Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Extinct Fauna of the High Malafan
    by Alter S. Reiss

Extinct Fauna of the High Malafan
Artwork by Dean Spencer

It started with an eight-inch-long sickle-shaped tooth, badly damaged by treatment and time. This was three years after the Acts of Union, and I was leading a survey of the old border region, something that hadn't been possible during the Auslander wars. We had passed the word around that we were looking for fossils, but we hadn't gotten many; the old border is ghost-ridden, and there are other uses for fossils than paleontology.

Still, there was a constant trickle of finds, some from people with a real interest in the field, and some from people who wanted to show that the old borders had the best of everything, even if it meant giving up a pound or two of fossilized bone.

There were three of us conducting that survey: Renner Bock, a student at the University of Ralport; Dant Corder, a Necromancer of the Grey Orb School; and myself, Orn Hapt. At the time, I was director of the Acquisition Department of the Paleontology Wing of the Republican Museum at Halbston. The department in question was a desk, a telephone, and two old file cabinets, but it was an impressive enough title that it opened a few doors that otherwise would have remained shut.

In Talapathas, a town that was little more than a stock-buying station and a pair of saloons, the pickings were even slimmer than average. We set up at a table in the back of the larger saloon, and spent a day and a half looking at nothing. A pair of natives brought the carved-down remains of a brace-wing's forelimb, and were deeply offended when we didn't want to pay them twice what it was worth. Other than that, there were unrecognizable bone fragments, a chambered swimmer's shell, and some rocks that weren't even close to being fossils.

We were about ready to pack things up when the rancher came in, carrying an old coffee-can, half filled with cotton wadding. He eased the tooth out, and we all perked up. This was something worthwhile, at last.

"Broad toothed coffin-mouth?" asked Renner, who had the worst view.

"Don't think so," I said, passing it over to Corder. "It's coming out, to the side, and I've never seen a coffin-mouth with --"

"This is something new," said Corder. His eyes were closed, and the tooth was resting on his finger-tips. "Not a coffin-mouth. Something much smaller, maybe five feet tall."

"Five feet!" said Renner. Corder was a good enough necromancer that we couldn't argue with what the bone had told him, but it was a little much to choke down. "That tooth's more than half a foot long itself."

"We got a lot of teeth like that," said the rancher, who had been watching us bemusedly. "Bones, also. In the rocks that wash down out of the High Malafan during the spring flooding."

That was almost as interesting as the tooth. The most common fossil-bearing rocks in the old border region are limestones and shales, with most of the shales producing finds that predate terrestrial vertebrates. The High Malafan was a largely unexplored patch of badlands, and according to the cursory pre-war survey, the underlying geology of the area was almost entirely sandstone and shale. If it was as rich in fossils as the rancher was suggesting, that was an entirely unrecorded period in the history of the region.

We spent the rest of that month poking around the edges of the High Malafan, and decided to attempt a more thorough investigation of those badlands on the basis of what we found. It took some back-and-forth with Halbston before the museum agreed with my assessment, but once that was settled we were jouncing out along ranch trails in a pair of surplus army jeeps loaded down with picks, hammers, tanks of clean water and gasoline, and all the other necessities for a month of field work.

The High Malafan is a region nearly twelve hundred square miles in area, with very little in the way of roads. State Road 279 marks the northern edge, and aside from that, there are a few rancher's tracks, which peter out once they reach the badlands proper. Our only option was to follow one of the dry watercourses, which was taking a very real risk if we happened to get caught in a flash-flood. The finds from around the region were good enough that we brought along a high-powered radio to track the weather service warnings, and hoped for the best.

Almost as soon as we left the ranches of the Tiqueron valley, fossil remains were plentiful and immediately apparent. There was a nearly complete coiling serpent skeleton up on one of the hillsides; while we didn't have the resources to extract a skeleton more than fifty feet long, it was certainly an arresting sight. The deeper we went into the High Malafan, the more concentrated the surface finds became, enough to make it clear that we'd never be able to finish a complete survey of the region, not with two hundred men and fifty years.

Not that we were discouraged by that plenty.

As soon as we found a clear patch of high ground, we made our camp and got to work. Some of the bones were sound enough to simply be packed away, but most of the remains were extremely brittle, and required careful treatment with consolidant before they could be lifted safely. Unfortunately, Corder smoked incessantly. He had to stay close to quiet the ghosts of the dinosaurs we were excavating, and there were a couple of times I was sure he'd go up in a blast of combustible vapor from our aerosol sprayer.

