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Moose Trap

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Spain and Czech Republic, and is currently based in Grande Prairie, Canada. He is the author of the novel Annex and the collection Tomorrow Factory, which includes some of the best of his +150 published stories. His work has been translated into over a dozen languages, among them Polish, French, Romanian, and Japanese, and adapted to screen for Netflix's LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS. Find free fiction and support his work at patreon.com/richlarson.

**********Editor's Note: Crude, adult language in this story************
I'm poking the moose carcass with a branch when Masha's call blinks onto my eyeQ.
"Hey, sexy," I say, undoing my breath mask. "How's work?"
"Why are you in the woods?" Her voice is terse. "Your map's all wonky. You're in the woods, right?"
"Went for a run. Stopped to check in on the moose trap."
Her shudder gets transmitted as a puking emoticon. She doesn't like me calling it the moose trap.
See, the last family who owned the acreage had this rusty old metal swing-set, set up halfway along the trail through the woods. We didn't want to bother with it during the winter, so we left it.
This sweltering spring we found a moose, a young bull who'd gotten his antlers tangled up in the chains of the swing and either starved or frozen to death there. Coyotes had already come by and stripped most of the flesh off. The rest was a rotting buzzing mess. Masha really did puke then, all over her new runners.
"It's so fucking morbid," she says now. "You checking in on it. Let it decompose in peace."
Normally I'd defend myself, say how interesting it is. But her voice is brittle, almost breaking. Something is wrong. "How's work?" I repeat. "How are the little buggers?"
By little buggers I mean water bears, and by water bears I mean tardigrades, the indestructible microorganisms everyone was jizzing themselves over a few years back. I don't think they're even that cute. But Masha's gotten a job out of it, studying the applications of an effectively immortal animal for failsafe data storage.
People are more and more into that idea as the power shortages hit, as the storms get worse, as the water creeps towards libraries. They're trying to code stuff right into the junk DNA. Although Masha says there's no such thing as junk DNA, just misunderstood DNA.
"I shouldn't even be calling you," Masha says.
"You shouldn't," I say. "I'm very busy. I have to pick the tomatoes and do a crossword soon."
She gives a trembly laugh, which becomes an eerie and inaccurate crying-with-laughter emoticon. "The biological time capsule thing. Someone beat us to it."
"Those motherfuckers at Amazon?" I demand.
"No. Like, a pre-Anthropocene industrial civilization."
I drop the stick.
"It's not a joke," she says. "I'm not joking. We found something in their DNA. A code that decrypts itself when exposed to intense radiation."
"That doesn't make any fucking sense," I say. "There aren't actual letters in DNA. I failed Biochem, but I know that much."
"We aren't seeing letters. It's..." She trails off. "It's an image file. That's the only way I can explain it. The molecules move in a pre-arranged pattern to form a microscopic series of images. I don't know how they did it, but it's there. We've all seen it. We've all agreed."
"What's the image?" I ask.
Masha takes a rattling breath. "It's a light going out. This little flame getting extinguished. Then a wisp of smoke. Then black."
I sink down to my haunches. The moose's skull is right across from me, its skin all shriveled and pulled back from its big grinding teeth. Flies are still buzzing in and out of the nostrils.
"Okay," I say. "This isn't you reminding me about your birthday, is it? I know your birthday isn't until March."
"This is crazy," I say. "This is so fucking crazy. Silurians, right? Jesus Christ. What do you think it means?"
But I already know what she thinks. There's been enough late wine-soaked nights where she goes on her furious tirades about our joke of a carbon policy and the extended hurricane season and the displaced droves starving in hot places that got hotter. There's a reason she won't let me have a kid.
"I think it's an extinction clock." Masha's voice is so quiet I can barely hear it. "I think it means, if you can read this, it's almost over."
The sunshine coming through the branches isn't warm anymore. My whole back is cold and slimy with sweat. "Masha. You don't know that."
"This is a message from someone who went extinct a million years ago, and they're giving their condolences." Her voice is tired, not bitter. "A flame getting snuffed out. If they had genetic engineering, if they had any technology at all, they had the same starting point we did. Fire. They know what happens when the fire goes out."
"We've got zero shared culture, so we can't go projecting human, you know, human shit onto it," I say. "It could be a name. It could be a genetic graffiti artist leaving her tag behind. Maybe they were nocturnal. Maybe it means lights out, party time."
A long pause. There are no birds chirping. There used to be so many birds.
"I'm coming home," she says. "This thing is already leaked. It's going to be fucking chaos here in a couple hours. Message in a bottle from a pre-human civilization. I mean, come on."
"We can do the crossword together, then," I say.
"Yeah," she says. "Yes. I love you, Jen."
"Love you too," I say, and blink her off my eyeQ.
Then it's just me and the moose carcass, and suddenly all I can think about is that long winter, stumbling into machinery it could never understand, enraged and confused and struggling and struggling and finally dying. I wonder if at any point it knew it was over, and just tried to enjoy the peace and quiet.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 14th, 2021
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