Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Field Work

by Tristan Kloss



The following has been reproduced from the Journal of Descriptive Paleontology:

COMMENTS

Richard Wulff

Department of Geological Sciences, University of Southern Nevada

Langley and Cade (2035) have produced an alternative interpretation of the species Reprobestia seilacheri as a "free floater" living suspended several centimeters-to-meters above the water column. The researchers point to a large bulbous "gas chamber", attached to the posterior end of the R. seilacheri body fossil that provided lift in the form of light gases excreted by bacteria lining the walls of this chamber. The anterior end attached to two pairs of appendages that extended into the upper few centimeters of the water column to feed upon planktonic microorganisms.

This interpretation by the workers is poorly supported, and discrepancies between data and interpretation are large. These include:

  1. The interpretation of R. seilacheri as a "free floater" with a posterior-end gaseous chamber. R. seilacheri is currently only recognized from the Chengjiang Biota, and all known fossils lack preservation of any structures posterior to the body fossil. It seems unlikely, given the exceptional preservation of fossils from this locality, that a gas chamber ever existed.
  2. Even if such a structure existed, it would be difficult to prove that it allowed R. seilacheri to achieve limited flight capabilities. No bacterial remains have ever been associated with R. seilacheri specimens, nor are there any extant groups capable of producing the types of gases required for Langley and Cade's model.
  3. Langley and Cade have attempted to reinvent R. seilacheri from a sessile suspension feeding organism (Wulff, 2031) to a predator of rather unusual lifestyle. Yet, no appendages as described by the workers have been found preserved with R. seilacheri specimens.

In their paper, Langley and Cade (2035) dismiss the sessile suspension feeding model by stating "(fossil) evidence lacks the specific morphological markers to show beyond reasonable doubt that R. seilacheri were indeed suspension feeding organisms." While I agree that evidence is sparse, in paleoecological studies one often has to look for what is not there just as often as what is for proper interpretative models. In the case of R. seilacheri, what is sorely lacking should speak loudly to Langley and Cade.

REFERENCES

Langley, J., and Cade, L. 2035. New specimens of Reprobestia seilacheri: implications for paleobiology of the species. Journal of Descriptive Paleontology, v. 13, pp. 231-237.

Wulff, R. 2031. Taphonomy and paleoecology of enigmatic species from the early Cambrian Chengjiang Biota, southwest China. Modern Paleoecology, v. 27, pp. 414-443.

####

"I can't publish this."

Officer Paul nodded. "You're right. You can't." He handed the revised manuscript back to Jack. Most of the text on the first page was censored, save for Jack's name and some taxonomic nomenclature that Paul couldn't be bothered to look up in a glossary. The two included figures were completely removed. To top it off, any mention of work being done by other workers associated with the program were now missing from the references. What Jack had left to work with were several dozen words of scientific gobble-de-gook and a list of out-of-date publications.

"You do understand how this science stuff works?" Jack asked. "I do research, I publish research, I make presentations around the country about said research to convince people to fund further research..."

"You do understand how this time travel business works?"

"No, actually."

Paul snorted. "Well, neither do I. But I do understand the nondisclosure agreement signed between you and the representatives of this program. Nothing you produce while under the auspices of the project gets published until I go over it with a fine-toothed comb. If and when certain aspects of the project are made public at a future date, then data previously omitted by oversight review can and will be approved for publication, but not before then."

"...and to answer your question," Paul added, "time travel into the future is prohibited and therefore I cannot say what those 'future dates' might be."

The entire speech was well rehearsed. As temporal liaison officer between the scientific community and the project leaders, Officer Paul met with dozens of researchers from an untold number of time-related field studies on a daily basis. Most, he would add, he met after breakfast so he "didn't have to eat shit all day." Jack was his only early arrival this morning.

"Toast?"

"No," Jack replied. "Thank you." Paul's spread was a motley assortment of extinct breakfast foods: scrambled hadrosaur eggs, Uintatherium sausage links, and "wheat" toast actually made from an ancestral form of wheat living during the Oligocene epoch. It was all rather unpalatable, in Jack's opinion.

