The first things that David Carter became aware of were the sounds of birds. Each note seemed to resound around the area where he lay, so that it could have come from anywhere. He gradually shifted into some state of consciousness, as the singing continued. Something stirred in his memory, and he thought he recognised the song. Nightingales. He had seen them once at the zoo when he was a kid. Then he became aware of the soft rush of water close by; the whisper it made as it swept across rock. There were the drips of isolated drops into a hidden pool further off. There was no disturbance in the flow of the water that he could detect; it ran as smoothly over the rocks as it would over sheet glass. Somewhere, there was a wet slap, possibly of a fish.
It took a while for Carter’s consciousness to reach a state such that he was aware of himself, and that he was lying amidst the sounds that his senses had extricated from around. The birdsong continued, and soon there was another slap on the water. Tiny particles dashed across his brow, as if he were being anointed. The brow furrowed, the eyelids creased in the act of revealing their hidden treasure. There was a ripple of shoulder muscle as the torso tensed. One limb began to bend, slowly. A hand curled into a loose fist, slowly tightening until it had regained feeling. David Carter pushed himself up with his arms, twisted and sat. And saw.
He was in a shallow cave, stretching sporadically across bare, sandy rock. From a large opening a few feet away, light streamed brilliantly in. Sunlight; radiant and all-revealing. The sounds he had heard came from a small pool that had formed at the back of the cave, made clear by the light. Water sparkled as it gushed out of a shaft near the ceiling, falling from a tidy rush into a cloud of steamy foam, and sending perfect ripples dancing across the surface. Out of the miniature waterfall, small branches protruded, on which all manner of vibrant foliage grew. Alighted on one such flower, a small, drab-looking bird perched. Carter stared into its beady eyes for a while, and soon it fluttered down before him, hopped a few inches in his direction, then flew off, over him and out of the cave into the light.
Carter crawled slowly, but not ungainly, towards the pool. He had no thirst, but he cupped his hand and drank anyway. The water was fresher than anything he had ever tasted. It could have just melted off of a glacier, only it wasn’t icy-cold, merely cool. Light from the opening caught the water differently for a second, and Carter caught sight of a dark object protruding out of the rock in the centre of the pool. It marked a central point, where the water was almost a foot deep. Making a decision, Carter reached down and touched it, disturbing the silky surface. It was hard and felt vaguely metallic. He reached again and, getting a good hold, tugged. But the object was wedged firmly into the rock, and wouldn’t budge an inch. He gave up, and retracted his hand. Then he just sat there, his hand dripping as he held it in mid-air in front of his face. Something was odd about it.
Carter bent forward over the lip of the pool and studied his reflection in the water. Something was wrong with his face. He then realised he was unclothed, and that something was wrong with the rest of his body too. Carter stood, hands scrabbling over his chest and arms, tugging at his cheeks and hair. His muscles were toned and well-proportioned, his chest and limbs clean-shaven. The hair on his head was thick and dark. There was no cragginess, no wrinkles, no lines on his skin. He looked similar to how he had when we was in his mid-twenties or perhaps thirties. How could it be? Had everything from the age of thirty onwards been a dream?
That wasn’t it. Carter looked again and saw that he didn’t really seem to be thirty either. The closest he could come to describing it was that he looked similar to the operatives he had seen working for NASA back in Nevada. They were moulded, plastic-like, and so became emotionless, tireless. Ageless.
For the first time, Carter began to wonder what had happened. After the compartment in which he had been sealed had separated from the Royal Ascender, he had spun aimlessly into the light and thereafter remembered nothing. He had no recollection of where he was, or how he could have got there. There was only one way to find out. Taking one last look at the metal object in the pool, Carter stepped carefully up over the rocky façade and out through the opening. The sight that met his eyes imprinted itself on his eyelids. Whenever he closed his eyes, he just saw it again. It dominated the rest of his conscious mind.
Spread before where he stood atop a small plateau was an expanse of open country; the lushest green he had ever experienced, punctuated at intervals by the bright yellows and reds and blues of flowers and butterflies. Trees ranging from mighty, thick-trunked oaks to smaller sapling pines sat across a bed of blanket grass, branches swaying rhythmically in small breezes. From the ends of flower-pods, dense blossoms hung in clusters, periodically breaking away from the branches and scattering in a perfume cloud on the air. When one drifted close, Carter fancied he could smell the pollen, and it was sweeter than anything he had experienced in Montana during the summer months. Across from this orchard, the grassland continued, ceasing only where small copses of trees sprung up, or a glittering pond shone. As he watched, he began to see more birds, and other animals. A family of swallows were darting among the eaves of the nearest oak, their wings a blur as they glided between branches. On unseen perches, blackbirds and thrushes were chirping, as the nightingale before. As he looked closer, he began to see dragonflies darting across the surface of the water-holes, pausing at lilies and reeds to mate and catch smaller midges. At the edge of the nearest pond, a small group of voles or shrews were frolicking; tiny babies reaching to try and swat the flying insects out of the air. When Carter breathed in the air, the taste on his lips was of dew and perfume and peaches. It was a taste as potent as syrup, but lighter than the air itself.
