The world is made up of data and if you compile enough of it, you can unlock even the deepest secrets of existence. But Clara, a biology student who agrees to work for a professor with a penchant for cryptozoology, is about to discover that crunching the right numbers brings us to answers to questions she didn’t even know existed.
She started with a polite knock then, after waiting for a few moments, a slightly more insistent one and then, when that elicited nothing and she was just rearing back for a third, definitely loud knock, there was an incomprehensible noise from within the office. Something between a grunt and a snarl of rage. She pulled her hand back instinctively, but decided she had to just grit her teeth and get this over with, so she pushed open the door and that was the first time Clara Harrington met Professor John McRae.
“So, you’re who they sent, are you?” was his greeting as he turned from one of the towering stacks of files, notes and books that turned his cramped office into something resembling a kind of dusty, miniature downtown Manhattan. She knew him only by reputation, as a quarrelsome, outspoken member of the faculty who did everything in his power to avoid interaction with students. Clara could sympathise, but that didn’t make this introduction any more pleasant. He shouldered through the paperwork spires to his desk, itself buried under a layer of academic detritus, which he swept aside with casual disregard for any sense of order, more or less clearing a space to rest his arms as he sat down on his creaky, overstuffed chair. There was no other chair, or even so much as a stool, so Clara just stood with her arms awkwardly folded. “What’s your story?” McRae demanded.
She blinked at him and pushed her glasses up her nose, considering how best to respond. “My story?”
“Yes. Everyone’s got one in them, or so I’m told.” McRae was a greying, overweight man, who clearly had no interest in social graces. Clara was tall, painfully thin, with a narrow, pointed face, colourless brown hair she pinned back into a severe ponytail and was possibly the only human being on campus with even less enthusiasm for making friends than this man.
“I’m here to help you with your field work. That’s it.”
“What more did you want?”
McRae leant back in the chair and it groaned beneath his bulk. “Usually you interns come here with some little excuse for why you picked me.”
“I didn’t pick you,” she shrugged.
“Oh? So who did you pick?”
“I didn’t pick anyone. By the time the Dean made it clear I had to volunteer for this internship in order to make up my credits for this semester, all the other places with professors doing field work were taken.” She pushed her glasses back up her nose again.
McRae eyed her across his desk. “So I was your last resort, huh?”
“If you want to think of it that way.”
“You don’t like biology?”
“I’m a biology major.”
“So why are you so fucking miserable about being here?”
“I’m not miserable,” Clara answered calmly.
“No. I’m always like this.”
“Right.” McRae heaved himself up and gestured around the room. “Well, this won’t be too arduous, I hope. A pretty routine trip upstate. Think you can handle it?”
“I’m sure I’ll survive.”
McRae ran a hand across his jaw. He had a thick coating of silvery stubble on his wobbling chin. “You say you were failing?”
“So they tell me.”
“What does that mean?”
Clara rolled her eyes. She hated small talk. And this definitely felt like it might be small talk. “I don’t do practical work.”
“Lab work. Field studies. Working with specimens. I don’t do any of that.”
“I thought you said you were a biology major?”
“I am. Theoretical biology.”
McRae raised an eyebrow as he watched her over the stack of paperwork he had begun to dismantle, tossing it haphazardly into a box on one of the few empty patches of floor. “So what? Interpreting data? Cataloguing?”
“I prefer to let other people get their hands dirty.”
That made McRae laugh. “Maybe you should’ve been an astrophysicist.”
“I considered it,” she replied mildly.
He looked at her. “Was that a joke?”
“I can see you’re going to be great fun on this little trip…uh…what was your name again?”
“That’s your first name?”
“No. My first name is Clara.”
“So would you rather I called you Miss Harrington?”
“Just Harrington is fine.”
He dumped a heavy pile of books into the box. “I’m not going to call you by your last name.”
“Fine. Call me what you like.”
McRae gestured at her with a book. “I’m detecting some tension here. You don’t want to be here.”
“And you don’t want me here either. You just want to get on with your work. You hate students.”
“So,” Clara said, sidling around a teetering stack of academia, “I thought perhaps we could reach some kind of agreement…”
McRae looked up from the book he was flicking through. “Oh?”
“You tell the Dean you’re taking me on your…trip…I get on a flight to Delaware to see my mother for two weeks and, when I come back, you sign the form and say how helpful I was. Everyone wins.”
“Except science.” He snapped the book shut, making Clara jump and sending a cloud of dust into the air. He waved it away. “Any other year, I’d be only too happy to take you up on your offer.”
Clara felt her heart sink. “Professor…”
“This year,” he went on, picking through another pile of junk as he spoke, “this year is different. This year, I could actually use an extra pair of hands.”
“I can direct you to a temping agency where any number of additional pairs of hands will be more than happy to help you carry your equipment.”
“Temps aren’t free. Interns are a precious resource. At least this year. Ah, here we are!” McRae triumphantly pulled something free, sending the stack for which it had been serving a vital load-bearing role crashing to the floor. McRae ignored it and slammed the book down onto the desk with another accompanying plume of dust. “You know why everyone in this fucking college hates me, Miss Harrington?”
She could think of several reasons, but experience had taught her that most people didn’t expect honest answers to questions like that. “No…”
“Because they think I’m a crank. A loony. A crackpot. You get the picture?”
He jabbed a finger down on the book. It was a worn, battered tome that looked about two-hundred years old. On the cover she could just make out the words ‘The Book of Legendary Beasts & Other Fauna of Interest to the Modern Philosopher’ picked out in fading gilt. “Tell me, Clara Harrington, theoretical biologist – what do you know about cryptozoology?”
“You must have at least heard the term?”
She looked away. Again, a dozen different possible answers crowded into her head, but she knew saying them would do more harm than good. “It’s…the search for legendary animals.”
“Not legendary. Unknown to science. Important difference.”
“It’s pseudo…I mean, it’s my understanding that most of mainstream academia thinks of cryptozoology as a pseudoscience.”
“I told you they called me a crank.” McRae dropped down heavily into his chair again and opened the ancient book. “My grandfather gave me this when I was a boy. Sort of set the tone for my whole life.”
“I can see that,” Clara said, looking around the room.
“Ha! Yes indeed. Every science was disparaged before it was proved correct. Lord Kelvin made fun of the scientists who first proposed the Earth was billions of years old. Galileo was persecuted by the Church for his discoveries.”
“Are you comparing yourself to Hutton, Lyell and Galileo?”
“If I have seen further, it is from standing on the shoulders of giants…”
“And now Newton?”
“Okay, so at least I know you’re a scientist,” McRae growled, leafing through his book.
“I’d only have to be a historian to know those names.”
