In February 2021, Storytelling Collective had a flash fiction prompt month and of course, I didn’t hit every day (or really get close) but I did end up with some favourites I want out in the world, even in their unedited form.
Was thinking about this post from Annalee Newitz.
“What’s the phrase—‘old as balls?’” Elora squinted at the artefact, bringing it up so close it nearly touched her nose. “How old are balls anyway?”
José gently pulled her hands from her face and pushed up the glasses that had slid so far down her nose that she’d been looking over them. “I think the word in context means ‘testes,’ and the idiom itself is probably as old as the balls in question.”
“That makes sense, more so than this stupid thing.” With an annoyed sigh, Elora carefully placed the artefact into its specimen case.
“We knew coming in that this wasn’t a typical dig, El.” José clicked his pen to change colours and kept making notes. “The whole point was to figure out why the majority of the city just razed the old dwellings and built on top of them but others didn’t.”
“They must have been turning the ground over like a compost pile to get things this mixed. I mean!” With an exaggerated wave of her hand, Elora indicated the specimen boxes laid out a crude timeline. The label on each box noted both the physical ‘when’ of where an object was found and an estimated ‘when’ of the manufacture, based on comparative artefacts from the more sequential areas of the site. There was no pattern or consistency in the dates. It was as probable to find an advanced piece of forged metalwork buried among shards of pottery from before the populace had learned to fire it for strength.
José shrugged, his eyes on his notes. “We meet up with the conservators again tomorrow, maybe they’ve found something.”
“I hope so. Tiera seemed to have some sort of theory she was going to research. Ugh,” Elora sighed again and moved to a chair far away from the worktable, slouching defeatedly into it. “I wish they could be here more often.”
The local conservators—which was a more accurate translation for what Tiera and her colleagues did than “archaeologist”—not only kept incredibly different hours than their human counterparts, thanks to a truly alien set of circadian rhythms but found the area of the dig at the edge of tolerable, even in protective gear. The dryness that had preserved the dwellings over millennia was also deadly to any native to the planet who didn’t suit up and bring enough water to keep their feathery external gills hydrated.
It was no wonder Chomil hadn’t discovered the ruins until they were nearly spacefaring. The deserts that spread across most of their planet were as impenetrable as the depths of Terra’s oceans had been for most of human history. Elora and José were part of a team working in concert with the conservators to finally begin research on whatever predecessors had lived in the dry wastes. Even with video calls Tiera and the other conservators made visits to the little human compound of portables as often as they could. They were currently staying in a village on the outskirts that felt like eternal springtime to Elora but was distastefully dry to the Chomil.
(also, “Chomil” is from Lake Xochimilco, one of the places axolotls are from)
Tiera normally loved the safe adventure of visiting the human’s dig camp out in the wastes. The suits she and the other local conservators wore had more than enough moisture to keep them comfortable for several days, which was overkill for a day trip but Tiera appreciated overkill. Better to be safe than sorry. It was pleasant to feel like you were defying death but actually have everything well in hand.
Today, however, Tiera felt far more aware of how their visits to the wastes were biting at the gills of gods. The feeling was exacerbated by travelling alone. The auto-cart trip from the outpost town felt endless as she revisited her notes, practising what she was going to say.
She was grateful that the newer style of protective suits left most of her face exposed, almost framed by the protecting ring around her gills. Humans relied so much on facial expressions and eye contact and she knew she’d need to pull out all the theatrical stops to convey what she had to clearly and succinctly. Their flat little mammal faces lit up as she slipped out of the auto-cart, which gave her confidence. They were part of a team, not superiors to convince.
Interrupting their greetings, Tiera strode past them to their housing hut, waving her hand. “I’ve got the results and they’re quite a lot, we need to sit.” On entering she saw the big pitcher of water and drinking bottles set out by her bench and she felt another surge of confidence. The humans were unfathomably different but they adapted so easily. She sat, straddling the bench and comfortably settling her short tail on it. By the time the humans had settled themselves she had her notes spread out in careful piles.
“I apologise for being brusque, but we have new information that has me worried about this dig and I need to get right into it. Where are your tablets?” Elora and José found their Chomil-manufactured tablets; on top of a stack of books and under a pile of papers, respectively. Tiera swiped her notes to them using their proximity link. “This isn’t proven yet but once we look through it, I think you’ll understand.”
Walking them through the document, Tiera explained. “As you know, part of your group’s work was to revisit older digs and attempt to align them with the newer excavations. For some reason—” she shook her head, the free liquid in her suit sloshing quietly. “For a very logical reason, we hadn’t yet compared your notes to those of the previous team. We assumed they would be redundant, and did not want to bias any of your possible theories as to the nature of the site.”
“I wish I had theories,” Elora grumbled. “There’s no logic to this muddle of artefacts.”
“Exactly.” Tiera made a gesture that had a complexity lost on the humans but which she knew they understood as an exasperated curse. “There is no sense. Even when we compare the notes. Here, go to the third section.”
She watched their faces as they squinted at the copies of notes from both research teams. Tiera was grateful for human facial mobility, she could watch the dawning realisation grow like a plant from eyes to the mouth.
“It’s like they’re two different sites completely.” José had a tone of betrayal in his voice. “From the photographs to the notes, it’s like someone came and stirred everything up between each dig.”
“We thought the place was a bit of a mess when we got here but, I dunno,” Elora had leaned back in her chair and was picking at the table edge with her fingernail. “I just figured it was how much time had passed between digs.”
Tiera felt a kind of relief. “You’re both right, in a way.” She reminded herself to look them in the eyes. “Something did come to stir everything around.” Tiera paused for dramatic effect, to lock them emotionally in, and swiped another document to their tablets. “I’m calling it a time worm.”
A portion of this post was initially published in a locked Patreon post on February 22, 2021.