A Matter of Time
by Jessie Costin
Decker straightened his back with a grimace. He was about ready to chuck this all in. He’d agreed to come out here, to this site, to help out with this part of the mission–the part he normally avoided–because he had thought it would be more Indiana Jones, and less sitting in the dirt with a brush. All day.
Sweat dripped into his eye, and he wiped his face on his sleeve.
If he was honest, he wouldn’t have come at all, except that he had to be on Fossil-man’s good side.
Their whole expedition was in jeopardy if Mr Fossils wasn’t happy. Apparently fossils made good money if you knew what you were doing, and so Jonah Fossey–his real name–was not only the fossil expert but the bankroll.
Decker looked in the man’s direction, while he stretched out his muscles. Jonah was practically a fossil himself, Decker thought, watching him peering through bi-focal spectacles at few shards of something in a tray.
He didn’t understand how Fossey, or how any of them, could do this day in, day out. And seem excited about it. To Decker, this whole thing had been a dead loss, a waste of time. And time was the commodity Decker was really interested in.
And the real reason they were all here.
Sure the dinosaur bones were interesting–or would be if they even found any–but Decker couldn’t care less about the remnants of something dead in the ground when he was on the brink of going back to see the real thing.
This would be his third mission since the time program started up. And the first that he was really excited about.
The first had held it’s own thrill, simply because it was the first. But that had only been a short trip, back 200 years, where they stayed for an hour and then left.
The second Decker had almost found boring. It had been exactly the same. Calibration, they called it.
Decker called it mind-numbing. It was not the untouched frontiers he had dreamed of as a boy, when he would spend all day roaming the streets of his neighbourhood pretending he was an adventurer, an explorer, taming uncharted lands. And then when it got dark and his mum forced him inside, he would spend all night watching old Indiana Jones movies on the ancient DVD player his father had unearthed from the attic for him.
But once he got to that certain age when reality sets in, the desire didn’t die, but the opportunity did. The neighbourhood was no longer satisfying. He saw it with his teenage eyes for what it was. Familiar and predictable. And boring.
But growing up in the 2060s, there wasn’t all that much uncharted territory left. There was the deep sea, but being that far underwater never appealed to Decker, and somehow neither did deep space. You couldn’t swing a whip in a submarine or space station.
Decker’s parents bought him a ride on one of the space planes for his 18th birthday. They had thought it might help their increasingly morose son find a bit of spark in life again. It had been pretty cool, he had to admit, to see the earth from the outside. But until they could actually land on Mars and he could get out and chase aliens, he didn’t really care to do it again.
So when a group of scientists in a bunker in the middle of Australia turned out not to be doing nuclear testing after all, when they suddenly came out and shocked the world with a time machine, Decker was on the first plane.
He hadn’t even made contact with the scientists before he left. He just went. It was the first time, since the neighbourhood had lost it’s magic, that he felt like he was on an adventure again. His parents had tried to stop him, but didn’t succeed. And Decker wasn’t worried about the scientists saying no.
He had always had a certain charm; he could get anyone to do anything for him. It was how he passed all his subjects at school, and even most classes at college, when he had long given up caring enough to study. He was persuasive, and it seemed to work on anyone, indiscriminate of age or sex. Though, he had to admit, it was particularly easy with women.
One female professor had given him an A after just one meeting in her small, private office. He didn’t hand in a scrap of work all semester.
None of the scientists with the time program had been female, but it hadn’t mattered. He had convinced them that they needed him, and he had installed himself as one of the first time explorers.
Before he came along, the scientists had never used the machine to go back further than a few days. Their tentative and methodical nature drove Decker up the wall. Not long after arriving there, as was his way, he hurried them up.
And so, the first mission. 200 years.
But they had been in the middle of the Australian desert, still. When they opened the pod door of the time machine’s passenger capsule, it had all looked the same. They wouldn’t have even known they were in a different time, if it hadn’t been for the absence of the bunker and lab.
Decker had at least wanted to go to civilisation, but no one would let him. They stuck to their time frame, stayed an hour, collected a few samples, and went home.
The second had been exactly the same. Decker had found his small reserve of patience running dry. So when Jonah Fossey had visited, proposing a generous grant in return for the time program supporting his research, Decker had jumped on the opportunity.