If it had been anyone else, I would have taken a stronger line about his cigarette habit, but it's not easy to find a necromancer with a genuine interest in paleontology, let alone one who was as expert as Corder. Most expeditions rely on a ghostfinder and some prepared wards, but that wouldn't have done much good in the High Malafan; it was as haunted a region as any I've ever seen.

It wasn't just the fading ghosts which our excavations stirred up that were a problem. Ghosts of natives and borderers stalked those hills and canyons, as well as ghosts of countless animals, some of which have been extinct since before the continent was settled. I saw the spectral remains of ground sloths and of armadillos larger than our jeeps nosing around the wards that Corder planted.

Which isn't the only reason that I didn't object to strongly about Corder and his nicotine habit. The museum had funded this expedition partially because of several experiments that Corder had proposed. When we found a pair of complete skeletons of the sickle-toothed dinosaurs that had brought us to the region, it seemed as good a time as any to try one of them.

The skeletons were laid one atop the other in a matrix of fine-grained yellow sandstone; at a guess, they had drowned in the same flood.

We extracted the upper skeleton, laid it out as best we could down in the watercourse, and waited until high noon, to avoid interference with local spirits. Corder drew a circle around the skeleton, and got to work. Renner was in charge of the movie camera, while I held a shotgun loaded with fossil gravel and bone powder, in case things went awry.

While I had been working in the field for some years, recreations of this sort are attempted so rarely that I had never had the opportunity to witness one myself. They require untouched remains, and a profoundly skilled necromancer, neither of which are in any great supply, and which are found in conjunction even less frequently. Despite my concerns about Corder's smoking, he was as good a necromancer as any I've ever met; just a few seconds after he poured out the pigeon blood and completed the circle, the bones of the sickle-tooth whitened until they gleamed, and gradually gathered sinew and muscle from the dust around them. The skin came in as well, first in patches, and then a complete coat. Finally, a crest of feathers came in at the back of the dinosaur's head and along its legs.

For a moment, it lay there, and I thought of going to Corder, and congratulating him on his success, when the dinosaur's eyes opened. Corder had told us that this was possible, which was part of the reason why I had my shotgun ready, but I hadn't actually expected an animal dead for more than one hundred and twenty million years to be revivable. I readied the gun and waited as the dinosaur scrabbled up to its feet.

As Corder had predicted from the tooth, it stood a hair over five feet tall, with those hook-shaped incisors jutting out and to the side of its mouth. It was a light, gracile creature, but it seemed uncertain of its footing, staggering and scratching at the dirt where it had risen, blinking fully nictitating membranes.

Just then a jackrabbit, unnerved by these proceedings, broke cover. The dinosaur's head swiveled, it tensed, and then it was off, legs churning up clouds of dust.

I had the gun up to my shoulder, but held off from firing. It wasn't threatening any of us, and Renner was still filming; that film would be worth everything the expedition had cost, and more -- it would answer questions it would take a generation of looking at bones to even ask.

The rabbit bounded from side to side, and the dinosaur followed, its head staying perfectly straight, despite the contortions of the chase, almost as though it had a gyroscopic stabilizer. Then it was upon the rabbit, just as it crossed the patch of dirt where it had first been raised. It caught it with one of its feet. The head stabbed down, the tooth went through the animal's neck, killed it instantly. It tore off a bite, tossed its head back to gulp it down, and Corder's spell collapsed. The dinosaur was bone for just a moment, and then it was nothing but dust.

Almost as soon as that dust had settled, both Corder and I rushed over to Renner, to make sure that the film was properly sealed, and then we spent the rest of the afternoon arguing about what we had seen.

I thought that the feathered crest was used for stabilization, and we debated the extent to which that was possible. None of us had gotten a good view of the kill, but judging by the remains of the jackrabbit, it had been killed by a single tooth. If the hook-tooth's usual prey was about the size of the rabbit, which seemed a fair assumption given how expertly it had dispatched the one it had flushed from cover, perhaps the second tooth was a reserve, to keep it from starving if something happened to its preferred tooth.

Renner wasn't convinced that the hook-tooth was primarily a hunter of small animals. His theory was that it was better suited for hunting large prey, perhaps even the ten or fifteen ton monsters with whom it shared the fern prairies. In the course of the hunt, the dinosaur took a powerful leap to keep the rabbit from getting to cover. As Renner saw it, that's what the hook-tooth's legs were best at -- they could leap up on a larger dinosaur, and use the reach of those teeth to stab at vulnerable points. It was an interesting idea, but we weren't likely to be able to test it; there was some talk of bringing out a cow or a horse the next time Corder tried another revivification, but if the High Malafan had been good country for cattle, any fossils we could reach would already have been harvested.

