The sun beat down upon her hunched body. Beads of sweat rolled slowly off her shoulders. Each pore added to the flow. The stream gathered in intensity. It trickled slowly down between her shoulder blades, collecting in a pool at the base of her spine. The heat was agonizing, and a puddle had formed on her forehead as well.
But her hand was steady. The small circular brush she was wielding quickly wisked away the dust from the precious piece of exposed bone. The dull whiteness of the femur cast an incredible contrast against the deep clay-red of the dirt.
The brush was doing its job, but she would need the stiffer one to move away some of the hard chunks around the bone. Avia shifted her weight to grab for the pick. But when her arm left the cool shade of her body, she realized how really hot it actually was.
Her back was trained to the heat. Heck, she'd done this for years. But her arms were sunburned and tender. She'd been out too long!
This year the Grounds were drier than ever. Which reminded her. Water. She should get a drink, and soon. Ever since last summer when she had passed out from dehydration and fallen into the plaster, she had learned her lesson.
But the water could wait. The femur was almost out anyway. Second full bone. What Avia needed was a break.
Avia slowly curled up into a sitting position. She took her time. If she got up too fast her back would cramp. She arched her neck far back and blinked at the sun. She heard pops when she slumped her head from side to side. It was her vertebrae groaning and popping. Age was creeping up on her.
With a grunt and a slip she stood. Her weight made her feet shift on the unsteady ground. After a second she trudged off towards the shade of the research tent.
* * *
Avia's eyes had grown so accustomed to the harshness of the sun, the shade under the tent made her eyes burn. Everything was blurred. The dark figures moved quickly about; even so, she could pick out the muscular form of Dr. Talon.
He too was in a hunched position working hard. But he was staring at a computer screen. She quietly came up behind him and watched what he ws doing from over the ridge of his shoulder. His finger was clicking so quickly, at first she didn't recognize what he was looking at.
But then the grainy picture began to take shape. He had put the Land-Probe picture of the skeleton on the computer so that it would be easier to survey. She could see the nearly fully-exposed femur. No wonder it was so hard to get out, she thought. The darn thing was lodged against a rock!
The doctor looked up. "Oh, hello, Avia. Good job with those bones. Look here."
He wiped the screen clean of dust, then used the business end of his finger to point. "The rest is in silt so there's nothing to worry about. But," and here he paused, "there is THIS thing. I don't know quite what to make of it."
She bent down to look at it. "Oh, well, that's probably a rock," she said. "Then again, it could always be some kind of artifact." Avia sounded excited, like she had found the Sacred Temple of Horus or the Lost City of Atlantis.
"Easy there, Avia. Let's first concentrate on the bones, shall we?"
Dr. Talon slumped back down onto his stool and diligently resumed his work. Avia turned in disgust and sought out the water cooler. The hairs at the small of her back stood on end.
She grabbed a cup from the stack. As she filled it, the air bubbles slashed at the water in the jug and made her want to use the bathroom. But she filled the cup four more times in rapid succession. All she missed was a drop that rolled lazily out of her mouth.
Avia sighed. Then she crushed the paper cup expertly. What was out there could make her career. Dr. Talon or not, it was hers--and she WOULD have it.
* * *
Dr. Talon chuckled. He could see ten of his interns out there digging. They must be sweating their very blood. Thank God those kids loved their work and never tired.
He turned to say something to Avia, but she had already left the shade of the tent. Dr. Talon watched her thin figure trudge back up the hill towards the site. Her return elicited an audible shudder from the students. She was beautiful, strict, and not one to be reasoned with.
Rumor had it, her bite was every bit as bad as her bark. Talon was glad to have her as his second. She did good work and obeyed orders. Usually.
The computer beeped again. Every ten minutes the Land-Probe sent out a new message, and immediately the updated image was displayed for him on the screen. Now that some of the larger areas of dirt and rock had been removed, the picture was sharper. The image was still garbled though, and it was giving Dr. Talon fits. He was trained to identify hundreds of animal skeletons--many with just bits and pieces of bone--but this one was a mystery. He looked at his watch and then up at the digging group. Two hours and he should be able to tell.
Robin flounced in from outside. She was lugging a big wooden box under her arm and set it down on the far corner of his desk. Immediately it tipped. Dr. Talon reached for it and managed to catch most of the little bones before they hit the floor.
"Uh, oh, sorry. Uh, doctor, why . . . I mean . . . These bones are very well preserved. Why . . . " Robin fumbled for words while the doctor sat there fuming.
"Don't forget, Robin, these sands were once tar pits. Remember what I told you about the processes that were ideal for making fossils?"
"Oh, ya. Uh, thanks."
Robin hurried out of the tent. Her hat and scarf almost reached escape velocity, but she held them down.
Dr. Talon looked down at the bones. They must be tiny vertebrae. But from what sort of animal? Now that Robin had spilled them everywhere, he had no choice but to assemble them himself. Talon just shook his head in irritation.
* * *
Avia saw it before anyone else did. She was trained to know these things. No need to worry the kids, though. Just get them to dig faster.
