This blog is a catalogue of my published fiction, a collection of short stories either unpublished or available online, and a discussion of all things writing. Here you will find tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and everything in between. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Temporary Extinction

Written in 2009

            Before setting down his gear, the fisherman looked up and saw the shadow of a woolly mammoth reflected against the expanses of white arctic tundra. After finding a suitable spot, he went to his knees and began drilling through the ice with his chisel. Once the hole was large enough, the fisherman dropped the hook and line into the water, and with the rod in his hand, waited.
            The fisherman shifted his gaze once again toward the mammoth, whose silhouette was now larger than before. For miles the frozen desert went on, completely barren except for the occasional creature that scurried across the idyllic but forsaken surface. The fisherman welcomed the arrival of the mammoth, though the beast roaming closer made him feel apprehensive.
            For three hours the fisherman sat inanimately by the ice hole, knowing in his heart that he would not land a catch today. When the sub-zero temperatures finally bore through the fisherman’s thick fur coat, he gathered his things and decided to go back home.
On his way there, something incongruous with the landscape caught the fisherman’s eye. He bent down and scooped up a small black object that opened like a clamshell. The top segment consisted of a black screen, and the bottom a series of printed symbols and digits. The fisherman didn’t know what to make of his discovery. Never in all his life had he found anything but snow and ice outside of his village. It seemed funny that while he was unable to catch a single fish today, instead he had uncovered this interesting trinket. The fisherman stored the object in his pack and began walking the rest of the distance back to town.
But just as he turned around, the mammoth was there, no longer just a shadow but a full-fledged monster. The fisherman lost his breath, not knowing whether to run for his life or stand still and wait for the beast to depart. In the end he did nothing, and with a gentle sway of its tusks, the mammoth turned its head to look at him. But the fisherman saw no aggression in the mammoth’s eyes, and his tension eased. When the massive beast stepped toward him, the fisherman remained immobile, now convinced that the mammoth meant him no harm. He reached out and stroked its shaggy coat, hearing the beast sigh wearily. The fisherman knew he had been wrong to fear the mammoth. It was just a creature like him, lost out in this icy wasteland, lonely and afraid.
            When the mammoth turned to march silently the other way, the fisherman made his leave as well, wandering through the frigid wilderness to the place he called home, but knew deep down that he was still searching for it.

 “Oh, no fish today either, Chase?” the fisherman’s wife said sardonically. He held out his empty hands, saying nothing. “You do realize that if it weren’t for the coats and mittens I’ve been selling in town, we would have starved by now? Chase, you haven’t brought home anything useful in weeks.”
“I did find this,” Chase said, reaching into his pocket.
Maria’s eyes lit up eagerly until she saw what was in his hand. “What is that?”
“I don’t know,” Chase admitted. “I found it on the way home. It’s a curious object. I’m not sure what it’s made out of.”
“Well unless you can sell it, it’s of no use to us.”
“Maybe…” Chase wondered, opening and closing the object. “I think I’ll bring it into town, ask the merchants what they think of it. Who knows? Maybe it’s worth something after all. If only I can figure out what it’s supposed to do.”

Chase was arrested the next morning. Men in long robes pounded on his door, then dragged him outside without a word. Despite Chase’s protests, they stripped him of the object that had baffled everyone in the village the day before, and carried him through the streets. Chase knew where they were taking him, and after a while, he stopped resisting. He had done nothing wrong; this was a mistake; and when the misunderstanding was sorted out, they would apologize to him, and he would be permitted to leave.
He was brought to the Palace, the largest structure in the entire village. His detainers led him through the main hall, where he was forced to endure the harsh gazes of the Muses: men who were both the priests and policemen of the village. Chase had an idea of whom they were taking him to, but couldn’t see how he was important enough. Didn’t Pytho have more pressing matters to attend to than the fate of a lowly fisherman?
When Chase was brought in front of the throne of Emperor Pytho, his suspicions were confirmed. He knelt before the Emperor, his heart beating erratically.
“Hello, Chase,” Pytho called. The fisherman was instructed to rise, and when he did, he saw his Emperor for the first time. Pytho walked over to him with a confident stride, his red and gold robe unwrinkled, moving concurrently with his body. A glowing crown rested atop his head, adorned with rubies and sapphires, gems so rare that Chase had only seen them once or twice in his life.
Emperor Pytho was more than just the ruler of his people; he was a prophet, a soothsayer. At first his prophecies had been met with skepticism, but when all of them came true, and when, after so many years, he showed no signs of aging, there was no questioning the prophet’s identity. Pytho was treated as a god, his every word incontrovertible, his every decree an unquestionable law. Emperor Pytho was everything Chase wasn’t: confident, dignified, adored, and vastly powerful.
“…Emperor Pytho,” Chase struggled to say, “this has to be some kind of mistake. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I don’t doubt that, Chase,” the Emperor returned calmly.
The fisherman looked puzzled. “Then can you let me go?”
“In due time, my friend.” Pytho withdrew the black object Chase had found in the snow the previous day. “Do you know what this is?” Chase shook his head. “It is a relic from a previous age. An age we no longer have any connection with. Wherever you found this relic, it is not a place you should return to.”
“Why not?” Chase asked. “What’s there?”
“Nothing,” the Emperor said soothingly. “Nothing at all. Chase, I can see that you are a good, honest man. There aren’t many of those left. I’ve taken pity on you. Your life as a poor fisherman is not deserved, no. And I’ve shown you much disrespect in dragging you here unannounced. I have shamed myself.”
“Please, your highness,” Chase said obsequiously. “You have done nothing of the sort.”
“I have,” Pytho insisted. “And to rectify my grave error, I offer you something in return for your forgiveness. There is a place far south of here where the ice has not touched, a place where the ground has color, and where grass grows wildly. It is a beautiful place, Chase, and I offer it to you. I can give you acres of fertile land, the life of a wealthy farmer. This is my gift to you, Chase. Do not deny it. It is the least I can do to earn back your trust.”
“That is very gracious of you.”
“Think nothing of it. My men will come to escort you on your journey south tomorrow. I will see you before your departure. Until then, Chase, be well.” He crushed the relic in his hands before ushering Chase out of the palace.

