Your nose pores after Biore...

ENCLOSED POSSIBILITIES

by Wayne Deeker

1.

"Hi Don. Yeah, they just arrived. I have them here." David Conway shifted the phone to his left hand. Stroking his flecked beard, he pondered the desk's surface layer of drawings and photographs. "I'm flummoxed by them too. These are the weirdest fossils I've ever seen. I can't imagine any natural process creating these impressions. They're so perfectly round, and flat on the bottom; they could've almost been made by rows of paint tins pushed into the mud."

Conway held one of the photographs, a black and white 8 x 10 depicting an outdoor location, nearer his face. He continued, "It's spooky. But the largest animals back then were about a foot long; nothing could make tracks this size. And what animals have feet like paint tins?"

He glanced around his cramped office: the clock on his cluttered bookshelf; through the dusty blinds; into the courtyard. "We should go on the hypothesis that it's a hoax. See if you can find evidence of carving marks, recent oxidation, stuff like that, and do kay-ay dating and paleomagnetic analyses. If those check out, at least we'll know we have a genuine fossil. After that, who knows? We'll see what turns up. Keep in touch. Bye."

Conway stared out his window, tapping his pen against his forehead, elbow on desk. Finally, he slid the photographs and drawings back into their envelope, turning his attention to the morning's mail.

Discarding the first few letters, he opened a large yellow envelope marked "manuscript." Reclining in his chair, feet up, Conway read.

* * *

"Nonsense!" he remarked to office, scribbling. Two hoaxes in one day? Unbelievable! He continued skimming the text, arriving at the appended drawings and diagrams. He whistled. But wait; where've I seen these structures before?

Unlocking the metal cabinet, its protesting door squeaked open. He gathered books and small wooden boxes from the clutter, cleared off a benchtop along one wall, clicked on the circular magnifier's florescent light.

Through the lens, he compared a fossil specimen to faded notes and sketches, the paper yellowed. Disk-shaped, about five centimeters wide, the fossil's inner edge consisted of rows of jagged, toothy structures.

Back then, they seemed so odd. Nobody knew what they were, or their function. We guessed they might've been part of some undiscovered organism. Now, here they are, in this guy's paper, exactly like this, but drawn as only part of a whole animal. Shit! It looks so right. Who would go to the trouble of hoaxing such a creature -- look at those tentacles and fin-things! -- yet include this unpublished fossil as its mouth part?

"No-one," he said to his empty office, "could have made this up. What's going on, Mr. Penny?"

 

2.

"Hello?"

"Hi. This is David Conway of the Pacific Journal of Palaeobiology. I'm calling about the manuscript you sent us recently." He doodled on the pad near the phone. "The text and drawings of your paper are surprising, to say the least. I'm very interested to know where the specimen came from. Haven't seen anything like it in 20 years. Your drawings are so complete, so detailed and lifelike; I've never seen such exquisite soft-tissue preservation. It's incredible."

Noel Penny did not respond. Conway continued, "I have meticulously studied every specimen you interpret here as a mouthpart; I found most of them, and I have four of the six specimens in my own lab. I was not aware of any new specimens, nor of any proposed paleontological expeditions." Colouring a box he had drawn on the pad, he asked, "Where did your specimen come from?"

"All of that information was in the paper. Where it was found, when, by whom, the whole lot."

"Yes, let's discuss that. You say that -- "

"Everything you need to know is there. I don't appreciate being called at home and interrogated."

Conway sighed. "Okay, would you prefer to talk now, or do we thrash this out in the academic journals and newspapers?"

Conway almost heard the other man thinking.

"The reason I chose to call was that your paper contains some chillingly detailed drawings and anatomical descriptions, going far beyond anything done on this species. But you make several statements that don't add up, such as where you got it."

"British Columbia, like it says -- "

"Like hell! I've just come back from there; I know that region. You have researched your story very well, and you might have convinced others that this fossil came from that location, but I don't buy it. That kind of fossil in that type of shale does not occur there."

Noel Penny remained mute.

"So, what do we do? You've obviously seen something important, something amazing, but you didn't get it from there. So what the hell is going on?" He leaned forward in his chair, jabbing his pen on the pad. "Show me the specimen."

"I don't think that's a good idea."

