Short Story: Building Worlds

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His hearts were pumping loudly; he could feel them beating in his chest. He glanced around nervously, hoping no one noticed, and then realized he was alone.

He was—of course—nervous about today’s Final Review of his project, to which he’d devoted nearly all of his waking hours, as well as most of those set aside for sleeping. He was paralyzed with dread, knowing he could not fare well; not after the latest disastrous results.

Come on, Hommin, you’re being too hard on yourself, he kept thinking. Wars are common; it’s not your fault. But somehow, he couldn’t come to terms with wars that wipe out their civilizations. It was just unacceptable. After all, it was my job to set everything in place.

Earth had never done what he wanted it to. Not really. Even in the beginning, when everything was running splendidly, there were problems. He was beginning to think he’d never make it through another year, let alone graduate and earn a degree in World-Building.

While he waited, he thought back to the very first days of the project, when he had been so excited to begin, and his project was all he could think about…

* * *

Hommin was enthralled by the sheer scale of the University upon arriving. From the road, the buildings had looked so small and remote. Yet as he approached, the structures quickly began to loom overhead, encroaching on the sky itself, as if ready to topple over at any moment. Vertigo seized him upon first glance of the towering summits; those vast structures imposing their will upon him.

He couldn’t believe it. At last, he was standing on the grounds of the University; the most prestigious and glamorous school in the known Universe. After so many years of struggling, and ignoring his parents, who told him how he was wasting his time. His father desperately wanted Hommin to apprentice as an artist—in other words, follow in his footsteps. But Hommin’s dream was of the art of world-building, and his dream was finally coming true. Hommin was surprised when he was accepted for the World-Building program with his first application; he was one of only two hundred students admitted.

And now he was here. Standing on the campus of the University. He couldn’t help but be intimidated.

He recovered his bearing quickly, though. Most of the buildings—beautiful and gigantic as they were—contained miles and miles of staircases, corridors, and elevators, so navigation around the campus became a logistical challenge in itself.

But Hommin didn’t mind, and went about his work quickly, spending hours each day in the library researching utopias from the past, and studying the failures as well, trying to determine just the right mix for his world. He found the library comforting, enjoying the quiet atmosphere, the darkened windows, and the faint smell of ancient texts, now securely tucked away in their vault.

He managed to pry his eyes away from the screen for a moment, looking about the library, wondering why there were so few people present. Of course, it’s a holiday. He wondered then why no one was using their free time to prepare for the upcoming assignment.

He studied the librarian, securely tucked away behind its massive desk. It was rarely needed these days—what with the computerized consoles, and the electronic query software. But still, there was a lot to be said for tradition.

Above the librarian were two study alcoves, with tables and chairs, and a first-class sound enclosure. Many students used the rooms for study sessions, able to argue noisily without disturbing others. They were empty at the moment.

Overall, the library was quite beautiful. White walls shone brilliantly, except where the windows, spaced every few feet, looked out on the campus. The windows were polarized, so less light would pass through during the brighter hours of the day. The carpets were rich and plush; a decorative blue, almost navy, in color.

Hommin had just decided to reference another source when he spotted a new face walking into the library. It was a young female, about his age. As she walked, she glanced his way, making eye contact and smiled. Hommin quickly turned away, embarrassed to be caught looking, yet strangely excited; his hearts beat powerfully, visible beneath his tunic.

He had never had a mate, nor experienced love of any kind before, and was confused by the emotions now roiling within him. But he dismissed the feelings as trivial, and quickly went back to work dissecting the texts of famous World-Builders from the past, and their descriptions of masterpieces won and lost.

* * *

At last the day arrived when the Instructor called all the world-building students into a vast auditorium, and began to explain their assignment.

“Welcome,” he said loudly. He waited for everyone in the room to settle down, and continued only when the cavernous chamber was totally silent.

“My name is Professor Norric. I will be your Instructor for your first year.” He smiled, looking around the room, deliberately scanning faces, as if memorizing each one.

“This project will comprise your entire year, and will culminate in a Final Review before the term is over. You will receive no grades or standings until the time of Final Review. Therefore, you are allowed to make mistakes, which will not be counted against you until the end. If you overcome them, good. If not, well…” He was being melodramatic, purposely creating a mood of despair. The atmosphere in the room felt ominous.

“When you graduate from the University as World-Builders, you will be able to take any world, no matter how severe, and create a perfect civilization. Each civilization is unique, and brings new ideas with it. That is why our job is so critical. To make sure those civilizations thrive.

“You will be allowed the opportunity to select your sector of space, and proceed with building a single planet to maturity; or as far as possible, within the term.

“I will supervise, but you will only be given help if you come to me and ask. I encourage you to do so. The job of a World-Builder is immensely difficult; infinitely complex, and one not easily mastered.

“That said,” the Instructor went on cheerfully, “we will begin by drawing names.” He smiled, pausing dramatically, before adding, “to be fair.”

He took a few minutes to prepare while the crowd milled about expectantly, the sound of the auditorium filling with people jabbering excitedly—or with groaning, as those up near the front complained. At last, the Instructor clapped his hands, and reached for a small handheld display.

Hommin watched as the huge wallscreen at the front of the room flared to life, displaying a massive map of a spiral galaxy. There were lines all over it, and Hommin immediately recognized it as the study map they were given at the beginning of the term. They were assigned, weeks ago, to study each and every sector marked off on the map, in order to be familiar with its qualities.

