Younger than a Dinosaur
Chapter One: First Impressions
by Leanne Scott
Summary: What does mini Jack do over summer vacation?
Disclaimer: I don't own him, yada, yada. But all the rest of the characters were given to me by the writing muse fairy.
Reclined back on his backpack, he felt the vibration of the road like some fifty cent vibrating massage. He found himself second guessing his decision. He never used to do that, back when he was a black ops trained air force officer. But that life had never really been his, only the memories.
He had become, shockingly enough, a teen age whiz kid. A boy genius. Der wunderkind. For crying out loud…a geek. He could hardly explain to his English teachers that the reason he could write such good analytical papers was because he had years of experience with writing concise field reports. He could hardly explain his knowledge of history because he'd already earned a masters as part of his officer promotions. Even math and science came easy to him after years of sitting through briefings. He couldn't help throw himself into the new material, part of him wanted to make "her" proud of him.
'So not going there', he told himself.
'So what are you doing here?' he asked himself again. The truth was he couldn't stand school anymore. At first it had been a lark appealing to the juvenile side of his personality, but after awhile the nonstop immaturity turned tiresome. He actually longed for a serious conversation about something other than movies, games and who was dating whom.
Right. He wasn't supposed to use proper grammar. Yet. He couldn't wait to finish growing up and literally catch up with himself.
He'd done summer school the last two years to get ahead and just keep busy. But he couldn't stand it again this summer. So here he was. On a bus heading to western Colorado with a bunch of people he didn't even know for seven whole weeks. At least they were college students. He hoped they'd be more interesting than his fellow students had been. Getting on the bus earlier that morning he realized that he was mentally older than anyone, except maybe the bus driver. Sheesh, he felt older than the professor and he was really the reason he'd signed up for this little dig.
Hunting for dinosaurs. Right. Little did they know they had one in disguise right in their midst.
It was the down shifting of the bus that allowed him to hear the comments. They had been flying along on the highway with the purr of the engine and the whistle of the 22-60 air-conditioning, 22 windows down and driving 60 miles an hour, which had cocooned him in a bubble of white noise. Although the three girls had been chatting almost nonstop for the entire trip, their voices had been melted together and swept backward with the wind. But as the bus slowed and prepared to turn left onto the dirt road, the girls still had their voices pitched to overcome the noise and one could hardly blame him for overhearing.
"No way! He's too young!"
"But he's so cute!"
The three girls glanced guiltily over at the object in question who was across the aisle and two rows ahead of them still asleep, apparently. His long legs were sticking out in the aisle, ankles crossed with his well worn military style hiking boots the only part clearly visible. The top of his left shoulder and the collar of his black leather jacket peeked over the back of the seat. His short brown hair stuck out under the back of his baseball cap that was pulled down over most of his face. The flat plane of his left cheek met his square, slightly cleft jaw and disappeared with the rest of his straight, aquiline nose under the brim of the cap.
The shocks on the old bus were tolerable on a paved road, but just about useless on a dirt road and they all bounced up and slapped back down in their seats as they hit a pothole. The driver down shifted again and the bus slowed more to accommodate the poor condition of the road. There was no way he could continue to pretend to sleep through that and he made a point not to look back at the girls as he stretched his arms up over his head and sat up from his soft sided backpack that he'd been reclining on most of the trip. Looking forward, he saw the professor looking back at him with a mild look of curiosity. He gave a small shrug and a half smile in acknowledgment, and then settled back in his seat facing properly forward and studied the landscape out of the wide front windshield.
It had been a long drive from Colorado Springs, through Denver, then west over the Rockies and across the high plains of the Roan Plateau, but they were finally nearing their destination of the Dinosaur National Monument Parklands. The broken canyons of the desert like plateau region were uplifting to the mountains and with their pinon and juniper trees, and green pines at the higher elevations. They had completely bypassed the visitor center as they were meeting the rest of their research group that had arrived a week earlier to check in, show their permits for their dig to the park rangers and set up their base camp along one of the side canyons of the Yampa River. The site had barely been studied the previous summer, but the geological layer cake that was slowly weathering down into the canyons seemed a promising place to find fossils that bridged the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary of 65 million years ago. Professor Gil Moore looked up from his field maps as the bus slowed down and overheard some of his students talking.
"No way! He's too young!" said Mindy. She was the oldest of the girls, a senior, who had come on the expedition last year. She had long brown hair braided down her back and strong biker's physique to go with her opinionated personality.
"But he's so cute!" said Ashley, a rather ditsy blond with a little too much makeup for a campout and a little too thin to be healthy.
