The whole exospecimen idea started the night Moses Garcia was bitten by an echidna shrew in his sleep. He and Eula Mae had put their mattress on the floor years ago because they found it kept them cooler in the perpetual daylight of Albedo. The only flaw of this arrangement was that if either of them dangled their fingers over the edge of the mattress, they opened themselves up to attack from the planet's sand-crawling beasties. Though only a few local species posed genuine danger, many were capable of causing general annoyance. The echidna shrew was one of these, blessed by evolution with needle-sharp spines and a vicious temperament.
In truth, the species wasn't a shrew at all. It looked like a shrew and was about as mean as one, but according to exobiologists it was more properly classed as a member of the species Migaltyphae scorpex, from an order of life endemic to Albedo. Folks still called them echidna shrews, because you try telling everyone at pancake breakfast that you got bit by a Migaltyphae scorpex and they'll be liable to think you're putting on airs. Moses knew this, which was why he started the story like this:
"So last night I got bit by an echidna shrew in my sleep."
Everyone at the table put down their forks and looked up from their plates. Besides Moses and Eula Mae, the table sat Eula Mae's sister Lin and her husband Clay Weldon, along with Pastor Crockett from the Celestial United Brethren Church.
Halfway into the story, they were joined by Dr. Audra Hoag, who ran the United States Exogeological Survey field office in Powell Flats. Though she'd only lived there five years, the locals thought Doc Hoag was alright. She went to church and always brought a hot dish to potlucks. Most times, the only way you could tell she was from elsewhere was that she said the name of the territory as "al-bee-doe" instead of "al-bay-doe." When Doc Hoag showed up, Moses backed up and told the whole story from the beginning. He talked between bites of pancake, giving Eula Mae the opportunity to jump in with additional details.
"So, Doc, what I was just explaining is that it bit me with these razor-sharp teeth and when I pulled my hand back it dug in and the spines latched onto the sheet."
Doc Hoag's eyes widened, her mouth full of biscuit and egg.
"Then I pry the thing's mouth off of me, but it's still stuck to the sheet and at this point, Eula's--"
"I was still rock solid asleep."
"She didn't wake up until I walked over to her side and said honey, you might want to see this."
"Of course now I'm thinking what is he going to show me, what did he do now, you know I'm thinking it's like the time him and Clay were burning all them leaves in the yard and then the fire started turning all sorts of colors from the pesticide spray and he says Eula you've gotta come see this and shows me the column of rainbow fire in the backyard, and I said to myself, Eula babe, this might be it. The Lord's come back to take the souls of the worthy, and here I'm in my pajamas."
Moses and Clay exchanged a look. It had not been their finest moment. Moses continued:
"But no, I say, for real, it's something you've got to see, and she looks over and damn near, sorry Pastor, darn near jumps out of her PJs when she sees this thing writhing in the sheets with its spines caught. Now I'm still trying to be humane, I don't bear this thing any ill will, except it bit me so hard, but I figure hey I'll give it one more chance."
"That's where you went wrong, Mose," interrupted Clay. "I would have killed the bastard before it even bit me."
"What, in your sleep?"
"Sure, I've killed bigger in my sleep."
"Well, maybe in your dreams, Clay, but this thing was mean. I go to grab it from behind with a baseball mitt, and the thing whirls around and bites the mitt. I'm holding it tight, but it doesn't want to be held and it slips onto the floor and that's when Eula got on the mattress."
"I thought it was gonna run right up my pant leg."
"See, honey, that's why I sleep in briefs. No pant leg for things to run up."
Even the sour pastor chuckled at this remark.
"Anyway, so now Eula's on the bed and I pick up the big ol' twenty-seven-inch sandshoe leaning on the wall and I just...well, forgive me Pastor, but I just clobbered the thing."
Doc Hoag gasped.
"You killed it with a sandshoe?"
"Hand to God."
"I don't know if I'm horrified or impressed."
