Don't be such a Cynic, Mr. Quimby

Like most geologists, Nathanael Quimby chose his career because of the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were just so big and scary and cool. Sadly, like most geologists, his work had little to do with them. Nevertheless, he retained a healthy interest in the creatures, particularly what they had to say about time travel.

Physicists spun their fine theories for why humanity could never travel back in time, but it was the geologists who had hard evidence. They found their proof in all the stuff missing from the rocks. If, in all of future history, time machines were ever invented, everyone would want to go back to see the dinosaurs (because they're big and scary and cool). Untold billions of people. Trillions. Each with the human tendency to leave pop bottle lids and plastic wrappers lying around (or whatever might substitute for plastic in a petroleum-poor future world).

The problem was, no pop bottle lids or plastic wrappers had ever been found in rock from the age of the dinosaurs. Ergo, time machines will never be invented.

Thus, Nate Quimby became quite consternated when Old World Tours announced they had invented one. "Visit the hanging gardens of ancient Babylon! Listen to Jesus' sermon on the Mount! See the dinosaurs!" People completely forgot about Disneyworld.

The announcement didn't really bother the physicists. They merrily tweaked their theories to make them match observation, which is what good scientists do. Geologists like Nate had more of a problem. There still weren't any artifacts in the rocks.

Everyone tried to explain the problem away. "OWT is so careful about littering," some said. "Most stuff will disintegrate and not be preserved," said others. "And anyway, even if some trash is preserved, what's the chance of someone finding it a hundred million years later in a rock?"

True enough. Nate found those arguments persuasive for a while, when the time travel business was first starting. Soon, however, nearly everyone was traveling to see the dinosaurs (Actually, most folks started out going to hear Jesus, but by the end of the first month there weren't any places left to hide and watch, whereas the two hundred and forty million years of the Mesozoic had plenty of room for everyone). As the number of time travelers stretched into the tens of millions, and then hundreds of millions, it became less and less likely that there wouldn't be at least a few bits of trash preserved and found in the rock (and that's not even considering all the future time travelers).

Even if only one percent of people were Thoughtless Slobs (a very conservative estimate, Nate judged), and if only one in a thousand bits of refuse got preserved, and if only one in ten thousand of those preserved bits got exposed by erosion and discovered by somebody, finding something castoff by a careless traveler must eventually become inevitable.

Yet, in the centuries of exploration of Earth's rocks, none had ever been found.

No, something was fishy about the time travel business. By Nate's figuring, there were only three possibilities: A) Old World Tours was somehow faking the trips back in time, B) Something was about to happen--like human extinction--to prevent any more journeys into the past (humanity had already shown a great ability to mess its own bed), or C) Something Really Weird (pick your favorite time travel paradox mumbo jumbo).

He resolved to use his summer off from teaching at the college to figure out which possibility might be the case.

The obvious answer was that the time travel business was a fraud. Modern virtual simulation technologies made faking it easy, and people would pay a big premium if they thought they were seeing real dinosaurs and not merely an artist's conception. He didn't trust big companies anyway.

Nate had always disdained to take a trip to the "Mesozoic". Why spend two week's salary on a fake when, as a geologist, he knew how the dinosaurs really lived? Even so, he had to keep wiping sweat off his palms as he waited in line for his tour. 'Maastrichtian of Eastern Montana', the sign read. The age of the Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus. He tapped his right pants pocket where he'd placed the glass vial. He felt its firm cylinder press against his leg.

He found himself sectioned off with a group of seven other tourists. Their guide was a woman of about twenty-nine or thirty by his estimate--close to his own age. He wondered why she was still working as a tour guide--must have wasted her college years. She was a bit thin for his taste, with a plain face. She caught his eyes on her and flashed a smile. An infectious smile. He didn't really want to be friendly since she had to be in on the whole fraud thing, but his own smile escaped before he could suppress it.

They walked to one of several hundred travel booths in operation at this particular OWT site. The guide kept up a steady patter of trivia about Old World Tours, the construction of the site, safety measures, and so on. Nate paid little attention.

