A crucifixion thorn twisted up out of the cracked ground into baked air, pricking the dry haze. Scrawny creosote bushes clung tenaciously to the hard earth, while stunted yuccas sliced listlessly through the thin blazing sunlight. In the distance jagged purple mountains mercifully blocked the desolate view in two directions. The horizon stretched relentlessly on, fading into nothingness, presenting only a mirage of meaning.
A single stunted smoke tree wafted above the sharp sand. In its meager shade was a hunched human form with scorched skin, nearly as hard and cracked as the desert floor it huddled upon. Atop his head was a dense thicket of knotted hair, white with hints of black. Scraps of some exhausted material were fixed about his loins and feet. A shaky hand came up to shade his sun-bleached eyes. He stared at the only feature in this arid landscape which hadn't been burnt beyond recognition.
It was a heap of metal. Scraps of rust returning to the elements from which it had been fashioned. He had seen something like this before, burning down out of the night sky like garbage tossed out of heaven by God.
As blessed twilight soothed the inhuman world, the man woke from his twitchy unease. He shuffled across the skillet ground toward the ruins. The metal would be too hot to touch. He would have to wait, but he could look. There could be something unexpected, something left over from before. He had once found a broken piece of statuary. An arm and hand so smooth, so sleek, it had to be feminine. The person he had been with had thought it had belonged to a real person, that something had happened to her to turn her to stone. But, he knew better. He wasn't that ignorant. He knew what a statue was. The man limped toward the pile of scrap metal with fatal anticipation.
He shivered in the dark cold.
He grunted, unable to scream or express his terror. When something soft settled over him, he jerked upright, grunting.
"It's just a blanket."
The sky brightened; dawn was coming. But it was so cold, too cold. He gathered the blanket around him, looking all about in fear. Where was he? What was happening to him?
"You found a womb."
It gradually grew brighter, revealing an alien landscape. He was no longer in the desert, but in a lush garden, with thriving greenery and brilliant flowers and soft matted grass and clear crystal pools. Heaven?
"No, you haven't died and gone to Heaven. This is an oasis. There used to be places on Earth like this."
This must be the voice of God. He knew what he was thinking.
"I am not God. This is merely wireless communication between you and I."
If this was not Heaven, then it was Hell. If he was not God, then he was the Devil. Panic swirled through his head like a sandstorm, obscuring everything.
"This is enough for now. It is too much for you. All at once. Sleep."
His panic eased, he relaxed back into softness, back into oblivion.
He opened his eyes. There was a soft glow as he lay upon softness, with softness over him. He was comfortably warm, and in the shadowy light he could see he was prone on the ground, with long green grass around him. He shrugged the blanket off and saw he was naked. But his shoes!
"Your shoes will be returned to you."
It wasn't a dream. Or maybe he was still dreaming. He jerked upright, looking all around. God, or the Devil, still spoke to him.
"This is not a dream. This is happening."
What is happening? Am I dead? Dying?
"You are not dying. Though some do. From the shock. But you seem strong enough."
Not dreaming. Not dying. Then what? He searched his surroundings for meaning. Shadowy trees, tall and monumental, towered all around him. The air grew lighter. He could make out the countless leaves dangling. And a pond he was sitting beside. Water?
Safe? To drink?
He touched the surface. It was cool, wet. He scooped handfuls up to his face, slathering it into his parched gulping mouth. It softened the crust on his lips, washed the grit from his mouth, soothed his papyrus throat.
"Not too much. You'll make yourself sick."
He paused, looking around. He said it was safe.
"It is. But too much will make you sick. Your body is not used to this much water."
He could feel the liquid settle heavily in his stomach. He's right.
"Get in the water."
"It will cleanse you, refresh you."
He reached into the pool, probed the squishy muddy bottom with his fingers. Carefully, he eased feet first into the pond, slid on his back across the mud until only his head was above water. Ahh. He had never experienced such relief before. This was Heaven.
"You should get back out."
Why? This feels so good.
"Water can be dangerous."
He sat upright, looking all around the water for danger. Are there monsters in here?
"No. But you are still weak. You could pass out in the water. And drown."
