Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Extraction

by Ryan A. Somma


Damn, Jyl thought, unable to locate the purse. It was in her car, out in the parking lot, but that was too difficult. Getting through all the security to escape the building and then get back in again would pull her away from work for too long. She was so close to achieving a project milestone; she had to stay on course. Her daughter would understand. Skylah would be hurt and resentful, but she would understand.

She furrowed her brow at the computer monitor, where the simulation had failed again. The graph showed a timeline, beginning at a point, and growing into an increasing wave function as the length of time grew. She had to get the field entirely around the wave to proceed, but something was preventing its closing, probably something simple, something Jyl was overlooking in the equation. The more she stared at her calculations, the more frustrated she got. It all looked correct.

A knock at the door brought her head up, and she found Mr. Bunrakuken Sakata standing in the doorway. It wasn't his ever-present smile or his formal humility that made Jyl smile in return, but the millions of dollars he was pouring into her research. While other potential investors had ridiculed her scientific pursuits, Mr. Sakata had simply signed on.

"Are you hungry to go out?" he asked. At their initial introduction, Jyl could not understand a single word he had said, but he was getting more proficient in English.

Despite Jyl's project supervisors being the company's face, Mr. Sakata was genuinely interested in the brains behind it, meaning constant invites to dinner. Jyl simultaneously admired and dreaded this idiosyncrasy. Socializing was not Jyl's strong suit, and she hated the idea of leaving her work when she was so close to a breakthrough.

Then she asked herself, When am I not on the verge of a breakthrough?

She stood up, casting one last longing glance at her computer monitor before smiling awkwardly at him and saying, "I just need my coat."

####

Jyl feigned interest in the cultural experience at the sushi restaurant. The conversation was light, limited by Mr. Sakata's grasp of English and the range of topics Jyl could engage with anyone lacking a Doctorate in Physics.

Finally Mr. Sakata, having exhausted all other avenues of small talk, opened the conversational floodgates in asking Jyl, "How do you enjoy your work?"

The week's mental struggles all rushed back to Jyl, "I'm on the verge of finishing phase one, establishing the extraction field to remove objects from the space-time continuum. It can almost surround an object completely, but I'm having trouble closing it."

"The field will move things through time?" Mr. Sakata asked politely.

"No," Jyl shook her head, "The field merely creates an environment where an object can move through time. You see, three of the dimensions in our universe deal with spatial relations. Objects exist in three-dimensional space, length, width, and height. The fourth dimension is time, the movement of energy."

"Ah," Mr. Sakata said, nodding his head, although it was obvious he was not following.

Jyl was oblivious, in the zone, "Evolution gave most life on Earth the ability to actively move through 3-dimensional space, and it may have even given humans certain ways to mentally navigate temporal space, precognition, déjà vu, and such. Theoretically, time should be as navigable as its three companion dimensions. Time is a localized phenomenon, running slower in areas of high-gravity. In a black hole, it does not exist at all."

"So you want to affect time locally?" he poured Jyl another shot of sake.

She downed the shot absentmindedly and said, "If only it were that easy! Time, matter, and energy all interact with one another in the space-time continuum. It's all connected. The time-traveler must remove himself from the system completely before moving through the timeline. You can't move one part of the continuum backwards in time without affecting everything around it."

Mr. Sakata's eyes lit up with understanding, and he poured them both another round. "So your field will do this thing?"

She quaffed the shot too quickly and coughed momentarily, her eyes tearing. "Yes!" she croaked, "The Extraction field will remove an object from the continuum, but getting the field around an object is where I've hit a snag. You see, you can't just put the field around the object's spatial dimensions, you have to encompass its temporal dimensions as well."

"What will you try the field on," Mr Sakata asked, "once you can close it?"

