Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Death in the Cretaceous

Jim Ketchum's first sensation after arriving was the smell of rotting vegetation. The air was so thick with it that the stink clung to his skin. Tropical heat filled his lungs each time he took in air.
Over-sized insects, heavy with waste and other food, flitted this way and that, buzzing and thrumming with odd little wings. Foot-long dragonflies zigged and zagged above the grass, grabbing prey out of the air.
Ketchum recognized them as Protolindenia wittei, the ancestors of the large dragonflies that fed along creeks on his Virginia mountain property back home. In the future.
Ketchum had ridden "The Lightning"--the nickname for the time machine his science group had designed--all the way to the Cretaceous period. It was Saturday back at the other end, mid-morning. Here it was a nameless morning on an Earth without human beings. The earliest proto-humans, 3-foot-tall Homo gautengensis--would not emerge from the tree lines of southern Africa for another 66 million years. Seventy thousand centuries lay between him and the weekend he left behind not more than 15 minutes ago.
And now here he was, a mid-level government scientist with a family and two cars in his garage. He had materialized just outside a dark forest at the top of a gently sloping plain, which he now scanned with his binoculars. Midway across the plain, a silver river meandered beneath tall pines and acacia along its banks. A hundred miles away, the horizon rose tens of thousands of feet into a series of jagged peaks. The range marched southwest, a line of volcanic plumes at the limits of his sight.
The atmosphere at this point of the earth's geologic history was 15 percent carbon dioxide, much thicker than the 7 percent carbon dioxide back home. The rich oxygen content enabled the creatures of the Cretaceous age to achieve gigantism, a thought that unsettled Ketchum and reminded him to stay alert. The rich air had other consequences, one of which was quite beautiful. The Cretaceous sky was a much deeper blue, almost cobalt, so the landscape was striking in its contrast. The rich air also made it harder for Ketchum to breathe. It would take some time for his body to adjust, but his training had prepared him to conserve energy until he felt better.
High-pitched animal calls boomed deep in the forest behind him. The calls, a series of hooting barks, had authority, power, and intent.
Ketchum froze. He faced forward, but his hearing was tuned to the towering canopy and dark forest floor behind him. He thought of his former colleague, Jeff Brister, who had battled a sub-adult pterosaur on a cliff in southern China before falling to his death. Ketchum's bladder urged him to flee, but after some minutes of silent prayer (God, too, was 70 million years in the future) he turned slowly, pivoting on the balls of his feet, ready to make a run for it.
He scanned the base of the trees for movement. The tightly-packed conifers rose some two hundred feet in straight columns. Sunlight barely pierced the canopy of trees, so Ketchum had to wait for his eyes to adjust.
He saw one of the trees lift from the soil and noted with confusion that it had no roots.
Something blocked the sun, then enveloped him from the top of his head to his waist. He was lifted into a stinking, wet darkness; then his legs dropped away. As he died, Ketchum realized with horror that he had materialized under the shadow of a large carnivore, probably a tyrannosaur.
The scientist had died on the wrong side of a Saturday morning, delivered like a pizza to a hungry dinosaur.


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