Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Circular Nature of Time

by Hollis Whitlock



The Earth looked like a blue marble rotating in a kaleidoscope of green, red and white swirls. The time was 7:05 P.M PDT, 31 08 3008. The sun was setting in an iridescent white glow on the Earth. Francine zoomed in on a prairie in the eastern district of Vancouver Canada.

Dusk's light reflected gray images of men, armed with spears and daggers, lurking behind trees and shrubbery. A herd of bison was grazing on lush grass. A calf strayed toward the men. Hand signals from the leader indicated for the hunters to wait.

"Focus on the stray calf," Francine said. A bison walked to the calf and nudged her toward the herd. Hand signals indicated to attack. "Closer." Spears shot through the air. Two struck the bison's flank. Men charged and sliced at the fleshy neck. Death was quick. "Focus on the largest man." The prairie shook in a blurred image and then turned to abrupt blackness. "Goddamn it. Not another one." Francine sat back in her chair and exhaled.

John entered and placed a cup of coffee in Francine's cup holder. Steam rose with a hint of mint and cinnamon. A dash of white paled the chocolate brown. John sat next to her in the observation deck.

"Thank you." Francine stirred while staring at the blue marble.

"You're welcome. Has there been any activity this evening?"

"Yes there has been. I've been watching Goliath's tribe. They're making considerable progress considering what they're up against."

"That group of ragamuffins should be terminated."

"They're still human, but receive no help."

"Why waste valuable resources on them? They're made of outdated DNA."

"There are so few of them. It's like a museum. They're the only humans that were left untouched by DNA manipulation."

"It's a pointless experiment."

"They're the control -- and occasionally we find a mutation worth preserving."

"Their DNA is riddled with genetic disorders. We know the eventual end of them."

"What's that?"

"Extinction! Their bones belong in a museum with Homo erectus and Neanderthal man."

"These people are Homo sapiens. We're the same species."

"So were Homo habilis and the rest of the fossils."

"That's not true."

A siren wailed. Francine looked at the control panel. 49 latitude 123 longitude was blinking in red. The automated screen zoomed to fifteen feet of the man Francine had been observing.

He was skulking through the city's decaying structure carrying a three-foot long drone under his right arm and a knife in his left. He stopped beneath a tree and opened the battery pack.

"Let's have a look at the beast."

"He's not a beast."

The computer estimated his height at seven feet and his weight at 330lbs. He had dark curly hair and an unkempt beard. His clothing was undistinguishable, but looked like animal hide and body hair.

"The legend of big-foot lives."

"Get another drone close enough to see his face."

"I want to see this myself."

John pushed a button on the control panel. A white drone appeared. The screen's image switched to the camera angle of the drone.

"Be careful. He's been catching and dismantling the drones for the past two weeks."

"It's been longer than that."

The man was ten feet away. Piercing blue eyes gleamed like those of a wolf in the shade of the tree. Defined cheekbones added to the intensity of his glare. Full red lips protruded through his beard. A faint scar ran above and below his right eye.

"He looks like a Roman gladiator."

"He's something else all right."

"I wonder what he's doing with the batteries. He takes them into the underground subway system."

The man lunged forward and tried to grab the drone. Long thick fingers scraped the screen. Francine lunged backward and exhaled. The drone flew out of reach and hovered above the height of the tree. The man ran toward a dark entrance.

"Follow him."

The man stooped to enter the passageway. His body rubbed against the side of the crumbling concrete. The drone followed. Sunlight was piercing through cracks in the foundation. The man leaped down three flights of sixty stairs to the once bustling shops. Artificial light illuminated the room. Shadows of light flickered against the walls.

"There hasn't been power to that grid in centuries. He must be rewiring the electrical system with the batteries."

"I don't think that brute would be capable of such."

"His name is Goliath. He's human and capable of intelligent thought. His people were left there because they were impoverished. Most of them have never had a chance."

"They ended up there because they have inferior DNA."

"I don't believe that's the reason in all cases."

"The experiment should be terminated."

"I agree with you. They should be reintegrated back into society."

"We can't have that DNA mixing with the DNA of modern mankind. Years of research have gone into improving the bodies and brains we inhabit. We're the creation of centuries of perfecting genetic DNA."

"I don't think there's a great deal of difference."

"This experiment is living proof. They should be put out of their misery."

The screen's image was rotating around the interior of the subway station. Makeshift bedding was against the wall. People were sitting on chairs in front of a table eating wild game.

