Apparently, they aren’t even reptiles.
With skin covered in scutes, boasting a vertebral sail and powerful jaws, this thing looks like a fat, bear-sized lizard, but Russell Hansard seems to think the wildlife around here predates the dinosaurs by fifty million years. Out of the two thousand surviving passengers on board the Cruise Ship Eudora, Mr Hansard is the only one who claims to be schooled in palaeobiology.
Too bad he isn’t here to see this monster. Somehow it managed to get into the ship and feast on an elderly couple, lodging in one of the balcony cabins.
“It’s the biggest one yet,” I gasp, having abandoned living in fear; embracing this impossible, marvellous world.
“What the hell is that thing?” Guillermo Michalik, a bartender, never let go of his fear.
“Corner it,” yells Kelly Slade, clutching her makeshift spear. The ex-manager leads our brigand of volunteers up to the next level.
I move closer to Guillermo. “Russell called them pelycosaurs.”
Killing the beast proves difficult. Like always, the forty-five-degree incline of the decks makes hunting it difficult. The Eudora sat tilted on her starboard, sunk deep into a sand dune. The desert around her stretched out forever, as far as the eye could see. A primordial sun beat down on the white hull, heating it up, and pushing the nuclear-powered climate system to its limits.
Both factions work together. The Upper Deck Bloc — comprising mainly of crew and workers, and the Lower Deck Coalition — mostly tourists who got more than they bargained for. With pikes fashioned out of mop handles, the two brigands force the creature to the open-air terrace. Hissing, it tramples over a fitness instructor, killing him, and launches itself through the plate glass fence, splashing down into the algae and dragonfly-infested pool.
The decrepit state of the swimming pool inflames the despair I’ve been suppressing for the last thirty-eight days. One minute I’m floating on sapphire waters, sipping a Raspberry Mojito, next minute… madness.
That’s what I heard the captain, Lorenzo Bannerman, refer to it as. To most of us, it felt like the mother of all hurricanes. The ferocity of the wind, the violence of the sea, and the towering bolts of lightning, left us all in a state of shock and panic.
It all began with a star exploding, turning night into day. Then the storm hit us, followed by a maddening descent into an oceanic hell. An hour in, the Eudora struck something hard, jolting everybody aboard. I broke my nose and fainted. When I awoke, the world was upside down or at least slanted at an insane angle. Sliding down to the promenade I climbed up a davit and looked out at the world. I discovered a vast red desert stretching out into the grey/blue sky. The air was hot and foul. I knew right then this was not the Earth I knew. On the very first day, before the slaughter and factional struggles, Captain Lorenzo assumed command. He explained to all of us what he thought the flash of light up in space was.
The SinoPac Orbitor.
It made sense. The three supranationals were engaged in an arms race. This rivalry had been pushing science to its limits for decades. When news broke out that the time barrier had been breached, the newsbots were less than impressed. Sending particles back through time seemed like a novel way to spend trillions. Few people were interested; fewer believed such a stunt was possible. When rumours of time bombs surfaced, public hysteria waxed and waned. Humanity’s deep-rooted fear of atomics only existed because mankind had unleashed upon itself such titanic power.
With time bombs, however…
No one understood the technology, let alone feared it. Time tourism speculators positioned themselves to make a fortune, competing supranationals built massive Higgs-field displacers in orbit, and I took a vacation away from my scientific-data-appropriation business.
I knew enough about high-end technology to be on Captain Lorenzo’s governance team. That’s how I got to meet Hansard, Slade and Ottoman. We were charged with coming up with answers in a desperate attempt to restore order among the terrified passengers. But answers were difficult to attain, and even more difficult to explain to hundreds of families, paralysed with fear. Every day a new creature would attack the settlement, preying on us. Each night brought another horror.
Giant red cockroaches invaded. One bite and you bloat up until you die of heart failure.
Carnivorous dragonflies swarmed, attacking victims like piranhas, fluttering away with chunks of human flesh between their mandibles.
Rogue mammal-like reptiles terrorised and stalked us at night. Tusks. claws, spikes, and the variety of these animals defied comprehension.
A small marshland due south is thought to be the source of this wildlife. The stranded cruise ship attracted them all, a ready supply of sustenance for all the carnivores in the area. A handful of passengers died during the chronostorm. A few hundred have been killed by these creatures. The rest perished during the infighting. A group of passengers, particularly a lawyer named Bobby Kost, didn’t like the idea of Captain Lorenzo rationing out food and supplies, so they instigated a coup. The riot lasted two days. Kost and his clique managed to overrun the lower deck storerooms, and rally most of the paying passengers behind him. But they were unable to secure the bridge or win over any key company engineers.
Standoff’s been in place ever since.
The pelycosaur relaxes in the murky pool, liking the shade and moisture. Only its spiky fin and snout and a spear remain above the waterline.
“What do we do?” I ask.
Slade looks at me and gives me a rare smile. “It looks happy… until it’s hungry again.”
Commotion from the below decks distracts us. We follow the shouting, downwards to the starboard; where white steel meets rusty sand. I can see a small crowd running out onto the dune, towards three pitiful-looking human beings.
Eighteen days ago, two teams set out to explore this strange new world. One, Kost’s team, went north to determine whether or not that dark, jagged landscape over the horizon was mountains. The other team led by Hansard, headed east, towards the never-ending lightning storm. He and the captain were convinced the chronostorm was still active. A gateway back may still be open, and possibly accessible.
