Saturday, July 2, 2011

"The New World Man" by Jonathan P. Hooper (chapter 8: The Cradle of Life)

I was floating in the strange milky fluid once more. A few feet in front of me I saw what I first expected to be Masterson, but when I looked closer I found that what I was seeing was not Masterson but a human-like shape, almost a shadow, with no distinct features to speak of. In fact, I seemed to be looking at some kind of spirit or ghost. The Masterson shade – for I had no doubt, given the case, that it was Masterson – was sinking deeper and deeper into the gloomy beyond, and I had no choice but to follow.

I felt, before a few seconds had passed, a considerable amount of pressure on my lungs and realised that I could not breathe. Masterson’s spirit-double was descending ever deeper, and the long tube unwound above him and around him like a rope. The risk of losing him entered my conscious mind, and thus I took the cord in my hands and started to descend it, pulling my body down with all my will and strength.

The pressure, meanwhile, had steadily increased, and I wondered how much longer I could endure. But Masterson’s form was near now, moving towards (so it would logically seem) the surface of the water, heading for some distant point in the future or past.

The cord unwound further, and my strength began to ebb. The fear that I would be left between worlds, that I would sink into oblivion and death, threw me into a panic and I struggled frantically to follow Masterson, who by now had reached a few distant points of light shining from the surface. But it could not be done; I could breathe no longer.

Then something happened for which I cannot properly account, nor can my recollections trace the truth of the matter. I thought, in the midst of my fading vision, that there was a second figure floating beside me, lifting me, entwining its arms about me, placing its mouth against my mouth. It was human in shape, but not a shadow like the man I was pursuing. Rather, this one seemed like a figure of light. I felt the change in temperature as the light of the surface neared me. And then I broke the surface, aware of an intense, burning light shining down into my face. That did not concern me at first. What mattered, above all, was that I could breathe: my lungs tasted oxygen and were sated.

This intense heat was penetrating the translucent glass of the machine, and it felt like my skin would be burned. I stumbled forward against the door, the pain of the wound jolting me to my senses. We had arrived. Next to me, I felt Masterson fumbling with the key, and then suddenly the door opened and a burning heat struck us both.

“What is it?” I gasped, shielding my face with my hand. “Dear god, take us from here. You have gone back too far. This is a universe before the cooling of the earth. We’ll die for certain.”

Masterson’s voice was trembling with excitement. Though he, too, was blinking in the burning glare of the heat, he managed to reply, “So you are alive? Your friend was wrong, after all. Much better, though, that two should witness this. We have come at last, Dr. West, to the formation of worlds. Even if we perish, we will know, and that is enough.”

“But what of science?” I countered. “What will she gain, if we both die? For heaven’s sake, man, the heat will kill us.”

“Think, man,” Masterson admonished me suddenly, stepping past me and upon the threshold. “If there were no earth, the machine would have perished. If there were only lava and gas, we should not be speaking to each other now. We would be witnesses, perhaps, but the revelation would be an instant’s length. Don’t worry. I did not go back so far. Nevertheless, we may see a new world, a world in the process of becoming. If my calculations are correct, I have placed us in the region when Man first raised his head erect above the other primates. Welcome to the dawn of human history, West.”

He had gone through the door, his form merging with the brightness. Clutching myself, I staggered out after him, and felt a blistering heat upon my skin. Masterson’s shape, pale, shimmering like a ghost, was just a few feet away.

“Some kind of primeval forest,” he said, looking in all directions. “I’ve never known a sun so bright. It’s a wonder the plants can survive.”

As my eyes began to adjust to the intense light, I realised that we were standing in the midst of a forest thick with the boles of tall trees and the tendrils of plants entwined upon the ground. The machine had come to rest in a glade and it was through the gap in the covering branches that the fierce sunlight slanted down. Elsewhere, the canopy was thick and the forest floor shaded. There was an arboreal dimness over everything, a hushed bliss, and though this prehistoric wilderness might hold countless terrors, I found its shelter seemed to draw me into itself, away from the glade and the merciless sun.

