Expedition to the Badlands
by Mord McGhee

What can be found of the past?

     The skyline crackled with all the usual vigor and youth of a nice Western Expanse sunrise.  Tracers of heat lightning streaked down earthward like a fiery hailstorm. Two members of the team “Justellation” scratched monotonously at the dull brown ground.  One lifted his head and growled “Ouch!”  He swatted a tiny insect attached to his exposed leg. He mumbled for a moment but it soon turned into a gasp.

     “Jesper, I found something. Looks like another skull piece!” He brushed away gently at a pale rock beneath the surface.

     Jesper looked up and stopped her own excavation. She said, “Way to go.” She shook and brushed the red dust off her short denim pants. The sky rumbled with a flash of lightning. The illumination linked a towering column of natural stone pillars on the horizon. Jesper walked toward her co-worker, Martin, who brushed his leg as the sun’s relentless burning and the insect bite swell was itching like mad. He eased his body low to the ground and said, “Looks like early primate. Never found one out here.” He paused and smiled as she approached to get a look for herself. She crinkled her brow and said, “Odd.” She raised her eyebrows as the bone came into focus. “Wow. A perfect skull section.”

     Facial bones stared up from the dried clay.

     Martin saw her amazement and said, “Experience tells me to ask. You’re the expert on primate bones. Are these apes that hunted the badlands?”

     Primate bones were cryptic to him. His expertise came in sediment analysis and long extinct living plants.

     Jesper crouched and touched the bony ridge of the buried face.

     “Look at the brow and eye placement. Slightly sunken. Large forehead but not as big as the ‘Hommen Man’s’. She gently brushed the dirt off and said, “Quite a find, Martin. Quite a find. We’ve never known apes to roam the plains.” She glanced around the dust floor and added, “Knowing their habits, I’d say this is only the beginning. Here, help me get this out.”

     Martin grinned as more of the skull than he guessed came out of the ground. It was several inches in the clay and very well intact. He helped his partner dig it free though they weren’t as careful as they normally were. The bone cracked and separated. Both gasped and cursed.

     Within the skull cavity was a hardened brain. Jesper said, “It’s nearly the size of a modern human.” It was dry and shriveled but the impression left inside the skull itself showed it had once filled the chamber completely. Martin spoke, feeling the sting of pessimism. “Maybe it’s not old. Maybe remains of a murder.” He frowned.

     Jesper winced as the lightning brushed several stones much nearer than the last volley earthward. She saw his frown and said, “The storm is getting too close. Let’s take this to the lab and pick up where we left off tomorrow. A quick sequencing of the genome pattern should tell us soon enough how old it is.”

     She eased the bones into a small sack and strode towards the vehicle parked a few yards off. She said, “I should say he, not it.” She grinned.

     Martin asked,. “Him? You know it’s from a male?”

     The two slid into a vehicle and Jesper said, “Definitely male. Not necessarily a man, though. I still stand that it’s pre-human, Martin.”

     The engine’s radiation thrusters whistled. Jesper definitely wanted to get the brain remains iced as soon as possible. Outside the clay it would deteriorate very fast. She made the hour drive in half the usual time.

     Martin sealed the freeze locker and Jesper chipped a sample from the skull. She slid a sample load into the sequence dating machine and said, “I love this thing.”

     Martin eased his way to the monitor screen and watched as the streams of data went onto the display. He crinkled his forehead. “What the hell?” He pointed to the approximate date of life and said, “That has to be wrong.”

     Jesper relaxed in her chair and mouthed the words, lost in thought. “Four thousand, seven hundred years.” She turned and looked into Martin’s eyes. His face was a shade paler than white and his eyes were off in space. She said, “The same time plant life died out in the mass extinction.”

     Martin frowned.

     “Cataclysm ground zero.” He scanned the date before him, scoffing. “If this machine is screwed up it’ll take forever to get it fixed.”

     Jesper said, “It shows the same heat with rapid cool  that the ancient mammals have. The machine is not broken. It’s right on.”

     Martin said, “Supports the ‘meteor theory’.” He tapped his chin lightly. Or the ‘storm theory’.”

     He set a hand upon her shoulder. She turned and frowned.

     “We may actually be able to insert the neural analyzer and get memory details. This is extraordinary! Should we rehydrate it first?”

     Martin’s face changed to a wide grin. “Try it dry first. If we get nothing then rehydrate away.”

     Jesper was already moving to the freeze locker. “This should be the earliest inhabitant of the Earth as we know it. Get the probes and scanner online. We have to move fast. It is too unstable to leave out on the lab counter.”

     Martin brought the computer up and the two rapidly inserted the necessary tools to perform the scan. The equipment was generally reserved for forensics in murders. The machine would tell memory impressions and emotions felt at the time of death and sometimes a lot more. The data filled the screen instantly. The two stared like statues.

     It was some time before Jesper spoke but when she finally did her voice was startled. “His level of technology understood flight, art, mechanics, even nuclear physics!”

     Martin did not stir. He was staring at the emotion colors on the screen that depicted terror and surprise. It was the dominating blend of tone. Martin moved the brain fragments back into the freeze locker.

     Jasper rubbed the tiny pains in her sunburnt neck and said, “How could we have found a fossilized human from thousands of years ago with a technology like our own?”

     Martin frowned. “He obviously died the day of the cataclysm.”

     Jasper shook her head. “Not possible. Humans have only had technology for two thousand years. Impossible to the nth degree.”

     Martin plopped into a chair fighting a dizzy spell and said, “We couldn’t have. I’ll calibrate the computers and do it again tomorrow. Let’s go get a drink.”

     Jesper said, “This ape practiced nuclear physics when plants were still around. But it’s not nearly as old as the pyramid structures beneath the Aidallen Sea. It doesn’t make sense.”

     “Maybe humans died with the plants.” Martin glared into Jesper’s confused eyes. “Could it be we have re-evolved from a race destroyed by a meteor?”

     Jesper shook her head. “Sort of puts a different spin on things, huh?”

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