Rerun

by

Greg Guerin




The experimental re-run of evolution on Earth was far from over, but the Universe was running down with increasing speed and would be drained of energy before Xavia had his outcome. The fear of this eventuality had permeated his dreams and taken away any sense of rest. Now he woke and rose from the ruffled mattress.

Yawning as he pulled a robe around his thin frame and looked out at the hazy daylight Moon, Xavia asked "Is the Moon waxing or waning?"

"Waning," replied Manewaring, his sole companion at the Earth complex.

"Then I have overslept by several hours."

Xavia glanced at a nearby time-piece to confirm this. Outside of the controlled time-field within the complex, days and months normally passed by at a rapid pace and the cycles of the Moon passed too fast to be observed easily. The rest of the cosmos aged at the same rate. But Xavia had temporarily weakened the field so that he could closely observe what was happening in the experiment. A full lunar cycle now passed every few hours.

Looking out through the window directly onto the exterior landscape, Xavia sighed. He had to admit to himself that he was at a bit of a loss. Across the bare landscape, all that could be seen was bare rock and soil. Even along the ever-wet shores of the salty lake that spread across the lower country, only the simplest of autotrophic life-forms grew, forming an uneven green crust with their re-invented chlorophyll-rich light gathering organelles. Even the seas themselves still contained only indeterminate plant life and lacked all but the most basic forms of animal life with little tissue differentiation. Certainly nothing looking like radiating out into the equivalent of vertebrate life that had arisen the first time to produce himself.

"I can't understand why nothing is happening," he said, mostly to himself. "The experiment has been running a full billion years. With underground cellular life as a starting point, things should have advanced further by now. We'll have to return Earth time to maximum speed."

Manewaring cleared his throat deliberately. "Need I point out, Xavia, the folly of such an action?"

Xavia spun around to glare at him. Manewaring was not a product, as he was, of the seas of the Earth, but a being created by the Old Ones; an undying alien life-form that Xavia employed to carry out his engineering works over the vast scale of the Cosmos. They had given Manewaring a strictly human nature in order to act as go-between for two entirely incongruent cultures. Xavia couldn't help but be irritated once again by the layer of woolly curls on Manewaring's head that looked so much like a hair-piece and by his lack of natural facial expression. Having a false person around only served to constantly remind him that the rest of his own kind had long ago become extinct.

"Folly? "he mimicked. "This is the most important experiment of all. The Cosmos exists for this alone. It is our duty to complete it."

Manewaring, as usual, was frustratingly patient and polite in argument. He said, "As you well know, the Universe is running down, an inescapable fact owing to its expansion and the laws of thermodynamics. Not only is the Universe now many billion years old, your experiments and manipulations of nature have used up vast amounts of unredeemable energy reserves. In short, you have bled Suns cold and used up most of the gravitational potential energy by forming numerous galaxy-devouring black-holes.

"This time-field you have created is the worst of all. It is draining the Universe at an alarming rate, faster than the Old Ones have ever witnessed since their birth in the early phases of the Universe. The cooling Universe is a sad site for them, particularly since they see no reason to tinker so drastically with relative time."

Xavia shook his head at this familiar argument. "How else could the experiment be run, an experiment that must take its course over billions of years whilst it is observed?"

"The Old Ones have existed for many billion years and could have overseen such an experiment patiently, without jeopardising the fate of the entirety of existence itself."

"I am well aware that the Old Ones aren't in any hurry. But I only have so much subjective time. I've already had my fair share in fact. And I, as a human, am the only one capable of properly organising the Old Ones and this experiment. Isn't the answer to the question of the directionality of life of the utmost importance? I seek answers and vision, not countless millennia of wasted time. The whole of the Cosmos runs together like clockwork thanks only to my leadership. Besides, haven't the workers made any progress on the new source of energy? I am yet to receive an update."

Manewaring twitched his lips as he always did when he was concerned. "Ah, yes, the new project..."

When he didn't continue, Xavia knew bad news was coming. "Please don't tell me there's been trouble."

"Your outline of a plan for a celestial machine that transforms non-fusible heavy elements into energy, thus annihilating them, has been thoroughly examined and a scale factory has been built."