“The leaves make a perfect canopy,” Masterson said looking up. “Except in the glade, the light doesn’t penetrate. And these trees – probably an extinct species. They must be a full hundred feet high.”

I turned, and when I scanned the forest one hundred and eighty degrees, it revealed the same: shelter, no sign of animal threat, and a glorious stillness over everything.

“What age is this?” Masterson said, wondering aloud. “If I didn’t know better, I’d guess that the machine has taken us back too far, to a time before the dinosaurs came forth. But that cannot be – we will meet with Man’s origins, I’m sure of it.” He knelt and picked one of the large yellow flowers that lay at our feet. “Look, West. Some sort of prehistoric species. They are brittle, and the pigment comes off to the touch.”

I did not answer. The dryness in my throat was becoming uncomfortable and the heat was too much to bear. “Come on, Masterson. Either we go back to the machine, or we enter the forest. If we do neither, we are sure to die of exposure.”

Masterson had stood up erect; he was listening intently. I could see that he was frustrated, that his will drove him to seek sounds from this forest, in the hope that animal life existed here. Surely even he, I reasoned now, would have to give up: there was nothing to break the absolute stillness and peace.

“Not even an insect?” he mumbled, stepping towards the trees. “Not even a wasp or a dragonfly?”

Then it was that we both glimpsed it; how it had eluded us before, I cannot say; still, there it was – a small, neat track, joining the glade and leading off through the trees, green, with close-cropped grass as if cut by a gardener. “Do you see it?” Masterson cried in disbelief. “A path. What can it be doing here? My god, West, look!”

“Do you think that primitive man was a gardener?” I asked doubtfully.

“But we ought to have gone back much further than man’s civilising impulse. We ought to be in one of the great primate forests, before the rise of homo sapiens. And – at any rate – our ancestors could not have conceived such things.”

I was aware that Masterson still had the key, and that he was walking, seemingly in a daze, towards the track. I still felt revulsion over what he had accomplished in the church, but my astonishment had conquered all else, and I could do nothing but follow.

Here was a wonder. What could we do except follow the track? I staggered after him, casting a lone glance back towards the machine, and soon we were amongst the roots and ferns, shaded and cool below the vast overarching branches, following the perfectly tended track across even ground. There were no rises, no inclinations or declinations, simply the flat, tree-filled earth, and a preternatural silence over all.

“Such stillness. It’s uncanny. Explicable, perhaps, without this path.”

The track did not seem to curve or bend, nor was there any point where the undergrowth managed to challenge its steady course. Such a way would have required constant toil and attention. It was with growing anticipation that I prepared myself to meet our posited primitive gardener; our splendid homo habilis with scythe of bone. And soon enough we reached a place which revealed another sign of our ancestor’s cultivation of the wilderness: a glade with an orchard of fruit trees. There were trees of apple, orange, pear and lemon, and other strange fruits I did not recognise, growing in neatly ordered rows, all well tended; not a single fruit lay on the ground, and the grass around the trees was cropped too.

Masterson was already striding ahead, studying the orchard with visible astonishment, looking for more clues. While he busied himself around the glade, I stepped up to one of the orange trees and reached a hand towards a fruit hanging ripe from the lowest branch. As soon as the fruit neared touch, it fell noiselessly into my open palm; the orange, somehow, had fallen from the branch at the exact moment I had reached for it, and I hadn’t so much as touched the fruit.

I inspected it, assured myself that it was a large, ripe, but perfectly normal fruit. Raising it to my nose, I played with the idea of eating it, but decided instead to return it to the laboratory at Cambridge, thus putting it in my pocket. As I look back now, I see that the scientist in me was taking over; even the thought of Marion had been banished by these startling circumstances.

