"...and so ends the story of one of history's most successful predators, pushed into extinction by a combination of astronomical and ecological factors, which, in combination, proved too heavy a burden for the species to continue." Professor Julian Bates stood before a sea of mildly bored faces, reciting once again the rote paleontological lecture through which generations of students had suffered. A hologram of an oversized lizard with evil looking teeth rotated slowly a few feet from him. Many of the students wondered idly how a creature so utterly badass could ever be made so goddamned boring. Despite his knack for killing the excitement that should be attached to some of the most epic killing machines that had ever lived, Bates's class on the predators of Early Earth remained one of the most popular classes in the University. Scores of students signed up each time it was offered, jockeying for the twenty available slots.
The hologram went blurry and began to morph into a new image. The students' heads perked up noticeably; they'd all read the course syllabus, and they all knew the next species to be discussed. This was the reason the class filled out so quickly: there was one creature that had existed in the untold millennia of Earth's existence which could never be made boring, a creature so powerful, so terrifying, so... spellbinding, that it would continue to capture the world's imagination for millions of years after its demise. Blockbuster holodramas were written about it every year, and each new piece of information discovered about it made headline news.
The image reformed itself, and a new creature—the creature—appeared, hanging in the air between the students and Professor Bates. Bates walked slowly around the image; the corner of his mouth twitched at the sight of his students' intense faces. "Ah, I see we are recognizing the next animal on the syllabus. Let me introduce you to, arguably, the most fearsome predator that ever stalked this planet. Our knowledge of this species is largely incomplete, despite its rather copious treatment by the popular media. I will begin with a general description of the physical appearance. As you can see, a defining feature of the physique is the animal's bipedalism, with massive, powerful legs to support the large frame, which it could likely carry at a maximum speed of twenty-eight to thirty miles per hour. The forelegs, or arms, are by comparison short and spindly, far weaker than the other two limbs. The hands are articulated in such a way as to allow for a large range of motion, indicating that the arms and hands were not totally useless, though they were probably not vitally important for use in day-to-day life.
"The head, as you can see, is quite large in comparison to the body, likely rendering the creature slightly top-heavy. To compensate for this, the feet show evidence of a complex arrangement of muscle attachment points, constantly correcting the balance. The size of the head is largely due to the size of the braincase, which is slightly enlarged compared to most members of its genus.
"For many years, scientists believed them to have bare skin, like the reptilian cousins with whom they shared the world. However, recent finds consisting of impressions in fossilized mud indicate that their skin was covered in hundreds upon hundreds of small, feather-like growths that covered them nearly head to toe.
"This species would have stood considerably taller than nearly every animal it came across, indeed, it is literally thousands of times larger than the average member of the animal kingdom.
"These animals were big, heavy, strong predators, and as we are informed by several high-grossing motion pictures, they were, shall we say, 'smarter than the average bear.'" Professor Bates looked into the faces of his students one at a time, "Not the kind of fellows you'd like to run into in a dark alley in the middle of the night."
The introduction was over, the veil had been lifted. "Well," Bates said, feeling a bit dramatic in spite of himself, "I'd like you all to meet a true apex predator, perhaps the perfect animal for its time, perhaps the perfect animal for its place, and perhaps, if we take a sympathetic view of the monster before us, the ultimate tragic hero of the evolutionary story. I'd like you all to meet... Homo Sapiens..."
The Eyes of a Killer
"It's the eyes, they look back at you, it feels like they really... understand."
Chrondle and his nest-mate, Selva, stood in front of the museum hologram, transfixed. "I don't like it," Chrondle continued, "something feels wrong about it."
"They were supposed to be really smart, you know, I mean they created entire species..." Selva explained.
"Yeah, they created entire species, just to make them easier to kill," Chrondle returned.
"Maybe it's just weird to see something that seems to have been so intelligent, yet behaved so viciously." The hologram rotated slowly before the pair, portraying a not-altogether-unimpressive member of the species on display. A plaque on the holoprojector beneath the image labeled the creature: "Homo Sapien: 'T. Rex of the Cenozoic.'"
"I think it's also that they killed each other," Selva said, "I mean, this read out says that Homo Sapiens were one of their own biggest predators."
Chrondle pulled Selva a little closer to himself, saying, "I know what you mean. It's scary, especially to us: that hologram is a representation of living, breathing proof of the fact that being intelligent does not guarantee being civilized."
Selva nodded thoughtfully. "You're right. If it happened to them, how close did we come to evolving that way? You could imagine a slightly different universe where it was we who were the killing machines. I mean, we've had the technological ability since long before the sapes went extinct."
Selva and Chrondle gazed again into the eyes, searching almost hungrily for more signs of what was so off putting about them.
"It's not just the intelligence in them," Chrondle thought aloud, "it's the... warmth."
"It's like it can love," Selva finished his thought.
"Yes! It's like it can love." Chrondle agreed with that way of putting the feeling, then continued, "it's as if it was an animal lost in a fundamental paradox. It's a creature suspended between the poles of love and hatred, with a mixture of both that was never seen before it lived and certainly hasn't existed since."
A thought struck Selva: "Do you think they tried to justify themselves? To reconcile the evil with the good?"
"I don't know. It must have been hard to be Homo Sapiens," Chrondle replied.
"Not half as hard as cohabiting the planet with them must have been," Selva said, only half joking.
The pair moved away from the hologram. They roamed idly around the museum's other exhibits, their thoughts still stuck on the strange eyes of the monster to whom they had just been introduced.
