A Fire at the End of Time
“Like rubies floating on a black ocean. . . .”
“That is not what I think of. Rubies are cold and dead. They steal their fire and life from the Sun. No, I see the earth at the bottom of a tremendous valley. The hillside is the sky, rising above us, and here and there on the hilltops bonfires are lighted, which we call stars. If our sight were keener, we could see the gods dancing around them.”
M’Reeva liked the metaphor. An approving ripple stirred the surface of her aura, and her silky tail uncoiled for an instant to brush against the back of T’Luthon’s neck.
The man felt her invitation and began to respond. But his first fervent thought and his clumsy attempt to entwine her tail with his own spoiled the mood. M’Reeva’s aura stiffened, repelling contact.
They resumed walking, farther apart than before. T’Luthon kept his head turned toward the woman, trying by the touch of his eyes to retain the momentary touching of bodies and minds.
Their world had no moon. Twelve reddish stars were the sole objects in the night sky, too scattered and faint to cast illumination. Here in the forest, though, leaves stored up light during the day and glowed with a dim, green radiance at night. M’Reeva’s profile, lithe and girlish in a flowing linen tunic, was distinct against this background. The details of her face were shadowed, but love and memory furnished them to T’Luthon. Every movement changed the pattern of light and darkness that played across her features, and each new pattern charmed him in some new way.
From his teacher and master he had learned that the serene contemplation of beauty excels all other pleasures. He wished that he could bring serenity to the present moment. Instead, he was a muddle of half-ashamed apologies and half-daring declarations. When he tried to express one or the other, a clammy mist stifled his breathing. So he walked in silence, fearful and yearning.
Scarcely an hour ago, as the Sun had set on the last hymns of the Springflower Festival, he had gloried in untrammeled self-confidence. It had been a whirling day: the waking before dawn; the cold, hurried breakfast; the daylong procession that, amidst the music of prayers and solemn hymns, carried the divine images around the circuit of the territory of K’Nallas; the ritual dinner of beans and coarse barley cakes and astringent wine that ended the ceremony.
Religious emotion, compounded by exertion and lack of food, permeated the auras of the worshipers. The mental barriers became skittish and pliable, open to suggestion and change. The unveiled sky was the playground of the gods, and the mortals below felt themselves caught up in the power of the divine.
T’Luthon, mingling in the middle ranks of the young men’s chorus, drank in the swaying movements of M’Reeva, leader of the chorus of girls. For a year now, he had adored her. He kept a drawing of her face hidden behind the books in his library cell and plotted his comings and goings so as to pass by places where he might glimpse her. He treasured the fact that she knew his name and deigned to return his greetings.
To one of her uncles he had hinted his passion and had received the oblique response that the D’Mo clan was not so proud as to despise a suitor whose birth was good and who was making himself a sound reputation as a scholar. The day had long passed, though, when an uncle would be so bold as to direct a niece’s marriage. Modern girls chose their own husbands, usually - so it seemed to M’Reeva’s uncle - with an eye toward disappointing their elders.
It was a small and ambiguous encouragement - enough, in the feverish afterglow of the festival, to impel T’Luthon through the milling bodies, until he stood within two tails’ lengths of M’Reeva. He let his aura tentatively, as if by accident, rub against hers. She looked up from circle of chattering girls. Her expression was calm, composed, indifferent, just the face to throw an admirer into despair. Then she caught his eye, and her lips broke into a momentary private smile.
That tiny, fleeting gesture gave him courage to invite her to walk with him in the forest. She accepted, pushing away from her companions to stand at his side. In that moment, he felt transformed. The dusty-furred, thin-tailed scholar strode with giant steps, leading the most glorious of maidens.
Now, alone with her in the depths of the trees, he was transformed again, from god back to scholar. His footsteps shrank, and his aura grew cold. He imagined some sleek, golden-maned athlete embracing M’Reeva tomorrow.
Before gloom could envelop him completely, she spoke, her voice showing no awareness of the misery that she had inflicted.
“It’s starting to get chilly. Could we make a fire?”