"Ah! There's the rub," Jyl pointed a finger at him and leaned in. "I can't try the field on anything. Once I remove something from the space-time continuum, I won't know that it ever existed, because it will never have existed! Like this chopstick," she held up the wooden utensil, "If I remove it from the space-time continuum, wrap an extraction field around its entire existence, then it will never have existed, but no one will know. A chopstick is a little thing. Removing it might cause some interesting phenomenon, but we won't notice because we won't remember it ever existing. To me, it will appear as though nothing has happened to the chopstick, because another will have taken its place."

"But…" Sakata poured another round with a quizzical expression on his face, "won't you have removed that chopstick too?"

"It's chopsticks forever," Jyl said. She downed the shot and grinned warmly.

"Hmm," Mr. Sakata was frowning. "Very complicated, but I guess that is time-travel."

"Time travel's the easy part," Jyl said with a wave of her hand. "The hard part is closing the extraction field." She set a napkin between them on the table, drew the timeline graph with the growing wave function as was rendered on her monitor back at the lab, and pointed at the zero-hour, "Let's say we want to remove someone from the space-time continuum. Here's where you want to start: conception. It's just a point at that time. It hasn't affected the world except to consume a microscopic bit of matter: one fertilized egg." She followed the timeline forward, tracing the growing wavelengths, "As the fetus grows, it has a greater and greater effect on the universe, generating ripples. The mother must make choices. The father is affected. The fetus' mere existence sets events in motion that will have greater and greater repercussions. As it grows, its existence has a cumulative effect on the universe. The little ripples become a tidal wave of chain reactions that continue forever."

Mr. Sakata was staring at her blankly.

"In order to remove the subject," Jyl continued. "We have to get the Extraction field around the entire wave function, from start to…" She trailed off, staring into space, "…finish."

Jyl was in a trance, lips working out equations in her head without sound. Mr. Sakata was polite and did not press her. He merely continued pouring out servings of sake, letting her think until the check arrived.

Finally he asked, "Drive you home?"

"I… Thank you, but…" her mind was straddling two worlds, the one in her head, and the reality sitting next to her. "I would like to go back to the laboratory."

"You have had much to drink," Mr. Sakata said with a touch of concern, "You are in no state to work."

"I just need to jot some thoughts down," Jyl said, "…maybe try something."

Mr. Sakata considered her solemnly as he signed the debit slip, but did not debate the matter.

####

"Is that your phone?" he asked halfway to the lab.

Jyl looked at him, uncomprehending, and then she noticed the "Flight of the Bumblebee" coming from her coat pocket. She pulled out her cell phone and said, "Hello?"

"Mom?" Skylah sounded surprised her mother had answered. "Are you still at work?"

"Well…" Jyl began guiltily, overcompensating her inebriation with overly precise enunciation. "We're on our way back to the lab now."

"Are you drunk?" Skylah asked. "Who's ‘we'?"

"Mr. Sakata and I were just having dinner," Jyl explained, "and -- "

"You're on a date?" Skylah's surprise was almost devious. "Never mind! Forget I called. This is a good thing Mom. You kids stay out as late as you want."

"No Skylah, It's not like tha -- " Jyl trailed off as she realized the line was dead.

"Your daughter?" Mr. Sakata asked politely.

Jyl nodded, "Yeah. She was just checking in on me."

"Children are living messages we send to a time we will not see," Mr. Sakata said in perfect English. Jyl blinked at him.

####

At the laboratory, Mr. Sakata was very insistent on waiting for Jyl to drive her home. He would not be responsible for his brightest mind perishing in a drunk driving accident. She knew his concern was not only sincere, but good business as well.

He agreed to pass the time in the lounge while she dashed up to her lab and ran her calculation, grateful for Sakata's understanding; otherwise, she would lose an entire night's sleep pondering the possibility.

She could barely contain herself. All this time she was trying to capture a wave function that was still growing. Like casting a net over fleeing game without accounting for its velocity, she was trying to capture a section of time that was still running away.

For several agonizing minutes she watched the fuzzy, theoretical line snake its way around the wave function, above and below it. Like a boa constrictor swallowing a small child, it worked around the biggest wave and the two lines sought to close at the x-axis. They met and stabilized.