"Haven't I made myself clear? I'm on to you. You're in deepest shit, and I can make it hell. You'll never publish; your career is ruined unless you cooperate. You know what they do to scientific frauds?"

"Okay. You'd better come over."

 

3.

"Come on through," said Noel Penny without preamble. On the doorstep, Conway faced the lanky younger man, his attention drawn from the snow- capped Mount Gould looming over the valley's streetlights, just coming on. Conway hopped a little from foot to foot, blowing onto his mittened hands.

Penny led Conway silently through the small, sparsely furnished house, to a converted bedroom, the curtains drawn. A two by 1.5 meter oblong shape, covered with thick woollen blankets, occupied one wall; facing it, a battered sofa in the centre of the room. A violet fluorescent glow escaped beneath the blanket. Soft humming of electric motors and the sound of trickling water filled the room.

"Sit down."

Puzzled, Conway complied. He surveyed the room, looking for something more akin to his anticipation: an office; cardboard boxes; miscellaneous fossils. There was only the humming shape before him.

Penny closed the bedroom door and took a deep breath as if to speak, but reconsidered. He folded the blanket up from the bottom, revealing an aquarium. Draping the folded blanket over the top, he cut the room lights and joined his visitor on the sofa.

In the gloom, the aquarium shone brightly. Its deep bed of calcareous gravel held bridges and caves of weathered sandstone rocks: likely shelter for skittish fish. A long blue airstone produced a white curtain of mist, fizzing at the water's eddied surface.

In one cave lurked a curious creature. Orange-turquoise, perhaps half a meter long, a tapered horizontal row of flat fin projections rippled in waves along the creature's rear two- thirds, the animal effortlessly moving its kite-shaped body forward and backwards.

The creature emerged from its cave.

"He seems aware of us," said Penny. "He shouldn't be able to see us sitting here in the dark, or hear us through the glass. It's really weird."

Conway gaped. He sat on the edge of the sofa, hands cupping his chin, elbows on knees: the creature comfortably exploring, searching.

"He's a very efficient predator," Penny continued. "Want to see him eat?"

Conway sat on the sofa, absorbed. "Huh? Oh yeah, sure."

Penny disappeared then returned with a bucket containing several small goldfish. "I keep these to feed him. He'll eat almost anything. He's an older male, probably already reproduced many times."

Shifting a glass lid, Penny plopped one goldfish into the tank, and quickly replaced the lid.

Instantly, the creature jackknifed, streaking from the other end of the tank towards its victim at the surface. Half-way there, segmented and barbed hooks straightened from under the boot-toe head. Accelerating, turning onto its back, the creature snared and drew the goldfish into its circular mouth. A splash at the surface. A cloud of debris: all that remained of the goldfish. The creature slowed to its former speed, resuming its casual exploration, occasionally digging in the substrate.

Penny lifted the lid once more, and dumped in the remaining goldfish. "Watch his mouth, if you can. It works like a camera aperture. He crushes things in there, even snails and stuff."

Two splashes, two clouds.

"Wow! Incredible."

"There was no fossil specimen, of course," Penny continued. "All of those drawings were made from this fella. After a bit of research I imagined what a fossil of this animal should look like, and came up with what you saw in my paper."

"Yeah, I've got several of the mouthparts. Initially I thought your paper must be a fraud, but those bits were too real." Conway turned on the sofa to look at Penny, "Your paper was very plausible. You might've been published without question if you'd submitted it anywhere else. But why did you write it?"

"After having been denied my main contribution to science, I wanted to share something of what I have discovered. Perhaps you will understand in a little while." He rose, "I have something else to show you."

 

4.

Sitting opposite Conway on the lounge-room sofa, Penny handed his guest a shot of scotch. "This'll help," he said.

Conway nodded, gulped his drink, and extended his glass for another, his hands shaking. Over the refill, Penny continued, "Well, where do we start?"

"How about how you managed to build a goddamned fucking time machine in your bloody spare bedroom!" He gulped his drink again, shuddering.

"Okay. It's basically an extension of my work in cosmology. You know about wormholes in space/time?"

"A bit; not really."

"I was working on the sub-microscopic wormholes that fill every cubic nanometer of the Universe. Think of space as a sponge that looks solid from a distance. Up close it's full of tiny tunnels much smaller than atoms. Follow?"

