunt and his hand dropped from her arm as he fell to the ground at her feet.

"John!" Marguerite cried. She remembered Roxton's words from only moments earlier about the possibility of them being surrounded and cursed her own impetuousness. Then she felt a tiny sting on the back of her neck and darkness overtook her as she, too, collapsed.

****

Marguerite opened her eyes, blinking, and stared at her unfamiliar surroundings in confusion.

"Well, nice of you to join us," she heard a familiar voice say next to her. She turned her head and saw Roxton looking at her. He was smiling, but couldn't disguise the worry in his eyes as he looked at her. "You all right?"

She nodded. "Where are we? What's going on?"

"We don't know," Veronica said. "The last thing I remember is Ned collapsing to the ground. The next thing I knew, we were all here." She gestured to the small, dim, windowless room they were in. One wall of the room was barred, much like a prison cell, and two torches lit the small hallway outside of the room.

"It looks like a prison cell," Marguerite observed. "What on earth did we do this time? We were just walking through the jungle."

"To certain tribes, that's enough of a crime," Ned reminded her.

Just then several men appeared in front of their cell and one opened the door to the cell. "Well, maybe we're about to get some answers," Marguerite said as the men entered the cell.

One man grabbed Marguerite by the arm and yanked her to her feet. "Ow! Hey, watch it," she complained.

Roxton was on his feet immediately, prepared to attack the man. "Let her go," he demanded. "Now!" The man holding Marguerite placed a knife at her throat. Another man stepped forward and pressed his spear to Roxton's throat. Roxton raised his hands and took a step back, his eyes never leaving Marguerite.

The other men forced Challenger, Veronica, and Ned to their feet with their spears. "What's going on?" Challenger asked. "What have we done?"

"Come," one of the men intoned. "Speak to king."

"King? What king? Your king?" Challenger questioned. But the man would not say another word and the explorers were marched out of the cell, spears at their backs.

A few minutes later they were brought to a large hut, separate from the other, smaller huts and the underground area where their cell had been. The men pointed to a table and the explorers sat down, warily keeping an eye on the armed men.

A moment later another man entered the hut. The other men bowed to him and then went to stand by the wall nearest to the door. The new arrival was probably in his early fifties, his black hair streaked with silver in places. He was tall and lean and the look in his green eyes as he surveyed the five explorers reminded Marguerite of a hungry Raptor.

The man smiled at the explorers. "Welcome to my humble dwelling," he said smoothly. "It's such an honor to finally meet the members of the Challenger expedition, others from the civilized world. I hope the Mandrati weren't too rough on you," he added, gesturing to the men standing by the door.

"Who are you?" Ned asked. "And how do you know who we are?"

"Ahh, Mr. Malone, ever the journalist," the man said, an amused look in his eyes.

"How did you know that?" Veronica demanded.

"Patience, my dear Veronica," the man said. "First, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Dr. Eric Van Hausen."

"The German scientist?" Marguerite questioned, a strange expression on her face.

"The very same," Van Hausen said with a mock bow.

"But you disappeared at the end of the war," Marguerite said. "Everyone thought you were dead."

"Very impressive, Miss Krux," Van Hausen said admiringly. "I'm flattered." His eyes turned hard. "No, contrary to popular belief, I am still alive. However, I was more or less left for dead in the jungles of South America by my own countrymen," he said bitterly. "Left here, in this barbaric place, with only the Mandrati to serve me. I, who had the greatest scientific mind out of any of them, left like a common dog. My research and my experiments were revolutionary, but they couldn't recognize genius when they saw it."

"What was your work in?" Ned asked curiously.

Van Hausen smiled. "I knew I could count on you to ask the important questions, Mr. Malone," he said. "I was interested in the intricacies of human genetics. What made one person smarter, stronger, better than another. There are so many different factors that go into making a person what they are. I was interested in the internal factors rather than external."

"So you believed that what was inside of a person was the most important thing in determining who and what they could become in life?" Challenger asked, his scientific curiosity piqued.

"Exactly, Professor Challenger!" Van Hausen exclaimed. "Oh, this is wonderful. You do not disappoint me!"

"Look, this is all very interesting," Roxton spoke up. "But how about you give us some answers we really care about. Like, why did you bring us here and where are our weapons?"