"Hey…shhh!" said Susan, the other junior who was probably the most sensible with a short hair cut and wearing regular jeans and a t-shirt.
She was a little out of shape, but nothing like seven weeks of field camp to put some muscle on you, thought Dr. Moore. He twisted in his seat to look past the girls on the left side of the bus to the four young men sitting in four middle seats. Dwain and Derrick were too sophomore jocks with ready muscles they would need for this expedition. They had mistakenly thought geology would be an easy major but were in sore need of the extra credit this trip would give them in order to even pass the last semester. Dr. Moore sighed, he'd just have soon failed them, but Coach Price had practically begged him to give them a chance. Sitting across from them were Stan, another returning student who showed a real interest in paleontology, and Robert who was more interested in petroleum geology but had been talked into coming by Stan who had been his roommate in college the year before. And while he guessed they were nice enough looking, although a bit geeky with their glasses, he knew they were at least as old or older than Mindy. So that left only one person the girls could be talking about.
They hit a pothole and everyone bounced in their seats, and Dr. Moore was able to turn sideways in his seat more naturally to look at the boy in the seat right behind him. The eighteen year old stretched out his long arms and legs languorously from his nap, carefully folded his lanky frame back in the seat, gave a small shrug and half a grin to look up with a twinkle in his eye, before sending his gaze out the front window.
Dr. Moore began to doubt the decision to accept him on the expedition. Turning back around in his own seat, he gazed absently out the same windshield remembering the first time he'd met this mysterious young man.
"Tonight's homework should be to read chapters 31 and 32 in preparation for our last unit on extra-terrestrial geology. I will be presenting additional data from NASA during next week's lectures so be sure not to miss any! Finally, I want to make an announcement. I and my colleague, Dr. Brown from CU Boulder, will be leading a seven week expedition this summer to western Colorado to hopefully find dinosaur fossils. Although there is only a small stipend, your meals are paid for. So if you're interested in a real experience out in the field, please see me after class. Okay, dismissed," Dr. Gil Moore looked out over his introductory geology class. The clatter of notebooks closing and feet slapping on the stairs of the deep auditorium filled the previously quiet room. It always amazed him how fast over 150 people could exit the lecture hall. Most of the students chatted amongst themselves, only a few gave him awkward smiles and nods goodbye.
Sighing, he looked down at the counter in front of him and began to pick up his lecture notes and papers. When he had first started teaching as an assistant professor, he hadn't had much trouble with volunteers for the field, but now kids all wanted jobs on computers. He wondered if he could send an email to persuade Speilberg to make another 'Jurassic Park' to help him out. So it was with surprise when he looked up and saw a student standing in front of him.
"Excuse me, sir. I'd like to get out into the field," the young man said quietly but with conviction.
The lanky, six foot youth stood as tall as Moore, although clearly with some more growth yet to come. At first glance, Moore dismissed him as too young, probably had childish delusions of finding museum like skeletons. But serious brown eyes gazed back at him, and Moore realized he was being appraised and weighed in return.
"Name's Jonathon O'Neill," he said holding out his hand.
Moore took the hand to shake it and was surprised at the strong, dry grip. "Ahh, you're one of the group of advanced students from Colorado Springs High School." He tried to remember his grade book, but couldn't really place O'Neill in either an excellent or bad category, probably in with the pack of B students. "Well, you see Jonathan…"
"Call me Jon," he interrupted. "I know I look kinda young but I have a lot of experience."
"Digging fossils?" asked Moore doubtfully.
"No, but I mean in the field. My, ah, uncle took me camping a lot as a kid. I know rappelling, tracking, can start a fire with just about anything and I have my Red Cross first aid and CPR card," he added hopefully.
"Look, you should ask your parents…"
"I was orphaned three years ago, and legally emancipated at age 16," Jon interrupted again. "I make my own decisions."
Moore looked sharply at Jon's face and realized he was telling the truth. The eyes staring back at him were sadder and wiser than his own, and compelling him to say yes.
"I need to get out in the field again. I need to do something useful after this year of school," Jon explained earnestly.
Suddenly, Moore felt a deep trust in this young man that he had just met. He was sure that Jon could do anything he really set his mind to do. "Sure. I think you'd make a good addition to the team," and he gave Jon a big, honest smile. "Come talk with me in my office," he said leading the way out of the lecture hall past the new class starting to file in.
"Ya, sure, ya betcha," replied Jon with a boyish grin of his own.
After the painfully slow, bumpy trip the last few miles had been, everyone stood with relief when the bus finally rolled to a stop. Moore snapped out of his musings and leaned over to pat the bus driver on the arm. "Thanks, Amerigo. You've gotten us here again all in one piece."