“You’re already a historian if all you’re doing is cataloguing other people’s experiences. Cryptozoology is the only true frontier left in modern naturalism, my dear. Searching for new life. That’s all it is. What makes a cryptozoologist – like me – different from the bug collectors who traipse through the Amazon is that we take our inspiration from a more…poetic…age of humanity. Is that such a bad thing?”
“I don’t know whether it’s bad or good, but it may not be sound science.”
“You sound like my old professor,” McRae told her sullenly. “Look, it’s not that complicated: I’m in the business of discovering new species. A different way of looking at it is that I’m rediscovering old species. Living fossils, like the coelacanth, except instead of being petrified in the bedrock of the Earth, these creatures are preserved here.” He tapped the side of his head. “In the human imagination.”
Clara looked at the wheezy, overweight man looking at her with an almost religious fervour in his eyes. Two weeks. Fourteen days. Then it would all be over and she could go back to her spreadsheets. “What is it you need me to do on this expedition?” she asked, keeping her voice completely emotionless. She’d gotten awfully good at that over the years.
“Have you ever wondered why the same ideas crop up in every human culture?” McRae asked as they loaded up his battered old station wagon in the punishing heat of the California summer. For some reason the professor seemed to think she should be doing most of the heavy lifting. As out of shape as he was, Clara was mostly skin and bone – biologically incapable of gaining any weight, or so it seemed, inexplicably the envy of her mother and all her clucking friends, though she’d never understood it herself – and was no stronger than a child. Together, she and the fat man slowly moved various boxes of equipment from his office into the parking lot and then into the groaning car.
“The same ideas?” Clara asked, pausing to lean against the vehicle and then yanking her hand away as the scorching metal nearly took a layer of skin off.
“Yeah,” McRae said. He was mopping his brow with a disgusting-looking handkerchief. “Dragons, kraken, goblins, that sort of thing.”
Clara knew the answer. Because all humans are basically the same. No matter how we’ve divided ourselves up into nations over the past few thousand years, we all share the same biological toolkit in our brains, and it helps us build a model of a world we can understand, populated with the same basic figures. It says more about psychology than naturalism. But instead she said, “Go on…”
“Ancestral memories,” he said. “Of ancient creatures, now lost to history.”
“Lost to history?”
“You know how much things change in just a few measly millennia? Take Ancient Mesopotamia – the civilisations of the Near-East. They ruled unopposed for centuries upon centuries, the first great human society. And all we had of them was a few names scrawled in ancient texts. It wasn’t until the last couple hundred years that we dug up their cities and learned who they really were. Up till then, folks thought the world might be six-thousand-years old, like the Bible said, then they found temples twice that age in Iraq. What then, huh? Medieval people didn’t know about it. The Romans didn’t know about it. Not even the Greeks. It was way, way before all of them. The deep past, at least in human terms. Whole nations, rising and falling in the Fertile Crescent, when most of us were living in caves. And where did they go, huh? Forgotten. All dust.”
“You think that could happen to an entire species?”
“Who knows what we wiped out before recorded history?” He bent down to pick up one of the lighter boxes and heaved it into the trunk. Clara looked around. The campus was green and vibrant in the sun, with other students wandering between classes, chatting, laughing, goofing around. She’d never been one of them. She just didn’t understand people that well. She preferred numbers. Numbers made sense. No one paid much attention to her, except for the odd person, aware of McRae’s reputation, who shot them looks of pity mixed with amusement. It was grotesquely unfair that she was at risk of being kicked out of college, just because she preferred the purity and cleanliness of data to all this tramping around in the forest.
She looked at him. “You’re not looking for extinct species though,” she said.
“What? Oh, right… no, I’m not.” He’d thought she was distracted. She used to find that confusing – that people would assume her look of bored indifference to everything was an indicator that she wasn’t paying attention. She was always paying attention. “I’m looking for species driven to the edge of the known world. In the hidden, forgotten places, where people don’t go much.”
“Like upstate California?”
“There’s more wilderness on your doorstep than you might think.”
“I don’t think you’re going to find a coelacanth in California.”
“Very funny.” McRae planted himself down on the station wagon’s open tailgate and beckoned for her to sit beside him. She did so, maintaining as much distance as possible between them. She’d been in the professor’s company for almost two full days now and she wasn’t warming to him very much. “You’ve probably guessed what we’re actually going to be looking for.”
“So tell me what you’ve guessed.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Because…” Because it’s stupid, and not a valid use of my time. I’m a scientist, not some hack journalist making a special for cable TV.
“Because it’s stupid, and not a valid use of my time. I’m a scientist, not some hack journalist making a special for cable TV. Oh…”
McRae grinned. “See, I knew you had a personality in there somewhere. You’re right. You’re absolutely right. But, listen, because even more than dragons and kraken and the rest, these things show up time and time again, in culture after culture. In Mongolia he is called the Almas, in Siberia Chuchunya, in Scotland the Am Fear Liath Mòr or ‘The Big Grey Man’, in India they call him Mande Burung, and in China the Yeren. Medieval Europe had the Woodwose and in Australia they still talk of the Yowie. Almost every culture that lives near wilderness has its own version. Most famous of all is the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, the Yeti, and he is rivalled only by our own…well…you know…”
“Sasquatch. Big Foot.”
McRae pointed at her. “Bingo. That’s the fella. Ape-men. Sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. A race of hirsute hominids, living out there in the wild. Is it so outlandish?”
“A race of hominids that have escaped detection for thousands of years.”
“Escaped detection? I just told you how many places have stories about them…”
“That’s not the same,” Clara said, shaking her head firmly.
“Isn’t it? They said the same about gorillas and orang-utans – dismissed them as folkloric creations of superstitious natives. But then white scientists encountered them and now they don’t seem strange at all.”
“But those great apes had limited ranges, places unexplored by Europeans. If all the stories about sasquatches and yetis and so on are true, they’d live almost everywhere on Earth.”
“Who said all the stories were true?” McRae had a glint in his beady eyes.
“But you just…”
“Ah, being a cryptozoologist isn’t about believing every cockamamie story you read in the Fortean Times! I’m still a scientist and I make my living by publishing in respected journals like anyone else. This is more like…a hobby…at least until I bring back hard evidence of a cryptid. One of the challenges is sifting the truth from the tales. They all have some grain of truth, but if I believed every legend was based on an extant species I’d be combing the Aegean Sea for cyclopes and trying to find dragons under every mountain. No, I don’t believe all the various ‘wild men’ are real – but I do believe they’re the memory of something that once shared the world with us, something which may still exist, and every year I get closer and closer to finally uncovering hard evidence.” He patted the box he’d just loaded into the car. “This contains all my work.”
