Michael Swanwick is an American writer of novels and stories who has received the Hugo, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards for his work. His stories have appeared in Omni, Penthouse, Amazing, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, High Times, New Dimensions, Starlight, Universe, Full Spectrum, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. Many have been reprinted in year’s best anthologies, and translated into several foreign languages. His books include In the Drift, an Ace Special; Vacuum Flowers; Griffin’s Egg; Stations of the Tide; The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, a New York Times Notable Book; and Jack Faust. This story was first published by Amazon Shorts in 2005.
The dinosaurs looked all wobbly in the summer heat shimmering up from the pavement. There were about thirty of them, a small herd of what appeared to be Triceratops. They were crossing the road – don’t ask me why – so I downshifted and brought the truck to a halt, and waited.
Waited and watched.
They were interesting creatures, and surprisingly graceful for all their bulk. They picked their way delicately across the road, looking neither to the right nor the left. I was pretty sure I’d correctly identified them by now – they had those three horns on their faces. I used to be a kid. I’d owned the plastic models.
My next-door neighbor, Gretta, who was sitting in the cab next to me with her eyes closed, said, “Why aren’t we moving?”
“Dinosaurs in the road,” I said.
She opened her eyes.
“Son of a bitch,” she said.
Then, before I could stop her, she leaned over and honked the horn, three times. Loud.
As one, every Triceratops in the herd froze in its tracks, and swung its head around to face the truck.
I practically fell over laughing.
“What’s so goddamn funny?” Gretta wanted to know. But I could only point and shake my head helplessly, tears of laughter rolling down my cheeks.
It was the frills. They were beyond garish. They were as bright as any circus poster, with red whorls and yellow slashes and electric orange diamonds – too many shapes and colors to catalog, and each one different. They looked like Chinese kites! Like butterflies with six-foot wingspans! Like Las Vegas on acid! And then, under those carnival-bright displays, the most stupid faces imaginable, blinking and gaping like brain-damaged cows. Oh, they were funny, all right, but if you couldn’t see that at a glance, you never were going to.
Gretta was getting fairly steamed. She climbed down out of the cab and slammed the door behind her. At the sound, a couple of the Triceratops pissed themselves with excitement, and the lot shied away a step or two. Then they began huddling a little closer, to see what would happen next.
Gretta hastily climbed back into the cab. “What are those bastards up to now?” she demanded irritably. She seemed to blame me for their behavior. Not that she could say so, considering she was in my truck and her BMW was still in the garage in South Burlington.
“They’re curious,” I said. “Just stand still. Don’t move or make any noise, and after a bit they’ll lose interest and wander off.”
“How do you know? You ever see anything like them before?”
“No,” I admitted. “But I worked on a dairy farm when I was a young fella, thirty, forty years ago, and the behavior seems similar.”
In fact, the Triceratops were already getting bored and starting to wander off again when a battered old Hyundai pulled wildly up beside us, and a skinny young man with the worst-combed hair I’d seen in a long time jumped out. They decided to stay and watch.
The young man came running over to us, arms waving. I leaned out the window. “What’s the problem, son?”
He was pretty bad upset. “There’s been an accident – an incident, I mean. At the Institute.” He was talking about the Institute for Advanced Physics, which was not all that far from here. It was government-funded and affiliated in some way I’d never been able to get straight with the University of Vermont. “The verge stabilizers failed and the meson-field inverted and vectorized. The congruence factors went to infinity and…” He seized control of himself. “You’re not supposed to see any of this.”
“These things are yours, then?” I said. “So you’d know. They’re Triceratops, right?”
“Triceratops horridus,” he said distractedly. I felt unreasonably pleased with myself. “For the most part. There might be a couple other species of Triceratops mixed in there as well. They’re like ducks in that regard. They’re not fussy about what company they keep.”
Gretta shot out her wrist and glanced meaningfully at her watch. Like everything else she owned, it was expensive. She worked for a firm in Essex Junction that did systems analysis for companies that were considering downsizing. Her job was to find out exactly what everybody did and then tell the CEO who could be safely cut. “I’m losing money,” she grumbled.
I ignored her.
“Listen,” the kid said. “You’ve got to keep quiet about this. We can’t afford to have it get out. It has to be kept a secret.”
“A secret?” On the far side of the herd, three cars had drawn up and stopped. Their passengers were standing in the road, gawking. A Ford Taurus pulled up behind us, and its driver rolled down his window for a better look. “You’re planning to keep a herd of dinosaurs secret? There must be dozens of these things.”
