Friday, September 20, 2013

The Eternal Mariner

 (Author's note: Yes, if the song "Come Sail Away" starts playing in your head blame me for seeking inspiration from late 1970's pop music. Excuse the typos, its very late and I'll fix them later.)

It was morning on a dead world. Not long before the moon had set leaving the stars alone on the dark, galactic stage. Had there been anyone around to look up and noticed they would have most assuredly seen an usually bright object supersede the younger celestial bodies parading across the sky. The object defied many rules of the natural universe for in actuality it was a ship that had not only sailed between the galaxies for untold ages but had gone beyond to touch other strange realms.

Inside that ship minds far more complex and wise than any human could imagine reluctantly came to a decision. It was time for one of their oldest members to fulfill its final duty. As with all previous members of the group, when faced with the task there was much preparation to be done. For these entities though, time in many respects was meaningless but on these occasions the universe required them to bow to its rules.

In a time span humans would have measured in hours since the ship entered orbit a loud crack sounded across the surface. Reality was ripped open and from that unnatural maw the man finally returned home. He looked out across a desert that seemed to stretch on forever only the dust-laden blue sky with a few thin clouds gave any contrast to the environment.

It was the one avoidable constant that he and his fellow travelers had to agree with before they were allowed to join the group. “All journeys must end where they began,” he whispered to himself slightly surprised at the sound of his voice. For uncountable years the mantra had not really meant anything, a human failing he chided himself, for the group did not make idle threats or promises. Many times over the eons he had seen one of his compatriots returned to their point of origin and now it was his turn to face the nature of his restored human existence.

His mother had named him Thomas Kent, after his father although he never knew the man. He had been killed in one of the final battles between forces supporting the restored monarchy of Charles the Second and a few diehard followers of Cromwell eager to be with their leader in the afterlife. Concepts that seemed utterly alien to Thomas given what he knew about the true nature of the universe. That was the very reason the group eventually forced all their members to return home. Any being separated long enough from their kind would lose that distinctiveness the group relished above all else. It was a testament to the human character that Thomas had gone as long as he did, now his final task was a solitary one. He had to reconnect to the true meaning of such things as an individual identity, death, and a past he did not truly understand.

From where the man now stood his world consisted of an endless dry and sterile plain dominated from above by a sun turned red and angry by old age. From recently restored memories he recalled the times as a child he would sneak into the old church close to the dilapidated building he and his mother lived, and climb to the top of the bell tower to watch the sun rise above a sleepy London. The yellow and much kinder sun of that age reminded him of his mother while the one that he stood under now was very much like the aunt he was forced to live with after she died in the Great Plague. His aunt's one gift in the years he spent with her had been teaching him to read and write, even though the punishments she dolled out for not meeting her standards were so severe as to make that education almost too costly.

Without any ceremony Thomas began the long trek to his destination, in real terms it was microscopically short journey compared to his travels with the group that had literally taken him across the universe and beyond. But this one was a journey of rediscovery which in many ways made it more difficult. The red and bloated sun above and its terrestrial child, the relentless wind were his only companions. While he had been forced to return to his human form the group had fashioned him a suit that recycled the water from his body and kept him cool. While temperatures on the surface would still allow him to survive a short time without it the utter lack of water on what had once been a wet and green world would have killed him in a few hours.

Still there was life on this elderly and dry world. As Thomas walked he noticed subtle movement under the red gravel and dust. Using sensors implanted in his head he detected an entire underground biosphere long evolved to the now inhospitable environment. Thomas' sensors were able to differentiate between various species of insects, reptiles, and even tiny mammals that lived out their entire lives under the sand. All evolved to sense the world exclusively through touch and vibration because vision required exposure to the light of the harsh moisture stealing sun. It was far better for survival to live, reproduce, and hunt underneath the cool and dark earth because water was a far too precious a thing to leave to chance.

Thomas' life after his aunt had passed away was something similar. Never wealthy to begin with, what money his aunt possessed disappeared with her forcing him to join the underbelly of seventieth century London. He became part of a group that preyed on those leaving the relatively safe confines of urban London for the rural English countryside. While Thomas and his comrades preferred to steal from wealthy lords along with paying special attention to any fair maidens that traveled with them ultimately there was no real honor among thieves and during especially lean times even commoners would feel their blades.

Thomas' life stayed this way until he and his partners happened upon someone leaving London alone in the middle of the night on horseback. “Please, good sir,” the leader of Thomas' band of criminals called out as they ambushed the man, “allow us to safely guide you to the next village. It will only cost you your coin and clothes.”

As if on cue Thomas and the others laughed at the wit of their leader. “What is my fate if I decline your services?” The man asked in return.

“Then your loved ones will not see your face again.” The leader responded placing his hand on the hilt of an old sword taken from another of their victims years before.

The man slowly slide off his horse but with a blinding speed after setting foot on the ground he pulled out his own sword and ended the lives of all seven of Thomas' friends. But the swordsman stopped when he turned his attention to Thomas. “Who might you be son?” he asked with his blade touching Thomas' neck.

