by Julia Warner
Anaïs once grieved over the fact that she would never be able to directly examine her own skull. She would never directly examine any part of her skeleton, for that matter, but it seemed particularly cruel that a bioarchaeologist should spend her life tenderly scrutinizing the brittle remains of other beings, probing the subtlest morphological details until they exploded into radiations of insight, but be forever barred from the truths fossilized in her own skull. There was something seductive about the skull, wasn’t there? The bulbous flowering of the braincase, the sharp angle of zygomatic arches glinting like shards of glass in the sun. Orbits persisting like lunar craters, darkness seeping from their depths as if somewhere within a shred of consciousness lingered.
“Just guess,” Spencer said, passing a wrinkled Ziploc bag filled with unsalted almonds and dried fruit. “What do you think happened to them?” They sat on an enormous mesa dangling their feet over a canyon that swept for miles, a hypnotizing illusion of endlessness. Browns, earthy reds, coral pinks, and ambery orange-golds cut discrete lines through the cliffs as if an engineer had delicately designed and printed every rock, molecule by molecule, layer by layer.
Anaïs took a small handful. She hated when Spencer started speculating, hated the panic that jammed her brain as she scrambled to improvise something plausible and eloquent that would only be rendered false after actual analysis of data. Whatever bloomed in the wilderness of her mind was safe because it was in shadow; to eternalize it in words meant irreversible vulnerability.
She waited until she had chewed and swallowed to humor him. Anything could have happened to Clirithenes draconis; she was one more species who had thrived for millions of years before vanishing from the archaeological record without warning. A physiologically miraculous species, perhaps – the physicists were still calling her the flying elephant – but her story was over and once they gathered the pages it would make perfect sense.
“It wouldn’t be unreasonable to hypothesize some sort of meteorological crisis,” Anaïs said. “Like the K-T Extinction.” She knew she was just tossing around words that had already been circulating through the academic community for some time now – even on Earth, when she’d been an undergrad and the first archaeology reports from Liriem were streaking through the cosmos as data encrypted in laser beams. Still, she found the assumption sensationalist and unwarranted. Every biologically active planet was going to have a story of births and extinctions, asteroid or no.
Spencer turned to her, light blue eyes squinting in the sun. The skin around them spiderwebbed into little wrinkles, but there wasn’t a trace of grey in his sandy brown hair. “Why do they teach you kids to fear your own imagination?” he asked.
“I was taught to question everything,” Anaïs shrugged. “And accept nothing without evidence. And that jumping to groundless conclusions closes the mind.”
“But to know anything at all, there must be some preliminary risk. You see something, you try to explain it.”
“Yeah – with a hypothesis.” It wasn’t a question or a concession, but she tried to sound deferential.
“Well, okay. But hypothesizing can’t always be constrained to what’ll be approved of. That itself imposes a bias.”
“As does seeking unlikely explanations for the sake of novelty.”
Spencer smiled. “That doesn’t do imagination justice,” he said, looking back out over the canyon. Miles below, at the bottom, was a faint carpet of trees following the contours of a river. “We call ourselves archaeologists but essentially we’re storytellers. You don’t leave behind everything you’ve ever known for a world 16.3 light years away if you’re just mining facts.” He reached for another handful of trail mix. “We’re pulling stories out of these rocks. Searching with our hands for something to taste in our minds. The curiosity itself is inherently satisfying.”
Anaïs kicked her feet back and forth. She tasted pomposity in her professor’s monologue – it was delivered too seamlessly, and she imagined hers were not the first ears to be privileged with his wisdom – but there was something perceptive… even romantic about it.
They returned to the dig after their break. Other members of the team were immersed in their work, patches of sweat blooming on the backs of their shirts as they bent over the vertebral column that lay across the dirt like a fallen oak tree. Ribs thicker around than her waist curved through the air like Roman arches and looked as heavy, but the bones were in fact hollow. She marveled at the elegant curvature of the humeri; the flesh where they articulated had long since deteriorated, leaving bones lying in clumps like barely scrambled puzzle pieces, but when she looked at them she saw leathery wings snapping and flexing in all their glory and heard the noise they made like a sonic boom reverberating in her chest. How massive and powerful they must have been, to allow something so monstrous to take to the skies. She thought of nuclear explosions igniting in the creature’s bloodstream like supernovas. What biochemical mechanisms could have evolved to furnish such a formidable energy demand?
She followed the soft undulation of the posterior spinal column to the cervical vertebrae, gravel crunching beneath her boots. The creature’s skull jutted from its graceful neck, long, flat, and roughly triangular – eerily crocodilian. Snaggleteeth studded the lower and upper jaws like stalagmites and stalactites in some vast cavern; if she tried she could have fit her entire body inside the mouth.
