Boundaryby Eric Flint, Ryk E. Spoor
What is a paleontologist doing on Mars? Pushing her boundaries. . . .Problematica, n: a term used in paleontology to refer to fossils that appear to be either of unknown taxonomic origin, or whose occurrence in the location they are found contradicts current beliefs of the field. The find was made by a teenager. A “funny fossil” no one had/i>… See more details below
What is a paleontologist doing on Mars? Pushing her boundaries. . . .Problematica, n: a term used in paleontology to refer to fossils that appear to be either of unknown taxonomic origin, or whose occurrence in the location they are found contradicts current beliefs of the field. The find was made by a teenager. A “funny fossil” no one had seen before out in the middle of the Arizona desert. And right in the middle of controversy: the strangely shaped fossil could help explain one of the greatest mysteries of Earth’s past, the great die-off at the KT boundary. It warranted a big dig, one that could lead to the mother lode, andprofessional immortality. But what Dr. Helen Sutter didn’t realize was that it would take her all the way to Mars. . . .
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By Eric Flint Ryk Spoor
Baen BooksCopyright © 2006 Eric Flint & Ryk Spoor
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Dear God, I'm going to die," muttered Joe Buckley, as the SUV bounced from one rutted pothole to another.
"Oh, come on, Joe, I don't drive that badly."
The silence caused Helen Sutter to glance over at Joe. His face was pale under its tan, contrasting all the more with his dark hair. His habitually cheerful expression was currently replaced by that of a man who has discovered he has a terminal illness and just two weeks to live. "... Do I?"
"Eyes on road! On the road!!! UNGH!"
The "ungh" was from the SUV's particularly hard, bottoming-out-the-shocks landing following yet another acrobatic leap across the roadbed, in an attempt to leave the rough dirt track and strike out across the rocky terrain nearby.
Helen gave a restrained curse and hauled on the steering wheel. The SUV responded, skidding slightly, but heading back into the center of the dirt track leading to the Secord ranch. Holding the line with one hand, Helen brushed her blond hair out of her eyes; as usual it was escaping the ponytail it was supposedly tied into. Despite the fact that it was early in the season and only eleven in the morning, Helen could feel a thin film of sweat on her forehead.
Well, that's the life of a paleontologist, she thought ruefully. Pay all your grant moneyfor the chance to break rocks, instead of getting sentenced to hard labor and doing it for free.
"What's wrong with my driving?"
"Nothing, nothing." Joe paused. "If you're in the Baja 500."
"Oh, all right, I'll slow down. But who cut down your testosterone ration? As I recall, the first year we came out here, you almost got yourself killed trying to offroad along an arroyo. Nearly lost us our dig, too. Then the second year, you-"
"Hey, all right, already. It's just that I want to survive this summer. It's my last year."
Helen smiled a bit sadly. "I know. We're going to miss you, Joe."
"I'll miss it, too. But ... push comes to shove, this is ultimately just a hobby for me. If I hadn't taken your course on a whim as an undergraduate, I never would have gotten interested in paleontology at all, it's so far removed from my own field of EE."
"Yeah, I understand. Now that you're closing in on your PhD, you don't have any choice but to clear everything else aside. I know, I've been there. We'll still miss you a lot-and take it from a pro that your skills as a paleontologist are a lot more than those of a 'hobbyist.'"
The gate to the Secord ranch leaped into view as the SUV crested the hill and charged down the other side. Helen expertly maneuvered the vehicle through the gateway and pulled up to the sprawling ranch house in a cloud of dust.
Joe got out, pausing to let his legs steady, and possibly to give himself an excuse to watch Helen going first. As he was a several-year veteran, she ignored the matter. She was used to the fact that she got a lot of stares; in what was still a male-dominated profession, just about any woman got them. And in her case, a woman whose figure was still very good for someone close to forty years old. For a miracle, even, her face wasn't showing the wrinkles you'd expect from years of wind and sun in rugged country.