"Ah, Lord Roxton, I didn't really expect you to be interested in this," Van Hausen said, shaking his head. "And you will get your answers, in time. However, right now the Mandrati will return you to your room for I have other things that require my attention at this moment. We will meet again tomorrow morning for breakfast. Until then." He nodded at the explorers and then exited the tent. Roxton rose to his feet to go after Van Hausen, but one of the Mandrati was immediately in front of him, his spear pointed at Roxton.

The Mandrati quickly brought the explorers to their feet and took them back to their cell. Roxton began to pace the cell the moment the Mandrati had closed the door and disappeared. "Well, what now?" he questioned no one in particular. "We still have no idea why we're here or what's going on."

"Or why Van Hausen knows so much about us," Veronica said.

"Yeah, that was a little creepy," Ned said. "I mean, he knows our names, what we do, he seems to know all about us."

"He did seem very enthusiastic about his work, though," Challenger spoke up. "I think I'd like to know more about what he does."

"I don't think you would." Marguerite had been silent since identifying Van Hausen in his hut. Now she was seated in a corner of the cell with her knees drawn up to her chest.

"Marguerite?" Roxton crossed the cell and sat next to her. "What are you talking about?"

Marguerite sighed. "Van Hausen was a very important scientist for the Germans during the war," she said. "He worked on genetics, as he said, but that wasn't all he did. He was convinced he could make a better human being, given the right components and enough time. A better soldier for the German side. Several prisoners of war became his new test subjects when he moved on from lab animals." She shuddered and Roxton put a comforting arm around her shoulder. "Those men were subjected to some of the worst torture…" She trailed off, looking as if she might be sick. "There is something seriously wrong with that man's mind, and the sooner we get out of here, the better."

The others stared at her. "How do you know all of this?" Ned asked.

"I have my sources," she said wryly.

"That's not important right now," Roxton spoke up, earning a grateful smile from Marguerite. "I don't want to wait around and get to know Van Hausen better. As Marguerite said, the sooner we get out of here, the better."

****

The rest of the night passed slowly for the five explorers as they tried to come up with a way to get away from Van Hausen. However, it was difficult to make a plan when they didn't have their weapons, didn't know how many Mandrati there were, and didn't even know exactly where on the plateau they were.

One by one, the explorers dropped off to sleep, exhausted. Ned and Veronica were huddled together in a corner and Challenger had fallen asleep sitting up, his head resting against the cold stone wall. Marguerite sighed to herself, her fear of what Van Hausen was capable of making it difficult to sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, gruesome pictures of human experiments filled her head, making her stomach churn.

"Marguerite?" She jumped. She'd thought she was the only one still awake. Roxton scooted over until he was sitting next to her. "Can't sleep?"

She shook her head. "I know what that man is capable of, John," she whispered. "And the thought of what he could do scares me." The uncharacteristically vulnerable tone in her voice tugged at his heart.

"It'll be all right," he promised, sliding an arm around her shoulder and pulling her close to his side. "We've gotten out of worse situations before, we'll get out of this one, too."

She sighed. "I hope you're right," she said softly, resting her head on his shoulder.

"Haven't you learned by now? I'm always right," he teased her, trying to lighten the mood.

She smiled back. "Don't even get me started on all the examples I could use to prove you wrong," she murmured, snuggling closer to him as her eyelids closed and sleep overtook her.

Roxton chuckled to himself. Even when she was practically sleeping, even in a situation like this, the woman had to have the last word. He gently kissed her forehead then leaned his head against the wall as he, too, attempted to get some rest.

****

The explorers were roused the next morning by the Mandrati opening the door to the cell. "Oh, good, our escorts are here," Marguerite muttered as she stretched and rose to her feet.

"Maybe now we'll get some answers," Roxton said, rising to stand next to her. Once the others were awake and on their feet, the Mandrati brought them back to the same hut they had been brought to the day before.

They were seated at the table and the Mandrati placed plates of fruit in front of them, but no one had much of an appetite. Van Hausen walked in to find the explorers picking at the food on their plates. "Eat," he boomed jovially. "Need to keep your strength up out here in this savage place."

"Why don't you just tell us what you want with us, and then we'll see what kind of an appetite we have," Roxton countered.

Van Hausen shook his head. "One would think a world famous big game hunter would have more patience than you display, Lord Roxton," he scolded. The explorers just stared back at him silently, and Van Hausen sighed. "Obviously, none of you are familiar with the joys of anticipation. All right, I understand you're anxious to have your questions answered, so allow me to explain some things to you."

