A falling sensation swept over Mark Loring, as if the floor in the domed chamber was no longer solid. He shut his eyes. When he opened them again, the chamber was gone, replaced by a broad meadow at the edge of a shadowed forest, the air laced with the scent of distant storm. He zipped his heavy jacket tighter. Although it was summertime, here in the Ice Age it already felt like autumn.
Hello, Mark, said a tall, balding man in a green slicker. Dr. Davitch, the Project Director, waved him closer. Thanks for coming. We have a... situation with your cousin.
Whats happened? Marks stomach lurched. Time travel always left him a little queasy, but this was worse. Behind him, a faded nylon tent fluttered in the breeze. Empty cartons and wrappers lay scattered about a fire pit. From the looks of the ashes, it had been a long time since anyone had built a fire in it. Wheres Carl?
Before Davitch could answer, Kyle Lefever, a student intern not many years older than Mark, crawled out of the tent. Lorings gone, all right. He held up a small device on a neck chain. He left his beacon but took his cameras.
Gone where? The knot in Marks stomach tightened.
I was hoping you might know. Davitch hesitated. Youve spent time with him here at the watching post. Did Carl ever take you outside the bubble? Mark shook his head, shocked at the idea.
No way. We never left the containment field. Mark stared at the faint blur that surrounded them like a soap bubble. The field kept wild animals from wandering too close, and more importantly, masked the small camp from view. The regulations were clear. No one strayed outside the bubble, no matter how much they wanted to see what lay beyond. Carl was really strict about that.
Was he? Davitch sounded doubtful. Carls a sharp kid. He could be one of the best wildlife photographers in the business someday. But, it may have been a mistake to leave a college freshman unsupervised back here.
Far away, a long, discordant note echoed off the ice-crowned peaks. The trumpeting made the hair on Marks neck stiffen. As much as this world might resemble home, he knew better. Fifty-thousand years stood between where he was now, and where he had been born. The Watcher program existed to study, discretely, the lost past. It was expensive - and dangerous - but the returns outweighed the risks, Carl had explained the first time he came back to the Pleistocene. It all made perfect sense then. Now, Mark wasnt so certain.
Why would he leave camp?
Because hes a glory hound, Lefever muttered.
The images Carl transmitted are good, Davitch explained. But theyve all been shot from a distance. Every report he sent back complained how far away the mammoths stayed from the bubble. He constantly asked permission to go outside. Of course, I refused, but that doesnt mean he listened. Carl has a lot of drive. Maybe too much.
You think he left just to get some pictures? Marks eyes widened. I dont believe it. If Carls outside, then hes in trouble. We have to find him.
Without his beacon? Davitch took the little device from Lefever. Where would we start? Tonight, well send up flares. Hopefully, that will draw him in.
What if it doesnt?
Then, we leave without him. Davitch sighed. Were shutting this post down. The time gate that leads here is unstable. We cant hold it open much longer. Tomorrow, were going to close it permanently.
But... A note of panic crept into Marks throat. That means Carl would be stranded.
Im sorry, son, Davitch said softly. But thats just the way it is.
Strange constellations wheeled overhead. Centuries would pass, Mark knew, before the night sky took on its familiar shape. The idea made him feel isolated and small. He shielded his eyes as a crimson flare shot upward and hung against the darkness before it finally sputtered out.
Fire another one? Lefever reached into the carton, but Davitch shook his head.
No. Well try again at daybreak. Davitch picked up the lantern, the shadows swinging around him as he moved toward the tent. Might as well turn in.
Think Ill stay out here a while, just in case. Mark edged closer to the fire, the night wind bitter. Davitch lifted the lantern higher and stared at him.
Youre not considering going out alone to find your cousin, are you?
Mark stared at the flickering coals, ashamed that his thoughts were so transparent. A tired smile creased Davitchs face.
I know you want to help, but going out there... He nodded toward the forest. That would only mean two of you stranded here. The Pleistocene is a dangerous place. More dangerous than you realize. As if on cue, a wolfs howl lifted above the wind. Mark shivered.
What if Carls injured? We have to find him.
No. Davitchs voice was stern. It would take days just to search the immediate area, and we simply dont have the time. Carl knew the risks when he stepped outside the bubble.
Marks shoulders slumped. Davitch was right, but that didnt make it any easier. A thousand thoughts raced through his mind as he crawled inside the tent, his sleeping bag small defense against the ice in his soul.
* * *
Sleep was a long time coming, and when it did, uneasy dreams hounded him. Mark ran through an endless forest, but no matter where he turned, he heard Carls voice. Come on, kiddo. You know where to find me.
He bolted awake. The tent fluttered, a soft counterpoint to Lefevers snoring. Quietly, Mark pulled on his boots and coat, then slipped outside. A pale glow brightened the horizon, dawn not far off. He stared at the skyline and tried to understand his dream. Since he could remember, Carl had been his hero, the big brother he never had. How could he even think of abandoning him? His eyes drifted toward a flat-topped bluff a few miles from camp. Suddenly, he remembered.
If I ever went outside the containment field, Carl had told him on his last trip back, Thats where Id go. Thats where the mammoths hang. At the time, Mark thought it was joke. Now, he realized it had been a message. A cold breeze blew down his neck as he made his decision
He stepped toward the bubble, but paused near the box of flares. On an impulse he stuffed one of the thin cylinders in his back pocket. Though he couldnt see the containment field, he felt it the moment he crossed the border, as if a thousand ants scurried over his body. The tingling worsened the further he moved. Just when he was ready to turn back, the effect vanished. Mark glanced back at the tent, but saw only a shimmering blur. Before he could change his mind, he zipped his jacket tighter and started into the shadows.