Conway nodded, already lost, his hands around the empty glass. Penny continued, "We've known about these for a while, and we've also known that they're fundamentally the same as the huge ones that naturally form in the Universe from time to time. There're some, several hundred parsecs long, near this galaxy we've been studying for a while. It's been theoretically possible since the 1960s to travel through them to some far distant point in space and time.

"I found that big ones could be produced by grabbing and stretching the little ones. Presto, a time machine!"

Penny noted Conway's blank look. "Okay, we'll back up a bit. You can't think of space and time as separate things, right? They aren't even flip sides of the same coin. They are one; if you move through one, you move through the other too, but not necessarily by the same amount. If you go through a natural wormhole, you travel through space and time.

"So, say I can make a wormhole and control where it emerges in space, then by having enough control to do that, there's a time component to the equations also. I opened up a wormhole, with one end here, and the other -- by chance -- spatially on the coast of what's now British Colombia, Canada, but about 550 million years ago.

"I can open and close the wormhole over a four meter square area, like a door. The hole forms around the control platform that you just saw in the bedroom.

"The actual opening and stretching of the hole so that we can fit through it is pretty complicated; it's done using gravitons. You know how massive objects, like planets and stars bend, and even puncture space/time? Well, I just duplicated the effect, but about a billion times more intensely, with an artificial gravitational beam focused on one of the ubiquitous micro-holes. I did that using a small graviton generator." Penny beamed, certain he had made everything clear.

After a moment, he frowned. "I built it, you know? They said it couldn't be done. The bastards! They cut my funding because I was too close to the breakthrough that they wanted themselves, then they lied about financial cutbacks. You know how it works -- PhD students are there to make their supervisors look good, not to take major scientific prizes. If you start doing too much radical stuff, they dump you.

"Anyway, even without a lab, I knew the principle could be applied using whatever odds and ends I could find. That, in a way, was the biggest breakthrough: no need for special equipment. Four kilowatts, the power of a domestic electric heater, powers the graviton generator and control platform. Batteries underneath take us home. Mains power the first trip, then the batteries have enough for two more.

"Theoretically, we could go anywhere in the Universe at any time differential. For the present, though, Middle-Cambrian Canada is the only place we can reliably get back from because I haven't devised the equations for elsewhere. I don't have the computer-power I had at the lab."

Conway took a slug from his empty glass. Grabbing the bottle from the coffee-table, he poured, then gulped the drink. "Fuck!"

Penny continued, "I've been there a few times, actually."

Conway blinked, and finally exclaimed, "You went back there! You got the creature yourself! It wasn't just caught in your field!"

Penny smiled. "Yeah, you've gotta go in on scuba, of course, but it's fun. It's really weird, though, being the biggest thing in the sea. Everything's so different."

Conway stood suddenly, knocking the coffee table. "I want to go! I don't care what it takes, I want to go! I'm not missing this, no way."

"Settle down. Come around tomorrow afternoon; we'll go then."

 

5.

Conway staggered, disoriented. He had felt the universe recede above him, only to reappear again after a sense-boggling millisecond. An overwhelming sense of compression was one of the few things his frazzled brain had been able to perceive.

Conway examined his surroundings, breathing heavily. Penny, a dark shape in the bright morning glare, had already left the platform. He stood beside Conway on the white sandy beach, attending to their scuba and other gear. Behind Penny, the beach curved off towards a rocky outcrop a kilometer away, another jagged headland a dozen meters away to Conway's left. The headlands enclosed a small, clear bay, the deep water in the bay's centre eerie and calm.

Conway turned, facing inland, to examine the rolling dunes. "I thought I was prepared for this." As far as he could see, bare rock, and thin, sandy soil highlighted the strangeness. "Not even lichen," he muttered. Only piles of stringy kelp on the beach interrupted the barrenness.

"Gravity's the same," Conway said, "but O2's down a bit."

"Weird, isn't it?" Penny asked. "Want to get going? Not much to see on land."

They helped each other with the scuba equipment, then waded into the water through gentle surf. At waist-depth, Penny said, "Put your mask on now." Adjusting his own straps and placement he said, "Nod if you hear me?"

"Good. The intercom has a range of about 100 meters, but stay within reach, just in case."