"You wanna see the body, Doc? It's in the truck. I put it in a coffee can"
"Mose, no," Eula Mae interjected. "Not at the table."
"Alright, alright, but Doc, Clay, Lin, Pastor, y'all come out after breakfast if you wanna see it."
The table chuckled and their conversations began to diverge, no longer held together by the web of the shrew story. Doc Hoag sipped her tea and turned to Moses.
"Is the...cadaver...in good condition?"
"Well, I think I broke his little neck pretty bad but there wasn't any blood."
"So, the skeleton is more or less intact?"
"Sure. Why, you know a buyer?"
"Really? You're playing, Doc."
"No, sincerely. Do you know how many museum collectors back in D.C. are paying top dollar for exospecimens?"
"They ain't collected all that stuff already?"
"They've got the big plant species, trees and cacti, sure. But people are scared to send expeditions looking for animals because it's so hostile out here. I'm not an exobiologist but I know enough to tell you there's plenty of life out here that people in Pueblanueva and D.C. would pay good money for. There's a lot of collectors, public and private, that feel they're behind the curve because their holdings are still ninety-five percent endospecimens."
"You're saying all I have to do is catch a few hand slugs and I can sell 'em to people from the city? I already shoot 'em for fun all the time."
"Hand slugs could be a start. But you've got more hunting trophies than anyone I know."
"Well, can't sell those."
"No, but you could shoot some more, have the She-Bear taxidermize them, and go in with her on the profit when you sell. I can give you a buyer."
"If you give me a buyer I gotta cut you in."
"Please, Moses, I draw a comfortable government salary twiddling my thumbs in that office. I know how hard things have been around here since the mine closed."
"And I also know you, Moses, and I know you're the stubbornest, proudest S.O.B. not named Clay that I've ever met. I know you're not going to let me do you this kindness without giving me something in return. You want to give me a ride to the airport in Puebla every so often, save me having to take the bus, we call it even."
"That would suit me fine, Doc," Moses said, finishing the last bite of his breakfast.
"Now," said Doc Hoag, "let's see the specimen."
Just like that, Moses Garcia went from unemployed uranium miner to the most successful exospecimen dealer in Powell Flats. First him and Clay brought their quarry to the She-Bear, the local taxidermist, splitting the profits with her when they sold their specimens to Hoag's buyer. After a while, Clay apprenticed with the She-Bear and learned how to taxidermize on his own. Though he'd never shown much of an artistic side, Clay did always have a knack for mechanical things, and once he learned to see an animal's skin and bones as an intricate apparatus, he started churning out beautiful pieces.
Moses and Clay began small, catching the hand slugs and paint bugs that crawled around the house they and their wives shared. Hand slugs could be easily preserved in a bath of osomyde, the taxidermist's best friend, which turned a creature's blood into an auto-embalming fluid. Moses would cram a bucket full of hand slugs, their fingered appendages raking at the plastic walls, and then fill it to the brim with a special osomyde concoction Doc Hoag had helped him mix.
Though they made their living in the parched waste of western Albedo, hand slugs were originally water creatures, and, at the introduction of liquid, some evolutionary instinct prompted them to start paddling around the cramped quarters of the bucket. What began as a leisurely group swim quickly devolved into a twitching frenzy as the slugs opened up their pores to find not saltwater but a paralytic cocktail of embalming agents. They floundered as their veins stiffened and their mucus membranes hardened into a resinous coating over their purple skins.
Once the bucket was free of movement, Moses strained the slugs in an old colander and left them out to dry on the front porch rail. Eula Mae and Lin complained about the smell until Moses told them what he was selling them for.
"Twenty dollars for a hand slug the size of a banana?" asked Lin in amazement.
"Fine, just don't bring them in the house till they're dead," said Eula Mae, holding her nose.
Paint bugs could also be preserved without much effort. Moses caught them by the bucketful, using irresistible chunks of pure sulfur as bait. He then boiled them to death in a big cooking pot, which brought out the sought-after turquoise and yellow colors of their shells.
