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The Murmurous Paleoscope

by Dixon Chance

4691 words

“From Hazel Cardanell to Dr. Lambert Grandhaven:
Oct. 13, 1887

…Greetings and health to you from Sevier Lake and Environs.

I wish I had better news about the dig, but ere I relate that tale, I would be remiss if I did not assure you that the Paleoscope and Lithotome have made the journey to Utah fully intact, though it was a hard thing those last hundred miles by stage. Not trusting Ezekiel or Hiram — who mean well, but they are clumsy — I gave them the metallic parts to look after; but made sure to keep the Anning Lens myself, detached from the rest of the ’Scope, wrapped in two pillows and in all the clothing I had to hand beside; I fear the coachman, a devout Mormon, turned quite pink at the glimpse of my bloomers; yet I could little afford concern on this point, for I spent the entire trip, from Salt Lake City to Fillmore, bent over that bundle like a mother hen, straining to fend off catastrophe. It was exhausting, but the integrity of the lens has been maintained; a result more due to luck than to my stewardship, for it is a wonder that anything in that carriage is still in one piece after the mad jostling we suffered across so many false turns. Zeke and Hi are still complaining about their aching muscles. My very hat was dented and ill fits me now. At any rate, your investment is secure. We lost but one fitting, and Hiram avows it will be easy to improvise a replacement.

The reason for our unstinting speed — and I fear you will see the expense in the attached invoice, listed as a “Doucement to the Stage Driver” — is that word was already spreading on the train from Kansas City that Eccleston was also en route to the Shales, with a full team, and in Salt Lake we missed him by no more than an hour. It was my concerted aim to make up for time through sheer speed, and so achieve the best location along the Valley, but he outfoxed us. I have no doubt that he may have even bribed our coach driver to take an especially bumpy route, and to get lost three times (as he did) in an attempt to break the Paleoscope before our team even arrived. I am not without intelligence concerning our rival, however; a baggage handler at the station noted that, among Eccleston’s team’s equipment, there was a “man-shaped suit of bronze and iron” that seemed “studded with gears along the back.” He also reported a small portable-looking stove with what sounded like arm-straps, and it seems clear that Eccleston has not only brought his Armature, but that he has somehow induced it to run on steam power instead of springs. How I wish I had left Ohio even a day earlier! When I think of the damage he will do to the Pratt Shale!

And not, perhaps, just to the Shale. The selfsame baggage handler (easily bribed with a cigarette and a turn of my ankle; no charge) reported that among Eccleston’s equipment, he observed several pounds of dynamite. This could be the Wolverton Quarry all over again, only now we are in the Wild West, and who knows what ill could transpire here, how many fossils and people he could destroy from sheer professional jealousy? Rest assured that our entire team is armed and watchful. We have tricks of our own.

In any event, we have set up our own camp discreetly, a mile and a half south of Eccleston’s and away from view. We are smaller, and move lightly, and I have some suspicion that he may not even be aware that we are here, and so near to him; for the sound of his Armature is a blight on the entire valley, sending a hammering cacophony that a deaf man could hear all the way from Skull Rock Pass. Rest assured; the Paleoscope and Lithotome will prove the more cunning and useful devices; and I guarantee we will uncover and assemble an echinoderm fossil before Eccleston’s team manages the same, no matter what ruses he employs to delay us. I was plucking icthyosaurs from seaside rocks ten years before he even knew what a trilobite was, or which end of it was which. In short, although he has made a head start, in the end, the scientific journals will hear of helicoplacus grandhaveni long before whatever it is Eccleston is hoping to call his next find. He has a slight edge in the Jurassic, as we have noted; but we shall beat him in the Cambrian!

With gratitude for your enthusiasm for this project, and for your willingness to accept such a nontraditional ally as myself in this war for scientific knowledge, I remain, as ever … etc.

• • •

From Hazel Cardanell to Dr. Lambert Grandhaven:
Oct. 20, 1887

…It is with hands trembling in excitement that I announce I have found you an exceptional fossil, and one that cannot fail to bring you renown. Let Eccleston have his helioplacus; for I have located a creature unexampled in all the literature, and unprecedented in all conventional morphology; and we have the Paleoscope to credit for the discovery.

You should first be apprised that Eccleston knows we are here, and has shown himself to be exceedingly unhelpful and ungenerous, but at least our work has not yet been physically interfered with. When we are done here, my hope is to slip away before he suspects that we have discovered anything. And as of today, that moment may come sooner than any of us expected.

