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beyond the last star   a bird in hand

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[ Read more about author Bob Buckley ]

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Four scientists visit the closing moments of the Mesozoic and discover that the fossil record has not been totally accurate as to the capability of some dinosaurs.

The Runners

by Bob Buckley


*By Bob Buckley*

* * * * I've discovered that I'm not that fond of dinosaurs. The big ones smell bad and haven't the wits of an insect, while the smaller beasts, though brighter, would just as soon chomp off your arm as give you a grin. And I've never seen one of them so much as smirk. Not yet.

But here we were, right down among them . . . mammalian hell revisited. That's what Rogers calls our overheated and humid stopping place.

I stood on a steep clay bank reminiscent of the White Cliffs of Dover and stared glumly out to sea. The sun was like being kissed by an open oven door, which was why none of us wore much more than shorts. A wide-brimmed hat crudely woven from the dried fronds of the man-sized native ferns was keeping my brain uncooked. At the bottom of the bank was a river, a broad expanse of gray-brown water widening here where it emptied into the sea. It was partially the reason for my sour mood. The Rockies should have been out there, purple with distance and green with trees, not a horizon-to-horizon body of water dotted with guano-streaked islands. But they weren't and wouldn't be until much, much later.

The tossing waves were stained brown for some distance out. Even in this, the dry season, the river carried a lot of sediment washing down from the highland cloud forests and a considerable delta had been built up here at the mouth. Mangrove-like trees covered the mud banks and offered nesting sites to the thousands of shrieking sea birds that rose into the dark blue sky like towers of white smoke whenever a pteranodon sailed majestically past. I think they're pteranodons. James disagrees and I refuse to argue the point with him, since he's one of the paleontologists.

Just visible above the curve of the purple-misted western horizon was the snow-capped cone of a volcano. Rogers has named it Feathertop, for the cumulus plume that sweeps off its eastern ridge. It's as good a name as any other, and I've marked it as such on the aerial photomap I'm maintaining in our rugged little laptop computer. Beyond Feathertop are more volcanoes and the rugged coastline of Cordilleran North America. One day this would all be California, Mexico's Baha and the other West Coast states, but in this time all that expensive real estate was merely a gigantic island with the still youthful Sierra Nevada mountains running along its spine.

How we were visiting the closing period of the Mesozoic Era is pretty much classified. In an unofficial accounting such as this, I doubt my explanation of the physics involved would make much sense, anyway. I'll leave it only to say that we didn't use a time machine. Our vehicle was just your stock wildcatter's gas tanker augmented by a high thrust kicker embracing her massive stern assembly. We had left her parked in synchronous orbit over Cratonic North America, which is still technically part of Europe since the North Atlantic has just begun to crack open. Getting back home would be tricky, but our per dium was indecently high and the computers swore it was possible, so we back we went. In any case, Jack and James would have bankrupted themselves paying for the privilege to rub shoulders with ole T-rex himself. There's nothing like having the bones you've been worshipping for most of your professional life put on flesh to illustrate just what the term "run for your lives" really means.

The first lot, a Shell Jupiter union gang, had experienced an orbital accident, but instead of being squeezed into superheated pulp, had found themselves popped into the past through some crazy quark of a time twist. They had hung out so long in prehistory that they had actually developed a taste for toasted lizard meat. Just a gang of gutsy oil company gas jockeys harvesting hydrogen without the least conception of how to manipulate the Jovian Twist Effect, and brave enough to try the dumb stunt again. Two of them even lived long enough to tell the tale of what they had done. Full medical is a wonderful thing.

Being the second string team we had been saddled with an agenda. It was our task to map the terrain, scope out the wild life and tame the mechanics of temporal transfer. We were a small crew by necessity as gas tugs are mostly tank and not much in the way of crew quarters. Rogers was our geologist, cook and cargo master, and Jack and James specialized in paleontology, DNA sampling, and weather. I was the pilot and practicing physicist. But before going for my advanced degree at the Astronautics Academy, I had also earned a BS in Animal Behavior. With a background like that I was a shoo-in for the last open berth on the Meso-express. Somewhat frivolously I had also been voted the camp astronomer.

It seemed a lot of effort to go to just to determine what year it was!

We were completely on our own back here. Too. No calm banter with Mission Control. No encouraging messages from wives, family, or girl friends. We were the only primates on all of Mesozoic Earth. I guess we should have felt proud, or even scared if we were smart. But, mostly, we were too busy to feel anything but tired.