Corder was troubled by the way the dinosaur had stood, at first, and by its scrabblings in the dust. "I don't know," he said. The hook-tooth had killed the jackrabbit in the same spot, and Corder squatted down over the little patch of sand and dried blood, lightly touched one of the claw-marks. "There's a meaning there, but, hell. It's not like I don't know the language; it's like I don't understand the concept of speech." Whatever it was, he didn't catch it then, or on any of the other ten times he went back to see that patch of dirt.

Even though Corder wasn't one to brag, he had to admit that the revivification was a terrific achievement. Ghosts are insubstantial things, with the details coming as much from the viewers' minds as from the spirit. This had been a dinosaur made flesh, with real muscle moving under real skin, and we had it on film.

We had brought along a pony keg of beer as part of our provisions, and we had a fair portion of that during our celebrations. More than we should have, certainly.

When I woke the next morning, Corder was dead, stabbed through the throat.

He had been sleeping out under the stars, next to one of the jeeps, and the sandstone was brown with blood when we woke. I was out of my tent at about the same time as Renner, and we both ran over to where Corder lay. It was just the three of us, out in the wilderness, but we had been working together long enough that I didn't have the slightest suspicion that Renner would have done something like that. The first thing that he said when he saw what had happened was, "Irreconcilables?"

"Could be," I replied. Those Auslanders and natives who didn't accept the Acts of Union had taken that name, and were still committing atrocities along the old border and elsewhere. The High Malafan was wild enough country to make a good refuge, and we had been sleeping soundly enough to make good targets.

I knelt beside Corder, and tried to make sense of the wound. The stab was deep enough that it had exposed two of his cervical vertebrae, and while I wasn't an expert, it looked like it had been a single stroke. My military service had been mostly uneventful, but I had been in a skirmish or two. I had seen death before. Never someone I had known as well as Corder. The creases of his face were relaxed in death, and just looking at his face and ignoring anything else, I might have thought he was sleeping.

"The other fossil skeleton is gone," said Renner.

"What the devil?" I asked, getting up. He was right. There had been a second dinosaur underneath the one we had extracted for Corder, and now there wasn't. I looked for tool marks near where it had lain, and couldn't find anything. No pick marks, no chisel marks, nothing. The bones had been lifted with only minimal disturbance to the matrix around them.

I shook my head. "I don't understand this," I said. "But we have to get Corder buried." Ghost can be bad trouble, and a necromancer's ghost is a fearful thing. While Corder had been reasonably well disposed towards us during his life, I didn't want to risk any hidden hostility coming out now that he was dead. The natural thing to do was cremation, but there was going to be an investigation, and if the corpse wasn't there to tell its story to the state necromancers, it'd look bad for us.

"Buried?" asked Renner. "Where?"

He had a point; we had camped on a rock outcropping, and we didn't have the time to chip a grave out of the solid stone. "The river bed," I said.

"But --" started Renner.

"But we don't have anywhere else, and I don't want to stay out here without a necromancer."

We dug the grave for Corder in the hardpan river bed, and laid in fossil powder over his head, heart, and liver. When we were done, a series of ghost bellows from over the next rise reminded us just how vulnerable we were without Corder, so we packed up what remained of our camp, and headed back to civilization.

We tried to head back to civilization, anyway.

The shallow canyons of the High Malafan made a maze that had seemed simple enough going in, but which proved surprisingly complicated to escape. After a full day of travel without making obvious progress, we found what felt like a downward slope, and figured we'd follow that out to the farms of the Tiqueron valley.

The hills seemed to smooth out as we went, but we didn't see any of the landmarks of the Tiqueron, or any sign of human habitation. When we stopped for a bit of lunch, Renner was distracted by some of the vegetation that marked the edge of the watercourse.

"Pig apple?" I asked, coming over to see what he had found.

"Not hardly," he said, passing over a flower that he had cut.

I looked, and he was right. It was nothing like a pig apple. There wasn't any distinction between the sepals and the petals, and it had a strange, musky fragrance.

"Some sort of magnolia?" Renner asked.

Of the three of us, Corder was the only one who could pass as a botanist. He'd have loved that find. We had been running scared all day, and I hadn't really had a chance to let things sink in. I missed him, then.

I shook my head. "Could be a relative of the magnolias," I said. "It's not in any field guide for the border that I've seen. May as well record and log it, now that we're out here."

Renner got to work at that, and I started poking around the other plants I could see. There was none of the characteristic vegetation of the border badlands; no crown-of-thorns, no whisperweed, no blue roses. There weren't even any grasses; just Renner's magnolia, and woody fern bushes. It was odd, and things only got odder the further we went.