“The track leads away here,” Masterson whispered, and then dashed off to follow it. Not wanting to lose him in the depths of this forest, even though the track would guide me back to the machine, I followed suit, and so we continued on the same shady pathway until, just ahead of me, Masterson abruptly stopped walking and, without speaking, motioned me forward.

I came to stand beside him, seeing, first, the look of utter amazement on his face, and then, as my eyes followed his and rested on the same place, the new wonder that had stopped him in his tracks. When I beheld the green bower and what lay within, my own astonishment was no less.

There was a hollow beside the track, with vines running up two straight plant stalks that formed a natural gateway; inside the bower, two sleeping forms, a man and a woman, entwined together on a bed of soft leaves, their bodies naked, making a soft sound of breathing. It was a strange, beautiful, unworldly sight, and my feeling was that in witnessing their repose I was somehow violating the perfection of their joint sleep.

They looked, in the first place, perfectly human in shape, and yet in colour and tone of skin there were marked differences that left me baffled. To start with, their skin was the colour of milk and almost translucent, and I could see the red and purple glow of veins just beneath it, the redness of their beating hearts, shining beneath the surface. There was a pale whiteness to them, these sleepers, a delicacy that reminded me of porcelain statues, or the young of some creatures when they emerge into the world with little but skin over sinew, bones and arteries. If I hadn’t seen their trembling breathing, I wouldn’t have counted them for living things, and I thought of saying this to Masterson, albeit in a whisper.

It was Masterson, however, who whispered something first, and thus dispelled the peace of their garden. I do not know to this day what it was he had begun to whisper, for the words following the first intake of breath did not come: instead, as soon as the air rose up out of his lungs there was a sudden rush of sound, and, like slipping from silent sleep into noisesome waking, the air in the forest suddenly concentrated into a surge of noises, whereas hitherto the only sound had been the breathing of the pair and our own. There was the hum of insects, the creak and groan of creepers and vines, the distant peal of birdsong, all the myriad sounds of a living forest.

As we stepped back in awed surprise, flies and other ephemera suddenly took to the air, buzzing all around us. And the sleepers awoke. It was as if the forest, sleeping with the human pair, had suddenly woken in unison with them, had sprung to life with their awaking consciousness. The two of them – the man and the woman - looked up, blinking, regarding us with obvious surprise.

The man began to speak – at least, the sound that came from his lips resembled speech, though scarcely like our own language; if it was speech, it was the most melodious speech I have ever heard, with more of the angelic in its tones than the human. After the sound had ceased, the shining man continued to stare at us, as if expecting a reply, trusting in his gaze, still wrapped in the arms of his mate.

It came to me that he had probably asked who we were, and so at length I said, “I am West. This is Masterson. Humans; descendents, most likely, of your own species. Homo sapiens sapiens.”

The man and woman appeared suddenly perplexed; there was a length of time where they seemed to be struggling to make sense of my alien tongue. Slowly, then, we watched them rise from the bower and stand erect in the air, now teeming with insects and noise. Though they were both naked, they seemed completely unselfconscious.

The man emitted another long, harmonious note from his mouth, then followed it with a second that was, so it seemed to me, a semitone more plaintive. He was knitting his brows, looking longingly at us as if yearning to understand.

I looked at Masterson. He leaned towards me and said, in a whisper, “What kind of dream is this? West, this goes against all rational hope. Therefore I ask you, what illusions does your machine hatch?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, isn’t it obvious? These creatures in no way conform to our conception of the savage. How could we have evolved from such a species? The harmony of speech, the translucent skin so that we can see their very heart and vital organs.”

I admitted that I too was perplexed. The man, in the meantime, seemed to be trying to get our attention. He was looking at us, and then towards the pathway we had followed; I looked there, feeling a vague sense of dread I could not account for, but seeing nothing except the shadow of the trees.