Jyl gasped, then hiccupped. She continued staring, wide-eyed, at the wavering, incandescent line. She was afraid if she looked away it might vanish, but it held.

She forgot her balance, bumping into the desk clumsily, spilling pens and pencils across it. She picked up the silver-clasped belt she had designed years ago. She saw the electronics she had soldered together personally years ago. She strapped the belt on and ran a parallel connection from it to her computer's USB port. A blue light to the buckle's side indicated the connection was good and she compiled the new calculations into it. Ding, it finished. Reaching for the extraction field toggle switch, she had a doubt, but another hiccup prevented her reasoning it. It was just a second out of the continuum.

Click, on. Click, off.

She was flying -- No, she was falling. Her arms and legs waved frantically as she spiraled through the air, heart caught in her throat, and plunged into cold water. The impact stunned her, but the cold darkness caused instincts to kick in and she swam frantically toward what she hoped was up.

With a gasp, she found the surface. She was in the harbor running beside her laboratory. The building was visible at the shoreline, and she swam toward it, the cold water shocking her into sobriety.

After finding a way up the bulkhead, Jyl waddled stiffly back to her lab, shivering and sniffling. The building's entrance was dark and she could not see anything past her own reflection in the tinted glass. She felt her pockets, but remembered her keys were in the laboratory. The street was deserted. Apparently, Mr. Sakata had given up on her.

Oh well, she thought, and slid one finger along the belt's smooth metal buckle with a smile. She turned toward the parking garage, where a spare key was hidden in the rear passenger-side wheel well of her compact car. She would drive home and figure things out from there.

The mistake was an obvious one, thinking about it. When she pulled herself out of the space-time continuum, she failed to account for the Earth's spin and orbit around the sun. The planet had run away without her, spinning at 0.5 kilometers per second and revolving around the sun at 30 kilometers per second. The solar system moved around the Milky-Way galaxy at 250 kilometers per second, and the Milky-Way moved with its group of galaxies at 300 kilometers per second, and the Universe was expanding at a billion kilometers a second, or was it an hour?

Anyway, she thought, entering the parking garage, I'm damn lucky I didn't end up in the Earth's core or floating in space -- "My car!" she exclaimed at the empty parking space. "Where the hell is my car?"

She brought her head around to the sound of footsteps and found a security guard she did not recognize running toward her. "May I help you Ma'am?" he asked breathlessly.

Jyl pointed at the empty parking space, regarding the stranger with a skeptical stare. "My car's been stolen."

He smiled uneasily and shook his head, "You didn't park here Ma'am."

"Yes, I did," Jyl retorted.

"You know this is a controlled entry parking garage," he explained. "No one enters or leaves without me knowing about it." He paused, staring at Jyl's bare feet. She looked down and noticed a puddle of water gathering around them. "Do you need some help, Miss?" the man asked. "There's a Union Mission just a few blocks down the street…"

Jyl was not listening; she looked past the man and asked, "That office building there, is it Asari Speculations L.L.C.?"

"No ma'am," he replied with a shake of his head. "That's a satellite office for AMS."

"Thank you," she whispered. "I can find my own way to the shelter."

She walked away under the guard's perplexed stare, taking inventory of the implications of what had happened. She cursed herself for being fully aware of this possibility, yet continuing to act as rashly as she did. She had erased every trace of her existence from the universe, removed herself, all her actions, and the Universe's reactions out of the timeline. She had told Sakata about the missing chopstick no one would ever remember existing. Now she was it.

Her car was not where she left it, because she did not park it there, nor ever own it. The company built around her discoveries and research prospects did not exist. She never bought the house she so desperately wanted to go home to right now.

Jyl froze. A phone booth was set into the side of a building nearby. She strode up to it, trembling, hoping against hope that she had miscalculated, forgotten some factor that would leave her one and only neglected daughter still alive and well.

"Hello?" a stranger's gruff male voice answered Jyl's home phone number. She hung up and tried Skylah's friend, Melissa's, home number, where she was staying the night.

