Cretaceous on Ice
By K.C. Ball
A WARM AND EASY WIND carrying the scent of early-blossom bitterroot. Free-running water gurgled as it found its hurried way across old rocks. Shirt-sleeve weather, come last December in Montana, had set off the poet in me; made me think less like a cop.
So I had tucked my cruiser in among some larch close to the river, on a county road southwest of Bozeman. After I called in 10-6, I had turned the two-way down. Mind tuned to retirement, I could see me belly deep in some chilly mountain stream, hooked into a trout.
Then my dream got splashed away by a chicken tall as my shoulder running south along the chip-and-seal. It had rust-red feathers, a white patch at its throat, like a bantam rooster, and a head big as a Crenshaw melon. Wide across the chest, too.
My mind switched from poet back to cop when that big banty skidded to a stop and turned to study me. It stepped toward the cruiser and I reached for my gun when I spotted its wicked razor teeth glinting in the winter sun. But it stopped and cocked its head, as if listening to something, then turned, took its teeth and banty temper and ran off south again.
What the hell?
Seconds later, a stretch-cab Ram roared by. My friend, Pete Evans, hunched around the steering wheel, leaned into it as if he found himself second, last lap of a race, and still hoping he could win. Another fellow rode the pickup’s shotgun seat. Wore a big-brimmed black hat and tinted goggles, so I couldn’t rightly see his face. I had my suspicions, though.
The Ram’s six-point-seven-liter diesel made that truck stand up and run, so it wasn’t nothing but a dwindling dot by the time I started after it. I managed to catch up because Pete stopped three miles down the road.
Pete hunkered down behind the open driver’s door. Big-Hat crouched at the other door. He wore a canvas duster and held one of those giant super-soaker squirt guns. At least that what it looked like at the time. Thick, white vapor leaked from a pack slung on Big-Hat's back. Heavy frost coated his yellow rubber gloves.
Pete held his 12-gauge Mossberg pulled tight against his shoulder, fired from time to time, but he couldn't get a proper bead. I swear that banty monster was stalking Pete, zigging back and forth and bobbing up and down, like one of those counterweighted bar toys.
I stopped the cruiser next to the truck, jumped out—9-millimeter Glock in hand—and opened fire, working hard to help the cause.
Got noticed right off, too.
The damned thing whirled about, Pete forgotten for the moment, and eyed me up and down. Then it screeched like a rusty factory whistle and stormed toward me. It moved just like a banty, too. Head down and eyes fixed, back stretched straight, spoiling for a fight.
“Lyle,” my late brother Bobby used to say. “When a banty’s coming at you, ain't but two real choices. Run like hell or try to kick his ass to dinner.”
Running’s not my nature. I focused on the banty monster’s body mass, pulling the trigger at a steady count. Even so, my mind raced on ahead. A Glock can empty awful fast.
Time ran out and everything happened all at once. My pistol came up empty. I reached for a spare magazine, though I knew I'd never get it in my gun.
The banty monster leaped, bone spurs glittering in the sun—and a beam of sizzling hard blue light punched a hole straight through the beast. It took a tumble, nothing but a heap of smoldering feathers now, and came to rest against the front tire of the cruiser. A quarter of its body mass had disappeared, with not a single drop of blood in sight.
“Lyle, are you all right?”
I pushed the new magazine into place, then turned toward the pickup, gun up and hammer cocked. “I’ll be just fine, Pete, once I commence to breathe again.”
Big-Hat stepped around the truck, wreathed in vapor from his pack. I heard a faint static whine from his weapon, smelled the stink of ozone. The shadow of the blue beam lingered orange upon my eyes.
“How’re they hanging, Uncle Lyle?”
Big-Hat tipped back his Stetson, fingered his dark goggles down around his neck. Offered a familiar grin that made him look just like his daddy.
I lowered my Glock. “Damn it, Jimmy, what in hell you been feeding to your chickens?”
Jimmy seemed to get a kick out of showing off his ray-gun.
