by Ada Hoffmann

 

I hadn’t had a minute, since getting off the airship, to put down my carpet bag and close my eyes. But Dr. Clarence Fullerton was intent on showing me the entire encampment before I rested. He never paused to allow me a word in edgewise, although at that point I was so exhausted I couldn’t have said much anyway.

“Past the mess tent,” he explained, “we have the path down into the canyon, and the fossil-rich ridges themselves–of course, you won’t be digging there, but I’m sure you can imagine the wealth of discovery available. Go ahead and feast your eyes.”

The sunset over the rugged river valley had turned everything pink, but of course I was more interested in the robots. The encampment crouched at the edge of the canyon, only four tents and assorted machinery. Robots outnumbered humans: four Whitman-651 walkers to carry the plastered-up fossils, one more to carry personal supplies, and a couple of convenience items such as a broken Hamilton-Smith, which was supposed to wash and press clothes with hardly any human assistance. And then this thing looming up in front of me, which I did not recognize. It was large enough for two people to stand in the cockpit, and it sported a considerable array of gun turrets.

I wondered why they needed a machine like that out here.

Dr. Fullerton followed my gaze. “Or, yes, you may feast your eyes on that, too. It’s a KD8102 special from Lovell & Grimm. One never knows what might come calling, you see. Grizzlies, bandits, rival researchers… But in any case, you won’t be touching the KD8102 just yet, nor its ammunition cases. It will be your job eventually, but only once you’ve proven yourself.

“The less, ahem, martially oriented machines are yours to examine as you will. Now, I’m given to understand you’ve worked at fossil expeditions before, but you haven’t worked at one of my expeditions, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I give you a short lesson in fossil handling before allowing you to work on the Whitman-651s. May I schedule that for the first thing tomorrow morning?”

“Yes,” I said weakly. The airship ride had been loud and shaky, and his voice scratched at my ears. He simply wouldn’t stop talking.

“Most excellent.” Dr. Fullerton ushered me into the comparative darkness of the mess tent. “Now I’ll introduce you to our fine colleagues. Miss Howe, may I introduce Dr. Harold Kerr and Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. Harry and Mrs. Cunningham, may I introduce Lillian Howe…”

I stared at Mrs. Cunningham even longer than I’d stared at the KD8102.

Out west, the social rules were loose for lack of civilization, and I was not the only woman who ever worked at fossil hunts. I had even been on speaking terms with two of the women at Dr. Mandeville’s camp. But neither of these women approached the perfection of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. There was a brightness in her eyes and a surpassing neatness in the way she held herself, suggesting intelligence, warmth, efficiency. She wore practical outdoor clothes, like me, but they were all in black bombazine, with a widow’s cap–the veil shortened, presumably so as not to get in the way. Mr. Cunningham must have died a little over a year ago.

I felt sorry for Mr. Cunningham. Of course he was probably very happy in the spirit world, but if I were him and had a wife like his, I would have wanted very much to stay alive so I could hold her.

Dr. Kerr, a tall thin man, bowed and muttered a greeting. Dr. Fullerton kept talking and talking, and I think I was supposed to introduce myself to the others, but I couldn’t keep my mind on any of it. Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham looked at me in concern.

“Are you all right?” she said. “You’ve gone positively white.”

I fluttered my hands a little as I groped for an appropriate response. “Oh,” I managed eventually, “I’m feeling a little faint, that’s all. The journey here was tiring.”

“Faint” is the safest way to say it: delicate, ladylike, and proper. “Faint” is much better than the truth, which is that if I get too overwhelmed by too many people talking to me, I will begin shouting and perhaps even bite them, even if they are beautiful like Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham.

They led me straightaway to a quiet tent, instructed me to keep my head between my knees, and left me to calm myself down.

It really was a nice camp. Not too big, and lots of interesting machines. For a minute, I felt sorry that I’d come all this way to sabotage them.

Fossil hunting is an enormous business. Like a gold rush. Below the 49th parallel, one can hardly set foot in a sedimentary wasteland without running into Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who regularly resort to blackmail, theft, and robot ambushes in order to one-up each other. Up here, in the North-West Territories, our own scientists carry on in much the same way.

I had learned the rules of fossil hunting as a mechanic fixing robots for one Dr. Mandeville–though I had had to hide that from Dr. Fullerton, who was Dr. Mandeville’s bitterest rival. Over time, Dr. Mandeville had grown to trust me enough to tell me his secrets, and to send me on special missions.

I hadn’t thought it was in me to carry out sabotage. But I was shocked when Dr. Mandeville told me about Dr. Fullerton’s camps. Why, when they finished, they dynamited whatever small fossils and fragments were left, so that Dr. Mandeville couldn’t have them. Destroying irreplaceable knowledge in the name of sheer rivalry–can you imagine? So Dr. Mandeville had not asked me to hurt anyone. Only to secretly dispose of the dynamite.

It was still deceptive, and I experienced occasional pangs of conscience, but Dr. Mandeville had offered me a great deal of money should I succeed. The alternative was to sit at home with my brother and his wife and their extremely noisy children, pretending to do needlepoint and having maybe one interesting robotics project per year, since customers in Ottawa preferred men. No, thank you: I preferred a life with autonomy, even if it meant lying to Dr. Fullerton while he talked my ear off.