He crawled out, looking back suspiciously at the pond.
"That is enough for now. Sleep."
He did not want to sleep. But his eyes closed on their own, and he collapsed on the grass beside the pond.
He opened his eyes. It was brighter, although the light was soft. Nothing like the fierce blaze of the sun. No angry furnace in the sky blasting him with fire. He sat up, stretching, and looked around. He could see more now, in the brighter light. He was in a forest. Besides the trees and the matted grass he lay upon, he could see tall grasses wafting in a soft breeze. And flowers, an explosion of colors and blooms of all sizes, from dainty baby's breath up to saucer-like hibiscus, and every shape in between. He took a tentative breath, through his nose. The world, the real world, stank. He always tried not to smell, he lived on shallow breaths. But this? He took a much deeper breath, expanding his lungs like never before.
"Isn't it wonderful?"
"The flowers. Each has its own distinct aroma. Are you ready to stand?"
He crawled to his knees. Carefully, doubtfully, creaked upright, wavered. Then he was steady. He looked down at his feet.
"They've healed. Softened. But they're still strong. Try walking."
He took a step. The soft grass cushioned his sole. With another trial step he arrived at a flower. He inhaled. Perfume for his soul.
"That's enough for now."
"No." He ducked, expecting retribution. But there was no lightning bolt.
"Your first spoken word. No. Fitting. But you need to rest. Too much too soon can harm you."
There were more flowers to smell. And he wanted more water, inside and outside.
"Please sit. So you don't fall and injure yourself."
With a weary sigh, he stretched out on the ground by the flowers he had just smelled. And slept.
He opened his eyes. Smiled. He was still in the wonderful place.
"It's a garden."
He sat up. In the desert?
"The portal, or entrance, is in what once was Nevada. But this garden is hidden away from the world. Try walking again."
He stood, more assuredly than before. He moved among the flowers, sniffing.
"You are ready for more than flowers."
What do you mean?
"Aren't you feeling well enough to be hungry?"
Yes, now that you mention it. Can I eat the flowers?
"You could, but they aren't very nourishing. There are better foods in the garden to eat. Go explore."
He walked past the flowers to a grove of trees drooping low with heavy fruit. Pears, plums, peaches, limes, bananas, lemons, cherries, figs, oranges, kiwis, mangoes. There were also bushes, brimming with grapes, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries. And in both trees and bushes were nuts of all varieties. I can eat these things?
"You need to peel most of them first."
He picked a banana. Opened it up. Sniffed. Nibbled. Then devoured.
"Slowly. Like the water. Too much too soon can make you sick."
He pulled some grapes from a vine. Thoughtfully chewed on one. And the seed.
"You should spit out the seeds."
He spit the bits of it out.
"Now that you are using your mouth more, try talking again. You need to get used to talking."
"Why?" There is no one here to talk to.
He looked all around. I can't see you. Are you hiding? Are you afraid of me?
"No. There is just nothing for you to see."
Nothing to see? Are you a ghost? Panic began bubbling up to the surface once again.
"Enough for now. Lie down and sleep."
"No." I'm not sleepy. Why do I fall asleep when I'm not sleepy?
"Because you need to sleep. To rest. To heal. To take this all in. In safe doses. Sleep is required for all of this."
"No!" Not this time. I'm not sleepy. But his body folded up and he collapsed like a ragdoll to the soft turf.
He opened his eyes. A gentle glow bathed the garden. The scent of the abundant flowers filled his head. He inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly. Hello? There was no reply. Where are you? Silence. Except for a bird's song. The trees were full of singing birds. Had they been there before? He hadn't heard them. But then this place had been such a shock. He looked for the blanket, but it was gone. He looked all around for it. Nowhere to be seen. He looked himself over. He was still naked. But different. His feet and his hands were softer. He touched his arms, his chest. His skin was softer all over.
Raising to hands and knees, he crawled to the pool and drank his fill. He carefully stood, looking around from this vantage point. Nothing had changed, other than the blanket disappearing. He walked carefully to a plum tree, plucked one of its fruits and bit into it. Succulent juices ran down his tangled beard as he swallowed. He passed on to grapes, strawberries. He picked a walnut from the ground and bit into it. Unable to pierce the shell, he spit it out.