After a time, there was water in the water course, though it was well out of season. We were forced to leave it, and shepherd the jeeps along on its verge; by this time, the stark cuts of the badlands had become rolling hills covered in red-green ferns. There wasn't any birdsong, either, but there was a constant insectile buzz, and an occasional distant booming that I couldn't recognize at all.

I signaled to Renner to stop, and we agreed that we had to turn back; without magical aid, it was too risky to explore somewhere as strange as the valley we had found.

However, despite the fact that we had reversed our course, we didn't seem able to leave the valley; the stream we had followed down turned into something else when we tried to follow it back out. It was wider, muddier, and it didn't take long before we were under a canopy of tall pines.

We parked the jeeps where the stream met a shallow, vegetation choked lake.

"What the hell is this, Doctor Hapt?" asked Renner as he got out of his jeep.

I shook my head. "A relict forest?" I suggested. The pines looked primitive enough, and while I wasn't a botanist, I had seen those needles before, caught in layers of slate.

"It can't --" he started, and then froze in place. Slowly, he pointed out to the lake, where something I had taken for a sunken log lay between patches of weeds. As we stood there, the log blinked an eye and submerged.

"That," said Renner, "was a coiling serpent. A live coiling serpent."

I couldn't deny it; the shape of the head, the flash of scales as it pulled back into the deeper water.

"Whatever's going on," said Renner, "I have to film this."

I couldn't argue with that, either.

While Renner busied himself with the movie equipment, I got out the radio, and fiddled with it, getting nothing more than the occasional blast of static.

Something that looked like a hornfrill was drinking at the other side of the lake. It took fright at the static and crashed off into the forest with a series of mournful hoots, and Renner looked up from his camera to give me a disgusted look.

"Just checking on when we are," I said, with a shrug. "Didn't get any good information."

"When we are?" asked Renner.

"Seems a reasonable question," I replied, nodding out towards a pair of brightly colored pterosaurs which had started chasing each other out over the lake. Renner's attention was instantly riveted. So was mine, for that matter. They looked to be something from the Sterson's lock-beak family, but I couldn't recognize the species. They were less agile in the air than birds, but agile enough to catch the large, slow moving dragonflies that hovered over the swamp.

With a start, I caught myself, and got to work setting up camp. The sun would be setting in less than an hour, and we were somewhere strange enough that it seemed worth taking precautions.

The ground was so muddy that it took most of that time to get the jeeps arranged to allow a space between them to set up our tent; not the most comfortable way to sleep, but it would block us from the view of most predators.

When I was done, the light had gone, so Renner joined me for a dinner of tinned beans.

Because it was a clear night, I was able to get a good look at the stars, and that answered one of my questions. The constellations were the same as those I had memorized in the scouts, and the same ones that had looked down on us during our excursion out into the High Malafan. If we were the ones who were out of our proper time, the stars would not yet have moved to their accustomed places in the sky.

Almost as soon as I finished explaining that to Renner, there was a sudden crash and one of the jeeps was lifted into the air, catapulted out of sight. We had the guns at our sides, and almost immediately, we opened fire.

There was enough moonlight to see that it was a broad-tailed coffin mouth, twelve feet tall at the hip, and long as a bus. The shotguns weren't doing any more than stinging it; we'd need artillery to do any serious harm.

Not that it liked the gunfire. It reared up and shrieked like a steam-whistle, and then it came down, snapping jaws big enough to cut a man in half. I was sure that we were going to die, but I kept loading and firing; there didn't seem anything else to do.

I wasn't paying close attention to my ammunition when I reloaded, and I happened to put in a load of fossil gravel and bone dust rather than lead shot. That did the trick, in a way that heavier ammunition hadn't; the whole front of the coffin-mouth disappeared with a single shot, and then the rest of the body melted away, disappeared.

I looked at Renner, and he looked at me, and neither of us had anything to say. That wasn't a ghost, not like any we had heard of. It had lifted the jeep, and tossed it more than twenty feet, which is far beyond what poltergism can accomplish. There had been gobs of saliva hanging from its jaw, and it had bled where the lead touched it. I had smelled it, I had felt the steam of its breath. Ghosts couldn't manage any of that, let alone all of it.

"That was the fossil-powder load, right?" asked Renner, after a time.

"Right," I replied.

"Are they all . . . is everything here revived? I mean --"

There was a thundering crash from the bank of the lake and I raised up my gun again; the coiling serpent threw itself forward, out of the water, and was disintegrated by another load of fossil powder.

"Seems so," I said.