A metal door slid to the right and the guide led them into a round room. She had a small hand device which she plucked from a holder around her waist. "Let's go see the dinosaurs!" she said, continuing her regurgitated tour guide patter.

The room dissolved away to be replaced by a broad savannah. Low hills rolled to their left. To their right, the topography fell into a broad plain. A faint sea haze hung in the air beyond a narrow coastal swamp on the far side of the plain.

The guide continued her spiel, pointing across the savannah toward the swampland, babbling about how the tricerotops preferred the hills and the hadrosaurs the wetlands along the coast--stuff he already knew better than she did. He slipped the glass vial from his pocket while she gestured off toward the distant sea. While he was congratulating his skillful surreptition, she turned and caught him unscrewing the lid.

"You aren't supposed to bring stuff that might get left behind, Mr. Quimby." She had to glance at her hand device to get his name. "I have to ask you to put that away."

He paused as though confused, allowing time for air in the vial to exchange with the outer air. He swirled his hand a bit to enhance the exchange rate, waving at the swamplands below. "Sorry. Need my medicine. So, why do the hadrosaurs stay along the coast?"

He pretended to listen as she rattled on about the hadrosaurs' incredible batteries of teeth, the explosive radiation of angiosperms during the Cretaceous, and the amount of vegetation along the coast. He tightened the lid on the vial and slid it back into his pocket.

He listened to her prattle about angiosperms and hadrosaurs for as long as he could stand it before interrupting. "The idea that the hadrosaurs' eating ability spurred the angiosperm radiation is mostly myth."

The other tourists' heads turned in his direction. The guide looked a bit uncomfortable.

"Well, it's one theory," she said. "It seems to match what we observe here."

"Presuming what we see here is real."

Several of the other tourists frowned at his rudeness. Gullible nincompoops.

The guide led them on a little circuit across the grassland, into a narrow woods along a stream, and up a steep bank. They spotted a lone tricerotops in the hills near the start of the tour. It munched on some low shrubs just a hundred yards distant. Farther away, down in the lowland, a huge herd of hadrosaurs grazed near the edge of the swamp by the sea. No tyrannosaurus.

A teenager asked about that. "Won't we see a tyrannosaurus?" she asked.

"The predators are less common." The guide shrugged and peered across the savannah. "We see them once in a while, but not on every tour."

Nate wondered why they didn't make sure a tyrannosaurus always showed up for their little drama. Wouldn't cost the simulation artists that much effort.

Although, he supposed they'd have to explain why the tourists didn't get eaten by the beasts. Embarrassing if they had to apologize for an unreasonably high tourist survival rate. He muffled a laugh but sobered quickly when he caught the guide's puzzled eyes watching him.

They returned to their starting point, the guide toyed with her control device, and the transfer room reformed around them. She brushed her bracelet past the reader and the door slid open to the left.

The other tourists exited the room, but the guide detained him with a hand on his arm.

"You didn't have any medicine in your vial, Mr. Quimby."

If OWT made billions of dollars faking trips, they probably wouldn't hesitate to arrange an "accident" for someone who could prove it a hoax. Even so, his pride trumped his fear. He didn't want this slip of a woman to think she could fool him.

"I took an air sample. You might be able to fake the visuals, but you can't fake the air. If this sample matches the present day, and not the Cretaceous, I'll have proof your money-hungry corporation is a fraud."

If she feared he was about to do her out of a job, she didn't show it. "Don't be such a cynic, Mr. Quimby."

He frowned. "That's Dr. Quimby."

"Ah. Sorry, your excellence." Her tone sounded more teasing than sarcastic. "What's your degree in?"

He smiled a bit condescendingly, recalling her efforts to instruct him about the dinosaurs. "Geology."

She didn't seem too cowed by his revelation. "Rock Doc, huh? What's your specialty?"

As though she'd understand it. Nice of her to ask though, and her interest seemed sincere. Not like those smart asses that made him uncomfortable in class. "I study the Campoc shale in Wyoming. Jurassic."

"Ah. One of the oil shales."

