by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Arcana: A Tarot Anthology, November 2017
Diamma’s scaly green tail curled to one side, then the other, swaying uneasily, as she stood in the open hatch of her spaceship. Crystals of pink snow caught in her fiery, leonine mane as the flakes drifted down from the powder blue clouds of this world. Snomoth. For years, it had been a number in the registry on her ship; somewhere she would eventually go. For the last few weeks, it had been a dot of light on the main viewscreen. Now it was a faintly pink snowball, the color of cherry blossoms in the early spring, stretched out before her, waiting to freeze her toes when she stepped down from the hatch.
The final piece of the puzzle might be here, hidden underneath the pale pink snow.
The feline-reptilian hybrid stepped into the snow, and the crunching crystalline drift burned cold on the pawpads of her tawny-tufted feet. It made her wish that her green armor of shimmering scales extended all the way to her hind feet, instead of only from her taloned-hands down to her haunches, leaving her with a lion’s hind paws and a lion’s head.
Better yet, Diamma wished for hooves like Aggem, her antlered-avian co-pilot. Or elephant feet like Mundo, the turtle-shelled, prehensile-nosed, painfully pedantic researcher who led their team. Aggem and Mundo were both busy inside the spaceship, studying the genetic blueprints their team had assembled from the many dozens of worlds they’d visited so far. There was always more studying to be done.
Diamma’s paw pads adjusted to the burn of the cold as she loped her way through the snow with an easy hind-legged gait, balancing herself with a rhythmic sway of her long scaly tail. The ship’s scans had shown architectural structures only a few kilometers away. A short run. They’d landed far enough away to be out of sight, but only from a society that wasn’t looking at the skies.
The skies here were shrouded in permanent layers of cloud — the powder blue clouds sprinkling Diamma with snow crystals were only the bottom layer. Snomoth’s blue giant sun was bright enough to glow through the clouds, but dimly. Diamma’s feline eyes were the best suited in her crew to handle the low light levels.
As Diamma ran through the snow, she passed by scrub brushes and waist-high bushes with yellow and topaz leaves. The plants thickened into a veritable forest of tiny shrubbery for her to dart and dodge around. Then Diamma crested a slight rise, not steep enough for her to have recognized it was a hill until she was on the top of it, and she saw the city from the ship’s scans in the distance.
The buildings were tiny — the tallest skyscrapers were maybe two- or three-times Diamma’s height. Most of them were ankle high. They all had rounded edges and oval windows, some of which glowed with light from inside. They were all frosted with the pink snow. Between the buildings, tiny mechanical sledges skated along the icy streets, lit by sparkling street lights.
The creatures who rode inside the sledges and scurried from one building to another were small enough to fit in the palm of one of Diamma’s scaly hands. Their pastel fur looked thick, but they wore bulky winter coats anyway. Their ears were large and round; their tails long and skinny with big puffs of fur on the end.
“Another mouse-like species,” Diamma muttered to herself, wondering what genetic quirk of these Snomoth mice could be so special that the project was incomplete without them.
Mundo’s nasal voice spoke into the receiver in her ear. The elephant-turtle hybrid said, “It’s not about being special. It’s about being a piece of the puzzle.” He’d heard her talking to herself, but he knew her well enough, it was as if he’d heard her thinking too.
The lion-lizard hybrid settled onto her leonine haunches and watched the alien mice scurry through their snowy streets. Their sudden, tiny movements as they unloaded from the sledges or carried parcels across the streets made Diamma’s heart jump and race, triggering predatory genes from both the reptilian and feline halves of her ancestral genetics. At a deep level, before civilization, before star-faring space travel, she was meant to hunt creatures like this.
And she was still hunting them. And they would still be consumed — but not by her. She was only the hunter.
Diamma waited patiently while the glowing light from the clouds above deepened to azure and then darkened to midnight blue; window lights twinkled out in the tiny city below. It was the snow-mice’s night time. The lion-lizard perched over their city like a green-and-gold albatross, signifying the end of times, removed a syringe with a long needle from a pouch at her waist. She tapped the glass with one of her scaly talons, and it pinged softly. All she needed was a sample of blood.
Bright light shone into Diamma’s eyes, and she raised her empty talon to block it. The light came from the ground in a single piercing beam. A flashlight. In the shaking paws of a quivering Snomoth mouse with buttercup-yellow fur. The creature squeaked in the common language of the stars, “You’re the Unifier of Worlds.”
