Buried Words, Etched in Steel





Female and male oviraptor alike minded the clutch of eggs. Turning them, moving them in and out of sun and shade. Laying their bellies down on them gently to keep them warm.


The eggs were all roughly the same size, but even from a distance, through my scope, it was clear they were from different species. The oviraptor eggs were brown, speckled with white like powdered sugar on funnel cake, while the protoceratops eggs were an aubergine so deep as to be almost black. The oviraptors had taken in the eggs after the protoceratops parents disappeared some weeks earlier—we’d missed exactly what happened, but evidence suggested predation, and now the oviraptors were tending the protoceratops eggs as if they were their own. Some nurturing, parental instinct drives the species to take care of others, looking past the danger and death and loss that’s all around them. I could never do that. They remind me of you.


Isn’t that beautiful? For years, paleontologists had examined the evidence at this site and thought that oviraptors ate protoceratops eggs. Then they thought that maybe the eggs were actually oviraptor eggs or that the mudslide that buried the area had mingled two separate nests. And it turned out that everyone was wrong. That alone, I think, made our mission worth it.


But I wanted more, and so did Ana Clara. The day the first oviraptor chick hatched, we laid out our plan for Huifen, who immediately shot us down.


“The potential for contamination is far too high,” she said. “Just being seen by the subjects could alter their behavior. And leaving the camp exposes you to far more danger than is acceptable.”


“We traveled seventy-eight million years into the past,” Ana Clara said, laughing not unkindly. “That’s an acceptable level of danger, but walking a quarter mile is too much?”


Huifen rolled her eyes. “You know very well what’s out there.”


Tarbosaurus. Since arriving, we’d caught glimpses that might be the massive theropod as it slinked between trees near the edge of the forest. The oviraptor nest rested among a sprawling root system at the very fringe, at the foot of the hill where our camp was situated. We’d hoped that the tarbosaurus might drink at the stream near the nest, or at least hunt there. Oviraptors and protoceratops and plesiohadros and tsaagan all congregated there, and back when we’d planned the mission (“back” seventy-eight million years in the future), everyone had assumed this concentration of smaller dinosaurs would attract the area’s largest predator, but so far we’d been disappointed.


“We can barely see into the nest itself,” I argued. “Certainly not enough to see a hatching in progress. It’s already obscured by the root system surrounding it, and the way the adults swarm the nest when the hatching begins, we’ll never get a good look from this angle.”


“Then move the scope,” Huifen countered.


Xia had been sitting to the side, eating her dinner, which like all our food was printed by the fabricator and just the wrong side of almost-tasteless. “I wouldn’t mind an egg fragment to study. If we could recover albumin…”


“Are you people not scientists?” Huifen asked. “Have none of your heard of the Hawthorne Effect?”


“We won’t be seen,” Ana Clara declared with far more confidence that I felt myself. “We know there were fewer fossilized eggs recovered than we’re seeing here, anyway. Something must have happened to them. Maybe it was us all along?”


Everyone groaned at that. No one liked thinking about causality and butterfly effects and all those dizzying implications of time travel.


“No,” Huifen said, her words ringing with team-leader finality. “It’s out of the question. I’m sorry.”


You can read all this in the logs. You know this. I’m sorry. I get carried away talking about the dinosaurs sometimes, but you need to understand them to understand me. What I did and why. I promise I have my reasons for what I did here, and my reasons for coming. Not to abandon you, not because I didn’t care. Because I cared too much. It’s a sick irony that only the deepest love can transmute into the sharpest pain.


We’d lived in the Cretaceous for nearly seven months at that point, barely leaving our camp, observing only through long distance scopes. Yes, we were all scientists, but that doesn’t mean we’re emotionless, that we don’t make bad decisions sometimes. We were stir-crazy. So Ana Clara and I snuck out anyway. We’d traveled back seventy-eight million years. How could we pass up the opportunity to study living dinosaurs up close? I don’t know if that makes us the best paleontologists or the worst.