Kost returned five days ago. He lost all his team but he found the mountains. Great, tall ranges, the largest he’d ever seen. The corporate lawyer had travelled the world; seen the Andes, the Himalayas, the Rockies, and even the Alps, but never had he seen mountains this size. He also discovered a vast system of lakes. From the pictures he shared, it looked like paradise. Valleys covered in conifers and ferns.
Most likely, crawling with wild pelycosaurs.
Hansard appears beaten but his fiery eyes are alive with urgency. His two remaining colleagues are exhausted, suffering horrific skin injuries. I catch up with Captain Lorenzo, who allows me to be part of the debriefing committee. He even allows his mortal enemy, Kost, to join.
While the two are hospitalised, Hansard is eager to speak. Captain Lorenzo offers him a chilled bottle of Coke. “Russell, we can do this later.”
“We have no time,” he grumbles. He’s a changed man. Bitter and determined, a far cry from his inquisitive nature. He looks at us like he’s about to tell us all some bad news. “We came across the coastline.”
Each member of the debriefing committee reacts in two ways. They are either filled with joy or, like me, filled with despair.
“And the chronostorm?” asks Slade.
“Out beyond the sea,” answers Hansard.
Ottoman smacks his hands together. “Right. We’ve got plenty of boats. We can rig up some wheels, no problem. How far is this coast?”
“Yes,” says Captain Lorenzo. “That’s achievable. We can’t let the seashore stand in our way.”
“That…” interjects Hansard. “…is not the problem.”
The committee falls quiet. Hansard rubs his mouth and answers, “We found cities. The entire coast is one big city.”
The moment passes and we start breathing again. Slade puts her hand up. “What do you mean cities? Are we still in our time?”
“They are not human cities,” he replies. “They’re amphibian.”
“Frog people?” asks the captain.
“Walking, talking amphibian/mammal-like people.” Russell Hansard says. “Millions of them, living in shallow waters inside organic-type dwellings. At night they have lights. You can see the entire shoreline dotted with them, hundreds of clusters, and enclaves along a sprawling reef. We found networks of acid batteries made from some kind of sea creature.” He looks at our surprise. “Yes, that’s right. Electricity.
Normally, I desist from contributing, but I can’t help it. “So we’ve gone millions of years into the future.”
“No,” he says, his tone, uncharacteristically mean.
“Or, we’re on another planet,” says Ottoman. “I knew it. Time-space displacement over a two hundred and fifty million year period puts us in another region of the galaxy.”
“It’s the same moon,” growls Hansard.
He’s right. The moon is exactly the same, slightly larger than I remember. Even the other six wandering stars dance across the night sky the same as they always do. Only the constellations are completely unrecognisable.
“This doesn’t make any sense,’ says Captain Lorenzo.
“Yes, I know,” replies Hansard.
“How have we not found any fossil evidence?” I ask, sparking a deluge of questions centred on the same theme.
“Subduction!” Bobby Kost’s voice booms over the manic chatter. He looks at Hansard for confirmation. “Just because some palaeontologist hasn’t found a specimen doesn’t mean it never existed. Tectonic plate activity probably forced that coastline into the Earth’s mantle.”
“Did you find your mountains?” asks Hansard.
Kost grins, “They are magnificent. Bigger than anything you’ve ever seen.”
A fatigued Hansard nods. “The Central Pangean Mountains. We are either in Spain or Morocco. Over those mountains is North America.” His voice trails off, leaving the committee to ponder this piece of scientific trivia.
I just had to break the silence. “They use acid for energy?”
Hansard’s grim demeanour returns. “And weapons. That’s what happened to Gustav and Branden. They were shot at with some kind of acid thrower. They’re militant. They fight each other. The first day we stumbled upon a war between two city clusters.” His voice grows even grimmer. “They know we exist. Been hunting us all the way here.”
The committee erupts into turmoil.
“Why did you come here?”
“We should leave right now.”
“We are screwed.”
Only Captain Lorenzo remains calm and silent. He says to Hansard, “What do we do?”
Hansard glares at him. “You’ve got fuel on this ship?”
“We are not using nuclear weapons. It’s not practical.”
“No, I’m talking about the backup generators. The diesel.”
“We have about a thousand tonnes.”
Hansard turns to the technician. “Bill, we need to arm our brigands with as many Molotov Cocktails as possible within the next hour.”
Bill Ottoman looks at the captain. Lorenzo nods. “Everyone knows what to do. Russell, how many are coming?”
I rush with the others up towards the ship’s port. Kost is already there looking out into the horizon with a pair of binoculars. He hands them to me. I see a dust storm. I see a horde of bipods riding heavyset four-legged animals with hippopotamus-shaped heads.
“You should come with us,” Kost tells me. “The Upper Deck Bloc will be able to fight off these things for a few days. We could get to the mountains. It’s spring now. By summer, this place will become unliveable. We stand a good chance up at the lakes.”
I smell diesel fumes. I look down at the teams filling up Coke bottles and see the irony. The fossil fuel is probably made from the buried remains of this amphibian civilisation.
“No,” I tell him. I look up at the eastern sky, towards the chronostorm raging out beyond the horizon. “I really want to go home.”