Two weeks later, Bonds was back again, bringing more help and equipment. By then, Helen and the people on her crew had managed to clear the first skeleton, half of the second, and had discovered yet a third on the other side of the first. To say the museum director was happy would have been an understatement on a par with saying the Titanic had experienced some difficulty on its maiden voyage.
Helen, Joe, and Jackie were also clearly happy, but someone who knew them better than the Director might have noticed something a bit odd in their reactions. They welcomed the newcomers and showed them around, agreeing that it was clearly a death scene, but that they hadn't drawn any firm conclusions as to the sequence of events yet.
That was true enough, as far as it went, Helen thought, but...
They relaxed a bit once the Director left. Helen needed to talk to the new paleontologists alone, without the Director hearing things that might make his funding the venture politically difficult. It was extraordinarily hard to think that way, but with what they were finding, the circumstances were also extraordinary.
"Funny." One of the new guys, Michael Jennings, shook his head slightly. "The way the skeletons sit, I don't think they were fighting at all. Drowned, maybe? Flash flood?"
"Maybe," Jackie said.
"Found any wounds?" another asked. "Broken bones? Evidence of toothmarks? Clearly they didn't get eaten much, or whatever did it would've taken them apart."
"Yeah," said Joe. "There's some marks on the skeletons. Look here, around the pelvis." He pointed with a stick to the first skeleton.
The newcomers gathered around and shone flashlights on the exposed fossil, as the sun was starting to go down and long shadows were gathering in the arroyo. For several minutes there was silence.
"What the hell made that?" Jennings finally asked, frowning at the three neat half-centimeter holes that appeared to punch completely through the pelvic bone.
"Looks almost like a bullet hole." That was offered in a jocular tone by one of the other new arrivals, Ned Rhodes. But the quip trailed off a bit too abruptly.
"Too neat," Jackie responded immediately. "My dad's hunted all his life, and I've gone with him. A bullet would've mushroomed when it hit the bone, if not sooner. And even if someone had been using military-grade jacketed bullets, the holes are too small for the caliber guns you'd use to hunt big game."
"Funny thing, too." Helen extended her hand, showing several small, round, dark-brown pebbles. "These are all over the area."
Jennings took one and studied it, then, put it up against one of the holes. It was clear that they were essentially identical in size.
"Bizarre. Cysts that causes bone loss, eats it away or something?"
Helen's eyebrow quirked upward. "Now there's an interesting idea, Mike. We'll have to section a couple of these, see what's inside."
"They all look the same size. Are they?"
"Within the limits of my field equipment, they're identical. Perfectly spherical and measuring, by field micrometer, 4.65 millimeters in diameter. We've measured ten of them at least, and all of them are just the same."
Dr. Sean Carter, the senior of the newcomers, had been silent until now. Finally he spoke. "Um, Helen, don't take this the wrong way, but are you sure... uh..."
"That there's been no contamination of the site? Yes, I'm sure. And I've kept detailed notes from the beginning. Even more detailed than usual, in fact."
The newcomers were silent. Helen Sutter had the reputation, among other things, for being one of the most meticulous field paleontologist in the country. Her notes were used as models in at least two textbooks and an unknown number of classes. If she said she was taking unusual care, the only thing that would have kept the site more pristine would have been not to dig it at all.
Carter was studying the bones and their positioning. Helen saw him judging angles, glancing along certain lines, then picking up one of the dark brown pebbles and studying it pensively for a long time, while the others continued their examination of the site.
It was clear to Helen, though, that none of them were looking at the precise features that Sean Carter was. That was no surprise. If Helen had the reputation for being a fanatically careful field worker, Sean Carter's reputation for obsessive attention to detail made her look like a dilettante.
Carter never missed a single clue in the study of a fossil. There had been one wag a number of years before who had jested that Carter could probably visualize the entirety of the Cretaceous in toto from a single bone. What he was seeing in this death scene bothered him more and more. She could see his brow wrinkling so it looked like he was in actual pain.
