THE DINOSAUR SADDLE
by Jack Geurts
Copyright © 2016 Jack Geurts
All Rights Reserved
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No creature has ever altered life on the planet in this way before, and yet other, comparable events have occurred…In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
-Arthur C. Clarke
PART I – THE DINOSAUR SADDLE
When Jasper came face-to-face with a living dinosaur, the first thing he noticed were its feathers.
Second were its teeth.
Third were its claws.
The tornado had stopped as quickly as it began. A swirling vortex of sand and dust that climbed high into the sky simply vanished in an instant. It had barely lasted thirty seconds, but that wasn’t the only thing strange about the whirlwind.
It was also entirely confined to a pit measuring five metres by six. A pit located somewhere out in the vast, desert hinterland of Australia. A pit that contained the fossil of a dinosaur a hundred million years old.
Until moments ago, the palaeontologists were huddled in and around the pit. Now they were standing back at a distance, at a loss to comprehend what they were seeing. University students mainly, and their teachers – a married couple, Winston and Zoe.
And there among them, a person who by all accounts did not belong on a dig site. He was too young for university. Barely old enough to drive, and even then, he had to have an adult with him. Winston and Zoe’s seventeen-year-old son Jasper accompanied them everywhere they went – on every dig, every research trip. It’s not that he hated going, but he didn’t exactly share his parents’ interest for fossils. Not until now, that is.
Along with everyone else, he stared wide-eyed at the pit, which was covered by a cloud of red dust. He had no idea what had happened or why, only that it was a hell of a lot more interesting than chipping away at old fossils.
And then…movement from within the cloud, within the pit.
The tinkling of sand, spilling down.
A dragging sound, and breathing. Loud breathing. Short, sharp breaths through a pair of nostrils irritated by the dust. Grains of sand crunching beneath large, heavy feet.
And then, from the red cloud, a snout emerged…
Then a long, reptilian head, familiar in size and shape, but not at all in its scales and feathers. Yellow eyes with black pupils that darted about. Birdlike eyes, learning its new environment. And at the end of its snout, a jaw that opened slowly to reveal rows of pointed teeth. Opening as if in a smile.
A few of the students stepped backwards in horror, but for the most part they remained rooted to the spot. Frozen. All experiencing what an art historian might coming face-to-face with a living, breathing Leonardo da Vinci. If da Vinci was armed with an M60 machine gun and had developed a taste for human flesh.
Five metres long, one-point-five metres tall at the hip and three metres when standing upright, the Australovenator was sometimes referred to as Australia’s velociraptor, only bigger. This had always puzzled Jasper, as in reality, velociraptors were much smaller, roughly the size of a large turkey. And like a turkey, they were covered in feathers and probably had a similar IQ. They certainly didn’t hunt in packs or set traps, and if Jasper saw one today, it would probably strike him more as a bird than a reptile.
The Australovenator, on the other hand, was an absolute killing machine. It weighed in at five hundred kilograms and was armed with seventy-two razor sharp teeth and three long, curved claws on each hand. Its arms were long enough to be useful and so – unlike the Tyrannosaurus – it used those, rather than its jaws, to kill. But like the T-Rex, it was a theropod – a carnivore that ran on two legs and ran fast. Potentially up to thirty kilometres an hour, lending it another nickname, “the cheetah of the Cretaceous”, which always struck Jasper as more appropriate. Though it was a lightweight predator compared to the T-Rex, it was still the deadliest creature ever to have walked the Australian continent.
Jasper often liked to imagine it probably still would be the apex predator, had it survived. Today, he found himself wishing he hadn’t. Instead, he was wondering how this was possible. How could this creature have come back to life?
The dinosaur moved slowly forth from the cloud of dust, revealing first the three black bone sickles on either hand, then the tall, muscular legs ending in three-toed claws, each spread wide from the other. Behind its eyes, a mane of spiny feathers grew flat to the skin, spreading back to cover the whole of its body and tail, its limbs. This streamlined coat was thicker in places than others, thinnest on the arms and legs, while the scales beneath were coloured orange and red in patches that melted together. The colour of dust and sand and rock to distinguish itself against the greenery of its former landscape and now to blend into its present one. Burnt hues upon which were patterned black stripes and spots, giving it the look of a tiger. A reptilian tiger, grown to need only its back legs for movement, its front legs for killing.
And on its back…
A sturdy, leather saddle.
A sturdy, leather saddle fastened around the base of the dinosaur’s neck.
Two belts, starting above the arm on either side, crossed at the chest to link back to the saddle below. Another, wider belt looped beneath the ribcage, all three securing the saddle in a way that seemed comfortable to the creature. The stirrups hung loose on either side.
It kept its head low, just beneath the level of its hips. Behind, the tail was elevated, stiff and lightly feathered, acting as counterweight to the head. For some reason, Jasper was reminded of a wedge-tailed eagle standing on the ground – the body horizontal for the most part, legs perpendicular to the spine, but with a sharp-toothed snout in place of a beak.
In its entirety, the body sloped downward from tip of tail to snout, and all the muscles and ligaments in between coiled tightly, poised to strike. A low, guttural rumbling in the back of the throat, claws clicking together. Once again Jasper got the impression that it was smiling. Savouring the meal to come.
Just as it looked ready to pounce, it stopped, and a figure materialized beside it from the dust, running his hand along the spiny down of its flank. A tall, wraithlike figure wearing a black robe. A hood over his head, but under that, his face was pale. Not just pale, but translucent. Jasper thought he could even make out the blood vessels beneath the skin and the teeth within his closed mouth. From what he could tell, the figure had no eyes or nose, but only a thin slit where his lips ought to be.
His sandalled feet were wrapped in the same black cloth that the rest of his body was. One of his hands was similarly wrapped, but the other was gloved in a synthetic material, and bound to the wrist was what appeared to be some kind of heavy-duty tablet computer. The glove glowed red as he stroked the dinosaur – the feathers lighting up likewise where he touched it.
Jasper took note of this. The gloved hand running along the dinosaur’s side, a trail of glowing red feathers in its wake. Feathers that quickly faded back to normal when the hand moved on. The creature’s sudden calmness, obedience to its rider. He noted how the rider didn’t take his hand off the dinosaur, but maintained contact, as if to remove the hand would remove the bond. Remove what kept the creature from eating him.
Another thing Jasper noted was that the figure didn’t have an inch of his translucent skin exposed to the sun – like to do so would cause him harm.
Jasper and his parents and the others gathered behind them weren’t sure who to be more afraid of, but still they didn’t move. It was as if they didn’t believe their own eyes, or that they knew whoever was first to break away would draw the theropod’s attention – and that person would be the first to die.
They could only watch as the grotesque rider took hold of the saddle and the dinosaur stooped its neck down to meet him. The rider put his foot in the stirrup and hauled himself up like a man would a horse, swinging his leg over and all the while keeping his gloved hand on the dinosaur.
The rider sat there astride his saurian mount like something out of the distant and mythical past, a sightless spectre arrived to bring about the end of all things. Both rider and mount linked somehow by the glowing red light of the glove. He kept his hand on the dinosaur’s spine and suddenly it stepped forward, as if commanded to by some unheard voice.
Several within the group exclaimed with fright and some fell over in their haste to get back. Winston got before his son to shield him and the creature took another step forward, then another. Then suddenly, it bolted.
Inside of a second, the theropod had closed the gap between it and its prey and was upon the group, taking the first of them in its terrible claws and ripping open his soft belly to darken the sand with his blood and viscera.
Finally, the people snapped out of their horrified trance and ran screaming in every direction, scattering like beetles.
Winston herded Zoe and Jasper into a marquee with all the plastic walls rolled down. One of the students, Troy, came in behind them, unfurling the rolled-up door and zipping the edges shut as if that would save them.
Winston spun around wildly, looking for something, anything, that could help them. But all the tent contained was a table set up for analysing fossils, a few spare shovels and picks in the corner, and the diesel generator hooked up to a series of multi-adapters, extension leads running out beneath the plastic wall. He tried to put it all together, to think, while outside continued the desperate screams and the heavy, thudding footsteps.
The clattering of tent poles and the billowing whoosh of plastic folds as the other marquees were trampled. The ripping of flesh from bone, the snapping of jaws, the bellowing, blood-chilling roar of a dinosaur stretching its legs after a hundred million years underground.
Winston grabbed a shovel from the corner as if to fend off the half-ton dinosaur and then he saw Zoe sobbing quietly and holding Jasper to her. The boy’s eyes were wide, his heart racing. Winston saw all this, the fear in them and in himself. He saw the shovel in his hand and quickly realized it was no use.