As Ezekiel foretold, it was actually very easy to charge the Anning Lens in the desert sun. One unexpected difficulty lay simply in the glare reflected from the shale; and this was easily remedied by covering the Lithotome’s cutting-scaffold with Hiram’s greatcoat. (Ezekiel offered his as well, but we only needed one, and Hiram is the larger-bodied man.) Thus, with the scaffold pressed firm against the cliffside, and working in relative darkness beneath the greatcoat, I was able to use the cosmogenic energies from the Anomaly Boiler to peer through the Lens, layer by layer, as far as two and a half feet into the rock. You were right; even outside the laboratory, shale is an exceptionally sympathetic mineral for these new energies! When we are finally able to cut, I feel certain it will proceed quickly.

The initial scanning would have seemed slow progress to an outside observer, for the Boiler makes for hot work, and we are already in the desert, and we must take breaks every twenty minutes to allow the device to cool down. It is, as you know, far too expensive to replace! (When the stage arrives next week, I will be sure to request more and larger crates of ice — if any are to be had; and if Eccleston has not outbid us.) Such patience is surely worth it. For whatever progress Eccleston makes with his battering and cutting, he cannot have found what I have: I call it Anomalocusta, for it resembles no lobster science has ever seen. And best of all: it is intact.

It remains in the rock, of course, and removing it thence will be the Lithotome’s job. But for now I can see the entire fossil through the Lens and here is my first attempt at a description: it is a long jointed-plate arthropod rather like a lobster or a shrimp, but larger than either, exceeding three feet from head to tail, making it far and away the largest Cambrian creature ever recorded by science. Unlike a lobster, it has no claws or other limbs. In its body shape it resembles a large trilobite whose segments have been flattened and stretched and transformed into underwater wings. Its head is the most disturbing feature, for it has a demonic shape, and possesses — I should say possessed — two large hooklike fangs over six inches long, which look capable of cracking open shells and armor, and it boasts two large compound eyes on stalks — but unlike the tiny beady eyes of the lobster, these are large and pale and eerie, resembling searching headlamps. Finally, and most disconcertingly, it has a thin, needlelike proboscis that extends from between the fangs. This proboscis looks long, soft, and prehensile — an odd thing indeed to see coming from such a stiff armored creature. The Anomalocusta must have undulated through the primoridal seas with great speed and indifferent grace, like some mechanical insectlike manta ray — but what could it have fed upon? I would send my rough drawings of the Anomalocusta, but I do not want to risk the mail being waylaid by Eccleston’s agents. I will send them when I judge myself to be in a more secure locality.

In case you are wondering why I have not appended a species name to this creature’s taxonomy yet, it is just this: after years of sending you dozens of new fossils, which you have been only too happy to classify and take credit for, I feel I have earned the right to some modicum of recognition for my tireless work. I know that I am but a modestly educated woman, and no proper scientist as the Geological Society recognizes such. Yet from my childhood by the shore I have shown, have I not, for over two decades that I understand the care of fossils, the reconstruction of organisms, the importance of a subtle eye and a care for stinting detail. And I have reliably sent you all my latest finds for a dozen years when your rivals have offered me bribes and other inducements to send them elsewhere or to lose them entirely. I have resisted, not only because of the esteem in which I hold your work, but out of loyalty to you, for first recognizing that I was more than some mere girl playing at the beach.

This new fossil will be studied for a millennium, and if I am ever to achieve even the merest hat-tip from the academic community, it would be an honor to have it attached to this discovery. I hope you will consider naming it Anomalocusta cardanelli — or, if you should choose to name it after yourself, that you would allow me at least the honor of publishing the paper, so that my name, too, will appear with it always: “Anomalocusta grandhaveni (Cardanell 1888).” Does that not look elegant, both our names in equal balance for the first time?

I hope that you will give my request all due and serious consideration. I remain, as ever, your loyal assistant and fellow explorer in the realms of science. And now I shall return to the discovery — which, I remind you, is a creature that only I, in all of human history, have ever seen. Sincerely, etc.…

• • •

From Hazel Cardanell to Dr. Lambert Grandhaven:
Nov. 9, 1887

…We were attacked in the night. It was to no real effect, however unsettling it was to wake up to; Hiram and Zeke report that they heard the smashing outside their tent, and moved to stop it, but someone had tied the door-flaps shut, and it took too many minutes to cut their way out with a penknife. By the time the two had found a way out of the tent, our attackers were gone. In their wake, we found our food scattered, our horses shooed into the wilderness, and the research tent’s poles and lines were broken, so that the tent itself was just a heavy flat canvas, lying atop a small library, a desk, and some low tables. Nothing priceless was damaged, but many inexpensive conveniences must now be replaced.

