'Tertiary' Part One - - - - - - -



Discovery and mystery


<From first Transcript of the ‘Tum’ Archive: Words in the darkness. One said ‘rise now’ but the others said ‘be still’. The new people had arrived, and the youngest of them were already close. When the mothers and fathers walked again, then they would rise to life. One agreed.>

A vast bowl of sky arched blue over the view to distant mountain ranges. The dusty Badlands of America. An agoraphobic’s nightmare of space, distance and desolation.

Until you looked into the details. Down into the split of a canyon, across the boulder-full bed of its river, and up from a rough trail on the far bank. Shattered levels of rock and debris. Small, scrawny plants gripped into the splits and crevices. A recently trodden path to a terrace. And a shallow cave wedged into the overhanging canyon wall; an enigmatic expression impressed into the face of the rock.

Three dust-streaked, hot and willingly busy figures were hauling boxes and packages out onto the open terrace, re-building a camp around scorched and blackened fire stones; the afternoon’s shadows lengthening across their growing fatigue.

Two women and one man. Their battered Deilec Humvee was turned off the trail below them, its overheated engine still audibly cooling down. The tings ringing in the enclosed stillness of the canyon, above the permanent presence of water trickling between stones.

The older woman was checking date labels and seals, as each pack and box was pulled from under a camouflaged tarpaulin covered in dirt and debris. “Everything looks the same. I don’t think anyone’s been up here.”

Andrew Anders didn’t look up from an open crate. “Who would have been, we hid the stuff well enough didn’t we?” His english accent enhanced the aloof and slightly irritable tone of his voice. At thirty seven he had the ageless yet aged look of a country squire; prematurely thinning hair, pale blue eyes and a restlessly skinny physique. A diffident manner overlying innate arrogance was the first impression most people acquired, and Barbara Borman had stayed with that assessment.

She balanced on stocky legs, sweeping away a curl of grey hair as she stared levelly at his bent back. “Well let’s hope the second guy comes out as easy as the first – and we won’t have to hang around here too long.” Andrew heard the resentment in her voice, his shoulders freezing momentarily, but he chose not to answer. Barbara treated this silence with a loud sniff and consulted her Paege again; scrolling down with a stab of one finger to confirm another entry.

Barbara was an expert in paleo reconstruction of dinosaur fossils and should have been happy to defer to Andrew as leader of the team. But she was plagued by an unreasonable ambition. She thought she should be leading a team of her own at this stage of her career, but was a loner by nature and self-aware enough to know it. Even so she struggled to control her upwelling resentments.

The junior member of the team was watching the interplay uncertainly, anxious to defuse the tension but unwilling to get involved. “It would be good to get back to the lab,” she put in. “You know, work on the two of them properly. With a bit more space, and all the equipment ...”

 Andrew stood up then and looked sharply at his colleague. Laura Lovell was too much the peacemaker in his opinion. He would have preferred an argument. “All I want is a good look at another specimen,” he said, his stance both defiant and defensive. “If this one’s as weird as the first ...”

Barbara gave another impatient sniff, and brusquely turned her back on both of them. Laura untied her long hair, letting it swing around her face, as she bent to unpack cans and packets of food from a nearby case. This conversation was leading back to a previous argument and the tensions between Barbara and Andrew were making her increasingly nervous.

She also suspected that Andrew found her attractive but couldn’t, or didn’t want to, express it. She liked him as a colleague, when he was relaxed and absorbed in their mutual study, but she had no other interest in him. At the same time she criticised herself for being so arrogant in her assumptions; that he might secretly want a more personal relationship. And she hated all these emotional distractions; wishing that her colleagues would just be calm and they could concentrate on their work.

But Andrew was still irritated; gripping the side of the crate. “Well how do you explain those marks on the first specimen’s femur?” He was knowingly goading Barbara. “If they’re not rivet holes, what do you say they are?”

