Only finding fossils, we never suspected the flesh of the dinosaurs could’ve been so strange, could’ve climbed off whenever it felt like it and even borrowed our shape. That is the forgotten clade thanazoa, but they know of us, thanks to communing with their fungus-like oracle Atropos.
A defeated villain resurfaces to abuse those predictions, her predatory eyes set on the future she thinks she is denied. Discover a brand new world on familiar bones in this wildly speculative novella of the Triassic period.
(reading time: 1 hour, 13 minutes) (reading time for entire novella: 2 hours, 24 minutes)
‘Even if, one day, we had access to perfectly preserved fossils, a vital aspect of animal life would still elude our grasp. Behavior is almost entirely lost in the fossil record. Imagine the richness and strange wonder of animal life today. The eerie, ululating songs of whales, the elaborate middens of bowerbirds and the surreal spectacle of a peacock’s display could never be deduced from inanimate remains.
Likewise, some of the most spectacular sights of the past will never be seen, or even guessed.’
– All Yesterdays
The insects were reluctant to touch it, and that reluctance continued on down to everything that could be called life. The fungi refused to take the first bite. The bacteria self-destructed rather than continue touching it for more than a moment. It was as if they knew what kind of will had inhabited it just one day prior.
The scavengers and decomposers knew their place was to sweep away the details of time, the organic things that swelled and burst before time could even blink. Their food was the things of breath and slime, yet the battered carcass before them reeked of a different scale. It was full of colossal time, the time of puzzle piece continents shuffling. Its stagnant blood smelled like ocean tides that remembered the way they flowed before the moon was fully round.
So what was normally buzzing with flies and crawling with things envious of the dignity of flies was left alone, even the ferns under it curling back up to avoid association. The prosauropod hovering over it took this as confirmation of all his fears, but at least the terrorist was no more. The more pressing problem was the stone just beyond the dead villain’s open mouth. The rock was tall. Too tall to be natural. Smooth. Only so in certain places along the top, rough edges cleaved away, or so he suspected.
The carcass held the skeleton of a postosuchus, so even in death it was quite fearsome, with pike-like teeth that could go all the way through most throats. The limbs were short but thick, holding up a log of a body and a hammer of a tail that still didn’t compare to the massive head and snout. The skeleton’s owner had chosen a bold pattern for her flesh, a background of whipped white interrupted with glistening globs of sugary red, modeled after the eventual organism that would be called the bleeding tooth fungus. Those colors were the battle flag for her followers, but they scattered as soon as her heavy head full of pikes hit the forest floor.
The last thing the prosauropod wanted was to see another of her, so he had to tread carefully when approaching the subject of the stone. One of the two of them was responsible, and neither looked contrite. He cursed the young, their curiosity overpowering every other feeling in their expressions and body language, making it impossible to judge guilt.
They were not his spawn, or his species, but in these times he still felt like they were his responsibility, as he’d been given the post that watched over the entire forest. All of its thanazoans were under his wing, even if they had a pair of their own.
“Can we go Lindwurm?” the closer of the two to the ground, and to the body, asked. She was a typothorax, an aetosaur that generally was not so disrespectful. Where all that venom came from was a mystery, as the squat quadruped had little more than a pair of blunt shoulder spikes to threaten with. Her diet of greens certainly wouldn’t have ingratiated her to the fallen tyrant she stared at so intensely. Lindwurm had so much to remember, but he dug deep and found the name of the two and a half meter herbivore.
“Not yet Pauldron. I have a few questions. You too Orpheus,” he snapped when it looked the coelophysis was about to slip away into the undergrowth. The other young one slunk back and hung his head on his long neck, clawed fingers clicking nervously. The older thanazoan scrutinized their cloaks of flesh, looking for any hint of a sympathetic color or pattern that might group them with the fallen.
Pauldron was a few shades of blue, black, and silver, gelatinous tendrils pluming around her shoulder spikes. It was an image she had plucked far from the future, having admired the way it looked on the drifting sea slug Glaucus atlanticus. If he remembered correctly those creatures would eventually steal stinging cells from cnidarians and use them as their own. Was that an admission? Was she looking for weapons to use against her elders?
Orpheus looked the more innocent of the two, despite trying to sneak off. His cloak was taken from one of the many eventual poison dart frogs: a pleasing mix of slimy yet satin gold and blue.
“We just wanted to see,” the coelophysis whined.
“See right on the edge of a predation zone. Anything could’ve decided it was close enough and crunched your bones in half. And remember, when it comes to bones-”
“There’s never more where they came from,” the young cohorts answered in unison.
“Good, you do remember.” He leaned his long neck over the stone to seem bigger than it, though that caused a few of his own plumes to droop over his eyes. He blew them away, momentarily regretting basing his own cloak on the dignified but busy, and confusingly named given its most notable color of smoky purple, white bat flower. It was just so tempting, with flowers themselves still being more than thirty million years into the distance.
“Is that really her?” Pauldron asked, taking a step toward the body. Lindwurm put his head in the way and nudged her back.
“Yes, this is really Taxa Disaster. I was part of the offensive to end her myself. She is no longer a threat to us, or to distant man. It was a monumental victory, so the urge to build a monument to it is understandable, but we must resist.” He stared into their eyes, the one organ all thanazoans shared at any given time. On or off their bones, they always needed to see.
“We won’t build any marble statues,” Pauldron assured him, drawing a giggle out of Orpheus. They touched the tips of their tails in impudent solidarity.
“Silence,” Lindwurm barked, stomping. “I’m sure you’re smart enough to know it never starts that way. The builder’s intent is creeping. One moment you’re just smashing open seed pods with a rock and the next you’re launching a rocket out of the atmosphere.”
“We didn’t start a space program,” Pauldron continued to mock, but she wen too far, “it’s just a rock.”
“So you admit it.” The prosauropod, part of a lineage that wasn’t fully stuck on four tree trunk legs yet, stood. “You made this stone and put it here.”
“N-no,” the typothorax squeaked back. “It was like that when we found it.” Lindwurm’s head silently glided along the top of the stone, following its shear edges closely as he spoke.
“These marks look like cleaves. Their source ambiguous, but given its placement near this body all the more suspicious. Now, we all know it is against our code to build constructions from the raw materials of the Earth, be its purpose practical or emotional.
The headstone, so ubiquitous in the threads of Fate that its existence is almost as guaranteed as tomorrow’s sunrise, is a common example. Harmless it seems to history, mark as it does only things that have already past… but it could endure. There will be machines that can see its etched writing even if the eye is certain it has been weathered away.
And it would feel so good to place one. To plant yourself in the record, but records are for those who might have a future. Not us.”
“That’s not a headstone,” Orpheus argued. “There’s nothing written on it.”
“No, but that’s only one kind of monument,” Lindwurm continued. “A headstone is the most common and thus the most obvious. If someone were trying to sneak something similar into the record, they would choose something that fewer eventual cultures would adopt. Something an uneducated thanazoan might miss. To me this looks like a murder stone.” He paused to see if either of them reacted, but again their youthful eyes obstructed his search. They seemed to react to every little thing, even the bugs flitting by.
“What’s a murder stone?” Pauldron asked. Possibly a clever question.
“Like a headstone, but at the actual sight of a murder,” the elder answered. “They will be created and in use only briefly, mostly during a single century, in the place that will be called the United Kingdom. Fate isn’t as sure of them as she is of headstones, but anyone who went looking for such a prediction could find one.”
“There’s nothing wrong with leaving it there for a while… if that’s what it is,” Pauldron argued. “Remembering isn’t against the rules. Somebody just has to remember to come back and take it down in a few million years.”
“I’ve had enough of this. Will either of you be bigger than your bones and admit you constructed this?” Silence. Orpheus’s neck looked as if it took all his effort to keep it from knotting. “Very well. You may go, but don’t stray this close to the edge again, not until you’re old enough to make that decision for yourself.” Orpheus eagerly turned away and trotted off, but Pauldron lingered, unable to tear her eyes from the fallen postosuchus.
“Are you going to do something to the rock?” she asked.
“Undo it,” Lindwurm corrected. “Give it peace by taking away its meaning. It can rejoin all the other rocks in the grind, die properly in the depths rather than holding its message desperately. Go.” The prosauropod didn’t delay, wrapping both of his arms around the stone and heaving. The suspected monument tilted and was dragged far from the corpse.
