It didn't appear to be anything at first glance, a tumbledown structure of wood and gypsum mortar that had been partially reclaimed by the forest around it. In places, the remnants of its shape hinted at its original state – something square, utilitarian, made for practicality rather than beauty – but in most, it had devolved into unrecognizable disorder. Sun-bleached remnants of boards, long exposed to the wind and rain, nursed tan-capped mushrooms with white stalks or slowly rotted into dark earth and dust. The roof, where still intact, was entirely obscured by piles of moss, and in other places had collapsed in upon itself to form mounds of stone and assorted debris. There was no evidence of there ever having been windows. From across the clearing, two figures watched it in relative silence in the early afternoon light.
What's so special about this place? the young woman asked, looking at the rubble with disinterest. Her pale, narrow face bore a mingled look of confusion and carefully masked boredom as she wound a wisp of red hair around her index finger.
He flicked his ears in indignation at the question, affronted that she couldn't figure out the significance on her own, but not affronted enough to bother looking at her. God died here.
The boredom vanished. Come again?
God died. He died here. This is where God died. The voice was acidic, condescending, but reverent.
A low whistle. She looked at the pile of splintered wood and rusted nails with new interest, biting her lip in thought. He lived a bit more humbly than I thought he would have. Almost unwillingly, her hand reached absentmindedly to her companion's head and she scratched the coarse hair that grew between his antlers for a second before his withering glance stopped her and she dropped her hand back to her side.
Do I look like a dog, Nora?
The corners of her mouth twitched slightly as she looked at the stag, waiting for him to return the gesture, but no smile was forthcoming. Her tentative grin fell and she leaned back against the tree. You take yourself far too seriously, did you know that, Later?
Later sniffed, indignant, as he stepped slowly towards the ruined structure. And you're obnoxious at times, but I keep you around anyway.
There were never any eurekas when something worked. That was a myth that the non-science community had made, along with the idea that scientists were hedonistic atheists and spent the day using fancifully-coloured liquids. The quietly bubbling apparatus in front of him, filled halfway with a clear liquid, was anything but fanciful-looking as it distilled, and yet its contents were the culmination of many lifetimes of work.
Two hours later, the distilled product was sealed away in a small mister bottle that he clutched in his hands, palms tacky with sweat as his footsteps echoed through the hallways of the genetics department. The desired door came too soon, propped open to allow the heat of the summer to escape, and he knocked as he entered without pause. Are the mice ready?
The lab technician looked at him, not smiling. Tails freshly clipped. Good.
His hands shook as he approached the bank of cages. A mouse looked incuriously at him through the mesh, then resumed licking the tip of its tail, which was scabbed. He put his hand to the cage door, then paused. Do they bite? Depends. Do you have any idea what you're doing? And how afraid of them are you?
The doctoral student chuckled and opened the cage, cautiously reaching his hand in to grab the squirming mouse. It sunk its teeth into his index finger with a sharp squeak of displeasure and wriggled as he swore. Agh!
The technician leaned against the far wall, playing with a lock of dark hair that had escaped his ponytail and not moving to help. You're holding him wrong. That's why he's biting you.
The corners of his mouth tilted upwards, just slightly, as he watched the thin man handle the squirming animal. Then how the hay should I hold him? Ouch! Stupid thing.
He took the mist bottle and squirted the mouse several times then dropped it back in the cage with a convulsive motion of disgust. It immediately calmed and forgot about him, instead heading toward its food dish where it proceeded to stuff a pellet into its mouth. Did it work? You stick your hand in there. I'm not touching it again.
With a smirk, the young technician stood up and moved towards the mouse, his hands held in front of his body with fingers splayed. Step aside, handler of vicious beasts coming through.
The student removed his glasses and ran a slightly bloodied hand over his face. Bloody smartmouth. Check the tail snip. Did it work?
There was silence for several minutes as the tech picked up the mouse by the scruff of its neck and examined its tail, frowning. Then, without saying anything, he held the mouse out to the scientist. Before, there had been a bloodied, scabby stump where the tip of the tail had been amputated. Now, there was only smooth, pink skin. It worked. Yeah. Yeah it did.
Sinking back into his chair, mouse still in hand, the young man laughed bitterly. So, how does it feel to be the most accomplished medical scientist in the history of the world? Healing spray. You brilliant… ah… you did it.
His head was still shaking. It feels … It feels pretty good. Guess I'll be getting that doctoral now.
The lab technician rolled his eyes.
What was he looking for?
Nora's voice came haltingly as she pulled herself through the collapsed doorway, her hands reaching blindly out in front of her as she wedged her way out of the gap. And how'd you fit through that so easily when you're twice my size?
The deer made a peculiar huffing noise deep in his chest. Grace and raw talent is how. Maybe I'll teach you someday.
His hooves clattered on scattered bits of stone as he moved cautiously around a collapsed portion of roof, ignoring her indignation at his response. He sought to rejoin the gods - to remove the barrier between himself and them and to take back what they had stolen.
Her lips formed an 'o' of realization. He was searching for immortality. ...Among other things, yes.