When I’d calmed down, I set to work erecting my own tent. I was not nearly as good with fabric and poles as I was with machinery, and the whole thing threatened to fall down several times, but I eventually got it straightened out. That done, I sorted all the tools in my carpet bag in order of size until I fell asleep.

The next morning dawned in a very pink way. I woke in considerably better spirits and felt much better able to handle Dr. Fullerton as he walked me around.

“The excavation itself is very delicate work,” he explained. “Suited only for humans, not machines. It’s only later that the machines come in…”

I could see why he wanted me to understand his procedures, but they were exactly the same as Dr. Mandeville’s, so I stopped listening. Instead I looked out over the canyon, an intricate fold in the earth where Dr. Kerr and Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham clambered about in the cool morning air, worrying at the rocks with picks and whisk brooms. Sunlight glinted off some of the biggest bones. The team seemed to have stumbled onto something very impressive.

All the more reason not to let them dynamite it.

“Ah,” said Dr. Fullerton. “But look at you. I suspect I’ve gone on entirely too long. Perhaps that will be all the lecturing for today! Do you have any questions?”

“No,” I said.

He clasped my shoulder heartily and I tried not to squirm away. I don’t always mind being touched, but the way he was doing it made the edge of my cotton shift scratch against my shoulders uncomfortably, under my jacket. “I am glad to hear it, Miss Howe! I like a woman with nothing to say. I must say I was concerned at first about adding another woman, but you’ve been meek, ladylike, and altogether pleasant thus far. Perhaps you’ll help us keep Mrs. Cunningham in her place!”

I had no idea what Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham’s place was supposed to be, but when he said it, I imagined holding her down to keep her in one spot. This lead to thoughts which frankly were not ladylike at all.

“Thank you, Dr. Fullerton,” I said.

He nodded. “Now, where did you say you learned robotics?”

I had a small moment of panic before I realized he was not interrogating me. He didn’t suspect that I was a plant sent by his bitterest rival. He was simply doing the thing people call Making Conversation.

“From my brother,” I said. “He has a degree in robotics. I borrowed his textbooks. And his equipment. And eventually his customers.”

“Hm. Where was that?”

“In Ottawa.”

“Ah! I have cousins in Ottawa. What church did you go to?”

I swallowed, knowing things never went well when I said the name. “The Ottawa Spiritualist Temple.”

Sure enough, his eyes sprang open. “So you go in for that sort of thing? Materialization of the dead? Girls walking around in little sheets?”

I shook my head. “I do séances with my family at home, Dr. Fullerton. I’ve never seen a materialization. Only the most powerful mediums can even…”

“Splendid! I know just what we’ll do to welcome you to the camp, Miss Howe. You can do a séance for us! I’ve always wanted to see one. We’ll all sit and chat with Mrs. Cunningham’s husband or Harry’s mother or whoever else you can drum up. How does that sound?”

“But…”

He clapped me on the shoulder again and I winced. “Splendid! Excellent! Oh, I’m glad we have you aboard.”

He kept talking after that, and I couldn’t get a word in.

I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t comfortable with this. Séances, however pleasant, were not a form of entertainment. They were for me and my family and our spiritual development. Besides, although I had cultivated enough mind passivity to channel voices, I certainly couldn’t produce the sort of spectacle Dr. Fullerton expected. In the presence of three spiritually disruptive strangers, I wasn’t certain I could produce anything at all.

Still, even if I explained all that to him, he probably would not have cared–and if I started declining his requests, I might look suspicious. So I looked on the bright side. I hadn’t done a proper séance since leaving home; all I had managed at Dr. Mandeville’s camp was a bit of automatic writing. And I was curious about Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham and her husband. I wondered what would happen if she could speak with him. Perhaps she would be impressed with me. And I dearly liked the idea of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham being impressed with me.

It was Dr. Kerr’s turn to make lunch. Dr. Fullerton had left me alone eventually, and I had worked up an appetite inspecting the robots. But when I got to the mess tent and found Dr. Kerr laboring over a badly maintained camp stove piled with stinking meat–none of which I could eat, due to my personal convictions–and carrying on a shouted conversation with Dr. Fullerton, I lost my nerve. I darted in, plucked a bit of cucumber and half-wilted watercress from the side table, and retreated outside to eat them.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham flounced out of the tent herself and sat at my side. I was happy to see her, but it did nothing to calm me.

“Dreadful, aren’t they?” she said. “Pompous, noisy men. I don’t know how I deal with them some days myself.”

“Er,” I said.

“I can see why you’d want to eat out here,” she said. “Such a view! I often take it for granted, clambering about on the rocks every day, but I shouldn’t. One needs to take time to appreciate beauty in this world.”

“Er,” I said. “Yes.”

I hated this part. The trouble with women like Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham was that I became fascinated with them too early. I was naturally reticent to begin with, and the presence of beautiful women only made it harder to speak. I had had special women friends in the past, but they had been the ones to pursue me. I didn’t know how to do it the other way round.

I groped for something interesting today.

“What’s your favourite dinosaur?” I tried.

