They’d come to the Cretaceous to save their marriage.
“Why not the Paleogene,” said Peter, who had resolutely refused to look at any of the material Gwyneth had sent him. “Or the Little Ice Age for that matter? Some place without carnivores.”
“There are only two resorts,” Gwyneth said, waving a brochure at him. “Jurassic and Cretaceous. People want to see dinosaurs.”
She wanted to see dinosaurs.
“And I’m afraid travel to inhabited eras is no longer permitted, Mr. Braunmiller,” the agent put in. “Ever since the Eckles Incident. So the Little Ice Age is out.”
“Besides,” Gwyneth said. “I wouldn’t mind a few carnivores.”
Cool air misted down from unseen vents. The agent’s desk, a curved wedge of gleaming mahogany, floated in emptiness. Surround screens immersed them in sensory-enhanced three-dimensional renderings from the available eras. One moment the hot siroccos of some time-vanished desert stung their skin. The next, the damp, shrieking hothouse of a Jurassic jungle sprang sweat from their brows.
“Why not a sim?” Peter asked.
“I’ve had enough of simulations, Peter,” Gwyneth said, thinking of the expense. Over Peter’s protests, she had mortgaged the house they’d bought three years ago, cashed in retirement and savings accounts, taken on loans they couldn’t afford.
All for this.
“You’re certain, then?” the agent asked.
Peter opened his mouth and closed it again.
Twilight waters washed the barren shingles of some ancient inland sea.
“We’re certain,” Gwyneth said.
Tablets materialized in front of them.
“Just a few releases to sign,” the agent said. “Warranties, indemnities against personal injury—”
“I thought the yoke—” Peter said, and a fresh draft of whispering air blew down upon them.
“The lawyers insist,” the agent said, smiling.
An hour later, forms signed in triplicate, notarized, and filed away, the agent ushered them into an airlock. When they stripped, Gwyneth could feel Peter’s gaze upon her; she didn’t so much as glance at him, though he was lean and fit, as well muscled at thirty-five as he had been at their wedding seven years before. Stinging jets of anti-bacterial spray enveloped them. Industrial-strength compressors blasted them dry. They dressed in tailored, featherweight safari gear, and cycled through another airlock, their luggage hovering behind them. The adjoining chamber was bereft of luxury—no surround screens or polished mahogany, no calming mists of murmuring air. Their boots rang on polished concrete. Fluorescent globes floated high in the latticed spaces above them, leaching color from their faces. White-clad technicians looked up from their tablets as the airlock dilated. Behind them crackled the time machine, more impressive than Gwyneth had thought it would be, a miracle of sizzling yellow-green energy, the raw stuff of creation itself, harnessed by human ingenuity and bound screaming into colossal spider arms of curving steel and iron.
The technicians took charge of them. The hiss of hypodermic injections followed, then diaphanous bands of black that melted closed around their wrists like wax. The technician touched Gwyneth’s; far down in its polished depths a series of lights—orange and red and green—flashed once and was gone.
The other technician, finishing up with Peter, smiled. “Your guide will meet you on the other side,” he said. “Ready to go?”
The time machine spat fire, throwing off scorching arcs of green and yellow.
They stepped into the light.
And were gone.
* * *
A sheet of green flame blinded them. Time blurred—a day, a week, a year, then more, the centuries peeling away like leaves, so that Gwyneth, who was barely thirty-four, felt young and alive as she had not felt in this last year. The time machine stank of history, of the sun beating down upon the tiered pyramids of new-built Aztec temples; of wheat flourishing for the first time under the hands of men; and further yet, of a dark age where shrewd monkeys huddled in terror around their lightning-struck fires. But Eckles had closed all that to them, and just as well, Gwyneth supposed, for he had bestowed upon them in its lieu the immense panorama of geologic time. And how she longed to step out of her life into a world fresh made, where great Triceratops lifted his three-pronged head and the sky-flung demon of the age, titanic Quetzalcoatlus, still spread his leathery wings; where the greatest of the thunder lizards, the tyrant king of all that he surveyed, Tyrannosaurus rex, yet bestrode the terrified earth. Where, most of all, none of it had happened yet, and she could pretend that maybe it never would.