Finally, he turned back to Helen. "Could I speak to you for a moment?"
"Sure, Sean. Come on, let's take a little walk. I'll show you where the first fossil came from."
Carter said nothing until they were well away from the others. Helen knew Sean Carter. He was the kind of man who hated anomalies—they disordered his ordered view of life and his profession—but he also hated avoiding the truth. The current situation was clearly causing him a strain.
"I'm not sure what you have here, Helen. I can tell you have an idea of your own, and I'm not sure I even want to think about what it might be. But I'm worried, very worried."
"What has you worried, Sean?"
Carter snorted humorlessly. "Helen, you've been doing this excavation. Don't tell me you can't see it."
"Maybe I do, but I want to hear what you see, without me biasing your opinion."
"Fair enough." He gazed back at the site. "The three skeletons, near as I can tell, are in a rough semicircle. They do not appear to have been fighting each other. In fact, it looks to me as though at least one, possibly two, of them were trying to leave the area. And I don't see any clear indication of what killed them, unless it's those odd holes. But then, what made those holes? Those pebbles, are they cysts? I doubt it. Perhaps they were, as suggested, part of an infection—perhaps one that had some kind of psychological effects, as a number of parasites do, and could have caused erratic behavior... but..."
He studied the area again. "It's hard to tell because of the effect of tendon contraction on death, but it also looks as if they did not die immediately. More as though they spent a bit of time thrashing in pain."
"And your conclusions?"
He frowned even more. "I'm not sure I have any. But if there's more to be found here, I have a depressing feeling that it will be even stranger than we've already seen. Be careful. You must be very careful."
"Sean, come on. I'm being as meticulous as anyone can be."
"I'm not talking about your field methods, Helen, and you know it. 'Careful,' I said, not 'meticulous.' You need to be more careful, if you're dealing with something... unusual. And no matter what, this is just too damnably unusual."
Helen knew exactly what Carter meant. Paleontology had been plagued by fraud, misinterpretation, and personal feuds ever since its beginnings: the Piltdown man, the legendary rivalry of Marsh and Cope, the faked "feathered dinosaurs" from China in the 1990s, and a dozen other such episodes. That, added to the confused sensationalism that had accompanied the field in the public eye for more than a century, meant that paleontology was possibly the most conservative field of science on Earth. Downright reactionary, Helen sometimes thought.
The more outré a claim was, the more violently a segment of the field would fight it. Bakker had not even invented, but merely revived, the claim of possible warm-bloodedness in dinosaurs in the 1960s, and it had taken most of his career to make that a respectable claim in many peoples' eyes.
"Well, what do you expect me to do, Sean? Stop working on this dig?"
"No, no. Of course not. It's a marvelous dig. I'd give just about anything to be the one who found it. But you need to find a way to make it foolproof. The dig, I mean."
Despite the tenseness of the situation, Helen almost chuckled. "I'm taking even more records than usual, Sean. Photos practically every millimeter we uncover. Multiple people's testimony. A much more extensive use of satellite imagery than usual and a thorough aerial survey in multiple spectrums. What else can I do? It's not like I can just take a look at it before..."
She trailed off. "You know, Sean, I might just be able to do something more, after all, now that I think about it. Come on."
Returning to the knot of paleontologists and assisting folk, she called out. "Hey, Joe! Didn't you tell me once that you knew some guy in college, a couple of years behind you. Some kind of genius at imaging?"
Joe immediately understood. "A.J. Baker. And he wants something challenging and fancy to show off with, too. He's just starting working with us on the Ares Project, you know."
"No, I didn't. One of you Nuts that Roared, is he?"
Joe grinned. "Yeah, and he loves that rep. Anyway, I'll bet he could get us a picture of the whole scene before we go any farther."
"Pictures through rock?" Jackie asked incredulously.
