A special thank you to Preston Stone for his generous permission in using this week’s episode artwork!
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
Dinosaur Dreams in Infinite Measure
by Rachael K. Jones
Mom had hands like dinosaur bones: fragile at a glance, but old and strong, hardened by time and pressure. Fossils endure. My mother had endured 80 years already, through disease and bereavement, through a long career ended in humiliation and disgrace, and now this final insult: her own daughter demanding she leave it all behind, the house and farm and everything in it.
“I’ve worked hard for this house. I worked for everything I ever had.” Her voice was a tight, tense warble. Fossil-hard fingers bent around a mug painted with a cowgirl on a lavender T-rex, lasso roping round the handle.
It wasn’t just the house, not really. Primrose Farms Poultry had forced her from her life’s work as an industrial engineer, and thanks to an intellectual property clause, Mom hadn’t even kept the rights to her own inventions.
“No one’s trying to take away your stuff,” I told her gently. “We’re just worried about you, alone out here and with the animals, and the house like this.” The farm was expensive, too. The upkeep outstripped its worth.
“I can take care of it myself. I’ll clean it up. I just need time.”
The kitchen looked shabbier than usual. A stack of textbooks took up most of the table: engineering, animal anatomy, evolutionary biology, paleontology. The top one read Principles of Gene Manipulation. The house had accumulated snowdrifts of clutter over the years. A baby gate held back a tidal wave of dirty clothes from the laundry room. Usually a pink stuffed bunny sat crammed against the bars. Uncle Louis called it The Convict, but it had gone missing today. I plucked a folded sheet of heavy orange construction paper from the table, the creases grayed with age. One of my childhood paintings, a long, skinny purple splotch labeled BRONTOSAURUS in neat adult block letters.
“See, stuff like this is the problem. You need to let go of this sentimental crap.”
She swiped the drawing from me and tucked it into the genetics book’s cover. “That’s not yours anymore.” Her tone was bitter, like pith.
“Brontosaurus isn’t even a real dinosaur, you know,” I said. I meant it as a joke, but her mouth sagged into a frown, creases wrought by years of disappointment standing out like canyons.
“You have no idea what I know and don’t know, Liza,” she snapped. “Truth is, you never did.”
It stung. In my childhood, Mom had wanted me to follow her footsteps into science. She’d been bitterly disappointed when I became a music teacher instead. I don’t think she ever forgave my rejection of something so important to her. But even still.
“That may well be true. But the real estate agent’s coming next week.”
I finished my drink and showed myself to the door, letting the screen bang shut behind me. My head felt hot and heavy, like superheated tar. I decided to take a stroll, clear my thoughts before heading home. Best to see what shape the property was in, anyway.
In the chicken yard, some hideous demon-birds about the size of a golden retriever clustered around a dead rooster, tearing wet strips from the bones with sharp little teeth. Wicked black talons tipped their stubby, arm-like wings. My stomach lurched. One demon-bird snapped its head up and peered at me sideways, its pupil a vertical slit, like a rattlesnake’s. Those black, fingerlike claws unsettled me. Something wasn’t right.
I followed the gravel path toward the barn where Mom kept a few horses. A wheelbarrow sat beside the door, piled with an odd tangle of papers, pickle jars, a bucket of bright plastic dinosaur toys, and the large pink bunny that used to live squished against the baby gate. I leafed through the papers. Blue pencil sketches on grid paper—machinery of some sort, stamped with the Primrose Farms logo.
A cow lowed in the field outside the barn, and something answered it in a rising tone, like a question. Beneath a pecan tree, an animal reared on its hind legs to grab and shake the lowest branch, eleven feet up.
It had a long, iguana-like body and thick, heavy legs like an elephant’s. A double row of spade-shaped plates ran from head to mid-back, where they changed into giant spikes all the way down its long tail. Another spike jutted backward from each shoulder. On all fours, it was about my height, close in size to a cow, but much longer. It snapped a branch off the pecan tree and ground it to a pulp in its powerful jaws.
An electric thrill shot down my spine. Every hair on my body stood on end, as if I’d plunged into ice water. I flung open the barn doors. Inside was chaos. Leathery lizard heads and spiked tails and horns and wicked claws stomped around inside the stalls. Next to the door, something like the demon-bird, but taller than me, was roped by the neck to a brass ring. It hissed and strained forward. I stumbled into the warm dimness and fumbled for the light switch.