"So how am I supposed to reply to this?" Jack held the Wulff comment out for Officer Paul to see. "I can't just say nothing. It'll look like I just gave in to him."

The temporal liaison officer spread some jelly (no doubt from some ancient strawberry patch) across his toast, then dug it. "Well, Jack, there's a couple of things you can do." He took his sleeve and wiped jelly and bread crumbs from his fat chin. "You can take the revisions as is, and try to get it published. Or, you can rewrite the whole thing, clean it up so I don't dry out 'Old Red', and try to get it published. Or, you can tear up your copy of the nondisclosure agreement, and walk out of here a free man: free to research what you want, free to publish what you want." He stuffed what was left of the piece of toast into his mouth. "Free to find a new avenue of funding."

"So... I could publish what I want, huh?"

Paul nodded between sausage links. "Sure. Of course, if you publish anything referencing the project or your field work, you'll end up triggering a causality loop that will eventually consume the entirety of space-time and lead to your erasure from this reality."

Jack was unconvinced. "Really?"

"Nah. We'll just sue your ass back to the Stone Age." Paul laughed, spitting crumbs across his desk. "Just a little time travel humor."

"Funny. I don't think I'm going to miss your sense of humor, Paul."

That made the man laugh again. "C'mon, Jack. Don't feed me that bullshit. I'm not even worried about leaving. You know why? Because you won't tear up that agreement, and you're gonna go back to doing your research, and you'll keep publishing shit that nobody else agrees with, just as soon as you walk out of here."

"I thought you didn't know the future."

"I don't. But I know you. You'd rather have people think you're batshit crazy then go back to just looking at fossils, knowing that you could be studying the real thing. To see the real thing. To touch it." Paul gulped down a forkful of egg. "To eat it, even. And who knows? Somewhere down the road, when all of this goes public, maybe you'll be posthumously honored, and Dick Wulff will look like an ass."

"Does it have to be posthumously?"

"All the best scientists have to die first, Jack. Nobody likes to criticize a dead guy." Paul pushed the empty plate across his desk, wiping his greasy fingers on his slacks. "So. When are you headed back out there?"

And that is that, Jack thought. Both of them knew he wouldn't leave. He had spent the last three years bottled up with this project, shuttling between his teaching duties in Chicago and his work here in the Conch Republic while finagling funding for his student, Lincoln Cade, to cover for him at the real Chengjiang in southwestern China so nobody thought it strange that was absent at the height of field season. And he didn't feel like he was lying, either; he was in Chengjiang, just 530 million years earlier than anybody else, working within the Cambrian period. And Jack had the opportunity to study a living, breathing "paleo"-ecosystem while his colleagues, men like Richard Wulff, were left with only the bits and pieces. A mere fraction of what he had to work with! Jack could see and understand things that everybody wanted to but nobody else could.

That of course, was his primary frustration. Dick didn't understand anything about the Chengjiang critters, but Jack's own interpretations were limited to the fossil specimens that Lincoln could dig up here in the present. Despite his best efforts, Jack's protégé couldn't find a single specimen of Reprobestia seilacheri-- the 'floatids', Jack called them-- completely intact. Not one. The large balloon-shaped gas chamber; the long, slender arms; they were never preserved. The only remains were of the short, blunt internal skeleton, which left Jack's own theories totally unsupported, even if they were right.

What he needed were some perfectly preserved fossil specimens.

Hopefully, Lincoln had some answers for him by now.

"So, when are you headed back out there?"

"This afternoon," Jack replied. "I've already booked a 'flight'. Lincoln's been there a few days now."

"Ah! Good. Can't keep those grad students unsupervised for too long. Now, if you don't mind, I have to prepare for a meeting with another one of you rock jobs," Paul laughed. "He wants to turn his incident referral report into an article. Can you imagine that?" He laughed again. "I think he should call it Predatory habits of allosaurs on slow moving hominid species. Catchy, ain't it?"

####

Jack was telling Officer Paul the truth: he didn't really understand how this whole time travel business worked. Much of it, like his work here, remained classified. The larger public, moreover, knew nothing about it. It sounded vaguely sinister and militaristic; and, yes, the military was involved, to a certain extent. But it didn't start out that way, Jack was told. The time machine itself, and the mechanism that made it work, was derived from private research. It was, in the words of one project physicist, "a bunch of guys dickin' around in the garage."

