By D.R. Schoel
Prominent inter-galactic Chef Hunter Jeane Oberon observed that an Earthling, Chef H.P. Lovecraft, once wrote: “conflict with Time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.” Oberon later amended the record, noting that Lovecraft wasn’t really a chef. So, why did you waste our time, we asked? Oberon replied it related to the baking of a sourdough which nearly wiped out the Universe; the Galactic Culinary Society’s chief librarian, Debii, was the only one to…
Excerpt from the Galactic Culinary Society’s
Milky Way Review, Vol IV edition 3, N°317
Something’s terribly wrong. I know it!
Debii was having one of her frequent stomach-churning panic attacks. In the gloom of approaching night, her fears were always strongest. She had to double check everything before going to bed, so she went back to the library. As archivist for the Galactic Culinary Society, it was her duty to ensure hundreds of delicate acquisitions were kept in perfect stasis.
She opened the door and flicked on a light, dispelling the shadows. Her tiny eyes glanced over the room.
She instantly knew one of her charges was out of place, but which?
And who had misplaced it?
Everything towered over her from her point of view. The library had been designed with an average-sized Sentient in mind. But Debii was the size and shape of a hairless squirrel. A Hawaputian. Only a small tuft of yellow hair grew behind constantly trembling ears. She wore white overalls, holding tiny arms close to her chest.
She nervously tapped her fingers.
The walls of the library were lined with illuminated cabinets kept at thirty-nine degrees Fahrenheit. Behind the glass fronts were shelves stacked with chilled Mason jars.
Hopping on a barstool, Debii peered in. “Rebola, Smedt, Vitus…” She ticked off the names of the starter yeasts, each from a far-off planet, each one-of-a-kind. “Mother… where’s Mother?”
The glass jar which contained their most recent acquisition was open. And empty.
Something rattled behind her.
Debii turned and spotted a shadow slip up the stairs at the back of the library. She didn’t have time to get a good look.
“Who’s there? Come back here!”
Bounding up the stone circular steps, she was plunged into darkness. She cautiously slowed. I should’ve turned on a light, she realized. But I need a stepladder to reach the switch and that would give the culprit time to get away. She felt her way up the familiar stairwell, her nose twitching. What an acrid smell! Who could it be? Did the bakers who had delivered the sourdough starter have second thoughts? Had they come to reclaim it?
A pale glimmer ahead lighted her way. She emerged from the stairwell into a dark hallway where a shaft of moonlight fell on the floor from an arched window. She knew it looked into the courtyard of the old castle which comprised the GCS premises, but all she saw were tall pines clustered around it, silhouetted against the night sky.
Debii hesitated. Her passion for her collection and impulse had brought her this far. But what if the thief intended to put up a fight? Maybe she should leave this to someone more capable? Of course, by then the trail would be cold.
She tiptoed warily down the hallway, thinking, if I can at least see who it is…
A distant heat-flash flared across the sky illuminating the window at the end of the hall.
Debii stopped in her tracks.
In the brief light, she saw a gray, bubbling mass like colorless slime stretch itself across the floor.
The clay-like thing disappeared around the corner.
Debii remained rooted to the spot, her mind filling with terrifying questions. It couldn’t be? The starter yeast let itself out? But more, she’d sensed something… horrifying.
A cry came from the end of the hall. Jerked out of her stupor, Debii hurried on. Lord Hawktalon’s tower room was around the corner. He was one of the Overseers of the Society.
A terrible stench assailed her as she fearfully approached the opened door to his room.
Lord Hawktalon lay sprawled on the floor next to his bed. There was no sign of the starter yeast. The white mask Hawktalon normally wore, hiding his features as per the custom of his race, lay to one side.
He looked up. What she saw chilled her to the bone.
Hawktalon reached out with one hand, imploring. His face was a rapidly disintegrating skull. “You’re all going to die. I’ve seen it! Ol’Sands, Achiro… even Jeane… Oberon. Everyone!”
Then his body collapsed into dust.
Not far from the GCS castle, Jeane Oberon rappelled down a cliff-face under the starlight where black coniferous trees dotted the craggy mountaintop.
About a third of the way down, she stepped into the Ansul cliff-house cut into the rock face, releasing the karabiner attached to her belaying rope.
She stood in the entrance, inhaling the fresh night air, studying the dark valley below her feet. The sounds of night animals, a distant squawk, emanated from the trees.
Those old-time Ansul knew what it was all about, she thought, throwing her harness into the corner.
