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Baby Wipes

By S. A. Barton

Copyright 2012 S. A. Barton

Smashwords Edition

Find other stories by S.A. Barton on his Smashwords profile.

A scream existed, but there was a vastness that it could not overcome.

After a timeless time, the vastness receded. No, that was not quite accurate. It contracted, toward the screamness, enough that there was the possibility of something beyond it. Something that was not the vastness, to compare it to. The identity of the vastness resolved itself.

It was pain. Paralyzing agony, and the scream groped toward an egress that fluttered like the mouth of a dying fish—but it could not emerge. It waited, an orgasm on the edge of expression, for the paralysis to pass, frustrated.

A skeleton unshattered itself and leapt together, a puzzle desperate for completion. Ashes swarmed in a cyclone, caking onto the unblackening structure, lightening through maroon into crimson. As they thickened, moisture and pulsing gathered beneath; behind a growing hand, eyes inflated and unpunctured, drawing gasps of condensing steam into themselves.

A transcendent light resolved itself as the entirety of the visible world, and then the sun unswallowed the forming man and rushed away to gather to a point in the distance that hovered a moment, then flashed a streak up into the stars and—gone.

William sat down, disappointed. He had forgotten to scream. He considered doing so, but the compulsion had passed so he left it unscreamed. Instead, he gathered himself to stand up, then lurched gracelessly forward, hands flapping out wide to his sides as he realized he was already standing.

Unnerved, he looked around himself. Prairie, tall waving grasses reaching out into the distance, a few low trees dotting it, a mobile smudge on the horizon that might be a distant flock of birds, over a weak glimmer of what might be the shore of Lake Michigan. He spotted the battered stump of a tree and sat down three times in succession as he tried to configure his buttocks to the jagged lightning-charred wood.

Frustrated, he gave up, wiping his hands disgustedly at the seat of his khaki pants. He looked down; his palms were caked with thick inky soot.

It was all too much. Before whatever this was, he had been reclining in his two-seat diesel-solar Google-Benz, letting the car creep through ten lanes of wall to wall traffic on autodrive. His tie had been discarded onto the rear window deck, he had been halfway through a personal-size bottle of decent Australian Shiraz and also halfway through the daily Chicago-Rockford rush. His pepperoni snack roll had been just beginning to emit tempting odors from the dashboard microwave, and he had been (mostly) successfully ignoring the top of the hour news break yammering about tension over the Chinese asteroid mine sliding into Earth orbit after six years of approach, in a pattern that occasionally occluded the communications of Fort Schwartzkopf Luna with Washington—deliberately, the President vocally glowered.

And then—pain, grass, birds, dirty hands, and a pair of two hundred dollar khaki slacks destroyed.

He plopped down sitting in the grass and wept for a long time. The ground was spongy and damp, soaking his butt and legs. He took his hands away from his face after the tears ground to a halt and the smears on his palms told him what his face must look like now. He had seen nobody, the miles-eating city was nowhere in sight. There was nobody to see his face. He knew he shouldn’t care what he looked like with larger issues at hand. He did care. A new scream welled up from the pit of his gut.

Can I get one fucking break today?” he belted out with all the passion in his guts. He clenched his fists but there was nothing for him to beat with them.

A long gray hand attached to a long gray wrist which emerged from a loose sleeve of what might have been pale green silk embossed with a delicate paisley-like fractal pattern reached over his shoulder.

It held a small packet of unscented baby wipes.

Keep it. One of the greatest inventions of humanity, the baby wipe. It says a certain something about you, don’t you think?” a gentle voice said from behind him. William took the baby wipes, resisted the urge to look behind him. If he was in danger, danger would probably not hand him baby wipes. He cleaned himself until the wipes came away unstained, then stood up and turned.

What he faced was reminiscent of what the tabloids and low-budget conspiracy shows called ‘grays’. Lanky thin, bulge-headed, huge eyes. Unlike the popular image, this being had elfin ears, a button nose, eyes with mahogany pupils and canvas-colored ‘whites’, and a flapping green ‘Earth Mother’ gown with a beaded hem. It also had absolutely no pockets, bags, or parcels from which a packet of baby wipes could have come. A flock of questions hared wildly against the confines of William’s skull. He picked the simplest to voice.

What are you?” he asked.

I am a foreman of sorts, of a group directed to preserve the Human race.” William blinked, looked left and right over the waving grasses covering the land the northern suburbs of a great city once paved, then back at the alien.

You’re late,” he snapped.

Walk with me,” the dress-wearing gray-thing replied, and began to walk south at a leisurely pace. William watched him for a few beats, sighed, then followed.

Where are we going?”

South. We are gathering the people we’ve saved where it’s warm; our work will last through the local winter.”

Saved the same way I was?”

Yes, by… pushing you back through the event that killed you, is probably the simplest way to describe it. We were not inclined to act while you still had a chance to get things right for yourselves."

And now?”

You’ll still do it yourselves, that’s how everything in life works. But it’s obvious it’s time for us to offer help.”

Why not before we destroyed ourselves—we did destroy ourselves, didn’t we?”

Oh, yes. You idiots flung enough antimatter down from orbit to catastrophically pierce the crust in several places. The upwelling of mantle material would have repaved most of the planet. A few bacteria would have survived, I’m sure. That’s what they do, survive. You find spores out on the bow shock of supernovae, for pity’s sake.” A short silence ensued. With surprise, William noted they were strolling through a light woods. He hadn’t noticed the transition.

So why not?” he asked.

Why not what?”

Why didn’t you save us before we blew it all up?”

Because you had an incredible amount of baggage,” the alien explained, “as a feral race. It’s obvious. You devoted half of your collective mental energy to, essentially, talking to imaginary friends. It’s one thing to write fiction, nearly every intelligent race does that. It’s entirely a different thing to start talking to it and expecting answers.”

Feral race? What do you mean by that?”

Evolving intelligence in isolation. Most biospheres that produce intelligence produce anywhere from ten to a hundred or so races capable of self-aware intellectual thought in coexistence. The average is twenty-nine.”

What?” William exclaimed, at a loss.

Have you ever heard of the phenomenon of feral children?” the alien asked.

What?” William repeated, still stunned. Twenty-nine intelligent races on a single world?

Feral children. Ones who, through abandonment or gross neglect, grow up without significant interaction with other people. They become, through no fault of their own, animalistic, withdrawn, nearly incapable of learning reason, empathy, even basic communication. A tiny, tiny minority of them, however, do learn and recover once interaction is restored. We hoped the multiple cultures you had evolved would be enough to allow recovery once you had global communications. You were showing promising progress, but…” The alien sighed, a very human sound. “…well. Boom. But all is not lost.”

What?” William said a third time, his mind stretched well past the limits of endurance. He badly needed to sit down, and maybe pass out. The alien stopped, looked at him.

You need to rest. Relax here and I’ll be back in a few days.” The alien reached out and opened the door to a large cabin, revealing a well-lit space with an overstuffed couch behind a massive rustic-beam coffeetable and a large entertainment unit with a rack of fishing poles sitting atop it. The cabin was nestled in the pocket of high hills from between which a red dirt banked stream emerged to feed a smallish and, from the color of it and the cool breeze wafting from it, deep lake.

Where are we?”

Georgia. I’ll explain later. Go rest.” The alien walked off, passed behind a tangle of brambles and failed to emerge from the other side.

William stared alternately into the cabin and out into the now-alienless woods of what was supposedly Georgia. It looked a lot like any other woods to him, his experience limited to the occasional hike on a well-tended and traveled trail. Eventually, he tired of jerking his head back and forth and, without a coherent thought in his completely blown mind he went inside. He laid down, clothed and dirty boots and all, on the overstuffed couch and fell into oblivion as if turned off with a switch.

In the morning, he went looking for food. There in the spotless, otherwise empty refrigerator, sat a neatly plastic-wrapped slab of four thick-cut slices of bacon, a small bowl containing two jumbo eggs, an extra-thick English muffin, a fat pat of real butter enclosed in a neat fold of wax paper, and a small cruet of—he removed it, sniffed, put it back—heavy cream for his coffee. At the thought of coffee, the scent of it revealed itself to his nose, the aggressive bitter aroma of espresso. A quad shot sat steaming in glass on the rack of a shiny new espresso machine on the counter.

Hello?” William asked the cabin aloud. “Hello!” he repeated, louder. That the only food and drink in the house was exactly what he wanted for breakfast seemed like it must be the work of the alien. The alien, whose name he didn’t know. He made a mental note to ask, then poured espresso and cream into a heavy black cup after warming the earthenware with a hot water rinse from the tap.

He sat in front of the entertainment set, sipping his hot drink. He picked up the remote control, looked at it thoughtfully. If he turned it on, what would be there? DVR of recent but now vanished programming? News of—what? Was the world truly destroyed and renewed sans cities? Was the alien lying to him, was he in some sort of nature preserve? He set the remote control down.

Where had the espresso come from? Why exactly the four strips of bacon he was hungry for this morning? Why was it applewood smoked, pepper-crusted bacon—his favorite type? Why jumbo eggs, the eggs he always bought, but not the eggs most people bought; why the two he was hungry for now and not a carton?

Where had the alien been keeping the baby wipes? It had no pockets, purse, or bag.

William sat back in the puffy embrace of the couch and closed his eyes. He imagined a small flat plate, black, with an uneven white drip-glazed rim, slightly upturned. He imagined it on the table. He imagined a large, curvaceous, puffy, flaky butter croissant fresh from the oven. He imagined the smell of it.

He smelled the smell of it. He opened his eyes. There it sat, on the very plate he had envisioned. The faintest suggestion of steam wafted up from it. He touched it; it was nearly, but not quite, hot enough to burn his fingers. He lifted it. He broke it, the flaky layers stretching after the halves as they moved apart and finally tearing. There came the real steam, from the torn interior, a gentle but distinct curl of it. It carried the definite aroma of sweet cream butter. He bit into it, the flakiness giving way tenderly, the simple flavor flooding his mouth and his nose and his memory. This was the very croissant he had enjoyed in a café in Vichy when he was twelve, on a summer trip with his parents. He had never had its like again. Until now. He finished the pastry slowly, tears gathering in his eyes but not spilling, remembering his long-dead parents. That wonderful trip. Being twelve. Chicago. His job, his car, his house, the woman he had once meant to share that home with, now long gone.

Before the croissant, he had planned to go looking for the alien. Instead, he cooked and ate breakfast, then took a fishing rod down from the rack above the TV.

The tacklebox was in the closet where he expected to find it. By the time he got to the lake and opened it, the dozen fresh cool nightcrawlers he expected in their little Styrofoam cup of dirt were there too.

He spent the morning fishing and roasted the half dozen fat perch he caught over a fire retrieved from memory in a pan he plucked from the air. Then he went for a long walk, careful to imagine nothing at all.

By the time he tried the television, two days later, he understood it was essentially a crutch, an aid to imagination, that he could use it to review anything in his memory. Not just that he could remember, but in his memory. He could never have remembered every detail of that childhood croissant, but it had been there, evoked to the conscious level in the act of eating. The mind stores everything it experiences, whether we can recall it or not. Scanning the DVR menu, he was happy to discover that it was more than that. He watched a cop show starring what appeared to be very fat ferrets with very short stiff black fur and uniforms that looked like they’d been attacked by a mob of amateur crafters wielding sequin attaching devices. After that, he watched three-quarters of an hour of a thing that looked vaguely like the offspring of a walrus and a butterfly deliver the news of the local globular cluster. About halfway through, a helpful wide-angle graphic showed him that said cluster was located near the galactic core, which he was pretty sure Earth was not near.

A few days passed. William wasn’t particularly paying attention, but he thought it was six or seven. His old life gone, whatever new life he might have in the future in limbo for the moment, he was a ghost in his own existence, drifting, rootless. There was nothing for him to control aside from his newfound powers to manifest whatever objects he desired; he supposed he could have gone exploring or looking for the alien, but there didn’t seem to be much point to it immediately. Still, he was getting to the point where he would have gone looking for the gray in the green dress when he, she or it returned. William was having a cup of Earl Gray tea with cream and a slice of lemon floating on top, waiting for a coffee crusted ribeye to finish resting on a wire rack on the counter while halved baby red potatoes sat drowning in butter and dill in a dish beside it.

Feeling better, William?” The alien asked as it walked through the front door after giving it a polite tap-tap-tap.

Much,” William replied, “and I don’t remember asking your name, sorry.”

Ephguelph,” the slender being said. It seated itself at the dinner table, adjusting its coral pink dress, in cut very similar to the pastel green it had worn on their first meeting.

And you’re female?” William asked, feeling silly. Still, it was an alien.

Partly,” was the reply, and William felt a bit better about his question. “Think of my people as fungus who spawn a bit like fish do. I can lay eggs—spores, actually—and fertilize them as well.”

So you can… go fertilize yourself?”

It’s generally a bad idea, but in a pinch, yes.”

William shook his head. He hadn’t meant to open a discussion about alien sex habits, though he wasn’t sure this actually qualified as sex. It sounded considerably less fun. To cover the lapse in conversation, he busied himself with food, beginning with manifesting a second plate from wherever the things were coming from.

Oh, please don’t,” Ephguelph said. “I could only consume fungus, as fresh as the foodstuffs you consume are. Any meat or vegetation would have to be well-aged.”

What does that mean?”

Decomposing. I could eat your meal, but it’d be like you sitting down to a plate full of raw green peaches. Spectacularly unpleasant in an hour or less.” Ephguelph stood, found a glass in the cupboard, filled it with water from the tap. “This will do for now. Some beings just aren’t meant to share a meal.” They both sat, and William nibbled at his steak and potatoes.

So, Ephguelph, you said you were here to save the human race. I haven’t seen any humans. I take it you dropped me off long enough to get over the initial shock of the end of the world and—coming back from the dead, I guess?”

Yes. Essentially, we’ve forced a number of humans back along their own timelines through the moment of demise, and deposited you here in a neighboring brane, a parallel Earth, essentially, in which the homo sapiens line didn’t survive the Toba eruption population bottleneck 70,000 years ago.” William paused, tempted to ask for an explanation of whatever Toba was, but ‘population bottleneck’ pretty much spoke for itself. He opted for questions closer to the point.

A parallel universe? This gets stranger all the time. Why? Why save us, why not help us before the end? If there are parallel universes, what is the purpose in the first place? Isn’t there another Earth just like mine, only we didn’t blow ourselves up?”

Well… there are lots of parallel universes, yes, but not quite like you’re imagining. Realities distinct from one another are significantly different. The ones closest to each other are continuously folding back into themselves, eliminating close parallels. Think of it like the braids of a rope, strands returning to the central line, emerging from the other side, plunging back in. Also, many branes have physical constants inimical to life as we know it, and are therefore inaccessible to us. The bottom line is, you’re unique enough to be worth saving. Your civilization as it was, however, was not. We’ve saved your libraries and archives, your artifacts and history books, your philosophy and even your religious writings. These things are like strands of a rope also, even if we were inclined to hide elements of your past from you, you’d simply reconstruct it given the nature of the gaps the hiding would create. In fact, what you’d reconstruct would probably be worse, because you’d be starting from the premise that you were being misled and manipulated.”

And being moved to a parallel universe allows what? You to isolate us for our own protection or something?”

No, not at all. Once faster-than-light capability is developed on a particular planet—and you will certainly discover it for yourselves sooner or later—the nature of it necessarily opens the doors to neighboring branes as well. There’s the answer to Fermi’s paradox, by the way. Once you can travel fast enough to colonize the galaxy, you’ve opened access to, if not an infinity of galaxies, at least several billion useful ones all superimposed upon each other.”

That solves nothing,” William said. “Billions of galaxies, billions of races to populate them.”

Oh, no. One galaxy in about a million seems to generate a planet bearing life that winds up capable of interstellar and interbrane travel. If it wasn’t for parallel universes we’d never meet each other, aside from the races we co-evolve with.”

So, something like humans, evolving intelligence all alone, that’s pretty rare.”

Ridiculously so. Tool making has survival value. So do the complex social structures that intelligence evolves to take advantage of and vice versa. Normally, one life form developing intelligence creates something of an evolutionary arms race to take advantage of the niche of tool builder.”

None of that explains why you’re here,” William said, and scraped the remains of his meal into the garbage. Ephguelph stood as well, followed William into the living room and out the front door into the woods.

William, your people are generalists, the only ones I am aware of. You’re vanishingly rare, and ridiculously useful.”

And valuable, I guess,” William replied bitterly.

Yes. But we are not slave masters, if that is what you fear. Slavery is one of those things that works for a while, but comes to an ugly and violent end sooner or later. Let us walk farther south. It is getting late, and the nights here are too cold for me.”