The military wanted it, of course, to change the outcome of every war they didn't win, among other things. What they found was that it didn't work that way: that the energy required to operate the time machine was inversely proportional to the time when one wanted to travel. Travelling back a million years, a billion years, in earth history was easy. Travelling back ten years, or even a hundred, was frankly impossible. As a strategic weapon, then, time travel was useless.

It was sometime after that when Jack was invited, under rather mysterious, shadowy terms, to join the project. There were, by his count, several hundred researchers currently involved, spanning some 4000 million years of geologic time. The project managers claimed that, after investing vast amounts of money to develop the hardware, they figured they needed to find some useful application for it; Jack figured, after they invested vast amounts of money to develop the hardware, they needed to find a way to turn a profit. Turning their enterprise into a time safari would be the answer; and employing professionals to study and report upon the viability of certain epochs -- and then receiving all of their data free of charge via the nondisclosure agreement -- would be the means to an end.

Jack felt a little used. But, he figured, it was worth it.

Cambria Station was one of the oldest of the fourteen temporal outposts and one of the most poorly funded. Most of the money went to the Mesozoic workers, as it was reasoned that the most money would be made off dinosaur tourism. A lot of people would pay a lot of money to see T. rex up close; and a few more people would pay a lot more money to go out and hunt one. There were others, too, that would want to hunt a woolly mammoth alongside their Neanderthal ancestors. But there wasn't anything flashy about the early Cambrian. Animals had yet to migrate onto land, and plants didn't exist; the only things of any color here were the microbial mats and stromatolites that dotted the shorelines. And you couldn't even sit and enjoy the beach in your bikini; the ozone layer was too thin, and oxygen levels were too low. Kinda like being on the top of Mount Everest, Jack thought; it would take a special person not to pass out from hypoxia and not get nasty sunburn within a few minutes of exposure.

So, for the most part, tourism was out. But the project still maintained Cambria Station as a training ground for army and navy special forces, and they still allowed for a handful of scientists to return year and after year to continue their work. Jack figured that, at the very least, they would never be bothered by nosy tourists trying to get the perfect vacation photo of themselves swimming alongside a breeding pair of anomalocarids.

On the other hand, Jack knew funding was scarce. His four year deal with the project would run out at the end of the year. Meanwhile, his professional reputation had taken a hit during his time with the program, because most of his publications were incomprehensible as long as the nondisclosure agreement was in place; he was up for tenure next year, too. This was his last trip to Cambria Station of the season and if he couldn't find some way to convince Paul to let him publish, or if Lincoln couldn't find some good specimens of Reprobestia back in the present, the rest of his professional career could be very short.

He knew, this time, he'd have to figure something out.

####

Jack found Lincoln in the lab, sitting aside one of the smaller holding tanks, dropping tiny, squirming, shelled critters into the water. They were hyoliths, snail-like bottom feeders that were very common in the shallow seas of the Cambrian, and a staple food of the newly evolved predator species. The hyoliths quickly dropped to the bottom of the tank, where they scurried as fast they could (which is to say, not very fast) away from the small predator that rested on the tank floor, unmoving.

"Wow." Jack bent down, tapping a side of the tank where a few of the hyoliths clustered, entangling themselves in an attempt to escape. Tap. "It didn't take them any time at all to recognize the anomalocarid in the tank."

"Oh...! no. Uh, no." Lincoln broke away from his feeding frenzy, setting the bucket of hyoliths on the floor. "No, not at all. They're always like that, as soon as I drop them in the tank. They must have excellent chemoreception."

"No doubt a..." tap tap "...early weapon..." tap "...in the evolutionary arms race." Jack stood up. "Have you gotten her to eat?"

"Hnm?"

"Her. Him. It. The anomalocarid."

"Oh...! No, she... he... the specimen, um, it hasn't eaten a thing since it was brought here. That was, oh, I dunno, 30-some hours ago? A few of the navy guys were out diving..."

"Just like the last one, she won't eat."

