Fly Fishing

It started two years ago. I got a call from Clary, a guy I knew in college. He was all excited. I hadn’t actually talked to him for a couple of years before that, so it was a bit of a surprise. He said I had to come over. It was late so I put him off. I’d meet him the next day, Friday. I distinctly remember it being Friday. I drove to his town, he lived about four hours away, and arrived about three. He met me at the door. His enthusiasm was effervescent.

“I’m so glad you made it here,” he said excitedly. “I know you’ll be just as excited as I am about what I’ve built.”

“Calm down,” I replied laughing. “Let me get my coat off.”

He lead me through the rambling old house of his, to the workshop at the back. It had been the garage, I know because I’d helped him convert it into a family room. Which was odd, now that I think of it. Clary never married, never had a family. Anyway, It wasn’t the same family room I’d seen. It had been converted into a workshop with benches along the sides, a small CNC mill at the back along with a 3D printer. In the middle of the room was a…thing. I’m not sure how to describe it. It was a grey box but the outside was covered with display screens and controls. Knobs, switches, keyboards, and such. Clary stood next to it beaming like a proud papa.

“Well, what do you think?” he said finally.

“I don’t know,” I stammered. “What is it?”

“Oh, of course you don’t know. I’ve been kind of shut off up here. All of my food and supplied has been delivered. I’m afraid I’ve been a bit of a hermit. So let me start at the beginning. Remember when we were back in college, how I was fascinated with Earth History?”

How could I forget. Clary came from money. Old money. While I and my other friends were slogging away, working toward a degree that would pay the bills, he was studying whatever caught his fancy. And he was interested in everything. Obsessively so. After a year or so he settled on the Geosciences. Eventually, long after I had gotten my Engineering degree and was building a career, he ended up with two Batchelor’s degrees, Palaeontology and Biology, and a Masters in Physics. He did research for a while, then when his parents passed away he inherited this house, and all the money they’d collected from a lifetime as wall street lawyers. That was when Clary sort of retreated. I saw less and less of him as the years went by. The last time I’d spent much time with him was about five years before when I’d spent a week up here helping him convert the garage and remodel the kitchen. After that our contacts became more sporadic.

“Yes, you were fascinated with it. What does that have to do with this?”

“I’ll get to that. First you need to understand something. One of the biggest limitations of Palaeontology is connecting the dots. We know this animal and that one, but the transitional forms are hard to locate. Also some creatures seem to come out of nowhere. Mosasaurs and Ichthyosaurs. Or Pterosaurs. One day there are lizards, the next you have them flying around. Where did they come from? What was their ancestor. With just a few fossils it was hard to say. Also with convergent evolution things end up looking alike even if they have no connection. Ichthyosaurs and Dolphins for example. You really need to do a genetic analyses of each to see where they came from.”

“OK, I said. “But unless you can find a freezer with dinosaur steaks, that’s just not going to happen.”

“That my friend,” Clary said triumphantly. “is no longer the case.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Clary gestured at the device in the middle of the room. “This is Time’s Arrow.”

“What is it, a time machine” I said laughing.

“No nothing that grandiose,” he replied. “It does not move through time. Rather it reaches back and collects a one cubic centimetre sample of whatever was in this exact spot, from any point in the past.”

“But what if nothing was here?” I wondered.
“Oh I’ll get back an empty sample container. Actually a container of air, which could be informative too. But it does not take much energy to collect a sample. I can reach back hundreds, thousands of times. Most times it will be nothing, but every once in a while it will come back with a piece of a dinosaur. Or a cynodont. Or a trilobite. Or whatever happened to be in this spot. With all of the last billion years to sample there has to have been millions of times when something was in this exact spot. And I’m going to grab a piece of them.”

“So you’re fly fishing for dinosaurs?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes,” he replied laughing. “I guess that is one way of looking at it.”

“But why?” I wondered. “What good does a piece of fresh Trilobite or Gorgonopsid, or Entelodont do you? Are you just going to mount it on the wall?”

“No,” he laughtd. “I can sequence the DNA. I can determine once and for all what is related to what. Here let me show you.”

