“Dear,” the professor’s wife said, “there is a dinosaur in the vegetable garden.”
She said it very calmly, with not a trace of a tremor in her voice. Ten years of marriage to the professor had taught her a great deal of self-control.
The professor peered at her over his glasses. “Yes, dear,” he said mildly. Ten years of marriage had taught him the value of those words as a catch-all response to anything she might say.
“Did you hear what I said?” his wife asked, a slightly shriller note sneaking into her voice. “There is a dinosaur in the vegetable garden. And it’s eating the cabbage.”
“Oh, no, dear,” the professor said, returning to his laptop. “That can’t be. You must have been mistaken.”
“Look.” For the first time in a decade, the professor’s wife’s iron self-control deserted her. She reached out and grabbed a handful of her husband’s old sweater. “Come to the window and see for yourself.”
Another thing the professor had learnt in a decade of matrimonial bliss was the futility of resistance. He allowed himself to be towed to the window, already preparing a little speech on how easy it was to be mistaken about such things. And then he looked through the glass and the words died on his lips.
There was a dinosaur in the vegetable garden. And it was just about done eating all the cabbage.
“How extraordinary,” the professor said. “You would appear to be correct, after all.”
“Well then,” his lady declared triumphantly, “there you are. Now what are you going to do about it?”
There did not seem to be much anyone could do about it, so the two of them stood at the window staring at the dinosaur as it demolished the last of the professor’s wife’s cherished cabbages and began on the iceberg lettuce. The dinosaur took no notice of them at all, so they had plenty of opportunity to observe it.
It was a very large dinosaur, about as long as the professor’s wife’s oversized SUV and a half again. It stood on four pillar-like legs, its gigantic head lowered as it ripped lettuce out of the ground with its parrot-like beak, its huge brow horns thrust out in front of a tremendous curved frill, which was itself edged with hooked spines. And the colours!
“I thought dinosaurs were supposed to be brown or grey,” their daughter, who had joined them unnoticed, said to nobody in particular.
The animal was a bluish grey in colour, and splotched and marked with patches of violet on the shield, in a pattern which looked rather like eyes.
“What is it?” the daughter, who asked a lot more questions than, her mother often said, befitted a seven-year-old, queried. “It looks like the child of a rhino and a chameleon.”
“Um, well.” The professor was a physicist, not a palaeontologist, and his knowledge of dinosaurs was not extensive. “It’s obviously one of the ceratopsians – that’s the horned dinosaurs, dear – but I don’t think it’s a triceratops. It doesn’t…” he pointed, “…have a nose horn.” As if hearing, the huge animal raised its head so they both got a good look at the blunt stub of a protuberance atop its beak. “As to what it is, I haven’t any idea. If I were to consult an online identification guide, perhaps I’d be able to find out.” He turned towards his laptop.
“Forget the identification for a minute.” The ten years of self-control had deserted the professor’s wife completely, and she sounded high-pitched and shrewish. “That animal there has just eaten all my cabbages and lettuce, and it’s ripping up what’s left of my garden, and what are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing, I imagine.” The professor sounded faintly astonished that she should ask. “What do you suppose I could do about it – shoo it away?”
“Oh no,” their daughter said. “Please don’t. It’s so cool.”
“Cool?” her mother responded, outraged. “The effort I put into that garden, and that animal ruined it in five minutes, absolutely wrecked it, and you think it’s cool?”
“Mom…” the girl began. “The poor thing has to eat. Why don’t you –“
At that moment, the gigantic dinosaur finished the last lettuce, made a sound like an amplified goat’s bleat, and made for the garden fence the professor’s wife had put up with her own two hands. She was still opening her mouth to utter an anguished moan when it had disappeared into the morning mist, leaving splintered posts and palings in its wake.
That was early on Monday morning.
“The animals,” the TV presenter said, “have been identified as a type of dinosaur, called…” She looked down at her desk and moved her lips a couple of times, practising. “…Medusaceratops,” she concluded triumphantly. “Medusaceratops,” she repeated, “are a kind of horned dinosaur, and there appears to be an entire herd of them which has suddenly appeared at various parts of the city early this morning.
“I have with me,” she went on, “a scientist from the Department of Palaentology from the University.” The camera panned to the scientist, who had a red face, thinning white hair, and looked more than a little uncomfortable to have been dragged in front of the cameras. “Doctor,” the newsreader said, “how do you explain the appearance of these dinosaurs in this city all of a sudden?”
The scientist shrugged. “I can’t explain it,” he said. “They should not be here. And yet they are.”
“You don’t think,” the newsreader asked, leaning forward to show how earnest she was, “that there has perhaps been a herd of the animals hiding out somewhere in a forest all these years which has finally found its way into the city?”