I had set the lander down on a arid plateau of Precambrian basalt that reared out of the continental platform like a giant's black bench. Sixty million years later it wouldn't be there; erosion would have spread it out across the surrounding valleys as fine, dark sand.

There wasn't much growing amid all the slot canyons and boulders. Some crevices had captured a few scanty drifts of soil, and here and there groves of cycads had taken root. Most were huge, and even the little ones looked ancient.

James told us they were related to the Dioon, a genus confined to eastern Mexico in our time. We quickly discovered that they had formidable spines, which raised painful welts as we unloaded the copter from the lander's hold. After we had finished and I was examining the lander's air cushion landing gear for damage, James strolled up with some kind of pterodactyl flopping limply in his hands. He was flipping it about with a delighted, through slightly bemused expression on his face.

"Well," I prompted, "what is it?"

On the long trip out we had argued extensively about how closely modern reconstructions would match reality. I personally doubted that we would recognize much of anything. The very nature of fossilization tends to destroy the epidermal embellishments that make living animals so unique.

Now, seeing James and his puzzlement, I couldn't stop myself from grinning.

The creature was light tan in color. Its body, head and wings were covered with a very fine fur with the density of felt. The jaws were long and toothy and protected by a beak of horn. The right wing was torn.

I took James' prize away. The corpse was still warm. I palpated the body and discovered a crop with what felt like a small lizard secreted within. There were other significant structures, too.

"It's a male," I told him.

"How do you know that?" he demanded.

I flicked the bright-red, partially inflated wattles that depended from the underside of the throat.

"This is a display organ. Since your pterodactyl filled a bird-like niche in this environment, it's reasonable for us to assign bird-like behaviors to it. If you'll look around, I think you'll discover a nest nearby with a female brooding young. I doubt newly hatched pterodactyls could maintain their body heat any more than young birds can."

James took back his once-living fossil and gave me a somewhat wounded look. He didn't say anything, but later I noticed him wandering about the plateau peering behind each clup of rocks. He never told me if he found a nest, though.

That afternoon, with Jack assigned to monitor us by live-feed video from the bridge of the shuttle; we left the plateau behind and followed the seacoast north. This was the first of our scouting trips and we hoped to compile enough data to allow us to date this time. Our data was to consist of the animal life.

Rogers piloted. I was the spotter, and James sat beside me with a microfile on his lap. Its memory was stuffed with reconstruction and skeletal overlays of every life form discovered to have existed in the Mesozoic. By keeping a tally on the identified genera we would develop a fauna that could be related to a sedimentary unit. This would give us a crude date, a period within the broad outline of the Cretaceous. Later, I would use astronomy to provide the fine-tuning.

Rogers flew low over the beach, startling a rabble of small plesiosaurs who fled back into the surf with many a hump and tumble. These were juveniles. James wasn't prepared to identify them.

He was hedging. He had been too fascinated with watching them to consult the file.

The beach curved. White sand was replaced with a low ground cover: bushes, small trees. Here and there we saw animals, but only their backs and heads and necks. Not enough living flesh to make identification.

James began to look unhappy.

We crossed a shallow bay. A mosasaur rolled below us and sounded again. This was at least a small clue. Mosasaurs were related to ancient monitor lizards that had adapted to live in the open sea. They were late to develop. But this one vanished before James could find it's species on the file and my shot with the digital camera turned out to show mostly water.

"Head inland," I urged.

Perhaps the only way we might make a positive identification would be to catch one of the beasts and X-ray it, comparing its skeleton with the fossils in the files.

When I said this aloud, James got an odd gleam in his eye and I knew at once that I had made a serious mistake. I didn't want to see the three of us wrestling with six tons of angry dinosaur. I patiently explained the difficulties of such a feat in great detail.

"We have our guns," James countered.

By "guns," James meant tranquilizers. We were to avoid killing anything. Of course, the dinosaurs were technically a dead line, without descendents, apart from birds. But the experts didn't want to take chances. What if Great Uncle Harry were to vanish? And so on.

The tranq guns were bulky and badly balanced. But they used an electronic sight that the brochure swore couldn't miss, and a microcomputer to optically weight, type, and select the proper dosage and formula of tranquilizer for a target. Armed with this hi-tech blunderbuss, James was all ready to start hunting.

Rogers came to my rescue by explaining that the carrying capacity of our copter was limited. The telling point came when he agreed to turn inland. The upland environments were the habitats of ceratopsians. These giant grazers were well documented across the Upper Mesozoic. And way too massive to dart and tackle.