In the room’s center stood a machine, something like a huge metal cube, taller than a refrigerator. A cone-shaped flange big enough for a car drive through faced me, a holding tank with a chute attached to one side.
“Close the door, or you’ll let the raptors out,” said my mom from behind me.
“The… what? Mom, what is all of this?”
Mom rolled the wheelbarrow up to the machine. “It’s a dinosaur engine,” she said.
“A what?” I followed her, because the raptor by the door kept trying to nip my shirt.
“It makes dinosaurs. I invented it.” She opened the hatch covering the big chute and tossed in the giant pink bunny.
It didn’t make any sense. “This is crazy.”
“Grab that stool over there. You can remove the staples.” She jerked her chin toward the wall. A three-legged wooden stool hung among the riding gear and grooming brushes. I lifted it down and settled by the wheelbarrow. Mom passed me a little staple remover. It looked like a T-rex mouth. Chomp, chomp.
“So,” Mom said, “I’m not supposed to talk about any of this because of my non-disclosure agreement, but screw it. They ousted me, so they get what they get. Everyone’s going to find out soon enough, so my daughter might as well hear it first. You want to know the secret behind Primrose cornering the organic chicken market?” She tapped the metal cube, and it rang. “This baby. Or at least, they have the prototype. This is the real deal. I tooled theirs to extrude chickens. When you feed in the right ingredients and calibrate it right, it’ll generate chickens until you turn it off or it runs out of material. They extrude chickens right onto the production line and slaughter them the moment they pop out. They keep a small flock of dummy chickens out in a sunny field somewhere for the inspectors, while this thing cranks out all the meat you need. Poof. Organic meat at a fraction of the cost.”
I wouldn’t have believed her, if not for all the dinosaurs in the barn. “So those, um, chickens in the yard … they’re not chickens,” I said.
Mom shook her head. She unscrewed a pickle jar and tossed in the whole thing, minus the lid. “They’re called Mahakalas. Small raptors, basically. One of my first successes. After all, what’s a chicken, if not a newfangled dinosaur?” She chuckled under her breath. “Primrose doesn’t know crap about my invention. That’s what they get for giving me the boot. But the dinosaurs are mine. My life’s work.”
As I removed the staples and passed Mom the papers, she chucked them into the chute. “Just how long has this been going on?”
“A while.” Mom paused, considered it. “A long while. Decades. It’s taken me some time to figure the prototypes out, to reconstruct them from the clues I could find. I had to guess for some of them. They’re not perfect, but they’re here. And I’m working up to bigger ones. That’s why I need the space, Liza. Don’t you see? I can’t move yet. I need more time.”
In the dim, sepia glow of dangling light bulbs, her face took on a lean, hungry look I hadn’t seen since my youth. It scared me. I’d never seen her want something so much. There was pain in that look. Maybe, for some people, the worst thing that could happen might be something that never happened at all.
“Mom. Mom.” My voice broke. She paused her frenetic activity and really considered me. “Mom, where is all this going? You make a lot of dinosaurs, and then what?”
She held my gaze with eyes that were also mine. “That’s it. There is nothing else. It’s enough to have brought them into existence. As many as I can, before they make me stop.” I gaped at her. I had no response for that. But she cracked a gentle grin, and added, “Do you want to see how it works?”
The responsible part of me—the part that held down a job, and called on Mother’s Day, and paid the internet bill once a month—told me to call Uncle Louis immediately. And the police. And maybe Mom’s doctor. But the part of me that really had liked that Brontosaurus drawing and her tacky dinosaur mug, and wondered what it would be like to ride the Tyrant Lizard into the sunset—that part had to know. “Okay. Show me.”
Mom pushed a power button that booted up an LCD in the dinosaur engine’s control panel. “Load the rest of that stuff into the chute. Try to sort out the metal, though. It mucks up the Raccoon.”
“The decompositer. I call it ‘the Raccoon’ because it eats garbage.”
I tossed the junk from the wheelbarrow into the chute. It reeked of pickle juice. The plastic dinosaurs bounced and slid through the brine into the chamber below. Mom pressed a button, and the tank roared to life, churning like a garbage disposal, grinding everything to a pulp.
“It’s separating the compounds now,” Mom yelled over the roar. “What should we make?” She turned the screen toward me. It displayed a list of dinosaur names, most of them unfamiliar.
“Where’s the Stegosaurus?” I asked. “I saw one out in the yard.”
