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Chapter 2

Two weeks later, Bonds was back again, bringing more help and equipment. By then, Helen and the people on her crew had managed to clear the first skeleton, half of the second, and had discovered yet a third on the other side of the first. To say the museum director was happy would have been an understatement on a par with saying the Titanic had experienced some difficulty on its maiden voyage.

Helen, Joe, and Jackie were also clearly happy, but someone who knew them better than the director might have noticed something a bit odd in their reactions. They welcomed the newcomers and showed them around, agreeing that it was clearly a death scene, but saying that they hadn't drawn any firm conclusions as to the sequence of events yet.

That was true enough, as far as it went, Helen thought, but . . .

They relaxed a bit once the director left. Helen needed to talk to the new paleontologists alone, without the director hearing things that might make his funding the venture politically difficult. It was extraordinarily hard to think that way, but with what they were finding, the circumstances were also extraordinary.

"Funny." One of the new guys, Michael Jennings, shook his head slightly. "The way the skeletons sit, I don't think they were fighting at all. Drowned, maybe? Flash flood?"

"Maybe," Jackie said.

"Found any wounds?" another asked. "Broken bones? Evidence of toothmarks? Clearly they didn't get eaten much, or whatever did it would've taken them apart."

"Yeah," said Joe. "There's some marks on the skeletons. Look here, around the pelvis." he pointed with a stick to the first skeleton.

The newcomers gathered around and shone flashlights on the exposed fossil, as the sun was starting to go down and long shadows were gathering in the arroyo. For several minutes there was silence.

"What the hell made that?" Jennings finally asked, frowning at the three neat half-centimeter holes that appeared to punch completely through the pelvic bone.

"Looks almost like a bullet hole." That was offered in a jocular tone by one of the other new arrivals, Ned Rhodes. But the quip trailed off a bit too abruptly.

"Too neat," Jackie responded immediately. "My dad's hunted all his life, and I've gone with him. A bullet would've mushroomed when it hit the bone, if not sooner. And even if someone had been using military-grade jacketed bullets, the holes are too small for the caliber guns you'd use to hunt big game."

"Funny thing, too." Helen extended her hand, showing several small, round, dark-brown pebbles. "These are all over the area."

Jennings took one and studied it, then put it up against one of the holes. It was clear that they were essentially identical in size.

"Bizarre. Cysts that cause bone loss, eat it away or something?"

Helen's eyebrow quirked upward. "Now there's an interesting idea, Mike. We'll have to section a couple of these, see what's inside."

"They all look the same size. Are they?"

"Within the limits of my field equipment, they're identical. Perfectly spherical and measuring, by field micrometer, 4.65 millimeters in diameter. We've measured ten of them at least, and all of them are just the same."

Dr. Sean Carter, the senior of the newcomers, had been silent until now. Finally he spoke. "Um, Helen, don't take this the wrong way, but are you sure . . . uh . . ."

"That there's been no contamination of the site? Yes, I'm sure. And I've kept detailed notes from the beginning. Even more detailed than usual, in fact."

The newcomers were silent. Helen Sutter had the reputation, among other things, for being one of the most meticulous field paleontologists in the country. Her notes were used as models in at least two textbooks and an unknown number of classes. If she said she was taking unusual care, the only thing that would have kept the site more pristine would have been not to dig it at all.

Carter was studying the bones and their positioning. Helen saw him judging angles, glancing along certain lines, then picking up one of the dark brown pebbles and studying it pensively for a long time, while the others continued their examination of the site.

It was clear to Helen, though, that none of them were looking at the precise features that Sean Carter was. That was no surprise. If Helen had the reputation for being a fanatically careful field worker, Sean Carter's reputation for obsessive attention to detail made her look like a dilettante.

Carter never missed a single clue in the study of a fossil. There had been one wag a number of years before who had jested that Carter could probably visualize the entirety of the Cretaceous in toto from a single bone. What he was seeing in this death scene bothered him more and more. She could see his brow wrinkling so it looked like he was in actual pain.

Finally, he turned back to Helen. "Could I speak to you for a moment?"

"Sure, Sean. Come on, let's take a little walk. I'll show you where the first fossil came from."

