The morning sun bathes the plain with a golden light. The herds visible at the end of the alluvial valley moves slowly away from us, their dark hides circulating in a Brownian motion as they idly graze on the spiky sagebrush. It’s easy to miscalculate their distance since the scale is wrong. The animals are wooly mammoths, averaging 12 to 13 feet at the shoulder, and would tower over a man.
The bull mammoth was giving me a wary eye as I stand under a tree scanning the bestiary before me. Along with the mammoths, but almost hidden among their immense bodies, were small horses (our zoologist says they’re North America Horse, which went extinct in North America almost 11,000 years ago), and huge sloths, weighing at least 400 pounds, lumbering among the mammoth and eating the sage and other flowering shrubs. There was no grass, as it had yet to make its appearance on this continent.
I look over at Barbara, our zoologist, and gesture towards the herd.
“This will be the last chance if you want a sample of any of these. They’re headed out, and we won’t be able to catch up with them after today.”
Barbara continues to examine the herd with her binoculars, but her voice carries easily to me.
“No, you’re not going get to shoot anything else today.”
I’m used to her disdain – it’s been on full display since she found out I had been a guide in South Africa, hunting elephant, leopard, and lion in the great Wildlife Parks. A background that made me uniquely useful on a safari back to a world that did not know man, but anathema to her vocation.
I let it roll off me, like so many other thoughtless and malicious comments and slights that my clients directed towards me. It doesn’t matter, even putting up with the ones who despised me the most, as long as I got to spend time in the bush.
I hefted my rifle, a Springfield M1A in .308, and headed back to our campsite at the top of the slight hill, and away from Mz (and don’t forget it!) Barbara Hertz, and away from whatever further insult she was waiting to fling my way.
At the campsite, I plop down beside Jack Harper, our astronomer. The transportation device (I have a hard time saying “time machine”) is not exactly accurate – the only way we know exactly how far back we are is by photographing stars. That’s actually one of the mission objectives – the scientists are hoping to increase their ability to accurately place in time when we insert a party. We know where we are geographically (more than time-wise, at least), but part of our mission was to verify positively the time in which we’ve arrived. As if in response to my thinking about Jack’s equipment, the selsyn pointing the camera gave out a rare click, as it moved the camera and telescope assembly infinitesimally along its programmed track.
“Any ideas how far back we are?”
“Figures from last night are showing we’re within a millennium of the 50,000 year mark, which means Dr. Wilkenson is better with his hypothesis than he originally thought.”
Jack leans forward and checks the meat sizzling in the pan on the fire.
“This is the last of the prairie chicken. If we want more meat, we’re going to have to shoot something.”
“I’ll take care of it. I’ll head down towards the stream north of us. I saw a flock of something similar yesterday. And it just happens to be the opposite direction of Mz Hertz.”
“Ah, don’t let her get to you. She’s just upset that we’re back here with all these species that have never been seen or hypothesized, and you’re shooting them. It goes against her grain, even though it’s the only way to gather samples for us to take back.”
I pick up the shotgun, and put my rifle in my tent. I grab the bandolier loaded with shotgun shells, break open the action, and load both barrels with birdshot. The prairie chicken looking bird we’ve been shooting for the pot is relatively small. Calling it a prairie chicken drives Barbara up the wall, since it’s an undiscovered (and un-named) type of fossil bird that no longer exists. As much as she hates us using the name, she hates that we’re using it for food even more. Although I’ve noticed that she’s not been shy about eating it once served.
I walk along the game trail that leads to the stream. There’s a series of large boulders deposited along the shoreline of the stream, left by the last glacier that receded from this site within the last few thousand years. There’s a geological name for this, but it escapes me as I wander towards the hardwoods growing near the stream. My path brings me close to a large boulder that towers over my head.
I hear a scream and instinctively drop to my knees while raising the shotgun. A huge tawny shadow glides over my head, hits the ground 15 feet from me, and runs towards Barbara, who had been following me towards the river.
I know that my birdshot will have no effect on the ten-foot long Smilodon lunging towards Barbara, but I fire both barrels anyways, hoping to scare the big cat. I know this is a forlorn hope, as animals in this time have no knowledge of man, or of his tools.
As the saber-tooth lion reaches Barbara, I hear her scream and hear it abruptly cut off. I run toward the lion, struggling to reload the shotgun. I only have birdshot in the bandolier, and I know it’s not going to be enough to save her.
A shot rings out from the edge of the woods. It’s Jack, with my rifle. I turn to see the lion shiver then lie still.
I run to the scene, as Jack reaches it from the other side. We both struggle to shift the 500 lb dead weight off Barb’s inert form and pull her to the side of the great beast.
“I wasn’t thinking – this place fooled me. It’s so familiar I forgot that nothing here fears man. We’re just something else to hunt and eat. That thing was about to pounce on me, but Barb distracted it, and I wasn’t prepared.”
“I just happened to head down to see if there was something in the stream I could use to add some variety for tonight. Is she…?”
The lion had taken most of her from her groin to her breasts – I could see her spine, which was the only thing connecting her head to her lower body.
“She’s most definitely gone – that thing took most of her middle with a single bite. Would have probably finished her in 3 bites.”
“I think we’ve done all we can do here. I think it’s time to head back.”
Nodding my head, I wordlessly take my rifle, and check that it’s loaded. I’ve just gotten that feeling I used to get in leopard country – where you know the leopard is hunting you.
“I think these things hunt in pairs. This one’s mate is probably out there, sizing us up. I’ve got my jacket – let’s bundle up what’s left of Barb, and haul butt out of here.”
Jack takes my jacket as I shrug out of it, and we fold Barbara into it. I nod to Jack to take the jacket (which now only weighs about half of Barb’s original weight) and head back to the displacement vehicle.
I walk backward following Jack, rifle on my shoulder. As we walk into the woods which shelter the vehicle, I see a tawny flash near the rocks. The male lion walks to his mate, lying on the ground. He sniffs her body, then lifts his head and screams.
A large flock of birds explodes from the trees around us, and I know we’ve got very little time.
“Jack, leave everything – head straight to the displacement vehicle, and step on it!”
“I’m going – I heard him, too.”
As we reach the displacement vehicle, Jack immediately clambers up the metal ramp to the raised platform. The design is simple – a circular, closed interior, surrounded by a ring of metal floor plates, with a railing to keep passengers from walking off the edge. There’s a single ramp that leads to the decking, and the whole vehicle is suspended from several girders that raise it 10 foot above its surroundings.
I kneel at the base of the ramp, waiting for Jack to make it up. When I hear him on the decking above, I start walking backward up the ramp, rifle still raised and waiting.
At the edge of the clearing, I can see two green eyes with deep ebony pupils. They watch as I make it to the decking, and pull the pin that releases the ramp, which crashes to the soil below.
“Hit it, Jack!” I yell just as the lion explodes from the treeline. My last sight of him as the bright light of transit wipes everything from my vision was 15 feet of raw fury launching himself at the vehicle.
We arrive back in the research bunker. As the transit blindness fades, I look around and see Jack crying beside the pathetically small shape of Barbara’s remains beside him.
I carefully remove the magazine from my rifle, work the bolt to unload the weapon completely and sit down with my back resting on the vehicle’s center cylinder.
Dr. Wilkenson looks up at me from the research bunker’s floor.
“We just weren’t prepared.”
“Based on the results from this excursion, we think we’d like to send another team back after we recharge the capacitor bank. That will take about a week. Do you think that’s enough time to prepare?”
I nod my head, and I realize that I’m looking forward to another trip to the past.
But I owe it to Barbara to make sure next time, I’ll be ready.