The hope drained out of his eyes and Jasper saw it happen, saw their fate written on the marquee wall as outside, the blood of some poor soul was splattered against the thin, white plastic. Zoe jumped with fright and pulled Jasper even closer, both of them squeezing their eyes shut and hoping the wait would be brief, the end quick…
One day earlier…
The bones beneath the earth. The earth around that. The grass and trees above, the water. The sky, the clouds, the planets, stars. The galaxies around those, sprawling out forever. Everything that lives or has ever lived.
The small tools chipping dirt from rock, rock from bone. The brushes sweeping away what remained. The great sieve shaken back and forth, loose dirt falling through and leaving behind fragments of fossilized bone from an earlier age. The students working down in the pit while Jasper sat perched up above, watching.
Watching the distant past exposed before him like an accidental time capsule, unknown for millions of years and seen now for the first time by human eyes.
They were far from any town or city. Way out in the red desert grassland. The same ochre used to paint the bones of nomads long before the coming of sailed ships. The same bald hills where they had hunted. No trees here, not even gums, but everywhere grew the tall, thin stalks of grass, surviving on what little moisture there was to be scavenged from the earth.
Parked beyond the edge of the site were an excavator and a bulldozer, both of which were used in removing the bulk of the dirt from atop the fossil. Nearby were a row of portable toilets and three dusty four-wheel-drives that had ferried the diggers from their coastal home. Closer in to the pit, there was a scattering of pitched tents where they sheltered from the cold desert night and the insects that night brings. Marquees had been erected around the pit itself, used to cover the tools and equipment, the dining tables and chairs. The fridge and freezer, the toaster, kettle. All hooked up to an old diesel generator.
A little village set up around this ancient fossil.
Winston paced along the edge of the pit like a foreman might, a long dark stain running down the back of his shirt, and beneath his arms, and down the front of him. It was the same with everyone. The sun bearing down without mercy, like some cruel god had placed a giant floating lens in the sky and they below were ants, burning.
Half the students were Winston’s, half belonged to his wife. Zoe was down in the pit among them and he stayed up above, observing from a distance. In another hour or so, they would switch places, and he would go down to direct the eager young minds, and his wife would come up to observe. There could be only one leader at a time, so they divided that time equally between themselves.
Zoe’s skin burned easy in the sun and so she wore a brim hat large enough to shade three people and long sleeves made of light, breathable fabric. She was just as excited as any of her students, as passionate as when she was a student herself. And though her patience was often tested by long hours of painstaking work with little or no result, that flame refused to burn out.
There is always more to find, she told her son, and those words had since been burned into his brain.
The boy watched, but said nothing. He was seventeen years old by his parents’ count and he figured they ought to know. Back on the day of his birth, they named him Jasper and didn’t seem to know why, other than that they liked the sound of it. Searching through history for famous namesakes, trying to uncover some hidden meaning, he found a few people of note, a few places. But most importantly, he learned that jasper was a gemstone prized in the ancient world among the Persians and the Greeks. In that regard, he felt it was appropriate. It was also one of the birthstones of March – and he was born in September – so in that regard, it was not.
He’d always harboured a greater love for history than paleontology, which was its own kind of history, but of a much earlier time he cared less for. His passion lay in the achievements of mankind, from the moment they began walking upright to the present day. Not that dinosaurs didn’t hold a special place in his heart, they did. It was just a smaller part.
Jasper hadn’t reapplied his sunscreen in the last couple of hours, so his forearms had started to turn pink. He was wearing a similar shirt to his dad – a loose, button-down shirt that was rolled up to the sleeves – but that wasn’t the only similarity between them. Winston had on his head an Akubra cowboy hat like a stockman might wear and hardy steel-capped boots to match. Jasper had the same, looking much like a younger, smaller version of his father. A cowboy in training, as it were. No longer a boy, but not yet a man. Belonging to neither class. Within him, the mind of a man, and the innocence of childhood he hadn’t yet been forced to shake off. He was lean, rawboned. Waiting for something, but not sure what.
The university students were, for him, a kind of makeshift family – constantly there, but every now and then, one would leave and a new person would arrive to join the tribe. In this way, his siblings were close, but unfamiliar, and they always stayed the same age. That’s not to say they were always in the field, or that Jasper didn’t have friends of his own – he did. In the small, seaside town where Jasper was raised, he went to school and spent his summers in the sand and the salt water. But a lot of the time, he wasn’t there. He was off with his parents on digs, being home-schooled – or rather, field-schooled. If he was at home, he would have been at school, so to him the term never made much sense, though his parents continued to use it.
One of the students, Troy, emerged from a nearby marquee with a sandwich in each hand. He sat down beside Jasper and handed one to him. The one with the crusts cut off and no mayonnaise. Just how he liked it. Jasper thanked him and took a bite. They sat there together and watched the fossil grow larger as more of the rock was removed.
Troy had been around longer than any of the others, having failed a few classes his first year and still struggling to keep up. Jasper saw a lot of himself in the guy, a lot of his father, though Troy didn’t look much like either. He was a few pounds overweight, with coke-bottle glasses and two rows of shiny metal braces that, at the right angle, would blind the person he was talking to. He wore an old cap that read “Dinosaurs are Cool” and thought it was hilarious, because traditionally dinosaurs were believed to have been cold-blooded, like reptiles. Though it was now thought that they weren’t cold-blooded or warm-blooded, but somewhere in between, he still wore the hat. Mainly, because it annoyed all the other students, not to mention Jasper’s parents. He was almost ten years older than Jasper, but their ages might as well have been reversed for the difference in intelligence and maturity.
Still, Troy was his longest-serving sibling so far, and his favourite. He knew he’d miss Troy when he left. Not if. When.
“What do they think it is?” said Jasper.
“Australovenator,” said Troy, with a mouthful. “Look at the skull. Way more intact than that one they found in Queensland.”
Jasper racked his brain, trying to remember. “Banjo?”
“What are they gonna call this one?”
“Dunno. That’d be your mum or dad’s call. Maybe they can flip for it.”
“Maybe they’ll call it Troy.”
Troy laughed. “If they do, it’ll be because we both weigh about half a ton.”
Jasper didn’t mean it like that, but knew Troy was good about poking fun at himself. Still, he felt a little awkward and decided to change the subject.
“Did they have feathers?”
“Dunno,” said Troy, taking another bite of his sandwich. “Maybe. They reckon at the moment it was mainly the theropods – the, uh, two-legged carnivores like raptors, T-Rex’s, that kinda thing.”
“I know what theropods are,” Jasper said, a little defensively.
Troy smiled, knowing Jasper’s intelligence was never something to be called into question. He held his hands up in mock surrender. “Sorry, forgot who I was talking to.”
Jasper ignored him.
Troy went on, “But…yeah, they reckon the feathers might have been used for insulation – so the bigger the dinosaur, the less feathers they needed. So you wouldn’t see a Brontosaurus with feathers, I don’t think. Just like an elephant doesn’t have fur.”
“Yeah, but dinosaurs lived in a warmer environment than mammoths, just like elephants live in warm environments now. They don’t need as much insulation.”
“So why did they have feathers then, if they didn’t need insulation?”
“Well…another theory is that they might have been useful for attracting mates, like birds do today. The colour and that.”
“So did this thing have feathers?”
Troy studied the fossil, took another bite of his sandwich. Then, with a mouthful, he said, “Maybe. We might never know.”
After sunset, Winston was down in the pit with his students. Floodlights connected to the generator had been set up to illuminate the darkening earth. No one despaired. The excitement of such a find would ensure they worked long into the night without complaint. Those not in the pit were eating dinner at a series of fold-out tables set up end-to-end, talking excitedly about what had been found, what might be found tomorrow.
Away from all this, Jasper sat in a camp chair beneath the twilight sky cast in deepening shades of purple. He scraped the last of his scrambled eggs from a plate and took up the cowboy hat he’d removed to let the evening wind tease his sweat-matted hair and cool his scalp. He picked off a piece of lint from the brim and flicked it away, looking out over the plain to see a mob of red kangaroos bounding gracefully through the waist-high grass, silhouettes against the dying light.
He found it hard to believe that a hundred million years ago, the place he now sat was the shoreline of a massive, inland sea that broke Australia up into a cluster of smaller islands and covered roughly half its present landmass. Though the water had long since retreated, the bones of creatures who flourished along the fertile coasts remained.