“It’s a phase-modulated, focused sapphire phaser, Uncle Lyle. It’s slow and clunky, kind of temperamental, won’t do a lick of damage over twenty yards, but the Army likes it. They offered me a grant to make it work.”
When Jimmy got excited, he had a look made me think of his daddy. And Jimmy damned near forty, Bobby’s age when he died eighteen years ago.
“Well, now I know what that is.” I kicked at the carcass. “What the hell is this?”
“It’s a Deinonychus.” Pete taught natural sciences at the university in Bozeman, so he knew all about that sort of thing. “A dinosaur.”
I toed the carcass again. “It’s got feathers.”
Pete nodded. “Yeah. That’s one of the new theories. There’s been quite an argument.”
I plucked a long, red feather and handed it to Pete. “Show ’em this and end that argument right now.”
Jimmy and Pete both stared at me. Jimmy giggled. I could hear a touch of hysteria buried in that laugh, working hard to scramble loose.
I felt a bit on edge myself. “Lookee here, it’s good you know what this thing is, but where in hell did it come from?”
“The early Cretaceous. One hundred twenty million years ago.” Pete said.
Sometimes real smart people can be a little dense.
“I been to the dinosaur museum up to Bozeman, Pete. I want to know how that thing got here, on my state highway.”
Jimmy raised his hand. “One of my projects went haywire.”
“One of your barn projects?”
“Uh-huh. I’ve been working on a—”
Pete flapped his hand south to the Wyoming border. “Never mind that now. I almost forgot. Three more of these sons-a-bitches are running loose out there, Lyle, up in the Gallatin.”
Half an hour later, Pete’s pickup bumped up a muddy, rutted track through Gallatin National Forest.
Jimmy’s place, the ranch me and Bobby grew up on, butted up against the Gallatin, almost twenty miles south of Bozeman. The forest’s virgin timberland, forty-five thousand acres set aside more than a hundred years ago. The Forest Service is real touchy about what goes on out there.
“We need to put a lid on this stew real soon,” I said.
It had me sweating. The feds would surely fine us all, but if word got out I’d called in ten-seven, locked up, and left my cruiser down on Eighty-Four to hunt dinosaurs on protected land, I could kiss my job and my retirement goodbye.
“Jimmy,” I said. “I heard from Mitch Ives, over at Gallatin Electric, that you’re to blame for that power outage right after Halloween. This the same experiment?”
“Yes, sir, it is.”
Jimmy rode in the crew-cab’s back seat, fussing with that phaser thing of his, making adjustments. I was riding shotgun, with my patrol-issue twelve-gauge riot gun across my knees. Pete’s standard load hadn’t seem to do much damage to that banty monster, so I’d filled my scattergun with rifled slugs.
I’d passed a pocketful to Pete, too, figuring the slugs would give us a bigger bite.
“What is it you been working on?” I asked.
Jimmy planted his elbows on the seat back. “A transporter.”
“More Star Trek?”
He nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“Well, hell, beam me up, Scotty.”
“You mean, Scotty, beam us up.” After thirty-five years in front of a blackboard, Pete had his classroom voice down tight.
“Hell I do,” I replied.
“Mr. Evans’ right, Uncle Lyle. Kirk never said beam me up, Scotty. Closest thing was Scotty, beam us up.”
I glanced from Pete to Jimmy, then back again.
“Ain’t you two the pair.”
Jimmy shrugged. Pete focused on his driving. Neither one seemed about to offer more.
I pushed a bit. “How’d you manage to lock on to a pack of dinosaurs with your transporter?”
“No.” Jimmy said. “I started out to build a transporter. It turned out to be a temporal gate.”
“What the hell is that?”
“A time machine, Uncle Lyle.”
“Not what I meant.” I pointed up ahead to movement in a meadow clearing, half a mile away. “Shut off the engine, Pete, and lookee there.”
Jimmy pulled out binoculars, big Bausch & Lomb Legacies, and passed them around. All three banty monsters gathered near the carcass of a bull moose, gorging on great chunks of flesh.
