As of Friday, June 15, 2007, SCI FICTION will no longer be availabe on SCIFI.COM.
SCIFI.COM would like to thank all those who contributed
and those who read the short stories over the past few years.

A sad smile creased his face. He looked at once an aged gnome, and the sort of four-year-old boy who would fall in love with dinosaur footprints.
Outside the bar window a car floated sideways down the street, occupants shouting frantically into their cell phones.
Midnight at the Ichnologist's Ball
by Greg Beatty

"Beer," Dan Hutton croaked, collapsing onto the bar stool with a faint puff of dirt. The blonde at the next bar stool pulled away, giving off an aura of icy superiority. Dan ignored the little princess and took a long pull from his beer.

"Gawd, that's good," he said in a more normal voice. The condensation beading on the sides of the schooner blended with the dirt caked on, or rather, into, Dan's hands. Orange and gray mud trickled to the bar. After another long swallow, Dan was sufficiently revived to see what he was doing.

"Damn, Phil, I'm sorry," he said to the bartender. Phil made "don't worry about it" gestures and walked over to polish his bar back to a pristine sheen that threw back the late afternoon Arizona sun. Dan could tell the weather by looking at the bar; he watched the first clouds of the day come and go across the wood.

"It ain't no thing," Phil said, once the bar was clean again, and he could say it without lying. "But if you really want to make it up to me, you'll tell me something."

"What's that?"

"What in the hell do you do?"

Dan smiled, and Phil went on, "I mean, you've been here long enough to never burn, but you aren't from around here. Your hands are scarred like a working man, and I saw you handle Ian Kimball like he wasn't Golden Gloves. But you talk like an East Coast fairy, except you ain't—you've won the tourist pool more often than not."

"Which reminds me," Dan said, pulling out his wallet, and finding a dry spot on the bar for a five. Phil slid it under the bar with a "thank you" nod.

"You cain't get out of the question by shoving money at me. Well, not five bucks anyhow. You love your beer, and you come in here just fried from being outside like a fool, like you hike in the afternoon. What in the hell do you do?"

Another cloud moved across the bar; Dan followed it with one hand, now half-clean from the moisture. "Storm's coming," Dan said, then, flatly, "I'm an ichnologist."

"A what?"

"No shit!"

The question was Phil's; the exclamation came from the blonde. She had spun towards him fast enough to send a cinnamon scent his way. She continued. "You're serious? A professional?"

"And what are you," Dan countered, struck by the life in her face. What was she, two thirds his age? In the small of his back, he suddenly felt every rock he'd carried that day. "Anthropologist, linguist, science geek, or animal science major?"

"Guilty: A, C, and E."

"E?" Dan asked.

"Journalist. I was raised a science geek, am studying socio-anthropology, and had an undergraduate minor in journalism."

"Did you interview Teddy, then?"

"No. I was sick that day. But I edited the story for the guy who did. I clipped his dangling participles and combed his fragments until the story was readable."

Phil had stepped away to serve a boilermaker to the Jack Mormon who maintained the tour company's busses, but was back in time to hear the last line. He made a "time out" sign. "Did I miss it? I still don't know what an ichthyologist is. And what'ur you laughin' at?"

"Phil … our new friend thinks it's funny that I'd be a specialist in fish, but truth be told, they pop up in the desert, same as everyone else. No, I'm an ichnologist."

"You study itches," Phil said.

"Close. I sure get them. I'm a tracker. I study animal prints."

Phil winced at a distant clash of thunder. "Your windows up?" When Dan nodded, Phil went on. "You went to school to study animal footprints."

"No. I went to school for sociology, like our new friend Miss … you know, you're supposed to fill in your name when I do that."

"I know."

"Riiight. Like our mysterious friend here, I was studying sociology. I came to a summer seminar here at U of A, an intensive on Durkheim, and I made the mistake of going for an afternoon walk."

"Sunstroke?" Phil asked.

"Yeah, but you get over that." Dan turned to watch the sudden rain pound the windows. "I had heard about these petroglyphs outside of town, beyond the Spanish mission, beyond the saguaro canyon. So I went for a walk. And I found the petroglyphs, and I dutifully matched my summary of Durkheim's theories about early religion against them. And then I got a little lost in the sun."

Dan looked at the rain, but it was clear that he was seeing something else. "And then I found a place. Bone dry, like this afternoon. Flat. Dry. Orange. But when I looked down, I saw something Durkheim hadn't prepared me for."

Dan grabbed his beer, and slid his hand around the glass, back and forth, until it was wet, and all the remaining dust on his hand had darkened. Murmuring, "I'll clean it up, Phil," Dan flattened his hand on the bar. Again. Again. Again, until the handprints covered the bar, overlapping in baroque mosaic of mud.

He pulled back. "A place like that. Except that instead of a nice oak bar, it was a flat wedge of basalt. And instead of muddy handprints, all the same and made by one man, the prints were made by a thousand different animals, like I'd never seen."

Dan made one more handprint, but his palm was almost clean, and this one was barely visible. "Three-toed, four-toed, tails between, claws, bellies dragged between them. And millions of years old. Later, once I got something to drink, I talked to somebody who knew his stuff. He told me that they were probably from the Permian, two hundred eighty million years ago. And they were right there, frozen in the stone, like they'd walked away yesterday. And the rest, as they say, is history."

"You're telling me you spend your days tracking dinosaurs?" Phil said. His tone suggested he was sure his leg was being pulled.


"Is it hard work?"

Dan wiggled his scarred hands. "Yes."

"Pay well?"


"Does it get you laid?"

Dan was careful not to look at the blonde. "Not very often."

"Then why do you do it?"

"I just told—" but Phil had to go serve Irish Coffees to a crowd of drenched tourists. Dan trailed to a halt. He looked down at the bar, where his handprints were drying into a meaningless pattern of mud. He tried to wet a napkin and wipe them away, but his beer was almost empty, and the cool air brought by the storm had exorcised the condensation. Dan pushed futilely at the mud with a stiff napkin, then stopped, slumping. His torso, thick from fifteen years spent hauling slabs, scrunched over on itself. A sad smile creased his face. He looked at once an aged gnome, and the sort of four-year-old boy who would fall in love with dinosaur footprints.

The splat of a wet towel dropping onto the bar startled Dan from his melancholy. He turned to see the blonde looking at him. "Thanks," he said quietly, returning to his task of erasing all signs of his profession.

"My name's Claudia," she said.

"Dan," he responded, careful not to overstep his invitation.

But Claudia smiled, and said, "Well, Ichnologist Dan, the dinosaur man, tell me about your job." He did. Phil was caught up taking care of the after work rush, and the two of them were left alone to talk about footprints, tail tracks, Teddy Tachnii'ii Needleman, and how the Dine had taught him, had transformed him, really, from a lost Midwesterner who'd seen a vision into someone who was at home in the desert, able to spot the signs of a rattler's passage nine days after.

"At least, if it doesn't rain like tonight. And you're amazingly good at listening to people. Did you know that?"

"You know what they say, if you're nervous, fall back on journalism," Claudia said.

"Why would you be nervous?" Dan was serious. He could track a pelycosaur across millions of years, but found the intricacies of human interaction illegible.

Claudia smiled. "Tell you later. Hey, what's the tourist pool you were talking about with the bartender?"

Had he missed something? Probably. "Oh that. You see how the rain's slacking off now?"

Claudia nodded. "Well, even turistas and graduate students are smart enough to come in out of the rain when it pounds like it did earlier. But when it lets up for a little bit, like it is now, they think it's stopping, and try to drive home. There's always a second wave. And they get caught in it. The tourist pool is, well, we bet on how many people get caught in the next storm."

Claudia nodded again. "I can see where there always would be a second wave. Was there one for you?"


"Stumbling onto a bunch of dinosaur tracks is impressive. I can see it moved you. It still does. You get … light, when you talk about it. But was there another wave? A harder rain?"

Dan didn't see any path for himself except the one she was marking out for him. He balked; he'd never told anybody about this second event. "Well, what do you do for a living?"

Claudia smiled and waited. "Oh crap," Dan said. "You already told me. You're a graduate student. Okay, I'll tell you, but you can't laugh. I've never told anybody this."

Claudia crossed her heart. Outside the bar, the thunder boomed, and the rain lashed everything, even more fiercely than before.

"Well, I make my living doing a little of this, a little of that. If zoology profs want their classes shown the Tracks of the Wild," Dan hit the capital letters hard, "I show them. John, the bug guy down in Old Town, usually fills his orders by himself, but sometimes he needs an extra darkling beetle or bark scorpion. I find them. Most of the time, though, I do dinos. I take pictures, and, when I've documented everything, and can haul it out without attracting the graverobbers' attention, I carry slabs out for the Smithsonian. Recently the creationists have been buying a lot of slabs, just so they'll have something handy to disprove."

Dan rolled his right wrist, exposing a recent scrape. Claudia waited. "Mostly," Dan said, "I work by eye. But a few years ago I was getting restless. I started to get depressed. Looking at dinosaur footprints in the rock seemed a silly way for a grown man to make a living. I started casting about for ways to make it better. Maybe more impressive. I borrowed time-lapse cameras from U of A, and took artsy films of the sunlight moving across the tracks. I started doing carbon dating, and got into long arguments, via mail, and then via computer, with people about minor details. And then I read a detective novel."

Dan tried to take a drink of his beer. It was empty. Claudia slid hers a foot closer; Dan sipped from it, and handed it back, nodding his thanks. He turned to watch the pounding rain.

"You read a detective novel?"

"Yes. By that woman writer with the pathologist detective. She had a case where she had to look at a crime scene where a murder had been done years before. The place had been cleaned up, and to the human eye everything looked fine. But when she shined a laser on it that had been set to react to human blood, the place was a slaughterhouse. Gouts of blood everywhere. They were wading in it. Ah, look at that." Dan pointed.

Outside the bar window a car floated sideways down the street, occupants shouting frantically into their cell phones. "Did you win the pool?" Claudia asked.

"Not yet. I win if there's one more," Dan said. "I always bet on individuals to be overwhelmed by the unpredictable."

They watched until the car was out of sight, and then Claudia said, "The laser?"

"Right. I was restless. Looking for ways to make what I do mean more. So I did a little research, and called in some favors, and got the Smithsonian to get the FBI to send me one of their lasers. Which I reset to react with dinosaurian hemoglobin."

"Shades of Jurassic Park. Only not so mad scientisty."

"Well, less ambitious mad scientisty anyway."

Dan went on, entering into the flow of his story now. "I'm still not sure why I did it. I was getting a lot of flak over a three-toed track I dated to the same period."

"What was the problem?"

"Well, until that find, there were no records of three-toed tracks in the Permian. When I published the find, there was … an uproar."

"I'll bet. Were you a fool or a fraud?"

"Mostly a fool. The lack of formal training, don't you know. But I was certain. Still am, and Gabriel's found confirmation since in Utah, so the controversy's died down. But at the time, I let them get to me. The attacks didn't include any suggestion about how I'd misdated the prints, only that I had, so I figured I'd eliminate the question. Test the prints that I was sure of for traces of dinosaur hemoglobin, use those to calibrate the laser. Then, once I was certain I had the laser set to a sufficient sensitivity, I'd test the prints, and settle the question."

Dan slid off the bar stool into storm trooper pose, invisible rifle at the ready. "I had to look a sight, with my oversized laser gun hanging from my shoulder, ready to blast invisible dinosaurs!" He realized he was standing, and laughed self-consciously at himself. Dan lowered the imaginary laser, but as soon as he started talking, it crept back up, sending a beam of coherent and excited, if imaginary, light out to follow his words. "Anyway, I set the beam to react to one-tenth the concentration of hemoglobin traces that the FBI guys use to trace old blood, and scanned the area."

"Did it work?"

"Scared the shit out of a gila, but otherwise, no. That was just to be sure. So I set it to one-hundredth. Sent my crimson beam out to dance across the hills, and flicker off the gila's tail. Nothing."

"At five-hundredths the concentration, I started to get flickers. Nothing specific, just flashes. I'd slide the laser across desert. For some reason, I always went in the opposite direction of the breeze. I'd catch a flash here, a flash there. At first I thought I was getting false positives from the blood of living reptiles, but then I realized the flashes were hanging in the air for a fraction of a second after I moved the laser on. And they were all footprints."

Dan moved his imaginary laser out of the way of a guy lurching to the men's room, and turned to look at Claudia. She was still listening. "I could read them. Flash. A daidectid. Flash. A dimotridon, right hind leg. Flash. A eryopid, the one foot missing a toe, with a place in the print that made it look like an old injury, not a recent one. Granted, I know that area, but still …"

"It sounds amazing." Claudia motioned for another beer. Did she think the story was done? Probably.

"There's more!" Dan blurted. "I mean, I wasn't quite done."

A crowd at a back table began to sing, and Claudia skootched her stool closer to hear. Dan could smell her more clearly now, clearly enough to realize he'd been smelling her for a while. He blinked. "I set the laser for its highest level of sensitivity, a thousand times more sensitive than is used for conventional forensics."

Claudia nodded.

"I diffused the beam, like a flashlight, and moved it slowly from side to side. At this sensitivity, this diffusion, I could see all the prints. They glowed in the night, like the dinos had walked through glow in the dark paint. Except they were glowing the rich, red glow of blood. Of life, pressed there and staining the rocks they'd walked through, who knows how many million years later."

"I sat the laser on a rock and crouched down, to look at the glowing prints. At this setting, I could see not just the prints, but the concentration of blood. I could see where the blood flowed most heavily in the dinosaurs' feet. For those that had front paws, or claws, I could tell what parts of their paws would have felt warm to the touch. I felt like I could shake hands with them."

Dan was looking down at the floor, not seeing the legs of the drinkers who walked past. Seeing something older. Something redder. "Did you see the three-toed print?"

"What? Oh yes, I was right. Same period, new specimen, argument dead as the dinosaurs. But the only reason that mattered at all is what happened when I moved the laser to check that print. I bumped the laser, and the beam shifted."

"Instead of being directed at the ground, it was shining parallel to the ground." Dan stopped. Unbidden, Claudia offered him her beer. Dan took a long drink. "I shouldn't have been able to see anything."

"But you did."

"Yes. Earlier, the laser was a visible line, but a laser set to that level of diffusion, in the night, should be invisible. It should just vanish into the night, swallowed up. Maybe light up a moth that flutters through, then is gone."

"The beam was invisible, but the dinosaurs weren't. The same blood I'd seen pressed into their prints, I could see in their bodies. I could see them, frozen in a bloody flash."

"I couldn't see their skin, so I couldn't settle the old questions of textures and color. But I could see … them. Some stepping, one foot still in the air. Some standing, just standing. All of them visible through their blood alone. God."

"At first, I just stood there, as still as they were. The desert got so quiet I could hear my heart beat. At first, I thought it was their heartbeat. They all looked so real. So alive."

"Then I realized that I'd solved one question while opening another. You see, one of the things that is always an issue in ichnology is knowing when the tracks were made. Was the puma tracking the deer? Or did the deer follow the same path to water later? And if so, are there signs that the deer adapted its tread to take the cat's presence into account? We have to know. After species recognition, that's what our reputations rest on. And flat spots from the Permian like this, with multiple species tracks in one locale, were always problems for us. Everything in our skill sets indicate that the dinosaurs were there at the same time. But everything we know about food-chain ecologies says they wouldn't have any reason to be there."

"But they were," Claudia breathed, seeing the scene with him.

"Yes," Dan said. "And then I saw why."

He turned to look her straight in the face. "Please don't laugh at me when I tell you this next part."

One of Claudia's hands rose, as if to touch Dan's face, then stopped. Carefully, she crossed her heart again. This time her fingertip left a light X in the fabric of her shirt for Dan to read. He nodded.

"Okay then. Reading prints, I was first drawn to as much of the structure as I could see, so I could read the biomechanics of the dinosaurs. I couldn't see the bones, but muscles are always flush with blood, and so I could see where they pulled and strained, and where one tug counterbalanced another, where they attached to invisible skeletons. I turned and twisted where I stood, until I could see that the one shape I couldn't read was just one varanosaurid leaning on another.

"I wasn't looking at their faces then. But eventually I did. And they were all looking up."

Dan looked up. So did Claudia. "So I moved the beam up. How do you read the expression on a dinosaur's face, especially when all you can see is blood? I couldn't. All I could see was that they were looking up, and standing still, so they weren't scared. What else besides fear can affect so many, so different, at once?"

"Awe." Dan hadn't been expecting an answer, and he jumped a little. He looked at Claudia's face; she was still looking up, past the dart stuck in the ceiling.

