Note From A Triceratops

Standard
Digital drawing. The fossil of a triceratops, seen head on from a three-quarters profile, facing left, is either etched in a sandy stone slab, or is standing in front of the slab. The slab is etched with scratches and fern leaf stems.

You think you know our story.  The asteroid.  The extinction.  The line of descendants who succeeded in taking to the air in ways we never did, never could.

I stopped writing and dropped my pen.  I glanced up at the monitor that displayed a magnified image.  And shifted my gaze over to the already withering leaf mounted on the simple light microscope. 

It was my imagination.  It had to be.

No…it was a message.  But it couldn’t just be a message.  How did they know about birds? 

I pushed back from the desk and squeezed my eyes shut.  I felt moisture at the edges of my lids.  I should have gone to bed a few hours ago.

I had work tomorrow.  Correction.  I had my job to go to tomorrow. 

This was my work.  This translation.

This message that proved that the first sentient species on Earth was not humans.

It was the dinosaurs.

***

Pity us not, descendant. We abided on this earth for tens of millions of years.

How long with you last?

The message was everywhere.  It was left so that it would be easy to find for anyone who knew what they were looking for, and anyone who looked closely enough.  In the leaves of any tree, the scales of any reptile, the feathers of any bird…the face of any human. 

So I knew I should have gone to bed.  I could find another leaf the next day.  But I was on a roll.  I finally stopped when I felt that strange pressure in my head that feels like a headache is coming on, and when I saw how droopy my eyes looked in the mirror at my next bathroom break. 

I left my own message, calling in sick at work, before I turned off all my alarms and went to bed.  I couldn’t get to sleep right away.  I tossed and turned, even though I was all used up for the day.

My mind kept shifting between ideas for how to organize the translations, and who to approach to help me verify the translations, and potential reactions I would get.  I didn’t have enough bandwidth left to consider what effects the knowledge would have on the public.

They could check for themselves.  Anyone could check.  But that didn’t mean people would.  And the message wasn’t static.  It was shifting, adapting.  Over the years, the centuries, the millennia, it had adjusted according to the changes that the planet and its inhabitants went through.

My stomach began to gurgle, when I realized that what was wonderful to me might be abhorrent to someone else.

And what do people do when they find something to be abhorrent?

I’d be lucky if it stopped at rejection and ridicule.

I tried to block those thoughts, swat them away when they came.  The only way to do that was to think about the translation.  After almost three years of searching and stumbling—and that wasn’t such a long time, come to think of it—I’d finally found the key that unlocked the door.  All the doors.  

All the doors to a mystery that I never knew existed. 

***

This will sound silly, because to some extent, it is.  But the notion that dinosaurs were sentient—not just intelligent, but self-aware—came to me when I visited the new exhibit at the Natural History museum.  And it wasn’t the animatronic raptors that got me.  Or even the reasonable notion that a clade of reptiles existing for millions of years as the dominant lifeforms on the planet should surely have developed higher intelligence and consciousness. 

No, it was the look in the eye of one specific triceratops, head tilted up to the sky.  A human being crafted that eye.  And sure, we tend to want to see ourselves in other animals, our fellow Earthlings.  But…it just got me thinking.

***

Three years and three weeks later, here is what I’ve just discovered in the translations so far.  (Whoever wrote the message, whether it was one or many, had a knack for getting to the point.)

They’d suffered through other calamities before.  Ice ages.  Epidemics.  They had weathered drastic changes in their society caused by mass migrations and genetic mutations.  Many billions had lived their everyday lives.  And then…

When the first sky-searchers alerted us that the asteroid’s trajectory led to a direct collision with the planet, we did not want to believe it. 

As far as we had advanced, we were not capable of shifting the course of an asteroid.  We had no place for all to shelter.  We had no means to leave the planet.  The first of our stellar travelers were still undergoing testing and had only managed to reach low orbit.  All but a few had suffered illness from their trip.  The studies were inconclusive as to the cause.  Were the modifications to their physiologies insufficient?  Or were the modifications themselves the cause?  Or some combination?  We did not have time.  If we had another million years—half a million—then perhaps we would find a solution. 

But we had less than a decade before we were to suffer the greatest calamity of our age.

***

It was a lark at first.  I definitely mentioned it to other people.  I was starting a new personal quest.  I wanted to find some indications in all the existing artifacts and knowledge we had about them that dinosaurs were sentient.

I figured there must be someone out there who already thought so.  Storytellers definitely did.  I found no lack of fiction, shows, and movies about sentient dinos.  I thought I’d find at least one scientist who thought so too.  I didn’t really know about the current status of dinosaur research or knowledge.  The museum had a fossil display about how dinosaurs, or some of them maybe, had feathers.  And that modern birds were the only surviving descendants of the so-called “terrible lizards.”

I didn’t find anyone credible who thought that dinosaurs evolved sentience, or that they could have even if they hadn’t gone extinct. 

“Where’s the evidence?” they’d ask me.

I have the answer now, but it wouldn’t have satisfied them. 

The evidence was destroyed.  The evidence of how most species of dinosaur developed intelligence because of some shift in the tectonic plates that led to the evolution of an oxygen-concentrating organ, right next to their brains.  Like us, they had to get smarter to survive.

Unlike us—so far, at least—they had tens of millions of years to keep getting smarter and wiser.

***

They saw it coming.

And at first they were helpless.  Despite how far they’d come in their hundred-million-plus years of existence, they were helpless to stop the asteroid that was headed right for them.  So they didn’t stop it.

But they didn’t stay helpless either.

