Chicxulub, late Cretaceous, sixty-five million years ago.
Triceratops lifted his great horned head and paused from his munching. Chewing the foliage in his mouth, he sniffed the air, his snorts loud in the silence of the morning. Somewhere beneath the dense bone that constituted his skull with its three menacing horns that raked the air as he moved his head from side to side, a thought stirred. It wasn’t much of a thought, for he had little brain matter with which to think. Mostly it concentrated on where was the best place to find good eating and keeping away from predators, otherwise it was just vague senses. However, something triggered in the synapses and he pondered as best he could on what it was with what brain power that he had, which was much like a surgeon attempting to conduct brain surgery when all he has to hand is a club hammer. A feeling that something was different. That was it—something different. The sky was a clear, cloudless blue yet there was something else. A tiny dot far above the planet that could have been another, smaller sun. It shouldn’t be there. It wasn’t there before and now it was and even in the dim recesses of Triceratops’ dense skull, it foreboded something ominous.
Triceratops twisted his head to look at the dot as it grew larger. Something akin to curiosity passed through his mind. As the seconds passed, the dot grew burning bright in the sky, trailing a plume of burning matter as it entered the atmosphere and Triceratops watched it.
A few seconds later, the meteorite struck the shallow sea and plunged deep into the Earth’s crust, thrusting clouds of molten rock and dust high into the atmosphere. The shockwave crashed out from the epicentre of the strike carrying a firestorm in its wake.
Triceratops barely had time to process the events in his tiny brain. He was incinerated where he stood. He was fortunate, for his end was quick. One minute he was alive and the next he was vaporised. Some sixty-five million years later, palaeontologists would pick over the fossilised remains of his bones, evidence of this devastating moment, frozen in the time strata of the rocks.
The plume of gypsum and dust spiralled up into the atmosphere as the shock wave dissipated over the continent.
A thousand miles north, the herd of hadrosaur ambled across the landscape, wary of any roaming tyrannosaurs. Lifting their heads and sniffing the air, constantly checking for the apex predator who may, at any moment, strike one of their number. The herd was confident that there was safety in numbers and they were right, for it was not Tyrannosaurus who would seal their fate.
One of the lookouts lifted his head and looked at the southern sky and the strange light on the horizon. Like Triceratops, he sensed something wrong, but his capacity for thought was limited; far too limited to process what was happening miles away to the south. The shock wave was little more than a tremor, and Hadrosaur was familiar with those. He thought nothing of it and returned to foraging for food, having sensed no sign of Tyrannosaurus.
The sky grew dark.
With the dark, came the cold.
Days passed. Weeks came and went. Months merged into each other and still the darkness enveloped the Earth with its icy embrace.
The leaves died and food became scarce.
As the days and weeks drifted by, the hadrosaurs sought food but to no avail. One by one they fell to the famine and their carcasses were temporary respite for the scavengers and carnivores.
In the seas, the mosasaurs struggled to find food. One by one, they faded away, starved to death. On the land, the tyrannosaurs picked clean the bones of the herbivores and looked for more, but there were no more to be found and they too fell victim to the cold famine.
One lone velociraptor looked up at the ominous sky and his belly ached for food that wasn’t to be found. Deep inside he knew he was doomed and he felt something akin to lament for the passing of a dynasty and a future that would never be his.
And the sky remained dark. The Earth went into hibernation and the reptiles died. Velociraptor laid his weary head down and closed his eyes, never to open them again. The desolate, dead landscape was cast into eternal shadow. Nothing moved.
When the dust eventually fell from the sky the sun shone through again. The plants came to life, covering the bleak landscape with lush green foliage, but it was too late for the dinosaurs, for they had gone.
Alphadon moved out into the new world. Now that the dinosaurs had gone, he would—along with the other mammals—inherit the Earth. One day, his descendants would be the apex predators and command the world and all that is in it. He sniffed the air and set about hunting for food. Life was good.