We loaded up again, and waited. Then Renner fell back screaming, clutching his leg. There was a scrabbling in the dirt near him. Scorpion. I cracked one of my cartridges open, tossed the fossil gravel out in the mud around us. It caught the edge of the scorpion, which twisted up, convulsed, fell apart. The welt on Renner's leg was visible even in the moonlight, and spreading. I stepped over to him, pressed a fragment of bone to the center of the wound, and watched the welt clear, the poison gone.

Renner's breathing had gone ragged after the scorpion had hit, and it smoothed out after I put the fossil on him, but he didn't wake. I moved him up into the bench of our remaining jeep, and started pulling out boxes of finds, breaking the seals. When that was done, I joined him in the jeep, with a barricade of fossils all around us.

When I had stepped over to Renner, the ground had been dry where I had scattered the bits of fossil in the ghost-hunting cartridge. Acting on a hunch, I held a chunk of an Arnhelm's web-crest's knuckle to the antenna of the radio, and turned it on. The second verse of, "A Round, Round Girl in a Round, Round World," rolled out; it was very strange to hear something so contemporary on the banks of a primeval lake.

When I removed the fragment of a bone, the static rolled back in. I spent a few minutes fiddling with that, trying to gauge how much bone was needed, and how close it had to be, when Renner woke. He convulsed, grabbing for his leg, and then looked at me, surprised.

"It's all raised," I said. "All of it; trees and flowers, dinosaurs and pterosaurs, the scorpions, and the poison in their stings. Even the water in the mud has been brought back; when you lay down fossil dust, it dries."

Renner took the knuckle from me, and rolled it thoughtfully. "I can believe the coffin-mouth as a night hunting predator. I can even believe the coiling serpent as having been drawn out of the lake by the sounds of the fight. But that scorpion . . . it came after me, Doctor Hapt. That's not something that you expect from arthropods."

I nodded. "It could be that they had different behavior patterns in the past," I said.

"No." Renner shook his head. "No, there is something out there that raised up all of this, and it wants us dead."

"It could be that you're right," I said. "We'll sleep in the jeep, in watches."

We did, and while I wasn't entirely convinced by Renner's assertion, there were a couple of other attacks that night; another coffin-mouth, smaller than the first, managed to get within fifty feet of the jeep before breaking cover, and coming at us in a run, and later we were swarmed by mosquitoes; we had to send up clouds of fossil dust before we could drive them off.

It wasn't the most restful night I've ever enjoyed.

The next morning, the sun came up an angry red, through the steam that was rising off of the lake. The pterosaurs were chasing dragonflies out over the water, and a family of horn-fringes were bathing in the shallows. As Renner got back to filming, I took stock of the situation.

The jeep that the coffin-mouth had tossed wasn't going to be much use. The force of the throw had cracked the front axle, and there was no hope of salvaging the engine. The gas tank was still sound, so I spent much of the morning siphoning off fuel, and filling up the extra tanks on the one jeep we still had.

Finding our way back to civilization was going to be tricky. Our compasses were all right, once they were doused in fossil powder, but that was only part of the problem. The ground was muddy, where the fossil dust hadn't reached, really muddy, which meant that the water had been brought back from the distant past. Experiment established that other parts of the terrain would disappear on contact with fossil bone -- trees, obviously, but also rocks and clumps of mud. So even if Renner was wrong about the active malice on the part of the prehistoric terrain, an over-zealous application of our finds could send us plunging into a canyon or sinkhole.

Even if we powdered all of our finds, we didn't have enough raw material with us to clear a path all the way back to the Tiqueron, so we were going to have to travel on the prehistoric terrain at least some of the time. What was needed was some way of clearing the terrain ahead of us when we were faced with an obstacle we couldn't get past. It would have to spread dust over a large enough area for us to get through, without scattering it on the ground beneath us, and without wasting too much powder.

While Renner filmed a coiling serpent taking a horn-fringe, I did my best to remember everything I had ever learned in shop class. We had brought along a welding torch for repairs, and while my seams were clumsy, they got the job done; the passenger side of the jeep's front bench was soon graced with a god-awful contraption built from parts of the atomizer we used to spray fixative, the compressor from the ruined jeep's engine, and a metal water tank pounded into a hopper for fossil dust.

It took me several hours before the thing was working properly with the sand I had been using for testing, and even when I was finished, it certainly wasn't something I wanted to trust my life with. Not that I had a choice. "Time to strike camp, Renner," I said.

He nodded, and started folding up his camera equipment, doing his best to hide his reluctance. Truth was, I didn't want to interrupt him any more than he wanted to be interrupted. We had to turn our weeks of carefully collected finds into fossil powder, and when that was done, all we'd have left were our records, a few still photographs, and Renner's film canisters.