“Mine? I suppose I prefer the Troödons. We’re finding a lot of them at this dig site–little things, up to your waist, with astonishingly large claws at the toes. Deadly predators, if you want to be technical, but I find them endearing.” She looked at me sidelong. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Oh, I have weak nerves, that’s all. I appreciate you coming out here.”

She smiled at me for the first time: white teeth, charmingly crooked. I liked her smile.

“One gets used to Dr. Fullerton. I’ve been working with him for years. Since before James passed on. And you? Did you make your way here all alone, a quiet thing like you?”

“Yes,” I said. “By small airship from Fort Calgary, though I am from Ottawa, originally.” She had gotten the conversation back onto facts, which was much easier, so long as I remembered not to mention the incriminating ones.

“Then you were in Fort Calgary all by yourself?”

“Yes.” And not just once; I’d been there on the way to Dr. Mandeville’s camp, and again on the way here. But that was incriminating.

“With all the outlaws and cowboys? Were you frightened?” She didn’t sound frightened herself, and I got the sense she was hoping I hadn’t been.

“No,” I said, which was the truth. “Fort Calgary isn’t lawless. There were some men in strange clothes, but they didn’t give me any trouble.”

She smiled again. “You’re so trusting.”

“No.”

People often told me that sort of thing, but I knew it wasn’t true. If I were a trusting person, I wouldn’t have come here as a saboteur, now, would I? I didn’t trust Dr. Fullerton at all. Still, I couldn’t say any of that, so I just fluttered one of my hands.

Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham caught that hand in hers. Which was something I had thought I had wanted her to do. But the edge of her sleeve was the scratchiest lace I had ever encountered, and I could not bear it brushing my wrist. I flinched, and she immediately let go of my hand.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean-”

“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s not you, it’s the lace. My skin-”

“Of course.” Her cheeks were suddenly bright red. “I… I really ought to help them clean up in there. Men, you know.”

I couldn’t do anything in response but flutter, and she picked up her skirts and left me there feeling utterly ridiculous.

It’s a good thing that I work quickly. I had a basic inspection done on half the machines before supper, and I’d figured out the problem with the Hamilton-Smith–really just a worn-out drive block. In between doing those things I spent an unseemly amount of time breathing deep and sorting my tools in my tent, thinking of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. I kept worrying that she did not like me. I tried not to do it. I told myself that, once I allowed her to speak with her husband, everything would be fine.

Of course, there were other dangers inherent in the séance. It might not work, and Dr. Fullerton might decide that I was a charlatan. Or it might work too well, and some friendly spirit might warn one of them that I was a saboteur. This latter possibility occurred to me a little too late. I’d already taken on the risk.

The mess tent was not exactly a proper sitting room, but they had done what they could with available materials, bringing in the most comfortable cushions and clearing the small table. After dark, the mess tent’s fabric adequately blocked out the moonlight. It was almost cozy.

We linked hands, and I recited a sonnet of which I was fond. Normally in my family we began with a prayer, but I didn’t know these people well, and an uplifting sonnet would do.

“Now,” I said, with our hands linked in the darkness, “the best thing to do is to focus on pleasant thoughts. You can sing or converse lightly. It may take a few minutes.” I didn’t know if I was explaining too much or not enough. I tried not to be frustrated, to remove my own emotions and be a pliant vessel for the spirits.

There was a lot of coughing and harrumphing for a while, but Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham saved me, raising her voice in the first verse of “Jerusalem, My Happy Home.” It wasn’t strictly a spiritualist song but it would do for now. Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr joined in, slightly off-key, but Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham carried the tune very well. Her high voice relaxed me more than my own efforts.

The room became indistinct and I felt my own thoughts and volitions slipping away. This was working. Even in this strange company, I was nearing a proper trance, and the room was full of indistinct balls of light.

I wondered why there were so many spirits in these deserted badlands.

“James Cunningham,” I whispered. “Mr. James Cunningham, do you hear me?”

I felt an emotion from Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham, but it wasn’t the one I had expected. Granted, I often misinterpret emotions even in a trance, but she seemed confused or alarmed.

One of the lights moved toward me. Simultaneously, there was a strong, sudden rapping at the table. The others startled a little, hearing the sound though not seeing the lights, and then the table turned in place by thirty degrees.

“Oh my goodness!” said Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. I felt that alarm from her again. I wished I could tell her to stop it.

Then my whole mind fixed on the light before me, and I saw its proper shape.

It was not Mr. James Cunningham. It was not even human.

The spirit, if I can call it that, was a sort of flightless bird, perhaps three feet high and standing on the table. It wore clothing, but of a sort I had never seen before: a scaled, leathery robe, and a satchel of the same material. It had huge talons and, despite the birdlike appearance, sharp teeth.

I knew that evil spirits sometimes disrupted séances. But evil spirits still looked like humans: rowdy sailors, for instance, and surly criminals. I had never heard of a monster like this. It terrified me. Yet I could not look away.

The bird spoke. It was a horrid rasping sound–I am not even sure how I identified it so readily as language. My own mouth opened in concert, but nothing came out except a hiss.

I felt rather than saw the others drawing back. This was not what they had expected. They didn’t know what to do.

The bird cocked its head, looking at me through one eye as birds do.

“Who are you?” I whispered.