“Oh, hell,” Pete said, when he took his turn. “The rangers won’t care for this one bit.”
“No shit,” I muttered.
“I got to get in close,” Jimmy said. “The phaser won’t do any damage unless I do.”
“Shotguns will work better up close, too,” Pete said.
I shrugged. “You’re the experts. Let’s go sneak up on those feathered bastards.”
We slipped out of the pickup, loaded down with guns, like the Three Stooges on safari, and eased toward the kill. Came at them from downwind and luck was with us. Got to fifty feet away without being heard or smelled.
Been a cop for thirty years. Did a turn in Nam. I seen my share of nasty. But I got spooked, watching those banty monsters eat. They might have had on feathers, but they didn’t look like chickens pecking grain.
Jimmy pulled up his goggles. “Put on your sunglasses,” he whispered. “It’s going to get real bright real soon.”
I did as told. So did Pete. Jimmy bounced to his feet and flicked a toggle on his phaser. It took up a fearful whine, as if it might blow up in Jimmy’s face. Folks in Bozeman must have smelled the ozone stink.
The three banty monsters surely noticed. Their heads came up, all thoughts of moose forgotten. They turned like they were tied together on a string, lowered their heads, ready to attack.
Jimmy didn’t care for that.
That hard blue beam sizzled in a tight line that seemed to stretch forever. Even with my Ray-Bans, I had to squint against the glare. Jimmy swept the beam across the meadow, sliced the life from two of the banty monsters before they took a step. The third, a canny bastard, hit the deck.
The beam swept over it, started back and then blinked out.
“Damn it,” Jimmy said.
The whine of his phaser died away. I heard him rap on the plastic housing, heard some sort of access panel popping open.
“I need a couple of seconds here, Uncle Lyle,” Jimmy said.
Fine time for that.
The banty monster sprang up and came at us, head down, neck stretched level with the ground. Pete and I sprang up, commenced to fire. The slaughterhouse stench of the beast pushed ahead of it. All four of us howled blood and murder to the heavens.
Finally, the thing staggered under the weight of all that lead. It dropped and slid toward us, slicing out a furrow with that wicked snout. It came to rest three feet away, shuddered once and died.
We felt pretty good, as we drove back to the family place. I might be in trouble in the morning, for locking up my cruiser and leaving it. Just then tomorrow didn’t matter. I felt damned near invulnerable. Thirty years younger. Plum full of piss and vinegar. Facing death twice in one day will do that to a man.
The Ram rode low from the weight of those four dinosaurs in the bed. Even so, Pete had the truck moving right along. Had the CD player cranked up loud, too. “Bad Moon Rising.” Me and Pete wailed along with CCR. Jimmy sat in the back seat, playing with his plastic gun.
The song ended. I turned to watch him. “Going to be able to fix that thing?” I asked.
Jimmy nodded. “Power pack drained faster than I thought. I’ve got a spare back at the barn.”
“First things first,” Pete said. “We need to get that gate shut down, soon as we get back.”
“Uh-huh.” Jimmy remained focused on the phaser.
“How does this gate of yours work?”
Should have kept my mouth shut. It’s easy to forget, over beers or fly-fishing, that Pete’s got a doctorate in physics, that he’s smart as Jimmy. Me and Bobby called him Brainiac, all through school, all those years ago.
He and Jimmy started speaking Klingon, far as I could tell. Went on about Kerr gates, annular confinement beams, diffuse components of light, phased matter streams and pattern buffers. I think that’s what they said. They might have mentioned phases of the moon, for all I know.
I let them rattle for a spell, then I stuck two fingers to my lips. We all twitched when I whistled. Sounded way too much like the banty monsters’ battle cry.
“Use easy words,” I said, after my heart settled. “So I can understand.”
Pete went first. “We thought we stumbled on instantaneous matter transmission. We got a time machine, instead.”
Jimmy slipped deep into nerd phase. “I never could have done it without Mr. Evans’ help. I opened a trans-dimensional hole, almost microscopic. Every time I tried to up the size, the power service failed.”