When Chase delivered the news to his wife, he expected her to be delighted and grateful, as eager to accept the offer as he was. But all she did was look strangely at Chase and pace around the room. “Tell me again where we’re moving,” Maria said.
“The southern lands,” Chase answered. “The Emperor offered us a large estate. We could build a better life there.”
“Why would he give you land and money?” Maria questioned. “Just this morning he had you arrested!”
“It was to apologize for falsely detaining me,” Chase explained. “He must have heard curious rumors about the relic I found. It seems only natural that he would want to see it, especially since nothing of this sort has ever been seen before.”
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Maria said. “Pytho is a prophet! He shouldn’t make mistakes at all. Something’s wrong here. Something’s off.”
“They’ll be here tomorrow to escort us on our journey,” Chase continued. “We should begin packing, I suppose. It looks like we’ll be well off after all. You won’t have to worry about us starving anymore.”
“What did he do with this ‘relic’?” Maria asked.
Chase didn’t answer at first, thinking about the future. “Oh, he broke it apart, I think.”
“And they’re coming here tomorrow?”
“All right!” Maria announced. “We need to begin packing immediately!”
Chase smiled. “I’m glad you’re excited, too. I see great things for us in the fu—”
“No, you idiot!” Maria snapped. “Don’t you see? That relic you found, it was important. If it wasn’t, Pytho wouldn’t have had you arrested. The Emperor never makes a mistake. Never. He’s going to take us somewhere tomorrow, but I don’t think it will be a nice place. We may not even be alive when we get there.”
“Oh no,” Chase said. “Oh no no no. You’re right.”
“We need to get out of here. Tonight. We can stay at my sister’s. She doesn’t live far, and we can decide what to do next when we get there.”
“No,” Chase said, remembering his conversation with Pytho. “I have a better place.”