Jasper tried to imagine the dinosaur they were digging up wandering along the shoreline in search of food. Swaggering forth, leaving behind it a trail of three-toed footprints in the sand. Its head slung low, its tail up, clawed hands dangling beneath it in wait. Sniffing at the sand, stopping as it picked up a scent. Its head snapping up, its eyes narrowing, looking around. Mouth drooling in anticipation of the coming meal.
He loved imagining that kind of thing, often wishing he had a time machine to travel back and see how they really looked, how they lived, how they hunted.
Zoe approached from the village of tents with two cups of tea. She handed one to Jasper and sat down with her own in another camp chair just beside him. The silken black hair that had earlier been tied back now fell freely upon her shoulders and she looked out over the plain with a contented sigh.
“Beautiful,” she said. “Isn’t it?”
“Sure is.” He nodded, but didn’t look at her.
“We won’t be much longer. End of the week at most.”
He nodded again. “You guys are pretty excited, huh?”
“Yeah,” she said, still trying to wrap her mind around it.
“It’s a big find.”
“Most complete skeleton so far. University’s gonna be thrilled.”
“They should be. It’s awesome.”
He tried to sound interested. Zoe saw him trying and smiled. Knew how hard it was for him sometimes. How lonely it got out here. They both sipped their tea and Jasper’s eyes fell to the cowboy hat in his lap.
“Hey, uh…did dad say anything about my project?”
Zoe frowned. “No, why? Did you give it to him?”
“Yeah. He said he was gonna read it, but he’s been pretty busy…”
Zoe sighed. This had happened before. “I’ll remind him.”
Jasper just nodded, but didn’t look at her. Shortly before they left, he’d received an A+ in History for an essay on Hannibal Barca – the Carthaginian general who had led an army of fifty thousand men, horses and elephants across the Alps to conquer Rome. He had done so in order to carry on a mission begun by his father, Hamilcar, a bitter enemy of Rome who made his son promise he would never be a friend to the Empire. And Hannibal never was – he would wage war against Rome for almost twenty years and come within a hair’s breadth of defeating it. He was remembered as one of the greatest generals in history, alongside Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and Jasper always got the feeling that if Hamilcar had lived long enough to see all the things his son would accomplish, he would have been proud of him.
Zoe had read the essay and told Jasper what an excellent job he’d done like she always did. He’d given it to his father to read next and Winston had said he couldn’t wait, but so far Jasper hadn’t heard another word about it.
He tried to put it from his mind.
“Hey, uh…you know how that asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs?”
Zoe was puzzled by the sudden change of subject, but answered nonetheless. “All the ones who couldn’t fly, yeah.”
“Do you think they knew that was it for them? The ones who survived the impact. Like, do you think they knew their whole species was going extinct?”
She knew her son too well not to expect such a question, but it still took her a moment to prepare her answer.
“Well…it was pretty awful back then. There were these high, sulphuric clouds covering the whole planet. They acted like giant reflectors, bouncing the sun’s rays back out into space. From outside, the earth would have looked like a giant ball of white smoke. From inside…well, that was a different story. Because of those clouds, no light could get in. So down below, it was dark for months or years on end. Soot and dust and smoke. We can’t even imagine it. But…to answer your question, no, I don’t think they knew they were done for. They weren’t self-aware like we are. There was no existential crisis. They would’ve just been wondering around in search of food until they dropped dead.”
“So they weren’t smart enough to realize they were dying…but they didn’t cause the asteroid to hit earth either.”
She studied him, puzzled. Wondered what he was on about.
“We’re the opposite,” he said.
Zoe smiled. “I suppose we are.”
“In a way, we’re dumber than the dinosaurs.”
Zoe arched an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? How’s that?”
“If they knew they were going extinct, they might’ve done something to stop it.” He seemed genuinely concerned now, troubled by the thought.
“Where’s all this coming from?” Zoe said.
Jasper shrugged again. “I dunno.”
“You’re worried about the future?”
“If there is a future. I mean, the extinction rate’s going up, the temperature’s rising ‘cause there’s more carbon in the atmosphere, oceans are getting more acidic. It’s happened before. That’s what happens before a mass extinction.”
“I know, honey.”
“It’s happening now.”
“It’s probably not going to be some single event like an asteroid. Usually, mass extinctions they take place over millions of years.”
“But it is going to happen.” The sentence came out equal parts question and statement, like he was waiting for his mother to either agree or put his fears to rest. She did neither, but simply sighed and sipped her tea. The thought was troubling to her, also.
“It doesn’t help to dwell on it,” she said. “And who knows? We might find a way to reverse what we’ve done to this world, or at least survive what it’ll do to us.”
Jasper tried to sound hopeful. “Yeah…maybe.”
Zoe wanted to cheer him up, but didn’t know how. Then, something above caught her eye. She smiled. “And hey…the dinosaurs didn’t die out. They just changed. Look.”
She pointed to a wedge-tailed eagle just visible against the dimming sky, wings unfurled to their fullest extent, the feathered tips like fingers, slicing through the warm air. It glided motionless in a vast circle, telescopic eyes reading the desert floor, hunting in the poorer light when its prey would be disadvantaged.
“Maybe we can change, too,” she said.
Jasper smiled, glad to have her there. She always knew how to cheer him up. They watched the majestic bird in its element, and Jasper hoped his mother was right.
Later, in the dead of night, the boy made his way down to the pit. The stars were out, strewn across the black and purple sky, shining brightly far from the lights of towns or cities that would dull them. Jasper imagined this was what the night sky would have looked like to the hunter-gatherer tribes huddled around campfires thousands of years ago, possibly right in this very place.
He flicked on one of the floodlights and the natural glow of the moon and stars were displaced by one man-made. The extinct predator laid slumbering in the rock before him, unobscured by the mob of student diggers. He could see the thing in its entirety now, except where patches of rock still covered portions of the fossilized framework. He could see the skull, the gaping eye. The rows of pointed teeth. The curving spine, tracing the creature’s length from neck to tip of tail, and in between, the arms, the claws, the ribs, the leg bones and feet. He could almost imagine the sinews, the muscles, the flesh…the feathers?
It was cold now and Jasper huddled in a fleece-lined jacket, his breath fogging up in the air before him. He crouched down low on his boots and studied the fossil. Then he descended into the pit, using the steps that had been carved out of the earth to facilitate easy access.
With his shadow cast against the far wall of the pit, Jasper approached the dinosaur and crouched down again beside its head. He ran his fingers over the skull, the bridge of its nose. Over what was once bone but was now simply rock. He knew that it was a miracle this fossil had survived the years, not just in such great condition, but at all. The number of factors working against this creature being preserved boggled his mind, and made him wonder how anything survived from so long ago.
His father theorized that the Australovenator was near the shore when it died, possibly feeding at the mouth of a river. It was then quickly buried by silt and sand coming down the river after some heavy rain, which formed a kind of natural tomb that not only protected it from scavengers or natural weathering, but also limited the oxygen that the corpse was exposed to, thereby limiting the decay of the body. The flesh was rapidly decomposed by bacteria, leaving just the skeleton behind, and as more layers of sediment accumulated over the bones, the sediment below was compressed by the weight of it.
Gradually the water was forced out as the grains were pushed together, ultimately hardening into rock. As this happened, the skeleton itself decayed and was replaced with minerals in the water, so that what he was left with was not organic bone, but an inorganic copy of what the skeleton looked like at the time of burial. Then, millions of years passed, until eventually, the rock was forced upward by tectonic activity, and the upper layers were eroded away in the water and rain until finally, if the fossil had not yet been crushed by the immense weight of the world above, it was exposed to the light and the air.
Or, until someone came along with a bulldozer and dug away the upper layers of earth.
However, Jasper knew that this was the best case scenario. More often than not, if a dinosaur died and wasn’t immediately buried, its body would be food for scavengers. The flesh and bones would decay naturally or be consumed or scattered by the ebb and flow of the constantly shifting tides. Even if it was buried, the fossil would most likely be crushed by the gathering layers of earth and rock above it.
The most favourable conditions for preserving a complete, articulated fossil would be the muddy floor of a calm ocean or lake, with little oxygen or sunlight, where the body could lie undisturbed, uneaten, as it was covered and eventually fossilised.
Jasper wondered if, a hundred million years from now, his own fossilized remains would be uncovered and studied by whatever future race of people inhabited the earth. In the same way his people unearthed ancient cities and tombs, and fossils that were millions and billions of years old. What would those future beings think, looking down at all that remained of him, of the human race? What would they say? Would they say anything at all? Had they evolved to the point where they no longer needed to speak, but communicated telepathically? Were they even human? Maybe they were alien, or machine.
