End of An Era
Professor Cope's errors will continue to invite correction, but these, like his blunders, are hydra-headed, and life is really too short to spend valuable time in such an ungracious task.
--Othniel Charles Marsh, paleontologist (1831-1899)
I will correct [Marsh's] errors, and I expect the same treatment. This should not excite any personal feelings in any person normally or properly constituted; which unfortunately Marsh is not. He makes so many errors, and is so deficient that he will always be liable to excitement and tribulation. I suspect a Hospital will yet receive him.
--Edward Drinker Cope, paleontologist (1840-1897)
Fred, who lives down the street from me, has a cottage on Georgian Bay. One weekend he went up there alone and left his tabby cat back home with his wife and kids. The damned tabby ran in front of a car right outside my townhouse. Killed instantly.
Fred loved that cat, and his wife knew he'd be upset when she told him what had happened. But when he got back Sunday evening, he said he already knew the cat was dead--because, according to the version of the story I eventually heard over my back fence, he'd seen his cat up at the cottage, two hundred kilometers away. The tabby had appeared to him one last time to say good-bye.
I always looked at Fred a little differently after I'd heard that. I mean, it was fantastic, and fantastic things don't happen in normal lives. Certainly they don't happen to people like me.
Or so I thought.
I'm a paleontologist; a dinosaur guy. Some might think that's glamorous, I suppose, but it sure doesn't pay glamorously. Oh,about twice a year, I get my name in the paper or five seconds on CBC Newsworld, commenting on a new exhibition or some new find. But that's about it for excitement. Or at least it was, until I got involved in this project.
I feel like an idiot typing those two words. I'm afraid anyone who reads them will start looking at me the way I look at poor Fred.
Sure, by now everyone has probably read about the mission in the papers, or seen the preparations on TV. Yeah, it really works. Ching-Mei Huang has demonstrated it enough times. And, yes, it's incredible, absolutely incredible, that she went from a first discovery of the underlying principle in 2005 to a working time machine by 2013. Don't ask me how she did it so fast; I don't have a clue. In fact, sometimes I don't think Ching-Mei has a clue, either.
But it works.
Or, at least, the first Throwback worked; the automated probe returned with air samples (a little more oxygen than today, no pollution, and, fortunately, no harmful germs), plus about four hours' worth of pictures, showing lots of foliage and, at one point, a turtle.
But now we're going to try it with human beings; if this test works, a bigger mission, with everyone from meteorologists to entomologists, will be sent back next year.
But for this attempt, only two people were going back, and one of them was me: Brandon Thackeray, forty-four, a little paunchy, a lot gray, a goddamned civil servant, a museum curator. Yes, I'm also a scientist. Got a Ph.D.--from an American university, to boot--and I suppose it makes sense that it would be a scientist who'd go gallivanting across time. But I'm not an adventurer. I'm just a regular guy, with quite enough to deal with, thank you very much, without something like this. An ailing father, a divorce, a mortgage that I might be able to payoff by the beginning of the next geologic era, hay fever. Regular stuff.
But this was far from regular.
We were hanging by a thread.
Okay, it was really a steel cable, about three centimeters thick, but it didn't give me any more reassurance.
And I wished that damned swaying would stop.
Our time machine had been lifted up by a Sikorsky Sky Crane, and was now hanging a thousand meters above the stark beauty of the Badlands of Alberta. The pounding of the helicopter's engines thundered in my ears.
I wished that noise would stop, too.
But most of all, I wished Klicks would stop.
Stop being an asshole, that is.
He wasn't really doing anything. Just lying there in his crash couch, on the other side of the semicircular chamber. But he's so smug, so goddamned smug. The couch is like a high-tech La-Z-Boy upholstered in black vinyl and mounted on a swivel base. Your feet are lifted up, your spine tips at an angle, and a tubular headrest supports your noggin. Well, Klicks had his legs crossed at the ankle and his arms interlaced behind his head. He looked so bloody calm. I knew he was doing it just to bug me.
I, on the other hand, was gripping the armrests of my crash couch like one of those poor souls who are afraid to fly.
It was about two minutes until the Throwback.
It should work.
But it might not.
In two minutes we could be dead.
And he had his legs crossed.
"Klicks," I said.
He looked over at me. We were almost exactly the same age, but opposites in a lot of ways. Not that it matters, but I'm white and he's black--he was born in Jamaica and came to Canada asa boy with his parents. (I always marveled that anyone would leave that climate for this one.) He's clean-shaven and hasn't started to gray yet. I've got a full beard, have lost about half my hair, and what's left is about evenly split between gray and brown. He's taller and broader-shouldered than me, plus, despite having a job that involves as much time at a desk as mine does, he's somehow avoided middle-age spread.
But most of all, we're opposites in temperament. He's so cool, so laid-back, that even when he's standing he gives the impression of being stretched out somewhere, tropical drink in hand.
Me, I think I'm getting ulcers.
Anyway, he looked in my direction, his face a question. "Yeah?"
I didn't know what I had intended to say. After a moment, I blurted out, "You really should put on your shoulder straps."
"What for?" he replied in that too-smooth voice of his. "If the programmed stasis delay works, it won't matter if I'm standing on my head when they rev up the Huang Effect. And if it doesn't work ..." He shrugged. "Well, man, those straps will slice you like a hard-boiled egg."
Typical. I sighed and pulled my straps tighter, the thick nylon bands reassuringly solid. I saw him smile, just a bit--but also just enough so that he could be sure that I would see the smile, the patronizing expression.