#


Time travel doesn’t feel like anything. The four of us—Xia and Huifen and Ana Clara and myself—waited in the chamber with the fabricator, the equipment we couldn’t produce with the fabricator, and our meager personal belongings, expecting something momentous. Some roar and hum and crash as we plummeted back seventy-eight million years. Instead we found ourselves suddenly standing in a dense forest, trees so massive all of us linked together couldn’t wrap our arms around the trunks towering overhead. I don’t know if I blinked just as it happened or if the change was too sudden to register, but I missed the moment of travel.


For a second, we all simply stood there. Awestruck. We’d done it. We had actually traveled through time. We would be the most famous paleontologists, the most important paleontologists in history. Or were we already? Time travel might not feel like anything, but thinking about it gives me a headache.


Finally, Huifen slapped her hands on her thighs and said, “Okay, let’s move.” Working together, we wheeled everything through the forest, following our planned route toward the river. Every second I expected a tyrannosaurus to crash through the trees at us, despite the fact that no T. rex fossils have been found in the Djadochta Formation. I should have been worried about a tarbosaurus, but with all the adrenaline and excitement, I wasn’t exactly thinking scientifically at the time.


Surely you’ve read the official records, the ones we transcribed for all of you back in the future, hidden and buried in the designated location—time travel being a one-way trip. So I’ll skip how we found and set up camp largely unmolested, hiding ourselves from the local fauna. I’ll get right to the oviraptors.


I was totally right about them, by the way. Not only do oviraptors not eat eggs, not only do they take care of eggs from other species when those parents are killed, they actually foster the newborns until they’re old enough to disperse. I once saw a juvenile oviraptor holding a crippled dragonfly in its little claws—one tattered foot-long wing spasming as the dragonfly tried to take off. The juvenile lifted it toward the sky, waiting for it to fly, and when it didn’t, the oviraptor gently placed it on a tree branch. Seeing the juvenile, I had a vision of Jiya, imagining her with a puppy, how maybe she would have cried someday when coming across a dead sparrow in the park. Tears welled in my eyes, but I wiped them away before anyone else saw, the same way I always did around you.


You always accused me of not feeling things, but that was never the case. To be taken seriously in my work, as a woman, I could never allow myself to be perceived as emotional. I learned to suppress any outward displays from the time I was a girl. And when you bury emotions long enough, they harden to something like stone. You hope that doing things for your loved ones will be enough, that they will read your emotions from your acts, and look past the lack of words.


I like to think the oviraptors and I are alike in that way. We had some seventy-eight million years of evolution on them, not to mention all the modern technology that we brought back here with us, and yet if it wasn’t for the Djadochta Formation clan of oviraptors—who, mind you, don’t even possess opposable thumbs—I’d be dead right now. I would never have gotten the opportunity to translate my emotions into words for you. I would never have gotten the chance to explain.


I know you hate me already, but I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if I’d come here for nothing. I know you’ll read this and say you don’t hate me, and that’s fine. But I need you to. At least for a little while, and then you can forget about me. And then you can move on.


If anyone else is reading this, please don’t. These are the personal notes of Ritika Deshpande, intended solely for my husband Shalin Deshpande. The official record that I and the others kept contains any and all information pertinent to the mission.

I’m writing this for you, Shalin. To tell you why I came. And how the oviraptors proved me right.


#


Concealed in a hastily assembled blind, Ana Clara and I observed oviraptors coddling a newborn protoceratops. Two adult oviraptors regurgitated a mound of plant material—hard to tell just what after spending time in an oviraptor stomach—in front of the little quadruped. It flopped face-first into the goop and ate while the adults looked on. Meanwhile, another couple adults regurgitated the contents of their own stomachs into the mouths of several oviraptor chicks.


“God,” Ana Clara breathed. “I’m seeing it, but I can hardly believe it. They’re like, dinosaur nurses.” She snorted. “Oviraptor. What a stupid name.”


I didn’t trust myself to respond without a hitch in my voice. My eyes stayed glued to the oviraptors. Juveniles hovered around the perimeter, watching. Learning, maybe. It seemed a good strategy to me. Remember when Jiya was born and I suddenly had to buy every book on parenting I could find? How my online search history was a hundred questions about normal newborn behavior or signs of distress? Of course, I could have started learning when I was pregnant, but I couldn’t bring myself to, like that would be tempting fate. If only I’d had someone to teach me, some oviraptor guide to let me know what to expect. I could have hit the ground running, could have made the most of our time.