The steady tick of a clock and the scent of old leather filled the small office, its walls hidden behind heavy bookshelves and neat stacks of papers. Everything was arranged precisely, so much so that it appeared as though very little was ever moved, a fact confirmed by the presence of a downy layer of dust on every horizontal surface. Exactly three feet from the wall farthest from the door, a dustless mahogany desk sat, bathed in the dim light of a lamp, also dustless. Behind it, the trim, soap-scented scientist perched on the edge of his seat, staring blankly at a hair that he held between two trembling fingers. He'd been sitting like that for a while.
The door banged open and a man in his early thirties flounced in, followed by two grinning lads in their late twenties. Leaning against one of the bookshelves, they laughed and smiled and broke the sacred silence just as easily as the light from the hallway had broken the dimness of the room. Say you're coming out with us tonight, mate. Say it. You're well on your way to become a boring office lackey if you don't.
The man behind the desk looked at them with tragic eyes and a bleak smile. Not tonight, boys. I'm … I'm feeling my age.
He sighed, rather melodramatically, and a small crease appeared on his forehead as he knit his eyebrows.
The others exchanged an incredulous glance. You've got to be bluffing, mate. You're what – thirty-something?
The first man who had entered the room laughed. What's brought you down?
Wordlessly, the man behind the desk held out his hand, eyes averted. The three stared at the hair for a brief moment and one smirked, snorting. The first to enter smacked his friend before returning his attention to the man behind the desk. What's that you've got there? My first grey hair.
The man who had clasped his hands to his heart snorted and excused himself from the room before coming completely undone in the hallway. His laughter leaked uncomfortably under the gap beneath the door and into the office, causing the two remaining guests to pale. If it's any consolation, I found my first grey at age eleven, the first man ventured, his voice tense and quiet. An uncomfortable silence fell, broken only by the helpless laughter of their friend on the other side of the door. After a few moments, the first man cleared his throat and motioned to his remaining companion. Grasping the door handle, he managed a weak smile and shook his head. Maybe next time, mate. Feel better.
The door shut with a snap and the silence and darkness returned. With a flash of irritation, the man behind the desk realized that he'd accidentally dropped his first grey hair and would have to continue his brooding without it. The mist bottle rested on the corner of his desk and, as he stared at it, it occurred to him that death was a disease too.
It was bigger than it looked from the outside. The stairs led down to a lower floor that, while dusty and slowly returning to a natural state, was much better preserved than the cabin above ground had been due to the use of concrete and glass for construction rather than wood. Though the electricity had long since gone off, skylights up through the ceiling created a dusky twilight in the hallways and rooms that they passed, light enough to walk by, though not much more. Later, where are we going?
He turned, his sweeping antlers sliding against the ceiling with an angry, rasping screech as he did so. I want to look around.
His voice was quieter now, less agitated, and with a timid tone that she hadn't heard before.
Unsettled, Nora reached and put her hand on his shoulder, resting it between his shoulder blades. Even though it was impossible for him to actually feel it there, given her current state, he gave her a cursory look of irritation. And why are we here?
She waited, but he didn't respond, instead looking straight ahead down the hall, unmoving save for the slight motion of his breathing.
Moments passed, unbroken by noise or motion, before he simply began to walk again, his head ducked slightly to avoid dragging his antlers on the ceiling.
His head was pounding, a sort of dull ache that fell between his eyes and his ears and pulsed there like something living. It didn't hurt so much as it was a distraction, which he couldn't afford at this moment – not when he was so close. He bent over the lab bench, chair ignored, placing the strain of his posture in his neck and lower back and relying on the burning ache of his cramped muscles to keep him awake. It had been nearly four days since he last slept.
Vaguely, he heard the door opening and shutting again, heard his name, but it didn't register as important. He watched the distillation as the voice went on and on in the background, buzzing in his ear like a fly. His head jerked as his neck relaxed – he'd come close to falling asleep – and a hand grabbed his shoulder, spinning him around. Are you listening to me? His coworker looked at his disheveled appearance, from his uncombed hair and stubble to the stains on his pants, and wrinkled his nose. Good God, man, you look like death warmed over. When was the last time you slept? Or showered, for that matter? I'm … too busy …
the scientist slurred vaguely, struggling to keep his eyes focused. Just a bit … a bit tired … I'm must done. Almust. Almost done. Done.
The look on the other scientist's face told him that it hadn't been convincing. Reaching over, his coworker cut the gas to the Bunsen burner and grabbed the scientist's shoulders, gently guiding him out of the laboratory and down the hall to a row of offices before his delayed protest made its way past his lips.
Sitting him down on a worn couch in a sunny, messy, unfamiliar office, the other scientist scowled. Enough is enough. You're going to sleep now and you're not getting out of it. You're a bloody hazard in the lab in the state that you're in.
He pushed on the disheveled scientist's shoulders, urging him to lie down, and the disoriented man complied. I'll be back in an hour. You'd better still be sleeping when I return.
When he awoke, his head felt foggy, as though there was a pane of glass between what he saw and his brain. His thoughts, usually so quick, came slowly, and all his instincts told him to simply close his eyes again – he hadn't slept enough.
Too late, he realized that he wasn't alone and pressed a hand to his face, rubbing sleep from his eyes and hoping he hadn't been noticed so that he could go back to sleep. His coworker, however, who was sitting behind the desk in a veritable mound of papers, had seen him stir and immediately forced a cup of barely-warm coffee into his hands. Drink this.