Like many creatures of Albedo, paint bugs had very small organs to make room for as much meat as possible. They still didn't have enough meat on them to be worth harvesting, but other critters did. Clay and Moses found a market for meat once they started moving on to bigger animals, especially macrodons.
Even with a hunting license, you were only allowed to take down three macrodons a year, two jacks and one jenny. Most hunters hit that limit quick, as there wasn't much of an art to mac hunting. You just had to find a cliff where a lone mac was sunning itself, a regular chore for the cold-blooded species. Once it got comfortable, its thick mane of photothermal fur would begin to stand on end and its four anterior eyes would flutter closed as it drank up the life-giving heat. It was at that moment that they were most vulnerable. An experienced hunter could hit a sunbathing mac with an osomyde dart at a hundred paces.
Between the two of them, Clay and Moses maxed out their macrodon quota in the first month of hunting season. Their haul of six adult macs, plus an amniotic foal found in one of the jenny's pouches, yielded eight thousand dollars from the taxidermized carcasses alone. Add to that another thousand for the forty pounds of dried mac-meat they sold to a household goods manufacturer in New Canon. When fresh harvested, the meat of a single macrodon could weigh up to eighty pounds, but most of that weight was water stored in their ultra-porous muscles. Though inedible to humans, dried mac-meat was a valuable ingredient in sponges and insulation.
The two entrepreneurs had less luck catching selachoids. Though much smaller than macrodons, the sleek shark dogs of western Albedo were a fierce breed which took survival very seriously. Since their warm yellow blood was immune to osomyde, they had to be trapped in box snares that locked up the animal inside. Moses nearly lost a finger to an angry selachoid which had played dead in the snare until he picked it up, then grabbed his wrist with its thumbed claws and refused to let go.
Moses soon realized the shark dog was determined to pull his hand close enough to its head that it could clamp down with all three rows of its saw-like teeth. He was equally determined not to let that happen. Moses and the selachoid arm-wrestled over their disagreement until Clay heard Moses' screams from the shed. Even with Clay's help it had taken twenty more minutes to get the creature back into the box snare. Icing his gouged hand, Moses declared that no amount of money could get him to open it again.
The two men drove the snare back out to the salt flats, left it on the ground, and triggered the automatic door once they were safely back in the truck. The selachoid hopped out, fighting mad, and ran at the vehicle, trying to latch onto the right rear tire. Clay floored it. The creature gave up chase after two miles, and the two men agreed on the drive home that the sharkskin market was not for them.
Aside from little things like slugs and big things like macrodons, most of their income came from the medium-sized beasts of Albedo. Fat marmot lizards could easily be smoked out of their labyrinthine underground burrows, and all you needed to do to catch a turtle crab was pick it up. Turtle crabs didn't even seem to know they'd been caught. Even when you grabbed one by the chitinous shell they kept moving their fourteen spindly legs and waving their saw-toothed telson as if they were still crawling along the dry riverbed. They were Moses' favorite: easy to catch, easy to gut, dumb as a rock. Thirty dollars a shell, maybe more for a big one.
Clay and Moses soon amassed enough exospecimen profit to give the house a new coat of paint and buy Sunday dresses for their wives. Those fortunate times lasted right up until the brightest sun of Albedo sank beneath the silvery sands of the horizon for the first time in one hundred and forty years.
It had been the talk of the Territory for months. There hadn't been a true night on Albedo in living memory, not since the first settlers. Sometimes clouds covered the suns for a spell, but it had never been dark enough to see any other stars besides the three sisters at the heart of Albedo's orbit. Moses and Eula Mae sat out to watch the first sunset on the porch wearing eclipse goggles. Once the first sister had made its descent, Eula Mae turned to her husband.
"Doesn't seem much darker," she said.
"Sure doesn't," said Moses.
"I guess two suns can do the work of three."