The so-called mass extinction of the dinosaurs preceded the advent of the asteroid that supposedly wiped them out. 

They saw it was coming.

They did something to save themselves.  And as many other creatures as they could.

Before humanity, they were the custodians of the Earth.  And they were better at it.  They were so good at it that no apparent evidence of their sentience made it through the eons that passed between them and the advent of the next sentient species.

They prepared to evacuate the planet before the asteroid struck.  But unlike humanity’s concept of evacuation, building ships and leaving with their physical forms, the dinosaurs evacuated by leaving their bodies.  They couldn’t save their planet.  They couldn’t flee their planet.  So in the ten years that they had left, they shifted all their genius, all their resources, into coming up with some way to save their souls.

***

“So all the dinosaurs went to heaven?” Tom said.

I felt my brow wanting to crinkle and fought back a frown.  I was the one who’d invited him over for dinner.  I was the one who’d decided my brother was the person I’d trust to break the news of my discovery to.  Tom would have a healthy level of skepticism, while also being open to the possibility that I was right.

“So…where are they now?” he continued.  “Did they go out into the cosmos, to explore and roam, no longer tethered to one planet and one form?   Or are they still walking the Earth?” 

“I know it’s a paradigm shift—“ 

“I’ll say.  What you’re claiming would be the biggest shift since…” 

“Since people started accepting that the Earth revolves around the sun?”

Tom set his fork down.  “You know, when you said you had a big announcement, something you wanted me to give my sincere opinion about, I honestly thought you were going to tell me you’re leaving your job to start your own company.  Beth even asked me to put in a good word, if you were looking to hire an executive assistant anytime soon.” He smiled.  “Said she’s tired of working for incompetent bosses.”

I glanced down at my plate.  “I guess I’ve disappointed you both, then.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed.  Just confused.  You’ve never mentioned any of this before.  Dinosaurs?  Since when are you into dinosaurs?”

***

A week passed and I translated more and more of the message.  It was time-consuming and painstaking, but I was making progress every day.  That’s more than I can say for the early days.  I’d found myself on the path of searching for evidence of any kind of “writings.”  They wouldn’t be in the form that humans are familiar with—stone tablets, scratches on papyrus leaves, or that kind of thing.  The writings I was looking for would be right in front of me.  So I was told.

What had slowed me down during those first three years was that I seemed to be finding different “characters” and constructions in the language.  And I was certain I wouldn’t be able to learn and all translate all the different dinosaur languages.  I was surprised, at first, at the discovery of multiple languages.  But I shouldn’t have been.

Humans have many languages and dialects. Why wouldn’t the dinosaurs? 

But then, humans have attempted to devise a universal language.  So why wouldn’t the dinosaurs?

That’s when I started looking for commonalities.  And once I started looking, it all came together.  They had indeed devised a universal language.  Not just one that was universal to all dinosaurs, but one that could be read by any intelligent and self-aware species on Earth.

It wasn’t a mistake telling Tom.  I just told him too soon.  The first person I had to prove my discovery to was myself.  Humans are all about seeing patterns and assigning meaning even when there may be no particular pattern or meaning.   I had to be sure that the message I was reading was coming from my objective observation, and not from the delirium of sleep deprivation.  I had to rest and sleep.  I had to get back to my work-outs.  (I’d skipped a few days.)  I had to be in top form.  Sharp mind.  Fit body.  Sound logic.

Humans have been trying to figure out what dinosaurs looked like and acted like for a long while now.  But we’ve been trying to put together a puzzle when we don’t have the picture on the box.  And we only have a tiny fraction of the pieces.

There’s plenty of room in those gaps for what I believe to be true.

***

You are like us. Curious. Intrepid.  You are unlike us.  Arrogant. Reckless.  Where we grew like the fern, you grow like the wildflower. 

The more I translate, the more determined I am.  I won’t be deterred from pursuing what is certainly a profound discovery, not a preposterous delusion.  But…

I want to keep it to myself.  I want to be by myself in their world.  No other humans allowed.  But…

I want to share it.  Not with some naysaying academic.  Not with some passionless corporate minion.  But with all those kids who love dinosaurs.  Those kids who wish they could talk to their dogs.  With all the people my age who used to be that kid, who would be afraid to know what I know—at first—but who would be willing and able to take that first step in learning the truth about our ancestors.    

I can have both.  I can keep it to myself for now.  I can do the work in the margins of my life—making sure I spend the right amount of time on family, friends, and obligations.  I can slowly widen those margins.  And start inviting others in when the time is right.  When I have more proof. 

I’m beginning to suspect that it might have been just one, one dinosaur, one…person.  And because this person is addressing the reader directly, it’s easy for me to imagine sitting at my dining table with a triceratops, hearing the message directly in the voice of the writer. 

There’s nothing in the message about the writer being a triceratops.  It’s just that they were my favorite.  They are…my favorite.

I can keep it to myself for now.  But someday I’ll have to share.  Even if no one believes it.  The message itself tells me so.

***

We were the first.  May we not be the last.  May you not be the last. 

You, who have inherited all we once had.  You, who have found the remnants of us in this great chronicle.  First you found our bones.  You found our images imprinted in the stone of the time when we walked and breathed and contemplated upon the planet you now calls yours.  You have collected the pieces and put them together as best you can.

You think you know our story.  The asteroid.  The extinction.  The line of descendants who succeeded in taking to the air in ways we never did, never could.

But you are all descended from us.  For you are all the children of Earth.


Copyright © 2021  Nila L. Patel

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