It was true, the van was nowhere near as flashy as a DeLorean, and Stephanie was sure that someone was going to point it out. New employees were always disappointed when they learned this, and there were two new employees today.
Stephanie was standing in the cavernous garage, listening to the approaching sound of two sets of footsteps in the corridor outside. Clay and Cerie Jackson had been hired in a hurry, because for the past month her group had only contained four people, and it needed six before they could set out on their next expedition. She had not yet met either of them, but there were certain things about them that she already knew, the most obvious being that they were somehow related because they had the same last name. The footsteps paused for a moment, as Clay and Cerie rounded a corner and entered the garage. Stephanie sized them up.
Clay and Cerie wore matching Hawaiian T-shirts, cargo shorts, brand-new white sneakers, and a pair of those hats which used to be worn by fisherman, but now were worn by people who wanted to look like fishermen but had never touched a fish that wasn't cooked and on a plate. Each of them was carrying a large duffel bag in their right hand. Clay and Cerie were both black, which was something else that she had predictedthey had to be either black or Hispanic. Her team already had one Native American, one Asian, and two whites, and it was essential that a group that received as much media attention as theirs have every major ethnic group in the United States represented on it. She wondered how long it would take before someone got offended that their group had no Hispanics.
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Stephanie Cavanaugh," she said, extending her right hand to see if either of them would put down their duffel bag in order to shake it. When neither of them did, she withdrew her hand. "I don't know what you two have in those bags, but I doubt it'll be much use to you. This isn't a vacation."
"No harm making sure we'll be comfortable," said Clay.
Stephanie shrugged; they'd find out soon enough. "I take it you know from the training the basics of what we'll be doing?"
Clay nodded, and then pointed towards the vehicle which occupied most of the garage. It was a little larger than a semi truck, although its shape was more similar to a van than a truck. "Is that what we'll be traveling in?" he asked. "I thought we'd be using Oliver Speagle's DeLorean. That's what they show in all the commercials. The DeLorean is a lot better-looking than that thing."
Right on schedule, thought Stephanie, and gave her standard answer. "All six of us would never fit in a little sports car, especially not with enough room left over to bring back a dinosaur with us."
Stephanie could see the disappointment in Clay and Cerie's faces, but it didn't take long for curiosity to replace it. "So you're Stephanie Cavanaugh," said Clay. "Did you really study under Dr. Speagle at Princeton? And is it true what they say about him and the DeLorean?"
Stephanie sighed. As soon as she'd learned two new people were being hired, she'd known that it was only a matter of time before she was asked about this. "Are you sure you want me to tell this story?" she asked. "It's going to delay us leaving on the expedition."
"That doesn't matter," said Clay. "We're traveling back in time, so how long we take to leave doesn't have to affect when we arrive, right?"
Stephanie looked around the garage, wondering whether satisfying Clay and Cerie's curiosity was worth boring her team's other members. All of them had heard this story at least once before. Ahiga, the Navajo trapper, was leaned against the wall smoking a cigarette, while the animal handler Stanislav was sitting in a folding chair reading a newspaper. Neither of them appeared to be in a hurry. The sixth member of their team, the technician Karl, was nowhere in sight as he had already boarded the van.
Stephanie looked at Cerie, who had not yet spoken since entering the garage. "What about you, Cerie? This story takes around twenty minutes to tell. Are you sure you want to hear it?"
Cerie giggled. "Why even ask? Everybody who's anybody knows about Oliver Speagle, and everyone who knows about Dr. Speagle knows about you. You're the second most famous name in time travel. Nobody could ever meet you without wanting to hear this."
It was true, nobody ever could. There was no escaping it, and she decided she might as well get it over with. "All right," said Stephanie. "Everyone who starts working here gets to hear this story once. But you'd best pay attention if you care about remembering it, because now will be the last time you'll get to hear it until someone else new gets hired."
Then Stephanie sat down in a folding chair a short distance from where Stanislav was sitting, closed her eyes for a moment to let her mind fill with memories, and began her tale.
"I had Dr. Speagle for physics my Senior year at Princeton, in 2008 and 2009. He was one of those professors who had a kind of infectious enthusiasm about him, who was able to make even memorizing equations seem exciting, because you knew he was exited about it. When I first started taking his class, almost nobody knew who he was outside of Princeton and the physics community, if you can imagine that.
"Like so many scientists, Dr. Speagle was inspired to pursue science as a career by the science fiction that he grew up with. Star Wars, Ender's Game, and especially Back to the Future. He was fascinated by the idea of time travel, and the fact that according to Einstein's theory of general relativity it really could be possible, if someone could find a way to curve the space-time continuum strongly enough. By the time he became a professor at Princeton in 1997, inventing a means of time travel was Dr. Speagle's lifelong ambition.
"Of course, time travel already existed, in a sense. General relativity says that the space-time continuum will be curved by any gravity field, and even in the nineties it was known that because of variations in earth's gravity, atomic clocks run slightly slower or faster depending on what floor of a building they're on. The problem had always been that to alter the passage of time in a way that was measurable with anything other than an atomic clock, it would have taken a gravity field so strong that any time travelers would be ripped to pieces. Dr. Speagle had an idea about how it might be possible to get around that problem, based on the interaction that superstring theory predicts between gravity and the world's other fundamental forces."
It was always tempting to devote several minutes to discussing the mechanics of Oliver Speagle's research. While she had studied under Dr. Speagle, Stephanie had been obsessed with learning as much as she could about the details of his theories, even though many of them were beyond her understanding. But she could tell from Clay and Cerie's expressions that neither of them were particularly eager to hear about that aspect of the story, so she didn't dwell on it.