I seem to have slept through it — I even slept through Zeke’s attempt to wake me up and tell me about it — but when I did finally emerge into the afternoon, I was irritated, but not despondent. Everything important was still safe. Zeke and Hiram dismantle the Lithotome every night, and secret the parts beneath their beds in their tent. Those were unharmed. And in any event, all the vandalism in the world cannot destroy knowledge, once it is published.

From a certain perspective, this is all perhaps a good sign. Eccleston seems to have discovered that we made an excavation, and he must be murderously jealous of our advancement against his own goals. The precision of the Paleoscope and the Lithotome have proven themselves superior to Eccleston’s wild pneumatic battering of rocks.

No harm befell either the Paleoscope or the Anomalocusta (still no species; I await word from your silent pen.) Aside from this, there is little else to report except that I had an unnervingly vivid and unusual dream last night, wherein I was an ancient sea creature, tumbling through the Cambrian depths, seeking something I knew not what. I spent the entire dream waiting, as if I were a clenched fist, and when I awoke, my neck and jaws ached, and ache still. No doubt due to Eccleston’s presence and the importance of this find, this dig carries more than the usual amount of strain. The enclosed invoice includes an order for headache-powder.

• • •

From Hazel Cardanell to Dr. Lambert Grandhaven:
Nov. 16, 1887

…Oddly, we have had scant trouble of late from the enemy camp. Hiram reports that Eccleston has found something — not my lobster fossil, but something flat and still in the cliff wall; perhaps its double? — and he studies it for hours, as if he were reading a sacred text, or listening for the subtleties of a poem. His head angles to the sun, so perhaps what he studies is something he can only see on the surface in a certain light. Whatever it is — and the chance of it being another Anomalocusta seems slim indeed — it is a bewitching distraction that the rest of his crew find tedious to watch. Some of the men wander over to our camp to chat with some of our workers. They are rarely missed these days.

As for myself, I continue to have the same vivid dreams, only the more I experience the depths of the ocean, and these hours of predatory searching, I can sense that I am not hungering in the typical sense of the term; it is as if, in this dream world, what I live on is actual will; I derive sustenance from overriding the choice of other fish and living beings. I thrive through controlling them, and inducing them to attack one another. Is it possible that these creatures sustained themselves in this fashion, being not mere lobsterlike organisms but creatures of profound intelligence and tyrannical power? This may seem like irresponsible speculation, I allow. But after all, did not Louis Agassiz derive the complete structure of one of his fossils by dreaming about it? Perhaps there is more wisdom in the freeing of the unconscious mind than our young science knows. I hope this is so, for the headaches are growing worse.

As a result of the vividness of these dreams, today I overslept, and woke up hungry. I went through three rations of meat while the men looked on, nervous about saying anything — either because of delicacy toward my sex, or because my unladylike manner of eating put them off kilter, I cannot say. I know that I simply dumped the tinned beef onto my plate and ate it cold. I devoured three cans worth ere I could focus.

Then I went to the Anning Lens and noticed, as if for the first time, the grapholiths, whose tiny line-segment bodies seem to form a tantalizing cuneiform language over the face and body of the fossil proper. It sounds ridiculous to suggest that these creatures represent an actual alien tongue made up of their bodies, but I cannot shake the suspicion. If the Anomolocusta were as inteligent as I’m beginning to suspect, is it so unthinkable that they might have had a language? And if they were larger than the largest trilobites, and ate whatever they wanted at will, is it not possible they might have also indulged in slavery over smaller creatures? The more I look at the grapholiths, the more convinced I am that their dead bodies spell out something important. I am making notation now of their positions, for I have some suspicion that one day I will come to the lens and find they have moved.

