I was sprawled on my back, blinking against brilliant outdoor light very different from the misty Pacific Northwest. There was a great arc of sky, high hot sun, and puffy white clouds thick as a sundae, glopping from horizon to horizon. The grass crinkled.
I sat up. Ellie lay still beside me, not yet awake, cap aside and ponytail half-undone. She was still damp from our soaking. I stole a peek at her unstudied grace. Yep, I’m astounded by how girls look, and nature conspired to put this one together so nicely that normally she’d be out of my league. But I was the only guy here.
A bug lit on her forehead and I waved to brush it off. The fan of breeze switched open her eyes, transparently blue like stained glass.
“We jumped.” She sat up, groped for her baseball cap, and jammed it securely on her head. Her instant alertness made me check that I still had my own hat and pack. The sun was intense.
“Africa?” I asked.
“If it worked.”
On cue, an animal drifted into view.
We were in a shallow fold of grassy savanna. The critter had horns, big head, and humped shoulders like a bison, as if pumped on steroids. Shaggy beard like an old man, mane like a horse, and skinny hindquarters with a donkey’s tail. It seemed like the black-colored creature had been assembled from animal leftovers. It moved gracefully, however, with the easy rock of a hobbyhorse, and grazed as methodically as a machine.
“Wildebeest,” Ellie said. “A big antelope. Odd looking, aren’t they? They migrate in the millions to follow the rains.”
“You’re an expert?”
“Gabriel gave me holograms to study.”
“They kidnap you and then prep you?”
“The Xu don’t like to be sole judge, jury and executioner of a problem species.” She stood to see. “Before they pull the trigger, they want one of the doomed to concur, or to prove instead that our kind is worth saving. Maybe it salves their conscience.”
“How sporting of them.” I got up too. “If they have a conscience.”
“I think it’s like a dictator wanting his enemies to confess imaginary crimes to justify their execution. The game player for the condemned has to agree to an Erasure. A Reset.”
“This ‘Reset’ being the assassination of our ancestors.”
“So they reviewed for me our gruesome history, with holograms showing wars, slaughters, rainforest burning, extinctions, and oil spills. We look wasteful and mean. It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth.”
“But why you? Why me? We’re kids, Ellie.”
“It’s like Gabe said. They look for game players old enough to survive but young enough not to have fossilized opinions. So I said yep, maybe earthlings should go down the garbage disposal.”
“You voted for our extinction?”
“I agreed to play their game to get out of that spaceship prison. I saw a chance of survival by agreeing to be their potential permission slip. What option did I have? Their Judgment, their rules. I realized in the first chamber than I needed a partner to proceed. When you trespassed and short-circuited the system, I drafted you.”
She saw my look.
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t have a choice.”
“I didn’t either.”
“Except you trespassed. Anyway, basic training was getting through those three spaceship chambers. So, hello Soldier.” She glanced around, squaring her shoulders. “Now we have to move faster than the other team.”
“What other team?”
“At some point the Xu follow us and start hunting for Adam and Eve. We get a head start to find the pair and hide our ancestral cavemen, if we think they’re worthy of hiding. If Homo sapiens are worthy. Then we win.”
“How do we do that?”
“How do we do what?”
“Any of it!”
“Back at the fort, I slipped a scanner in your backpack to screen DNA. To confirm Adam and Eve. As for the rest, Gabe said we figure it out as we go along. He said we humans are cruel, but clever.”
“Gabe is a dick.”
“Ellie, this is ridiculous. It’s not a game, it’s our execution. What do we know about Africa? They make all the rules. They probably change all the rules.”
“Yes.” She rotated completely around, unable to offer hope. Her look was sad, or maybe wistful, or regretful, and that was the most frightening thing yet. “We landed on the savanna, I think.”
Okay, Brynner. Suck it up. Absorb. And when in doubt, show bravado. “I haven’t even been to Disneyland.”
Her grim smile acknowledged my lousy humor.
