You must see this. Pterosaurs from the late Triassic.” Professor Genta offered Sansone the time-lens.
Sansone aimed the camera at the arch she had indicated. He’d intended only a quick glance at the viewscreen, but what he saw startled him.
Where weathered Colosseum walls should have been, flying reptiles hung aloft against a blue sky, frozen in mid-descent. Roughly the size of swans, the resemblance ended there: Ochre-skinned and cyan-striped, the prehistoric beasts fanned wings more bat-like than bird, trailing long tails tipped with diamond-shaped flaps.
“Remember to breathe,” Genta said.
Sansone zoomed in on the lead pterosaur’s fanged beak. “Incredible.” He tried another vantage point to better see the creature’s eye. Black pupil, scarlet iris, seeming to stare at a tasty morsel from the deep stillness of a forgotten age. Though he knew the creature had been extinct for a couple hundred million years, the details were so true that he’d swear he was looking at a living specimen.
“My turn. I have new species to name after myself,” said the paleontologist, Lorenzon.
Sansone was about to hand over the time-lens when he spied their stalker on the level below, mingling with the tourists. He’d first noticed the man in the faded olive shirt tailing them shortly after they left Sapienza University. He thought he’d seen the last of the scamp after he rushed his charges onto the subway. How did the bastard find them again so fast? No one was supposed to know where the researchers were heading, unless one of them was in league with the stalker to steal the time-lens.
Stalling for time, Sansone glanced at the viewscreen: giant conifers from a bird’s-eye view. “Trees? That’s it? How do you tune this thing for gladiators?” He pretended he was looking at the Triassic, but in truth he was keeping an eye on the crowd.
“It doesn’t work that way. The holoquartz only shows a specific slice of time,” Genta said. “Something happened to that quartz during the Triassic, recording photonic information holographically on a planetary scale. When light passes through the lens, it shows what we would see if you turned back the clock two hundred million years.” That was the physicist’s reason for coming: to figure out how light interacted with the holoquartz lens.
“Am I looking at Rome in the age of dinosaurs, then?”
“Hardly. Have you never heard of plate tectonics?” Lorenzon said with disdain. “We’re at the same longitude and latitude, but Rome wasn’t here during the Triassic. Hell, Eurasia hadn’t even broken off Pangaea back then.” He grabbed for the camera.
“Gentle, Fossils, or I’ll abort this expedition,” Sansone said.
Lorenzon sneered. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Try me. Your Pro-Rector gave me fiat authority. And you’d be surprised how much more deeply I care about the safety of this camera than I care about your research.”
Sansone had insisted, before consenting to this babysitting job, that his brother Ettore make the chain of authority on this little outing very clear. He had warned Ettore against taking the priceless time-lens into the city, but Ettore wouldn’t hear it. I know academics can be a trying lot, Ettore had said. But people like Lorenzon and Genta remain the true assets of this university. They will bring fame to Sapienza, but only if I let them explore and test the limits of the time-lens. We can’t let fear consign us to ignorance.
“Please don’t, Sansone,” Genta said. “This is the first time we’ve been allowed to take the time-lens off campus. Imagine what we can discover in a single day.”
“Listen to her,” Lorenzon said. “I could revolutionize paleontology! We have to map our share of the Triassic before the Americans or the Russians discover what we have.”
“We’re leaving,” Sansone said gruffly. He pushed past a tour group, expecting the professors to follow.
Genta dashed up. “Shouldn’t we spend more time here?”
“You can’t abort now,” Lorenzon said in a huff.
“Abort? No. But we should cover as much ground as possible today.”
“Where to? The Palantine?” Genta asked.
That had been the original plan: the Palantine, the Forum, Circus Maximus. But that itinerary was likely compromised. He mulled over other locations that might interest the two. “We’ll see.”
They had reached the stairwell and were starting down the steps when the stalker came up on the opposite side of the dividing handrails. Tightening his hold on the camera, Sansone stayed as far from the man as he could on the stairs. This was the closest he’d seen him: a thin-lipped man in his twenties with a goatee and dishevelled hair, wearing a knapsack slung over one shoulder like a wide-eyed tourist.
Sansone wished he could see Genta and Lorenzon’s faces behind him, figure out whether they recognized the man.
They passed one another wordlessly. Sansone braced himself for a snatch-and-run. Though it’d be a foolhardy move with no exits nearby, he couldn’t risk the man handing off the camera to an accomplice hidden in the crowd.
It was time to change the game.
Sansone gestured for the professors to go ahead. Genta frowned while Lorenzon glanced at his watch, but both passed him without comment. Sansone wheeled around and aimed the camera up the stairs. As he’d expected, the bastard had started back down the stairs after them. He waved and started snapping pictures. Startled, the man turned away, shielded his face from being photographed, and hurried back to the top of the stairs.
Sansone’s bluff worked. While he was merely taking pictures of the Triassic sky with the time-lens, by the stalker’s reaction it seemed he was genuinely afraid of having his photo taken. That meant whoever hired the man hadn’t told him the true nature or worth of the time-lens.
In full view of his foe, Sansone popped out the memory card and slipped it into his front shirt pocket. For his foe to make a clean getaway, he’d have to snatch both the camera and the memory card. No pickpocket was that good.
Sansone rejoined the professors on the ground floor.
“Why’d you stop?” Genta asked.
“Parting shots. Let’s go. Tempus fugit.” The exit was still halfway around the arena, and he didn’t know if the thief had been paid enough to press his attack.
Lorenzon struggled to keep up with Sansone and Genta. “But where, are we, going?” he asked, his breathing laboured.
“An excursion to Saint Peter’s Square. You could be the first to discover proof of evolution on Vatican grounds.”
Lorenzon grinned. “I like the way you think.”
Sansone had done a background check on both professors. Genta was forty-five years of age, married to an Italian actor whose career took a nosedive after a drug scandal five years ago. A particle physicist who spent more time at Cinecittà and Monte Carlo than she did at CERN, did Genta miss her life of luxury?
Lorenzon, on the other hand, was fifty-five, a widower with three children. He was a star in the paleontology world and knew it. Before the discovery of holoquartz, only scholars like him could decipher the fossil record. But now, any upstart could make a grand discovery about the prehistoric world just by looking through a time-lens. Lorenzon’s star would quickly fade into obscurity once the university went public with the time-lens. With only a few years until his retirement, he was seeking a final hurrah via very thing that would make him obsolete.
“Professors, I have to make a call,” Sansone said. “Get a cab. I’ll be along shortly.”
Lorenzon grumbled, while Genta gave Sansone a worried look. Nonetheless, they went ahead without him.
Sansone mingled with a group of tourists and dialed his brother’s number.
“What’s wrong?” Ettore asked over the phone.
“Someone’s following us; nothing I can’t handle,” Sansone said. “But just in case, please alert campus security to be on the lookout.” He described the stalker.
Suddenly, the white-haired American in front of Sansone fell into him.
Sansone’s instinct was to protect the camera, but he lost his grip on his phone as he and the gentleman fell to the ground. Sansone twisted his ankle, but didn’t let the time-lens camera out of his iron grip. The other tourists helped them up, even handing Sansone his phone. But when he checked his breast pocket, he found the memory card gone.
No matter. The thief hadn’t taken the time-lens. Sansone grabbed the knapsack and left the Colosseum. His eyes fixed on a figure in a black hoodie, weaving quickly through the mob outside. Sansone barreled past peddlers, tourists, and men in gladiator costumes and grabbed the suspect’s shoulder.
The person turned. Just a startled American kid, not the pickpocket after all. Sansone apologized profusely in English. “Sorry. I thought you were my nephew.”
The pickpocket was nowhere in sight. The bastard had bested him.
Red-faced, Sansone rejoined Lorenzon and Genta at the taxi stand. “Get in.”
Lorenzon glared at Sansone. “What’s your problem? Have you no respect for us?”
Sansone hadn’t realized how bad his attitude had been, until now. “My apologies, Professor. It’s been a monster of a day. Someone pushed me down in the Colosseum and nearly broke the camera. But I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”
“The time-lens is safe, though?” Genta asked.
“Apology accepted, and let me extend one of my own,” Lorenzon said. “I hope I didn’t offend you earlier, demanding the camera. But I’ve been dreaming about dinosaurs since I saw my first fossil, and to see them in the flesh, so to speak … well, I don’t want to miss a moment.”
“I understand.” Sansone wondered if the thief was still watching them. Unless the man followed them in another cab, they would lose him here. For now, Sansone would watch Genta and Lorenzon like a hawk.
The cab sped into Rome traffic. In the front seat, Sansone held the camera up so that he and the professors behind him could see the Triassic world as the car headed westward toward the Vatican. It was like flying in the space between immense tree trunks, and sometimes directly through a needle-leaf colossus. When they seemed to crash into one of the trees, the screen would turn black until they emerged on the other side of the phantom flora.
Lorenzon frowned. “Where’s the memory card?”
Sansone knew Lorenzon would be livid if he knew the pterosaur pictures were gone. Instead, he patted his empty pocket, pretending he still had it. “I’m sure you have more.” Sansone handed the camera to the professor. “Professor Genta, why does the screen turn dark when we pass through a tree?”
The taxi driver gave Sansone a weird sideways look.
“If you take a picture in a dark room, you get a totally black picture, correct?” Genta said. “Now, imagine the holoquartz took a picture of the Triassic world from every angle, all at once. But like a photo, there has to be light to record an image. So pretend the lens is in its corresponding position during the moment the Triassic Earth was photographed. Then if the lens would be in the middle of a tree trunk, it won’t have had light passing through it.”
“Ah. Preserved like Pompeii under volcanic ash.” Sansone looked through the pickpocket’s abandoned knapsack. Empty.
“More like an insect trapped in amber,” Genta replied.
