|An earlier edition of this story can be read at the authors website|
Number forty-one is a very compact dimension, Arturo, said the hand console in a motherly voice.
Is that good or bad? Arturo asked.
Well, you wont notice much, replied the console. Youll be compacted, too, so you wont notice the shift in spatial dimensions. However, it does mean that in this dimension, energy has very little inertial mass. As a result, time will appear to be sped up.
Arturo gripped the console tightly. Lets do it, he said.
With but a blink, man and machine rose upward through what we can only call the fourth dimension. Arturo held his breath, and felt himself age several years in the half-second he touched dimension forty-one. Arturo never came back to that dimension, but his brief sojourn had changed it forever. He left one bacterium behind. The bacterium replicated, and replicated again, its clones dying as fast as they could reproduce, until at last, it mutated into a protist, able to survive the incredible entropy. The entire process took three minutes. In the subsequent hours, protists turned into fungi and fungi gave rise to plants. Sentience appeared the following day, and a culture was quick to follow
Zugot remembered everything. That morning, he had been a worm, with barely a brain. By afternoon, he was a bug. Now he was a very handsome amphibianand the father of his people. He had also made a friend. Physon was equally impressed at the changes he had observed. While he was still just a fern, he became aware, and felt the animals around him. He grew into vine, and sensed the insects clambering about. He became a shrub, and felt the feelers of a crustacean on his trunk. Only minutes ago, he became intelligent, and had introduced himself to Zugot.
Zugot became aware of the beauty of the race he had spawned when everyone spontaneously developed stereoscopic vision. His mate stood beside him. He watched as her coloration changed from red to gold to deep green. The changes are slowing down, Zugot observed.
Perhaps we are nearing what we were meant to be? his companion offered. It did seem that there was some intelligence guiding the metamorphoses which created his people that morning. The entire race was going through identical transformations at identical times. Zugot wondered what was becoming of Physon
Physon was not surprised when Zugot showed up covered in scales. He himself had grown tendrils. Zugot! Friend! he cried out through leafy lips.
Zugot embraced his friend. It is good to see you, too, he said. I havent seen you in hours!
It has been a long time, Physon agreed.
Have the changes been slowing for you too, friend? the reptile inquired.
Yes, they have, Physon replied. Yet I feel another one coming. Suddenly, up from the top of his stalk came a tentacle with a single eye.
So this is what it is like to see, said the plant. Incredible.
Zugot looked around. The other plants were growing eyes as well. The changes were universal for the plants, as they were for his people. They seemed to be choreographed. There was a strange feeling coming over Zugot as the sun sank low. He felt as though he absolutely had to close his eyes.
I feel the same, said Physon.
Perhaps something is wrong with us? said Zugot. I will return to my people until it passes.
Physon bid Zugot a sad farewell. Zugot had grown considerably since he left his friend, and he had developed a long neck, and teeth. So had everyone else. Zugots wife met him. Zugot! she said. Something is wrong. The moss and mushrooms no longer satisfy us. We need new food.
I will find something, answered Zugot as he slipped into his den, just as soon as this awful feeling passes. The sky was full of stars when Zugot awoke. He felt better, and he was covered with warm, soft fur. He looked down to see tiny, rodentine hands, and long, rodentine feet. It seemed attractive, but a pain gnawed inside his stomach. He needed food. When he left the den, Zugot was surprised to see the other rodents lashing twigs together to make shelters. In the middle of the camp sat a strange, dancing red plant. He went over to look at it.
Dont touch it! one of his people yelled.
What is this? Zugot demanded.
We call it fire. It gives warmth, and it makes the mushrooms taste better, but it will harm you if you touch it.
How do you know?
I touched it. My hand took almost three seconds to heal.
Zugot flashed a look of pity. A sound caught everyones attention. Into the camp, a plant came shambling. Although he was now mostly vines and tentacles, Zugot recognized Physon. Physon likewise recognized Zugot.
Friend Zugot! he called. Your people are harming mine! Come quickly!
Zugot bounded away, following Physon. As he went, his eyes adapted to the low light of the night and he grew large, pointed ears to catch the sounds that came from ahead. The sounds were unfamiliar. They were screams. When Physon and Zugot arrived, they found the animals eating the plants.
Stop! shouted Zugot.
We cannot, said one of the animals. It was his bride. This is the only food that can satisfy us.
Save us! shouted one of the plants.
Zugot began physically pulling his people away from the plants. We must not harm the people of Physon! They are our friends! I will find you other plants to eat!
Reluctantly, his clan did as he asked. Zugot returned to sleep for a few hours. He slept in one of the huts, for he found that he had grown too large to fit into his den. When he awoke, he found that some of the shelters were now made of stone with wooden roofs. He smelled mushrooms roasting on fires across the settlement. The people themselves had grown, and become feline. They eagerly devoured their breakfasts. Someone was eating nuts and berries, too.
This is good, Zugot said to himself. Someone has discovered a new source of food. One second later, he was appalled to find one of Physons people roasting in the center of the village. He immediately ran to Physon.