“Hundreds,” he said despairingly. “They were migrating. The herd broke up after it came through. This is only a fragment of it.”
“Then I don’t see how you’re going to keep this a secret. I mean, just look at them. They’re practically the size of tanks. People are bound to notice.”
“My God, my God.”
Somebody on the other side had a camera out and was taking pictures. I didn’t point this out to the young man.
Gretta had been getting more and more impatient as the conversation proceeded. Now she climbed down out of the truck and said, “I can’t afford to waste any more time here. I’ve got work to do.”
“Well, so do I, Gretta.”
She snorted derisively. “Ripping out toilets, and nailing up sheet rock! Already, I’ve lost more money than you earn in a week.”
She stuck out her hand at the young man. “Give me your car keys.”
Dazed, the kid obeyed. Gretta climbed down, got in the Hyundai, and wheeled it around. “I’ll have somebody return this to the Institute later today.”
Then she was gone, off to find another route around the herd.
She should have waited, because a minute later the beasts decided to leave, and in no time at all were nowhere to be seen. They’d be easy enough to find, though. They pretty much trampled everything flat in their wake.
The kid shook himself, as if coming out of a trance. “Hey,” he said. “She took my car.”
“Climb into the cab,” I said. “There’s a bar a ways up the road. I think you need a drink.”
* * *
He said his name was Everett McCoughlan, and he clutched his glass like he would fall off the face of the Earth if he were to let go. It took a couple of whiskeys to get the full story out of him. Then I sat silent for a long time. I don’t mind admitting that what he’d said made me feel a little funny. “How long?” I asked at last.
“Ten weeks, maybe three months, tops. No more.”
I took a long swig of my soda water. (I’ve never been much of a drinker. Also, it was pretty early in the morning.) Then I told Everett that I’d be right back.
I went out to the truck, and dug the cell phone out of the glove compartment.
First I called home. Delia had already left for the bridal shop, and they didn’t like her getting personal calls at work, so I left a message saying that I loved her. Then I called Green Mountain Books. It wasn’t open yet, but Randy likes to come in early and he picked up the phone when he heard my voice on the machine. I asked him if he had anything on Triceratops. He said to hold on a minute, and then said yes, he had one copy of The Horned Dinosaurs by Peter Dodson. I told him I’d pick it up next time I was in town.
Then I went back in the bar. Everett had just ordered a third whiskey, but I pried it out of his hand. “You’ve had enough of that,” I said. “Go home, take a nap. Maybe putter around in the garden.”
“I don’t have my car,” he pointed out.
“Where do you live? I’ll take you home.”
“Anyway, I’m supposed to be at work. I didn’t log out. And technically I’m still on probation.”
“What difference does that make,” I asked, “now?”
* * *
Everett had an apartment in Winooski at the Woolen Mill, so I guess the Institute paid him good money. Either that or he wasn’t very smart how he spent it. After I dropped him off, I called a couple contractors I knew and arranged for them to take over what jobs I was already committed to. Then I called the Free Press to cancel my regular ad, and all my customers to explain I was having scheduling problems and had to subcontract their jobs. Only old Mrs. Bremmer gave me any trouble over that, and even she came around after I said that in any case I wouldn’t be able to get around to her Jacuzzi until sometime late July.
Finally, I went to the bank and arranged for a second mortgage on my house.
It took me a while to convince Art Letourneau I was serious. I’d been doing business with him for a long while, and he knew how I felt about debt. Also, I was pretty evasive about what I wanted the money for. He was half-suspicious I was having some kind of late onset mid-life crisis. But the deed was in my name and property values were booming locally, so in the end the deal went through.
On the way home, I stopped at a jewelry store and at the florist’s.
Delia’s eyes widened when she saw the flowers, and then narrowed at the size of the stone on the ring. She didn’t look at all the way I’d thought she would. “This better be good,” she said.
So I sat down at the kitchen table and told her the whole story. When I was done, Delia was silent for a long while, just as I’d been. Then she said, “How much time do we have?”
“Three months if we’re lucky. Ten weeks in any case,” Everett said.
“You believe him?”
“He seemed pretty sure of himself.”
If there’s one thing I am, it’s a good judge of character, and Delia knew it. When Gretta moved into the rehabbed barn next door, I’d said right from the start she was going to be a difficult neighbor. And that was before she’d smothered the grass on her property under three different colors of mulch, and then complained about me keeping my pickup parked in the driveway, out in plain sight.
