Ben wrote this story for the 2019 Spring Equinox Storytelling and Sushi Feast.
Rex wielded the gas-powered miniature jackhammer with care, fearful of damaging the peculiar fossil he was cutting out of the rock, but also with a measure of religious and personal pride. The jackhammer was everything the Capitalists loved and the Gaians hated—fast, aggressive, noisy, powerful—and at seventy-three, Rex was still brawny enough to handle the heavy machine, his muscles keeping its chaotic power under near-perfect control.
Near-perfect. He hit a weak spot in the stone that he hadn't noticed in his initial inspection, and the vibration intensified as the machine eagerly dug into the yielding surface. A crack snaked inward, nearly splitting a sixty-million-year-old jawbone in two before he could cut the power.
He stared at his mistake, breathing hard and sweating harder. He had a guilty flashback to his student days, before the Collapse, when he'd been trained always to respect the bones and dig them out with hand tools, as slowly as it took. The Gaians loved to bash pre-Collapse culture, but they would have loved his paleontology professors. One of them had even used the word “reverence” when describing her approach to fossil extraction.
He brutally suppressed this twinge of so-called conscience. He had no time for “as slowly as it took” anymore. These fossil beds had once been deep in the American heartland, but now the border had shrunk so far that it was barely over the horizon from here, and the military was already threatening to pull back again and abandon this unpopulated land to the enemy. Rex's hands shook with fury thinking about it, and he was glad he hadn't started cutting again.
Besides, even in the middle of the night, with the site lit only by the solar LED floodlight he'd held his nose and bartered from a Gaian co-op, the desert heat was oppressive. He wanted to be done with this and back in his air-conditioned truck. It was a selfish desire, and therefore sacred. I am made in God's image. My desires are divine.
He took another few seconds to calm himself, then moved the jackhammer to the other end of the cut and started it up again.
On the ride back to the lab, the ancient electric vehicle bouncing and rattling along the rough dirt road with his find wrapped in generous layers of padding and strapped into the passenger seat, Rex was overcome by a wave of nostalgia. There had once been a perfectly smooth paved road through these parts, but the Capitalists had long since been deprived of the resources needed to maintain it. He longed for the days when such “excesses” had been the norm here in America, paid for by the strongest economy in the world, which was powered by an economic system whose benefits were so clear to everyone that faith in it was redundant, just as no one needed a religion to tell them gravity or evolution was real—the evidence was plain as day to anyone who bothered to look. Nowadays, people needed faith to counter the obvious evidence that Capitalism was steadily bleeding away what remained of its power.
As he pulled onto the cracked and pitted asphalt of the university parking lot, his headlights illuminating the drab exterior of the lab building, he considered his own unique status as a case in point. Back when he'd been in school, even private universities had funded some pure research, but this public school was now the not-so-proud owner of the only surviving paleontology department in what remained of the United States, and Rex was its sole professor. His applied-science colleagues barely tolerated his presence; he had to work in a little corner of a facility almost entirely dedicated to finding new ways to extract useful minerals from low-quality ores—a task that grew in importance as city after city fell to the Gaian Federation, depriving America of access to huge numbers of abandoned buildings that served as easy sources of recycled metals.
Rex was always having to remind himself that his selfish desire to comprehend the mind of God by personally uncovering new chapters in the story of life on Earth was sacred to the religion of Capitalism. It was true as far as it went, but his desire didn't pay the bills, and that meant the sacredness of other people's desires would always take precedence over his. His eloquence in defending his passion had held out so far against the college's finance people, but paleontology was always one budget cut away from being declared an unaffordable “excess” and driven extinct.
The next morning, after teaching his one remaining undergrad class, a poorly-attended elective for biology and pre-med majors, Rex got right to work on the fossil. Tuning out the noise from the rest of the open-plan lab, he channeled his younger self and went back to the slow, painstaking, “reverent” work of revealing the bones one millimeter at a time with steel point, brush, and a tiny chisel.
The more details he uncovered, the more excited and perplexed he became. The six-inch-long skull looked like an unusually toothy early bird, but that hypothesis was challenged somewhat by the shape of the leg bones—long, thick, powerful. This creature looked highly adapted to running fast and far to escape predators. Which didn't mean it wasn't a bird; this could be an early precursor of the roadrunner, for instance. What it did mean, he concluded after a careful search of the relevant catalogues, was that for only the second time in his long career as a fossil hunter, he'd discovered a new species—one no human had ever laid eyes on before! The pride of it swelled his chest until at times he felt he could barely breathe.