Many of the other students had blown off the assignment, dismissing it as trivial, instead spending much of their time partaking in crude social events, rather than studying. It was obvious—from the way most of them selected their sectors—that they hadn’t any idea of the importance the properties of those sectors would play in their project.

One girl actually chose her sector because it contained a nebula which was “pretty”, as she said. What she apparently didn’t realize is that most planets never succeed near nebulae due to the constant lighting. The sheer abundance of it disrupts most day/night patterns. But alas, it was her project, and not his.

Hommin watched, with growing anxiety, as most of the better sectors were chosen by those that had spent some time studying. He had finally made his own two choices when he noticed a familiar face in the crowd.

It was the same girl who had been in the library a few weeks ago, the one he’d been embarrassed to be caught looking at. Her name was Rhyla Rhohman, according to the Instructor, who was calling names—apparently randomly—from his handheld display. She quietly stood up, looking uncomfortable in the crowd of eyes that quickly swiveled around to gaze at her.

As Hommin watched, he caught himself thinking that she was quite attractive—though probably not to the casual observer. She was fit and trim, her skin a pale blue that seemed to shine lightly. Her eyes were a marvelous shade of turquoise, and glinted brightly in the dim light of the room, belying a remarkable intelligence buried below the exterior. She walked gracefully, and her high cheeks made her look strangely exotic. But something about the way she held herself, and her nervous mannerisms quickly rendered her invisible to most male eyes. As Hommin looked around the room, not one set remained on her; except Hommin’s. He seemed unable to pry his gaze away.

She quickly scanned the map, touching a sector on the wall which immediately turned red, indicating it was taken. She turned around, scanning the crowd impassively as she made her way back to her seat. A tiny smile played over her lips as she finally found her chair, sitting down. She turned and looked directly at Hommin, the smile still evident. Hommin matched her gaze for a moment before breaking away, feeling his hearts pump blood to his face, which he was positive was now bright blue. Once again, he felt uncomfortable, and would have left, had he already made his selection.

Reminding himself he was here for his assignment, he quickly put his mind back in the mode to work. It was then that he realized she’d chosen his primary sector. He glanced back at her, and saw she was still looking at him—her grin wider now. He glared at her and saw her smile fade just a touch.

“Hommin Homarid.” He heard his name called, and stood quickly. When he rose, his chair slid back noisily, and everyone in the room turned to look at him. He began walking toward the front, but suddenly found himself staring at the floor. He scrambled back to his feet, ignoring the laughter throughout the cavernous room, and looked back. A small male was sliding his foot backward—obviously the same foot that had caused Hommin’s fall. He was laughing with his friends, while looking Hommin straight in the eyes, an expression of evil glee distorting his face. Hommin knew it was a face he would not easily forget; it was marred by two stunted eyestalks, which hugged the contours of his face. Hommin wondered how anyone could see like that.

As Hommin turned to continue to the stage, he thought, Great, as if my life weren’t complicated enough.

Hommin treated everyone to another round of laughter when he chose his sector. There were few remaining by that time, so Hommin chose a very remote area, in one of the outer spiral arms, on nearly the opposite side of the galaxy from the other selections. This part of the map had very few sectors, and most of them were spread quite far apart. In fact, no one had chosen a sector anywhere near his; one of the reasons for Hommin’s choice.

The room erupted in raucous jeers when he touched the screen, watching the sector fade to a red set of lines and geometric shapes. Apparently, everyone thought he had made an unwise and otherwise catastrophic choice. Hommin began to second-guess himself before he noticed the Instructor looking at him curiously. He met the gaze of the Professor who nodded almost imperceptibly. The look in his eyes changed from that of curiosity to one of surprise, and—for just a moment—pride.

Hommin smiled as he stepped down from the stage, heading back to his seat. As he walked, he gazed over at the young woman, whose name he now knew to be Rhyla, and smiled broadly, reveling in the look of worried concern that played across her face. This time it was her that looked away, blushing slightly.

***

But Earth had never really behaved the way he wanted it to; the way it was designed to.

Back in the beginning days of the project, Hommin had carefully crafted every aspect of the world: the oceans, making sure the landmasses were all just right and carefully balancing the tepid atmosphere. But in the end, he was getting no results; nothing happened.

Frustrated by his lack of success, Hommin looked around, searching for anyone else that showed signs of distress. He was surprised to see that most of the students had already gone home for the evening, leaving the laboratory nearly empty. Some of the more dedicated still labored over their stations, faces filled with concern. One fellow was mumbling quietly to himself.

He glanced at Rhyla’s station, but didn’t see her there. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt sorry that she wasn’t around. Deep down, he took some strange pleasure from having her nearby, even if they never spoke. He turned back to his screen, feeling overwhelmed by what he was trying to do here. He sighed, wishing he could just figure out the hurdle he needed to overcome; he’d already spent too much time on this problem.

He was resting his head on the desk when a voice spoke behind him.

“You need a satellite.”

He turned, looking up at the voice, blinking his eyes in concentration. It took him a moment to register that it was Rhyla standing there. At first he was confused, having looked for her just moments before, but finding her station empty. Then anger flashed through him as he realized she was criticizing his work.

“Excuse me?” he replied indignantly, a touch of anger in his voice.

