The Beast at the End of Time17 min read
As the world marches toward the guillotine of its finale, the sleeping beast shakes loose the slats of its painted unthought and licks the tang of dénouement from its fangs. It stirs upright on trembling ligaments, clad in starvation and rust.
“You are not here,” a calm voice which mimics the beast’s speaks in its skull. “You died a long time ago.” An existentialist voice, it thinks as it tests the strength of its sinews, the curve and length of its legs.
“You’ll understand nothing,” the voice goes on. “This is not your place and you will die again, returning to sand and grass.”
The beast totters and falls to its knees. The catenary of its spine warps and its mouth opens, stretching to the limit of its hinge.
It vomits. A catalogue of its regurgitation: half a meter of soft wire, seven silicone molars, one-fourth liter of fluids—acid, blood, mucus. And a single hexagonal chip, data-bright and laden with age.
The beast’s skull-voice slows and stutters, then goes silent entirely.
The beast sips (I sip) knowledge from the remains of the chip. Raw data remains inside its (my) mouth, on my gums like the detritus of a meal, but I haven’t eaten for a long time. Recollection (hers?) of food kicks up in spumes, tamarind paste and egg, sleek pork laid out against coils of rice noodle. Sour. Hot. My palate stings at the pinpricks of memory.
There are ports in my flanks and calves, leashed to nodes that tremble like loose teeth in the stone. Delicately, I unplug each, unmooring myself. I expected shackles; I expected resistance. Instead I step free with ease, a dry rasp of corroded jewelry falling from my shoulders, desiccated hairpins from my shorn scalp. Sockets in my ribs and shins gush one last mouthful of fluids, purging. I skim my fingers down between my breasts, along the ladder of my bones. I’m all rungs, only I lead nowhere and no one will come to climb. In this climate, there is only descent.
The horizon is distant, the sun a needlepoint in the sky’s burial shroud. Stars are absent. The remnant of my chip tells me this dissolving place is humanity’s last shelter and that I’m its last failsafe.
This piece of information snags. My voice, which until now meant to emerge, shrinks in panic. The rest of me strides on, bare-footed, under lycoris lilies that surround the chamber of my waking, rising tall and pitiless overhead. Bulbuls perch on their stamens, beaks sewn shut. The wind is thick with dust and machine appetite.
When I look down again, a lynx is circling me. Its pelt gleams pearl-gray, its eyes scintillant with live circuits. Old habit guides me to peck at the weave of its heuristics, intricate gossamer code as visible to me as the flowers and the birds, as tangible as my own feet. In this way I remember myself: what I was, what I did, what I can do. I unearth my voice from the mud of its fear; so much of me is animal froth, mindless terror unconnected to intellect. “Lead me.” My words flow, liquid rather than the parched rasp I expected. Once there was a girl who loved my voice, called it silk and enamel; she’d love it still if she were alive now.
The lynx lowers its head. Turns, and obeys.
Despite everything, this is not a world in ruin. The buildings that rise before me, choking the streets like a vise: all new, new. Freshly made windowpanes, umbels of roofs just blossomed and glossy, houses just hatched and eggshell-smooth. The ever-renewing city, its face always novel. I begin to see the shape of the disaster, how it had gone wrong.
Strange that no one roused me when armageddon was still gestating rather than sprung. No one woke me when it had grown to adolescence. Now it is fully fledged and I have risen too late.
The lynx halts before an arch of quicksand, points its muzzle to the bronze-wheeled path beyond.
The path runs straight and determined, unmarred by fork or intersection. By next week this corridor will be something else: an empty room in an empty house, an auditorium lined with ivory seats, a stage with shifting heat-tiles for dancers who will never arrive. Where the path stops a woman is waiting for me, encased in body armor like surface tension. Her gaze moves against me like a knife against rags. “You’re the beast. The architect, Nabaat.”
“I’m a stopper for the bottle of apocalypse, but I fear the glass has already broken.”