"It was all pretty theoretical stuff, and not even anybody at the university could tell whether he was really on to something, or whether this was another one of those ideas destined to never get more mention than a single sentence in physics textbooks. The university didn't consider it a good investment to let him research this on their time and money, and at first it looked like he would have to choose between his research and his professorship. But he had a stroke of luck in 1999: the Institute for Advanced Study, which is separate from the university, saw some promise in him and invited him to become one of its members. The institute doesn't have as much money as the university, but they have a long history of letting its members decide for themselves how they want to use it.
"On the other hand, none of Dr. Speagle's students could have cared less whether his research was a good investment or not. All that they cared was that their professor was closer than any other scientist in history to inventing a time machine. Dr. Speagle never missed an opportunity to get students excited about his work, and starting in 2001, every Halloween he would show up to class dressed as Emmett Brown. Then for Halloween of 2005, as a special treat for his students he bought a DeLorean, and showed up on campus with a perfect impression of Doc Brown's entrance in the movie. I was just a freshman then, so I wasn't in his class yet, but in 2005 you couldn't be a student at Princeton without knowing about this. From that point on, even when he wasn't in his costume he would drive to campus in the DeLorean, and people who were taking his class would sometimes watch the entrance to the faculty parking lot for when he arrived. There weren't any other professors where you could easily tell this, but when Dr. Speagle was driving the DeLorean, there was no mistaking his car for anyone else's.
"I think part of why Dr. Speagle was so enthusiastic about this is because by then he was making real progress with his theories. By 2005, he had managed to reverse time for a few milliseconds at a shot, thousands of times longer than anyone had been able to do only a few years earlier. By the beginning of 2008, he'd nearly broken a second, but a new complication was preventing him from managing any longer than that. Whenever he reversed time, any objects in the area where he did would fly towards the west wall of the room, because to these objects earth was rotating in a different direction than how it was rotating for everything else. Even just coming close to a second required a special cart for his time-travel device, a lot of pillows to cushion it from the impact of hitting his laboratory wall, and countless hours recalibrating it when the impact jarred it anyway. What he really needed was something that could accelerate his device in the same direction as earth's rotation, to compensate for its natural tendency to move the opposite way.
"By now both the institute and the university could see the importance of Dr. Speagle's research, and if his project had been part of the university, he wouldn't have had any trouble continuing to get funding for it. But the institute doesn't have a steady income from tuitions the way the university does. It depends entirely on donations and grants, and during the 2008 recession those had almost completely dried up. Since there was no way to make further progress in his research without a way to compensate for earth's rotation, he had only two choices: he could wait to continue his research after the recession was over, or he could find some way to accomplish this without the institute's help.
"He went with the second choice. The DeLorean was his second car, and sacrificing one of his two cars in the name of science was less of a loss to him than waiting upwards of a year to continue his research. I don't know whether his decision of which of his cars to use for this was based on a desire to please his students, or whether it was his fondness of the science fiction he had grown up with. What I know is that when it came time for him to choose either the '93 Ford Taurus or the DeLorean to use for his experiments, he didn't have much trouble deciding."
She was coming to the part of the story that everyone found most interesting, and she could see Clay and Cerie's expressions were becoming more eager. It was a somewhat encouraging sight. After the number of times she had told this story, the interest of her audience was the only thing that could make telling it less tiresome.
"Well, you can imagine how much Dr. Speagle's students loved this, myself included. And he didn't mind a bit, as long as it meant more students taking his classes, more attentive to him than ever, even if we were always a bit impatient to get through his lectures to the next time travel experiment.
"The experiments usually happened on Rosedale Road, on the northwest outskirts of Princeton. We would all stake out the road for around a mile, with signs saying "Road closed: time travel experiment in progress," even though he always did this around eleven at night when almost no one was on the road anyway. Sometimes he slowed time to a stop and then reversed it while accelerating eastward, and other times he accelerated time while pointed west. He never managed to accelerate enough to stop the DeLorean from rolling backwards along the road, and he would have to turn off the time-travel mechanism when he'd gone back far enough that he was at one end of the stretch of road that we'd staked out, but he managed to keep time flowing at an altered rate for up to a minute this way. After the first time we watched this, we convinced him to deck out his car with replicas of all the gadgets that the DeLorean has on it in the movie. The car could travel through time just as well without them, of course, but his students thought it was awesome, and that's what mattered to him.
"The thing you have to understand about Dr. Speagle is that despite how flashy all of this sounds, he wasn't doing it for the sake of publicity. At heart, he was still just a kid showing off an invention to his friends, and the only place he was publishing his research was in technical journals that never had an impact factor of more than 5. That changed in early 2009. One of his students took a video of him using the DeLorean on their camera phone and uploaded it at YouTube, three days later it had over half a million views, and within a week every major newspaper in the country had a story about him on their front page. The papers he'd written for journals had carried been titled things like "Accelerated distortion of the space-time continuum," and none of them even mentioned what kind of car he was using. When the New York Times published their featured story about him, on the other hand, it was titled "Professor creates time-traveling DeLorean", and the author thought he was being clever by cramming a Back to the Future reference into almost every paragraph."
Now she had reached the part of the story that was most difficult to tell. She paused for a moment, making sure she still had Clay and Cerie's attention, and her voice was subtly different as she continued.
"I remember the change that came over Dr. Speagle when this happened. He still cared about his students as much as before, but the energy and devotion we'd all come to expect from him were missing now. He had multiple press interviews every day, was delivering guest lectures at universities all over the world, and when it came time for him to teach his class, it was the most he could manage to remember what the lecture was supposed to be about at all. This also meant no more experiments, of course. But by then, he was such an internationally sought-after professor that if any of his students missed those late-night experiments on Rosedale Road, the effect it had on his popularity was like removing a single grain of sand from the beach.