He glanced at her, his eyebrows raised. So, she knew more than just dinosaurs. "Yeah. That's where the money is."

"You know, if you like, I can take you there. I get a few free trips, part of the benefits of the job. I know you're probably more interested in what's happened to it since, and how to get the oil out, but you might find it fun to see what it looked like."

He grunted. "Thanks anyway. The sediment would be under the lake, so we couldn't see much. I'm wondering, though, how you'd program a new simulation so quickly. Or is this one of your regular tours?"

She laughed. "You're funny. We do have our regular tours, but we can go other places too you know."

He hadn't meant to be funny, but he felt vaguely glad she mistook his cynicism for humor.

Especially glad the next day when the analysis of the air sample didn't match the present atmosphere. Carbon dioxide levels were much higher than even the modern fossil-fuel enhanced values, and argon-40 was significantly lower--consistent with several tens of millions of years less time for radiogenic argon-40 gas released from volcanoes to accumulate in the atmosphere.

If they were faking it, they'd gone to a lot more trouble than he expected.

He needed a better test. He decided to take the guide up on her offer to go see the Campoc. He knew that particular formation up, down, and sideways. He could drop something in the sediment during the Jurassic tour, and if it wasn't there in the present time, he'd know the whole thing was rigged.

He picked up a steel hitch ball at the hardware store. Small enough to carry in a pocket, easy to drop in the Campoc lake, dense enough to sink to the sediment, and durable enough to survive in the oxygen-poor deposit. Perfect. Plus, its ferro-magnetic properties would make it easy to find--or to confirm absent--with a subsurface magnetic survey of the modern Campoc Formation.

He didn't know the guide's name, but he learned it by asking around at Old World Tours. Sandy Wirries. OWT didn't give out contact information, but he got that easily enough online. He sent her a message by e-mail.

"I'd love to take you," she sent back. "I have Tuesdays and Wednesdays off. Does that work?"

They arranged a date.

Nate arrived at the appointed time and found Sandy waiting for him. She wore a light cotton dress with a flower print--fitting both the spring season and her slim figure. She smiled as he approached, brightening a face not nearly so plain as he'd thought before. Quite fetching in fact.

"I know the Campoc Formation quite well," he said as they waited for one of the travel booths to free up. "Don't think you can fool me with some rough simulation."

She laughed. "Really Mr. Qui...I mean Dr. Quimby. You needn't convince me of your abilities. I'll take you at your word."

He glanced away. He'd hoped to impress her, and instead his insecurities were showing. He couldn't always intercept them in time, and he came off sounding arrogant. He needed to work on that. "Nate. Call me Nate."

A booth came free, and they took the short winding walkway to the door. Sandy waved her bracelet past the reader, and they stepped in.

"OK, Nate. What makes you think we aren't really going back in time, other than you don't like money-hungry corporations?" She tapped a code into her control device.

He told her about the problem of the missing trash in the rock. "So, you see, we need to stop the tours," he concluded.

"Because they aren't littering enough?" Her lips turned upwards.

He frowned. "No, because the absence of litter means it's all faked."

She kept her smile, but nodded slightly. "Well, I admit, I hadn't thought of your paradox."

"No reason to, if you're not a geologist."

The round room dissolved to be replaced by mountain landscape rising behind an algae-filled lake.

"I am a geologist."

Nate took a moment to process. "What?"

"I work for the OWT in summers. The rest of the time, I'm an assistant professor of geology.

"I see." He turned his attention to the primeval lake to hide his embarrassment. She'd taken his insecure smarter-than-you attitude on the first tour a lot more kindly than he would have. Seems like he'd learn, eventually, not to make presumptions about people.

To their right, Nate spotted the small delta where an ephemeral stream entered the lake--one landmark he knew of from the modern Campoc. He located the second landmark--the granite spur--rising above the water about a hundred yards offshore.

Sandy ambled along the muddy lake. Her soft brown hair fell just long enough to brush her shoulders. "So, why do you suppose there aren't any artifacts in the rock? This isn't faked you know. This really is the Jurassic."