Such were his thoughts from time to time.
Jasper unrolled a canvas belt of tools and took out a small pick hammer. Touching it to the rock covering most of the creature’s neck and shoulder, he drew it back and struck. Just lightly. Just enough to remove a fragment of rock. He did it again and again. The soft tapping of the hammer not loud enough to wake anyone even if they were close enough to hear it.
He continued to chip away for the better part of an hour, as he often did to pass the restless night. He struck gently, careful not to break any bones, only to uncover them. Every so often, he would stop to blow or brush the dust away.
On he worked. Long into the night. He’d sleep until midday, but the days were hot and the nights were cool and quiet. At night, he could be alone with his thoughts. He felt himself becoming more and more nocturnal, his body clock adjusting without reason or consent. Come the morning, Winston would notice the work done in the night and at first, it puzzled him to no end. Occasionally, he would tell his son off for contaminating the dig, but most days, he would just be thankful for Jasper taking an interest. And Jasper would be thankful for his dad doing the same.
He hammered away – a hundred years with every tap – until suddenly, the blow was muted, suppressed. It wasn’t rock he hit, but something else.
Jasper leaned in for a closer look. It was neither rock nor fossilised bone nor some precious stone or mineral. In fact, it looked almost like…
His eyes grew wide with the realization and he dropped the hammer and scrambled out of the pit.
Winston and Zoe had not been woken by their son since he was seven years old and had a nightmare about a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing him through the trees. He had burrowed in between them and tossed and turned all night so neither parent got another wink, and somewhere around four am, they vowed not to let him watch another dinosaur documentary until he was a little older.
Ten years later, they were roughly shaken from their sleep by that same son and woke to the sound of his voice, just as urgent as it had been then. “Mum! Dad!”
Winston groaned and rolled over. Zoe sat up, eyes half-closed but alert as someone could be in that situation.
“What is it, honey? Is everything alright?”
“Quick, you gotta come see this.”
“Just trust me.”
“Honey, it’s…” She pushed the glow button on her watch and checked the time. “It’s two in the morning.”
“I know. Just come on.”
He scrambled back out of the tent, as quickly as he had come. Zoe looked over at Winston, who was already back to sleep. She sighed and threw off the blankets, already wearing a pyjama shirt, pants and woolly socks. She pulled on her boots and a thick jacket, grabbing her glasses on the way out.
Jasper was already down in the pit when his mother’s shadow obscured his view of the fossil.
“Jasper?” she said, exasperated, hair tousled from sleep, eyes still not fully open. “What’s going on?”
She relented and made her way down to his side.
“Whatever it is, couldn’t it wait ‘til…”
He pointed to the thing he had uncovered. She knelt down beside him, leaned in. Suddenly, her eyes didn’t have trouble staying open anymore.
“I think so.”
“It looks like some kind of…material,” said Zoe, scarcely believing her own words. “Like animal hide or something. But it couldn’t be… Something like that would have decomposed long ago.”
“I don’t know what it is,” said Jasper. “All I know is…it’s there.”
Zoe exhaled, trying to gather her thoughts. Right there, between mother and child, was the ragged edge of some impossible material, peeking out from the distant past. Neither of them could believe it.
And neither of them knew they were not alone…
A shadowy figure lurked in the darkness beyond the camp. If he had eyes, he would watch, but he did not. He heard and smelled his way.
Before dawn, the team was at work – Zoe down among the students, Winston up above. Jasper stood there with his father, who was so excited that he couldn’t stop clapping his son on the shoulder and laughing in disbelief. Each time he did, Jasper smiled and laughed with him.
By midday, they had excavated enough of the covering rock to realize what it was.
“I’ll be damned,” said Winston, and no one said a word. They all stood, staring down at the thing, and no one said a word. It was right there for all to see, a contradiction of everything they had ever learned. Everything they thought they knew.
A sturdy, leather saddle.
A sturdy, leather saddle fastened around the base of the dinosaur’s neck.
“Is that a…saddle?” said Troy, down in the pit with Zoe.
Kate, another student up above, recoiled from the idea. “It can’t be a saddle.”
“Then what do you think it is?”
Kate tried to come up with an alternative, but could not.
“See?” said Troy. “Saddle.”
“How could it be a saddle? If that’s a saddle, then…”
“Someone must have ridden this thing.”
Winston said what everyone else was thinking. He looked down at his wife, who was at just as much of a loss to explain it. The ragged edge of material Jasper had uncovered formed the roughly-cut end of one of the belts that would have looped around the dinosaur’s neck and ribcage. There were two others.
Jasper imagined someone riding the dinosaur, galloping forth at full speed, maybe in some kind of ancient battle. He pictured a bladed weapon cutting the belt, wounding the dinosaur. The beast pitching forward, headlong into the ground. The rider sent flying. Jasper’s eyes traced a line outward from the dinosaur’s snout, imagining where the rider might have fallen, where he might still be buried.
He snapped out of it when Zoe tapped her hammer on the two belt buckles. Each one resounded with a sharp, metallic clang. She tapped again on what seemed to be a stirrup. Another clang.
“Belt buckles,” she said. “And a stirrup. Made of metal.”
No one argued.
“And see here…” She pointed to the seat of the saddle. “It’s almost like one you’d use for a horse. Same basic design, just bigger. No sign of reins or bridle, though. I wonder how they controlled…”
“They?” said Kate. “Who’s they?”
Zoe stopped, having no idea.
Troy stepped in and said, “Whoever built this thing.”
“You mean another dinosaur?”
“I mean, whoever built this thing.”
“Dinosaurs don’t build things,” Kate said, exasperated. “Do I seriously need to remind everyone of that? They don’t smelt metal. They don’t forge belt buckles and stirrups. And they don’t make saddles. It’s obviously a hoax.”
“It couldn’t be a hoax, Kate.” Winston’s voice was quiet, but everyone listened. “It was buried in sedimentary rock. It’s not like you can just dig up the strata, lay a saddle down and cover it up again without leaving any trace.”
Another brief silence fell on the group.
“Maybe it wasn’t dinosaurs,” said Troy.
“Then who?” said Kate. “People?”
“You got a better idea?”
Everyone turned to see who had spoken. It was Jasper, sitting on the edge of the pit. He’d been deep in thought, half-listening to their arguments and coming up with his own theory. He looked to his mother, who gave a reassuring nod, as if to say “go on”.
So Jasper went on, “The first thing that even resembled a saddle didn’t appear until, like, seven hundred BC with the Assyrians. This fossil is a hundred million years old.” He let that sink in for a moment, then continued. “What if we’re not the first human civilization to walk the earth?”
Kate rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on…”
“Kate,” said Winston, warning her. She went quiet. Winston nodded to Jasper to continue and he felt it fill him with confidence. It was strange how the simple act of a nod from both his mother and father gave him such a sense of self-assurance. The simple act of them putting their faith in him at this incomprehensible moment in their lives.
He rephrased the question. “What if there was another race of beings like us that lived alongside the dinosaurs? That managed to somehow domesticate them, to ride them.”
Kate and Troy exchanged a glance. Winston and Zoe exchanged a glance. None convinced, but none arguing. They didn’t have a better theory and so remained silent.
“Whatever the saddle’s made of – dinosaur hide, probably…”
“Dinosaur hide?” said Troy.
“Yeah, it’s kinda scaly, I dunno. Whatever it is, it might have been treated with some kind of super-resilient substance that allowed it to survive so long underground.”
“And the metal?” said Kate. “Even the strongest steel we have today wouldn’t last a hundred million years underground. It’d rust and dissolve into nothing. And that’s assuming there were people with at least Iron Age technology a hundred million years ago.”
Jasper looked at the saddle, thinking. His eyes intense. The gears turning in his head.
“All I can think of is that their technology was so advanced, they could produce metal of this quality. Think about it – if our whole species was suddenly wiped off the face of the earth, everything made of metal would collapse – bridges, buildings, cars. Paper would deteriorate, same with computers, CDs, flash drives. Dams would burst, satellites would fall out of the sky, windmills would stop turning. Everything we build today is built to be maintained. In five thousand years, we still haven’t come up with anything more durable than a stone tablet with hieroglyphs chiselled into it. Most likely, the last man-made thing that would survive would be the Great Pyramid of Giza, and that was also one of the first things we built.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is…what if these people built whatever they built to last?”