At night, the wilderness was so cold that any exposed skin was immediately chaffed raw by the savage winds. Before departing, Chase and Maria had made sure to wrap every inch of themselves with clothing. Once everything was packed, Chase led the way into the night, into the stark frigid wilderness. In the darkness, they had to be careful not to attract any predators. At one point Chase claimed to see a saber-toothed tiger overlooking them atop a cliff, and Maria once spotted a hornless rhinoceros nestled in the snow. After what seemed an eternity to Chase, they finally reached their destination.
“This is it,” Chase said, his breath a cloud of white mist. “I found it right here.”
“You didn’t tell Pytho where this place is, did you?”
“No, he never asked.”
 For a moment, Chase wondered why Pytho hadn’t asked this seemingly important and obvious question. “Well, what are you waiting for?” Maria snapped, halting his thoughts. “Start digging.”
Chase nodded and unstrapped his shovel from the rest of his belongings. He found the exact location where he had found the relic and stabbed his shovel into the ice. It didn’t take him long to reach the water, but he and his wife were both shivering intensely by the time he did.
“Now what?” Chase asked.
“There has to be something under there,” Maria said. It was too dark to see below the surface of the water, so Maria grabbed the shovel and dipped it as far into the hole as she could, until she was on the ground and all but the handle was below the surface. After wiggling the shovel in the water for a few moments, she said, “I feel something down there, and I don’t think it’s a fish. It can only be a few feet under.”
“I have an idea,” Chase said, and opened his pack, withdrawing a flint and torch. After a few strikes, he managed to get a spark. Chase bent to his knees and held the burning torch just above the water. Maria used the shovel to clear the ice away from the surface; the water was already beginning to freeze. When the hole was clear, Chase gazed down into the depths.
“Something’s down there,” he announced. “Something huge.”
“What is it?” Maria asked. “Can you bring it up here?”
“I don’t think so. It looks to me like a building.”
“A building? Well, we better go have a look, provided that the place hasn’t flooded already.”
“Are you crazy? We’ll freeze to death before we even get there!”
“If it’s only a few feet, we should be okay. Here, I’ll go first if you’re so scared.”
Chase had no objections, though he didn’t believe Maria would have the audacity to actually dive into the freezing water. But when she discarded some of her heavier garments and bent over the hole, it was too late to stop her. As soon as she jumped in, Chase ran over to the hole and held the torch over the water. He could see her inspecting whatever kind of structure was down there, but after a few moments, the cold’s effects must have distressed Maria more than she could handle, and she made a break for the surface.
After Chase pulled her out of the water, Maria immediately collapsed, shivering spasmodically. Chase wrapped the dry pieces of clothing around her, and when Maria gained a portion of her energy back, she said,
“There’s a way in. I saw a door on the roof. If we pull together, we can open it.” Chase nodded, and together, they huddled close by the torchlight, thankful for its invaluable warmth.
When they were ready, Chase packed away his excess clothing, hoping some of it would stay dry. Maria plunged into the water, and Chase hesitated before following. Once he finally took the leap into the hole, Maria led him a few feet down until his hands touched metal. The water stung his eyes, but Chase opened them enough to see a large domed building under his feet, the extent of its size lost beneath the murky abyss. By this time, Chase’s body was beginning to feel numb, the bone-chilling cold motivating him to gain entry into the building as quickly as possible. Upon reaching the door, they signaled to each other before attempting to heave it open. It took three tries before the thick metal door gave way, allowing Chase and Maria to stumble inside along with a flood of water. It took a tremendous amount of effort to shut the heavy door, sealing it off once again. Once they did so, Chase and Maria collapsed to the floor, their bodies barely able to function.
They didn’t speak for a long time, refusing to squander the little energy they had left. Losing the feeling of his body sickened Chase, but after some time of breathing into his hands and rubbing his arms and chest to stimulate circulation, the numbing sensation finally left him.
It took Maria longer to recover. While she did, Chase used the time to explore the interior of their discovery. The room was not very large, and had a rounded roof. There were numerous shelves filled with books around the room, of which Chase had only seen a few in his entire life. But when he tried to grab one off of a bookcase, it disintegrated in his hand.
There was a door which led into the main complex of the building. Chase entered it to find himself at the top of a staircase. He looked down to see somewhere between ten and fifteen floors below him. Even the Emperor’s Palace was not this large.
Chase ran back into the previous room to relay this information to Maria. He found her on her feet, looking pale but with a certain doggedness in her eyes.
“How are you feeling?” Chase asked.
“Better,” she answered. “I’m ready to continue. Let’s go see what secrets are stored in this place.”
Chase and Maria searched the contents of every room on every floor. They found that as they descended, each subsequent floor was larger than the last. However, most were filled only with books and other similar products, which served them no purpose since they instantly turned to dust when touched. It pained Chase to know that he was surrounded by so much information, but fragile and stagnant and out of reach. Many of the rooms were also filled with tables and chairs made of a material neither of them recognized. Resting on top of many of the tables were strange instruments Chase had never seen before. They were extremely thin screens attached to stands, with wires that ran beneath the floor. One of the wires was connected to a rectangular object resting in front of each screen. There were symbols written on buttons atop the paper-thin rectangles. Chase was familiar with the majority of the symbols, letters which were part of the alphabet. The curious instruments intrigued Chase but provided him with no concrete information.
Journeying further and further into the interior of the building, which Chase identified as a library, he found himself awed by what he saw. He couldn’t read any of the books, but the sheer amount of them told him something about the world that preceded this one. The previous age had been far more advanced. They had been in possession of machines and technology that he couldn’t even understand. The architecture of the building was a marvel in itself, a structural beauty that Chase guessed none had been able to match recently. There was a mystery to be solved about what had happened to the people who lived in this age, and why all of their knowledge was lost. Emperor Pytho hadn’t wanted Chase to find this place, and he was going to find out why.
When they reached the bottom floor, they found its contents fairly similar to those above it, but with one difference: in the center of the room was a giant cube, roughly six feet on each side. Its surface was smooth and of unknown composition. There was a button at eye level on the exterior of the cube with a message over it that read, “MAIN DATABASE”.
Without hesitating, Maria pushed the button. Nothing happened, of course, and Chase turned around to begin exploring the remainder of the ground floor, when he heard a strange mechanical sound. He looked back to see the cube flicker briefly with blue light, and then illuminate fully. The cube was now bathed in effulgent indigo, making odd churning and hissing noises. Chase imagined a set of gears moving beneath the cube’s surface, powering the machine. Finally, the noises ceased, and a screen composed entirely of light lit up just above the cube.
“WELCOME TO THE MAIN DATABASE,” a booming, generic female voice sounded.
Chase nearly jumped into the air with surprise. “Hello,” he called back finally.
“Chase, I don’t think it can hear you,” Maria remarked.
“PLEASE CHOOSE YOUR AREA OF INQUIRY.” Text appeared on the blue screen above the cube. The words were clearly sections of learning which they were expected to choose from. Chase now understood what this machine was used for. It was the center of all knowledge in the entire library, and housed all of the information Chase could possibly desire to know. He had no idea why this machine continued to function while none of the others did, but guessed that it must have had a different, self-sustaining energy source.
Chase decided to test it. “Science,” he said, and listened to the mechanic beeping and grinding as the machine worked.
It took a considerable amount of research to get to his answer, and he was admittedly sidetracked on a number of accounts in order to indulge in his infinite curiosities. He repeated some of the interesting tidbits to Maria, who like most of her village was unable to read or write. Chase, luckily, had in his early years made it a point to learn this skill that hadn’t until now provided him with any practical use. It was fortunate that he possessed this ability, for after sifting through the numerous categories and narrowing the sources down, it was only a matter of time before he reached his answer.
“The relic I found,” he said, “is called a cellular phone. People used it to communicate over large distances instantaneously. The device linked the entire world together…”
“Hm,” Maria began, “this proves our suspicion that Emperor Pytho was hiding something from you. That relic was not unimportant after all.”
“Yes,” Chase agreed. “But I need to know more. I need to know why the world is so different than it was, and how it fell from power.”
Chase returned to the database and began naming his commands, more confident in his ability to search for answers. His exploration through the past brought him across numerous points of interest, many of which served him no immediate use other than to service his desire to learn about the past world. On his voyage through history, Chase learned about the well of knowledge the world once contained. His research of the cellular phone led Chase to a number of other notable inventions that had aided humanity throughout history, but were now defunct. Among these, Chase favored the printing press, automobiles, antibiotics, personal computers, and genetic engineering.
“It’s so odd,” Chase said suddenly, startling Maria, who had hours ago ceased watching Chase peruse through the database and was until now doing her best to sleep.
“What’s odd?” she responded groggily.
“The species that now dominate the Earth—mastodons, cave lions, woolly rhinos, smilodons, you name it—they were all once extinct.”
“Then how do you explain their existence today?”
“I don’t really understand it,” Chase confessed, “but the technology to bring these creatures back to life was brought about by genetic engineering. Basically, people reconstructed these creatures, which had died off thousands of years ago, and brought them back to life. Why? For zoos, certainly, and also for research. People wanted to know how these species adapted and survived during the Ice Age.”
“The Ice Age,” Maria repeated. “That sounds an awful lot like our time period.”
“That is why the once-extinct species now thrive in our environment. They originally died off because of the world’s changing climate, the ice and glaciers melting away to make way for a warmer world. But that world returned, and while we have struggled to survive through the years, the Ice Age animals now reign.”
“All right,” Maria said. “That does partly explain why all of the knowledge and technology of the old world were lost, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. We have to research Pytho’s role in all of this.”
“You mean I have to research Pytho’s role in all of this,” Chase corrected.
“Well, of course,” Maria said with a wry smile. She returned to her sleeping position and put her hands behind her head. “You’re the one who loves to rummage and search for clues and answers; I’m the one, of course, who ultimately comes up with our next course of action.”
Chase snickered, but then returned to the database and the blue screen. He said, “Pytho,” and watched as hundreds of lines of text rolled before his eyes.
At first the database thought Chase had meant either Python or Pythia, both of which had far more results, but after narrowing his matches further, he came across several articles regarding the Emperor, including one in particular which gave him the most answers:

By Martha Wakin
MANHATTEN — Lewis Reynolds, a man whom many claim to be a modern-day Nostradamus, is causing quite a stir. Amassing crowds sometimes larger than those that attend football games, Reynolds’ popularity has made the public wonder who exactly this man is, and if his supposed prophecies are in any way plausible.
Among his prophecies, Reynolds, or Pytho, as his followers call him, is most notable for predicting the complete melting of Greenland and both ice caps. While many scientists have already warned us about this possibility, Reynolds cites 2067 as the year cities like New York will be completely submerged in water. Questions about the validity of his foreknowledge aside, most agree that Reynolds’ role in this situation is beneficial. A number of nations have already switched to clean energies in order to combat global warming. Reynolds, however, claims that this isn’t enough, and it may already be too late.
Despite Reynolds’ role in saving the environment, a number of his other prophecies have led to much controversy. Notably, Reynolds’ prediction of Senator Adam Williams’ assassination. While this ultimately came true, skeptics say that Reynolds’ prediction itself was what incited the Senator’s murder. A number of Reynolds’ other prophecies were also validated to the day they were predicted, a fact which Reynolds often brings up in his speeches in order to back up the validity of his abilities.
Reynolds claims that while he sees many obstacles in the future, the most important is currently global warming. While the United States has tightened its energy laws, the country still has a way to go before weaning off of oil and other nonrenewable resources, as much of the world has done already. Reynolds claims that without the United States’ support, no one can stop the ice caps from melting, a future which Reynolds says he hopes is not set in stone.
While a number of Reynolds’ prophecies have admittedly come true, a score of others have given no indication of ever being realized. One of these predictions is that sometime in the few hundred years after the ice caps supposedly melt, Earth will reach its next Ice Age. For many, this claim serves as evidence that Reynolds is a fraud, his prophecies seeming to contradict each other. Reynolds himself remains firm in his claim, though scientific belief points to Earth’s temperatures only rising in the next few hundred years, even if the United States were to completely switch to clean energy immediately.
His prophecies may be bold and sometimes outrageous, but Reynolds, or Pytho, as he has become, has certainly made a name for himself in the world. What his next prediction will be is anybody’s guess.