The door to the ranch house opened. "Welcome back, Doctor Sutter!"
Jackie Secord stepped aside and ushered them in with a wave of her hand. Combined with Jackie's striking appearance, the gesture had a dramatic flair to it that was absurdly out of keeping with its humble purpose.
But that was pretty typical of the young woman. She was mostly Indian in her ancestry, on her mother's side. Her good-looking but intense face, black hair, black eyes and dusky complexion sometimes reminded Helen of a cartoon version of a Foreign Spy.
Natasha, with a rural Montana accent. To make the absurdity perfect, Jackie was a graduate student in engineering-and shared with Joe a fascination with space exploration. Her looks and liking for dramatic gestures aside, the young woman was about as downhome American as anyone could get.
Despite her intentions to become an astronaut, Jackie shared Joe's longstanding side interest in paleontology. That interest, as with Joe's, had been triggered off years before by Helen herself-but not as a student. The first time Helen had showed up in the area, she'd introduced herself to the Secord family since they were one of the largest landowners around and she needed their permission to conduct digs on their property.
Their daughter Jackie-then eighteen years old and a high school senior-had promptly attached herself to Helen as a combination guide and gofer. Since then, Jackie had become one of Helen's main local contacts and a constant, helpful presence at the digs. She'd developed into a top-notch amateur paleontologist, in fact, and usually tried to spend at least part of her summers on one of Helen's digs.
"What's with the 'Doctor Sutter' business, Jackie? It's been 'Helen' for years remember?"
Jackie grinned. "I figure I gotta practice up on my formalities. I'm not all that far behind Joe when it comes to getting my doctorate-and God help me if I start breezily referring to the head of my committee as 'Frank.' So what's up for this year?"
"Same as ever," Joe said, coming in after Helen. "Spend a couple months working ourselves to death to dig out a few fossils just like the ones everyone else has. Write some papers about them that no one but us and the reviewers will read. Then Helen and company write another grant proposal."
"And Joey's still the optimist, I see."
Joe winced. He detested being called "Joey," Helen knew. But some years before, when they'd both been undergraduates, Jackie and Joe had been casually "sorta-dating" for one summer. Her pet nickname for him had probably seemed cute then. Now, of course, it was inescapable, though he wouldn't put up with anyone else using it.
Laughing, Helen nodded. "As always. Seriously, I thought we might try that area a bit north of the last dig. The indications we had seem to show that some of the random fossils come from that area in the runoff."
"You stop by Jeff's?" Helen wasn't sure, but Jackie's gaze seemed somewhat more intense than usual.
Jeff Little owned a souvenir shop in the nearest town, and specialized in buying and selling fossils from the local rockhounds and collectors. If a new group of fossils started showing up, he was generally the first to know.
"Yes, we did. He didn't seem to have much new, except one bone that might-might-have come from a dromeasaur or related species."
There was no mistaking the gleam in Jackie's eyes now. "Well, Jeff doesn't get all the good stuff. After the time I've spent working with you, I can spot the real winners out in the field if I run across them. Most of that stuff he gets is junk."
"Sure, you showed me your better pieces last year, too. Saves us having to bargain with Little for them."
"I've got something really nifty this year, I think. Came down in the year's runoff, and I think I've got a good idea where it came from. Be right back." Jackie trotted upstairs to fetch her prize.
Jackie's mother had come in from the kitchen by then. "Would you like some lemonade?" she asked. Then, gestured at the couches and armchairs scattered about the sprawling ranch-style living room. "And why don't you two sit down a spell before you go out there to start your digging?"
"Don't mind if I do," Joe said, sighing histrionically. "A chair that isn't bouncing up and down will be a comfort."
"Cut it out, Joe!"
Jackie came clattering down the stairs, holding something behind her. "Ready?"
"Let's see it."
* * *
A few minutes later, Helen looked up. "Joe, take a look at this."
Joe put down the lemonade Mrs. Secord had handed him, rose from the couch and joined Helen in staring at the object.