"Yeah. Well, this one is likely an adolescent, based on the number of swimming lobes, and it's overall size... but yeah. I, uh, I talked to Sharon... Dr. Harding, the uh, the bio researcher from Stanford... I think, Stanford... she tried keeping one of these guys, too. Didn't eat, didn't move much, just sort of sat there, like this one did. It died within a few days, like our first specimen. She thinks it's stress... she's kept a lot of other critters, just like we have, no problems. But the anomalocarids, I guess, they're finicky things."

"I guess the Hotel Langley isn't quite Four Star material. Keep an eye on her, and if she hasn't eaten by morning, let her go."

Lincoln nodded. "Sounds good to me."

"Excellent." Jack spun around, clapped his hands, and began wringing them in mock anticipation. "Now, for the stars of our show."

That would be the 'Aviary', as Jack and Lincoln had come to call it. It was a large cylindrical holding tank filled a third of the way with seawater and the rest a careful concoction of gases to mimic the ancient Cambrian atmosphere. It was built to house and feed Jack's menagerie of Reprobestia -- the floatids. In the tank now were about a dozen of the basketball-sized floaters: some, their stomachs full from feeding, languished just above the water line in a sort of gorged stupor, as the bacteria lining their intestinal walls slowly converted undigested food into the hydrogen-rich mixture of gases that allowed Reprobestia to float. Another group of floatids were clustered near the top of the tank, unencumbered by food and their air chambers swelled with gas.

Jack watched as one specimen slowly dropped from the top of the chamber to the water's surface to feed. He figured they must have some way of regulating the retention and expulsion of the gases, but he had yet to determine exactly how they did this.

Still, it was pretty cool to watch.

"Now." Jack made some grand gestures toward the floatid tank. "Tell me what you have learned about these fascinating creatures in my long absence."

Lincoln didn't bat an eye at the showboating. "Well... I think at least a few of these guys are a new species of Reprobestia."

"Nice work. That means you'll get naming honors."

"Reprobestia langleyi?"

"Don't kiss my ass, Lincoln, please."

Lincoln shrugged. "I only noticed the differences, just small, uh, morphological variantions, after I got my hands, um, dirty with a few of the dead ones."

Jack examined the tank. "None of these look dead right now though. Right?" Jack had to admit, he wasn't terribly sure what a dead Reprobestia would look like. Much of the work went to Lincoln, who by now had become the world's foremost expert on the species. It was, at best, a dubious honor, but one that most paleontologists could remember receiving in grad school. Jack worked on a variety of worms from the Chengjiang lagerstatte those many years ago; and now, he felt a bit of jealously that his student had the chance to study the real thing. Lucky bastard!

Lincoln hid his own enthusiasm well. "Oh, no. They're all fine, really healthy, in fact. No, I take any specimens I suspect are dying, or sick, or just acting wonky, I remove them from the main tank and place them in isolation, to see, uh, to see what develops." Lincoln made his way to a second, smaller holding tank, half-filled with water. A single Reprobestia lay on the water's surface, the gas chamber partially inflated and the pairs of tentacles hanging limply in the water column. It didn't look too good.

"That one's dead." Jack had intended it as a question.

"Uh... yes. Last time I checked, it was still alive... barely alive, but... alive. It's dead now."

It seemed obvious, but... "How can you tell?"

"Uh... good question. If you notice... notice the just-fed specimen in the other tank." Lincoln pointed to the specimen still enrapt in its feeding stupor. "It's floating only a few centimeters over the water's surface, but the body isn't in contact with the surface at all. Its arms, though, they're splayed out, just touching the surface. Kinda like the legs are holding it up on the surface, like the landing struts on a spacecraft. I, uh, I called that the 'Apollo-style' stance in, in my notes."

Jack turned back to the dead one. "And this one isn't doing any of that."

"Yeah. Exactly. Right after they die, the legs just sorta, pfft, drop into the water. Eventually, the lighter gases in the gas chamber begin to diffuse into the surrounding medium, and the entire body falls to the surface."

Jack frowned. "So the chambers don't completely release all gases upon death?"