It paused, rummaged in that satchel, and drew out a small device. I had an impression of gears and circuits, like the robots I worked with, but even more intricate, its component parts mostly too small to see.

It stepped forward and pressed the device to my forehead. I could feel it there like a breath of wind. There was a clicking sound.

When it spoke again, it was still in rasps, but the words came out of my mouth in the Queen’s English.

“Our bones,” it–or I–said. “You walk above us and steal our bones. What are you? Where are your ancestors buried?” I hated the way the words felt. I was used to human spirits’ words pouring through me like water. But these words were not human. They climbed all over my mouth and bruised it. The bird seemed warily calm, curious even, but my own voice rose to an unbearable shriek. “If you are here, you must do as we ask! Our bones!”

At that point it became altogether too much and I screamed. I put my hands over my ears, doubled over, and screamed until I could not see birds, lights, or anything like them.

I could hear the others saying things. “What in the devil-” and “Good Lord, girl-” and “Give her air, we don’t know how-” But I wasn’t really listening, not until a good while later when I’d finished screaming. By then the others had fled the mess tent, leaving me crouched in darkness, until I calmed down enough to realize that I’d just ruined my prospects here entirely.

While I was still wondering what to do, Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham crept back into the mess tent holding a lantern. The light startled me.

“I’m sorry,” I said immediately, wondering if she was here to send me away.

“Oh, no, don’t be. We’re all terribly worried, that’s all. You had some kind of fit. I came to check on you.”

“It wasn’t a fit. I just…” I fluttered my hands, unable to explain.

“You saw something,” she prompted, sitting down beside me. “Then you started raving about bones. Or it looked like you. Was that a spirit talking?”

“I think so.” I looked up at her, defensive. “It’s never happened like this before. Usually it’s wonderful and uplifting. But this wasn’t a human spirit, it was a great sort of bird. I couldn’t make head or tail of what it was saying. I suppose I got overwhelmed.”

I wondered suddenly if the evil spirit was a punishment. If some great power had decided that I wasn’t worthy of seeing anything good, or at least not in the very same room as the people I was lying to.

“Dr. Kerr said that you must be hysterical.”

“I’m not.” I had actually been diagnosed with hysteria in my youth and given a vibrator, but while I didn’t mind using it, it had no effect on the fits at all.

“I believe you. It’s just that I didn’t realize séances were so difficult for you.”

“They aren’t. This was an exceptional situation.”

She nodded. “Being possessed by enormous birds, yes. I should be more worried if it wasn’t exceptional. Still…”

“I should have told Dr. Fullerton I couldn’t do it out here. Real séances are supposed to happen in the home with a loving family, not… out here with…”

With my victims. I couldn’t quite say it.

Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham raised her eyebrows. “You mean to say this was Dr. Fullerton’s idea?”

“In a way. But I knew there might be problems, and I didn’t turn him down, so really it’s my fault.”

Her voice went sharp. “Of course you didn’t turn him down. He is your employer, and you are a woman! You must have been wondering what would happen if you displeased him. Really, Lillian, you’ve done nothing wrong except failing to understand how he used you. You’re too trusting, that’s all.”

I curled my legs up to my chest. “My brother told me I’d never last out here. I’m so ladylike and good most of the time and then I turn bestial at a moment’s notice, and I can’t control it. He told me Dr. Fullerton would throw me out in disgrace and he was right. I’m sorry.”

Actually he had said that about Dr. Mandeville. I figured it was close enough.

She laughed unexpectedly, a big laugh, throwing her head back. “Dr. Fullerton will do no such thing! The man gushed about you all through dinner. You managed half again as many inspections in one day as any other technician we’ve had. You found the problem with the Hamilton-Smith, even. This isn’t like Ottawa. Propriety comes in second to results. If you have fits every once in a while, well, we shall live with them.”

“Oh,” I said.

We sat in companionable silence, and then Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham said, “May I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“I thought I heard you say my husband’s name, before you started to scream. Did you see him? Was he… with the monsters?”

I sighed. “No. I was looking for him; I thought you’d like it if you could speak to him. But he wasn’t there.”

There was a pause. “It’s just as well,” she said at last. “I miss him, but we were never… You know.”

“Never what?”

“The spiritualist view of marriage is very liberal, isn’t it? You say a true marriage isn’t an economic or family arrangement, but a spiritual affinity between a man and woman. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” I said, though I would have quibbled substantially with the “man and woman” bit.

“Well, that was the problem. James and I were friends, of a sort, but nothing more than that except on paper. It was my own fault. I wanted an ordinary family, but I never got the hang of spiritual affinities with men.”

With men.

It was the sort of thing I would have missed when I was younger, but not now.

“Neither have I, really,” I said. “I much prefer the company of women.”

“Well, then, we have that in common.”

I didn’t want to be too forward. Just because she was interested in women didn’t mean she was interested in me. Still, this felt like an important milestone, and I ought to say something. I ended up just fluttering some more.

“Oh, you poor thing,” she said. “I’d like to embrace you, if that would help, but this lace…”

“Here,” I said, relieved that she’d mentioned it first.

The bombazine wasn’t nearly as bad as the lace. I arranged her arms around me so that the lace only touched my back, which was covered with a cotton jacket anyway. I leaned against her, resting my face against her shoulder.