She laughed, apparently realizing her accusations, which in turn only further angered him. But he realized how beautiful she was when she smiled, and found himself blushing and turning away, back to his screen.

“I’m sorry, I meant no harm,” she said. “I was having the same problem, so I created a moon for my planet, and things started happening much more rapidly. It creates a better evolutionary cycle—creates stronger tides and such.” She reached over his shoulder and pointed to a few diagrams on the screen.

He was vaguely aware of her scent, and the slight pressure of her skin pressed warmly against him as she leaned against his shoulder. Her words seemed far away, as he tried to come to terms with what he was feeling.

She must have sensed that he wasn’t really listening; she ceased speaking and just stared at him.

He realized there were no words coming from her, and with a start said, “I’m sorry. You were saying?”

She smiled lightly, but continued. “I was saying that I’ve been watching you, and you seem to have a real talent for this.”

He was surprised by her compliment. He had thought of himself as struggling through the entire process and felt as though he were failing miserably. He started to respond, but she interrupted.

“Oh come now, don’t be modest,” she said. “Not once have you gone to Instructor Norric to ask for help. That shows an incredible amount of acumen, especially this far along into the project.” She looked at him closely, searching his eyes, he realized, for the emotions that swam just beneath the surface.

He realized she was attracted to him, in the same way he was attracted to her—both of them afraid to speak their feelings. He suddenly felt more uncomfortable than he’d ever remembered feeling before, but was reluctant to let her leave.

“Instructor Norric?” he asked, drawing a blank at whom she was referring to.

“Yes, our Instructor for the project,” she said, almost sarcastically. She smiled, seeing that it still hadn’t dawned on him who she was speaking of. “The man in the white coat that’s always in here talking to students?” This time sarcasm dripped from her voice, and Hommin was keenly aware of the way it rose and fell in pitch as she spoke.

He looked her straight in the eyes, and felt himself slowly drowning in a depth so complete, he thought he’d never find his way out again. At last, he shook out of his stupor, and responded to her teasing statement.

“Yes! Of course, Instructor Norric. I, I hadn’t remembered his name, that’s all.” He was beginning to stammer, shivering with nervous energy, feeling ridiculously embarrassed by being caught so off-guard.

“He thinks very highly of you, you know,” Rhyla said, stepping back a pace, looking around to see if anyone was watching them.

Hommin was again surprised by her remark. The idea that the Instructor would think highly of any student, least of all Hommin—who had been struggling from the very day he began the project—took him completely by surprise. Indeed, ever since he’d stood up to pick his sector all those weeks ago, he’d been second-guessing himself.

“H-He thinks highly o-of m-me?” he stammered out. “How do you know?”

“Well I’ve spoken to him on several occasions, when I was having problems with my world. He was the one who suggested a satellite, actually.” She was smiling now, and seemed to be enjoying her conversation with Hommin, who was beginning to become more comfortable, now that the topic was shifting back toward the work at hand.

“By the way, my name is Rhyla,” she said, extending her hand to him in the traditional form of greeting. He laid his hand on hers, lightly touching palms and fingertips for a moment, before drawing his hand away, perhaps too quickly. At first he was afraid she would take his actions as an insult, but he realized she had drawn her hand away just as swiftly.

She was breathing a little deeper than normal, and he could just notice a slight blush to her face, tinted a brighter blue than usual.

“H-Hommin,” he replied, smiling for the first time since their conversation began. She matched his smile, and they stared into each other’s eyes for a short eternity.

Rhyla cleared her throat, and the magical spell that enclosed the both of them disappeared. Hommin suddenly felt very self-conscious, and could feel his hearts pounding strongly. He began breathing more regularly, hoping to slow his heartbeats.

He looked away from her, letting the awkward silence stretch, until it seemed that someone need speak. “So… your project is coming along well?” he asked, trying not to sound too interested. In fact, he was desperate to learn something more detailed about someone else’s project than he’d been able to deduce from watching reactions around the lab.

“Quite well; would you like to see?” Her face lit up at the first sign of interest from him, and she didn’t bother to wait for his response before grabbing his hand and dragging him up out of his chair. “Follow me, I’ll show you.”

After that, the two of them helped each other on their projects often, but neither of them ever broached the subject of their attraction to each other. It seemed to grow into a strange type of taboo; that both of them were afraid to speak their true feelings, lest they destroy the friendship that was growing stronger and stronger between them with each passing day.

***

Hommin had a few run-ins with the bully after that first incident, when he’d been sent sprawling in a tangle of arms and legs, and the embarrassing laughter that followed. But nothing serious had ever come of the harmless pranks, save for much embarrassment and the reputation Hommin gained for being clumsy.

Hommin was quickly gaining ground with his world, and many of the other students began coming to him for advice, asking him to help fine-tune their approaches. He was glad to offer assistance, and felt more confident than ever about his skills, as Earth grew stronger and more robust with every day that passed.

After a few more months, he was assaulted daily by acquaintances who would merrily ask him how his globe was doing that day. He would always answer the same way: “Still evolving.” It was a joke that many of he and his friends shared.

He and Rhyla continued to help each other out; often staying until they were last in the lab. Their conversations would ultimately turn to things other than their projects, such as their homes, families, and past relationships—a subject in which Hommin was painfully inexperienced.

Both he and Rhyla knew that something wonderful was happening between them, but were unwilling to put their feelings into words, still afraid that it would ruin all that had developed.