Whenever she visited the Society’s HQ, the ancient castle-observatory on the mountaintop, she camped here. More cliff-houses were carved out of the precipice, but her explorations had proved this one to be in the best state of repair.
The Ansul, from whom they leased the castle—at a reduced price since it was also in a sad state—were a climbing species. Their modern cities were all concrete skyscrapers they crawled up and down like furry Xenarthrans.
Jeane grabbed a vacuum sealed nutri-bar from her cooler, unwrapped it, and threw it into the portable micro-box. Its glow lit up the cave-like surroundings.
In the morning, she thought, I’ll visit those two guest chefs, Bakers Wyr and Andë.
The micro-box dinged and she munched on the flavorless nutri-bar, settling into her sleeping bag.
They came in on the same Transport Service vessel as me, she reflected. Or were they already here? That’s strange… why can’t I remember? She yawned, drifting off.
Through the cliff-house opening, an ominous heat-flash flared across the sky.
Or did they arrive after me? I should check the log on my wrist computer…
But then she was snoring.
“How could Mother have disappeared?” Baker Wyr loudly demanded.
He sat at a long steel table in the center of the kitchen next to his compatriot, Baker Andë. Both had camel-like faces, though Wyr was obviously older with long jowls and graying stubble. Andë was stout, broad, and energetic looking.
Debii sat on a stool guardedly watching the proceedings. In the morning, they had convened in the kitchen, a large, low vaulted chamber on the ground floor. An antiquated brick oven dominated one corner surrounded by dozens of modern devices of varying providence from across the galaxy.
“Forgive me if we’re not too concerned with your bacterial yeast! Our Lord Hawktalon has disintegrated!”
This was the GCS’s in-house chef, Tor-Brent. A gas-filled, balloon shaped creature from Dobe, he floated above the table waving his tendrils excitedly. Tor-Brent collected sight and smell from twin orifices above his oral cavity, so his species was especially well adapted for culinary work.
“Hawktalon isn’t the only one to have disappeared,” interposed Ol’Sands, another Overseer of the Society. “We found scraps of fur in Achiro’s room. Whatever attacked Hawktalon, we assume the same thing happened to Achiro.” Leaning on a walking stick, Ol’Sands was a bipedal, mole-like alien. Her eyes were clouded and blind. With Lord Hawktalon and Achiro Mifune apparently deceased, she was the remaining Overseer of the Society, the last of the Triumvirate.
As soon as Debii had raised the alarm the night before, they’d secured Hawktalon’s room and searched the castle for whatever had assailed him. That led to the discovery of Achiro’s remains. By then, it was morning; Ol’Sands ordered everyone to the kitchen to decide their next move.
“Maybe we’d better start at the start,” Jeane Oberon suggested, leaning against a stone pillar. “I’m still having trouble following what happened. Debii?”
Debii felt much safer with the tall human around and was relieved when Jeane had finally shown up earlier; Jeane would know what to do.
“It’s like I explained, Jeane, their starter yeast—which they nicknamed Mother—was crawling around.”
“That’s not possible,” Baker Wyr retorted derisively. “We brought Mother here to entrust her to the Society. It’s an ordinary sourdough starter culture.”
Baker Andë shook his head. “I knew it was a mistake bringing her here.”
“Well, I certainly couldn’t have left her with you,” Wyr answered back. “All you care for is what’s new… everything has to be new! But what about our time-honored traditions? No, it was the right decision. If Mother isn’t regularly divided and kneaded and fed with flour—from our original stocks—and water, she’ll die! You’d forget to do it. You’re too infatuated with anything that’s shiny and new—”
“She can’t die,” Andë said. “She’d just go dormant—”
“Please,” Ol’Sands interrupted them. “Two of our colleagues are dead!”
Jeane raised a hand for calm. “I know everyone’s on edge, but I’m inclined to believe Debii. If she says she saw what she saw, then what they’re saying might be relevant.”
Debii nodded. Yes, Jeane would know what to do.
Jeane continued. “You’re soon to retire, Mr. Wyr?”
The gray-stubbled baker nodded his overlarge head. “I can’t go on forever. It’s time for my apprentice, Andë, to take over.”
“As if you’d ever trust me to run the bakery,” Andë grumbled.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have a choice. Only time will tell if that was the right decision.”
Jeane ignored their squabbling. She had to keep them on track. “How old is this starter dough you call Mother? From my understanding, starters can last for a very long time.”
Debii wondered what Jeane was getting at? Did she already have an idea what had happened?
“I don’t know. Millennia.” The old baker replied. “It’s true, a sourdough starter has its own heart, its own will. Mother is the soul of our bakery. But what you’re suggesting… it’s simply not possible.”