"Good. And the full-scale energy plant?"

"I'm afraid before construction even got fully under way the workers assigned to the project pulled out."

"Pulled out? What do you mean?"

"They've officially gone on strike."

This made Xavia so angry that he had to pace across the floor of the room to control it. "But this is preposterous," he cried, as if Manewaring was himself to blame. "Workers have never so much as protested a direct request to begin an engineering project. And without this new plant, I'll be struggling to find the energy to accelerate Earth time sufficiently to complete the experiment. What's this about?"

"It's about just that. The Old Ones have traditionally treated your schemes with great respect, but now they are starting to wonder how wise that policy has been." He shrugged in an awkward and forced manner. "They fear you plan to use up this new and possibly final energy source on the experiment. They favour nurturing the energy to provide a slow burn with which they can survive with simple means for billions of years."

"Forgive me if I don't laugh at this poor joke," Xavia said, still unable to stand still. "I have every intention of completing the experiment in good time and using this new energy source to achieve this. The Old Ones have apparently lost their minds at long last."

Manewaring managed to look almost apologetic. "Unfortunately, they are not likely to allow this. In fact they have issued me with a request to demand that you cease the Earth experiment altogether. The message is spreading now that if you do not agree, all Old Ones are to stop work."

"But the Andromeda construction is at a delicate stage- it is structurally unstable."

"Even so, the demand remains. It is time the wishes of those who serve you were considered."

Manewaring seemed to blush at this bold statement of opposition. At least Xavia had earned some degree of respect from him. He dismissed the pseudo-man with an angry wave of his hand then stood at the window, cursing the Old Ones. So much work, so much potential, all to be lost. How could the Old Ones have come to such an abrupt decision against him, after relative millennia of servitude? He was not about to let this ridiculous stance interfere with the grand experiment he had devised that made up the panorama before him.

####

After nightfall, Xavia sat in the darkened room alone, sorting his options. In the night sky he could see the unmistakable signature of his grand vision. The stars and galaxies, sparse and unpowerful as they had become, dimly lit the strands that stretched in an interconnected framework, light years across, thousands of light years long, part of the mechanical control of the heavens on an immense scale that was now falling victim to the unstoppable expansion and general degradation of the Universe. Most of the nuclear energy created in the Universe now arose from artificially created and controlled stars and black-holes which were hidden within enormous constructions that contained and sapped energy from them.

At the bottom of the ladder were the Old Ones, who with their longevity and independence from a particular world were the only life-form capable of implementing projects over millions of parsecs that would take subjective millennia to complete. At the top of the ladder, Xavia was not about to give in to them now. As always, he would decide what was to happen. Given this, he saw but one option. Moving silently to the control panel that housed the time-field generator, he increased the intensity of the machine which warped space-time within the complex such that time within slowed relative to everything exterior. Immediately light flickered on and off outside the windows as days passed in rapid succession. As he boosted the machine further, the complex's windows automatically blanked out, isolating it from the rapidly changing outer world. The machine produced no noticeable difference to his perception of time. It merely had the effect of projecting him forward irreversibly into the relative future of the rest of the Universe.

With thousands of Earth years now passing every second, Xavia allowed himself a smile of satisfaction. With full control of the energy harvesting factories that the Old Ones had created, he could divert as much as he liked into the machine. He cranked it up still further, burning more energy than he had ever used before. At this rate there would be a result to the experiment before he died. He would see how long those Old Ones held out with their delay tactics on the new energy source when they found their usual sources drying up. They needed the energy as much as he did. He didn't expect to have to wait long for the new plant to come on-line.

Over the next few days, Xavia let the experiment run at the new rapid pace. Due to the great discrepancy between time flows, direct observation of what was happening on the surface was not possible, but cameras and other instruments mounted on the interface between the compound and the open land sent back regular information. It was some time before any significant changes were noted, but at some point certain kinds of plant cells began joining together and forming three-dimensional growths with determinate shape. These migrated onto land and developed outgrowths that probed the soils for water and nutrients. Soon they were in competition with each other for light and many began evolving high trunks or broad leaves to collect light from beneath the rising canopy.