"Hold that image. I want to have a closer look."

"Zoom in on that group."

One hundred people were sitting around a fire. Three of the women were over six feet and resembled the man in facial structure. Two others had facial deformities. Francine winced as the screen zoomed in on the abnormalities.

"They're inbreeding, what a bloody mess. I'm going to speak with Melvin."

"The last estimated population was over one thousand. That was taken a year ago."

"They're going extinct like Homo erectus."

"According to my records, the birth rate is on the rise."

The screen's image shook and diverted in a nosedive to the floor before extinguishing.

"That was informative. I think we have enough information to make a conclusion. Melvin is joining us for dinner. I'll speak with him then. Apparently, he has important news for us. I'm going to the washroom."

Francine began reviewing the day's data and making conclusions. She was a biologist studying the people living in the isolated district of east Vancouver. She had watched Goliath's birth thirty years ago. Goliath's leadership hadn't surprised her.

She had concluded that as the population's gene pool decreased, the frequency of mutations increased. This was evident by the number of deformed births. Most didn't live past the age of two. Hence, extinction was usually imminent. Yet, she felt that this evolutionary occurrence was an attempt to produce an offspring capable of surviving the environment that was depleting its numbers. Goliath's mutation was excelling beyond expectations and his offspring, who were coming of age, were also thriving. Melvin's image on the screen interrupted her thought.

"Good evening."

"I've been observing Vancouver's sunset. I'm trying to locate a drone."

"We're making some specifically for Goliath."

"That's good to hear. I need one that he can't catch."

"That won't be necessary. The study is over. We're bringing him to the station. You can meet him tomorrow evening."

"But he appears to be doing very well considering what he's up against. I don't think anyone else on Earth could accomplish what he's done."

"That's why we're going to capture him, study his DNA, and if all goes well, have him cloned."

"You're planning on integrating him into society."

"No, we're having him mass cloned for the mission to Gliese in the constellation of Libra."

"Mass cloning is illegal."

"It's purely for the mission. The board of directors has given their full approval. We believe this mutation will allow us to handle the planets excessive gravitational force. If the clones survive the trial run, we'll alter everyone's DNA with the mutation. Then we'll have the mass clones terminated, which satisfies the board of ethics. And then we can go ahead with the population of the planet."

"I've been studying this evolutionary path my entire life. It seems like an abrupt conclusion. Evolution may have found an answer to survival and you're exterminating them."

"Unless I'm mistaken we have the mutation we're looking for. We'll find out tomorrow."

"I don't see any need to end the experiment."

"I'm afraid all things must come to an end, which introduces the reason I'm calling. We have an exceptional young woman on Earth. She has outscored you on all of your previous tests throughout the last nine centuries."

Francine sipped her coffee.

"So I'm being terminated too."

"You'll complete her training and live out the remainder of your life in retirement in the luxurious comforts of Earth."

"I have no interest in retiring in the luxurious comforts of Earth! I'm a scientist, not a genetically altered celebrity."

"I'll discuss the details with you at dinner. I'll see you at eight."

Francine leaned back in her chair and exhaled. She had been a prodigy nine centuries ago, scoring in the ninety-ninth percentile of all living females in all academic subjects. Hence, she had been cloned in the twenty-second century, updated with DNA improvements and cloned every fifty years, thereafter. Francine was the eighteenth clone. Her identical disciples had been studying east Vancouver for the past nine hundred years.

John returned in fresh linen.

"Shall we go for dinner?"

"I'm not hungry. I just spoke to Melvin."

"What did he have to say?"

"I'm being terminated."

"You're being offered early retirement, Francine. I thought you'd be looking forward to it."

"I was looking forward to continuing my study and carrying our children."

"I never thought of that. It seems like such an unnecessary burden on you."

Francine looked down and swirled the remaining liquid in her cup. Tears were pooling in her reddening eyes. She covered her face to hide her grief. Her voice cracked as she spoke

"Are you being terminated too?"

"Not that I'm aware of."

"How long have you known?"

"I found out today."

"You've been my life partner for the past nine centuries."

John exhaled and looked at the floor. "I know. Let's discuss things with Melvin."

John and Francine walked in silence toward the dining room. Francine felt as if she was on death row. Her genetic being had lived nine hundred years. The recorded thoughts and studies of her great grandmothers were clear in her mind. She remembered her mother on her deathbed, content knowing that her existence and work would continue on in Francine. Now, it was coming to an end.

