Dyan, Richard, Hannah, and that Somalian kid, whose name was Odawaa as Richard learned, walked along the bank of the creek. Hannah carried a net, filled with several small arthropods, while Odawaa was busy sketching out drawings of his surroundings. Because they were in the Carboniferous period, all four of them had to wear masks to breathe because the atmosphere was somewhat different in this time period than it was in the present, and it would probably been too harmful to go without protection. Richard wondered why they had to carry giant backpacks full of “modern-day air,” with all the technological advances the ISRFA had accomplished. Surely they could have worn some sort of invisible mesh suits over their entire body that circulated air or something.
While she also had the cumbersome breathing apparatus on, Dyan was dressed in full safari outfit, complete with a machete and Pith helmet. She hacked down some vines and charged ahead of the rest of the group.
Richard kept steady, looking for any species that could be added to the project ecosystem. Dyan had made sure to emphasize that they get the strangest, most interesting plants and animals they could find, and there were plenty of those in every geologic period they travelled to.
Dyan had stopped in her tracks and let the others catch up. In front of her was a dog-sized centipede, crawling along the ground. “Arthropleura,” she said. “No predators at all in this time period; they reigned supreme on the land.”
“Arthropleura were normally eight feet long, right?” Richard asked.
“No, two meters.”
“How do you think they would fare in our ecosystem?” Hannah asked. “They do not seem like they would be able to adapt as easily to predators as vicious as the ones we have.”
“Not sure. Let’s try anyway.” Dyan brought down her machete and hacked the arthropleura’s head off.
Hannah shrieked as the centipede’s guts spilled onto her suit “Why’d you do that?”
“We can just clone it, as long as we have the DNA. Carrying it alive would be too much dead weight. Er, alive weight.”
“Couldn’t you have just gotten a DNA sample without killing it?”
“Yes,” Dyan answered. “Easily.”
The four continued onwards. Richard uprooted several small plants and put them in containers. She wasn’t sure how much, if any of the flora would be used in the project itself, since most of it was not much different from what they had in present-day. Maybe it would prove scientifically valuable regardless, not that she knew.
Odawaa continued drawing as quickly as he could. Richard felt bad for him; he was enamored with every new era they travelled to, but he never got more than a few hours to observe any given location. He probably would have been much more excited if this trip was simply for observation, and not for the project.
She wondered if Dyan truly cared anything about this project except for her crazed attempt to manipulate evolution and create new species. It was an honorable task in and of itself, but time travel alone, however it came to be, could completely change how science, even history, could examine the past; it was like Dyan’s ambitions ran so deep that she could not see that each of the small innovations made towards the project were actually revolutionary by themselves.
In fact, she had a sneaking suspicion that time travel was not the sole element at work in their devices. “Dyan,” she called out. “So this is Carboniferous Antarctica, right?”
“Uh, no. I believe we are in Africa. Don’t quote me on that, though.”
“So our time travel devices are also teleporters?”
Dyan shrugged. “Yeah, I thought that was obvious. We have to use teleportation technology to keep ourselves tethered to the Earth. Otherwise, we’re going to travel back in time and end up suffocating in space because the Milky Way was in a different part of the universe back then.”
She was right; the technology required to allow them to do all this was absolutely amazing, and yet they were doing it for something so grandiose that it still involved charting completely unknown territory. Which, honestly, was the most exciting part of all of this.
The group stopped when the creek fed into a large river in front of them. Dyan bent down, took her breathing mask off, and drank some of the water. “It’s saltwater,” she said, putting her mask back on. “Hopefully I don’t die from that. But this means we can get some really damn good fish here, I bet. They did call the Paleozoic the Age of Fish or something like that.”
Dyan took out a small piece of metal that, when she pressed the top, expanded into a fishing rod. Once again, amazing technology outpaced by the sheer scope of the project at hand. She began reeling in fish almost immediately, and tossed them into Hannah’s net. Hannah dumped them into a container and set it against a large tree. Odaawa sat against that tree and sketched a nearby mountain. “I spent three years out in Savannah, Georgia, learning how to do this,” Dyan said to no-one in particular.
Richard noticed a large fin sticking out of the water, swimming closer and closer to the shore, almost as if it were reenacting Jaws. It came up to get a better look at them, it turned out it was indeed some sort of shark.
“What species was that…prehistoric shark…” Dyan mumbled. “Oh yes, the xenacanthida. What a mouthful of a name.” And as she said this, the xenacanthida jumped out of the water and grabbed a hold of her and pulled her back in with it. The fishing rod flew into the air and plopped into the water twenty feet away.
“DYAN!” Richard screamed. But it was too late; she was already gone.
“What do we do?!” Hannah shrieked once again.
Blood began rising to the top of the lake, and the xenacanthida swam away.
Back in Dyan’s office, Richard had no idea what to do. The President of the entire facility was eaten alive on a secret time travel expedition, which they were not allowed to divulge any information at all, even after her death.
Was this considered a criminal act if she didn’t tell people about it? Was it a criminal act if she did? Nothing like this had ever happened to her before, so she had never even thought of the possibility before now.
She sat down at Dyan’s desk and slammed her hands against the wood. M’tsargh’i crawled along her hands and she pulled them back quickly, but the bug was already attached to her left hand. “Augh, disgusting.”
“Well, that’s certainly rude,” a small, tinny voice said. She diverted her eyes to the green-and-white holographic image of Dyan Moore, projected from one of the many strange metallic objects inside the office.
“Dyan? You’re alive?!”
The hologram laughed. “Ha, only technically. I’m an AI version of the Dyan Moore you know. Well, knew, at the moment. I apologize for that; accidents do happen sometimes.”
“You’re a sentient AI?” There was no way that the ISRFA could have created a way to upload one’s own brain into computers simply to help the project out. There was no way, but it was obviously true.
“Yes, and I run the whole facility. I have simply refrained from speaking to any of its employees until now.”
M’tsargh’i was now on Richard’s left boob, but she tried to pay attention to AI Dyan instead of the writhing monster. “Then you must know the protocols that we need to follow when the real Dyan is killed, right?” She shuddered until M’tsargh’i moved onto her stomach.
“The protocol is business as usual. Continue your work and make Dyan proud.” The AI put her hands on her hips and posed gallantly. “Just remember, I’ll always be with you. Never worry about that part.”
Richard looked down at the faithful recreation of a savanna biome; the new carboniferous plants (or rather, their clones) were being planted in this environment, along with several plant-eaters, with no carnivores. It was a test to see how this ecosystem would interact, and which carnivores needed to be introduced into the population in order to balance it out. Her bet for the small-scale predators was on the microraptors, though she was biased because she really liked microraptors.
About half of the stegosaurus herd that she had helped nurture over the past decade was being placed into this region, and since they had extensive amounts of experience studying these animals, they already knew that they would be some of the most dominant creatures in the area, at least in the beginning.
The main attraction, at least from Dyan’s notes, was to be the crows. Apparently, she absolutely loved crows, and demanded that every single region of Antarctica have crows introduced. The notes suggested that, not only would these crows help balance out the ecosystem, but they would have the best chance of becoming the next sentient species, sometime in the future. Richard always believed dolphins were closer, though there was little way to influence the evolution of a species that inhabits hundreds of miles of ocean.
Richard spotted Stephen from far down the observatory hallway. He carried a small coffee and a brown paper bag. She waved at him and he came walking towards her.
“I know you can’t tell me about this stuff,” Stephen said, sitting at a small bench as they watched the giant salamanders flowing out of their enclosure and into the river. “And honestly, I don’t understand what kind of science nonsense you did to make all this possible, so it wouldn’t matter anyway. But really, what is all this?”
“Come on. No, I’m not telling you,” Richard told him with a smile. “You keep trying to get me to slip up, but I’m not going to.”
“Fine.” He ate at his sausage biscuit and chewed quickly. “Okay, but how do you simulate sunlight like that? It’s nighttime in an ice-covered tundra outside the dome, but through this window, it looks like, well, the plains of Africa in the middle of the day.”
“Now that, I actually can’t tell you because I’m not entirely sure. They’ve honestly come up with some pretty revolutionary weather control systems.”
“Is Rupert going to go into one of these things?” Stephen looked legitimately confused.
“No, Rupert is Dmitry’s pet. He actually owns him, so no. And no, I can’t tell you if any of the animals owned by the ISRFA will be going into any of ‘these things,’ so don’t try me.”
“Dammit, I thought it would work,” Stephen said, cracking up. As he looked at her, she could tell in his eyes that he had not gotten past their couple moments together. But that was all weeks ago; surely he hadn’t taken all that to heart, after all this time? If he did, she would feel legitimately bad for him; she simply didn’t really feel that way about him, and it was her mistake that she indulged in the first place. And a few other times after that, but still.
She didn’t want to kill the mood, though, so she decided not to bring anything like that up, at least right now.
Richard could hardly fall asleep. Stephen had passed out fifteen minutes ago, and was already starting to snore, but there was something she felt that made her a bit of an insomniac lately.
Honestly? It was probably excitement. Even without Dyan’s help (besides through her AI form), the project was progressing at a rapid pace, and the entire facility seemed to be working together, even when almost none of them understood what the goal of their actions actually was. With nobody to share it with except Hannah, Odawaa, and a couple other privileged team members, it was like she found out the ending to a new Christopher Nolan movie, months before the movie was supposed to release in theaters, and she was just waiting to see everyone else’s reactions to the twists. She felt that this was indeed the most apt metaphor for her situation, probably.
And everything was just building up to that moment when the biggest scientific experiment of all time was set to begin. She had no idea how it would work out, but just being a part of it was… exhilarating.
She locked her fingers with Stephen’s, and closed her eyes. She still wouldn’t fall asleep for another half hour, but she felt like she was doing something that could really change the world, in so many ways. That helped her be at peace more than anything.