Diamma’s feline heart was pleased by the mouse’s recognition. “Your legends tell of me, even though your world cut itself off from the intergalactic highways millennia ago.”
“You’re why we cut ourselves off,” the mouse answered, still quivering, still shining the flashlight at Diamma’s leonine face. Snow sparkled in the bright beam of light.
“Put down the light,” Diamma purred.
The beam lowered. Then clicked off.
“Hold very still,” she purred, lifting the syringe. She wouldn’t have to catch a mouse; one had come to her.
“Wait,” the mouse squeaked. “Take me with you. The universe is ending; take me with you!”
Diamma hesitated. “We don’t know that the universe will end. We don’t even know that your blood holds the final piece of the puzzle.”
“But Snomoth is the last world on your itinerary, isn’t it?” the mouse insisted. “We’ve always known we were last.” The mouse’s wide ears splayed, spilling pink snow crystals that had piled on them.
Diamma shook her mane, raining down more snow that had caught in her thick fur. “All I need is a drop of your blood; your genetic code. Your life here can go on as normal. Whatever happens when we complete the unification could take years, lifetimes to affect your world. I don’t know what stories your legends tell, but I don’t need you as a sacrifice.”
“Not a sacrifice.” The mouse twisted its tail in its paws and squeezed the dandelion-yellow puff of fur at the end. “A fellow journeyer. A participant.”
Diamma grumbled, but then she said, “Mundo, are you hearing this?”
The turtle-elephant answered in her ear, “Bring the Snomoth mouse.”
The Snomoth mouse whose name was Eip rode across the snowfields behind Diamma’s ear, clinging to the thick golden locks of her mane. When they entered the spaceship, the bright light dazzled Eip, and the warmth of the air embraced her. It was dizzying. She continued to ride the lion-lizard hybrid through passageways large enough to house skyscrapers, and then the passages opened into a chamber large enough to hold a small town.
Diamma grabbed Eip gently with a scaly talon, pulled softly until the mouse let go of her mane, and then set her down on a console beside a giant tank with clear walls, filled with a roiling, bubbling liquid. Anything else inside was obscured by the bubbles.
From her position on the console, Eip could see Aggem with his stately antlers and fearsome hooked beak working another control panel with his feathered arms. Like Diamma, Aggem was a giant compared to Eip.
A window behind the antlered-avian looked out on the familiar pale pink snowfields of Snomoth, but as Aggem worked the controls, the pink-blanketed countryside fell away. Azure clouds wisped past the window until they filled it. A few moments more, and the clouds cleared.
Although she’d felt no acceleration, Eip found herself looking down on her world from space. The sphere was white and swirly from the outside, luminescent like a pearl dropped onto the black curtain of space. Eip understood what she was seeing, because she’d seen photographs of Snomoth from space before; her people had withdrawn from interstellar society, but they hadn’t forgotten what they’d learned.
As Eip’s eyes adjusted, she saw the pinpoint diamonds of light scattered throughout the blackness. “Stars,” she squeaked. “I’ve never seen them before.”
“They’re burning out,” a nasal voice said.
Eip looked up to see another giant — this one had a wrinkly prehensile nose that extended from his face into an arm-length trunk, and a green shell curved over his back. In spite of a pair of tusks on either side of the trunk, this giant looked less fierce and predatory than either Diamma or Aggem. A twinkle in Mundo’s eyes made the little Snomoth mouse feel inexplicably safe.
“I need to take your blood now,” Mundo said, holding out the syringe with the end of his trunk.
Eip trembled as the needle neared her and let out an involuntary squeak when it pierced the skin on her arm under her fur. But it was over fast. Mundo truly drew only a drop of the mouse’s blood.
Then the turtle-elephant laid the syringe down on a shiny patch of the very console Eip stood on. After Mundo pushed a few buttons with his long nose, the shiny panel under the syringe glowed with a blue light. The blue flashed several times, and then turned green before switching off.
Suddenly, previously dark screens all over the console lit up with rushing strings of numbers or letters in a language Eip couldn’t read. The figures streamed by too fast to be deciphered even by someone who could read the language.
“The ship’s computer is sequencing your genetic code,” Mundo said, swinging his trunk rhythmically back and forth, as if ticking off the time while they waited.
“How long will it take?” Eip squeaked.
Diamma set her scaly green talons over the panel reverently and stared down at the streaming figures with wide gold feline eyes. The movement brought her large curving claws and sharp teeth much closer to Eip than made the mouse comfortable.