Another wildebeest ambled into view, and another, and another. They focused on their feed, paying us no attention.
Some kids love animals. Some fear them. Since I’d never been allowed to have a pet I was mildly indifferent, or rather mildly interested, but not in that passionate Animal Planet kind of way. Animals are hard to scope. These had dark, dumb, unreadable eyes – not hostile, but not cartoon cute either. Just wild.
They also looked big, so I stood taller. Ellie did too. The herd was filling our vale’s short horizon and there wasn’t a single strand of barbed wire between them and us. The wind was blowing our way, meaning they hadn’t caught our scent. Conversely we got a nose full of them, a smell of dust, musk, and manure. What would happen when they saw us?
As if to answer, they bolted.
One minute we were looking at peacefully chewing animals as placid as dairy cows, and the next a regiment of wildebeest was panicked and charging straight at us, ground quaking, horns lowered, and clods flying.
I swore again, grabbed Ellie, and galloped, though I’d no idea where to go. We sprinted up the gentle slope, looking for a tree or rock. I spied a curious dirt mound that looked as if a giant child had scooped mud into a slumped sand castle six feet high. We darted for that.
There was a closing thunder of hooves behind, the whole world in motion, and the wind blew gritty dust ahead of the stampede and over us. I could hear the pound of heavy muscle and their labored snorts. I imagined myself tossed on their horns like a bullfighter.
We tagged the dirt pile and scrambled to its narrow top. “Balance!” As we clutched each other the stampeding herd broke around our perch like a black flood. We looked down at a storm of heaving backs and pitching horns.
Ellie clung, and I clung right back. “How’d we spook them?” I wondered.
“It wasn’t us. It was that.” She nodded with her chin.
A streak of tan hurtled through the dust, fast as a rocket, and then a young wildebeest somersaulted, something bigger and quicker rolling with it. I heard a snarl. Hooves kicked frantically in the air as the streak writhed on top of its prey, and then there was an awful strangled keen of sound as the antelope strangled. I heard a crack of bone.
“No way!” I was watching a lion kill.
“Way.” Her tone was solemn.
I gaped, heart pounding. The victim’s narrow legs stuck straight up in the air and trembled, its throat crushed, and then the legs fell over like pencils. Life left like flicking off a light switch.
As the dying animal went still, so did the herd. Predator had found prey, and now the other wildebeest were safe until the next meal. The lion killed only what it needed. The stampeding animals slowed, stopped, and gradually went back to grazing, heads drooped to feed.
Several other lions, including cubs, trotted through the grass to join the first at the kill’s corpse, clustering like detectives around a murder victim. The cats growled and snapped as they knotted themselves to feast. Their muzzles turned crimson.
That could be us, I realized. Not the eaters. The eaten.
“It’s really Africa,” I said.
“Nature red in tooth and claw,” Ellie recited.
“Lord Tennyson. Tenth grade English.”
“Damn. This is our rescue plan, coming here?”
“This is where Adam and Eve are. We have to warn them.”
“We need help, Ellie. Starting with a gun.”
She looked across the savanna. “Available in a mere fifty thousand years.”
“Please don’t say that.” I sounded more pathetically stupid than I intended.
“We haven’t just jumped in space, Nick. We’ve jumped in time. We’ve come to Africa at the height of the last Ice Age, when humans are about to leave and spread around the world.”
“Fifty thousand BC?”
“Roughly. BP, scientists now say, or Before Present, because they don’t assume everyone in the world dates things from Christ. Or, BCE. Before Current Era. Science is global.”
“We’re back in prehistoric times?”
“Barely. There’re no dinosaurs. By that standard it’s almost yesterday, because the dinosaurs died off sixty-five million years ago.”
“What are you, a museum guide?”
“I told you, Gabe made me study. There are still mammoths and mastodons far to the north, just as there are elephants here. Maybe saber tooth tigers.”