"I had a closer relationship with Dr. Speagle than most of his students did, and at the end of the semester in spring of 2009 I asked him if he was happier now than he had been at the beginning of the fall semester, when he was known only to his students and his colleagues. It took him a long time to answer, but eventually he told me the answer was no. But, he said, whether he was happy or not wasn't really what mattered. What mattered was that science progressed, and for science to progress he had to let his research be exposed to the public like this, because the institute needed donations in order to recover from the recession. Even if that had to come at the expense of his own ability to do research, perhaps it was still for the best.
"I think you both know the rest of the story. Dr. Speagle and his DeLorean are now the stars of our company's TV commercials, although the DeLorean that's in the commercials isn't the same one he used for his experiments. It's a much more exact replica of the one in the movie, but it has no more time-traveling ability than any other car. All of the time-travel effects in the commercials are just CGI. As far as I know, Dr. Speagle hasn't seen or touched the DeLorean he used for his experiments since sometime in 2010. It isn't that doesn't want to anymore, he just doesn't have the time."
That was as much of an ending as it was possible for the story to have. In the silence that followed, Stephanie looked around her, to see whether any of the people who had listened to it felt the same emotional weight behind it that she did. Despite their earlier reassurance, Clay and Cerie were fidgeting with impatience. And Stanislav and Ahiga had both heard this story before, so any impact it might have had on them was worn off by now.
"All right," said Stephanie. "No sense wasting any more time. Karl and I will be sitting at the front of the van. Everyone else, use the doors on the side, and take one of the seats along the far wall."
She could tell that Clay was a little indignant at being given orders by someone whom he'd met less than an hour earlier. "If you're in charge of this expedition," said Clay, "I'd better warn you about something. The reason I left my last job was because one of my co-workers made a racial slur about me, and I couldn't get my boss to do anything about it. If anything like that happens on this expedition, I'm going to hold you responsible."
"I'm not in charge of this expedition," responded Stephanie. "None of us are. All six of us have our own essential role to play on it." It was the official position of their company, but even as she said it she knew it wasn't entirely true. Everyone had their own role to play, but if something were to happen to Clay or Cerie, the worst result would be that they'd be missing a medical officer or veterinarian for the rest of the trip. Stephanie was the only person who had been trained to drive the time van, so without her everyone else had would have no way of returning to the present. Karl, who operated the time travel mechanism inside the van, knew the basics of how to drive it; but without any training he would probably end up taking everyone back to a time that was a few centuries too late or too early.
Unlike Oliver's makeshift time machine, the van had been designed from the wheels up for the sole purpose of time travel. It was around 80 feet long, and divided into three sections. The front section looked and operated like the cab of a truck, except with far more complicated controls, and had two seats for the driver and the technician. At the rear of the cockpit a doorway led into the van's middle section, which contained four seats along one wall for the rest of the crew, and on the opposite wall a pair of sliding doors of the kind found on subway cars. This section of the van also contained the master controls for the time travel mechanism, which everyone except Karl was forbidden from using.
The rearmost section of the van was by far the largest. Large enough for them to bring back anything smaller than a sauropod, and its walls were lined with a complicated series of racks for attaching cages of almost any size. It was a waste of space on this trip, since the dinosaur they'd be bringing back was no larger than a coyote. Still, this was the only van they had, and it had cost the company enough much money that they weren't interested in building a second one.
As was her habit, Stephanie watched everyone else board the van before climbing aboard herself. Ahiga boarded the van first, putting out his cigarette as he sat in one of the two middle seats. Stanislav sat in the other middle seat, leaving the two seats at either end of the row. Cerie produced a strange little moan when she saw Stanislav's choice of seat. A moment later Stephanie understood why: she had wanted to sit next to Clay.
Cerie approached the side door of the van, but didn't board it yet. Instead she looked in at Stanislav for a few seconds, as if mustering the courage to address him, and then said, "Sir?"
Stanislav glanced up at her for a moment, then looked back at the newspaper he was reading. When it was clear that he wasn't going respond to Cerie, she addressed him again. "Sir, would you mind moving to a different seat?"
"Why?" asked Stanislav, then looked back at his newspaper.
"Well, you see," Said Cerie, "This is my and my cousin's first day on the job. Traveling back in time is kind of scary when you've never done it before. I thought it'd be nice if Clay and I could sit next to each other, just for this first trip."
"I bet that you have seen the Jurassic Park movies," said Stanislav. "How whenever the people encounter dinosaurs, maybe half the people get eaten, give or take a few. I bet you find it scary because you wonder whether this expedition will be like that. Am I right?"
Cerie nodded slowly. "The thought crossed my mind."
"Do you know what happened to Raul and Tamara, the people that you and Clay were hired to replace?" asked Stanislav. Cerie shook her head.
Stanislav was a bald, broad-shouldered, pot-bellied man with an unruly black beard that spilled onto his chest. The turtleneck shirts that he always wore were at least a size too small for him, causing the sleeves to constantly creep up towards his elbows, exposing the hammer-and-sickle tattoo just above his left wrist. Stephanie had no idea whether Stanislav was a communist, or whether he'd gotten the tattoo before or after the end of the Cold War. He wasn't the sort of person who invited friendly conversation about his politics, or anything else for that matter, although Cerie evidently had yet to learn that.
"The last expedition Raul went on was to capture a Utahraptor, a predator as big a grizzly bear that can run as fast as a horse. What you should know about Utahraptors is that they are curious animals, and when they see something new they want to experiment with it. When they saw Raul, two of them at once had the idea that he might be good to eat. And there was the trouble: how would they decide which of them could have him?"