“Jeane,” Ol’Sands interrupted them. “Hawktalon and Achiro are dead. This is beyond your expertise. We’re not police detectives. We need to get outside help.”
“You’re right, of course. But in the meantime, we’re all in danger. With your approval, I suggest you call the authorities in Ansul City right away. Tor-Brent will watch over the bakers. They’re not to leave this room. As for Mother, whatever it is… Debii, where are the flour stocks Wyr and Andë brought to replenish their starter culture?”
“I put them in the cellars.”
“Then let’s go see if Mother went to feed.”
At the back of the kitchen, an antechamber led to a stone staircase descending to the cellars.
“Do you think the bakers know more than they’re letting on?” Debii asked as they went down.
“They seem to be our prime suspects,” Jeane agreed.
“And you believe their starter yeast has somehow… evolved?”
“I find it strange I can’t recall how long Wyr and Andë have been here. Did they arrive after me? Or before? I’ve checked my wrist computer, but I can never remember the answer. Like it’s in a fog.”
“That’s funny,” murmured Debii. “Now that you mention it, I’m not sure either.”
“It’s as if they just showed up out of nowhere.”
The stairwell opened into a dark, cluttered room. Boxes containing various artifacts belonging to the Culinary Society were stacked to the ceiling.
“You have your work cut out for you, Debii. Isn’t this the fragment of coral recipe I brought back from Cor Caroli?” Jeane asked, glancing at an unopened crate.
“It’s just me here,” Debii sighed. “You know we’re short-staffed. They barely pay me, but I like the work so it’s OK.”
“Maybe you need a volunteer?”
“Who wants to come all the way out here? And what about the yeast, Jeane? Aren’t you afraid? Hawktalon said—”
They continued through the maze of crates. Debii trailed behind Jeane, watching from behind her legs.
The tiny librarian asked, “What do you think the connection is between the bakers and their starter yeast?”
Jeane was thoughtful. Finally, she said, “Every sourdough has a unique flavor. It comes from the lactobacilli in it: the bacteria. The yeast is a living thing, a fungus. When it metabolizes, the carbon dioxide it exudes causes the dough to expand and bubble, giving a loaf its holes.”
“That’s true. Even the microbes on a baker’s hands influences the flavor of the bread,” Debii concurred.
“Except—it’s a two-way street. Just like the microbes from the baker affect the starter culture, over time, microorganisms from the yeast promulgate onto a baker’s hands. You can almost say, a baker becomes their bread.”
“If Mother is thousands of years old,” Debii reflected, “she would still contain the microbes of the person who first made her… it.”
Jeane nodded. “Whoever created that yeast… is in some way still alive.”
Debii shuddered at the thought.
“On Earth,” Jeane went on, “Three preserved loaves, offerings, were found in a temple for the pharaoh Mentuhotep. They were four thousand years old. A physicist, Seamus Blackley, woke the sleeping spores and made a sourdough out of it. Time can play strange tricks.”
“What happened then?”
Jeane shrugged. “Yeast dies when you bake it.”
They stopped, arriving before a wooden door which was slightly ajar.
“That’s the storage room,” Debii whispered. “The flour stocks Wyr and Andë brought are in there.”
A chilling presence radiated in waves from the storage room. The door was open a crack. Pitch blackness oozed out like from a yawning black hole.
“Jeane, shouldn’t we arm ourselves?”
“Other than cutting implements, there’s not much here. Besides, I don’t think it would do any good.”
They edged toward the door.
The blackness waited like a nightmare. Wisps of disorder and chaos tentatively reached outward, probing, searching.
Suddenly, Debii saw Lord Hawktalon’s evaporating skull again. The terror of the night before washed vividly over her.
“Jeane, Hawktalon said you’re going to die!”
Jeane looked grim. “I don’t think our fate is predetermined.” She stood braced before the door.
But it was too much for Debii. Everything swirled before her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Jeane. I can’t!” She turned and fled.
Jeane faced the blackness alone while Debii raced through the maze of crates looming over her. It was like they were closing in, blocking her path.
Breathless, she sped up the stairs and into the light of the kitchen. She panted, sweat trickling down her spine. Then she felt ashamed for abandoning Jeane. Why do I have to be so small? she upbraided herself.
I should go back. But she couldn’t get herself to do it, couldn’t even face the dark staircase. Whatever was down there was too terrifying.
She tautly hopped on the table and glanced around.