“Cracked. Not broken. Come with me, if you’re really who you seem to be.”
She brings me to a pomegranate hall: pillars of white pith housing red seeds and clad in tatters of golden rind. Some dozen people look up and become still. On the walls heads are mounted, horned and antlered; it takes a moment to see past the stylization, the demon-paint and tusks, the impossibly wide mouths. “When was it,” I say aloud, “that you began to call me a beast?”
“When the end began and you didn’t wake; when it gobbled its way to maturity and still you lay, despite your promises. After that your name became a curse.” She holds up her hand, gesturing for calm at her people. “Your life and the pledges you made were before my time, but some of us are very bitter.”
Their faces resolve in degrees—it takes me time to reacclimatize to this sudden human contact. Most are of that indeterminable age, between prime adulthood and withering. One or two children. There’s nobody I know and they are all dressed to evacuate at a moment’s notice, their belongings lashed to them like messy exoskeletons. Few look well fed. “I’m here now. Give me something to eat.”
She might have chastised me for so brazen a demand, but she must recognize that even I require food. From an adult—a man I think, though it can be hard to tell—she liberates a nutrient tube. Tasteless, but against the memory of life and full bursting fruits it’s even more so, like graveside offerings — all melted wax and incense smoke. As I lick and suck the flavorless fluid, she tells me of what happened while I slept.
Her name is Enmaten. Her mothers—engineers, my contemporaries—led the first of what would be many efforts to wake me. Enmaten accompanied the third and fifth. “By the sixth,” she says calmly, “I was down to one mother. By the seventh, I was an orphan. At that point even organic matter—flora, fauna—fell under raw material; your children turned one of my mothers into a bridge, the other into part of a mural. I kept visiting them but within the month they’d become something else, until I couldn’t find them anymore.”
I do not and have never felt parental toward the flock. They are product, not offspring. “When I made the fabricators, I implemented very exact protocols. They shouldn’t have been able to defy those.”
Enmaten smiles with a pale, thin mouth nearly the color of her skin. Aged ivory, lightly gilded. “You don’t believe in evolving heuristics?”
“They are built to be competitive, to some extent, but no. The sentient AI is an ancient fantasy for the romantic mind. There was a limit: if-else arrays, however complex, remain just those.” I glance over my shoulder at the masks that represent my face. “You said there were efforts to rouse me.”
“Oh yes, people journeyed far and wide to see you. Before it all went wrong they built a temple around you, canonized you as a saint in several religions, the deity-in-flesh who gave us the future. You ended scarcity, made desert-ruins habitable, turned waste to gold. Your fabricators allowed for beauty. And on top of that you suspended yourself so you’d always be there to fix everything. Who could not love you, not braid your casket with rare orchids and dream of lying at your feet like tame housecats?”
The lynx has put its head in my lap. Absently I stroke it, the ruff of its neck pashmina to the sandpaper of my palm. “What prevented them from waking me?”
That edge of gaze again, scalpel priming for vivisection. “The suspension system never unlocked and there was no way to extract you from it without the risk of killing you. One of your lovers, it was said, tried to kiss you through the glass—kept trying right up until the fabricators made a marble pillar of her. I’m sure her bones are still out there somewhere, incorporated into a roof or street. Or scattered between a thousand houses. Like dust, like pearls spilled from a necklace.”
Pearls and dust are nothing alike, I want to point out. “I don’t know whom you might mean,” I say not to sound callous, but because I genuinely can’t remember. I haven’t had so many lovers and of those I can recall none would be so devoted. “It should have been simple to wake me. The moment the fabricators started malfunctioning, I should have been alerted.” Jolted from my dreams of negative space, my dreams of submersive heat where my skin is glass, my lungs and stomach planet-core blaze. Where I arise from magma, first of all things, preceding humankind.
Her eyes are feverish, though the rest of her face betrays nothing. “What are you going to do about it?”