Unless we got out, that film wouldn't do either of us a lick of good, so we got to grinding. We only spared the latest of our finds, where the fixative hadn't completely dried. Everything else was turned into something as functional as Himmeltonner and Supp's Grade A Pulverized, and of as much use to paleontological science.

It was around noon when we were done, and if it hadn't been for the coffin-mouths, I'd have held off traveling until the next dawn. The hills around the lake were gentle enough, but if we used the dust, we'd be back in the High Malafan. Which is hard terrain under the best of circumstances, and when I managed to break through the static on the radio, the weather service was issuing a flash-flood warning for the whole old border. In the end, waiting seemed like a worse idea than a late start, so when we were done grinding, we set off.

While working on my dust thrower, I had all but concluded that Renner's feeling that we were facing an active opponent was in error. I hadn't faced anything worse than the occasional biting insect, and a young mace-tail, which fled when I clapped my hands at it.

Once we started moving, I was forced to change my mind. In the same way that some animals will only strike at moving prey, while our opponent had been content to let us be when we were stationary, things changed once we tried to leave.

The terrain kept trying to pull us back, trails looping back towards the lake, hills rising up to block us, cliffs coming up to herd us back in. It wasn't just geography; there were three attacks by mace-tails, one of which knocked the jeep halfway down a steep hill and into a pool of stagnant water, and two dive attacks by pterosaurs.

Renner was handling the driving, and I was manning my dust-casting contraption, with my shotgun wedged in between me and the door. It was my own fault, but the dust caster was terrifically unreliable, and while it could clear us a path, those paths could be pretty damn narrow. It was entirely to Renner Bock's credit that we got as far as we did, and as quickly; he made that old army jeep prance like a pony, going up and down slopes where I would have wrecked at half his speed.

I had just blasted us a path through a rocky cliffside, when I heard a rumble from off to the side.

"Hold off," I yelled.

There was a plains titan up on the ridge, with its shoulder against a rock that must have weighed fifty tons. There wasn't any hope of getting the dust caster around quickly enough, so I took a shot with the shotgun, as the boulder started bouncing down toward us.

My shot hit; I saw the speck of pink sandstone it dislodged. "Rock's real," I yelled.

Renner took a look, and mashed down on the gas. The boulder was far too big to avoid by backing up, but it was picking up speed quickly enough that trying to squeeze out ahead of it was going to be a near thing.

I couldn't do anything to help with that, so I took a shot at the titan. We were going twenty-five, maybe thirty miles an hour, and the rock was coming down at us faster than that, but the titan was big enough that I couldn't help but hit it.

It was so big that even a full load of fossil powder didn't bring it down. It made a crater big enough to park a truck in, and the titan keeled over on its side, bellowing in agony, but I hadn't killed it.

It hadn't killed us either; Renner got us through, although the boulder came near enough to scratch the paint on the rear of the jeep.

"Titans," he said, not looking up from the trail ahead of us, "were extinct a hundred and ten million years before the coffin-mouths evolved."

That was an angle that I hadn't considered. He was right, of course.

"Did you notice," I asked, "a couple of little guys leaping off the titan, after it was hit?"

"Had my attention elsewhere, at that point," said Renner, "but I think I did. And there was something familiar about the way they jumped."

We had been going fast, and I hadn't gotten a good view of them. But he was right; there had been something familiar about the way the way the smaller dinosaurs had leapt. They hadn't been attacking the titan, either.

"I told you there was something there after us," said Renner. "Those sickle-tooths are necromancers."

It was the only thing that made sense.

The one we had raised had made a pattern in the dirt, and then spilled the blood of the jackrabbit in that pattern. If it had raised the other sickle-tooth, that'd be a better explanation for the missing skeleton than any I had come up with. That one could have raised more.

"We've got other problems," I said. "Hear that?"

Renner looked across at me. "The dying titan?" he asked.

"Not just." The sounds had gotten louder, and deeper. "Thunder."

"Shit," said Renner. "Do you think it's real?"

I shook my head. "Don't know. But there was the weather report."

We were in an area of rolling sandy hills, dotted with whisperweed and Renner's magnolia. We were also in one of the badland watercourses -- we saw that whenever I had cause to use the dust sprayer. If that was a real storm coming, whatever it was that was trying to kill us could wait until the flood-waters came and smash us to nothing by letting go of the re-created terrain. Fossil dust might work against an ancient flood, but it'd do nothing against real water.

"It's a hell of a coincidence," said Renner. "If it is real, I mean."