Stanislav's face split into a wide grin. Cerie was tightly clutching her hands to her chest, and Stanislav was obviously enjoying the effect he was having on her. "Well, one of the Utahraptors grabbed his head," said Stanislav, pointing a finger at Cerie's forehead, "And the other grabbed his middle. What you should know about people's intestines is how far they can stretch. The two Utahraptors got fifteen feet apart before they had Raul in two pieces. That was how they settled their dispute about who should have him. One of them ate his outside, and the other ate his insides."
Focused on the exchange between Stanislav and Cerie, Stephanie didn't notice at first that Clay was standing next to her, also listening. "Hey," Clay said, getting her attention. "I asked the company about their safety record when I applied for a job here. Why didn't anyone tell me about this?"
"Because Stanislav is making it up," replied Stephanie. "Raul didn't get eaten. He was fired for stealing dinosaur eggs and trying to sell them on eBay."
"How about Tamara?" asked Clay. Stanislav was now telling Cerie about how both of Tamara's legs had been bitten off by an Allosaurus, and how Tamara hadn't quite finished bleeding to death when the Allosaurus decided to eat the rest of her.
"Tamara quit working here because she couldn't stand being around Stanislav."
"And you can stand him?" Clay asked incredulously.
"He's always hard on the new people," said Stephanie. "I think it's a sort of hazing, where he expects them to prove their courage to him. It's best to let him have his fun for now, and after a while he'll get bored. You'll learn how to deal with things like this once you've worked with him for a year or so."
"And you think once we do, we'll manage to feel comfortable around him?"
"I don't think anyone gets comfortable around Stanislav," said Stephanie. "You just sort of get used to him, the same way you get used to a bad smell or an uncomfortable pair of shoes."
By now Stanislav had finished his story about Tamara and the Allosaurus, and was waiting to see whether Cerie was going to board the van and accept one of the seats at either end of the row. Cerie was not boarding the van, but Stephanie didn't think it was because she still expected Stanislav to sit somewhere else. She was staring at him with an expression as though he himself were about to rip her in half or bite off her legs, and her eyes were bugged out of her face further than Stephanie would have thought possible.
Ahiga, who had also watched whole exchange from the other middle seat next beside Stanislav, was looking at Cerie expressionlessly. Then, still without saying a word, Ahiga got up and sat down in the end seat on Stanislav's other side, leaving two empty seats next to one another. Cerie stammered a barely audible "thank you" to Ahiga, and Stanislav glared at him.
"You see? You and Cerie have learned something here already," Stephanie said to Clay. "When you want a favor done for you, you can ask me, or Ahiga, or Karl. But don't ask Stanislav."
Clay produced a little grunt, then boarded the van and took the seat next to Cerie. Sensing that all four seats in the van's middle section were now occupied, the van's side doors slid closed automatically.
Stephanie reflexively glanced around the garage for a moment, making sure that everything was in order for them to set out on their expedition. Then she approached the cab section of the van, opened the door on what would have been the driver's side in a normal car, and sat down in the seat. Karl was already waiting for her in the seat on the passenger side.
Karl was Chinese, their group's Asian member, although he spoke English with no trace of an accent. He was always the best-dressed member of their group, and today he was wearing neatly pressed Khaki pants and a starched Oxford shirt. He looked at Stephanie expectantly as she sat down next to him, although she wasn't sure exactly what he wanted. After a moment's pause, Stephanie said, "So, I guess you aren't the newest member of our group anymore."
She had expected Karl to welcome this observation, since he had resented that status during the six months since he was hired, but he seemed somewhat nettled instead. "Does this mean you'll stop treating me like a kid?"
"I haven't been treating you like a kid," said Stephanie. "At least, not after your first month. You're just too damn sensitive about this."
"Then why is it when you're driving the van, you insist that I keep quiet and not touch the controls? I know you're the one who's trained for that, but I'm not clueless."
"It's hard to explain," said Stephanie. The truth was, she didn't completely understand the answer herself. "There's a certain kind of concentration it takes, that I can't have if I'm not the only one in control. Why does it matter?"
"You take driving really seriously."
It was true, she did, so Stephanie had nothing to say in response. "You ready to go?" she asked.
"Are Cerie and Stanislav finished arguing?"
"I guess so," replied Stephanie, "Although it wasn't much of an argument. More like Stanislav trying to terrorize her, and mostly succeeding."
"Well, Cerie shouldn't have asked him to change his seat," said Karl.
"How come you always defend Stanislav, no matter how much of an ass he's being?" After waiting several seconds without getting an answer, Stephanie decided that if there was an answer, it probably wasn't worth discussing. "If you're ready to go, then go turn on the master switch," she said.
"Sure," answered Karl, getting up and walking through the doorway at the back of the cockpit, which led to the van's middle section.
To Stephanie, the control console for the van could have been something between a musical instrument and a canvas. The timing, the coordination, and the sense of rhythm that it required were those of a concert pianist, but the rewards for her efforts did not take the form of sound. Instead, the control console was an ever-changing array of multicolored lights, whose patterns responded to her touch as if to a paintbrush. Karl's job was to prepare her paint, and as he did, her canvas lit up before her.
She barely noticed as Karl returned and sat down in the seat beside her. Before she could begin to paint, her first task was to prime the canvas, and there was a button to one side of the console for this purpose. As she pressed it, the glowing buttons of the console seemed to grow momentarily dimmer as a new flood of light entered the garage. It was sunlight, for the button had opened the garage's outer door. Now it was time to begin working the pedals, and as she did the van emerged from the door onto its runway.
The outer door of the garage faced east, and opened directly onto a runway cast of solid steel. It was essentially a more sophisticated version of Rosedale Road. Straighter, flatter, smoother, and without the slight northern slant towards its eastern end that had required Oliver Speagle to orient his steering wheel a few degrees to the left. But the purpose was the same, and Stephanie began the same process that she had first seen in the Princeton suburbs from her professor.