Nate spotted the third landmark, a large gneiss boulder tumbled down from the bluffs that rose a few hundred yards back from the lake. "If it's not fake, how come we didn't see any other groups on my first tour? If everyone is going back to the same time and place, there should have been a huge crowd." He kept the arrogance from his voice this time, a little impressed with all the detail they got right about the Campoc, and a truly interested in what Sandy had to say.

"We keep records. No tour goes to quite the same time and place. Still similar enough so we can plan the tour."

"Seems like you'd make mistakes sometimes."

"Yeah. I've met other groups. We just wave and go on with our tours."

She was looking toward the canyon where the broad valley narrowed upstream of the lake. He triangulated on his three landmarks as best he could and tossed the metal hitch into the algae-rich water. It made a pelunk sound, and a spear of water rebounded into the air.

She turned quickly. "What was that?"

He shrugged. "Fish, maybe?"

"Rather oxygen-poor water for fish isn't it?" She looked at him suspiciously, but he only shrugged again.

They talked awhile about the unusual setting for an oil shale deposit, and how the actual environment was much more complicated than could be easily inferred from the rock alone. They watched a rhamphorhynchus flap its way toward the mountains, and wondered how close they were to the sea. They walked along the shore for a short two hours, watching gentle waves tickle at the sand and hearing scary sounds from the cycad woods around them.

Nate enjoyed the walk. Only with reluctance did he return to their starting point. Sandy keyed the return code into her control device.

He felt a bit ashamed about breaking the OWT rules, and kept his eyes down while the transfer room appeared around them. More fearful than ashamed, he decided. Fearful she would think ill of him. At the same time, he wanted her to know he was smart enough to figure out the OWT hoax. He glanced up at her. "I, uh, dropped something in the lake back there."

It took her a moment to progress from confusion to anger. "Why would you....what'd you drop?"

"A metal ball, for a hitch. If we really did travel into the past, then that ball has to be in the modern Campoc formation. It should be easy to find. If it's there."

She flipped a stray lock from her face. "So, you not only took advantage of me, but you deliberately spoiled the place we went to. If everyone did that, we wouldn't have a wilderness anymore. We'd have a garbage dump."

He felt a little surprised that her concern went to spoiling the wilderness and not keeping her job. He also got a bit tangled up in various romantic interpretations of 'took advantage of me', but managed to refocus on her key point, that he had left a modern artifact in the Jurassic.

"But, you see that's the problem. I like to think I'm a one-in-a-million sort of guy, but even if only one in a million does an experiment like this, that's enough to leave a record in the rock."

"So you justify this as science?"

Nate frowned and stepped with her onto the exit walkway. "People are Thoughtless Slobs. However much you try to keep them from littering, they will. Even if it's only one in a hundred, or one in a thousand. Yet we find nothing in the rock. That means I haven't messed up anything but your simulation."

"Whatever you say, Mr. Quimby." She quickened her pace away from him. By the time he reached the main ticket area, she was gone.

Now he had an extra reason to hope he didn't find the hitch, beyond the desire to prove the time-travel thing a hoax. It really bothered him that she might think he was one of those Thoughtless Slobs.

That night he dreamed about Sandy. She kept travelling back in time where she threw wads of paper and plastic at the dinosaurs. The trash bonked off their heads and made them mad so they chased her. Each time, Nate came to her rescue by picking up and disposing of the pieces of litter, which seemed to make the monsters happy. It also made Sandy happy, which, in his dream, made Nate happy.

Over the next several days, he did a thorough survey of the region of the Campoc where he dropped the ball. He didn't find it.

The Campoc had been exposed to weathering for a short time after its deposition, between the time when erosion breached its natural dam and when the sea transgressed up the valley. Since the ball might have migrated during that time, he expanded the search into surrounding portions of the Campoc. He still found nothing.

He asked a friend at the University to duplicate his results--just to be sure his own bias wasn't influencing what he found. The University owned a small robotic crawler that could systematically survey the area. It took a couple of days to finish, with the same result. No metal hitch.

He e-mailed the results to Sandy. "The hitch isn't in the modern Campoc," he asserted triumphantly. "I was right."