Fossey was a dinosaur guy, and had found a few of the most well preserved fossils and skeletons of prehistoric creatures ever discovered, making him the most well know palaeontologist in the world. Not only that, but he had invented some new dating system that could pinpoint accurately the age of fossils, to the week, not just a range of hundreds of years. Consequently he was also one of the wealthiest palaeontologists in the world. He had come to Australia in search of new species in some of the vast space that was as yet, waiting to be excavated. Decker saw a spark of himself in Fossey. At first, anyway.
“Yes,” Decker had cried. “How much can you really learn from dusty fossils anyway?”
“Quite a lot actually,” Jonah had countered, “but I agree with your point. To see them, in the natural environment. It would be astounding. And I would be the only one to have ever done it!”
Decker had egged him on. Fossey had seen it as full support of his own mission and been flattered. Decker had been motivated completely by the desire to get to the real adventures.
So 6 months later, here they were. Digging in the dirt. This interim had felt like an eternity for Decker, but a blinding pace for the lead scientist, Harry Moresby. Professor Moresby was known to work so slowly, that his colleagues liked to say they had found him one day with dust settled over him, he had been in the one place so long. Decker suspected it wasn’t a joke.
Jonah Fossey had been impatient too, however, and it was his money that moved everything along. The particular patch of dirt they were digging in was meant to be in an area rich with fossilised history, but so far they had uncovered nothing.
Well, nothing that Decker considered anything. A few teeth, or whatever it was that Dr Fossils was inspecting in the tray. After the first glimpse, Decker had not discovered much else in the man that he found relatable. How anyone could be so interested in something that wasn’t alive anymore mystified him. Especially when they could be seeing the real thing.
Fossey had insisted on extensive research before selecting the place and time to travel to. Fair enough, Decker had thought. No good going to find nothing there.
A time expedition was neither a simple nor an inexpensive exercise. Even Decker didn’t want to rush into something that was fruitless, because he knew that would mean months of waiting before they could even consider another trip.
And so he was waiting, and had even agreed to come to this godforsaken excavation site. They’d given him a brush to make him feel useful, but they all knew that Decker had no patience for the work. They never gave him anything that required perseverance and a gentle hand.
No one noticed, or cared, when Decker regularly removed himself from his quadrant in the sectioned off dirt and sat under a tree or napped. Which he was tempted to do now. He had to sleep, or he would go out of his mind. At least he could dream of exciting things, even if reality seemed like it would never amount to anything.
“Dr Fossey! Dr Fossey!” a girl was calling excitedly. It was Simone. She was pretty enough, blonde hair and cute nose. And she certainly hadn’t complained at Decker’s attention in her tent the night before. But here, while she was all red faced and dirty, and ridiculously excited over a few bone fragments, she was just like the rest of them. Utterly boring and completely unappealing.
Decker glanced over at her, but then turned and walked towards the tree anyway.
“Jonah!” The girl squealed, and finally got Fossey’s attention.
“What is it? If it’s more of the same, just log it and bag it and-”
“I think you will want to see this,” she said. There was pause while Jonah Fossey put down the tools he was holding and approached Simone’s patch of dirt. Others, curious as to what was causing the fuss, began to gather around; if it was important enough to call Jonah over, it could be good. They all stared down into the dirt.
“Oh my god,” someone breathed. They were all silent.
“Do you think it’s-” Simone began, but never finished her sentence.
“Oh my god,” someone said again.
And suddenly the whole place was alive with activity. Most people abandoned their own jobs to come and watch the excavation that had now resumed with new energy over Simone’s find.
Even Decker, glancing lazily up from his position reclining against a tree, noticed that something unusual was happening. He hadn’t seen these people move this fast. Ever.
“Careful, careful,” someone said. “Don’t rush it.”
Decker snorted, and pulled his hat back over his face. Whatever it was they had found, it would still be hours–maybe days–before they uncovered it enough for it to be interesting to him.
A tiny spark of hope ignited. He tried not to fan it just yet. It was probably nothing again. But maybe, just maybe…
Decker emerged from his tent earlier in the morning than he normally would have, and only because the rest of the camp had woken at dawn. And that was after working late the night before under portable floodlights. And the night before that.