Mom shook her head. “Kentrosaurus. Same family, different animal. Like dogs and dingoes. I haven’t tried a Stegosaurus yet. Here, we’ll do another Mahakala. They’re easy.” She tapped out something and hit enter. Now the whole engine roared to life, and together with the Raccoon, it was deafening. Mom lifted down a pole with a loop attached to one end and crouched near the great black flange that faced the barn door. She motioned for me to stand clear.
The dinosaur engine kicked into a frenzy, and then suddenly cut off. Something chickenish catapulted from the dark hole with a loud lizardy shriek, flapping its arm-like wings before it hit the floor. Mom quickly lassoed the Mahakala’s neck and tightened the noose so she now controlled it at pole’s length. She offered me the stick. “Take it out to the chicken coop, will you?”
I obeyed, trotting down the road with a tiny raptor scurrying ahead of me, screaming its panic until I released it into the yard with the others. Back outside the barn, the Stegosaurus—Kentrosaurus, I corrected myself—lazed in the sun with two unconcerned cows.
“So, that’s how it works,” Mom said when I returned. She leaned against her invention, a woman in her element. “Any questions?”
It was so impossible. It was marvelous. Something long-dormant inside me re-awoke, the part that believed in infinite wonder. “Can we do another?” I asked, a little shyly. “Do you have a T-rex in there?”
Mom scrolled through the list. A black and white T-rex skeleton loaded on screen. “The only trouble is feeding in enough material for the decompositer. I’m limited by what the tank can hold. This guy is big, though.” She rubbed her chin. “Maybe, maybe we could pull it off, if we keep feeding the engine while it’s extruding. It’ll take hours, anyway. You’ll help?”
“What do you want me to do?”
Mom toed the wheelbarrow. “Fill this up with whatever you can find. Remember, not too much metal. Then load it in. I’ll get the program going.”
Once the dinosaur engine roared on, Mom and I hurried back to the house. She threw open the sliding glass doors on the porch so we could roll the wheelbarrow right into the living room, then we raided the clutter. Mom grabbed anything she could reach: old plastic high school trophies, Halloween costumes, brand-new bed sheets in their packaging, dog toys, potpourri sachets, mittens. I followed her lead. When we had a full load, we rolled it back to the barn and loaded the chute. The tank had already drained 10% according to the gauge, so we went back for more.
I felt astonished when Mom threw it all in without comment or complaint. All the irretrievable memories, fed into the dinosaur engine in hope of extruding something terrible, something beautiful.
On our fifth trip back from the house, the dinosaur began to emerge snout-first, those wicked teeth slicked with saliva. Mosaic scales covered its snout, giving way to feathers behind the brows. Those deep black eyes, bestial, alive, flickered around the room as it struggled and tossed for a body still materializing in the engine’s bowels.
“We’d better get a rope in its jaw while we still have the chance,” my mom said after we made another trip. She wiped sweat and dust from her cheeks and squatted down for a breather. “I think we’ll put it in the south pasture. Plenty of space, electric fencing, cows to eat.”
“Well, it’s true.” She fixed me with a glare almost as reproachful as the T-rex’s. “It needs to eat something. If we let it go hungry, it’ll be dangerous.”
I realized at that point I should have called Uncle Louis and the police hours ago, but it was too late now. I wanted to see the T-rex roam free.
“Where do you keep the rope?”
It turned out that anything that big and wild isn’t so easy for two people to wrangle. Fortunately, the T-rex was a little dazed when it flopped, newborn and trembling, upon the floor. I brought my pick-up around and attached the leads to the trailer hitch. In the meantime, the King of Lizards helped herself to a couple of Mom’s larger raptors in the barn, but we didn’t mind. They were easy enough to extrude. Using the truck, we led the beast by her jaw up to the south pasture and let her free.
I don’t know how to describe the feeling, watching her stand and run on those huge, thick legs that shook the earth, her banded black-and-tan feathers like sunlight flooding through cage bars. I knew, though, that I couldn’t betray Mom now. I would have to see this through to the end.
Like most kids, at one point in my childhood, I wanted to be a paleontologist. I was over the moon when, for my eleventh birthday, my family made the nine-hour drive to Washington, D.C. to visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
“Dinosaurs! That way!” Mom grabbed my hand and hauled me forward, but stopped short. I rammed into her legs. “Oh, no.” A temporary carpet-board wall blocked off the exhibit’s central room: Under Renovation: Coming In The Fall.
