Orngz chiseled at the rocky matrix surrounding the fossil. Most of the object of his work was now exposed. He pried gently and the mineralized object moved slightly. He pried again and lifted it out. He felt its weight, evaluating it carefully.
"Zyrrgx, come here!" he called. "You'll never believe what I've found!"
Zyrrgx came up and saw the fossil. "Wow! That's a good one! Isn't that one of those square clams?"
"Sure is. A completely intact one has never been found. They're always at least partly crushed, and they're usually nothing more than the shell. They apparently had paper-thin shells."
"Or thicker shells of a soft material that compressed from the weight of the sediment," Zyrrgx replied. "You'd better show that to Professor Narnglzle. This'll really get you in good with him!"
They found the professor standing under a large overhang, watching another student chipping out fibroid stems. He was expounding on the narrow cylindrical fossils to several other students.
"These fossils are really quite a puzzle, you know. They're by far the most common fossil in this stratum. They are found nowhere in older or younger strata. They appeared very suddenly in the fossil record and disappeared just as suddenly, with no apparent relatives. We do not even know anything of their function. Surely they are only a fraction of the organism, but we've never found the rest, if there is a rest."
"Our texts say that nobody knows whether they're plant or animal," a student said, "Have they figured that out yet?"
"No," the professor replied, "We just don't know. It may be some sort of plant stem, but then where are the roots and leaves? Could it be that the rest of the plant was so soft that it invariably decayed before fossilization could take place? The stem must have been segmented to occur in such short, well-defined pieces with squared ends. There is an occasional fossil that exhibits a less organized tissue zone beyond the usually preserved portion, but we've never found a good enough specimen to figure out anything from that. And, of course, the stems seem to be quite compressed. The best guess is that they were originally a soft, porous material within a thin covering."
"Uh, excuse me, Professor. . ." Orngz began.
"What is it, Orngz?" asked the Professor. "Is it important enough to interrupt?"
"Uh, I think so. It's this, Prof." Orngz held out the fossil.
Professor Narngzle's eyes lit up. "It's a Gyrngdula madraliga! This is more intact than any previous specimen found!" He turned the fossil around so that the class could see it clearly.
"Now, class, one previous specimen was found that exhibited partial structure, though never as good as this. Look here, where the side is chipped away, you can see the interior structure." He pointed out various features on the object. "Here's the shell, of course; most specimens found have been nothing but the shell. Now, here you can see what appears to be some sort of soft undershell, highly compressed from its original state. This may have been some sort of cushioning for the shell. Here is, apparently, a core of muscle, and we believe these leafy structures may be gills."
The professor stared at the specimen. "This one also has clear shell patterning. Some previous specimens have also shown some patterning on the shell top. It looks almost like letters, see?" He showed the class.
He turned to Orngz with a gleam in his eyes. "This discovery will be of great benefit to your paleontological career, Orngz," he announced triumphantly as he waved several legs in Orngz's direction.
Orngz felt his antennae twitch with pleasure.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Ten million years before Orngz was born, Bill sat on a rock at the edge of the overlook by the lake. He stared out over the water that lapped at the cliff beneath him and lit a cigarette. Fred emerged from the pickup truck with the bag in his hand. He withdrew a styrofoam box and handed it to Bill.
"Here's your burger, Bill."
Bill turned around and reached to grab the box. He misjudged and accidentally knocked it out of Fred's hand. They both watched the sandwich, snug in its plastic shell, disappear into the waters of the lake below.
"Shit," Bill said, "I guess I at least got fries left."
"Oh, hell," Fred replied, "I'll give you half my burger."
" 'Preciate it," Bill said, flicking away the spent cigarette. He watched as the filter followed the burger into the lake.
The next day, Fred called Bill on the phone: "Hey, did you hear that just now on the radio? There was a big mud slide out at the lake, right where we ate lunch yesterday!"
"Hell," Bill said, "the mud just wanted that burger I lost."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Back into the future ten million years or so, Orngz embarked on an illustrious paleontological career.