The runway was another concession to the media. The van could control its motion forwards and backwards precisely enough that any flat surface would have worked, and it had never encountered trouble traveling back in time without a runway on any of its expeditions elsewhere in the world: China to bring back a flock of Microraptors, South America for a Giganotosaurus, or Egypt for a Spinosaurus. Even traveling back in time from the company's headquarters in southern Utah, the runway provided about as much of a practical benefit as a head start of a few feet would have made in a trip around the world. The runway had been built only five years ago, so it would only be there for the first five years of the journey, and she would traveling back seventy-five million years. No, the runway had one purpose and one purpose only: to make it safe for photographers to stand near the van.
The border between where time flowed normally and where it would be flowing in reverse was set to be exactly where the wheels of the van made contact with the runway. If the runway had not been there, or had been made out of asphalt instead of steel, the uneven surface of contact would have resulted in some amount of dirt or pavement being caught in the area where time was reversed, where earth's reversed motion would cause it to fly backwards from the van's wheels with the speed of bullets. When Oliver Speagle had performed his time travel experiments, without either a steel runway or the ability to control this border so precisely, to protect people from the danger he had commanded everyone else to keep at least five hundred feet from his DeLorean while he used it. Stephanie preferred it the way it had been in China and South America, where photographers had needed to keep a similar distance from the van unless they wanted their bodies riddled with flying bits of debris. Not that she would have cared if that happenedif any of them were stupid enough to step behind the van while it was traveling back in time, that was their own problem.
But thanks to the runway, there was no debris to avoid, and the photographers could get close enough that some of them were trying to film her through the van's windows. She hoped the glare of the sun off its windows would be strong enough to prevent them from seeing more than the vague outline of two human figures driving it. To Stephanie, there was only one thing these people were good for. As one of them walked towards the van, she enjoyed watching as his steps gradually became slower and slower, as he paused in mid-step for what appeared to be several seconds, and then as he began to walk backwards, erasing the footprints he had left in the grass. The rest of the photographers, also walking backwards more and more quickly, joined him and returned to the building the van had emerged from. It was the same giddy feeling as being on board a jet taking off.
It had been evening when they set out, and in the rear-view mirror outside the van's window she could see the sun beginning to creep upwards from the western horizon. She watched as it gradually grew higher in the sky, passed overhead, and set in front of her in a beautiful reverse sunrise. The night lasted ten minutes, and the backwards day that followed it lasted five. Spring became winter, and each day the sun's path through the sky moved a little further south, then moved north again as winter became fall. The moon waxed and waned like someone flipping through the pages of a book.
Now came the most difficult part of the trip: the runway was being built. Already she could see the portion of it behind her turn red and then transform into liquid metal, which was sucked up into the tanker it had been poured from. Then backhoes were shoveling dirt back into the hole that had been dug to make room for the steel, although the stretch of runway currently under the van still existed. As soon as the area where the rear potion of the runway would be was only soil and grass, Stephanie slightly reduced the van's forward acceleration so that earth's east-to-west rotation would push it onto this stretch of ground before the runway ahead of it turned molten also. The really essential thing was that she have not yet made time flow in reverse at too great a speed at this point. The creators of the runway had only stopped for a month between paving its front and rear sections, and at her current rate of traveling back one day per second, thirty seconds was only just enough time for the van to change position.
Now the runway was gone entirely. Scaffolding sprang up around the building the van had left, and then that was gone also, and they were standing in the middle of an open field with a highway in the distance. Stephanie watched as steamrollers rolled backwards along the highway, erasing the last sign of human habitation within sight. It was the 1970s, and then the 1960s. Both world wars went by in the wrong order, then the Civil War, then the American Revolution.
They were gathering speed. Driving the van was like driving a train: it was necessary to build one's speed slowly, especially because each quantity of backwards acceleration through time had to be paired with a similar eastward acceleration along the ground. Although the view through the van's windows did not indicate the van was moving forwards or backwards, its wheels were now spinning fast enough that if earth's altered rotation were not exactly counterbalancing the van's motion, it would have been traveling many times the speed of sound. No doubt flecks of earth and grass behind the van's wheels were now being accelerated backwards at supersonic speeds, but at this point no one was around to be injured by it.
By now the sun's west-to-east motion through the sky had long since become a blur, and even the north-to-south motion of its path over the course of each year was becoming more and more difficult to make out. Soon discerning even that was impossible, and the sky above them became a constant twilight with a brighter stripe across its southern side. Stephanie's canvas was no longer just the lights on the control console inside the van: in response to her touch, lakes were forming and drying up, and hills were folding themselves into the ground like wrinkles pressed flat on a bed. They had passed the dawn of humanity, and Stephanie was now one of only six humans in existence. The whole world was her painting, and there was no one left to interfere.
A momentary darkening of the sky was her sign that it was time to begin slowing down. They had passed the Cretaceous-Tertiary asteroid impact, and were now in the Mesozoic era. They still had ten million years left to go, so she reduced her speed as slowly as she had increased it. A few thousand years from their destination, years separated themselves from one another; ten years from their destination, the sun's west-to-east blur broke down into individual days. And then time outside the van could be measured in minutes and second again, although still occurring in the opposite order from inside it. Once again there were a few seconds during which time outside the van stood still, and then it had accelerated up to its normal speed.
The wheels of the van stopped rotating, and Stephanie's composition was complete. She looked around outside the van. The world 75 million years ago did not look that different from the present, really. There were none of the smoking volcanoes or steamy jungles that everyone liked to imagine it having. There was something about the plants that looked somewhat different, but it would have taken a botanist to point out exactly what it was.
"All right, we're here," said Stephanie. "Go turn off the master switch."