Sometime in the future
Jonathan Shepard hated this bit. He sat back in the seat and buckled himself in. It didn’t matter how many times he made the trip, this part—leaving the atmosphere—was always the same. The G forces made him feel sick and he hated it. He glanced across at his companion. She hadn’t said much despite his attempts to engage her in light conversation. Colonel Mathilda Burgess was USAF and her military background set her apart from Jonathan who had spent his early career evading both the military and the law when running blockades. These days he was a respectable pilot, but she knew about his past and made no attempt to disguise her distaste.
I’m just the taxi driver, he mused irritably to himself. This mission was her mission and he had been left with no illusions that he was second fiddle. Just get her there and back, he had been told.
My kite, my navigation and my expertise getting us there, count for nothing. She’s the bleedin’ weapons expert and without her, there is no mission.
It occurred to him to mention at one point that each role was as important as the other.
She had looked at him through her cold dark eyes, stiffened slightly, and increasing her stature by an inch or so as she responded. “You do your job, Mr Shepard and I’ll do mine. We shall get along just fine.”
Just fine to colonel Burgess, it seemed to him, was more like two ice cubes rubbing along in a freezer compartment. Their mission was to be dangerous enough without a potentially hostile relationship.
Still, he thought, they would be back soon enough.
The countdown started and the knot in his stomach tightened.
He looked again at Burgess, but she was staring ahead and didn’t meet his eye. She showed no outward symptoms of stress even though this was to be her first space flight.
“Hold tight,” he said in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere between them.
“There is no need for false levity, Mr Shepard. I am perfectly calm.”
“Suit yourself. It’s Jonathan, by the way.”
“Thank you, I will… Jonathan.”
The countdown finished and the craft lifted into the air, the whole vehicle shaking under the pressure from the thrust. The two occupants fell silent and concentrated on their own internal worlds as the G forces pushed them back into their seats.
Eventually, they were free of the atmosphere and the ageing shuttle was under Shepard’s control. Thankful to be out of the G forces, he started to breathe again. “Everything okay?” he asked as he turned the controls towards the international space station.
“Yes, thank you.”
She lapsed into silence again and Shephard concentrated on navigating the short distance to the docking port on the side of the structure. The shuttle engaged with a satisfying clunk and the door between the two hissed open.
Shepard unbuckled his seat belt and Burgess did likewise. They made their way to the port.
“They’ve got the new artificial gravity installed, I see,” he said.
Shephard shrugged and walked along the corridor to the briefing room. She may not be impressed, he thought, but it made a pleasant change from weightlessness for him and he appreciated the sensation nonetheless. He led the way to the conference room and pressed the button. The door slid open with a hiss. There was a small group of people waiting, seated around a long table at the end of which was a viewscreen. One of them stood and reached out a hand. “Hello, Jonathan. This must be Colonel Burgess?”
Jonathan took the proffered hand. “Frank.”
“Mathilda Burgess,” she took Frank’s hand after Jonathan.
“Frank Connor, Director of operations,” he said. “I’m running this mission.” He gestured to two chairs. “Please, sit.”
Pleasantries over, they sat and watched as Frank Connor switched on a display on one wall. “The reason you two are here is to prevent this meteorite from reaching Earth,” he started. “Its current trajectory will have it strike somewhere around the Gulf of Mexico in about five days’ time…”
“Four days, twenty three hours, fifteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds,” a thin man with rimless spectacles interrupted.
Frank smiled. “Geoffrey Walker, our analyst,” he said.
They nodded at the man and Frank continued. “It is currently travelling at forty thousand miles per hour. You have to go out and destroy it before it gets here.” He turned to Burgess. “That is your job.”
“And you understand fully what is required?”
“I have been briefed,” she said.
“Something I want you to see,” Frank continued, zooming the image so that they should see the meteor.
“What is that?” Jonathan asked.
“Ah, yes, we wondered if you would ask that. The answer is, we do not know.”
As they looked at the enlarged image, they could see what appeared to be a ring, with darker space on the inside surrounded by what looked like tiny dots of light.
“We think it might just be a ring of space dust reflecting light from the sun,” Walker said. “But despite sending out probes, we cannot be certain.”