He nodded. If she had made that request ten minutes earlier. . . . He had dreamed of sitting with her in front of a soaring blaze, basking in the reflection of the stars.
The firedrill was in the lining of his cloak. He pulled it out mechanically, collected fallen branches and long strands of dry grass, lit the kindling and puffed the flames to life. The two wanderers sat on a downed log, their shoulders distant inches apart.
“What do your books say about the stars?”
He was not in a hurry to answer. At this moment, he hated the Library’s vast, sunless galleries and their piles of ancient, ageless paper. He hated the waxy smell of the candle that singed his whiskers when he held a page too near, striving to decipher the half-comprehensible god-tongue. And he hated, above all other hates, the condescending interest in his endeavors shown by those who led their lives in the sunshine.
“Is something wrong, T’Luthon? Don’t you want to talk to me?”
He grunted and, not bold enough to be rude, forced himself to speak. “The gods wrote much about the stars, but I have read only fragments, and those are difficult to understand.”
“Even for you? Everyone tells me that you know more about the god-books than anybody else.”
“I have learned a little. The books have been long neglected. I all but had to learn the god-tongue anew, and generations of study will be needed before it is known well enough to make sense out of the harder texts. As for the stars, the books describe them mystically. There is a passage in one that begins: The million stars, whose thousand colors make night as illuminated as day. . . .
“Now, there obviously are not a million stars, and they come in one color, not a thousand. What such a passage means is that the beauty of nature fills the soul and that the wise man’s spiritual vision is never darkened but always as clear as in the brightest daylight.”
He suspected that he was boring her. Unable to think of anything interesting to say, he stopped talking.
The crackling fire smothered most forest sounds and overwhelmed the natural phosphorescence. T’Luthon and M’Reeva were thus enclosed in a kind of unwalled shell, cut off from the stirrings of the night. The illusion of sitting in a charmed stronghold was so strong that the man was more surprised than alarmed to detect a unfamiliar aura approaching.
A strong aura. He felt it before he saw or heard any physical sign of its possessor. It was, too, careless in its strength, letting its thoughts fall in great, powerful lumps, open to anyone’s examination.
T’Luthon’s first impression was of a sentient beast, a monster out of myth, devouring the minds of men. M’Reeva’s aura glimmered with terror. Her mouth opened to scream, then closed as her mind crumpled into unconsciousness. Her body remained rigidly upright.
A shape stepped out of the night. T’Luthon’s eyes refused to focus. He saw only a blur, vaguely manlike in form, crouching beside the fire, as if to warm itself.
He longed to react, to seize a stick or rock and throw it defiantly at the intruder. Self-contempt swept through him as he realized that he could not move, that fear held his muscles paralyzed.
But no, he was not, after all, afraid. The other held him in a mighty grip, overpowering his will, but its aura was merely strange, not malevolent. Courage trickled back into T’Luthon, until he found his vocal cords unstopped and able to croak out a challenge.
“What are you?”
“A friend. Do not be afraid, T’Luthon.”
“How do you know my name?”
“As I said, I am a friend. I have waited a long time to meet you. I have put the female to sleep, so that we may talk.”
The choking grip let go of T’Luthon. The other remained a blur but now presented no threat. It was, rather, a wistful presence, huddling near the fire for comfort.
“What are you?” T’Luthon asked again.
“That is not so simple a question. Come. Let me try to show you.”
The other’s aura expanded, engulfing T’Luthon. He murmurred a protest, then found himself adrift in a labyrinth of memories. He floated unsteadily, not sure what he was seeing. Slowly, a few solid objects emerged, landmarks in the stream.
The other was old. Eons before, when a whorl of dust had condensed into the Sun that lit T’Luthon’s world, it had been old. T’Luthon looked deep, trying to see its beginning, and the sensation was like standing at the edge of a tall cliff and looking down, and seeing the ground below melt away to reveal an unsuspected chasm, into which the eye might plunge forever.
He whimpered with a child’s fear of high places. The other seemed to chuckle, like an indulgent parent who knows that there is no danger.