Veronica saw Marguerite swallow nervously and she touched the dark haired woman's arm reassuringly. Marguerite gave her a tight smile before returning her full attention to Van Hausen. "As you may recall from our conversation yesterday, I have a very deep interest in human beings and what internal factors make them different from one another. Every person has components that are superior to others – in intelligence, courage, strength, and other areas. Unfortunately, it is extremely rare that a single human being is superior in every one of these areas. This is where my work and experiments are extremely important," Van Hausen continued. "It always seemed a shame that these superior pieces of a human being went to waste in a body that was otherwise inferior in many ways. But then I realized that that waste does not have to occur anymore. Not ever again!" His face was flushed with excitement as he looked at the explorers.

"What do you mean?" Ned questioned. "How could you change this?"

"Don't you see?" Van Hausen cried. "I'm talking about designing the perfect human being! And what better place to see this dream through than in this savage place? The land I once cursed for its lack of civilization now provides me with opportunity! Here, I am as God was in the Garden of Eden. I can create my own race of perfect human beings, without any of the flaws one finds in a regular person."

"And just how do we fit into all of this?" Veronica asked warily.

"Why Veronica, each of you is absolutely vital in this!" Van Hausen said excitedly. "I've been observing all of you for months and you all have particular attributes that separate you from the average person. Challenger's intelligence, Malone's heart, Roxton's strength. Fortunately, you two," he added, gesturing to Marguerite and Veronica, "possess many of these superior qualities between the two of you. Intelligence, strength, agility, courage. I have to admit, I was a little worried at first," he continued, almost to himself. "I was afraid that I would be severely hindered by the fact that there were only three men and two women, but it seems to have worked out for the best after all."

"What on earth are you babbling on about, man?" Challenger demanded.

"Now Challenger, don't make me regret my estimation of your intelligence," Van Hausen said. "I honestly didn't think I'd have to spell it out to all of you, especially not a fellow scientist." He shook his head sadly. "It's very difficult to be a genius when those around you don't appreciate your work." He sighed. "Well, no matter, if I must, I must. What you are all failing to grasp here is your importance. You will be the predecessors of the new Adam and Eve. You will be their parents. Each of you has something to contribute, and when it has all been gathered and assembled, I will give birth to a new race of superior human beings!"

The explorers stared at him silently as his meaning finally became clear to them. "You mean you're going to cut us all up and take out the best parts and put them together to make two new, well, creatures?" Ned asked in disbelief.

"Well it's a little more scientific than all that, but yes, I guess that will do for a layman's description," Van Hausen said. "It's brilliant, don't you see? You all should be honored at the role you'll be playing in earth's newest and greatest race."

"I hate to bust your bubble here," Marguerite said dryly, "but the idea's hardly original, Dr. Frankenstein."

Van Hausen waved his hand dismissively. "That was a story, a silly tale of horror from a young woman's ignorant mind. My mind, however, is far superior, and this is not a story, this is the dawning of a new era!"

"You're absolutely mad," Challenger said, staring at Van Hausen reproachfully. "Have you no morals? No ethics?"

"Now you're starting to sound like my former colleagues," Van Hausen said with a disappointed sigh. "I had thought that you of all people would appreciate my vision, Professor Challenger. The Mandrati will take you back to your cell now, and perhaps once you've had time to think about the idea more clearly, you'll see it for the inspired innovation it truly is."

"Somehow I don't see that happening," Roxton muttered as the Mandrati appeared at their side once more to return them to the cell.

"Well, you were right, Marguerite," Roxton said when they were back in their cell.

"Somehow those words don't make me as happy as they usually do," she replied wryly.

"He's an absolute madman," Veronica said. "We've got to get out of here."

"I'm open to suggestions," Marguerite said.

"Well, we don't know exactly how many Mandrati there are," Veronica said. "But there don't seem to be a lot of them. Aside from the dozen that show up to transport us, I've only seen a few in the village itself, and there aren't many huts."

"If only we had our weapons," Ned said. "It'd make getting past the Mandrati and their spears a whole lot easier."

"Van Hausen must have stored them somewhere around here," Challenger said. "Maybe if we could figure out which hut is his, we'd be able to retrieve our equipment."

