"All right," Dr. Kelso sighed, "What's so important about this fossil-hunting pit of yours that you wanted to drag me down here?"
With a knowing smile, Dr. Carlos indicated the far end of the dig site and replied, "Follow me."
She shrugged, and fell into step beside him. "I don't see what you could find in a 65-million-year-old graveyard that you'd need a neolithic specialist for."
"My name's Roy Carlos, by the way," he extended his hand.
"I'm Melinda Kelso." She shook it.
"Yes, I know. But I didn't figure that out until you announced yourself. When you showed up, I had no idea you were the archaeologist, since you weren't wearing a fedora and carrying a whip."
She rolled her eyes. "Well, I always imagined you paleo people trying to suck DNA out of mesozoic mosquitoes. So I guess we both learned about the ouside world through Hollywood, eh?"
He chuckled, "True enough." They passed a fossilized skeleton still being excavated by part of the group. "That's Stenonychosauru- er, I mean, Troodon", he commented. "There's a whole bunch of 'em down here. May be the biggest Troodon mass grave ever found."
"Those were the mean, smart ones that came after the kids in the kitchen near the end of the movie, right?"
He scratched the back of his head uncomfortably. "Er, no, those were a Hollywood-enlarged version of Velociraptor. They're the same family as Troodon, though. Oh, oh, and as for what's so important here, we think we've found something man-made."
She stopped dead in mid-stride. "Here?"
"At the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary?"
"Buried along with your dinosaur bones?"
"Yes." He started her walking toward it again. "It has to have been made by the hand of man."
She stared at him wryly. "How can you tell that the person who made this 'thing' was a male?"
"Oh, no no, I meant 'man' in the sense of —"
"Then you mean it was human-made."
"Er, yes, 'man-made' meaning 'made by mankind'."
"That still doesn't quite cut it, you know."
Now it was Roy Carlos' turn to roll his eyes.
"Don't worry," she reassured him, "I get much much worse from the stuffy old tenured male professors in my university's archaeo depart . . ." Her voice trailed off as the object she'd been brought to see finally came into view. A rectangular stone slab jutted from the dirt floor, its surface discolored by deliberate gouges. "What . . . in the name of heaven . . ." She bolted toward it. ". . . is that?!"
She knelt down over the 85-by-67 centimeter surface, reaching her hands out to touch it but willing herself not to, lest this fragile treasure be disturbed. "I-i-it's artificial, all right," she noted as her shaking increased. "The surface marks . . . they're, they're regular, like writing." She tried to read it, barely able to contain her franticness, mumbling, "Holy shit, this is fantastic." Finally: "I don't recognize the alphabet. It doesn't look even remotely like any of the native American writing systems I've seen."
Dr. Carlos and an assistant knelt down beside her to get a closer look. "No!" she snapped, her hand jutting out in protest, "Don't touch it! Don't even come close to this slab! By uncovering it even this much, you guys might've already destroyed some crucial clues." She stood up and backed carefully away. "I want the whole area roped off out to a 3-meter radius. I'm gonna call some colleagues and get a grad-student team in here ASAP. In the meanwhile, nobody's to come this close to it again, not even me."
The gathering crowd drew back uneasily. They didn't much care for outsiders telling them what to do.
"Oh, wait," she snapped her fingers, "Did anybody here get pictures of this?"
A young man with a monstrous camera hanging around his neck shook his head slowly. She reached over to him, grabbed the camera, pulled the cord off from around his head without a word of warning, leaned back over the stone slab, and shot two quick photographs of it. "Thanks," she handed it back to him unceremoniously.
Her excitement would have to wait, though; for although her colleagues shared her enthusiasm, they couldn't exactly reach New Mexico in the next ten minutes.
Nor could they arrive in the next hour.
Nor, even, by nightfall. . . .
"Want to go into town for a pizza or something?" Dr. Carlos offered as stepped out of his trailer. Melinda Kelso had only come inside once that whole day, and then only to use the bathroom.
"No thanks," she answered, flipping back and forth between her newly-developed photographs of the slab. "Not that I don't trust you people, but I'm not leaving until some other archaeologists get here."