In apparent response to this, microscopic heterotrophs from the waters developed the means to breathe the air and soon increased in size, evolving complex tissue layers that performed various functions such as digestion. In a matter of days, the simple photographic images that Xavia received showed a scene almost incomparable to that he was used to. Outside the complex now grew a dense forest of plants and within this vegetation, exotic animals could occasionally be glimpsed about their business.

There was a short impasse to this exciting development when one species of plant re-invented the old style of photosynthesis which involved the production of oxygen. This proved toxic to other life-forms as the atmosphere's reducing nature was overthrown by the plant which became dominant. But in an amazingly short time, the balance returned to the system as many other organisms adapted to this change. After that, macroscopic life diversified at an incredible rate and before long, flight had been re-invented. In fact all the functional types of organisms that had been present in Earth's original biota had returned, albeit in new shapes and sizes.

So Xavia's theories had to some degree been vindicated; that there was a certain inevitability to the form that the biosphere would take, regardless of the particular organisms that took on the various niches. Photosynthesis, land dwelling and predation had all returned en masse as had the tendency for marine organisms to become pelagic and roam the open waters. Yet no group of animals looked like developing in the way that vertebrates had on the original run. There was as yet no trend towards increasing brain size. It had been Xavia's long clung-to theory that intelligence itself was inevitable, a consequence in some way of natural law as the end-point of evolution. Clearly, the experiment still had to run for some time to get to that crucial stage, but the current results were promising.

His keen studies of the changes in the Earth's biota were interrupted, however, when Manewaring returned from a short trip to discuss the stand-off with the Old Ones. Xavia could see immediately in his body language that something had come of these talks, perhaps even a breakthrough. Had the Old Ones felt the full effects of the energy drain?

They greeted each other as coldly as ever. In their inability to understand human nature, the Old Ones had failed to effectively incorporate the concept of friendship into Manewaring. Not that it mattered; he served his function acceptably and in any case Xavia preferred not to treat the pseudo-human as a friend.

"You have news, Manewaring?"

Manewaring nodded. "The Old Ones have realised that we cannot go on with the current situation."

"Good, I'm glad they've come to their senses."

"Clearly it is not possible to blackmail you by refusing to build the power plant."

"Exactly..."

"So I have been instructed to attempt bribery. The Old Ones have something in their possession which they believe you would desire enough to give away the Earth experiment and allow them to conserve energy reserves."

Xavia tried unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh. "What could they possibly offer me that would replace that?" he asked defiantly.

Manewaring replied flatly, "A human female."

That struck Xavia dead. He had never known the Old Ones to lie. But he was certain that the last of the humans had died. He was only alive himself because he stayed constantly within the time-field generator whilst time sped past on the outside. Homo sapiens was ancient history. "How?" he muttered.

"The Old Ones decided to retain one single female as insurance. They retrieved her from one of the human space colonies and placed her within a time-field, a small one strong enough to keep subjective time almost motionless relative to ours."

"But that would create a huge energy drain."

"True, but the Old Ones considered this acceptable use of resources, since the woman can now be traded."

"So she is alive, but unaware of the millions of passing years?"

"Yes, we estimate that she has experienced approximately five of your minutes in your last thirty subjective years."

"How can I be sure the woman isn't one of your kind, an Old One construct?"

"I can assure you she is fully human. It is not in our interests to deceive."

"But the Old Ones could easily have improved their techniques since they created you. I would never know the difference."

"I think you are perceptive enough to know one of your own."

Perhaps he was right. The Old Ones could not have replicated exactly all the idiosyncrasies of humankind. He shook his head. "I don't know. "This news was hard to absorb, not least in that it showed a side to the Old Ones he hadn't expected.

"There is no need to worry, "Manewaring explained. "We do not expect an immediate decision from you. I have arranged for the human to be transported here within this time-field. You will meet and make your decision. This will occur within several of your subjective hours at the current relative field strength. The human is currently located in the Egon-221 galaxy on the periphery of Earth's observable horizon."

"But that's billions of light years away."

"The space-time distortion within this complex is currently extreme and we have means of rapid transport."

Manewaring left without further word.

