Project Description

My short story Evolved was a response to a writing prompt ‘Dinovember’ by one of my favourite YA podcasts Cast of Wonders. The prompt asked writers to imagine what would happen if dinosaurs weren’t wiped out and become the dominant species on earth. Every year, a bunch of animation students and some of the lecturers from my work travel to Winton to make ‘plein-air’ films and they always came back with amazing photos and animation of the landscape of the Queensland outback. (Winton is also home to the Australian age of dinosaurs). And so, inspired by my colleagues I wrote Evolved.

The story was first published by Space and Time Magazine last year. Fast forward a year, I am now releasing my story on my website and to celebrate, I commissioned the talented artist Naomi Hurrey to come up with an illustration for the story. The brief I gave her was to create a 1960s science fiction illustration about anthropomorphic dinosaurs. I think she’s done an AMAZING job.

The bones were half-buried at the base of Alma’s Altar, this plateau about ten K’s out of Muttby. On a sunny day, tourists would be milling around but the dark clouds brewing overhead had deterred even the handful of visitors. We’d been scouring the hillside for half an hour and hadn’t seen a single soul. Me, with my student field kit, chiselling away at the limestone base that had eroded to look like spindly legs propping up a giant table top. Lena, the archeology student, hadn’t so much as touched the rocks. She lumbered up and down the slope, her head tilted to the side as she stared at the pitted contours undercutting the hill.

My friend Winton wasn’t being much help. He’d selected the largest hammer from my kit and was twirling it around like a cheerleader with a baton as he trotted after Lena.

‘You see, the bands of yellow and red right here?’ Lena pointed to the markings on the exposed wall. ‘That’s indicative of the Holocene era.’

‘For sure! That’s why I brought you here, right?’ Winton’s tail swished from side to side as they walked. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to trample any evidence we might uncover. ‘Plenty of boners, I mean bones. Hey, why don’t we try digging in that cave area? Bit of shelter in case it rains.’

‘Hey Lena,’ I called out. ‘You’ve been to see Adam at the museum?’

She looked confused. ‘Is he the curator?’ 

I laughed. ‘No, Adam was the first Homo sapien fossil they found out here at Almar’s Altar. He’s in pretty good shape too. They got the skull and most of the torso and forearm out. You should see the femur, so tiny you could snap it with your hands.’

‘Well, some of us could.’ Winton sniggered, looking pointedly at my puny arms. He’d been forcing me to pump iron at the gym, not that it helped. My body type never gained upper body strength, but it didn’t really bother me. I wanted to be an archeologist after high school and Homo sapien fossils are so intricate that they require delicate handling anyway.

‘No, I haven’t gone to the museum,’ Lena frowned. ‘I heard that a lot of the fossils out this way were damaged because of the bushfires?’

‘Well, this region was definitely a smouldering mess towards the end of the Holocene era,’ I admitted. ‘But most of the fossils found on Almar’s Altar are from an earlier period. The Muttby river was part of a great water basin down in the valley and a lot of human settlement sprung up around here.’

‘In that case, I’ll definitely make a trip to the museum. Will you come with me, Theo?’

‘Hey Lena! I don’t believe it!’ Winton interrupted as he rounded the corner. ‘I think… I think I’ve found something! Come and have a look.’

Inwardly, I groaned. The idiot was going to give himself away. No one just stumbled onto fossils half an hour into a dig. He didn’t even try to lead up to his ‘discovery’. It had been a big mistake to go along with Winton’s plan. I should have just refused when he asked me at the gym last night but he had cornered me in the change room. 

‘Theo, you still jerking off to dead cave women these days?’ 

Luckily I’d gone into one of the cubicles. Normally, I worked out nude but the appearance of fine feathers, running up the back of my arms and across the ridge of my back had made me self-conscious. The feathers were bright blue… silky, kind of cool, but if Theo had gotten wind of it, he’d pick on me for sure. Only wimpy theropods grew arm feathers.