Clara craned her neck and regarded the battered cardboard box sceptically. “What’s in it?”
“Something you’ll like. Data.” He took off the lid and lifted out the end of a long ream of old printer paper, covered in numbers. The stack filled the box. “Every sighting of a sasquatch in Northern California, going back centuries. This isn’t just all the campers who think they saw something – this is every account of every single alleged witness, going right back to when this was all Pomo land. Every scrap of folklore, passed down from generation to generation, every single mountain and valley and dried up river bed where someone thought they saw a sasquatch, or a footprint or just some droppings they didn’t recognise. Most of it I gathered myself, chasing every lead, knocking on doors, combing through local newspapers in libraries from here to Oregon.” He patted the box affectionately. “A life’s work. Indexed and cross-referenced, so I know where the hot spots are for sightings.”
Clara tilted her head and looked at the numbers on the old printer paper. “Do you have this data electronically?”
“Not in one piece, no.”
“I’m guessing you’ve gathered all this information so you have a gut feeling for where to find your bigfoot?”
“Pretty much. There’s no substitute for getting out in the field and getting your hands dirty.” He gave her a sly grin. “But like I said, I’m a scientist. I record my findings.”
“But you haven’t actually crunched these numbers?”
He waved at the box, letting the sheet of paper with its dense rows and columns of figures flap down into the insurmountable pile with the rest. “You think I want to go insane?”
“It’s just data,” Clara said. “Data’s easy.”
“You think so?”
“Yes. It’s not like numbers get harder the bigger they are, is it? Once you know the rules, it’s all simple.”
“Yeah but who’d comb through all that?”
“Professor, the two weeks you have set aside for this expedition…”
“What about them?”
“Is the bulk of it intended to be used for you to wander through the redwood forests of Northern California, trying to piece together your half-remembered findings and locate a good spot to start a more systematic search?”
He looked down at the box full of paper, somewhat abashed. “Not in so many words,” he mumbled.
“Give me access to your data – and preferably any electronic versions you have – for twenty-four hours and I’ll cut the length of the trip in half. If not more.”
“How would you do that?” McRae asked disbelievingly.
“I’m not sure yet,” she admitted, “but it’s just numbers. If I have the data, I’ll be able to see the best way to bring it together. You just need to triangulate a starting point right? Do you have much behavioural data?”
“Well…yes, I suppose…”
“Length of stride?”
“The stride of the conjectured creature. You mentioned footprints, yes?”
“If I know what their migratory patterns are like and how fast they travel, I can find where they’ll be.”
McRae looked bewildered. “You were just saying you didn’t believe sasquatches even existed…”
“What does that have to do with anything? Once I put these numbers into a spreadsheet, they’re no more or less real to me than an elephant or a swallow. It’s just data.”
“You’re the strangest biology major I’ve ever met,” McRae said, picking up the box and dumping it on her lap. “I can wait twenty-four hours. But you’d better come up with something good, girl…”
Clara shared a dorm room with another girl whose name she didn’t know. In the six months they’d been roommates, her fellow student had gone from regarding her with confusion to bemusement to pity to exasperation and now outright hostility, which was the reason for the current modifications to their living arrangements. Clara had to shoulder her way through the blankets and sheets hanging from a washing line strung from one corner of the room to the other that demarked their now-allotted territories. She actually found it quite an agreeable situation and would have suggested it herself if she’d known the other girl would have been this amenable to it. Clara preferred to work quite late at night – she’d always needed less sleep than other people – and she thought that was probably why she’d become so unpopular with her roommate. Tonight would be no exception as she intended to get to work on McRae’s data as soon as possible and finish it just as quickly. The sooner she had some results, the sooner they could leave and get wherever they had to go, the sooner they could come back and she could get on with her life, putting his cryptozoology foolishness behind her. As she assembled the various CDs, flash drives and even floppy discs McRae had handed to her, she wondered whether she really would find any kind of pattern in the data. It was highly unlikely: it was just a random collection of superstitious nonsense, but she was fairly sure she could come up with something that would satisfy the professor and hasten the expedition’s conclusion.
She brought her computer out of standby mode and took a seat at her desk. In contrast to McRae’s office, everything in her work area had a very specific allotted place. She liked things to be orderly. Searching wasted time. Better to have it all to hand for whenever it might be required. It was just good sense. Her computer was likewise organised, with everything indexed into neat folders on the desktop, organised by date and subject. For this she’d need some new hierarchy though, so she created a new folder and, in anticipation of the work required, various sub-folders for notes, spreadsheets and logs. Like McRae, she believed in keeping records. Not that she needed them particularly, but why would you not keep track of what you were doing? The chaotic way most people seemed to conduct their lives baffled her, but she’d learned not to confront them about it. They just got upset or angry.
She began plugging in the various removable storage devices, sighing as she saw what a mess the information was in. It would take hours just to feed it into the master database she’d created, let alone actually play with the numbers. Steeling herself for her roommate’s possible fury should she be up until the early hours of the morning ‘tapping away like a fucking crazy spaz bitch’, she pressed on with the task.
At first the data yielded little. It was a jumble of places, dates, types of encounter. There was hardly any pattern at all. But as she pushed backwards, feeding in the older accounts from the periods of early white exploration and before, a more cohesive picture began to emerge. Oddly, the further back she went, the more things began to match up, as if they were more reliable. More likely each half-remembered snatch of story was just part of a single original narrative. But they had just enough variation to make her doubt that somehow. As she calculated and recalculated, accounted for outliers in the trends, merged likely data points and fed everything into tables and graphs, she started to notice even more things.
“This doesn’t make sense…” she said aloud.
“Shut up!” a voice screamed from behind the makeshift wall that divided the room. Clara hadn’t even heard anyone come in.
She had taken a map of the area McRae had explored from the internet and now she overlaid her data points onto it, mapping each alleged encounter with a sasquatch, colour-coding them for age. She had a working algorithm for determining reliability but it was barely necessary. Everything pointed to one conclusion: to one place. “How has no one noticed this before?”
“I said shut up! Jesus!”
For once in her life Clara paid no attention to her surroundings. She just took a screendump and quickly saved it to a flash drive before putting the computer back on standby and rushing right out of the room. She knew McRae’s address because she’d spotted it on an envelope in the post room where she put in a few shifts now and then to make ends meet and now she grabbed her bike from the sheds on campus and cycled straight there. He lived in a leafy suburb just a few miles from campus in a modest, single-storey home. By the time she skidded into his drive it was already dusk and she didn’t waste any time knocking, just burst right through his front door.
McRae was sitting on his sofa, most of the way through a bottle of beer and he turned to stare at her as she held up the flash drive. “Uh…can I help you, Miss Harrington?”