            When Chase finished reading the news article, his every theory concerning Pytho’s past was dismissed. He was not the egotistical tyrant Chase had thought him to be. He was just a man with a gift who had wanted to use his foresight to help humanity, not control it. It was clear now what had happened to the world. As predicted, the ice caps had indeed melted, resulting in the destruction of all coastal cities. Chase presumed that this library, and thus the city it was once part of, was once situated on dry land. By some miracle, the library had survived and continued to collect information through its main database, but the remains of the other buildings and structures were either deteriorated completely through time or scattered atop the seabed.
The destruction of these major cities had hindered humanity in preparing for its next major crisis: the Ice Age.
            Chase spent the next few hours, while Maria slept, investigating the cause of the Ice Age. He found that while significant funding had been allotted to this goal in the past, no clear answer had ever been found. Articles mentioned a dramatic change in ocean and wind currents, an alteration in the Earth’s orbit or axis tilt, a drop in volcanic activity, and even the sun’s orbit around the galaxy as possible explanations, but they were just theories. In any case, once temperatures began to plummet, the world was driven to hysteria. Many resorted to drastic solutions such as rapidly pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, hoping the greenhouse effect, once their worst enemy, could save them. Others sought instead to unify the world in adapting to its changing climate. Despite their efforts, however, a combination of a collapsed global economy, failed government systems around the world, and the devastation left over from the melted ice caps, launched the globe into total anarchy. What resulted was a world that had reverted tens of thousands of years back in time to when humanity was just an infant. It was a world where humanity’s technology was primitive, its progress slow, and its only true goal to survive.
            More than a day later, Maria awakened to see Chase standing by the cube, still uttering his commands and reading the documents on the blue screen.
            “Have you slept at all?”
            “No, I couldn’t just stop.”     
“We’re running out of food,” Maria said, rummaging through their things. She took out two pieces of dried meat and handed one to Chase. “We can’t stay here forever.”
            “I know, but I’m starting to get some answers. I’ve learned a few things about what happened to the world.” He told her about humanity’s failure to prevent the ice caps from melting, then of the fall of civilization when the Ice Age hit. Chase concluded with Pytho’s role as a prophet of doom, trying with all his power to stop his predictions from coming into fruition.
            “If all of that is true,” Maria said when he finished, “then we have no reason to be here anymore. If Pytho’s intentions were good, then he didn’t lie to us after all. His promise of a future for us in the south was genuine. It still bothers me that Pytho kept all of this information from us, but I can’t blame him. The past must be something he wants to forget, something he wants to put behind him.”
            “I suppose that’s true.”
            “In that case, we should leave here immediately and see if we can still accept Pytho’s offer.” She looked at Chase, whose eyes were lowered, whose disposition was not as elated as she had anticipated. “Come on!” she said. “We don’t have to hide anymore. We can go back.”
            “Don’t you understand?” Chase said. “I can’t just leave this place. I’m only beginning to piece together the rich history of the past. I want to understand it all, Maria. There is so much left to see, so many stories untouched.”
            Maria waited a moment before answering, “You can’t stay here forever.”
            “I know,” Chase said. “I just need a little more time to search—”
            “No!” Maria shouted. “That’s all you do, Chase. You’re always searching and searching and searching, but never doing.” Chase said nothing. “Consider that if keep going without sleep, you’ll eventually collapse from exhaustion. Consider that with the food we have left, it won’t be long before we starve. Consider—”
            “Okay,” Chase said. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I was being a fool.”
            “That’s all right,” Maria said. “But it’s time we got out of here.” Chase nodded, and pressed the button on the cube, causing the blue light to shut off. Together, they climbed the flights of stairs back up to the top floor. Pushing open the door, Chase wondered why it had never rusted, and concluded that like the cell phone and the wired devices in the library, it was made of a substance which the present did not possess, this one in particular resistant to wear or rust.
It took all of Chase’s energy to close the door against the waterfall rushing through, but once he did, he followed Maria back up to the world above. He found her treading water by the surface, and immediately understood the problem. The hole had frozen over! Running out of air, Chase blindly reached behind him and struggled to unstrap the shovel. His hands nearly numb, Chase thrashed the end of the shovel as hard as he could where the ice was thinnest. After a few attempts, the ice cracked open, and he and Maria scrambled to the surface, panting and gasping.
            It took twenty minutes to regain their breath, and two hours before they had the strength to travel. But they had to begin moving as soon as they could, for the wind was brutal, and the cold was pitiless.
            When they reached the Palace, Chase couldn’t help feeling apprehensive, despite his knowledge of Pytho’s honorable character. Muses came to escort them inside, speaking not a word, their faces concealed beneath their black cloaks. When they reached Pytho’s room, the Emperor was already waiting for them.
            “I’ve been expecting you,” he said.
            “I suppose you know what I’m going to say then,” Maria remarked. “We’re deeply sorry that we were not present at our home when your Muses came to escort us south. We were at my sister’s; I did not want to leave before saying goodbye.”
Pytho did not answer at first, but walked over to the window in the corner of the room, gazing out into the perpetual winter. “I understand,” he said finally. “I understand completely. Chase, before you two leave, I do have a question for you.”
            “What is it?” His voice was frail and shaky.
            “The life of a fisherman,” Pytho began, “I believe it suited you in your time here. Do you think you will miss it when you become a farmer?”
            Chase exhaled. “Perhaps a little.”
            “You see, I’ve studied you, Chase, and you are a very interesting character. Whatever you choose to do, you become obsessed to the point where you cannot stop yourself, even if there is nothing to gain in continuing. I’m sure your wife has told you this on a number of occasions.” Pytho was alluding to something, but Chase couldn’t be sure what. He noticed the presence of at least ten Muses standing behind them, and the glaring truth presented itself to him. Pytho was a prophet! How could he not know?
            At once, the Muses surrounded Chase and Maria, and with no struggle at all, the two were soon helpless in their arms.
            “Okay!” Chase gave in. “So we found the library. But there is no reason for this. We aren’t your enemies, Emperor. We actually admired your courage.”
            “That is the strangest thing about you,” Pytho said, staring at him. “As much as you can’t help but search and hunt for answers, you always seem to miss the point. There is always one crucial detail that eludes you.”
            When he finished, Maria stamped on the foot of the Muse holding her and made a break for Chase. Several of them moved to stop her, and Chase’s detainer loosened his grip just a little, giving him the chance to break free. He struggled out of his arms and reached out to grab Maria’s hand.
As the Muses wrestled to subdue their captives, Pytho stood perfectly still, making no move to intervene. “You cannot change it, Chase,” Pytho said. “Everything you’ve ever done in your life has been predetermined. I’ve seen it a thousand times, and it always ends the same way. You are going to struggle until the end, but you’ll get lost along the way.”  
            Holding Maria’s hand, Chase pulled himself out of the skirmish, running as fast as he could toward the window. Hands attempted to wrench Chase back, but he was relentless. When he reached the window, Chase lifted it open, only to find Maria’s hand slip free from his. He ran back and attempted to fight off the Muses holding her, but was unsuccessful.
            “Run!” she commanded. “Get out of here!”
            Chase hesitated for a moment, but when three Muses moved to tackle him to the ground, he finally gave in and ran over to the window. “I’ll come back for you,” he declared. “I promise.” Chase jumped out into the frozen wasteland, half of the Muses already behind him.
            It was snowing, but it was no blizzard. Still, Chase struggled to see through the grey and white haze, running as fast as he could through the snow. He looked behind him to see the Muses following his trail, then in front to see the edge of a cliff. The snowfall had shielded the world from Chase before, merging the sky and earth into a wall of grey, and now it was too late to stop. Chase tumbled into open air, meeting the ground a few seconds later, staying conscious long enough to see the world spinning before him, the sky a dome of swirling grey clouds, all raging but with nowhere to go.