‘What are you talking about?’ I fumbled to slip my arms into the sleeves of the track suit jacket.

‘‘Oh, come one Theo-saurus. Don’t be ashamed. I’m not judging you. In fact, I was wondering if I could borrow your girlfriend?’

Theo-saurus was what he called me when he was being nice. He really wasn’t having a go. I paused. ‘Do you mean my priceless homo sapien pubis bone I bought from ebay?’

‘That’s the one. I need to borrow it, yeah? I met someone, Theo-saurus. A hot cow down at the Veggie Patch.’

Behind the door, I was safe to roll my eyes. Winton worked the counter at the fast food chain because he had a thing for herbivores. Kind of creepy seeing he ate his steak so rare, it was blue. 

‘She’s from the city. Studying archeology at Queens University,’ he bragged. ‘I told her there were so many fossils at Alma’s Altar, we could trip over them.’

‘That’s not exactly true.’

‘I know that. So I need you to drive out there and plant all your dead girlfriend bones so that we can find them.’ 

The short answer would have been no. A hundred reasons came to mind. My bone collection was valuable, and not just in monetary terms. Some specimens I had found on excursion with the archeology club, but most I’d acquired from painstakingly raking every inch of the countryside, a lone dinosaur with a mission.

‘Theeeeee-o.’ Winton’s tone dropped threateningly. ‘You gonna help out a buddy?’ 

Yes, he was my friend or at least, I didn’t want to make him my enemy. And the prospect of meeting an actual archeology student studying the course I’d planned to apply for at the end of the year was exciting.

 I’d spent a good part of last night carefully setting my specimen among the shale and limestone but as Lena lumbered towards the rocky outcrop, it dawned on me that it would never be convincing enough to fool anybody.

The ground trembled as she crashed through clumps of spinifex. I dawdled behind, not wanting to witness the moment Lena realised she’d been dragged out to the middle of nowhere by a pair of amateur hicks. The silence stretched out. A small ring-tailed dragon scampered over the loose scree, coming to rest in my shadow. Its hooded eyes blinked slowly up at me, completely unimpressed. 

‘Good work, bro!’ Winton gleefully thumped me on the arm. 

‘Keep your voice down.’ I hissed. ‘You were meant to dig around for an hour and then slowly lead up to the discovery. Why didn’t you stick to the plan?’

‘Your plan took forever. And I’m horny as a triceratops.’ 

‘Yeah but now she’s going to be suspicious.’

There was a hard glint to Winton’s eyes. His long snout flared at the ends. ‘You better pray she doesn’t find out.’

I gulped and scampered around the bend where Lena was excavating a few larger chunks of rocks. She was down on all fours, a fine brush held carefully in her front hand as she cleaned the head of the pelvic bone, jutting out from the rock bed.

‘Oh yeah, keep bending over, I could hit some of that,’ Winton smirked.

It really was time for a reality check, even if he bit me. ‘Dude, you know… Lena’s a stegosaurus.’

His yellow eyes flared beneath heavy hooded lids. ‘So what?’

‘And well.. you’re a theropod.’

‘What’s the matter with you? Hanging out in the school science lab all the time has made you a speciest.’ 

‘I just meant that stegosaurus are really… cerebral, you know. And you’re more of an active guy.’

Before the conversation got any testier, Lena interrupted. ‘Looks like it’s just a floater. False alarm.’

‘What?’ Winton’s head whipped around. ‘Shouldn’t you chip away at the rocks or something?’

‘There’s not much point. This part of the plateau has been exposed for awhile, the bone is far too clean.’

‘That’s a shame, Lena.’ I said. ‘I’m sorry we dragged you all the way out here.’

‘No! We should look around,’ Winton said wildly. ‘There could be… more bones. Didn’t humans travel around in packs?’

‘Only the adolescents. Adults paired off. But I wouldn’t mind looking around a bit more if you guys aren’t in a hurry?’ Lena picked up her brush again.