“I did the numbers,” she said.
“It’s only been…” he glanced down at his watch, “…six hours?”
“They were good numbers.”
“Thanks…um…you know this is a private residence, right? You can’t just come in here without knocking…”
“I knew you were home. Your car was in the drive.”
“Right. But I could’ve been doing anything.”
“You live alone.”
She shook her head. “I don’t care. You need to see this. Where’s your computer?” She looked around the professor’s living room, then craned her neck into the kitchen.
“It’s in the study at the back of the house.”
Clara frowned. “Why?”
McRae heaved himself up with a sigh. “Follow me.” As he led her down the hall to the study he made more of the small talk he seemed to like. “I’d offer you a beer, but somehow I have a feeling you don’t drink.”
McRae nodded. They reached the study, and it was almost a mirror image of his office at the college. There were piles of newspapers everywhere, most with some mention of bigfoot, dates and locations circled. Clara recognised them from the data she’d just been collating. McRae sat down at his desk and turned his computer on. It was about a decade older than Clara’s with an operating system that made her wrinkle her nose as is logo lit up the dusty monitor. “So,” McRae said, folding his hands over his stomach, “what have you found?”
“My answer to what?”
“To where the sasquatches are.”
“I’m not sure I understand…”
It took the old computer a long time to start up. Clara silently marvelled at all the unnecessary icons cluttering the desktop, the countless vulnerabilities to spyware she observed from the software that was loading up in his taskbar, the tell-tale blue ‘e’ that was the only browser he seemed to be using. People would never cease to amaze her. “Here, plug this in.” She handed him the flash drive and he leaned down to a USB port on the tower that hummed away on the floor beneath the desk. After another interminable wait it got started and he clicked through the files blankly.
“What am I looking at?”
“Here, the map.”
“The one called Map1?”
He clicked on it and, after a few long seconds, it opened up. He squinted at the screen. “Could you…uh…could you take me through this, Clara?”
“It couldn’t be much more clear, professor.” She jabbed a finger at the middle of the map. “There.”
“Right, sure, I can see that. But why there?”
“I just compiled all the data.”
Clearly that wasn’t enough for him. “I put all the data into a spreadsheet and compared it all to get some idea of where sightings were most common. Remember I asked you about migration patterns, conjectured stride length, that sort of thing?”
“Well, I was looking for trends. Something that might allow me to match these sightings to a seasonal pattern. If a certain area reported more sightings at a certain time of year, it might indicate the proximity of a breeding site, for example.”
“Instead I found that the sightings painted a remarkably homogenous picture.”
“Yes, when outliers were excluded, of course. At first I assumed a number of sightings might have been conflated – stories being passed around the campfire and repeated with slight variations – but there were patterns that couldn’t be accounted for. Sightings from five-hundred years ago sit alongside ones from the last decade. The same places, the same descriptions. I don’t think anyone’s ever looked at this much data in this much detail before, but the conclusions are inescapable.”
McRae blinked at the screen. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that if you go to that valley there,” she pointed at the centre of the map again, “you’re almost guaranteed to see a sasquatch. It’s the nexus around which all these other sightings going back to antiquity seem to orbit. They emanate from it like tidal patterns, consistently and regularly. It’s indisputable.”
McRae stared up at her. “Are you…are you saying you believe there really are sasquatches in Northern California?”
“Belief is irrelevant. I’ve done the math. They’re there or, for the last thousand years hundreds of different people from hundreds of different backgrounds who could never have conceivably conferred on any details have imagined more or less the same thing in what amounts to pretty much the exact same place.”
McRae puffed his cheeks out. “Well…fuck me.”
Clara was fairly sure that was a rhetorical comment but, to be on the safe side, she politely said, “no thank you, professor.”
The hike was not particularly pleasant. Clara disliked physical activity, and she particularly disliked it in the cloying heat of the foothills rising out of the Sacramento Valley. The sun was merciless, and even the forest canopy that eventually enveloped them offered little relief. In fact, as the steam rose from the forest floor, enveloping them in an endless, grey twilight, it actually made everything worse. The insects were relentless and Clara quickly abandoned her private distaste for killing anything and began swatting any that landed on her skin. McRae, by contrast, seemed invigorated by his surroundings. Gone was the surly, grey man she’d met in his cluttered office and in his place a red-faced, boisterous adventurer, striding through the undergrowth with the aid of a sturdy walking cane. “I don’t know how I missed this valley of yours before,” he said between heavy breaths. It was remarkable such an overweight man could maintain this pace and still talk.
“It’s quite remote,” Clara said, not bothering to hide her morose tone from him.
“Yeah, but it’s a real hotspot. Can’t believe I didn’t spot it.”
“You didn’t look at the data properly.”
“Well, maybe…I mean, fresh pair of eyes, I guess…”
They kept on for what seemed like hours. There was no road to where they were going, and they had to carry all their gear in bulging packs. Clara’s weighed almost as much as she did. They stopped briefly for lunch beside a burbling stream of clear water and McRae made more small talk as he pulled out his sandwiches. “So, you got a boyfriend?”
“Just asking. I wasn’t…I mean, I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Clara took a bite of her own sandwich and thought about the question. “I had one for a while.”
“He said he didn’t like me anymore and that was the end of it.”
“Jeez, that’s pretty cold.”
“I thought so too. But then, you can’t be too hard on a third-grader.”
McRae nearly choked on his sandwich. He had to stand up and walk over to the creek to dislodge the morsel and came back even redder-faced than before, mopping his brow with his disgusting handkerchief again. “Sorry. You caught me a little off guard there.”
“It’s fine. Blame the lungfish.”
“Your oesophagus crosses your trachea which makes it possible to choke. It’s a quirk of evolution because of the bodily arrangement of the earliest land vertebrates. Sadly, it didn’t kill enough of our ancestors for natural selection to breed it out.”
“I know that – I’m a professor of biology for fuck’s sake…”
“So why did you ask?”
McRae sat down on the log he’d been using as a seat and eyed her suspiciously. “I’m beginning to see why you haven’t had a boyfriend since you were nine.”
“I didn’t say I was in the third grade too.”
He stared at her. “What…?”
“That was a joke,” she explained.
“Oh, sorry – it’s hard to tell. A lot of people like to use different tones of voice when they express different emotions, you know.”
“So I understand.”
“Did you ever get, you know, diagnosed or anything?”
“Diagnosed with what?”
“Asperger syndrome or something. You know.”
“I’m familiar with it,” Clara replied a little haughtily. “But no. I know I’m not like other people, professor. It’s never been a problem.”