            When Chase awoke, it was a new day. His head throbbed, but he ignored this, rolling onto his back to see a mountain of fur above him. Startled, Chase scuttled backward in the snow, until he realized that the mass of fur was actually a woolly mammoth. Somehow, Chase was sure it was the same mammoth he had met earlier. It had laid beside him all through the night, shielding him from the cold.
            Aware that Chase was awake, the mammoth rose to its knees. Chase stood where he was while the mammoth gazed at him expectantly.
            “You want me to climb on your back?” Chase asked, and then thought himself foolish for talking to an animal. But the mammoth seemed to understand, and grunted. Finally, Chase walked over to the mammoth and hoisted himself onto its back. The beast immediately went to its feet and began walking into the desolation, through the void of white. Chase, however, knew exactly where the mammoth was headed.
            When they reached the ice hole, the mammoth bent to its knees again, allowing Chase to climb down. The hole had frozen over again, the surface covered in a thin layer of ice and snow. Chase withdrew his shovel and hacked at the hole until the ice cracked open.
            “Thank you,” Chase said. Then, holding his supplies, he jumped into the water.
            When he was back in the library, Chase ran as fast as he could out of the first room, which was flooded in water from the multiple times he had opened the door. Not slowing, Chase entered the hallway and sprinted down the stairs. When he reached the bottom, Chase pressed the button on the cube, the blue light ablaze once again. Chase set down his things and began his search through the database for the answers he craved.
            After searching for the name Lewis Reynolds rather than simply Pytho, far more results than before danced across the blue screen. Chase scrutinized every one, quickly learning the truth about his Emperor. The article he had found earlier was true—sometime before the world flooded, Pytho had tried to work to prevent this future. But somewhere along the line, he gave up, turning his influence completely the other way. Chase read articles about Pytho’s work in the field of science, aiming to resurrect the long-dead species of the past. With his help, animals that had gone extinct centuries ago had returned to Earth. Many were placed in zoos, but the profits were supposed to go to scientific research. A portion of them did, but somehow, Pytho had been able to pocket most of the money for himself.
            Was all of this true? Chase thought. Why would Pytho suddenly renounce his prophetic ways and instead turn to science? And he hadn’t even attempted to use his abilities to combat global warming. Instead, he had worked in genetic engineering. And why? So that families could behold the wonder of extinct species. Was Pytho making a joke? Did he usher back these animals to furtively give humanity a glimpse of what the world would soon become? Was he trying to show them that they would be the next extinct species?
            By amassed his fortune in genetic engineering, Pytho had shed himself completely of the persona that originally defined him. He used his funds strategically, giving aid to a particular politician, funding a cause or organization as he saw fit. But as Chase read more and more articles, he noticed one theme running through all of Pytho’s actions. He aided only the corrupt politicians. He funded only the organizations that sought for things the world did not need. When the ice caps had melted completely, the United States was hit the hardest. Its economy was shot, and the nation struggled to maintain the support of the people. And after a little more sway from Pytho, the country destroyed itself. When the Ice Age hit, the rest of the world went under too. Pytho had worked tirelessly to prevent the world from surviving each global catastrophe. With his endeavor successful, the world returned to its former glory, all of the progress made erased, all of the once-extinct animals let loose to dominate the Earth once again.