Hommin was struggling, trying to understand his feelings. He cared deeply about Rhyla, but wasn’t sure how to deal with his emotions. He had always kept things bottled up. His father had criticized Hommin any time he had shown weakness or emotion, and so Hommin had never been good at expressing his feelings.

So he did what he had always done: he withdrew into himself, diving deeper into his work, until the outside world all but disappeared.

Hommin became so involved with his project that he began skipping meals, staying in the lab until very late—even forgetting to go back to his room to sleep. He spent less time conversing with his classmates and nearly ignored Rhyla when she tried talking to him. She began to worry about his behavior, and decided it was time to take drastic measures.

“Hommin, we need to talk,” she said, standing before his station, arms tucked nervously behind her back.

“Okay, I’ll talk to you tonight, after I’m finished introducing this latest species of reptilians.” He never took his eyes from the display as he spoke.

She sighed. He’d told her the same thing the night before, but had never called. By the time she finally summoned the courage to go to his room, he was asleep at his terminal, slumped over, hands still resting on the controls.

“Hommin, it’s important.” She wasn’t going to be dissuaded this time. She had something she absolutely must tell him, before she lost her nerve.

He still didn’t respond.

“Hommin!” she said, letting her frustration and anger seep into her voice.

He could hear her urgency, and when he looked into her eyes, could see that something important was bothering her. He sighed heavily, rising from his seat and took her hand, leading her out of the lab.

“Let’s get out of here for a little while. I could use some fresh air.” He knew he was lying. He desperately wanted to continue working on his project. Interruptions only gave him more work to do later.

He glanced back at his desk, where a hologram of his planet was projected in the air. A beautiful globe spun slowly, white clouds gracefully swirling over most of the surface, obscuring tantalizing glimpses of blue, brown and a rich, vibrant green. This was Earth; the planet he had been working on for so many months now, and it was nearly ready. Hommin had carefully nurtured the world, and all his hard work and long hours would soon pay off.

***

The afternoon was growing late, the light casting long shadows beneath the tall trees. Hommin stared off at the horizon, as Rhyla chattered about how gorgeous the weather had been lately. It was mating season for the tree larks, and everywhere around campus, the birds were chirping beautifully, singing their songs and building nests. Rhyla was mesmerized by their musical sounds, though Hommin was lost completely in his own thoughts, not responding to her question.

“Hommin?” Rhyla asked, her face growing impatient as she realized he wasn’t paying attention. She had been trying to get through to him lately, wanting to take their relationship to the next level. She finally had come to terms with the fact that she was in love with him, but he hadn’t responded to her at all lately. He’d been so involved with his project, trying to make everything perfect, that he was aware of very little around him.

Most of his friends, whom he’d been assisting all year long, were starting to grumble about his brusque attitude of late. Rhyla was worried about his habits, afraid that he was losing touch with the outside world. She knew that he’d always been a loner, and she was okay with that. She was even okay with the detachment that he often showed toward her. But she was growing frustrated and knew that she must confront him about it, even if he would only push her away.

“Hommin!” She raised her voice, which finally drew his attention.

He started, coming out of his reverie, and looked at Rhyla, feeling lost in her deep, intelligent eyes. “I-I’m sorry, Rhyla. I was thinking about the latest algorithms I’ve added to Earth. I’m curious how they’re responding. The intelligence of the reptilians is steadily increasing. It’s amazing!” He smiled, and reached for her hand; the only physical contact he’d been comfortable with. He seemed to notice the sorrow in her eyes, and his expression became concerned. “What’s the matter?”

She just sighed, wishing she could work up the nerve to pour her heart out to him. She stared into the distance, trying to collect her thoughts. She didn’t want to say anything that would come out wrong, so instead tried a different approach. “How do you think your project is coming along?” she asked wistfully.

He chuckled, finding her question odd, but answered anyway. “Its going great, Rhyla; you know that. You’ve been a tremendous help to me.” He cocked his head, seeing she was deep in thought. “Now you’re not paying attention to me,” he said, teasing.

“No, that’s where you’re wrong.” Her expression became serious. She looked at him, not smiling, and told him, “You have no idea how much attention I pay to you, Hommin. But I’m worried about you. Lately you’ve been so hard to reach—so unapproachable. You seem so lost in your work that you’ve completely shut out everyone around you, and it scares me.”

Hommin locked eyes with Rhyla before looking down at his feet. He realized what she was trying to tell him, suddenly saw that she couldn’t bring herself to say how she felt; how they both felt. “I’m sorry, Rhyla. I know I’ve been difficult lately. I’m just so excited about everything in the project. I feel like I’m finally succeeding!”

“You are, Hommin! No one else is even close to the results you’ve accomplished. Your project is the talk of the entire campus, and you don’t even realize it. You are so talented, but you don’t see it. Or if you do, you don’t allow yourself to believe it; to believe in yourself; to believe in us.” A small tear rolled down her cheek.

Hommin was stunned. He found himself speechless for the first time in as long as he could remember. Not knowing what to say, for fear of angering her, he slowly responded. “I can’t believe in myself, Rhyla. All my life, I’ve never amounted to anything, and now, I find myself with so much. I’m afraid the slightest amount of success will bring it all crashing down around me. My project is going well—very well. Certainly better than I deserve, and a lot of it is because of you. You have helped me in more ways than you realize, and for that I am eternally grateful. But I’m afraid of losing everything I’ve worked for. I’m afraid of losing you.” He couldn’t believe all he was telling her; that he was pouring his heart out, and in that moment, she had the power to utterly crush his hopes and dreams.