Decker was agitated. He couldn’t stand anything that couldn’t be hurried along in some way, and while he waited he felt useless.
The noise of them going in and out of tents, moving tools, tramping through the dirt back and forth woke him. But there was very little talking. The whole camp was holding its collective breath.
Decker had chanced a look at the discovery the night before. It didn’t look like much to him. Seemed like they were just uncovering some sort of lighter coloured rock and dirt underneath the sand. He decided not to look again until it was done. It was too frustrating.
And so Decker had prowled around the camp until he had found Lucy, sitting back to watch with not much to do, since every other job had been suspended.
“Isn’t it exciting,” she had breathed to Decker, with wide innocent eyes.
“Oh, isn’t it,” Decker had responded. It took little more than that encouragement, and Decker was slipping out of her tent back into his own a few hours later.
Now in the morning he was pacing restlessly again.
“Even you might want to take a look at this, Mr Harris,” Jonah Fossey called to Decker. He sighed and walked over, not daring to hope for anything.
And yet even he was shocked.
It had been uncovered and cleaned enough that it stood out in stark relief against the ground. A huge fossilised skeleton. Everyone was standing around it, staring down at it in awe.
“What is it?” Decker asked casually, belying his curiosity. Everyone else seemed curious too, however, and turned their head to Dr Fossey to wait for his answer. There was electricity in the air.
“I’ve never seen it before,” the man replied. He was gazing at the uncovered fossil like it was the most beautiful thing he had ever laid eyes on. Decker grimaced a little, but his eyes were drawn back to it too.
“Those are wings, though, aren’t they,” Simone said, but more as a statement than a question. It was quite obvious. Even Decker could see, from the one arm it had extended that it resembled the structure of bat. But this was no bat. It’s wing alone was longer than Decker was tall.
“Some kind of Pterosaur?” someone proffered.
“Perhaps,” Jonah conceded. “Though it’s shape is different.”
“Look, you can see bones in it’s stomach!” Simone said.
“Some other poor creature that was its lunch,” someone laughed. But Jonah wasn’t laughing. He stepped down on to the site, carefully around the excavation, and squatted beside it. He was peering at the bones that were revealed as the fossilised dinosaur’s lunch.
“Andy, take a look at this,” Jonah said, waving to a colleague without looking up. Andy stepped down. “There. Are you seeing that?” Andy peered closer. “Is that-”
“Holy shit. Is that skull human?”
The whole operation amped up after that, and Decker didn’t have to do a thing. The discovery of a human inside the stomach of an ancient dinosaur would have the whole world breathing down their necks as soon as word got out. Everyone was panicking, scrambling to make sure they had everything straight for when this story broke.
Fossey, especially, was keen to make sure this couldn’t be stolen out from underneath him. The camp went into lockdown, and Decker found Fossey pacing in his tent.
“This is it, Mr Harris,” Jonah said, clamping his hands onto Decker’s shoulders with a wild look in his eye.
“No time to waste,” Decker agreed. Jonah stayed looking at Decker, paralysed.
“I can’t let this get away from me, Harris,” Jonah said, still holding Decker’s shoulders like a desperate man.
“You won’t, Fossey,” Decker assured him, smoothly. “You’ve just got to act fast.”
“Moresby won’t like it,” Jonah shook his head. He brought his hands together and wrung them. Decker nearly swore at the man, then composed himself.
“Who is funding this thing, Jonah? Whose career is on the line?” he said. Jonah was nodding. He had him. “Moresby will cope. He knows who is paying his salary, keeping his project going.” Jonah was still nodding, but looking doubtful. “I’ll deal with Moresby, Jonah. You just get the team together. You give the go ahead and we could go today! Imagine it. In a few hours you could be seeing, in real life, not just as a fossil, a new species of dinosaur. And the earliest human being anyone has ever found. In a few hours you could have your photo with a cave man!”
“Technically it’s not a cave- never mind, what’s important is you’re right. We have to do this as soon as possible.”
“Great! I’ll get ready,” Decker said and was already striding out of the tent.