            “What do you want with me?” Maria demanded, pulling against the chains that bound her hands together.
            “I have lived for many centuries, Maria,” Pytho said, ignoring her. “I have witnessed mankind’s fall personally. And believe me, I have reaped the benefits. The world did not desire my help before. They were too obtuse, too narrow-minded to trust my prophecies. But in this new world, I am a god. This is a simpler place, and so nothing clouds the people’s minds from seeing that my powers are real, that I was meant to rule them from the beginning. I now hold influence over the descendants of the very people who once ignored me. In this way, you see, I have achieved my purpose in life.
            “To answer your question, Maria, what I want from you is simple. No man, even a prophet, can live forever. After thousands of years of ruling this world, I will need an heir.”
            Maria realized what he was implying. “You are a very sick man,” she said, horrified.
            “You are an intelligent woman, and you have a strong will. With your husband soon to be dead, there is really no reason to struggle against me.”
            “Chase isn’t going to die!” Maria cried. “He’s going to return to this place, and he’s going to save me.”
            Pytho stepped closer to her. “Look into my eyes and tell me you believe that.” She stared at him for as long as she could, but then faltered. “We both know Chase better than anybody else in the world. I don’t have to tell you what he’s doing now. Down in the subterranean library, he is wasting away in front of that blue screen. It’s been more than a day since he fled from this place, but that is just the beginning. Without you, Chase won’t be able to separate himself from the wealth of information, even if he already found the answer he sought.”
            For a moment, Pytho regretted not destroying what was left of the library and the main database. Leaving it in tact had been the cause of this entire ordeal, and it could have easily been prevented. But Pytho couldn’t fault himself; he needed some link to the past, some connection to the world he once had faith in, even worshipped. Sometimes he would journey down there, alone, and spend hours reimagining the past, reimagining his meager triumphs…and countless failures. The people of this age made for ideal puppets, but they were credulous and dimwitted. The people of the past may have been hardheaded, but at least they had been progressive. At least they had valued intelligence.
            But no matter. Pytho had chosen to augment his own power over that of the world. Or maybe chosen wasn’t the right word. It had always been Pytho’s destiny to be Emperor. He had known his future since he was a young man, only he had been too innocent and naïve to walk this path until later in life. Now Pytho had almost everything he had ever wanted. What he didn’t have he had left preserved in that mausoleum of a library, a remembrance of the path he had not taken…a path destiny had never meant for him to take.

            In the sunken complex hidden from the harsh world, Chase continued his endless search through the database. He had already discovered Pytho’s true motives, but for some reason, he couldn’t pull himself away from the cube just yet. He was convinced there was more information that he could use against the Emperor. Additionally, there was so much knowledge about the previous world that he did not yet possess. Robert Frost, space travel, the American Revolution, Beethoven, the Big Bang, Greek mythology—how could he be expected to just walk away from these things? Besides, Chase didn’t even have a plan to save Maria. Perhaps the information he needed was stored in the cube. Yes, it had to be. He would remain here forever if he could. Chase would have liked nothing better than to stare into the blue light for all eternity, soaking up all of the histories as fast as his eyes could scan.

            “Believe me,” Pytho continued, “I would have liked to see my prophecies fail. In my early years, changing the world was my only aspiration. But somewhere along the line, I learned the cold truth: the future has already been recorded. You can struggle and fight against fate, but you can’t change anything.”
            “So instead,” Maria began, “you went in the complete opposite direction, speeding along the process of our doom.”
            “Can I be faulted for following the path already set for me?” Pytho asked. “I saw myself do it before. How could I have been expected to change that? So instead of fighting, I saw how I could profit from the world’s destruction. In that era I was a fool, a novelty. But in this one, I am worshipped, and I am faultless. The Muses can attest to that.”
            “It doesn’t matter,” Maria said. “When you caved in and stopped fighting for what you believed in, you betrayed your conscience, Pytho. You became part of the same problem you sought to eliminate.”
            “It is what happens,” Pytho said blankly. “The world is fixed, so why not enjoy the ride while it lasts? It’s not as though you have any other choice. And do not speak to me of Chase by some miracle coming to save you. I know where the library is. I could send all of my men after Chase and have him captured in a matter of hours. But I see no reason to interfere with his destiny. Chase is a dead man, slain by his unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He is helpless, as all of us are, to the cruelty of fate.”

            As Chase continued his flight through history, he realized what was happening to him. Like before, he was getting sucked into his interests, losing control. But he couldn’t find the will to fight it. He was addicted to the blue light, a slave to knowledge itself.
            But as he stared at the screen, Chase remembered Pytho’s words about how his destiny was set. No one could change anything about the world because, to the prophet, it had already happened. Was this Chase’s fate: to continue staring at the blue screen until he died of exhaustion, starvation, or both? No, he couldn’t allow this.
            It took all of his effort to shift his eyes away from the screen. They almost returned involuntarily, the indigo light was so appealing, but Chase pushed the button, and with a flash, the screen disappeared and the light dimmed into darkness. Now it was easier for Chase to grab his things and walk away. When he reached the stairs, he started to run, and he did not look back. Upon reaching the top floor, Chase opened and closed the roof door with no effort at all, swimming through the icy currents until he neared the surface. The hole had frozen shut, but Chase already had his shovel out, and in one fluid motion, he smashed open the ice and pulled himself out of the water.
            Chase found the mammoth still waiting for him where he had dismounted. He spared no time, seeing no need to stop and catch his breath. His body could thaw out on the way.
            Chase pulled himself onto the mammoth’s back. His eyes were weary from staring at the blue screen for so long, but he steadied them. He noticed that as the mammoth rose to its feet, it hadn’t the energy it possessed before. They had both grown tired in the time that passed.
            “Come,” Chase said. “We must go on. I have a promise to keep.” He stroked the mammoth’s hair as it began walking forward, and remembered the words of a famous poet who had died centuries ago. “And many miles to go before I sleep.”