Penny demonstrated some safety procedures. "Okay? Let's go!" He finned towards the rocks, Conway following.

A meter below the calm surface, Penny said, "Look around you; you'll never get visibility this good. See the far side of the rocks, in deeper water? That must be 50 meters away! The light cuts through the water, and touches bottom. Amazing."

"Why's that?"

"Good weather, partly, but the headlands also shelter the bay from the brunt of the waves. I'll bet the life in here is pretty isolated from the rest of the ocean too; the heads are so narrow that there'd be a killer current running between them when the tide changes. Not much could get in or out."

Three meters deep, close to the rocks, Penny pointed. "Look there."

Conway gazed at a pink soft-coral, its slender branches peeking from a crevice, swaying gently in the current. He finned closer, bubbles swirling around his face. A pair of green, tubular animals clung munching to the branches. Pairs of stubby, conical legs protruded from the soft, segmented bodies. "Hey! Onychophorans!"

"Yes," said Penny, "aren't they cute? Here's something else."

A carpet of plum-coloured filter-feeding champagne goblets covered the rocks, swaying gently in the current. Anchored to the substrate by slender stalks, rim fronds opened and closed, rolling the animals into balls. They sometimes belched clouds of debris.

"They look like corals and stuff, but they're not," said Penny. "Look into the cup. See? Two holes, not one. They're cups within cups, funny cavities and suspension fibres everywhere. Tell me what modern phylum has those features."

"None, but there should be quite a few weird phyla around now."

Penny wove through columns of meter-high sponges. "Here're some more, just as strange. These little domes move along the bottom, probably grazing on algae." No eyes or other sensory organs. Flat, almond- shaped scales.

"Those spines along their backs fold down when they negotiate a cranny or something. No legs under there, just a mouth. For all I know they drag themselves along with that. Any ideas what they are?"

Conway poked at one of the domed animals with his finger. "It won't turn over." The animal ejected a cloud of yellow liquid at his mask. Retreating, Conway said, "We call its fossils Wiwaxia. But I have no idea what kind of animal it is."

Penny said, "You know more about it, but I was really confused. Very unfamiliar. Even when I know the phylum, it's often a completely unknown group. Like that, it's probably an arthropod, but I don't know what kind."

A ten centimeter, segmented, lumpy train walked on its many jointed legs across the rippled sea floor, tufts of algae growing on its back. Its spiked tail trailing a quarter-sphere head.

Penny flipped it onto it's back, to examine its segmented mouthparts and antennae.

"Texts say arthropods don't show both gill and leg appendages for the same body segment." He righted the animal and let it go.

Around mid-morning, they discovered a twenty centimeter wonder. Five eyes, and trailing a long flexible proboscis equipped with a grabber claw from under its face.

"What the hell is that?" asked Conway. The creature's flattened flukes extended downwards along both sides of its body segments. Feathery gills between the flukes' upper surfaces. The last three flukes extended upwards, forming a V-shaped tail, swishing laterally.

The men moved closer to the animal, which darted off. "Follow it!" yelled Conway.

They kept up with the fleeing animal only with great effort; it twisted and zig-zagged, doubling back between them. Finally, approaching from the rear, they netted it.

Penny held the struggling animal so they could examine it. "Will you look at it! Its mouth is a third of the way back from the head." Breathing hard, Penny said, "This is the wildest thing I've seen. Any ideas?"

"None."

Penny checked his watch. "We'd better start heading back. We might squeeze in another dive this afternoon."

Swimming back, they noticed a 25 centimeter trilobite. It rose from the sea floor to follow a slow-moving school of slug-like animals they could not see clearly. The men froze to watch it.

From behind them a pair of animals similar to Penny's aquarium specimen streaked towards the trilobite. The larger, a one-meter male, seized the trilobite, tearing it apart. It shoved half into its mouth, the smaller predator ravishing the descending pieces. Both cruised away.

"Shit! I'll never get used to seeing that," said Conway.

 

6.

At dusk, sitting on the beach, Conway peered into a screw-top glass jar, swirling four specimens of slug-creatures caught during their second dive. The inch-long animals had wide, vertically-compressed tails at one end and antennae at the other; frilly gills undulated from their head backs.

"Know what these are?" Conway asked.