John forced a smile and opened the door to the dining room. Melvin was sitting in front of a screen. Francine and John sat down.

"Anne is going to join us via satellite image," Melvin said.

The screen's image focused on a young woman standing outside an institute for higher learning. She had long burgundy hair, piercing blue eyes and a stark white complexion. Her physical stature was six feet one hundred and thirty pounds. She was dressed provocatively in the summer's heat.

"She looks rather young," Francine said.

"Audio is..."

"You're right. I'm only fifteen. I'm looking forward to meeting both of you."

"So are we," John replied. Francine didn't reply. She knew that Anne was going to be John's future wife. Even though she knew that it would be John's clone, her resentment was evident. Melvin grabbed three drinks from the roving bot and placed them on the table. Awkward silence prompted John to swill his drink.

"What are you studying today?" Melvin asked.

"Genetic enhancement through artificially designed DNA."

"Good for you."

"Yes, I'm hoping to have my latest program introduced to all future clones."

"It will have to receive approval from the board first," Francine said.

"Approval is just around the corner," Melvin said.

"I'm hoping to have my clone as the first recipient," Anne replied.

"Goliath will be the first recipient."

"What?" Francine asked.

"His clones will need it to survive on the planets of Gliese."

"Oh, I understand. Have you graduated yet?" Francine asked.

"Not quite yet. My thesis is on the replacement of animal/human hybridization with artificial DNA. I'm hoping to receive approval by the end of the week."

"How can she be..."

"All tests and papers are complete," Melvin said.

"I'll be lecturing to the board this afternoon. I have to go. Wish me luck."

"Good luck, Anne," Melvin and John replied. The screen's image switched to the evening's dinner menu.

Francine stared in silence, thinking of how to convince Melvin to allow the study to continue without intervention. Melvin was in charge of all matters regarding scientific study and had final say as to the direction, after approval from the board of ethics.

"Are you exterminating the people of east Vancouver?" Francine asked.

"No. The board of ethics wants them to continue their existence as a living example of the futility in traditional reproduction," Melvin replied.

"And Anne will be overseeing the study."

"No, Anne will be studying Goliath's clones. Her thesis on artificial DNA is outstanding and is the most significant breakthrough in DNA manipulation of our time. We want to be assured that the cloned specimen is perfected before the mission. Anne is planning on making considerable alterations to his DNA."

"Is Goliath going to be returned after cloning?"

"No, we'll be studying him for quite some time. Anne will be conducting numerous tests on his DNA. With Anne's artificial DNA we believe we'll have the solution needed to inhabit the planets orbiting Gliese."

"I would like to continue the study and Goliath should be returned as soon as possible. Natural mutation may still be the answer to survival."

"There are enough of his offspring already carrying the mutation," John intervened.

"Yes, I'm sure you're right. Some of the mutations are ghastly. I voted to have the experiment terminated."

"Like myself!"

"Francine! You're not being terminated!"

"My work and my DNA is."

"All clones' DNA is owned by the state. They have the right to use it for the betterment of mankind. You are not your DNA as is outlined by the board of ethics."

"My work is, and that's who I am!"

"I think you're overreacting," John intervened.

"I'm not overreacting!"

"All right! You can continue observing east Vancouver's last few breaths." Melvin said.

"I want Goliath returned without any DNA manipulation after he's been cloned!"

"There's not a chance of that! But if your maternal instincts are kicking in, you can carry Anne's clone and raise her in the comforts of Earth."

"Anne can carry her own goddamn clone! I'd rather carry Goliath's!"

A bot placed the evening's cuisine on the table. Silence endured for the remainder of the evening's methodical mastication. After dining, John and Francine retired to their room in silence.

Francine lay down beside John and stared at the ceiling. She was in turmoil over the continued advancement in DNA manipulation. She felt that artificial DNA and animal hybridization with humans had gone too far. The DNA of all humans, other than East Vancouver, was constructed of various animals' DNA, natural DNA and artificial DNA. Reproduction via traditional methods was no longer possible without altering the DNA of both parents to make a match.

"John, I'm sorry about suggesting that I would rather carry Goliath's child."

"It's all right, Francine. I understand your anger. Melvin can be insensitive sometimes."

"Does it bother you that we can't have a child other than a clone?"