Against the pounding of her heart, she saw she was alone. Where was Tor-Brent? Jeane had told him to watch over the bakers, who were also gone.
“Hello?” Her voice was a tiny squeak. “Is anyone here? Tor-Brent?”
In response, she heard a faint noise like someone calling her name. It didn’t sound like Jeane. Was it the GCS chef? Did he need help? Had the bakers attacked him? She turned around.
On the other side of the stair, under a stone lintel, the kitchen opened into the Lecture Hall. Had the sound come from in there?
Debii grabbed a frying pan.
She practically crawled on all fours past the steps leading to the cellar, willing herself forward, not daring to look down there. She crept into the adjoining room.
Something scuttled in front of her.
Scared out of her wits, Debii raised the frying pan and slammed it down.
Carefully, she moved it aside.
“Just a bug,” she breathed in relief.
She looked closer. No! In embryonic form, tiny tendrils splayed around him, she recognized a vastly shrunken Tor-Brent.
She had just squashed him to death.
After the meeting, Ol’Sands left the kitchen and went up the stone steps past Tor-Brent’s room and on to the third floor, pensively tapping her cane.
She entered the communications center. On the north side it opened into a hallway leading to her own quarters.
One stone wall was fitted with rusting and cobweb covered radio equipment linked to the astronomical gallery on the rooftop. Ages ago, it had been used by the quasi-religious-astronomical caste who’d built the castle, but had long since fallen into disuse.
Ol’Sands shambled over to a worktable and sat down. The shoebox-sized, modern communications system lay next to the old array.
She switched it on but was surprised to hear only static. Fiddling with the touch-sensitive settings, she fine-tuned it. Still nothing. She made another adjustment.
“It won’t work.” Baker Wyr stood in the doorway. Ol’Sands turned her blind eyes toward him. “I disabled it.”
Alert, but with an appearance of calm, Ol’Sands reached for her cane next to the worktable. “Why would you do that?”
Wyr was strangely indifferent. “You’re not like the others. You hide much… and know much. You’re familiar with the Uncertainty Principle?”
Ol’Sands nodded. “We can never know both the position and speed of a particle at the same time.” What’s the purpose of his question, she wondered? Was he somehow trying to explain what was going on?
“Exactly.” Wyr had a buck-toothed smile, but it wasn’t friendly. “The closer you look at anything, the more it breaks down. If you could freeze Time—take a slice—at the smallest level, you would see the tiniest particle in existence. But you cannot stop Time. Not here. So, as you look closer, instead of a particle, you discern the Flow of Time, and that particle appears to stretch into a wavelength, like an exquisitely vibrating string.”
“What do you want?” Ol’Sands demanded coldly. Why these games?
The baker ignored her. “Imagine you could live for billions of years—or were even Eternal—and had limitless size. You see a planet. There is an ocean. Waves. But what are these waves? For you, it would take a thousand years just to say hello. So, these waves seem to you like the smooth portion of a sphere… on a planet spinning so fast you can barely discern it.”
“I take it you’re not from around here.”
“When we are from might be a better question. But it doesn’t matter. I won’t let you stop us.”
Abruptly, Ol’Sands felt something reach into her. “What are you doing?” she asked in an agonized whisper.
“You are getting older and younger. At the same time. I can’t control it. With the others, it went very quick. You must be incredibly old.”
Ol’Sands reeled as if her mind was being stretched across infinity. Her age was far greater than anyone in the Society suspected. Only this allowed her to hold on, just a little longer.
“What’s happening…” Ol’Sands struggled to speak. “This process. If it goes unchecked… will spread. Engulf our universe.”
“That is necessary for us to survive.” Wyr watched curiously as Ol’Sands shriveled into a furless little baby, varicose-veined and wrinkled, incredibly old and young all at once. For an instant, the whiteness clouding her eyes faded and she saw with perfect clarity.
Then she vanished into oblivion.
Baker Wyr simply shrugged. “I don’t really understand it myself.”
I mustn’t fight it, Jeane thought. It’s not evil. She stood outside the storage room door. I think it’s… afraid. She felt the strange waves emanating from it flow over her, threatening her consciousness.
I’ve got to keep calm. Try to communicate with it.
She approached the door, ajar, and edged in sideways. Debii was probably right. This is a bad idea.
A powerful sour-yeast smell assailed her which nearly made her retch. She took shallow breaths and waited for her eyes to adjust. A faint, grey light pulsed from the back of the room.
She saw the containers of flour stock Wyr and Andë had brought, black barrels, spread across the floor, split open. Mother lay atop the heap like a giant gray slug.