Pauldron watched what looked like hypocrisy as her elder hefted a more natural stone and brought it down, obliterating any possible intent out of the suspect. Once the memory was in pieces that couldn’t be reassembled, she turned away and scurried after Orpheus, following the blue tip of his tale into the undergrowth.
“Did you?” the coelophysis asked in a whisper.
“It doesn’t matter now,” she grumbled, “it’s like nobody did anything. Like a war was never fought. Like all that pain was just a storm passing through.”
Lindwurm didn’t linger much longer either, as uncomfortable with the edge of the tenuously agreed upon safe area as he wanted the young to be. The villain known as Taxa Disaster was left to rot, but the rot had still not responded to its banquet invitation. If left untouched, spores would blanket it and turn to ash. The roots under the ground would bow deeper to avoid water infused with its drippings.
There was one life form nearby just smart enough to understand desperation. A centipede, a creature that would undergo few changes in the next two hundred million years if Fate was to be believed, so lacking in its appreciation of consequences in many ways, scaled the postosuchus tail and crawled across its flank.
Something akin to wonder filled its flat fingertip of a mind. A continent of food, untouched. Not even cold. A land without winter. Suspicious, of course, but the starving have no time for such a luxury, and the hunting had been poor as of late. The myriapod dug its mandibles into the thinnest part of the hide, the wrinkly folds where the front limbs joined the belly.
It plunged its head into the score, orange legs fluttering along the waxy red plates of its body. One leg stopped. Two more. Seven more. The rest of them. Like all the waves atop the world ocean Panthalassa stilling at their peaks. For a moment it seemed as dead as Taxa, as if mortal wounds were catching.
The head emerged, long antennae slick and heavy with stilled blood. The first leg to stall moved again, but this time unsure of itself. The others joined, out of the rhythm the animal had since the day it uncoiled from its egg. It made a tight circle of its body and examined each segment as if seeing them for the first time.
Then, just as starving as before, it descended Taxa’s flank and disappeared into the ferns.
Days later, in the safety of a communal rocky outcropping, dozens of species of thanazoans gathered for an evening of celebration. Fate was there in the flesh, hanging from a shorn cliff over the mouth of a cave as a web.
Of something more like flesh than silk, her colors were myriad with a finish like quicksilver. Her growth and death were endless, so the thanazoans could direct her by gently pulling on her threads or leading them with highly nutritious fluids. She was one organism that could’ve spanned all of Pangaea if not for the great desert that divided it.
In some places she was thin on the ground, forced deeper by mindless or cruel things feeding on her, but most thanazoans had sworn off her as a food source and had taken to cultivating her, occasionally letting her cover huge plains as a grid. With some qualities of plants and some of fungus, they nonetheless suspected that she was once like them, an offshoot of early thanazoa, and had simply found the enlightenment that let her leave her bones behind and live forever.
Their relationship was mutual: protection met with incredible knowledge and entertainment. The hundred thanazoans present that evening, from tusked lumbering lystrosaurs to tiny pterosaurs, waited nearly in silence for the magical light of dusk, when Fate shown most brightly. When she shimmered they all reached down and touched her, some with a snout, some with hands, and some with the tips of their tails. Their flesh connected to hers like two droplets binding.
The Greeks would have a story, when their time came, of three sisters who controlled the fates of man: Clotho who spun the threads of destiny, Lachesis who distributed them, and Atropos who cut them. Atropos was the name the thanazoans gave their ally, for she had seen countless deaths, and from them built a model of all the others.
She was so large, and so much of her was nerves, that she never forgot anything she experienced. The exact tumble of each grain of sand that fell near her. The number of wing beats as an insect fluttered over. The temperature of every second of every day. When she communed with their flesh she also learned all their experiences, and added them to her model, which they simply called the future, increasing her accuracy.
Not inerrant, but closer with each passing day, her visions were not just that when experienced. She could take their minds there, let them walk among their descendants. Into the Jurassic where the dinosaurs truly ruled. Into the Cretaceous where they became mind-boggling in size.
But it was no fantasy. She could not shield them from the pain. There would be another mass extinction, not quite as powerful as the Great Dying that made possible the rise of thanazoa, of the fluid flesh, but enough to eliminate them.
All hope was not lost for intelligent life however. Sixty-three million years on from that, give or take a hundred thousand, the humans would arise from a new lineage. Where thanazoa needed their intellect to direct their malleable flesh, man needed it to operate their ten dexterous digits and climb their social ladder.
Atropos’s sight grew foggy not long after their rise, but as far as she could see they were still alive, still thriving. The thread of their future was not cut. Hope for them, those who weren’t doomed, was deeply nourishing to much of thanazoa. They reveled in it, just as they did that evening in front of the cave.
Together they watched man separate from the other apes. While they were connected to her, and shortly after, they could see them as if they were there, walking between her threads upon the rock, gathering around a cultivated fire to cook their food.
Thanazoans joined them, feeling the intoxicating heat in waves that matched the flames’ lapping. They took illusory bites of roasted meat and tubers, their mouths filling with saliva and nothing else. Feasts such as this, though they provided no nourishment, were crucial to the peace they’d achieved. The predators among them still had to hunt, but nothing tasted better than what humans made, so it benefited them all to have a place where Atropos was safe and communal.
They kept their hunting to specified predation zones, lawless areas where they mostly ate mindless beasts of solid flesh.
The fire flickered, but it was only a flicker in their perception, the prediction of its being extinguished sped through and replaced with the birth of the next night’s. The next. The next. The next season’s. The next age’s.
Men and woman stood with full bellies, except for two of them with items held between their legs: hide stretched over hollow wood. The thanazoans marveled at the sinew cords that held the things together. They would take such precision to craft, nothing any archosaur or dinosaur could ever do with its clunky claws.
Thwum went the eventual hand on the eventual drum. Thwum thut-thut-thwum-thut-thut-thwum. The first music made with proper instruments. A song they’d found searching through Atropos’s model. This was the first melody on hide drum that would be passed through more than five generations. It was almost as if they knew its lasting power too, controlled as they were by the rhythm. Their flat feet smacked to it. Manes that reached to the small of their backs bucked over their heads and went back again. Dancing. It was beautiful, and the thanazoans felt pulled toward it.
Like the feasts, it was a pleasure they allowed themselves, for it would leave no trace that would unsettle man, make them feel as if they were watched. To reveal their surveillance would be a great shame, for inhibitions could never be dropped in the presence of omnipresence. Reserved man was a lesser man, and those present wanted only to encourage them.
The creatures couldn’t dance as they were, drawn tightly across their ribs, as tight as an arrow on its string. Their bones were always like the bow, built for bursts of propelling energy, either fleeing or pouncing. Man instead had their marvelous wrists and ankles, helpful for everything from climbing to digging.
The thanazoans had to borrow if they were going to do anything more than swish their tails and bob their heads. It was alright. The fluid flesh would leave no trace, even if they were all buried in a sudden landslide. Man would only ever find the mineralized bones, and never know they’d been putting on a show.
One by one they slipped off their cloaks, but this was no twentieth century of man party where they would be placed on hooks in the closet and forgotten about for hours. No, they were the stars of the evening, the bones instead left on the sidelines to watch with their hollow eyes. Most of the skeletons were left upright, held together and balanced with yellowed bands of cartilage, looking as they one day might in one of man’s natural history museums, a placard under them that could only get half their identity right.
According to Atropos and her future, man would make educated guesses about the scattered bones the thanazoans would leave behind. After more than a century of study they would finally start to paint a sensible picture, though they could never make the great leap to understanding the fluid flesh. They would look at lineages, see that the archosaurs dwindled to just crocodilians and birds, and clothe them as such.
They put feathers on theropods of the Cretaceous, and a host of other things, because they did not even know of anything beyond feathers, fur, skin, or scales. It was the tale of parallel evolution that eluded them.
Thanazoa was a lineage existing across multiple others that had already crossed a great distance in their branching. As archosaurs, dinosaurs, and ichthyosaurs they were distantly related, but as thanazoa they were practically cousins.
Two sets of reproductive material, sharing the same process of mating and egg-laying. One set of genes guiding the bones and making reasonable suggestions for the flesh like muscles and organs. One set to throw those suggestions out the window, to go where it pleased, to look the way it wanted, and to occasionally help the bones out when they were desperate.
The advantages of such an adaptation were many. The animals could live as all the others did, but when emergencies arose that their rigid body plan couldn’t handle, the fluid flesh could save them. Perhaps they were trapped under a fallen tree or a boulder and needed to become two beings, one of which could reshape itself to provide leverage and free the other.