“Until it caused you to flunk your major, right?”
“I’m not flunking it yet.”
“I suppose not.” He looked up at the canopy above then. The sky was just visible, hazy and blue through the leaves of the tall trees. The truly huge redwoods were much higher up, but these were impressive enough. “So, why biology?”
“Why’d you pick biology? You said you don’t like getting your hands dirty. Plenty of sciences wouldn’t even ask you to leave your desk. You like numbers so much, why not math or physics?”
“I want to understand the world.”
“Sure. You said you were nearly an astrophysicist, right? Seems like most people think that’s a better route to complete understanding.”
Clara chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “That’s what I thought when I was younger, yes. It seemed like physics encompassed so much of chemistry and biology that it was the most logical field to pursue. But the more I looked into it, the less convinced I became by that reasoning.”
“Physics is full of unanswered questions.”
“So is biology. We’re here now, aren’t we?”
“But with physics, there’s little hope those questions will ever be answered.” She pointed upwards with her sandwich. “The universe is vast. Unimaginably vast. Humans aren’t evolved to understand it. Our brains are so tiny. Even the everyday numbers of our familiar planet test our understanding. We don’t understand statistics well enough to play with cosmology. Physics is too prone to fancy, to wandering imaginations.”
“And yet you’re here in these mountains hunting for bigfoot…”
“Because of solid data,” she said, giving McRae a sidelong glance. “But where’s the solid data on black hole formation? Where are the real numbers for the Big Bang? We’ll never understand these things, and I began to wonder if trying to do so was a waste of time.”
“But hasn’t exploring those theories led to other, unforeseen advancements?” McRae challenged. “Without the work done by CERN on particle physics, there’d be no internet.”
“I’m not interested in advancements.”
“Then what are you interested in, Miss Harrington?”
“I told you: I want to understand the world. And the world, as best humans can conceive it, is a biological one. So this science is the most logical to focus on.”
McRae laughed at that. “I might not agree with your reasoning, but I do have a certain fondness for its conclusions,” he acknowledged. He dusted his hands off and got back up to his feet. “Now, we’ve got a long way to go this afternoon before we come to a good spot to make camp. I know these mountains like the back of my hand.”
Clara doubted that very much, and the idea of more hiking didn’t make her feel in the least bit happy, but she nodded and got up too, pulling her ridiculous pack back onto her back and trudging after McRae, who was now whistling as he strode forcefully through the rising mist.
Hours later, when night began to fall, McRae was no longer whistling. Instead he was peering down at his map in consternation, shining a fitful torch over it and looking up every now and again to try and get his bearings. Clara was staring at her phone, with its fading battery and non-existent signal, trying to will its map app to come to life despite the lack of internet connection. “This doesn’t make any sense,” the professor murmured.
Clara was inclined to agree. “We were heading directly for the valley,” she said, “and as far as I can tell, we haven’t deviated at all from our intended route.”
“Exactly.” McRae hit the map with the back of his hand. “But I can’t find anything on here that corresponds to this topography.” He pointed through the gloom. “Where’s that rise, huh? Nowhere! Not on this fucking map anyway!” He flung it to the ground.
“We’ve definitely continued due north,” Clara went on, looking around at the darkening forest. “Even though the mist, the sun was always visible.”
“I know! And like I told you, I know these woods…”
“And yet,” Clara mused, “you’ve never been to the valley at the epicentre of all the sightings.”
“It’s a big area, Clara. I may not have combed every inch of it and, yes, even I’m not sure how I missed such an obvious place to try to spot…uh…you know…” somehow saying the word aloud didn’t feel so comfortable in the dark. “But there’s still no way we could’ve just got lost like this. I’ve been here dozens of times. We never left the trail.”
“Nonetheless, we’re lost.” She walked towards the rise the professor had pointed out and did some quick mental calculations as she surveyed the land around. Very little was visible through the dense forest and the gathering shadows of dusk. “Where were we when we stopped for lunch?”
McRae hauled himself up the slope after her. He’d retrieved the map and now he held it out in front of them, awkwardly holding the torch in one hand to illuminate it. “Here,” he said, jabbing with a thumb.
“And we’ve been walking for, what? Another five hours or so?”
McRae looked at his watch. “About that.”
“And we know we didn’t deviate.”
“Well…I don’t think we did, but we should be right by this loop in the river by now, see? There’s a nice open meadow there – a great place to make camp.”
“You’ve been there before?”
“From this direction?”
McRae shook his head. “No, we took a kayak up the river. But I know this route. And the map says…”
“The map’s wrong.”
“The map’s wrong,” Clara shrugged. “It’s the only explanation.”
“No. It’s a lot more likely we got lost. Are you gonna trust a map, used by thousands of people, or your own fallible human brain?”
“Yours might be fallible, but mine isn’t.” Clara turned around and gestured with both hands the way they’d come. “We’ve walked due north for five hours at an even pace. Even accounting for minor deviations, we should be at your campsite by now. But instead we’re somewhere else. The map is incorrect.”
“But people walk here all the time. If it was wrong, it’d have been reported.”
“Are you sure anyone’s been here before?”
McRae looked down at the map. “Well…sure. They must have.”
“Says who? All the sasquatch sightings were surrounding the valley, there were none in it. In fact, I couldn’t find any historical reference to anyone visiting this valley at all. We don’t even know it is a valley – just that the river runs that way and there’s mountains on either side.”
“Are you seriously suggesting we might be the first humans to visit this place? We’re not more than a day from a town, Clara…”
“Then there must be some variable we don’t understand yet.” She turned back towards the edge of the bluff. “Based on the original map I made, we’re not more than two miles from our destination right now. It’s dead ahead.”
“I wanted to camp the night before, go in fresh…in daylight…”
“Can we camp here?”
He shook his head sadly. “Ground’s damp. No firewood nearby, no source of fresh water. We’re too high at the top of this ridge and at the bottom we’re at risk of avalanche and there’s no other flat ground to pitch the tents. I’d feel a lot better if we can make it to the river.”
“We can do that; try to strike out over unfamiliar country, or we can make for the valley, if that’s what it is.”
“In the dark? Stumbling blindly into…into…”
“Sasquatch?” Clara wasn’t as frightened as she’d expected to be. She was more curious than anything. Two days ago, the very idea of this situation would have seemed ludicrous. But she couldn’t ignore the data. There was something here that needed finding, something that would help her to understand the world better.
“I suppose it doesn’t make any difference anyway,” McRae said, shouldering his pack. “A valley is a better campsite than this godforsaken place anyway. I doubt we’ll just stumble into a pack of them.” He laughed shortly, but it sounded hollow and muffled in the darkness and he soon shut his mouth. Together, they clambered down the other side of the rocky slope and continued on their way.