‘Take your time.’ Winton gnashed his teeth as he dragged me away. ‘Did you bury any more bones?’

‘How many more fossils do you think I got lying around? That pelvis cost me $1000 on ebay.’

‘What about that ugly butterfly bone you got?’

‘You mean, my sphenoid? That  was my first major find at the archeology club. Also, it’s a brain piece.’

‘So what?’

‘Brain pieces are really valuable.’

Winton clicked his tongue scornfully. ‘But Neanderthals were so stupid.’

‘This is a Homo sapien fossil.’

‘Same difference.’ 

‘In some species, there’s a correlation between brain size and intelligence. The archeology club is building a collection of craniums to see if it reveals why the species went extinct.’

‘Because they were cockheads who got wiped out by climate change. Even I know that.’

‘It’s not that simple.’

‘Whatever.’ Winton was losing interest. Only one part of his anatomy concerned him size-wise and it wasn’t the brain. ‘Next time I tell you to do something, you do it right!’ 

His claws dug into my side, sharp and cruel. I squealed and flailed my arms. ‘Can we calm down and discuss this like civilised dinosaurs?’

Winton reared back and slammed his head forward – for a second, I thought he was headbutting me– then I felt something sharp clamp down on my shoulders. He’d bitten me like some sort of feral raptor! I swung my tail around as hard as I could. I’m no clubber, but Winton wasn’t expecting the strike. With a grunt, his jaw went slack long enough for me to wrench free. 

‘Guys? What’s going on?’ Lena appeared carrying a couple of heavy rocks.

Winton charged, just as I darted out of the way. From her point of view, it must have looked like he was attacking me…which I guess, he was. 

She swung around her hindquarter. I caught a glimpse of her long spikes painted glittery pink from some fancy city salon. Her sharp tail whipped through the air and struck Winton squarely in the head.

Thud! Winton flew through the air and slammed into a towering tor that the locals called Pterodactyl Nest. The red and yellow limestone bands crack all the way to the top where the donut shaped ‘nest’ splintered into large chunks. I could hear the click-clack echo of the rocks as they tumbled down the cliff and smashed into the valley below.

Lena drew a sharp breath. Her eyeballs rolled backwards so all I saw were the whites. Stegosaurus groups had hive minds. No one really knew how it worked but it was clearly not connected to brain size as Lena’s head was about the size of my fist. ‘I’ve contacted my group leader. He’ll alert the emergency services –’ She took a tentative step forward. 

‘I don’t need to go to hospital!’ Winton growled. His neck and tail thrashed up and down in a way that was not the least bit slick as he struggled to his feet. ‘Theo!’ 

Now was the time to tell him to piss off. My back felt tender and raw from where he’d bitten and scratched me. And this wasn’t the first time he’d totally lost his shit and took it out on me. 

Lena’s leathery jaw tensed as I shuffled forward, head bowed. It was different for her to stand up to him. She was twice his size with two rows of spiny, don’t-fuck-with-me spikes painted in glittery pink girl power colours. I was just me. Puny troodon with barely-there feathers that didn’t even give me flying super powers.

  Winton dug his claws into my shoulder and hefted himself up. I took a step back to buffer his weight and caught a glimpse of the broken rocks over the side of the cliff. The pieces had smashed onto a ledge about five metres down, chipping the top off a jutting boulder. In the muted light, I saw a smooth, round cap standing out against the rough, speckled surface.

‘I think there’s a fossil down there!’

‘Yeah right,’ Winton scoffed. ‘You’re such a loser.’

‘I’m serious!’

‘If you want my offcuts, she’s all yours. Just try to be a bit more smooth.’

Lena craned her long neck over the side. ‘Theo, I think you’re right! If I can… just get down there–’ She trod lightly onto a lopsided step built into the side of the cliff. 

‘That’s not going to work,’ I said as the step crumbled under her weight.

‘Damn it!’ 