There might be a disease in their reasonable suggestion of blood vessels, so thanazoa would change its composition, forcing out the toxic compounds and intruders like water through a sieve. This was mutualism, and man mostly knew it from separate organisms working together, though they had seen flashes under the microscope of beings integrating into one.
Thanazoa’s intellect was merely a side effect of this adaptation, nature unconcerned with their quests for meaning and joy as the Triassic dawned. It gave them dread, especially after Atropos revealed her future. When the Cretaceous came to a close, and there was a great drop in the air’s oxygen, thanazoa would go extinct.
Efficient lungs and book lungs and spiracles would outlast, but the high respiratory intake of fluid flesh processes would not activate in these lower levels. Without the ability to perform their reproductive duties while the bones did theirs, the thanazoans would slip away in a human handful of generations. With their death intellect would be all but gone from Earth for tens of millions of years.
So they danced, to send that dread and hopelessness as far into the future as they could. Life was short, controlled as it was by the bones, but joy could fill it to the brim in mere moments.
The cloaks of flesh borrowed the shape of man, rising like mushrooms with twin stalks. From their sides they separated two extensions, bending at a false elbow and terminating in ten digits. Upon their false shoulders they molded heads on thin necks, putting their eyes right where man would put theirs.
Accustomed to the colors and patterns their dull bones made, as soon as they learned of the myriad plant, animal, and fungal forms of the future, the thanazoans borrowed those too, being particularly fond of the styles worn by small toxic frogs and plumed sea slugs. Each of them, despite being of the same species of bone, could have whatever name they desired and whatever colors they deemed to match.
Without bones they were nowhere near as strong as man would be, but they could move just as nimbly. Many of them already considered dancing the passion that was to consume their entire life, and so didn’t lose a single step as they followed just behind the projected people. The pulse of the drums grew louder, the beats from their temporarily adjourned heart cells added to it.
A generation passed in a second and the melody became more complex. Flutes of bone whistled like the wind. They could never make them either, as holes in such a straight line would be too recognizable, but at least the materials were still raw and natural. They held little temptation as long as the visions let them hear the music anyway.
Another generation flew by, the number of humans doubling. They were wearing thick fur coats made of multiple pieces and tied shut with pebbles and cords. They sang along with the drums, along with the flutes, along with the smacking of human and thanazoan feet.
The thanazoans could sing, and each of them could have several voices as they constructed temporary tubes from the fluid in their flesh. They took turns jumping up to the cave, serenading its dark maw, and listening to the echoes that somehow returned with greater vigor. The verses were like invitations, more illusions of man stepping out from the darkness and joining the celebration, eyes a little sharper with each wave.
Though this was a regular occurrence, the song was less restrained than it had been in recent times. Care had to be taken before that most of the volume was kept inside them and Atropos, lest hostile parties hear and come running to attack them at their most vulnerable. Just one hurled rock could shatter an abandoned skeleton, and with no bones to return to a thanazoan could not properly reform its organ systems, resulting in loss of cohesion and death.
Mankind had a prototype language at that point in the evening, but the dinosaurs veered away from predictions of its use in song, leaving the melody a blank slate so they could paint on it instead.
We blaze right now in richest air
Claw at the future we’d never dare
You’ll never know, our friends, our man
that claw flickered and looked like hand
Tonight lasts only until tomorrow
We will return all that we borrow
No stone will stand with clear intent
No writing on the walls
No machine pretending at life
Immaterial is the time that’s spent
bravely empty are the hauls
the bony claw the only knife
With Taxa Disaster gone they could be as loud as they wanted. There was only Atropos to hear, and she was on their side, absent as she was in her own predictions beyond the Mesozoic. Yes, they would fade away, but responsibly so, no interference in the course of man. It wouldn’t be fair to them, with their soft hearts, the only things that could make such beautiful music without breaking.
A prophetic woman stepped out of the cave, a bronze necklace shining across her collarbone. The thanazoan parts of the song ceased. They turned their borrowed heads away, shuffling back toward their bones. On their way they touched Atropos again, letting her know they were finished, and would she please retract her future so as not to make ending the evening difficult.
Bronze was the sign of a new age, of casting and forging, of hatching industry from a sheet metal egg. Its temptations were increased tenfold, used to recruit to Taxa’s cause. After the first bronze emerged it would only be seconds before the cave vomited up scrolls, books, blown glass, and utensils for eating. Every advance was gorgeous, but if they made their own they would stain the fossil record, change man’s perception, their course, and perhaps doom them.
That couldn’t happen. Not while Fate saw hope for them.
“Is it sunnier than predicted?” Pisces asked. He was on his bones, bones with hardly any neck to speak of, so he couldn’t look up at the sun, but he could feel it warming his back, only one patch protected from the heat by the shadow of his dorsal fin.
“If she could be that wrong about the next day’s weather we would never listen to her,” Capricorn said from next to her partner. They weren’t mated; she could hardly imagine agreeing to spend her life with such a whiner. They were instead partnered in their mission as scouts and emissaries. Both lounged in the sand, receding tide behind them. It was more than cool enough to stay, nowhere near desiccation temperatures for their fluid flesh.
“There is a trick to keep water on you, isn’t there? I can merge some human arms and slowly pull them apart. It makes a tarp you can keep water in.” His eye, already giant and circular thanks to his ichthyosaur bones, seemed to grow even more in fear of his first solo excursion onto dry land. Their bones were those of reptiles, but their lineage had returned to the sea, limbs reshaped back into fins. They hadn’t figured out how to get the gills back though, so they were stuck surfacing constantly. Atropos gave them some companionship in visions of dolphins and whales, who would breathe in solidarity with them across eras.
“Yes, but water is heavy,” she reminded. “You’ll use it all up as you’re working to carry it. It just wastes time. You’ll be fine; I’ve done this more than a dozen times, and that was when the war was on.” Her words did little to comfort Pisces, but a bank of clouds rolled in, dimmed the daylight, and did wonders. When he was calm enough they went over the procedure one more time.
“I head straight for that peak,” he said, aiming his pointed snout full of needle teeth at a small mountain in the distance.
“Go on,” Capricorn encouraged. She was eager to get on with it, as her flesh cloak, based on the black and orange stripes of the future Siberian tiger, tended to fade and wrinkle on dry land. That was her hidden reason for suggesting Pisces take over the duty; the soft blues and greens of his future banded iguana cloak handled it much more gracefully.
“I know I’m on the right path if I see the tree, broken jaggedly halfway up. Then I should find the rock that looks like an ammonite and start climbing.”
“Then you’ll see the cave, what we call the cave of the healing curtain, which contains…”
“Atropos, but she’s different there,” he recited. “She grows in a membrane from floor to ceiling, and if you pass through it you can briefly become one with her.”
“Which you absolutely will not do because you don’t want to become forever lost in the future. Look, but don’t touch, and don’t even look at her very long. You’re just there to make sure no remnants of Taxa’s forces are using Fate nefariously.”
“The prosauropods told us it was abandoned; why do we have to check at all?”
“You can only trust a land dweller as far as they can dive,” she grumbled. “Those lumberers hate dragging their bones up there because they’re so heavy. We have to make sure they’re telling the truth. Come on now, get up. We’ll do it at the same time. One, two, three…” Together they slipped off their bones, tails losing the powerful vertical crescent fin, left with just a white stub.
Their giant saucer eyes barely fit on a human-shaped head, giving their faces the look of two coins pinched between the fingers. The bony face was last to lose its flesh as it stepped away in the form of a human foot. Both bipedal figures turned to examine their skeletons. It was still an odd sight to Pisces, who had only used this form on a few prior occasions. Looking at his bones, like they just belonged to washed-up dead fish, took his confidence right back.
“You promise you won’t let anything happen to it?” he asked her, his arms already wrapped around his chest nervously, rubbing his shoulders as if he was cold.
“Insofar as I can promise that,” she said honestly. “This is always a risk, but I know I can drag the both of us back into the water, reform both tails, and reach the deep in under a minute. I’m the fastest in the pod.”
“But I’m the third slowest,” he moaned, “and you’ll be using my bones.”
“Then you should’ve exercised them more, but now’s not the time for that. If you really want to be there when the sea meets the sky, you have to prove yourself capable first. Right now you only seem capable of wasting daylight.” She extended an arm, point right where his snout had moments ago.