            Maria rattled her wrists against the chains, but found no room to slip free.
            “You pretend to have faith in your husband,” Pytho said, “but his fate is binding. For three days his eyes will remain fixed on the screen, and by the time he musters the courage to move away, it will be too late. When he dives back into the water, he will freeze to death before reaching the surface. He is a helpless victim of fate, Maria, but you don’t have to be. You can ride the wave as I have, rise above it all.”
            “No,” she responded curtly.
            Pytho didn’t seem surprised, but was angry nonetheless. “You cannot change it!” he shrieked. “Even I cannot change it!”
            As he said these words, the wall behind him collapsed to the ground, broken into stone and rubble. A monster blasted through the wreckage, rearing its front legs into the air triumphantly. Pytho looked behind him, and his eyes glowed with surprise. For the first time, Pytho didn’t know what was going to happen. His entire vision of the future shattered into fragments before his eyes, and by the time he was able to piece them back together into a new image, it was already too late. The mammoth charged at Pytho, and with a ferocious roar, impaled him through the stomach with its left tusk.
            Pytho hung on to the tusk as Chase dismounted from the mammoth. The whites of the Emperor’s eyes were glowing, and his mouth was open. When he died, Pytho had absolutely no idea what was to become of him.
For a moment, nobody made so much as a sound, and only the wind infiltrating into the building brought any realism to the scene. Maria stood with the chains still binding her hands together, thinking about how absurd this all was—the mountainous creature inside the extravagant palace; Chase, as bewildered as she, standing in the rubble; and Pytho, alive a second ago, and dead now, eternally, despite all of the lies he had attempted to bore into her.
Then there was Chase, standing beside the dead prophet, in disbelief that his plan had actually worked. All his life he had been running after some wisp of a dream, some incalculable entity. He had reached the finish line, and Pytho now hung off of the mammoth’s tusk like a dead fish caught at the end of a spear, no struggle left in it to survive. Pytho had known the future, but he had never understood that nothing was immutable; with enough sway, anything could be altered. And the fact that Chase had known what was supposed to happen had given him enough influence to change it, demolishing Pytho’s vision of the world. What Chase still couldn’t believe was that the mammoth had been just as important of a factor in helping him reach this end as the library and the blue light.
            The Muses, meanwhile, had their own reason for their perplexity. They were stupefied not due to a revelation, but a delusion. They had served Pytho because they had believed him to be a god, a perfect being with full control over the fates of all. He was their reason for existence, and seeing him now shamed and defeated and nonexistent stunned the Muses, their minds beyond comprehension. What was the point in all of this now? With Pytho no longer an eternal being but a sack of flesh with no consciousness, was their loyalty to the prophet unfounded? Was Pytho’s death part of his overall plan, or, dare they suppose, had he made an error? And if he had made an error, did this invalidate his perfection, his image as a god? All of these things went through the Muses’ thoughts in that surreal and overwhelming instant. But in the end, they still saw Chase and Maria as their enemies, and instinct and the routine of centuries of following Pytho compelled them to take action. 
            The Muses broke the silence by apprehending both Maria and Chase. Surprisingly, Chase didn’t make a single move to resist.
            “Unhand them!” a man’s voice bellowed. Thirty men clad in armor, one in regale attire, made their way into the destroyed room.
            “Mayor,” one of the Muses said, “this man just assassinated Emperor Pytho!”
            “I am aware,” the Mayor said. “But I also know that Pytho was a fraud.” Outnumbered, the Muses had no choice but to release them. One of the Mayor’s men broke the chains on Maria’s wrists, freeing her.
            “I received your message,” the Mayor said to Chase. “I was doubtful of your accusations at first, but when we found the library, the evidence we found supported all of your claims. It should have been obvious. I attributed our hardships to the severity of the times we live in, but really it was due to Pytho, the Emperor I thought was sheltering us, but in reality was smothering us. I know what must be done now.” The Mayor motioned to the armored men. They surrounded the Muses, who immediately surrendered. Without Pytho, they had no drive, no direction.
            Maria glanced over at Chase, who smiled proudly. “Thank you,” she said.
            With one of the walls completely destroyed, the wind now blew into the room with implacable gusts. The mammoth felt at home, but everyone else was shivering.
             “Chase,” the Mayor said, “I must thank you for your bravery. Without you, Pytho never would have been defeated, and he would have kept our people stagnant forever. But because of you and Maria, perhaps now we can tap into the knowledge of the past, use the library to benefit us here and now. We can unite ourselves, learn to live with the world rather than just in it. It will remain disconnected no longer.”
            A few of the Mayor’s men lifted Pytho’s body off of the mammoth’s tusk. They laid him on the ground, his mouth and eyes still open in his first and final moment of suspense.
            “It will be difficult,” the Mayor continued. “for over the years, humanity has decreased in size so much that now we are an endangered species, nearly extinct. But as you know, Chase,” he glanced over at the woolly mammoth, “in this world, extinction doesn’t necessarily mean forever.”                      

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