It resembled nothing so much as a large blackish shoehorn-Helen estimated it at around fifteen centimeters long and ranging from three to six centimeters wide, with a concave side and a little hook on the narrow end.
"Some kind of brachiopod relative?"
"Not one I'm familiar with. Look at these marks here."
Joe frowned, then took the object and studied it more closely. "Well, it's definitely a fossil, and ... Those sure look like muscle attachment scars. But what're they doing on both sides of this thing, if it's a shell? Should run down only one side, shouldn't they?"
"That'd be my expectation, too. But if this is a bone, why is it so thin and concave? I've never even heard of anything like that."
Joe was good at visualizing anatomy-much better than Helen, in fact, who always had to sit down and sketch it out a piece at a time. His face now screwed up in concentration. "If you had a ... no, no, that wouldn't make sense. Oh, but maybe ... no, not that either. I suppose if ..."
He turned the fossil over, examining the backside carefully. "Darn. No sign of it being a piece of something else, either, which might have explained it." He turned it over and over a couple more times, shifting his point of view as though it might suddenly become an obvious and familiar fossil from some different angle, then handed it back to Helen.
"Okay, you win, Jackie. I'm beat. Do you know what it is?"
Jackie shook her head, looking excited and trying not to-after all, she wasn't a high school girl any longer, and hadn't been for a number of years. "No, not really. I knew it didn't look like anything I'd seen before, but I was sure you people would know right away. Are you guys putting me on? You really, truly don't know what it is?"
"Really, truly, Jackie," Helen said. "I've never seen anything like it, or heard of anything like it. You say you know where you found it?"
Jackie looked hurt. "Of course I do, Helen! Haven't I been keeping a journal since my second year doing this?"
"I'm sorry. I should have said: will you show us where you found it, and where you think it came from?"
"Of course. Let me get my hiking boots on, and we'll go out there now."
* * *
"There" turned out to be a few miles out, not all that far from the old dig site, but to the northwest up a small arroyo. "I found it lying over here, half under some sand. I think it washed down from somewhere up the arroyo."
Helen measured the area by eye, trying to visualize the rains, the wash coming down, the size of the fossil.
She thought Jackie was right. "Let's go up a ways, then, and see if we find anything."
* * *
Luck, luck, luck.
The word kept repeating itself over and over in Helen's mind, as she stood there looking at the wall of the arroyo in a state of half-shock.
"Jesus Christ," Joe repeated for the fifth time, finally straightening up from his examination. "Helen, that's a Deinonychus, or I'm just a first-year student."
"And if the rest is in the same condition, we've got ourselves a fully-articulated skeleton."
Amateur or not, Jackie understood how very rare that was, and her excitement was only restrained by an attempt to be more professional and dignified than the professionals around her. Theropod skeletons, like the Deinonychus, were rare enough to be noteworthy, but fully-articulated skeletons-skeletons that had remained pretty much connected as they had been in life-were vanishingly rare.
Helen glanced down the arroyo, frowning. "Odd, though."
She pulled out the unknown fossil. "If this came from here, there's no way it's a shell. Not of a water-dweller, anyway."
Joe nodded. "These are land formations; late Cretaceous, maybe even Maastrichtian."
"No 'maybe,' involved, Joe. Look at where your hand is."
Joe looked at the rock wall he'd been leaning against. "What-"
He suddenly started laughing. "You can't be serious, Helen! It's like pulling three jackpots in a row at Vegas!"
"What is it?" Jackie asked, seeing the narrow, dark band both Joe and Helen were staring at. Then she whipped around, eyes wide. "You mean ...?"
"Yes." Helen was hardly able to believe it herself. "It looks like our fossil is sitting right smack on the K-T boundary."
"Where the comet-um, sorry." Jackie caught herself before finishing the sentence. She tended to forget that the Alvarez Hypothesis was a still a touchy subject for a lot of paleontologists, even if she herself thought it was a darn neat idea. "Yes, where the comet." Helen said the words in a half-snort, half-chuckle.