He walked over to her bench. "You know, some of 'us people' do feel a little put off by that."
"What do you mean?" She put the photos down.
"I mean," he sat down next to her, "We invited you in for a look at something we found on one of our excavation sites, and the moment you saw it you started acting like you owned the slab and the whole site along with it. And what's worse is, you act as though we've never handled a delicate object in our lives and can't be trusted to so much as breathe in its direction, as if to say, 'Stand back you bone diggers and let some real professionals handle this.' We're paleontologists, for God's sake. We do the same things you do when excavation time comes around." He leaned closer. "And we didn't just shovel the overburden off the top of that stone before you got here, either."
Her eyebrows raised slightly. "Oh?"
"We saved all the soil and dust that was on top of it."
"Hmmm. I guess you would do things similarly, wouldn't you, what with you wanting to preserve the specimens you find and all. What did your Dirt Experts say about the overburden?"
"Jim, our 'Dirt Expert', identified it as typical iridium-rich K-T boundary clay, the same type that's all over the rest of this site and in most other K-T boundary regions uncovered throughout the world. Meteor dust."
"You guys think it was an asteroid impact, but you're still not sure, are you?"
Roy sighed. "No, there still isn't conclusive proof either way. And most Dinosauria were on the decline near the end of the Cretaceous anyway. A giant meteor might have killed the dinosaurs and brought the Mesozoic Era to an end, or a temporary build-up of greenhouse gases, or a massive volcanic eruption, or even an ice age — although there isn't any evidence of glaciation at the onset of the Cenozoic outside of the usual polar regions. Nevertheless, this iridium dust is almost universal at Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary sites worldwide, and something had to cause it. It looks like your stone tablet is sixty-five million years old."
She shook her head violently. "No, no, no way, there's no way that slab was carved at the same time these walking lizards were doing their thing. The Tertiary started 60 million years before the first hominids, let alone the first homo sapiens sapiens. The thing must've gotten caught in a mud slide or deposited here by the people who really wrote it." She held up one of her pictures. "I'm absolutely certain these carvings aren't random scratches. They're not even pictographs; they're an example of a real honest-to-goodness system of abstract writing, at least as advanced as Egyptian hieroglyphics. Whoever wrote this couldn't have come along more than a couple thousand years ago."
"And the K-T boundary dust it's encased in?"
"It just settled there later. I'm sure of it. You didn't have to do any strip-mining to get down to the Cretaceous layer, it was lying out in the open for you. It must have been lying out in the open when the slab was left here, too. The dirt lodged in the lettering might be more recent than this dust — when we get it out we'll do carbon-14 dating on it."
She stared into the waning glow on the west horizon.
"Speaking of radiocarbon dating," Roy began, "You wouldn't be free for dinner after the waiting is over, would you?"
She flashed the gold ring around her left annulary finger to him. "I don't think my husband would understand the 'torrid love affair' we'd embark on," she said with a hint of sarcasm.
She sighed. "I just wish there was a way to date the slab itself, instead of just the dirt on it. Er, to the time it was carved, I mean; not the time the rock actually formed or anything."
It turned out not to matter. The age of the dirt lodged in each crevice of the slab was way off the radiocarbon scale. Potassium-argon dating pinned the age of every nook, cranny, and dent of the slab as being between 64 and 67 million years.
"John, this is a detailed photograph of the Kelso-Carlos Stone," Melinda showed the picture to her linguist friend.
"Kind of presumptuous title, isn't it?" He sipped a bottle of mango-kiwi juice.
Melinda grinned. "Yeah, I didn't think Roy's name should have gotten associated with it, either; but hey, he found it."
John sneered a bit. "I'd heard something about a new relic from the archaeology wing, but I'd also heard rumors that it was 200 million years old, so I didn't know if they were true or not."
"Well, actually, it's more like 65 million years old."
John practically choked on his drink. "You're kidding, right?"