“Does that help?” She sounded uncertain, though her arms were firm, warm, and wonderful around me.

“This is excellent,” I said.

She opened her mouth to say more, but just then Dr. Kerr came stomping past the outside of the mess tent and we quickly disentangled ourselves. “How is she, Mrs. Cunningham? Is everything all right?”

“Yes, everything’s fine,” said Hattie. “Just a moment.” She pecked me on the lips while he still couldn’t see, then grinned widely, as though she had done something terribly brave, and hurried out.

Suddenly I wasn’t so worried about the birds anymore.

I didn’t venture out of the mess tent until night. The badlands were still and shadowy, and Dr. Fullerton’s snoring rang out in the quiet. I felt confident that everyone else had gone to sleep, but I was not at all sure they would stay that way.

I crept out to the KD8102 and picked the locks on the ammunition cases. Inside lay piles of dynamite: some in sticks, some in spheres. It was a good trick, hiding them here. I suspected that the KD8102 was for show, little more than an excuse for the explosives. That would explain why Dr. Fullerton had been reluctant to teach me about it.

Dr. Mandeville had instructed me in how to dispose of dynamite. It was really the percussive shock of the blasting caps that set it off, not the burning of the fuse, so–counterintuitive as this was–the best thing to do was to burn it. I built a little fire out of sight of the camp and got to work, turning the dynamite itself to ash and burying the blasting caps separately. The spheres were heavier than I had realized; I could only carry a few at once, and that made for terribly slow work. By the time I had emptied a quarter of the ammunition case, I was exhausted. So I closed and locked the ammunition case, crawled into my tent, and prayed that Dr. Fullerton would not notice.

Hattie was busy with fossils all the next day. There was a lot of cheering and hopping around; they’d found a really colossal group of those Troödon fossils, as well as something with hip bones the size of wheelbarrows. I tried to cheer back whenever they mentioned it, but my heart wasn’t in it. They didn’t have enough Whitman-651s to carry all these bones home, and that meant many would be dynamited. Yet they were cheering and grinning as though they saw no problems at all. I needed to hurry.

I finished fixing the Hamilton-Smith’s drive block and then wasn’t sure what to do until dark.

“Have a drink with us,” said Dr. Fullerton, winking at me in a way that suggested he was already drunk, “if your nerves will allow. This is a colossal find, you understand. Have you ever thought about devising ways for our Whitman-651s to hold more?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I wasn’t sure how many modifications I could make. There was not exactly a foundry pounding out custom machine parts to my specifications out here. And that was to say nothing of the structural integrity of the legs.

“Hah!” He seemed inexplicably pleased. “So there’s an end to your knowledge. Well, if you’re stumped, then tomorrow we’ll teach you to help with the excavations. Maybe you’ll be responsible for meals and laundry from now on, too. You’ve got to earn your pay somehow, after all.”

So apart from meals and laundry, I was banished to my tent the rest of the day. After a few rounds of sorting my tools in order of size, I grew pensive. I had too much to think about: the dynamite, Hattie, the birds. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the birds were a judgement on me somehow. That they knew I was doing this all wrong.

I decided to try automatic writing. I had often used this method to communicate with my mother in Dr. Mandeville’s camp, and unlike a full séance, it was a thing I could do alone. In case of problems, I could break the connection simply by putting down the pen, and after a short lie-down, everything would be fine.

I took out a pen and paper and spread them out atop the toolbox. It was rougher than a desk, but it would do. I emptied my mind and began to write.

Writing makes no use of lights or moving furniture; there is only a feeling of connection, a vague excitement, and a sense of self-abandonment. I started with gibberish, of course, but meaningful words emerged more and more frequently. Bones. Steal. Buried. Bones.

Our bones must be eaten.

That sentence shocked me out of the trance. Eaten? I hadn’t eaten animal meat for years and did not intend to start again. Besides, the only bones out here were fossils, which had turned to stone over the eras and could hardly be eaten even if we wanted to.

Our bones.

What did they mean, ours? They could not be the spirits of the dinosaurs who had died here. It had been tens of millions of years since the deaths of the last dinosaurs. By now they ought to be advanced beyond recognition and uninterested in our petty physical world. That’s if they had spirits at all. Dr. Mandeville had always told me they were dumb beasts, lizards really.

Far more likely, these bird-creatures were the souls of something still living here. Something which knew about the fossils and claimed them as its own.

But eaten? That made no sense at all.

I picked up the pen again.

We do not bury our dead in boxes. The spirit needs the body no longer, and a body in a box is no use to anyone. The best use for a body is nourishment. Even when nourishment is not possible, we pretend to it. To let the spirit know its body was valued.

My head filled with images: not visual, like the lights at the séance, but tactile. I felt my teeth scraping along an already-stripped thigh bone, not eating but going through the motions of it, baring my canines like an animal. The movement was fraught with importance, much more than the sum of its components, like my own ritual of sorting my tools.

You must pretend to it. In this way you will show respect. We will know you are our friends.

The pen rolled out of my fingers.

I understood nothing. I was not sure I wanted to be their friend. But the scrape of bone lingered against my teeth, like an echo. It was disgusting. I had always hated eating meat; I saw no reason why one animal should live by tearing apart another.