For a moment the scientist looked as though he would burst out laughing, but he managed to keep it down to a tight-lipped smile. “These animals have been extinct for between seventy and eighty million years,” he replied. “If they’d been around since then, with their size and appearance, do you really think nobody would’ve noticed?”
The newsreader seemed to mutter something under her breath. “But still,” she said aloud, “if they had somehow stayed hidden, in some forest, then…”
“What forest?” the scientist, who was obviously tiring of the interview, cut in. “Where? Can you point out any forest within a hundred kilometres of this city?”
The newsreader glared down at her desktop to avoid having to glare at the camera. “There’s been a suggestion,” she said, “that a clutch of dinosaur eggs somehow survived and have now hatched. What do you think of that idea?”
Now the scientist did laugh. “Keep an egg for a month or two,” he said, “and see if it will hatch after that. We are talking of at least seventy million years. That’s seven followed by seven zeroes. Years.”
The newsreader was beginning to look as if she wished the station had invited anyone else for this interview – a tarot card reader or a psychic spoon bender, or anyone. “But dinosaur eggs have been found, haven’t they?”
“Fossilised eggs,” was the response. “Which means, literally, eggs turned to stone. Like the dinosaurs themselves. Well, obviously, not these dinosaurs, but you know what I mean.”
The newsreader gratefully clutched what seemed to her to be an escape opportunity. “Please tell us something about these dinosaurs, Doctor. Are they dangerous?”
“Well, that depends, doesn’t it?” The scientist was now in good humour. “They’re herbivores, so it’s not as if they’re going to bite anyone or eat anyone’s dog. But they’re also built on the basic plan of rhinoceroses, and rhinos, as we all know, are highly aggressive beasts, so one shouldn’t approach them closely. They’re liable to charge.”
The TV channel switched to a live feed depicting a group of the dinosaurs walking through one of the city’s major parks. A line of police held the throng of onlookers, amongst whom were a large number of media people, back.
“We’ve not had the chance to study them in detail,” the palaeontologist said, in a voice-over, “but we think that the markings on their neck shields are unique to individual animals. They probably serve as recognition markers.”
“You mean,” the newsreader asked, in well-feigned amazement, “that they can recognise each other?”
“Why not? Many animals can.” The palaeontologist pointed, but since the scene in the park was still on screen, nobody noticed the gesture. “You’ll notice that they’ve stripped the cycads bare but left most of the other plants alone, and the grass too. That’s because most of those plants, and the grasses, didn’t exist when these animals walked the earth.”
“And that means…?”
“That means they are going to have a food problem soon,” the scientist explained. “We’re going to have to fly in food for them if this goes on.”
The camera cut back to the studio. “What do you intend to do about them?” the newsreader asked.
“Do about them?” The palaeontologist was obviously taken by surprise. “What should we do about them? Nothing, except keep them under observation, and learn what we can.” He paused. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime, to learn all about dinosaurs.”
“Some people feel differently,” the newsreader said. “The National Hunter’s Association has already demanded that the dinosaurs be exterminated as an immediate threat. We’re going now, live, to an interview with the NHA chief…”
That was mid-morning on Monday.
By noon, the city had virtually come to a standstill.
The medusaceratops were everywhere. One appeared in the middle of a traffic island, shaking its gigantic head in confusion at the streams of vehicles moving past on either side. Another couple strolled through a school playground, ignoring the stampede their presence caused amongst the children. Some more had gathered in the square outside the town hall, where the mayor had scheduled a press conference. To his baffled fury, the conference failed before it began because all the media people he’d called to disclose his plan for dealing with the dinosaurs promptly abandoned him in order to get a closer look at the animals themselves from the safety of the town hall steps.
The streets began to clog with traffic as medusaceratops began blocking the ways, wandering at will through lanes and avenues alike, and dropping occasional piles of greenish dung. The herd in the park had long since emerged, broken up into small groups, and shambled off in different directions. Inevitably, they approached cars, many of whose panic-stricken drivers promptly abandoned their vehicles, jamming the ways behind them and bottling traffic up for kilometres. Helicopters lent by the Air Force clattered overhead, trying to make some kind of sense of the confusion, the noise disturbing the dinosaurs and making them disperse into even more areas of town. And meanwhile, the highways leading to the city were themselves full – of hopeful hunters, scientists, and tourists, all jostling for space with military convoys.
And though the medusaceratops had as yet to injure, let alone kill, a single person, something clearly had to be done, and many were the suggestions of what that something was.
Evangelical sects got into the act early, claiming that the dinosaurs were an attempt by the Devil, in conjunction with atheistic scientists, to overturn religious order, and a purge of science from day-to-day life was necessary to send them back where they came from. Psychics said they’d been conjured out of the collective unconsciousness, and a mass focussing of the collective consciousness would be required to get rid of them. A general advised capturing them and releasing them across the border of Iran to create confusion and help destabilise the Ayatollahs. The animal-rights activists wanted them put in a national park, where they could live happily ever after. And the hunters wanted to use them for target-practice, of course.