He wrinkled his nose at the strong scent. Drink it. It's just coffee. Do you have any cream? No. Sugar, then?
He nursed it slowly, wishing it was tea rather than something cold, bitter, and bitter. The department head wants to see you when you're done.
At this, he choked, barely managing to keep his coffee in his mouth. I think you know why.
He did know.
I'm very close to achieving results, sir. Very close.
But you don't understand. Think of the implications that this research could have! We could finally take back our homes. We wouldn't be confined to these cities any longer.
No, you can't send me away! Sick leave?! My health is fine! I feel fine!
It is not an obsession. I am not unbalanced!
All right, fine then! I quit!
Later, you're acting strangely.
Nora's voice came in a whisper, her mouth, if she were corporeal, would have been as dry as paper. She tightened her fingers on his shoulder, but of course, that did nothing. Just what is this place to you?
He paused, looking ahead to the room at the very end of the hall. That's where God performed his miracles.
He began to move forward again, but her voice stopped him when her grasping fingers could not. And what miracles would those be?
The deer paused obligingly, looking at her sideways, his dark eyes catching the light. That's where he made us.
She let go, her hand dropping listlessly to her side. There are more of you?
He shook his head. Not anymore.
Her feet dragged through the thick dust as she moved towards the door with jerking steps. Behind her, Nora could hear the quiet clicking of hooves on the cement, but Later made no attempt to catch up to her, apparently content to follow.
When she reached the door, she paused, looking back at the grey buck. He nodded and she stepped inside.
The forest was perfect. Isolated. Away from his disgrace, away from the White City and its laws and regulations. He started over there in a lab built of cement and glass amongst the trees, built with the money he'd made from his spray, his first miracle.
The headaches returned. He slept less. He didn't need sleep. He was fine. He'd show them. He'd show them. He'd show them.
He'd show them.
It was surprisingly empty. Three large, shattered skylights filled the ceiling with light and the floor with broken shards of glass that crunched threateningly between her feet as she ventured inside. To her right, a rusted metal sink and pump stood. To her left, a bank of metal pens, of various sizes and stacked one on top of the other. At the far end, a glass cabinet held slowly rusting hypodermic needles and surgical equipment.
Tentatively, she approached it, her hand brushing the glass to clear it of debris that resolutely clung to it. Saws. Scalpels. Ancient, yellowed gauze. Mist bottles. A vial of clear liquid in a glass-stoppered bottle. Her gaze continued across the shelves as she moved, trailing her nails along the glass until her foot connected with something brittle.
Pausing, she looked down and scampered back with a small gasp, her footsteps echoing though the room. A small, curled form lay there in a tight ball, its flesh melted away in death. A rabbit resting in posture of deep agony. Looking into the bank of pens nearby, she could make out pale white shapes in each. There was no noise in the room now, not even the dripping of water, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood – the silence was worse than any sounds her imagination could have supplied. Behind her, Later made a quiet snuffle, and she turned, watching him with wary eyes.
In the dim light, he blended into his surroundings, something that she found to be both amazing and unsettling, given how large he was. Standing perfectly still, he looked ahead with a distant ex.pres.sion, pupils dilated and ears pricked forward as though listening for someone who wasn't there. All of these animals. Were they dead when you left?Some were gone long before I ever breathed.
She looked at the small bones beneath her feet – curled against the wall, a defensive posture. As Later turned away, she watched him, frowning at his retreating back in the dim light.
The first was a rabbit. A bullet in its leg and it quickly stopped moving. A mist of spray and some careful surgery to remove the bullet and it was whole again. It was a cruel way to catch an animal and he knew it, but it made him feel important. He should feel important. He'd made this possible.
The new serum was ready. Using a hypodermic needle from the cabinet, he injected the sleeping rabbit and placed it in one of the pens for safekeeping. Sleep well, bunny
, he crooned as he switched off the lights and shut the door. The room went black.
In the morning, the rabbit was dead, a froth of foam at its mouth and its eyes wide and glassy.
Subject 001 – Cottontail Rabbit – Failure
She grasped the thin bars of the cage, looking in on the frail bones that it contained. It was only one of dozens. There were hundreds of pens and every one was filled. Occasionally, there were remains she could identify. A fox, several birds, a bat, something that may once have been a muskrat or beaver, two more deer of some sort. In the dim light and silence, the room suddenly felt as though it were a tomb. There have to be hundreds of animals in here.
Her voice was soft, hitching as bile rose in the back of her throat.
There was a long silence as Later meandered slowly back along the line of cages, his faint breathing the loudest sound in the room. To God, their lives were a small price to pay. A minor tithe. He was sure that they were just animals, incapable of thought or emotion.
His voice was calm and unhalting, sure of what he was saying, but when he looked back at the pens, Nora caught a flash of something like guilt in his eyes. He forgave them for dying.
A curious tinge of scorn entered his tone and Nora at once understood. But you didn't agree.God, this place. They are my first memories. I cannot recall ever being anything but what I am now.
He paused, wetting his lips in a disturbingly human fashion. And yet I've seen happiness and fear in animals since. I shouldn't doubt God, but in this matter, I do.
His face bore unmistakable grief at this and, once again, Nora was struck by how strange, how alien it was to see something so human on a deer. Perhaps he was referring to the depth of emotions, the complexity,
she offered, somewhat reluctant to support anything this God had said.