“Alright. I meet the land so the sky can meet the sea…” He took his first step forward, sinking into the wet sand. “Hello land, nice to make your acquaintance.” Another step, not quite as deep. “We’ve actually met a few times before.” Another step, a brief wobble. Even alien to him, the arms shot out for balance. “You don’t remember me? I’m not surprised…”
At the treeline he turned; Capricorn was still stood right between the sets of bones. She waved him away. With no excuses left he pressed on, beach disappearing behind him. Every few minutes his thoughts drifted back to his frame, but she had told him that was completely natural.
Aquatic bones without cloaks sank, so marine thanazoans never left them for more than a few seconds unless they were in still shallows. Without them inside, and without water beyond, was like stepping into one of Atropos’s visions, but one solely composed of unpleasant details. Insects landed on his back and shoulders. Thorns tried to catch the fluid soles of his feet off guard. Something twittered in the trees, a twitter that seemed to follow him all the way to the split tree.
Atropos first appeared as glossy crawling roots, flowing this way and that next to a stream. Pisces crouched down and watched for a moment as tendril tips tested the water, sampling everything from its temperature and speed to its acidity and silt content. All of it would be added to the model, shrinking the margin of error.
She couldn’t function in salt water, so Pisces was not as close with her as the land dwelling thanazoans. She was far more enigmatic to him, like a part of the sky had fallen and was just continuously spreading in search of a way back up. She just thought the future was up, that was all, an easy thing to confuse when you no longer have eyes or a sense of direction.
“I could lend you my eyes,” he whispered. “Bigger than most out here.” He touched a fingertip to her and gave her the last few months of his experience. Separated as they were, marine thanazoans were crucial to the integrity of her predictions. Without them she had no insight into the tides or the currents, each a massive player in the general state of the world at any given time. Humans didn’t even appear in her foresight until the first ichthyosaur made the journey to her and gave her a sense of the endless waters of Panthalassa.
Pisces shared a back-and-forth with her. She showed him human explorers making their way across continents, which were the giant islands that would exist after Pangaea split. A journey that took him a day on foot would take them years, at first.
They were so brilliant, the owners of hands. Whenever Pisces saw a small land animal in his waters, trapped on a piece of driftwood, he knew the creature was terrified and hapless. Not humans. They took that trap and altered it. The driftwood became ships; they tamed the winds to give it direction, to strand them on the shore of their desire.
“I see. That’s what I am.” He pulled away from her. “An explorer. The creature unafraid of drift.” He continued on, quicker, until he found the stone that could only vaguely resemble the curl of an ammonite shell to eyes as wide and precise as his. The cave was above, nothing but a dark slit in a curl of stone.
When the path became too steep he switched to climbing, letting the shape of his hands condense and spread in fissures for a better grip. Occasionally pebbles fell around him, but Capricorn’s most insistent advice had been to never look down once he started his ascent.
If only he could listen. The pebbles were more persistent than they should’ve been, continuing to fall even when he was far beyond them. Twisting felt like it might destabilize, so instead he sent his eyes flowing down his fluid back until they were far enough to see. The one on his left hip saw a crawling lump of blue, black, and silver. The one on the right saw a lump of gold and blue. The lumps stared back. Further down, at the base, were two standing skeletons: a long necked biped and a quadruped.
“Who are you!?” Pisces asked, hands and feet going so deep in the cracks he was practically rooted.
“You’re in our way,” the bluer of the two said after a silent moment.
“Why are you following me!?!”
“We’re not,” the gold one said innocently. “We’re just going to the cave.”
“You’re not one of the Disasters are you!?”
“We would be two of them if we were,” the bluer one corrected. “Nobody is though. She’s dead. Didn’t you hear?” Pisces pulled his eyes back and focused on the path above. It was still clear, but as soon as the ground flattened out in front of the cave he would have nowhere to go but down or inside. Unless, it occurred to him, he beat them to the top and started heading back down immediately out of their sight.
The ichthyosaur took off, tripling his previous pace. Instinct told him to swish his tail as fast as he could, but there was nothing to swish. Twice he nearly fell, failing to give his feet enough time to mold to the shape of the outcroppings. One of his pursuers mocked him, telling him to be careful.
“They sound young,” he whispered to himself near the top, where strands of Atropos emerged from some of the fissures and made their way up to the cave. “They’re just being playful. Having some fun with the nervous foreigner. Except I’m stuck on a whole world of driftwood…”
Relief flooded through him when he finally rolled his way onto the plateau, but when he stood the other two thanazoans were already right there beside him, climbing tendrils shrinking back to human hands and feet. They stared. Their eyes were so much smaller, more wrinkled, and yet they felt omnipresent.
“Are you an ichthyosaur?” the gold one asked. Pisces nodded, not seeing the point in denying his unmistakable discus eyes. “I like your cloak; is it a reptile?”
“Fiji b-banded iguana,” he stuttered.
“I don’t think there will ever be a Fiji,” the bluer one said resolutely. Pisces guessed she was the quadruped, herbivorous girth turned into a barrel chest and shoulders like ceiling beams when reshaped in the human mold. She looked strong enough to wield the thinner and taller gold one as a club. “If not, you’re wearing a fantasy. It’s like you don’t even want to exist.”
“Do we take turns?” Pisces asked, but immediately decided to set the terms rather than let them answer. “I’ll go first, and then when I come out you can go in. Sound good?”
“That sounds fine,” the gold one said, nodding along. “Don’t be too long though. We have to be home before dusk.” Pisces relaxed some; at least he sounded like a child. Taxa had loved children, according to the stories he’d heard, but not as soldiers. They were treasures, investments in a future defiant of Fate.
Pisces slipped into the rock crevice, keeping one eye on the back of his head, following the flowing colors of Atropos along the walls. After a short ways he couldn’t even see his pursuers’ shadows.
Fate’s strands didn’t look very much like a curtain, so he had to go deeper. What had been described to him was something that billowed, something you couldn’t quite see through. When she was spread so wide she was practically a gateway, and thanazoans had been known to go in one side and fail to reappear out the other, fully engrossed in the future.
It had been described as tempting, but Pisces couldn’t imagine how it was. Intoxicating seemed a better word. You would have to be intellectually incapacitated, or desperately cornered, to let her absorb your cloak. The world of men held many wonders, but no thanazoans. Entering was a slow unaware death as the model plucked away every little piece that didn’t fit the weave of the prediction.
Her future was available everywhere she had grown, from the southern coast all the way to the Dividing Desert, so the Disasters hadn’t needed to enter the cave to see it. They did need it to heal their injuries, thus its importance as a base for any fighting force.
Fluid flesh, when aware of an approaching threat, could flow out of the way out of it, bites and clawings as ineffective as they would be against water. If caught off guard it could be torn and lose functionality like that of any other animal, and simply reshaping would not fix it. The immunity and repair systems had to be given time, unless they could immerse the injury in a healing curtain.
Thanazoans were the chemical bridge between Atropos and reality, and sometimes things could cross between, though it required chaotic transformation to move from inspirational potential energy in molecular bonds to raw physicality. If, in their bond with her, they found a prediction of a thanazoan with a healthy patch of flesh right where their injury was, the prediction could be copied onto them, overwriting the wound in a matter of minutes.
Pisces stumbled downhill, flat stones under his feet giving way. He threw up his arms to protect his eyes from the fall. When he righted himself he felt abrasions on his forearms and knees, a new pain to him considering there was nothing to rub the wrong way in the open water. The scrapes were minor, but he couldn’t be exactly sure how minor.
Luckily he’d fallen right into the chambers with the bulk of the healing curtains. Like the quiet sheltered cousin of an aurora, most their motion came from how his fall had disturbed the air around them. The edges, close to the ground without touching, glowed a lapping violet.
“Hello again,” he whispered humbly. “I hope you don’t mind…” Cautiously he approached before gently pressing his arm into it, letting it drape over both sides, half like cloth and half like the human sweet called caramel. It tingled on contact, his cells looking forward to the possibility of health.
His other arm went in while he kept his eyes and thoughts at a safe distance. After that he repaired the surface of his legs and thanked her. His thanks echoed. It was so quiet otherwise; there couldn’t be any lingering Disasters hiding there. Pisces stored a breath of air in a bubble of flesh and expelled it, watching the ripple travel across the entire curtain.
When he was satisfied he turned to leave, once again relieved to see the young ones weren’t positioned behind him. His caution betrayed him however, for he still had one eye on the back of his head. He was just steps away from the incline with all its shattered shale when he realized and stilled. No wind. Yet the curtain billowed. It could’ve just been her, Atropos folding so a crest of one age could look upon another and share wisdom. Or it could be something he was obligated to investigate, just on the other side.