“How big is it?” Jonathan asked, thinking that perhaps going around it might be an option.
“Over half a light year, so if you are thinking what I suspect you are thinking, then no, you will have to go through it. Whatever ‘it’ is.”
Jonathan squinted as he looked at the image; a ring with the meteorite a glowing dot in the middle. “The space inside the ring appears to be slightly darker and the stars… There’s something odd about them, but I can’t quite decide what it is.”
“Nevertheless,” Burgess said. “We will fly through it tomorrow, so we will find out then.” She glanced at her watch. “Is there anything else that you wish to brief us on gentlemen?”
Frank shook his head. “You are the weapons expert, Colonel, so we leave that part of the mission to you.”
“Very good.” She stood. “Then, captain Shephard, I suggest that we get some rest. We will leave at 06:00 tomorrow.”
Jonathan rose at 05:30. Showered, shaved and ate a small breakfast. As he walked to the dock, Burgess was there already and waiting. They entered the shuttle and fastened their seatbelts.
Johnathan went through the pre-flight check and spoke briefly to flight control. The shuttle disconnected from the space station and turned in the direction of the oncoming meteorite.
Well, this is it.
They sat in silence as he piloted the craft to its rendezvous with the nine mile wide lump of rock hurtling towards the Earth. It would take precise navigation to get themselves in a position where Burgess could launch the missiles from the adapted shuttle. Given the limited time available since the discovery of the meteorite, the adaptations were somewhat hurried and there had been no time to carry out full testing, so they were in unknown territory. The meteor was moving at 40,000 miles per hour in what could best be described as an eccentric flight pattern as it rotated.
“The meteorite has a weak point about midway along its length,” she had said during the briefing. “If the missile strikes at that point, it should shatter.”
She shrugged. “It is not a precise science. We do not know the full makeup of the rock, nor how strong it is. But that’s our best bet.”
They flew in silence with each absorbed with their own thoughts until they came to the anomaly that they had observed from the probes the day before.
“Well,” Jonathan said. “I was right, the space is different. This is not a ring of space dust, it’s more like…”
“A tear in fabric.”
“Yes, precisely.” He paused in thought as they looked at the anomaly. “So space is not a linear thing. This is a rip in its fabric—as you say. Fascinating.”
They looked at the anomaly as it loomed ahead of them, millions of tiny dots of light around the edge as if space itself had been ripped apart.
“Fascinating it may be,” she said, “but we have a job to do.”
“Aye, aye,” he responded, increasing the thrust.
Before long, they were through.
“There’s something about the stars,” Jonathan reflected. “Not quite sure what it is…”
“They do seem brighter.”
“Mmm, something else. They aren’t quite where I would expect them to be.”
They lapsed into silence as Jonathan brought the shuttle into range of the meteorite. A small pin prick of light in the blackness that lazily twisted on its axis as it moved towards the Earth. Despite travelling at 40,000 miles per hour, it appeared to be moving gently through the void. With nothing against which to gauge its travel, to the naked eye, it barely appeared to move at all.
“Bring me to within 20,000 klicks,” Mathilda instructed.
He swung the shuttle round so that they were closing in on the meteor from the starboard side.
“A little closer…”
He obeyed and opened the thrusters, making slight adjustments to the trajectory.
“A little more. Another thousand klicks.”
“Okay, that should do.” She reached down and pressed the launch button. A torpedo shot forward towards its target. They watched as it struck the meteorite in the middle section. There was a small explosion as the projectile bounced off the meteorite and exploded harmlessly into space.
Jonathan looked across at her, but refrained from comment. This was always going to be a tricky assignment and they had more torpedoes on board in readiness for a failure.
“Move us a little closer and to starboard. Five degrees.”
He followed her instructions.
“Okay, try again.”
Another torpedo sped towards the spinning lump of rock. It struck in the middle. There was a pause then a blinding light as the torpedo exploded. For a second, they could see nothing on the view screen. Then as the light dissipated, there was nothing.