There were footholds further along the cliff line. Watching her hulking figure struggle down the cliff filled me with the same anxiety as when I was ten years old, and my mum had taken me to watch a troupe of compsognathus circus performers balancing on stilts. 

Winton’s swagger returned the harder she tried. ‘Maybe this will be entertaining after all.’

Sometimes I really hated him. Sweat beaded along Lena’s brow. Her wide-set eyes were focused entirely on the boulder, not her foot placement.

Watching her struggle filled me with shame. I had tricked her. Brought her out here to Almar’s Altar because I was too spineless to say no to Winton. Lena probably knew something was off the moment she saw the planted fossil and she still beat up Winton to help me. 

‘Lena! Stop.’ I called out. ‘Let me go down for you.’

She paused. ‘Why?’

‘I know this area better than you. My archeology club comes down here all the time…’ My voice trailed off. I expected her to mock me and my highschool archeology club. To my surprise, she considered my proposal. 

‘Okay, that makes sense. But you have to follow my instructions.’

‘Oh, this will be good,’ Winton chuckled. 

Lean and mean. I wasn’t proud of it, but my body type was built for scrambling over sheer cliff edges. Alma’s Altar was one plateau in the long chain of ancient volcanoes that made up the Muttby tablelands. The cliff I was climbing down wasn’t as unforgiving as some of the others. At least, there were pockets and crevisses along the rock face to jam my small hands into, my tail bobbed up and down balancing my lopsided stance.

If I’d looked down, perhaps I’d be less calm. The drop into the valley below must be about thirty or forty metres. The Muttby river stood out against the scorched, barren land, the meandering blue contours bounded by greenery. With a final grunt, I snagged a knob with my left hand, and half-lowered, half fell onto the ledge.

Above me, Lena whooped. Even Winton’s disgruntled veneer slipped a little as he tried not to look too impressed. Up close, the round, smooth irregularity protruding out of the rock took form. It was part of a ball and socket joint. Connected to it was the hint of a discoloured shaft, perhaps a humerus bone buried into the matrix. Quickly combing the surrounding surface, I spotted a jagged row of molars. And near the bottom, a handful of what appeared to be knuckle bones punched through the rock. 

This was big news. I tried to contain the mounting excitement in my stomach. ‘Looks like it could be a partial skeleton buried here. Definitely Homo sapien.’

‘Brush down the area first, Theo,’ Lena called. ‘That’s good…. Now use the pick, not the 4 inch one, the 2 inch…’

This was just like archeology club, I told myself. Except my mouth was dry and my hand shook as I lined up my pick. Overhead, the heavy clouds shifted causing a dark shadow to fall over the boulder and obscuring my vision.

‘You want a more straight-on angle, Theo, otherwise you could miss the rock and strike the bone… that’s better.’

My first few chips were too light. I could feel Lena’s mounting frustration. ‘Come on, Theo. Harder than that.’

‘Get your head out of the clouds and hurry the hell up, you Brontie,’ Winton shouted. ‘Smash out Mr Tiny Man. I want to get home for lunch before it rains.’

Overhead, there was the distinct rumbling of thunder. If we’d driven my dad’s ute out here, I would have had tarp to protect our find, but Winton had insisted on driving his car. And out here in the tablelands, we sometimes got acid rain that could seriously damage the bones. The thought was enough to galvanise me into action.

With my next strike, I flaked off a sizable chunk of the surrounding limestone. Underneath was a brittle, slender cylinder. The humerus bone. A bloody beauty.  

‘Take all the time you need, Theo.’ Lena glared at Winton. ‘You can’t just smash out a fossil, you clubber!’

‘Why don’t you use your telepathy to call your supervisor and get the team out here?’

She hesitated a moment too long. I looked up from my work to see the diamond plates that ran down her back had turned bright red.

‘Oh. You want credit for finding Mr Tiny Man.’ Winton crossed his arms and smirked. ‘Hate to break it to you, sweet rumps, Me and Theo were the ones who found him.’

