The Dragon Rider of Ischigualasto
Chapter 1: A beast that defies categorization.
There weren't always dragons in the Valley. Not usually. Not ever.
Sofia suppressed a chuckle as the first beads of sweat began materializing on her forehead. A dragon? The heat must have melted her brain. It was time to leave the fairytale behind and put her scientist’s mind to work. Get closer to that thing, and make some sense of it all. Analyze and categorize it.
There was no movement in the pile of scales on the ground about twenty meters in front of her, and the only noise was the wind howling through the orange and gray-tinted Valle Pintado of Ischigualasto Provincial Park.
Struggling to stabilize her breath, Sofia kept moving, one step at a time, toward the creature that had appeared in the night. It must have been some kind of a large archosaur, landed right next to the excavation site in the dark, out of nowhere. Not a dragon, she told herself. Definitely not a dragon.
Dinosaurs, those she had seen in abundance after finishing her studies and getting a post as a research assistant to one of her professors here in San Juan. Dinosaurs were her bread and butter.
Or fossils, to be exact. Fossilized bones, tracks and plants, and a lot of dirt. And coprolites, of course, that’s what she had mostly been working on so far. Prehistoric poop, to put it in the terms her parents, living their comfortable lives in Buenos Aires, would understand.
“Why would you spend your life digging for prehistoric dung in the desert?” Her father had asked the last time they’d spoken, only a couple of days ago. “There are so many living things that could use a smart person like you, why waste your brain on the dead?”
“Because the dead can show us why we’re here, and where we’re going.” Besides, there weren’t many places in the entire world as rich in fossils as Argentina, no better place to work as a paleobiologist.
Plus, she’d had enough pets in her years, from cats and dogs to dinosaur-relatives like birds, lizards and turtles, to know that 200-million-year-old poop was better than a living animal’s. The fossilization takes away the smell.
But whatever she was looking at right now was not prehistoric, that was what Sofia had realized as soon as she’d arrived today.
She’d driven her car to the site from the nearby village of Baldes del Rosario, listening to Led Zeppelin on the way, as usual. A Whole Lotta Love and a strong guitar riff to start the day. In the park, she’d taken up the daily walk down to Valle Pintado in her shorts and hiking boots, with her bag full of sunscreen and water bottles, her simple ham-and-cheese sandwich for lunch, and a small pair of binoculars always hanging from her neck. No frills, just enough for survival for the day. The rest, including her tools, was already waiting for her in the small supply tent next to the excavation.
She’d breathed in the rapidly warming morning air, as always imagining what it had looked like back when the dinosaurs had roamed free. To her, this place could rival the Grand Canyon. These famous clay and sand badlands stored some of the oldest large vertebrates ever discovered. How could you not be humbled by their presence?
Now, she was faced with one such creature, lying right there at the bottom of the Valley. But this one wasn’t a Rhynchosaur skeleton or a Herrerasaurus femur from the Triassic period. There were no pieces of bones to gather and classify, no dust to dig or delicately brush away. This one was right on the surface, and it was fresh. A real animal, or something like it. It smelled alive. Not like a cadaver, but rusty, like blood.
Sofia’s phone vibrated, but she didn’t bother to pick up. It was probably a morning message for the rest of the research team, asking who’d bring the yerba for the mate today. She’d just bought more a couple of days ago, it wasn’t her turn to provide the tea-like herbal refreshment that kept them working through the day.
Everyone else, including professor Herrera, would get there in an hour or so. They always woke up at dawn, while she had her alarms set an hour before. Sofia was still new to fieldwork, and her goal was to be the first one there, every single day. And, she realized as she kept placing one silent foot in front of the other, approaching the beast, this was why. She had wanted to be the one discovering something new.
Or rather something old, but new to mankind. Something that had seen tens of millions of years go by, covered in dirt, but humans had never heard of. A species that would mean a major breakthrough for her field of study.
But this creature, lying on its side on the desert sand like roadkill, wasn’t a dinosaur, at least no species she’d ever seen before. Despite the blazing sun, the hairs on her neck stood up as she began analyzing her discovery.
The animal had a neck that was not as long as the herbivorous sauropods that used to rule this continent, but longer than that of a theropod predator, like the Patagonian Carnotaurus. There were spikes all along the spine, from the head to the long tail, much like a Dicraeosaurus. Altogether, it must have been ten meters long.
The muscular hind legs indicated that the creature was comfortable walking, or even running, on land. But the front extremities were long and limber, with the fingers folded under with skin flaps connecting them. They were, undoubtedly, wings that probably also permitted the creature to walk on land on all fours, like those of pterosaurs. The animal seemed to be adapted for life on both land and air. For its massive size, it was unbelievable.