Her people’s gazes mimic hers, the gazes of famished beasts ready to sink teeth into soft meat. I may be humanity’s final failsafe, but I’m also the architect of its demise.
“My flocks and my sleep have been tampered with,” I say and the mouths of the masks move with me, silent chorus. “I know who did so. I’ll find them and bring them to heel.”
The road snakes along the city’s seams, though by tomorrow there will be neither road nor city; Enmaten tells me that the world lives nomadic now. Those last few sites of production are jealously guarded and isolated, but she says they don’t have long before they too are overtaken. “A generation or two, at most,” she says, laughing like it’s a particularly fine joke. “It’s why I never got around to having children.”
I lead as though I know precise directions—and I do, I remember the shape of things. The identity of my opponent abides in the seedbed of my throat, roots writhing, for the right time and the correct amount of light. Until then I’m a harvest in waiting, a series of partitions to which I as yet lack the command.
They watch my every move for that moment of uncertainty, for a step that falters. Enmaten herself sleeps at my back, one arm slung over my waist like a possessive bride, though it has nothing to do with desire or tenderness. She’d whisper of the woman who tried to wake me with a kiss: her eyes the brilliant black of an event horizon, her voice a mezzo-soprano. “And her name?” I ask one evening.
The first time she says, “That you will have to earn.” The second time she answers, “You are not worthy of it.”
The third time she says, “When the ships left, they brought your flocks with them to terraform.”
I do not ask if any has returned or when they were last heard from. She does not name those who follow her and nor do they introduce themselves. In this way they recede from my awareness, existence distilling down to Enmaten and Nabaat, Nabaat and Enmaten.
When I sink into my implants I can track the fabricators, cluster by cluster, their cognitive arrays like star-sear. Access to modify and redirect remains out of my reach. Not denied: rather that the part of me which knows how to pluck and pull their strings is missing, detached like a lost tooth or misplaced like an old coin—the part of me I’ve come to think of as it, the beast. In spite of that the fabricators chart my path, the patterns of their migration as clear as vectors. I could reach my destination with eyes shut: the flock would never harm me—that much can’t be pried from the core of their code.
But I have more with me than my scattered self. An entourage still nameless, and Enmaten who watches me with the glittering eyes of a hungry ghost.
Navigating around the clusters lets us keep to the most stable patches, where a house might stand for as long as a month before it’s refashioned into clock towers and life-size statues. We take shelter in a forest of jewelry, boxy trunks spreading human arms. All shapes: biceps thick or thin, wrists scarred or smooth, hands wide or tapered. From them dangle chains, bracelets, torques with gemstones the size of heads. Even the earth is lustrous cabochon. I can almost remember it—my fabricators can recompose raw material into nearly anything and I must have commissioned an artisan for templates, for fancies, to absorb into the flock’s library. I might have even meant it as a gift for the woman whom Enmaten refuses to name.
Strange there’s such a void; strange my dreams are empty of family, colleagues, spouses. On so blank a canvas, Enmaten could have painted anything and I’d be none the wiser. Is painting it already, with this woman who may or may not have existed.
The forest stretches on (the beast knows where it ends; it does not tell me). We spend nights under lattice earrings the size of chandeliers, canopies of linked anklets and circlets sized for titans. My certainty grows stronger as we go, yoking me to its muscled stride, its inexorable might. Without meaning to I set the pace. When I’ve shortened my sleep from six hours to three a night, Enmaten takes me aside to tell me that her people can’t keep up. “I can’t slow down,” I try to explain. “Do you see? There’s a time limit. What awaits us won’t be there forever.”
She does not see. Instead she gives her people a maze-map of stable sites that I didn’t realize she has been drawing up all this time, and comes to me saying, “I can keep up with you.”
So we march, lynx-shadowed, the sighs of wind making blank verse against jewelry accompanying us. This far in the trunks begin to show, like the pomegranate hall, images of me: my sleeping face etched in gold, a silver nose and copper cheekbones. In others my eyes are masked behind strips of brass, my mouth open wide to swallow entropy. Each looks like a parasite fruit feeding off the filigreed trunk.