“My idea was a thermocouple network,” Pete said. “Jimmy got high temperature readings from the other side. I figured to take advantage of the temperature differential.”
“That’s why it’s been so warm,” I said.
Jimmy nodded. “Uh-huh. We opened up the pinhole gate with power from the lines. That was when the grid went down. Once we got it open, we feed through Mr. Evans’ thermocouple rig. Turns out, the gate doesn’t pull that much juice, after it initiates.”
Pete took up the lecture.
“Once it stabilized, we monkeyed with the circuitry. Turns out there’s a tipping point. Once we hit it, growth became non-exponential to the power input.”
“This morning, we had a surge,” Jimmy said. “The gate got big enough to drive through. Those four things came at us, all frost-covered and shivering. It must be pretty cold back there.”
“Don’t tell me you two started the damned ice age, too.”
“Of course not,” Pete said. “There’s not enough power for that. We just created a localized effect.”
“I was kidding, Pete.”
“I knew that.” No, he didn’t.
Jimmy could hardly contain himself. “They surprised us. I left the barn door open, Uncle Lyle. They got through it before we could stop them. I tried to shut the gate off. The switching gear jammed.”
“That’s what slowed us down,” Pete said. “We had to set up a steel plate to block the portal. Took the crane to get it into place. Then we came hunting. You know the rest.”
Dusk had all but closed in by the time we got back to the ranch. The place looked deserted, more like the set for some movie than a working spread.
Been that way for eighteen years.
Bobby lost his life a spring day eight months after Jimmy left to get his master’s degree at Caltech. Working by himself, fiddling with his new John Deere nine-ton large-frame tractor. The damned thing jumped its brakes, knocked my brother down and squashed him flat, there in the barnyard.
Jimmy flew home from Pasadena for the funeral, stuck around to run the ranch until his mother found a buyer. She’d moved into town and I sure as hell didn’t want the place.
Things being what they were in the ranching business, Jimmy never made it back to California.
Pete parked his pickup next to that wayward tractor. Jimmy had maintained it, all these years, but he refused to move it or have it moved. So it sat there, just where it ran over Bobby, a constant reminder to us all that you can’t be too careful.
When Pete shut down the engine, I heard a faint squealing coming from what we all called the barn, a pole building Bobby and I put together almost forty years ago.
“Sounds like your gate stripped a bearing,” I said.
“It doesn’t have bearings.” Pete sounded worried.
We all slipped from the truck, stood for a moment in the gathering dusk. The squealing sounded louder.
“Say, Jimmy,” Pete asked. “How long will it take to plug in that new power pack?”
“A few seconds,” Jimmy replied.
“Is there a warm-up cycle?”
“Uh-huh. Almost ninety seconds.”
“Shit,” I said. “From the sound of it, there’s got to be another dozen of those things in there.”
I racked my riot gun at the same time Pete pumped his Mossberg. The three of us headed for the barn.
The squealing grew louder and louder as we got closer, so overpowering at the door it made my back teeth hurt. Pete eased one of the doors open and we slipped through.
Jimmy’s been busy since he come home from Caltech. The outside of the barn might be red but ain’t a thing old school inside. The concrete floor’s sealed in traction plastic. The walls, white plastic-coated panels over insulation to hold out the cold Montana winters.
An industrial crane hung suspended near the roof, upon a center track running the length of the building. Power and compressed air lines dangled from the ceiling here and there. Workbenches full of strange-looking hardware lined the walls.
The strangest apparatus wasn’t on a bench.
A metal arch, framing an opening as wide and high as a suburban garage door, filled the middle of the barn. Support devices hummed, hissed and blinked. Steel plating set over the opening, held upright by the nose of our old Farmall pickup.
Vapor oozed around the edges of the plate. Frost slicked its face, like the inside of a windowpane in winter. And the Farmall had been pushed back a full eighteen inches. The plate tilted away from the arch, against the truck.
As we stood there, the plate slid a few more inches. Its edge squealed against the concrete. I forgot the noise, though, when I saw the thing straining at the plate.
Not a five-foot, feathered banty monster. A big dinosaur, the monster most school kids recognize by sight. Tyrannosaurus rex.
“Jesus, protect us,” Pete said.
The T. rex heard him. He stopped pushing, turned his head toward us, opened up his mouth and roared.
I found myself backed against the wall, fumbling for the door behind me. I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten there. Pete and Jimmy stood right beside me, though, panting just as hard as I did. Pete clutched his Mossberg to his chest, as if he had changed religions and shooting that shotgun was his new way to worship God. I decided, then and there, that no matter what the tithe, I wanted to join that congregation.
“I think I pissed my pants,” Pete muttered.
“Me, too,” Jimmy said.
I nodded. “We’ll just have to start a club.”
Rex looked like all the drawings and movies I’d ever seen. His broad, flat head butted up against the plate. His shoulders and tiny forearms squeezed into the frost-rimed arch, filling it.
His stink, a thick, dirty ammonia stench like you get at a caged-chicken farm, filled the air within the pole barn. More animal than I had ever smelled. Rex pressed his head back to the plate. The inch-thick steel plate scraped on the concrete like a fingernail on slate.
Jimmy had to shout to be heard over the squeal. He pointed past the gate. “The other power pack’s over there. I’m going to run for it.”
He hunched low, scurried across the barn before either Pete or I could stop him.
“Lay down suppressing fire, Pete,” I yelled.
“Amen to that,” he said.
We both began to shoot, scrambling to the left, firing from the hip as we moved. My riot gun sizzled from the heat of all that firing. Pete emptied his Mossberg, dropped it, drew two big Smith & Wesson pistols. One of our slugs must have caught Rex in a tender spot. He flinched and the Farmall jumped, just as Jimmy hurried by.
The truck's tailgate snapped open, caught Jimmy’s shoulder. He flew across the barn, slammed into a workbench in the far corner and dropped to the floor. Even with the other noise, I heard that phaser smash onto the concrete, saw plastic pieces fly.
“Jimmy’s down, Pete,” I yelled. “It’s just you and me.”
“Go for his eyes,” he shouted, and darted close.
Rex caught him a glancing blow with that big toothy jaw. Pete skidded past me on the concrete, on his back, flopping like a rag doll.
The beast roared again, surged forward and began to rise, pushing with his thick hind legs. Metal groaned. The crossing beam broke free and Rex scrambled to his feet. I think I wet myself again. I’d never seen anything that big move of its own free will before, and he looked hungry.
His head brushed the ceiling. High-pressure sodium lights began to pop as Rex bumped against them. I tried to tell myself that something that enormous presented a better target, nothing else, but it was a real tough sell.
Even so, I fired a rifled slug straight into its chest. Rex bellowed with the pain, but didn’t fall. He staggered, though. His tail snapped against the arch.
Connections popped free. Sparks cascaded over everything. The barn smelled as if a box of road flares had been touched off. The arch gave out an awful groan. Its field shimmied, like it was alive, and then popped away like a soap bubble. When it did, all the lights died, too. Against the waning daylight from the high, clerestory windows, Rex made the biggest damned shadow puppet I ever saw.
He took a step forward, lowered his head and glared at me, acting just like a giant banty rooster. I pumped the riot gun. Empty. Nothing left in my pockets to feed it. I pitched it away, drew my Glock, prepared to make a stand.
Then I remembered Bobby’s words about dealing with a banty. I turned and ran.
It took me a couple seconds to make the door.
“Come on, you clumsy asshole!” My voice squeaked like I had sucked helium. “Come get me!”
If nothing else, I figured I could draw Rex out into the yard, give Pete and Jimmy a chance to get back on their feet. If they were still alive. Anyway, I didn’t figure I could outrun a T. rex, not over any distance, but I surely planned to try.