Relief passed across Later's face and she was glad she'd said something. Yes. Perhaps you're correct.
He found the young buck in the meadow, quite by accident, its shoulder and lower neck torn and bloodied from the barbed wire that was twined around its throat and legs. It feared him. He could tell by the whites of its eyes, its dilated nostrils, the way it struggled weakly in the blood-soaked grass. But it was too weak to get up.
That was its loss.
It was beautiful.
Wide brown eyes, its pelt all cream and dark cinnamon with a white throat. And the crimson that contrasted shockingly with it in vivid smears. It was beautiful. So beautiful.
So he brought it back as it kicked weakly and then stopped moving, lying in a pool of what little blood it had left on the cold concrete of the lab floor, its sides heaving.
A quick injection with the syringe, a flash of promise, and then all was dark as he shut the door.
Subject 037 – Red Deer – Success
It was awake and alert when he returned in the morning, standing in the largest pen with its back to him and its antlers scratching against the wall. This had happened before, with the quail. It had died a terrible death later in the week. The poison had been there, just slow acting, eating it from within like some sort of parasite until its frail heart has quivered to a halt on a Sunday morning when the sky was blanketed in clouds. He had thought he'd had it then, only to find that he was mistaken and that 'immortal life' was really a poison. Now he was careful.
Against his hopes, it survived the week, restless and pacing in the corner like the caged animal that it was, its eyes ringed with white reflecting its constant state of terror. Truly something wild, it backed itself away each time he approached, looking defiantly at him from back against the far wall and daring him to open the door.
And yet, he hoped.
The changes began slowly, almost imperceptibly. In time, he found that the serum had worked, at least temporarily, but the side effects were more than he was willing to live with. A week passed. It lived. Its beautiful pelt faded to an even, charcoal grey.
A month passed. It lived and watched him with curious eyes. No longer brown. Black. Summer faded to autumn. It grew gaunt and haunting.
Time passed and yet, it lived. It was ugly to him, a wretched grey memory of a beautiful animal that watched him from behind the mesh of its pen. It followed his movements, listened to his voice. He took to 'discussing' his great works with it, raving for hours on end.
At times he thought that it might understand him.
Subject 037 – Red Deer – Success Partial success, serum not ideal
It had been six months. When he entered the holding room with a dying bobcat in hand, the deer waited there for him, watching him fearlessly through the mesh, the bones in its gaunt face standing in sharp relief. It wouldn't gain weight, no matter how much he fed it, blasted thing, ugly thing, miserable thing. And no matter how it wasted away, it wouldn't die. Instead, it lived on, as though it were mocking him. Look, look. Look, you failed and now you have to look at your failure as it shrivels and dies in front of your eyes.
He resolved not to look at it any longer. In fact, he would shoot the thing in the morning. The serum had failed, in any case, it wasn't worth the cost to keep it alive and, from the looks of it, it would be a mercy to the beast. Satisfied, he took up a syringe, filled it with serum, focused on the dying bobcat. He ignored the monstrosity in the corner. Life.
The voice was quiet, deep, and with a peculiar accent.
He startled, looking around with suspicious eyes. There was no one. Only the ugly deer, himself, and the dying cat on the blood-soaked table. The deer looked at him, then at the syringe in his hand. Life,
it said again, the words tumbling awkwardly from a mouth unsuited to creating human words.
The syringe slipped from his fingers and shattered on the ground. On the table, the bobcat convulsed once, a horrifying tension entering its limbs, and then relaxed in death's embrace. Life,
said the deer, looking him dead in the eyes.
He backed towards the doorway as it stared at him, unblinking. In the second before the metal door closed, he saw the deer's eyeshine glaring at him from the far corner of the room. Life.
The door crashed shut.
Subject 046 – European Bobcat – Specimen wasted
He bowed his head, possibly in shame, and, for a second, she thought he would say something. Then he turned and moved towards the door, hooves crunching on broken glass as he went.
When it proved it held the capacity to learn, he began to teach it words. Hearing them spoken by its strange tongue disgusted him, but it would have been foolishness to waste the opportunity. In time, it began to attempt to converse with him and he realized that there was more to its clumsy attempts at speech than mindless parroting. A quiet intelligence appeared slowly in its eyes and it began to display curiosity, asking questions of him.
They were simple at first, questions that any child would ask. What. What. What. What is breathing? What is air? What is forever?
Then they became difficult. What happens after you stop breathing? Why would you want to live forever?
It had the innocence of a child and was naïve, believing everything he told it, even the falsehoods and the exaggerations. It had no basis for comparison, no outside experiences, and it trusted him completely. He suspected that its memory began in the cage at some point, but he never bothered to ask it. It was most unscientific of him and, at first, the desertion of method itched and burned his conscience, but science had abandoned him when he had been forcibly removed from the university premises. Now he abandoned it in return.
The turning point came in deep winter.
It wandered the halls freely now, with his permission, though it was still bad at opening doors.
He sat behind a desk, identical to the one that he'd been forced to abandon when he left the university, looking at a cup of tea that had long gone cold. The china cup was chipped, but still elegant, with a little gold leaf rim and blue flowers painted on the sides in cheerful little clusters. When the tea had been warm, it had let off fragrant vapor that spiraled in little puffs up towards the ceiling and out of sight. Now it was cold and looked cold and there were no more happy steam puffs. He didn't want to drink it. Or look at it. With a decisive movement, he emptied the cup into a dead potted plant that, now that he thought about it, had been much more alive and much less rancid-smelling before he'd made a habit of dumping tea with milk and sugar into its pot.