The middle aged Hispanic man laced his fingers together and stretched his arms out in front of himself to crack his knuckles. "I just hope she holds together long enough for me to get you back out in August," he replied, and patted the dashboard.
"Okay, everyone. Unload your personal gear. We'll go meet the rest of the team and then regroup to unload everything. Come on," he ordered and let the way off the bus.
Jon was ready with his pack over one shoulder and a large, Pelican waterproof briefcase in the other, but waited patiently for the driver to extricate himself from behind the wheel.
"Hey, move it, string bean," called out one of the football players.
Jon merely glanced over his shoulder in disgust and allowed the driver to walk out first. He took a couple strides and set down his things in the dry grass and turned to offer help to the girls. Mindy managed her backpack and rolling duffel with practiced ease completely ignoring his hand. She was followed by Susan with a moderately sized rolling suitcase who muttered a grateful thanks as he helped lower it to the ground behind her.
But it was Ashley who was a complete mess. She had a purse and camera bag over one arm, and on the other a large straw satchel with various items dangling over the edge including what looked suspiciously like a swimsuit. Backing down the stairs as she tried to drag an enormous soft-sided suitcase that was so stuffed it could barely fit through the seats, Jon could only see her backside and stepped closer to look in the door to see how he could help. Ashley gave an exasperated pull trying to both lift and drag the suitcase around the corner, which choose that moment to catch and she flew backward into his arms. Jon lost his balance falling on his backside, and she landed in his lap with his hands cupping her breasts and half the contents of the straw bag on his head and shoulders.
Derrick, one of the jocks, brought the large bag down the stairs with ease and guffawed loudly at the sight. "Let a man help you, little lady," he drawled and stuck out a hand to the pretty blond to help her back on her feet.
Embarrassed, Jon snatched his hands away and splayed them on the ground to hold himself up. While Ashley turned with an embarrassed smile of her own, "sorry," she giggled while snatching the clothing items from his shoulders and stuffing them back in the satchel. Then taking Derrick's arm, she let him lead her off towards the camp behind the others.
Jon pushed himself up and dusted his pants off while the other three guys all laughing at him got off the bus with their backpacks. "No good deed goes unpunished," he muttered to himself, throwing his own pack over one arm and trudging after the rest of the students.
The late afternoon sun still shone warmly, with several hours of daylight left due to the long summer day. They had arrived in a dramatically beautiful valley, with a river flowing at the bottom of a steep embankment to their right. To the left, broken crumbling cliffs rose above the vegetation in alternating bands of reds and browns to stand silhouetted against the golden western sky. They were on a flat shelf of land, the remnants of the old river bed, back when it was wide and full of water and had initially carved this valley. The last million years or so had been much drier and the smaller river had cut its new, narrower bed below them. Cottonwoods grew along this strip of land, close enough to the water without being taken out by floods, creating a welcome bit of shade in this hot, near desert region.
Back near the cliffs, two large tents and an open sided awning had been set up. Two new people approached them from the base camp shouting welcome. Dr. Moore gestured to the side of a tent and the other students began setting their things down just outside it, and then began making introductions. Jon arrived just as he finished pointing to the rest. Moore finished breathlessly, "Oh, and here's Jon O'Neill. Now then everybody, this is Dr. Keiko Brown and her graduate student, Neal Holz. They're both paleobotanists."
Jon stood back off to the side watching as everyone shook hands. He studied Dr. Moore's colleague in surprise. Moore had never mentioned it was a she. Dr. Keiko Brown was a tall, thin, Japanese American with a broad, plain face but a pleasant smile as she nodded greetings to their boisterous group. Jon stepped forward to shake hands, and answered her unspoken question, "High school exchange student, ma'am."
Her bright brown eyes poured into his and he held her gaze calmly. She nodded slightly, "I trust Gil to pick good workers."
Turning to greet the other new person, Jon was surprised to see him leaning back with arms crossed and a scowl on his face. "This is not a summer camp. I'm here to do serious research," Neal announced pompously.
Jon took an immediate dislike to the self-important graduate student and couldn't stop himself from a sarcastic reply, "The library's a couple hundred miles back that way. We're here to shovel rock."
"Right, well, we won't be able to do either if we don't get that bus unloaded. So come on everyone," Moore declared smoothly, steeping between the two and gesturing towards the vehicle parked on the dusty road.
"I've already unloaded our van and helped set up the tents," declared Neal. "I thought I'd start on our chili dinner." Then he turned to the back of the awning where a folding table with a Coleman stove was set up and began pulling pots and cans of beans out of a lock box.