Then there was an enormous jolt, and Gwyneth cried aloud in terror or delight. Peter reached for her hand, and a lean, leathery man whose smile never reached his eyes stood before them.
They were there.
* * *
It was a resort, all right—a rugged dream carved out of the primeval wilderness. Below and to the west, a long savannah sloped away to a distant glimmer of sea. Above and to the east a jagged mountain range knifed through the Earth’s crust, so that morning came late there and afternoons lingered into a blue twilight that seemed to stretch out forever. To the south and to the north, encircling arms of forest fell in ranks toward the distant plain. And in the heart of it all, like a precious stone set in swirls of green and brown, gleamed Cretacia, a maze of sandy paths and hidden glades where clear fountains tumbled and stone benches grew black with lichen. Private cabanas perched on tiers cut into the wooded ridges, and jeweled swimming pools glinted among the trees. Below the whitewashed sprawl of the hotel itself wound a quaint commercial district. Restaurants staffed by murmuring servers crowded up against narrow shops that sold books—actual books—and bath salts and summer dresses at such exorbitant rates that Gwyneth laughed in disbelief.
Yet her heart quickened in delight when the tall man with fine crinkles around his eyes—Wilson, Robert Wilson, he’d introduced himself—thumbed open their door for the first time and she saw the sheer decadence of the place: a bower of eggshell white and blue with a bed veiled in gauzy shadow, a vase of tropical flowers, and a south-facing floor-to-ceiling window (no sim screen, but glass, thick, reinforced glass) that gave upon a forested ravine, where something small and dappled scurried through the shadows, and if you stood on tiptoe and craned your neck, you could catch a glimpse of diamonds glittering upon the sea.
“I’ll leave you to unpack,” Wilson said, and turning from the window Gwyneth saw him—really saw him—for the first time: a hard, sun-baked man with sandy hair and an unhandsome face like a promontory of granite. His khakis were worn and stained, his boots scuffed. For a moment she was ashamed of their own gear, so new that it rustled when they walked.
“The concierge can take care of all your needs here on the grounds,” Wilson said. “If you want to go outside—when you want to go outside—I’ll be your guide.”
Turning from the window, Peter extended his hand. Gwyneth saw to her horror the folded fifty inside it.
Wilson stiffened. “No thank you, sir. That’s very kind of you.”
The door closed softly behind him.
“Peter,” Gywneth said. “You’ve insulted him now. He’s a wilderness guide, not a bellhop.”
“Just as well, I suppose. God knows we can’t afford to spend another dime.”
“Well, how was I to know?”
“Perhaps if you’d bothered to read some of the material I sent you—”
“This was your idea, not mine, Gwyneth.”
“But it’s our vacation,” she snapped. “And you ought to remember why and start acting like it.”
She crossed her arms and turned back to the windows.
It was still and peaceful out there.
A moment passed. They waited to see if what had been so long unsaid would break through the stillness. She knew that it would sometime soon, or that it had better. The wound had festered. It needed to be lanced and drained.
Peter came up and stood behind her, so close she could feel his breath, warm upon the back of her neck. “I’m sorry.” His hand came up to her lower back.
Did she flinch? And did he feel it?
She wanted this to work, yet her body betrayed her.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
When he leaned in to kiss her, she turned her face away.
* * *
They breakfasted on a long shaded terrace overlooking a pool. Fans stirred the air overhead. Just outside the compound, bright tiny dinosaurs strutted, pecking at the earth like chickens. Far below, beyond a stunning vista of tree-studded cliffs, huge sauropods feasted on towering groves of conifer. Something else had spooked a dinosaur herd. A cloud of dust obscured them, but their cries—a mournful lowing like the faraway lament of a foghorn—rose up to the terrace.
Gwyneth wondered what had set them running.
“The coffee is fine,” Peter said, the meal done.
A server took their plates. He came back and used a long blade to scrape the linen cloth of crumbs.
Gwyneth took her coffee black; to please Peter she took a sip. “It is fine,” she said. Insipid banalities—that was all they could find to say. They’d forgotten the language of their own marriage, so they skated along the surface, stripping away any hint of ugliness as efficiently as the hotel staff spirited away a stained pillow. Last night, in a darkness rich with the strange music of the Cretaceous woods, he had reached out to touch her, and her body had gone rigid of its own accord. They had lain like that, so stiff and silent and distant that they might have been on separate continents, lying wakeful under foreign skies. Now, when he reached out to rest a hand upon her own where it lay brown against the white tablecloth, her fingers twitched and were still.