Between all the biochemistry, geoscience, and archaeology classes she’d taken as an undergrad, Anaïs had often wondered to herself what exotic life forms nature might have cooked up in the roiling seas of other worlds. Who said life had to be carbon-based? It was dangerous to presume a segmented blueprint of calcium and collagen would be ubiquitously employed. But preliminary excavations on Liriem, as well as on the other four habitable worlds upon which mankind had established a colonial presence, had yielded surprisingly familiar forms. Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising; perhaps nature employed certain archetypes because they worked and it was her own appetite for novelty luring her down theoretical tangents. Spencer wasn’t wrong about that curiosity thing. Something in her thrilled at the thought of limitless possibility, of innovative chemistries and radical modes of perception which she had never fathomed because of her own physiological bias. Ironic to think that she might fall into the same trap she was trying to avoid by trying to avoid it.
It occurred to her then that imagination itself was not what was wrong with speculation; imagination should be rich and fertile, open to the spontaneous germination of wild ideas. It was the commitment to just one idea that tainted the integrity of science, by arbitrarily shining the spotlight on one thing to the dimming of everything else that might be. That kind of speculation was precisely the antithesis of imagination.
Anaïs gathered her tools from where she’d left them on the ground and squatted next to the snout. She resumed coaxing the bone from the soil’s grasp, wielding her brush with the delicacy of a miniature painter. This was no pristine white set of remains; time had weathered the bones to a dusty yellow-brown. The process was tedious and slow, like trying to clear a sand dune with a toothbrush, but even though it demanded exquisite dexterity she found she could lose herself in it. The rhythm of the work became hypnotic, and the hours crumbled away just like the dirt. All too soon she looked up to find the sun melting into a dark crimson stain – the cue to pack up.
She was never eager to return to her tent. She wished the short walk back to camp were longer and she could hang her mind on the bright, waxy flowers of the succulents and the dark things that scuttled over the rocks. The path they’d marked for themselves slanted down to a large, relatively flat spot near the base of the mesa; around it, several kilometers of open air still existed between them and the bottom of the canyon. They’d pitched their twelve collapsible tents here and there and every which way to find the best sleeping orientations, effecting an air of disorder and randomness. But their material presence was strictly regulated; all trash, their cooking and cleaning water, the toothpaste they spit out – even their excrement – was contained for storage until their next rendezvous with the solarcraft that brought supplies from the colony. If they did everything right, future archaeologists would have no idea they’d ever been there.
After a bland rehydrated dinner Anaïs would postpone the inevitable, sitting in a circle with her colleagues to chat until one by one everyone peeled away to go to sleep. Sometimes they told stories or someone pulled out a banjo. Anaïs was economical with words, preferring listening to speaking, but she was always the last to retire.
Each night when she closed her eyes, she saw Cyril in someone else’s arms. It was difficult to imagine him older, middle age creasing his smooth forehead, tugging at the skin beneath his olive green eyes. His tawny brown hair would still curl at the ends, and when he smiled dimples would still open in his cheeks like little whirlpools in a draining bathtub. She kept seeing his long fingers interlaced with someone else’s – maybe there had been many someones during all those years she’d passed in icy sleep, bulleting through space and time while his life went on. She imagined matter antimatter collisions blossoming like fireworks behind the ship, delineating the distance between them with a kind of cosmic contrail.
She saw him by a fireplace, a little curly-haired child in his lap pointing at glossy pictures in a book of fairytales. She saw him laughing, running through the rain at night with a bright-eyed brunette; the streets were oily wet mirrors, color and light smearing like in all those impressionist paintings. She saw Paris, sa Ville Lumière, brilliant enough to rival any jewel in the sky. Earth’s own constellation.
Anaïs had seen a kitten declawed once, when she was in high school and she’d interned at the local animal hospital. She remembered how smoothly the scalpel slid through the toe bones, how the stubby, broken claws dropped to the operating table with barely the sound of raindrops. Watching the surgery had been unpleasant but bearable; watching the poor creature wake up was what had brought bile into her throat. The kitten’s eyes were still closed, the anesthesia ebbing away, when its legs began to tremble. It began to cry in its sleep and it woke up thrashing. When gloved hands had revived her from her cryo chamber she’d woken similarly disoriented, painfully cognizant of an emotional mutilation even before reality and memory settled over her scrambled senses.