"Better believe it," Joe said. "Really, he can do things with GPR, ultrasonics, and other things that even JPL and DARPA couldn't match. Let me give him a call and see if he'll do it."
Helen turned to Carter. "What do you think, Sean? Will that play?"
"It certainly can't hurt," he replied, scratching his cheek. "And it's easy to justify, if he'll do it for a reasonable fee. If you know the disposition of the fossils ahead of time, it's far easier—which means cheaper in the long run—to do a major dig. Director Bonds will be happy to arrange funding for something like that."
Helen nodded. "Call up your whiz kid, Joe. Tell him he's got the chance of a lifetime here. And he won't have to wait to travel to another planet for this one."
The black and silver helicopter wailed to a landing at the end of the arroyo. As the blades slowed to a visible speed, the rear cargo door opened and a tall man hopped out. He was dressed in black jeans, a shiny royal blue shirt, and had a backpack slung over his shoulder. The outfit combined with mirrored sunglasses and a full, shaggy, golden mop of hair made him seem very young.
He waved at Joe, barely evading the rotor blade as he jogged out to meet them. "Yo, Joe, what's doing? You'd better not have been shitting me on this—whoops, excuse me!"
He'd caught sight of Helen and Jackie. "You must be Doctor Sutter? Your pics don't do you justice. A.J. Baker, at your service."
He made an exaggerated bow so low that his backpack flopped down over his head and he banged his nose against a large pouch fastened to his belt. "Ow! So much for my suave European manners. I knew I should've settled for American ones. Oh, wait, that's right, I don't have any."
Helen couldn't restrain a smile. She knew that behavior from many a class she'd taught to bright young people, mostly male. Baker was clearly inherently shy, and the classic word "overcompensation" explained his noisy entrance.
"Helen Sutter. And this is Jackie Secord. She found the... anomaly."
"Glad to meet you both."
They shook hands, and then Helen asked: "Mr. Baker—or is it Doctor?"
At the last word, A.J. gave an odd twitch—or maybe she just imagined it. "Just A.J., Dr. Sutter. I'm at the dreaded A.B.D. phase, and probably always will be if I keep this busy."
The helicopter roared back to life behind them, making Helen jump. She wasn't accustomed to helicopters as a means of transportation to a paleontological dig. She glanced back to see that after depositing three moderate-sized cases on the ground, the copter was leaving. "How did you afford that thing, anyway? And you didn't bring your team?"
"I am my team, pretty much," A.J. said matter-of-factly. "Back at the labs I can get other people and use bigger equipment, but for field work I just need what I brought. As for the chopper, it's a freebie. One of Ares' backers is stinking rich and offered to let me use it when I wheedled him. I'll have to arrange different transportation out, though. He only wheedled so far."
"No problem. We can give you a ride back."
Baker smiled. "I figured. And now, I'd better go back and grab those cases."
"We'll give you a hand. You're coming to help us, after all. Are you sure you aren't going to have to charge?"
"Well, there'll be a nominal fee, to make it all official. And expenses, of course. But if it's interesting, it's worth doing for publicity and professional respect. The Ares Project can always use more."
Helen nodded. The Ares Project was an attempt to send a manned mission to Mars following the approach Robert Zubrin had called "Mars Direct." It was mostly based in private enterprise and, like any major private attempt to do something scientific that seemed to have no prospects for immediate profit, it was perennially short of funds. But it was probably even shorter of the sort of "official respect" that it needed to drum up more support and financial backing.
"I think you will be more than satisfied with the challenge and the subject matter, A.J."
When they reached the cases, Helen picked up one of them. It was startlingly heavy, but Helen set her jaw and forced herself to carry it as though it wasn't any heavier than she'd expected. She wasn't sure why. Habit, she supposed, of never showing weakness in a profession that was still mostly male-dominated.
By the time they reached the dig area, her arm felt like it was about to pull out of its socket and she was cursing her perverse pride. Then she caught A.J. grinning at her.