Lincoln shook his head. "Nope. It usually takes a few days. Like a helium balloon. Actually, a little faster than a helium balloon, but... as long as the gas chamber remains intact, the body will continue to float on top of the water the whole time. Sometimes, sometimes, if they die right after eating, and the bacteria in their gut keep creating gases -- the but thing's dead so they can't regulate the amount of gas released -- the gas chamber will swell up and eventually, POP! explode. Then the rest of the thing just pfft drops down to the seafloor."

Jack wasn't liking what he was hearing. The longer the floatids remained exposed after death, the harder it would be to preserve them in rock.

"How long does it take the soft parts to decay?"

"Oh, not long. Not long. Within a day parts of the arms begin to detach, within two the stomach and gas chamber begins to look pretty shabby. Sometimes the uh, the hard internal skeleton just tears itself away from the rest of the body, too. The whole thing plain falls apart."

"Which explains why we only find the hard skeleton preserved."

"Yeah, exactly. That's what I figured, anyway."

Lincoln's descriptions made sense, and explained why they had yet to find a specimen with the soft parts -- the gas chamber and arms -- intact, even in a place like Chengjiang that was famous for soft-bodied specimens. But it had all the makings of another superficial paper if they couldn't back it up with some fossil evidence.

"So, uh." Lincoln paused. "So, how did the meeting with Paul go?"

Jack snorted. "He liked what we had to say. He just doesn't want anyone else to read it." He walked back over to the main holding tank. "So, that means we'll have to find some better fossil specimens."

"I uh, I don't think that's going to happen. There's really only one way that could happen, and I think it's only applicable in a laboratory setting."

Jack turned around. "What way is that?"

"Well, I only saw it happen once. It was with a specimen I took from the main tank when I thought it was dying. It was one of the first ones, I really didn't know what I was doing yet..." Lincoln headed over to the desktop computer in the corner of the lab, and furiously began rifling through photographs. Jack was quick to follow.

"Well, it wasn't dead. Not quite, anyway. And uh, that same morning I caught some more specimens right off the beach, some bradoriids, and I didn't have a tank set up to hold 'em yet, so I just dropped them into the quarantine tank, sorta temporarily. I didn't think it was a big deal."

Lincoln clicked on a few photos, and up popped the picture of a floatid, gorged on bradoriids, the bivalved shells visible within the floatid's stomach.

"I didn't think that the floatid would eat them. Floatids usually graze just at or right below the water's surface, and bradoriids usually don't swim that close to the surface. But the tank is really shallow, and a floatid's arms are really long."

"Opportunistic feeding."

"That's what I figure."

Lincoln clicked on another photo. The floatid was now lying at the bottom of the tank, its stomach swelled with bradoriid shells.

"By the time I got back, it ate every single one of the bradoriids."

"Must've been hungry."

"Well, I thought it was dead, so I didn't bother putting food in the tank." More picture now, of the floatid, now looking quite sickly. "All those bradoriid shells weighed it down, I guess. And the bacteria couldn't break down the shells, and couldn't produce enough gas to bright it back up to the surface. It dropped like a stone, to the bottom of the tank, and died."

"Where it could be rapidly buried and preserved completely intact." The lights were on in Jack's head now.

"Theoretically, yes. But, like I said, this would be rare under natural conditions, if it ever happens at all. The chances of preserving this behavior are, well, I dunno really, but not high."

Jack was rather happy now. "No, not naturally. You're right. I have an idea, though." Now Jack was thinking of Richard Wulff, flabbergasted, admitting to Jack that was right. I'll be PREhumously honored, Paul, you jackass!

"What are we going to do?" Lincoln asked.

"Get that bucket of hyoliths. It's feeding time." Jack looked around the room. "Also, get a lunar calendar, and figure out how to use it. And get a hold of maintenance. We'll need some buckets."

####

"Diving suits, professor?"

Jack shook his head. "No, thank you Captain. We won't be diving today." He leaned over the bow of the navy ship. "But we will require the assistance of your men once we reach the Maotianshan lagoon."

"I think that can be done. Although..." The Captain pointed to the main deck, where two of the ship's lifeboats sat, filled with mucky sediment. Surrounding the two boats were various containers, overflowing with beach sands. "I think they'd like to know what exactly you'll be needing all that sand for."