“I’m not sure when everything disappeared, but I’m pretty sure there are still Neanderthal cavemen as well as human cavemen.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Neanderthals were stronger but maybe dumber, and died out. There could be other groups too, like Homo erectus. Tall, but extinct. The fossil record is pretty spotty. So there are no settlements, no guns, and no 911. Right now, right here, just us.”
It felt so hopeless. From our precarious perch the grassy prairie stretched in all directions. On it were grazing animals, thousands of them, tens of thousands, gazillions, in a throng that stretched until they were mere specks. There was a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and I realized zebra were roaming too. I carefully rotated. It was the same every direction. Epic, but I couldn’t enjoy it.
I like nature behind bars.
“I think we’re standing on a termite mound,” she said. “I hologrammed them. The insects eat grass instead of wood and build up fantastic mud colonies.”
So we were perched on bug city, watching lions. Enormous birds had come to orbit the kill. Vultures. They looked big as hang gliders, and as capable of carrying us off as winged monkeys.
Not a road, not a house, not a fence, not a power pole, nor a single glint of anything metallic.
My voice was half-strangled. “So our mission, should we choose to accept it?”
“First, staying alive. Then finding our ancestors before the Xu.” She grasped my pack and undid a flap. “I’m thirsty. Do you have any water?”
I had one liter and Ellie had nothing: no water, no food, no pack, and not much of a plan, beyond punching through three chambers of hell to dump us in prehistoric Africa.
“You didn’t bring any gear?”
“I told you, I was kidnapped. I brought the gene scanner. The Xu hoped whoever your teacher encouraged would come equipped.”
So I gave her a swallow, both of us fastidiously wiping the bottleneck. The primness would seem comic in days to come. We still had no clue.
“I don’t see a water fountain,” I noted. “Or a Burger King.” I looked down at our clay perch. “Are there really termites in there?”
“Let’s find out.” She skidded down to the base, took a grass stem, and poked into one of the holes that perforated the dirt mound. When she drew it out, termites clamped like squirming beads. “People eat these.”
“Not this people.”
“You’re not hungry enough yet.”
Not promising. “We’re a snack ourselves if the lions don’t fill up. We need to move, Ellie.” I looked around. The land rolled on and on, animals thick as the Old West buffalo herds, way out to hazed horizons. The only interruption was a clump of gray rocks a few miles away. They erupted from a swollen gum of grass like jagged teeth, making a natural Stonehenge. “Maybe we can hide in those boulders before it gets dark.” We needed a goal.
She mentally measured the distance. “Do you think the wildebeest will stampede again?”
“I can’t even guarantee the lions won’t come over for a sniff. I just know I can’t balance on a termite mound for the rest of my life.”
So we set off through the grass, feeling as exposed as flies on paper. The browsing herds were skittish but not really afraid, animals moving away from us and then closing back around as if I was Moses parting the Red Sea. They weren’t afraid of us, but not hostile either. Just indifferent, because nature didn’t give a hoot. The cats stayed clustered around their supper.
I took the lead, setting a brisk pace, and Ellie kept up. We were on high alert while acting cool, using the type of anxious energy it takes to cross a bad neighborhood. You know that prick of sweat you get, where every new sound makes you twitch? It’s tiring.
The sun bonged my head like a cymbal, but a breeze kept us ventilated. There weren’t many insects. It wasn’t much worse than striding across a golf course, except for millions of animals, piles of dried manure, and grass that was knee-high.
I tried to think of something besides big cats. Everything I thought of was worse. “Are these Xu watching us?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so, because it’s not much of a contest if they do.”
“And they’re assassins, coming after caveman Adam and Eve?”
“They call themselves mentors, or shepherds. They try to make planets evolve correctly so intelligent species can join Gabe’s galactic fellowship. But before achieving membership, a lot of civilizations destroy themselves with idiocies like nuclear war. When they do, they take their entire planet down with them.”
“And you think humans are doing that to Earth?”