“You are wise, T’Luthon - the wisest of your species, though you hardly suspect it. But my origin - our origin - is beyond what you are prepared to comprehend.”
As the disembodied, silent voice touched the word “our”, T’Luthon became aware that this was not a single being that he was contemplating. Beneath its aura lived a diversity of minds, intertwined and intertwining, like vines that do not merely mingle their branches but draw sap from one another. Each of these minds had, T’Luthon sensed, been great in his own right - he felt small and feeble-witted in their presence - but the greatest of them was greater now, because it lived in and with the others.
“Yes, T’Luthon, you are beginning to see what we are and what you can be.”
M’Reeva’s body, relaxing in sleep, lost its equipoise and fell gently against T’Luthon’s. Her head hung on his shoulder, and her breath drew in and out across the short bristles of his neck. He felt her only as an annoying distraction and accepted her almost-kiss as if it were the buzzing of an insect in his library cell.
The other was creating images.
T’Luthon saw the stars shrink and lose their color, dwindling to cold, piercing dots with no hint of the jollity of celestial bonfires. They were also more numerous than before. He counted thirty in a small section of sky, then let his attention be drawn back to the earth.
The soft night glow of the forest was gone. The void surrounded T’Luthon. He wriggled a toe against the ground and scraped bare rock.
He blinked hard. The fire kindled for M’Reeva was still visible, but a gauzy curtain obscured the flames.
“What is this?” he whispered.
“The place where we sit now, as it was when we came to your world.”
Lightning raced through the sky, searing a purple welt across T’Luthon’s vision. His hand rose tardily to guard his eyes. A hot, roaring wind came and blew the hand back. He steadied himself against the gale, clinging to the man-sized, pliant pillar that leaned against his own body. The curtain that the other had laid upon him smothered the pillar’s moan.
At the foot of the lightning, where it touched the ground, a slender spire blossomed. The spire carried its own torches. They illuminated dead, gray stone.
Out of the spire clambered a bulky, indistinct figure. It set its feet firmly on the barren earth and took in the landscape with a gaze unhindered by darkness.
“It was all lifeless then, the land and the oceans and the air. We had expected no more. These late-born stars are unfertile mothers, and this, the last-born within the universe, had little time to nurture the germs of life.”
T’Luthon understood that the next images were not literal pictures. He saw the acting out of stories that he had known since infancy, the myths of the creation of living things. He had learned from his master that these tales were crude representations of philosophical truth. The world and its inhabitants had not been fashioned by the impulse of anthropomorphic deities but, rather, arose from contending forces of nature, simplified and vulgarized by myth.
He now saw that his skepticism was both right and wrong. The myths were not factual accounts, but their falsity lay in unexpected directions. The other was not a god, and there was nothing supernatural in its operations; yet neither was it an impersonal phenomenon obedient to randomness.
He was growing weary. With tranquil complaisance, he watched the parade of created beings, from minuscule green specks to the sky-shading fronds of the h’laqual tree, from mites to cold-blooded lizards to the myriad animals of field and forest to man, the culmination - so T’Luthon had believed until this night - of nature’s creativity.
And now - he noted the fact with sleepy uninterest - he was looking down on K’Nallas from above, a view that nature had reserved for birds, since the town was set on a wide cliff face plunging downward to the sea.
From this impossible vantage point, he saw centuries of the city shift in a handful of minutes, growing from the scattered mud huts of farmers and fisherfolk to a metropolis of brick and marble. Temples and palaces and market places and private residences were built and demolished. Streets were born as winding footpaths, matured into broad, straight boulevards and decayed to paths again. Open land vanished beneath a flurry of construction, then crumbled to uninhabited waste.
Through all these mutations, one feature remained, an oak weathering the seasons that kill and renew the transient flowers crowding against its roots. In a dark, stifling room deep within that changeless building, T’Luthon was accustomed to pass the hours, studying by candlelight.