Jack laughed. "I think that will be clear once we get there."

####

Lincoln was tending to the floatids near the back of the ship. He had a bucket of hyoliths in the left hand, which he set down when he saw Jack approaching.

"How're we doing?" Jack took a peek inside the bucket; it was half empty.

"Pretty good," Lincoln nodded. "I think they're, pretty much, full."

"We're almost to the shales," Jack said. "The captain says he'll get us some help hauling all that sand overboard."

"Think it'll be enough?"

Jack shrugged. "It's a helluva lot... I hope so. Think you'll be able to find it 530 million years from now?"

Lincoln shrugged. "It'll be an awfully small sand body... I hope so."

Jack laughed. "So do I."

####

"This is it."

Jack leaned overboard, staring into the black waters. The ship was anchored directly above the Maotianshan Shale. Correction, Jack thought. What will become the Maotianshan Shale. Right now, it was simply a muddy seafloor, occasionally terrorized by fierce tropical storm cells. Jack had weathered a few such storms while hunkered down at Cambria Station, imaging the violence that must be tearing across the ocean floor, burying everything in their path, and wondering how many of those poor critters would one day wind up in a paleontologist's hands. Had any of them been in my hands?

Today was low tide, according to the lunar calendar program that Lincoln managed to procure from some astronomy student. Clear skies, sunny... the heat bled through the special "survival suit" Jack wore in order to work in the ancient atmosphere. Several hundred meters from the boat Jack spotted a group of Reprobestia, floating lazily over the waters, looking for something to feed upon. Nearby something else was feeding, thrashing atop the water as it chased down small planktonic trilobites; Jack guessed it was an anomalocaridid.

"It's turning out to be a beautiful day." Lincoln smiled, and leaned forward, trying to study the floating Reprobestia; Jack figured he could probably differentiate between species by now. "Probably one of the better ones, for sure... the best day I've seen yet, anyway."

"Oh, the irony." Jack turned around and saw the Captain approaching. A group of sailors were already dragging the sediment-laden lifeboats across the poop deck, in preparation to from throwing them overboard.

"Alright," the Captain nodded. "We're ready when you are."

When Jack first told the naval officer his "grand plan," the Captain found it rather curious. "Then again," he added, "I find a lot of what you guys do a little curious. But this," he laughed, "for lack of a real word, is curioser."

Lincoln seemed only slightly more convinced. Jack reasoned that, under normal circumstances, the floatids would never be completely preserved in the fossil record -- even one as highly detailed as the Chengjiang Biota. And Jack's work with the living floatids, and much of Lincoln's Master's thesis, were completely worthless without the fossil evidence to back them up. What they needed to do, Jack figured, was create their own version of the fossil record, by creating an artificial bed and burying a bunch of hyolith-heavy floatids along with it. That, however, wouldn't be enough; scavengers and microbes could still destroy the specimens. The majority of the well-preserved Chengjiang fossils, however, were saved from scavengers by being buried during low tide, when brackish water settled onto the continental shelf and inhibited scavengers from doing their work. With some help from the tidal cycle, Jack figured, their storm bed would remain undisturbed for 530 million years, until Lincoln could relocate the distinct sand lenses somewhere in southwest China, pluck out the now-fossilized Reprobestia, and prove to the rest of the paleontological community that their work wasn't the result of a crazy professor and his misguided student.

"Professor? We're ready," the Captain repeated.

Jack nodded. "Dump 'em."

The Reprobestia specimens were mixed in with the fine-grained muck that filled the lifeboats, and were then tossed overboard. After several moments passed, Jack gave the order to dump the sands. With the combined might of an entire poop deck's worth of sailors the massive containers of sand yielded, and out poured the fine beach sands. Within moments the thick flows were beginning to settle on the seafloor below.

Lincoln watched the sand disappear.

"So..." he turned to Jack. "How many other critters do you suppose we just killed?"

Jack shrugged. "Guess you'll be finding out real soon."

####

"Well congratulations, Jack," Officer Paul stuffed a thick piece of dodo steak into his mouth. "You got me this time."

"I don't think that really is a compliment," Jack replied. "But, thanks."