####

Narun had been one of those foolish enough to believe that when the Old Ones, the powerful engineers of space-time, had taken control of the Central Andromeda colony and dismantled it that they had been rescuing the humans from certain death. A series of disasters had left the people in a vulnerable situation, perhaps on the brink of extinction. And since they had learned that other minor colonies had been routed by a roaming band of unstoppable spacefaring life-forms from the Large Magellanic Cloud, and that the Earth had been sterilised permanently when the Sun had grown old and expanded out towards it somewhat prematurely, they had lived with the weight of knowledge that their own extinction was also the extinction of humankind. They had not made enough friends to expect any sort of help in preventing this, but the Old Ones had seemed civil enough. They even said that they had moved the Earth in order to stop it being consumed by the expanding Sun, to keep for humans to recolonise. Doubters had claimed they were clearing out Andromeda for some galactic scale engineering project.

Narun's opinion of the Old Ones had changed markedly, though, since they had physically manhandled her with their machines and thrown her into this small room to be held captive. It was a fearful room, so brightly lit that there were no shadows in the corners, nowhere to hide. The walls were oppressively blank and there was no furniture, barely enough room to take two steps. She had reacted angrily to this imprisonment by banging her fists uselessly against the impermeable walls, inducing no response from her captors. Heaven only knew what she and her friends were in for. There had been rumours of slavery, but the Old Ones could hardly have benefited from the meagre services of humans.

It came as some relief that when, after just a few minutes, the wall of the cell slid open and she was allowed to walk out. The Old Ones were there, but in lesser numbers and their undefinable, sifting shapes seemed haggard. Their powerful but confusing form of communication blasted her with many conflicting images. She came away with the contradicting feelings of being alone in the Universe, yet of being the beginning of a new wave of existence. There were images of both destruction and re-birth.

Machines guided her to a walkway lit with a patchy series of fluorescences. She was afraid but not necessarily of physical danger. The Old Ones were more subtle than that. A door opened and she walked through it and off of the Old Ones' transporter. The world she had arrived on was covered in some kind of low, green-brown vegetation with occasional tree-like emergences. The calls of some animal could be heard in the distance. The air was cool but perfectly breathable, if a little thin. The breeze lapped at her wrap-around smock and blew her long brown hair across her delicate features. A small white Sun was near the horizon.

Then she felt the transporter behind her lift and take off, leaving her there alone... with an oldish man, dressed strangely in clothing that was cut to hug each limb separately. His fine angular features were unusual, especially in contrast to her own broad-structured face. The man approached her with a cautious smile.

"Hello," he said in a dialect Narun barely recalled of old Russian.

She held her arms around her against the cold and studied him. "What's going on?" she asked. She had a terrible feeling about what the answer was going to be.

He had the look of someone baring bad news as he said, "You are on the old Earth. I am conducting an experimental re-run of evolution here, starting with primitive microbes. This landscape is the product of several billion years of evolution. I agreed this made a nice meeting place for two lonely people."

Narun looked around and shrugged, not quite seeing the point. Several billion years of evolution? But the Earth had only recently been sterilised hadn't it?

The man continued, "You have been in a time-field. It is now several billion years since you were captured by the Old Ones. We two are the only humans left in the Universe."

Was this strange man a crackpot? Was he tricking her into staying here with him? Then she remembered the stories about the fate of the Earth and the other colonies and the fearful images she had received from her captors. The Old Ones were not to be underestimated. She deliberately dodged further contemplation of the frightening possibility.

"Did the Old Ones bring you here too?" she asked, wondering what his role was.

Surprisingly, the man chuckled. "Heavens no. I tell the Old Ones what to do. I run the show. They brought you to me. They think they can bargain using you as bait to get me to stop the experiment."

"Why?"

"A difference of opinion. But I cannot choose. I intend to have you and the Earth."

Narun took a deliberate step backwards, a strong symbol of protest in her culture. "I am no object to be had," she stated with sincerity.

"Don't misunderstand me. As a human, you are my equal. But if we are to remain together, I must play the game with the Old Ones who don't see it that way."

"What if I don't wish to remain here with you?"

"You would prefer isolation from the rest of your species?"