Barbara rounded on him then, her face flushed and powdered with dust. “Look, Andrew – we’ve got to work together, and I know you want to make your mark, but let’s not brew bullshit for the Enquirer Pages.” She stiffened in an effort to calm down, shoulders still raised as she faced him. “Isn’t it enough that we’ve got a whole new dinosaur genus here, without crazy ideas about them fixing fractures?”

Andrew turned, dissatisfied and angry, released his grip with a shove of disgust and walked across the terrace to a stack of wooden specimen boxes just inside the cave. He unlatched the top one and looked down at a long, fossilised bone still embedded in a slab of rock. Shook his head in wonder at the perfection of its preservation and touched along the curiously regular line of holes near its centre.

Young and enthusiastic he might be in Barbara’s eyes, but he had never seen, nor heard of, such an incredibly preserved dinosaur specimen of any species. And it was his team that had found it, and his team that was going to describe it.

Andrew replaced the specimen box lid and moved into the deepest part of the cave, his shadow wavering ahead of him as the setting sun lit inwards. He crouched sideways, fingers reaching to dig at the inner rock face, and felt the curiously granular matrix crumble easily under his nails. He frowned, not for the first time, as it trickled, sparkling with a slight iridescence, to the cave floor. Then, as he stretched stiffly upwards to move back out to the terrace, his turning boot caught under an unexplored corner of the rock wall. He limped and twisted, testing his ankle for a sprain, before stooping down. His heavy work-boot had exposed a small, rectangular, crystalline sliver. It winked a tiny point of light through his flowing and shortened shadow as he bent to look closer.

Andrew put his find into his pocket and walked slowly back, lost in his thoughts; unaware of the last of the sunset laying a red bar along the black slab of canyon wall opposite the campsite. The two women were already laying in their sleeping bags, facing into the flames of a brushwood fire and watching the swing of a coffee can hanging in a hot updraft of sparks.

“You two giving up already?” He pushed down into his own bag, leaned forward to hook the can and fill his cup and held it up as he looked across at Barbara. But she only shook her head, apparently mesmerised by the spark column twisting upward into thin helices of smoke.

He turned to Laura, suddenly thinking that her smile looked wary but wonderful in the flickering light. She shook her head as well. “No thank you, Andrew.” Eyes glittering with reflected flames. “You really think there’s something strange here don’t you – I mean apart from the species never having been found before?” She pushed up onto one elbow, brushing hair away from her face and the fire, and shivered as she peered into the dark wedge of the cave. The tarpaulin creaked and settled.

He levelled with her; suddenly aware of a warmth of feeling and a desire to trust. “I guess I have to, yes. It’s not just the bones being so perfectly preserved, it’s the matrix they’re bedded in. And those marks.” He stared through the flames, making Laura flush instinctively. Without Barbara along this could be a romantic episode from a film or a novel.

But Andrew wasn’t really looking at her. “We’ll ask Arnie S. to have a look when we get back to the lab,” he continued, slowly musing. “I’m sure he’ll come up with something, have some ideas ...”

Laura slid down into her sleeping bag, curling up on her side, her eyes wide open; seeing Andrew hypnotised by swirling sparks, as the Little Snake River murmured between its boulders below them. And almost immediately she was dreaming; her eyelids fluttering and her breathing deepening as she twisted in the hot confinement of the bag.

[ A distant, rushing beat, above the river sounds. A machine. A helicopter; with an alien, flapping quality to its thudding rotor and a hissing overtone in the whine of its turbines. The noise was changing pitch, but always increasing, as the unseen machine snaked low over the winding river bed towards their camp.

Then sight in the darkness as her eyes snapped open to the dream; hair swept clear of her face by a hot, fume-laden blast of downwash.

A weird, unfamiliar dragon, hovering level with the campsite terrace. Something wrong about its shape, not Russian or European; the details, and some subtlety of design making the machine slide away from Laura’s dream perception. Something other-worldly. Something she has never seen before.]

And her eyes snap open to a shock of silence. Not even hearing the river water for long seconds as she lay paralysed by nightmare; unable to connect to conscious control of her body.

She dipped back down, and in and out of the dream state, trying to replay and define the strangeness. What was it? Where did it come from?

Only a helicopter, not even a very complicated nightmare. So why did it look so sci-fi yet so out of place, somehow ancient?

Just looking for dinosaurs, she thought, shrugging inwardly. Digging about for old bones in an old country. Disturbing the sacred ground that wiser people once respected.

Laura turned onto her back, stretching into a comfortable warmth, and pushed the hovering image into a corner of memory that allowed her to sleep again. The night moved on to the sounds of the desert and a thin wind. A pair of coyotes trotted forward, as close as they dared, to check out the camp and its boxes and its unburied rubbish.

Andrew woke first when it was just light enough to see; one open eye surveying the miniature landscape between his chilled head and a thread of smoke from the fire’s ash. Trying, but failing, to remember his dreams. Only a sense of subdued, anticipatory energy that itched like an unseen, future pleasure.

He rolled over and sat up, to haul out, sliding, from the warm sheath of sleep. Observing himself as he went into an automatic routine of rousing the fire for the essential first task of brewing coffee. Passively flooding his eyes with light from the far rock wall, and jostling, sparkling reflections from the river below. Something was going to happen. A certainty in that prescience that clenched like happiness in his belly.

Barbara was watching him through slitted eyelids. Seeing a thin framed, prematurely balding man, who probably wouldn’t look much different at eighty years old. And would still have most of the nervous enthusiasm of an eighteen year old. So why did she find him such an asshole at thirty seven? Or at any time of the day or night. She was tired of the exasperation that his ageless boyhood inflicted on her. She wanted to be cool and professional rather than an irritable old woman. And to get on with the job of staking a joint claim to their new discovery.

Barbara shivered, decided to acknowledge that she was awake and definitely going to get up. Making a resolution, probably futile, to be calm today in the face of Andrew’s runaway theorising, and Laura’s irritatingly anxious attempts to defuse the conflict between them. She pulled herself around to sit, knees under her chin, still wrapped in her sleeping bag, and watched steam rise from the heating water. As Andrew spooned coffee into the can, she pushed forcefully to her feet, kicked away the bag, and strode to the edge of their campsite terrace. Feeling that she had already failed.

Laura woke to the sound of stones. Saw Barbara’s feet stamp past. Kept her eyes half closed. She disliked her nervousness of Barbara, liking Barbara herself, and the sensation of dislocation on these field trips. The scenery and the excitement de-focused her; left her feeling like a half-useful tourist. So she wanted to be back in the lab, away from all these distractions. However beautiful or awesome the landscape, however exciting their finds, she knew she would be happier immersed in her expertise; weaving her skills into some sort of achievement.

‘Ah, the poet awakes,’ she thought. ‘Get up girl, and make yourself useful.’ She grinned secretly at the sight of Andrew in his ‘Big Game Hunter on Safari’ field trip clothing, as he willed the morning coffee to brew by staring it to the boil. She shrugged her sleeping bag away, swinging her legs round and under, to squat in front of the flames. Returned Andrew’s automatic smile. And saw the burn of his ambitious hopes behind the pale, steady eyes.

“Specimen number two,” he said. “How much better do you think it can be?”

Laura rocked forward. “Better than number one you mean? I don’t see how it could be.” She touched a finger to the hanging coffee can, then whipped it away from the heat. “If it’s even half as good we’ll have enough comparisons to do a full reconstruction first time out.”

She looked across at Andrew, eyes open to his question and opening one back to him. He stared through the steaming, swinging can. “What you said last night – something strange here. I’m supposed to be a scientist. Feelings and intuition shouldn’t come into it – but I can’t shift the impression that something here is watching. Watching and waiting.”

He filled a cup and slopped coffee; a sharp hiss of steam from the fire. “Damn! Body and brain not yet connected.” Shook himself to wake up. “Probably just my overweening ambition. Telling me there’s a headline in ‘Nature’ for this one – for all of us.”

But Laura was staring at him. Something watching. She looked away out from the terrace, remembering her dream in vivid detail. Almost seeing the thunderous, fume breathing dragon hovering level with the rock platform again. A crunch of stones and Barbara’s voice made her jump. “How long is a pot of coffee in the morning?” She peered at Laura. “The ghosts of old Indians troubling your path - ?”

Laura smiled upward. Barbara framed against sunlit rocks and the bright morning sky. “Just dreams. Old demons flying around.”

“Jesus – flying demons for breakfast! What do you do for nightmares in the dark, Laura?” But she was smiling too, her earlier irritation seemingly smoothed away.

Andrew unhooked the coffee can and pushed hot stones inwards, setting the can on the flattest and lifting aside the tripod. He reached backwards for a large skillet and started hauling tins and packets from the open side of the stores case, then looked up, grinning. “What would Mesdames require for petit dejeuner this morning?”

His boyish humour drew a sharp look from Barbara, and Laura sighed inside. But Barbara relented. “Let me, Andrew – it’s my turn to cook, remember. If you can stand the excitement of my menu.”

Forty minutes later all three were sitting cross-legged, noisily scraping their old tin plates, and gulping down the last warm mouthfuls of coffee. A light breeze was whirling dust along the river bank, and cloud shadows climbed the canyon wall above them.

Andrew lifted his mug to a toast. “Another good day in Colorado, if we’re lucky.” He tilted back to drink. Then hurled the last grounds to hiss and spit in the fire.

“Actually, I’ll risk the wrath of Gods, and say I don’t see how we can lose. Two or three more days and we should be calling in a Disc to haul us out of here.”

Barbara responded with unusual indulgence. “They’ll think we’ve had it too easy back at base. We’ll get it in the neck for going too quick on ground time ...” She looked over to the stack of specimen boxes. “Deputy Dawg Larson will be ‘revising his data’ on time allowances.”

Andrew smiled wryly. “Don’t worry. I think we’re far enough out on the fringe to escape too much notice.” He paused. “As long as we play down what we have here.”

He looked to them for agreement, and they both nodded silently. But Barbara was frowning. “That has to be you talking to you – right, Andrew?” She saw his expression. “Don’t get your hat on backwards, you know I can’t agree with everything you suggest. But I don’t doubt this species is a major find. I mean major, capital M.” She looked steadily at the younger man, then in enquiry at Laura.

Laura switched her attention back to Andrew. “I agree - you know I do. However we see it out here, we have to play the whole thing down back at the ranch.” She sat up onto her heels, balancing on folded toes. “I’ll just rough out some preliminary models – keep the scale small and minimise the details. Then we all act like it’s nothing special - right?”

The other two nodded, both surprised by Laura’s forcefulness. Then Andrew was on his feet, suddenly galvanised by the new day and a new feeling of unity within the team. He spun about, shading his eyes as he looked out around the canyon, then strode across to the excavation area.

Barbara rolled her eyes at Laura, who stifled a snort of laughter. “Come on, Laura, let’s get some light on the subject. Before Captain Elation here burns down the evidence all on his own!”

They walked into the shallow cave, where a small generator was set up to power portable work lights. Barbara checked the gas cylinder and set it running. The lights powered up to illuminate the rear wall. It rose vertically to waist height, then sloped back out, above their heads, towards the daylight.

Andrew peered into the shadowed corners. “Apart from the diamond backs, the scorpions, and the black widows, I just love this place. Landscape to break your heart and bones.”

Barbara’s voice was resonant in the closed space. “Don’t forget the brown recluse, Andrew – one bite, and you’ll wish you’d slept with the widow.”

“Thank you kindly, Ma’am – if I’m bit and frothing, please to put me to sleep with a rock.”

As Barbara and Laura set to work on their own sections of the excavation neither noticed that Andrew had frozen. He reached down, perceiving himself in slow motion, towards another sliver of crystal, just like the one he’d found the night before. He traced a finger along one thin, bevelled edge; clearing dust from a row of minute golden tabs that lay inset to the dense, dark crystalline material.

His eyes seemed to him to be zooming in, to what his astonished mind could only register as a flawless artefact – Freed from a seam of rock at least sixty five million years old.


2nd Edition 2011  -  John Coppinger