‘How do you figure that?’

‘Well, if I hadn’t taken the top off the boulder, no one would have known Mr Tiny Man was lying beneath our feet.’

‘And if I hadn’t beaten the crap out of you, you wouldn’t have knocked the top off the boulder.’ Lena countered standing to her full height.

Winton bared his teeth and growled. Lena swished her tail from side to side, letting the spikes scrape along the ground.

I cleared my throat. ‘Guys, you’re not going to believe this! There are two skeletons down here. A larger and smaller one. Just a second. I’ll send you some photos.’

That got Lena’s attention. And Winton, for some reason, seemed keen to stick around. While they were waiting for the upload, I switched to a larger chisel and persisted at the gritty slab of dolomite. It made a solid knocking sound, a good sign. The hairline fracture deepened into a spiderweb network of cracks.. With a hefty strike, I shattered the slab revealing the money shot.

Two sets of rib cages, the smaller one encased protectively beneath a larger forearm. 

‘Oh I see it!’ Lena cried. ‘A sleeping pair. And looking at the secondary mineral deposits in these photos, I think these are decayed brickwork, Theo. You might have uncovered a settlement.’

My head was spinning. I had to sit down before I slipped off the ledge. Everyone in the archeology club dreamed of finding an intact fossil. But uncovering a ruin, that really was a Brontie dream. This pair was probably asleep when the volcano erupted. Or maybe they had simply given up trying to outrun the lava flow and chosen to spend their final moments in each other’s arms? A doomed caress.

‘Shit, no wonder the Neanderthals went extinct.’ Winton brayed. ‘I thought they were killed when a meteor ploughed into Earth but they probably would have been snuffed out anyway. They weren’t exactly the brightest species, were they, building a town around a volcano?’

‘Because evidence suggests that the volcanoes around this region had been dormant for centuries,’ I replied. ‘During the late Holocene period, the Earth was heating up. There wasn’t much liveable space. And the huge water basin in the valley cooled this area by a couple of degrees. Enough for sustainable living.’

Winton swung tack. ‘But climate change didn’t exactly happen out of the blue, did it? It took hundreds of years and they walked right into it.’ 

‘There are many contributing reasons why one species becomes extinct while others thrive. The Homo sapiens are fascinating given how advanced their civilisation appeared.’ Lena’s face was closed. ‘They’d eliminated all predators, conquered extreme environments. There is a Hubris theory touted among some archeologists that their self-assuredness evolved to the point where they no longer saw the need to change their behaviour.’

‘Evolutionary fail.’ Winton pointed two thumbs down. ‘Double the fossils means double the pay out, right? How much do you think the museum would pay for something this big?’

Lena hesitated. ‘We couldn’t sell it to a museum. It doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to Muttby Council.’

‘But we found it!’ Winton is outraged.

‘On Alma’s Altar which is a public site.’ 

Lena was right. On excursions with the archeology club, we could claim our work because we never dug up anything significant. But this was different. We were talking about a couple of intact skeletons, possibly a whole ruin. The council wasn’t going to let us walk away with something that big.

I cleared my throat. ‘Um… well, you know… I know a few private collectors online that would be very interested in something like this.’

‘Oh yeah?’ Lena said in an overly casual tone.

‘Yeah. I’ve bought a couple of specimens from them, I mean, not the one that you think—I mean…’ My voice broke off. Lena raised an eyebrow. If she suspected the pelvic bone was planted, now she had confirmation. ‘Anyway, they’d be discreet. No questions asked.’ I finished lamely.

‘Whatever you say, Theo-saurus,’ Winton grinned. ‘As long as I get my cut, hell, you can name the lovers Lena and Theo for all I care.’

Luckily, I didn’t have time to see Lena’s reaction. The first drop of rain had just hit the end of my snout.  ‘Uh-oh. We have a problem.’ It wasn’t the fine mist of a light drizzle but the heavy splatter that promised the clouds were about to spill over. Suddenly, the air smelled thick with the promise of a storm.