Can’t you just use whatever it is that I’m using to conjure meals and bait out of thin air to conjure a coat?”

I’d need some pretty specialized gear to live through the night here, William. And I’d rather not deal with it when we can just leave.”

So how do we leave? Imagine traveling?” William had given the way they had arrived at the cabin a lot of thought in his days alone, but had not been willing to try to use it himself so quickly.

Basically, yes. During your reconstruction we included an Omni, a mental interface with a brane-manipulation device. It’s somewhat limited, but you can use it to manifest just about anything you can imagine, up to around your own mass. You can also brane-hop just a bit, to speed movement around the world you’re in. It’s a bit like teleportation, only slower.”

Only slower. How inconvenient,” he said, rolling his eyes. “So what, ten miles per step or something?”

Or something. You proceed in a way that your mind can handle easily. You transition through terrain types smoothly… oh, it’s hard to explain, much easier to do. Just follow me and don’t try going anywhere, I know where we’re going.”

So they walked. This time William paid attention as they walked into heavier woods. The woods began to thin again, and a salt scent slowly grew in the air. Soon, the cover of fallen leaves they walked on began to show specks of sand, then a scattering, then the sand shuusshed under their feet as they kicked it over the dry leaves in sprays. They walked from the edge of the forest onto a broad beach of white sand that grew tan, then narrower. The trees at the edge of the dunes began to share space with a few palms, then a few trees shared space with many palms and ferns and cycads. The curved shoreline they walked along straightened, then broadened again, and the sand darkened to almost black before returning by shades to white again. The air grew warmer, warmer, then muggy and moist. Finally they came to a spot where the beach broadened into a plain of small ruffled dunes, the largest knee high, a quarter mile of expanse bounded on one side by the placid ocean and on the other by an azure lake with a shore heavy with lush reeds and palms. On that shore stretched a triple row of little tan cabins, all the way around. There must have been thousands.

William, meet the human race,” said Ephguelph. William squinted his eyes, trying to make out details, then wised up, cupped his hand and willed a pair of binoculars into it. He used them to look across the scene. There were children playing in the sand, all around the lake at the edge of the reeds. Thousands of them. He saw very few adults.

How many?” he asked.

About 140,000 children between the ages of 5 and 10. We’ve also retrieved about 4,000 suitable adults like yourself; we’re still acclimating them to their new situation as I’ve helped you acclimate. Just enough adults to take care of the childrens’ emotional needs and instruct them in the culture and history of humanity, not enough to control them.”

What the hell, Ephguelph?” William exclaimed, distressed. “That’s a recipe for a lot of dead and hurt kids.”

Oh, no. There are a couple hundred million of us volunteers scheduled to pitch in over the duration of the project. We’ll be making sure their physical and safety needs, and basic educational needs are met. Some, like me, are planning to be here for the entire hundred years or so it will take to rebuild the kernel of your civilization and culture and discard the scars that growing up as ferals left on you as a people. Most are donating a year or two.”

How could we possibly rebuild a technological civilization in only a century… oh. The Omni things.”

Yes. You’ll learn to use them. You adults will learn to be competent; the children will be quite adept.”

And then?”

And then you join us in a larger civilization. Look, your people are generalists, as I pointed out earlier. Look at me. I am fragile, William. Half an hour in temperatures below 50 degrees Farenheit will kill me. Above 100 degrees, I will dry out and die if the humidity isn’t over 90%. I can only eat other fungi, or things that have rotted almost to liquefaction. Like most intelligent beings, I am highly specialized for my ecological niche and not well suited to dealing with variation.”

But we’re not. Because we’re ferals. Because nothing else evolved to challenge us for the other niches in the environment.”

Yes. And not only are you generalists, the fact of your generalization greatly spurred your imaginations. The fact of the matter is, you have more imagination than any of the rest of us; only our geniuses reach the levels of your average individual in that regard. And the ones of you we saved are all well above average in one regard or another. William, do you know what saved you?” William thought for long minutes. He thought about wonders like the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. He thought about the Apollo project and the Space Shuttle. He thought about the internet and the GPS system. He thought about humanity’s constant wars and deadly weapons. He thought about the wild profusion of foods and gadgets choking the average store or mall.

Baby wipes?” William asked, finally.

Damn right, William. Baby wipes. Stuff we never think of, like that. The fine details that make life just that much easier.”