“Wait for it,” he said.
A minute or so later, the millions of particles bounced off the shuttle’s hull, battering it like rain. Then silence. He did a quick systems check, but he could see no sign of damage.
“Mission accomplished, I think,” he said.
She smiled. It was the first time he had seen her smile. She nodded then. “Time to go home.”
Jonathan turned the shuttle and headed back to the anomaly.
“That’s odd,” he said.
“I see it. It’s shrinking.”
“Rapidly, too.” He increased thrust and the shuttle surged forward as the opening continued to shrink. As they passed through it, he turned the craft to look as the anomaly finally sealed itself.
“A few moments later and we would have been stuck on the far side of that.”
“Wherever that was.”
“Indeed. I guess we will never know now.”
He resumed course for the space station and manoeuvred the shuttle alongside.
“Look,” he said. “The markings have changed.”
She frowned and followed his gaze.
“Curious. The national flags are gone. I don’t recognise those markings at all.”
Jonathan felt the hairs on the back of his neck tingle.
“I don’t like the smell of it.”
He lined the shuttle up and nosed it into the dock. Everything seemed to be working fine, but those hairs still stood up. They disembarked and walked into the station.
“My God, it’s hot in here.”
Burgess nodded. “Must be over thirty degrees. Stifling.”
They looked about but the corridor was deserted. Slowly they made their way to the briefing room. Once there, Jonathan pressed the button and the door hissed open.
They stood then, staring at what faced them. Alien beings. About their own height but reptilian with long snouts and rows of pointed teeth and a downy feathery covering on their scaly skin. Their bodies were slender and lithe with slim arms and legs. There was something both menacing and agile about how these creatures held themselves as if ready to leap into action against a foe at any instant, yet, they also appeared relaxed beneath the outward appearance.
One of the aliens sitting around the table got up and reached out a clawed hand. He spoke in gibberish.
Jonathan tried to respond. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Where is Frank Connor?”
The alien said something unintelligible, but it seemed to Jonathan that he was gesturing for him to speak again.
“I said, what is going on here…”
“Ah,” said the alien, “the translator has picked up enough to start analysing your language. You can understand me?”
Jonathan nodded. “What is going on?”
“You must be the warm bloods. We have been waiting for you. It was foretold that you would arrive through a hole from another world. Our ancient scrolls tell of warm bloods who saved our kind from extinction by destroying the great light in the sky that was set to crash into the planet and wipe out all life. But many did not believe that warm bloods could evolve into beings that can travel the stars. But we believed. We waited and our wait has been rewarded. What planet are you from?”
“This one. Earth.”
“Earth? What is Earth? Where is that?”
“Here!” Jonathan gestured to the blue planet below them, visible in the window. “Here!”
“Terra? No that is where we come from.”
Burgess drew a short inward breath and grasped Jonathan by the sleeve, pulling him to one side.
“Shit!” She said. “That anomaly…”
“Yes, what of it?”
“I don’t think it was a tear in the fabric of space. Look at them. Look closely. What do they remind you of?”
Jonathan turned to the aliens. Slowly as he looked, the realised that there was something vaguely familiar about these beings. Something that he had seen in books and horror films. Something that was both fascinating and scary at the same time. The intelligent reptiles that hunted remorselessly in fiction and fact. Apex predators that once roamed the Earth millions of years ago.
“Yes. You know of our ancestors,” the alien explained. “A long time ago now. We have evolved from such simple beings. Look around you. We have mastered space travel. Soon we will travel the stars as your kind do.”
“It wasn’t a tear in space,” Burgess repeated, “It was a tear in time. There was no second meteorite. There was only ever the one. And we destroyed it. We have changed time. The dinosaurs are still the masters of the Earth.”
“That’s why the stars were different.” He turned to velociraptor. “But what of us?”
The velociraptor smiled, showing his rows of sharp teeth. “There are some creatures much like you in our southern continents. A simple species, they tend to remain in the trees, though. They will never develop into an intelligent species I fear. They lack the brain capacity. The other warm bloods we farm for food.”