When she’d exited the ship and laid eyes on Liriem for the first time, something rich and intoxicating had unfurled in her body like an ink droplet diffusing through water; it had pulsed through her bloodstream until every square inch of her was warm again. She’d seen photographs of the planet’s sprawling bluegrass fields, known that the photosynthetic pigments in most of the plant life maximally absorbed at the higher wavelengths of the spectrum and reflected the lower, but physically experiencing the way the planet dripped blue and violet nearly brought her to her knees. The oceans themselves were vivid greens, as if some mischievous god had inverted the Earth. It was strange and wildly beautiful, and as solarcraft ferried her and her colleagues through the billowing terrestrial ocean to the colony, she silently thanked all of the humans who had gone before her, who had constructed this tower of shoulders for her to stand upon. The thrill of the actualized dream washed down any residue of uncertainty.
They’d both known it wasn’t forever. Even if she hadn’t been accepted into the Stanford Extraterrestrial Archaeology Team for Ph.D. candidacy, their futures had always hovered around their pocket of paradise, promising new chapters. She’d have gone to America for graduate school, then Africa to research ancient branches of the hominin tree. But Cyril could have spent his entire life without stepping a foot outside of Paris. He plunged into literature for the depth which Anaïs sought between the stars and the dust of forgotten eons, preferring intellectual adventure to any thrill of physical experience. For her, the two were inextricably bound. Even as their paths spiraled around one another and threaded together again and again, it was given that they must at some point diverge. And yet each night she woke shivering, subconsciously aware of his body missing from hers. Tu me manques.
Twenty-five years, with time dilation. God. She’d stared at her face in every mirror she passed for a while. She’d only lain down for a nap; she was still the petite ashy blonde with the little, upturned nose and light brown eyes. But she must only be photographs to him now. She’d pushed a button and opened a chasm.
That night memories yanked her out of her dreams again; around twenty-six hours she twisted in her blankets and became conscious of the dull pain wallowing in her chest. She opened her eyes. She wasn’t the only one having trouble adjusting to the new day cycle; in the mornings everyone grumbled about their night’s sleep as they sipped instant coffee together. But once Anaïs awakened she was Tantalus in the waters of the Underworld; she wanted nothing more than to recede back into the warm darkness of sleep but it evaded her without mercy, frequently condemning her to wander the forests of her thoughts until dawn. There was no agony quite like restlessness.
Memories marched through her hazy mind. Not memories of singular moments, but of little things so often sipped by the senses they must have wired themselves into her neural circuitry – evening strolls through the botanical gardens, breakfasts of crèpes aux fraises at their favorite bakery, the way Cyril’s glasses kept sliding down his nose in the library because he was always leaning into the book in his hands.
She peeled the blankets off and sat up, resigned to another half-night of insomnia. Sometimes she grabbed the flashlight at the foot of her sleeping bag and read; she was halfway through Hyperion and the vivid story offered a welcome distraction. But she could never fully slip free of herself; the thoughts and feelings lingered just beneath the surface and would bubble up unbidden, competing for her attention so that she was constantly having to go back and reread paragraphs. She couldn’t bear to sit still for hours again; she needed to move, as if she could physically expend her distress and watch it dissipate into the night as heat. She pulled an old sweatshirt over her head, picked up the flashlight, and unzipped the flap on her nylon tent. Outside, she pulled her hiking boots over her pajama pants and laced them tightly. She waited until she was a few feet away from the campsite to turn her flashlight on. She barely needed it, with all the light the stars and moons dumped over the ground.
He could have come with her. Anyone selected to join the new world was permitted to extend invitations to family and close friends to join them – who would agree to come otherwise? A colony needed lovers and friends and children if it was to sustain itself. Cyril was her only chain to Earth; she’d had no parents since the crash, had never had any siblings or cousins. But the question had only been a formality. She remembered what he said word for word, how nauseatingly sappy it was, and how she’d stupidly started crying anyways. Mais même si tu es loins de moi, je penserai à toi tous les jours.
Did he? Had he thought of her all those nights, with the space between them perpetually expanding? She wished there were some form of communication faster than light – a quantum entanglement in neurons – so that minds could touch even if bodies could not.
She walked faster, savoring the power of her legs. Space was not an infallible enemy; humans were forever challenging it. But time was another beast. She felt time congealing around her like a tangible substance, a fluid that was at once both viscous and slippery, catching her like a fly suspended in amber even as it drained through her fingers.
She felt a sudden urge to break into a run but completed the uphill mile to the dig site at a brisk walk. At the top she sat on a large, smooth rock. She hugged her knees and gazed at the remains. She wouldn’t dare go near them at this hour, without the rest of the team, but she was content just to look. In the light bath they seemed luminescent.