Behind him, a twig snapped. He spun around as Lefever seemed to step out of thin air. What are you doing?
What am I doing? Lefever glared at him. Stopping you from doing something stupid. Do you really think you can find anybody out here?
Maybe not, but Ive got to try. He left Lefever at the edge of the bubble and started toward the forest. He thought he heard the intern following him, but when he glanced back, saw nothing. More alone than he had ever felt, Mark took a deep breath and moved on.
Frost glinted on the yellowed grass as first light crested the ridge. Mark picked up his pace, desperate to find his cousin before the time gate closed. He followed a winding stream to the base of the low bluff, then, reluctantly, started uphill.
I must be crazy, he muttered, out of breath as he climbed past an outcrop of weathered granite poking up between stands of tall spruce trees. It seemed so normal that he had to remind himself he was still in the distant past. Again, he heard the strange trumpeting, this time much closer. Sunlight slanted through the trees as he topped the ridge and crept to the edge of a sloping meadow.
He sank to one knee, amazed. A huge mammoth cow stood at the edge of the clearing, so close he could taste her dank scent on the back of his throat. In front of her, its shaggy fur still wet, stood a calf only minutes old. The cow curled her trunk protectively around the wobbly newborn. Entranced, Mark inched closer.
Something grabbed him from behind. Off-balance, he tumbled backwards. A thick hand clamped over his mouth.
Shhh... Dont get her riled up. They make elephants look timid when theyre threatened.
Carl? Mark stared up from the damp ground. His cousin grinned at him. His hair and beard had grown out, but he seemed healthy.
Thank goodness I found you, Mark whispered. We need to get back to camp.
In a minute. Carl raised an expensive digital camera to his eye.
We have to go now. Davitch is shutting down the gate. He glanced at his wristwatch. We need to get back.
Not yet. Carl pointed toward the base of a twisted fir tree on the other side of the clearing. This might be the shot Ive been waiting for.
Mark squinted. At first he saw nothing. Then, barely visible, he saw a tawny shape crouched low to the ground. Silently, Carl passed the camera to him. Through the lens, Mark could see the cat more clearly. The saber-tooth was young, on the verge of starvation, but from the thick incisors that curled over its lips it was already deadly. Suddenly, the cats head snapped up.
I think we should go, he whispered. Before he could say anything else, a blaring voice cut through the still air. Shocked, Mark watched Lefever blunder out of the trees.
Hello? Quit playing games and answer me. Lefevers jaw dropped as he spotted the mammoth and her calf. He never saw the cat. Instinctively, Mark dropped the camera and jumped to his feet.
Mark, no! Carl tried to grab him, but missed.
Unsure what else to do, Mark sprinted toward Lefever, but his feet tangled in the tall grass and he sprawled face first. Something poked him in the small of his back. He had forgotten about the flare. Hands shaking, he grabbed the little tube.
Get down! Mark shouted as he stood up and pulled the trigger ring. The tube jumped in his hand as the flare shot out. Confused, Lefever threw his arms over his head. The flare whooshed past him and exploded in a scatter of sparks against the gnarled tree. The saber-tooth screamed in rage as it jumped and twisted in mid-air, then vanished into the shadows. Relieved, Mark let the empty tube clatter to the ground.
Too late, he remembered the mammoths. The earth shook, and before he could dodge, the cow struck him with her trunk. He caught a brief glimpse of her tiny, red-rimmed eye before sky and earth whirled around him as she tossed him high in the air. Mark lit hard, pain racing up his left leg. He tried to rise but his knee buckled. On hands and knees, Mark scrabbled desperately toward the tree line.
Hey, girl! Over here!
Carl stood beside the frightened calf, waving his arms. The cow spun around and charged. Mark watched in horror as his cousin raced over the open ground, the furious mammoth only inches behind as he dived into the timber. Seeing the diversion, Mark straggled behind a fallen log. Lefever joined him a heartbeat later.
Weve got to help Carl. He tried to stand, but his knee refused to bear him. Lefever caught him and eased him down against the log. To Marks relief, Carl slipped through the trees, out of breath, but alive. An angry trumpet echoed across the meadow as the mammoth gathered up her calf and hurried away.
You okay? Carl asked.
I think his knees dislocated, Lefever answered for him. Lets get him back to the watching post.
Right. Carl reached down toward Mark, then paused. Hang on a sec. Without explanation, Carl jogged off. He returned a moment later, camera in hand. Mark blinked as the flash went off.
What are you doing? Lefever stammered.
Ive been waiting months for the perfect shot. Carl took another picture of Mark, then slung the camera over his neck. Looks like I finally got it.
Despite the throbbing pain, Mark grinned as they helped him up. You guys mind if we talk about this later? Id like to go home. For once, to his surprise, nobody argued.
Justin Stanchfield's stories have appeared in over seventy publications, including Boys' Life and Cricket. A private pilot, guitar player and paintball target, he is considered by many to be the world's worst snowboard rider. He
lives with his wife and two kids on a Montana cattle ranch a stone's throw from the Continental Divide.