          

#


I’m sorry. I need to go back to the dinosaurs, to observation and dispassion.


#


Neither Ana Clara nor I wanted to leave our blind. We knew Huifen would be angry, though didn’t really see how she could punish us. But she would surely watch us more closely, making it difficult to get away from camp again. This was our one chance to study the oviraptors up close, and we needed to take full advantage.


We’d taken precautions. Built the blind to hide us from their view, slathered ourselves with the gel that was supposed to suppress our scent. Shows how little we knew about dinosaurs. At least some of them have much better senses of smell that we gave them credit for.


Branches snapped off trees not far away. Something big moving through the forest. It could only be one thing.


In the time-honored tradition of prey animals, Ana Clara and I froze, hoping whatever was approaching would pass us by. The oviraptors darted under the thick roots that covered the nest, nudging the infants before them. If they feared of whatever was approaching, then so did I.


I barely blinked, listening to crackling underbrush and thudding footsteps, praying that I was mistaken that they were getting closer. A perverse inner voice implored me to poke my head out of the blind, to investigate tarbosaurus’s hunting methods up close and personal. I shoved that voice down and tried to breathe without making a sound. The dinosaur was so close now that I could hear its wet snuffling inhalations.


The tarbosaurus roared, an ear-splitting sound that rattled my innards and nearly forced a terrified shriek from my lungs. I assume it was trying to scare us out of the blind. It couldn’t know that I’d already experienced the worst fear I possibly could, months of it on end. Predatory roaring pales compared to the terror of bringing your baby to the emergency room. Ana Clara and I held fast. I even dared to think it would move on. Then the foot crashed through the thick trellis of leaves and branches above us. The edge of an outer claw caught Ana Clara on the shoulder, and I saw her fall onto her side before my view was obscured by the rest of the lower leg.


Crablike, I shuffled backward, escaping the blind an instant before the tarbosaurus plunged its muzzle into it, twisting to knock away the branches. Ana Clara screamed, and then very quickly stopped.


Panic overwhelmed me, and I sprang to my feet, ready to run, but before I could take a step, the tarbosaurus turned. I don’t think it was even intentional, but the tip of its tail—still thicker than my arm at the shoulder—clipped me on the side, sending me sprawling onto my back several feet away. I felt ribs shatter.


Wind knocked out of me, I struggled to breathe. The pain was intense, and even with adrenaline flooding my limbic system, I couldn’t move. Dispassionately, almost certainly in shock, I observed the tarbosaurus as a scientist. Maybe seven meters long and four meters tall at the shoulder, it resembled a tyrannosaur in the flesh as much as it did skeletally. Stubby forelimbs, long and powerful hindlimbs. Featherlike shafts lining its head and streaking down its back and tail. A deep muddy brown all over, its skin wasn’t dark enough to hide the red streaks along its maw. It roared again, revealing more red on its teeth. I struggled to remain conscious, while at the same time thinking it would be better for me to pass out. At least then I wouldn’t feel it eat me.


I thought about you then, Shalin. Wondered if you were right to tell me I shouldn’t come here. Could I have continued living with you? Would I have been able to swallow my pain and have another child? Would you be able to swallow yours if I refused? Certain I was about to die, that was where my mind went. To you and to Jiya. I tried to focus on the good years, memories of dressing her as a pumpkin for her first Halloween, of the way her tiny fingers tugged on my braid, of holding her newborn form in the hospital, crying because I couldn’t quite believe she was real. And then the memory shifted to the other times in the hospital. Radiation and chemotherapy.


I closed my eyes and wondered if someday you would find my fossilized bones.


The tarbosaurus didn’t kill me, of course. Huifen and the others rushed down the hill, blasting away with the noise-guns that were supposed to scare it away. It didn’t work. The tarbosaurus bellowed louder than any sonic weapon. It charged. I passed out then, to the sounds of my team being crushed and ripped by a creature I’d wanted to see since I was a little girl poring over the pages of my dinosaur atlas.


#


Sometime later, I woke, jolting upright in fear and confusion. First came the pain in my ribs, then my forehead as I cracked my skull against a thick root.


