Monday, February 05, 2007

Close Enough to Forever

Charmaine Frost headshot by Charmaine Frost

melting city face

The shaman climbed slowly to the top of the boulder, gazed down at the silvery thatched roofs of the sleeping village, and stared up at the moon's scarred, pocked face.

"No,"he exclaimed to the sky, "We are not the first!"

Hunters cut their shins on jagged pieces of the thin, clear, brittle rock that sparkled in the dirt; the gashes sliced straight and deep, pouring blood back into the nourishing soil. Gatherers found cold, sharply angled branches that shed red dust, wouldn't burn and never cracked in half. Seers squinted at the night sky; the stars clustered to outline the forms of immortal warriors who'd watched ancient empires engulf the earth and spread to the last horizon. The shaman fell prostrate, ears to the ground as he listened to the earth's internal rhythms; the stirring worms and subterranean streams murmured that many civilizations had thrived and fallen on the planet.

The weary old rocks groaned. "We were here then, before time began. They tried to pierce the sky with their high towers; those old towers fell."

"Look inside the mountains, dig farther and deeper than any man thinks possible," the summer breezes, carrying wide-eyed insects, hummed. "There, the old ruins lie imprisoned."

"Look at the flat, clear stone that cuts your feet; look at the hard red sticks that never burn," the meadow grasses whispered, "Those are bits from that ancient time, loosed from their bonds and risen to the earth's surface."

The wise men and women listened to the murmuring earth and composed songs about a great and terrifying race that had fallen before time began; "We are not earth's first men,"they told their young.

Long before the new time, ancient men and women convened in a hundred-story tower of mirror and glass stretching between spines of gleaming steel. They wore the scrubbed skin, bleached teeth, precision-trimmed hair and pressed dark jackets expected in their time; they sipped a dark bitter liquid from steaming containers that thudded and clanked as they jabbered in the raspy, staccato language that time would leave behind. They were five of the nation's foremost leaders and innovators, meeting in a boardroom, intent on solving the major problem of the day.

lightbulb head

It's a priority," one of them barked. "No more space anywhere for landfills."

The other four nodded solemnly. There were no more trash cemeteries; nowadays, the refuse got dumped in above-ground heaps that grew into trash hillocks. The highest ones in the region, which could be seen from miles away, had been dubbed 'Maggot Mountain" and "Rubble Ridge". Near them, swarming flies hummed as menacingly as an electric power plant. Stores sold masks that filtered out odors and bacteria, for those who had to live or drive nearby.

"We can't dump any more into the sea," another asserted. Flounder, tuna and kelp already were extinct. Catfish floated to the surface, three-headed. The tides glowed green due to radioactive plankton. Even on moonless nights, the beach remained bright; the gleaming ocean gave off as much light as a low watt bulb. Splashed by a wave? Then the person was in for a high-speed ride to the emergency room, and maybe died in transit. Walking barefoot anywhere near the ocean was dangerous; one absorbed gamma rays from the moist sand. "You've seen the signs, bright yellow and posted every twenty feet along the coast: No swimming, no surfing, no boating, no bare feet,"the speaker continued. "Not that any one visits the beaches anymore; our old resorts are turning into ghost towns."

"And we can't use nanotechnology," a third suited man with scoured skin and stiff shirt cuffs of antiseptic white declared, "Not after the Asian disaster." Out of control, the tiny self-replicating machines had reproduced faster and faster, devouring anything containing plastic or metal, until a gray sludge had buried India and 800 million people.

"Forget incineration," The first man lamented. "Toxic fumes. Instant asphyxiation."

"We could ship it to the moon. The moon's too far away for its pollution to affect us, and it doesn't do anything except circle the earth anyway." The possibility of using the moon as earth's garbage dump had been discussed often, and consistently rejected as too expensive.

"Yeah, yeah. Trillions of dollars to build the spaceship, trillions more to send it into space," another groaned, and the others nodded in agreement with the pessimistic mantra,

They sipped the dark bitter liquid, flipped through the papers stacked before each seat, folded and unfolded the corners of the topmost sheets, and jiggled their legs under the long table. The group's youngest member, known as its brightest and most creative thinker, stared long at an elderly, dreamy-eyed scientist, then spoke.

"We don't need to ship it to the moon. There are other kinds of shipment," he announced in a baritone as firm and commanding as a boulder.

The others frowned, perplexed. Then their eyes widened and their mouths opened as, one by one, they understood. The elderly scientist shook his head and pulled his body forward; he seemed to grow in his seat.

"That's not what it was made for," he insisted. "It's only an investigatory tool; the design's still in the experimental stage. So far, we've only sent mice and a chimp ahead. The chimp returned intact, but we don't know what happens at the other end —"

"Who cares about whether the chimps return?" another interrupted. "What we're sending, we don't want back; we don't want to see it again. We don't need to know about what happens at the other end. Don't care if it explodes or congeals into a new black hole. As long as the stuff's out of our world forever. Or close enough to forever for us to be rid of it."