Delia thought seriously for a few minutes, frowning in that way she has when she’s concentrating, and then she smiled. It was a wan little thing, but a smile nonetheless. “Well, I’ve always wished we could afford a real first-class vacation.”
I was glad to hear her say so, because that was exactly the direction my own thought had been trending in. And happier than that when she flung out her arms and whooped, “I’m going to Disneyworld!”
“Hell,” I said. “We’ve got enough money to go to Disneyworld, Disneyland, and Eurodisney, one after the other. I think there’s one in Japan too.”
We were both laughing at this point, and then she dragged me up out of the chair, and the two of us were dancing around and round the kitchen, still a little spooked under it all, but mostly being as giddy and happy as kids.
* * *
We were going to sleep in the next morning, but old habits die hard and anyway, Delia felt she owed it to the bridal shop to give them a week’s notice. So, after she’d left, I went out to see if I could find where the Triceratops had gone.
Only to discover Everett standing by the side of the road with his thumb out.
I pulled over. “Couldn’t get somebody at the Institute to drive your car home?” I asked when we were underway again.
“It never got there,” he said gloomily. “That woman who was with you the other day drove it into a ditch. Stripped the clutch and bent the frame out of shape. She said she wouldn’t have had the accident if my dinosaurs hadn’t gotten her upset. Then she hung up on me. I just started at this job. I don’t have the savings to buy a new car.”
“Lease one instead,” I said. “Put it on your credit card and pay the minimum for the next two or three months.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
We drove on for a while and then I asked, “How’d she manage to get in touch with you?” She’d driven off before he mentioned his name.
“She called the Institute and asked for the guy with the bad hair. They gave her my home phone number.”
The parking lot for the Institute for Advanced Physics had a card system, so I let Everett off by the side of the road. “Thanks for not telling anybody,” he said as he climbed out. “About … you know.”
“It seemed wisest not to.”
He started away and then turned back suddenly and asked, “Is my hair really that bad?”
“Nothing that a barber couldn’t fix,” I said.
* * *
I’d driven to the Institute by the main highway. Returning, I went by back ways, through farmland. When I came to where I’d seen the Triceratops, I thought for an instant there’d been an accident, there were so many vehicles by the side of the road. But it turned out they were mostly gawkers and television crews. So apparently the herd hadn’t gone far. There were cameras up and down the road and lots of good-looking young women standing in front of them with wireless microphones.
I pulled over to take a look. One Triceratops had come right up to the fence and was browsing on some tall weeds there. It didn’t seem to have any fear of human beings, possibly because in its day mammals never got much bigger than badgers. I walked up and stroked its back, which was hard and pebbly and warm. It was the warmth that got to me. It made the experience real.
A newswoman came over with her cameraman in tow. “You certainly look happy,” she said.
“Well, I always wanted to meet a real live dinosaur.” I turned to face her, but I kept one hand on the critter’s frill. “They’re something to see, I’ll tell you. Dumb as mud but lots more fun to look at.”
She asked me a few questions, and I answered them as best I could. Then, after she did her wrap, she got out a notebook and took down my name and asked me what I did. I told her I was a contractor but that I used to work on a dairy farm. She seemed to like that.
I watched for a while more, and then drove over to Burlington to pick up my book. The store wasn’t open yet, but Randy let me in when I knocked. “You bastard,” he said after he’d locked the door behind me. “Do you have any idea how much I could have sold this for? I had a foreigner,” by which I understood him to mean somebody from New York State or possibly New Hampshire, “offer me two hundred dollars for it. And I could have got more if I’d had something to dicker with!”
“I’m obliged,” I said, and paid him in paper bills. He waved off the tax but kept the nickel. “Have you gone out to see ’em yet?”
“Are you nuts? There’s thousands of people coming into the state to look at those things. It’s going to be a madhouse out there.”
“I thought the roads seemed crowded. But it wasn’t as bad as all of that.”
“It’s early still. You just wait.”
* * *
Randy was right. By evening the roads were so congested that Delia was an hour late getting home. I had a casserole in the oven and the book open on the kitchen table when she staggered in. “The males have longer, more elevated horns, where the females have shorter, more forward-directed horns,” I told her. “Also, the males are bigger than the females, but the females outnumber the males by a ratio of two to one.”
I leaned back in my chair with a smile. “Two to one. Imagine that.”
Delia hit me. “Let me see that thing.”
I handed her the book. It kind of reminded me of when we were new-married, and used to go out bird-watching. Before things got so busy. Then Delia’s friend Martha called and said to turn on Channel 3 quick. We did, and there I was saying, “dumb as mud.”