"Hello?" Melissa's mother asked.

Jyl felt a brief flare of hope at the familiar voice, "Karen? This is Jyl. May I speak to Skylah?"

"Who?" the woman asked, confused. "I'm sorry. Who is this?"

Jyl hung up, afraid to hear another word, another confirmation that all her life's works were gone. She walked away slowly, toward the shelter, and she was completely overtaken with grief when she reached it. Someone wrapped her in a woolen blanket and led her inside to a cot, where she lay on one side and quietly wept into the darkness until sleep mercifully removed her from awareness.

####

Jyl awoke before dawn, eyes swollen and her head filled with possibilities. In her dreams she found a way to set things back the way they were and now her mind struggled with the details to make it reality. She sat up, and found an old woman sitting on a nearby cot, smoking a cigarette and staring at Jyl with dark, sunken eyes.

"I can solve this," Jyl whispered to the woman. "I'm an INTP: Introverted Intuitive Thinking Perceptive person, a problem solver. I make my living off it. I figured out how to jump out of the space-time continuum. With a few modifications to my calculations, I'll be time traveling. From there, anything is possible."

The old woman's stony face was revealed in the glow of her cigarette as she took a puff. "Which one of the 12-steps is that?" she asked, exhaling a nicotine-laced cloud that veiled her face in smoke and darkness.

That morning Jyl managed to eat the breakfast burrito stuffed with watery eggs the shelter offered for breakfast before setting out for the Norfolk Public Library. The pair of used sneakers the volunteers provided were heavily worn, and the indents of someone else's feet were firmly planted in them, making them uncomfortable, however functional.

Inside the library, Jyl took a computer before all the terminals were occupied. It took her the entire day to find all the variables she needed online, and twice she had to ask for help on the Physics discussion boards. She found a post from a student at Michigan State there, whom she helped with some homework in the past. Only now someone else had answered his questions in this Universe where she never existed. Another chopstick had taken her place. It was like the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," except she was being shown how ineffectual her existence had been. Only her daughter mattered.

With a sigh, she closed the browser window and downloaded the new variables to her belt-buckle. It was night outside, and Jyl stood up, stretching, feeling joints pop all throughout her 46-year-old frame.

"What's the point in waiting?" she asked herself aloud through a yawn and strapped the belt around her waist. She closed her eyes and toggled herself out of the space-time continuum for a three count.

She was three feet to the left of where she just stood. The equation needed tweaking a few hundred-thousandths of a decimal point somewhere. She turned to the computer and fell flat on her face. Looking back, the rubber soles of her sneakers were melded with the floor. She casually stood up, barefoot once again, and returned to her terminal, where a large African-American woman was checking her e-mail.

"Excuse me," Jyl said, raising a finger for attention. "I was using that machine."

The woman looked at her and frowned, "I've been sitting here all day."

"Dammit," Jyl snapped. "I pulled my existence out of the continuum again!"

As she marched out of the library, the woman called out after her, "Hey lady! You forgot your shoes!"

####

"Now Jyl," the Doctor said, tapping his pen against his bottom lip. "There is a logical consistency issue with the story you have told me. When you say that your shoes molded with the floor, the rest of your body would mold with the environment as well."

"There was nothing else for me to mold with," Jyl said. "I told you, just my shoes, everything else was thin air."

"Correct," the Doctor said, nodding, "thin air."

"I didn't feel anything," Jyl said defensively.

The Doctor said gently, "I am merely trying to explore the implications of what you have told me. My concern is that your time-travel experiences my have altered the chemistry of your brain. If the organ melded with oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon molecules haphazardly, it may have generated imperceptible imbalances in your psyche."

"So you are telling me I'm insane," Jyl stated coolly. "I get that a lot. Watch."

There was a knock at the door, and Jyl entered; she smiled at the Jyl sitting in the leather chair, "Hello past Jyl."

"Hello future Jyl," she replied. "I guess this is my cue."

The Jyl sitting in the chair toggled a switch on her belt and vanished. The standing Jyl assumed her place on the seat and looked at the Doctor expectantly, "Would you like to know how you die?"

The Doctor's two eyebrows became one, "A magic trick. Holograms -- "

"Whatever," Jyl waved him off impatiently. She set a debit chip down on the Doctor's desk. When his eyes went wide at the number displayed there, Jyl said, "I've got a knack for investing in stocks just before they skyrocket."

"Hmmm," the Doctor intoned, folding his hands in front of him thoughtfully. "Your story -- "

"Is beside the point," Jyl interrupted. "I've spent an eternity leaping through time, fine tuning my invention, and seeking a way to bring back my daughter. You are the greatest genetic engineer in human history."

"Eternity?" the Doctor asked. "Am I to assume you are immortal?"

"Not immortal," Jyl shook her head impatiently. "Timeless, but this -- "

"Please," the old Doctor held up a hand. "You have all the time in the world. Humor me. Surely there are smarter Doctors than I in the future."

"None I can communicate with," Jyl replied. "A thousand years from now the progeny of the human race become incomprehensible to me. I was able to glean a few physics concepts from them to enhance my extraction field, but that's it. I want my daughter back."

"Is she the reason for your interest in Time-Travel?" he asked.

"Time Travel is what took her from me," Jyl corrected the cause and effect. "An overlooked consequence of removing myself from the Universe. If I had known the things people knew two hundred years after my experiment, I could have prevented it. I've learned how to preserve some time ripples, like maintaining a bank account."

"Hmph," the Doctor grunted, considering this and said finally, "Do you have her genetic code? A tissue sample?"

Jyl shook her head, "She never existed. I have memories of her, my own genes, and my former husband's genetic code. Can you help me?"

The doctor considered her for a long moment before shaking his head, "I believe you, but I cannot help you."

"You are the only person in the universe who can help," she countered. "Your genetic prediction software is the only way to put Skylah back together. You run through all the combinations of mine and my ex's genes, and I will pick out the result that equals my daughter."

"You are talking about trillions of possible results," the doctor warned. "It would take a lifetime just to -- "

"I have more than all the time in the world," Jyl cut in.

"A lifetime just to narrow the results down to a few million who look like your daughter," the Doctor said adamantly.

"I would know her," Jyl pressed.

"No," the Doctor shook his head, "You wouldn't. Even if you perfectly mimic her genes, even if you had the genetic material to clone her, it would not be the same person. She would lack the experiences that shaped her personality. The differences, no matter how subtle you manage to make them; the differences would mock you, constantly remind you of your failure, of what you have lost. Believe me--" He took her hand and looked into her eyes. "I know."

"I'll make it worth your while," Jyl said, squeezing his hand. "How would you like to be wealthy, ridiculously wealthy? I can make that happen, and not just now. I can make you wealthy as a youth, when you can really enjoy it."

"But I won't remember this life," the Doctor countered.

"You can record all the wisdom of your life and send it to yourself in the past. Everyone has things they wish they could do differently," Jyl urged. "How would you like to have the 223 years of wisdom you have now without all the experiences and hardships it took to amass it?"

"Then it wouldn't be wisdom," the Doctor said tiredly.

"But you could -- " Jyl began, but the old man silenced her with a raised palm.

"At my age, it's true, I have regrets," he said slowly, "but I also have the hindsight to know certain mistakes, tragedies, and missed opportunities opened doors for me. I cannot weigh the good experiences in my life against the bad and decide if it's worth trading them both in for an alternate lifeline I know nothing about. I am just a content old man who believes that everything happens for a reason. You must let your daughter go."

He looked up and found Jyl standing, her eyes like flames burning into him. "How dare you say that to me?" she was trembling. "All you did was lose your wife. My daughter didn't die, she never existed, and it was my fault!"

"But your daughter's memory, her soul -- "

"What soul?" Jyl demanded. "She was never born. There never was a soul."

"Perhaps in an alternate reality she -- "

"Don't throw that infinite worlds theory nonsense at me," Jyl snapped. "It does me no good here. This is the only reality that I know and my suffering is part of that."

"You suffering," the old man said gently, "is temporary. Everything happens for a reason."

"You really think so?" Jyl scoffed. "Then how do I fit into your concept of the Universe? I could change everything and you wouldn't even know it. I can make things happen for my reasons. I could make your life nothing but suffering. I could make you never born."

"But you would not do that," he replied softly but firmly. "The very fact that we are sitting here, having this conversation is proof -- "

"That I haven't changed the future yet," Jyl cut him off. "If I were to go back in time, you wouldn't ever be here to discuss it. That's the glory of my method of time travel: I can go back in time and reinvent history all I want without ever producing a paradox, because I'm not part of the system. I'm outside the Universe.

"All this intelligence," Jyl snarled, "all this technology, the universe has invented a way to look at itself, but I outsmarted it. I've spent an eternity as an apparition, appearing to people like you throughout history, people who can't help me, but in spite of my experiences insist a higher power governs all this. Well you know what? History is written by the victors."

"You intend to harm me?" the Doctor asked calmly. He was not afraid, but curious.

"You?" Jyl scoffed. "You're never going to happen. I have bigger ripples to create in this timeline. My intelligence ruined my happiness. Intelligence ruins everyone's happiness."

"Genocide then?" the Doctor asked.

"It's not genocide," Jyl retorted. "I'm not killing anyone, just preventing they're ever existing. I'm going to undo the world."

"You won't do that," the doctor said, maintaining his gentle smile. "You just need help, counseling."

Jyl stood up, shaking her head, "I've seen hundreds of the best psychologists, philosophers, and scientists history has to offer. No one can help me. Good-bye Doctor. You won't remember this conversation, because it will never happen."

With that, Jyl vanished.

####

Little waves agitated the shallow, muddy pool. A spiny dorsal fin broke the surface, wiggling toward the shoreline's soft mud. The pool, once a lake teeming with life, was evaporating. Decayed carcasses littered its surroundings. The food chain collapsed, and then the puddle's oxygen ran out, wiping out even the most adept of higher-order animals, until only this solitary fish remained.

The scenario had repeated thousands of times over hundreds of millions of years, but this time was different. This genetic misfit was unlike the others, it had a single lung, capable of breathing air, a recessive gene, planted in its genetic lineage through an ancestor's chance crossbreeding with an Actinopterygian fish. The organ worked as both a swim bladder and a lung.

She carried this adaptation within a small percentage of the unfertilized eggs growing inside her, and today was her big day, the day she would fail to find any of the tiny crustaceans she relied on for sustenance and slither from her pool on an epic journey across two-hundred yards of grassland seeking nourishment. There she would find another lake, teeming with life, a lake with several million years left on its existence. In this environment, her descendents would not only dominate the water, but extend their reign to the surrounding grasslands as well.

She slithered halfway out of the pool, wary of predators that did not yet exist. Her gills closed and the tiny holes on each side of her head opened, taking in the air. Then she propelled across the mudflats, leaving streaks behind her, animal life's first footprints on land.

Out in the open like this, moving so clumsily with fins and body gyrations not adapted to the land, it was easy to spear her through the back of the head. Jyl forced the stick deep into the mud below. The astronaut fish was dead in spite of its body's attempts to carry out its brain's last instructions. Jyl watched it squirm with ever-weakening efforts over the course of an hour before she finally turned away.

What a moment, she thought as she zapped ahead on the timeline, remembering the fish climbing out on land. Like the first steps on the moon… another false hope.

####

Ping. Jyl stood on a weathered, tree-covered mountainside. It was fall, and the sun cast a web of shadows through the barren branches across a carpet of dead leaves. A startled rustling caused Jyl's head to snap around, and she caught a glimpse of something white and fuzzy running away to a nearby rock outcropping.

She followed it up the mountainside to a cave. Inside were more white figures moving around in the shadows. Their tiny mouths opened with surprise and their beady little obsidian eyes widened in fear. She stepped inside the shelter.

"Hello," she said to the huddled cluster of cowering cave dwellers. "We haven't met before. I'm God."

They edged away fearfully as Jyl casually strolled around the cave. She paused, frowning at a series of chalk drawings, and shook her head, "No. No. No. First you start drawing on walls, then you start grunting to each other. The next thing you know you're building nuclear bombs, flying to the moon, and drinking overpriced cappuccinos in coffee shops."

She rounded on them and waved a finger at the trembling animals, "Bad! Very bad! Agh!" She exclaimed, seeing a pile of black ash at the back of the cave, "Fire! You know how to make fire!"

####

Ping. She tracked down the fuzzy amphibian that was the fuzzy animal's ancestor. It was a freakish little thing, its white fuzz and advertisement to predators, but it was about to find its way onto land, and she had dethroned that environment's previous king of the food chain.

She plucked it up by the tail and removed it from the shallow pool. It squirmed between her fingers as she carried it a few feet away and dropped it on a dry rock. She washed the slime from her fingers, as it quietly expired, the fluids oozing through its membranous skin.

####

Ping. Several hundred million years into the future, Jyl found herself surveying a small field filled with rows of seedling trees.

"Dammit," she hissed. "Agriculture."

In the distance a cluster of mud towers stood out, artificial constructs as tall as office buildings. They crawled with little white dots.

"Peep?" a Jyl found a termite the size of her foot regarding her. It was tending the irrigation troughs with a shovel-like beak.

"What the hell are you doing?" she shouted at the overgrown insect ,and it scurried away with a "Peep! Peep! Meep! Eep! Eep!" exclamations.

"So," Jyl observed, "kill the animals and the insects rule the Earth. Well, I know how to solve that."

####

Ping. Back a billion years. "Squish. Squish. Squish," Jyl babbled with psychotic glee, stomping on the tiny crabs emerging from the surf. "Try passing on your genes now, you land-loving arthropods."

The surf rolled back, revealing the reddish sand beneath, filled with tiny bubbling holes. She recognized this phenomenon from her childhood, sandfleas, crustaceans burrowed into the sand at the shoreline.

She leveled a finger at them, "Just you mind your place."

####

Ping. "Oh," Jyl said, upon seeing the surprised six-legged lizard carrying two wooden buckets of water to a baby-lizard slime-ball wriggling under a nearby makeshift shelter.

This had appeared on the timeline earlier than expected. "I get it. A crab ate one of your ancestors three-hundred million years ago, but I prevented that. Oh well… be right back."

####

Ping. Jyl stood on a rock-island in the middle of a lake filled with giant eye-less flatworms. They appeared fairly benign, rolling over one another in a grotesque, slimy orgy. Then an appendage extended from the goop like a slug's eyestalk. It brought a rock into the air, pinched between two opposable digits, and brought it down on another worm. Splat.

Opposable thumbs and tool use, Jyl thought bitterly.

####

Ping. This looked promising. No signs of animal life anywhere on the land. She wandered about, scrutinizing the rocks, trees, and ground. No tracks, fruit trees, or flowers, nothing suggested the animal kingdom had made it ashore.

Then she noticed the rock piles, out in a shallow lagoon. There were too many to be natural. She wandered down to peer into the clear blue water and let loose a stream of vulgarities.

Black curling organisms swam to and fro along the pool's bottom. Their tentacles swirling around in a gentle dance as they gathered rocks for their tiny, makeshift caves. Jyl watched them interact with one another. A social system! This was an Octopus Village.

She sat down on a nearby rock and watched with a sour expression as this simple life went about its day. No matter what she did, life found a way. It mocked her with its stubborn persistence. Every chance mutation she killed, another took its place.

One problem was the swim bladder. The pesky gene kept finding its way on land to become the lung. In the sea it provided fish stability, saving them effort in swimming. The longer it served those in the ocean's depths, the longer it had to mutate and wiggle ashore.

There were also the sandfleas. The brave soldiers advancing up the beachhead, creating crabs, crawfish, and all the other exoskeleton-baring invertebrates that were predecessors to the insect world. They were firmly rooted in the shallow waters, mating away, producing viable offspring and enough mutations that eventually one of them would crawl up onto the dry sand.

The ocean was her nemesis, without it, she was certain life would never give way culture and intelligence. Life would never evolve at all. She knew how to end this once and for all.

####

Ping. A dark canopy of clouds covered the sky, pouring endless rain onto the sharp rocks below them. Violent tectonic disturbances continued to shatter the crust and the rains continued to wear these shards down. Everywhere lightning flashed, revealing the alien landscape.

History is written by the victors, she thought, staring down into the pool.

"You are infected, my dear Earth," she said aloud, "with life. It appears malignant. Left unchecked, it will spread everywhere, changing your environment, filling your atmosphere with self-important thoughts, miseries, and empty hopes. Lucky for you it also produced me, and I have a cure." She shook the glass bottle of bleach the octopi civilization would one day develop.

She wiggled the stopper out of the bottle's mouth with a squeak and a pop. Glug. Glug. Glug. The bottle's contents spilled out, and she knew it was over, nothing showy or climactic.

For billons of years she stopped along the timeline every hundred million, watching rocks wear down into sand, continents shift, meteors strike. The Earth's spin slowly ground to a crawl under the ocean's friction. The moon vanished from the night sky. The sun expanded to fill the horizon, burning the atmosphere and moisture from the Earth's surface -- all occurring without the spark of life ever taking root.

Finally she returned to the place where it all began, watching herself perform the ritual once more from behind a nearby rock. She could stop herself, but did not want to. This was the only way to quiet her mind. She needed the rest. No more problems to solve except one.

Her past self vanished into the future, and Jyl walked up and sat down beside the pool, staring at her reflection rippling on its surface. Although the extraction field kept her in a sort of timeless stasis where she did not age, or eat, or grow tired, the woman staring up at her from the water's surface was a frightened thing, angry and bitter, eyes wide and wild, mouth contorted into an ugly grimace. Jyl was still rational enough to know this was a woman unhinged.

With a tinge of regret, she toggled the extraction field off and took a deep breath of oxygenless air. It was not the sweet air she remembered breathing so long ago, processed by a billion years of plant life. Her body grew confused, breathing deeper and deeper, but suffocating just the same. The world began to swim, and she focused on the rain running over her, washing away her memories. Her death erased the last trace of the history that never was.

####

Over the next few days, the perpetual rain diluted the bleach and fresh water filled the basin. Jyl's shell turned brown as the microscopic organisms dwelling on her skin feasted and multiplied on her organic bounty. While this variety of organisms broke her down from the outside, a host of bacterium dwelling in her mouth, stomach, and intestines consumed her inside.

Over the coming weeks, the pool grew into a lake. The ecosystem Jyl's corpse supported underwent a mass extinction during this period, as their solitary food source was exhausted, leaving them only an empty world to float in.

A few basic life forms worked down into the rocks and up toward the sun for nutrients and energy. It was an evolutionary leap past the previous timeline, skipping the early steps when bacteria evolved into chloroplasts and mitochondria. Diatoms, yeasts, even amoebas and ciliates exploded onto this barren planet. In a mere 1.5 billion years, among the continents teeming with life and the many beginnings of consciousness therein, one small cluster of babbling, flying, nematode-like things took a look at the Everything surrounding them.

Overwhelmed by awe and wonder, they called it "Mother."

THE END


© 2008 Ryan A. Somma

Bio: (Cribbed from the author's blog at ideonexus:) Ryan Somma is a mild-mannered Software Developer by day, and an Amateur Scientist Ninja by night. He also writes a blog for the Daily Advance Newspaper called Geeking Out, maintains a list of interesting science links at waygate, and his previous blog was ideonexus beta.

E-mail: Ryan A. Somma

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