Fortunately for Jackie, Helen was less hostile to the Alvarez Hypothesis than most members of her profession. She didn't doubt at all that an impact had happened at the K-T Boundary, which marked the end of the Mesozoic Era. She simply questioned whether it had the world-wide cataclysmic effects that the hypothesis proposed. There were other impact craters about as big as the one in Yucatan, after all. The Manicouagan, to name just one. But they'd had no discernable ecological effects at all; not even regional ones, so far as anyone could determine.
Nor had anyone ever really explained, to Helen's satisfaction, exactly how the impact had killed off so many species. Nor the peculiar mechanism by which it had killed off some, but not others. In what mystifying manner, for instance, had it killed off all ammonites-but spared their close relatives, the squids and the octopi? These were the sort of nitty-gritty questions that paleontologists focused on, and that physicists tended to ignore.
Still, she was willing to entertain it as a valid and testable hypothesis. In truth, she'd privately admit to herself, Helen's residual animosity toward the Alvarez Hypothesis was emotional rather than intellectual. Like most paleontologists, she was often rankled by the over-bearing arrogance of many of the physicists who were so charmed by the hypothesis and took it as Revealed Truth. When they pontificated on the subject, physicists tended to dismiss the inconvenient facts paleontologists kept bringing up, much like an exasperated adult brushes aside the foolish questions of little children.
One of those facts, however, was that there was no evidence that any dinosaur had survived till the end of the Cretaceous. But now ...
It looked as if they'd found the evidence.
"Yes, where the comet," she repeated.
She dusted her hands off on her jeans, and straightened up. "It's going to be a hike back and it'll be getting dark in a few hours. Even if it weren't, we can't do anything yet. This is on your folks' land, Jackie. We'll have to get their permission to dig here, and I've absolutely got to call the Museum of the Rockies. Probably a few other people."
She took a long, slow breath. "This is going to be a big dig, Jackie. Whatever your funny fossil is, it's led us to the mother lode."
* * *
That night, on the telephone from her motel room, she conveyed her excitement to the director of the Museum of the Rockies. It wasn't hard, actually. Ever since the days of Jack Horner, the Museum had prided itself on its eminence in the world of paleontology, especially dinosaur paleontology. The director immediately grasped the significance of finding what appeared to be an articulated velociraptor skeleton on the very edge of the K-T boundary. He promised to give her the full support of the museum.
In fact, he even came out himself, three days later. By then, Helen, Joe, and Jackie had been joined by Carol Danvers and Bill Ishihara, the other members of Helen's team. Three days of careful digging had uncovered the entire lower half of the fossil. And, in the process, had found the leg bone of another velociraptor underneath it, the body apparently extending off to the side of the first.
Helen heard the footsteps coming up behind her, but continued scraping away. The smell of chipped rock, a dusty hot scent that always reminded her of striking flints, lingered strongly in the bright heat of a Montana summer.
She finished freeing the small round stone that had been in her way, then stood up, dusting off her hands before extending one for a handshake. "Hello, Director Bonds."
Bonds was sweating and trying not to show how winded he was from the walk. He'd been quite a field scientist himself before he became director of the museum, and was probably a little embarrassed to discover how far out of shape he was from a few years of chair-warming.
At a gesture of invitation from Helen, he squatted at the edge of the work area, the others clearing out of the way. "Marvelous. Simply marvelous. A death scene, you think?"
Helen scratched her chin thoughtfully. "Too early to tell. There's something ... Well, let me hold off before I jump to conclusions. But look at this. See? That's the K-T boundary, all right. There's no doubt about it."
"Jesus." The director was practically bouncing up and down in restrained professional excitement. "No-one's ever found a dinosaur this close to the boundary!" "Close?" demanded Helen. "It's not close. It's right on it."
Excerpted from Boundary by Eric Flint Ryk Spoor Copyright ©2006 by Eric Flint & Ryk Spoor. Excerpted by permission.
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