“Hold up, Harris.” Fossey stopped him. Decker gritted his teeth. “You know the process takes longer than that to get up and running. Besides, it will take us at least until tomorrow to date the fossil accurately enough. Miss it by even a few too many weeks and there may be nothing to see.”
“I thought your super duper dating system was infallible,” Decker said impatiently.
“Oh, it is, but it still takes time,” Jonah said. Decker wanted to punch something.
“How long do you want to wait, Jonah? This whole place is about to burst. Don’t let it get away from you.” Decker used the man’s own words, and they hit home.
“Tonight,” Fossey said with finality. “Be ready tonight. I’ll have the date.”
Decker was already out of the tent and running to the car. It was an hour’s drive to Moresby’s lab. He wanted to give the old man as much time as possible to get things running. Even Decker’s powers of persuasion were weak in the face of Moresby’s precision. He would light a literal fire under the man if he had to.
Decker was strapped in. The machine whirred and hummed around him. It was the best sound he had ever heard. Beside him, Fossey was strapping himself in to the seat after stowing a large camera and various pieces of scientific equipment under the seats. Opposite Decker, Andy. Decker ran his fingers over the cold barrel of a rifle beside him. They had wanted to send someone else with them, but Decker had insisted they didn’t need a body guard. And so the gun had been handed to him.
They were ready and impatiently waiting.
Moresby was on the outside of the machine, triple checking settings. “I don’t like this, it’s too rushed,” he was muttering, but more to himself. He had given up trying to persuade them to wait. They wouldn’t hear it.
“One hour is all I’m giving you,” he had said to them.
“Moresby, think of what we can bring back for you,” Decker had pleaded. “Think of the samples.”
This had made Moresby think. Prehistoric, living samples. He could hardly breathe at the thought of it. And yet his nature would not allow him to let it go. He gave them an hour and a half.
“There is no way of changing the settings once you are there,” Moresby reminded them. “If anything goes wrong, you are stuck there until your time is up.”
He began to shut the pod door, and Decker was grinning. Finally. A real adventure. Real uncharted territory and he would be the first to see it.
“And be back to the pod before the time is up. We don’t want to waste the next trip on a rescue mission. You know how long it takes and how costly it is to get the machine-”
“We know, Moresby. Shut the door!” Decker almost shouted at the man.
Moresby shook his grey head. He wasn’t happy about this. But he shut the door. Behind the protective glass into the control centre, he set the sequence going. The machine whirred and whined and the air seemed to hiss and crack around it, until suddenly it blinked out of existence.
He let out a long sigh. The machine was programmed to arrive back five minutes after the departure time to avoid collision, so it wouldn’t be long on his end. This was the only time in his life Moresby felt impatient. But he didn’t show it. He folded his hands on the desk, and waited.
The shrill ring of the telephone startled him.
“Hello, Moresby here,” he answered, placing the cold receiver to his ear.
“Professor Moresby, have they left?” The voice was strained and high pitched.
“Yes, they just left. What is it?”
“It’s about the human bones we identified.” Moresby listened for a moment more as they explained.
And then the phone fell from his sweaty hand to swing on it’s cord from the desk. Faintly the voice on the line could be heard calling out to him, but he just folded his hands back on the desk and stared at the empty space before him.
The next four minutes were the longest of Moresby’s life. The wait for the pod to blink back into existence seemed like it stretched into eternity. Sweat beaded on his forehead and dripped into his eyes but he didn’t move to wipe it away. He began to wonder if there would be anything left to come back when the time was up.
He watched the countdown tick over. It reached 1 second. The air hissed and cracked. The pod appeared.
Moresby approached the blood smeared door of the damaged pod. He opened it. Inside, one lone, shaken figure stumbled out and dropped his rifle at the feet of the scientist. He shook his head, and collapsed to his knees.
In Decker’s ears rang the screeches of the black winged creature. The whine of his rifle as the bullets sprayed uselessly. And the desperate screams of the other two men behind him as he ran for the pod, and the huge animal attacked.
And in Moresby’s ears rang the words of the panicked voice on the phone.
“The human bones – they aren’t prehistoric. They are of modern men. More than one. We’re sure of it. They’re modern.”