He had become very good at manufacturing death, it seemed.
A rattle came from the door and he groaned, rubbing his hands through his hair and leaving it standing up in tufts to either side of his temple. A spindly shadow was visible in the thin strip of light beneath the door. He'd managed to ki.ll everything else. Why, of all things, was that walking bonebag still alive?
I cannot open this door, pleaded the voice from outside and he winced at the slightly mangled speech before leaning forward and half-lying on the desk. You let me in? Please?
A tap came, likely from a hoof gently pawing at the door. I want to see you.
It wasn't going to go away. Not for the first time, he was reminded of why he'd decided as a young man to never have children. How ironic that he now seemed to be in command of the furry, four legged equivalent of a toddler. Hello?
Tugging at his hair again, the scientist staggered to his feet, then moved towards the door. His hand paused above the knob, just for a second, and then he opened it and backed quickly away as the deer surged into the room. Not quickly enough, however. Catching sight of him, it tipped its head to the side and thrust its nose onto his shoulder. Hello!
It was delighted to see him. He pushed it away, a bubble of irritation thrumming in his chest. Everywhere. It followed him everywhere. What, in God's name, do you want now?
It looked at him happily and, with a sinking sensation, he realized that the questions were about to start. What's a name? A means of identification. All people have them. Do I have one? No. Oh.
It paused and looked down, drooping. Can I have one? Maybe later.
It drooped further. How come I don't get one?
Its black eyes stared at him balefully, as though hoping he would change his mind.
The scientist pulled at his hair again, hard enough that he ripped a few silvering strands out, then collapsed backwards into his chair. Because you're not a person. Only people get God-given names.
That should settle it.
It perked back up, scenting the potential for another question. What's God?
That was unexpected. The scientist stopped pulling his hair long enough to make eye contact. God is a powerful being that creates things.
He had pictured himself doing many things in his life, but never had he pictured discussing theology with a talking deer. Slowly, his head made its way back down to the surface of the desk and he pressed his cheek against the cool wood and wrapped his arms around his face. And you made me, right? Are you God?
There was a long silence, in which the scientist remained flopped on the desk, weighing his options. It worshipped him already, what harm was there in allowing it to believe that he was its god? And, from his own definition, it was true. He'd made it. He'd breathed life and intelligence into the thing. It was his. He'd made it. He was its god. Yes. I am.
She did not pry as they made their way down another hallway, yellow sunlight filtering green through the overgrown skylights. The walls here were pock-marked, crumbling away to reveal the rusting metal skeleton grid. Water, having found weakness, seeped in, weeping down the sides of the passage and pooling on the floor in green puddles. As they walked, his footsteps splashed and echoed while hers remained ever silent.
The next door they came to was locked. A heavy iron thing with hinges rusted through, it hung from its frame by only the lock. A kick from the deer and it fell back towards them, hitting the floor with a reverberating crash that rang throughout the labyrinthine hallways. As it did so, a flood of sunlight and water streamed into the darkened corridor.
The room was partially flooded. A stream, once nearby, had diverted course over the years to run over the ceiling, eventually collapsing part of it. In the far left corner, the collapsed roof let in a cascade of water, in the right, a pool of it had formed, surrounded by plantlife. There were lilies, white and red, like the ones Erik had given her so many years ago, when he was sixteen and desperately in love with who he had thought she was. Before he had left for some city and grown old and had never come back. With that acidic thought, she realized that the room was acidic too.
Bottles and bottles of it lined the one of the walls, coated in wax or rubber. Where a shelf had collapsed, a huge hole had appeared in the floor. Beneath the collapsed ceiling, there was more fragmented glass. It occurred to her that it could not all be acid, there were other things too, jars of dust that must once have been leaves. Or maybe it was always dust. Or stone. Science escaped her; she had no use for it.
Later made a quiet noise and she moved out of the doorway to let him pass, watching his eyes widen as he moved into the room. For a time, he stood still, looking first at the shelves of chemicals, then at the ruined ceiling and the invading section of forest, and then he slouched slightly, looking back at her with a listless ex.pres.sion. He paused, I thought I would understand if I saw it. What do you mean?
He did not move, just looked around the room, sweeping his horns as a gesture for her to do the same. God never allowed me in. Past this last door, the rooms were forbidden.
His voice tightened in his throat, I thought there would be answers. Oh, Later... It's never that easy...
God, may I have a name?I'll name you later.
It was watching him again. Somber eyes in the corner of the laboratory that followed his every movement, its grey head turning as he moved to and fro. The questions had almost completely stopped now and, blessedly, it rarely spoke. Instead, it watched, a marked improvement.
Today was another experiment day, hopefully the last. On the tray in front of him was a salamander, a squirming, black little thing with yellow spots that he had found just outside his door that morning, half a cranefly sticking out of its mouth. It had picked the wrong stoop to hunt bugs on, or potentially the right one, depending on how things went. Will the injection work this time?
He ignored it for a moment, frowning at the question, then answered without looking up. I've told you before, you shouldn't question.