At first it seemed nothing would change. Folks in Powell Flats endured the suns as usual, thanking the Lord every day for the UV-blocking dome that hung over their fair town. Some days there were two suns in the sky, some days there were three. After a while people stopped even noticing. Moses, however, saw a difference. Game seemed scarcer in the diminished light. He only caught three-fourths as many turtle crabs in the month following the sunset as he had the month before. Ditto for marmot lizards. Doc Hoag had confirmed, after consulting with some colleagues, that it was common for changes in the solar cycle to affect wildlife.
"It takes a few generations to adjust," she said, "but they'll come back."
"What about in a couple years when the other suns start going down every day? Am I gonna be out of a living?"
"I wouldn't worry about it, Moses. There's always fossils."
Even with reduced intake of crabs and lizards, the Garcia-Weldon household scraped by on grit and savings for another five years. They saw the second sun sink for the first time, went through the whole affair of eclipse goggles and weather-based small talk all over again. Now, for a few hours a day, the citizens of Albedo glimpsed what it was like on Earth, where there was only ever one sun and you could walk right past the town line without a shadesuit.
Moses feared the second sunset would reduce his intake even further, but things seemed to have plateaued after the intermittent loss of the first sun. He put his worries to rest until the day that, concerned about over-hunting, the Planetary Wildlife Service issued new hunting regulations including a total ban on the killing of macrodons.
It was true that they'd been over-hunted, but the culprits were corporate concerns which annually sent legions of mac shooters to western Albedo. Most of those professional hunters didn't even save the carcasses once they'd harvested the meat. Moses had seen the eviscerated leavings rotting beside the highway, iridescent hides glinting in the harsh sunlight. Their bones were picked over by legions of sputtigeria, vertebrate scavengers that superficially resembled enormous gray centipedes. Now, because of other people's wastefulness, Moses and Clay would take a net pay cut of four thousand dollars apiece.
"I don't understand how the Wildlife Service can't see it ain't us who's the problem," he told Doc Hoag.
"I'm sure they're being paid not to see."
"Sure, and who's gonna pay me for the damage they're doing to my bottom line?"
"You'd be better off finding sympathy in a selachoid den than from anyone in the Department of the Exterior."
Moses gripped his coffee mug tightly. He was fifty-four. All he knew was mining and hunting, and no one within a hundred-mile radius would pay him for either. It was too late to start over somewhere else. Besides, his family had known no home but Powell Flats for five generations. He didn't think he could make it back east, where the open outback quickly yielded into the endless commercial sprawl of Greater Pueblanueva.
"What am I gonna do, Doc?"
"Remember when I said there's always fossils?"
"Yeah, I never knew what you meant."
"I meant what I said. After preserved specimens, the second thing every curator is looking for is exofossils. Well, those are two and three. Number one is any evidence that there has ever been intelligent life outside Earth."
"Shark dogs are pretty smart."
"They are, but I'm talking human-level smart. Build-a-civilization smart. But you're not going to find that on Albedo. What we do have is a lot of fossils, mostly little ones, corals and whatnot from back when the salt flats were one big ocean."
"Well I ain't a fossilologist."
"That's true, but the real 'fossilologists' aren't too keen on coming out here and digging in a hundred-and-twenty degrees Fahrenheit for a few shells. I don't know how you go out there myself. Even with a shadesuit and only one or two suns I can't hack it."
Moses could hack the heat fine, and so could Clay. It only took a few months for Doc Hoag to teach them where and how to look for fossils. There was never anything big, no ancient whales or fish, but the calcified bones and plants they dug up, along with their usual haul of bugs and slugs, got them by for another three years.
The golden age of fossil hunting tapered off as word got out that people were paying for bones. Soon they had competition, everyone who could hold a shovel driving out to see what fortunes they might pry from the flats. The market became saturated and profits took a dive. That was how, three days before the third sun of Albedo was predicted to join its sisters beyond the horizon, Moses found himself again in Doc Hoag's living room, drinking black coffee and worrying aloud.