Carter said nothing until they were well away from the others. Helen knew Sean Carter. He was the kind of man who hated anomalies—they disordered his ordered view of life and his profession—but he also hated avoiding the truth. The current situation was clearly causing him a strain.

"I'm not sure what you have here, Helen. I can tell you have an idea of your own, and I'm not sure I even want to think about what it might be. But I'm worried, very worried."

"What has you worried, Sean?"

Carter snorted humorlessly. "Helen, you've been doing this excavation. Don't tell me you can't see it."

"Maybe I do, but I want to hear what you see, without me biasing your opinion."

"Fair enough." He gazed back at the site. "The three skeletons, near as I can tell, are in a rough semicircle. They do not appear to have been fighting each other. In fact, it looks to me as though at least one, possibly two, of them were trying to leave the area. And I don't see any clear indication of what killed them, unless it's those odd holes. But then, what made those holes? Those pebbles, are they cysts? I doubt it. Perhaps they were, as suggested, part of an infection—perhaps one that had some kind of psychological effects, as a number of parasites do, and could have caused erratic behavior . . . but . . ."

He studied the area again. "It's hard to tell because of the effect of tendon contraction on death, but it also looks as if they did not die immediately. More as though they spent a bit of time thrashing in pain."

"And your conclusions?"

He frowned even more. "I'm not sure I have any. But if there's more to be found here, I have a depressing feeling that it will be even stranger than we've already seen. Be careful. You must be very careful."

"Sean, come on. I'm being as meticulous as anyone can be."

"I'm not talking about your field methods, Helen, and you know it. 'Careful,' I said, not 'meticulous.' You need to be more careful, if you're dealing with something . . . unusual. And no matter what, this is just too damnably unusual."

Helen knew exactly what Carter meant. Paleontology had been plagued by fraud, misinterpretation, and personal feuds ever since its beginnings: the Piltdown man, the legendary rivalry of Marsh and Cope, the faked "feathered dinosaurs" from China in the 1990s profiteering on actual feathered dinosaur discoveries made around the same time, and a dozen other such episodes. That, added to the confused sensationalism that had accompanied the field in the public eye for more than a century, meant that paleontology was possibly the most conservative field of science on Earth. Downright reactionary, Helen sometimes thought.

The more outré a claim was, the more violently a segment of the field would fight it. Bakker had not even invented, but merely revived, the claim of possible warm-bloodedness in dinosaurs in the 1960s, and it had taken most of his career to make that a respectable claim in many peoples' eyes.

"Well, what do you expect me to do, Sean? Stop working on this dig?"

"No, no. Of course not. It's a marvelous dig. I'd give just about anything to be the one who found it. But you need to find a way to make it foolproof. The dig, I mean."

Despite the tenseness of the situation, Helen almost chuckled. "I'm taking even more records than usual, Sean. Photos practically every millimeter we uncover. Multiple people's testimony. A much more extensive use of satellite imagery than usual and a thorough aerial survey in multiple spectra. What else can I do? It's not like I can just take a look at it before . . ."

She trailed off. "You know, Sean, I might just be able to do something more, after all, now that I think about it. Come on."

Returning to the knot of paleontologists and assisting folk, she called out. "Hey, Joe! Didn't you tell me once that you knew some guy in college, a couple of years behind you. Some kind of genius at imaging?"

Joe immediately understood. "A.J. Baker. And he wants something challenging and fancy to show off with, too. He's just starting working with us on the Ares Project, you know."

"No, I didn't. One of you Nuts That Roared, is he?"

Joe grinned. "Yeah, and he loves that rep. Anyway, I'll bet he could get us a picture of the whole scene before we go any further."

"Pictures through rock?" Jackie asked incredulously.

"Better believe it," Joe said. "Really, he can do things with GPR, ultrasonics, and other things that even JPL and DARPA couldn't match. Let me give him a call and see if he'll do it."

Helen turned to Carter. "What do you think, Sean? Will that play?"

"It certainly can't hurt," he replied, scratching his cheek. "And it's easy to justify, if he'll do it for a reasonable fee. If you know the disposition of the fossils ahead of time, it's far easier—which means cheaper in the long run—to do a major dig. Director Bonds will be happy to arrange funding for something like that."

Helen nodded. "Call up your whiz kid, Joe. Tell him he's got the chance of a lifetime here. And he won't have to wait to travel to another planet for this one."


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