“Then where is it all? Surely we would have found something by now.”
That, Jasper couldn’t answer.
She went on, “If these people were so advanced…where are they?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t even know if what I’m saying is remotely close to the truth. But unless dinosaurs suddenly figured out how to smelt metal and fashion it into belt buckles and stirrups, unless they figured out how to tan their own hides and work the leather, unless they figured out how to ride larger dinosaurs…. I think we just found some evidence that our species isn’t the first advanced civilization to call this planet home.”
The silence returned as everyone contemplated what he had said. The disbelief, the lack of alternative theories, the simple shock at what was right there in front of their eyes and what by all accounts shouldn’t have been. All of it manifesting itself in silence.
And it was right at that moment that the dinosaur came to life.
A sudden breeze ruffled their clothes, their hair. The ground beneath their feet began to swirl with dust and within seconds a gale-force wind had picked up, created out of nothing.
Zoe and the students quickly clambered up the earthen steps or over the walls as pieces of rock and debris began flying about. Everyone scrambling desperately away as the sandstorm threatened to consume them.
Winston guided his wife and child away, and Troy, in his haste, tried to haul himself up the side of the pit, but couldn’t seem to muster the strength. He was panicking now, his feet trying to find a purchase in the sheer, crumbling wall, his hands trying to find one in the loose sand, and every second losing ground, slipping. Jasper saw this and broke away from his father, rushing to Troy’s side.
Winston shouted something, but Jasper could barely hear him over the deafening roar of the wind. He slid to a stop in the dirt before Troy and grabbed the back of his brother’s shirt, hauling with all his might, Troy with his, until finally he came wriggling over onto the surface, panting and terrified.
Together, they hurried to where the others had gathered a safe distance away, but before they were even halfway there, Jasper noticed that the wind had died away completely. Only the howling remained.
Once they reached Winston and Zoe, Jasper turned to identity the cause of this strange phenomenon and saw that the world beyond the pit was totally calm. Scarcely a breath from any direction. Everything as it was a moment ago, only now a raging tornado billowed up out of the pit, contained entirely within it. A single, churning column of sand and wind.
They all stood there, watching this impossible event – so catastrophic, yet so confined. All of them at a loss to comprehend or explain. Able only to bear witness.
Jasper’s hat had been blown from his head, as had Winston’s, but neither seemed too concerned about it for the time being. One of the younger students, Nick, had caught a rock hammer in the cheekbone and gone down. He’d been dragged back to a safe distance with the others and now Kate was knelt behind him, propping him up. Another student, the new girl whose name Jasper did not know, was crouched beside Nick, trying to get a response, but he gave none. His eyelids fluttered as he hovered on the verge of consciousness, bleeding from the open cut beneath his eye.
The others were oblivious to Nick’s injury, eyes fixed on the prisoned storm until, as quickly as it began, it stopped. The tornado subsided in a heartbeat and the dust slowly settled back to earth.
No one moved. No one breathed.
No one knowing what horror was about to emerge from the pit…
Outside, the dinosaur continued its bloody rampage, but within the marquee, Zoe held Jasper close and sobbed quietly. Winston looked at the shovel in his hand, knowing there was nothing he could do to save his wife and child. He glanced at Troy, but the student was borderline catatonic and no help at all. The four of them just standing there and listening to the students being hunted down and torn to pieces right outside. None of them able to do anything. None of them willing.
Then something snapped inside Winston and he made a decision, conscious or unconscious, to overturn the table and begin digging in the middle of the tent.
Jasper and Zoe looked up at the sound of the table tipping, the shovel blade being thrust into the earth. They watched him dig and said nothing, worried that in these last few moments of his life, he had gone mad with fear.
“Winston…” Zoe said. “What are you doing?”
He didn’t answer, kept digging. He made the hole wider, deeper, until it resembled a shallow grave. And all the while, the carnage carried on outside.
The shadow of a mounted rider appeared on the far wall and only this brought pause to Winston’s frantic excavation. They all stopped, their breath caught, their eyes glued to the shadow as it stalked past at a measured pace, searching out its next victim. Jasper could see the fangs, the dripping mouth and claws silhouetted against the thin plastic wall which was all that stood between them.
Sand trickled down from Winston’s shovel where he had frozen mid-way to casting it aside.
The place had gone quiet now, everyone either hiding or dead, and it was only when an accidental noise was made that the beast lurched forward.
The crunch of jaws.
The screams of others as they fled from their hiding place and the hunt began again.
When Winston was sure the beast was far enough away and properly distracted, he plunged the shovel back into the earth and continued digging.
Jasper had never worried about his father before – to him, Winston had always been the man who knew how to handle any situation. The man who drove the dark roads at night while he slept soundly in the back. But now that same man was digging in the sand for no apparent point or purpose while a dinosaur prowled around outside, and Jasper took a tentative step towards him.
But Winston didn’t stop. His expression was wild, frenzied. Showing without reserve the desperation of a man with everything to lose. Finally, he stopped, his face red, pouring sweat. He looked at his son.
Jasper looked to his mother, but she was staring at her husband without knowing his mind.
“Just trust me, please,” he said, his voice strained, pleading. “Get in.”
His eyes were welling with tears now and Zoe saw his plan. His only hope. She nudged Jasper forward.
“Get in,” she said.
Jasper looked from her, to his father, to Troy, but before he could make a move, he heard a low, guttural breathing from right outside the tent.
The world was quiet again, but this time Jasper was sure no one remained to be hidden. No one but them.
The dinosaur was on the other side of the tent now, closer to where they stood. So close Jasper could hear the breath quavering in its neck, the blood-wet jaws at work, chewing.
Father, mother and son did not move. They didn’t breathe. They didn’t see Troy kneel to slowly unzip the door…
It was only when he stood back upright, pushing the zip to its highest extent, did Winston notice him. He didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. But Jasper saw the look in his eyes and turned to see Troy near the door, gripped by the nauseating dread of a man who knew he was about to die. Not a man, even. A boy. Pale, trembling.
He looked at Jasper and swallowed.
“Get in,” he said, and then he was gone. Out the door and running. The dinosaur’s head snapped up with the sound and movement, and it quickly went after him. They listened to the footsteps fading, then no footsteps at all. No sound. No scream.
Winston, Zoe and Jasper lingered a moment in pure shock, but only a moment, for then Winston came to his senses. He knew they didn’t have long. He grabbed Jasper by the scruff of his collar and threw him down into the crudely-dug grave.
“Dad!” he said, but already Winston had grabbed one of the jerry cans by the generator and unscrewed the lid. He held it over Jasper and turned it upside down, showering his son in diesel fluid.
“Dad! What are you…?”
But Winston didn’t speak. Zoe didn’t either. All she could do was look down at her boy for what she knew was the last time. Jasper wasn’t sure if it was the diesel in his eyes, but he could swear the tears were streaming down her face. He went to wipe his eyes with the back of his fuel-soaked hands, but by the time he took them away again, Winston had grabbed the upturned table and placed it over the top of him, closing him in. There were still gaps on either side, and Winston and Zoe fell to their knees at left and right, pushing in the sand to form a complete seal around the edges. He could hear his mother crying as the darkness intensified.
“Mum!” he called. “Dad!”
And then…darkness. The world turned to black, but he could still hear movement outside. Muted, but audible. His parents’ hands smoothing out the sand around the table to conceal his existence. He heard them step back, breathing shakily. He imagined them holding one another, Winston kissing Zoe on the forehead, telling her everything was going to be alright when he knew it wouldn’t be.
Jasper wanted to call out again, to hear their voices one last time, but he didn’t. The diesel fluid stung his eyes and the smell of it filled his nose and made his head swim.
He felt a tremor in the earth, like something heavy dropped nearby. Then another one. Then another one. The footsteps of something large coming toward him, toward his parents.
He heard his mother whimper softly, and then the tearing of plastic walls, the clanging of tent poles and the large sigh of air being exhaled from the marquee as it collapsed in on itself. Jasper squeezed his eyes shut and blocked his ears, dulling the sound even further, but not entirely.
Footsteps all around him like the raining of meteors.
A distant scream.
A wet crunching sound, and chewing.
A loud sniffing low to the ground, then the footsteps receded.
Jasper didn’t open his eyes or take his hands off his ears, even when he was sure his parents were dead and the creature was gone. He felt the hot tears running down his face and mingling with the diesel fuel that threw off his scent. He felt his body trembling with grief and rage and helplessness. He wanted to cry out loud, but he bit his lip and sobbed soundlessly to himself, rocking back and forth in the refuge his father made for him.