On the third night after we have parted with her people and I at last submit to fatigue, she encircles me with her armored body and a glimpse—at last—of the gun I always knew she would have. Enmaten murmurs, “You said you know who did this.”
Under the shivering platinum shadows, the topaz and emerald drops like rain, I smile. “That you will have to earn.”
“This isn’t a game.”
“Are you worthy of it?”
Her fingers twitch: I see it now, the callus at the base of the thumb, the way epidermis hardens to the gun’s trigger as the mind hardens to the kill. “This is a matter of survival.”
“Humanity carries its own destruction,” I say, though the words are not quite my own, “within the womb of its animus. That is how we are made, embedded into the road of our axons, inscribed like cipher into the myelin sheath. All of this was inevitable.”
“Then why bother? Why did you suspend yourself, pledge to return?”
My head cants this way and that as though too ripe for the stem of my neck. “We’re creatures of narrative and structure. A path that begins must of necessity end. Like anyone else, I crave closure and knew I wouldn’t get it within my lifetime.”
The forest thins, rounding out to a gentle slope so the transition between jewelry ground and pelt prairie seems almost natural. Sheaves of skin and fur, the coat of every conceivable animal: the red spotted flanks of deer in summer, the black of panthers sleek with health, the brindle white of seal pups. They rustle gently against our calves and hips, and in the thick of them my (our?) lynx blends camouflaged, moving predator-sure among its own kind.
In the distance, collared by a ring of shivering rabbit pelts, is a prison.
Unlike everything else in this refashioned world, it is not new; the corrugated shell is overrun by heat and scourged by time, crowned in its own rot. Like the chamber of my waking, it has never been renewed, never touched by the offspring of my imagination. This is original. This has always stood, somehow, not as old as my suspension but nearly its contemporary. As my person and my sleep, the flocks hold this place sacrosanct.
This is the home of my enemy. The one I will fight, and vanquish, and through that defeat redeem this fallen earth.
Enmaten precedes me, gun out. The weapon nests in her hand shadow-drinking, its industrial edges pure with purpose. I’ve always wished the human creature could be like that, built and honed to a single focus, ennobled by it.
The doors have long collapsed, leaning against equally dilapidated partitions. There are no bars but there are indentations in the walls: when I hold my wrists to them, they fit exactly as though this was tailored for my capture. On the ceiling women pray in high relief and their faces do not belong to me: the chin is too sharp, the nose too high, the mouth like a seam. Her gaze is lidded, lacquered black as a bride’s teeth, but there is an attitude of accusation—or judgment—in the angle of her chin, the bend of her flat pressed hands. It is as though I have crossed an invisible line that divides country from country, and not into a friendly neighbor but into that of an enemy locked in war against mine. All is hostile, even the dust crowding the corner, the decay breathing down our necks. The lynx noses along the ground, sniffing at debris.
My tongue darts out, tasting the air. It is inert. There’s no machine here, nano or otherwise, my fabricators or simple engines. No thrum of generators, no murmur of electromagnetic impulse. “There’s no one here.”
Enmaten does not object that perhaps we ought to search every room first, turn up every floor tile and move aside every shard of architecture. “Perhaps she fled knowing Nabaat approaches and heralds her conquest,” she says, her voice tuned to the music of mockery. “Perhaps she couldn’t bear the weight of your footsteps, the sound of her imminent loss.”
“That can’t be.” I press my wrist, again, to the curve in the wall that seems built just for me. If I engage it with my body entire I may well find that my frame fits too, exactly right. Cradling me as close as my skin cradles my bones. “My flock told me who and where she was. It’s not as though machines have much room for ambiguity.”
“They don’t,” Enmaten agrees and puts the muzzle of her gun to my temple.