Avia bullied the larger guys into clearing the area of rocks, and the girls into working more quickly. Soon the whole contingent was all hunched over the find, working at breakneck speeds to clear away the few remaining pebbles and small amounts of dust.
But then her cover was blown.
Robin looked up and stared dumbly at the encroaching black clouds. "Looks like rain," she said.
This made everyone look up. The clouds were moving in fast. They seemed to roll in over the land with a weird orange-black tint.
Suddenly everyone was chattering with excitement, even Avia. Her heart jumped because the clouds were rolling in so fast.
"It's not rain," she snapped. "It's a windstorm! That's why the sky is orange. Those clouds are dragging dirt with them!"
The younger ones just stared at it and Avia shook her head. Don't they teach these kids anything anymore?
Angry, Avia snapped quick orders at them. "Come on troops! Do you want to have to dig all this back out again? Well then, cover it!" She grabbed one end of a large tarp and laid it over the exposed rectangle.
They staked it down. Avia placed rocks around the perimeter to hold it in place. Most of the students were already off and running towards the trailer. The wind was picking up. Avia shielded her eyes and slipped back down the hill into the research tent.
She flipped off the computer, but not before memorizing the location of the unknown artifact. She grabbed Dr. Talon's notes, a textbook, and headed for her own tent. If the storm lasted the night, at least she would have something to do.
* * *
When Avia awoke she was startled that she had ever fallen asleep in that awful storm. What scared her more was how silent it now was. Her walls had been rattling like there was no tomorrow only an hour ago.
But the storm was over. They could finish digging up that skeleton now. Then it dawned on her: she could never get the kids up to do any work at this time of night. They'd all want to stay in bed. She would have to do what she could on her own.
Avia stretched, arching her neck back and yawning a big, open mouthed yawn. She slid on a pair of shoes and found some shorts. Then, taking her time, she slowly unzipped the inside layer of the tent. No sand.
Relieved, she unzipped the tent flap the rest of the way and slipped outside. A huge mound of sand greeted her off to one side. The west side of everything--the tents, the trailer, everything--was now buried in sand. Poor kids, all their tent doors faced west!
Avia chuckled to herself as she trudged around to the front end of the research tent. The sand was cool, and the air was too. The full moon reflected in her bright green eyes.
Avia unzipped the large front door and rolled it open. She replaced the book she'd taken earlier and found a coffee mug. She filled it with powdered hot chocolate and added water.
Avia lit the Bunsen burner and began warming her drink. She flipped on the computer. The Land-Probe was still running. She clicked SEND.
By now the flame was boiling the water, so she carefully took the cup off the stove to let it cool. Avia looked up at the site. The storm had shifted the sand. There was less of a hill now than there had been before; more of a flat place to work.
Avia took a sip. Just right.
The computer beeped. The picture was done. She looked at it then let out a faint yelp. Her cup crashed to the floor. An instant later, she was outside, racing up the hill to uncover the bones.
* * *
Avia tore at the tarp. In their haste, the little twerps had left their brushes out on top of it. Avia swore at the interns as she dug her way through the dirt to find a tool. The tarp had been easy to remove, but this was crazy.
A brush popped to the surface. How would she ever be able to explain to the others what was up here?
Her heart raced as she removed the newly-exposed "artifact" from the ground. Knowing its importance, she took care not to disturb the bone structure around it, however.
Avia was digging out a legend. Once just a myth; now it was real!
Only minutes passed before she hit the bottom corner of the plaque and had worked it free. Avia giggled with delight. In her mind she had conjured up an image of the figure below, the figure that had been clutching that plaque for who knows how long.
The wood had rotted off the back of the metal plate, but the engraving was still there. The words were foreign to her; even so, she could tell from the seal that it was some kind of an award. She looked at it closely. A familiar picture stared back at her.
It was a raptor, the most intelligent and advanced of the bird-hipped dinosaurs. Back in school, years ago, when she had first learned of these animals--her ancestors--it didn't seem possible. Over and over she had asked her teachers: Where had they come from, where had they gone? Her teachers didn't seem to know, and Avia's search for answers is what had led her here. Digging up bones was all she'd ever dreamed of since her school-girl days.
If the First Great Dying hadn't killed off all the advanced species, the humans might never have been dominant to begin with. But that wasn't the end of the story. The Second Extinction Event had returned the former rulers to their rightful place.
Avia looked down now at the exposed leg and skull. How could this have ever been a ruling animal? she wondered, scratching at her head. It was so strangely formed, no claws at all, puny by their standards. But then of course they had all died out. But how? And why?
Theories abounded. Probably in that second extinction event. Some said there was a terrible war, dumb animals; others, that they had run out of food. Avia was so lucky to have found the first skeleton. There was no telling what it could mean for her career!
Avia flexed her claws. The tendons bulged in her tawny hand. She stared down at the glinting figure on the plaque, its killing stance perfectly etched. Her blood warmed. The raptor was still in her, even after all this time.
Avia raised her snout towards the full moon. She let out a primordial howl, long and low. It could be heard for miles, even against the wind.
The wildness WAS still there.