She thought about that then shook her head. At that the man stepped closer and offered her his hand. "I am Xavia," he said.

Taking his hand, she said, "And I, Narun."

####

When Xavia had realised he could not get back into the building complex where he normally lived he had cursed and claimed he had been tricked by the Old Ones. Why was he so surprised? Narun found it difficult to understand why he wanted to be back in the small enclosure anyway. After a lifetime of living in boxes, she found it wonderfully fulfilling to be able to roam in the open air and live freely. At first, they had found it difficult to find food and water and they had grown lean. It hadn't helped that Xavia refused to walk far from his beloved complex in search of what they needed. But after a while they had managed to work out a collectable and nutritious diet of plant roots, animal flesh and other delicious foods. They made shelters from the branches of larger plants and also burnt them for heat. Xavia had said something about the compatibility of proteins amongst life with a common ancestry as if he thought it was important, but this was obvious to her as was the assumption that the Earth should provide perfectly for them. The system worked much better than the ultimately ill-fated cycling systems of the space colonies ever had. The un-reality of the situation somehow numbed the grief of losing the rest of humanity, and she tried not to think too much about her lost partner, Heg, with whom she had lived before the Old Ones took her away.

Without even having to discuss the matter, the pair of them had instinctively sought to renew the human species. The act was carried out routinely and relatively unaffectionately. But despite their efforts, Narun had borne no fruit. Xavia constantly mumbled half-understood complaints about lacking micro-nutrients and genetic incompatibility, but Narun knew differently.

She squatted in the hut they had built, tending a smouldering fire as a light shower began outside. Xavia had gone off into the bush with some vague task he thought vital to carry out, although the day was nearly ending. They were the only pair of humans left and she was not capable of producing off-spring. Ever since she had arrived on Earth, months ago now, she had not bled once. Nor was she pregnant. The Old Ones had done something to her when she was captive. She hadn't yet found the heart to tell Xavia, who was doubly intent on letting nature take its course.

She blushed guiltily as Xavia made his appearance at the opening to the hut. His wiry features, hardened by the weeks of travel on foot and the efforts of living off the land, looked harsh as he came into the fire-light. A toughness that grew in him was often juxtaposed by an almost manic excitement about the discoveries he came upon daily. He would come home from a gathering expedition with an arm full of dirt-covered tubers, a sling full of fire-wood and a bag of stories about the peculiar organisms he had discovered.

Today, though, he looked pale. He silently unloaded his gatherings into the appropriate piles then turned and crouched by Narun, warming his numb hands over the fire. In the flickering and dancing orange-red light, the crevices of his aging face seemed more pronounced, his eyebrows more tufted.

He finally turned to her and said, "I had trouble today. I came across a ford at the river where it seemed safe to cross. I hadn't been to the other side before and thought I'd look for some different species there. I crossed OK but when I tried to climb the far bank, I found that a dense mat of stems had grown out of nothing and barred my way. There was no way for me to get through. I had to jump back in the water and go back to the other side."

"You mean those rubbery orange-stemmed ones?"

"You've seen them?"

"Yes, of course. They come and go in patches near the hill. They never got in my way though."

Xavia seemed to think about that. "How odd," he announced. "Must be better soil by the creek, makes them vigorous. When there's a few more of us around, we'll be able to control the area better." He made an unsubtle motion towards the soft pile of plant matter that was the bed.

"I have to tell you something," she whispered seriously, pretending she hadn't noticed the gesture. "About why we haven't conceived yet."

"What is it?"

She blurted it out. "The Old Ones have sterilised me." There, she had said it, announced the doom of the species.

Surprisingly, his angry response was not directed at her at all. "Conniving liars," he bellowed. "They've done me like a dinner. First they trick me out of the complex, then they ruin the return gift. When I get out of this mess, I'll make sure Old Ones suffer everywhere."

This bold statement somehow seemed to lack true conviction.

"This is perfect," he went on, oblivious to Narun. "Now the species is lost once again and the experiment is ruined as well."

"But isn't the experiment continuing?"

"In a manner of speaking, but we seem to be a long way from the end and I won't be here to see the end-point."

"What end-point? Are you sure such a thing exists?"