“You’ll never lose me, Hommin,” she said. Her tears flowed freely, streaming down her face. Hommin reached over and wiped the tears away before leaning slowly toward her.

They were both magically drawn together until their lips touched and they kissed for the first time. They pulled back quickly, feeling an electric spark between them. Hommin looked into her eyes, staring straight into her soul, and speech was no longer necessary. They both knew the truth, and could not deny their feelings any longer. They kissed again, this time lingering. When they finally drew apart, Rhyla was the first to speak.

She cleared her throat and smiled. “That was nice.”

“Yeah,” he replied shyly. He was blushing.

They turned and stared at the trees—both lost in thought—and let the silence stretch between them.

Finally, Rhyla turned to Hommin and clasped his hand in hers. “So, what do we do now?”

Hommin grinned, letting his smile slowly spread. Rhyla could see a mischievous and excited glint in his eyes, and she knew they were thinking the same thing.

“Now,” he said, stretching the word, “I believe is the part where we go back to my room.” He laughed nervously, and squeezed her hand, belying his nervousness. He couldn’t believe he was asking her to be his mate so abruptly. He knew that most waited until their lives were more settled before taking lovers, especially when children could so easily come into the picture. But he could tell Rhyla was excited by his proposal.

She smiled back, and nearly yanked his arm from the socket as she dragged him along toward the residence halls. “I thought you’d never ask!”

Much later that evening, the two young lovers lay in bed, arms draped around each other, both staring up at the ceiling, lost in their own thoughts.

“Hommin?” Rhyla asked. “How do you see us in the future?” Deep down, she hoped he wanted the same things: to settle down and have children, live in a glorious home and work on world-building. Together, they would create the most glorious utopias ever imagined. They would be a perfect team.

“I don’t know really,” he said, brow furrowed in thought. “I guess I’ve been so busy with my work lately, and with thinking about where this was going, I hadn’t really thought about the future.” He paused for a moment, considering his words. “Mine or ours.”

Rhyla was silent for a few moments before responding. “I understand,” she said quietly. And she did, though she was a little hurt that in all the time they’d been working together, he had never given thought to their future together.

A few awkward minutes passed, neither of them speaking. Rhyla looked over at Hommin who was still gazing into space, his lips moving soundlessly. He was obviously thinking about his project again.

“Hommin.”

“Hmm?” he responded slowly.

“Go back to work.” Her heart broke as she spoke the words, but she knew that he couldn’t help himself; she loved him all the more for it. She would never have to question his dedication—to anything.

He leaned over and kissed her softly. Looking into her eyes, he said, “I love you.”

Her hearts fluttered when she heard the words. Those three little words she never expected to hear from him. “Good,” she said, before wrapping him up in a huge hug.

He walked back to the lab with an extra spring in his step, his mind racing with thoughts of the wonderful events of the past few hours. Hommin was so lost in his thoughts, he didn’t register anything unusual when he saw someone slipping out the door in the back of the lab as he entered through the main entrance.

Before heading to his desk, Hommin walked around the lab, studying the other holograms floating above the students’ stations.

Very few of the other planets had moons orbiting them, which explained why so many were having problems with lifeforms.

The variety of the planets was startling to Hommin. He could see globes of fiery red; volcanic disasters, ripped apart time after time by extraordinary gravity from its parent star.

He chanced upon barren, rocky worlds, too cold and small to hold an atmosphere, and others that were nothing more than a huge mass of craters, bombarded constantly by gigantic asteroids. Greenhouse-runaways, methane-ammonia worlds, sulfuric-yellow globes; the entire lab was filled with a gamut of colors—but something was missing. Everywhere Hommin looked, he noticed the absence of one crucial color: green.

There was no green to be found on any world. Hommin found it odd that no other world would have developed some form of vegetation.

But a green spark in the corner of his vision caught his attention. He turned to look—

—and it was Earth. Glittering and sparkling with beauty, he saw Earth twirling around, casting blue, green, tan and brown hues onto the surrounding stations. It looked gorgeous, like a jewel among rocks, shining brilliantly on its own.

He sat down at his desk, smiling; looking over the numbers and schematics displayed on the screen. As he watched, his smile turned to a frown, then his eyes quickly widened and a surge of panic crossed his face.

A humongous asteroid was headed directly for Earth, threatening to smash into the burgeoning world, ruining all of Hommin’s work.

He watched in horror as the gigantic rock plowed into the planet, throwing up a huge spray of unimaginably hot liquid rock and water, which boiled into the atmosphere. The globe was quickly covered in a blanket of ash and the land and oceans could no longer be seen—only brief glimpses peeked through the planet-wide storm that ensued.

He spent the night watching—paralyzed, as he observed the numbers on the screen rapidly fall; the reptilians he was so proud of dwindling and failing. Geologic time meant nothing to a World-Builder; as Hommin watched millions upon millions of years pass, and witnessed more than seventy-five percent of the life on Earth disappear.

By morning, a harsh ice-age had gripped the planet. Hommin’s once beautiful globe, which had been so colorful—was now shrouded in black clouds and white ice.