“Only a moment more…” Diamma purred.
After eons of searching, putting together the puzzle gene by gene, constructing the genome of the final, most perfect chimera — the Inheritor of the Universe — there were only moments left.
Diamma felt Aggem’s presence behind her; his feathered wing brushed against her scaly back. The antlered-avian had left the ship on auto-pilot, drawn with the rest of them to watch the final moments of the puzzle falling into place.
The translation of the mouse’s genetic code ceased streaming across the panels and froze in place — a single gene highlighted in brighter letters. Of all the traits contained in the mouse’s tiny body, this was the one that the final chimera lacked: a slight resistance to one of the rarest forms of cancer.
Stunned, Diamma said, “That won’t visibly change the final chimera at all…”
“What did you expect?” Mundo asked, working the controls with his trunk for the birthing chamber that rose behind the panel, still thick with roiling bubbles. “We’ve been to hundreds of worlds, the three of us. Before that, we started with a computer bank containing the genetic codes for literally thousands of species from all across the universe — from at least a dozen galaxies.”
“I thought–” Diamma started, but Aggem cut her off.
“This means we’ve already seen the final form. Essentially.” He fluffed his wings, ruffling out all the feathers. “We just didn’t know it.”
Diamma felt like she’d been waiting to open a present, only to be told that the gift she’d been waiting for had been in her quarters, sitting on the bedside table in plain sight for several months already. Robbed… but selfish and ungrateful for feeling that way, because she’d gotten the present, hadn’t she?
“I haven’t seen it,” the little yellow mouse squeaked from her place on the control panel. She was still wearing her heavy winter clothes; although they must have been far too warm inside the ship.
“Look behind you,” Diamma said.
The little yellow mouse turned and watched the bubbles clear inside the liquid filled birthing chamber. As the liquid calmed, holo-emitters rendered a shadowy image of the final chimera inside the tank, faint and translucent like a reflection on glass.
The mouse didn’t visibly react, but Diamma noticed that her round ears were standing very tall and her whiskered nose was twitching very fast as she processed the image in front of her.
A dozen heads sprouted from the creature’s body like flowers from a bush — three beaked and feathered, five covered in varying shades and lengths of fur with muzzles of different shapes, two with glittering scales, one with smooth skin, and one covered in petals like a literal flower. From the creature’s long back, six pairs of wings arched — two scaly dragon wings, three feathered wings, a pair of bat wings, and one pair of butterfly wings as beautiful and colorful as stained glass. Its multitudinous legs and arms were all different shapes and bends, but its tail was a single, graceful curve that narrowed down to a tufted end.
“It has a tail puff like mine!” Eip squeaked.
“Not much like yours,” Diamma grumbled.
“The final chimera is a conglomeration of so many different species that it’s impossible to see the individual affect of any particular species’ genome,” Mundo intoned, lecturing like an expert. Though he was no more of an expert than his two fellow researchers.
Diamma liked to imagine that the gold flecks in the left eye on the chimera’s fourth head, one of the fuzzy ones with bull-like crescent horns, had something to do with her own golden eyes. It rankled her that this tiny mouse, a pure genetic species with a single planetary origin, saw herself more easily in the final chimera than she did.
And yet, every sentient species in the universe should see themselves in this most complicated of reflections. It was the mirror that melded all of them together.
“I can’t do it,” Mundo said, his trunk holding the lever that would start the materialization process. He played the role of their leader, but it was all youthful bluster and overconfidence.
The turtle-elephant hybrid was the youngest of the three crew members. He’d studied the birthing chamber, but he’d never seen it actually used, because the last time it was used was to materialize him.
Diamma and Aggem had designed Mundo and materialized him in the birthing chamber after their last crew member — an insectoid giraffe with six very long legs — had passed away from old age. Before her, there had been a duckbilled platypus. Diamma remembered him fondly. He’d been like a father to her. When the duckbilled platypus had died, Diamma and the six-legged giraffe had designed Aggem who had come to be like a brother.
There were always three crew members.
Diamma was the oldest now. She’d be the next to die.
She grabbed the lever with her scaly talon and said, “I can do it.” She didn’t want to die like her forebears had, before the end of their mission. She wanted to see the universe fold in on itself, fulfill its final purpose.
She pulled the lever.