Clara didn’t know at what point she perceived a change in their surroundings. It came on gradually, a sense of unease, of falling shadows and rising doubts. Their route took them on a continuous downward trajectory, presumably towards the basin that held McRae’s fabled camp ground, but the shoulders of the mountains seemed to close in around them, throwing them into a kind of all-enveloping darkness that made even Clara’s skin crawl. Above them, visible dimly through the distant canopy, was a scattering of stars in the clear sky, but it only seemed a reminder of what they’d lost. They moved deeper and deeper into the pitch blackness, their torches casting feeble, watery light around them, until first McRae’s flickered and died, then hers. “We should turn back,” the professor said. His voice sounded strange in the dark.
For some reason, Clara felt a sudden dread about turning around, as if the deeper darkness behind them held some worse terror. She felt like she was being followed. “No,” she said, then again, more firmly, “No. We have to keep going. The way back is even harder.”
“I don’t want to go on,” McRae said.
“It’s just the dark. It’s just a forest.”
“No,” he was shaking his head. She could just make it out. His movements were erratic though, fidgety, like he was having a kind of fit. “No, we have to turn back. Don’t ask me why, but we can’t go on. This is all wrong.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. Our cellphones can still make emergency calls.”
“My battery’s died.”
Clara swallowed. Hers had too, but she’d been trying not to think about it. “There’s nothing to worry about,” she said.
“We didn’t plan this out properly. Why did I follow your stupid calculations anyway? How could all the evidence point to one single place? It makes no sense. I should’ve seen that. I’ve been looking for bigfoot all my life and I never even thought to look here. This is all crap. We should go home and forget this place exists. It’s all wrong. It’s all wrong.”
Clara rubbed her arms. The night had turned cold now, but it wasn’t that. It did feel wrong. Unnaturally wrong, like they were wading through treacle, like they had to fight every step to carry on. Like they were being pushed back somehow. The darkness, the silence of this forest that should have been chattering with living things, the maps that were somehow wrong, the valley no one had ever been to, all of it was like they were being kept away. As if something – someone – were protecting this place.
“We have to carry on,” she said firmly.
“Why? It’s madness…” Clara could barely see two feet in front of her face now, but from the direction of the professor’s voice, she judged he’d sunk down to the ground in a morose heap.
“No, we can’t stop now. I think I’ve figured out the missing variable.”
“The problem with the map, us getting lost, the location of the valley, everything.”
“You don’t understand, and if I told you it wouldn’t help, so just come on.” She reached out and found his bulk in the dark. Lifting with a strength she didn’t know she had, she hauled him up to his feet and set him to walking down the path again. Step by step, fighting all the way, they made their way deeper into this valley, seeking the higher truth Clara knew was waiting for her at its heart.
She lost track of time, pushing McRae on like that, concentrating on keeping her balance in the absolute blackness of her surroundings. Only a narrow strip of paler sky over her head told her they were following the path of a deep, high-sided gully. The air felt thick and damp, and there was the faint sound of moving water somewhere nearby. The walls were close on either side, damp to the touch. But worse than that was the unmistakable movement she could not so much hear as feel from above. She didn’t know when she’d first noticed it – probably when she’d glanced skyward earlier, trying to get a bearing on their position, and had the impression of a large shadow moving somewhere above her head. She’d dismissed it. It could be anything – a racoon, a beaver, at worst a wolf or a bear – but the second time it hadn’t been so easy to reconcile. There was something up there following them, shadowing their path down the gorge, keeping a watchful eye on them. More than one, she thought after a little while. The sensation was unmistakable. She was at a loss to explain it. She could feel the chills running up and down her spine, hear her blood thundering in her ears, taste metallic fear in her mouth. McRae let out a low, pitiful moan, but she kept pushing him forward. Fear didn’t matter. Fear was nothing. She’d never been truly afraid in her life, just like she’d never been moved by a piece of music, never felt captivated by a story, never been in love. All these things held no interest to her. She only wanted to understand. That was all. And she had a cold, unyielding certainty in her that she would understand this before she died.
A deeper shadow loomed before of them, blotting out what little there was of the night sky ahead of them. A wall of rock. McRae stumbled to a halt, breathing heavily, and Clara drew up beside him, still keeping a hold on his moist, shuddering body in the darkness. She reached out and touched the clammy wall, not knowing quite what she expected to find.
“I think that’s far enough,” a deep voice said from behind. She whirled around, eyes wide, searching desperately in the black, trying to find the source of the voice. McRae didn’t react at all. A shape loomed towards them: tall, broad, suddenly silhouetted against the faint stars, heavy, shaggy shoulders.
“Who are you?” she demanded, amazed at how unwavering her voice was.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“But I am,” Clara said defiantly. “I am, and no one else ever came here before, did they?”
“No one like you, no.”
“So don’t you think you owe me some answers?”
“Is that what you believe?” As her eyes adjusted to the light, she saw two twinkling points high in the shadow’s head, two disturbingly human-like eyes looking down at her with wry amusement.
“I’m not going to hurt you…” Clara whimpered.
“As if you could, child. Sleep now, and we’ll decide what to do with you in the morning.” A huge leathery hand moved slowly across her vision and she felt her eyelids droop. She tried to fight it, but there was nothing she could do and she felt the final, absolute darkness claim her.
When she came to, Clara opened her eyes and found herself resting on a comfortable couch that was too large for her and with a design she didn’t recognise. It was made of some dark, pliable material she couldn’t identify. She looked around. She didn’t feel at all groggy or disorientated. Indeed, she was completely alert, as if she’d done no more than blink. She was in a wide, austere room, lit by pale, unobtrusive strips set in alcoves near the ceiling. The walls, floor and ceiling were all seamless, polished stone. Columns of the same material were set out at irregular intervals, with no obvious join at their ends, so they seemed to have just grown at a perfect right angle from the floor or ceiling. There was a table in the middle of the room with a handful of chairs. She had to blink a few times to get an idea of how far away they were – the surroundings were so unfamiliar, the light so oddly uniform, that it took her a few seconds to realise that the reason she found the furniture confusing was because it was outsized. She slid off the couch and walked slowly to the table. It was set at least fifty percent too high off the ground to be comfortable, as if built for – or by – a creature half again as tall as her. The chairs had similar proportions and she clambered into one, feeling like a child sitting at the adult’s table. The surface of the table was dark, polished wood of obviously fine workmanship. She ran her hands over it, feeling oddly comforted by the simple pleasure of a familiar texture.
“I’m about to come into the room, Clara,” a calm voice said from thin air.