"Fine, Neal, thanks," Keiko said placatingly, "Dr. Moore, if I might have a word with you…"she said placing a hand on his forearm.
Moore waved at the rest of them with his other arm, "I'll tell you where to stack it as you haul it over here." Then allowed her to pull him over to the side of the awning.
The other students immediately began the first of many walks back to the bus to unload, but Jon still had his own things to deal with. He strode over to the tent where all the backpacks were stacked and set down both his pack and case. Taking off his jacket and cap, he set them on top of the pack knowing he'd soon be working up a sweat. His keen ears could just over hear the conversation of the two professors and he couldn't help be a little curious about the social dynamics of situation he had managed to get himself into.
"I'm sorry, Moore. He's really not that bad. He's just a little insecure around new people."
"It's okay, Brown. What, only another year or so more of him, right?"
"Well, that depends on what we find this summer. He's got to write his thesis on something after all," Keiko laughed lightly. "It's good to see you again. How is everything in the Springs these days?"
Jon forced himself to move away and give them a bit of privacy to catch up on their friendship. He glanced surreptitiously at them and saw the way Dr. Moore leaned slightly forward, completely focused on the animated woman beside him. She seemed to blossom under Moore's gaze and Jon found himself re-evaluating her features as prettier than his first impression had given him. They stood close, but without touching and Jon heard him call her Brown again. They seemed to have an obvious chemistry together, but called each other by their last names. What kind of friends did that?
If he was completely honest with himself, he realized he recognized that dance. He'd done it himself for seven years in what he'd been calling his second life. That is whenever he'd allow himself to think about it. 'Don't go there, O'Neill,' he told himself. 'You had a family. You had the SGC. Now you have this third chance at life. Don't screw up again. There's only six left after this.' He snorted at his own joke and shook his head to clear his thoughts as he arrived at the back of the bus.
Stan, the returning senior, had climbed on the back and had the rear emergency door open so they could unload more easily. Clearly familiar with the routine, he was handing out empty specimen cases and boxes of supplies that had been piled up in the back of the bus. Soon the parade of busy ants were ferrying the items to the camp, where the two doctors were directing traffic and helping to organize things in one of the big tents.
Jon was on his way back for his fourth trip, the lighter items now all stowed and the heavier boxes on the floor of the bus finally revealed. Amerigo and Derrick went past him carry a long folding table between them. "We'll need this for dinner tonight!" called out the bus driver with a grin.
Mindy had joined Stan inside the bus and was loudly talking him into leaving the other folding table angled from the bus to the ground, "Look, we can just slide things down. It will be easier. Didn't you take physics? The inclined plane is one of the six basic machines."
"Yes, but…" Stan tried to get a word in edgewise.
"Just watch," she snapped, scooting a heavy box of plaster of Paris on the makeshift ramp and giving it a shove to watch it slide down all by itself. Susan stood waiting at the bottom, ready to catch the box when she should have been standing to the side. The inexorable pull of gravity accelerated the heavy box towards the clueless girl and Jon moved almost without thinking. Bursting into a sprint, he crossed the distance to her at an angle and threw his body on hers as they went over in a tangle of limbs. The box hit the ground where she had just been standing with a loud smack and burst open showering the two of them in the fine white powder.
Jon lifted his head up from the soft body he found himself on and looked up at the kabuki powdered face of Susan from the vantage point of her breasts. His face turned red as he rolled off of her, but he kept a hand on her arm to keep her still a moment longer. "Are you okay? Do you think you broke any bones?" he asked.
Susan's features went through a cycle of shock, fear, anger and shock again as she realized what had just happened. "I think you just saved my life," she managed to breathe while staring into his concerned brown eyes.
"All in a day's work," he shrugged humbly.
"Not again," declared Derrick as he returned. "What is it with you throwing yourself on all the girls?" He reached out his hands, pulled Susan to her feet, and brushed the power off her shoulders. "How'd you get this stuff all over you?"
"I didn't. I…" started Jon as he pushed himself off the ground to stand up.
"He just saved her life," Stan declared loudly.
"Oh, God! Susan! I'm so sorry!" exclaimed Mindy finally recovering voice. "I just get so excited some times. I don't think things through." And true to her word, she stepped out of the bus onto the inclined table intending to walk down it to her friend. But without any true attachment to the bumper, her weight and forward momentum caused the end of the table to slip from where it was merely leaning and the powdered plaster of Paris allowed the other end to slide freely with little friction on the ground. Just as Mindy felt her stomach go out from under her and lost her balance, Jon stepped under the corner of the table and caught its falling end on his shoulder with a groan. She slid down the table like a children's slide and landed in the powder with a splash of dust.