“Thomas Kent,” he murmured certain that his life was soon be over.

“I have use of someone who can read and write. If you have the ability I will spare your life and offer you a way to make an honest living.” With his spare hand the swordsman pulled out a book from a pocket and tossed it to the ground.

Thomas, knowing he could not match the man in combat, quickly retrieved the book and began to read using the light of the moon to see the printed words.

“Well done son,” the swordsman said as he sheathed his sword and got back up on his horse. “I can use a man like you as part of my crew. Now follow along and I will describe your duties.” Believing Fate may have shown him some kindness Thomas ran beside the horse listening to the strange man.

As Thomas walked the perpetual desert he felt no sadness at being the last human on Earth. Though his group had never returned to the world of his birth as he sailed between the galaxies he learned his species had eventually shed their barbaric ways and colonized a large portion of the Milky Way. But time and circumstance can weather away even the strong and the wise.

Humanity adapted to their new worlds and eventually took full control of their evolutionary destiny. As these posthumans emerged over the course of the ages they too were superseded as even more advanced forms evolved. So much that of the final two groups left on Earth, one chose existence in the dark, timeless void inside black holes while another ascended to a higher realm outside the three normal spatial dimensions of the universe. Despite it all Thomas was sure that on some young wet and green world the species called Homo sapien still lived, probably seeded there by a sentimental version of posthuman in a desire to rekindle the flame of original humanity despite its often disastrous flaws.

The mysterious swordsman was true to his word, he in fact owned not just one ship but several with Thomas becoming the master of one of them a few years later. After taking command of his own ship he sailed away from port of Charles Town watching the man who had changed his life disappear. His voyage was suppose to be a short one just going to Jamaica to retrieve a supply of rum.

But a sudden hurricane a few days out radically changed Thomas' life yet again by sinking his ship and killing all of his crew. He had been adrift for weeks and only barely clung to life when he noticed a bright object in the sky one night that came so close he came to believe it hovered directly over the small piece of his destroyed ship that kept him afloat.

Fearing insanity he almost threw himself in the unforgiving ocean to end it all but stopped as angel-like beings emerged. They called to Thomas claiming kinship as mariners and asked if he wanted to join their group. Since being recruited by the swordsman Thomas had come to love the sea and quickly yielded to the temptation of sailing an even vaster ocean. They brought him aboard their ship and left the Earth behind.

Thomas Kent's journey was finally over. Even though the aging sun had turned a once lush Earth into a dry and desolate place it still possessed something of an ocean. The magnificent life that once flourished had been reduced to just single-celled creatures that could tolerate the excessive salt content and the staggering temperatures that relentlessly evaporated away Earth's greatest gift. Thomas stood at the edge of that sad remnant and smiled. While his travels were over in a way only a true human could understand it was also just beginning.

The group Thomas traveled with did not worry about the distance between the stars or the galaxies. Along those same lines neither did they worry about time for to them it was all part of the simple equation that reality danced upon. Thomas Kent reached out and with his mind twisted the fabric of space-time.

For months he had traveled the old roads of England enjoying sensations and experiences long buried. It was strange to be around his kind, he found them savage beyond description and so ignorant it was a stretch to call them an intelligent species. But Thomas knew all that would change over time. His true purpose was to find the individual that he once was and in a paradoxically irony that he would be again.

Even that journey ended one night as he encountered a group of dirty men several miles outside London.

“Please, good sir,” the leader called out, “allow us to safely guide you to the next village. It will only cost you your coin and clothes.”

“What is my fate if I decline your services?” Thomas Kent responded feeling the course of destiny move through him and his younger self standing nearby.


Pixel Peeper said...

It seems to be a recurring theme for you to write about the last human on earth. If I were a psychologist, I'd probably have some clever analysis for you. ;-)

But since I'm not, I'll just say that your stories are intriguing and thought-provoking. And who really knows about time and space...since we are just small specks in both. I'm trying to figure out why you made Thomas Kent come back to the same place in time as another person, facing his former self.

Beach Bum said...

Pixel; LOL!!! Yeah, I do seem to have a lot of post-Doomsday stories now that you mention it.

Partly because, like I mentioned in a post about a year ago, if I could visit an interstellar Las Vegas I wouldn't bet on humans making it through to the 22nd century given our current situation.

I'd have to say this one is a little different since humans just moved out into the galaxy and evolved into different lifeforms.

Why did I make Thomas come back to essentially recruit himself? Because he is the Eternal Mariner forever sailing some ocean and because I just saw a science show offering up the theory that time (past, present, and future) is just an illusion.

Beach Bum said...

Pixel: One aspect I forgot to stress in the story was that to the aliens time and space are the same thing. So the rule that they had to return to their point of origin applied to both, with a little wiggle run for error.

Cloudia said...

Wiggle that creative space!


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John Gray said...

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Marja said...

An intriguing story Love it. Wonder what it would be like to live along the milky way

The Bug said...

Great story - gave me chills!