"Uh-huh." The dodo steak looked to be rather chewy. "Of course, I searched the books to see if I could draw you up on temporal tampering charges and finally throw your ass outta here... but apparently nobody has much of a problem with you changing the fossil record like that."

"I didn't change anything. I merely helped better resolve the incomplete record that we already had."

Paul nodded his head. "Yeah, yeah... whatever." Then he smiled. "I suppose you already received a copy of Dick Wulff's latest masterpiece?"

Jack frowned. "No... I didn't realize he was publishing again so soon."

"Oh yeah," Paul laughed. He grabbed a slick new magazine with his greasy fingers. "Page 37. Good stuff. I mean, I don't understand a damn thing you guys talk about, but he mentioned you on several occasions."

Jack flipped through the magazine. He shook his head. "You've got to be kidding."

"I particularly enjoy the beginning of the second paragraph, page 42."

Jack flipped to the page. "... 'and while it seemed curious that Mr. Langley could make such an oversight, he has apparently redescribed a 'new species' when such descriptions were unnecessary'..."

Dammit. Jack checked the works cited.

Un-fricken-believable. Somebody else had discovered the sand lenses thirty years prior, before poor Lincoln even had a chance to start looking. Now his own papers on Reprobestia (which, according to Wulff's paper, are properly named Altusnoesta) were, at best, redescriptions. At worst -- as Wulff was implying -- he had plagiarized an earlier work. All that planning, for nothing.

Jack threw down the magazine in disgust.

"Aw, Jack. Now, don't get upset," Paul put down his cutlery. "Just remember, you helped better resolve an incomplete fossil record... and that is its own reward."

"Can it, Paul."

"Now, wait. Before you storm out of here, I have something else that may put you in a better mood." He grabbed a manila folder that was sitting at the edge of his desk and handed it to Jack. "If you haven't seen Dick's paper, you probably haven't heard the news... but this morning at approximately 9AM, Eastern Time, the President of the United States acknowledged the existence of time travel."

"Wait...what? The project's gone public?"

Paul nodded. "The military has determined to within a reasonable degree that the program does not hold significant security risk. Of course," he smiled, "the billions of private investment dollars being thrown at the program might have had something to do with it, too. Anyway, you're clear to publish anything regarding your experiences here."

"Great," Jack replied. "Except that it's already too late. Everything I've worked on has been done by somebody else."

Paul shrugged. "Maybe. If I were you though, I'd still publish. Let everyone know it was you who buried those critters for somebody else to find millions of years later. I mean, you still would be a liar and a cheater, to some extent... but that's a little bit better than what Wulff has made you out to be, ain't it?"

Jack nodded. "I guess. Assuming I can find a journal that will still allow me to publish."

"Well, if your need a reference, I'm here for ya." Paul laughed, spewing bits of food and spittle across his desk. "Or you could just stick around. I hear we'll be in the need of time guides soon. A little bit of pay on the side, plus you can still stick around and publish. And it looks really good for us if 'Doctor whatshisname' is leading a tour."

"No thanks." Jack stood up to leave. "I'm not much of a people person."

"No fooling." Paul patted his belly. "See ya around, Jack."

Jack stopped himself after he left Paul's office. Should he have taken Paul up on his offer? His program grant would run out at the end of the year; and now that the entire academic world knew that time travel existed, spots within the program's research division would become highly competitive. But stick around and baby sit tourists? Probably a bunch of rich people with more money than sense? That wouldn't fly, either.

There was one thing he was sure to do, however.

He found a phone. He dialed a familiar number. And he for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, he held a civil conversation with Richard Wulff. Mostly because Wulff was stunned into silence.

"Hey, Dick... yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I just read that. Good stuff. Hey, I just wanted to let you know: I guess you heard the news this morning..."

THE END


© 2011 Tristan Kloss

Bio: Tristan Kloss is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, pursuing a degree in paleoecology. He has had some poetry previously published in Scifaikuest, and, if it counts, one journal article published in Palaegeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. He says that "It was my experience working firsthand with fossil specimens from the Chengjiang Fauna in China that inspired this story."

E-mail: Tristan Kloss

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.