A crackle of static from the radio speaker fought to be heard above the sounds of the helicopter, then: "Brandy, Miles, are you ready?" It was the precise voice of Ching-Mei Huang herself, measured, monotonal, clicking over the consonants like a series of circuit breakers.
"Ready and waiting," Klicks said, jaunty.
"Let's get it over with," I said.
"Brandy, are you okay?" asked Ching-Mei.
"I'm fine," I lied, wishing I had a bucket to throw up into. The swaying back and forth was getting to me. "Just do it, will you?"
"As you say," she replied. "Sixty seconds to Throwback. Good luck--and God protect." I was sure that little reference to God was for the sake of the network cameras. Ching-Mei was an atheist; she only had faith in empirical data, in experimental results.
I took a deep breath and looked around the small room. His Majesty's Canadian Timeship Charles Hazelius Sternberg. Great name, eh? We'd had a list of about a dozen paleontologists we could have honored, but old Charlie won out because, in addition to his pioneering fossil hunting in Alberta, he'd actually written a science-fiction story about time travel, published in 1917: The PR people loved that.
Ching-Mei's voice over the radio speakers: "Fifty-five. Fifty-four. Fifty-three."
Anyway, nobody ever calls it His Majesty's Canadian, Etc. Instead, our timeship is almost universally known as the Sternberger, because to most people it looks like a fat hamburger. To me, though, it looks more like a squat version of the Jupiter 2, the spaceship from that ridiculous TV series Lost in Space. Just like the Space Family Robinson's vehicle, the Sternberger was essentially a two-level disk. We even had a little dome on the roof like they did. Ours housed meteorological and astronomical instruments; there was room enough for one person to squeeze into it.
"Forty-eight. Forty-seven. Forty-six."
The Sternberger was much smaller than the Jupiter 2, though--only five meters in diameter. Our lower deck wasn't designed for people; it was just 150 centimeters thick and consisted mostly of our water tank and part of the garage for our Jeep.
"Forty-one. Forty. Thirty-nine."
Our upper deck was divided into two halves, each semicircular in shape. One half contained the habitat. Along its curving outer wall was a kidney-shaped worktable, our radio console, and a compact laboratory unit crammed with geological andbiological instruments. The straight back wall, marking the ship's diameter line, had three doors built into it. Door number one--does anybody remember Monty Hall?--led to a little ladder that angled up into the rooftop instrumentation dome and to a ramp that went down the meter and a half to the outer entrance door. Door number two led to the Jeep's garage, which took up the height of both decks. Door number three gave access to the washroom stall.
"Thirty-four. Thirty-three. Thirty-two."
Mounted against the central wall in the gaps between the doorways were a small stand with an old microwave oven on it, a large food refrigerator, a bank of three equipment lockers swiped from some high school demolition sale, and a small medical refrigerator with a first-aid kit on top. Bolted to the floor were the swivel bases for our two crash couches.
A time machine.
An actual time machine.
I just wish I knew exactly where it was going to take me.
"Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight. Twenty-seven."
The Huang Effect was accurate to one-half of one percentage point--a minuscule imprecision. But given that we were casting back from A.D. 2013 to 65.0 million years ago, a half-point error could plop us as much as 330,000 years into the Cenozoic, much too late to determine just what had caused the worldwide extinctions at the end of the previous era, the Mesozoic.
"Twenty-four. Twenty-three. Twenty-two."
My analyst says I'm going to excessive lengths to prove I'm right and Klicks is wrong. Thank God for socialized medicine--there's no way I could afford to stubbornly disbelieve Dr. Schroeder month after month if the government health plan weren't picking up the bills for my therapy. Besides, it's more than just me versus Klicks. If we don't miss our target, this trip might clear up an enduring scientific mystery, something that he and I and hundreds of others had argued for years throughthe pages of Nature and Science and The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
"Nineteen. Eighteen. Seventeen."
The government of Alberta had wanted us to launch from Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. But the fossils found there were from a time 10 million years before the end of the age of dinosaurs. We'd gone upstream along the Red Deer River to a formation from the latest late Maastrichtian--right at the end of the Cretaceous. But to make the government happy, Ching-Mei had established her control center at the Tyrrell Field Station inside Dinosaur Provincial Park.
"Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven."
The distance between the center of the Earth and ground level here in the Red Deer valley might have changed by several hundred meters in the last 65 million years. Unfortunately, the geomorphologists working on this project couldn't agree on whether the landforms would have shifted up or down during that timespan. To avoid the possibility of our ship arriving underground--killing us, of course, not to mention causing one hell of an explosion as matter tried to force itself inside of other matter--the Sternberger had been hauled a kilometer above the Badlands by the Sikorsky. Just before Ching-Mei threw the switch to activate the Huang Effect, we would be cut loose. The interior of the Sternberger would lock into stasis--a stopped-time condition, the first creation of which had won Ching-Mei a Nobel Prize in 2007--until ten minutes after we arrived in the Mesozoic. Plenty of time, supposedly, for us to come crashing to the ground and for the mountain of debris we would kick up on impact to rain out of the sky.
That's the theory, anyway.
"Seven. Six. Five."
I thought of something funny in those last few seconds. If I did die, my will still named Tess as my beneficiary. Not that I owned much of value--just a beat-up Ford and the townhousein Mississauga--but it seemed strange that my ex-wife would get it all. I guess that would be all right if both Klicks and I died, but I didn't like to think of just me buying it. After all, since Tess had taken up with Klicks--just how long had they been seeing each other, anyway?--my estate would in essence go to him, too. That's the last thing I wanted.
"TWO. ONE. ZERO!"
My stomach lurched as the cable was released--
Copyright © 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer Revised edition copyright 2001 by Robert J. Sawyer