He called on the old gods, the gods who’d reigned since Earth was covered in fire, since before any creatures existed to worship them. They were mostly forgotten now, but their power was primal and implacable, and his grandmother had taught him the ancient rites: rites that had existed before language, rites that required flames and blood. He called, and the gods came, because no one else competed for their attention now. No one else remembered.
Tiathim was terrified of the gods, but he feared the night more. The endless dark. The nothingness beyond the stars.
“Don’t let me end,” he whispered on his knees in the center of the circle of fire. “Don’t let my consciousness vanish.”
A cold wind roared over him, almost knocking him to the ground. The fire surged as the wind whipped it, and then it was snuffed out into smoke.
You will never die, a voice told him, next to his ear.
At first, Tiathim was reckless. He scaled Pinnacle Rock and snatched eggs from nesting dimetrodons, took mates from enemy tribes. Until one night, gazing up at the stars, he felt his stomach clench with fear for the first time since he’d been visited by the gods. What if he badly harmed himself, and because he was immortal, he could never escape his pain?
He became as cautious as he’d once been careless. He watched and listened. He spent time with each of the clans, learning their crafts and walking their trails. He saw bad seasons and taught his tribe to store food when times were good. Over decades, he sought out his old mates and forged alliances with the surrounding tribes. After a century, he became a king. When neighboring kingdoms threatened his, he conquered them and became an emperor.
Then dark clouds boiled across the sky and devoured the sun. Plants and animals died. Thousands starved. He heard whispers from his servants when he walked past: “The spirits are punishing the deathless emperor.” When he was awakened by the clank of shell armor outside his door one night, he knew his soldiers were finally coming for him. He crawled through the window and escaped the palace.
Centuries later, he returned and walked through the stone ruins of the empty capital. He tried to remember what it had been like to see other people. He whispered remembered conversations.
By the time dinosaurs charged across the land, he no longer thought in words. His world was sensation and urges. The sweetly bitter crunch of soft conifer cones in his mouth. The scent of crushed ferns that told him another creature was near.
Until, finally, even the dinosaurs died.
Tiathim watched the humans for years before he approached them. Since his own people had disappeared, they were the first creatures he had seen who spoke and planned. One day he stepped out into the open and greeted them with the words he had learned from observing them.
One jumped up and threw a spear in his direction. Then they shouted and fled. The next day, they sent hunting parties to track him.
Once, when he was an emperor, he would have fought back. But his loneliness was bigger than the sky.
He knew, now, the risks of asking favors of the old gods, but he called on them anyway.
“Let me change my shape,” he pleaded.
You will take on forms to match your circumstances, an ancient, feeble voice whispered in his ear. And so he joined the humans.
Tiathim gained wealth and comforts he’d never imagined. Empires rose and collapsed, but he knew the signs of endings by now, and he was always ready to rise with the next one. Sumer. Nubia. Crete. The Shang Dynasty. Assyria. The Gupta Empire. All the way up to the Confederation of Inner Planets.
When the first interstellar ship left Earth Station for Alpha Centauri, Tiathim had a berth above the antimatter engines, and he was the first one on the observation deck when the solar sails slowly unfurled. The length of the journey meant nothing to him, and he had seen everything of his native solar system he wanted to see.
He became a diplomat. Of all his vocations, this was the one he found the most satisfying, and it lasted by far the longest. It drew on his millennia of expertise, and every day presented a new challenge or discovery. He negotiated with alien species, building ever-expanding trade and alliance networks that spanned a quarter of the galaxy. He saw wonders he never could have dreamed of back on Earth and Mars.
Gradually, however, his guild began to lose contact with more species than they met. Given enough time, even spacefaring civilizations eventually died.
The universe was growing old.
The world he was stranded on had once been called “the garden planet,” but now it was barren rock naked to the black void of space.
He called again and again on the old gods to kill him. To set him free. But even if they still existed, they no longer answered.
The crimson sun expanded, engulfing the closest worlds. The broken ground beneath him glowed from the heat. Soon, the red giant would eat this planet as well.
“Please let me end,” he whispered, but there was no atmosphere left to carry his speech and no one left to hear it.
He floated in the dark. The stars had burned through their gases and the universe was without light. Only black holes remained, space twisted around them.
Despite the eons of emptiness, he finally hoped. The end was coming.
Plasma burst from a single point and became a universe. Charged particles condensed from the roiling sea. Without senses, he knew. In a billion years, perhaps, stars would form. In billions more, perhaps…life. All he could do was wait for it to begin again, and dream of an end that would never come.
About the author:
Aaron’s stories have appeared in Fireside Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Apparition Lit and many other excellent magazines and anthologies. He also writes essays, graphic novels and interactive fiction. Find him online at aaronemmel.com.