Was this some twisted metaphor for my work here? Was my sabotage a form of predation? But destroying bones for one’s own selfish profits–was this not also predation? How could I judge what was going on?

I tore the paper to bits and stormed off to cook lentil soup for supper.

The next day I woke up awash in pink light with some ideas for increasing the Whitman-651s’ carrying capacity. Even without extra scrap metal, there was a great deal I could do with extra sacks and satchels, hung across the edges like saddlebags, if only I could balance and secure them properly. The legs were designed to hold many times the allotted weight, as a basic safety feature, and if problems did crop up, well, we had me for repairs.

Dr. Fullerton waved his hands distractedly when I told him. “Yes, good work! That’s actually fairly clever. Only we don’t have any extra sacks and satchels at the moment, so why don’t you come down here and learn to help with the excavations?”

He was in such a hurry to get me down there that I realized he must have wanted this all along.

So I spent the day with the smallest fossils, learning to excavate them safely: exposing a surface with the pick and whisk broom, sealing the cracks with smelly liquid cement, undercutting them with a chisel, then adding the layer of rice paper, the layer of tissue, and the disgusting layer of plaster which stuck to my fingers, followed by even more chiseling to repeat the process on the other side. All this for every single bone lodged in the rock. It was exhausting work, and I had absolutely no time to talk to Hattie. At the end of the day I collapsed in my tent with no energy left for dynamite–only a vague presentiment that I was failing.

The sacks and satchels never arrived, but there was plenty of hard digging for the next few weeks, plus equipment inspections, repairs, laundry and meals. I occasionally had time for a word with Hattie, but never as privately as I would have liked.

“You’re working as hard as we are,” Hattie said on one of these occasions. “You’re not as efficient as us yet, but that’s lack of experience; you’re putting in the same effort. So why is he giving you all the laundry and meal duties on top of it?”

“Because my work in the ravine isn’t as valuable as yours, and the robots don’t take all my time. He has to add to my value somehow.”

Hattie’s eyes got very wide. “Did he say that to your face?”

“It’s only the truth, isn’t it?”

Hattie clicked her tongue. “Oh, Lillian. You’re so trusting.”

I don’t know what happened with her and Dr. Fullerton after that, but the next day, we started rotating those duties again.

Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr liked to stay up late, and I rarely had the energy to outlast them. The best I could do was drink a lot of water and wake up in the middle of the night, needing to use the privy. After that, I could usually drag myself to the ammunition box and cart off a few more armfuls of dynamite.

I thought on these nights, sometimes, of Hattie, and of what she would say if she knew I was doing this. Perhaps she would be angry. Perhaps there was a secret coldness in her heart, and she saw no problem with dynamiting fossils. Or perhaps she had never known.

But even more so than Hattie, my thoughts drifted to automatic writing. If these creatures cared so much about how their bones were treated, surely dynamiting the bones was a bad idea. Surely they should approve of what I was doing.

Sometimes on those nights, I saw lights at the edge of my vision or felt my teeth scraping bone, though I had not tried to go into a trance. That worried me. I hadn’t been given to visions like this since adolescence.

We will know you are our friends. Perhaps it would be good to befriend them. Perhaps they would share their secrets. Or perhaps they were monsters and meant us harm. But rich men had an interest in monsters, alive or dead, else we wouldn’t be out here.

Actually chewing on the fossils would be absurd. If I left any marks, that would be an act of sabotage worse than destroying the dynamite. But I was tempted.

Finally the night arrived when the last dynamite crumbled to ash in my little campfire. I felt very virtuous and suddenly full of energy. I wanted to run to someone and be congratulated, though of course that was silly.

Instead, I crept into the ravine and looked at the bones all lined up in the rock face.

I picked one at mouth level, only a quarter of the way exposed and not yet covered in rice paper. If I didn’t actually touch the bone, I reasoned, I could do no harm. I placed my hands securely on either side, leaned in, and closed my teeth a centimetre away from the surface, turning my head as I did, like an animal tearing flesh.

I was starting to understand what the bird-creatures felt. The closing of teeth meant acceptance of pain. The turning of the head meant a willingness to move on. This was how they mourned, and it made a great deal more sense than black bombazine.

I felt invisible flesh on the bone. I bit the air again and imagined muscle between my teeth. I swallowed. I had always hated the taste of meat, but this was somehow different. It was as though, instead of destroying a life, my actions preserved it.

But I could not complete this process with the bones stuck in the rock face. More and more I longed to turn them in my hands. Like an animal.

Like the birds in my vision.

I crept back to the Whitman-651s, each one piled high with fossils. It was easy to pluck a bone the size of my forearm and bite into the air millimeters from the foul-smelling plaster. I spoke in the birds’ rasping language, and this time it was not horrid. It was part of the ritual.

I was so absorbed that I didn’t notice the footsteps until Hattie’s voice startled me. “What on earth? Who goes there?”

I turned, the plaster-covered bone still in my grip. She was out in her nightgown, holding a lantern.

“Oh dear Lord,” she said, and fainted prettily.