“We had brought books with us - not because we had any need or use for them but because they were a relic of lost worlds. We did not wish them to vanish into futility. Tens of billions of years before your Sun coalesced, creatures wrote words and fancied that they gained some kind of immortality thereby. If they had known the truth about immortality - that the stranger who casually jostled one of us is alive forever in our memory, while the profoundest authors are merely marks on plastic. . . .”
A kind of laughter possessed the other’s aura; for an instant, it seemed to turn away from T’Luthon. The man abruptly realized that his hands were choking M’Reeva. He laid her carefully on the grass. The campfire was guttering. He threw on a fresh log and watched it steam and char on its way to igniting.
The other caught him up again. The fire dimmed, and M’Reeva vanished entirely from mind and sight.
He saw the other now, not as a single vague figure but as thousands of active, interdependent lives with forms that crowded the forest. T’Luthon loved them and knew that minds like these, vigorous and inquiring, were the citizens of the city to which he truly belonged.
He regretted that his master could not join him in knowing these new companions. Last winter, during a period of unnaturally bitter frost, the old man had taken a chill and died. He had left his last words to T’Luthon, his favorite pupil: “Burn with serenity, my son; grow fierce and bright with contemplation and calm.”
The paradox was vividly clear now. In his last days, T’Luthon knew, the master had been possessed by visions, of which he had been ashamed, fearing that the divine dreams were, in actuality, senile delusions. He had been reluctant to tell his pupils what he saw, limiting himself to riddles, but T’Luthon wondered whether there might have been some presentiment of the coming of the other, a foreshadowing that inspired the teacher’s deathbed saying.
A particularly bright and beautiful image detached itself from the throng and floated toward him. It looked like a woman, a woman whose loveliness was so awesome and unmitigated that the mind could not, in its first impression, understand it as beauty. Only intense study - millenia might be sufficient - could take the first steps toward revealing its secrets and admiring them as they deserved.
Her aura melted easily into T’Luthon’s, and they communicated with an intimacy that the man had shyly hoped someday, after great striving, to enjoy with M’Reeva.
“Would you like to become one in us, T’Luthon, my darling?”
Wild with hope, he could not rein in his undisciplined thoughts. Longing and delight spilled from him, scattering across the forest and its ghostly inhabitants, followed by amazement that such joy could be possible.
“Ah, dearest one, for millions of years we have been waiting for you. We seeded this barren planet in the hope that one day it would produce a lover to complete us.
“We are - surely you have guessed the fact already - the last minds in the universe. The last minds that ever can be. There are no more planets on which life will grow, and we have never learned how to produce minds without life.
“Part of us doubted that the fertilization of your world could be profitable. But the desire for a new mind, one that would relieve the tedium of billions of years of sameness, was so great that we took the risk. It might all have been in vain. We watched in suspense as new species were born and old ones died, wondering where the road that we had marked out was leading.
“One step we took to twist the road to the hoped-for destination: we buried our vessel, the one that brought us here from our former haven, and left its library to be found by whatever intelligence might one day exist on this world. When your race appeared and began to master fire and chip stones, we provided the subtle impetus to turn your best thinkers’ minds toward the library’s books. Those books were a training ground and a test. The one who taught you came near to passing the test, and you have won the prize.”
T’Luthon understood without truly listening. Excitement preoccupied him, dampened by a nagging uncertainty as to how his transformation into one of these brilliant and immortal minds could occur.
The other interrupted her discourse to answer. “A day or two will be needed, to prevent the shock from harming the tenderness of your psyche. There is little effort involved. Simply remain here and converse with us, until we are joined.”
“And what then?”
“Your present body is unnecessary; it will drop away. Then you will be fully with us. For a brief time, a century or so as you now count years, we will meet and explore one another, will let our love burn and become greater by burning. After that, it will be time to leave this place for our final home.”
“Where is that?”
The ghost woman smiled. “You are delightfully young, darling. You are thinking of a home elsewhere on this world, on one of the mountain tops, perhaps, where your ancestors imagined the dwellings of the gods.