He tried to refocus on the puzzle. Was it a flightless bird? Rex rather hoped so. He had always been bitterly envious of the flight of birds, bats, and insects, which felt to him like a rebuke from God —these lowly creatures could soar the heavens in life, while Rex and the rest of his wretched species had to crawl the Earth, praying for angelhood in a supposed afterlife that might well have been invented out of whole cloth by some ancient monk who also watched the flight of birds with envy.
The fossil's forelimbs were mostly buried deeper in the rock; if they were complete enough, they would tell him a lot more. Over the next week, Rex and Minna, his one part-time grad student, chipped carefully away at the surprisingly short humerus, then discovered an equally short ulna-radius pair. Minna radiated an exuberant impatience that Rex could also feel burning in his own chest, but he hid it beneath an attitude of iron discipline, keeping her (and himself) from speeding up and getting careless. “This could the find that makes both our careers,” he told her several times, at once stoking and suppressing her fire. “Let's not screw it up.”
The third time he said it, her reply poured cold water on his own inner fire: “You realize no one in America cares about our careers, right? All our colleagues are in other countries. We're probably going to get peer reviewers for our paper on this fossil who live in the Gaian Federation!” The idea didn't seem to bother her, but of course she knew how he felt about the Gaians. Seeing his pained expression, she added thoughtfully, “Just think how jealous they'll be that we found this on American soil!”
“Yeah, well, it won't be American soil for much longer,” he replied glumly. “If there are more of these critters in that rock formation, it'll most likely be Gaians who dig them up.”
She shrugged. “Maybe, but the first one is ours—yours! You're the one who discovered this species. They can't take that away from you.”
He nodded his appreciation of her ego-stroking and returned to the work.
Three days later, after hours of growing surprise, they set aside their tools in favor of a magnifying glass and stared in astonishment at the four near-perfect claws. Rex looked back at the skull in growing confusion—it definitely didn't belong to a mammal or garden-variety lizard.
“You're sure this was above the K-Pg boundary?” Minna asked.
“Dead certain,” he replied. “This creature lived at least three million years after the asteroid struck. I'll stake my career on it.”
“That's quite a risk,” she replied in a shaky voice. “Everyone knows that asteroid killed off all the non-avian dinosaurs. They'll all say it's a fake.”
“I documented the provenance quite thoroughly,” he said, pointing to his camera, with which he'd exhaustively photographed the fossil and the surrounding rock from every possible angle before starting his dig. It was now set up on a tripod overlooking the workbench, set to take another photo every few hours to document the process of digging out the hidden bones.
Minna shrugged, looking a little calmer. “Photos can be doctored. I believe you, but no one else will.”
“When did you get so cynical?”
“I learned it from you,” she said with a grin, her customary confidence suddenly restored. “Now, you know the way out, of course.”
“Yeah, you do, you just don't want to admit it. We need to call in a Gaian fossil hunter to search the same area and dig up another one of these.”
He stared at her in dismay. “No. No! There must be another way to prove we're telling the truth.”
“Not that I can see. If we dig up a second one, it won't be any more believable than the first. We need an independently reproducible result. That's basic science.”
Her words stung him to the core. He couldn't bring himself to chastise her for her own selfish desire to prove her own wisdom superior to that of her professor, but neither could he quite bring himself to accept her logic. “I'll think about it,” was all he said. “Now let's see if we can find the other foreleg.”
In the dream, Rex was running from something, running faster than he'd ever run before, even though his legs were so short. He looked down at his pumping fists and saw four claws on each. His lithe little body was clad only in feathers. He glanced back and saw a huge nightmare beast closing in, fluffy green fur surrounding red gimlet eyes and a gaping maw full of long white fangs. It leapt forward and the mouth closed around him, filling his universe with searing pain—
He woke in a cold sweat and took several minutes to calm down. It was still deep night outside. He turned over and tried to go back to sleep.
It was no use. He'd never put much stock in dream interpretation—it seemed like a very Gaian practice somehow—but the message of this dream was crystal clear: they might find more fossils of his new dinosaur species in the same or older strata, but none from much closer to the present. The asteroid had ushered in the age of mammals, and no dinosaur without the power of flight could have survived for long in that world. The mammals had out-evolved all other land animals, radiating into almost every niche vacated by the Great Extinction, including those of larger dinosaurs, until a beast with mouse-sized ancestors could swallow the creature Rex had just discovered whole.
The meaning of the monster's green fur was also plain. The nightmare wasn't just about prehistory—it was also about the present day. Capitalism, Rex's subconscious was arguing, no more belonged in the post-Collapse era than a flightless dinosaur did in the world after the asteroid. The Gaians, who never demanded to make a profit off of their constant disaster rescue and recovery work, were simply better adapted to this climate-disrupted world than Capitalism could ever be. As he'd long suspected but generally avoided thinking, Rex's world was on the brink of extinction.