"Maybe," he said. "That would fit with the rest of it. I moved the light up, to see if a change in angle would bring out an expression I could read. And I saw things in the air. Blood red things, frozen, hanging. I don't know if anyone but another tracker would have recognized the back foot of a sphenacodont pronated seven feet in the air. But I know what I saw."

"I started to swing the laser back and forth, back and forth, at eye level or above. There was another level of blood dinosaurs hanging there. Fainter, because there wasn't solid rock for the blood molecules to adhere to, but for some reason, hemoglobin traces were hanging in mid-air."

"I craned my head back, and moved the laser up further. At that diffusion, the laser has almost no range. Things get fuzzy. And the blood was already thin. But there were more. And more."

"As far as my laser would reach, I could see dinosaurs, spiraling into the sky. I once saw an old black-and-white version of Midsummer Night's Dream, with Mickey Rooney as Puck. The fairies march into the night sky in that version, spiraling up in the same, magical fashion." He shook his head.

"And there was something else my laser wouldn't react to. The laser was set for dinosaur hemoglobin, so I only saw this shape in negative, a black outline formed in the night by the red ghosts of dinosaur blood, and only when the tightly packed bodies of the dinosaurs pressed close enough to it to form an outline. A shape like this." Dan got back off the stool, and stood with his arms hunched far out to the side, then splayed his feet and stuck his head forward.

"What's that supposed to be?"

Dan straightened back up. "I don't know." He ducked his head, as if embarrassed. "I go back, once in a while. Maybe once a month. I take the laser, but usually I don't even need it. I just walk the dinosaur prints, those on the ground, in the rocks, and try to feel what brought them there. And where the thing would have been. And what happened to them. And I wonder what that thing was, and if I saw it. If I wonder too long, I pull out the laser, and look again."

Dan was looking down, away, anyway but at Claudia. "And now you can laugh at me."

"Do I look like I want to laugh at you?"

Dan glanced at her, then shook his head.

"What do you think it was?"

Dan shrugged. Claudia said, "Do you think it was—" She made a pistol with one hand, and made a woowoowoowoo sound that was eerily close to the sound phasers made in the original Star Trek. An alien, she was asking. Do you think it was an alien, gathering the dinosaurs for … reasons unknown.

Dan shrugged again. He pushed one hand flat on the bar, in the spot where he'd first left his print. That print was gone. Dan pushed until a spiderweb of tiny scars became whitely visible from the pressure. Doing something that left their blood imprinted in the air, two hundred eighty million years later.

"Well, what did your peers say when you — oh." She paused, then started again. "How long did they go after you when you reported that three-toed print?"

"Three years. A year for every toe."

"And they never did believe you. And requests for your services dropped …?"

"Forty percent. With a corresponding drop in income. If it hadn't been for Teddy …"

"I heard he's sick. I'm sorry."

Dan nodded. From outside, he could hear the sound of cars zipping along the wet pavement, racing far too fast for the conditions, racing to somewhere Dan didn't know. Claudia hopped off her bar stool.

"Come on."


"Show me. Take me there."

"Where?" Dan asked, trying to pretend he didn't know.

In response, Claudia hunched into a pretty good mock-up of the hunched posture Dan had shown her a few minutes before. She pointed her finger at him like a ray gun and said, "Don't be more of a fool than you have to be. Than fear makes you."

Dan glanced out the window. The sun was setting. By the time they got there, it would be full dark, probably close to midnight. "It'll be wet. Dangerous. A long hike, after we park. Rattlesnakes."

Claudia pulled out a five and put it on the bar. "I'm betting you can keep me safe."

Claudia ran out of the bar then, turning her head just long enough to say, "Coming?" Dan couldn't read the expression on her face, but even after she was out the door, he saw her as clearly as if she were made of blood. She was as intense and magical as any of the blood dinosaurs he'd seen in the night. How had this woman ever seemed a princess? How could he not share the spiral dance with her?

Dan turned back to the bar, to settle up. Phil saw him and came over waving. "Fergit it. You won the pool. You're more than covered."

Dan turned away, then turned back for a second.

"There. That's why I'm an ichnologist."

"What? The girl?"

But Dan was gone, already out the door and into the night, following Claudia's footprints on the moist sidewalk, following them to her, and then to a place in the desert where the dinosaurs had danced into the sky, a place where they too would dance.

The End


© 2003 Greg Beatty and SCIFI.COM.