“So you’re a cattle farmer now?” Delia said, when the spot was over.
“That’s not what I told her. She got it mixed up. Hey, look what I got.” I’d been to three separate travel agents that afternoon. Now I spread out the brochures: Paris, Dubai, Rome, Australia, Rio de Janeiro, Marrakech. Even Disneyworld. I’d grabbed everything that looked interesting. “Take your pick, we can be there tomorrow.”
Delia looked embarrassed.
“What?” I said.
“You know that June is our busy season. All those young brides. Francesca begged me to stay on through the end of the month.”
“It’s not that long,” she said.
* * *
For a couple of days it was like Woodstock, the Super Bowl, and the World Series all rolled into one – the Interstates came to a standstill, and it was worth your life to actually have to go somewhere. Then the governor called in the National Guard, and they cordoned off Chittenden County so you had to show your ID to get in or out. The Triceratops had scattered into little groups by then. Then a dozen or two were captured and shipped out of state to zoos where they could be more easily seen. So things returned to normal, almost.
I was painting the trim on the house that next Saturday when Everett drove up in a beat-up old clunker. “I like your new haircut,” I said. “Looks good. You here to see the trikes?”
“That’s what they’re calling your dinos. Triceratops is too long for common use. We got a colony of eight or nine hanging around the neighborhood.” There were woods out back of the house and beyond them a little marsh. They liked to browse the margins of the wood and wallow in the mud.
“No, uh … I came to find out the name of that woman you were with. The one who took my car.”
“Gretta Houck, you mean?”
“I guess. I’ve been thinking it over, and I think she really ought to pay for the repairs. I mean, right’s right.”
“I noticed you decided against leasing.”
“It felt dishonest. This car’s cheap. But it’s not very good. One door is wired shut with a coat hanger.”
Delia came out of the house with the picnic basket then and I introduced them. “Ev’s looking for Gretta,” I said.
“Well, your timing couldn’t be better,” Delia said. “We were just about to go out trike-watching with her. You can join us.”
“Oh, I can’t—”
“Don’t give it a second thought. There’s plenty of food.” Then, to me, “I’ll go fetch Gretta while you clean up.”
So that’s how we found ourselves following the little trail through the woods and out to the meadow on the bluff above the Tylers’ farm. The trikes slept in the field there. They’d torn up the crops pretty bad. But the state was covering damages, so the Tylers didn’t seem to mind. It made me wonder if the governor knew what we knew. If he’d been talking with the folks at the Institute.
I spread out the blanket, and Delia got out cold cuts, deviled eggs, lemonade, all the usual stuff. I’d brought along two pairs of binoculars, which I handed out to our guests. Gretta had been pretty surly so far, which made me wonder how Delia’d browbeat her into coming along. But now she said, “Oh, look! They’ve got babies!”
There were three little ones, only a few feet long. Two of them were mock-fighting, head-butting and tumbling over and over each other. The third just sat in the sun, blinking. They were all as cute as the dickens, with their tiny little nubs of horns and their great big eyes.
The other trikes were wandering around, pulling up bushes and such and eating them. Except for one that stood near the babies, looking big and grumpy and protective. “Is that the mother?” Gretta asked.
“That one’s male,” Everett said. “You can tell by the horns.” He launched into an explanation, which I didn’t listen to, having read the book.
On the way back to the house, Gretta grumbled, “I suppose you want the number for my insurance company.”
“I guess,” Everett said.
They disappeared into her house for maybe twenty minutes and then Everett got into his clunker and drove away. Afterwards, I said to Delia, “I thought the whole point of the picnic was you and I were going to finally work out where we were going on vacation.” She hadn’t even brought along the travel books I’d bought her.
“I think they like each other.”
“Is that what this was about? You know, you’ve done some damn fool things in your time—”
“Like what?” Delia said indignantly. “When have I ever done anything that was less than wisdom incarnate?”
“Well … you married me.”
“Oh, that.” She put her arms around me. “That was just the exception that proves the rule.”
* * *
So, what with one thing and the other, the summer drifted by. Delia took to luring the Triceratops closer and closer to the house with cabbages and bunches of celery and such. Cabbages were their favorite. It got so that we were feeding the trikes off the back porch in the evenings. They’d come clomping up around sunset, hoping for cabbages but willing to settle for pretty much anything.
It ruined the yard, but so what? Delia was a little upset when they got into her garden, but I spent a day putting up a good strong fence around it, and she replanted. She made manure tea by mixing their dung with water, and its effect on the plants was bracing. The roses blossomed like never before, and in August the tomatoes came up spectacular.