Rex roared again. I felt the barn floor tremble as he moved to follow me, but I sprinted through the door, ran halfway across the yard before I heard the sound of splintering wood behind me. And I spotted Bobby’s John Deere wide-frame.
I still move pretty fast for a guy pushing sixty, and the sun had almost set. Rex must have stopped to get his bearings, because he still stood just outside the barn when I made it to the tractor. I scrambled up into the cab.
God bless Jimmy for keeping things just so.
The diesel engine coughed. It caught and roared, deep-throated and as mean as any dinosaur. Rex stood tall when he heard that. He sniffed the air, caught the sweet, musky scent of spent diesel fuel. He tilted his head, bellowed his own challenge.
Maybe Rex saw that green tractor as another dinosaur. Maybe he spotted me inside, even in the dying light. Maybe he just didn’t like the sound the diesel made.
Whatever the reason, he threw himself at me, head down and back stretched straight, clawing mud. I snapped the John Deere into gear, jammed the pedal to the floor.
Damnation, that dinosaur could move, but so could I. I had the tractor rolling when we bumped heads and against that nine-ton John Deere, Rex didn’t fare one bit better than my brother Bobbie did.
Jimmy lost six front teeth and Pete cracked three ribs. I bit a chunk out of my tongue big as a pea when Rex and the tractor hit. We all wound up bruised and battered, too, but we survived. Jimmy tinkered with my two-way and I told base I’d been ten-seven. Out of service. Nothing more was ever said.
The time portal and the phaser didn’t make it, though.
Jimmy allowed as how it would be awhile before he worked on either one again. Pete and I both said we thought that for the best.
It didn’t take a lot of talk to figure out that none of us wanted to tell anyone about the dinosaurs. Rex turned out to be too damned big to do much else. So we back-hoed a hole behind the barn and buried him. Maybe someday somebody will dig him up, wonder at the fact that he’s not fossilized.
That left us with near eight hundred pounds of meat between the four banty monsters. It didn’t go to waste. Winter roared back, once that thermocouple died, and all that meat stayed cold there in the torn-up barn, until we dressed it out.
We ran the bones and hide and scrap through a wood chipper, twice, dumped the lot of it in Jimmy’s compost heap. And with the meat, the three of us threw the biggest barbecue Gallatin County ever had.
Pete and I took time off work. We cooked the meat most of a week in a closed pit on the ranch. It dropped to twenty-five below across the County, but at the ranch the heat from the fire pit kept the snow and cold away.
The party ran all that next weekend. Everybody wondered what sort of meat we served. A few even asked, though it ain’t good manners.
We only told one other soul the truth.
Sunday noon, Bill Gaither, from the Forest Service, caught me and Pete sitting on the John Deere counterweights, wetting our whistles with some Big Sky I.P.A.
Bill’s the blunt sort. “You boys been up in the Gallatin recently?” Bill and another ranger were the ones found that mangled carcass.
“No,” Pete said, with a straight face. “Not recently.”
“You think we went poaching for this barbeque?” I asked.
Bill held up a bun piled high with Deinonychus. “Naw. This don’t taste a bit like moose, but I’m curious. What is it?”
Pete leaned forward and burped. We both had had too many beers. “Bill,” he stage-whispered. “It’s dinosaur.”
Me and Pete commenced to laugh. Two growed men, giggling our silly asses off.
Bill rolled his shoulders, stretched out the muscles in his neck, the way he always did when he got pissed. “Real funny.”
I fingered a cross over my heart. “God’s truth, Bill. It’s dinosaur.”
He turned to walk away, then turned back. The edges of his ears were cherry red. “It’s your nickel,” he growled. “You boys don’t want to, you don’t have to say a word. Ask me, though, I got to say it tastes an awful lot like chicken.”
K.C. Ball lives in Seattle, Her short fiction has appeared in “Analog,” “Lightspeed,” “Flash Fiction Online,” “Beneath Ceaseless Skies,” and other publications. Her novel, “Lifting Up Veronica,” was recently published by Every Day Novels.