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Cover Art: “The Seventh Plague of Egypt” by 19th-century artist John Martin


Seventy Million Years Ago

The dinosaur was a small theropod: the family of dinosaurs that included Tyrannosaurus Rex and hundreds of other voracious meat eaters. A distant relative of the North American Velociraptor, it hunted in small packs, like modern wolves. This particular breed, however, was new to North America, having come over the land bridge between Asia and North America that had appeared slowly over the previous thousand years. The small pack of carnivores had moved cautiously at first into the undiscovered country, wary of any new competitors that might spring at any moment from the dense tropical jungles that reached far into what is now Canada.

This particular breed of Asian theropod differed from its distant American relatives in one striking way: the color of its plumage. Like all theropods, this breed actually had much more in common with birds than with reptiles, the lumbering intellects of nineteenth century scientists to the contrary. It stood about four feet tall at the head, with a long, stiff tail that gave it balance. Its head was crowned with a crest of yellow feathers that flowed down the back of its neck and across its small shoulders, fanning out to long, blue feathers down the length of its arms. The plumage stopped at the wrists, where long hands and fingers ended with half-inch claws that were capable of slitting open a victim’s skin as easily as a sharp knife slices a tomato. The plumage itself served many purposes, including keeping the creature warm at night, and impressing members of the opposite sex. But the greatest advantage it gave the creature was agility as it leaped through the air, pointing its huge, sickle-shaped hind claw at its victim in a motion that mimicked its descendants among the birds of prey, who close in on the kill with talons extended. With a powerful leap, it could soar thirty feet through the air, emitting a terrible shriek that would freeze the prey just long enough to seal its fate. The victim rarely saw anything more than a sudden flash of color, and felt little but a sudden pain across its side or belly. The raptors would then surround the victim and cackle excitedly as their next meal slowly bled to death, its internal organs hanging partway out its abdomen. The raptors were smart enough to keep a distance; even a mortally-wounded dinosaur could kill of few of them with a whip of its tail--often equipped with clubs and spikes--before the others finally finished it off.

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