"You don't need to tell me what to do," said Karl, although he still got up and walked through the door at the back of the cab. A few seconds later, the console in front of her went dark. There was a low rumble as the doors on the side of the van opened automatically, sensing that they had reached their destination.
Stephanie got out of the van and looked at her surroundings. It was parked on the shore of either a sea or a large lakeshe wasn't terribly familiar with Cretaceous geography. A few hundred feet from the edge of the water, the shore became a field or plain, which in the distance rose into a mountain range. Near where the van was parked, the body of water was joined by a small river, which stretched across the plain to where it disappeared among the mountains. There were no dinosaurs in sight, although she hadn't really expected there to be. The Mesozoic wasn't exactly swarming with them, the way the movies would have you think.
Clay, Cerie and Stanislav had not left the van yet, but Ahiga had opened the large double doors at the back of the van's rearmost section, and was now unloading a small all-terrain vehicle from it. The front of the vehicle was that of a normal ATV, while its rear was akin to a forklift, carrying a pair of detachable cages that could be raised or lowered. The larger of the two cages was roughly a cube with sides four feet long, and the smaller was around half that width and height. There was only one thing that the smaller cage could mean.
Stephanie approached Ahiga. "Don't tell me we need to use the prey cage this time?"
"Saurornitholestes is class three," said Ahiga.
"Are you kidding?" asked Stephanie. "It's the size of a coyote."
"All of the dromaeosaurids are danger class three or higher. Do you remember when we brought back Microraptors, we had to feed them insects before we could take them in the van? Microraptor is also class three."
"I think I told you then, I thought that was just as stupid," said Stephanie. "I wish I knew whose idea it was that we should worry about being eaten by something the size of a pigeon."
"This is what happens when all the safety regulations are created by people who've never traveled back in time. Everyone thinks that all raptors are deadly man-killers." For the word "raptors", Ahiga slightly altered his voice to mimic the voice of their boss. "Nobody worries about the van polluting the Cretaceous environment, or whether we might pick up ancient diseases that our immune systems can't handle, because nobody's ever made a movie about those. No, all that matters is that if we're bringing back a class three carnivore, first we have to supply it with as much as it can eat of its natural food source, to make sure it doesn't get hungry for one of us on the way back."
Ahiga looked at the cages for a few seconds, and then leaned against the side of the ATV. "I wish we didn't have to bring them back at all. For every one of these, there's never a doubt what kind of life we're bringing it to. A few years of genetic and biomechanical tests, until it's time to put it out of its misery because we don't know how to recreate the habitat where it lived, and the stress is making it regurgitate everything it eats or chew off its own skin. Most modern scientists know you can learn more about animals by observing them in their native ecosystem. But nobody ever wants to spend the money on that, because it isn't good fodder for zoo exhibits or TV programs."
"So that's how you feel, but you still decided to work here?" Stephanie asked.
"If I weren't doing this job, someone else would be," said Ahiga. "Maybe someone who doesn't care as much about the animals suffering as little as possible on the way back."
"When they eventually die in captivity, at least it would be on someone else's conscience, not yours."
"I know." Ahiga sighed. "I need something to tell my conscience, but I'd be lying if I said that's enough to satisfy it. What can I say? We all have our principles, and also our price to betray them. For me, that's sixty grand a year. Same reason why a Princeton graduate is making her living driving a truck, right?"
"That wasn't a money issue," said Stephanie. "It was a patience issue. I could have afforded graduate school, and I wanted a doctorate, but I also wanted to get on with my life."
"I'm testing your patience right now, aren't I?" said Ahiga with a sort of half smile. "Well, I won't bore you with my ruminating. As long as nothing goes wrong, I'll be back in a few hours. I hope you don't get impatient waiting for me."
"Waiting for you is part of my job," said Stephanie.
Ahiga sat down on the seat of the ATV, reached into his pocket, and pulled the cigarette he had been smoking before they left. Ahiga never threw away a cigarette until it was completely finished. "You know," said Stephanie, "I think it would do you some good if you could stop smoking those for just a few hours."
Ahiga lit the cigarette and took a puff. "I know," he said.
Soon, the cigarette smoke was indistinguishable from the cloud of dust kicked up by the ATV's wheels. The cloud of dust grew smaller and smaller as it headed towards the distant mountains, finally disappearing among the trees of the mountains' foothills.
* * *
There was no question, the object near the shore was something new. The one watching it had been to this ridge many times, and had scanned both his territory and the area around it, from the mountain range behind him to the coast of the Western Interior Seaway far ahead. The beach was normally barren, aside from the ammonites and other mollusks that occasionally washed ashore, and pterosaurs that swooped low over the water to seize fish from the surf. But today, the shore's usual denizens were joined by a rectangular object, made of a material that shone in the sun like the surface of the water. It was approximately the length of a sauropod, but apparently immobile, as its watcher had not seen it move in the time since he first noticed it.
He did not have a name for himself, for a name would have required an understanding of his own identity. Every other individual with whom he interacted had a place in his mind, larger or smaller: the largest place was reserved for his mate, slightly smaller were the others of his kind, and smallest of all were the prey animals which to him had no purpose other than as a source of food. As he interacted with any of these, their effect on him was keenly felt, but only as an encompassing sensation of devotion, caution, or hunger. And when on a calm day he looked into the river that flowed through his territory, the male Saurornitholestes that looked back was a stranger to him. To him his mate was the one he cared for, his prey was what he ate, but he himself was only a stranger.
Even animals with whom he had never previously interacted were not entirely unfamiliar to him, as millennia of natural selection had provided him with an instinctive understanding of what was food, a friend, or an enemy. Only the object by the shore was an exception to this, occupying a place in his mind that was completely devoid of the experience of his ancestors. The object was not frightening, friendly or desirable. In the absence of any of these feelings, a single instinct rose to the front of his mind: curiosity, a desire to learn what the object was, so that in any future interactions he would know whether it could help him or hurt him. And so the Stranger descended the side of the ridge which faced the sea.
