The story is of a man, a woman, and a world. But ghosts pass through it, and gods. Time does, which is more mysterious than any of these.
A boy stood on a hilltop and looked skyward. The breeze around him was a little cold, as if it whispered of the spaces yonder. He kept his parka hood up. Gloves didn't make his fingers too clumsy for the telescope he had carried here. Already now, before the autumnal equinox, summer was dying out of the Tanana valley and the nights lengthening fast. Some warmth did linger in the forest that enclosed this bare height: he caught a last faint fragrance of spruce.
The dark reached brilliant above him, the Milky Way cleaving it with frost, the Great Bear canted and Capella outshining Polaris in the north, ruddy Arcturus and Altair flanking steely Vega in the west, a bewilderment of stars. Though the moon was down, treetops lifted gray beneath their light.
A spark rose among them, a satellite in a high-inclination orbit. The boy's gaze followed it till it vanished. Longing shook him. To be out there!
He would. Someday he would.
Meanwhile he had this much heaven. Best get started. He must flit back home at a reasonable hour. Tomorrow his school gyroball team was having practice, he wanted to work out a few more Fourier series--if you just told the computer to do it, you'd never learn what went on--and in the evening he'd take a certain girl to a dance. Maybe afterward he'd have nerve enough to recite her a poem he'd written about her. He hastily postponed that thought.
His astronomical pursuits had gone well past the usual sights. This time he savored their glories only briefly, for he was after a couple of Messier objects. There was no need to spoil the adaptation of his eyes. He spoke a catalogue number to the telescope mount. It found the RA and dec, pointed the instrument, and commenced tracking. He bent over the eyepiece and touched the knobs. Somehow it always felt better to focus for himself.
The thing swam into view, dim and misty. He hadn't the power to resolve more than a hint of structure. But it wasn't a nebula, it was a galaxy, the most remote he had yet tried for, suns in their tens of billions, their births and deaths, whirling neutron globes, unfathomable black holes, clouds of star-stuff, surely planets and moons and comets, surely--oh, please--living creatures, maybe--who could say?--some that were gazing his way and wondering.
No. Stupid, the boy chided himself. It's too far. How many light-years? I can't quite remember.
He didn't immediately ask for the figure. Down south he had seen the Andromeda glimmer awesome through six lunar diameters of arc, and it was a couple of million off. Here he spied on another geological era.
No, not even that. Lately he had added geology to his interests, and one day realized that magnolias were blooming on Earth when the Pleiades kindled. It strengthened his sense of the cosmos as a unity, where he too belonged. Well, that star cluster was only about a hundred parsecs away. (Only!) It was not altogether ridiculous to imagine what might be going on there as you watched, three and a quarter centuries after the light now in your eyes had departed it. But across gulfs far less deep than this that confronted him, simultaneity had no meaning whatsoever. His wistfulness to know if any spirit so distant shared his lifetime would never be quenched. It could not be.
The night chill seemed to flow through aperture and lens into him. He shivered, straightened, glanced around in a sudden, irrational-search for reassurance.
Air tingled through his nostrils. Blood pulsed. The forest stood tall from horizon to horizon. Another satellite skittered low above it. An owl hooted.
The ground stayed firm beneath his feet. A nearby boulder, weathered, probably glacier-scarred, bore the same witness to abidingness. If human science asked its age, the answer would be as real as the stone.
We're not little bits of nothing, the boy thought half defiantly. We count too. Our sun is a third as old as the universe. Earth isn't much younger. Life on Earth isn't much younger than that. And we have learned this all by ourselves.
The silence of the stars replied: You have measured it. Do you understand it? Can you?
We can think it, he declared. We can speak, it, Can you?
Why did the night seem to wait?
Oh, yes, he thought, we don't see or feel it the way we do what's right around us. If I try to picture bricks or something side by side, my limit is about half a dozen. If I'd been counting since I was born and kept on till I died, I wouldn't get as high as twenty billion. But I reason. I imagine. That's enough.
He had always had a good head for figures. He could scale them down till they lay in his mind like pebbles in his hand. Even those astrophysical ages--No, maybe it didn't make sense either, harking clear back to the quantum creation. Too much that was too strange had happened too fast. But afterward time must have run for the first of the stars as it did for him. The chronology of life was perfectly straightforward.
Not that it had an exact zero point. The traces were too faint. Besides, most likely there wasn't any such moment. Chemistry evolved, with no stage at which you could say this had come alive. Still, animate matter certainly existed sometime between three and a half and four billion years ago.
The boy's mind jumped, as if a meteor had startled him. Let's split the difference and call the date three-point-six-Jive billion B.C.E., he thought. Then one day stands for ten million years. Life began when January the first did, and this is midnight December the thirty-first, the stroke of the next new year.
So…along about April, single cells developed, nuclei, ribosomes, and the rest. The cells got together, algae broke oxygen free into the atmosphere, and by November the first trilobites were crawling over the sea floor. Life invaded the land around Thanksgiving. The dinosaurs appeared early in December. They perished on Christmas Day. The hominids parted company with the apes at noon today. Primitive Homo sapiens showed up maybe fifteen minutes ago. Recorded history had lasted less than one minute. And here they were, measuring the universe, ranging the Solar System, planning missions to the stars.
Where will we be by sunrise? he wondered for a dizzying moment.
It passed. The upward steepness was an illusion, he knew. To go from worm to fish took immensely longer than to go from fish to mammal because the changes were immensely greater. By comparison, an ancient insectivore was very like an ape, and an ape nearly identical with a human.
Just the same, the boy thought, we've become a force of nature, and not only on this world. It's never seen anything like us before. Our little piece of extra brain tissue has got to have taken us across a threshold.
But what threshold, and what's beyond it?
He shivered again, pushed the question away from him, and turned back to his stargazing.
Copyright © 2000 by The Trigonier Trust The bestselling author of such classic novels as Brain Wave and The Boat of a Million Years, Poul Anderson won just about every award the science fiction and fantasy field has to offer. He has won multiple Hugos and Nebulas, the John W. Campbell Award, The Locus Poll Award, the Skylark Award, and the SFWA Grandmaster Award for Lifetime Achievement. His recent books include Harvest of Stars, The Stars are also On Fire, Operation Chaos, Operation Luna, Genesis, Mother of Kings, and Going for Infinity, a collection and retrospective of his life's work. Poul Anderson lived in Orinda, California where he passed away in 2001.