"It might be weather magic." Human sorcerers had never managed to do much with the weather, but it could be the sickle-tooths were better than we were at calling storms. They certainly seemed to be better necromancers than anything mankind had produced.

"Could be illusion," said Renner.

A drop of water spatted down on the windshield of the jeep, then another. They didn't disappear when I applied the fossil dust.

"Want to chance it?" I asked.

Renner snarled, and I gave the terrain around us a spray of fossil powder. A hard pan river bed, with sheer rocks rising up on the sides, too steep for the jeep to climb. Not very promising.

"Try for somewhere else?" asked Renner.

The rain was coming down, turning the pale dirt brown. "We have to get to high ground," I said.

The water was real, and the storm had come up behind us. It wouldn't be long before the floodwaters followed.

We unloaded the jeep, carrying up everything we could, as the sounds of thunder grew closer and closer together, and the rain kept falling.

"We'll push the jeep up later," I told Renner, and I think we would have managed it, if it weren't for the harassment of the dinosaurs. Mace-tails came after us in twos and threes, and light-bodied hunting types were in among the boxes, pushing them back down into the canyon when our attention faltered.

They slowed us sufficiently that the jeep was less than halfway emptied when the flood came. I could see it coming like a snake, black debris and white foam, and I yelled down to Renner to hurry on up. He was carrying the movie camera and a couple of specimen boxes up the muddy slope, but he wasn't making much progress, and the flood was coming on fast. There were rocks and bits of wood rushing towards us, a long yellow-brown snake of water with a black dirt head.

There were beaked striders down in the riverbed with him, moving fast and light on their long legs. Another anomaly; they came from a time before the titans. While that lake shore had all been of a piece, it seemed that the sickle-tooths had been raising everything that they could find out in the High Malafan badlands, and that there was a lot to find.

I took my shot, nailed one of the striders. The other three paced in, headed for Renner.

"Forget the camera," I yelled, setting up another shot. He dropped it as I fired, and brought his own gun around. The camera dropped into the riverbed, shattering as it fell, and we took out the remaining striders, Renner shooting the last one as it came forward in a killing leap; they were no further than two feet apart when the gravel hit.

I hoisted him up just as the floodwaters reached the jeep. It turned as the water hit it; was steady for a few seconds, then rolled down with the flood, tumbling, smashing against the sides of the canyon as the water level rose, and the force increased, disappearing in the wash of brown.

"That's it," said Renner, watching it go. "We're not getting out."

"We're not dead yet," I replied. "I wouldn't think that we're more than twenty miles from the Tiqueron, at this point. When the flooding stops, we can --"

"Doesn't matter," said Renner. "Not with those sickle-tooths hunting us. So long as we had the jeep, we could outpace them. Now . . . hell, we've even lost most of our fossil powder."

I had to admit, it didn't look good. The sickle-tooths hadn't tried the scorpion trick a second time, and that was probably because by the time the scorpion was raised, we'd be beyond where it could catch us. On foot, it'd be harder to avoid things like that.

There were striders up on the opposite bank of the canyon, hissing at us. One of them took a run in our direction, blindingly fast. We had lost a lot of ammunition with the jeep, so I held off firing as it leapt. Like I hoped, it couldn't clear the canyon. It landed in the floodwater, and was carried off, screaming in agony until it hit a rock and was still.

"They don't like the water," said Renner. "Probably the fossil dust in it."

Made sense, given how rich the High Malafan was in finds. That was probably why the sickle-tooths had let the recreated terrain drop -- that, or the fact that we weren't going anywhere any time soon.

"Maybe we can wade out, once the rain lets up," I said.

"Maybe," said Renner, "But it's not as though it died until it hit that rock."

I nodded, and took a brief walk around the knob of rock we had found ourselves on. There was water at our backs, as well -- another channel for the rainwater pouring down off the High Malafan. For the moment, we were safe.

"Hell of a rain," I said, coming back to our pitifully small pile of possessions.

Renner nodded, looking across to where the striders were still hissing. "Enjoy it while it lasts," he said. "They're going to be ready for us as soon as it's done."

There was a coffin mouth already up and moving, and while some of the noises in the distance were thunder, others were the bellows of titans, and the stamp of their feet.

"Do you want to try packing up the film, some of the other finds, and sending them downstream?" asked Renner.

Justified or not, I wasn't enjoying his pessimism. "Nah," I said. "The sickle-tooths will just smash it up; we're going to have to --"

"Them?" said Renner. "I doubt that they knew what tools were until we started shooting at them. They're not going to recognize film cannisters as something that could hurt them."