Masterson suddenly made to approach the man, and this made the primitive pair step backwards in plain surprise. Masterson put forth his hand, and before the man could react, gripped him tightly by the wrist, squeezing the soft flesh. Both Masterson and the primitive appeared suddenly distressed. When Masterson released his grip, the man was cowering back, his mate sheltering behind him. Their faces, I noticed at once. It was not exactly fear that I read on those shining faces, but a mingling of confusion and awe.

“What happened?” I asked Masterson, perplexed. He was shaking his head in consternation, and holding his hand as if it were injured.

“The flesh is strange. Not like flesh at all,” he said at last. “This creature cannot be our ancestor. It must be another kind of species, one so far unaccounted for. I felt something, when I touched it – a burning sensation.”

As if by way of illustration, the primitive held up his hand with the soft flesh of the wrist visible: there was a black smear there, a mark upon his skin, like the scar left after the skin is scorched.

Masterson had drawn back, and now the pair stepped from the bower onto the path. The primitive man began to speak again in his melodious, incomprehensible music, and looked upon us both. There was no trace of reproach in that look. We watched the two of them depart, their hands entwined, disappearing down the forest path. When they had left our sight, I turned to Masterson. The look of great consternation had not left him.

Turning to me, he began: “It was like a burning, West. I don’t know how it could be. His skin felt strange. I can’t describe it to you – you’d have to touch it for yourself. Soft, yet at the same time like something fiery. This is a beastly dream, I’m sure.”

I did not know how to answer him. I myself could not account for this discovery. “You know the myth of Adam and Eve?” I said to him. “The first pair, our ancestors. That great parable of awakening consciousness, that variation of the golden age myth, has us envision a garden like this one. Is it possible that before us are the first man and the first woman, unfallen?”

Masterson snorted. “Could this be West, our prophet, bending to unreason? It seems to me that two possibilities present themselves. The first, of course, is that we are here witnessing a primitive species unknown to paleontology, one that somehow became extinct, but which had, against expectation, developed sophisticated ways of controlling its environment; which had developed a complex melodic language.”

And the other, I wondered, when Masterson fell silent. I do not expect the reader to suffer from the same dilemma, for my account, doubtless, will be received as Masterson himself received it, as he now revealed: as a monstrous lie, concocted in this case by Dyson, who had – he insisted – built a machine that projected illusions directly into the subject’s brain. Thus did Masterson present his dismissal of all we had learned and witnessed: illusions suggested by the machine joined to another theory of his. It became a journey into consciousness: the temporal lobe that had housed Marion’s angels, where primitive belief resided, held also a vision of this perfect garden state, and of the exalted father and mother. From the way Masterson spoke of it, it was clear that he regarded it as ‘this dreadful fancy, this terrible wish.’

“It is a dream, West,” he whispered to me as we inhaled the scents of the forest. “Do not underestimate what tricks can be played on the mind. But, as long as we accept it as such, let’s get on and see where this track leads us.”

He started after our primitives, striding anxiously down the path lest he should lose sight of them. I followed, of course, for what else was left me while he had the key? Our antagonism, and my distrust of him, were for the time being forgotten as we came to a second glade.

There were three separate paths leading from this grassy space and it was with a jolt of panic that Masterson realised that, because of the thickness of the trees, the couple had disappeared from sight.

It was while Masterson was cursing his dalliance that I spotted the creature in the thicket. Its amber eyes, glimpsed between tall, foot-long blades of grass, awakened a primitive fear in me that first made me freeze and then draw back, step by breathless step, the way we’d entered.

“What is it, man?” Masterson hissed at me, seeing my retreat. “Can’t you see we’ve lost them?”

“Lion, tiger – something of that sort,” I said very slowly, between long intakes of breath. “There in the thicket. Do you have that revolver on you?”

Masterson checked his pocket, and nervously drew out the gun. He released the safety catch and, with a trembling hand, pointed the gun into the thicket. There was, still, the gleam of those eyes watching us. I didn’t know whether, this time, Masterson would be able to keep the pistol steady, or whether he would be able to shoot straight.