He checked his e-mail every ten minutes or so. She responded in a couple of hours. "I don't know why the hitch wasn't there, but it doesn't prove we didn't travel back in time. Although, I'm really impressed with how carefully you've proved that in a hundred-fifty million years something unexpected might happen. What a surprise. Wow. Even used a little robot. I hope you instructed the steel ball to not get inconveniently washed away, Dr. Quimby?"

Aiyyi. Nate slapped his leg in frustration. Not funny. It couldn't have washed away. It was in a shale deposit--mud during the Jurassic--which washes away a lot easier than steel hitches. Any stream energetic enough to wash away a steel ball would have washed away the whole deposit.

Nate pounded out his response. "It's a shale!!!! Insufficient energy to transport big particles!!!!!"

Her response came back in moments. "OK. I'll grant you the problem. But real life is always more complicated than theory. If you like, we can go back and see what really happened to the hitch."

Nate took her up on the offer. He found travelling back into the primordial past with a young woman kind of exciting anyway. At least if the young woman was Sandy Wirries.

On the way to the travel booths, he told her about his dream. "So, you see, you're leaving a lot more litter than you realize."

She expelled a little exasperated puff of air. "It's a dream!"

"But, you were littering all over the place." Warmth washed all the way out to his fingertips. What was he thinking? He didn't ever act silly. Too busy being the serious scientist. Trying to impress people. But, he didn't feel he had to prove himself with Sandy. A nice change, that. Made him feel better about everyone else, too.

She looked at him suspiciously. "That's nonsense. I'm careful not to leave anything, or let anyone else either."

"I left something."

"Yeah, by taking advantage of me. Anyway, you did that on purpose. Most people try to be careful."

Nate's lips tweaked up at the edges. "Then why were you throwing trash at the dinosaurs?"

She rolled her eyes, convinced at last he was teasing, and stepped into the Jurassic, newly materializing around them.

The lake was gone, replaced by a muddy valley overgrown by a ground-pine-like substitute for grass, grass being millions of years from the dominance it would enjoy in the Cenozoic. Sandy had brought them to a time when the river threading out of the surrounding hills had breached the natural dam. Small tributary gullies dissected the Campoc mud here and there. Not, Nate noted with smug satisfaction, in the region where he dropped the hitch. Sandy couldn't attribute the missing hitch to natural erosion. 

He'd brought a hand-held metal detector, and, triangulating on his three landmarks, found the hitch in about ten minutes. Only a foot or so of sediment covered it, which they dug out to expose the slightly rusted metal.

"Aha. You see," he said.

Sandy shrugged. "It won't take much erosion to move it, you know."

Nate waved downstream where they could see an embayment of the ocean already necking up the valley. "Within a few thousand years, the advancing sea will cover the Campoc, depositing the Todor Formation. There won't be any more chance for the hitch to move after that."

Sandy took them a thousand years forward. The sea had advanced, but didn't yet cover the area of the hitch. The hitch lay closer to the surface, though laterally only a few feet at most from where it had lain before.

"Still here," Nate grinned.

In another thousand years, the sea lapped gently only a few tens of yards from where they expected the hitch. The surrounding hills were rounder and lower than they had been before, with forest cascading down the slopes to the edge of the sea. The granite spur broke the flatness of the valley about a hundred yards from them.

Unfortunately for Nate, the hitch was gone.  He frowned after an hour of searching. "You know, none of this means anything, since it's all a calculated fiction of Old World Tours. You've obviously programmed the hitch's disappearance into the simulations."

Sandy frowned back. "OWT couldn't possibly program such a subtlety without my help. And, I didn't do it. Do you think I'm lying to you?"

Nate scratched his left ear and shook his head. He didn't think she was lying. But, where did the hitch go? He saw no gully where it might have washed downslope. Sediment creep couldn't account for so much movement.

Sandy interrupted his silence. "You know, maybe your dream gives us an explanation for what's happened to the hitch, and why we don't find time-travel-trash in modern rocks." She walked toward a tumble of boulders at the base of the granite spur. Teepee-shaped shadows marked the location of caves formed in gaps and cavities between the pink boulders.