"I'm sorry I come to you every time I'm having money troubles, Doc. You've just got so many good ideas."
"Oh, hush. I like your company, Moses. I believe in you. Hell, I even believe in Clay after the way he turned himself around."
"Well, if you still believe in us, got any more ideas on what two old farts can do to make some money around here?"
"Funny you should ask about old farts. I was doing some analysis of samples from out west-- way west, past the flats."
"You mean out on those white cliffs where the macs go to sunbathe?"
"No, further. On the mounds."
Moses had seen the mounds from the cliffs when he was mac hunting, but he'd never heard of anyone going there. If Powell Flats was a town on the edge of nowhere, the mounds were where real nowhere began, where the sand turned from silver to black and huge hills of brown rock rose from the ground. The only things that lived out there were sputtigeria and the web-winged raptors that preyed upon them.
"What were you doing out on the mounds?"
"Oh, I didn't go myself, I sent a sampling drone. But I did a chemical analysis of a sample straight from one of the actual mounds, and...well, have you ever heard of a coprolite?"
"Is that some mineral you're about to tell me is worth its weight in gold?"
"Sort of. Coprolites are basically...well, fossilized leavings from extinct animals"
Moses processed for a second.
"You're telling me the mounds are just a big pile of alien dinosaur poop?"
"That's pretty much it."
"And people will pay for that shit?"
"Quite literally. Scientists want it because they can study a creature's diet from what they find in samples. But that's not all. Back in nineteenth-century England they mined coprolites for fertilizer. I tested the nitrogen content in this stuff, it's off the charts. Same for phosphorus and potassium, and that's the holy trinity of good fertilizer. I know some people in the ag industry. I can find you a market. And now that I'm retired, I will take a cut, but only ten percent. Sound good?"
"So, we just gotta haul the stuff out and you'll sell it?"
"Chip it off, haul it out, grind it up. And Moses?"
"Don't tell anyone. I discovered this with my own personal equipment, and I'm no longer obligated to report findings to the government. As far as they know, everything west of the flats is an inhospitable wasteland. You and I have the power to keep it that way."
Two days later, Clay and Moses set out for the mounds with picks and shovels, goggled gamblers seeking fecal fortune.
They parked the pickup on the white cliffs. The only path leading down to the mounds was far too narrow to drive, so anything they harvested would have to be carried up the path by hand. Even with shadesuits, that would be a sweaty task.
Moses noticed it was about ten degrees hotter on the cliff than down on the mounds. He suggested they take the day in two shifts, the first half harvesting from the mounds, the second half toting the hunks of product up the path and into the truck. They would switch to the hotter area just as the second sun was going down. Clay wanted to make sure they finished in time to watch the final sunset. Lin had been shocked that they were working at all on this momentous a day.
"There's a once-in-a-lifetime thing happening and you're working?" she'd asked.
"It's gonna happen again tomorrow," said Moses. He was right. The suns would set again tomorrow, giving them another real night for the first time in over a century.
"You're missing the point," said Eula Mae.
Moses was just fine working on a holiday. He had spent so many of his days involuntarily idle that it felt like a respite to work at all. It was his own personal vacation from worry. There would be food on the table tonight, and tomorrow too. He'd see to that with his own two hands.
They started with the mound nearest to the path. As they walked out, they heard the ululating shriek of an aurelid raptor, then saw its vampiric form rise from a faraway mound. The suns hovered low to the horizon, making it look like dusk even though it was eight in the morning by Earth time. The third sun, highest in the sky, wasn't due to set for another eleven hours.
Moses and Clay approached the mound apprehensively. Moses stopped ten paces short of the thing, but Clay kept walking until he was right in front of it. He leaned forward and sniffed the mound.
"How's it smell, Clay?"
"Don't smell like anything. Smells like a rock."
"Well good, let's crack her open and see if she smells on the inside."