Clary walked over to the machine and flipped a switch. The system came to life, the computers booted up and soon the low humming of fans filled the room. Clary dropped a small stainless steel capsule into a slot on the front and hit a button marked Retrieve. There was a audible pop and the capsule fell into a basket on the floor. Clary retrieved the capsule and walked to one of the workbenches. Carefully he opened the tiny cylinder over a petri dish. A small piece of wood fell out.

“You see I set the machine to grab something from 100 years ago. Back then this land was all a forest. This is part of a tree that was growing on this spot.” He was very excited. “There’s no limit to what I can recover.”

It was amazing. I told Clary how pleased, indeed proud of what he’d accomplished. It was amazing. We chatted for another hour or so and then I had to leave. I apologized but it was a very long way home and my wife was waiting for me. I told him to keep me in the loop, to let me know what he discovered. I was truly excited for him. Then I departed

A year passed.
You know how it is. I didn’t hear from Clary for a few days. Then our daughter got sick. Then both my wife and I got sick from what she’d brought home. Then there was this big rush job at work. You know life. Without realizing it a year had slipped away. Then one day I realized that I hand’t heard from Clary. I decided to call him. He sounded tired. I asked him if I could drop by, to see his progress. He was hesitant, but after a bit of prodding he agreed.

A week later on Saturday morning I was on Clary’s doorstep again. He answered the door. This time he wasn’t smartly dressed like I’d always seem him before. Rather, he was wearing baggy sweats and a dirty t-shirt. Several days stubble encrusted his chin as well. He let me in with only a grunt and led me back to the workshop. There he collapsed into a chair and motioned me to another next to the device. The room was a mess. Samples lay on the table. Cylinders, both empty and full, filled the baskets. Papers were scattered on the floor.

“My god Clary. What’s wrong?” I asked in surprise. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this. Have you not been getting usable samples? Is the experiment not working?”

“No, no,” he started. “The experiment is working fine. I’m getting lots of samples. About one in a hundred casts comes back with something. You see I do remember your fly fishing analogy.” he smiled. “Sometimes it’s wood, or leaves. sometimes it’s chunks of bloody meat. Once in a while I’ve gotten sand or rocks. One even came back with hot lava inside. Oh I’ve been getting LOTS of samples.”

“Then, what’s the problem?” I asked. “Maybe you’re just working too hard. You know you could afford to get an assistant. I mean with your connections at the University we could get a grad student out here to help you. To sort through the…”

Clary waved me off. “No that’s not the problem. I’m getting lots of samples. I’m having no problem processing them, sequencing the DNA and determining everything about them. Everything but the one most important thing.”

“What?” I asked, almost shouting.

“If we find a new species today we can do DNA analyses and tell what it’s related to. Yes that’s a red winged blackbird. We can tell because it’s DNA is very similar to a common blackbird, and not quite as similar to a robin and a crow.”

“So?” I asked.

“I’m getting lots of samples back. but I don’t know what they’re from. Yes I can sequence the DNA and see that this hunk of bloody meat is more similar to that hunk of bloody meat, but less so from that chunk of kind of rubbery white meat. But I don’t know what these things are.” He suddenly rose, walked to the side wall and pulled back a curtain. Behind it the wall was covered with little index cards. Each had a sample number on it and the time period it was from. Red lines on the wall connected the cards forming an intricate tree.

“I’ve gotten hundreds of samples. I’ve even created this tree of life. But I don’t know what anything is. The DNA is so different from anything alive today that I can’t tie it down. The form of this tree doesn’t match any of the fossil cladograms people have drawn.” Clary walked across the room and bent over, putting his face close in front of mine. “All of this data but without any way to anchor it to the real animals it means nothing.”

Clary collapsed into the chair again and buried his face in his hands.
After a second I gathered my courage and spoke. “Listen old man. You’ve been working too hard. You’ve let this get to you. So here’s what we’ll do. Let’s clean up the lab. Then you’re going to come back to the city with me. You’ll get away. See a movie. Eat at a restaurant. Sleep. Hell it looks like you haven’t slept since I saw you a year ago. Sleep, nap and follow that with a siesta. Then after a week or two you can come back here with fresh eyes. What do you say?”

Clary looked at me. It was the look a drowning man gives you when you toss him a rope. “Yeah, that might be a good idea.” he said finally.