“You mean we can’t see any dinosaurs at all?” I worried at my lower lip with sharp incisors.
She paged through the brochure. “Well, they’ve got some paleontologists doing restoration work on a Tyrannosaurus skull a little further down. How about we take a look?”
“Okay. I guess. If we have to.”
Down the hallway, the fake wall opened into a grating like malls use when they’re closing for the night. Behind it, four people in jeans tapped at computers and completely ignored us. On the closest workbench lay the Tyrannosaurus skull. I’d never seen a skull so big. I held my arm against the grate and compared it to those teeth. I tried to picture what the skull would look like with skin on, how the teeth would gleam when slicked with saliva. I ran my tongue over my canines and bit down just until my tongue hurt.
Those fangs must have eaten things when the dinosaur was alive. It had gotten so big. How long did it take a T-rex to grow up? I wondered.
“What do you think, Liza? Do you want to work there someday?” My mom flicked on the camera.
Around me, other kids and their parents piled in, watching the scientists raptly. I didn’t get it. They weren’t doing anything particularly interesting. They weren’t tinking at bones with chisels. They weren’t wearing lab coats, or even khakis like a paleontologist should. It wasn’t what I’d pictured when I said I wanted to study dinosaurs. There, in the presence of the Tyrannosaurus skull, while everyone gaped at the scientists as if they were bears in a zoo, I felt that dream fade away, leaving a little numb spot. Mom snapped the shutter, and the flash flared. One scientist shot her a dirty look.
I shrugged and studied my shoelaces. “I dunno. It’s okay, I guess. Let’s go see the mummies now.”
I started down the hall, but Mom didn’t follow. She lingered, fingers interlaced in the grating, gazing at the scientists, her face contorted in a hungry, spare expression as if she were seeing something ephemeral, something she’d never set eyes on again.
“Mo-om!” I yelled. “Come on.”
She turned, and for a second it was as if she didn’t see me. “Oh,” she said. “I’m going to pop into the restroom. I’ll meet you at the mummies.”
Later, when she found me, Mom pressed a gift shop bag into my hand. “So you can remember seeing a dinosaur the first time,” she said. I unwrapped the heavy thing inside. It was a mug with a cowgirl riding a lavender T-rex.
I called Uncle Louis and made excuses to delay the real estate agent. “I don’t know how we’re going to sell the place, with all her garbage in there,” he said, but I told him not to worry.
Mom was spinning garbage into gold.
Together we made a list. Mom worked tirelessly on her computer with the genetics books fanned around her in concentric circles, while I hauled material from the house to feed the Raccoon. In went Mom’s porcelain place setting for twelve, the one patterned in blue cornflowers. Out came a dun-colored Allosaurus and two Triceratops. In went my high school yearbooks. Out came a Dimetrodon and a peacock-tailed Archaeopteryx. My baby clothes got us Pachycephalosaurus. Her wedding portrait in its heavy oak frame gave us a flock of quick-footed Compsognathus specimens. By the end of the week, the floor was cleared in every room of the house. When it got too dark to work in the barn, I vacuumed and dusted the empty spaces until exhaustion took me.
The farm was utter chaos. We couldn’t find three of the cows anywhere. Putting the Giganotosaurus and T-rex in the same pasture turned out to be a big mistake, even after tethering them to separate trees. Once they caught wind of each other, the ropes gave out, and they got territorial. I could hear their battle-roars from the shower. I toweled off in a hurry, dressed, and chased the T-rex around with my truck until Mom could rope her and lead her to a different field. It all struck me as terribly irresponsible, but there was so little time.
“What’s next on the list?” Mom would say. “What’s next?” That fierce determination never left her for an instant. For years, I’d considered her a fragile old lady, but now I saw that I’d misjudged her. Here was a woman at the height of her power. Her mind brimmed with dinosaurs until they spilled out into reality, and the world would never be the same because of it.
We made long-winged Pterodactyls. We made an ill-tempered, sluggish Ankylosaurus which took down a paddock with one strike of its tail. Dinosaur dung lay everywhere. Some hunted each other. Some mated. The Mahakalas ushered little reptilian hatchlings around the chicken yard. Mom made enormous omelets with runny whites and yolks the size of my palm, and served them with a side of Iguanodon bacon.
“What’s next?” she asked while the engine rested from a round of Protoceratops extrusion.