"The lack of windows makes that a little difficult," Marguerite pointed out grimly.

"Well we have to do something," Roxton said. "I have no desire to be part of a madman's version of Frankenstein." The others nodded their agreement as they each took a seat on the floor of the cell, trying desperately to come up with a way out of Van Hausen's village.

****

Several hours later several Mandrati appeared in front of the cell once more. The explorers rose to their feet, waiting tensely for the Mandrati to return them to Van Hausen. One of the Mandrati stepped forward and pulled Marguerite toward him. "The women come with us. The men stay here," he told them.

"Oh, I don't think so," Roxton said, stepping forward. Another Mandrati stepped in front of him, blocking his path. Roxton took a swing at him, but the man ducked and swung around his spear, hitting Roxton in the stomach with the blunt end. The Mandrati pushed him to the floor while Roxton was doubled over, gasping for breath. Ned and Challenger tried to assist Veronica, but they, too, were stopped by several armed guards. Marguerite looked back over her shoulder worriedly as she and Veronica were marched away, surrounded by the Mandrati and their spears. When Roxton met her gaze she tried to smile reassuringly, but that didn't erase the fear she saw in his eyes.

Marguerite and Veronica were brought to a medium sized hut that stood behind the large hut they had been in earlier that morning. Van Hausen was waiting inside for them, his clothing covered by a large white smock. He instructed the Mandrati to tie the two women to two of the four tables in the hut. The two other tables were occupied by large figures with sheets drawn over them, and Marguerite shuddered to think of what might be underneath the sheets. The women struggled to free themselves from the iron grip of the Mandrati, but they were greatly outnumbered and in moments their wrists and ankles were tied to the tables.

"Can't we talk about this?" Marguerite asked desperately as the Mandrati left the hut to stand guard outside. "There's got to be another way to do this."

Van Hausen smiled sadly. "It's unfortunate that you can't recognize the honor which is being bestowed upon you," he said. "Most people would be thrilled by this opportunity."

"Well let them have it then," Marguerite shot back. "This is one honor I don't want anything to do with!"

"How can you do this?" Veronica demanded. "How can you ruthlessly cut open other human beings so you can live out some twisted creation fantasy?"

"This is no fantasy," Van Hausen corrected, shaking his head. "This is your destiny. Giving birth to a new race of humans."

****

"Is everyone all right?" Roxton asked Malone and Challenger. "Challenger? Malone?"

They both nodded. "Just a slight headache," Ned said, rubbing the back of his head where it had hit the ground particularly hard. "How about you?"

"Just needed to catch my breath," he replied. "Now we need to figure out how to get out of here and stop that madman before he can harm Marguerite and Veronica."

The three men held a hurried whispered conference and then walked over to the bars of their cell. "Hey! Is anybody out there?" Ned called.

A single Mandrati appeared in front of the cell. "Quiet," he commanded.

"I was just curious about something," Challenger said. "About your tribe. Can I ask you something?"

The Mandrati eyed him suspiciously. "What?"

Challenger gestured with his hands for the man to come closer to him so he could whisper something. "I just wanted to know," Challenger began, leaning as far forward as he could with the bars in front of him. "How much pressure is required to knock out one of your kind without breaking your neck." he finished, reaching his hands through the bars and grasping the man by his throat.

The Mandrati struggled and tried to bring his hands up to pull Challenger's hands from his throat, but Ned and Roxton reached through the bars and grabbed the man by the arms, pulling his body fully against the bars. Several moments later, the man stopped struggling and his eyes rolled back in his head. When the men released him, he slumped to the ground, unconscious. Ned dropped to his knees and reached through the bars to where the unconscious man lay. A moment later he stood up triumphantly. "Got the key!" he announced.

"Good job," Roxton said. "Now let's get out of here and find our weapons and Marguerite and Veronica."

****

"Now, I've written up a list of what I need from each of you," Van Hausen told Marguerite and Veronica. He walked over to Marguerite's side and fingered her hair. "I'm a little torn on the hair. I personally prefer redheads, but I believe yours will do quite nicely."

"Well I'll make you a deal, then," Marguerite said. "You can have it, all of it, if you just untie the two of us and let us go."

"Miss Krux, really, you should learn to embrace your destiny," Van Hausen said disapprovingly. "What about you, Veronica?" he asked, moving to her side. "Are you ready to begin a new race?"

Veronica eyed him coldly. "You're absolutely mad," she said flatly. "This is wrong, and you know it."

"Ladies, your lack of enthusiasm on this venture is a little unsettling, I must say," Van Hausen said sadly. "Well, no matter, you'll thank me when it's all over. Or should I say, the new you will."

****

Roxton, Ned, and Challenger crept cautiously up the stairs from their cell and walked outside, blinking to adjust their eyes to the bright afternoon sunlight. "All right, now what?" Ned asked. "How do we figure out which hut is Van Hausen's?"

"The most logical thing to do is to look for a hut that's different from the rest," Challenger said. "He is their king, after all, he must have special living accommodations."

Roxton nodded. "Like that one?" He pointed at a hut that was set a little apart from the others. Unlike the other huts, it had an actual wooden door and it looked completely deserted.

"Looks like a good place to start," Challenger agreed. The men made their way to the hut, their eyes watchful for the Mandrati. The door opened easily and the three men quickly slipped inside the hut.

Inside they found a bed with a large trunk at the foot of it, a desk, and a crude set of drawers. "This looks like the place," Roxton said, moving toward the trunk. It, too, was unlocked, and when Roxton and Challenger lifted the lid they smiled. "Jackpot," Roxton said, reaching in and pulling out their guns and knives. "Here, Malone, I believe these are yours," he said, holding out Malone's rifle, pistol, and knife. When the reporter didn't respond, Roxton and Challenger turned to find him standing at the desk, looking through a sheaf of papers that sat there. "What have you got there, Malone?" Roxton questioned.

Malone looked up. "These are all about us," he said, a funny expression on his face. "About our personalities, our habits, our good parts and bad parts. And there are separate lists with combinations of our parts," he added, looking slightly nauseated.

Challenger and Roxton walked to his side. "Diagrams and everything," Challenger murmured. "He's obviously been planning this for a long time."

"Well I think it's time we put the good doctor's plans to rest," Roxton said, handing Malone his weapons. "We'll divide up Marguerite and Veronica's weapons and take them with us. Now let's go."

The men gathered up their weapons and exited the hut. They decided to head towards the hut they'd been brought to earlier when they saw several Mandrati heading towards them. "Looks like they realized we were missing," Ned said.

"Spread out, but try to keep together," Challenger said, raising his rifle.

"And find Marguerite and Veronica," Roxton added as he unholstered his ivory handled pistols and took aim at the charging warriors.

****

"Now let's see, who to begin with," Van Hausen mused to himself, looking at the two women before him. "You know, one thing I really was having a hard time deciding on with the two of you was whose heart was better suited for this purpose. Veronica would seem to be the obvious choice, but I've been watching you, and I know you're not as hard hearted as you appear, Miss Krux," he said with a smile. He picked up a small scalpel and walked over to Marguerite's side. "No, I think yours might even be the stronger of the two," he said.

"What, no anesthetic even?" Marguerite demanded, trying to keep the fear out of her voice as she eyed the scalpel in Van Hausen's hand.

"Anesthesia's a tricky thing," Van Hausen said. "Sometimes a person can have an adverse reaction to it, and I'd hate for anything to be damaged. No, it's better this way."

Veronica stared at the scene before her, her eyes wide with fear as she struggled with her bonds. Van Hausen was about ten seconds away from splitting the heiress's chest open; she had to do something!

"Don't worry, Veronica," Van Hausen said, seeing the expression on her face. "You'll be next. And don't worry about Miss Krux – it'll only sting for a moment."

Marguerite closed her eyes tightly, her body tense as she waited for the scalpel to pierce her flesh. But it never came. Outside, they could hear a terrible commotion, and Van Hausen lowered the scalpel and walked to the door of the hut. "What on earth-" he began impatiently. He was cut off as Roxton burst through the opening and knocked Van Hausen to the ground.

"John!" Marguerite exclaimed in relief.

Roxton hurried over to the tables where the women were tied and cut Veronica's bonds. "These belong to you," Roxton said, handing her her knives.

"Thanks," she said, jumping from the table and heading out to help the others against the Mandrati.

Roxton moved onto the table where Marguerite was tied down. "Now Marguerite," Roxton said, as he cut the bonds on her ankles. "I thought you promised me that you'd try to keep all of your parts together for me."

"Believe me, I was trying," Marguerite said as Roxton cut the bonds around her wrists.

"Are you all right?" he asked her, helping her to sit up.

"Ask me that when we're out of here," she replied.

"I'm sorry, but that simply can't happen," Van Hausen said calmly. "You can't leave. You're vital to my work." He charged at Roxton with his scalpel, but Marguerite kicked him in his midsection from her position on the table. He groaned and staggered backwards, stopping only when he came in contact with one of the other tables. He fell to the ground, pulling the cover with him.

Marguerite almost screamed at what she saw. "John," she said shakily, reaching out for him.

"Don't look," he said, helping her to her feet. On the now uncovered table were the bodies of two Mandrati. One had been completely split open from sternum to groin and many of his innards were missing. The other Mandrati was missing an arm and both of his eyes. The empty sockets seemed to stare accusingly upwards at the explorers.

"Looks like we weren't his first test subjects," Marguerite said weakly.

"Come on, let's get out of here," Roxton said, putting his arm around her shoulder and leading her out of the hut. Before they could take more than a few steps, however, they were stopped by the other explorers entering the hut.

"There are a whole lot more of them than we thought," Ned said, breathing heavily.

"They've trapped us in here," Challenger said. "Isn't there another way out?"

Veronica turned, looking for one, and stopped cold when she saw the table with the disfigured corpses. "What is that?" she asked, her face going pale beneath her tan.

"Van Hausen's previous test subjects," Roxton said tersely.

Van Hausen's eyes opened and he rose unsteadily to his feet. "Unfortunately, they were lacking in many areas as subjects," he said. "They didn't have the attributes you all have. Sadly, it looks like I will have to use some kind of anesthesia now, Miss Krux," he said regretfully as the Mandrati appeared behind the explorers. "Take them back to their cell," he commanded the Mandrati.

But they didn't move. They, too, had seen the table with the corpses on it, and now they stood frozen, staring at the defaced bodies. One of the Mandrati began to wail, and soon they were all wailing, the mournful sound raising goosebumps on the arms of the explorers. The Mandrati began to walk towards the bodies, still wailing, but with a fierce look in their eyes as they looked at Van Hausen.

"What are you doing?" he demanded as they converged on him. "I am your king. Get the prisoners before they can escape!" The Mandrati paid him no attention and continued moving towards him. In seconds they were on him, and while his screams filled the air, the explorers exited the hut and left the village.

****

Once they had exited the village, Veronica realized where on the plateau they were and that it would take them a day and a half to reach the treehouse. The explorers were exhausted and decided to make camp a good distance away from the Mandrati village that night.

Roxton took first watch and was sitting by the fire when he heard someone approaching. He spun around with his gun raised, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw Marguerite standing before him.

"Easy," she said, holding her hands up. "It's only me."

He lowered his gun and moved over on the log he was sitting on to make room for her. "Couldn't sleep again?" he asked as she sat down next to him.

She shook her head. "It's funny, usually life and death situations leave me exhausted," she quipped. Her expression turned serious. "You saved my life," she said softly. "Again."

"What can I say, it's a habit," he said with a smile. "Besides, what would I do without you around?" he asked, slipping his arm around her shoulder.

"Finally starting to appreciate me?" she teased, resting her head on his shoulder.

"Oh, I've always done that," he replied. Marguerite couldn't keep herself from smiling at the tenderness she heard in his voice. "But what would life on the plateau be like without you? I think for starters it would be too quiet."

"You!" Marguerite smacked him playfully in the shoulder.

"Yes, definitely too quiet," he repeated with a grin, pulling her back into his arms. "And boring. I'd say Raptors and T-Rexes aren't half as challenging as you are when you're having a bad day."

"Gee, John, you really know how to flatter a girl," she said with a grin.

"And who'd be around to tell me I was wrong all the time?" he continued.

Marguerite silenced him with a kiss. "Apparently you've never heard the expression quit while you're ahead," she told him.

"But I'm always ahead," he replied with a grin.

"There you go again. Am I going to have to make you be quiet again?"

"You just may," he said with a teasing glint in his eye. "I'm suddenly feeling quite verbose."

Marguerite shrugged. "Dirty job, but someone's got to do it," she said, echoing the words he had once spoken to her, her lips inches from his own.

And it was a long while after that before anything more was said.