His hand gripped the needle's base to steady it as he drew the serum into the syringe, watching the clear liquid carefully for bubbles as it filled. I'm sorry, God.
It averted its eyes as he injected the salamander, head bowed, and did not look up as he crossed the room with the prone amphibian in his gloved hand. Watch it tonight and let me know if it dies.
It opened its mouth, paused, closed it, waited, then opened it again. Not to question, but I'm not allowed past the iron door. How will I let You know?
A fair question. He paused, then shook his head. Rap on the door. In the future, I'll rig up a bell system.
And he vanished.
Later murmured, peering at a bird's nest tucked away between two bottles on a shelf. This was where God made the serums. He never let me in to see. Of all of the laboratory spaces, this was the one most devoid of life. All it contained was chemicals.
He laughed, a hollow sound, and now it's the liveliest place in the whole facility.
With a shake of his head, he returned to her. Up those stairs now, I think. I haven't been here before.
Deep gold sunlight still streamed through the roof on the far side, reassuring her that it had only been a few hours and dusk was still long in coming. What do you suppose is up there?I'm not entirely sure. More laboratories, possibly. Perhaps something else.
He frowned, then sneezed violently, his head rocking forward and sharp antlers swishing harmlessly through her arm.
She gave a small smile, running her fingers through her hair pensively. Bless you.
The polite rapping at the door awoke him and he trudged down the halls, through the greenhouse and pharmacy, in only his bathrobe, wishing he hadn't tasked the thing with waking him if the salamander died. His mostly-silver hair in every direction, his lined face set in a frown, he appeared significantly less than divine as he opened the door to see it standing there. It looked pleased to see him, though. Dead?Er …If it isn't dead, then why are you here and why am I awake?
It looked carefully at his slippers, eying them with interest. The salamander is very much alive, but I'm afraid it won't be for much longer unless put it in a larger enclosure.
He pushed past it, jogging to the lab and the bank of cages. It had not lied, the poor thing was mashed into the tiny cage and making the most distressed hissing noises that he had ever heard a salamander make. Opening the door, it all but spilled out and he noted with horror that the creature, previously the size of his hand, was now the size of a large dog. Free of its confinement, it promptly stopped hissing and started squirming about, looking at him with round dark-gold eyes as it patted at his robe. It certainly looked healthy and happy enough, aside from the fact that it was now roughly four times the size it should be and growing larger still.
The sound of hooves behind him alerted him to the deer's arrival. When did the growth begin?Roughly an hour ago, God.And why didn't you get me sooner?
It had the tact to look ashamed. Your orders were to fetch you if the salamander died.
A somewhat defensive note entered its voice and it looked up at him with large eyes, it wasn't dead.
Satisfied with its answer, he returned his attention to the salamander, looking at it wiggled about. Was the growth constant?
Relief seeped across the deer's face as it perceived it had been forgiven and it relaxed. Relatively. It started off more slowly and sped up a bit over the first hour or so, but stabilized afterwards.Interesting.
Hefting the writhing creature up with both hands, the scientist moved it to the largest cage and stuffed it in, closing the door before it could escape. Watch it again. And if it gets too big for its cage again, wake me before it's practically oozing out of the bars.Yes, God.
He had not failed God, not really.
The tunnel was short compared to the others, though just as grim and utilitarian and lifeless as the others had been. It led to a long, gently sloping flight of stairs that led up and their steps clattered and clanged on each one. Metal aged worse than concrete and, in places, it groaned and screeched as Later's weight pressed down, but each step held.
When they reached the top, there was no more darkness and death, only light and air.
When he returned in the morning, a warm cup of tea in his hand, he saw the deer sitting by the cage with doglike obedience. It looked up obligingly as he approached, tired eyes meeting his face for a second, then respectfully moving back to the floor. Good morning.
He looked into the cage at the salamander, now the height of a carthorse and at least twice as long, curled into a tight circle and watching him with beady eyes. When did it stop growing?Growth slowed at five fifteen, it stopped entirely around six forty,
came the prompt reply. Inside the cage, the salamander hissed quietly, then blinked. He looked at the deer, noticing its squint and drooping ears, and shook his head. Go sleep.
It nodded, silent, then backed out of the room.
Crouching down next to the cage, he looked at the black and yellow creature within. I don't suppose you're going to start chattering at me too? It looked at him blankly, made a clicking noise, and shut its eyes.
Subject 115 – Yellow Spotted Salamander – Partial success, serum not ideal
God, may I have a name?
I'll name you later.
It was a greenhouse. The walls were broken-down and the ceiling shattered, but what it had been still shone through the dilapidated surface. Underneath a mess of ivy was a fountain, still with shallow water in it that swarmed with tadpoles. The tables were all rusted through, but plants grew up through the lined cement floor and covered them. In the corner, there was a tree that had pushed aside the old flooring in heaves of stone.
Once, the greenhouse must have been beautiful. Amongst the broken glass and broken pavement, it was still possible to see what it must have looked like. Though the past century had wiped away all of the flowers and replaced them with hardy grasses and nettles, here and there one could see the edges of what must have been a flowerbed, the dip that may once have been a pond. There were even a few stones in a strange pile that may once have been a bench.