Knocked back onto the ground, I turned my head side to side, and my suspicion was immediately confirmed. I was in the nest. Not one meter from my face a female adult oviraptor crouched on her stomach, watching me. In front of her blunt beaklike snout was a pile of grubs and ragged hunks of some unidentifiable pulpy fruit. She nudged the food toward me. Slowly, so as not to scare her, I rolled onto my side, and saw three more oviraptors crouched behind her. These were juveniles, about the size of a seven- or eight-year-old human child, as opposed to the adults, who were about the same size as me. Much more heavily feathered, the juveniles susurrated when they moved, the feathers rubbing up against each other. They shuffled back and forth, bumping each other. I hoped it meant they were excited and happy to see me awake. This strange scaleless and featherless creature that the tarbosaurus had spared.


The adult chirped at me, a squeak like air escaping a balloon, and pushed the food pile closer. I reached out and took one of the less dirt-covered pieces of fruit and cautiously put it in my mouth. It actually tasted okay, a bit like a combination of grape and pear, though the mushy texture meant I had to repress my gag reflex as I chewed.


Seemingly satisfied, the adult backed away toward the nest opening, revealing an egg and a mixture of newborn oviraptors and protoceratops. Apparently, while I’d been unconscious, the rest of the clutch had hatched.


Except not the entire clutch. That sole oviraptor egg remained, alone among the shards of shell and glistening effluvia. Adult and juveniles circled it, waiting. For the next few hours, I drifted in and out of sleep, but every time I woke up, they were there, holding vigil.


I cried. Seeing that egg I was sure would never hatch, thinking about you and Jiya. All the IVF cycles we went through to get her. The months of progesterone shots only to find out that the embryo didn’t take or that I miscarried weeks into yet another pregnancy. Logically, scientifically, I knew it wasn’t my fault, but it wasn’t you who had a chromosomal disorder that kept you from producing eggs. Each time one of our pregnancy attempts failed, I wished I believed in God. At least then, I’d have someone else to blame.


#


I would never be able to walk right, but my ribs healed. For months, I lived with the oviraptors, eating the food they provided me, drinking from the stream, pitching in to help care for the newborns. They kept me busy, nudging me in the rear end to tell me where to go, demonstrating what I should do to help. On my own initiative, I wandered into the forest one day to pick fruit, using my shirt as a pouch and filling it with as many berries and grape-pears as I could carry. The oviraptors chirruped and hooted so enthusiastically when I returned that I made it a daily ritual. I knew I was failing as a scientist, but I felt I had to help them. A basic sense of fair play prevailed every time I argued with myself about it, trying to convince myself to leave them to their own devices. I knew I’d have to leave eventually anyway. By that point, I’d been in the Cretaceous for almost a year, and I knew the mudslide would be coming soon. Every time clouds passed over the sun, I braced myself. I didn’t know what I’d do when that inevitable storm came.


I know I haven’t expressed how devastated I was by the deaths of the team, but I mourned them the whole time I lived with the oviraptors. I blamed myself. I still do. But you’re reading this an hour after we left. For me, it’s been nearly three years, nearly two since the tarbosaurus killed everyone. I’ve had time to come to terms with what happened, as much as possible anyway. I’ve had experience pushing aside grief in order to move forward with the mission, here and in your present. Time to come to terms with my choices here, and my choices in your present. Despite everything, I still think I was right.


#


Do you remember the night before I left? Of course you do. For you it was last night. You would think I’d keep all this time travel weirdness straight by now, but it still creeps up on me, the realization that almost no time has passed for you, that the hurt of my departure—my abandonment, I’m sure you’d say—is still raw.


“It’s not too late to back out,” you said, your voice already high-pitched with emotion. “Someone else can go.”


“I need to do this,” I said. “My whole life, I’ve dreamed of seeing a real live dinosaur. What paleontologist wouldn’t jump at this chance?”


“One who loved her family,” you snapped. And it cut me, but I knew you were just lashing out because of your own pain.


“This will be better for us both,” I said. “I do love you, but I can’t give you what you need.”