“The Xu think so. So they want to try a different gene line, or wipe us out entirely and try a different species. Maybe dolphins would do better. If we want everyone we know to someday exist, we have to judge us worthy despite our nukes, and keep our flawed ancestors out of their sights.”
“I’m not sure. Maybe just by migrating. The weird thing is, by the very fact of being here, maybe we succeed. You know?”
“What do you mean?”
“If we save caveman Adam and Eve, everyone in subsequent history is born on schedule, including us. We’re here, so therefore we must have succeeded. Right?”
That was heartening.
“But, maybe not,” she went on. “We fail and suddenly disappear: we exist only up to that moment. Or maybe we get stuck here if we fail; our time destiny was to come back and be marooned. Time jumps are confusing.”
“Thanks for sharing.”
“I think we’re destined to be here and yet we can change destiny. Gabe said life is always a combination of fate and free will.”
“Some free will. I’m here because I trespassed. But why you? All you did was take a nap.”
She sighed. “Maybe because I’m a biology nerd who likes animals.”
“What, you won the science fair or something?
“I’m afraid so. For all of California, 10th Grade.”
Another Andrea Martinez. Pretty, smart, no doubt popular, unobtainable. Stuck up? Not yet. But the cute ones do intimidate Nick Brynner, boy loser. “And you’re a cheerleader,” I guessed pessimistically.
“No.” She was puzzled at my question. “Debate club, yearbook, class secretary. Wonk, I said.”
Okay, not the stereotypical flick of flaxen-headed fluff. For survival, that was good. I needed Tomb Raider, not Barbie. “That’s how you know this DNA stuff?”
“Nick, I’m as confused as you. Me as judge and jury? No way. Yes, I know about DNA, but I’m not quick at logic, as you could tell. I have to work at things. And right now I don’t know where the aliens are, or the cavemen are, or where water is. I just stabbed at the globe where Gabe told me. For all I know, we’re bugs in their microscope. Or about to get zapped by space lasers.”
I stopped and turned, wind blowing the green-gold grass into waves like the sea. “I’m about to be slain by a light-sword?”
She gestured toward the lions. “I think devoured is more likely. Or killed by malaria. Rabies. Gangrene.”
“Ellie, I’m struggling not to scream here.”
“Sometimes you don’t get to scream. You do what you have to do.”
I looked at her. Cute. Grim. Determined. Expectant. Here’s another thing about girls: They make you honest about yourself. Suck it up, Brynner. So I did my best to look resolute. You’re not dead yet. “Okay. What we have to do is find shelter before nightfall.” I offered her the water again. “One swallow. No more.”
She nodded, her eyes betraying worry.
The savanna began to climb toward the beckoning fortress of boulders. It was odd geology, a rumple of rocks protruding like pimples. There were trees growing in the crevices. A few outlier trees on the grassy plain looked as prim and planted as a park, with that flat-topped acacia look like pictures I’d seen of Africa. They had pretty yellow bark, their branches as graceful as the track of a sable watercolor brush that Ms. Perkins had shown in art class. Their twigs were thorny, however. The trees cast dry shade as the day waned, but we didn’t pause because the rocks offered more security.
“Maybe we can find a cave,” I said. “Now that we’re cavemen.”
Near the base of the rocks there was a jumble of white in the grass. At first I thought it was weathered sticks or branches, but when we stooped, reality rang our bell. They were bones.
A wildebeest skull, horns still attached, eye sockets empty, nestled in the soil. Nearby ribs curved upward like a gigantic comb. Leg bones were tumbled like chopsticks.
And when I reached to pick up a bone a snake undulated, revealing its perfect camouflage, and slithered away. I jumped back. The serpent was as long as my arm and lethal as a power cable. Fortunately, it wanted to get away from me as much as I wanted to get away from it, and disappeared into the grass.
I looked at Ellie, who had instinctively grabbed my elbow, eyes wide. Don’t scream, don’t scream, don’t scream . . .
“Vote me off the island.”