As Carter carefully descended the plateau on which he found himself, he began to notice more wildlife. A couple of deer were grazing not far from the base of the outcrop, ears pricked up to detect intruders, but almost lazily, as if it were simply a matter of unnecessary protocol. Larger birds, Golden Eagles, squawked from their nests between the rocks, and Carter had to take care not to disturb them. When he reached the bottom, the deer did not bolt, as he had expected. One of them looked up at him, stared for a moment, then moved off, the other in slow pursuit. They had not been bothered by his arrival in the slightest. With nothing to go on, Carter followed them at a distance, still trying to come to terms with the beautiful and wholly natural environment in which he found himself.
It was as he wandered across the grass; hesitant to disturb it’s carpet, as he was with fresh snow, that he started to think clearly. The enormity of the sight that had met his eyes finally shrunk into a more manageable concept in his mind, allowing him to think a little more clearly. He knew why this was. In fact, it was what he should have expected. This was the reason for the increased gravity from within the tear. Years ago, when scientists had begun their study of the phenomenon, they had send small probes to the spot, with the intention that they transport life-forms into the abyss to see if they could survive. And with the readings NASA gathered from their satellites and orbital probes, their best estimates were that they had, and that the bacilli they had sent were thriving. The metal object he had touched in the pool had to be the remains of the probe, where it had landed. That had all been the best part of six years ago. And everything that he now saw; Carter looked at it all laid out before him, everything had evolved from those organisms. His first thought was that it was impossible. How could life evolve so quickly? Sure, the cells were likely to have been genetically modified by NASA. They would have to survive the journey to the tear for starters. But this would have been off the scale. What would the scientists think if they could see what had become of their little experiment? Did perhaps they know that they had created a whole new world?
A thought occurred to Carter, and he looked skywards into a brilliant blue, scudded with small, fluffy clouds that could have been drawn by a Japanese animé artist. But as he continued to stare, he began to see that something about it was wrong. There was no sign of how he had got here. There was no tear. Had it perhaps closed when he was pulled through? Perhaps he would need to wait until night-time and look again. That was assuming it was even possible to see it from here with the naked eye. One thing was for certain; he was stuck here. He looked around again. It wasn’t a bad place to be stuck.
While on this subject, Carter’s mind threw up another puzzle, and he began to search the sky once more. He was looking for any sign of the Royal Ascender. Somehow, he must have become separated from it in the transition. In that case, how had he survived? And how could he possibly have got into the cave? Carter looked, shielding eyes against sunlight that in truth barely hindered them, but there was no sign of the ship. No sign of any wreckage of the cockpit compartment, or the rest of it; that had torn itself apart. Surely, somewhere, it had to exist still. Unless it had been burned up in some kind of atmosphere. That didn’t make sense either. It would have to have been an ozone layer that destroyed heat-resistant panels and armoured NASA-built structures, as well as clothing, but had no effect whatsoever on the soft, organic tissue of his body.
Everything, Carter realised, reaching to touch the trunk of a tree, everything here was perfect. Here, no man had intervened. There was no need for any metal installations or buildings or power sources because it was all sustained and all perfect. Carter fancied he had been walking for an hour before he noticed that the sun in the sky was still at its highest point. Either he was imagining things, or no time had passed. Was there no orbit here? No night and day? It had to be a dream. Or he had to be dead, and this was the afterlife. There was no way that this place could exist. It was as he thought this that one of the small clouds passed in front of the sun, and there was a slight chill. But it quickly passed.
He looked once more over the grasslands, searching his mental dictionary for the words to describe it. Oddly, he found it not in the words of the Romantics, but thought instead of a term he remembered from Paradise Lost. They were Elysian Fields. They were the perfect, beautiful expanses of land that Satan recalled from heaven after his Fall.
Carter spun on the spot, legs apart to lower his centre of gravity. Something was watching him. He was not alone. When the moment of tension elapsed, Carter spotted something in the distance. It was shrouded in a thick heat-haze, something that seemed unusual in these surroundings. From his position, it was possible to make out a wide trunk, wider than on any of the oaks he had just passed. It rose into lush greenery, and the red and yellow tinge of fruit. He started towards it, the haze soon dropping and bringing the tree into focus. Around it’s base, the grass had grown lusher and thicker than anywhere else, and so it was that Carter spotted the slight depression where some object had alighted on it. He continued forwards. The hairs on the back of his neck were rising. That feeling that he was being watched; was it coming from over here?