She’d grown to massive proportions: a humongous pile of colorless slime filling the room, pulsing, feeding on the last of the flour stocks.
Jeane took a tentative step toward it. Did the mass quiver in response? Easy now, Jeane thought.
Suddenly, an image flashed through her mind. Confusion filled her. Nothing can escape. Blackness. Impossibility of light.
Jeane struggled to control the feeling of overwhelming dread. She tried to understand the image put into her mind.
I was wrong! she thought. It’s not some evolved… It’s not even a yeast, not really.
She saw light — falling. Weighed down. Gravity, so great that even the fastest particles in the universe—light—were dragged back.
A swirling, red horizon. Within, the end of space and time. Was everything lost in that void? Could nothing escape?
Jeane recalled a theoretical class from her brief tenure in the Earth Guard: Thermal Radiation — emitted from a Black Hole. Information can escape.
But at random.
A Black Hole could emit any collection of particles.
I don’t have much time, she realized. I’ve made a fatal mistake. It’s too late for me, but I can still send a message. In her vision, she’d seen that only one of them was left.
She looked down at her wrist computer, but was transfixed by the sight of her hand fading, her atoms coming apart.
Quickly. Only a moment.
She tapped on the wrist computer, sending a short-wave signal. Would it reach—? No way to know.
Then her skin came apart like sand, the very stardust of her being fell into the void, and Jeane Oberon was no more.
In a panic, Debii raced through the halls of the old castle, looking for someone, anyone. There was no one. What had happened? Even Ol’Sands’ chambers were empty, filled with a desolate feeling like they’d been abandoned for centuries. Were they all dead? Was Jeane still in the cellars? Debii had an awful feeling something terrible had happened to her too.
What do I do? How do I get out of here?
She stopped and looked around. Without paying attention to where her tiny feet had taken her, she’d emerged onto the wall-walk under the open sky. It was grey and cloudy.
To her left rose the peaked, wooden roof enclosing the castle’s immense, ancient telescope. A system of gears and pulleys opened it though it was rusted out.
Her gaze fell on Baker Andë sitting on the edge of the rampart.
“Don’t go,” he said.
She hesitated. Against an overpowering urge to run and hide, she felt something else compel her to stay. As her mind settled, as her breathing slowed, her curiosity crowded out her fears. She felt a strange desire to listen to him. He wants to talk. Are his intentions benign? He looks so lonely.
Andë nodded at the enclosed telescope. “Every intelligent species studies the stars. What they don’t appreciate, is they’re really studying Time.”
Holding her breath, still fearful, Debii took a step closer and sat down.
“Before we bake our breads, we wait for the dough to rise. A precise time. Everything is about Time.”
“I don’t understand. What’s been happening to us?” she asked.
Andë sighed. “Wyr is old and afraid. He can see the end. He thinks he can avoid it. I’m young. I have hope. But the end will still be the same. It is for you, anyhow—and now it is for us. But it wasn’t like that before.”
“Let me try and explain. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since we arrived. It’s not easy for you to understand, I believe. Where to start? Yes, I know: how do you get from one planet to another—from one star to another?”
“There are Wormhole Gates. Built by a race that’s vanished.”
“Mmm, wormholes which cut through the folds and fabric of Space-and-Time as if it was a great, rippling carpet.”
Debii shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I’m not a physicist. I don’t know much about it.” She wished Jeane were here. The human would know how to respond to this creature.
“Listen, anyone can understand. If an idea is true, anyone can understand. I sincerely believe that. Now, why must you travel this way?”
Debii was thoughtful. “Even when ships travel near the speed of light, it takes an incredibly long time to get between planets. And… the traveler on the ship ages more slowly. On returning, they’d be relatively young, I guess, while centuries would have passed on their homeworld. Without the Gates, we wouldn’t have a functioning intergalactic community.”
“Yes, very good! When two objects are stationary relative to each other, they experience the same passage of Time. But if one of them moves away—at a higher velocity—suddenly they experience Time Dilation. The slowing of Time is only experienced by the one moving at the higher velocity. Curious, no?”
“I—I’ve never thought about it like that.”
“Why not? Do you realize that Space-and-Time are so interconnected that as you travel more rapidly, Space also changes? When you increase your speed, Time slows even as Space contracts and compresses like a finely kneaded sourdough. Unbelievable!”
“I suppose. But I don’t—”
“Perhaps the Sentients who built the Gates understood. The races left behind know so little. Have you ever seen gravity? Do you know what holds the planets in orbit? How a pair of Quantum Particles, light-years apart, can instantly know what their counter charge is doing? Why Time changes when you travel near the speed of light?”