I did not have to wait long to find out. The hammer clicked and the shot echoed in the glade. There was a beast’s cry and a thunderous noise in the thicket as of a large animal crashing through undergrowth; I braced myself for the beast’s appearance, but it became apparent that it had retreated into the depths of the thicket.

“You wounded it, at least,” I said.

Pocketing the pistol, Masterson nodded. “Come, West,” he said. “It’s lucky I’m armed. That way we don’t need to fear these prehistoric creatures.”

We set off again. It occurred to me that it would be dangerous to venture too far and for too long on those paths; the forest, after all, was strange, and we had no map. I said as much to Masterson. It was my view, from the many paths we had seen leading off in all directions, that navigating the forest was like finding one’s way in a labyrinth.

Masterson was dismissive: we would, he reckoned, find our way back to the machine in good time. For the moment, though, we were to continue our search for the primitive couple. “Shouldn’t have let them out of our sight,” Masterson said, reproachfully.

In one of the open forest glades I looked upwards and beheld a sky lit by brilliant flashes of red fire. The shade was deepening, and it was obvious that evening would be coming on soon. “We’ll gather sticks,” Masterson said. “But keep close to the path and within my sight, especially if you want me to protect you.”

His patronising tone irked me, yet I had no choice, for in truth I feared the unknown forest, and the creatures that might be lurking in the gloom now that the night was fast approaching.

In twenty or so minutes we had gathered a big enough woodpile to last the night. As we were both smokers, we both had a plentiful supply of matches and it was easy enough to get a fire going. We’d chosen a large enough glade to ensure that there was ample space between the gloom of the undergrowth and ourselves. I took the opportunity to light my pipe and

Masterson quickly followed suit.

The taste of tobacco evoked the sense of the familiar, and for a moment, with the smoke rising up in wreaths through the air, it was possible to imagine that I was back in my rooms in Cambridge, with nothing more burdensome than essay marking to occupy my time.

Masterson was smiling and looking at the fire, crackling brightly, and the moths that danced in its orange glow. “Has it occurred to you,” he said, “that we may be the first – the first, West – to light a fire in these woods? Our primitives may have seen a tree scorched by lightning, but, perhaps, they have not seen such a thing before. We could not make a greater beacon to draw them to us, assuming they are curious.”

I pondered this, and then ventured, “If the beasts that live in this forest have not developed a fear of fire, it might not be safe to spend the night. At least, we should set a watch.”

Masterson shrugged. “I shouldn’t wonder if they have already evolved a fear of fire, even before man comes to wield it. Fire has always existed here – the geology of the earth has seen to that - it is just that man has not yet harnessed it. Perhaps he has not harnessed it. This is, after all, pure speculation. As to whether we should set a watch, I have no intention of losing sleep. Stay awake if you wish.”

I returned, petulantly, to the silent pleasures of the pipe. How much tobacco did I have left? – I fished in my pocket for my pouch, and was somewhat alarmed to discover that I was on my last half-ounce. After replacing my pipe in my coat pocket, I realised how far hunger had set in. It was best, I decided, not to say anything to Masterson about how we were going to eat. I remembered the fruit I had picked earlier that day, but elected to keep it until my appetite grew impossible to ignore.

The night passed slowly, and with much in the way of waking and watching. In truth, my unease came from the singular fact that the forest had once again returned to the silence that had prevailed before we had woken the sleeping pair. When darkness fell completely, the moths disappeared from the fire, and the night noises suddenly ceased, as if our hearing had been stopped. I asked Masterson how he accounted for such a thing, but it was clear that he was as perplexed as me. Nonetheless, the strange silence that had settled over all did not seem to threaten his sleep, as it did mine; and he lay on the ground with his coat folded under his head as a pillow. Frequently during the night I awoke and scanned the thicket for watchful eyes, but saw nothing. The eerie silence meant that sleep was long in coming.