The corporality of it seems almost preternatural, the chill of it nearly arctic. No weapon has ever felt so hyperreal, but then no other has ever been pointed at me so close, digging into my scalp like a lover’s fingers rigid in passion.
“When did you realize?” the beast says through my mouth.
“I carry the name of the mother who bore me. The name you never did earn. She believed in you; her wife—my other mother—did not. Both were engineers but Enmaten was blinded by sentiment, unwilling to consider that someone like you would never have created fabricators so prone to error, let alone one of this magnitude. The notion of nanobots gone amok, replicating and recreating mindlessly, because its coders didn’t limit and check it—that isn’t reality, it’s cheap entertainment. You were better than that, so was everyone working with you, like my mothers.” Her expression does not change as she kicks my feet out from under me.
I lack the strength to resist and the beast provides no surge of counterforce; it allows me—us—to collapse. It does little to defend us from a blow to our side that empties our lungs of wind, leaves us gasping and curled like a salted snail.
“Another possibility,” she goes on, “had to exist. A hidden section of protocols, set to activate after certain conditions were met. So secretive none of those who helped midwife the project could detect it, so buried as to be invisible to my mothers. The same protocols regulated your sleep. You never woke up because you didn’t want to; you were waiting for the fabricators to complete their work.”
“This isn’t a story,” the beast says softly, its voice like wind through picked bones. “Destroying the monster does not murder also its offspring. I’m not the cortex that feeds the flock its thoughts, the heart that gives it animation. With or without me, they will continue.”
“Nothing is a story.” And here her mouth bends, her jaw clicks, as though nursing an old hurt. That her mother wasn’t a story, gone unnarrated and without meaning. That she isn’t a story, for all that she’s trying to tell herself. “But when you die I’ll rake through your corpse, crack open your skull like a fruit. There, or in your spine, I’ll find a neural chip where your secrets reside. Decryption is its own dénouement, perhaps the definition.”
With my lips the beast grins, and there must be a glint to it—alien and revolting—that makes her take a step back. “You share my love of finales.”
“Is that why you did it?”
“To see a world fashioned to a single purpose. To see the ending when all else has been stripped. To be the last thinking creature alive. Yes.” It touches its flanks (mine) to check for damage, locate bruise or rib-crack. “Enmaten might have mentioned it, my dreams of emptiness, of a world made pure by absence. She didn’t see the appeal, but truly I did love her.”
Were she her function alone she would already have pulled the trigger. Instead that driving curiosity slows and blunts her, makes her bitterly ask, “You couldn’t have waited longer? Sleep enough and you would have woken up to a planet denuded and vacated. Heat death would have come. Or humanity would have extinguished itself, you were already convinced it’s written into us.”
“I am. But I was never patient.” Pulled into reluctant unity we both gaze overhead, to the praying women, to the praying Enmaten we left behind who tried to kiss us awake. Enmaten, whom the flock has preserved in image. “Not then. Not now.”
A lynx leaps; a gun fires. A story ends.
The prairie is motionless, furs and pelts flattened as those of animals lying in wait. For prey, or else for hunters to pass.
From the prison’s gate a lone woman emerges, accompanied by a pearlescent lynx. Both move with the certainty of belonging, predators paired, dressed in muscle and warm with the sweet hunger of monsters.
Blood stains the lynx’s jaw. She bends to wipe at it until her hands are as slick as its mouth. With crimson fingers she traces characters, spelling out a name. “Enmaten,” she says, putting her thumb to the lynx’s ear, a full stop to the uneven calligraphy. “It’s an inherited name, wealthy with two generations. Someone should carry it on. You will do. Shall I teach you to speak, one day?”
It tosses its head, indifferent and incurious, serene in its animal completeness. Nabaat draws to her feet, casting out the net of her mind. The flocks ignite the fabric of her thought, embroidering it like the light of distant suns, the light of ships that left seeking other stars.
The prairie parts. The architect steps through, in search of the best spot from which to watch the world end.