To think that for a sliver of time this dragon had drawn breath, had tasted the world and responded to it, before crumpling up to die and lie here for eons. The bones endured, but the soul was just a flicker of candlelight.
Anaïs looked at her hands. She felt time crusting under her fingernails and crystallizing over her skin; it was a moist, feathery fungus growing in her lungs, a virus replicating in her bloodstream. It wanted to bury her, to petrify her and place her where she belonged with all the things that had lived and died so that one day she could be admired like some rare species of moth. It was crushing her but it was also dragging her along; she was slipping through it endlessly, unable to stop herself or slow down, as if it were a slab of ice and she was sliding, frictionless, forever.
Every story had to end. She knew that – she accepted it, or she thought she had, but something had to make the story worth reading, and she thought she’d figured that out too but now everything that had seemed clear and smooth was unraveling in her hands. She looked at the dragon’s skull as if it would open its jaw and tell her something.
Patches of wet, meaty muscle began then to coalesce absurdly over the remains, fibers knitting themselves together before her eyes. Anaïs stared as invisible hands roped neurons together and strung them along the spine like Christmas lights, then contoured a block of grey brain matter like an artist carving up clay. Organs popped into existence and ripened like fruit; vessels leapt around the proliferating tissues like tunnels dug by some burrowing critter, splintering everywhere into smaller and smaller tributaries. A thick suit of fatty white flesh was stretched over the dragon’s frame and coated in a rough, midnight blue epidermis; gleaming scales the size of roof shingles extended and hardened over the body like rock crystals.
Anaïs was aware throughout her fantasy that the pile of bones before her never actually moved, but something about the night suspended reality, pulled her into a dream state. She embraced it as she never would during daylight, when she’d chastise herself even for calling the species by its colloquial name. She looked at the skull and watched molten iron pool in the orbits and bake into explosive gold eyes; two black slits peeled open like portals to another world. Webbed, papery structures fanned out from the back of the skull as dozens of thick barbs punctured the ventrolateral surface, ending in sharp points like rose thorns. Something thick and wet dripped from the flaring nostrils as the dragon sucked air into its lungs and lifted its tremendous head. The fans behind its ears rustled once and began to thrum like hummingbird wings.
The dragon tried to move and became aware of its earthy prison. Irritated, it wrestled with the dirt and rock that still encased half of its body, clenching the muscles in its flank and forelimbs. Its writhing became violent, panicked; it thrashed and twisted, snarling, until the earth around it fractured suddenly like a cracked windshield. Rivers of dirt and rock tumbled to the ground as it burst loose and scrambled upright. Anaïs gaped at the hulking creature; it was so much more fearsome from this point of view than it had been lying in the dust. A deafening roar erupted from its mouth and crashed into her ears. Anaïs felt her cheeks baking in its breath, felt the dragon’s scream resonate in her bones. It was shrill and grating, like the unsheathing of a thousand swords.
The wings pressed flat against its body unfurled with the sound of sails rising against the wind. They bobbed in the air as the dragon reacquainted itself with the choreography of life. Amazing how instinctively the rhythms of the body could be synchronized – lungs swelling with air and releasing it, eyes opening and closing, nostrils flaring, muscles rippling fluidly, passing movement like a baton, claws extending and retracting. Each exhale hit Anaïs like a gust of hot air from an open oven. The dragon sank back onto its haunches and screamed again as it thrust against the ground and its wings cracked the air. The down current slammed into Anaïs and her eyes screwed shut as the dragon hurled itself above her head and disappeared.
Anaïs opened her eyes and looked at the skeleton gleaming in the dirt.
She picked at the gunk under her fingernails, still imagining it wasn’t dirt she scraped away but little hardened flecks of time. How could something be so enduring and so ephemeral? It was the thick, gelatinous matrix in which all things were embedded; she felt she could plunge her hands into it and squish it between her fingers. She could peel off layers that would curl like old parchment, splay them out and pin them down with needles, so that even if moments in time were eternally receding she could grab hold of them and open them back up for a little while. It was difficult to say what exactly made the past so captivating, why it was so thrilling to wander in memories of things that were gone forever. Something to do with that innate curiosity that was so abundant in her species. Anaïs stood to return to her tent.
They were all just microbes, but the story would never die; it slept in rocks and sprawled across light years and swirled in billions of minds, spilling over tongues and soaking into ears and eyes with as much biological imperative to survive as any living thing. The one challenger who could thwart time.
“Time Chasms” (© Julia Warner) was published in Issue 5 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.