She snickered. "The only evidence we have that it's anything that preposterous is in the fact that all of the dirt on its surface comes from the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary we found it in. That proves nothing. The tablet could have been left there by some careful prankster a month ago and we'd get the same readings. Heck, it would have had to have been buried pretty deep just to survive for that long. What I want to know is if you recognize the writing on the surface."
"These dents are writing?"
"Sure they are. Take a look."
"Hmmm . . ." he scrutinized. "Well, there are regular patterns, but it's not like any writing system I've ever seen."
"You're sure of that."
"Absolutely. It's nothing like any modern language, North American or otherwise. It's also nothing like Hittite, or Egyptian Hieroglyphs, or Sanskrit, or any language that's ever been used by manki — er, excuse me, humankind — so far as I know. The uniform use of triple strokes in each of the characters baffles me. Do you have any idea what kind of carving tool made these marks?"
"Well, it's soft stone, so it could have been carved by just about anything that came to a point. Why do you ask?"
John grimaced. "It looks like these lettering strokes were made briskly, in one casual scrape, rather than hammered into the rock. See, look at these smooth curves. Those would have been prohibitively difficult to make with a hammer and chisel."
"But look at how deep the indentations are!" she retorted. "You couldn't do that with a quick stroke of a tool. You'd have to be inhumanly strong to gouge out that much in one pass."
"Then I'm probably mistaken," the linguist admitted. "Or . . . this was written by someone who was inhumanly strong."
He eyed her levelly. She turned his words over in her head.
Then, her look turned to suspicion. "Don't tell me you think the dinosaurs wrote this!"
"Well, some of them had fingers, didn't they?"
"Oh, come on! Dinos had brain cases the size of walnuts. They couldn't have had any more cognitive power than alligators — using natural tools would've been beyond them, ferchrissake, let alone language."
The cellular phone on Melinda's hip interrupted any chance John would have had to reply. She answered it.
"Doctor Kelso, you dig 'em, I rig 'em."
'Melinda, this is Alex,' replied the filtered voice on the other end. 'I'm at the dig.'
"Oh, hi, Rockjaw! What's up?"
'I think you'll want to get back here. Like, right away.'
She perked up instantly. "You found something else?"
'We found somethings else.'
Oh good lord.
'Another stone tablet like the first, with more of those indentations on it. And a pillar beneath the first one. Also, three steel placards on posts —'
'Steel placards. Not just iron. They're high carbon with a little calcium. Reminded me of road signs. And . . .'
". . . And???!"
'. . . And one large metal box.'
Silence engulfed the cellular line for several seconds.
"All at the same site?" she finally asked.
'All of them.'
"All close to the slab?"
'No, scattered about. The steel placards were around the perimeter of the remains.'
She glanced at her bewildered companion. "I'll be over on the next flight." She clicked off without another word.
"Sorry, John, but I think we're both about to find out more about whoever wrote that." She reached for her photograph.
"Er, can I keep this?" he pulled the picture away from her. "I'd like to copy down these symbols and see if there's anything here I can make sense out of. I know it's only a few dozen glyphs, but —"
"Yeah, sure, sure. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a plane to catch." She turned and ambled off toward the staff parking lot.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't!" he called after her.
By the time she arrived, ropes and teams had already been deployed to each artifact, and as many cameras were flashing off as were excavators' picks and brushes.
"Mel!" perked the voice that had telephoned her.
"Alex, Alex!" she clapped and rubbed her hands together as ran to join her, "Where to start?!"
"Um, uh . . ." he jittered with glee, "The other tablet!" He led her toward it at an anxious trot.
"Well, okay," she jogged after, "But I want to see that metal box next!"
This second tablet looked much like the first, although it was a little wider. Same kind of pedestal supporting it, same kind of stone, same types of gouges in the surface, same regular three-stroked pattern to each written character. Melinda snapped off a Polaroid, and slid the still-developing picture into her fanny-pack for later study. There were more important things to see first.
"Now, where's the box?!"
"Right this way!"
They scurried past one of the few Troodon fossil beds that hadn't been turned over to the archaeologists. The older of the two paleontologists in the bed glowered at them as they whisked by, and shook his head in resentment.
— Remainder of story yet to be written —
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