“No, no, T’Luthon. There is no home for us here, or on any planet. The planets are doomed. In time - not long as we look at time - your Sun will flare to a million times its present heat and sear all life from this globe. Then it will expand and devour its little cinders of children. We - our physical components - can withstand far more than the body that you now wear, but our endurance is not infinite. The blaze of a dying star would kill us.
“Therefore, we must find our home elsewhere, in a place built for us between the stars. We will not show it to you now. It would seem unnecessarily austere, since you yourself are yet enmeshed in the material universe. But trust us in this: We will be there, and that will be enough to prolong our love.”
This vision of the future disturbed the clarity of T’Luthon’s expectant joy. Still, the blot was tiny against the brilliance of his desire. He stretched out a hand and touched the woman. Whether the physical sensation was real, he was not certain and did not care. She came at his beckoning, and glowing filled his arms.
The thoughts that they shared rambled, an untranscribable medley that bound T’Luthon moment by moment to this new existence. Midnight came; the fire, unrefreshed, sank to lukewarm embers tinged a pale red. M’Reeva slept, her breathing fading with the fire, until she hardly seemed to breathe at all.
Some random impulse drew T’Luthon’s attention to the girl. He sensed her weak, distorted aura and grasped that she was dying.
“What is wrong with her?” he asked.
The other traced a soft finger across his lips. “She has no more purpose. None of them do, now that you have joined us. The kindest thing is to let her die.”
“Must she?” The infatuation that had ruled T’Luthon for more than a year had no strength now, but death so near at hand was incongruous. He wished that the girl, if she must die, would do so out of the range of his senses.
The woman cooed and stroked the root of his tail. “So very, very young, darling. You are still so attached to bodies. You feel sorry for this female, but sorrow is wrongly placed. You are really sorry for your own pain in beholding death. If you thought of her good, you would rejoice that she is dying without pain and before she has suffered any great agony. We are the merciful ones; you are cruel.”
Her hand seized his chin and forced him to look at M’Reeva. As he did, he looked into the face of all the ills and perils of the life of a woman of his species and culture: the fear that lay beneath sexual submission; the grim pain of childbirth; the wearying years of motherly and housewifely labors; the smug ingratitude of a mate whose desire searched out younger and prettier lovers; the irreversible mottling and stiffening of smooth skin and satin fur; the isolation of a forgotten old age.
“We would like to spare her this. Death is the only gift that we can give these creatures.”
T’Luthon nodded dumbly but drew back from the woman’s embrace.
“Now, this is really too stupid, darling! You are letting the fate of this animal draw you away from us. Are you sorry that we came to you? Do you love her instead?”
A nervous silence was broken by faintly articulated words. “No. . . . but I don’t think that she is unhappy being alive.”
The fingers that continued to fondle him grew hard and cold, a mass of icy nails scraping the fur from his flesh. “Can these creatures be happy? Suppose that they are. What of it? In less than a flicker, all is done. They are dead - organic nourishment for the fungi that their children feed on.”
T’Luthon pulled his sight away from M’Reeva. Gazing into the forest, he saw the shapes that clothed thousands of minds, all standing tensely, like sea birds at the first moment of a thunderstorm. A wind seemed to have risen. The bodies were swaying in it, now toward him, now away, but which direction was prevalent he could not tell.
Then the fingers were soft and caressing again, and the other was whispering warmly in his ear. “Oh, my love, stay with us. We have waited for you so long. . . .”
T’Luthon felt those eons of expectation, the slow gestation, lasting millions of plant and animal generations, until the birth of a single spark of genuine life that would complete the life of the other.
“Surely you will not desert us now, T’Luthon, our lover, our child.”
The bodies were drawn completely upright, held in place, it seemed, by the conflicting winds. The woman, too, was no longer leaning against him. He turned away from her, knowing that he could not reason in the glare of her overmastering beauty.
“Tell me about the new home that you will build between the stars.”
“Why do you ask about that, darling?”
“I wish to know where I am going.”
“Well, then - “ Her hands resumed passing over and around him, though with quick, uncertain motions.