She felt tears well up, and choked them back, determined not to cry.
She said, “Peter—”
Then Robert Wilson was leaning over them, his own hand closing about the back rail of her chair and brushing her shoulder blade. He smelled of earth and dusty leather and the dry plain below. Gwyneth looked up through a sheen of unshed tears. When he returned her smile, his eyes remained as watchful and cold as marbles under the bony ridge of his brow. They were the color of agates, washed out and narrow from squinting across the blazing savannah. Something quickened inside her. She leaned forward and he wasn’t touching her shoulder anymore.
“Something spooked down there,” she said.
“Hydrosaurs,” he said. “Bloody cows startle easily enough. Could have been anything. A pack of raptors, maybe, but mostly they lie up under the trees until dusk.”
“But the big ones—” Peter said.
“The Alamosaurs. Go right on munching at the treetops, don’t they? Not much spooks an Alamosaur. A T. rex maybe. Too big to worry about the raptors, and tails like whips. It’s an ecosystem, right? Like the African veldt. An elephant doesn’t worry much about a lion, does he?”
“Will we see a T. rex?” Gwyneth asked.
“You’ll hear them cough at night if one’s around,” he said. “Last night was silent as a grave. Snorkeling today. Plesiosaurs, maybe a Kronosaur—T. rex of the sea—if we’re lucky.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Gwyneth said.
“Feels dangerous,” Wilson said. “Safe as houses, though. Your yoke will see a Kronosaur turning aggressive before we even know it’s there,” he added, and for the first time Gwyneth noticed that his wrist was bare.
“You’re not yoked.”
He laughed. “I’m too ornery too eat.”
“Let’s take a pass,” Peter said. “I think we’ll spend the day settling in.”
“Your call. You’ll have plenty of time.”
Wilson nodded and strode away into the shadows.
They sat in silence for a moment, listening to the subdued babble of conversation around them.
“I think I’d like to be consulted about any future decisions, if you don’t mind,” she said quietly.
“It’s my vacation, right?”
“He’s talking about swimming with dinosaurs, for Christ’s sake.”
“Well, what did you think we were here to do, Peter?”
“To try and fix things.” He shook his head. “To try and fix things, that’s all.”
“Well, we’re not going to fix them sitting on the terrace drinking coffee, are we? We might as well get our money’s worth.” She set her cup down and stood. “I think I’ll go change into something more appropriate for settling in.”
Gwyneth was halfway across the room, weaving her way between the tables, when someone reached out and touched her elbow. A woman—blonde and handsome, with a strong jaw line and narrow lips—smiled up at her. Her companion looked up from his breakfast.
“I’m Angela,” she said. “And this mannerless brute—”
Said brute swiped his face with a linen napkin.
“Stafford,” the brute said, clambering to his feet. “Frank Stafford. But just Frank’ll do.” He took Gwyneth’s fingertips, and bowed slightly, lifting his eyebrows. Crockery rattled.
“Careful, Frank,” the woman—Angela—cried.
But by this time Peter had appeared at Gwyneth’s shoulder, and the brute—he really was something of a brute, Gwyneth thought, barrel chested and broad shouldered as an ox—was reaching past her to shake Peter’s hand.
“Just Frank,” Peter said—Stafford acknowledged this tepid witticism with a deep belly laugh—“Peter Braunmiller.”
“Here, have a sit.” Stafford shoved a chair in their direction, and when they were seated over fresh cups of coffee, he said, “That guy, Wilson, he’s your guide, too? What a piece of work, huh?”
“Fearless as a bandersnatch,” Angela said. “We did a trail with him the other day, and got within twenty feet of this awful thing called an Anklysaur—”
“Armored bastard. Club on its tail the size of a fucking Volkswagen. He started to swing that thing when he saw us, and I swear to God I felt the wind on my face, we were that close.”
Stafford laughed. “Felt my yoke give a good tug, I swear I did.”
“Anyway,” Angela said. “We overheard—really we weren’t eavesdropping—that you weren’t going on the excursion today, and since we aren’t either—”
“Can’t swim a lick,” Stafford said. “Afraid of the water my whole life. Sink like a stone, and if I didn’t a dinosaur’d eat me for sure.”
“—we were hoping you might play tennis. Please say you do or we’ll just sit on the terrace and drink Bloody Marys all morning.”
“Terrible for the health, Bloody Marys.”
“I suppose we could play tennis,” Peter said, and then—was he mocking her? Gwyneth wondered—“You up for tennis, Gwen?”
And Gwyneth, thinking of the Kronosaur—the T. rex of the seas—forced a smile. “Tennis it is,” she said.
* * *
Gwyneth and Peter lost in straight sets.
The Staffords were formidable opponents. Peter, a finesse player who relied on superior endurance, couldn’t handle Stafford’s powerful serves. Angela’s shots had a wicked backspin that Gwyneth never quite mastered.
“Luck, that’s all,” Stafford assured them, clapping Peter on the back, but as they headed back to the room to clean up, Peter whispered, “All the same to you, Gwen, I think I’d rather have gone snorkeling with the Karnosaurs.”
“Kronosaurs,” she said.
“Right. Except Frank Stafford is the damned carnivore,” he said. “Seriously. I think my yoke must be malfunctioning. I was getting the life beat out of me, and it didn’t so much as twitch.”
Against her will, Gwyneth laughed. Peter flung an arm across her shoulder, and for a moment the effortless camaraderie of their first years together—that playful, irreverent sense of humor, the easy way their bodies seemed to fit together—came back to her. For a moment she even thought of Peter’s hand upon her in the night, of how it might have been if she had turned to face him—
And then, of its own accord, her mind swerved away.
They showered and met the Staffords for lunch, where they learned that one of their tennis partners had been a subcontractor on the Museum of Postmodern Art in D.C., among other things.
“Just a little piece of it,” Stafford said, holding up pinched fingers. “The duct work. Keep people cool in all that heat.”
“That’s a lot of duct work,” Peter said.
“You bet it is,” Stafford said, and Gwyneth suddenly had a sense of just how much she and Peter had sacrificed for this trip—of how much she had forced him to sacrifice. Stafford could buy and sell them a hundred times over, and she had nearly impoverished them.
“Angela’s idea, this trip,” Stafford was saying. “I told her I’d already found my niche. A lot of money in duct bills.” He dropped them a wink. “My little evolution joke,” he said.
“His only joke,” Angela said drily. And then: “What do you do, Peter?”
“I’m an assets manager.”
“Gambling,” Stafford said, thrusting his plate away. “Pushing money around, that’s all that is. End of the day, I like to put my hands on something solid. Like to say, I did that.”
Peter flinched, but if Stafford noticed, he didn’t let on.
Afterward, the men strolled off in search of cigars, though Gwyneth had never known Peter to smoke a cigar in his life. The two women found themselves in a secluded bar overlooking the cliffs.
“Sorry about that last bit,” Angela said over gin and tonics.
“Peter’s too sensitive.”
Gwyneth sipped her drink. She was beginning to feel the alcohol. The world had taken on a lush beauty. The edges of everything had sharpened. Each discrete bead of condensation glistened on her glass; every needle of the nearby conifers stood articulate against the azure sky. The full heat of the day had come on, and the plain below stretched empty toward the blue horizon. Gwyneth supposed the raptors must be lying up under the trees, and that made her think of Robert Wilson. She wondered if he had found his Kronosaurs, and if he was back from the sea yet.
“It’s very quiet in the Cretaceous,” Angela said. “There’s something missing; I can’t figure out what.”
But for them, the bar was empty. The barman stood polishing glasses. The stillness was pervasive. “Birds,” she said suddenly. “There were no birds,” and then, laughing, corrected herself. “There are no birds. Or hardly any. They haven’t evolved yet. Birds are dinosaurs. Or dinosaurs are birds. Or will be. I remember reading that somewhere.”
“You’re very amusing, Gwyneth Braunmiller.”
The barman came and freshened their drinks. When he was gone, Angela said, “What do you do?”
“I’m a technical writer. I mostly write instruction manuals,” Gwyneth said. “Or rewrite them, anyway.” She laughed. “You’ve probably read some of my stuff.”