Some of the original colors still peeked through the clouds from time to time, located mostly around the equator. Those small bands and patches of green held a remote chance for future success, but Hommin was too devastated to see it. His eyes were still glued to the screen, though he no longer paid attention to the declining numbers scrolling across it.

He was thinking about the past months, and all the mistakes he’d made, which had led up to this failure. All the time he’d spent with Rhyla, when he could have been working on the project. He cursed himself for being blinded by his feelings. He had only himself to blame for this failure.

Then he began thinking about how much she’d tried to get him away from his project lately. Did she have something to do with this? he asked himself. Her project is going well, too, just not as well as mine. She planned this, it’s her fault!

He immediately felt guilty for blaming her, no matter how true he thought it might be. He knew, ultimately, that she would never intentionally harm him or his work. He knew he was to blame for letting her take him away from his world. It was too important to ignore for even a moment, and now, it was ruined.

But how? He couldn’t understand where the huge asteroid had come from. It shouldn’t have been anywhere in the program.

In a flash of insight, Hommin was back outside the lab, watching himself enter those main doors, everything moving in slow motion. He entered the dark, starkly empty lab. As he watched, someone was sneaking out the back door, moving quickly, trying not to be detected. Just as the door was about to close, the intruder glanced back, and Hommin was able to make out the face for just a moment. In that face stood two very short eyestalks, which he immediately recognized. It was the bully; the one that had been bothering him since the very beginning of the project. Everything fell into place for Hommin. His project hadn’t failed.

It had been sabotaged.

The morning session was just beginning as Hommin stormed out of the lab, many students glancing at him in concern. He wanted more than anything to confront the saboteur, but knew he had no proof.

Rhyla was approaching the building from across the courtyard as Hommin threw the doors open, fuming. He saw her, and spun on his heel, immediately heading the opposite direction. She chased after him, calling his name. When she reached him, she placed her hand on his arm. He shook it off roughly and started walking faster, nearly running.

Rhyla struggled to keep up, asking, “Hommin, what’s wrong?”

“My project’s completely ruined, that’s what!” he responded vehemently, still moving swiftly away.

“Ruined? What do you mean? What happened?” Her face was a study of complete confusion. She had no idea why Hommin would be so upset. She tried to keep up with him, but he was practically running. “Hommin, what happened?” she asked desperately.

He stopped and turned to face her, anger in his eyes. Not at her she could see; he was angry with himself.

“Last night an asteroid slammed into my planet, killing nearly everything. I know it was sabotage, and I know who did it, but I have no proof. My entire project is ruined,” he rambled, on the verge of tears.

Rhyla was stunned. Could someone have been so cruel that they wanted Hommin’s project to fail? She knew some of the others were jealous, but to actually sabotage it?

“Hommin, you’ve got to tell Professor Norric about this—“

“—And tell him what, Rhyla?” he yelled. “Tell him that my project was completely destroyed by someone who snuck into the lab late at night and ruined my world but touched no one else’s? Tell him that I have no proof; that it simply wasn’t a mistake in my own calculations? That because I was so busy playing boyfriend to Rhyla Rhohman I couldn’t take the time to protect my own project? Is that what I should tell him?”

Rhyla felt as if she’d been slapped. The sting of his words and his accusing expression resounded clearer than if he’d reached out and slapped her.

“Well then, if that’s the way you feel, Hommin,” she paused, hoping he would say or do something—anything—to take back the hurtful things he’d said. When he didn’t, she choked back tears and said, “Goodbye.” She turned and walked into the lab without looking back.

For a moment, Hommin felt the overpowering urge to chase after her and apologize as he watched her retreating back. But then he pictured himself entering the lab, just a few minutes too late because he had been with her, and how she had coaxed him out of the lab, when he should have stayed to work.

His face set in determination, he resumed his furious pace away from the lab and all he held dear.

He spent the next week wallowing around his room, wishing he could take so many things back; wishing he could change calculations and introduce new specimens that would have allowed his world to survive such horrible catastrophes. Most of all, he wished he could take back what he had said to Rhyla. His thoughts kept returning to her. But his anger and desperation kept driving those same thoughts away.

He lie awake, staring up at the ceiling, imagining billions of stars, slowly living out their long lives, oblivious to everything as they flared to brilliant life; then slowly burned away, until they exploded into massive supernovae, or collapsed back upon themselves, creating yet another black hole.

Then a new thought dawned on Hommin: stars went through cycles in their lifetimes, and planets could do the same!

Hommin started hatching plans for warm-blooded creatures; those that could survive in ice-age conditions, and he realized that with a little tinkering, he might be able to get an intelligent race to flourish very quickly indeed.

He rushed to the lab and got to work. Already, a fraction of the ice had receded, and Hommin worked on rapidly evolving a few lifeforms, building their intelligence and allowing them to start grouping into social clans.

The new creatures, which Hommin came to call Sapiens, soon thrived and began spreading, becoming more and more intelligent with each generation.

From that point on, Hommin spent nearly all his time in the lab, watching as his civilization started developing. He had slowed the time-lapse on his clock, so he could watch them grow, as they covered the world with new cities so rapidly Hommin had difficulty keeping up.

But as he watched, he noticed flaws in their intelligence; flaws so hardwired into their genetic structure, Hommin could do nothing about it.