As for the hologram itself, it continued to spin slowly, flickering and gazing passionately at tourists as it had done for the past several decades. It had been made from one of the earliest known recordings of a Homo Sapien's face. Occasionally, the mouth moved in the several-seconds-long loop of video that had been salvaged, soundlessly mouthing the phrase "I have seen the promised land" again and again and again. And it would continue to serve as an eternal reminder of the terrible nightmare that had once had a dream of its own.
Yaldat sat alone in his sleeping compartment. It was well past the day's mid-nox, yet he was unable to sleep at all. When he finally made the decision to hold out and wait for the morning to come without falling asleep, he turned on his connection to the Hologrid, looking for something good to watch. The only thing on at that hour was the breaking news story about the fossils that had been dug up in Redalst that morning. It had been an interesting find indeed, and Yaldat settled in to watch the story unfold a bit more before the sun rose outside.
On the Holocast, the newsreader was talking excitedly to the viewers at home, saying, "No juvenile member of the species has been found before this dig. The 'Redalst Child,' as it has been dubbed by popular reference, is what appears to be the mostly complete skeleton of an infant Homo Sapien. I'll see if I can get in for a closer look." The reporter proceeded to push his way to a paleontologist, who gruffly declined to make any further comment on the find.
"Preliminary reports show that the infant would have been totally helpless for at least the first few years of life," the reporter continued, unfazed by the scientist's unwillingness to speak, "This would seem to indicate that the species, nicknamed 'the T. Rex of the Cenozoic,' cared for their young quite lovingly in the first few years of life. This nurturing side is an element of human behavior not readily left in the fossil record which was until today totally unknown and unsuspected."
"Funny," Yaldat thought to himself, "they made the transition from ultimate weakling to ultimate killing machine." A smile snuck into the corner of his mouth.
The reporter continued, "It is possible that this very nurturing instinct provides an explanation for the fearsome behavior that has made these, er, 'sapes' so very famous. Competition and strife could have arisen during times of enhanced emotional attachment to totally dependent young, resulting in the aggressive behavior that we all associate with the so-called 'terrible mammal.'"
The tiny fossil flashed across the screen, and Yaldat noted that one of the hands was positioned right next to the mouth, as if the child had been sucking or chewing on its own fist. Yaldat couldn't really process what he was seeing: here was the most terrifying animal that had ever lived, the animal that descended upon entire worlds in movies, leaving a trail of destruction wherever it went... yet, this one, even just the skeleton of this one, looked... scared. Yaldat couldn't imagine anything capable of frightening a human, nor did he particularly want to, but there was no mistaking the body language that the tiny fossil communicated, even across a gap of two hundred and thirty million years.
"Perhaps," Yeldat thought to himself, "it was the fear, and not the love, that drove them over the edge. Perhaps fear is the evolutionary mistake that created the monster that killed the Earth."
Julian Bates stood in front of his mirror, rubbing his eyes groggily. He did not want to be going to the University today, not so soon. Just two weeks ago, he had cancelled his classes and flown straight to Redalst to study the now-famous infant Homo Sapien fossil that had been discovered there. That had been real, that had held the promise of answers. Today, back at the University, Bates was only looking forward to the sort of foolish questions that undergraduates ask paleontologists every time a news-making discovery occurs. He wanted to take a closer look at the structure of the infant's limbs, which preliminary findings showed could not hold up the mass of the body, which was largely contained within the cranium. He wanted to examine this creature that was born with nothing but a brain but grew up to be remembered for its physical structure and aggressive behaviors. He did not want to explain to four different people that, yes, there was a small hole in the back of the cranium, and no, he did not think that the 'sapes' had sucked the brains out of one of their own younglings.
Two more hours found Professor Bates standing stiffly before a cold, dead hologram of a Homo Sapien, reciting the known details of the creature's communal behavior. He could see in his students' eyes the questions that he had hoped would not be forthcoming.
"...but it was around the midpoint of hominid evolution that Homo Sapiens began to congregate in large cities that could reach populations in the tens of millions. While the material cost of such an organizational structure was likely gigantic, and the unnatural closeness that individuals were forced to live with often caused catastrophic failures in the cultural processes that kept them from bashing each others' skulls in..."
At this, a hand, unable to contain itself, shot up from the desk of a student in the middle of the auditorium: "Yes?" asked Professor Bates, resigned.
"Professor, I read that times of strife may have caused supernatural beliefs to surface in the sapes. Do you think the hole in the inf—" the student was interrupted by Bates' disappointed sigh.
"First of all, they are Homo Sapiens, not 'sapes.' While it is perfectly possible that the hole was drilled as part of a ritual meant to lower uncertainty and give the adults a sense of control over their world, we have no real way of knowing, at least until much more research has been completed. Now, as I was saying, congregation into cities, despite its drawbacks, did allow for the cultural and technological development that really made the species the true apex predator that it was..." Professor Bates trailed off as another timid hand shot skyward. "Yes?" he asked, both wearily and warily.
"Er, Professor Bates, Professor... Julian Bates, I heard that your name... was human. Is that true?" the female student ventured. The class was stunned by her boldness.
Bates looked at her for a moment, then turned around and switched off the holoprojector. "Class is dismissed," he said, "perhaps next time we can stay on topics somewhere near that which is pertinent."
As the students filed out in silence, Bates was already dialing up Professor Nilsineg Ishtic, a colleague who was still at the Redalst site. Ishtic answered, and Bates began running data on the proportionate lengths of the long bones of the infant fossil's limbs.