Angela absorbed this in silence.
“Do you have children?”
Gwyneth laughed ruefully.
“I’m awfully nosy,” Angela said. “You needn’t answer.”
“No, I don’t mind. It’s just—” She broke off.
“You haven’t reached an agreement on that issue.”
“No, I guess we haven’t.”
The truth was they’d never really talked about it much. Neither of them felt strongly either way, she supposed. The problems were deeper than that, harder to pin down—the way minor disagreements had of settling into arguments and arguments into something worse, a cool distance, like planets orbiting different stars. And then, not wanting to be rude, she said, “What do you do, Angela?”
“I sit on charity boards. I spend Frank’s money. You’d be surprised how taxing it can be—no pun intended.” She raised her eyebrows and smiled.
“None. Frank has a grown son from a previous marriage. Musn’t threaten the heir to the empire.”
The alcohol made Gwyneth incautious. “And what brings you here?”
“Our twentieth anniversary.”
She sipped her drink.
“I still remember the wedding. Predictions for longevity were dire.” Angela laughed and touched Gwyneth’s hand. “What a pleasure to have proven them wrong.”
“To love,” Gwyneth said, lifting her glass.
They were quiet then, listening to the birdless afternoon.`
* * *
The next day they went hiking—fifteen of them, Wilson’s entire excursion group. Despite the novelty of the towering conifers and angiosperms, a bleak melancholy fell over Gwyneth. The medication prescribed by her psychiatrist—“Just to get you through this rough patch,” she’d said—hadn’t helped, nor had the trouble with Peter, the—what, exactly? The silence where there had been voices, the blind staring into the dark, their bodies separate and apart. And underneath that, turning its immense body in the fretful depths of sleep that finally claimed them, that unspoken sense of despair that eluded words. Malaise? Ennui? She didn’t know. Day after day after day it had worsened, for months, for a year and more, until one listless afternoon, Gwyneth happened across a documentary on Time Safaris, Ltd. Not since college paleontology had she seen live footage of dinosaurs. A desire to see them for herself, to plant her feet on the soil of another age, had seized her. And something else, as well: the conviction that two weeks away from the world—really away from the world—might fix the broken things between them.
“Jesus, Gwyneth, do you want to break us?” Peter had asked when he’d seen the cost.
She didn’t quite have the nerve to respond as she had wanted to: We’re already broken.
Her foot slipped on an outcropping of stone, and she would have fallen but for Angela’s steadying hand at her elbow. Gwyneth swiped perspiration from her eyes with the back of one hand.
“Drinks, darling. The moment we return,” Angela whispered—quiet being a condition imposed upon them at the beginning of the excursion—and Gwyneth laughed, and said, “By all means, yes,” feeling closer to this virtual stranger than her own husband of almost a decade.
That morning the two women had gravitated toward one another like old friends. They tramped side-by-side, midway in the group strung out along the trail like pearls. Their husbands forged along behind Wilson, who took the rocky path without effort, a canteen at his belt and a rifle slung across one shoulder. Late afternoon and the Cretaceous alive with sound, the hooting complaint of the striped, knee-high theropods that scattered into the underbrush before them, the steady hush of insects, the arboreal rustle of mammals the size of squirrels—“Our forbears,” Wilson had said. “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
From on high the alien shriek of some sky-borne Pteranodon drifted down.
They stopped in a clearing of tall, flowering grass to search the thing out.
It was Stafford who spotted it, his arm outstretched. They gathered around him to stare at the creature circling high above them in a sky of sun-shot blue.
“Quetzalcoatlus?” someone asked.
“Nothing so large, I should think.” Wilson unclipped his binoculars. “Looks to have a wingspan of maybe fifteen feet, about half that of Quetzalcoatlus. Could be a juvenile, I suppose, but it’s hard to tell at this distance. Anyone want to see?”
The binoculars made the rounds. When her turn came, Gwyneth lifted them to her eyes, but she could never hold the image in frame long enough to get anything more than a glimpse of the creature, a fleeting impression of beak and bony crest, the vast leathery wings taut as a wind-blown kite.