He looked at Nora, watching her pick her way along though the grass and broken glass as though she needed to, as though her feet could be cut and bloodied on the glittering floor. Old habits seemed to die slow deaths with the child. Later,
her voice came, and he raised his head. Is there anything here that you needed to see?
Was there? No. He shook his head. No. Just go through the next door.
She walked slowly towards it, her hand rested on the knob. Your God had strange taste in architecture, did you know that? Her eyes turned towards him, murky green, intelligent, utterly... Most hallways branch. Not just head straight towards one room.
God did things in His own way.
I suppose he did. She passed through the door and he followed her through, stealing a final glance at the ruined greenhouse.
Once, it must have been beautiful.
The salamander never learned to talk in the same way that the deer had. When one spoke to him, he would usually click in response, stubbornly, refusing to speak back despite the fact that he was capable. He clearly understood what was being said to him, as he could follow moderately complex directions with little difficulty, should he feel the inclination. Rather, he had a catlike disinclination to cater to the whims of others. Deemed useless, he was relegated to a large pen in the laboratory where he lived out his days in relative peace.
God often noted that the deer gravitated towards it, talking to it in a forcibly cheerful, one-sided conversation for hours on end. As for whether the creature listening actually enjoyed this interaction, he had no idea, though it seemed to pay attention for the duration of most.
It was comforting to know that there was something that disappointed God more than he did. All the same, he felt sorry for the salamander because God ignored it completely except at feeding time.
The next room was different. It smelled and there were no more skylights. There were large, round windows letting in light, but the rooms somehow seemed darker than the ones underground. They stood in the doorway, looking in at a sitting room, sparsely furnished with a decomposing chaise lounge, a bookshelf, and an old projector, a shelf of dusty reels piled next to it. He must have lived here, Later. Look at this stuff.
He nodded, curiously numb. The room seemed somehow disappointing, perhaps due to how little it contained or because of how mundane its contents were. While the affects were undeniably personal in nature, they little about their master and his thoughts. No questions answered, no questions raised.
The bookshelves in the corner were filled with books on the Fall of Humanity, on the Sacred Forest, on old medical research. What space was left on the shelves was filled with lab notebook after lab notebook. Without looking, he knew that each would be filled with God's tiny, cramped handwriting. There was nothing else.
Over near the lounge, Nora was picking slowly through some slides spilled on the floor, her face set in a disbelieving frown. These are all to do with his research. There isn't a single personal thing in here.The bookshelf as well. Everything has to do with what he was doing in the lab.
She shook her head. It's like there was nothing else to him - his research was his entire life. There was nothing else. Was this what you thought you would find?
I... wasn't sure what I would find.
His voice, barely a whisper, trailed off.
he told the salamander as he watched it through the bars. The creature watched him, bored, wide mouth clamped shut and eyes half closed. As Later waited for some form of response, the salamander blinked and licked one dark-gold eye. Can you repeat that? Later. Lay-ter.
The salamander blinked, waited a few seconds, then opened his mouth. Later. Right. Great. You need a name too, isn't that right?
He watched the salamander slowly curl up into a ball - his way of shrugging. You aren't very quick, are you?
A long pause. The salamander shook his head once. Right. I'll call you Fleet. You should be fast at something. Even if it is just your name.
The salamander, Fleet, made a contented clicking noise - or was it dismissive? - and tucked his head beneath one stubby leg.
He was very tired, despite having just woken up. A weight seemed to press on his chest, slowly taking his breath away, lead in his eyelids, ice in his fingers and toes, thick gel in his veins. He should not be tired, not want to sleep when the sun had just risen, but he did. Very much so.
Ignoring the deer and salamander, he straightened from his crouch and moved towards the door, fumbling with the handle before it opened. Behind him, the deer looked at him with empty eyes, but he would deal with it later. After he slept.
Through the greenhouse not looking at the water or ivy. Into his apartment and onto his bed. It was so unseasonably cold even though it was the height of summer, even though the sub was shining. He pulled the blankets up to his eyes, closed them. So cold.
And then the cold seeped through him and took him away.
Rewriting this section to make people less whiny.
The final door was a thin, wooden one, plain with a tarnished handle. Dust lay thick upon the floor, puffs raising with each step the pair took, fulling their mouths and lungs with the scent of mold and decay. And Later made no move to open it.
Go on, she urged, patting at him ineffectively. This is what you've been looking for.
Then what are you waiting for?"
He averted his eyes. God is in there."
Oh." Her voice tightened. You'll be going in alone then."
Nora, I can't."
Because I can't stand to know if he's in there. But I can't not."
She threw her hands up in the air, exasperation seeping into her frame. Later, enough of this." Her eyes closed. Why are we here? What is this place to you? If you won't tell me, I'm leaving."
He stood, looking at her with those sad, black eyes – so large when seen in his tattered, starving face. You need to know? Right now?"
What do you think?"
God died here, you know that. I need you to see Him."
Rewriting this section to make people less whiny.
I need you to see him so that you'll understand why you're here. To understand that, you need to understand what happened here.
The first thing I saw was the inside of a cell, thin bars and a figure who looked in on me with black hair and a long face and pink hands and a white coat. Day after day, he would look at me, shake his head, speak in strange sounds that eventually made sense. I saw the others come in, dying, bleeding, hissing, spitting, scratching, clawing, biting. He would inject them, look at me, and put them away just like me. And I didn't understand why.