We spent the next hour cleaning the lab. I disposed of the samples he hadn’t processed. Some of them had sat for days and I doubt they would have been much use anyway. The rest of the house was surprisingly clean. Clary apparently hadn’t been using it. Then we packed a bag, piled in the car and set off for my house. I made a quick call to my wife to warn her of our unexpected guest. As it turned out though, Clary only stayed with us one night. He moved into a hotel near the University. For the next week he visited with his favourite professors, stopped by the Student Union, wandered his old haunts, and slept. I think he was getting at least ten hours a night plus afternoon naps. And he was eating. Within a few days his colour and energy had come back. He was the same old Clary I’d known a decade before. I took a few days off of work and we just bummed around together. The rest of the time he was off on his own.

After two weeks Clary appeared at my door one morning. He was clearly fully recovered. Clean shaven. A new suit. Fresh shoes. “I’m going to head back now.” He said. “Thank you so much for bringing me back to my senses. But it’s time to get back to work.”

“OK,” I replied. “If you think you’re ready.”

“Oh I am. I do want to thank you again for helping me. I had really lost sight of how things were. Lost my perspective. Thanks for bringing me back to reality.”

“Any time. But you keep in contact now. Don’t let it be so long. I worry about you sometimes.”

With a smile Clary walked back out to his van. I noticed he’d bought one while he was in town. I couldn’t tell exactly but it looked like it was full of stuff. With a final wave he backed out of the driveway and disappeared around them corner.

And life got in the way again.

The time I had taken off had left me behind at work. I had to put in a week or two of overtime to get back on track. Then our daughter was starting school so we had to get her ready for her big day. Then my wife let me know that we were going to have another baby. There was all the excitement and upheaval from that. So it was just shy of a year later when there was a knock at the door. I opened it and was surprised to see a policeman standing there.

“Uh, yes,” I stammered. “Can I help you?”
“Are you Peter Davidson?” he asked. When I nodded he handed me an envelope. In it was a card from Clary that read. “I figured it out. Time’s Arrow was running backwards.” I looked at the officer confused.

“I’m going to need you to come with me to the gentleman’s house.”

“Oh, uh sure. Why? What’s going on?”

“This is a missing person’s case. We’re hoping you can help us figure out where he might have gone.”

Confused I went back inside and told my wife that’I would likely be gone the rest of the day at least. She agreed and called her mother to come over and help with the kids until I got back.

The drive to Clary’s house was long and quiet. The police let me take my own car. I suspect both so they wouldn’t have to give me a ride back, but also so they wouldn’t be pestered with questions that they could not answer.

When we got to Clary’s house I saw the van that I’d seen him drive away in a year before. It was  parked in front of the house. Going inside, I immediately noticed that the house smelled musty, like it had been closed up for too long. I followed the officers to the workshop. It was much as we had left it a year before. It was still neat. Lab equipment was lined up on the side wall. It looked like Clary had not processed a single sample since his return.

The officer spoke “There was a report that the gentleman had stopped paying his bills. A collector came out to the house and saw that it was deserted. As the gentleman is well off it was unlikely that he had skipped, so fearing fowl play he called us. We entered the house but found no recent trace of him. A search has found that none of his credit cards have been used in months. The food in the fridge had all spoiled. His passport is still here. We’ve searched the local area in depth, but there’s no trace of him anywhere. We got your name and address off of that card. It was on the table next to the front door, stamped, ready to mail. He however never got a chance to send it. We are hoping that you might have some idea where he might have gone. Who he might have been dealing with. Some clue as to what happened.”

I looked at the card. Clary’s familiar handwriting on the front of the envelope. Then I looked around the room. It was just as I remembered it. Almost anyway. The lab equipment, the mill, the 3D printer, the wall full of cards with numbers and dates. Something was not quite right though. Then it hit me. I looked at the outlet on the wall. A cord was plugged in. It ran across the floor to the centre of the room where it ended abruptly as if it had been cut with shears. The machine, Time’s Arrow, was missing.

“Time’s Arrow was running backwards.”

Now I knew what it meant. I turned to the officer.

“He’s gone. No one will never see Clary again.”

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