"You know, I usually get help carrying that one, Ma'am."
"Then why didn't you offer any, you twit?" Joe demanded.
"She seemed to want to handle it. Who am I to tell her otherwise?"
With a groan of relief Helen put the case down. "Just what is in there?"
"Fuel-cell generator. Some of the gadgets I'm going to use need some pretty high power juice, and I knew this dig wasn't exactly going to have electric outlets handy. Now, you just give me some peace and quiet to set up and test some stuff, and I'll be able to get started."
Helen indicated a tarp and field tent nearby. "We set one up for you near the site. You'll need us to show you what to do, right?"
"Certainly. I'm no paleontologist. I need to see what you need done, and you'll probably have to give me feedback on the data, so I can refine it to what you really need."
Helen caught a faint glint of color from behind the mirrored glasses as he entered the darker area of the tent. She realized that A.J. must be using a VRD or projective display on or from his glasses.
"I'll give you a holler when I'm ready."
They spent the next hour or so making sure the site was cleared of anything that might interfere with A.J. Baker's work—tools, canvas covering, sweeping away dust, and so on. Finally Helen heard a call from the tent. She went over, with Jackie and Joe following.
"You're ready, A.J.?"
"Ready to work my magic, yes, indeed." A.J. turned. To Helen's astonishment, there appeared to be a literal halo of light hovering around the man's head. A gasp from Jackie confirmed it was not her imagination.
"Oh, for the love of—A.J., you showoff!" Joe snorted. "And there's no way it should be a halo, anyway. Why not horns?"
"How do you do that?" Jackie demanded.
A.J. patted the large pouch on his belt. "Fairy Dust. From Dust-Storm Tech. Finest intelligent dust sensor motes on the planet. These are integrated with micromotile units to let them fly, as long as I can either keep 'em supplied with enough power to scavenge—or I'm willing to let them drain the hell out of the onboard batteries for the sake of a few seconds of showing off. Yeah, that's a cheap stunt using their illuminators, but it's fun."
He opened the flap. The halo, which at closer range appeared to be made up of hundreds or even thousands of individual tiny sparks of light, poured itself into the pouch.
"These things aren't toys, though. It's the heart of my approach. Thousands of ultra-sensitive sensors all over the survey area, networking themselves together automatically, then using all that data to pull out a really detailed picture of whatever lies below. The trick is knowing what sensors and modalities to use and how to combine them and process the data the right way. Now, let's take a look at this dig of yours."
As they headed to the dig area, Jackie glanced at the belt pouch curiously. "I've heard of them being used for things like inventory tracking and so on, but..."
"That's just the tip of the iceberg," A.J. said. "Even back in the first decade of this century, when Dust, Incorporated, Ember, and a few others first started making intelligent sensor motes, it was clear there were a lot of potential uses for distributed sensor and computing networks that were embodied as near-microscopic motes that each had their own power, communication, computation, sensor, and memory capacity. I honestly don't think I could list every use I've thought of for these things in the past few years."
"So these motes can look right through the rock?"
A.J. laughed. "Not exactly. Let me take a look at what we have and I'll explain a little more."
Helen showed him around the dig area, letting the imaging and sensor expert kneel down to examine the fossils and surrounding rock. She saw him reach into the pouch and then let fall a ghostly shimmer of the dustmote sensors across the area. From the side, Helen could see that the light behind his glasses was directed into his eye; what she'd seen vaguely before was the reflection. A Virtual Retinal Display, then, rather than a mini-HUD projection. The VRD display flickered brightly from his eye for a moment or two.
"Hmm, interesting." The imaging specialist seemed to have the habit of talking to himself. "Yeah, we can work with that."