Rogers gained altitude and whirred us off toward what would one day be Montana.

Eventually the sea faltered, giving way to salt flats and channeled limestone reefs. There were brackish swamps dotted between the highlands and piles of bones gleaming whitely on the islands. But apart from some yellowish, sickly reeds, nothing grew there. It was dead land. Even so, James wanted to land for a brief exploration.

Rogers refused, pointing out a scaly lump sheltering behind an eroded outcrop of limestone. It was a carnosaur. Young, slightly larger than the copter, scrawny as death, and sleeping. Times had been bad for the beast. Its hide was tawny brown in color, with streaks of green. This might have been pigmentation, or some exotic disease. He lacked the funny ridges on his spine that the movie monsters had. But he did have a brightly colored dewlap crumpled under his throat.

"Probably a male," I told James.

He sighed. In his lap, images were fleeting across the screen of the micro file.

About that time the flesh-eating dinosaur woke up. He raised his head slowly and peered about the raw landscape with rheumy, bloodshot eyes. He looked like all the hangovers in the world rolled into one thundering headache.

I guessed aloud that his good living had dried up a long time ago, and now even the dregs were gone. If we passed this way one week later the scavengers would have been exploring his bones.

Awkwardly, using his forelegs as props, he pushed himself up into a standing position, his long tail thrust stiffly out behind, like the balancing pole of a wire walker. Snorting, he took a couple of shambling steps toward the copter. Our down blast was kicking up a miniature gale. It blew dust in his face and rattled the reeds in their beds of dried mud. Nothing like us had ever appeared in his world before. But movement had always equated itself with food and he was hungry enough to eat whatever came within reach of his jaws.

Meanwhile, James had stopped fiddling with the controls of the micro file.

"Seems to be a variety of dryptosaur. It's certainly not an allosaur or ceratosaur. Of course, the juvenile characteristics confuse the issue. We only have adults in the record."

"Dryptosaurs are Upper Cretaceous, aren't they?"

"Yeah, although this could be a later form. He's pretty generalized, though. Might predate Tyrannosaurus."

But he didn't sound convinced

As the carnosaur staggered nearer, Rogers lifted the copter higher.

"Why don't we try to lead him out of this death trap?" he asked.

"That's manipulation," I warned. "We're to leave the environment alone as much as possible. If this beast starved to death in this swamp, we shouldn't change that outcome."

"Pretty hardhearted," Rogers countered. Then he laughed softly. "Not that the ol' boy looks much like a soft touch himself."

So saying, he swung the copter around and took us off toward some low hills just visible on the horizon.

I took some shots of the puzzled carnosaur and promptly forgot him.

He didn't forget us though.

The hills were shrouded by a dense growth of conifers. We could see oaks in the valleys and a few palms and laurel and glades carpeted with viburnum and draped with the sprawling vines of the wild grape. It was all very homey looking, in an exotic sort of way. Man had never touched this land with either plow or foot. It was totally unspoiled.

Rogers put us down in a meadow dense with a plant that resembled grass, but probably wasn't. Maybe proto-grass.

I opened the door. The breeze that puffed in was surprisingly chilly. It brought with it the scent of invisible dogwoods and the sough of the pines.

"Lower Cretaceous. No doubt about it now. That's a hadrasaur."

We looked to where he was pointing.

The dinosaur methodically running conifer boughs through the massive battery of teeth in its flattened mouth was a big one, over forty feet long.

Hadrosaurs were bipedal vegetarians. As we watched, this one lurched out into the open. The horse-like head was broad, and lacked the characteristic crest. The hind limbs were large and muscular, the tail equally so, and flattened like the blade of an oar. While we observed, fascinated, it tore down another limb and ran it slowly through its great, broad beak, machining off the needles. The skin was smooth, but pebbled with tiny scales. While the predominant color was gray, the belly was light tan, though this might have been dried mud. A cryptic pattern of darker gray bars crisscrossed the skin, breaking up its outline.

James whooped. He had finally scored a success with the file.

"Anatosaurus. They were widespread throughout western America."

He slung the laptop over his shoulder on its strap and reached for the tranq gun.

"Let's give it a closer look."

"I don't know about this," I said doubtfully.

"You didn't come over a billion miles and seventy million years to hide in a helicopter, did you Bill?"

He had me there.

We left Rogers with the copter. Someone had to guard our only means of rapid flight. I took another of the guns, and we moved cautiously out into the meadow.


Copyright © by Bob Buckley . All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.

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