I suppose I panicked. I dragged her back to her tent so as not to make a scene, and I meant to leave her there to recover, but I was seized with terror thinking of what she would do when she woke up. I was at my wit’s end, not only fluttering but rocking back and forth, which I hadn’t done for months.

Of course, Hattie took that moment to wake up and sit bolt upright. “What are you doing? What’s going on?”

I said, “It isn’t what it looks like,” but I was still rocking and fluttering, which may have made it unconvincing.

Hattie’s voice rose. “It isn’t? Well, let me tell you what it looks like! It looks like I got out of bed to use the privy, and there you were, making horrid sounds and chewing on our fossils like a ghoul. Furthermore it looks like I trusted you and protected you and even kissed you once and now you’ve repaid me by being irrecoverably mad. Am I wrong about that, Miss Lillian Howe?”

“It was what the birds wanted. They said… It’s respectful to them. They sort of…”

“Right,” said Hattie flatly. “That’s very nice. You stay here, and I’m going to get Dr. Fullerton.”

“But…”

Hattie pushed aside the tent flap, stood haughtily–then froze.

“Oh dear Lord,” she said again.

Outside a robot, even huger and more gun-heavy than the KD8102, was thudding towards us.

It lit a pair of searchlights and swept the area, illuminating the canyon, the tents, the other robots–and our frightened faces. For a second, they also lit up the insignia on the robot’s chassis.

Which said “MANDEVILLE”.

Everyone called me trusting. I never believed them. Dr. Mandeville had told me to remove all the dynamite from Dr. Fullerton’s camp. Why would it be there, if not to destroy the smaller fossils? And I had done it.

But there was another use for dynamite. A camp with the right kind of dynamite could use it in self-defence. The robot had explosives. Thanks to my diligent work, our camp did not.

The robot lobbed a shot at the mess tent, which burst into flames with an appalling boom.

There was one thing worse than dynamiting fossils so your rivals couldn’t have them. And that was dynamiting your rivals themselves.

“The KD8102,” I whispered.

Hattie whirled towards me. “Yes. You’re the roboticist. You know how to pilot it, don’t you?”

This was such an about-face that it shocked me. Besides, I didn’t know how. Dr. Fullerton had never got round to teaching me, and I had avoided reminding him so as to put off his discovery of my godforsaken sabotage. “I thought I was irrecoverably mad.”

“Prove me wrong.” She looked around frantically. “I’ll wake the doctors and get us out of here. Keep him away from the fossils. He’s going to destroy the fossils, do you understand?”

“Yes,” I squeaked.

“I’m not sure if it’s loaded, but there’s dynamite in the ammunition case. You should be able to-”

“No,” I said, squeakier still. “Not right now, there isn’t.”

Hattie went so white I thought she’d faint again. “What on earth do you-”

The robot advanced on us. I didn’t have time to explain. I pushed past her and ran out of the tent.

“Lillian!” Hattie shouted. “Come back here!” But she didn’t move to stop me, and that was something.

The KD8102’s cockpit took forever to reach. I think my sense of time was going a bit funny.

I hadn’t been trained for anything like this. The controls were unlabeled, just a bunch of switches, dials, and triggers. I flipped the largest switch, and the lights went on, with the familiar hiss of a steam engine.

As the KD8102 powered up, Dr. Mandeville’s robot swung to face it, pointing its guns.

I’d taken all the dynamite from the ammunition case. I didn’t know if there was a little left within the KD8102 itself, waiting to be lit and thrown. But if I wanted to try anything like that, I had to aim. There was something very much like a rifle sight to one side, with crosshairs and everything, but the levers beside it either lurched it around at random or did nothing. Frustrated, I tried the nearest joystick, and the cockpit lurched crazily as the KD8102 rose to its feet.

It began to run–just as the other robot fired, leaving a crater in the ground inches away.

I tugged the joystick to the left, to the right, hoping to dodge. More shots rang out, slowly–the other robot seemed to take a while to reload, which was perhaps a weakness–and one caught the KD8102 in the leg. I fell across the cockpit and slammed into the wall, and everything went haywire until I regained the controls. But I was catching on. It wasn’t so different from other mobile robots. I was starting to be able to guess how far left the KD8102 would turn when I tugged the joystick left. Forward, and things went faster. Back, and…

Another explosion knocked me off balance. I started to hyperventilate.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Hattie running for the fossils.

Dr. Mandeville’s robot turned in that direction, too.

Hattie.

I pulled the joystick forward and the KD8102 thundered towards Dr. Mandeville’s robot. The ground lurched past. Dr. Mandeville’s robot turned towards me and fired.

I ducked. A second later there was an appallingly large sound, like the entire cockpit was coming apart. I got thrown into the wall again. Something crashed to the ground. But when I looked up, the cockpit was intact.

The thing that crashed to the ground, however, had been the KD8102’s left arm.

I was past hyperventilating and actually making squeaking noises. But I found my way back to the joystick and pushed it all the way forward.

The other robot tried to dodge. I adjusted course to meet it. It was close to the canyon’s lip now. It shot at me again and this time blew the top of the cockpit clean off. There was a horrible clatter, then a deranged cold whistling as the night air blew across the gap.

I was closing. Five metres, maybe. I braced myself.

The KD8102 crashed into the other robot.