Pisces returned, feet sliding like slug bellies rather than stepping, just to stay silent. He listened. Nothing. Just one peek. An eye moved to the end of his arm, which he pushed through the curtain.
The cave was much taller and wider than he thought, ten more curtains far out of reach above him. Twenty red spots stood in contrast, their details all too vivid, perched at his level, swollen upon the chests and heads of many different thanazoans like infectious sores. One looked like a sea anemone, another like a bird of paradise.
The crimson spots were badges, much easier to hide than the full uniforms of white and red they used to wear. Their bones were nowhere to be found, likely hidden in a grove somewhere not far below, probably guarded by new recruits, perhaps one blue and one gold.
“Eerkh!” Pisces retracted. He tried to pinpoint which one had squealed at him before realizing he’d made the sound himself. Even with his heart dissolved among his other cells he could feel the essence of it tighten within him. This was like staring into the deep, only this time he didn’t have his pod to protect him.
The curtains were still. They weren’t attacking. Why? He was the intruder, but that might not offend them so. He could be any old thanazoan stumbling in to fix a cut. He had even done that exactly.
“So sorry to disturb you!” he sputtered. The stranded ichthyosaur turned in the hope of bolting back up the shale, but his path was blocked by two bodies. The young ones had followed him. The stocky blue one positioned herself like a wall, and the golden one flexed his long thin fingers even though they were clawless without his bones.
The flight response finally kicked in fully, turning into necessary bravery. Pisces tried to shoulder his way through the two of them. The golden one shied away while the one that looked like a sea slug took the challenge. She bucked with her forearms, sending his human-shaped back skidding across the rock.
His head slid under a curtain. There was only one eye there at the moment, on the neck, having fled across his body with no idea where to hide, and it spotted the other thanazoans. They were moving, drawing closer. The ichthyosaur flailed, pulling himself up into the curtain.
Atropos was the last thing on his mind, but she could not be ignored with so much surface contact. He saw flashes of the sea, but not his own. It was transformed by time, broken up and fenced in by what felt like innumerable small continents. The waters raged in a storm, the eye of which could wink at Mars. It disappeared when he fell out and struck the stone again.
“What are you doing here?” the blue one demanded.
“Nothing!” Pisces blurted.
“Why would you climb a mountain for nothing?” the gold one asked innocently. It sounded that way to the ichthyosaur. He looked again. No spots of red in their cloaks.
“There are Disasters in here,” he whispered to them. “We have to leave!” The curtain rippled behind him, so he lunged, running along it and climbing anything in his way until he was blocked by the younger thanazoans again.
“The Disasters are gone,” the blue one said as if their conversation hadn’t been interrupted by panicked fleeing.
“No, they’re here!” Pisces insisted. He grabbed the bottom of the healing curtain and hefted it over his shoulders. It took a moment to do it right because he felt like he was grabbing water, and his contact with Atropos made him smell salt. There was a splash as it poured over his head, but there wasn’t.
There was nothing there but cave. He dropped it. They were hiding, that was all. He told the pair as much.
“The Disasters will rise again,” the gold one offered. “That’s what you’re seeing. You’re fine though. That could be a million years from now. Two. Calm down. My name’s Orpheus… and this is Pauldron.” Pauldron shot her partner an accusatory glare.
“I wasn’t touching when…” Pisces froze. Yes, he was. Each time he looked on the other side he’d been in contact with Fate. Orpheus could have been right. “Why won’t you let me leave?”
“If you run off shouting Disaster you might start a panic,” Pauldron explained. “Wouldn’t you feel like an idiot?”
“Is… is seeing them normal?” the ichthyosaur asked. “I’m from Panthalassa…”
“I don’t know,” Orpheus said with a tilt of his head. “I’ve never been here before.”
“Me either,” Pauldron lied. “This is all new, but that doesn’t mean you have to be scared of it.”
“So… you two haven’t seen anything suspicious around here? No disciples of hers sneaking around?”
“They wouldn’t have to sneak,” Pauldron said plainly. “All they have to do is hide their true colors. They’re somewhere. You just attested to a future with them in it. There has to be remnants. Somebody they inspired.”
“Yes, well, I’ve seen enough,” Pisces said with fatigue-soaked words. “I’m calm now. Thank you for holding me back. It would’ve been humiliating if I was shouting about fake Disasters when the sea meets the sky.” He felt a jolt, common sense flying from one part of his fluid body into another like a thrown harpoon. He’d said too much. These young ones were not of the sea or sky; it wasn’t their business what the fins and wings got up to together.
The ichthyosaur excused himself and walked toward the exit, clambering down the rock with little understanding of how he’d climbed it so quickly. He was pleased to put distance between his fluid flesh and that sundered sea of the future, full of maelstrom-breathing terrorists. He was almost out, he could smell the fresh air, when the orders of Capricorn came back to him: prove yourself capable.
“Just a quick question,” he said, turning his head back to the others. Just to be thorough. “What are you two doing here? You’re not injured.” Neither of them answered. Orpheus looked like he was about to, but then his eyes jumped and slowly moved behind Pisces. The ichthyosaur’s flesh went cold as something blocked the light coming from the exit. That cold feeling was when he knew he couldn’t prove it.
When his eyes wrapped around the back of his head he saw a hulking thanazoan, their chest ballooned out with a throbbing glossy sack of reddest flesh. They had made it look like the inside of a predatory maw, like a smothering crushing tongue, on purpose to strike fear into heart cells no matter how scattered they were in the fluid. It worked.
Pisces threw himself down, trying to crawl under their legs. He wasn’t that small for a thanazoan, but the fearsome one was that big, and they moved with all the confidence of an apex predator. With one hand they grabbed both of Pisces’s ankles and dragged him into the air. He was whipped around several times, until he lost any and all orientation, before he was thrown through the curtain.
His flesh couldn’t prepare for the impact, so it bruised instantly: a black and purple wave across him like blight through wheat on a windy day. Without bones to ground his experience he was all pain, all confusion, a blossom of splitting raw desperation releasing whimpers in place of pollen.
Disasters gathered around. Not a single one was part of the future; they hung onto the present like strangler vines. Pisces forced himself to move before the scavengers could tear him apart like dough. Awash in tinkling needles of fear, the ichthyosaur’s borrowed human shape barely held together. Arms and legs became more like tentacles, chest more like the collapsing body of a jellyfish, as he scrambled away.
He crawled under the curtain and for a second the needles were washed away by the tumultuous seas of the future. That was still death, but it wouldn’t plot against him. It wouldn’t rip and tear and shred like a fish left gasping on the beach as a land dweller tucked into its innards. It gave Pisces the strength to roll through. There was the light of day again, but just a shaft. The big one stomped toward him, Pauldron and Orpheus watching from just beyond.
“Help me!” Pisces begged. They didn’t move. There wasn’t time to plead again. He turned and crawled back through the curtain, the pounding water, and found the other Disasters even closer. “No! Stay back!”
Pisces no longer had feet to get back to, but he still had legs. He propped himself up on them and shambled, as if on wooden pegs, toward the higher rocks. Against them he slapped and slithered his way up, like a fish climbing a waterfall, looking for another way out. All he found at the top was another minion, red badge pulsing on their forehead.
The ichthyosaur threw the first punch of his life, but without practice it broke against the other thanazoan’s chest like a bursting grape. He succeeded only in adding to his bruising. His foe readied a punch of their own, and rather than take it he rolled backward without even checking what was behind him. The curtain swallowed him up again.
This time he was deeper in one of those future seas. It was dark and still and blue and cool, like outer space if it decided to settle down and make something of itself. The storms raged, but so far above that he couldn’t hear them. Was this an escape route? None would dare follow him there, and water was his element after all. It was his friend, alongside Atropos.
He remembered he couldn’t breathe underwater, funny thing to forget that. He went to the surface, suddenly confident enough time had passed and the Disasters had lost interest. Surely they had their revolution by now and they didn’t need the life of an inconsequential little witness like him.
When his lung cells next breathed on the surface of his cloak he was back in the cave, fear reactivated like a reflex. The big thanazoan was climbing up to get him. Pisces rolled back in. Each time was deeper. Now there was no light, but he could feel currents. This place was serenely alive, every drop minding its own business, every one convinced it could be its own sea after seeing the splitting of Panthalassa.
On the other side the Disasters grabbed at him, getting globs of coagulated blood and bruise. Relentless they were. They needed more time to calm down; he could give them that. Pisces scurried back under the curtain.
