Bones of the Earth


Washington, D.C.: Cenozoic era. Quaternary period. Holocene epoch. Modern age. 2010 C.E.

If the whole tangled affair could be said to have a beginning at all, it began on that cold, blustery afternoon in late October when the man with the Igloo cooler walked into Richard Leyster's office. His handshake was firm, and he set the cooler casually down on a tabletop between a lime-green inflatable tyrannosaur and a tray of unsorted hadrosaur teeth without asking permission first. His smile was utterly without warmth. He said his name was Griffin and that he had come to offer Leyster a new position.

Leyster laughed and, sitting back on the edge of his desk, put down the man's card without looking at it. "You could hardly have chosen a worse time to make the offer."

"Oh?" Griffin shifted a stack of AutoCAD boxes from a chair to the floor. His suit was expensive; he tugged at the knees as he sat, to protect the cloth. He had a heavy, inexpressive face. "Why is that?"

"Well, to begin with, the Smithsonian gave me my current position while I was still finishing up my doctorate. That's one hell of an honor, and I'd look pretty damn ungrateful to move on after less than three years service. I realize you're offering more money–"

"I haven't mentioned salary yet."

"The Smithsonian is acutely aware of what an honor it is to work for them," Leyster said dryly. "One of our technicians moonlights selling beer at Orioles games. Guess which job pays him more?"

"There are other inducements besides money."

"Which is precisely why you're wasting your time. I was on a dig this summer in Wyoming where we uncovered a trackway that's just . . . well, it's the sort of find that comes along once in a lifetime – if you're lucky. Whatever you're offering couldn't possibly be worth my walking away from it."

For a long moment, Griffin said nothing. Swiveling in his chair, he stared out the window. Following his gaze, Leyster saw only the dark sky, the slick orange tiles on the rooftops opposite, the taxis throwing up gray rooster tails behind themselves on Constitution Avenue, the wet leaves clinging to the glass. Then, turning back, Griffin asked, "Could I see?"

"Do you really want to?" Leyster was surprised. Griffin didn't seem the sort to be interested in original research. A bureaucrat, an arranger, an organizer, yes. A politician, possibly. But never a scientist. Griffin hadn't even arranged for this meeting as a scientist would, with the name of a mutual colleague and his professional affiliation held high, but through the administrative apparatus of the Museum. Some apparatchik, he couldn't even remember who, had called and said that somebody had applied pressure to somebody else up the line, and, figuring it was easier to take the meeting than hear out the explanation, he'd said he'd do it.

"I wouldn't ask if I didn't."

With a mental shrug, Leyster booted up first his computer and then the trackway program, routing the image to a high-density monitor hung on the wall. The image was as detailed as modern technology could make it. He had provided multiple photographs of each track and Ralph Chapman, down the hall, had come up with a 3-D merge-and-justify routine for them. The program began at the far end of the trackway.

"What do you see?" he asked.

"Footprints," Griffin said, "in mud."

"So they were, once. Which is what makes them so exciting. When you dig up fossil bones, that's the record of a dead animal. But here, this – this was made by living animals. They were alive and breathing the day they made these, and for one of them it was a very significant day indeed. Let me walk you through it."

He held one hand on the trackball, so he could scroll through the program as he talked. "One hundred forty million years ago, an Apatosaurus – what used to be known as Brontosaurus, before the taxon was reattributed – is out for a stroll along the shores of a shallow lake. See how steady the apatosaur's prints are, how placidly it ambles along. It is not yet aware that it's being hunted."

Griffin gravely folded his hands as Leyster scrolled down the trackway. They were enormous hands, even for a man of his bulk, and strangely expressive.

"Now look at these smaller sets of prints here and here, coming out of the forest and following along to either side of the apatosaur's prints. These belong to a hunting pair of Allosaurus fragilis. Killer dinosaurs twelve meters long, with enormous sharp claws on their hands and feet, and teeth as large as daggers but with a serrated edge. They move more swiftly than their prey, but they're not running yet – they're stalking. Notice how they've already positioned themselves so they can come up on it from either side.

"Here, the apatosaur becomes aware of its danger. Perhaps the wind shifts and it smells the allosaurs. Maybe the creatures scream as they attack. We'll never know. Whatever alerted it left no trace in the fossil record.

"It runs.

"See how the distance between strides increases. And see how back here, the same thing happens to the allosaur tracks. They've gone into an all-out sprint. They're charging, much like a lion charges its prey. Only, their prey is as big as a mountain and they themselves are so large and fierce they could eat lions for breakfast.

"Now look, see how there’s a little skip here in the one allosaur’s tracks, and an identical one here in the other’s. They’re matching strides with the apatosaur. For the rest of the chase, they’re all three running in lockstep. The allosaurs are in position to leap."

He was paying no attention at all to his auditor now, caught up once again in the drama of the fossil. Life pursued by death. It was an experience common to all creatures, but somehow it always came as a surprise when it actually happened.

"Could the apatosaur outrun them? It's possible. If it could get up to speed quickly enough. But something that big simply can't accelerate as fast as the allosaurs can. So it has to turn – here, where the three tracks converge – and fight."

He double-clicked the trackball's right button to zoom up so that they could see a larger area in the screen.

"This is where things get interesting. Look how confused the trackway is – all these trampled places, all this churned-up mud. That's what makes this fossil unique. It's the actual record of the fight itself. Look at those footprints – hundreds of them! – where the apatosaur is struggling with its attackers. See how deep these paired footprints are? I haven't worked out the ergonomics yet, but it's possible the brute actually rears up on its hind legs and then falls forward again, trying to crush its tormentors. If it can only take advantage of its immense weight, it can still win the battle.

"Alas for our friend, it does not. Over here, where the mud is pushed every which way, is where poor Patty falls. Wham! Leaving one hell of a nice body print, incidentally. This and this are definitely tail thrashes. She's a game creature, is Patty. But the fight is all over now, however much longer it lasts. Once the apatosaur is down, that's it. These monsters are never going to let her get up again."

He zoomed outward again, revealing yet more of the mudstone that had once been ancient lakeside. The trackway was, all told, over half a mile long. His back still ached at the thought of all the work it had taken first to uncover it – unearthing representative samples for the first two-thirds, skipping and sampling until at the end it got exciting and they had to excavate the whole damned thing – and then, when their photographs were taken and measurements done, to rebury it under layers of Paleomat and sterile sand in order to protect the tracks from rain and snow and commercial fossil hunters.

"And then, over here–" This was the exciting part, and involuntarily his voice rose. There was nothing he loved so much as a scientific puzzle, and this trackway was the mother of all brain-teasers. Besides the allosaur prints, there were also traces of secondary scavengers – birds, smaller dinos, even a few mammals – criss-crossing one another in such exuberant profusion that it seemed they might never be untangled. He welcomed the challenge. He looked forward to the work. "–this section is where our unfortunate Patty dies, and is eaten by the allosaurs. "The incredible thing, though, is that some of the scattered bones were pressed into the mud deeply and firmly enough in the process to leave clean impressions. We made rubber molds from them – an ulna, parts of a femur, three vertebrae – enough to make a positive identification. The first direct, non-inferential identification of a dinosaur footprint ever!"

"That explains how you know it's an apatosaur. What about the allosaurs?"

Leyster grinned, and enlarged the image so that a single vertebra's imprint dominated the screen. A double-click of the trackball's left button and – God bless Ralph! – the boneprint inverted, changing it from a negative to a positive image. He zoomed in on the caudal articular process. "If you look closely, you can actually see an allosaur tooth embedded in the bone and broken off. No signs of healing. One of those bad boys lost it, either during the attack or while gnawing on the corpse."

Those enormous hands applauded softly, sardonically. "Astounding." There was a kind of disconnect between what Griffin said and the way he said it. He sounded like an actor in a dying play. He held himself like a man who had heard it all before. He was, Leyster realized with a shock that was almost physical, bored. Bored! How could anyone intelligent enough to follow his explanation possibly be bored by it? Carelessly, Griffin said, "Doubtless there's a book in it for you."

"This is a book; it's better than any book! There's never been anything like it. I'll be studying it for years."

Leyster had already consulted with ranchers who had lost livestock to wolves and mountain lions and were only too familiar with the physical trace of predation sites. A friend at the National Museum of the American Indian had promised to get him in touch with a professional guide, a Navajo who, she claimed, could track a trout through water or a hawk through a cloud. There was no telling how much information might yet be coaxed out of this one specimen.

"Let me tell you something. When I uncovered this, when I first realized what I had, it was the single most profound moment of my life." That was out on Burning Woman Ridge, with the mountains to one side of him and hardscrabble ranchlands to the other, and the hottest, bluest sky in all creation overhead. He'd felt everything draw away from him then, the happy chatter of his crew, the grate of shovels in dirt, leaving him alone in a kind of holy stillness. There wasn't a sound or motion anywhere, not even a puff of wind. He felt the presence of God. "And I thought finding this, all by itself, justifies my existence on Earth. And you want me to give it up? Oh, no. I think not."

"On the contrary," Griffin said. "I have a much clearer idea of the value of your find than you do. And what I have to offer is better. Much better."

"With all due respect, Mr. Griffin . . ."

Griffin raised both hands, palms forward. "Please. Hear me out."

"All right."

The room was empty and Griffin had closed the door behind him on entering. He slowly looked around him before speaking anyway. Then he cleared his throat, apologized for doing so, and said, "Let me begin by spelling out the terms of the contract, just to save me the trouble later on. You'll be allowed to stay in your present position, and arrangements will be made to borrow your services for the project six aggregate months out of the year. You'll continue to be paid by the government, so I'm afraid there won't be any increase in your salary. Sorry."

He's enjoying this, thought Leyster. Science bores him to death, but having opposition to overcome brings him back to life. Ordinarily, Leyster didn't find people very interesting. But Griffin was different. He studied the impassive planes of the man's face, looking for a point of entry, a beginning to understanding, the least flicker of a hint as to what made him work. Leyster knew himself to be a methodical researcher; give him one end of a tangled thread and he wouldn't let go until he'd unraveled the entire snarl. All he needed was enough time and that one loose end.

And then Griffin did an extraordinary thing. It was the smallest of gestures, one Leyster wouldn't have noticed under ordinary circumstances. Now he found it riveting. Without looking, Griffin brushed back his sleeve to reveal a thick stainless steel watch. He clamped his hand over it, hiding the dial completely. Then he glanced down at the back of his hand.

He didn't release the watch until he had looked away.

Leyster had found his opening. Prodding gently, he said, "So far, you haven't made much of a case."

"It gets worse," Griffin said. So he had a sense of humor! Astonishing. "There are restrictions. You won't be allowed to publish. Oh, findings based on your own fieldwork, of course" – he waved a dismissive hand at the HDTV screen– "that sort of stuff you may publish whenever. Provided it is first cleared by an internal committee to ensure you're not taking advantage of information gained while working for us. Further, you won't even be allowed to talk about your work with us. It will be classified. We'll need your permission to have the FBI run a security check on you. Strictly routine. I assure you, it will turn up nothing embarrassing."

"A security check? For paleontology? What the hell are you talking about?"

"I should also mention that there is a serious possibility of violent death."

"Violent death. This is going to start making sense any minute now, right?"

"A man comes into your office" – Griffin leaned forward conspiratorially–"and suggests that he has a very special job to offer you. By its very nature he can't tell you much about it until you've committed yourself heart and soul. But he suggests – hints, rather – that it's your chance to be a part of the greatest scientific adventure since Darwin's voyage on H.M.S. Beagle. What would you think?"

"Well, he'd certainly have my interest."

"If it were true," Griffin said with heavy irony.

"Yes," Leyster agreed. "If it were true."

Griffin smiled. On his coarse-featured face, it looked sad. "Well, then, I believe I've told you all you need to know."

Leyster waited, but he said no more.

"Forgive me for saying so, but this is the damnedest pitch I've ever heard in my life. You haven't said one thing to make your offer attractive to me – quite the opposite. You say that I'll need FBI clearance, that I won't be allowed to publish, that I might . . . Frankly, I can't think of a set of arguments that would be less conducive to my coming to work for you."

There was an amused glint in Griffin's eye, as if Leyster's reaction were precisely what he had been hoping to provoke.

Or was this only what he wanted Leyster to think?

No, that was a paranoid line of reasoning. It was not the way Leyster normally thought, not the way he liked to think. He was accustomed to questioning an essentially impassive universe. The physical world might be maddeningly close-lipped about its secrets, but it didn't lie, and it never actively tried to deceive you.

Still, the corrupting influence of the man was such that it was hard not to think along such lines.

Again, Griffin clamped his hand over his watch. Glancing down at it, he said, "You'll take the position anyway."

"And the reasoning upon which you base this extraordinary conclusion is–?"

Griffin put the cooler on Leyster's desk. "This is a gift. There's only one string attached – you will not show it to anyone or tell anybody about it. Beyond that–" He twisted his mouth disparagingly. "Do whatever it takes to convince you it's genuine. Cut it open. Take it apart. There are plenty more where that came from. But no photographs, please. Or you'll never get another one to play with again."

Then he was gone.

Alone, Leyster thought: I won't open it. The best possible course of action would be ditch this thing in the nearest Dumpster. Whatever Griffin was peddling, it could only mean trouble. FBI probes, internal committees, censorship, death. He didn't need that kind of grief. Just this once, he was going to curb his curiosity and leave well enough alone.

He opened the cooler.

For a long, still moment, he stared at what was contained within, packed in ice. Then, dazedly, he reached inside and removed it. The flesh was cool under his hands. The skin moved slightly; he could feel the bones and muscles underneath.

It was the head of a Stegosaurus.

A gust of wind made the window boom gently. A freshet of rain rattled on the glass. Cars hummed quietly by on the street below. Somebody in the hallway laughed.

Eventually, volition returned. He lifted the thing from the cooler and set it down on the workbench, atop a stack of Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology reprints. It was roughly eighteen inches long, six inches high, and six inches wide. Slowly, he passed his hands over its surface.

The flesh was cool and yielding. He could feel the give of muscles underneath it, and the hardness of bone beneath them. One thumb slipped inadvertently between the creature's lips and felt the smoothness of teeth. The beak was like horn; it had a sharp edge. Almost in passing, he noted that it did have cheeks.

He peeled back an eyelid. Its eyes were golden.

Leyster found himself crying.

Without even bothering to wipe away the tears, not caring if he were crying or not, he flipped open a workbook, and began assembling tools. A number four scalpel with a number twenty blade. A heavy pair of Stille-Horsley bone-cutting forceps. A charriere saw. Some chisels and a heavy mallet. These were left over from last summer when Susan What's-Her-Name, one of the interns from Johns Hopkins, had sat quietly in the corner week after week, working with a komodo dragon that had recently passed away at the National Zoo to prepare an atlas of its soft tissues. Exactly the kind of painstaking and necessary work one prays somebody else will perform.

He swept the worktable clear of its contents – books and floppies, a pair of calipers, paper cutter, bags of pretzels, snapshots from the dig – and set the head in its center.

Carefully he laid out the tools. Scalpel, forceps, saw. What happened to those calipers he'd had out here? He picked them up off the floor. After a moment's hesitation, he tossed the mallet and chisel aside. They were for speedy work. It would be better to take his time.

Where to begin?

He began by making a single long incision along the top of the head, from the edge of the beak all the way back to the foramen magnum – the hole where the spinal core leaves the braincase. Gently, then, he peeled away the skin, revealing dark red muscles, lightly sheened with silver.

Dorsal posterior musculature, he wrote in the workbook, and swiftly sketched it in.

When the muscular structure was all recorded, he took up the scalpel again and cut through the muscles to the skull beneath. He picked up the bone saw. Then he put it down, and picked up the forceps. He felt like a vandal doing so – like the guy who took a hammer to Michelangelo's Pietà. But, damn it, he already knew what a stego's skull looked like.

He began cutting away the bone. It made a flat, crunching sound, like stiff plastic breaking.

The brain case opened up before him.

The stegosaur's brain was a light orange-brown so delicately pale it was almost ivory, with a bright tracery of blood vessels across its surface. It was a small thing, of course – even for a dinosaur, a stegosaur was an extraordinarily stupid brute – and he was familiar with its shape from the close examination of brain casts taken from the fossil skulls of its kindred.

But this was scientific Terra Incognita. Nothing was known about the interior of a dinosaur's brain, or its microstructure. Would he find its brain similar to those of birds and crocodiles or more like those of mammals? There was so much to learn here! He needed to chart and record the pneumatic structures in the skull cavity. And the tongue! How muscular was it? He should dissect an eye to see the number of types of color receptors it had.

Also whether this thing had nasal turbinates. Was there room enough for them? Their purpose was to trap and recover moisture from each exhaled breath. A warm-blooded animal, with its high rate of respiration, would need complex turbinates to help keep the lungs from drying out. A cold-blooded animal, needing less rehydration, might not have turbinates at all.

The argument over whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded had been raging for decades before Leyster was even born. It was possible he could settle the whole matter here and now.

But first there was the brain. He felt like Columbus, staring at the long, dark horizontal line of a new continent. Here Be Dragons. His scalpel hesitated over the ruptured head.

It descended.

Weariness caused Leyster to stagger and briefly lose consciousness and recover himself all in an instant.

He shook his head, blankly wondering where he was and why he felt so tired. Then the room swam into focus and he felt the silence of the building around him. The Elvis clock an old girlfriend had given him, with its pink jacket and swiveling hips, said that it was 3:12 A.M. He'd been working on the brain without food or rest for over twelve hours.