He turned back to Jackie. "The motes are really excellent at sensing things, and if I combine the signals from thousands of them across the area, that's great—but only if there's something to sense. And there's no way anything their size can produce the beefy signals I'm going to need. Penetration through rock depends on a lot of different things—the type of signal, the wavelength, the precise type of rock, presence of moisture, and the power available probably being the most dominant, although there's a bunch of other ancillary ones. For the most part, I can control three of those variables—type, wavelength, and power. The trick here is that we have something of a dilemma. We want lots of penetration, but we also want lots of detail. As a rule, penetration increases with increasing wavelength—but the level of detail that can be detected decreases with increasing wavelength. If I want a shorter wavelength to give me a readable return, then, I need a lot of power."
Helen nodded along with Jackie, as A. J. continued to carefully sift his "Fairy Dust" onto the ground in the area of the fossils and the rock still left to be removed.
"So what do you use? GPR? Seismics?"
"The short answer is 'yes.'" A.J. grinned. "Ground Penetrating Radar is just fine, for some things. But for others, some acoustic signals are good. Seismic shock is related to acoustics, of course, but I can induce different signal characteristics with acoustics than with a simple seismic signal. I can also sometimes get results with powerful magnetic fields. They react with the metals in the ground and bones, and bones are often packed with metal compared to their surroundings. I also use radiation detection—as I'm sure you know, sometimes fossils accumulate significant radioactives."
"There have been times I've used radiation directly in imaging, but that's not really practical in this setting, so I'll have to settle for whatever I get on the passives. Straight centimeter-scale radio waves on as high power as I can manage is another thing I'm going to try. While that wouldn't normally penetrate very far, a lot of your fossils here aren't all that far below the surface. I also try to use digital pulses where possible."
"Does that make them penetrate farther?" Helen asked. It didn't seem likely to her.
A.J. shook his head, smiling in acknowledgement of her doubtful tone. "Not directly, no. But what it does do is make it much, much easier for me to pick up the return signal from the noise, because I can listen for a specific pattern. I know what I'm looking for, in essence, and that really increases the chances of picking it up. Where the motes come in is in registering the returns from all different modes in thousands of closely related vectors, which the sensor net can coordinate and extract as precise survey points in spacetime. The motes construct their own ad-hoc network and then derive their own relative positions with very high accuracy. Between time-of-flight, multiple triangulation, and a few other tricks like performing interference patterns, the network characterizes itself to within very small fractions of an inch. This means that the combined received signals are known to an extremely high degree of accuracy. That takes some processing time—that's what it's doing now, since I've stopped playing Tinkerbell.
"So once the network's fully characterized, I start setting off the signal pulses. I let the network know"—he tapped his glasses and the virtual control interface that only he could see—"exactly what signal I'm about to send, then trigger it. The net records all the responses it can, I hit it with another pulse; maybe change modes, it starts building up a rough picture. I examine it, see if I've got something coming up. Maybe I go back, do a few more GPR or radio shots, or try another acoustic signal, or shift frequencies. Eventually, I've got all the data I think will be useful. Then I can really go to town on this stuff; sensor fusion, bandpass filtering, synthetic aperture, Kalman and Weiner filters, all that kind of thing, plus some tricks of my own.
"With a handful of these motes and no special signal generators, I can use the ambient sound to locate and determine the number, direction, and general composition of your tents—without any of my dustmotes actually touching the tents. Heck, with equipment twenty years older, I could send any two of you off to have a conversation, and not only locate you, but pick out your entire conversation, whispered, on the other side of a hill three hundred meters off. These motes have access to my own neural net code, expert systems, fuzzy logic structures, all sorts of stuff in the control unit and local heavy-duty processors, like in the main control unit here."
He patted another simple metallic box on his belt. "Give me powerful signal sources, and I'll guarantee to map out anything you want, above or below ground. And in this case, I'll even guarantee that you'll have enough detail to count teeth in a skull."
"Can you keep a record of how you produce the results?" Helen asked.