Exasperated, Debii shook her head. Andë was so young and brimming with enthusiasm, she momentarily forgot the danger facing her.
Andë went on. “Do you believe in a divine being or that mystical forces control the Laws of the Universe?”
Debii shrugged. “My people have their beliefs, but I don’t follow them.”
“Then how can mass act on mass, when the thread which connects them, which you call gravity, is to your eyes and instruments invisible? There are two possibilities, aren’t there? Either an all-powerful, magical being controls things, hidden, behind the scenes. Or else, there must be some mechanism, some material object which connects them?”
“Actually, though it’s very expensive, we mine Graviton particles from the Wormhole Gates. That technology also comes from the vanished, ancient race. I’m not sure we understand it—”
“Excellent! Such a clever little thing! And what about Time? What about it? How can Time be relative? The people of your universe understand the math, but it might as well be a magical formula, for all it’s worth.”
Debii considered everything Andë had pointed out so far. She was stumped. “We don’t know.”
“Has it occurred to you that… there is no such thing as Time?”
“How can that be?”
“If you consider it carefully, you will find there is only motion, only movement. Only the manner in which matter behaves… since your Big Bang.
“Out of that cataclysmic explosion, imagine an expanding field—forget about Time—of interlocked, infinitesimally small particles moving forever outward. Some of these particles become randomly twisted, forming the first subatomic particles. Then these also twist together forming atoms and so on. It’s an expanding field of Space—material—and the way in which it interweaves, like a giant, stretching blanket, forms the laws of your universe. As particles amass into ever larger units, eventually planets and stars, these create depressions in the Field; the effects of gravity.
“And as an object travels faster and faster through this field—but never faster than the speed of light, since that is the rate of the expanding field—and remember, the object is also part of the field, just more jumbled together in units of what you label matter—compression occurs, mass increases, and so atoms spin more slowly—and that is why you age more slowly with increased velocity: the underlying processes have slowed, at least relative to the motion of other objects. It’s all movement. Your universe is always in motion —moving outward— governed by the shaping of the Field of Matter at its inception.”
While Andë talked, Debii had a vertigo-like sensation the stars were pin-wheeling above her head. When had night fallen?
She tried to process everything he’d revealed. What did it add up to? He was from elsewhere, trying to understand where he now found himself. How to respond?
“Thank you—for sharing—this—” Debii didn’t know what to say.
Andë shook his head. His expression changed, and he looked at her piercingly. “What are you going to do about Jeane’s message? Will you act on it?”
What was he talking about now?
“What message? I haven’t received—”
“Never mind. Jeane is dead. Mother is on the move.”
A chill ran through her.
“Your last Overseer is also gone. You’re only safe because I’ve been trying to protect you. I want someone to understand… But there is a limit to what I can do.” His eyes were like black pits, staring at her.
Debii froze. Was he changing? What was this duality in him?
“You’d better go.” He gave her a look, cold, like death and all the horror of the day before returned.
Cowering, Debii hid under the blankets of her tiny bed, shaking like a leaf. She felt she was in a nightmare. Paralyzed, stricken with fear.
When would the dream end?
How to escape?
It was as if time had ground to a standstill with no way out. Was it true what Andë had said? Was Jeane really dead? In her gut, she felt it to be so. She was the only one left.
Debii heard a strange noise through the chattering of her teeth. She held her breath, forcing herself to stop trembling. There it was again. A faint burst of static. Peering out from her covers, Debii studied the room. On a wall-mount her computer was flashing dimly.
Someone was calling? Who could it be?
She cautiously slipped out of bed and onto the stool by the computer.
“Debii, are you there?”
It was Jeane! Debii surged with relief.
“Debii, I’m sorry—I made a mistake—I don’t have long—”
And just as quickly, she had a clammy feeling, and all her hopes sank in her chest.
Jeane’s message continued. “Debii—I’ve seen it—only you—Stop it. If you don’t—entire universe—I know—You can do it. You’re braver than—You have to—” The message abruptly ended.
Have to what? In distress, Debii yanked on the yellow tufts behind her ears.
She ran under the bed.
Jeane was dead. Andë was right. How had he known about the message?
She closed her eyes tight as if that would make everything go away.
Whatever Jeane wanted me to do, I can’t do it! I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do! The message was cut off. Who in their right mind would put their hopes in me?
For a while, Debii lay there not thinking.
Jeane said… I’m brave? Debii knew that wasn’t true. But Jeane believed it?
