Marooned in the past

By Peter Billingham

Richard tapped the cold-chisel ever more gently as he came closer to freeing the ammonite from the rock that had held it captive for more than 150 million years.

Finally, moving the cutting edge away from the fossil and stressing the mother rock, he freed a near-perfect specimen of Hildoceras.

Richard Sutherland had been studying the Jurassic cephalopods for five years and had developed a new technique for dating them by the convolutions of their septa. He carefully packed the specimen away and inserted his chisel into a likely-looking crack that had opened along one of the bedding planes.

He tapped it firmly with the heavy hammer and smiled in satisfaction as the rock split cleanly.

Carefully lifting the piece clear he stared in disbelief at what looked like part of a stainless steel sphere.

He rubbed it carefully with his handkerchief. It was definitely metal. The rock that held it was equally definitely part of the outcrop. Its bedding planes and joints matched perfectly.

He knocked a piece of mother rock from near the end of the metal sphere and moistened the surface to display the bedding. There was no doubt it curved around the metal surface proving conclusively that it had been there when the sediment that was destined to become the rock had been deposited.

That lovely shiny steel thing, he realised, must have been buried in the rock for 150 million years, yet when he rubbed it with his handkerchief he could see his face in it. He could only marvel at the incredible technology that had created such an artefact.

All his scientific training told him he should replace the cap rock and fetch his professor. But if he did it would probably be proclaimed a national monument, and the fight to see who would be granted the honour of freeing it might take years.

The alien object, whatever it was, could be a treasure-house of technology. If he excavated it, it would be his -- at least for a while. He salved his conscience by fetching his camera and close-up lens and taking copious photographs as he carefully chipped away at the rock.

It took him four days to free the sphere, during which time he had his films developed and printed to make sure that the record had been effectively preserved. At last he stood with it in his hands and could examine it.

Being a palaeontologist it was fairly natural that he should think that it was shaped a bit like Spirifer princeps, a brachiopod from the Carboniferous era, but normal human beings would probably have likened it to a shallow dish with wide thick walls and curved edges.

The dish thus revealed was still full of rock and Richard began to chip away at this with his pocket knife. He had only been at work for about ten minutes, and was pushing the point of his knife into a bedding plane when the whole piece of stone came away leaving him looking into the dish.

Inside, the surface was deeply incised to create what looked for all the world like a small keyboard with alien characters etched into the keys. He tried to visualise the kind of hands it had been made for. Could one of the smaller dinosaurs have developed intelligence and been wiped out by the meteorite impact that ended the era?

He ruled this out. We would have discovered other artefacts if their technology had reached the level needed to create steel like this. More likely it had been lost by some alien visitors from another world.

It felt almost as if it had been made to hold in both hands. The curvature at the sides was just right and if he gripped it that way his thumbs could comfortably reach the etched keys. As if to confirm this he pressed one of the buttons with his right thumb and the tool, whatever it was, came to life.

There was a slight hum and the air around him began to shiver. It felt as though he was enclosed in a bubble of glass that was not quite visible. He could sense that it was there but not see it. All at once the cliffs behind Robin Hood's Bay, where he had been working, faded and disappeared to be replaced a few heart-stopping moments later by a completely alien environment.

At first he thought he had been transported to some other planet, but then his eyes lit on a nearby tree and he recognised it as a variety of Williamsonia -- a Jurassic cycad.

"My God" he thought. "It's a time machine."

It took about ten seconds for the implications to sink in.

"How am I ever going to get back? I haven't the faintest idea which button to press."

He was standing on a grassy slope, alongside a large boulder so he sat down to gather his thoughts. If he could only get back to his own time he would make a fortune.

He remembered some of the science fiction stories he had read in which the heroes had gone back in time far enough to buy shares before they boomed; had found where treasure ships had gone down; had flogged advanced technology to backward nations and made fortunes patenting things before they had even been thought of.

He simply had to get back.

But how could he find out how to set 1993 into the time machine? It didn't have a display of any kind, and even if it had, he would almost certainly be unable to read it.

There was no other way. He just had to experiment slowly with the other buttons. He knew which one had got him into this mess so he could avoid that one for now.

Gingerly he pressed the corresponding button on the other side of the keyboard.

Nothing happened. The scene outside remained the same; the humming that had stopped long ago, did not return. He had half hoped that a display of some sort would appear as if by magic in the smooth metal. He was disappointed.

At that moment he looked up to see that a 20-foot Triceratops that had been browsing on a Ginkgo digitata nearby, was taking an unhealthy interest in him. He was not too worried because Triceratops was thought to be a herbivore. But on the other hand if it were to accidentally step on him things might get messy.

It was at that point that his plan to quietly explore the alien keyboard came unstuck. In attempting to creep around the rock he slipped and accidentally pressed the large key at the bottom.

The machine hummed again and a narrow beam of light, probably a laser, he thought, shot out of the front of the keyboard and took the top off a nearby Baiera tree.

Of course, he thought, any time traveller would need some means of defence when leaping into the unknown. He pointed the keyboard at the Triceratops and pressed the bar. The beam of light shot out and the huge monster collapsed on the ground in a heap.
Well that's another button unravelled he thought, we'll soon sort out the rest.

Unfortunately the smell of blood emanating from the monster's carcass began to attract some other unwelcome visitors. First on the scene were a pair of Pterodactyls who proceeded to tear into the flesh as if they hadn't eaten for weeks.

His palaeontological curiosity almost cost him dear when three or four Oligokyphus hove on the scene and proceeded to chase the Pterodactyls one of which took up its station on the rock alongside and began to consider him as a substitute meal.

Richard just had time to roll over and demolish the hopeful diner before the first Megalosaurus lumbered over the hill. Since his path would take him right over Richard there was no option but to dispatch him too. Richard aimed for its neck and had the satisfaction of watching the beast's head fall to the ground. Like a giant chicken its headless torso lumbered on, fortunately going off course slightly, till it collapsed to the ground with a crash that shook the earth.

"Better watch out for that" thought Richard, "if one of those falls on me it will be curtains."

When he looked back to where the Triceratops had landed he was horrified to see that three more Megalosaurs had arrived and were busy carving up the carcass. The small Oligokyphus had all been chased away and two of them were eyeing him with more than a passing interest.

He again used his laser but the smell of roasting meat it produced drew two of the giant carnivores and before he knew what was happening he was fighting for his life against a growing hoard of hungry reptiles.

They were arriving faster than he could shoot and with a sinking feeling he realised that he would never live to escape from the Jurassic era.

The end, when it came, was unexpected. A small reptile that he had not noticed crept up and sank its teeth into his leg.

The machine in his hands gave a single beep and he found himself back on the beach at Robin Hood's Bay. The sand all around him had been churned up by his gyrations and the feeling of impotence turned rapidly to anger as he realised what had happened. The beep had been the device's way of telling him that he was considered 'dead.'

"No wonder they threw the bloody thing away," he cursed, flinging it as far out to sea as he could.

"It's not a time machine after all, but a damned three-dimensional video game!"

1995 © Peter Billingham