He wasn’t hurt in that future. Even without seeing himself in the dark depths he felt his health. It gave him a moment to think something beautiful. Maybe every drop of him could be a sea one day. Maybe getting lost in Atropos was good because then he would be small parts of her, and when the time was right she would deposit them in dried-out lake beds and finally let him rest.
“Don’t go back in,” Orpheus warned when Pisces spilled out on the other side. Pauldron watched to see what the ichthyosaur would do.
“What choice do I have?” the poor creature asked, head melting into shoulders, eyes hanging on ropes of flesh like clock pendulums.
“Join,” Pauldron offered. “Fight for your future instead of giving up.”
“The future doesn’t need fighters. It is unstoppable.” There was no hope they would help him; their colors were the same as the rest. Pisces leaned back. This time the curtain didn’t bend under his weight. It took in his blues and greens, told him the iguana he had always admired existed on an island in the split seas. The colors swirled away and vanished like dying storms.
Pisces swam deeper. He didn’t need to breathe anymore. The currents comforted him, each taking a piece. He couldn’t stay together; that would disrupt the prediction too much. Atropos’s gentle plucking at his mind wasn’t personal, he knew. She just cast her eyes forward so she wouldn’t have to see the violence of the world as it was. He was a shadow cast on that, upsetting the view. He would’ve done the same thing. He would never get to say his piece when the sea met the sky, but he was glad to be hushed by Atropos as the sea met its Fate.
“Good work corralling him up here you two,” the Disaster praised Pauldron and Orpheus.
“Can we wear the wound now?” Pauldron asked, referring to the raw red mark of all the others that declared their allegiance to their lost leader.
“You don’t want to, not yet,” the two were assured. “Wait until we win something big, until we can protect you. Until then you’re too young.”
“I’ve already decided to have a future,” Pauldron protested, stomping as the Disaster lifted the curtain to join the others. “Which sort of means I’m as old as I’m ever going to be. I should be in this meeting.” Orpheus, who did not share his friend’s confidence, was already shuffling back toward the cave entrance.
“You’re lucky we let you be lookouts,” the large thanazoan growled. “If you want to be useful head for the beach. If that fish’s bones are laying around, get rid of them. Then maybe we’ll talk about opening wounds on you.” The curtain dropped along with the matter.
The pair descended the same way they came, rejoining their skeletons. Once they were back in their archosaur shapes they slowly made their way toward the sea. Orpheus couldn’t let the silence stew long.
“Did we just murder him?” the coelophysis asked.
“You didn’t lay a hand on him,” the typothorax answered, pushing plants aside with her shoulder spines. “He made his own choice.”
“I think… I think he thought that I wasn’t letting him out. All he had to do was walk past me; I wouldn’t have done anything.”
“But he didn’t.”
“And you think that makes you a murderer? This is what the extinction side wants, everyone feeling so guilty all the time that they just give up and make way for man. We’re fighting for a thanazoan future, and fighting means we get hurt and some of us die, which is better than all of us dying.” Orpheus stopped, long snout hiding under one arm; he whimpered. Pauldron kept walking; either he would follow or he wouldn’t.
“I don’t want to hurt anybody,” the huffing coelophysis said as he caught up. “I don’t want to die either… but it’s for the same reason! Nothing should hurt. We should be working to get rid of that… and why do they have to call those badges wounds? It makes me not want one.”
“That thanazoan up there was right,” Pauldron said. “You’re too young and you’re not ready.”
“I’m the same age as you!”
“Your kind’s lifespan is shorter than my lifespan, so if anything you should be acting older than me,” Pauldron barked. “You’re already running out of time.”
“Don’t say that!”
“Protecting your feelings is not my goal; I want to protect your life. Now stay quiet, we’re close to the sand. That fish might’ve had a partner.”
“If I’m already running out I’m not going to waste any more of my time here!” Orpheus squealed. His heart was hammering, tempting him to jump off his bones again and spread the cells out. “And I won’t help you hurt anybody else!” The dinosaur stormed off on his birdlike legs, deeper into the forest.
Nearby a centipede traversed the dangerous territory near a pond. Its many sharp feet were ill-equipped for walking on mud, each one penetrating deep and slowing it further. A cluster of foamy amphibian eggs sat under a leaf at the water’s edge, and while it took the centipede an age to reach them, it did not partake once it had.
What it did instead was more sadistic. The myriapod made a show of separating one egg at a time from the cluster and shredding it with its pincers, letting the embryo and its nutrients spill out into the mud. Then it pulled out another and did the same thing. Another. Eventually the pool of shredded futures overflowed and leaked into the main body of the pond.
There one of its parents caught the dissolving scent of the tragedy. It emerged as a mountain compared to the centipede. The smaller animal’s long body couldn’t even complete a ring around the amphibian’s pupil. It was a creature somewhere between frog and salamander in form, flowery pink gills shrunk to tight spirals behind its eyes. The bright patches of yellow and red on its black skin warned predators of the toxins contained within.
Nothing had ever so much as tried to eat it, so its tiny brain was terribly confused by the sight of a centipede gorging on its brood. Even the eggs were hazardous to the health; everything under the clouds knew that.
It let out a vicious croak that nearly blew the antennae off the slinking thing’s fingernail-shaped head. Yet the pest ignored it, grabbing at another egg to rip open. Fast as lightning the amphibian’s lips darted down and split. Its tongue flipped out, crushing the arthropod and pulling it into its massive maw.
The taste of its innards was awful, musty and sharp. The goo had a startling amount of body, like the blood of a much larger and softer-eyed animal. The fact that it could taste the insides at all meant it was victorious, the child-killer was dead, so it tried to spit the remains out rather than swallow them.
The goo was tenacious, still animated by some stubborn will. The amphibian winced, aspirating some of it through its nostrils. Rather than drip the bubbles receded back inside. It didn’t swallow; it even made a valiant effort to turn its stomach inside out, something its lineage had been able to do just seventy five thousand years ago.
The slime that had been the centipede persisted, slithering into the stomach. The amphibian felt something strange, like the bottom dropping out of its gut. That perceived hole widened, swallowing up its falling mind as well. The creature flipped backward into the pond, the resulting wave washing all of its eggs away.
The fleshy ribbing on its tail twitched, the only part of the creature left above the surface. Its writhing stirred up the mud, and in that murk the amphibian was lost. Out crawled something that looked exactly the same, except for the determination in its wide brown pupils. Its old self was more accustomed to hopping, but now it walked awkwardly, stretching out one leg at a time, mimicking one of the larger reptiles that lived in the region.
It left the water far behind with no regard for how the air already sapped its skin of vital moisture. Perhaps the sun would fade those bright colors and make others less likely to heed the warning.
There was much celebration, though the matters to be discussed were grave indeed. It couldn’t be helped, as both parties saw these seasonal meetings as the peak of joy during their years. The thanazoans on land, often with much larger skeletons, held a sort of ownership of Atropos at her densest, and so hoarded her for themselves, though they seldom realized it. ichthyosaurs, as well as other aquatic thanazoans with flipper limbs and long necks like nothosaurs, had to abandon their bones and go ashore just to see her, rarely feeling included in the festivals where the future was visited en masse and humanity explored.
The aquatic young were especially uncoordinated on land, and left out of the fun to an even greater degree. Only the phytosaurs, who resembled crocodiles and tolerated freshwater, could be counted on to reliably convey the wonders of fate. Being predators, though living in accordance with the established predation zones, they were never fully trusted by some of their peers. True confirmation only came seasonally, when the pterosaur thanazoans rode the predictable air currents out over the water. When the sea met the sky.
Those on land did not fully acknowledge the other two kingdoms of thanazoans, but the aquatic and airborne had the utmost respect and appreciation for each other. Many were even thrilled to strike up with their opposites as lovers, luxuriating in the tension and suspense of time and distance apart, flesh only mingling in passing as a pterosaur swooped and an ichthyosaur breached.
Offspring were impossible between incompatible sets of bones, but they considered the swooning breathy poetry shouted down and up to each other to be their children. The visits of the lovers was only the opening phase of the event, when all parties found those they wished to be near during the other phases. Exhilarated to see each other, even through skins of water and cloud, little attention was paid to the unfamiliar ichthyosaur cruising deep, watching with small eyes the others would call badly deformed.
After the opening rendezvouses the festival grounds were created, the work falling mostly upon the aquatic. Without the rock formations Atropos crawled in and out of they had to make their own theaters and arenas, and there was but one shape they could hold.