They moved on then, deeper into the woods. The familiar smell of pine needles and dry loam enveloped her, the scent of unfamiliar flowers. Stafford had acquired the aura of a minor hero. Wilson had clapped him on the shoulder. “Sharp eyes,” he’d said, and the big man seemed to have expanded still more under the praise. Despite his size, he moved through the woods with a confidence Peter lacked, sure-footed, a creature of the physical world, his bearish frame poised over his center of gravity.
The terrain grew more forgiving, dropping away into a broad vale. The pace slowed, as Wilson paused to point out the flowering angiosperms and broad-leaved deciduous trees that had only recently—geologically speaking—evolved to compete with the pervasive conifers. They paused for water. Wilson moved among them, spare and purposeful, no gesture wasted.
“Okay, then?” he said to Gwyneth.
He nodded, and moved on.
They got moving again fifteen minutes later.
Not long after that the woods thinned. Another glade opened ahead of them. Moted beams of sunlight slanted through the treetops, firing the bracken with a yellow-green glow. The boles of trees climbed the heavens in dark silhouette, dwarfing Wilson where he stood black against the green effulgence, the back of his hand upraised in universal semaphore. He waved the straggling line to either side. Something snorted, blew out breath in a long waning note. It called out—a kind of groan, long and deep-pitched, like a rusty nail being wrenched from an ancient board. Then it took a step. Weeds thrashed. Gwyneth slipped with Peter through the ferny undergrowth to the right.
The trees fell away and the glade unveiled itself.
Gwyneth gasped for the beauty of it, the shining clearing and the creatures that grazed there: majestic, ponderous beasts—three horned, twenty-five or thirty feet long, ten feet at the shoulder—cropping peacefully at the waist-high grass. Triceratops, Gwyneth thought, gazing in wonder at the massive bony frill that curved up behind their heads, flushed bright with pink and red. The breeze combing the grass smelled of the creatures in the glade, a scent of old leather and manure and fresh-mown grass.
She caught snatches of Wilson murmuring—
“. . . a bull, two cows—the smaller ones—and a yearling. See it?”
He broke off as the largest of the dinosaurs—the bull—swung its elongated head in their direction. It regarded them with a single beady eye. In three quarter profile, the beast was more impressive still, battle scarred and ancient, the horns above its eyes razor-sharp spears of bone, jutting out three feet or more. It lumbered toward them, a single step, then two and three—
“Steady, now,” Wilson whispered. “Steady—”
—chuffed, and paused, as if assessing the danger they posed; a moment later, it lowered its beaked snout and began to tear at the weeds once again. This close Gwyneth could see parasites—insects maybe—crawling across its mottled green and brown hide. She was about to ask about them, when her eye caught a rustle in the tall grass—
The underbrush erupted, shrieking.
For a moment, Gwyneth didn’t see them, they were so well camouflaged. Then she did, three, four—was it five, or more?—green-and-yellow-striped raptors the size of men or larger, hurtling across the clearing from half a dozen woody blinds, so fast that the eye could barely track them. Three of them corralled the yearling and herded it toward the trees. More than half the pack—there were seven of them, she saw; no, eight—wheeled away to face the charge of the bull Triceratops. Just as it lowered its head to impale them, they gave ground, hurling themselves at the monster’s unprotected haunches, their razor-clawed feet digging for purchase in its hide.
The animal’s belly split, spilling a bulge of glistening viscera—
Peter clutched at her, trying to drag her deeper under the trees. The bull Triceratops wheeled around, lunging at its tormentors. Its tail whipped the air, flinging a raptor screeching into the undergrowth, and somewhere at the edge of the clearing the yearling screamed and screamed and screamed, until, abruptly, it fell silent. Dear God, she could see the raptors tearing it limb from limb. Grass thrashed. Geysers of blood erupted. Her heart pounding, Gwyneth wrenched free of Peter’s hand. She stepped into the clearing, she didn’t know why. The yearling’s companions, the bleeding bull among them, broke for the trees. As the remaining raptors swung around to their kill, they saw her—
—they saw her—
—and for a heartbeat—she felt a single nightmarish pulse at her temple—the moment hung in equipoise. Fathomless silence enveloped her. Then, shrieking, the nearest raptor flung toward her, its taloned feet clawing the earth. Gwyneth felt the tug of the yoke, like gravity seizing her as she careened through the loop of a roller coaster— . . .
.Copyright © 2012 Dale Bailey