Doing so meant entering territory that did not belong to him. Everything between this ridge and the one adjacent to it was his territory, as was the portion of the river that flowed between them, but the forest on the far side of the ridge would belong to another Saurornitholestes. Entering the territory of another did not necessitate hostility, as long as he did not attempt to hunt there or mark the territory as his own. Still, there was a caution that came naturally in such a foray.
The sun-baked rocks of the ridge soon gave way to scrubby growth, then forest. Below the canopy of the trees, he could no longer see far enough into the distance to make out the object near the shore, and his mind was filled with the smells of the woods. He smelled prey, although he knew that in this area it could not be his, as well as another Saurornitholestes somewhere nearby. In the distance, he could also make out a faint smell of fire. The smell of fire was always somewhat alarming, but at a great enough distance a forest fire could be more of a benefit than a hindrance, as it could flush small animals from their burrows and provide him with an easy meal.
Smell and sound soon told him that another Saurornitholestes was approaching, and he halted his progress through the forest. How he reacted beyond this point would be determined on the basis of a sight, which was not yet possible, as the other was not yet within view. As he waited, a shape emerging from the forest soon resolved itself as another male Saurornitholestes, and he scrutinized its markings. The sharply defined dark and light markings on its body told him that it was a Northern.
Due to a gradual cooling of the climate, a population of Saurornitholestes which had previously lived along the northern reaches of the coast had gradually made its way south, until it intersected with the southern population to which the Stranger belonged. The Northerns were not quite genetically distinct enough to be considered a subspecies, but they were clearly distinguishable from the Southerns from the slightly different patterns on their coats of feathers, an adaptation to the forests of the north where trees lost their leaves for long periods. The Stranger greeted the Northern cautiously, spreading his arms wide and raising his tail, which had the dual effect of making himself appear slightly larger and showing his lack of intention to attack. A Northern was not necessarily an enemy, but there was a tendency for them to be slightly more protective of their territory than was typical for Southerns; an instinct acquired as an adaptation to the relative scarcity of prey in the north.
The Northern spread his own arms and tail, displaying his unique pattern of feathers more clearly, and both he and the Stranger angled themselves this way and that in attempts to appear larger than the other. It was not entirely clear to the Stranger which of them had the upper hand in this respect. But the Northern was clearly becoming agitated, stamping his feet and vocalizing, which was a message that he expected the individual facing him to concede. The Stranger now had the option of taking on the Northern in a more intense contest of wills, and if he prevailed he might claim some of the Northern's territory as his own. It was not worth the effort. He had many obligations on this day, and adding to the size of his territory was not great among them.
The Stranger made a ducking motion with his head, folding his arms to the side of his body, showing his willingness to submit. The Northern responded with an arched neck, raising the brightly colored crest of feathers which both Northerns and Southerns flaunted as an expression of pride. It was a sign that the Northern regarded himself as the victor, but that there was no need for further hostility as long as the Stranger did not attempt to challenge him again.
While the behavior of some Northerns was indistinct from that of Southerns, to many of them the instinct to protect their territory was strong enough that walking through it would be taken as a challenge even if the Stranger did not attempt to mark it or hunt there. A challenge could have resulted in another confrontation, which was an unpleasant notion to him. Curiosity regarding what he had seen from the ridge was now overcome by a more pressing concern: his desire to avoid becoming occupied by anything that would keep him away from his mate.
He did not go back the way he had come, since that would have been more of a gesture of defeat than he intended to make. Instead, he walked away at an angle, almost perpendicular to his prior route. As the trees thickened between him and the Northern, he turned back momentarily to see whether the other Saurornitholestes intended to confront him again, but the other was walking away also, perhaps with the intention of attending to his own mate.
Presently the land began to slope downhill, and at the bottom of a shallow valley the Stranger came to a river. This still was not his own territory, but its entrance was nearby. Following the river in the direction from which it flowed, he reached an area where the valley narrowed, the rock walls pressing in closely on either side of the water. It was a notch between two ridges of the mountain foothills, and everything on the opposite side of the notch was his.
This was his home, and it was essential that any other Saurornitholestes be aware of that. At the side of the river, he paused and rubbed his back against a tree, then waded through the water and did the same thing on the opposite side. His oil gland, which in his flying cousins would serve to seal their feathers from rain, left a scent signature to tell all others of his kind that no one but he could hunt here. And then he was beyond the notch, in the round valley between two ridges that belonged to him.
Here, there were two smells that dominated, that of him and his mate. That was how it should be, and the familiarity of it was reassuring to him. He knew that here he had earned the right to hunt, and it was time to use that privilege. Lowering his head to near the ground, he sifted through the multitude of smells that accompanied the dominant two. Strongest of all was the leaf litter on the forest floor, and he set that aside as well. Nothing else here was fresh enough to be worth his attention, so he began to walk with his head close to ground, inhaling every few steps.
He did not walk in a straight line, because straight lines meant nothing to the prey he was seeking. This valley had been his hunting ground for several years, and he knew that certain areas of it were more fruitful than others. It was only a matter of time before his path intersected with what he sought: a line of fresh scent, indicating that his quarry had passed this way earlier that day.
But in which direction? Scent did not indicate which direction an animal had traveled, but that gap could be filled by his familiarity with the valley. One end of the line of scent pointed toward the river, while the other pointed toward an upland area, closer to the edge of the valley. The animal's home would not be near the water. It was not a large valley, and it was not long before the Stranger had reached his goal: a small hole in the ground, entering the ground at an angle near the base of a tree.