A snatch of an ancient song he'd always hated wafted through his mind, a song his proto-Gaian parents had played incessantly in the car when he was a kid: “Your old road is rapidly aging—please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand, for the times they are a-changing!”
He tried to imagine it: the United States finally torn up and swallowed by the Gaian Federation, and Rex living on somehow in the belly of the beast. Where he would find the fellow paleontologists who could verify his discovery and make him world-famous—if only he could abandon all his principles and “lend his hand” to their insane gift-based economy. The thought was no more appealing than if he'd been invited to join a cult of Satan-worshippers.
I can't do it, he thought. I won't. But Minna can.
An image of a bird appeared behind his pointlessly closed eyelids. It was Minna, he realized. Born into the world of the Capitalist dinosaurs, but with a flexible belief structure that would enable her to fly, to alight in the Gaian Federation and adapt to life there with nary a qualm. The sad decline of the Capitalist faith among the youth that he had so long bemoaned, occasionally even to Minna's face, was actually their best hope for survival.
He doubled over and sobbed into his pillow. How could God have allowed this to happen? Noah's Flood had brought the wayward human race back to their Creator, but the great floods, droughts, fires, and pandemics that drove the Collapse had seemingly done the opposite, leading to the rise of a world of Pagan Earth-worshippers who saw profit and selfishness as sin instead of sacrament.
Had the Collapse been the Apocalypse itself, the Rapture taking the form of disease and mass starvation? Was Rex only alive now because God had deemed him unworthy?
No, surely not, since the five billion left behind were still having children—Godless, Gaialoving children! Rex was childless himself, and in this moment, for that small thing, he was thankful. “Better to let my line go extinct,” he gasped out aloud between sobs, “than see my flesh and blood swallowed up by that green monster, never to escape!”
At last his wracking sobs subsided. The exertion had left him even sweatier than he usually got in his poorly ventilated apartment. He turned over, flung off the top-sheet, and spread his arms wide to let the ceiling fan do what it could.
As the sweat began to evaporate, his thoughts returned to prehistory. The correct selfish attitude to the asteroid strike was to celebrate it, of course, for without the death of the non-avian dinosaurs, humans would never have evolved. From a dinosaur's perspective, though, the human future had been literally unimaginable—their brains were far too small to give rise to that science fiction story. And if they could have seen Rex's world in a crystal ball, they would have hated and feared it even more than Rex hated and feared the Gaians. The thought made him shiver much more violently than the cooling sweat could explain, but then he realized—No they wouldn't. They'd have had no idea what they were looking at.
“What future is my brain too small to comprehend?” he wondered aloud. “Maybe I can no more imagine God's true plan than a dinosaur could.”
Capitalism had all but abandoned the notion of humility before God, but now Rex took comfort in it. Selfish and proud he might be, but for all his intellect, it simply was not his place to question the wisdom of the Almighty. Repeating that thought like a mantra, he eventually sank back into sleep.
Six weeks later, he and Minna drove up to the new border in his old truck. He'd let her make the calls, of course, while he worked on renewing his long-expired passport (hers, he'd been horrified but not very surprised to learn, already had several Gaian Federation stamps in it). After a brief stop at the checkpoint to explain their plans to the guards—again he let Minna do most of the talking, although she would never have been allowed through for this purpose without his professor's credentials—they drove on into the fossil beds that, as he'd expected, now belonged to the enemy.
When they reached the site where he had found the fossil, the four Gaian rock hounds they'd come to meet had just arrived and were unpacking their tools from cargo bins on the sides of their twoseat electric motorbikes. Gaians weren't known for their punctuality, but Minna had emphasized in her phone calls that Rex would brook no delay, and he was glad to see they'd complied.
“Well, you've made quite the extraordinary claim, Professor,” one of the Gaians said, stepping forward and offering his hand, which Rex took reluctantly and briefly. “But you and Minna don't strike me as a pair of con artists, and, well, I do love a good story. Let's find out if yours holds up!”
“To be clear, I'm only here for Minna's sake,” Rex said. “If she can publish this find and get it past peer review, it will give her the world.”
“That's—very unselfish of you,” the man observed, smiling.
“I knew you would say that,” Rex replied through gritted teeth. “But I have no choice. Paleontology in America is about to go extinct, and I can't follow it over the border. Your world is not one where I can live.” He gestured at Minna. “Take good care of her.”
He turned his back to hide his tears, and returned to his air-conditioned truck to watch in helpless silence as his protegee spread her wings and joined her flock.