Bright lines of laser light — red, green, and blue — pierced the liquid-filled birthing chamber from every direction. At their intersections, the dots of light burned so brightly that Diamma immediately turned her head, closing her eyes. But the afterimage of the final chimera glowed inside her closed eyes. For an instant, in bright primary colors, flipping a moment later to a negative afterimage clothed in eerie darkness. Satanic and troubling.
Diamma opened her eyes.
The light from the birthing chamber had dimmed. The lasers were still doing their work, intersecting with each other, catalyzing the soup of proto-cellular matter, inspiring amino acids to dance together, twist together into chains, and cut the final chimera from whole cloth — born fully formed by the magic of science. But the brightness of the lasers was now eclipsed by the physical presence of the chimera’s body. It had mass. It had volume.
The final chimera stretched, twisting its long back.
It had never done that before. Never moved. It had only ever been an image, static and changed only by newly input data. A computer program.
Now it had life and could move by choice. Stretch a cramped wing. Scratch an itch behind an ear. Or turn one beaked face to stare at Diamma with eyes that sparkled with so many different shades of green, they could have been entire planets filled with rainforests, savannahs, and sea green waters. Whole ecosystems in a pair of eyes.
Time fell away, and Diamma knew she was looking into the eyes of her father, long gone though he might be, as well. Then reality twisted, and although her own eyes were gold and these were green, it was as if the universe itself had become a mirror and Diamma was sure she was staring into her own eyes too.
The chimera whipped its long tail into the side of the tank with a thundering crash. The glass wall shattered, and the birthing fluids rushed out, soaking the control panel and splashing to the floor. Eip was swept away by their waters, but Diamma reached out to rescue the little mouse. She settled Eip in the locks of her mane again.
“What happens now?” Eip whispered in Diamma’s ear, and the lion-lizard realized she didn’t know.
For generations, a triad of chimeras had flown this ship from star to star, planet to planet, following a trail of breadcrumbs, genetic clues, baked into the fabric of the universe since the beginning of time. By the time that Diamma’s quasi-parents, the six-legged giraffe and the duckbilled platypus, had constructed her, the mission was nearing its end, but she didn’t know what that end meant.
“Our mission is over,” Diamma whispered back, feeling totally lost for the first time in her life.
Diamma looked to Mundo, the most self-assured of the current triad, but he’d tucked his head so far back into his shell that all she could see of his face was his curled up trunk. He felt as lost as she did.
Diamma turned to see Aggem’s reaction, but he wasn’t looking at the final chimera standing in godly glory on the wreckage of the birthing chamber. Stretching its half-dozen wings, yawning its dozen mouths, testing its hooves and hands and paws and talons.
Aggem was looking back at the ship’s viewscreen, and Diamma followed his gaze. On the screen, the planet Snomoth grew and shrunk, changing color and shape like the pictures in a twisting kaleidoscope. “It’s every planet,” Aggem cawed. “Every planet we’ve ever visited, all at once.” It was like looking down a hall of mirrors — every image separate, but somehow all the same. Separated by time instead of space. Every planet was the same planet, no matter how it seemed to look, the truth of them was the same.
A dozen voices spoke in unison, each with a different timbre in a different language, but the voices blurred together, harmonizing into a clarion call, so bright in its clarity and meaning that it could have been etched into the very sheet music that the universe had been written on. “Now, we start new missions.”
The final chimera held a paw out to Mundo, a talon out to Diamma, and a hand toward Aggem. When a god holds its hand out to you, you take it. When Diamma felt the final chimera’s talon clasp her own, she felt a contentment deep in her belly that filled her until it spilled out of her throat in a rumbling purr.
“We will be the architects of a new universe together,” the dozen voices said. The triad was a quartet, and their new symphony had just begun.
“What about me?” Eip squeaked. She had wanted to journey with the chimeras through this universe, but constructing a new one… The little mouse was totally out of her depth, and she knew it.
Twelve faces looked at her.
Twelve voices spoke:
“You will stay in this universe. It ends for us, but for you, it will go on. You will tell our story.”
Returned to the pink snowfields of her home world, Eip watched the silver ship of the chimeras ascend through the clouds and disappear. Pink crystals, giant snowflakes fell softly in its wake, and tickled her whiskers. The small mouse shivered.
She had only been gone from her world for a few hours, but Eip had returned with a lifetime of purpose. She had a story to tell, a song to sing of the end and the beginning, swallowing each other, and looking into a god’s many eyes.