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Charlie MacDuff and the Test of Time
by I. MacPenn

Chapter 26:
The Food Chain

After they ate, the robed men dismantled the tent and packed up the camels. One man led a mean-looking white camel over to Charlie. The camel knelt down, and the man helped Charlie climb onto it. The camel tried to bite Charlie's leg, but Charlie jumped out of the way and onto the saddle on top of the hump. The camel turned its long, thin neck and hissed at Charlie. Charlie wiped the putrid camel spit off his face with his sleeve. He held onto the saddle horn with both hands. The man who had helped him up was trying desperately to tell him something in a high-pitched voice, but Charlie didn't understand a word. The camel got up and broke into an awkward, loping run. Charlie was bouncing up and down, and struggling to keep from falling off.

George and Alice were laughing loudly, and so were most of the robed men. Charlie was yelling, "Whoa, whoa, stop you stupid camel!" but the camel ignored him. It actually seemed to be enjoying Charlie's plight. It was making happy gurgling sounds as it ran. Charlie finally started using his feet to steer the camel, nudging it near the base of the neck, and it worked - he got the camel to move where he wanted to go. Everyone was amazed, especially Charlie and the camel.

Charlie was grinning as he steered the animal back to the group, and George and Alice stopped laughing when they realized that it was their turn to learn how to ride.

It took George and Alice much longer to learn, and they never did quite get the hang of it, so their camels were tethered to another camel, ridden by one of the robed men. Alice traveled in front of George, and they were off on a long, hot, bumpy ride to the oasis.

Charlie rode by Alice and George. During the first hour, they were busy keeping their balance and learning to steer the uncooperative camels. Later, when they were more at ease, they began talking. George called to Alice and Charlie, "How are we going to find the graveyard of the sphinx?"

Alice yelled back at him, "Since the sphinx is a mythical animal, I imagine that it will be kind of difficult." She was trying to be sarcastic, but the effect was ruined when she almost slid off the backside of her camel.

Charlie shouted back, "It's probably not literally a sphinx graveyard. Maybe it's an old quarry where they mined the stone for carving a sphinx statue. Or maybe it's the broken pieces of a sphinx statue."

George added, "I don't think so. There were pictures of bones on the map. It's probably related to Arbuthnot's mummies."

"You boys just want to see mummies," Alice replied. She had an idea and suggested, "It might be von Reichenbach's dig. He didn't say what he was looking for in his dig, but it could be fossils. And maybe they look like sphinx bones." Charlie and George were skeptical, but they were too tired to debate much more.

A few minutes later, George said, "Look, over there. I see green plants sticking up behind those hills -- that's probably the oasis." The ground beneath them was getting rockier and darker as they approached the low, gray-black hills. The camels walked slowly through the lifeless hills, stepping in the gullies between the hills. As they rounded the base of yet another hill, they emerged into a beautiful, green area. Palm trees and other plants grew everywhere, and they could hear the sound of water flowing.

They stopped at a water spring, where they dismounted from their camels. The camels went immediately to the spring and drank.

Charlie, George, and Alice walked over to von Reichenbach, who pointed south and said, "Arbuthnot's temple is over there. I must first go to my dig and see how the work is progressing."

Alice said, "We'll go with with you, if that's all right." She wanted to know more about his dig. Charlie and George had been planning on seeing Arbuthnot and the mummies, but they didn't say anything.

Von Reichenbach said, "You may come, but do not touch a thing. The fossils are quite fragile, and the slightest disturbance can shatter them. We are carefully encasing them in plaster to transport them to the geological musem in Munich, where they will be safe."

Now Charlie was interested. "Fossils?" he asked. "What type of fossils are they? I thought you were a geologist."

As he started walking back to the black hills, von Reichenbach answered, "I am a geologist, but I also collect dinosaur fossils. I recently found a huge theropod at my dig. It was a meat-eating dinosaur that lived about 100 million years ago. It is quite an unusual specimen - it has large spines on its back vertebrae. It may have had a sail-like apparatus on its back."

Alice smiled at the boys - she had been right. Charlie whispered to Alice and George, "This could be what the ancient Egyptians thought was a sphinx graveyard." They nodded in agreement.

"And here we are at the dig," von Reichenbach said heartily.

They were at a dug-out area between two dark hills. There were about 10 robed men lying on the ground. Each one was patiently chipping dirt and rock off huge fossil bones that were partially embedded in the earth. Charlie and George immediately realized that Alice had been right; this was exactly what the map that they had found in the pyramid depicted. The ancient Egyptians must have known about these bones, and they thought that the bones had belonged to a sphinx.

Von Reichenbach went off to talk to the workers, and Charlie, Alice, and George wandered around the dig. In the center, they saw enormous bones. A few bones were unbroken, but the rest were shattered into many pieces. The largest bone was about as big as a person. Charlie said, "I don't see the skull anywhere. Maybe that's why they gave the sphinx the skull of a person."

George replied, "That could be."