It was a cacophony of crashing, grinding, booming, several jarring impacts, a series of lurches like the worst airship turbulence in the world, more crashing and grinding, more impacts, and then I’d like to say everything was silent but really there was only a reduction in the chaos. I peeked out from behind my hands and saw Dr. Mandeville’s robot looming above me, or perhaps beside me. With the way my head spun, I couldn’t tell.

We were on the floor of the canyon. The KD8102 was obviously totaled. Dr. Mandeville’s robot had been partly crushed by the fall and several of its guns looked broken past repair. But not all. It held out a shaky arm and dragged itself back half-upright. It aimed at something–the half-buried fossils further down the canyon, or the fossils in the Whitman-651s, or Hattie and Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr.

I pulled wildly on the joystick in every direction. Nothing happened except smoke.

I’d failed. My very bravest charge in the KD8102 hadn’t made up for what I’d done before. And those people I’d been working with, who probably never really destroyed a fossil in their lives, wouldn’t make it out of here.

If they lived, they would never be hiring me again.

Then something moved at the edge of the canyon. Not the side where Hattie and Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr had their camp, but the other side, where I’d never seen anything at all.

I could not understand why or how, but it was the bird-creatures from the séance, solid now. Rasping strange battle-cries. Swarming down into the canyon.

Climbing all over Dr. Mandeville’s crippled robot.

Crashing it back to the ground.

There was loud trilling all over the canyon, like the howling of a wolf pack. I understood the sound. Victory. I wished I had the strength to trill back.

Dr. Mandeville’s robot did not rise.

“Oh, good,” I said weakly. Then I slumped over and curled up into the smallest ball that has ever existed anywhere.

It’s not that I fainted. It’s more that I was overwhelmed into obliviousness. I remember Hattie pulling me out of the KD8102’s wreckage. Someone put bandages on the places that hurt worst, after being thrown all around the cockpit. There was also a lot of shouting that I couldn’t process, and bird-creatures every which way. I couldn’t do a thing, not even rock back and forth.

Hattie towed me back to my tent and left me alone. I meant to just breathe deep for a long time, but somewhere in there I fell asleep.

When I woke up, the tent fabric glowed with early afternoon light and there she was sitting beside me.

“Oh,” I said.

“Well,” said Hattie.

We looked at each other.

“Sorry about that,” I said, and then she picked me up and clung to me. “Ouch. Lace.” She adjusted her grip.

“You are mad,” Hattie said into my shoulder, “and you were right all along. You saved our entire camp in spite of whatever it is that happened to the dynamite, and I am utterly glad that you’re here.”

“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.”

I was still a bit worn out.

“They explained everything, you see. The creatures. They have these things that they put against your head to make you understand them. They said you proved yourself, so they came to help you.” Hattie drew back. “But why on earth did you call them birds? Surely you noticed the teeth and the sickle-toes?”

“The what?”

“They’re Troödons, Lillian, or close to it. Obviously they’ve evolved a bit, and we never imagined them with feathers in place of scales. But that’s why there was all that shouting about ‘our bones’. We’ve been literally excavating their ancestors. Can you imagine?”

I refrained from pointing out that I had seen it, and did not need to imagine.

“I imagine,” I said, “other paleontologists will be very excited.”

“Also biologists, anthropologists, the government and pretty much everyone. Dr. Fullerton says we’re expanding the camp, inviting journalists and who knows what else. But I told him no one else was to talk to you today, on account of you being injured and having weak nerves.”

I frowned. I didn’t like the idea talking endlessly to journalists. I also didn’t like the idea of Dr. Mandeville working out what had happened. And I didn’t like the idea of having to explain to Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr about the dynamite.

But I was unspeakably relieved to have Hattie here. And worse than journalists and Dr. Mandeville and Dr. Fullerton combined was the idea of running off without her.

“Besides,” said Hattie, “I wanted to ask you a few questions myself, before the journalists got to you. I think you know what happened to all the dynamite, don’t you?”

I buried my face in my hands and explained everything. How Dr. Mandeville had sent me as a saboteur. How he had lied. How I had believed I was protecting the fossils, when really I was only taking away Dr. Fullerton’s defenses so Dr. Mandeville could move in and destroy him.

“So you see,” I concluded, “I am mad. And stupid, and untrustworthy. And I would have got you all killed.”

Hattie smiled slightly. “Maybe, Lillian. Maybe you would have. But the instant you worked out what you’d done wrong, you leaped into a robot you’d never piloted and you risked your own life to put things right. Do you know how rarely I see that sort of thing, even in men?”

I looked up at her, startled, and she chuckled.

“Mind you, there are parts of this story we will have to finesse for the journalists, and even for Dr. Fullerton, but I can help you with that. If you would still like to have me around, I mean. I was rather unreasonable last night, calling you a ghoul.”

“Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief, “I would like to have you around for an extremely long time.”

“Oh good,” she said. And she kissed me.

It would be unladylike to tell you what happened next. But I did get all that horrid lace off of her at last, and not another word needed to be said.

___
Copyright  2016 Ada Hoffmann

Ada Hoffmann is a queer autistic computer science student from Canada. She occasionally wishes she had gone into paleontology instead. Ada’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Shimmer, AE, and in Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. You can find her online or on Twitter.