• • •

From Hazel Cardanell to Dr. Lambert Grandhaven:
Nov. 21, 1887

While I do not know what it may mean in the greater future, for now it appears we have the upper hand. Eccleston’s camp is in utter disarray, owing to Eccleston’s own increasingly aberrant behavior. Most of his men, numbering six in all, have defected to our camp, and tell tales of Eccleston ignoring everything, frozen in his Armature in front of the shale wall for hours on end, then suddenly whirling with great violence and abuse. With his pistons, he hurled an entire pile of timber at the horses — timber intended to keep the shale stable in the event of further digging. One man was contused, a second was knocked senseless and still has not awakened. Whatever has driven him to this wildness, the exertion did not abate his rage, and he used the hammering-arm of his Armature to crush one of the camp’s dogs. “I cannot believe you didn’t hear it,” Zeke told me. “It made a terrible, piercing sound all across this valley. The poor creature suffered for over an hour.” I am told that you may still hear random smashing and clattering from the camp, as Eccleston paces. Perhaps it is a problem with his machinery, and he cannot turn off the engine. One hopes he will run out of steam anon.

All this I have learned from Zeke by hearsay. I admit I have been less attentive to camp matters, or even to personal ablutions, than I had been formerly. And the reason is simple: the grapholiths are a language. More than this: I am deciphering it! It may perhaps sound strange to you, but when I stare at this unsettling creature, I can almost feel it talking. I have taken to sleeping with it underneath my pillow, and something about that action — surely a response to primitive ritual wisdom of some sort — when I awake, it makes ever more sense. Last week, it became clear that the letterforms — whose shapes resolved into verbs and nouns very easily due to some mixture of my own feminine intuition and the clarifying focus of slumber — were spelling out an actual sentence akin to we sleep and wait for our time. But now, with more careful consideration and looking further at these shapes, it is clear that these letters indicate a phrase closer to we are restless and we hunger. If this message was laid down a million years ago by these creatures themselves, employing some system of cunning that we can barely conceive, how much more restless and hungry must they be now, if they have been frozen all this time? For beings so brilliant, this measure of immobility and helplessness must have led to an especially intense madness. I hope they are truly dead and not merely sleeping. It is tragic to contemplate.

The more I observe this fossil, the more I learn about its nature and its life, the more convinced I am that this find will never be equaled. There is no question but that this must bear the name Anomalocusta cardanelli. The only real question is whether you are willing to pay what this earth-shaking find is truly worth, or whether I shall be obliged to turn to a higher bidder to remunerate my studies. You have been silent since my last letter, and I give you no more than two weeks to reply before I resort to other sources of funding.

• • •

Cardanell’s diary
Nov. 23, 1887

Today, while staring at the Anomalocusta, a strange urge overcame me. I was peering into the Anning lens, and I felt a tap on my shoulder. I whirled in shock and anger, afeared that it was Eccleston come to attack me — but it was only Zeke, who frowned at me and said, “Miss Cardanell? Shouldn’t you be getting to bed?”

Outside the tent, it was now night, and I hadn’t even noticed the time passing. Quite literally the last thing I remembered was waking up at noon — I’ve been oversleeping regularly, of late — and then bringing the fossil underneath the light of the Anning Lens to examine its many-layered mysteries. It felt as though I’d barely begun to understand what I was looking at, and yet it was evening now.

I hadn’t eaten all day, and Zeke had thoughtfully brought me some stew left over from dinner. I ate it on my stool, straight from the pot, in the amber light of the Lens. Zeke perched across from me on a spare cot, looking fretful. He is a young man, and touching in his worry, and yet for some reason I found his behavior so annoying that at one point, as I was withdrawing the fork from my mouth, I was seized with the urge to take the fork into my fist and plunge it into Zeke’s forearm. It would be so satisfying to break the skin, I thought, with thoughts that were at one time not entirely mine, and yet at the same time utterly natural and primal. I felt so pent up in every way by my sex and my station, struggling to be heard by louts so utterly beneath me in ambition and native quickness. How satisfying it would be to just slip expectation and stab poor innocent Zeke. To plunge something sharp into something soft and startled. The blood flying away would prove I was the stronger, and not to be ignored. “Miss Cardanell?” he asked, and I looked up and realized I had the fork poised in my fist after all, and I had been staring. I apologized to Zeke and returned to my stew. It was cold by then, but I thanked him anyway.

I have wrapped up the fossil again and have replaced it beneath my pillow. I am finishing this note as I prepare for bed, and will post it in the morning in order to mark the moment with just the merest note of concern. Although I have always been a very private person, and have survived many extended digs, perhaps here I have been too isolated for too long. I know this much at least: tonight’s dinner has done nothing to slake my hunger.