“That’s why a time-lens wouldn’t work well in North America,” Lorenzon said. “That hemisphere was in Earth’s nightside when the hologram of the Triassic was taken.”
“That’s right,” Genta said, distracted. Through the rearview mirror, it seemed to Sansone that she was secretly texting on her phone. Was Genta the leak?
The cab sat at a red light. “Not only that, at that point in time, that side of the Earth was all ocean, a single superocean called Panthalassa.” Lorenzon continued. He had replaced the memory card and was snapping pictures. “Not much to see. What’s more, the time-slice occurred when sea-level was much lower than it is now. You’d have to send divers to film the past in some places.”
The cab dropped them off at Saint Peter’s Square. Sansone paid the taxi driver while Genta and Lorenzon scanned the piazza with the time-lens.
“Over there, you see that?” Lorenzon said, pointing excitedly near the obelisk in the middle of the piazza. “That’s a true dinosaur, and a meat-eater at that! Look at those teeth!”
Sansone looked at the screen. Lorenzon was right: An armoured dinosaur was caught in mid-step climbing an ancient hill, dusty brown with a long, heavy snout and a serrated tail that counterbalanced its body. It reminded Sansone of a crocodile, but at least three times the size of a man, and jaws that could easily snap a telephone pole in two.
“Go take your pictures, Professor,” Sansone said.
“Pictures? This calls for an HD video tour!” Lorenzon shouted, already dashing towards the obelisk.
Genta was about to follow Lorenzon, but Sansone clasped her shoulder. “May I have a word?”
She smiled. “Certainly.”
“Who did you just text?”
“My husband. Why?”
“May I see what you sent?”
Genta crossed her arms. “You overstep your authority, Sansone.”
“You like theories, Professor? Because I have one.” He stroked his beard. “Suppose a thief had been following us. Suppose he’s after the time-lens. I thought we had lost him, but somehow he was able to find us even though he should have no idea we were at the Colosseum.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“I would think the time-lens would fetch a fortune on the black market,” Sansone replied. “Let’s say you texted him with our destination, so that he can find us and steal the camera. But don’t you think investigators would check your texts?”
She slapped him. “How dare you accuse me of a crime without any proof?”
That stung, but Sansone kept calm. “It’s only a hypothesis. I doubt Professor Lorenzon is interested in anything except getting his name attached to his dinosaurs. Pretty hard for him to claim his discoveries, if the time-lens goes missing. I’m just saying that if the thief finds us again, it would point a finger at you. We wouldn’t want that.”
“I have never been so insulted in my life,” Genta said, pulling out her phone. “I have nothing to hide.”
Sansone shook his head. “The disposable phone in the other pocket, Professor. You are too smart to use your regular phone for this. Let me hazard a guess as to why you’re trying this. There’s no better time than now to steal the time-lens before the university announces its existence. Who are you going to sell it to? A private corporation? A collector? A cinematographer?”
At the last guess, Genta’s temper came to a boil. “I don’t need to prove my innocence.”
So that was it. Apart from physics, film was the other world she had been involved in, through her husband. Maybe some hotshot director would pay handsomely to be the first put the Triassic on film.
“I’m not asking you to prove anything,” Sansone said. “My brother asked me to come with you, not only to protect the time-lens but also to protect you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“As Ettore would say, a university isn’t the sum of its toys, but its minds. He has faith in the two of you, or else he wouldn’t have let you come out to play with the lens. To him, you are as valuable to the university as the holoquartz, if not more. The least you can do is repay him with your loyalty.”
Genta threw her hands up. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“If it is you behind the thief, Professor, I beg that you reconsider. If you’re in financial trouble, tell my brother and he will do all he can to help. Believe me, he’s that kind of man.”
“I’m not listening to any more of this!” She stomped off towards the obelisk.
Sansone kept abreast of her. “Professor Genta, I’m willing to believe you know nothing about the thief. But there are wrinkles that the real culprit doesn’t know about.”
The professor stopped.
“I tricked the thief into thinking I took a picture of him. He was so afraid of being identified, he stole the memory card. Someone who knew he was stealing a time-lens wouldn’t have bothered.”
She shrugged. “So?”
“No doubt the thief will check the card to see if it’s the right one. When he does, he will know what he’s stealing. Once he does, he may be tempted to sell the time-lens himself.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because we can make the Vatican a quick stop. Go elsewhere where Lorenzon can hunt his dinosaurs to his heart’s content. Leave the thief far behind and forget the entire matter. Instead, turn that lovely mind of yours to the problem of how to make more of these time-lenses. That’s where you will find your true fortune. Decide, Professor. Do we stay, or do we go?”
Genta thought about it. “I think I’d like to see the Pantheon.”
Sansone held back a smile. A shrewd woman, Genta might never admit her role in the attempted theft, but at least she knew how to fold gracefully. He nodded.
“Let’s hunt dinosaurs.”
Born in Taiwan and currently living in Toronto, Tony Pi has had work published in Clarkesworld, OnSpec, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and elsewhere.