"Not only can I," A.J. answered, pacing out the area again as though measuring it, "it's pretty much part and parcel of the process—nice alliteration there, huh? I keep the raw data and track the sequence of filtering, analysis, and so on all the way in. I have to—sometimes you don't get the best results and you need to experiment by taking out one step, moving it to another point in the sequence, and so on. It can make a big, big difference in the final results whether you filter first and then run an enhancement process, or enhance first and then filter, for instance. Pillage, then burn, so to speak."
He stopped, nodded to himself, then turned back towards the tents. "Well, it's getting pretty dark out here, but rather than waste time, I'll just get started."
Jackie and Helen held the lights as A.J. unpacked a number of devices with thick, rugged power leads.
As he did so, Helen studied him, a bit surreptitiously. Somewhat to her surprise, she was starting to find the man interesting.
In many ways, A.J. Baker was obviously a classic geek. Who else got that enthusiastic about dry-as-dust technical matter? But the muscles visible in his arms when he hefted the first case–the one that had nearly pulled Helen's shoulder out of its socket–made it clear that A.J. was in far better physical condition than the average geek.
On a personal level, the muscles impressed Helen even less than the flamboyantly awkward geeky mannerisms. But she found the combination rather intriguing. It reminded her of...
Well. Herself, actually.
Since Helen didn't have that damnable male ego to deal with—the one that crucified every high school geek in existence—her own mannerisms weren't as awkward as A.J.'s. At least, she hoped not. But she could get just as enthusiastic when discussing paleontological issues, which were often literally as dry as dust. And on the few occasions when she ventured into public gymnasiums for a work-out, she usually got admiring looks from all the men present and envious ones from the women. Even from women half her age.
From men half her age, she always got admiring looks. Ogles, often enough, to call things by their right name.
The thought of young men rallied her. Stop this, woman. He must be fifteen years younger than you are.
Thus fortified, Helen went back to studying A.J. from the perspective of an expert in one field watching another at his own. She did her best to ignore the treacherous little voice at the back of her mind, as it worked its way through simple mathematics.
Don't be silly. He's not as young as he looks. Can't be, not even in his cutting edge field. He's got to be at least twenty-five or twenty-six. Maybe twenty-seven. Subtracted from thirty-eight, that is not fifteen years younger. It's only twelve. Maybe even less.
"Okay, here we got your GPR unit." A.J. held up a wide metallic antenna unit, followed by a cylindrical object that looked like a solid rod of metal but probably wasn't. "And this here's the impactor for seismic signals, some electromagnetic pulsers—keep metal and electronics that aren't shielded well away, folks—and my own shriekers. High-power ultrasonic pulsers."
The "shriekers" were strange things, looking a bit like large versions of the paddles found on a defibrillator unit, but ending with quivering blobs that looked like nothing so much as firm blue jello. They were labeled Kaled 1 and Kaled 2.
"What's that stuff?" Jackie asked, pointing to the blue blobs.
"Couplant gel. The attenuation of the signal through air is something fierce, so you try to use couplant to bring it more directly to the target. I wash the area off with a high-pressure water jet, then push the gel up against the rock. That increases the efficiency by many times. Even so, it'd be just plain useless without the Fairy Dust. You can immerse a sample in liquid and get good results, but in the field you just wouldn't get the penetration needed. With the sensor motes properly programmed and all over the place, and digitized pulses for signature return filtering, I can get results out of returns almost a hundred times weaker than I could with normal sensors."
"Anything else we can do to help?" Helen put in, seeing that he was now laying out his devices in a carefully-planned order.
"Yeah," A.J. said. "Go away. Meaning no offense, just that once I start taking the readings the more people and objects in the area, the harder it's going to be for me to compensate for the signals. I have to sit dead still while the data's being gathered, and even so I'll probably be having an effect that I'll notice later."
"No problem, we understand." Helen and Jackie started off. "Let us know when you're done."
"Sure thing," A.J. replied absently, already staring at a display on his VRD unit. "Your problems are just about over."