Author: Matthew Goldstein
The ancient skull peeked out of the ground like a shy creature waking from an interrupted slumber.
“Hey, Davoh, check this out!” Shielding her eyes from the glaring sun, her body tense with anticipation, Jarab brushed off a few more particles of parched earth to see it better.
“What is it?” Davoh patted the dirt off her hands as she walked over and crouched beside Jarab. “Is that…? No, can’t be.” Davoh’s hand drifted reverentially towards it, then jerked back as if shocked. “It looks intelligent,” she said, the awe clear in her voice.
“My guess is at least comparable to our own.”
“I’m afraid to get ahead of myself, but if that’s true, then – I mean, just think about it. We’ve always stared at the stars, wondering if there was ever any intelligent life out there, and yet the evidence was right below our feet the entire time.” Davoh shook her head. “How old do you think it is?”
“Only one way to find out.”
They worked the rest of the day to excavate the entire skeleton, tempering their anticipation with practiced professional care. As soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, the air began to cool, a sweet relief from the desert heat.
At last, they carted it to the on-site lab and continued working through the next day, until there could be little doubt. They had found an intelligent species on an evolutionary branch that was thought to have died out over a hundred million years ago.
Jarab and Davoh laid it out on a table and stared at it as if they had unearthed a god. Jarab’s eyes were watery, her knees weak. “It’s so beautiful,” she whispered.
It was almost twice as tall as they were and had only four limbs. From its shape, it appeared to walk on two legs, which was as fascinating as the twenty digits between its hands and feet.
Jarab stared down at her four fingers and flexed them slowly, wondering how different it would feel to have an extra.
“When were these dated again?”
“Huh?” Jarab dropped her hand. “Oh. One hundred-thirty million years ago, give or take fifteen million.”
“That’s the same time as the Great Extinction.”
“Makes sense. Most species died then. This one may have even been new at the time.”
Davoh didn’t respond. She opened the window and sat beside it, staring out at the dust clouds swirling in the dying light. Jarab began an analysis of the bones to determine the cause of death.
The landscape had been swallowed by darkness before Davoh stirred. A thick cloud cover had come in, making the darkness nearly absolute, their little tent a lone beacon of light in an endless, empty void. Davoh turned away from the window to face the specimen. “Do you think this species had anything to do with the Great Extinction?”
“Why would you think that?”
Davoh turned back to the window, and a minute passed before she responded in a distant voice, “I don’t know. Just a feeling.” She paused, then, “Did you know this whole area was a forest a hundred years ago?”
A chill breeze blew in through the open window. At the same moment, a beam of moonlight broke through the clouds, illuminating the side of the skull and seeming to vaporize the godlike aura that had surrounded it. It must have been a trick of the light, but Jarab could have sworn the skull was giving her a malicious grin.