She looked up, confused but oddly not afraid. There was a door to the room she hadn’t noticed – or she’d just mistaken it for a large alcove of some kind – made of the same wood as the table, but there was no handle she could see. “Who are you? Why am I here?”
“I’ll explain that when I enter,” the disembodied voice said. She realised she recognised it from just before she’d fallen unconscious. Where was McRae anyway?
“Why are you telling me you’re coming in like this?”
“Because when I enter, it’s likely you’ll feel a sensation of…alarm. We’ve given you something to take the edge off your panic, but there’s only so much it can do against what you’re about to experience. I need you to be prepared for me, Clara.”
“How do you know my name?”
“You had many personal effects with you in your pack.”
“You went through my pack?”
“You’ll understand in a short moment. Clara, I have to prepare you to meet me.”
“In a way, you’ve been prepared all your life. All humans have. But it will still be a shock.”
“What are you?”
“I believe you already know. I’m what you would call a sasquatch, Clara, although as I’m sure your friend the professor has told you, we have many other names.”
She thought about that. “He’s not my friend.” Why had she chosen that to focus on? Because the rest was too outlandish.
“I’m going to come in now, Clara. You have nothing to be afraid of. My appearance may frighten you, but that will mostly be a reaction to our comparative size and the simple fact that the idea of a being like me acting in a way you consider quintessentially human is utterly unnatural to you. Purposely so, as you will come to understand. Please know that I and my colleagues mean you no harm though.”
“All right then,” Clara said. She didn’t know what else she was supposed to say.
The wooden door slid open silently, and then the person she’d been speaking to walked in. Clara didn’t react the way she’d been expecting. In fact, she didn’t react at all. Maybe something snapped inside her at that moment. Walking towards her, with an all-too-human expression of kindliness, dressed in a pale, shapeless smock down to its knees, towering, broad-shouldered, covered in a layer of sleek brown fur, was a sasquatch. It looked both precisely how she’d imagined it and utterly different. Physically, it was every bit bigfoot, yeti, wild-man and all the rest, but its movements were measured, graceful, human. The creature seated itself opposite her, fitting perfectly into the oversized chair. It folded its hands on the table and smiled. It was a smile too, a thoroughly human smile. That’s when Clara started screaming.
It took a little while for her to calm down and she thought she might have been put under again, but it was hard to tell. When she recovered herself, she was back on the couch, and the sasquatch was a little way away, seated in a chair to one side, watching her with a concerned expression.
“If it makes you feel any better,” it said, “that’s quite a normal reaction.”
Clara looked at it, sitting there like it was the most normal thing in the world. She noticed something then. “Are you female?” she asked.
“I don’t know…your voice is deep…”
“I’m larger than you. It’s a simple physical difference.”
Clara took a breath. She had to focus on what was important right now. She was barely holding it together though. She could feel another scream build up inside her. “You’re…a sasquatch…”
“But…” she looked around. “This place…”
“Was built by my people.”
“Much as you build your homes. Although this is actually a research facility.”
She shuffled that into the back of her mind for now. “I thought you were apes.”
“We are apes, exactly like you.”
“Sorry, yes, I mean…I thought you were…like the missing link…” She felt stupid even as she said it.
“You’re a biologist, aren’t you? You know there’s no such thing as ‘missing links’. Every organism is a transitional form.”
“I know. I do know. But…you’re not supposed to be…advanced…”
“You were expecting wild beasts.”
“Not exactly. More like primitive hominids.”
Something made the sasquatch’s face change as she said that. She couldn’t read the expression in the creature’s deep, liquid gaze though. “It will not surprise you to learn, Clara Harrington, that your world is much more complex than you imagine.”
“I always knew it would be. That’s why I break it down into manageable parts. Into numbers. Data.”
“Indeed. And no doubt that is how you found us. No one ever came as close as you, Clara. Others skirted the borders of our cordon, even some who knew what they were looking for, but all turned back. None were driven by the same desire that you had to rationalise reality. You would never have survived walking unaided into this place, you should know, but to come so close to our gates…we thought long and hard about your request, Clara. It is beyond even our technology to erase your memories. All we could do is confuse and damage you, and that would be a great loss, for we perceived that you have an almost unique mind.”
“But, the condition of your survival was that you be made party to the truth. And that is a steep price.”
Clara shook her head defiantly. “The truth isn’t the price. The truth is the commodity.”
“This is a hard truth.”
“I don’t care.”
“I am warning you now, Clara, when you know this, you may never be able to return to the world you knew before. Your entire conception of your species will be forever altered. We cannot easily make this seem a dream for you now. I am giving you the opportunity to turn away and remain forever ignorant, in exchange for the peaceful life you had before.”
She thought about it. “What would you do in my situation?”
“I’d stay and listen.”
The sasquatch smiled again. “I suspected you’d say that. First then, introductions. I know you, but sadly your larynx cannot easily make the sounds required to pronounce my name. For now, you may call me Moa. It is a good enough approximation.”
“My people are close cousins to humans, as I’m sure you realise.”
“I’m a biologist. You know that. I can see you’re a hominid. I just don’t understand how you fit into the family tree.”
“Your perception of that tree is fragmented, with good reason. We rose together, us and what you call homo sapiens. Alongside many others. Once, aeons ago, humans were just one of many hominids walking the Earth.”
“Intelligent hominids, you mean?”
Moa made another unrecognisable expression. “Intelligence is a spectrum, child. You have been alone so long, you have forgotten that. But yes, we were what you would call ‘sentient’, all of us. Some of these cousins you remember – Neanderthals, for one, your closest kin.”
“We lived alongside them? You mean those theories were right? We didn’t just displace them?”
“Both theories are true, in a way. You lived alongside them for many long years. In those days you were like children to us. Smaller, more fragile. But cheerful and harmonious. We nurtured you, as we nurtured all your cousins.”
“You did? The sasquatches?” Clara’s mind was racing.
“Yes. We rose first and we thought of you as our responsibility. All of you. It was a joyous time, a golden age.”
“But it didn’t last, did it?” she said, beginning to get an inkling of where this story was going.
“No. You grew fast, little humans. Perhaps you changed, or perhaps it had always been in you, but you became…dangerous.”
Clara swallowed. She had a sick feeling in her stomach. “Dangerous? How?”
“Violent. Warlike. We had never known war before humanity. How it began, we don’t understand now. Isolated incidents, maybe, but soon it spread and your whole race was consumed by a kind of madness. The Neanderthals, your gentle sisters, they were the first to suffer. You enslaved them and then killed them in their millions. It was a terrible time. We had never known such grief. You humans, you were different from us in ways we had never anticipated. Your sexual dimorphism was much greater, and your males were the most aggressive of all. You were stubborn, easily led, prone to gathering together and acting in ways that made little sense.”