No, this wasn’t a sauropod, and it wasn’t a theropod, either. All together like this, none of the parts of this animal matched. It defied every possible category, combining characteristics of so many. An unknown prehistoric beast, in the present day. It almost looked like something created in a lab by a mad professor.
And here she was, another scientist, trying to make sense of it.
As Sofia approached, she became aware of how large the head was, close in size to the North American T. rex. That, and the massive claw-like mid toe on the hind leg, made it clear this beast was a hunter.
But whatever it was, this specimen had died a violent death. It was lying down, eyes closed, with a pool of dark blood glimmering below in the hot desert sun. Sofia couldn’t help but feel the same thing she had with her lizards at home, something her friends and family had never understood. A connection. To her, the animals other people viewed as monsters looked like puppies.
This one did, as well.
“What happened to you, buddy?” She said as she reached for the head, the closed eyes. The scales were warm.
Must be the sun, Sofia thought as she looked up, because this animal had probably been dead for a while.
It was October, and already getting impossibly hot. Soon the daily temperatures in the Valley would reach 30, 40, even 50 degrees Celsius, and they would have to pack up their camp. It would be time to head back to Buenos Aires and stay indoors looking into a microscope all day. She hated everything about it.
“I wish you could tell me where you came from and who did this to you. Are there more of you?” She said to the creature, patting the scarred skin around its strong jaw, then shook her head.
What was she even thinking? This couldn’t be real. She must be still in her bed, dreaming about new, strange species of dinosaurs.
Sofia slapped the black, scaly head, hard. This wasn’t real. And if it was, there was nothing she could do about it.
But it did feel lifelike. She stood back and sat on the neck of the animal, thick enough to serve as a bench, and sighed in frustration. What was she to do now? The rest of the team would be there in a while, and she would have missed out on the possibility to get answers on her own.
In truth, nobody had prepared her for this. She was a paleobiologist, a person who handled bones. Not a zookeeper. And this thing was so big she couldn’t get any further without help.
The bench below her moved as the beast’s neck muscles tensed up. Sofia jumped up and turned to look at it. This thing was alive, and she had just woken it up.
Drops of sweat were now making their way down her back as Sofia stared at the creature, waiting.
An eye opened. A beautiful, reptilian eye, between orange and yellow.
It was looking at her. It knew she was here, and a hunter like this was unlikely to let her go unharmed.
Sofia began backing up towards the supply tent, holding her breath.
The creature kept looking at her as its mouth opened slowly. Air filled the neck and stomach, and then burst back out from the mouth in a ball of fire, accompanied by a scream that shook the ground.
A low thud as Sofia fell to the ground. Silence. The beast and Sofia staring at each other. A sudden gust of wind, blowing through the valley, lifting up sand with it.
This, this was a dragon.
Sofia gathered herself and stood up. There was no more time to think about whether it was possible. It was real, and she needed to get out. Even if this beast was wounded, as soon as it had recovered enough strength to move, she would become its first snack. If it really was capable of moving by land and air, she had no shot at escaping. She needed to get back to her car and out of the park, or at least find a way to hide among the rocks.
Another scream struck from above, cutting through the dry desert air like a lightning.
Sofia turned her head up and saw another massive creature, coming toward her from the direction of the Andes mountains. It looked like the same species as the beast lying on the ground only some ten meters from her. The only difference was the color. The new one was dark red.
This one also seemed to have some kind of a lump right between the shoulder blades, Sofia noticed as it dropped altitude, now flying over the valley in circles. The wounded beast on the ground was also staring at the sky. Were these creatures friends or enemies?
Sofia brushed the sand from her hands and grabbed the binoculars hanging on her neck, directing them to the sky. She’d become a habitual bird watcher here in San Juan in the last couple of months, but it still took her a little while to aim at the right moving spot in the sky.
As she caught the beast and got it into focus, her jaw dropped.
The lump was a woman. Holding on to one of the spikes on the beast’s neck with one hand, waving another hand in the air, as if trying to signal something.
What was she saying? Sofia squinted, but couldn’t see any better. She tried to focus the binoculars, but her hands were sweaty. She could only tell they were slowly lowering, getting closer to the ground. But why such a circular motion? Why didn’t it just land? It was as if they were waiting for something. Was this the creature that had wounded the other one?
Sofia understood the woman’s signal at the same time as she felt another hot gust of wind on the skin of her neck and her eyes registered a ball of fire passing only a couple of meters from her.
A blood-curdling scream. She turned around to see the magnificent, black dragon behind her, standing on its hind legs and with its massive wings wide open. It was looking at the sky, clearly following the flight of the other beast.
Then, it turned to look at Sofia, white teeth flashing in the sun.
About the author
Finnish by birth, porteña at heart. Recovering political ghostwriter. Fiction, relationships, politics, bad puns, popular and unpopular opinions. Occasional dinosaurs, because dinosaurs are the best.