"Christ!" exclaimed Stan as he jumped down off the bus and quickly grabbed the other side of the table. He lifted it off Jon's shoulder and getting a better grip slid it forward and down to lie safely on the ground. Jon remained where he was with both hands braced on his knees and his head bowed forward breathing heavily.
"That's going to be a bruise," remarked Derrick. "Quick thinking though kid," he added with a touch of respect.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," wailed Mindy beginning to lose it.
Fortunately, Susan had recovered her wits and gestured to the now gathering crowd. "Will you guys finish up? I think we better go clean up. Ashley, go find the first aid kit and meet us down at the river will you?" She walked over to Jon and put a gentle hand on his arm, "We better get this powder off before it hardens with our sweat."
He looked up at her and nodded agreement. Straightening slowly, he shrugged his shoulders experimentally and took an involuntary sharp breath at the pain. He tried to smile at her worried face, "Not broken. Will be okay," he managed to say.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," repeated Mindy.
Susan grabbed her friend's arm too and led them over towards the river. An angled path led down the slope to the water's edge and luckily she didn't have to steady Jon too much to get them down. "Mindy, take off your shoes first," she ordered and her friend blinked her tears away as she sat on the ground. "Try sit on this boulder," she coaxed Jon.
He let go of the clutch he'd had on his left arm trying to keep it snug against his body and used his good right arm to lower himself on the rock she led him to. He found his knees were beginning to shake as shock set in. He could only watch as she knelt in front of him, lifting his feet into her lap and taking off his socks and shoes one by one. She quickly stepped out of her own loafers, leaving her socks on and led him out into the river. The thin sand at the edge quickly turned into rocks as they waded out into the chilly water. Jon found it hard to keep his balance and opted to just plop down into the water up to his neck. The cold felt good on his aching shoulder and he began to move it again gingerly.
Susan left him there to soak and turned to her distraught friend wading in behind them.
"I'm sorry," Mindy started again.
"It's okay. I forgive you. We're all okay. Accidents happen. Come on. I shouldn't have been standing at the end of the stupid ramp, now should I? Here, I'll brush your back off and you do mine."
"It just happened so fast, and I was just so scared. I'm so glad you're okay," Mindy finally managed to articulate.
"I know, I know. When I saw the table start to slip, I was sure you'd fall backwards and hit your head on the bumper or door or something."
"If it hadn't been for Jon," started Mindy.
"If it hadn't been for Jon," Susan said at the same time. They laughed and sighed with relief.
"You need to wash your face," Mindy pointed out.
"Not to mention hair," replied Susan as she ducked under the water and scrubbed at her cheeks.
Mindy waded out to Jon and plopped down next to him. "I'm really sorry. I was being smug and superior earlier today. Can we start over. I'd really like to be friends with the guy who saved my life. My name's Mindy," and she held out her hand to him over the rushing water.
He reached out to her automatically and shook her hand like it was a formal introduction, not out in the middle of a river. "Name's Jonathan O'Neill, but my friend's call me Jon. And, honestly, I didn't save your life. Saved you from getting a bad bruise maybe," he teased pointing to his own shoulder.
"Please. Let me help. I can wash the plaster out of you hair for you," she pleaded trying to make amends.
"Well, it is kind of hard to reach up at the moment," he admitted.
"Lean back, in the water," she instructed. "I'll hold you up right here," and she circled an arm around his chest, "and then I can rinse your hair out like this," she continued. Jon found himself in the arms of yet another girl as she gently brushed her fingers through his hair and over his back to wash off all the plaster dust.
'When it rains it pours' he thought, 'I haven't even had a date for months and today I've literally run into three!' He kept his eyes closed and relaxed in the girl's arms letting the tension in his shoulder go and with it most of the pain.
She felt him relax and felt herself forgiven with his trust in her. She continued to brush her fingers through his fine hair, humming softly and staring out at the golden sparkles on the water. When she looked down, he'd opened his eyes and the deep pools of brown looked up drawing her into their depths.
"Ahem," Susan cleared her throat.
Startled, Mindy let go of his chest and Jon sunk briefly under the water. Twisting his body, he managed to get his knees under him and rose sputtering and shaking water from his hair like a wet dog.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" she exclaimed standing up herself.
Jon looked at the two pretty girls with their wet clothes clinging to them in all the right places, the beautiful river valley creating just the right backdrop for them. He couldn't help grinning, and his slow chuckle turned into a full, deep laugh as they joined him.
What a day! Life was good. After all, he was at least younger than the dinosaurs.