Physon had grown four legs during the night. He looked almost like Zugots reptile form the previous day. He saw the leader of the animals coming, and was very dismayed. One of my people was killed last night, said Physon.
I know, replied Zugot, sadly.
I am afraid that if you cannot control your people, there is only one thing that we can do.
We will have to destroy your people to protect ourselves.
We can, even though it causes us great pain to part with our friends. My people have learned to build weapons. You will have to go, now. I do not wish to destroy you.
Zugot felt fear for the first time ever. He ran. When Zugot returned to the village, he found his people walking semi-erect, and draping themselves with clothing. By the center fire, someone was banging on a hot piece of metal, altering its physical form. He looked about quickly and found his wife.
We must fashion weapons, said Zugot. The plants are going to destroy us.
That is what the metalworker is doing, she responded. He claims that he can make superior hunting devices out of metal.
Then that is what we must do. We must make as many weapons from metal as we can.
Unseen, a plant crawled away from the animal town. Hurrying back to Physon, he reported Father, the animals are making weapons from metal. They will be superior to ours!
Then we must make better weapons, Physon stated. We have learned the secret of fire for ourselves. We shall make weapons that burn. By the time the animals were convinced that they had a sufficient supply of weapons, they were standing fully erect, fully formed hands wielding blades with ease. Those who were not making weapons had rebuilt their settlement into a fortress of wood, stone and steel.
All too soon, it was time. With a heavy heart, Zugot gave the word. Attack! The now humanoid animals charged toward the village of the plants. Without any warning, they slammed into an invisible wall.
Our glass has worked! Physon gloated. Now, destroy the enemy!
The animals fell back. They fled to their fortress. The plants advanced, but could not get through their defenses. Both knew that to survive, they would need stronger weapons. The battle continued the next day with cannons. It continued the next day with shotguns. It continued the next day with machine guns. It continued the next day with missiles.
During each moment of the horrible conflict, Zugot sought desperately to end it. On the seventh day, Zugot stood in the highest tower of the animal city and looked down at the battle below. People were dying by the dozens every day, and those who survived were crippled for hours. Zugot, like the rest of his people, was now smooth-skinned, as he had been as an amphibian. His face had flattened, with barely a trace of his feline muzzle left. His claws were now only tiny plates, and his tail barely had any strength. He knew that he was changing as he should, but his people seemed to be growing weaker instead of stronger. Whatever hand was guiding their destiny, it appeared to have only doom in store for them.
Suddenly, something touched his mind. Closing his eyes, he felt it. It seemed familiar. Who is there? he asked. Whoever it was seemed very surprised. The other being hesitated to answer, but said at last, «I am Physon.»
Minutes later, Zugot strode to the center of the battlefield. Warriors on both sides parted for him. He ordered the fighting to cease. The fighters stared, shocked at the order. A voicemore of a thought, reallycame from the other side of the field.
«Drop your weapons!» said the thought. Reluctantly, everyone on both sides obeyed. Physon strode out to meet Zugot. The largest of his people, now, he equalled only Zugot in stature. He, like his people, had grown into a humanoid shapebut he was hollow, like a shell of tendrils and leaves. He no longer had a mouth, but still had the one eye, now firm in his forehead. «Zugot and I have been speaking with our minds,» he thought loudly.
For seven days, we have known that we would soon reach a final form, Zugot shouted. We know now what it is!
Everyone listened eagerly. «We plants have hungered for companionship and security,» said Physon, telepathically.
And we animals have hungered for physical sustenance, said Zugot. These desires are not intrinsically incompatible!
Reaching out, Physon said, «Let us begin.»
Zugot dropped his garment of leaves. Physon loosened his vines and tendrils and stepped behind Zugot. The animal stepped back until he was standing within Physons hollow form. Physon extended microscopic fibers into Zugots skin as he closed up again. Zugots two eyes and Physons one glanced about in perfect synchrony.
What have you done to my husband? demanded Zugots mate, running up and falling on her knees in front of him. The joined creature kneeled in front of her in order to look her in the eye.
You were right, he said. We were growing into a final form. This is it. I am now Zugot Physon, a self-sufficient organism with constant companionship from within myself. This is what we were meant to be.
As an animal, I could not survive alone. As a plant, I did not wish to be alone. Now, with this symbiosis, I am all I need to be. A feminine plant extended a tendril, offering herself to her. Encouraged by her husband, she dropped her garment and stepped within. Soon, everyone was doing the same.
On the eighth day, a new race was building the most beautiful city in any dimension, packed with rare stones which the joined beings had learned to grow overnight. There was no more war, no more death, and everyone was happy.
From dimension 99,478, two cosmic entities looked down at little time-sped dimension forty-one with immense satisfaction. A wonderfully poetic picture of the destiny of man, said one.
Thank you, said the other. I rather liked the design, myself. Ive always found three eyes so attractive.
Do you think theyll be all right? asked the one.
Yes, for now, answered the second. It will be interesting to see how long their situation remains stable