This year it was a phytosaur, determined by random drawing of flat nautiloids from under stones on the seabed, who had the honor of acting as its center. There were always whispers of their deception, inevitable when your bones have such a fiercely villainous hooked jaw, but the number of tentacles on their draw had been counted a dozen times over, and was the highest at thirteen.
The thanazoan, with a cloak like the spines of the distant lionfish, glossy red and creamy stripes, swam off their skeleton. The bones started to sink before they were supported on either side by two assistants who would swim them to the seafloor and watch over them until the water and sky disbanded once more.
Freed of rigid form the phytosaur formed a ring, lionfish spines trailing, making it clear to all the others the exact direction and force of the spin. Their center ascended until they were just under the surface, looking like one of man’s life preservers to their winged kin above. The colors blurred, pulling the water.
Getting it just right required thousands of microscopic adjustments, but it was something they could all learn quickly: a tactic buried in the mud of their past that erupted almost violently when a need for it finally came. In essence it was little more than chasing their own tail, but with a thanazoan any cell could be the tail one moment and the head the next.
The blurred ring pulled deeper, and the water went with it. Those still on their bones joined in, one by one at first, as soon as there was room. With each depth larger thanazoans could take up their place, angling their fins to adopt the artificial current, supporting it, growing it. The spiral became a funnel, a calculated whirlpool that grew and grew until it rivaled stadiums that were more than a hundred million years away.
Those in the air followed its growth, flying in matching circles to establish a continuous shape. They sang in voices of the air, opening tubes in their cloaks for the wind to whistle through, sounding remarkably like flutes.
From the nearest shore their formation resembled a colorful water spout dancing across the ocean surface, like its spin had siphoned a rainbow out of the clouds and scattered its myriad gems of light internally.
Any that held the whirl’s shape were permitted to swim or fly into its center to speak. The only rule was that there was to be a single primary speaker at any given time, an eye to their storm of shared delights. Pisces would not have spoken, not his first time in the formation, but he would have marveled at it all, and had difficulty moderating his speed from the excitement.
Instead a thief used his bones to glide around the outskirts and listen. Perhaps they would share information the Disasters would find useful, and a wound could be earned. The ichthyosaur-shaped thing, lucky that the simple back and forth motion of the tail didn’t require much practice, watched as the first pterosaur peeled out of the whirl and soared across the middle sky.
“I, having conferred with my brethren, bring additional confirmation of the death of Taxa Disaster,” the little orange creature shouted. One day pterosaurs would block out the sun with massive wingspans, the bones of the eventual quetzalcoatlus standing as tall as a giraffe, but for now they were all small, around the size of man’s house cats. It took converting most of its internal body cavity to lung space for the creature to be heard by all present.
“The details!” a nothosaur demanded, their head whipping out of the water for just those two words. Several more thanazoans seconded the request, separate from those hooting in celebration. Taxa Disaster even had the occasional follower in the depths of Panthalassa, though her plans of tool use were not so seductive to those who rarely held the form of the human hand.
“She fell in battle with a thanazoan allegiance encompassing ten species,” the orange pterosaur informed. “This was thirteen days ago, in the place called Broadleaf Grotto. She was caught by surprise, with only six bodyguards by her side. They tried to fight but were quickly overwhelmed by charging prosauropods. Most of them were trampled.” The effort of speaking burned in the little thanazoan’s body, so they dove back into the air currents.
“Taxa’s body was dumped somewhere secluded, though nature refused to reclaim it for several days,” a pterosaur with the colors of a cowrie shell said, having emerged just as the orange one returned. “She decomposed all at once, swarmed by vermin and eaten to the bone within hours. Her bones had hollowed somehow; by our estimation it was likely the hollowness of her sympathy for mankind that caused it.”
“I heard of a deadly weapon that made the battle difficult despite the numbers advantage,” an ichthyosaur’s bill chirped. “Is this true?”
“There was Salted Earth present,” the pterosaur answered. “Taxa’s most vile invention. It had been used to set up a protective perimeter around their camp, and three thanazoans lost their lives to it before it was discovered. It was overcome by toppling a tree over it, and using that as a bridge to avoid exposure. With her gone, we will never see that foul compound again.”
“Did she say anything? An excuse for her behavior?” A few other aquatic thanazoans balked, thinking the word ‘behavior’ much too kind for all the murders and extorted labor. The cowrie pterosaur disappeared, a newly emergent yellow one answering.
“She made a claim of immortality, and also of being the master of everyone’s destiny, not just her own. She said the future would be thanazoa, not the ravages of man. She promised the sixth mass extinction would never begin, because she would make it so that our own reckoning never comes.”
“Lies to the end!” someone shouted.
“Her army is disbanded. Physical science and manufacturing goes with them, though we have received requests from the land dwellers to pass on to you of the sea.” Several sprays of mist indicated their eagerness to hear them. “The remaining Disasters will no doubt try to hide the evidence of their crimes, but may not have the strength to destroy them.
Tools hewn from rock and carved from wood. Writing, on the leaves of Broadleaf Grotto. The beginnings of Taxa’s efforts to industrialize and also the information that would throw mankind off course if they were to find it. Those on the land need you to keep your eyes open and destroy any of these items the Disasters try to hide in the water.”
“Why?” a long slimy neck with a small head asked. “Man will be terrible at swimming! They’ll never find such things.”
“They will,” a new pterosaur with a chipper voice answered. “You forget how long millions of years is, what it can do to the world. Eventually this sea will dry up and it will belong to the land dwellers, just as we will lay claim to some of their places. The fossils of the aquatic will be dug up not from the seafloor, but from deserts and mountains!”
There were a few gasps. Some thought it good that they’d never connected with Atropos directly, not eager to see their bones beached, bleached, and then petrified under layers of dry land. It was hard not to imagine their ghosts roaming barrens in search of water, unable to rest until they could drift in the current and have it weather them away to true peace.
“We should stop!” a phytosaur shouted when the pterosaur dove back into formation. It was time for the sea to speak. “Taxa was an invention of the land. What benefit is it for us to venture out there in human form? Who’s to say we haven’t become evidence ourselves? A flippered creature that will one day be found fossilized among squatters and crawlers, where it should never have been able to reach.”
A pterosaur dove into the water like a spear after a fish, reemerging quickly to avoid becoming waterlogged. They succeeded in getting the sea’s attention. The tiny creature, with a cloak like a greater prairie chicken and a beautiful comb atop its head, protested.
“Nay friends! You must retain your adventurous spirit! Yes, it is our kind’s duty to perish, but we share with man a greater kind. We are all of the zeal for life. I do not lose hope, because man will have it too. We must live in our moments, but we are not bound to one place.” Young and perhaps a little too eager, it took the signaled flapping of an elder to get them to retreat back into the spiraling flock. The next one addressed the questions more directly.
“Do not worry about displacing yourself. To them your bones will simply look dragged out of the water by a predator. You cannot cover so great a distance that they would think it impossible. It is only tools we must avoid, only meaning in matter.”
“Yes, we must remember-” The ichthyosaur paused while the others laughed. This wasn’t memory. They’d seen it in their heads, but it had not yet come to pass. “Apologies. We must look forward to the hopeful explorers. The humans will love the sea and the sky as much as we do, and be just as lost.”
It took great coordinated effort, but several of the pterosaurs dove and picked up one of the smallest ichthyosaurs, giving them an exhilarating flight around the whirl before gently lowering them back in. They did this a few more times, kindling the hearts of the sea with each trip.
“We must look forward,” an ichthyosaur shouted as the small experienced the wonders of the sky, “to the names of those who dare. Divers, who will place themselves in metal bubbles and dare to descend to depths that even we avoid. People who will drown trying to see the bottom. All in the name of furthering life.”
“We must look to,” a pterosaur continued, “Buzz!”
“Buzz!” both domains cheered in unison.
“Buzz Aldrin, who will be the first person to walk on the moon! Her steps will be like wing beats, and then land and sky will come together the way the two of us have done for hundreds of years!”
“By doing our part in destroying the works of Taxa,” a nothosaur said, “we help ensure that beautiful Buzz will step like the land, fly like the sky, and drift like the water. That is what the moon does; its gravity unites the locomotion of all kingdoms. Even though it won’t be us, we’re still going to the moon!”
“To the moon!” many cheered. “To beautiful Buzz! To beautiful Buzz! To beautiful Buzz!” To the intruder this chant marked the end of any useful information. Both parties launched into stories of Atropos, sharing scenarios of man as entertainment, usually focused on exploratory voyages, with an inexplicable amount of them having to do with spelunking.