"I've seen east Vancouver."

"We haven't speciated yet, but no one can reproduce naturally."

"There are couples that match. The offspring have unusual physical abnormalities. They usually don't survive, but Melvin has a few of the creatures secured somewhere. The board of ethics doesn't want it..."

"What do you mean creatures secured somewhere?"

"It's Melvin's study. We talk occasionally. He showed me some photos."

"Is it worse than inbreeding?"

"In some way it is."

"Why is that?"

"The offspring have features of the animals that were incorporated into their DNA. This is why Anne's artificial DNA is breakthrough technology. He wants to eliminate the use of animal DNA."

"How many of these so called creatures have survived?"

"He has one thousand."

"And what are they like?"

"Roman mythology."

"I'd like to see it for myself. Why don't we make a trip to Earth?"

"I'll ask Melvin if we can join him on the expedition to Vancouver."

####

The spacecraft, manned by Francine, Melvin and John, landed before sunrise in the prairie of east Vancouver. Anne was waiting with four hovering drones in preparation for the expedition into the subway station. She was suited in protective armor capable of withstanding every known projectile weapon that science had produced. Francine, John and Melvin exited the spacecraft suited in the same armor.

"I want to catch Goliath asleep, tranquilize him and bring him to the station before sunrise," Melvin said.

"Do you think it would be possible to ask him to join us?" Francine asked.

"No, his people are too violent."

"What if we're ambushed?" John asked.

"The drones are more than capable of defending us. But if you're in a melee, push the button on your left palm. It will generate enough electricity to kill."

"The drones are good shots. I'm sure we'll have him subdued before he's aware we're here," Anne said.

"Do you mind if I speak to him first?" Francine requested.

"Their attempts at speech aren't much better than grunts," John said.

"They speak the same language as us. The pronunciation is different -- that's all."

"You can attempt communication when we have him subdued at the station. Grab a drone and let's go," Melvin said.

Francine mounted the drone like a horseback rider and followed Melvin, John and Anne into the subway station's entrance. The tunnel was dark, but genetic manipulation had given them night vision. Shades of gray, ranging from near white to almost black, outlined the wall's crumbling cracks and crevices.

Francine inhaled deeply and grasped the drone. She felt mildly claustrophobic, as she had when scuba diving for the first time after a long period away from the ocean. Her discomfort eased in the open space of the subway station.

A white patch glowed in one corner.

"They're not here," John said.

"I'm sure they sensed our presence," Francine replied.

"My drone's picking up a heat source. Let's, head through that corridor to the left," Melvin said.

The doorway was wide enough to fit two drones. Francine and Anne waited for Melvin and John to confirm the whereabouts of Goliath. A yell followed by clanking metal on concrete echoed from the room. Francine clenched the handles on her drone. Numerous light gray wings whizzed above her head. The drones fired at the swarm.

"What are those?" Francine asked.

"Bloody bats."

"They're not bats."

"They're human/animal hybrids. A few animals escaped from the laboratories," Anne said.

"That one has hands. Is this what you were telling me about?"

"We exterminate them when we can," Melvin said.

"John told me you have animal/human hybrids in captivity," Francine replied.

"This is why my thesis is considered to be ground breaking research. We need to prevent this problem from occurring," Anne said.

"Thank you for pointing that out," Melvin said.

Francine picked up one of the bats. Childlike fingers extended from the wings.

"What does the board of ethics say about this?"

"I don't have time for a discussion on ethics. The heat source is coming from below. Let's go."

Another set of stairs led to the train station. The tracks were visible in two whitish streaks. Francine was perplexed, but remained silent and followed. Melvin motioned to stop at the fifth stair. There were heat sources around both corners.

"They know we're here," Francine whispered.

"We have nothing to worry about. Their weapons are archaic. On the count of three," Melvin whispered.

The drones pushed forward. Light gray men hurled spears. The drones fired. Warriors fell to the concrete. Spears clanked off the armor. Melvin, Anne and John pushed forward to avoid the distraction and hovered over the tracks.

Whistling metal and a beam of light were the only warnings. Francine screamed. The train zoomed past without stopping. Francine searched in anguish, praying that the drones had taken the impact.

Then she felt a collision and lay stupefied on her stomach. Her drone was inoperative against the wall. Francine turned and felt the grasp of two massive hands against her armor. She stared fearfully into the eyes of Goliath. Her fingers prepared to push the button, but her life's work was worth more than her own life. Francine stammered while shaking like a hypothermia victim.