She quietly thought. If Jeane believed I could…
But what am I supposed to do? How to stop it?
Everyone who comes into contact with it…
And, it’s getting bigger, spreading.
Debii recalled her conversation with Jeane when they were in the cellars talking about bread making.
A plan formed in her mind. She knew she didn’t have long until the end of the universe.
Debii realized she couldn’t get close to Mother, but someone would have to. At least, long enough to get the bait.
She faced the old stables in the courtyard. In a wooden stall stood a blue, rusting robot the GCS used for unloading cargo. In yellow letters across it was written: AUG-73.
Debii hopped on a barrel, reaching for a panel on the robot’s side. She detached its controller and typed in a series of commands. The blocky robot lit up with a whir.
AUG-73 trundled out of the stall, making his way across the courtyard toward the kitchen and the stairs leading to the cellars.
I’ve got to observe him, thought Debii. In case of a change of plan. After all, AUG-73 was only a simple-minded robot.
Still, Debii couldn’t bring herself to go down the stairs she had fled from in terror with Jeane.
Got to keep my distance, she reasoned. If I end up like the others, everything will be lost. There has to be another way.
She glanced around the courtyard at the crumbling walls.
She scurried to the north-western tower. Inside was an old, empty stone bath. She craned her neck, glancing up. Moonlight glimmered through the windows outlining stone grips inset along the interior wall. Ansul once used these to climb up and down between floors; stairs had only been added later.
With her flashlight, Debii traced the stone grips to the floor where an open space had been boarded over.
She tugged and heaved on a plank of wood, wriggling her way through the slim opening.
Sometimes it paid to be small!
She climbed stealthily down into the castle crypts. Her light fell on the granite tombs of former Ansul rulers.
Now, which way?
The flashlight beam played on the walls, the floor, catching a gleam.
It lingered for a moment on the long-forgotten bronze bust of GCS co-founder, Atticus Oberon, gathering dust, unceremoniously chucked in a corner when he’d been ousted from the Society.
She warily crept past the discarded bust, spotting piles of crates containing boxed-up GCS artifacts.
This time, instead of losing herself in the maze, she scrambled up the nearest stack, brushing her head against the ceiling.
She waved her flashlight.
It caught a blue-metal glint. AUG-73 emerged from the stairwell ambling toward the storage room, its door flung wide.
That’s strange, she thought. I don’t feel… Mother’s gone?
Debii hopped from crate to crate, nearing the storage room’s door. She carefully crawled down and peered in.
Oh, no, Mother’s already eaten the reserve flour stocks!
Her flashlight wavered over the split open barrels while AUG-73 stood patiently in the center of the room waiting for instructions. Mother was nowhere to be seen.
What to do? Uncertain how to continue with her plan, Debii stepped into the cold storage room.
It didn’t occur to her to look up.
Mother clung to the ceiling, resting from her feeding, a dark gray mass blending into the stone.
Unaware of the danger above, Debii examined the storage area. Among split open barrels of flour stock brought by Wyr and Andë, other containers and cans had been scattered about in Mother’s frenzy. Whole storage racks had been knocked over.
Wait. What’s that?
Debii’s light caught something black wedged under a fallen rack.
Caught up in her search, she failed to notice the ceiling pulse with a faint glow.
There’s one barrel left! I hope it’s enough.
She tapped the controller and AUG-73 obediently trundled over, pushing the rack aside.
Above, Mother quivered.
Debii typed in a final set of instructions and hurried ahead, out of the room, while AUG-73 gently lifted the remaining barrel.
In her excitement, Debii scampered straight up the stairs she had been so afraid of before. AUG-73 mechanically followed, carrying the last of the flour stocks.
Mother detached from the ceiling and lowered her vast bulk to the floor. She slithered gooily after them.
In the kitchen, AUG-73 emptied the contents of the barrel into the large brick oven.
Debii took cover under the steel table where she had a good vantage point. Her heart was racing but she knew she had to stay and see it out.
Would her plan work? She’d find out soon enough. As Jeane had said, yeast dies when it’s baked.
Something slammed onto the table. A shadow fell.
Debii watched the table overhead shudder as Mother rolled over it in a great, roiling mass.
She held her breath, her heart in her throat.
As Mother slowly moved across the table rust spots broke out in the steel like rapidly expanding sores.
Mother oozed off, puddle-like, and flowed over the robot and into the brick oven where the last of the flour stocks lay. AUG-73 trembled and shook. His blue-metal body turned brown, crumbling into a rusting pile of nuts and bolts.