Penny examined the fine zig-zagging flank-lines, and the dark stripe running along their backs. "Nope."

"Yeah, its hard to tell. They're chordates, members of our own phylum. These, or others like them, are the ancestors of all vertebrates."

Penny came closer, peering at the preserved specimens. "Not very impressive, are they? I wonder what advantage they had over the others?"

"Who knows? Many evolutionary survivors have simply been lucky; their survival didn't necessarily imply any great merit."

Conway moved to the piles of specimens awaiting preservation, each stack containing several of an animal type, tied together. "Look at these," he said. "They're all finely adapted to their environment, neither primitive nor inferior compared to these chordates. Just the reverse, actually."

Conway sat back down on the sand, facing Penny. "When we get back, we're publishing your paper. We can't keep this to ourselves."

"Is that why you're taking so many specimens? To forge fossils properly?"

"No, bugger that. We'll give 'em the truth about our expedition. Nobel prizes for us when we prove this!

"Actually, the specimens are for documentation of some ecological information: population size, demography, stuff like that. We need this quantity for unambiguous statistical analyses. I want to do some anatomical and physiological work, too. You might notice that there're a lot of predators. You can learn heaps about an ecosystem from its predators. In later trips we'll do all kinds of other studies, but we've got enough for now. We'll go home tomorrow morning."

 

7.

"Ready?"

Conway adjusted the ropes of the specimen piles, placing them and the jars onto the steel-mesh platform with the other equipment. "Hit it."

"Home, then," said Penny, pressing the switch.

Conway felt his consciousness compressed through the same incomprehensible nothingness as before. It was no less disorienting the second time.

They stepped off the platform into a small clearing of dense forest. Golden, early morning sunbeams filtered through the canopy, eighty meters above them, thick shrubs not permitting any view through the tall undergrowth.

A light breeze carried dewy, organic scents, rich in humus, but suggesting an alien spiciness.

"Where the hell's this?" demanded Conway.

Penny shook his head. "It's worked every other time." He whirled around, surveying the trees, and stopped, stricken. "Look!" Penny pointed over the canopy at the unmistakable snow-capped Mount Gould. "This is where we're meant to be."

A soft humming behind them, followed by rustling, drew Conway's attention from the mountain. Tapping Penny's shoulder, he stammered, "L-look at this." Penny turned and gaped at five lanky creatures standing across from them on the other side of the clearing. Four held in their white tentacles some kind of metallic devices whose humming notes varied as the beings turned.

"Those tentacles, they're walking on! How they ever evolved to live on land...." He beamed at Penny, "Incredible! Can you imagine the muscular strength needed for walking on land without bones? Perhaps they do it with hydraulics --"

"What are you blithering about?" Penny demanded.

"Listen. Don't ask me to explain how I know, but I'm telling you, as a biologist, that these creatures are mollusks. This must be their natural environment. An alternative one."

"Then we .... Those specimens -- "

"Look! They've seen us."

Striding towards the men, their flashing, bewildering patches of vibrant colour intensifying as they approached, the creatures gestured vigorously, first to the men, then to each other.

"Do you reckon they're trying to talk to us? Their colours, I mean." Penny asked. Conway raised his eyebrows, and slowly stepped forward, hands raised.

The creatures simultaneously backed from him, colouring even deeper and more rapidly. The largest, most colourful, creature gestured with a tentacle. Both men immediately felt themselves hung by their legs before a mass of huge yellow eyes. The tall creature examined them.

The one holding Penny activated its device, shimmered in a purple light and disappeared. The leader gestured again, to Conway's captor, as it and the other two walked to the time platform. Conway noticed the marks remaining in the soft soil. He almost fainted: just like paint tins!

Two creatures examined the platform before stepping onto it. The leader joined them. One probed the control panel with a tentacle; without sound, the structure disappeared.

Conway's captor activated its own device: it and Conway disappeared in a flash of purple light.

The shrubs' yellow, U-shaped foliage swayed in the gentle forest breeze. *

 

Story copyright © 1995-1996 Wayne Deeker <wdeeker@artemis.cbr.dwe.csiro.au>

Illustration copyright ©1995-1996 by Andrew G. McCann <andy@planetmag.com>

Additional art copyright ©1998 by Romeo Esparrago <public@romedome.com>

 


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