“Far away from here, so far away that the stars of your sky cannot be seen, there is a star that no longer is - it is not dead, but, let us say, smothered. It was the greatest of stars, and now all of its heat and substance are confined within a minute, invisible nugget.
“If you could stand next to that nugget, you would feel no heat and see no light. Nevertheless, little by little, energy trickles out, rationed at the slowest imaginable pace.
“We will live by that slow-flowing fountain. Our physical component, reduced to the minimum needed to sustain our minds, will maintain itself from the decay of the imprisoned star. And so we will continue to live and love, long after the stars that you see have dwindled to frozen dust.”
The image that T’Luthon saw - perhaps inspired by the other, perhaps his own fantasy - was of a campfire on an uninhabited heath, around which a band of explorers - thousands of leagues beyond their native countryside - ate and slept and, as the mood took them, danced and sang in the face of all-englobing darkness.
He began to speak in a tired, distracted voice. “It is not the sort of festival that I imagined, yet it is better than dying, better than what awaits this girl and all of the proud citizens of great K’Nallas.”
A leaf, drifting on the night wind, landed on the embers of his own fire. With a slight snapping, the flames were reborn for a moment. T’Luthon thought of those embers, ebbing to cold, gray ash.
“But this I do not understand. The fire that will light our new home cannot last forever, can it?”
“Not forever, of course, but for hundreds of billions of years, for longer than the entire universe has lasted until this time.”
“Yet it will be gone, and where will we go then?”
“Then the universe will truly be dead.”
“And we will be dead with it? Not even food for fungi?”
“Why do you let that trouble you, darling? You cannot even picture such depths of time.”
T’Luthon’s eyes had gone back to M’Reeva, and the ghost woman was fading. He could not quite feel her fingers, merely see them moving quickly and desperately, squeezing and pulling bits of his fur.
He also did not feel the gale that rose abruptly and carried off the ranks of figures standing among the trees. They blew and scattered, whirling in confusion, splitting as they crashed into branches, reforming in clearings.
And now they were gone, and the woman was a thin outline nearly lost in the phosphorescent glimmer of the forest leaves. T’Luthon could not fix the exact moment of her departure.
M’Reeva’s breath flowed heavily where she lay on a mattress of tall grass. Her aura was alive and vigorous, heaving above a mass of emotions.
T’Luthon read the desire in her aura and knew toward whom it was directed. He had come into the forest in the hope of this, of a sleep in which passionate minds would join and share their dreams and know each other’s secrets.
Carefully, recalling his master’s most reserved moods, he made his aura impervious. Without looking at M’Reeva, he rose, gathered fallen branches and fed the fire until it again burned hotly. Through the hours until dawn, he sat before it, caring for the world no more than did the log on which his body rested.
The D’Mo clan, a civilized and even-minded family, stifled its embarrassment when their daughter returned a virgin from her walk on Springflower night. They had powerful connections and could have crushed an unimportant man like T’Luthon, had they stooped to vengeance. That the girl herself was close to despair was obvious, but maidens of that age heal rapidly; at High Summer, she walked in the woods with L’Marthan of the N’Va clan, a youth celebrated for his athletic prowess and sleek, golden fur. Their child was born that winter.
Not long afterward, T’Luthon deserted the Library and his promising career as an interpreter of the god-tongue. He went back to the building only once, to carry off his notes. He would not say what he had done with them, but he produced no more scholarly work, and the papers were seen by no one thereafter.
He moved to the sea shore and lived in a cave, becoming in time a famous recluse and ascetic, who attracted many disciples. He was said to the greatest dialectician of his or any other age, but his merits were difficult to assess, for his pupils tended to imitate his eremitic life. Those who returned to the city were the superficial disciples, retailing a handful of the great man’s paradoxical maxims, to the general unenlightenment of the crowd.
When he died, his school effectively died with him. He became a figure not of learned discourse but of popular legend, remembered for his eccentricities.
Of which one of the most noted was this: In the evening he retired to his cave before the first stars became visible and remained there until the morning Sun drove them away. And during the night, he would allow no one to light a fire.