Debii couldn’t see that her own yellow tufts of hair had also turned white.
Now! She thought.
With every ounce of courage she could muster, she raced to the oven’s ‘on’ switch.
She reached up and was bodily kicked aside.
She lay in the corner, panting, holding her bruised rib.
Baker Wyr looked viciously at her. “Don’t you know I see what’s coming?” he leered. He grabbed a meat cleaver. “It’s you or us!”
He raised the cleaver. Debii closed her eyes, cowering. Then she defiantly thought, I’m not going to go out like a coward.
She glared fiercely up at him — and saw Baker Andë step behind, lifting a heavy iron pot. He walloped Wyr across the head. “You didn’t see that coming, did you?” The old baker fell to the ground, senseless.
Andë’s dark eyes turned to Debii. “You better go ahead while there’s still time.”
Debii shakily got up and limped over to the oven’s switch. She hesitated. “What will happen to you?”
Andë shrugged. “Don’t you understand? In this universe, everything moves forward. If a ball hits another ball straight on there’s only one direction it can go. Forward. But we come from another place. Where if something strikes an object, it can go in any direction. Right, left, up, down. Try and imagine it. Laws of physicality completely different than your own.
“Mother, Wyr, and I are one and the same. I am Wyr. He is me… when I will be older.”
Debii glanced at the fallen form. How hadn’t she noticed it before? But who’d have suspected? She saw it now, the resemblance. Only, his flesh was more tired, more worn down by the ravages of time.
“I’m still young with my whole future ahead of me,” Andë said. “As soon as we came here, we saw. We saw how it would end. This moment. For us, inescapable. Where we were before, there was no past, no future. Only… being. Here, it’s terrifying! How can life have existed before our own, while for us it was only a blank void, a nothing? How can we then have consciousness, so rich, so full of life—But then it too will be taken? This thing you call death. Oblivion. Wyr, being closer to our end, couldn’t accept it. He thought he could change it—alter it. Unfortunately, in your universe, there is no escape from the relentless forward motion.”
“I’m sorry. I wish there was something I could do.”
“There is nothing to do but accept. And not waste any time. Just as there was my universe with its laws, and yours with its, maybe there is another. I can only hope. A place where my thoughts and actions will last. Where someone will peruse these frozen pages of Time. Even when I am long gone, I will still have existence when my thoughts reach out and touch you.”
Debii looked sadly up at Andë.
“It’s time,” he said.
Debii nodded and turned on the oven.
Igniting, the gas-flame consumed Mother. Bit by bit, the castle filled with the warm smell of freshly baked bread.
Hopping on a barstool in the library, Debii peered in at her collection of sourdough starter-yeasts. She ticked off their names. “Rebola, Smedt, Vitus…”
Everything was in order.
She flicked off the lights, heading to bed, but had the unusual feeling of not being very tired.
Hadn’t Jeane Oberon arrived recently, she thought? The human normally camped by the Ansul cliff-houses. Debii had a curious urge to visit them. Why hadn’t she ever gone before, she wondered? For that matter, why did she always stay cooped up here in the GCS castle?
Feeling oddly brave, Debii was soon scampering under the dark trees, her way lighted by silver moonlight.
She hesitated at the edge of the precipice. The sounds of night animals, a distant squawk, emanated from the valley below. The sky was clear, and the stars were bright.
How beautiful, Debii beamed, inhaling the fresh night air. Below, she saw a faint light from one of the cliff-houses.
She swiftly climbed down and peered in.
Jeane was eating by the glow of a portable micro-box. When she saw the tiny librarian in the shadows, she warmly invited her in.
Moments later, both munching on flavorless nutri-bars, Debii listened attentively to Jeane’s stories of traveling across the galaxy for the Galactic Culinary Society.
Strangely, memories of some other time and place kept flitting through her thoughts like pieces of a dream.
She’d have to remember to talk to Jeane about it later.
About the author: D.R. Schoel is an award-winning writer and filmmaker who has worked for nearly twenty years with the Inuit of the Arctic on many television documentaries. He also collaborated with Chad McQueen (son of movie icon Steve McQueen) on an un-produced project for Netflix, and wrote the feature film “Adam’s Wall”, a Jewish-Arab love story, released globally. He directed the short film “The Fantastic Bus” which was presented at Cannes and, among other honors, won a Canadian Screen Award (the equivalent of the Canadian Oscars) for “Sol”, about an Inuit circus performer who died in RCMP custody, which he co-wrote with Marie-Hélène Cousineau. You can find his irreverent Galactic Culinary Society series on Amazon.
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