Only when he heard the howling wind again did he take his hands away and open his eyes. The same wind as before – the one that brought the monster into being. He listened as it billowed nearby, as it ruffled the fallen plastic sheet above. Raging like the storms of his youth, when he was tucked safely into bed and the wind screamed outside, shaking the windows, rattling doors. He was terrified of those storms as he was now, but on those nights his mother would crawl into bed beside him and gently stroke his hair, his face, and sing softly to him as he drifted off to sleep.
He heard that same melody now, echoing through the annals of his mind, consoling him, letting him know whatever was out there would not hurt him – that he was safe, and warm, and loved.
He wanted to sleep. The body weary, the soul. He wanted to sleep and never wake. He wanted to stay right there in that makeshift grave and it could become his eternal one.
And then, as before, the wind stopped in the beat of a heart.
Jasper heard himself breathing. The sand trickling down ever so gently around him. He waited to make sure he was truly alone before he pressed his palms to the table and slid it across, terrified of what he might see…
Light streamed in through the marquee roof held up only by the legs of the table – the whole tent collapsed around him and painted with blood. The air thick with the smell of scoured metal. He could taste it on his tongue. Aluminium foil or a twenty cent coin.
Jasper clawed his way out of the pit like some reanimated corpse and dragged himself through the gore-splattered sheet and the sand before emerging into the harsh light of day. He squinted as he took in the new and broken world around him, the marquees toppled and strewn about in the sand, tangled up with the guy ropes like some great circus tent waiting to be erected. The tent poles jutting up beneath them at gruesome angles, like skin draped over a bony skeleton. All about, the smears and splatterings of blood and pieces of people.
But the dinosaur was gone. And so was the rider.
Jasper staggered forth amid the wreckage, pulling away the crumpled sheets to expose the veiled and mutilated bodies. Recoiling each time in horror at the sight of his brothers and sisters. The closest thing he had to a family.
He ventured further out, toward the cars. He saw an arm with sand stuck to the bloody stump where a shoulder ought to be. He saw a man literally torn in two above the hip, his entrails unspooled like streamers to be cleaned up after a party. He saw the door of one of the cars wide open and the front bonnet deeply dented where the dinosaur had landed – the windshield a spiderweb of cracks and blood running through them like water through a gully. He imagined someone fumbling to open the door, only to have the creature’s jaws close around them from its perch on the bonnet.
And everywhere, the three-toed footprints going this way, then that. Zig-zagging and changing direction, leaping and sliding to a stop, accompanied every step by crimson droplets drying in the sand or hunks of flesh.
Jasper crouched down to pick up a cap blown off in the wind and turned it over to read “Dinosaurs are Cool” printed on the dome. He looked out away from the site and saw a body lying motionless in the sand. Further afield than he might have guessed. After the initial flood of sadness, he couldn’t help but be impressed at how far his brother got, how fast he must’ve run.
He found his own hat not long after, caught up in a shrub, but saw no sign of his father’s. That, it seemed, had been taken by the wind and was gone forever. He gave up looking after a while and returned to the marquee he was buried under, but could not bring himself to pull away the sheet, to see what lay beneath. It was enough just to know. To imagine.
Instead, Jasper turned to the pit, remembering the wind, the howling storm. The first one which brought it, the second one which took it away. He faltered before peering in, but saw the bones right where they were found, right where they had lain for a hundred million years before their resurrection.
Or maybe he had dreamt the whole thing. Maybe he was still dreaming. Maybe he would wake soon and go out to join his mother and father by the dig site and watch the tedious process of knowing the past and be thankful for it.
The dream must have begun with him going down into the pit, chipping away the rock, finding the saddle. It must have been a dream, because the saddle was not there now. The bones were exactly as they had laid when he went down the previous night, but there was a hollow in the rock where the saddle had been.
He couldn’t be dreaming, he told himself. The sounds were too real, too visceral. The sights, the smells, the tastes. But wasn’t it always that way in a dream, and would he know if he were dreaming now?
As Jasper tried to understand, he saw within the ribcage of the dinosaur a gathering of smaller bones that were not there before. Bones as old as the ribs around them. Bones that had been in the creature’s stomach when it died a hundred million years ago and were now fossilised in the rock as the rest of it was.
Jasper climbed down into the pit for a closer look. He saw there a thigh bone, a hip. The lower part of a jaw with some teeth still attached and a scalloped fragment of skull. All roughly hewn at one or more sides with the marks of crushing teeth and washed clean of flesh and blood by the digestive tract of the beast and the earth itself.
He saw there his mother, his father. His siblings that weren’t really siblings. Winston, Zoe, Troy. Them, or at least fragments of them. The rest still fresh and bleeding in the land above. Those that died so he could live. The cheque written for his life.
Come night, the orphan sat alone amidst the ruins of the camp, beneath a wheel of stars circling overhead forever. He sat on the edge of the mass grave and shivered uncontrollably, but maybe not from the cold alone. The tears had long since dried in wet trails on his dust-masked face, and as he looked up to the heavens, his eyes glistened in the moonlight.
Jasper knew how to drive a car, and all save one were fit to be driven, but he hadn’t fled yet and didn’t look like doing so anytime soon. That’s not to say he hadn’t thought about it. The keys were in the ignitions, the tanks full enough to get him back to civilization, but something kept him there, or stopped him from leaving. There was a satellite phone around somewhere, but he didn’t bother looking for it. There was no one to save, nothing to prevent. No one to call, nowhere to go.
He just sat there, paralysed with grief, his legs dangling over the edge of the pit. Up above, he thought he saw a shooting star – an arc of cosmic light streaking through the heavens. Those he had seen before lasted only a second or two as they passed through earth’s atmosphere, burning up and leaving behind a trail of glowing particles until eventually they were nothing, or until they collided with the earth at a fraction of their original size.
This one didn’t stop. It kept glowing, kept moving. It turned, changed course.
Jasper stood, watching the thing. He wondered if it could be some sort of satellite, or plane. Whatever it was, it was heading straight for him now, as though sensing movement out there in the desert, picking up the only human heat signature for a hundred plus miles.
He took a step back, then a couple more. The glowing orb grew larger as it thundered toward him from some unknowable corner of the universe, blinding white like a fast-approaching sun. He squinted, and lifted a hand to shade his eyes. It took a few seconds for Jasper to realize the thing was not going to stop, and then he turned and ran as fast as he could.
The ball of light bore down on him, bathing the land an otherworldly white and giving it the look of the moon. Casting the boy’s shadow out to the horizon, shorter and more sharply defined the closer it got. Jasper ran, kicking up sand, breathing hard, his silhouetted painted before him on that lunar landscape. Part of him thinking he could outrun this thing, part of him knowing he couldn’t – and as it closed the gap between them, Jasper dove into the sand and covered his head with his hands, tensing up for impact…
But nothing happened. No earthquake, no explosion.
He let out a short, sharp breath and took in a few more he never thought he would. The world no longer glowing around him, but still he drew breath. Still his heart beat, against all logic. No light, no sound, except that which existed before the star began to fall from the sky.
Jasper rolled over onto his back and saw nothing. He sat up. The only thing distinguishing itself from the sand and the thin grass was the dig site. The cars and machines. The crumpled tents. Nothing to the left, nothing right. Nothing above, except the sky which looked as it always had. Ever since the first man walked out on two legs from the trees to gaze upon it and wonder about his place in the universe.
But no glowing orb anywhere in sight. No sign there had ever been one. No crater, no smoking stone. Again the thought entered his mind that he dreamt the whole thing. Jasper picked himself up and brushed the sand from his jacket. He started off back the way he came, and wondered why of all things his madness would take the shape of a meteor.
About halfway to the dig site, Jasper saw the cowboy hat that had blown off his head as he ran, and he leaned down to retrieve it. But as he stood and set the hat back atop his crown, something materialized between him and his destination.
A shiny metal orb coalescing from the darkness. Appearing out of nowhere. Something invisible suddenly becoming visible.
Jasper froze. Fully assured now of his diminished or entirely-absent sanity. Staring at the thing in disbelief.
The orb was large, bigger than a car, and held aloft by three poles jutting out at angles from its midsection into the sand. It was entirely made of some polished metal that gleamed in the moonlight. A futuristic thing in an ancient landscape.
Jasper watched, waited for something.
