#10 - The Girl Before Time

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Far, far back some soft-bodied rodent crawled deep into the damp soil of a bountiful earth and lay there with her heart pounding as violence unfolded above her and a billion beings were struck dead by a meteor. More died slow deaths in choking dust and heat, and still, she followed food and water and dug dark, deep homes for her children and a few million years passed. She lost her tail and climbed down from the lush, green safety of trees and she fashioned stone into tools for killing and for eating, and over time she stood naked and lithe-limbed in a home fashioned from skin and sticks and she brought forth sons and daughters who would invent the world. All of them filled up with the story of her luck and her skill, some blue-eyed or dark skinned, and others with large lungs or soft lips or a crooked smile. Wit and shyness and a keen sense of smell. A billion renditions of the same script written at the moment life coiled itself into the spiral of protein that has flowered and mutated into hospitals filled with healthy-lunged screaming children. Doctors and lawyers and candlestick-makers.

For a thousand thousand years we stood on our two legs and pawed at the earth and shaped everything we saw into something comely and comfortable. And we burnt forests and filled the ocean with plastic and styrofoam and we killed the things with 4 legs or 6 legs or no legs at all. We turned our shells and beads into bits of green paper and we spent a few hundred years chasing dreams built out of man-made things. We invented a new world, and it was terrible, and it came crashing down a hundred times, a thousand, before we learned something about balance and about love and about patience, and maybe it took seeing all that we know and love from 100 lightyears away away, the whole earth hidden in a small twinkling star of hope and pleasure and war and cancer and birth and sex, floating in the empty black of space.

And so, a girl sits dirty-legged on some strange mountaintop imagining dinosaurs and great blue whales and what girls must have felt like when they were all still trapped on a dying earth. Her pupils are schools of fish, her teeth are snow-capped mountains. Her skin is the rich, dark red of a tree they once called mahogany, and her hair is a shadow curtain that ripples in the wind, concealing and then revealing the graceful outlines of her bone structure.

She is deeply human. The concentration of a billion blood lines left to combine for a few million years. Her strange eyes peer out at a world outlined in gamma rays, twinkling with the light thrown by radiation, all lit up in vivid hues of ultraviolet and infrared. Her bones are slender steel and her skin of her palms deep cream, the half moons of her fingernails opalescent. Her body rumbles like a hot river of blood when she moves, the muscles in her long legs rippling beneath the wrappings of flesh, and she is standing now, a tall shape slipping between tree branches and across granite. Her feet are bare, the soles of them stiff as leather, but warm, alive, and padding across the coarseness of gravel and whispering softness of fallen leaves with equal grace. She moves like a mountain cat, her limbs loose and limber, her muscles smooth under her twitching hide. She wears her skin like it’s all made of fingertips; reading the wind as it caresses her shoulders. She feels the dampness of the soil seeping up through her calves, and she senses crushed leaves as they flick across her toes. She twitches, the snub of her nose always moving even as she pauses, frozen, slipping invisible into the brush and trees and broken rock. She disappears for 30 seconds, and emerges when she blinks, rapidly, her body moving beneath her like river water, insistent, fluid, rhythmic.

She moves through the woods with practiced grace. Hiding in the shadows, to stride, deliberate, through moon-lit meadows with her head held high. You could hear the night exhale as she passed.

-----

When we hacked evolution we dragged out the oldest of sales pitches: self-improvement as the path to enlightenment.

And with it came the thrill of innovation, and designs coaxed out of bits of phosphate and sugar. A great orchestra of human stories, sky-blue eyes and weak ankles and strong vocal cords. And human bodies began to change at the same rate we untangled the human brain, fatty and lit up with the starlight of 100 billion neurons. Bodies melt like candles now, pores small and perfectly designed to sweat out toxins and excess heat. Hair follicles translate the wind into prophesies, lungs filter out the toxins in unfamiliar atmospheres. And so we rode through time with our fingers tangled in the long, silky mane of evolution's supple neck. We stepped from generation to generation with the fluid, thrumming steps of a dance troupe, bodies moving in unison, stories woven out of movement and time. And we took pills and powders and bitter liquids, swallowed wincingly or with vigor, pushed through hollow metal needles into the hot, bloody waterfalls flowing through our veins. We took hammers to the world around us, and created a place to live, but it was only when we turned the hammers onto our own bodies that humanity found its purpose.