‘Shit. Hurry up and get it out, Theo.’ Winton said.

 ‘It’s going to take days to get this baby out in one piece!’

Lena looked up at the sky. ‘We don’t have days. We’re out in the open. If we want to make a private sale, we need to get it out now. Winton, you need to drive back to town. Pick up more rope and tarp. I have a couple of drills back at my hostel that would help as well.’

‘Nice try, Sweet Rumps. I’m not going anywhere.’ 

‘What are you talking about?’

A gust of wind howled through the valley. On cue, the darkest storm cloud burst open. I did my best to shield the fossils as water pooled into the cracks and crevices.

‘I’m talking about you two trying to cut me out of my share of the finder’s fee. I thought we had a deal.’

‘This isn’t a trick!’ Lena said exasperatedly.

‘Yeah right. I turn around and head back to town, next thing I know, the fossils disappear and I’m lining up like a sucker to see it at the national museum.’

‘Winton, a weathered, acid-damaged fossil isn’t much of a prize for any museum collection.’ I tried to reason with him.

‘Sure, I’ll go if Lena comes with me.’

‘I need to stay here to talk Theo through the extraction.’

‘Coprolite!’ He turned and hollered at me. ‘Just smash through the rock already and hoist it up.’

‘Don’t do it, Theo,’ Lena warned. ‘You know you’ll end up damaging it.’

‘Cut your losses. We’ve got the ribcage and skull. That’ll fetch plenty of money, won’t it Theo-saurus?’

Yes. No. I really wanted to dig out the rest of the skeleton. I didn’t really care about the money. Just let me have this one thing. Their squabbling was doing my head in. 

Winton’s hulking form loomed over the side of the cliff, the driving rain ran down his leathery creased cheeks in rivulets. ‘Brontie, you got one minute to hoist up that fossil or I’m coming down there.’

‘No, you’re not!’ Lena whirled around suddenly. I didn’t think it was to attack Winton, more to get some breathing space. But Winton misread it, leapt onto her back and scratched her from plate to belly. 

‘Get off me!’ She bucked so hard, scree skittered down the cliff face onto my ledge. Winton stumbled to the ground but quickly sprung back up. Jaw snapping, he leapt lightly from one muscular foot to the other.

She started to swing her spiked tail around. He flicked open his hands with a flourish showing off ten sharpened claws. ‘You bring that tail near me again, I’ll tear it off.’

Lena kept moving, whipping that deadly tail of hers around like an old fashion ball and chain.

I didn’t see the impact. I only heard the resounding CRACK so loud, I thought it was thunder. Then, the remaining monolith, the giant Pterodactyl Nest started to keel over. Winton swore as he scrambled to get out of the way. His foot slipped on the slick escarpment. It only took a second to regain his balance but the stone slab crashed on top of him, pushing him over the edge. 

His arms were pinned down by the pillar like a lover trying to escape a tight embrace. He howled something as he rushed by. Theo-saurus. Bronty-saurus. Fine- feathered, fair weathered friend. 

When I knew it was over, I dared to peek over the edge. It was stupid but part of me still thought he might have survived. That his malevolence could overcome gravity. I pictured him clinging to the edge, biding his time, waiting to pull me down with him.

He’d landed in the shallows of the Muttby River, crushed beneath the boulder.

‘We should get back to work, Theo, if we have any chance of getting the bones out today.’ Lena said brightly. As if she hadn’t just killed Winton.

‘We need to call the police!’Already, the rushing water was carving a new course around him. If we left it a few hours, he’d sink into the mud. A few days, and his body would be irretrievable. A few centuries, and he would be fossilised. 

A strange smile was pasted on Lena’s face. The plates on her back had turned opalescent black. ‘Sometimes you just need to let nature do its work. It’s called evolution.’

This short story was first published by Space and Time Magazine, Summer Edition 2020.

The magazine can be purchased here: