A Small Solution

Story and Artwork by
Cole Webber

Ethan cradled the delicate thing in is hands like a snowglobe; like a snowball, more like it, that was rapidly melting. He sighed, and wondered if it drew winds on the surface for the small micro-bates living on it. He felt like a distant god. Could it work? Could it work? He pleaded with himself as he looked out the window, glass long since shattered, the landscape around him endless prairies of whistling, swaying rebar, ashen bone fragments, a sky as black as that night that had never left. The final stain on record: the ultimate volcano had consumed them. But not all of them. Not yet. He set the ball down: here he was, perched on a hill, in a shack too small to have been destroyed by the great tides of history. Maybe that was why he remained. He, and his machine, remained. Too small to be gone. 

Charles trekked through the concrete jungle turned literal. Littered with the waste of an old world, including those lonesome bodies who had created it. In another life, he had been not one of them, always below them in fact. But, he supposed, with a long and weary sigh that coated his lungs in soot like a chimney flue, perhaps I did it too. He laboured to build what they envisioned, with only a hammer and nails and a jackhammer and scaffolding. But he still did it all wrong; he gave in. No mastermind can succeed without their muscle, even in destruction. The muscle may have gotten more sophisticated and the tools greater, but they were still, for all intents, mere muscle. Mere lumbering, brooding appendages with no brains: worse — when they had them, no morals. Only obedience. Only worry. Only fear. Only paycheques: rent, rinse and repeat. There was a hill on the horizon, and on the lonely hill an even lonelier window, which burned bright with fire. Had it never been put out, or only started? And yet hadn’t raged away? Or… The thought occurred to him secondly. It had been so long without artificial fire. It was just as worth seeing as any of the endless corridors to nowhere now etched in the dirt. Worthy of his worthless time as it ground out, as specks filled his clockwork to soon grind it to a halt.

The computer rumbled behind him. It gleamed in a silver tube, undamaged, not even toppled over, as if by some act of god. Its connection to anything else was long gone now. Even its satellite links were too diffused and disrupted by the ash in the atmosphere to bring anything of meaning. And yet it had made the download just before, just in time, as the final flashes of the empty fuses sung. Ethan was looking at it now, the contents of the file displayed on a small screen, one line at a time. Not even the screen was cracked. It did not even seem dusty. LANDSAT 12 Transmission. The Earth’s surface shimmered as it was on that screen, as if seen by God and sent down as a last message, from twelve thousand miles up. Mountains signed the beauty with small shadows, no larger than the scratches on a ball bearing. Clouds swirled and oceans glimmered like lighted diamonds. A vision of what once was but now could never be again. But?

They had said that Pasteur disproved spontaneous generation. Yet, if you were to presuppose evolution, or even the existence of anything, it had to happen at least once. And, from darkness. Why could not this be twice in this once-it, this moment of last desperation and deepest blackness. Ethan looking out the window at the shifting and black spiritual shambles. Why could it not happen again? An act of God, he whispered to himself. That is what it all seemed, anyhow. His laboratory below, encased in concrete, still remained. More importantly, and somehow, he still remained upstairs, through the flashes and the shockwaves and the bombs which tumbled cities in an instant. He mulled his scientific pondering around in his head. If you increase surface area, volume increases manyfold. With less space to go, with less mass bending its way through space time, could change accelerate faster in such a small speck? He gazed at the Earth, perfect and small on his screen. Could what was done in a billion odd years on Earth be done faster, more perfectly, more succinct in a single cell? If it was all the same. Why not try? He was dwindling as it was. His light was bound to be snuffed out soon. Not enough oxygen, not enough food. What remained in the chambers below was miniscule. He had to act now, but carefully. And above all, he had to wait.

He flicked the buttons on his keyboard to send the beautiful scan of the surface below. There he filled the tubes of the printing machine with the necessary ingredients, the base to all things: simple nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, which were now derivable in spades from the undifferentiated grit that oozed all around. The machine got to work, nozzles whirring, printing line by line the new world.

And he drifted to his final machine, his last invention. Perhaps the last invention of humanity, if he could not be their saviour. It was of grave importance, of impossible power, which is why it was buried in a bunker on a lonesome hill, under a simply ordinary barn. It had never been tested.

He directed the great metal arrow at its end to a small tray, the kind children would use for school dissections. He untraced the spindles down, which fell like tweezers to line the surface. He stumbled outside, frantically searching for a verifiable thing. He had to wander for hours to catch one in his hands; and then, had to suppress all instincts of fear to release the writhing thing. He let out the cockroach into the pan and sighed a great pant of relief, wiping the excess of its excrement and skin, peeling off, on his now tattered lab coat. He trained a series of microscopic magnifiers on the bug. It could feel eyes on it, and remained impossibly still, as if playing dead would save it. The act of observing… Maybe, maybe not. Ethan flicked the switch to power on the great beast. Above him pipes whirred and sagged. Hoses sprung, whipping in the air like snakes with the force of their filling fluids. The needle head of the device, above the deadly still vermin, glowed a white hot, a red, a blue. Finally it expounded a flash of light. Nothing; though this is just what it should look like.

Ethan rushed to the microscope’s eye-mount, delicately peering through. A thrashing cockroach, the size of a mere flea, wound about like a tin toy on the now infinitely expansive tray. It could work in principle. The thing behind him rippled away, spraying down layers of fake forest topography on a billiard ball Earth. It was insane, but it was the end. He bit at the human coal dust under his nails, thinking not of his possible cannibalism.

The next days were spent rummaging conversions by hand with pencil on paper. The graphite dust easily blended with the soot. It was getting to everything now; in every nook, every cranny. It would further complicate matters, as it might damage the circuitry, the centi-fold facts of the delicate operation that could be set off by a grain of sand. He had to hurry, but too, to buy his time. When the topography was done, he placed his glove in a hastily erected incubator, no larger than a microwave, to simulate those initial environmental conditions; boiling heat, intoxicating clouds. But probably necessary to life. It was also spent rigging the button of the sizing machine to be pressed in fully with a small imbalance, with his small catapulted weight he was soon to have. He was running out of food, yet his micro Earth did not have time to form to a human supporting infrastructure. His only real option was to miniaturize himself halfway first, to extend the life of his resources, waiting for the Earth to get good enough that he could go all the way. Still, it was all a balancing act of accelerating time zones. Time of the food he had left, time of what he would live to if miniaturized (if his theory was right), time the bubbling Earth would take to cool. He worked it all out on paper. He had electricity, sourced from the breathing tectonic divides below them, but it was scarce, and he needed it for his machines. Besides, it was more a matter of mind than mere calculation. At best, he would be forced to thrust himself into his new world around the equivalent of the Jurassic Period. Would life have started? If it was a mere act of spontaneous chance, he could not be sure. He could only wait and hope to someday meet another person, though the thought drifted further away from himself. He was lost. Though he knew he must plant this tree to let others sigh under its shade. When they advanced back to the prewar levels, if they could get out… they might find the whole Earth around them bubbling with new life. Endless fields to these minuscule men. Endless resources. They might finally have a utopia. It was with this thought that he cradled and cherished his glass ball. And laboured away his final lonesome days.

Finally everything was timed down to the minute. And finally, it was the time for his first test. He flinched, aligning the needle head of the device above him. It was all theoretical. He had been skeptical if it could really work. It operated by breaking down unnecessary or repetitive chemical bonds; most of the genetic chunks in humans, for instance, were non-coding. They blueprints could not be pinpointed to make anything particular, and was probably a nonsense holdover of forward evolution, from times when it mattered and to times where it did not. One could miniaturize a thing by eliminating those non coding bits of information, collapsing a skyscraper down to a bungalow with the same important traits; the same doors and windows. But were they really non coding? He was working with things far beyond his philosophical and spiritual understanding. Far beyond anyone’s. And just because he made a smaller squirming roach did not mean its brain, the soul of the thing (if it had one, he chuckled to himself grimly) was intact; Just the base of it. He glanced over to his chart of food consumption. He had to, he simply had to, or else his lifetime and that of his micro Earth would misalign. He would run out of food a grown man, a husking whale corpse surrounding what might have been a new race. He might as well die then. He might as well die with them. But even if all went well, he might really be dead; a dead man walking out that other door. Even if a perfect replica, with his buzzing brain and mannerisms, would it all be translated? Or would teleporting a man by computer identification, for instance, simply kill him and build a perfectly acted twin on the other end of the line? For him it was a worry. For the plan, the great plan, perhaps for the rest of humankind, it didn’t make much of a difference. He pressed the button. The needle head singed above him. His brow burned, until he once again could see through that blinding birthing light. To the monumental edges of the tray. It had worked! He scattered up the initial stairs he had printed for himself out of plastic; across the great vaults of erected bridges and railings like a lego play set. His lab was now so cavernous and tall the ceiling blended into the haze of distant mountains for him. The horizon line lay inside the room. His whole world was smaller, and smaller soon, for that was what he wanted.

He picked away at the bread’s crust with a small plastic pickaxe he had previously prepared. It gave way, and he was let into a cave of yeast bubbles. He feasted and slept in the light plushiness. And came across something he had forgotten about. He was licked awake by flicking antenna. He opened his eyes in horror, to scramble promptly to his feet. The cockroach lumbered above him, the size of a husky golden retriever. Its glossy legs padded on his chest, and its sensory orbs darted around him. Its antenna traced on his face. He thrashed up, and the roach bounded back down on his hind legs. It jumped up again, lapping for something in his hands, like a pup. Ethan unfurled a piece of bread in his fingers and flung it out of the entrance of the cave. The roach chased after it, not gorging itself on the thing but bringing it back like a sloppy tennis ball, covered in insect juices. Ethan hesitated, gritted his teeth, before petting the hard and slimy back. The creature writhed and giggled in ticks of high pitched delight. Ethan smiled to himself: after all this time, it was nice to have some other living company. And he felt for the first time, felt in a tingling swell in his stomach that he could make it.

Soon it was the final day. The disadvantage of miniaturizing himself partway, though it was necessary, was that he could no longer use his microscope imaging equipment to check on his own Earth, hung in a cloud of evolving gases in a glass container now. He looked at it distantly, as if it was for him a private moon. The gravity of it struck him; he leaned closer, and looked upon its continents. His continents, now. To have made, and now to inhabit. And he could be unsure of for how long, before he would encounter another being. Would it even be like him? He may be the monster. He pet Flaky, as he had named him for the crumbs now always dotting his back, who sat across his lap and purred as best he could. He would take the insect along with him, and: who knew? Perhaps in a millennia the children of Earth 2, if remotely human, would know roaches rather than dogs. Or, something like it. In that time, anything changed.

He led his pet onto the metal tin, and set in motion the Rube Goldberg line of lab equipment he had arranged to press the button he could not at his size. He cuddled the creature and cringed underneath the needle, now whirring and prodding around them. A light flashed; and now the imperfections of the tin tray and wood grains of the desk were their own mountain ranges. Flaky clicked. Ethan laid his bags of miniaturized equipment on the creature’s sturdy hull; he could carry many times his own weight. They had a magnificently long voyage to get into what would still be their lonesome home. But what took him years may only be a minute to any larger man left who looked down. They set off.

Charles had made his way up the hill. He sighed through a soot covered beard, and inhaled the irritant to his throat, to his lungs; his whole body was charring from the inside out. He sighed through heavy eyelids, weighted down by the ashes of what was. He lurched through the door with perhaps the final push of his strength. It buckled underneath him, and he was let into the empty, lonesome room, glass shattered, dirty winds sweeping through, dark sky casting nothing but shadows on the gleaming water cooler tank. The floorboards banged, creaked and swayed with the wind. He kicked them, and they opened; a small staircase descending into a basement; the final bunker. Most of them were already blown in, filled in with the endless crematorium waste of the old world. He shuffled down hurriedly to search for cans of food. Here they were! Here they all were! 

Amidst the odd contraptions and dishevelled mechanics were littered pieces, containers, rations. And even  a hunk of bread. He lunged after it. He pressed it into his chimney face, rubbing charcoal from his nose hairs off on the surface as he breathed in: fresh, air, bubbles, yeast. It swam up his nose canals and into his mind. Back to when he was a child in school. What he wouldn’t give for a simple sandwich. He breathed in, savouring, savouring, before he took a bite.

Ethan, greying, sat amongst the world of his own creation. Rocks had drifted away to soil, eaten in by winds and currents and tides. Odd plants blossomed all around him, proving now the long scientific question of how destined evolution was. Here the grass was blue-green, the moss luscious reds. Trees were beginning to sprout, and he had already felt sort of ant-things tickling his feet. He tried to inspect them, and he was sure they were much different, though his eyesight was shading too quickly to tell, and he did not know how to make glasses here, from scratch. What things would still have to be found out by this new humanity — if they were even close to humans. The red moss suggested not. Would they ever make it back to where they were again? He laid in the plush moss looking at the long and ominous sky, a forever grey, sometimes flickering due to the constant light of the room. There was no night in this world. This, he thought, may explain the differences amongst all the life he had yet seen. But it had worked. Here he was surrounded by creatures of a sort. And maybe something else would happen soon. He tried to sleep in this foreign world, resigned to his own loneliness. He tried to dream that his life may have mattered.

Charles pawed around the table for more morsels. He scratched through equipment, thinking not until now what it must have been used for. An irrigation control station? A weather surveyor? Or — the thought hit him like his own bomb, wretched and vile and full of rage fire: those stories from his youth years of nuclear silos, hidden in the midst of nowhere. The perfect condition. The bunker; the odd metal cylinder upstairs that somehow remained unharmed. He stared at the table a long time. And saw the small Earth. He picked it up like a Christmas decoration: small, empty, nothingness, hollow. A map? A war table for moving of miniature military men? A war game is what they called it. Is that what they thought of them? What they thought of the whole world? Just a plaything in a small, grimy hand. He turned his caverned fingers over, to work the soot: to scrub it into the world. Their clean hands, working up here, had been all the dirtier. And now he was doomed, stuck down here. They all were, forever. Where were they? He turned the globe over in his hands for a few beats, for a few minutes of internal monologues and wonderings. He did not have the energy for what he wanted to do. He was — it was all — too far gone. Just a small playlet here… He wished he could have thrown it. He dropped the thing, haphazardly to the floor, just as they did. Without caring. It shattered, in horrific millions of shards. They had done it. Someone had done it. That was the worst of it: he didn’t even know. Someone had done it. It only took man to press one button. He gobbled up the rest of his last bread, and sat on the floor to die.

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