A door in the underbelly of the orb opened with a depressurizing hiss and began to lower slowly. The rear end hinged to the orb, the front end touching gently in the sand, forming a ramp into the cabin.
As she descended from within, the first thing Jasper noticed were her scales. Smooth scales, like a lizard might have – scales that were every shade of green, all swirled and blended like the dinosaur’s were, but a jungle palette instead of a desert one. Like the rider, she wore sandals and had a glove on her left hand with the same heavy-duty tablet computer strapped to her wrist. Unlike the rider, she did not wear a hooded robe, but rather a sleeveless tunic belted at the waist. And where the rider had no eyes, hers were very much like Jasper’s own, though yellow instead of white, with slitted pupils.
A mane of iridescent blue feathers cascaded down like the long hair of a woman, tumbling over a metal diadem inlaid with elaborate markings. Some of her feathers were bound up with rows of coloured beads, and the back of her arms and legs were lightly feathered also.
Unbelievable as it was, the immediate impression Jasper got was of a half-human, half-dinosaur hybrid. Even still, she looked more person than beast – without her saurian features, she might have appeared a normal girl he would admire from afar. And even with them, he admired her. He couldn’t quite explain it, even to himself, but Jasper sensed some genetic link between them in their basic humanoid shape, their features – however far removed it might be.
Though he was immediately reminded of the rider, Jasper did not run. He sensed in her no desire to hurt him. She looked to be about his age, however age was measured where she was from, and had a confident, almost regal way of carrying herself.
She looked back at the wreckage of the dig site, then turned to him.
“He was here?” she said, in perfect, properly-pronounced English.
Jasper took a moment to find his tongue – the strangeness of everything almost too much to process. The alien spaceship. The dinosaur girl. The English words coming from her lips.
And just in case that wasn’t enough, a creature suddenly appeared at her side. A small, red, birdlike creature with wings and a long, feathered tail. It was about the size of a raven, but in place of a beak it had a snout lined with sharp teeth and three long, clawed fingers on either wing. It gave Jasper the impression of some hideous cross between bird and dinosaur, caught midway through the process of evolution – arms that were forming into wings, snout into beak.
He had seen it before – or something like it – in a book his parents had given him for his sixth birthday. The book had contained illustrations of what specific dinosaurs might have looked like when they were alive. This particular creature was known as an Archaeopteryx, and right now it hissed at Jasper and eyed him warily.
Shaking off his amazement, Jasper addressed the girl.
“Who are you?” he said.
“My name is Io.”
She pronounced it ee-o, and Jasper recalled one of the moons of Jupiter. Not knowing if she was named for the moon or the moon for her, and at this point, neither would surprise him.
“And this…” she said, laughing a little as the Archaeopteryx clambered up her body and perched atop her shoulder, “…is Dia.”
Jasper looked at the thing again. It was still glaring at him, as if trying to decide whether or not he was a threat.
“Are you…an alien?”
She gave him a curious look. “I could ask you the same thing.”
Jasper had too many thoughts racing through his mind to come up with an intelligent answer, so in the end he said nothing. Io asked him what had happened here and Jasper swallowed as the incident returned to him in violent flashes of blood and claws and teeth.
“We were…digging up a fossil,” he said. “Then it just…came alive. The dinosaur.”
He anticipated some kind of response. Surprise or shock or at the very least, a mild interest. But she just waited for him to continue the story, like the resurrection of a hundred million year old fossil was an everyday event.
“It…killed everyone,” he went on, feeling a surge of rising tears. “Everyone except me.”
Io saw the pain in his eyes, felt for him.
“There was a man here?” she said. “A rider?”
Jasper nodded, wondering how she knew. “Yeah. How’d you…?”
“But the saddle…” she said. “The saddle was gone.”
Now Jasper was really losing it. “How did you know there was a saddle?”
“You said there was a rider. A rider needs a saddle. Besides, the saddle was what drew him here in the first place.”
“Drew who here?”
“The rider. Janus.”
She pronounced it jay-nus, and Jasper was again reminded of a moon. Not one of Jupiter this time, but one of Saturn. He was also reminded of a Roman deity with the same name. The two-faced god of transitions, of beginnings and endings. The doors of his temple in Rome were kept open in times of war and closed in times of peace. Rarely were those doors shut, and when they were, it wasn’t for long.
The moment she uttered the name, Dia hissed even more viciously, suggesting to Jasper that not only could this creature understand Io, but that it recognized the name and knew who it belonged to.
Io continued, “He would not allow the Progeny to find any trace of his people.” She paused, then added, with shame, “Our people.”
“Your people?” said Jasper, getting frustrated. “The Progeny? What are you…?”
“I will explain on the way,” she said, and turned to ascend the ramp again, Dia scurrying after.
“On the way to where?”
She stopped, turned back. “I will explain that also. But please, we must hurry.”
“Why? Where are you going?”
Io sighed, a little annoyed at the time being wasted. “The rider, Janus…you and your parents found something he did not want you to find. He has broken the highest of our laws by interfering in matters on earth, and so I have been sent here to put it right. Now, will you come with me?”
“Why would I go anywhere with you?”
“Why would you stay?”
That, Jasper couldn’t answer. Looking around, all he saw were the remnants of a massacre, pieces of people he once knew. If she was bent on finding the man who did this to him as he suspected she was, then Jasper resolved to follow her to whatever end.
“Can you find him?” he said. “The rider.”
Io studied him a moment, trying to read his intentions. Knowing the vengeance in his heart. She hesitated, then nodded, and he followed her up into the spaceship.
Jasper found himself inside a domed cockpit with two high-backed seats facing a large window. The window curved around the front half of the dome, offering a 180-degree view straight ahead and to the sides. Behind the seats was an empty space where the middle of the floor fell away into the access ramp, and on either side were walkways. There didn’t seem to be a control panel or any kind of display showing gauges or meters. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting – maybe something like a car’s dashboard, but it certainly wasn’t that.
Dia leapt off Io’s shoulder as she took her seat before the window, strapping herself in with dual seatbelts that crossed over at her chest and clipped in on either side of her waist. At least that was the same, Jasper thought.
She laid her arms out on the arm rests, looking something like a queen in her throne, and suddenly, the whole thing powered up with a smooth, mechanical whir. She hadn’t touched anything, pushed any button or turned any key – not that there was anything to be pushed or turned. It just started, like her sitting down was enough to get the thing going.
She looked back at Jasper, who just stood there by the top of the ramp, gazing about himself in wonder.
“What is this thing?”
“A Flight Pod,” she said. “Please, sit.”
Io gestured toward the passenger seat beside her and he went over and sat down, followed the entire way by Dia’s squinting eyes.
The chair was very comfortable, yielding under his weight and changing shape to match the contours of his body, like some kind of memory foam. He put his arms on the armrests and settled in, still not quite believing where he was or how he came to be there.
“Belt,” she said.
“Put your belt on.”
Dia appeared by Jasper’s head and screeched, like a drill sergeant telling him to do what he was told. Jasper started with fright and quickly pulled each belt from one side to the other and clicked them in. Dia slunk back behind the chair, apparently satisfied.
Just as it did so, the ramp began to lift with a pneumatic inhale. Jasper looked back and watched it raise up and lock into place with the rest of the hull, forming a perfect floor behind them as if no door existed there at all. But again, this didn’t seem to be triggered by any apparent action of Io’s. It was almost like the Flight Pod was doing these things on its own.
Before he could ask her what was happening, Jasper felt the Pod lift a little, his stomach drop. They hovered there and from below, he heard the telescopic legs retracting into the hull with a motorized hum. Again, Io was just sitting there while all these things were happening. Looking straight ahead through the window.
Distracted as he was, Jasper didn’t notice Dia’s head appear above the chair behind him, rising like a gopher from its hole. In one quick move, the Archaeopteryx snatched Jasper’s hat in its jaws, yanking it off his head and disappearing once again behind the chair.
Jasper tried to turn and see where Dia had gone with his hat, but he was belted in tight.
“Please refrain from turning in your seat,” Io said, with the indifferent tone of a flight attendant, apparently ignorant of her pet’s theft.
When the legs were fully withdrawn, the Pod began to move forward, surging through the air. Jasper felt himself pushed back into his seat by the sudden acceleration, teeth clenched, knuckles white on the armrests. The vessel continued to pick up speed and he looked out ahead through the window, seeing the darkened land pass by.
“Prepare yourself,” she said, and before he could ask what for, the Flight Pod around them simply vanished.
Suddenly, the both of them were sitting in mid-air, hurtling across the desert at frightening speed, with nothing in between them and the ground rushing past below.