"What d'you mean?" He scrambled after her, his shoes sinking in the soft sediment along the shore.

"In the dream, you picked up the trash. That's how you saved me from the angry dinosaurs."


Sandy stopped and turned to face him, and, in his haste to catch up, Nate bumped into her. Not too hard, just enough to notice how soft she felt and to get a whiff of the scent of her hair.

It occurred to him that he probably could have avoided the contact had he really tried.

"Maybe you're right that there are always a few Thoughtless Slobs who don't care about the environment." She peered into the forest at the sound of a loud crash and the scramble of running feet. "But there are many more people who do care. For every person who tosses something because they're a Thoughtless Slob," she glanced at him sideways, "--or because they're a nice, thoughtful person doing science experiments--there are a hundred others who pick up trash when they find it. Think about it, in all of the future, there must be billions, trillions of time travelers, all cleaning up after each other. That's why there's nothing left in the rock."

Nate scrunched his brows together. "So you think the Thoughtless Slobs are outnumbered by--"

A roar filled the air, drumming deeply in his chest. The monster making the noise, an allosaurus, appeared out of the forest about a hundred yards distant to their right. Sandy screamed and ran for the granite spur.

Nate didn't move. It wasn't real. This, finally, was a way to prove it.

Sandy's movement attracted the beast's attention, and it leaped after her. For each of the monster's strides, she took five. He watched it gain and catch up to her just as she dove into one of the caves formed among the boulders. The allosaurus knocked its head against the stacked-up boulders like a battering ram, destabilizing them. Sandy escaped only moments before her cave collapsed. The creature snapped at her, hitting her shoulder with one of its dagger teeth and sending her tumbling.

She tried to scramble back to her feet with the creature towering above her. "Nate, help!" she yelled. He saw a red stain soaking through her cotton shirt.

Simulation or not, it all seemed mighty real. He ran at the monster, screaming and waving his arms. The creature turned its deep eyes toward him.

"Get back to our starting point," he cried as he reversed direction. "Get the code entered."

He plotted out a looping path, taking him through the mud near the shore and ending at the point where they arrived. He felt the soft sediment sink under his feet, making it hard to run. Sandy reached their starting point and frantically coded in their return. He hoped she waited for him.

The great allosaurus's feet sank into the muddy shore even more deeply than Nate's, slowing its rate of gain. He curved sharply to the left on the course that would take him back to Sandy. The monster's feet slipped once in the wet mud as it attempted to track the turn, still gaining. The earth shuddered under the weight of its steps, and he felt its breath surging against his neck.

Hopefully, the breath-on-his-neck part was just imagination. He didn't turn around to check.

He dove toward Sandy, closing his eyes at the last moment. He didn't want to see what the creature's mouth looked like. At least not from the inside.

He opened his eyes in the transfer room. Sandy collapsed on top of him, and they lay there holding each other, laughing in relief. He felt the wetness where her shirt was stained with blood. The wound didn't feel too deep.

"So, now do you believe it's real?" She gasped for air as her laughter subsided.

"Yeah, I suppose it's real enough." They disentangled and he stood slowly, pulling her up after him.

He considered her interpretation of his dream--that most people would pick up litter rather than leave it behind. Quite a new thought. Startling even. Sandy gave him such a different take on the world, like the ending of a long winter.

"You know, I might do okay with the idea that not everyone is a Thoughtless Slob." He took her hand--tentative at first until he felt her fingers tighten around his--and stepped out into the OWT campus. "I think I'm becoming a bit more optimistic about people."

Russ Colson

Russ Colson lives with his wife, Mary, on a farmstead in northern Minnesota, far enough from city lights to see the Milky Way and the aurora borealis. He teaches planetary science, meteorology, and geology at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Before coming to Minnesota, he worked at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and at Washington University in St. Louis where, among other things, he studied how a lunar colony might mine oxygen from the local rock. He writes a variety of speculative fiction and non-fiction pieces appearing in Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, and others.

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