"But, we haven't sent anything more than 100 years into the future," the old scientist protested. "A century isn't very long; we'll just be dumping our problem on our great-grandchildren."

"How far ahead might you send something? In theory?"

The scientist tapped his forefinger methodically on the rim of his cup, straightened his back until it seemed as sturdy and erect as a skyscraper, and glowered at his colleagues.

"A few thousand years," he said. "The dial goes up to '+3000 years'; at that setting, something could be transported ahead three millennia." He coughed dryly and dabbed his tongue over his parched lips. "In theory, that's just in theory. That's what it's designed to do. But we've never tested the equipment at that setting; it might not work—"

"How much choice do we have?" The youngest member whined, fidgeting in his seat.

"It's this, or get ready for the rats," another muttered, shuddering.

"Or trillion-dollar journeys to the moon. Talk about national deficit —"

"Can't burn it - the fumes, the poisonous residue, a char-pit of death."

"We've already seen the invasion of the flies."

The old scientist nodded.

Later that week, the group gathered around a large steel machine near Maggot Mountain. They coughed and mumbled from behind thick masks as a rosy beam pulsed from an orifice at the front of the contraption; dust caught in the beam wriggled, throbbed and twinkled before vanishing. The pink beam swept over the great hill of garbage; wherever it focused, exposed trash instantly disappeared. After fifteen minutes, only a muddy plot remained where jumbles of rusting refrigerators, dented washing machines, cracked computer cases, loose car doors, thousands of moldy newspapers, foil and paper wrappers, bags from every store in the city, and scattered chicken bones coated with drippings of motor oil and coffee grounds had towered.

"I sent it 3000 years into the future," the old scientist jabbered. "The garbage is gone. Any second, but not until three millennia from now, it should re-materialize."

"So, it's still in the same place? It's still here, a mile from where Market intersects Main Street? Just in a different time?"

The scientist nodded.

"What if we've all blown ourselves to smithereens before 3000 year have passed? Blown up the earth, before it's time for our garbage to land?"

The scientist sighed. "Then it'll just land in space, at the place where this city and this planet would have been."

The crowd gaped at the clean dark oval of soil where flies had once buzzed greedily among boulders of trash. The townsfolk would plant roses and erect a memorial there. They'd mark the site with an intricately sculpted fountain spewing only the clearest, most carefully purified and thoroughly chlorinated municipal water. They'd post bronze plaques, memorializing this as the first land to be forever free from trash; they'd honor the date annually as "Garbage liberation Day". They'd proudly show their children this landmark of hope, while extolling triumph through technology and the importance of looking to the future.

"To the future!" a woman in the crowd shouted.

"To the future!" a hundred others cried out. They slurped thick, sweet drinks from plastic cups and gulped the fizzing dark liquid gushing from up-ended bottles. They hurled empty cans against the street, emphasizing their shouts with the crash of tin against asphalt. Stooped old men embraced obese, petulant boys; bank managers kissed grinning Labrador retrievers; old ladies shuffled in time to an off-key polka while croaking unintelligible lyrics; big sisters lifted pesty little brothers and pirouetted down the sidewalk, like ballerinas starring in a grand finale.

"To the future!", thousands sang out.

By week's end, the mountains of garbage would be cleaned from every city. Everywhere, crowds cheered; the deepest part of the earth shuddered and shook under the force of their outcries.

"To the future!" the cities cheered when the time machine had done its job.

"Long live the future!" the other cities, clean and grateful, replied.

head ended mouse

In the new time without clocks or calendars, sunlight doused the village; grass thatch roofs gleamed as though stitched from interlacing ropes of gold; the mud walls glowed, whitewashed by the afternoon brilliance. A nursing mother rocked her infant while listening to the witch-lady's instructions on how to brew three leafy herbs into a potion that stopped colic and would let her baby sleep. Other women ground seeds on sun-scoured stone slabs.

The shaman heard the mother shriek and the witch-lady gasp. Then he heard stifled screams, muffled howls from the chief's hut and groans as tree trunks cracked and crashed over the foragers.

"We are not alone,"he thought, and looked up.

A murky haze, formed from ten thousand gnats and flies, buzzed hungrily and dimmed the sunlight as much as an eclipse. Crumpled white and silver leaves drifted over the shaman; some oozed thick, fetid saps of many colors while others, crisply stained with bright designs, resembled the wings of exotic birds. Shiny, symmetrical boulders crushed the village; the unbreakable hard branches that shed red dust, and walls of thin, clear, brittle rock, poked up between mounds of stripped chicken bones and soggy brown disks that smelled like decaying meat and crawled with maggots. Had a mountain fallen from the heavens? Had vengeance materialized, without even a warning whirlwind, out of the air itself?

The shaman dropped to the indifferent soil, feverishly muttered incantations and cried for mercy, forgiveness and understanding.

humanoid bug head

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