• • •

From Hazel Cardanell to Dr. Lambert Grandhaven:
Nov. 30, 1887

This will be the last letter you receive from me. I am no expert in munitions, but there is no one left alive to assist me, and I have arrayed the dynamite to the best of my ability, based primarily on my memory of Eccleston’s destruction of Wolverton Quarry. I hope the Shale is buried in the blast. I send you this letter now to explain why any thing that survives yet this discharge must be subsequently destroyed. Expend your entire fortune to ensure this if you must.

What I recall is just this: amidst yet another dream — one where, this time, I had actually seized a small swimming creature and was killing it with my proboscis, enjoying the thrill as it thrashed on the end of my fangs — I awoke, and discovered that I was strangling Zeke, whose body was already cooling beneath my hands. I was outside, under the stars, and I hadn’t even remembered moving. It is possible that I have been sleepwalking for weeks. Who knows how much of this camp’s destruction has been my own doing while I slept?

As I dropped Zeke’s body in horror, I saw two other dead bodies nearby: two of the new men who had joined us from Eccleston’s camp. I didn’t even know their names, but between those two and Zeke, I would seem to have killed the entire night watch. My arms were visibly bruised, and my sleeves torn, probably from their struggles to survive me. I felt, and feel, no pain.

As I reeled from this horror, a cry went up from one of the men in the outer tents, apparently awakened by our struggle. I thought he was warning the few remaining workers against me, but I heard a clanking noise, and Eccleston appeared over the low ridge, still in his steam-pumping Armature. (According to reports, he has not been detached from it for over a week.) Hiram fired his rifle, and a good deal of blood appeared at the top of Eccleston’s scalp, but Eccleston did not slow down, and it was then that I noticed the gore on the end of his pneumatic claw. I knew then that no one would be found alive in the other camp. Not even an animal.

“I am restless,” he said, in a voice that was not quite human: an older voice, one so patient and commanding it was all the more terrifying for being merely spoken.

“I hunger,” I replied, in a voice not my own, and against my will. That is when I knew that Eccleston had indeed found another slumbering monstrosity, and that they were playing us against each other. I could feel it giving them strength.

As I ran away to protect the Paleoscope, I heard men crying out, and I knew the Armature’s hammer and claw were being deployed against the few good people we had left. It was then that I noted the pickaxe resting by the tent wall, and some primal urge took over. To this moment, I cannot say how much will I possessed. It felt as if I were entirely in control of my faculties at the time, but I do not remember choosing.

Please do not ask me to describe in detail what happened next. It should suffice to know that, after Eccleston, or what was left of him, had destroyed the men remaining in my camp, he came through the tent, the whole tin man of him, as I had known he would, in pursuit of the Paleoscope. If he had reached it, I do not know what would have happened. Some unholy completion of power, no doubt: a steam-powered strength and electrical vision that might have returned those ancient tyrants into control of our world. For whatever reason — perhaps by dint of my lifelong resistance to authority — I managed to swing the pickaxe. Eccleston was already dead, and difficult to destroy, but in my rage I managed to swing several more times. I can barely contemplate, much less detail, the bloody scene that presents itself to me now. If this is what a battlefield looks and smells like, I cannot say why more soldiers are not driven insane at the spectacle.

I alone survive, and I cannot say how long my will can remain my own. Certainly I will need to sleep anon, and this means time is short. I am leaving this letter, addressed to you, under a rock very far from the camps, and marked with a high flag. Everything else, Lord willing, will be burned in a huge conflagration that I pray will inspire more fear than curiosity. (No doubt this was Eccleston’s original aim — to destroy the site once he’d removed enough fossils to beat your own collection. It is ironic that I should end my career, and my life, by fulfilling his perverse wish.)

I can only hope this plan of mine will succeed, and everything will be destroyed, including myself. But if you should happen to see me again, know that it is not me. Shoot to kill, and do so ruthlessly, as many times as possible. Use kerosene and a shovel on my remains. And in the name of all that is holy: dig my grave deep.

Dixon Chance is a pseudonym of David Ellis Dickerson, who is a humorist and regular contributor to This American Life. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Story Quarterly, Slice and Camera Obscura, and (as Dixon Chance) has appeared in Weirdyear and is forthcoming in Pseudopod. He lives in Tucson, where the rent is cheap, and he advises all other writers to do the same.

Issue 23

May 2013

3LBE 23

Front & Back cover art by Rew X