“I don’t think the dinosaur engine is big enough for a sauropod,” I said. “It might break the machine. I think we might be done.”
Mom grabbed the notebook and trailed a finger down the list, each name checkmarked and dated. The house was nearly clean now. All the furniture vacuumed, all the closets tidied. “No, we’re not done yet. We haven’t made you a Brontosaurus.”
I snorted, but she looked dead serious. “You know that’s not a real thing. They never existed, Mom. They were a mistake. It was just an Apatosaurus with the wrong skull.”
She smiled a secret smile, a wicked one, the grin of a woman who won’t hear no, because she could make her own yes. “They’ll exist now.”
But sauropods were big. Big. They made the other dinosaurs look like a child’s action figures. “The Raccoon’s going to need a lot of stuff.”
“Well, you’d better get moving, then,” she said, pulling up schema on her computer.
“No, Mom,” I said, trying again. “You don’t understand. It’s going to take everything. We’d have to empty your whole place—furniture, mattresses, fridge, clothes—everything. Heck, we’ll probably need curtains and carpet, and everything in the tool shed for that matter.”
She tossed the notebook into the chute. “Pack me a suitcase.”
I finally understood. She’d known. She’d known about the finances—why wouldn’t she? Mom was brilliant, competent—I’d underestimated her. She hadn’t needed me or Uncle Louis policing her decisions, telling her what she’d already known years ago. She’d planned this so that she could leave on her own terms.
I’d always loved my mom for the unwavering faith she put in me. In that moment, I realized I liked her, too.
We moved the dinosaur engine to the driveway. The Brontosaurus needed room to stand as it extruded. The stars were radiant in the 4:00 AM dark. We drank coffee in silence. I’d gotten the cowgirl mug this time. She sipped from a handmade clay mug, a gift for my grandmother in her own girlhood. We tossed our cups down the chute when we finished, then we got to work, hauling and breaking furniture to feed to the Raccoon.
The Brontosaurus head emerged around sunrise. It towered over me when it wobbled out on a shaky neck, blinking in the new sun. It opened its mouth—such huge, flat teeth!—and lowed. I stroked the ridge above its eye, and that seemed to calm it. It pressed its nose into my middle and snuffled, its hot, moist breath sucking and pulling at my clothes.
“We’re going to need a lot more stuff,” Mom said from the porch. With each trip to the machine, the neck got longer and thicker until the whole body was straining at the flange. The Brontosaurus lowed its distress, this time louder. The dinosaur engine shook and bounced and rattled on its wheels, and the power dimmed and flickered. It was like watching a live birth.
By noon, the Brontosaurus stood on treetrunk front legs, and its neck extended past the chicken yard, where it chewed up the blueberry bushes with muscular jaws. By 3:00 PM, the hind legs cleared the flange. Mom hobbled the legs with rope to keep it from moving before the tail was done.
The last foot of tail finally snapped free after 7:00 PM. By then, we’d emptied the house into the Raccoon, even the bedroom doors and the carpet. One of the last things to go in was Mom’s framed PhD.
“It only mattered because of the memories,” Mom said when we added it to the Brontosaurus slurry. “Now we’ll make new ones.”
And then it was over. The dinosaur engine shuddered and switched off, and we cut the hobbling ropes. Mom and I sat arm in arm on my truck’s hood and watched our creation shamble away into the field. With each slow, ponderous step, it fought gravity and won.
How did anything ever get to be so big? How can anything so big ever die?
“This is something entirely new,” said Mom, her weary voice triumphant. “No one has ever seen this before, because it never existed until right this moment. There has never before been a Brontosaurus. Now there is.” Wood snapped and cracked distantly as it took down all the walls and fences in its path. No holding back the dinosaurs anymore. It was out of our hands now.
My mother had done this. All these years, and I’d thought I had her figured out. What hubris, that I’d ever called myself her daughter, having come from her body. But the dinosaurs had come from her mind.
“It’s enough,” I said. “It’s enough to have brought them into existence. Whatever happens next.”
She smiled and ruffled my hair, and she was just my mom again. “Whatever happens, kiddo.”
About the Author
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is now out with Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android.
Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and is an Escape Artists Worldwalker, having been published at all four podcasts.
Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is a former assistant editor of Cast of Wonders, and narrating stories is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a retired roller derby player and current small batch soap maker, for instance. Soaps and balms from StoryTime Soap Company are crafted while listening to audio fiction of all sorts. She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards.