(reading time: 1 hour, 11 minutes)
The tip had come to Lindwurm from a trilophosaur, and so was taken with the utmost seriousness. No family was more devoted to the cause than the trilophosaurs, even across their many species. Most of them were forever cut off from man, unable to experience their appreciation across the gulf of time, because few of their fossils would ever be found, and when they were they were not representative.
Man would never know thanazoa, only its host clade of Archosauria, but at least they could know the dimensions of those that sacrificed for them. Unfortunately, as the tectonic tides would have it, they would only find the bones of the smallest trilophosaurs, and think of them as little more than stand-ins for lizards.
In truth they came in all sizes. Yes, they were built rather like marine iguanas, but their flesh expressed a much more varied and athletic lifestyle, and sometimes on skeletons that were more than twenty feet long.
Despite Atropos telling them they would never get their time in the spotlight, they served unwaveringly. It was a trilophosaur who first warned the region of Taxa’s plans, a trilophosaur who journeyed deep into the prediction to see the damage the postosuchus had done when extracting weapons and malice, and a trilophosaur now who informed Lindwurm and the other prosauropods about the quarry.
The choice in site was brilliant on the part of the Disasters; he had to admit that. It was a rocky place once used for celebration with man, but before they had learned to carefully navigate the prediction. They had chosen a human celebration without examining its surroundings, both in space and time.
It had seemed one of the most wholesome events in the prediction: the 2015 South Carolina jams and jellies jamboree. Families from all over the country called the United States of Northern America gathered there, some riding in various vehicles for days despite the speeds the machines were capable of.
A high school’s gymnasium and all of its athletic fields were taken over by stands, the air spiced with fruit and clove and cinnamon. Pyramids of colorful jars grew in the corners; they were the piles being donated to charity after the event was over. Attendees were encouraged to buy an extra jar of whatever they wanted to try but couldn’t take with them and add it to a pyramid.
There was live music from a band called The Pits of Summer that had found cross-generational appeal. Their fans wore red cowboy hats covered in fake strawberry seeds. These hats dotted the crowd, and so did the thanazoans as they walked among the prediction, permitted to smell the jarred preserves but not taste, for that would remove the amount of mass they’d eaten from the prediction entirely.
Worse, outside the shared illusion the flesh in their mouths would be forcibly converted into the equivalent amount, mixing blood and tissue with the foul-tasting approximation of pulped fruits and vegetables. Still, the scents were wonderful and intoxicating, especially when combined with the freshly cut grass of the sports fields, a plant that wouldn’t exist under the feet of any dinosaur.
It was the middle of the festival’s third and final day, everyone sweating from the hot sun but enduring the mild burns to make sure they tasted something from as many artisans as they could. The Pits of Summer were taking volunteer children out of the crowd and letting them sing the final word of each verse.
Then there was a pop. It was not a sound many thanazoans ever heard. They had struggles in their own lives, so they never saw reason to wade into man’s darker moments. That was too much an invasion of their privacy, for they were at their most vulnerable.
The pop sent the band’s bassist to his knees, clutching his stomach. Perhaps for one merciful moment the child on stage, holding the neck of his instrument, thought he’d just spilled a little strawberry jelly on his shirt.
There came many more pops, in rapid succession, and the crowds finally started to scatter, leaving the confused thanazoans frozen in place as they examined the source of the sound. He didn’t look human, more like a dragonfly thanks to the giant dark glasses. There was an automatic rifle in his hands.
“Is it… is it a popcorn machine?” one attending thanazoan guessed. It had to be harmless pops; it just had to be. The creatures, made ancient by their surroundings, fell with the man’s victims, but out of sorrow rather than wounds. Whoever he would be, Atropos’s best guess was that he would kill twenty-two of his fellows that day before turning the popcorn machine on his own forehead.
A few of the more mature and sober thanazoans did investigate where he would come from, but they wished they had not. In a sense he would come from nowhere, or rather a place that shouldn’t be able to produce him. His family was happy; he was gainfully employed. The only thing they could find was his lack of a desired female partner.
Somehow that sadness became a raging internal hatred that was, against all reason, redirected outward. They found his name, but together they decided never to share it. Man had a future, but that single man did not. There was no reason to celebrate, or even recognize, the dead end he crafted. He was no beautiful Buzz, as those of the sea and sky would’ve said.
Lindwurm had been present during the shooting, and during the ensuing investigation. From then on they’d decided to scout out the events beforehand, and focus more on early ones where technology did not allow the violence to be so massive. The damage was done however. Even without Atropos’s influence the thanazoans had chills running through their flesh when they stepped in that place. Fate even vacated as well, leaving a large hole in her growth.
The rocks there still had lines where her web used to be, like rippling sunlight on submerged stone. It was a pit of bad memories and truncated futures. Truncated futures already lived in the minds of the Disasters; it was what they feared most. Man experiencing it didn’t bother them, for in order for them to exist Thanazoa had to suffer it first.
After Lindwurm had caught Pauldron and Orpheus with their murder stone, if that was even what it was, he’d grown far more suspicious. It was foolish to think he could snuff out such violence with one blow. It was insidious. It crept as shadows until, under everyone’s nose, it congealed and concentrated into something dangerous. They had to find the shadows.
He’d urged everyone to keep their eyes open, and to report anything suspicious directly to him. A few days later the trilophosaur came to him and told him what they’d seen: dozens of thanazoans gathered in the place where the popcorn machine had broken down. They’d witnessed rocks being carefully hammered into wedge shapes. Claw marks in the walls to pull out chunks of just the right size. Shafts of wood and strings of gut laid out on the rocks, drying in the sun. The Disasters still rallied, even without Taxa, and they had turned that place into a secret quarry, both mining the raw materials for an arsenal of weapons and manufacturing them.
Even without seeing it the prosauropod knew exactly what their assembly line looked like; he’d broken up enough of them before Taxa’s demise. It would be divided into four rows, long stone tables for work on the four kinds of weapon they preferred. No doubt Taxa wanted them to have popcorn machines eventually, but luckily her industry never even made it far enough to refine metal from ore.
The simplest would be rocks sharpened into hand axes; handles were never added so they could be held just as easily in bony hands as in makeshift human hands with opposable thumbs. Those would be handed out to the newcomers and those not committed enough to add skill to their violence. It took a special kind of thanazoan to wield the bows.
They took up two rows, as they were made in two sizes for small and large thanazoans alike. Only usable when partly or fully off the skeleton, with human arms and hands practiced enough to hold the tension, the bows and arrows were the greatest threat to those who wanted man to have a future.
They could not in good conscience take up the weapons, and Taxa knew this. The Disasters forever had a range advantage, and in most battles sought to keep their distance and fire until their foes slipped from their skeletons like bloody rags.
Their final weapon was a sling made of leathery hide, meant to be supported by prominent pairs of horns or shoulder spikes on various thanazoans. A smaller one would then ride on their back, in human form, feed rocks into the sling, aim, and release. It was enough force to crack a skull if flesh was not amassed to act as a cushion, and even then the bruising could be devastating.
Vigilance and prevention were the only way to be victorious, so Lindwurm immediately began planning a raid and gathering his force. Almost poetically, his weapons would be divided into four categories as well, each just as specialized in role, purpose, and place. As much as he hated to admit it, the thanazoan body made an excellent and adaptable weapon all on its own.
First up would be the trilophosaurs, and only the smallest of them. Catching the Disasters by surprise was vital, and they could slip and scuttle into every crack surrounding the quarry without being noticed. When the ambush was sprung they would prioritize the weapons, grabbing the unattended ones and dragging them out of sight.
Immediately after they flooded in the coelophysis would spring out from where they were crouched along the ridge, dropping into the midst of them. It was up to each brave warrior as to how they chose to fight, either with the brawn of their dinosaur skeleton or the dexterity of a human form cloak. Many of the coelophysis would likely choose the latter, as their skeletons would be relatively protected up on the ridge.
The last two waves would charge as soon as they saw the coelophysis jump. They were composed of short and stocky aetosaurs and the prosauropods: the equivalent of human tanks. They would initially be forced to keep their distance while the first two snuck into place, as even in human form their heavy footsteps would draw attention.
Taxa famously disagreed with the rules of war, correctly assuming they were all borrowed from a creature that had not yet invented them. So there was no choice but to take lives. If, when the dust cleared, a Disaster did give in and beg for mercy, it was within Lindwurm’s agreed-upon powers to decide their punishment.
Executions darkened all intelligent interactions, so he’d never once made that choice. Instead they would be exiled, escorted to the edge of their lands and made to walk until they were out of range of any thanazoan sense.
The goal of such a punishment was to force them beyond the desert, to the lands where Atropos did not grow. If they could not access her, and if they were alone, they would not likely have the drive or means to interfere with man’s projected path again. Lindwurm feared the day that an entire group of Disasters gave up before the fight started, all expecting banishment. If they went as a group there was no telling what they might do, possibly returning years later with an arsenal they couldn’t defend against.
If that happened he might have to end more lives than the man at the jam festival, which would make his heart the same barren waste as the quarry, its only contact the occasional horrified stare from a distance.
The last thanazoans would disappear at the end of the Mesozoic, the liquid flesh going extinct as it reverted to more traditional patterns. All that would be left was some reptiles and the birds, not a brain that could appreciate fire or art between them. It was acceptable to die now, with honor, to protect the lineages that would again feel as deeply as they did.
He hadn’t yet seen inside the quarry, but everyone was in position. Lindwurm heard them. Dragging their claws across the walls. Hammering away. The intermittent snap of a gut string that hadn’t made it onto the bow. Every moment that passed could’ve been another weapon completed, but he wanted the sun in its highest position. That way they couldn’t see what was dropping on them without being blinded.
When the shadows were shrunk to nothing he nodded to a tiny trilophosaur. The creature flowed off her bones, taking the shape of a human woman just seven inches tall. She saluted and took off sprinting toward the quarry. The fuse was lit.
The aetosaurs and prosauropods sharpened their eyes, watching the crouched dinosaurs on the ridge. The long stiff coelophysis tails were parallel to the ground, but they would go up when the soldiers leaned in. Lindwurm waited for the first notch in a naked tail bone to appear. He waited. He waited. He wondered if the Triassic had ended while they sat there.
Light penetrated one of the tails as the flesh thinned. Like looking through a lit egg and seeing the embryo, he could count the bones within. They were dropping. Lindwurm bellowed, and together with his fellow heavy weapons they charged. By the time they’d made it to the rocky edge the coelophysis skeletons were bare, claws perched over the side, empty eye sockets watching their flesh do battle below.
Just behind them the heavy thanazoans that chose to fight in the shape of man disrobed. Lindwurm glided off his bones all at once, his cask of a rib cage opening up. From snout to tail he was nearly eight meters long, and when his flesh compacted to mimic the muscle of distant man he stood a proud and imposing five meters.
Though he left nearly three hundred kilograms of bone behind, his feet still made the ground shake when he landed. The decorative purple quills he’d taken from the white bat flower curled up around his brow, neck, and shoulders so they would be out of the way. The quarry was utter chaos already, and sadly that was the best he could’ve hoped for.
A trusted friend with the brilliant cloak of a shocking pink dragon millipede dropped down beside him, crushing a Disaster so badly that they heard four bones snap. Lindwurm lifted his foot and brought it down on the Disaster’s head with all the force of a dropped pillar of Stonehenge, finishing off the skull and most of the brain matter that had tried to scatter into other tissues.
A coelophysis that had kept their bones to maintain running speed rushed down one of the stone tables that Lindwurm had predicted, scooping up bows in their jaws and snapping them in half. The trilophosaurs worked in pairs, one as a tiny human and the other with bones, functioning as rider and steed. The ones with hands pushed ax blades onto their partner’s back and held them there so they could be carried out of the battlefield.
Lindwurm had a task of his own, to find whoever was acting as the leader and prevent them from doing so any longer. Until then it was wise to keep an eye out for any of the larger bows, as they were much easier for a thanazoan of his size to break. There seemed to be a confluence of these two goals, as an arrow with a sapling shaft flew in and struck his foot, drawing blood.
Hesitating cost your life when dealing with Disasters, who used time stolen from man to think things over. Lindwurm ripped the spear out of the ground and broke it over his knee. The stone head was absorbed into his palm and sent through his body, reemerging above his ankle where it fell onto the back of a trilophosaur that scurried away with it.
Scanning the back of the quarry, he found his target. The Disaster, holding human male form, was crouched atop his own quadrupedal skeleton. He was a hesperosuchus, another species man would never guess the true size of, only juvenile fossils to be sprinkled in their path. He was just big enough to wield the bow, the weapon being nearly as tall as his human form.
He wore a cloak of maroon with flowing white pools separated by thin black lines, probably based on one of the darker clown fishes that would come to be. What stood out was his wound, his badge of loyalty among his kind, spread open across his chest, most of his heart tissue beating within. He nocked another arrow, having already discerned Lindwurm as the invading leader.
The prosauropod barreled forward, roaring to draw others to rally. There was a chance he could dodge the arrow. If he leaned forward he shrank his profile, and then when the arrow flew he could open a hole all the way through his cloak and let it fly through the ring. He’d done it once before, though he had stumbled immediately afterward from disturbing the human sense of balance too much.
The hesperosuchus was no fool, and saw what he was doing. He wanted more time to line up a better shot, so his cloak dripped over his spine and through his ribs as he melted back onto his skeleton. An arm passed the bow off to the now fleshy mouth before dissolving. After that he backed up, as far as he could, up an incline at the edge of the quarry that acted as the entrance ramp.
Once he had the high ground he stopped, stomping his clawed back toes into the dirt to hold the skeleton in place, preventing it from toppling when he disembarked again a second later and reclaimed the bow and arrow from his own mouth. He wasn’t alone. The others who had managed to snatch bows as the battle began had joined him at the back to fire, giving them enough for a deadly volley.
It was a race now, they all knew. Either Lindwurm and those that had followed would reach before they could draw back properly or the arrows would fly and cripple the biggest weapons the defenders of man had. To falter for even a second gave the archers advantage, so the prosauropod pressed on, the acid of exertion burning between all his cells and on the backs of his small determined eyes.
The hersperosuchus’s arrow flew first, and it did so straight through the hole in Lindwurm’s chest. The heavier prosauropod arrived a split second later, closing that hole around the Disaster’s bare skull, snapping it off the vertebra and tossing it aside. Lindwurm’s bulging purple arms grabbed the smaller thanazoan by the neck and ripped him from his skeletal steed, throwing him against the dirt and holding him there with incredible pressure. The other defenders collided before most of the arrows were loosed, similarly subduing their targets. Lindwurm’s fist was pulled back, ready to pulverize the wound, punish this clown for daring to wear his heart so openly, so selfishly.
He was stopped only by the sound of a large skeleton crashing to the ground, a sound that drew every eye in the quarry. One of the prosauropod frames, held together only by thin leathery bonds, had toppled over the edge and broken across one of the work tables, shards of bone mixing with arrow heads and wood splinters.
Its owner rushed to its side, dropping to her knees and weeping. Lindwurm knew her, and she was not one to carelessly perch them in an unstable pose. His eyes went up just in time to see another one fall from the row, this time a coelophysis. Its owner managed to catch it on the way down, immediately reclaiming it and running from the battlefield.
“Who goes?” Lindwurm bellowed. Nothing emerged to take credit for the pushing. “Who goes!?” he demanded again, so loud that the culprit hopped forward involuntarily and then tried to hide his head in shame behind the smaller creature cradled in his claws. The prosauropod was shocked to see the gold and blue coelophysis. Since the murder stone he’d remembered their names. This young one was Orpheus, strange considering that the aetosaur Pauldron had been the one to bicker and disrespect him.
“Now that I h-have your attention,” Orpheus squeaked when the cynodont in his hands used its tail to slap his head back into the open. “You will release these fighters for good… or I’ll smash the r-rest of these.” He gently whipped another skeleton on the ridge; it tottered enough to make its owner nervously shuffle under its shadow below.
“You don’t know what you’re doing child!” Lindwurm argued. “This is no place for you!”
“I do know!” Orpheus shouted back hoarsely. “You’re all hurting each other. T-that has to stop! Taxa is going to stop it. She knows how to take away all the hurt. I’m… I’m never even going to feel pain again!”
“Taxa is dead!” Lindwurm reminded. He stomped on the hesperosuchus’s throat to hold it down, allowing him to turn toward Orpheus and stand tall, human chest artificially inflated with air pockets. “Come down from there.”
“Taxa lives!” Orpheus declared, stepping forward off his skeleton into human shape, thrusting the cynodont out over the quarry with fresh arms, its clawed paws and tail dangling. There was scattered laughter from the defenders of man, but not the Disasters. They watched carefully.
“You saw Taxa’s body yourself!” Lindwurm said. “Lifeless in the dirt.”
“N-not lifeless! Taxa has mastered the future! She can take more than weapons from it; she can even take its mythology and make it real in our flesh. She has invented re- rein- reincarnation!”
“Up the spinning wheel of life she h-has traveled!” Orpheus went on from his memorized speech. “From rotting ruin into the first vermin that dared ingest her flesh, a centipede. Then into a feeble pond dweller, and then into this p-precursor of man!” The cynodont stared down, snout panning across all the Disasters. Several of them dropped to their knees in reverence. “With each step she drew closer to her home, to thanazoa, and now… she has returned. To save us all!” He stepped back as if winded, reforming over his bones.
“I don’t know who sold you such ridiculous-” Lindwurm was interrupted by a primal dinosaur shriek, one in which Orpheus showed all of his teeth, all of the fear he’d ever felt. He closed that shriek around the nape of the calm cynodont’s neck, biting and ripping, tearing away a chunk of flesh in a spray of blood. He swallowed it down as the tiny creature’s head and limbs slumped. The body fell wetly into the quarry as Orpheus staggered backward.
Even though his dinosaur shape was restored his cloak did not settle, quivering between gooseflesh and a hanging carpet receiving a beating. He stumbled about, but his clawed feet slammed down on the cliff’s edge, gripping, refusing to fall even as the rest of the body underwent turmoil.
The thanazoans below silently watched as Orpheus closed his eyes. They disappeared, melting into his flesh, whatever sound the popping of the tissue bubbles made drowned out by his guttural moan, coming through an open throat, the sound of which indicated it grew deeper by the moment.
The eyeless confused thing lost its golden luster, the flesh draining to pale yellow and then to white. The blue of his lower half receded to the tip of his tail and vanished like water spiraling down a drain. He could not form words, not with his face rearranging, but Lindwurm guessed the child would ask why it hurt so badly, why she broke her promise.
It looked like the coelophysis might lose cloak integrity, for the flesh sprung several leaks of blood, but when these trails swelled into round spots rather than falling it became clear the transformation was nearly complete.
Crimson spots bubbled up, erupted, swelled again, and became glossy. These were not a single wound, not a simple mark of loyalty. These were the scars earned by journeys into the dark recesses of the future. The spots borrowed from the bleeding tooth fungus each represented something watched, end to bloody end, in the time of man. New eyes emerged, a little larger and free of fear.
She would see a man pull out his rifle and not shy away, watching as he cut short dozens of futures. She wouldn’t see the anguish, just the machine, and with eyes dark and focused as obsidian arrows she would contemplate ways to make bone into bullet, cartilage into cartridge. She was a creature that knew her cruelty could never compare, even across millions of years, to just a few centuries of what might just be Atropos’s nightmare.
So it was all worth it. So she dove into their false religions and pantheons and she found something meant to be profound, meant to be deserved, meant to allow growth, and simply found it of use. Up the karmic water wheel as it took up buckets of fluid flesh. Back to the world, where she was now as inevitable as Fate.
“These aren’t the jaws I’m used to,” she said, voice a smoky thrumming growl, “but they’ll do.” She snapped her new teeth together, her loyal Disasters rising in celebration. Lindwurm looked down to see his target had wriggled free and was lost somewhere in the waving arms and stomping feet.
“What have you done with the child!?” Lindwurm roared. He hid all his fear well, considering she was just five steps away from his bones, but the fury was earnest. His purple quills bristled, emotion sharpening them like a porcupine’s.
“My loyal Disaster is safe within me, as he wanted,” Taxa announced. “He was not fit to be a soldier, despite his convictions. All he wanted was a life free of pain, and now that I am the outer cloak, I will take the slings and arrows for him. If I’m being honest; it is you who will take the arrows.”
A few of her underlings went for their weapons, and it looked as if the battle might renew, but she swirled nimbly on her new feet. Her stiff tail struck several skeletons, which teetered but didn’t quite fall.
“This fight is over!” she declared. “The human lovers will surrender, or all of these bones will fall.” She stared directly into Lindwurm’s eyes. “You have my word that none of you will be killed. The boy gave me his memories, and I’ve seen that my kind were not executed. You will be treated the same.”
He wasn’t the only one who saw surrender as the only option; everyone with their bones on the line was in agreement. The downpour of defeat left many of the defenders of man in a fugue. Before that fateful transformation they assumed the worst that could happen was falling in battle. They had dived into the quarry with dozens of lives on the line, and felt like they were leaving with billions of deaths on their shoulders.
The Disasters took up what weapons remained and organized their new prisoners, marching them in a line out of the quarry. The smallest trilophosaurs were allowed to scurry away and escape, and they would surely tell what remained of those loyal to Atropos, but by then it might be too late for the region.
With Lindwurm captured and exiled they would be in disarray, and Taxa would strike quickly, setting up guards at the most crucial Fate locations. Once she controlled their access to the future she would have the means of predicting their actions, against which no resistance movement could form.
It was a tactic that had been tried against her when she was losing, but she’d already ripped so many predictions of herself out of the future that Atropos grew foggy whenever she was present in the model. It was only the fact that the terrorist didn’t have Fate’s infrastructure under lockdown that had her on the back foot for much of the initial war.
All this and more swirled in Lindwurm’s mind as a draining sludge of failure. He was on his bones now, so his head hung low on his long neck as they were marched further and further from their core lands. Every time he tried to slow, even to breathe, an arrow poked him in the flank. One of those was so deep that he flinched, throwing his head up, accidentally seeing his own imminent future.
Sand dunes stretched as far as the eye could see. Even if he’d extended his cloak as tall as he could, winding it around the nearest tree like a python tipped in an eye, he still wouldn’t have seen the sands abate.
“Taxa!” he bellowed, no longer aware of her location in the procession, but she was somewhere. She always oversaw as much as she she could, her experiences with Atropos making her naturally suspicious of everything she did not directly experience. “What is the meaning of this? Taxa, I will be heard!”
He thrashed back and forth, taking several small cuts from the Disasters on both sides of the procession, only stopping when something landed on his back. That something stepped daintily across his spine, heading for his neck. He let her practice with her new dexterous feet until they were close enough to talk. Her toothy snout extended into view of his left eye, but all he saw was her mouth, the rippling satisfaction in every word across her pale lips, like Death whispering sweet nothings.
“I’m listening,” she said, a growl weaving in and out of her words. Her claws tightened in his shoulders. “Let’s not cause a panic. That might make you trample each other, just like your precious monkeys do whenever there’s a sale on polyester.”
“Where are you taking us?” he demanded, barely able to restrain his volume. “This is not near the coast. I always sent your thanazoans away along the paths that circumnavigated the-”
“The Dividing Desert,” she finished. “I know. I’ve been informed by my friends of your service record Lindwurm. You thought you were giving my followers futures, but you took from them their leader, so you did nothing of the sort. I promised you would not be executed, but I see no reason to grant you a future when you work so hard to throw all of ours away. You will be released into the sands, free to do as you please, as long as you don’t return.”
“That’s just a slower death sentence!” he said, gritting his teeth.
“You are the ones who invented it,” she argued. He felt blood drip down his side as her claws punctured. “You think we should all accept extinction to make way.”
“It doesn’t matter how much of their technology you steal. Build computers for all I care! It won’t make a difference when the end of the age comes. The volcanoes will erupt and darken the sky, and no glittering bunker will get you through the thousands of years it’ll take to clear them.”
“You speak as if I expect to be there when the Cretaceous falls. That’s millions of years, well beyond the lifespan of these bones. You’re admitting I’ve already beaten death.”
“You stole another life from Atropos. Steal enough and she’ll dash the whole dream. With nothing left to steal you’ll rot like the rest of us.”
“Not you Lindwurm. You’ll mummify out there. Now walk. I’m scheduling the rest of life, and I won’t be able to squeeze you in anywhere.” Her snout and claws retracted, the sound of her footsteps receding behind those of her followers.
She did not speak again until they reached the edge, where the last of the wispy weeds grew from cracked ground. The prosauropod didn’t know exactly where they were, and unless one of the others did they were likely doomed, unable to know how far it was to the coast. Already he was formulating a plan, one that involved burying themselves in the sand for several days and then trying to sneak back the way they came, but Taxa had foreseen that eventuality.
“All of you, walk into the sand and then turn to face us,” she ordered the prisoners at arrowpoint. They had no choice but to obey. Two of the larger aetosaurs were held back, one with the cloak of a leopard and the other a fire-bellied toad. They understood their fates immediately, closing their eyes and remembering their fondest times with the humans. Taxa liked to make examples, and her next two words left no room for doubt.
“Salted Earth,” she said plainly. The demeanor of the defenders of man sank even further. So, there would be no sneaking back after all. “Yes, I didn’t think you’d forget, but there is something new to demonstrate. I have learned much in my time between lives.”
Her last word morphed into a snarl as she leapt onto the neck of the leopard aetosaur and ripped open his throat. He collapsed almost instantly, his great bulk sending up a cloud of dust. The other one just kept her eyes shut, muttering, singing a song that children would learn in kindergarten about farm animals and the sounds they made.
Salted Earth was Taxa’s greatest weapon before her death, invented from the concept of human biological weapons rather than mimicking any one of them specifically. It allowed her to set up and control borders, but manufacturing it required a constant connection to Atropos, so she could not use it where Fate had not spread.
Evidently that was no longer true, as she buried her snout in the ripped-open flank of the aetosaur. At first it looked like she was feasting, large lumps of fluid flesh disappearing down her gullet, but when she lifted her muzzle again the banished saw that her white skin was stained a charcoal color rather than red.
Her body rapidly converted the thanazoan tissue into her deadly formula, and when it was ready she stepped out between the two groups and drew her line in the sand. It sprayed out of her mouth, so much black and gray grit, like the sediment from a volcanic beach. It settled quickly and stuck stubbornly, the grains locking together when a breeze tried to pull them into the air.
“You,” she ordered the remaining aetosaur, “traverse the Salted Earth.” Her victim did not cease her singing, but she followed the order. The expanse of the black material was wide enough to almost be its own desert, but she couldn’t complete a second step past its boundary. At the first contact of her foot, all the Salted Earth grains she touched vaporized, and as if they had a will the vapor clung to her flesh as it rose, curling along her neck until she breathed it in.
There was no faster acting toxin in the history or future of the biosphere as far as Atropos could imagine. The aetosaur fell over, paralyzed in less than a second, dead in less than five. The poison itself, even sitting inert on the ground, seemed to harbor a sinister will, given that it went gaseous at its victim’s first touch but didn’t respond at all when her heavy corpse toppled onto it.
Lindwurm had seen it many times, including the unfortunate experiment to see if a thanazoan could cross while holding their breath. It cost him a friend to learn a single cell of an exposed mucus membrane was too big a hole in the cloak’s defenses. Even the hardened tissue that held bones together when the cloak was away could absorb it, killing the owner when they tried to reintegrate.
The only way to beat it was a bridge, of boulders, trees, or perhaps even bodies, but there would be no abundance of those to use in the Dividing Desert. Taxa demonstrated her power further, walking into it without agitating it. She truly was the mother of this strain of death. They watched as she gorged herself on both the bodies, spreading the barrier to the left and the right.
Between sickening sprays of it she made promises to the demoralized banished in the sand. She would teach others how to produce it, and the barrier would grow. She promised the dark line keeping them out would be seen by the satellites that she would have orbiting the Earth within three centuries.
For now it was more than enough, especially with Disaster guards being posted at all times. One by one they began their hopeless journey into the blistering sand. Some were already stumbling, rolling their flesh up like pant legs to keep it from burning, leaving them to balance on stumpy stilts of bone.
Lindwurm lingered the longest, searching the growing hazard for any sign of weakness. As the sun set and the Salted Earth became impossible to tell apart from the sand, he gave up and turned away from his home.
Taxa was right about one thing; he should’ve paid more attention to the futures of the young. He should’ve known that they would want more than dignified silence under a howling wind.
Shortly before the sea met the sky it met the land. Their union was not planned by either side, but the sea performed admirably in the form of the ichthyosaur Capricorn. It was still hours before the great gathering, but Pisces was overdue to return from the mountain. His bones sat behind the pacing Capricorn, alongside hers, jaws agape, waiting for their master to return.
Her cloak of tiger stripes was hot, so every so often she would return to the water, dip her human hands in, and splash it over her face and shoulders. Despite the heat she liked walking around on human legs, choosing a petite female shape so her footsteps were closer to those of the little animals scurrying across the wet sand. It always calmed her to see the water fill in each print, layer by layer, until what she had done was just a subtle influence on the water itself, technically working to shape the movement of the sea.
This distraction could’ve cost her life, if it had been a more experienced Disaster that emerged from the treeline and found her guarding two skeletons. When she looked up from her vanishing steps she saw Pauldron. The aetosaur was too startled to charge, so for the longest time they just stared at each other, waiting. Capricorn was not likely to leave the proximity of the water, so eventually the younger thanazoan relented and approached.
“Have you seen a thanazoan with a blue and green lizard’s cloak?” the ichthyosaur asked.
“Where was he going?”
“He’s dead.” Capricorn looked back at his bones, but their expression did not change. The fact that she felt safe enough to look away, when she was that close, insulted Pauldron. “I killed him.”
“Why would you do that? He wasn’t much older than yourself.”
“Because I am a Disaster. He was trying to reveal our hiding place, trying to get our whole kind killed.”
“If you’re one of them, where’s your wound?”
“I will earn it by killing you and smashing both of those bone piles.” She whipped her tail through the sand, throwing an impressive pile of it about, but the next wave that rolled in, over their feet, took a quarter of it.
“So her will lives on,” Capricorn processed aloud. “I shouldn’t have sent him up there alone.” Her giant, glossy, flat eyes stared down at the aetosaur, looking past the blues and blacks of her sea slug costume. Pauldron thought she was ready for a fight, but the ichthyosaur’s stare alone felt like it plucked something out from her center and pocketed it.
“You shouldn’t have tried to stop us! Why are you even alive if you hate thanazoa so much? Just kill yourself now; that might mean another human gets born eventually.”
“Oh I can’t do that; I’m far too much of a coward,” she said, with a tone that was anything but fearful. “Go on.” She stepped aside, giving Pauldron a clear shot at the skeletons drinking the surf. The young Disaster thought it a bluff, so she approached the one closer to the tiger-striped thanazoan, guessing it belonged to her. She raised her tail, turned to the side, but Capricorn stood by without flinching, human arms folded behind her back.
“I’ll do it!”
“Of course you will, you already have. You murdered my friend Pisces; that was his name by the way.” Pauldron swung weakly. Capricorn’s skeleton rocked, but the tide was disturbing it more than that. “Do you need to warm up? Why don’t you start with his? There’s no pressure there since he’s already dead.”
Pauldron nervously shuffled backward, keeping her tail poised, accidentally seeing the empty eye socket of Pisces. Through it she saw the foam of the sea, stretching toward her like a phantom hand out of the fog. The fishy thanazoan was right. Pisces was gone, so why couldn’t she bring herself to break his bones?
“Would it be out of line to suggest that you did not kill him?” Capricorn offered softly, a minute later. The aetosaur’s tail dropped into the sand.
“He is dead though,” she responded weakly. A flash of anger. It was just a flash; that was why she needed the wound, so she could be reminded that the rage should never recede. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t kill everyone who wants to take my future away! I never did anything to them, and they want me to shut up and die, and my children to shut up and die, and their children!”
“What kind of future are you talking about?” the ichthyosaur asked. The question flustered the aetosaur enough for her tail to flail and hit Pisces’s bones. She flinched and checked to confirm the skeleton was still in one piece.
“What do you mean? There’s only one future. The one that happens.”
“Until it happens it can be anything. Fate is a good guess, but a guess all the same. We of the water look forward to the humans because they are different from us. Their rise means that life still works, still churns. It won’t fossilize, despite the fact that we will.”
“See, you’ve given up too. I want the future to be thanazoa. I want our work to mean something. I want-”
“A future for you, which you already have. Nothing at all threatens your individual lifespan. The end of our kind is an entire age away, and I’m sorry to say the end of your life will be much sooner. A Disaster doesn’t care about their kind, only themselves as representatives of that kind.”
“Taxa wasn’t selfish… and neither am I.”
“You’re going to die child.”
“I know that! What matter-”
“You’re going to die.”
“Stop saying that! What’s important is that we have a legacy!”
“Our bones will wait for us, just as they do when we leave them. Our legacy is secure, but not the fluid flesh, not the part that is you. So, no matter what, you, little aetosaur, will die. Taxa can’t stop that. If you face your fear, swaddle it without coddling it, you will see that Disaster isn’t a legacy. That’s why Taxa always removed herself from Fate’s dream. She didn’t care about a legacy, because the world was never going to be rid of her.”
“She could still be alive.”
“Yes, she could.” Capricorn stepped forward and started flowing over her bones. “Not without destroying somebody else’s future. Life is given, and everything beyond that has to be taken. We refuse to take.” She tightened around her tail and gave it a healthy swish in the water. Her fingers stretched across her flippers and fused as her elbows receded completely. Her eyes spun in her sockets until they were comfortable. “We accept.”
“I don’t want to die,” Pauldron admitted. Her tail was heavy on the sand, the surf eating its foundation away on both sides.
“Me either,” Capricorn agreed. “Would you give me a push?” Pauldron walked forward and stuck her snout under the beached ichthyosaur’s chin. She pushed and rolled her into the water. “Thank you. Good luck, little Disaster. May your destruction get smaller and smaller.” She started swimming away, tiger-striped dorsal fin sinking.
“Wait! What about your friend’s bones?” Capricorn’s head reemerged.
“Let nature have them,” she said through her snout full of needle teeth. “If you follow the coast past the mountain you can find a bay where many of the sea like to relax. I encourage you to make some friends there. They can help you see that the land flows just as much as Panthalassa.”
Pauldron did not linger long after her fin sank out of sight, but she also didn’t return to the mountain to claim a wound. Instead she wandered off into the forest in search of Orpheus, to apologize. She didn’t even know if she was sorry, just that there was a weight inside her body that hadn’t been there before Pisces dissolved into Atropos.
The two friends missed each other, barely, as they traveled in opposite directions. Orpheus had just communed with the cynodont, learned its small body was bursting at the seams with the great and powerful Taxa Disaster. The coelophysis told her everything that he knew of the time she missed, but nothing had surprised her.
Artfully she explained her vision, tailoring it to the changes in his expression as she went. Domination of the thanazoan map, to divide and restrict access to Atropos, blurred into something he could dream of, a time without pain. She told him that was one of the simplest and easiest to achieve aspects of her plan.
Atropos’s vision was not the future, but a giant sack, almost bottomless, full of resources: knowledge, warnings, data… It should be used the same way man might use the trees, rocks, water, and air. The only difference was that there was no harm in pillaging the future. Most of the change would occur in their bodies, nature beyond the fluid flesh left to its own devices, free to pursue whatever extinction tickled its cruel sense of amusement.
If pain tormented you, you needed only to connect yourself to her, find a part of her prediction of you where pain was not felt, and swap the two sensations. Yes, it degraded the accuracy, but that didn’t matter since none of it would come to pass as she saw. Thanazoa would reign, free of pain, of bug bites, bruises, cuts, and fevers, for the rest of time.
All Orpheus had to do was obey, and Taxa would make him the first to live a pain-free existence. Her first order was for him to visit the beach, to make sure her folk in the mountain had not been revealed. When they got there they followed Pauldron’s footsteps all the way to the remains of Pisces.
Taxa, once she had wrapped her mind around the passage of time, each of her bodies having experienced it differently, realized it was the day where the sea met the sky, a seasonal meeting of a few of her many enemies. This could be the perfect test of Orpheus’s loyalty, and his gullibility.
She ordered him to disembark from his bones and take up those of Pisces, to follow the other swimming creatures to the meeting, gather information, and then report back. She promised to watch over his skeleton while he was away.
The foolish child accepted this, temporarily became a bone thief, and awkwardly descended into the rich blue waters. Taxa had no means to protect his bones, not at her diminutive size, but it mattered not. Even if something big enough to eat her came along she would simply take it over, one step closer to the sublime apex predator she used to be. If his bones were broken their marrow might be a nice snack for the cynodont body, its tongue about the right size to fit inside and lap it out.
To her surprise he succeeded and found his way back. Both the sea and the sky had similarly underestimated her, still trying to confirm reports of her death. They were entire animal orders behind her. What she needed now was weaponry, and fast. A certain place came to mind, where the human lovers wouldn’t go, too afraid to imagine blood stains on its floor.
Pauldron never saw her best friend again, not with his poison dart frog colors, not with that timid look in his eye. She learned, too late, of everything that happened at the quarry and the edge of the Dividing Desert from a trilophosaur small enough to escape. She found him, perched atop a pile of hand ax blades, sitting on his own bones like a bench, weeping into human hands no bigger than her pupils.
The little creature did not know Orpheus by name, but he described his cloak so thoroughly that it couldn’t have been anyone else. He was dead, or trapped, or some combination of the two, deep in the potentiality of his own flesh. Taxa had his bones now, and she made them more vicious than he ever had. Orpheus was the gaunt little dinosaur who ate mostly bugs, and even then had bad dreams about the pain they might feel. Taxa was the reaper, who thought such an animal was better off not existing.
The aetosaur insisted on seeing for herself, so she headed for the sands, stopping short thanks to the heavy Disaster presence in the area. Already Taxa’s dark inky line on the map had expanded. He couldn’t see the end of it in either direction. There were a few felled tree bridges out into it, so her soldiers could spray more, but it seemed only she could walk in it without it vaporizing.
There was no sign of Lindwurm and the others banished on the horizon. How long, exactly, had they been walking? How far would they have to go before they hit the point of no return? Pauldron, crouched in the shrubs, watching the Disasters expand the deadly plain, finally identified the heavy feeling that made her cloak feel like a sagging rain-soaked tarp.
Certainty of her own future, found on that beach, in the sight of the waves dying and being born, had given way to concern for the imperiled futures. The thanazoans out there had at least treated her better than Taxa had treated Orpheus. They believed in something, and perhaps it was wrong, perhaps foolhardy, perhaps shortsighted in the longest way, but it was kinder than the mission of the Disasters.
She had earned her wound, but it was within. Gaping. Raw. It would remain so as long as they were out there, futures slipping away like sediment in raging currents. They could be bones, nothing more than the shapes of sleeping animals that died peacefully, to the people they so loved. Or they could be alive, and they could only be so if Pauldron took on the burden of building their futures, of taking up the yoke and plowing a path for them through the Salted Earth.
There was no way across though. The bridges were constantly being moved, guarded by many. There was no force left to take control of them, the majority of the bulky prosauropods and aetosaurs in the region now marching to their blistering deaths.
Even worse, she was there, strolling through her black poison, weaving a web of torn Fate strands between her stolen coelophysis hands, biting at them when they didn’t behave as she wanted.
“You taught others to make it,” Pauldron whispered to herself, trying to pop the glossy red pustules of Taxa’s fungal cloak with her stare alone, “but you won’t let them control it.” She recalled being permitted to explore on her own once the terrorist had been killed the first time. It happened quickly, implying the defenders of man had been able to sweep away the Salted Earth she’d already deployed.
How? She would’ve heard if they’d figured out how to neutralize it. It must have soured on its own, the trigger now obvious. Her defeat. If she fell again, if Orpheus’s bones were broken, her influence, be it chemical or some other force only Fate understood, would fade. The banished could return the way they came.
Something like a plan tumbled in the waterwheel of Pauldron’s mind, over and over, as she hurried away, to the bay Capricorn told her about. She had to get Taxa alone; that was the only way to gain the upper hand. Only one mechanism for doing that came to mind: Taxa’s own weapon. Her people could not cross the Salted Earth, so if she were forced to the other side…
But Pauldron had no idea how to get herself to the other side alive. That was where she needed help, and the only help that wasn’t being watched by someone’s wounded eye was in the sea.
She hit sand of a different character and passed the broken remains of Pisces’s skeleton, snout half buried like a spear plunged into the ground. This was not the ichthyosaur she needed. It was Fate that guided her, once she spotted her growing across the rocks. Normally Atropos detested the salt of the sea, but there was a high outcropping where she could dangle like roots and be just out of the reach of the waves.
In that crescent of stone and heavy pooled sand Pauldron found several ichthyosaurs swimming lazily, conversing with other thanazoans with semiaquatic bodies that still allowed them to bask on the rocks. There were numerous small pterosaurs as well, nestled overhead in the curls of Atropos, all of them enjoying a smaller celebration of their own after the official end of the meeting of sea and sky.
When the aetosaur arrived she was out of breath. To ease her burden she slipped off her bones into human form and crawled to the water’s edge, gasping. Never before had she left herself exposed to complete strangers, but she saw herself as nothing compared to the dying dehydrating mass out in the Dividing Desert. One by one the thanazoans of sea and sky stopped speaking as they noticed her approach, waiting patiently for her to catch her breath.
They had sequestered themselves immediately after the meeting, the pterosaurs facilitating the use of Atropos, making a few human gatherings for the enclave to enjoy: Christmas in front of a fireplace, a summer picnic around a badminton court, and a screening of a black and white film called Thirteen Angry Men. None of them had heard of Taxa’s return.
“It’s true,” Pauldron stressed when she had recovered enough to explain it. “I saw her with my own eyes.” Her eyes slipped off her human face and flowed down to her palms. She offered them up like payment. “She has returned and she has taken over the land already, with one battle. All the fighting prosauropods, my kind, the coelophysis, and lots of trilophosaurs have been banished to the desert to die.”
“Terrible,” a pterosaur chirped, urging the last of the ethereal theater curtains to roll up and disappear inside Atropos.
“She’ll cut us off next,” another of the winged creatures postulated. “We carry messages the fastest, so she’ll pour that poison on Fate wherever we like to access her until she’s buried.”
“What can be done?” one of the basking thanazoans asked, suddenly looking stranded, as if the sun would never shine upon that rock again.
“Do any of you know what happened to the Salted Earth after she died the first time?” Pauldron asked. There were several nods from those with enough neck to do so. They confirmed what she had suspected, that it had immediately become inert when Taxa did not have a functioning thanazoan cloak.
Eve those of the sea knew, as there had been concerns about land dwellers sweeping the black powder into the sea to get rid of it. Though it dyed the waters dark for a time, there were no ill effects ever observed.
“Then she must be killed again,” Pauldron declared, “to save the defenders of man.”
“We are useless as soldiers on land,” an ichthyosaur reminded. “Even ten of us would probably lose to her, and that’s without accounting for her numerous followers no doubt unfurling the wounds they were hiding.”
“I will fight her,” Pauldron said, last of her doubt burning up as she said it. “She lied to my best friend and… killed him. It is his bones she is draped over.” The pterosaurs gasped, some hiding their faces under their wings. Morbid as it was to admit, this was an even more compelling story than the film they were just vicariously watching. “There’s just one problem. I must get across the Salted Earth and draw her there so we can duel.”
“And you want our help?” an ichthyosaur asked. She nodded. “Does anyone have any ideas?” Their circular eyes couldn’t express shame or disappointment well, but Pauldron saw it in the drooping of their cloaks all the same. They offered suggestions that died in the salty air, not even needing to be refuted.
“Use a tree as a catapult to fling your cloak?”
“Ride a larger Disaster and force them through?”
“Wait for rain and see if it washes the poison away?”
“There is a way,” one of the smallest pterosaurs said, unable to listen to the floundering of desperate ideas any longer. “Quetzalcoatlus.” The other fliers chittered and whispered, a few abandoning their roosts immediately without so much as a goodbye. Many remained, enough for the suggestion to be viable.
“What is that?” Pauldron asked.
“Quetzalcoatlus will be one of us,” another tiny pterosaur suggested. “A thanazoan of the air. They will be a titan. An eater of clouds. An umbrella holding back the deluge as they glide. Us at our mightiest. Quetzalcoatlus could carry you across the Salted Earth.”
“I’ve never heard of a flying creature that big,” Pauldron said. Aetosaurs were stocky beasts, low to the ground, like barrels with legs, and she never realized how much she feared flying until it became a possibility. The idea of not being able to bend her neck and kiss the soil alone made her feel like she stood at the edge of a great chasm. “Do any of them live around here?”
“They will… in one hundred and fifty million years.” Pauldron’s heart fell down the chasm. “We pterosaurs are no bigger than this for now, but as our bones evolve some of them will grow. When they become quetzalcoatlus their wingspan will be wider than a small plane’s. They will stand three times taller than man.”
“Taxa won’t wait those millions,” an ichthyosaur reminded.
“We can bring them out of the future,” yet another pterosaur explained. He stared up at the sky, several other heads following his. They seemed to watch something streak across it, though Pauldron saw only clouds. “Taxa does the same thing, but we can do it for good. It will damage the model’s accuracy… but stopping her is better for its integrity overall.”
“Making weapons hurts Disasters,” Pauldron said, shaking her head. She hadn’t seen it herself, but she’d seen a scar from such an action: a puffy knot of inflexible flesh that all but refused to jump off its bone ever again. “You’ll suffer. You’re not supposed to. I am. This was all my fault; I should have been there for Orpheus.”
Thanazoans did not express their sadness with tears, but the pterosaurs, in contact with Atropos, saw them flow across Pauldron’s face. That was all they needed to see to believe she could be trusted with the bones of the titan. The few remaining that did not want to participate fluttered away, but that left more than a hundred who clambered across the roots of Fate, amassing.
“What are you doing!?” the aetosaur cried. “We’ll find another way! You shouldn’t sacrifice your futures too! I can fail! I probably will!”
“Probability doesn’t concern us,” a bright pterosaur with the cloak and wings of a monarch butterfly told her, speaking on the behalf of the others as they came together into a drooping bundle of wings like a giant pine cone. “We are explorers, and the land beyond the Salted Earth is new.”
“Beautiful Buzz!” the other pterosaurs sang in unison, heads disappearing into the mass. Colorful cloaks bled together like swirls in paintbrush water.
“Who will fly the bones!?” Pauldron asked, panicking, but even off her bones she didn’t have the power to jump up and stop them. They hung from Atropos like a chrysalis, and even the strands that weren’t attached bent toward them. The monarch pterosaur continued to try and calm her.
“You will fly them, little savior. Quetzalcoatlus is too big to take off easily, so you must leap from a high place. Don’t flap much. Glide. Use the air currents.”
“Air has currents!?”
“Don’t be afraid. Your cloak will only be large enough to cover the essential parts of the wings. Wield the bones as a human would a hang glider.” Pauldron rushed over to the lowest strand of Atropos and grabbed her with both hands. She searched the future for hang gliders, and saw fearless human taking to the sky as if they belonged there, the same way they took to their futures.
“Beautiful Buzz!” the ball of fusing wings repeated, but quieter, as there were fewer mouths to use. Despite their fluid nature, cloaks were not organisms that could truly mingle. They were individuals, a hundred variations on oil and water, and what they did with their flesh now meant death for them all, a fading journey into the one direction of time Atropos was interested in.
It was vital, if they were to dissolve their own bones and reform them into the titan. Raw material equal to its skeletal mass had to be sacrificed. Their previous rhythm suggested the chorus should ring out with a third rendition of beautiful Buzz, but there were no mouths left. Their mingled colors shifted, becoming the recognizable mix of Atropos’s flesh.
The chrysalis shrank, wrinkled, crackled. Its bottom ripped open. A lanky skeleton, forelimbs expertly folded like origami, landed in a quadrupedal stance, held together by the dark shriveled remnants of their sacrifice. The neck was incredibly long, its bones similarly thick as they held a sword-like bill and hilt of a skull aloft.
“Beautiful Buzz!” the ichthyosaurs declared for their brave friends. Only the monarch pterosaur remained; he landed on his descendant’s skull. He was little more than a fly to it in scale, and he urged Pauldron to come forward.
“I will help you fly,” he said, “but we must hurry, yes? Every moment we waste the defenders get closer to death.”
“I can’t believe you would do this. I never even bothered to know any of you,” the aetosaur said.
“Explorers plant flags for their kind, without needing to meet a single one.” Pauldron’s approach was slow, so the ichthyosaurs and others of the sea helped. They let their bones sink to the sandy bed and climbed out, marching toward the ivory quetzalcoatlus. The aetosaur took up their momentum, and when she got to it she started to climb, her hands wrapping around the bones, looking for the most tenable position.
Together they maneuvered the skeleton out of the alcove and up to the top of the rocks. One of the ichthyosaurs took over the legs while Pauldron handled the unwieldy folded wings and comparatively tiny fingers. She was just getting used to the back and forth when she ran out of room. There was nothing but the open ocean beyond. She spread herself as thin as she could, building up the wing membrane as her human torso thinned and stretched considerably. The ichthyosaur released the legs.
“I might get lost,” she admitted. “And I’m scared.”
“The sky is a different perspective, but I will guide you,” the monarch told her. “Just follow me. Fear is natural. It’s just the anxiety of not knowing the exact number of grains in your hourglass. Fate can always flip it over.”
“We’ll try and find a way to help,” one of the ichthyosaurs offered. “If you can’t win, just hang on as long as you can.”
“Will someone watch my bones?” the aetosaur asked. She had barely thought about her time limit. The titan’s bones weren’t closely related, so they could never be her home. If she didn’t return to her skeleton within a few hours she would lose her integrity and perish.
“With our lives,” those of the sea assured her. They didn’t urge her any further, but their eyes told her that time was crucial all the same. They were right; it was time for the land to meet the sky. The smaller pterosaur walked her through it: swooping, flapping, and stabilizing.
Nothing could make that first step off the edge feel better than a fall to her death, but she found the focus to pull up. Operating the wings was taxing, each one taking the full power of one half of her body, and if the halves didn’t have equal strength she floundered. Whenever that happened the ground seemed to flash, like lightning. Was it an instinct all fliers experienced? The mind telling them that sudden collision was death?
She kept her mind from it by angling her eyes upward. The skull of the quetzalcoatlus was like an arrow, and she just had to maintain altitude and keep it pointed at the monarch pterosaur as he flew ahead of her. That was all, until they reached the deadly river of black powder. Pauldron didn’t know if she would be able to feel it, like warm smoke against the soles of her dangling human feet, but she thought she might feel something.
Her last hopes of avoiding the sight again were dashed when the monarch called back to her, using what she assumed was the jargon of flight. He said they were approaching their final destination. Since it wasn’t just a matter of crossing a black finish line, she had to look.
There it was up ahead, marking the change from forest to desert. Disasters perched on logs that now only went as far as the middle spewed more of it in dark arcs. In some spots it was piled enough to be called a hill. They must have killed more to make that much. If she was to control the whole region with these lines then every insult would become a capital offense to keep the supply chain going.
Before Pauldron could fully take it in they were over it; her feet instinctively pulling up toward her body. It couldn’t be over fast enough, but the monarch was turning, keeping them over it. Pauldron banked, which proved sickeningly difficult after such a long time of gliding straight.
Her own plan finally caught up. They needed to find Taxa. Taxa also needed to look up and find them. After that Pauldron would have to confidently surge past her line, do her best to look like a hang gliding quetzalcoatlus half that was absolutely certain it could defeat her and save the defenders of man.
There were plenty of red spots, like a rash across the land, but it took them several minutes to find her. Her muzzle was buried in another carcass, one with exposed ribs sticking up. It was already so converted into Salted Earth that its remaining flesh served only to obscure the identity of the species.
Pauldron was worried the white pustule of a thanazoan wouldn’t look up, and that she might have to shout, but one of the underlings took care of it as soon as they noticed the strange beast overhead. The aetosaur couldn’t hear what they yelled over the rushing of the wind, but when she moved her eyes down to her soles she saw Taxa lift the coelophysis neck she had stolen. It followed the angle of their flight path.
“Follow me,” Pauldron hissed. The white and red mass wasn’t moving, feet still clawing at the dregs of the kill. “Follow me. I’m a flying thorn headed straight for your side.” Taxa was shrinking from view. “Come on!” The coelophysis stopped getting smaller. “Yes!” She locked the titan’s wings straight so her relief wouldn’t send the skeleton spiraling into the sand.
The white and red spot dashed across her darkness like a mite across a sun scorched volcanic rock. Taxa couldn’t let this variable go, not in the direction of her incomplete victory over the defenders. Her speed was something else, all the muscle of a postosuchus somehow squeezed into the thighs of a coelophysis. Each clawed step kicked up poison in such a wake that Pauldron had to increase altitude twice.
“She’s too fast!” the world’s first flying aetosaur shouted to her companion, hoping it was just the right volume for him to hear and Taxa to ignore. “I can’t land!” To do so would likely result in a lethal bite or slash before the titan’s claws even touched sand. She meant just to communicate, to brainstorm possible solutions, but the monarch pterosaur was all too eager to prove he was just as brave as his kin that had sacrificed themselves to make her fly.
He dove. Pauldron was stunned, but immediately began her descent anyway so as not to waste his efforts. Taxa jumped to a stop in the midst of the deep sand. They were well beyond the Salted Earth now; it had disappeared behind the dunes. The monarch snapped his toothy maw about her head, trying to center Taxa at the foot of the nearby dunes so that Pauldron could land on the high ground.
Pauldron’s quivering feet made contact. The quetzalcoatlus wanted to continue, even with most of the wing flesh pulled back, so her attempt at landing turned into a crash, but she was able to keep everything in one piece by swallowing air with her cloak and using it as an airbag to absorb the impact.
Even with sand now locked in a hundred places inside her cloak there was no time to rest. The little pterosaur was fighting for his life while she floundered in the desert’s surf. She’d lost sight of Taxa and needed to get back to the dune’s peak as swiftly as possible. Pauldron clambered across the quetzalcoatlus spine, clinging like mold, until she could split and cover the arms once more.
Dragging the titan uphill without the use of the feet felt Sisyphean, but when she spotted Taxa from the top she was too angry to let her efforts tumble back down. The coelophysis was snapping at the pterosaur, each bite a near miss.
“Fly! She’s mine!” Pauldron declared to warn and intimidate. The littler creature shot upward, all too glad for a reprieve to catch his breath. Taxa finally got a good look at her opponent. Pauldron flowed down through the ribs, mostly back to human form, but kept herself attached.
“Who are you?” the coelophysis asked, already approaching slowly.
“A friend of those bones,” Pauldron answered.
“He gave his body willingly.”
“I believe you, but you could get him to do almost anything. I should know. I used that. Not like you did though. Now he’s never coming back.”
“Why have you flown that thing out here?” Taxa demanded. Nothing else to say of Orpheus. No remorse.
“I’m bringing them back.”
“They cannot cross my line.”
“They can if you…” She couldn’t say it. She didn’t think Taxa would turn from the fight, but Pauldron still didn’t see herself as a killer, even in this new shape. “If you go back to the purgatory you were cowering in.”
“Cowering?” Taxa’s head leaned forward. Her muscles tensed; Pauldron knew the pose. Orpheus had always used it when he was about to chase after a bug, bugs he ended up letting go half the time even as his stomach growled.
She sprang, the distance half closed by the time the first spray of sand dropped back to the desert. Pauldron’s heart cells pounded, scattered across her chest like a shotgun blast. The aetosaur had no combat experience while Taxa had fought a war of her own and ripped weapons from dying hands in the active battlefields of man. That was why she moved swifter than any of her arrows; she had no fear.
Pauldron had bigger bones on her side, so she used them. The titan’s skull was so massive, practically a canoe, that she couldn’t even reach the shoulders after covering it, but she had most of the neck, and she could strike with the giant bill like a scorpion’s stinger.
There wasn’t time to fully tense her strength. Taxa was already there, claws and teeth brandished. Already leaping. Pauldron brought the bill down, striking only sand. Taxa hit, claws scraping across the bill, scrabbling toward Pauldron’s vulnerable eyes. She had no choice but to retreat, abandoning the vertebrae in favor of becoming a sail on one muscular arm.
Taxa refused to pursue indirectly. She slithered off Orpheus’s bones, letting the whole skeleton fall off the titan’s bill and roll down the dune, like a rocket jettisoning its booster. The sleeve of her shot down the neck and then took over the other arm. Despite the quetzalcoatlus’s slender profile, there was immense strength instilled in the shape of its arms, so when both winged hands, one silvery blue and one bloody white, did battle over the shoulders the blows sounded like a hurricane toppling trees.
The titan’s wind sails smacked against each other, and to the monarch pterosaur above it looked like an even match, but the dueling sounds obscured the damage Taxa was doing. She was much more accustomed to wielding the claws of a predator, across two thanazoan bodies no less, and each time they clashed she was leaving bloody scratches in Pauldron’s wing membrane.
When one of these tears let light through the aetosaur decided she had to retreat again. If she took the fight to human forms there would be no bones to slash with, so she jumped to the back legs and began crawling off the tail, forming human arms.
Taxa was less than a limb behind. She took up both legs and formed a human shape herself, the quetzalcoatlus hind limbs providing massive grounding strength as human arms. With a backward clawed foot of a hand she reached down and seized a crawling Pauldron’s ankle in a vice.
She cried out in pain, but when she was whipped backward it felt like the cry dropped out of her, water from a kicked pail. The aetosaur flew through the rib cage, barred shadows everywhere, and barely managed to cling to the titan’s skull the second before she would’ve been thrown into the bowl of dunes. Her desperate grab pulled the neck forward, the whole skeleton now teetering on the edge of sliding.
Pauldron made one more attempt to stab with the beak, at a concentrated mass of Taxa that surely contained something vital. It was a trap. As the skull struck into its own rib cage Taxa swelled on all sides, locking the head where its lungs should have been in a gruesome form of introspection. The aetosaur thrashed, but Taxa responded by extending tens of spines from her cloak: tiny weapons of sharpened bone she kept drifting in her fluid flesh at all times.
“The death of a thanazoan is a terrible waste,” the white terror said as she formed a human head within the box of spines. “Your ingenuity and bravery would be highly valued in my ranks. You’ve already earned your wound. Stop this. Help me bring this impressive skeleton back, and be rewarded.”
“We all die sometime,” Pauldron answered in a pained hiss, forming a small head of her own, sea slug tendrils draped like hair, dripping blood.
“The mere thought that humans will imagine immortality, coupled with my determination, has made it real. I have no end. The fluid flesh will be as the tides.” The spines pushed in, pierced her in several more places.
“You’re just… lingering. You have to graft other futures onto your own.”
“And I’ll graft them all if I have to.”
“I saw a human once,” the aetosaur said, pushing her face closer, trying to furrow her brow and make the visage of the future’s rage. “You remind me of him. Atropos showed him to me, and nobody else around, I think because she knew I’d be here with you now.
This human will be wrinkled and gray, his eyes nearly useless even behind glasses as thick as sauropod nails. He will know his days are numbered, but he will still take his civic duties seriously. He will go to a voting booth. There will be an encroaching climate disaster, maybe stronger than what kills us, and he will know about it.
Yet he will vote for the person who wants to slurp up the slurry left of our age, burn it, and contribute to the crisis. He’ll do this because he worries about his investments… investments he’s too old to use. Blindly he will draw power from the young, hoard it, hide it, because if he lets it go he will admit his time has passed. He will acknowledge death, and wonder if perhaps it came for him because he wasn’t right every single moment of his life.”
“And you want these creatures to come to power?” Taxa snarled at the lecture. “I would never let the planet get to that condition.”
“You’ve already stranded us in the desert and cut us off with a river of poison. The worst of the humans dream like you. Are you sure you didn’t accidentally take anything else when you took the weapons?” Taxa’s glossy red pustules dilated. A distracting thought. The only chance. Pauldron couldn’t go anywhere, but she could push a few tendrils of her cloak between the spines, shift the overall weight.
When she did the quetzalcoatlus tumbled down the dune, rolling end over end, spraying sand into the exposed tissues of the thanazoans. Every grain locked in their forms was a distraction, a variable, a chance for Pauldron to escape. She followed the force of the fall out to the edge of one wing, but Taxa was already getting her bearings.
The Disaster was on the other forelimb, digging its claws into the sand, using them as a rudder to stabilize the skeleton, turning its fall into sledding. The tip of Pauldron’s wing was held high, giving her the superior view of the bottom of the dune. Something moved beneath the sand there, something to more than rival the titan of the skies.
Pauldron watched as up from the depths came a toothy maw on a long neck, a length impossible outside Atropos’s visions of the Cretaceous. A cloak of flesh, red and warty like the head of a buzzard, made it only halfway down the neck before converting to one of zebra stripes. With a neck like that, over seven meters, the barrel of the body must have taken at least three more sizable thanazoans to operate. All of it was muscle, and all of that muscle was being channeled into the neck, raising it like a hammer.
The aetosaur had no idea how such a creature had been constructed, or how it had gotten there, but her instincts told her it was those of the sea come to assist. If she had known they would go this far, in the spirit of exploration, in kinship with their winged siblings, she would’ve tried to stop them.
The shape of quetzalcoatlus and the majesty of its flight inspired them, and with Atropos’s vision before them they couldn’t stop themselves from perusing the zoological gardens of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. They found an incredible creature, and they could hardly believe that one day, millions of years from now, its gargantuan skeleton would be piloted by a single cloak of flesh.
Elasmosaurus was an even greater titan, wielding a neck of more than seventy vertebrae. Its fearlessness was ingrained in its bones like rings in ironwood. It was an idol the ichthyosaurs and others were happy to worship, from within the shadow it cast onto the seabed. Just like with the giant pterosaur, some of them had to sacrifice their lives to provide the bone material to build it.
Once they had done so they brilliantly stayed connected to Fate, traveling along her webbed paths like a train in a tunnel, carrying their invention rapidly across the land. They disembarked only at the edge of the desert, using their titan’s paddle-like limbs to dive into the sand, under the Salted Earth, and make their way to Pauldron.
An elasmosaurus as the humans recreated it, with solid flesh and tiny mind, could never have moved through a medium so different from water, but the thanazoans had the properties of water in their flesh, and so could provide all the subtle motions and patterns needed to help the skeleton glide through the dunes.
Taxa recognized only the danger it posed; she twisted the pterosaur claw to alter their descending path. It worked immediately. The elasmosaurus was a giant, slowed in the sand as if in tar, and would never regain the element of surprise. Pauldron couldn’t let that happen, not after what both kingdoms had given to the brilliant, simple, luminous cause of saving lives.
She pushed herself to fill out the other wing, to give it everything a real quetzalcoatlus would. All of her scratches had to stay off the membrane, had to come together as one exaggerated injury near the shoulder, and it cost her precious blood. It became a red trail of droplets in the air, the tail of their strange creature of inner conflict.
Her wing stiffened, grabbing and dragging the air, countering Taxa’s push in the opposite direction. They were still shifting away from the elasmosaurus’s shadow, but much slower. Those of the sea took note of her help, snaked the neck to accommodate. Taxa saw it all; she abandoned the wing all but buried in the sand, pushed herself through the ribs to try and escape.
“Your fate is written!” the aetosaur roared, wing stained so red that it now looked like her natural coloring. She flapped, the gust stronger than any thanazoan that wasn’t fully mounted on bone. Taxa Disaster was blown out of the rib cage, into the shadow of the hammering neck. Her wounds shrunk to pinpoints as she went white as a fearful sheet.
The slamming blow rocked most of the elasmosaurus’s body out of the sand. When the beached creature lifted its head again the flattened remains of Taxa peeled off and fell, ruptured and soaked in several places. The many of the sea that drove their titan abandoned it, flowing off their assigned body parts into human form to get a better look at what was left.
The empty quetzalcoatlus slid to a halt right above her, and the popped frog egg that had once been Taxa Disaster did not respond to its temptations. Pauldron had abandoned it as well, taken human form and started climbing back up the dune as fast as she could, despite the dark color she left in the sand with each step.
“Bury her deep!” she shouted over her shoulder as she climbed. Human form, but back on all four limbs, pulling at the sand. “So deep nothing will eat what’s left! Let her mummify in the sand!” The elasmosaurus would make it true, such was the power of thanazoa at its eventual mightiest. She believed in them, but now she needed to see the rest of the desert.
At the top of the dune she kept going. The defenders of man were still out there, still alive, sleeping in the cool sand during the nights, just waiting for someone to tell them it was safe to return. Pauldron crawled and ran with the determination of one species and the hope of another. Little shadows quivering in the distance, blazing sun threatening to swallow them and the thin tendrils of smoke their deaths would leave behind… Was it them? There had to be something more than the future on the horizon.
According to Fate