In the morning, before we resumed our search for the primitives, Masterson declared that we would have to kill something for breakfast. Though I suggested we locate the orchard again, he was adamant that we should have a cooked breakfast, especially since the fire had not yet burned itself out.

The noises of the forest had returned, and there were birds flitting between the trees. I watched in grave silence as Masterson took out his pistol and stood patiently, aiming it at the level of the lower branches. There was a shot and my companion suddenly rushed into the thicket, returning with a bird which he swung from his left hand, while in his right he still sported the pistol. He had not noticed, as I had, the strange scene which ensued all around, for the myriad birds, instead of being startled by the shot and the kill, still watched from the branches with something close to curiosity.

Masterson, far from noticing anything amiss, proceeded to pluck the bird and remove its innards, while I watched with growing disgust at his industriousness. Was it even the eating kind? – no doubt it would be remiss of me to even suggest caution, so I kept silent. In my pocket, the plucked fruit remained – I would, I decided then, throw in my lot with this rather than the roast bird, if Masterson would at all allow it.

We both smoked while the bird was spit and roasted, and when it was ready I produced the fruit and went about eating it; I was not prepared for the taste, for as soon as I bit into it, I realised it had the most heavenly flavour and immediately regretted letting it alone so long. Masterson started chewing the roast meat of the bird with little approaching caution. It seemed, from my vantage point, that the taste did not agree with him, and certainly he soon gave up and turned his attention to extinguishing the fire.

“We’ll look for the orchard,” I said, secretly satisfied to have witnessed a dent in his self-belief, but he was too proud to answer. So we made our way again on the forest paths, looking all the time for the primitives. Before long, after we had been following a track that stretched without a break for some forty minutes, we came out into a wide clearing, and a wondrous sight met our eyes. It was a broad, well-tended lawn upon which the sun shone down brightly, with four paths, including the one we had entered on, crossing it – visible because of the different height of the grass. The four pathways led to a point in the centre of the otherwise bare clearing where stood two vast trees, with many flowering branches reaching upward towards the bright sky. There was fruit hanging from the lowermost branches of the tree, and this it was that made the sight so extraordinary to us, for the fruit was golden in colour and burnished in the strong sunlight.

“Look, West,” Masterson said, making his way down the path. “A golden fruit. Like the tree in the garden of Hesperides that Hercules plucked; will there be a hydra, I wonder, to keep us from plundering?”

“Or a tree like the tree in Eden,” I said, following him. The tree was still some distance away, so large was the clearing, and we made towards it with eager step.

Masterson strode on eagerly. “Indeed, West. The Tree of Life? Or the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. How can I forbear from taking a fruit from the branches?”

It was then that I noticed the light, making my eyes stray to the left of the tree, but Masterson was slower to realise. I had to shield my eyes, and the last thing I saw, before the light blinded my vision, was Masterson stopping in his advance, drawn towards the source of the light.

For a few minutes there was silence, and the brilliance of the light burning against my skin, and then a voice from amidst the light said, “A man cannot enter his mother’s womb twice, nor can he fall from bliss a second time. Go to the tree. You will not be harmed. You have nothing to lose.”

I could just about make out the prostrate form of Masterson. He was kneeling on the ground, unmoving, not speaking, his head lolling from side to side in a grovelling motion.

“Do so or do not,” the voice said. “Eat the fruit if you hunger. I will not goad you to do something that will lead you to some indescribable end. Mortality is already your fate. Tell me, Masterson – do not wonder that I know your name – what is in your heart? What did you expect to find, here in the midmost, in the central glade, the root and the branching of all knowledge? All knowledge – for what knowledge is there except good and evil? You have been seeking the void, yet in your heart, as you well know, the knowledge of good and evil has slept, and all your life you have sought for it. What will you do with it?”