When the words made sense, I used them and He responded. He let me out to be with Him and to serve Him. He taught me, He cared for me, He made sure that I was clean and fed. I wanted so badly to make Him happy, to understand what He was doing, to be of use to Him, and so I worked tirelessly to learn about what He was doing. I read the books, the journals, the records. In time, I knew the chemistry behind it, the mechanisms behind what He was looking for. I knew that thirty-six test subjects before me had died of acute poisoning and I knew that I had not, but was still a failure.
I lied to you, Honorah, I did fail God. I failed Him once, when I lived but was not what He was searching for. And I have worked my whole life to make it up to Him.
God searched for immortal life. He sought something that would keep the world young and strong forever. In me, he got something else. Ugly, scrawny, leeched of colour, I looked – look – like a monster."
Later, you are not a monster!" Her words, outraged, tried to stop bim, but he continued.
He was pleased with the intelligence, pleased that my wounds healed quickly, pleased that I lived for so much longer than a deer was supposed to live … but it wasn't what he was looking for.
I knew I was a disappointment but I also knew that I could be of use. I wanted to be of use. I had to be. And, eventually, He gave me tasks. I was to sit, watching those others in the cages fail and die and I knew, I knew, Honorah, that they were just like me. I had been them once, there had been no difference between me and them in the beginning and the only reason that I was there to watch them die was that luck had smiled on me.
That revelation only made me more determined to help God, to end the sacrifices and to give Him what He had been searching for for years. But we never did. As the seasons passed, I saw him begin to fail. I saw the lines slowly creep across His face and His hair slowly speckle away into white. I saw His movements slow and his eyes fade as He ran out of time.
There were two others like me. A salamander and a bat, but they were failures too. The salamander, Fleet, he got too big. Something about the injection made him balloon up. He was nice, but not very smart. The bat, she was violent. Something about the injection made her go all funny upstairs and she wasn't safe. It made God angry to see us, I think, because we didn't die, but we weren't what He was looking for either. None of us.
And then one day came when He went past that door back there, the one leading to the greenhouse and up into here, and never came back. We waited and waited as the weeks passed, but it became clear that our God was gone and we were on our own. So we left.
The first town we came across, we walked in expecting that whatever lived there would be friendly. That the inhabitants would understand. When we saw that they looked like God, we were elated, but they were just like the ones who had ruined Him. When they ran us out, the bat followed me and Fleet didn't. I haven't found him yet and it has been over one of your lifetimes that I have been looking. He was just a salamander. He just was a very big salamander that parroted back and was just barely smart enough to know his own name and was happy to sit and eat bugs all day. And they called him a dragon and now he's gone." His voice broke and he took a deep breath, shaking.
And what does this all have to do with me?
In life, you did terrible things. And now, you're stuck here, by the will of God. Your sins have bound you to the world as surely as --
Later, things happen in the forest. There's no explanation for some of them, it's just how things work in the trees. I'm not actually here, you know that.
He gave her a long, sad look. She did not understand. Her spirit was tied because it was God's will. And she didn't know it.
The girl took advantage of the pause, taking his face in her hands and pressing her small forehead to his. Later, Later … Did you ever think that an immortal God would have no need of immortality? Did you ever stop to think that it was odd that he had to fear death? That he was trying to emulate the other gods?"
He pulled away, I asked once why he had to find it. The other gods had wronged Him. They had taken everything from Him, sent Him away. He needed to make it to prove them all wrong, to show them that they had made a mistake… He needed to find it to take back what they had stolen from Him. I assumed that immortality was what they had stolen"
She shook her head, that man was no god, Later, just a petty madman with a grudge. Probably a brilliant scientist, but just a man all the same. He was no god and he's not why I'm still here."
Stop saying that!"
Why? Why should I stop saying that?"
Because it's wrong!"
How do you know?"
I can't explain it. I can only believe in what I know to be true. And if it isn't true, if He wasn't God, only a man, then what does that make me?"
Nora, I've lived for so long and have never come across another like me. Fleet and Tithe, they weren't the same. They died and I survived. Am I old? Am I young? How long will I live? Am I going to live forever? I don't know what I am or why I'm here, but if God really was God, then it means that someone knew and had a plan for me. There would be a reason that I found you, there would be a reason that you're here. There would be a reason for me to be this way. Without God, it could be for no reason at all and then what do I have to hope for in life?" He paused, the whites of his eyes still visible. I'd have nothing.
Rewriting this section to make people less whiny.She set her jaw, her brows knit, arms crossed. "I'm leaving." And she did, leaving him standing outside of the last door that he couldn't and wouldn't open. In time, he followed.
It didn't appear to be anything at first glance, a tumbledown structure of wood and gypsum mortar that had been partially reclaimed by the forest around it and held more bad memories than it did good. In places, the remnants of its shape hinted at its original state – something cold and grey and worthy of disdain – but in most, it had devolved into unrecognizable disorder. From across the clearing, two figures watched it in relative silence in the dying afternoon light.
What's so special about this place?" the young woman asked, one last time.
He flicked his ears, looking at her dejectedly, a broken note in his voice. God died here." She put her hand on his shoulder and, when he didn't move to shake her off, wrapped her arms around his neck as best she could. No, Later. He didn't. There was no God here and there never will be. There was only a devil who made something good.