“Groupthink,” Clara summarised. “We band together and lose our sense of personal identity. Tribalism.”
“Precisely,” Moa said. “Before humans, all the hominids had been content to live in small groups, subsisting on the land, enjoying a harmonious existence. Now, great nations were forming and humans, en masse, were unstoppable. You didn’t listen to reason. We tried to negotiate time and time again to end the bloodshed, but even when presented with evidence of your mistakes, with simple rationales for laying aside your weapons in favour of peace, you were utterly truculent. You formed an opinion and stuck to it rigidly. It was a kind of madness, we thought.”
“We’re like that,” Clara admitted. “Our minds can’t cope with reality so we invent our own little narratives that we refuse to change.”
“Ah, you understand it too. We have observed that some of you are different from the others though. More logical. Able to concentrate more fully on tasks instead of always thinking about the next sensory impulse. Most of the rest of your species are driven by instincts, like our ancestors. Perhaps if we had understood then what we understand now about what you call genetics, we would have seen the warning signs. You are…primitive. I mean no offence, but just compared to us and the others.”
Clara licked her lips. She was having a hard time wrapping her head around what she was being told, but she was determined to see this through to the end. “So…there was a war?”
“There were many wars.”
“And…afterwards…you went into hiding? To protect yourselves?”
Moa’s words from earlier came floating back to the front of her mind and suddenly she began to understand. “No…that’s not it at all. We didn’t win, did we?”
“No. We defeated you, at the last. It took more than we were willing to give and many of our leaders called for your annihilation. Your strongest warriors had all been killed, but a significant population remained. Cooler heads prevailed and we preserved those of you who survived.”
“Preserved?” Clara’s throat was dry. What had she called this place? A research facility?
“We returned you to your natural state. Left you alone, to grow as you pleased. Only the dimmest memories remain of your turbulent origins, passed down as your most ancient myths.”
“Dragons…goblins…” Clara said. “McRae was right!” She suddenly remembered the professor. “McRae! Where is he?”
“Quite safe. But he will not receive this explanation. His mind is not suitable. We will send him back, confused and frightened, but hopefully sane enough to resume his former life.”
Clara took a breath. “So, you defeated us and you…you…left us alone? What does that mean?”
“We retired to a place where you could not reach us, us and the other hominids.”
Moa laughed, a deep rumble in her cavernous chest. “Nothing so crude. I’m sure you’re curious as to why you found it so hard to reach this place, and why no one else ever came here. Well, that was simply because we envelop all of our habitats in a four-dimensional inversion.”
“A sort of…fold…in the fabric of the universe. Like folding a corner of a piece of paper over, except in a higher dimension. Normally, when you come close to a place that is home to sasquatches, your path will carry you around us as if we don’t exist. You are physically incapable of perceiving our homes. You, however, saw through the deceit and had the determination to push through the nausea and terror you naturally experience as your perception of reality breaks down. It took us some time to perfect the technology, which is why sightings of us are less frequent now. Stories of us are very common in ancient peoples though. We were less good at hiding then.”
“So you’re here…all around us?”
“How many of you are there?”
“Not so many. Our population numbers in the millions, not billions. We don’t have quite the same propensity to breed and consume our environment as humans.”
“Millions?” Clara felt like her mind was going through its own four-dimensional inversion. “But where are you all? How big are these pockets of space you live in?”
“Big. Your estimates of the Earth’s size are a little…pessimistic.”
“But…we’ve been to space. We’ve seen it.”
“Yes, that did present a few logistical problems. We overcame them though.”
“This makes no sense. You’re saying we’re a…a…captive population? The whole of humanity? In some kind of…sasquatch zoo?”
Moa looked hurt. “That’s putting it rather crudely. This is your natural habitat, and we haven’t interfered in your development.”
“No, you haven’t,” Clara said. Her voice was icy calm, but inside she was anything but. “You watched us for…how long? Ten thousand years? A hundred thousand? You watched us fight wars, enslave each other, commit genocides, wipe out other species, destroy our environment. Weren’t you concerned? Didn’t you think about maybe stepping in? Saving us from ourselves?”
“How could we? Violence is in your nature.” Her voice was sad. “Clara, I have devoted my life to the study of humans. I am one of the chief scientists of this facility. I weep for the horrors your kind has inflicted upon itself, but we have made agreements amongst ourselves to leave you alone. We live in peace in our part of the world, the part you cannot reach, and you do what you will to yours.”
“But what about global warming? What about extinctions? Don’t you have a duty to other species?”
“Your habitat is fully enclosed, Clara, and there are populations of all the animals you have destroyed in our part of the Earth. From the dodo to the Tasmanian tiger; all are safe with us.”
“So…nothing we do means anything? We’re just a science project?” She leant her head back against the huge couch and looked up at the smooth stone ceiling.
“I told you it would be hard to return,” Moa said sadly.
“Can I see it?”
“Your world. I want to visit. I want to look at my world from the outside. I feel like I’ve been doing that my whole life anyway. You said my mind was different, that there were more like me. Some of us are different, you said. More and more, perhaps? Maybe we’re evolving. Maybe we deserve a second chance.”
“It isn’t that simple…”
“So explain it!” she snapped, more angry about this than she had been about anything in her life before. “Just give me the data and I’ll figure my way through it! You and me are the same, Moa. We’re scientists. We work with logical and rationality. Let me talk to…whoever’s in charge. Let me speak for humanity. We can learn. If you tell us what we are, where we came from, I know we’d change.”
Moa shook her huge head slowly. “I’m sorry, Clara, but we know from experience that humans are resistant to reason. You think with your instincts. You cling to prejudice and fallacy. You are tribalistic. We do not dare expose ourselves to another genocide.”
“You don’t understand,” Clara said, close to tears, “if you send me back…if you send me back to my life now, I’ll never have all the information. I’ll always know I live in half a world and that nothing I discover means anything. You’re putting a variable into the equation that I can’t even out. You’re making the puzzle unsolvable.”
Moa looked down at her. There seemed to be something moving in her deep gaze. Finally, there was a rumbling sound in her chest and she rose to her feet. “I will speak to my superiors, little one. Yes…perhaps it is time that someone advocated for humanity. Perhaps there is another way.”
“I can’t go back.”
“No,” Moa agreed, “but I make no promises.”
Clara nodded dumbly and watched the towering sasquatch woman leave the room. She sank back into the couch and tried to think about the future, but nothing came into her mind. It was unknowable now. For the first time in her life, nothing made any sense. She closed her eyes and surrendered herself to natural sleep at last, wondering what world she’d wake up in.