"You need to crack the nuts."
Are you angry with me?
Why didn't you speak to me when I woke up?
"You are strong enough now to explore on your own."
How big is this garden?
"As big as it needs to be."
You speak in riddles.
"I speak to you in ways you can comprehend. Try breaking the nut open with a rock."
Why? It's easier to peel the fruit.
"Nuts have protein, which your body requires."
He squatted down and found two rocks to crack the walnut with. He chewed the kernel. I need this?
He picked several more walnuts from the ground, and did the same.
"You are growing stronger."
Will I have to leave? When I'm strong enough?
"Yes. You can't remain in a womb forever."
Why do you call this a womb?
"I'll show you."
The man slumped to the soft ground, to sleep and dream of the world as it had been. Skyscrapers probing into dense filthy clouds, cities afloat on foul oceans, fantastic vehicles weaving across and over and under the surface. And people, so many people, miserably shoulder to shoulder, jostling, poking, fighting, killing. Blood running in the streets, explosions rocking the tall buildings, cities sinking beneath the waves. Fires raging across withered farmland. Tremendous storms wrecking the world. Strange creatures of weird shapes and sizes washing up dead upon the rotten beaches. And far above the world metal bodies circled, some small, some huge. One was of tremendous size and partially-assembled, which when completed was sent off away from Earth, to land on a distant world, one which looked much like this garden.
He awoke from the dream. Is that where I am? On another world?
"No. You are on Earth."
But Earth was destroyed.
"It wasn't destroyed. It was used up."
Why was I left behind?
"Most everybody was left behind. Only the best and brightest were sent off to seed another world."
You're not one of the best and brightest?
"I was needed here to maintain the womb. And to help those who stumbled into it."
How long has it been?
"Time is only meaningless numbers to you. Mankind has always had difficulty conceiving large numbers. Earth has existed four and a half billion years. People have no concept of such a vast time, but it has been enough for ten species of humans to arise and depart from the world, and enough for Earth to heal and replenish itself after each brood. In a sense, the entire world is a womb, giving birth to ten broods and sending them off into deep space."
But is there nothing left from the people before?
"Things decompose rapidly. Dissolve back into the world to be used again."
"I am merely a program, written to help birth the next brood. The air you breathe, the food you eat, the water you drink, it is all full of genetic information to modify you, to help you not only survive but also thrive in this raw world."
Eternal life? Is that what you are giving me?
"In a fashion. You will pass on these modifications."
You speak a question, instead of a denial. Encouraging.
"That is enough for now. Sleep."
The man knew better than to resist. He stretched out on the soft grass beneath a tree and closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes. And felt pain for the first time since entering the garden. A sharp pain, in his side. He curled up, panicked. "What's wrong?"
"I needed genetic material, so I took a rib."
He slowly uncurled. "Why?"
"I could have used any part of you. But a rib is traditional. Look what I have fashioned from it."
He looked around, and discovered a naked woman standing ten feet away.
"This is how you will pass on the genetic modifications."
He stared distrustfully at the woman. But she seemed even more mystified than he was.
"We'll live here?"
"Until you have both consumed the information you need to flourish. The last bit of it is encoded in the apples."
"You go out into the world and rebuild it. Once the population pressures are too intense for the world to sustain it, your descendants will venture out to seed another exoplanet."
"What about you?"
"When you depart from the garden the program will have run its course. I will shut down and the portal will close, until this womb is required once again."
"I don't want to leave." So as long as I don't eat an apple, I can stay?
"You'll eat an apple. You must. This isn't real. What's out there is real. And it's yours for the taking."
"I don't care." If it's real or not. Reality sucks. I like it here.
"That is why the snake was included in the program."
He looked all around. I haven't seen any snakes.
"Your rib will. Goodbye, Adam. Be fruitful and multiply."
The voice had grown still. And he wasn't falling over asleep. Ha! No way was he eating an apple. He gazed upon the woman. She smiled.
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