"Where is that train headed?"

Goliath spoke with a thick accent, but Francine understood the primary words: "Train...family...safety!"

Goliath relaxed his grip on Francine and placed her on the concrete. He walked toward his sons and grasped their limp arms

Francine could see wounds, deep, bloody lacerations on Goliath's sons. "Are they still alive?"

Goliath placed two men over his shoulder.

"I'm terribly sorry," Francine said.

Three more men were groaning against the wall. Blood flowed from their lesions.

"There's a medical kit in the drone," Francine said.

Two men picked up their fallen warriors.

"I might be able to help."

"Battery...weapon...James."

A man, almost the size of Goliath, removed the battery and weapon from the drone. Blood was leaking from his midsection.

"You'll need the medical kit to close the wounds."

"Francine...medical."

"How do you know my name?"

"Melvin..."

"How do you know Melvin?"

"Heal...warrior."

Francine nodded and opened the casing on the drone. She removed the medical kit and began mending the lacerations, but she was confused and angry. The weapons had been set to kill and not to stun. She realized that Goliath's life meant nothing to Melvin. All that Melvin wanted was a cell that contained the DNA code for a particular mutation. Melvin could remove a cell from Goliath alive or dead.

"Hurry! Train!"

"The internal damage is beyond my capability."

A beam of light illuminated the lacerations. Grinding metal screeched to a halt.

"...train."

"What is going on?"

"...inside."

The door slid open. The warriors got inside. Francine stared into the eyes of Goliath. His long arms reached outward. Francine stepped forward. He grasped her around the waist and pulled her into the illuminated train. The door closed. People stared at her like she was a foreigner in a distant land. Then the train accelerated along the tunnel at an unknown speed.

"Where are we going?"

"Time...space...return."

Colorful lights illuminated East Vancouver, as Francine stared out the window. She was lost in time, and space, but she knew that her original being had resided in the district of Vancouver nine hundred years ago. An eerie flashback of memories returned.

Possibly, she had ridden this very transit route and had sat in this very seat, on her way to work on her doctoral thesis on cloning at the university of British Columbia, but she couldn't remember. The memories she had were the recorded transcripts of her past clones. She didn't have the living memories and images. She could only construct the visualizations from her imagination.

Her existence for the last nine hundred years had been orbiting in a satellite, but she knew that she was that exact same being. Her cells were identical clones from the original cell of her oldest grandmother. The DNA improvements were not for her brain. Were there memories of these events retained that she could access?

Then terror vibrated up her spine as thoughts of John's whereabouts returned. She was supposed to meet him for lunch with some business associates. John was a graduate student researching advanced robotics for human travel under the supervision and financial support of a major conglomerate. He was going to introduce Francine to the business representatives for funding of her advancement in cloning.

Francine glanced around the train and realized that she was sitting with a group of familiar faces. Their speech was becoming clearer; people she saw every day. Faces stored somewhere in her memory for the purpose of awakening her to this very day. Nine hundred years of evolution hadn't changed their appearance much. The shock opened her mind to the time and space of her eldest grandmother. Sight became clear and she saw the images through the eyes of her first life.

An accident had occurred along the railway, but she was prepared for the event. The train was screeching to a halt inside a tunnel. The door slid open. People vacated the train and screamed in horror. Francine rushed outside.

Three people lay contorted on the side of the tracks like a severe arthritic person's fingers. Francine recognized John and the business associates that they were meeting. The impact had crushed every organ in their bodies, but only one cell was needed to resuscitate them.

The conductor, an enormous man with a scar above his right eye and full red lips protruding through a thick beard, reached down and pulled the remains to the concrete sidewalk. Then he got back on the train.

"Where do you want to go? The past...The present...Or the future," the conductor asked.

"I'll stay here for the time being. I have some things to get straightened out before I return," Francine said. The conductor smiled.

"I hope so." The door slid closed and the train zoomed away.

THE END


© 2012 Hollis Whitlock

Bio: Hollis Whitlock resides in a small town near Vancouver, British Columbia. Hollis's work has appeared recently in Schlock E-zine, The Zodiac Review, Yesteryear Fiction, Daily Love, and Linguistic Erosion, and is scheduled to appear in black petals, and in the Nazar Look anthology, Crossing the Path of Tellers.

E-mail: Hollis Whitlock

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