Massive wars on a worldwide scale broke out, obliterating millions. Weapons of mass destruction were being created by many of the larger ‘countries’ as they were called—though the concept was foreign to Hommin. The latest war brought atomics into use; a horrible, dirty, and dangerous weapon.

So it was that Hommin found himself quite surprised when he awoke one morning, and spent a few hours watching, as a small capsule was launched and orbited around Earth. At first, Hommin was terrified that someone had sabotaged the project again, but quickly realized that the Sapiens had just made a major breakthrough: they had created space-launch capabilities.

Hommin was ecstatic and called everyone over to watch in rapt attention as he slowed the clock down to real-time, so they could all watch one small crew attempt a very curious mission.

As the little creature stepped out of its craft and onto the surface of Earth’s moon, everyone in the lab around Hommin cheered, patting him on the back in congratulations, then wandering back to their own projects, some of which were beginning to show progress.

Rhyla was conspicuously absent, however, and Hommin was greatly disturbed by it.

He dialed the clock back up a bit, so that a few years passed with each minute. He found it relaxing to watch as those little creatures went on with their lives, oblivious to all that went on around them.

But Hommin was disappointed by the creatures’ incredibly brief interest in space. After a few trips to their moon, they ceased most crewed missions, relying instead on mechanical probes to go off and explore the rest of their planetary system.

Hommin had hoped that he was witnessing the birth of an interstellar civilization. Instead, the Sapiens became increasingly self-absorbed, afraid to venture out of their own homes, let alone journey to different worlds.

Then, many small, grotesque wars began breaking out all over the globe once again, and Hommin realized that the environment was spiraling out of control.

What had these silly little creatures done to Hommin’s world? They were swiftly ruining it, and seemed unable—or unwilling—to do anything about it.

The polar ice caps began to melt, pushing the seas upward, drowning millions and turning hundreds of million more into refugees. Because of the larger inland populations, and the decreased resources, more wars broke out, and wholesale slaughter was being exacted on others.

Hommin was horrified and disgusted as he watched his world once again fall apart. He had created an intelligence that was capable of glorious things—curious about their own nature and the nature of the Universe. But they were so flawed, they were destroying themselves with reckless abandon.

Once again, Hommin spent a long, lonely night watching as more and more of his Sapiens died, and watched as they once again used atomics. This time however, instead of two tiny explosions, Hommin could see hundreds, then thousands of massive fireballs covering the landscape, wiping out millions in an instant. Billions were wiped out almost instantly, and the flashes of destructive light continued until very little was left of their brief civilization; only smoldering piles of metal and debris. Huge, dark plumes covered the globe in a second cloud of blackness, plunging the planet into nuclear winter.

Hommin watched as the few Sapiens who managed to survive the atomics slowly dwindled, until not one of those marvelously intelligent creatures remained alive.

Deep down, Hommin knew that this could be another stage in the planet’s evolution; that given time, he could create another species—one without the deadly flaw of self-extermination. But time was something he didn’t have.

Tomorrow was Final Review. While everyone else had spent the past few days preparing their presentations and papers, Hommin had watched his year’s work fall apart. Again.

He wondered if he would ever be successful at anything. He had failed at world-building; failed at being in love with Rhyla; failed at everything.

He packed up the few belongings on his desk, and put together a cursory report and presentation on his failed efforts.

***

Hommin sat in the small waiting room outside Professor Norric’s office, ready for his fate to be dealt to him. He was sure he would receive a failing grade, and an invitation to next year’s classes would not be extended to him, since his failure was so complete.

What was far worse would be Rhyla’s continuance in the program without Hommin; the two of them wouldn’t see each other again. Hommin wasn’t sure which bothered him more: not being able to work on world-building—the only thing he could think about at the beginning of the year, or not being around Rhyla—the woman he had come to love deeply.

Regret coursed through his body, his hearts aching in remembrance of how cruel he had been to her. But try as he might, he couldn’t take any of it back. Rhyla wouldn’t talk to him. He tried calling her earlier that morning, but received no response. He sighed, cupping his head in his hands, warding off a headache.

At last the door to the Professor’s office opened, the loud click of the latch causing Hommin to start. He waited as the Professor approached, wearing a melancholy expression.

“Mr. Homarid?” he asked quietly.

“Yes?” Hommin asked, surprised that he wasn’t at all nervous. You know what’s going to happen. There’s no reason to be nervous, he thought, resigned to his future.

Professor Norric showed him into the office. Hommin was impressed by the simplistic elegance of the room. There was a small, rounded desk near the center of the space, with two small seats before it. There were no windows, but each wall was a display, and the wallscreen behind the desk showed an external scene, though Hommin was unable to tell if it were real-time. The rest of the office was very sparse, and Hommin could see no decoration, save a small holographic globe spinning above a corner of the desk, which Hommin immediately recognized as Earth; the black clouds still shrouded the ruined landscape beneath.

Hommin’s stomach fluttered and he sat heavily when offered a seat.

The Professor rounded the desk and sat, resting his chin on steepled fingers.

“Hommin, I’m going to come right out with it: your project turned out to be a complete disaster.” He eyed Hommin, waiting for a response. Hommin’s eyes never left his lap, so Professor Norric continued. “Rhyla came to me and told me what happened,” he said apologetically.

Hommin’s eyes flicked briefly to the Professor in surprise, then at the spinning globe, before returning to his lap. He remained silent.