They proceeded to the task without further discussion. Each chose a side of the mound and began breaking chunks off with their picks. Cracking open the coprolite felt like the most natural thing in the world to Moses. He relished the way it crumbled into manageable pieces with a single well-aimed blow, just like any other mineral.
Dismantling the coprolite was, more than anything, a return to business as usual. Before either him or Clay had been exospecimen dealers, they'd been miners, just like their fathers and grandfathers. Moses traced his ancestry back to the first mining camp erected at Powell Flats Uranium Reserve. The genetic line that led to him had started with a love affair between a miner named Quirino Garcia and June Powell, a younger daughter of the Powell Mineral Logistics dynasty. Every boy born to that line was raised to spend his days looking to the ground for his bread and butter. Even as fortunes fell and the mine dried up, Garcia fathers brought up their sons to swing shovels and picks.
At the end of two hours each man had a huge pile of crumbly brown rocks at his feet. Taking a water break, they inspected their handiwork. The mound looked no smaller than before, despite how much had been removed.
"I just realized something, Mose."
"This thing is bigger than our house."
"Oh, sure. No contest. You could fit two of our houses in this puppy and you'd still have room to build a porch."
"That's wild. That means if this thing was alive today, it could wipe out everything we own just by squatting on the roof and letting loose." Clay spat in the dirt. "Better hope they're really gone, right?"
"I sure as hell hope so. Anything big enough to make something like this, I don't want to know about it."
"You ain't even curious what it might look like?"
"Can't say I've thought about it."
"I haven't been thinking about anything else this whole time. Like was it a big lizard like a dinosaur, or some kind of big bird, or what if it's whatever macs evolved from and there was just some huge mac walking around with a hundred eyes way back when, you know?"
"Sure, I guess."
"Man, it doesn't bother you? We're out here excavating someone's old crap."
"Something's old crap, at least. I don't think anything that takes a shit this big has time to be a someone."
"You never know." Clay looked off into the distance, where the mounds seemed to stretch into the horizon forever. "They could still be out there. We ain't seen but half this planet yet."
"Doc Hoag says most of it is probably just more rocks and dinosaur shit."
"Probably. I still hope they might be out there."
"You hope it? I fear it. Whatever it is would have eaten you whole."
"You don't know that, Mose. Could have been a vegetarian."
Moses rolled his eyes and cast his gaze to Clay's coprolite pile. He noticed a hint of light blue, a bony shard sticking out of the mound. He pointed it out to Clay, who walked over and started chipping around the protrusion with a handheld pick. The shard was part of something larger, at least the size of a human head. With the precision moves of expert miners, they pried it from the coprolite's calcified fingers fully intact.
Moses dusted off the smooth blue thing, realizing at once that it was hollow. He picked off clinging bits of ancient dung to reveal an uncanny sight on the face of the oblate object. The part of his brain that recognized facial features snapped to attention. Eye sockets, three of them. Teeth, broad and round. Something resembling a nasal cavity. And the cranium. It was huge. Bulbous. A big old brain cage.
"No way was that thing a vegetarian."
Once the pickup was filled with coprolite and the skull had been stashed in the cab, Moses and Clay sat out on the cliff to watch the first real sunset of their lives. They ate sandwiches of Albedo beef and sun-dried tomato, washed down with a warm six-pack of Coorweiser. For dessert, Moses had a square of darkest chocolate and Clay had a whole package of mini cupcakes.
They spent hours watching the first real night come on to the desolate landscape. It was so incomprehensible to see the stars appearing, right where they had always been but suddenly visible, that for a while neither man said anything. The silence was only broken when Moses checked his watch and realized it was time to get home before their wives started worrying.
"Well," said Clay, turning on his truck's headlights for the very first time, "sure glad we didn't die in that leaf fire so we could live to see this."
"Yep," said Moses. "I'm sure glad too."
Moses Garcia and Clay Weldon drove home in a truck full of brown gold. On the seat between them sat the skull of something-- maybe even someone-- whose world they would never know.