I mentioned this to Dave Jenkins down at the home-and-garden and he looked thoughtful. “I believe there’s a market for that,” he said. “I’ll buy as much of their manure as you can haul over here.”
“Sorry,” I told him, “I’m on vacation.”
Still, I couldn’t get Delia to commit to a destination. Not that I quit trying. I was telling her about the Atlantis Hotel on Paradise Island one evening when suddenly she said, “Well, look at this.”
I stopped reading about swimming with dolphins and the fake undersea ruined city, and joined her at the door. There was Everett’s car – the new one that Gretta’s insurance had paid for – parked out front of her house. There was only one light on, in the kitchen. Then that one went out too.
We figured those two had worked through their differences.
An hour later, though, we heard doors slamming, and the screech of Everett’s car pulling out too fast. Then somebody was banging on our screen door. It was Gretta. When Delia let her in, she burst out into tears. Which surprised me. I wouldn’t have pegged Everett as that kind of guy.
I made some coffee while Delia guided her into a kitchen chair, and got her some tissues, and soothed her down enough that she could tell us why she’d thrown Everett out of her house. It wasn’t anything he’d done apparently, but something he’d said.
“Do you know what he told me?” she sobbed.
“I think I do,” Delia said.
“—loops. Yes, dear.”
Gretta looked stricken. “You too? Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell everybody?”
“I considered it,” I said. “Only then I thought, what would folks do if they knew their actions no longer mattered? Most would behave decently enough. But a few would do some pretty bad things, I’d think. I didn’t want to be responsible for that.”
She was silent for a while.
“Explain to me again about timelike loops,” she said at last. “Ev tried, but by then I was too upset to listen.”
“Well, I’m not so sure myself. But the way he explained it to me, they’re going to fix the problem by going back to the moment before the rupture occurred and preventing it from ever happening in the first place. When that happens, everything from the moment of rupture to the moment when they go back to apply the patch separates from the trunk timeline. It just sort of drifts away, and dissolves into nothingness – never was, never will be.”
“And what becomes of us?”
“We just go back to whatever we were doing when the accident happened. None the worse for wear.”
“But without memories.”
“How can you remember something that never happened?”
“So Ev and I—”
“No, dear,” Delia said gently.
“How much time do we have?”
“With a little luck, we have the rest of the summer,” Delia said. “The question is, how do you want to spend it?”
“What does it matter,” Gretta said bitterly, “if it’s all going to end?”
“Everything ends eventually. But after all is said and done, it’s what we do in the meantime that matters, isn’t it?”
The conversation went on for a while more. But that was the gist of it.
Eventually, Gretta got out her cell and called Everett. She had him on speed dial, I noticed. In her most corporate voice, she said, “Get your ass over here,” and snapped the phone shut without waiting for a response.
She didn’t say another word until Everett’s car pulled up in front of her place. Then she went out and confronted him. He put his hands on his hips. She grabbed him and kissed him. Then she took him by the hand and led him back into the house.
They didn’t bother to turn on the lights.
* * *
I stared at the silent house for a little bit. Then I realized that Delia wasn’t with me anymore, so I went looking for her.
She was out on the back porch. “Look,” she whispered.
There was a full moon and by its light we could see the Triceratops settling down to sleep in our backyard. Delia had managed to lure them all the way in at last. Their skin was all silvery in the moonlight; you couldn’t make out the patterns on their frills. The big trikes formed a kind of circle around the little ones. One by one, they closed their eyes and fell asleep.
Believe it or not, the big bull male snored.
It came to me then that we didn’t have much time left. One morning soon we’d wake up and it would be the end of spring and everything would be exactly as it was before the dinosaurs came. “We never did get to Paris or London or Rome or Marrakech,” I said sadly. “Or even Disneyworld.”
Without taking her eyes off the sleeping trikes, Delia put an arm around my waist. “Why are you so fixated on going places?” she asked. “We had a nice time here, didn’t we?”
“I just wanted to make you happy.”
“Oh, you idiot. You did that decades ago.”
So there we stood, in the late summer of our lives. Out of nowhere, we’d been given a vacation from our ordinary lives, and now it was almost over. A pessimist would have said that we were just waiting for oblivion. But Delia and I didn’t see it that way. Life is strange. Sometimes it’s hard, and other times it’s painful enough to break your heart. But sometimes it’s grotesque and beautiful. Sometimes it fills you with wonder, like a Triceratops sleeping in the moonlight.