The bent-over form of Masterson, crawling on his belly, inched closer to the light. “I want to know all,” he said. “Infinite knowledge should be mine. Give me all knowledge and I will serve the cause of right. I will act in the interest of mankind. There is nothing I would rather not know; no depths I would not plumb, no heights I would not scale, in the pursuit of truth. Do not think that my mind cannot hold such knowledge, that too much light will be my ruin. I would know all.”

“All? Even if it means certain death? Even if it means that you must fall down and worship me?” the shining form said. Masterson’s face was almost touching the dust as he said, “I give myself to you. Inhabit this body, make my soul one with your will.”

“Are you sure you do not dream? You said yourself that this is some trick played on consciousness, an illusion caused by the machine.”

“The girl was right. She knew she was. I have always doubted. If there is the smallest chance that I do not dream, give me the knowledge I seek. Let me return to my own time with infinite knowledge.”

“Eat, then, and be sated.”

I saw Masterson reach out towards one of the lower branches. He plucked the plump golden fruit and held it out before his hungry eyes. It seemed to radiate golden colour out from itself, lighting his face, illuminating the desire in his look. In that pregnant moment he simply stared at the fruit, poised before eating. Then he reached forward and bit into the soft golden flesh, and in that same instant he seemed to pass out and sank to the ground. The apple rolled out of his open hand, and I wondered whether he had fallen dead.

As if hearing me, the voice amidst the light said, “The smallest taste was enough to overwhelm his mortal part. But do not worry – he is not dead. I will send him back. There is work to do. He will spend his time in the cause of rationalism, scourge of the Supernaturalists. He will remember nothing of this, nothing of the eating of the fruit. No doubt will remain, yet the choice has been made. Now, what of the next one?”

I felt a sudden, indescribable dread as I knew the voice was speaking of me. “Will you worship me?” it said. “Will you join the cause of man and angels, of joy separate from Him, and bend your will to mine? Do you relish your freedom?”

I could not answer. The light seemed to burn through my skin, and through my eyes, even though my lids were shut. I realized that the light was made by a body wreathed in flame, a figure made of a fire brighter than earthly fires, with a crown upon its head, like a piece fallen from the sun. Finally I could bear the fire no more, and I cried out, “You will remove my doubt too? Will you give me the life I want, make my name and my writings immortal?”

The fiery form by the tree gave its assent. And then, turning away from its scorching brightness, I remembered Marion lying on the floor of the church, the blood, her life, ebbing out of her. Searing bitterness rose to my throat and I shielded my eyes from the flames.

“But it is a lie,” I said then. “If this is not some play upon my consciousness, if this garden is real, then everything I have ever pursued and written has been in vain. Everything was to obscure and muddle the one truth I should always have known. The knowledge of God, the knowledge of good and evil. I cannot choose forgetfulness now, at whatever price, now that I have seen and known so much of the truth. I will go back, I will find my way to the machine, and try to undo the fate of Marion. I will use the machine to try to save her.”

Furious sparks seemed to fly from the figure with the crown of light. The voice came again: “Look for Masterson – he is gone. The machine is gone. The means to alter the future is no longer in your hands. You are condemned to death, West. The fruit has already been eaten. In this arden of good and evil, the good faith is perpetually betrayed; all come here of their own desire, and all see loss of Eden. Look, West, at the wilderness, at the dust.”

It seemed that I passed out. For a brief flash I opened my eyes and realised that the green clearing and the tree with the golden fruit was gone. But there was a taste of bitterness in my mouth; for a moment I was conscious that somehow, although I had not wanted it so, I had tasted the fruit from the tree. The bitterness is impossible to forget, even now.

There was an intense heat in this new place, the burning heat of the midday sun, scorching my skin, and all around me stretched a great desert, the withered and cracked ground thirsting under the sun’s glare. The last thing I heard was the voice, the same voice I’d heard by the tree. “Your body is perishing,” it said. “You will return to dust, your body will pass away, the carcass of an animal, nothing more, in this wilderness of your inheritance. You are already dead.”

But I was not dead. I opened my eyes and beheld the familiar place.

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