The thief on the ichthyosaur skeleton had no idea how long the meeting would last, but already the unfamiliar core took its toll. Thanazoans who controlled foreign bones experienced a sludgy burning sensation, concentrated around the bones, within the first three hours. After that would come a hardening of the inner flesh and a loosening of the outer, regardless of how much the cells were shuffled in and out.
In ten hours they would be dead, as the fluid form of a thanazoan was merely an ability, not the whole of their being like a jellyfish or slime mold. Certain chemical triggers had to be experienced within an increment of time, like a whale having to come up for air or a bird having to land, or the amalgam of tissues would dissociate, having lost its uniting sense of purpose.
This was why some never left their bones, because if anything happened to them while they were away they could only look upon them helplessly, awaiting death. Transplants were possible, but only if the thanazoans in question were the same species, and even then bones only remained viable for a few days.
The thief had no reinforcements to help if the condition caused the bones to stall in the middle of the ocean. It was crucial to get back. Eventually a breath had to be taken every five seconds, but by then the shore was close enough to see sand.
The sea meeting the sky had brought up a few interesting points. The thief had no idea what ‘Salted Earth’ was, other than proof of Taxa’s power. It had to be from the process she invented, the one that really turned their conflict into a war. Other thanazoans had dabbled in making Fate’s predictions come true early, but only by sharpening rocks and braiding fibers into ropes.
It was Taxa who wanted to integrate the predictions into the flesh, literally rip them from Atropos and fuse with them, destroying the future by making it the burning living present, using it as fuel. The thief had heard stories of a few of these tricks. Instead of painstakingly constructing a spear a Disaster might touch Atropos, steal the prediction of one, perhaps from a hoplite in Rome or a Zulu in Africa, and manifest it in their flesh.
It was painful to watch, or so the thief had been told, and likely much more painful to experience. The cells stopped believing they were part of a living thing and were forced to believe they were the closest approximation to a weapon a living thing was capable of. They calcified and sharpened into something like claws. The Disaster would lose a piece of themselves as it burst out of them in spear shape.
Even if they won the ensuing fight and survived, it would take weeks to recover the lost mass. Damage too was done to Atropos, who couldn’t recreate that spear in her model. A thanazoan observing it might see a warrior running around holding nothing, attempting to thrust that nothing into the heart of their enemy. If that spear was meant to be held by an important historical figure it could spell their death, altering the model moving forward. Taxa had argued this was two blows against those who looked forward to their own extinction, for the spear was put to better use in the Triassic and it undermined their confidence in man’s precious future.
The thief had never witnessed these tricks, but they were not gone from the world. The Disasters still gathered, searching Atropos for any sign of their lost leader, thinking perhaps she had hidden herself in the prediction at the last moment and would manifest once more. Some were looking so far into the future that the prediction was unstable and erratic, seeing that as evidence that Taxa was there, snuffing out man in Atropos’s mind to get her to move on from her fixation.
It took a lot of convincing to take a foreign fish-shaped skeleton out into enemy territory, but the thief had been convinced. All it took was the sight of two creatures among the foliage, not far from the beach.
One of them acted very strangely. Thanazoa was a complex clade with myriad mutations and motivations, but even in that framework the thief couldn’t understand what the amphibian was trying to achieve.
Far from any of the puddles where it would be most comfortable, the crawling thing approached a cynodont that was busy digging a new burrow. Cynodonts were within the lineage that would become mammals, and so were the progenitors of the human race. Among all those but the Disasters they were considered somewhat sacred, and predators usually avoided them for that reason.
This one was of a species their descendants would never find in fossil form, but it wasn’t too far in appearance from what they would call procynosuchus. Only about as long as a human forearm, it was a quadruped with bristly watertight fur, perfect for enduring rainstorms in a flooded burrow. Its dark blue color was only interrupted around its black clawed feet and the white stripes across its extended muzzle.
Preoccupied with digging, each kick sent a spray of dirt clods backward, most of them striking the strangely determined amphibian and sticking to its skin. The thief watched as it soldiered on, gills hanging limply from exhaustion.
Eventually the cynodont came up for air, and in turning around and sniffing the ground first caught sight of the four legged mud ball heading straight for it. The amphibian was barely more than a mouthful, but the cynodont recognized the patterns on the parts of its back that were still exposed. The skin was toxic; this creature was not food.
It kicked the amphibian away, but the pest was only invigorated by the rejection. It ran right back with energy that should’ve been reserved for only the most desperate moments, feet slapping in the dirt like a lizard of the future scurrying across hot sand. The cynodont didn’t want anything in the burrow it would just have to remove, so it blocked the entrance with its snout.
The amphibian’s response was to slither under the larger animal’s lip and try to crawl into its toothy maw. The foul taste of even a single webbed foot must have been intolerable, as the cynodont whipped its head away and whined, rubbing its snout back and forth in the dirt. The thief thought of intervening to protect the creature, but it still wasn’t clear what it needed protection from.
Again the ball of poison rushed back, earning a growl from the cynodont; it backed into its new burrow in the process. This was a mistake, for now its head couldn’t move far in any direction. With the precision of a leaping insect the amphibian launched off the ground and into the cynodont’s growling mouth. Its tail vanished down the gullet, and a moment later the creature’s head retracted into the burrow and disappeared. The thief heard the echoes of terrible whines, like a mother watching embryos boil and dissolve within her eggs through transparent shells.
Then there was silence, but the thief, never aware of being this discerning or sensitive until now, detected two distinct phases to the silence. The first was the silence of an open grave: an anti-invitation. Some, especially those who had witnessed death, would be frightened by it, thinking the entrance was a filter that would allow a body to pass through, but not the life within.
The second was the silence of being watched by something wary and calculating, something that would nonetheless be enraged if it was seen when it did not want to be. The thief was struck, to the point of confusion, by this seamless transition of one form of silence to another. It was far more frightening than the first one. It made the heart pound and the flesh twitch. The stare within the darkness laid claim, ensnared everything it saw. Here was a pocket of night that could not be eradicated by day, like a tragic confluence of terrain that prevented the sun’s rays from reaching certain spots age in and age out. The things that would willingly live there, just to bide time, were looking to compete with time itself.
The cynodont emerged slowly, but the thief could tell it was not the same animal that had gone in. The look in its small, sparkling, dark eyes had transformed completely, like water to icicle. It was already aware of the thief, as the thanazoan had been too transfixed to move out of the open.
The little creature was no thanazoan, so its intelligence should’ve been without consequence, valuing nothing more than its next meal or the trajectory of a falling leaf, but one flick of its head informed the thief otherwise. It was beckoning for the thanazoan to follow. Only the cynodont’s small frame gave the thief the confidence to do so.
It marched through the underbrush, sniffing, until it found strands of Atropos growing along the ground, clinging to some tree roots that happened to head in the same direction. Her thoughts were visible under her translucent surface as purple clouds.
She grew swifter than any plant, able to climb the tallest trees in a single day, but to see her tips stretch it still required having your eyes just a hair away. The thief thought that was the fastest motion she was capable of, until the cynodont tried to step on one of her tendrils. The loose ends recoiled quickly enough to disturb the twigs around them.
The cynodont tried twice more, but Fate dodged it each time. Only when the animal moved to the thickest part of her, too large to move quickly, could she do nothing about it. It made contact with her, claws plunging in. The purple clouds leaked out as hissing vapor, irritating the cynodont’s skin, but not the look in its eyes. It just kept staring at the thief.
Only thanazoans were supposed to be compatible with her, as they shared a root ancestor: the original creature of fluid flesh. She had moved beyond bones, and no burrowing protomammal could fathom her, at least not for more than a hundred million years. The cynodont’s flesh did protest, but the mind inside did not care for its pain, or for Fate’s. Its snout flicked down, encouraging the thief to join it.
The thanazoan eventually did so, if only to see something other than the cynodont scarring its own shoulders with her vaporized blood. Several steps away thief and Fate connected. The cynodont had a vision, a plan. In the swirling images it made clear that a plan was better than any prediction, for failure meant no going on; the planner would die.
The plan would fight for its own existence, unlike the uncaring river of Fate’s future. The plan would concentrate all the hurt the thanazoans would feel into the near future, so they would be without pain later. Everything would be given to the plan, and the more thanazoans that gave the more likely it was to succeed.
If the thief wanted to give, there was a way, and it would ensure an earned place in the future.