"Absolutely. Man was the end-point of the first run, isn't that obvious?"

"Not at all. Man is only important to man. Who's to say what is the peak of evolution, or that it has a peak at all?"

Xavia looked at her as though he hadn't realised she possessed a brain capable of understanding such concepts.

She hadn't finished. "I think your problem is loneliness. You began this crazy experiment because you thought you were the only human left alive. You were so desperately lonely that you subconsciously designed this scheme, thinking that it would some day produce an organism analogous to man, something with which you could communicate properly."

"Rubbish."

Narun grabbed Xavia's arms tightly. "In my culture," she explained, "the highest form of happiness is achieved through companionship. Children may come of it, but it is the partnership itself that is most important. Now you have me, why not forget the future and be content? The Earth is beautiful. Why risk another Homo sapiens coming along and ruining our Eden?"

"You think that's what all this is about? You think I should be satisfied with what I have, when I once commanded a Universe?"

"You never commanded anything. The Old Ones are superior to humans. In my culture we recognise that. They have been playing with you from the start. When are you going to let go of this bitterness?"

"The experiment must continue. A half-completed equation is meaningless."

####

A week or so later, Narun watched Xavia with increasing irritation as he inspected the encroaching wall of rubbery orange tree stems. They were growing rapidly and invading the space they had cleared for their hut. In his arrogance, Xavia had vowed to destroy the trees, when he worked out just how to do it. Narun had begun to detest his narrow-mindedness, but there was also something undeniably endearing about the clarity and focus of his own personal vision.

####

Out of the dense vegetation, a figure appeared unexpectedly. Manewaring's short-stepped gait was unmistakable, even at distance. His formal dark blue suit and neatly arranged hair looked ridiculous on a man coming out of the bush compared to Xavia's now earthy appearance. Xavia's anger suppressed anything he might have said. Instead he let Manewaring approach, leaving the pile of tubers unplanted on the overturned earth at his feet.

"I am sorry things have turned out this way," the Old One representative announced without intonation when he reached him.

"Are you? Sorry that I was swindled out of everything?"

"I think it was a fair deal."

"Tuh," Xavia spat, "I think I'm owed. You must begin by reversing Narun's infertility."

"If the Old Ones had wished for more humans, they would have allowed it."

Xavia shook his head, genuinely distressed. "I just don't understand it. The Old Ones I knew for so long were respectful, obedient. What has caused this rapid change of attitude?"

Manewaring didn't appear to need time to think about the answer. He replied, "Patience is built into our nature. The Old Ones have observed your behaviour over time and have finally come to the decision that your actions are not desirable. In a way, you have been our little experiment. We do not make decisions hastily. We knew we could manipulate you with Narun at some point, but when that time came, we realised that there was no place for humans in our plans. They are never content unless they have a hand in the pie. So we made sure you and Narun could not propagate."

"So you think you've won now?"

"More or less. There has been some wastage. But now the new power plants are on-line and we have re-balanced the energy state of the Universe. We can now live safely for some time and we have found the energy reserves to renew the Old Ones who had grown tired, although for some it was sadly too late."

"You may have bought time, but you don't have answers. Don't you, Manewaring, wish to understand what it is all about? If you do, you must allow me to return to the complex and complete the experiment. I could hardly drain all of your new energy could I?"

"Your pleas are futile. What you have now is your life. Accept it."

"Why did you come here, for old times' sake?"

"I took it upon myself to inform you of these events. My role here on Earth is now complete and I will not be returning."

With that final comment he turned and walked away. Xavia knew it was useless to follow him and attempt to force entry to the complex. The Old Ones would sooner sacrifice Manewaring than their decision. It would take a billion years for them to change again. But such logic scarcely registered against the heat of his anger. He would not accept his situation. He took chase after Manewaring and caught up with him at the edge of the clearing. He leapt to grab him and bring him to the ground, but Manewaring had reflexes he couldn't have imagined. The pseudo-human spun around in a flowing motion and dealt Xavia a blow with an arm that felt like a lead weight; he had been built from tissue far more substantial than Xavia's meagre sinew and bone. A seething pain erupted in his cracked skull as he lay panting on the ground. In a moment, his consciousness slipped away.