“I don’t care about having another kid,” you said, but your voice hitched. You didn’t even believe yourself. I was still young enough to go through the IVF treatments again; we still had a few embryos frozen. We could try. But I couldn’t. I know Jiya died two years ago—from your perspective—but I knew I could never have another child. I would never want to. It’s been five years for me now, and those feelings haven’t changed. I had my daughter. I’ve already poured out all my love, and the empty space filled up with misery. I can’t risk going through that again.


You can, and I understand that. It’s okay for you to want to move on, to try again. But I knew you’d never divorce me. Never give yourself a chance to meet a woman who would start a new family with you. Someone untouched by the despair of failing to have a child for years, the unimaginable agony of losing a miracle daughter. But now you can. I’ve left you and traveled seven-eight million years away. What judge wouldn’t consider that grounds for a divorce? What friends or family would begrudge you the chance to meet another woman? One who can get pregnant naturally, without all the tests, all the paperwork, all the heartbreak.


“I need to do this,” I told you again. And what I didn’t say was, “You need me to do this too.”


#


Every drop of rain portended the potential end to all this. I told myself I would stay until the last, not retreating to the safely situated old camp until I absolutely had to. Until I was certain that any rainstorm was the one severe enough to cause the mudslide that buried the oviraptor nest.


From the start, I knew that they would die this way eventually. There wouldn’t be any fossils in the Djadochta Formation if it wasn’t for mudslides and other natural disasters. But I told myself I would maintain scientific distance. That I’d let things play out, that I wouldn’t interfere. Then the ultimate storm came, wind blowing so hard the rain fell sideways, lashing the hunkered bodies of ten oviraptors, six adults and four chicks, the same distribution that was unearthed millions of years later. There were no protoceratops in the nest at that point, the ones who I’d seen born having grown up enough to strike out on their own. They dispersed when they were about a year old. After that, I kept hoping that the oviraptors would take in more protoceratops eggs, but they never did. If there was a protoceratops in the nest, I’d know the mudslide wasn’t coming yet. No protoceratops fossils were found at the nest site.


This rain drilled into the ground, churning the area outside the nest to slick mud. Leaves tore from their branches and whipped in the wind. Oviraptors growled fearfully against the whistling call of the storm outside their sparse root shelter.


I stood as much as I could inside the nest, still hunched over, my ribs throbbing. “Come on!” I shouted, as if the oviraptors understood. “You have to get out of here!”


But evolution taught them to hide during storms, to wait out the worst. They wouldn’t leave unless I forced them. I knew I shouldn’t. But I thought about everything they’d done. How they helped me, how they helped anything in need. I wanted to be like them.


I grabbed the chick closest to me—a little female—and held it with both arms, backing out of the nest. The adults hissed and feinted toward me. I didn’t think they’d chase me if I ran into the storm. If I could get a few more feet, then I would be home free. I couldn’t cure Jiya, no matter how much I wished I could, no matter how much I wept, no matter what deals I made with a divine being that I didn’t believe in. This was my chance to save something helpless.


The chicks on the ground peeped, the one in my arms screeching in reply, wriggling frantically. The adults yawped and snapped at the air. Tears streamed down my face, mixing with the rain. I couldn’t move, but I knew there couldn’t be much time. I remembered the fossils, knew exactly what and how many dinosaurs had been found. I knelt down, released the oviraptor chick. It scampered back to its siblings. The adults formed a line in front of the chicks, posturing aggressively at me. I backed out into the rain. Slogged and stumbled back to camp, upslope and out of the path of the mudslide. I’d barely visited in the last two years, but I’d maintained it enough that I could move back in and continue to study the local dinosaurs.


I couldn’t watch, but I heard the mudslide, a freight-train rumble in the distance. The mud would encase the nest for seventy-eight million years, and in 1924 George Olsen will discover the first oviraptor fossil, a partial skeleton laid atop a clutch of eggs. And then a couple hundred years later, you and the rest of the institute’s top brass will unearth the buried titanium vault where I’ve stored our records—etched on steel plates, sealed in with inert gases—as I document my time here.


And I’ll still be in the late Cretaceous. Thinking about you and Jiya. And the oviraptors. And how sometimes, no matter how much you want to, you can’t save anyone. I know that I can never change the past. But maybe I’ve given us both a better future.





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