“Why didn’t you come and tell me when it happened?” the older man asked.

“I didn’t have any proof,” Hommin mumbled. “Besides, it doesn’t matter. The project failed.”

The Professor remained silent for a few moments before responding. “You’re right that your project ended in failure. But if it makes you feel any better, the student who sabotaged your work has been punished, and expelled.”

“But how—” Hommin began. He could not understand how the Professor could punish a student without proof of wrongdoing.

“—Surveillance,” Professor Norric replied, understanding the question Hommin was trying to ask. “This isn’t the first time this has happened, Hommin. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last, either.” He sighed, and stood, pacing slowly around the small office.

“You see, Hommin, I’m fairly fond of technology, as you can tell by my office. Everything here is modular, able to be changed instantly. Much like an early planet when we world-build. But if we don’t take time to consider all possibilities, bad things can happen. Bad things happened to you, Hommin.”

Hommin nodded somberly in agreement.

“In fact, something similar happened to me when I was a first-year student. I had no proof, and the person who did it got away with it.”

“I’m sorry,” Hommin mumbled, not sure what to say.

“You shouldn’t be. Because of that, when I became an Instructor, I used my love of technology to safeguard my students—in case of events like this.

“So when Rhyla came to me and told me what happened, I reviewed the surveillance and saw the student who tampered with your project.” He paused, waiting for Hommin’s reaction, continuing when he received none. “After that, I watched you very closely. It was difficult to stay silent when I noticed the mistake you made, when developing your new species.” He knew his comment would make Hommin respond.

“You noticed?” Hommin’s mind was racing and he felt even more ashamed, humiliated in knowing that he didn’t see the flaw right away himself. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“It’s not my place to, Hommin. I am only able to help you if you come directly to me and ask. I’m not allowed to offer assistance.”

Hommin could see that the Professor was telling the truth.

“But,” the Professor continued, “despite the fact that your saboteur has been punished, that doesn’t change the outcome of the project.”

Hommin continued to stare at his feet, feeling miserable.

“Be that as it may, I’ve talked to the Dean, and I’m waiting for approval, but I want to see you attending classes next year.”

Hommin looked up, astonished that Professor Norric would go to so much trouble for him; in order for Hommin to attend classes for another year.

“I appreciate that, Professor, but I don’t think I belong here. My project’s complete lack of success if proof of that.”

“Complete lack of success, Hommin?” The Professor seemed appalled at such a preposterous claim. “Do you know how many other students produced a potentially intelligent lifeform?”

Hommin tried to hide his embarrassment, but his face had turned a bright shade of blue. “All of them, I imagine,” he mumbled.

“None of them,” the Professor responded emphatically. “Not a single planet developed lifeforms with the possibility for intelligence. Except yours,” he said. “Your world developed that ability not once, but twice.”

Hommin couldn’t believe no others had developed intelligent life throughout the project. It seemed like such a simple result. He had seen so many other fruitful worlds, teeming with life. “How can that be? No one else developed any kind of intelligence?”

Professor Norric looked at Hommin, and caught his attention. “Listen to me, Hommin,” he started, “you are a first-year student in the World-Building program. The expectation is not that you create a perfect civilization. In fact, you’re not expected to be able to create any civilization at all.

“You are allowed complete and total freedom in your first year. It is my job to watch and ascertain a student’s aptitude for world-building; then recommend those with the necessary skills for the second year. It is exactly that reason which prohibits me from offering help in the first place.

“I would have offered you help and guidance—and believe me, Hommin, I wanted to—but I didn’t want to jeopardize your chances for moving onto the next stage in the program.”

Professor Norric paused, taking a breath, and letting his words take effect on Hommin. “Understand that what I’m waiting for approval for from the Dean, is not whether you’ll be allowed to attend next year’s classes, but whether you will receive a full scholarship for them.”

Hommin’s hearts were beating loudly again as he began to truly understand what the man across the desk was saying: that Hommin had done well. Inordinately well, at that.

“I don’t understand—“Hommin began.

“—I know you don’t. Not now, at least. But I knew that you would do well when you first picked out your sector, all that time ago. You made a wise choice under difficult circumstances. You have a marvelous future ahead of you, Hommin, and I can’t wait to see what you manage to accomplish.”

He wished Hommin a good day, and presented him with a document describing the Professor’s recommendation to second-year Advance Studies. As Hommin left the office, he allowed himself a smile—a smile that disappeared as he opened the door to let himself out.

Rhyla was standing in the waiting room. The two of them stood frozen, eyes locked on each other. He didn’t know what she was thinking; her face was completely still, her expression betraying nothing.

He worked his mouth a couple of times, trying to speak, but the words wouldn’t come out. Finally, as his eyes welled with tears, he choked out, “Rhyla, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay, Hommin,” she said, locking him in an embrace, both of them crying softly.

He knew then that she understood him better than he understood himself.

As they lie in bed that night, Hommin told her what the Professor had said to him. She was so proud, and she told him how much it had hurt her to witness his pain, watching as his project failed before his eyes. They both knew now that their future together had boundless possibilities, all intimately intertwined.

Rhyla sighed happily, thinking silently, same old Hommin, always thinking about his work.

He was saying, “You know what, Rhyla? I think next time I’ll make cockroaches the intelligent species. They seem to survive anything.”

© 2003 Bradley K. Brown. All rights reserved.
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