The walk to the tree took him longer than he had expected. It seemed to be the largest of any of the trees that he could see, and sat in a slight furrow in the earth, as if to emphasise it’s presence. As he got closer, he began to notice other details; particularly the fruits dangling from the branches. He had a feeling they were pomegranates; bulbous and ripe and twinkling with moisture. There was a certain appeal that drew Carter’s eyes to them, though he had no hunger. Gradually, he began to notice other things. All of the fruit was wholly intact, as there was no other visible wildlife in the tree that would eat it, and few defining characteristics that revealed its genus. Carter had seen pomegranates growing before, in orchards, but never on trees with such huge, dark trunks and lush, waxy leaves. It didn’t quite fit, but somehow it seemed to work all the same. The tree was beautiful. He stepped into the thick grass around the base, his bare feet cooled by the blades, and there she was.
She lay, entirely still and white as a pearl, face-down, so that Carter could not see her features, though knew instantly who she was. In a way, he realised, he always had known. He had known where he was. He had known what the tree was. He had known who he would find beneath it.
Carter crouched and weighed her up where she lay. Her hair was a dark, auburn brown, long and cascading over her shoulder blades down to the rise of her hips. Though she was pale, there was no translucence in her skin; it appeared full and healthy. She was, like he, entirely naked, and the curve of her breast was just visible beneath her. Her legs were positioned oddly, as if she had fallen asleep only after restless fidgeting, so that one was bent over the back of the other, almost into the shape of a number four. As a wisp of breeze floated over them, her toes moved, and Carter caught the brilliant gleam of pristine nails, perfect and unblemished. She was the archetype of beauty, and as Carter reached inevitably for her shoulder so that he could see her face, she stirred awake and looked into his. Her mouth opened in shock, but not as widely as Carter’s stretched in disgust.
The woman’s face was hideous; something that could only be born out of the most horrific of nightmares. The pearly skin had become creased and crumpled and darkened by bruising underneath, so that her cheeks and jowls sagged horribly when she looked up. Where her skin became lip or eyelid or hairline, there were thicker, dark lines of wrinkle, furrows that pockmarked the face like the surface of Mars. Her nose was overlong and crooked at the end, which reminded Carter instantly of story-book witches, and her chin extended similarly. As she opened her mouth, a pointed tongue was visible, writhing as if in pain, and in front dark teeth with the seeds of pomegranates lodged between them. Carter became then aware of the smell of her; the rank odour of chemicals and must. As she grinned, her mouth seemed to stretch endlessly up her face, causing him to recoil and retch; the clown-paint mouth etching itself on his memory as the illustrious scenery had before. He could tell at a look that she was a figment of wrong, of evil. She was sin.
So steeling himself, shaking himself to quell the fear, Carter leapt forward, his hands searching for her sagging neck. He found his target and pinned the woman down. The awful mouth opened in a wail, but no sound came out. His thumbs had found their mark. Carter yelled aloud at her to die and to die and to keep on dying. The face seemed then to shimmer and shrink; the nose retracting, skin tautening and lightening, becoming younger, brighter, beautiful. A new woman looked up at him, eyes now edged with guilt and anxiety and doubt. But Carter did not stop; fully aware of what would happen to her again if he did. In his boiling mind, he saw all that had done wrong, all that had spawned hate, all that had defied humanity; everything unkind and indecent that had plagued his life on Earth. The beauty struggled limply, her arms tautening and trying to pull at his fingers. Another chill breeze passed over as a cloud passed across the sun; for longer this time. Carter became aware of a shadow, and looked up from the dying woman. A huge mass of flaming metal and glass was hurtling across the perfect sky like a huge house-fly on a canvas. It streamed overhead, shooting out flaming meteorites of burning matter, and Carter watched transfixed at the last flight of the Royal Ascender. But before it could land, he leant forwards once more, heavily pressing down on the jugular of the woman, who sighed her last and fell back.
There was an instant sensation of movement; a kind of ripple through the air, as space and time were drastically altered in a microsecond. Carter fancied he could even see it; like an invisible wave, which brushed across the burning spacecraft and engulfed it. He twitched and looked again, his eyes suddenly sore. The Royal Ascender had gone. Had it crash-landed? The perfect blue of the sky remained.
Mankind’s procreative process had ended, and so, Carter surmised in his head as he looked on the woman’s body, it made sense that the means to transport him here had never existed. And it was as he thought this that the huge tree before him suddenly began to wilt, dropping its leaves, as though an autumnal season had been fast-forwarded. Fruit mouldered and dropped, and Carter had to edge backwards to avoid being hit. A deafening crack, suggestive of an impact, signified the opening of its last resting place, and the dark trunk was pulled sharply into the ground, trailing dead branches. Leaf litter and humus sprayed upwards, instantly burying the body of the woman where Carter had left her. He backed away further until all the deluge had fallen. After a while, it achieved a state of liquidity that allowed it to seep into the ground after the rest of the tree, and when the ground was clear once more, Carter could see no sign of the woman. She was gone.
Feeling somewhat satisfied and safe in the knowledge that he had found his answer to the question, Carter ambled back through the grass and sat beneath a humble oak in cool shade. The birds continued to sing in the branches. The sun shone on, with no further interruptions. He leant back against the trunk, knees bent and his hand steepled around them, a small grin playing across his face.
An immortal man, waiting to die.