A warrior, wandering in those savage desarts,
Where angry heaven lours with endless storms.
'Tis he, who mad for pow'r above his fellow,
Was hither driv'n by persecution's rage.
—Voltaire, "Orphan of China" Act I Scene I
The thunder of a thousand cubic meters of displaced air rang the walls of the time machine.
The floor fell away and a pair of dog-tags floated up past her face in the sudden freefall. Herrera, they read, Andrea.
"We have configuration." Andrea fought the urge to vomit, turned it into a command. "Brace for rotor deployment."
Thud and whirr and the passenger compartment bucked. What felt like a nine-hundred-pound gorilla punched Andrea in the crotch. Goodbye free fall. Hello crash-netting. The groan of stressed metal and plastic gave way to the overpowering racket of the copter blades beating the air of a brand new world. Or a very old one, depending on your point of view.
"Are we there yet?" That was Larsen, of course.
If he had been a platoon-mate, Andrea knew exactly the words she could have used to slap a muzzle on the wanna-be comedian. But Chris Larsen, PhD. Paleopalynology wasn't a soldier. He was a client.
Andrea remembered her horrific customer-relations classes, gritted her teeth, and focused on the exterior view projected onto her vision. Green plains stretched below them, crisscrossed with a net of glittering water. Circling black shapes against the high, white clouds around them. And on the banks of the river to the north...were those large shapes moving between the trees?
"Dinosaurs," whispered Andrea. "Roaming the goddamn earth."
"And if you look to your right," Larsen narrated in a fake tour-guide voice, "you will see the Western Interior Seaway, drying into salt-marshes to the south. Those are the young Rocky Mountains just visible to the west, draining into the flood plain that will one day be Hell Creek, Montana, about 65 million years from now. Let's all give our lovely pilot a big round of applause, folks."
"Stay off the global channel." Andrea said as politely as she could. So this guy thought he was funny. That wasn't a crime, and certainly neither was being attracted to her. If only Andrea appreciated stupid jokes and lectures about paleontological pollen. If only she could play rough with this civilian without knowing she'd crush him like a bug.
"Are we in the right place?" Wondered the non-annoying, non-flirty one. Upton, his name was. "That is, the right time?"
"Looks like it." Andrea scanned the readouts. "Entropy slope looks right. Margin of error five-thousand years."
"Excellent," said Upton.
"It should be," that was Dr. Yang's severe school-marm voice. "'A direct line of causality to real dinosaurs,' was I believe how your boss put it to me."
Her boss. Andrea used to have a commander. Now she had a fucking boss. "Yes," she snapped at her three charges, "we're in the right place."
"So what was that power surge?"
Andrea twisted around in her netting, tapped the black disk on her forehead. "You have a HUD-bindi. You can read the instruments as well as me."
Her prestigious clients—don't think of them as civilian cargo—dangled in their netting, blinking, scowling, and puppy-dog staring respectively. "We got lack of resistance in the 5- and 6- space axes. Let me know if that tells you anything useful."
"A divergent timeline," chimed Larsen the puppy.
"What do we do if we're in the wrong past?" wondered Upton.
"We abort," said Yang, as if in answer, when in fact, as always, the expedition's senior scientist had her own agenda. "We abort now."
"Whoa," Larsen looked around at his boss, wild-eyed. "We can't scrap two years of preparation just because of a blip on one readout. All the other instruments say we're good, and can calibrate by sight when we land."
"When we land, and take samples, and waste our time and my budget, all trying to prove that we have not stumbled into an alternate universe when there is clear evidence that we have," Dr. Yang straightened in her netting, lifting her regal profile. "I have no use for alternate apes or armored land squids or whatever else this aberrant timeline throws at us, Dr. Larsen. We will return to the future and save the money we will need to pay for our next try."
With a competent pilot fairly rang in the air of the translation vehicle.
"Like hell we're turning back," said Andrea. It would be like flying to the moon and then leaving without a moon walk. And more to the point, "you know what it'll look like for me if I turn around without even stepping foot outside?"
She arched an eyebrow at Andrea. "I am not concerned with your reputation."
Andrea gritted her teeth. Jesus. Was this her life now? Taking shit from asshole civilians had always been part of the job. Now it was the only job left for someone like her. "We are going land this bird, take samples or whatever, and if you find out the grass is the wrong color or something—"
"Grass," Larsen sniggered, "in the Mesozoic?"
"Don't forget about the Intertrappean phytoliths," said Upton.
"You think I would forget about Intertrappean phytoliths?"
"—if it turns out we're not really in the past," Andrea ground ahead like a crowd-control tank through a riot, "we'll try again."
"I disagree," said Yang.
"Noted. But this is my call. Check the release forms you signed."
Yang tilted her nose up even further than it already was. "I plan to. And if this mission proves to be a waste of time, I will take the problem to your manager."
Andrea had personally vaporized entire buildings. She'd carried orphans for miles at a dead run, deflecting shots from rogue drones the whole time. She'd taken down so many would-be suicide bombers she'd lost count. And now…
Now Andrea blinked commands into the HUD interface and started their descent. Things could be worse. She could be back at home. "Brace for landing."