By mid-afternoon, the first clashes began between animal-rights activists and hunter groups, with the former waving placards and the latter guns. They would undoubtedly have come to blows, and perhaps worse (given the hunters’ guns), but for the sudden appearance of a few medusaceratops, who – probably and not unpardonably confused by the shouting and threats – made a brief abortive charge, whereupon the animal rights activists dropped their placards, the hunters their deer rifles, and both groups rushed off with wild yells of terror. The medusaceratops reassembled and ambled off in order to find something to eat.
“But I have to go to work, dear,” the professor said for the tenth or eleventh time that day. “The experiment with the new particle accelerator has been going on since Saturday night, and I have to see what the results are.”
“Don’t you dare leave me alone,” his wife said. The ten years of self-discipline had by now evaporated as though they had never been. “Those awful beasts are everywhere, and one of them might break in here again at any moment, and then what shall I do?”
“You aren’t alone,” the professor said logically, pointing at their daughter, who sat before the TV enthralled. “Besides, if one of them actually broke in here, what do you suppose I could do about it?”
“So you’re going to abandon me here and go to your dreadful little experiment? Can’t it even wait until the government does something?”
“The dreadful experiment,” the professor explained patiently, “as you call it, can’t wait. I’ve told you all about the new particle accelerator. It’s built to my design, you know, and I can’t exactly leave the experiment to run by itself. In fact, I should have been there hours ago.”
“What’s so special about your design?” his wife demanded suspiciously. “I thought they were all the same.”
“It’s set in a ring form,” the professor said. “The particles chase themselves round the tunnel at the speed of light. What I’m trying to do is speed them up so much that one of them hits itself from behind. If that happens, we’ll find out all kinds of interesting things…”
“Oh shut up about interesting things! Here we have dinosaurs wandering about and eating my vegetables, and any moment one of them is going to break in and murder us, and you talk about interesting things. And look at her!” With a grand sweeping gesture she turned towards her daughter, who was still watching the dinosaurs live on TV. All the channels were now showing nothing but the dinosaurs, or dinosaur-related news. Even the movie channels had gone over to Jurassic Park reruns. “She’s not moved from in front of the TV all day, while you…” she turned round and her jaw dropped open.
Seeing his opportunity, the professor had slipped away.
“We’re still collating the data, Professor,” the research assistant said. He was a young man with greasy black hair and a plump, pimply face. “But the indications are that we achieved a strike this morning.”
Behind him the new accelerator hummed and buzzed like a huge metal doughnut, and coloured lines and dots arced in circles on screens set into the walls. There was so much equipment in the room that there was hardly space to move. But the assistant had hardly moved away from those screens for hours anyway.
“We did?” The professor had walked to the university through streets jammed with abandoned vehicles and dotted with dinosaur dung, but had failed to see a single animal. He now leaned over the computer readouts, peering at them sharply through his thick spectacles. “That’s very interesting. I wonder…”
“Those dinosaurs that have appeared through the city; do you think there’s a correlation?”
“Dinosaurs?” the assistant stared at the professor. “What dinosaurs?”
“Oh, you’ve been here all the night, have you? Well, there’s –“
“Professor!” the assistant gasped. “There, look, it’s just about to happen again!”
“What?” The professor spun round, staring up at the screen at which the assistant was pointing. Both men watched a green dot on the screen elongate into a streak. The green streak chased itself in a circle, until the head end met the tail, and vanished in a tiny red spark. Little points of yellow and orange danced off in various directions.
“I believe you’re right,” the professor said in awe. “We’ve done it.”
And, at that moment, all over the city, the dinosaurs began to disappear.
“So we’re going to be famous?” the professor’s wife said. Her fury at him had abated somewhat by the news of his success.
“Well,” the professor said, “we have achieved something that most authorities said couldn’t be done. But we still only did it twice, and we have a long way to go.”
It was Tuesday evening. The last of the dino dung had been scraped off the streets and gone for analysis. The hunters and PETA activists, the soldiers and tourists had all gone back where they came from. The evangelists had declared that their prayers had banished the dinosaurs back to the depths of Hell. The mayor was trying to think of a way to avoid being wiped out in the next election. A major actress had become embroiled in a sex scandal, and the President had just announced the invasion of another nation on the other side of the planet. So life had, more or less, returned to normal.
“The first thing you’re going to do,” the professor’s wife said, “is help me get the vegetable garden back in shape. And after that…“ She spoke for some time.
The professor’s cellphone rang, and he grabbed it with relief. “Yes?”
“Professor!” his assistant said, breathless with excitement. “It’s just happened again!”
And in the lake behind the park, something many-armed and gigantic began to stir.