They walked along a path that circled the dig area, and when they were about halfway around it, George noticed a strange rock outside the dig area near a pile of debris. The rock was round and almost the size of a soccer ball. He picked it up carefully. George realized that the rock was too perfectly round to be a natural rock.

"Look at this," George said quietly to Charlie and Alice. George continued, "I don't think this is a natural rock. What is it?"

They looked at it carefully. Charlie said, "I don't think it was carved by people."

Alice pointed to some faint fracture lines along the sphere and said, "It looks like a huge egg with a little crack in it."

"It must be a fossilized dinosaur egg," said Charlie with certainty.

sphinx mapGeorge put the egg down and demanded, "Let me see the map that we got in the King's chamber."

Charlie took the map out of his pocket and unfolded it. They looked at the part that pictured the sphinx and the bones. George said, "Yes, I thought I remembered them. Look at the bones below the sphinx - there are spheres there. They're eggs. The Egyptians knew about the eggs."

Charlie felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. He turned around and saw a wizened old woman. George and Alice also turned around. The robed woman was smiling. She asked, "Which came first, the dinosaur or the egg?"

"There's no answer to that, it's a conundrum," insisted Alice.

The woman patiently repeated, "Which came first, the dinosaur or the egg?"

"The dinosaur," said George, "because you need a dinosaur to lay the egg."

The woman sighed and said, "Which came first, the dinosaur or the egg?"

"The egg," Charlie said, "other animals had eggs long before the dinosaurs evolved. And the first dinosaur hatched from an egg produced by an animal that was not quite a dinosaur."

"Yes, you may continue." the woman said slowly. "Be careful on your journey to the dragon's mouth."

Charlie, George, and Alice were confused about what was going on. By the time Charlie realized that the woman must be part of the Test of Time, a mist swirled up from the ground and obscured the desert landscape.

"She must have been part of the Test," said Charlie, as the mist began to clear. "I have a lot of questions I wish I'd asked her, like what did she mean about a dragon's mouth."

The mist cleared, and they were now in a lush forest.

Emerald green light filtered through the canopy of leaves above them, giving the forest a magical appearance. It was raining gently; the drops filtered slowly through the canopy of leaves, and pools of water reflected the waves of tinted sunlight. Iridescent butterflies and brightly-colored birds flew through the air, and colorful flowers studded the underbrush. The sound of life surrounded them; from every direction they heard chirps, hoots, caws, and bird songs.

"This is like paradise," said Alice, "only way too hot and humid."

Charlie replied, "It must be a rainforest."

"That means we must be near the equator," George added, "and in South America, Africa, or Asia."

"Well, that narrows it down a lot." Alice answered sarcastically. She continued, "I've never seen any place as beautiful as this."

"Yes, it's amazing and so full of life," said Charlie, just as a tiny monkey leapt from a tree limb near them. It landed a few yards away from them, stared at the kids for a few seconds, chattering the entire time. Then it ran back up the same tree, seeming to defy gravity.

"This is so cool," said George, and they all started laughing.

A small bird with blue and yellow feathers landed by the base of a large tree, about two feet from where Charlie stood. The bird immediately caught a brown beetle in its beak. Before the bird could fly away, though, a trap door by the base of the tree flew open, and a black, dinner-plate-sized spider jumped onto the bird, trapping it. After a second, the bird stopped struggling, and the spider quickly rolled its silk around the bird's limp wings, and laboriously carried its catch down into its lair. Then the trap door closed.

Charlie, George, and Alice stood there in a stunned silence for a few seconds.

"I guess we forgot about the food web," said George. "Everything has to eat."

Alice added, "In school, the food web is just arrows pointing from one animal to another - I never really thought about what it meant."

"I'm just glad we're at the top of the food chain," said Charlie.

"Did you know that spider's venom paralyzes the prey almost instantly?" said George. "Then the spider injects a chemical that digests the insides of the animal. When the insides are liquefied, the spider sucks out the innards."

"I already knew that," said Alice. "Let's just get out of here -- that was way too gross."

"Which way should we go?" asked George.

"Everything looks the same in all directions. There's no path to follow and no dragon," said Alice.

They looked around for a little while, then Charlie pointed behind the spider's tree and said, "I hear running water in that direction."

"We could follow a stream or river and find a town," said Alice, "and then find out where we are and what year it is."

Charlie led the way south as they walked towards the water. They often had to push huge hanging vines out of the way, ducking under low branches and enormous spider webs. Their desert robes kept getting tangled up in the underbrush; they stopped and discarded them.

As they continued, the sound of the water got louder and louder. Soon, Charlie said, "Shhh."

"Oh, no," said George, as he stopped and looked over Charlie's shoulder, "I guess we're not at the top of the food chain after all."

A huge anaconda was blocking their path and staring directly into Charlie's eyes. The snake was over 30 feet long, and its body was about a foot in diameter. A long, forked tongue darted out of its triangular head; the snake was smelling them, and they smelled like food.

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