There were several collection jars before him, each with a section of the brain preserved in formaldehyde. His workbook was almost filled with notes and drawings. He picked it up and glanced down at a page near the beginning:

Opening the cranial cavity reveals that the
brain is short and deep with strong cerebral
and pontine flexures and a steep caudodorsal
edge. The small cerebral hemispheres have a
transverse diameter slightly in excess of the
medulla oblongata. Though the optic lobes and
the olfactory lobe are quite large, the cerebellum
is strikingly small.

He recognized the tidy, economical lettering as his own, but had no memory whatsoever of writing those words, or any of those on the dozens of pages that followed.

"I've got to stop," he said aloud. "The condition I'm in, I can't be trusted not to screw things up."

He listened to the words carefully, and decided that they made sense. Wearily, he wrapped up the head in aluminum foil and placed it in the refrigerator, ejecting a month-old carton of grapefruit juice and a six-pack of Diet Pepsis to make room for it. He didn't have a padlock, but a little rummaging came up with a long orange extension cord, which he wrapped around the refrigerator several times. With a Magic Marker he wrote, Danger!!! Botulism experiment in progress – DO NOT OPEN!!! on a sheet of paper, and taped it to the door.

Now he could go home.

But now that the head – the impossible, glorious head – was no longer in front of him soaking up his every thought, he was faced with the problem of its existence.

Where had it come from? What could possibly explain such a miracle? How could such a thing exist?

Time travel? No.

He'd read a physics paper once, purporting to demonstrate the theoretical possibility of time travel. It required the construction of an extremely long, large, and dense cylinder massing as much as the Milky Way Galaxy, and rotating at half the speed of light. But even if such a monster could be built – and it couldn't – it would still be of dubious utility. An object shot past its surface at exactly the right angle would indeed travel into either the past or the future, depending on whether it was traveling with the cylinder's rotation or against it. But how far it would go, there was no predicting. And a quick jaunt to the Mesozoic was out of the question – nothing could travel to a time before the cylinder was created or after its destruction.

In any event, current physics wasn't up to building a time machine, and wouldn't be for at least another millennium. If ever.

Could someone have employed recombinant engineering to reassemble fragments of dinosaur DNA like in that movie he used to love back when he was a kid? Again, no. It was a pleasant fantasy. But DNA was fragile. It broke down too quickly. The most that had ever been recovered inside fossil amber had been tiny fragments of insect genes. That business of patching together the fragments? Ridiculous. It would be like trying to reconstruct Shakespeare's plays from the ashes of a burnt folio, one that yielded only the words never and foul and the. Except that the ashes came not from a single folio, but from a hundred-thousand volume library that would have included Mickey Spillane and Dorothy Sayers, Horace Walpole and Jeane Dixon, the Congressional Record and the complete works of Stephen King.

It wasn't going to happen.

One's time could be better spent, alas, trying to restore the Venus de Milo by searching the beaches of the Mediterranean for the marble grains that had once been its arms.

Could it be a fake?

This was the least likely possibility of all. He had cut the animal apart himself, gotten its blood on his hands, felt the grain and give of its muscles. It had recently been a living creature.

In his work, Leyster followed the biological journals closely. He knew exactly what was possible and what was not. Build a pseudo-dinosaur? From scratch? Scientists were lucky if they could put together a virus. The simplest amoeba was worlds beyond them.

So that was that. There were only three possible explanations, and each one was more impossible than the next.

Griffin knew the answer, though! Griffin knew, and could tell, and had left behind his card. Where was it? It was somewhere on his desk.

He snatched up the card. It read:

H. Jamison Griffin
Administrative Officer

Nothing more. There was no address. No phone number. No fax. No e-mail. It didn't even list his organization.

Griffin had left no way to get in touch with him.

Leyster grabbed the phone, punched up an outside line, and dialed directory assistance. Simultaneously, he booted up his Internet account. There were millions of records out there. The days when a man could accomplish anything at all without leaving any trace of himself behind were long gone. He'd find Griffin for sure.

But after an hour, he had to admit defeat. Griffin's name was listed in no directory Leyster could locate. He worked for no known government agency. So far as Leyster could tell, he had never posted a comment of any kind on any subject whatsoever, or been referred to, however fleetingly, by anyone.

The man did not seem to exist.

In the end, Leyster could only wait. Wait, and hope that the bastard would return.

And what if he didn't? What if he never came back?

These were the questions that Leyster was to ask himself a hundred times a day, every day for a year and a half. The time it took Griffin to get around to ending his silence with a phone call.

© 2002 Michael Swanwick

Novel Bones of the Earth will be published in February of 2002 by Eos Books,, a division of HarperCollins.

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