That was an interesting theory; seemed to cover the facts as we knew them. It might even explain why they had gone after Corder, and left the rest of us be. If the only tool they knew was magic, they might not have recognized Renner or me as sapient. Still.

"If it's not the sickle-tooths, it'll be some rancher salvaging the film for the silver value. We'll walk them out ourselves."

Renner shrugged, and started organizing what we had taken out of the jeep, giving me time to consider exactly how we were going to walk those film cannisters out. We could blow away titans and coffin-mouths until we didn't have anything left to shoot. It was the sickle-tooths that were bringing the others back, so it was the sickle-tooths that we needed to take out. The problem was, they didn't have any reason to come out from behind cover. There were enough skeletons in the stones at the High Malafan that we'd run out of food and ammunition years before they ran out of things to throw at us.

"How far are we from our first camp, d'you think?" asked Renner.

"No idea," I replied. "Why?"

"Because I think the flood has washed away the fossil dust we used to pin down Corder's ghost."

I looked downstream. There was a black cloud coming up the canyon, rolling up as fast as the flood had come down. As one, the beaked striders ran and leapt towards us. The water was shallower, and not flowing with as much force. They screamed when they hit the water, and they didn't stop screaming, but they didn't lose their footing either; they waded out, fighting to keep their balance. The cloud hit them, and they were dust.

The cloud hit us as well, a wave of heat and the smell of cigarette smoke, and it passed. The terrain where it had passed was as soaked as it had been, but it looked somehow cleaner. The ghost of a necromancer is a fearful thing.

The sickle-tooths seemed to know that as well. As the cloud blew further upstream, a wall of white light sprang up near another knob of rock, drew a circle, and the black cloud could not push through it.

"Hell with it," I said. The sickle-tooths were hiding behind that shield, and if the beaked striders could cross the stream, I could. I slid down into the canyon, and went ahead.

As soon as I put my boot down in the stream, the water clawed at me, trying to pull me down and break my head against the rocks. But it didn't seem like we'd be getting a better chance at the sickle-tooths. I went down twice, and came up twice, covered in mud and soaked to the skin. But I made it to the other side, and up the equally muddy slope there.

There were the shallow tracks of striders in the mud, as well as the massive prints of coffin mouths, but there wasn't anything moving that was out of its time. I brought my shotgun up as I ran, and hoped that I had kept it dry enough that it'd work; the black cloud of Corder's soul was growing ragged, pierced by beams of light from behind that wall.

There were five sickle-tooths behind that shield, drawing patterns in the mud with their teeth and forepaws. I saw them before they saw me. I lined up my shot, fired. The fossil load went through the shield, brought down one of them. The rest turned at me, charged, looking just like the one that Corder had raised when it went after that rabbit. I held my ground, fired again. I missed, fired and missed again. They were moving fast, and I was worn down.

Fortunately, Corder's spirit hadn't been finished. One of the sickle-tooths went down, convulsing, when the black cloud touched it, and then another went the same way. The remaining two didn't stop charging. I waited, breathed, and then took my shot. I turned one of them to dust, but there wasn't going to be time for me to load and fire again. A shot rang out from behind me, and finished off the last of the sickle-tooths as it made its leap for my throat.

As it fell to dust, the ground beneath my feet shifted, like there had been an earthquake or a bomb detonation deep in the High Malafan, and the wind changed.

I hadn't noticed the smell before -- perhaps I had grown used to it. But there had been a hint of dead leaves and swamp gas in the air, and then it was gone, replaced with the aroma of clean wet desert.

"Was that all of them?" asked Renner, coming up next to me, even muddier than I was.

I shrugged. "Hope so," I said. "If we had the radio we could check, but as things stand, it might be worth getting a move on."

Even without the sickle-tooths, the High Malafan isn't a friendly place. We stumbled in to Talapathas two days later, half dead of heat and thirst.

It took a couple of days before the rest of the world took notice, but we had come out with the film cannisters intact, so take notice they did; for a couple of months, we were the nearest thing paleontology had to celebrities. That died down pretty fast, but the professional interest in our story didn't.

A few months after I finally made it back to Halbston, an expedition from the Gray Orb school went up into the High Malafan and tried to fill in some of the blanks. They didn't have much luck; the magic that the sickle-tooths used was too different from anything they knew. Still, there was enough of Corder's spirit still lingering to make it clear that neither Renner nor I had killed him, and to give them some outlines of what the sickle-tooths had done.

Both Renner and I are still working with fossils, and while Renner has moved into laboratory work, I still go out to the field. However, while I'm always open to new technique and practices, I haven't supervised any field revivifications since that outing, and I don't have any plans to start.

  Copyright © 2024 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by