Jasper heard himself exclaim in shock or fright, and clutched the invisible armrests even harder. He felt himself falling, but didn’t hit the ground. Didn’t move down at all, only forward. He felt a tingling numbness starting in his chest and spreading out to his fingers and toes. His stomach down beneath his feet. His eyes wide, taking in the earth below, the sky above, the world visible in every direction as if he were simply flying.
He looked at Io floating weightlessly beside him for some explanation, but she kept her eyes front, relaxed, like they were going for a Sunday drive. Indeed, she had the same vacant expression people got when they were driving a car – aware of the world, but not especially interested by it. Focused only on the road ahead.
As Jasper acclimatized to the new translucence of his surroundings, he reached out to touch the wall, feeling its hard surface where to his eye there was none. Feeling his boots pressed flat against the ground, but seeming dangled off the edge of a cliff. An invisible cliff at that. Like everything around them was made of the clearest glass.
“What is your name?” she said, as if they were strangers making small talk.
He took a moment to find his voice again. “Jasper. My name’s…”
She looked over and noticed his fear, his awe. His complete and utter bewilderment.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, fine, fine. I’m sitting beside an alien in her invisible spaceship, flying to find the man who brought a dinosaur back to life and rode it like a horse.”
Jasper realized he must be in some kind of shock now. Just saying it out loud helped him come to terms with how crazy his situation was.
In the process of looking around, he saw his hat upturned on the invisible floor beside him. Nestled inside the crown was Dia, curled up like a cat and sleeping soundly, feathered tail covering its face.
“I understand this must be strange to you,” Io said.
“But I feel I must tell you that my mission is not find the rider.”
Jasper looked over at her, but she kept her eyes front. Realizing he’d at least been partially deceived, he said, “Then where are we going?”
“We are going to find the map.”
Yet another piece of the puzzle he could not hope to understand. Jasper opened his mouth to ask what the map was, but then thought better of it. He simply sighed and shook his head and leaned back into the invisible chair. Content to just be silent and process what had happened, what was happening and what would happen next.
PART II – THE FORGOTTEN SHORE
They had left behind the northwest coast of Australia and were flying over sea when Jasper spoke again.
“You said we were going to find him.”
“I said I could find him, not that that was where we were going.”
“So you lied to me?”
Io took offence at this. “I did no such thing. But I am sorry if I misled you.”
“I want to find the man who killed my parents.”
“I know you do,” she said, and he could feel the sympathy in her voice. Like she was speaking from experience. “But that is not the most important thing right now.”
“No? And what is, then? This map?”
“What map?” Jasper’s voice was louder now, his ignorance turning to frustration. “What are you? How do I know you’re not working with that guy? You look the same…”
“I do not!” she said, blatantly offended.
Jasper was a little surprised at her outburst and backpedalled. “Okay, maybe not the same, but…similar. You’re both aliens. You’re both tall. You both have that…glove thing.” He held up his hand and turned it several times to illustrate his point. “I’ll admit he was a bit more scary-looking, but…”
“A bit? Was that Janus you came in contact with or one of my people?”
“Is there a difference?”
“Yes, there’s a difference. My god! How would you feel if I asked whether there was any difference between you and an ape?”
Jasper was a little taken aback. “Well…I don’t know. I guess we kind of look alike. We’re evolved from the same species.”
“As are we.”`
“So, he’s like the ape version of whatever you are?”
“I wouldn’t put it so crudely, but yes.”
Far in the distance, Jasper saw a cargo ship lit with a thousand bulbs, the single source of light on a vast, black sea. From the time he could make out the ship on the horizon to the time it had passed beneath them was a matter of seconds – such was the speed of Io’s plane.
She had pushed it to full velocity while they were still over land and within minutes they had cleared the coast and rocketed out over the ocean to a place known only to one of them. It took him a while to get used to – part of it being the intense acceleration, part of it the invisible spacecraft – but now in a kind of floating stasis, he felt his senses coming back to him.
“Will you just tell me what’s going on?” said Jasper, resigned.
“Of course I will. What would you like to know?”
“For starters, how about ‘where are you taking me?’”
“The place you now call Iraq, but which was not always so.”
Jasper wasn’t sure he heard right. “Iraq?”
“It has gone by many names. Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, Babylonia, Mesopotamia.”
“I know what it is,” he said. “Why are we going there? The place is a war zone.”
“Not the part we are going to, though it has seen its share of wars in the past.”
“And why are we going to this particular war zone?”
“Because that is where it is said the map begins.”
“What map? And who says?”
“My people. The Precursors.”
“That is our name, for we came before you. And why we refer to your species as the Progeny.”
“Progeny? Your…offspring? Your children?”
“In a manner of speaking. We walked this earth long before you did. You inherited it from us.” Finally, she turned to meet his eye. “It was our saddle you found.”
Jasper considered all this. “So, you’re telling me…that your people…rode the dinosaurs?”
Io nodded, like it was nothing. “Yes, but we didn’t just ride them, we co-existed with them. In the same way your people have ridden horses, or farmed livestock for meat and hides, or used them to plough fields. The same way we still do.”
“Still?” said Jasper, before remembering the Archaeopteryx curled up beside him in his cowboy hat.
“Well, yes. When we left, we took many of them with us.”
“When you left?”
“When the asteroid hit.”
Jasper leaned back in his seat, reeling. “Where did you go?”
Io looked up at the stars, scattered like diamonds in some black and purple quagmire. “According to current human knowledge, there is approximately forty billion earth-like planets out there in the Milky Way galaxy alone, potentially habitable for your kind and mine.”
“So…yes, one of those.”
“I am not allowed to say.”
“Because we are not supposed to interfere in matters on earth.”
“What do you call this?”
“I am here because Janus is here,” she explained. “If he did not do what he did, then I would not have been sent. If we do nothing, then your people may never find what was left behind for you to find.”
“Left behind by…you?”
“By my ancestors. At some point after the dust had settled, they returned to earth and removed any trace of their existence. Their towns, their cities. Anything that remained, so that it would appear as if they had never lived at all. I imagine they could not have removed everything, and I am sure there are remnants still out there to be found. But this saddle was the first.”
Jasper thought hard, trying to put it all together. “So they did all that, got rid of everything…What did they leave behind?”
“Well, nothing at that point. They simply erased any trace of their civilization, and returned to their new home. But many millions of years later, they came back, and left the map.”
“It has been so long since the map was laid, so many wars fought amongst my own people, that the mapmakers’ exact instructions have been lost. All that survives is myth and legend passed down through generations. The starting place is all that can be guessed with any certainty.”
“And what if you’re wrong?”
“I do sorely hope that I am not, for then the outcome looks very grim indeed.”
“The outcome? Of what?”
“Of the human race. The Progeny.”
Jasper was silent, waiting for her to continue.
“It is said,” she began, “that the Precursors recognized a change in the Progeny. A shift in their very nature. Outwardly, it was the decision to abandon their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle to adopt agriculture. To settle in villages and raise crops and livestock rather than foraging in the wilderness, moving from place to place, and so forth.
“But within, it was the birth of an evil. Now, people did not have to hunt and gather every day. They had more than enough crops. They grew lazy, and began trading with one another. Bartering led to money. Certain people took control and grew rich. Suddenly, they were not equal anymore. Slaves and kings were made. Tribes fought with each other over the most fertile land and therein lay the birth of armies, of empires. Poverty, disease, famine, war, the ruin of your natural world – all of this can be traced back to that time when people dropped their spears and picked up a shepherd’s crook.”
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When Jasper, the 17-year-old son of paleontologist parents, finds a saddle buried with a dinosaur, everything he thinks he knows about history is turned on its head. And when the dinosaur is resurrected by an alien who rides it through the camp, killing everyone in sight, he is left the only survivor. Soon after the massacre, he is visited by another alien – a girl his age named Io, herself having lost a brother to the rider. She explains that her people are descended from the same super-ancient civilization that once rode the dinosaurs and who now live on another planet nearby. She explains that the rider is trying to hide the existence of a secret map their people left behind on earth – a map that, if followed, could save the human race from destroying itself. The rider is part of a rebel subspecies that wants humanity gone so they can recolonize their former home-world, but Io’s people do not want to see that happen. And so, with no reason to stay and seeking vengeance for the deaths of his parents, Jasper decides to accompany Io on her quest. Using her time-travelling spaceship, they journey back through history to follow this ancient map and save the world, beset at every turn by the rider…