He placed his snout into the hole. Both smell and sound told him that the animals he sought were inside it. The hole was too narrow for him to reach them, but that was only a small inconvenience. Reaching his foot into the burrow as far as it could fit, he dragged outward and downward, excavating a small pile of dirt and making the burrow's entrance slightly wider. He repeated the motion a second time, then a third, keeping his inner toe carefully cocked to avoid scraping it on the ground. The inner toe bore his sickle claw, the blade that he used on the occasions when it was necessary to take down prey as large as or larger than himself, and there was no need to use it here.
Soon he had widened the burrow's entrance enough to see its occupants: a pair of small furry creatures, huddled against the burrow's rear wall and screeching at him defiantly. Without wasting any time, he snapped his jaws around one of them and lifted it onto the air. It hissed and scratched in his mouth, but he resisted the urge to bite down and end its struggles. Placing a forelimb against his chest, he dropped the animal into the hollow formed by his fingers, then picked up the second animal and placed it there also. Both animals continued to claw at his chest feathers, trying to pull themselves free of his grasp, but he held them firmly enough that neither was afforded much movement.
Hunting for himself was a relatively easy task compared to this. Saurornitholestes courtship involved more than just the typical demonstration of display feathersmore than anything, what every female Saurornitholestes expected to see in a male was hunting skill. Among the Stranger's distant ancestors, it had been enough to kill prey animals and present them to a female, but many generations of competition had raised the stakes. Now, few females could be satisfied unless their mate brought them prey while harming it as little as possible, offering her the right to kill it without the difficulty of finding it.
Of course, the Stranger had proven himself to his mate long ago, and had a clutch of eggs as his reward. She had already devoted many days to incubating their clutch, and there was little risk that she would abandon him now, but it had been for the sake of times like this that she had expected him to prove himself initially. While she was incubating the eggs, she could not leave the nest for long enough to hunt effectively, and so she relied on her mate to bring her food. At this point she would have accepted prey that was already dead, but the Stranger's desire to please her had not subsided, nor would it for as long as they remained together.
Their nest was on a small rise above the river, close enough that his mate could easily reach the water to drink, but far enough that there was little danger of the nest flooding if the river were to swell due to heavy rain. His mate looked up at him as he approached. She was slightly larger than him, with slightly more muted colors, and her feathers were longer than his in order to better protect the eggs. Her scent and the scent of the nest made the Stranger content.
Even though the Stranger's arm feathers would have made the animals he was carrying invisible to his mate, their scent combined with the position of his arm made it obvious that he had brought her food. She turned to face him and looked at him expectantly. The Stranger reached into the hollow formed by his hand and closed his mouth around one of the animals, now half-stunned from the long time it had spent pressed against his chest, and held it in the air before her. It flailed and squirmed in the air, and for a moment he saw her eyes following its struggles, before her jaws closed around it and ended them. As she swallowed it, the Stranger held up the second animal, and a moment later it had gone the same way as the first. He moved closer to her, and the two of them rubbed their backs together, each marking the other with their scent glands. It was a way to ensure that any other Saurornitholestes would know that each of them belonged to the other, and it reinforced the bond between them.
Two of these animals would be more than enough food for her in a single day, but the day was still young enough for another round of hunting, and there was an advantage to finding more food than was strictly necessary. The most demanding time for both of them would come when their eggs hatched, and they would have to devote most of their energy to providing food for the rapidly-growing chicks. The Stranger had built up a small reserve of fat to prepare for this time, and his mate had built up a larger one, which would also sustain her if for any reason he was prevented from bringing her food for an extended period. More food would better insulate them from the uncertainties of the future, so he set out and again began casting about for a scent.
The first smell that he noticed was the same smell of fire he had noticed earlier. It was closer now than it had been before, which was especially alarming in his own territory: a forest fire in the vicinity of the nest would force him and his mate to abandon it, and all of the energy they had put into it thus far would be for naught. Still, something about this scent of fire made it different from that of the forest fires that the Stranger had encountered previously. Every other forest fire of his experience, or the experience of his ancestors, had carried with it the scent every plant of the forest that fell to the flames. The fire that he smelled now was the burning of only a single type of plant, nor was it a plant whose scent he recognized. Once again he felt the curiosity that came with an experience that was new to him and his lineage, but this time his curiosity was tinged with fear, because a fire close to his nest was always a danger.
He walked in a semicircle around the nest, stopping at either end when he reached the edge of the river. He was often certain that he could identify the location of the scent's source, but when he reached the place where it seemed to originate, its source had moved elsewhere. It seemed as though the fire was moving from one place to another, yet without leaving behind any burnt plants or other signs of its presence. Even more strangely, its source seemed to always remain just far enough from him that the trees and undergrowth of the forest prevented him from seeing it.
Yet here was something: apparently another of the furred animals had been scared from its burrow by the fire, and was now standing disoriented in the open. Whether the fire was a danger or not, he would not pass up the opportunity to find more food for himself and his mate. The animal saw him approach, and began to flee, but after traveling only a few steps it bumped into something that prevented it from going any further. What had the animal bumped into? As the Stranger approached it, he realized that the animal was inside a hollow object made from many thin cylinders which interlocked with one another, with enough space between them that he could easily see into it or through it, but not enough space for the animal to escape.
It was another new experience, another source of curiosity, and this time the mysterious object was right in front of the Stranger for him to examine it. Moreover, there was food inside it, which he might be able to obtain if he could only familiarize himself with this object's properties. He walked in a slow circle around the object, bumping his head against its sides to see if any part of it would give. Sure enough, there was a part of it that lifted inward as he pressed against it, creating a space just large enough for him to enter. He felt pleased for having solved the object's mystery as he stepped inside.