Creation. All of it. We partook in the story of life in the universe. We learned to swim and then rode the waves like fleshy, pink dolphins. We controlled. We coaxed. We fucked and fed and found ourselves failing.

What do you wish to be? What do you wish to see and hear and feel? We thought long and hard of these things and began to trim the fat with the simplest of stone tools. Knapped for scraping meat from bone, and nothing more, but in time we tool steel and bent it into the shape of a scalpel, and we crafted tools in the forms of potions, pills, liquids injected into veins and flesh, and viruses altered to carry messages into the very manual depicting human potential. We grew stronger, and our lives grew longer, our bodies hale and hearty.

---—

“What is it?” he asked.

“Earth,” she said.

“What is that?”

“The planet my people came from.”

He watched the blaze of light in the night sky.

“I feel that,” she said, “don’t pity me. I never saw that place, no one in my family did for 100,000 generations. No one’s lived there for a few billion years. It’s a trash heap.”

He turned towards her, fur lit up in the moonlight, the disks of his eyes flat and liquid. He cocked his head, “it must be hard.”

She scoffed, “Not really, I’ve been there in VR. It was nice once, but we ruined it.”

Whrl looked away, and ruffled his feathers in a pattern her translator whispered meant that he was unsettled. She said nothing.

"What was it like?" Asked Whrl.

"We know, mostly. We recorded everything, but there are gaps, and I think most about the Girl Before Time."

"Who?"

"My mother from a long ways back, before we recorded things, and her daughters from the time of the Datawars, and all the other girls who lived and died without leaving an imprint.”

He said nothing, only turned the white disk of his face towards the light.

"You can read about it, look at pictures, sometimes listen to audio, but there were a billion lives lost to the dark before technology was developed for documentation. People lived one life and were forgotten. I am haunted by that, always, the billions of milkmaids and beggars and slaves, painters and brothers and lovers, alive and then dead on a glowing green earth.”

"I'm sure you have simulations?'

"Yes, but they are fiction. Representative of generalizations.” She paused, "I am of my people. We must climb things because they are there, and so to find unexplored territory, a chunk of time unaccounted for, I can't help but wonder."

"Your people are very strange."

"We cannot leave things well enough alone."

They watched the stars, named, and known, and thought for awhile.

"What do you think she was like?" Asked Whrl.

She thought for awhile, and then spoke in the tone of prophesy.

"I think that she took great joy in things that were beautiful. I think that she liked food and music and dance and to sleep well and have good dreams. I think that she was born and she loved and was sad sometimes. I think that she bled once a month and consumed large quantities of water and looked forward to the summer. I think that she hoped that she might live a life so wonderous as to be remembered.”

"She sounds like you," said Whrl.

"I know. We haven't really changed very much. We are sick less and live longer. We are smarter and less possessive. We have suppressed our rage. But we are still the World Destroyers.”

And she shrank, radiating shame.

“Evolution takes time,” he said.

“I know,” she responded, “I know, but it doesn't change that which has been.”

She was quiet for some time, and so still as to disappear into the landscape. When she spoke she did not move and it was if her voice came from the air.

“We would have done it to you, you know. We would have come and sold you lies for access to the resources we wanted from you, we would have pushed you into work camps in factories we built from your homes, and we would have worked your children dead. We would have sucked your oceans dry and cracked every one of your mountains open. And in a few thousand years, we would have left nothing but dust and astroids where there was once your whole world.”

"But you didn't," said Whrl, "you exhausted your planet and destroyed 872 others, until enough of your kind deflected and you fought the Last War."

"Who won?" She asked.

"No one. Everyone. But many people had to die first. Your kind often requires death in payment for change."

She sat. Watched the way moonlight poured over the mountains, watched the way lights twinkled amidst the trees of the valley, the way a million lifeforms had been coaxed into collaboration to build a Forest, a City, a City in a Forest on a planet writing with life. A planet built from space trash and hope and ingenuity.

"I'm sorry" she whispered.

"I know," said Whrl, "because of the things that you do.”

Kelly Kate Warren