####

Narun crouched by the body and watched as the trees crowded around and sent adventitious root-like organs into it. Immediately the body crumpled and deflated as the organism fed on it. Narun saw this as an appropriate funeral. Xavia had been taken and incorporated into the world he had created. Narun stood and wandered slowly amongst the boughs, listening with love to the sound of the wind as it sighed through them. She had always understood the nature of this vibrant species, although the significance had been entirely lost on Xavia. The trees were a complex community of intelligent life. A life that understood what was around them in terms of texture and chemical content, an intelligence not analogous to that of mammals. Their talk was in the whisper of the leaves in the breeze, the scent of the soil in which their roots intertwined and probed. They had no brain but sensed with every cell. They learnt from and incorporated the nature of other organisms they encountered. They had read and incorporated the brain structure that had remained in the dead body of Xavia, the man that they had prevented from crossing the creek and going where dangerous predators lurked. Now Narun could hear in the creaking of wood and the pattern of growth a new calling that belonged to Xavia. They had discovered curiosity. Now the trees grew around her, wanting to taste her essence, keen to understand her.

She led them along with her as she walked, feeling the way with blind instinct towards the complex. The curiosity had already spread before her, however, because the entire building was now entangled in a thick net of vines, their roots scouring the surface of the walls.

Short-sighted Xavia had not realised that he had lived among the intelligent product of evolution he sought the whole time. But although he had been self-centred and driven in abstract ways he had been Narun's partner, and that was of all importance. The Old Ones had separated her once, but they would pay for the second time. Without hesitation she threw herself to the ground and allowed the roots of the trees to penetrate and devour her, combining as one.

Together once again in the hybrid organism, Xavia and Narun entered the complex. The security system had been designed only to keep out humans. It could do nothing about the infusion of a million elongated fine roots hairs and outgrowths that found every minute opening and pushed through. Soon plant-life filled the interior of the deserted complex. In their slowness, the Old Ones had failed to de-activate the time-field generator. As one, the organism suffused the machine's physical body and set it into motion once again. Immediately the inside of the complex was cut off from contact with the outside as a time difference developed, but the vegetation inside was capable of full function. The strength of space-time distortion in the complex was increased exponentially, draining the Old Ones' energy sources before they could disconnect them and sending the complex into the far relative future. The organism within the complex tingled with excitement for it was to perceive the end of time itself. What a scientific miracle, privilege beyond all privilege.

####

The distortion of space-time had been so great that it also affected external space. Outside the complex, the hybrid organism felt change running through it at great pace. The part of it that had been Xavia understood what was happening and rejoiced. Time passed at speed so that thought processes took many years to complete. Fortunately, it had gained control over the Earth and no longer had competition to deal with. Instead everything worked together inside it. Evolution had ended. Suddenly it seemed, the dwarf Sun faded and went cold. The days were dim and photosynthesis produced little. The organism had devoured its reserves by the time the Sun snuffed out altogether and left a sterile Earth spinning in darkness. Even the heavens were blank...

####

The last of the Old Ones huddled together as best they could as the great distortion created by the humans caused massive expansion of the Universe and millions of galaxies ran out of fuel, winking out one by one after a series of novae akin to a fireworks display. In what felt like a short time, billions of years passed and the fire went cold. Space felt eerie and empty to the few who had the reserves to fight on. Those who remained knew that the Old Ones' patience had worked against them, that they had been outdone by fast-acting humans. Yet the current end had been written in the cards from the start and they would have experienced the slow death eventually, no matter what intervention they sought. Somehow the billions of years since the beginning of life, shortly after the big-bang, seemed now like only a beginning, yet life was slipping away from them.

In time the Old Ones grew weak and lost touch with one another in the stretching void and their thoughts became thin and interrupted by long periods of silence. There was so much more they could have done if only they had been allowed time. A lone Old One, perhaps the most ancient of them all, caught a glimpse of an idea that held a glimmer of hope. In the darkness of the decaying Universe, it tried to cling to the thought, a way to reverse what had happened, to renew existence. But it was hard to concentrate too tired...

THE END



Copyright © 2002 by Greg Guerin

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