Big mounds like forested pyramids dotted the marshy river-land below them. Andrea piloted her bird to one flat top of one of the mounds and settled into a space between the trees. It took forever to okay the atmosphere, but finally the doors opened and Andrea got a whiff of the age of dinosaurs for herself: thick, heavy, and rank-ass.
The place smelled like a vegan's jock-strap, with subtle hints of fishmonger and...porta-potty?
Larsen took a melodramatic breath. "Refreshing."
"Don't go outside ahead of me," Andrea snapped at the idiots as they lumbered out of their netting. "And suits on." Wouldn't do for one of her esteemed clients to end up on the inside of a dinosaur.
Andrea ran her hands over the matte black surface of her own powersuit and blinked a command to the HUD-bindi stuck to her forehead. Smart actin fabric rippled, ribbons of light flickering down her limbs. Indicators popped up in her vision. All green. As for the others... "Larsen, you haven't booted your AI."
"Supposed to protect you from ripping your own ass off. Turn it on," Andrea scanned the others, with both HUD and naked eye. Virtual images flickered, painted across the vision centers of her brain by the Endo-Cranial Whatever.
"Dr. Yang, why are you so low on juice?"
"I have plenty to drink."
"I mean energy," said Andrea. "Put your suit in the charger now and don't take it out until that little capacitor save icon, which I know you can see—"
The paleontologist straightened, looking down at Andrea from her Beijing Princess height. "Ms. Herrera, don't bully me."
Andrea had to literally bite her tongue to keep herself from giving her client a dressing-down. Dr. Yang wasn't a soldier and neither was Andrea. They were all just happy cogs in the wheels of Econ-Peace, so Andrea bent her face into a smile. "Wouldn't dream of it, professor."
Andrea had to spend the next ten minutes slowly…and…carefully explaining why it was a bad idea to let your powersuit run dry in the field. All while the other two scientists glared at her like she was some sort of drill sergeant. If fucking only. Maybe if Andrea'd had the authority to pick Larsen up and hurl him a couple of yards, he wouldn't spend quite so much time watching her tits.
"All right, let's go." Andrea said once they'd finally crawled up to scrape the underside of the barest minimum safety standards. "Stay close to the time machine, between me and the door."
Larsen smirked at her. "You mean the Hilbert Space vehicle."
"Yeah. Fine." She got the hell away from there, feeling his eyes on her ass with every step she took.
Forest surrounded their landing zone like hair around a bald man's comb-over: spindly palms, tangled shrubs, and thick-trunked trees with scabby, blotched bark and leaves wider than her palm. The muggy air pulsed with insects. Larger, more dangerous life slid through the leaf-shadows at the edge of her enhanced vision.
Andrea breathed. The age of dinosaurs wasn't so bad. Even babysitting paleontologists would be better than staying at home, systematically destroying all connections to her friends and family. Civilians couldn't understand her and other ex-soldiers were all just as screwed-up as she was. That didn't leave much in the life side, so it was a good thing Andrea had her work, wasn't it?
"Awesome, isn't it?" Shouted someone from behind her.
Andrea's involuntary jerk sent waves of energy rippling down her powersuited arms. Larsen wasn't carrying a weapon and the suit had no reason to auto-attack, otherwise she'd be down one client. Although if she had her pick of who to decapitate… "Don't shout," she said, "please."
"Sorry," a big, toothy grin split Larsen's sunburned face. "I'm just...hot damn there are dinosaurs in there and we're the first people to see them in the flesh. This is like..." he made hand flapping gestures again, "like it would be for you to kill a really famous bad guy."
Got to give the guy points for trying. And at least he was tall. If only Andrea wasn't certain, certain she would lash out at Chris and he, nice, smart, weak civilian that he was, would get hurt. Better do her job, enjoy the rush of adrenaline when it came time to beat up a few dinosaurs, and deal with her life when she got back to it.
"I'll set up the perimeter defenses," she said. "You guys unpack your stuff. Once we're emplaced here, I'll take you out on your dinosaur safari."
Dr. Yang raised her voice. "We have to know if we're in the right Hilbert Space before we waste any more time here."
And Andrea had to make sure they had a perimeter before Yang got her puckered ass eaten. "How far do you have to wander off to get the info you need?"
Upton cleared his throat. "I'm sure we can use the vegetation on this hill to at least get a preliminary match, don't you think, professor Larsen?"
"Sure I can," Larsen cleared his throat. "I can take samples out there and contact you while she does what she needs to do," he tapped the HUD-bindi on his forehead. "And, uh," he looked at Andrea, "I could, you know, watch your back."
Watch her ass, he meant. If he'd been another soldier, Andrea would've just said 'no,' in as memorable a way as possible, but none of them were soldiers, were they? If Andrea didn't want to get fired or sent to customer satisfaction classes, she was going to have to be nice.
Damn, but it was hard to be civilized sometimes.