A mug of coffee and stale bagel was all Deano needed to keep him going until lunch time.
Chasing furry vermin infesting the lower levels was thirsty work, and it was necessary to stay lean and keen. Some of the little critters bit and scratched given the chance so Deano preferred to get in first with the net and cage. The 15-year-old reckoned that the people who created the annoying creatures should have been doing this job. But his opinion, like his existence, counted for very little when the brains that controlled what was left of civilisation had privileged status. It was up to non-entities like him to clean up their failed experiments. Most annoying was that they were much younger and shouldn’t have been allowed out of their prams until taught social responsibility. But what did a teenager know? His opportunity for status had long passed. Once past 13, and a dreg of a dwindling society, you were relegated to the lower levels chasing genetically engineered vermin resembling long-haired agouti with the expressions of startled lemurs.
One of the little pests was sitting up on its haunches and defying him to net it. It was ginger and had the air of the six-year-old teacher who delighted in telling him that he would come to nothing in this life.
Oh to be five again in those idyllic days when he seemed to know everything. Now it was all slipping away. People here aged at different rates. Some even grew younger. That was really bizarre. The end for them came in a test tube. Deano’s time seemed to speed up towards a different form of oblivion. For him it would soon be tomorrow, then next year, and the year after when, quite probably, the ageing of his cells accelerated and he was rapidly reduced to a gibbering heap of flesh and bones.
The small critter insolently staring at him seemed to know this.
What the hell, Deano thought, and perched on a discarded storage crate to look it in the eye. ‘I suppose you know what it’s all about? I certainly don’t. If I had my way you could all infest the sewers and breed until there were enough of you to take over the world. You’d probably make a better job of it.’ A frown seemed to cross the ginger creature’s face as though it understood. It wouldn’t have surprised Deano if the varmints had human DNA spliced into their genes. ‘Sorry. Forgot. You can’t breed can you, being a hybrid and all that.’
The way the animal’s expression changed suggested they had somehow managed to solve that problem. It was less disconcerting than the fact it understood what Deano was saying.
He pulled a cigarette from the secret pocket security hadn’t searched for ages and lit it. ‘Where did it all go wrong?’
The ginger varmint gave a high-pitched squeak.
‘No, I got no idea neither. Two more years of this and I’ll be lining up with all the other non-entities for that cushioned cubicle into nothingness.’ Deano took a long drag on the cigarette and stretched out to wonder why his supervisors above had been so quiet for months. Not that he minded; as long as his rations held out and the automated system collected the vermin he caught, why should he care? He might not have been so philosophical if he had known it was releasing them out into the wild because there was no longer anyone up there to euthanise them. Lack of security also meant that he could have tried to contact all the other varmint catchers and subterranean operatives to see if they knew anything, but that was risky. People had been known to disappear after breaking the rules and he wanted to make the most of the time he had left, even if it was only chasing an infestation that would prefer to make friends.
Then a forbidden thought crossed the teenager’s mind.
Why didn’t he go down to those prohibited lower depths? That had to be where the answer lay, simply because they were prohibited. Then he might find out why some ten-year-olds seemed to stay the same age forever, while non-entities like him zapped through their limited life spans, or even grew younger again before having the chance to scribble on the chalkboard of life.
And what did Deano have to lose? Nobody had ever tried it so the penalty was unknown. He might as well do it before he was tipped into the black hole of non-existence.
The small, ginger critter seemed to realise what he intended to do and gave a sharp squeak of disapproval.
Deano told it to bug off if it didn’t want to be chucked in the cage with the others. Then he wondered what happened to the harmless critters once they had been delivered to the depot. It probably wasn’t good. They didn’t gnaw though power cables, steal food or defecate all over the place. Their main problem seemed to be impertinence. So he lifted the latch and let them escape.
For a moment the creatures congregated in a corner, viewing him in astonishment, before scampering off in all directions.
Having just disposed of his obligatory quota for the day, there was no turning back. To the eight-year-old in charge, disobedience bordered on treason, but he hadn’t checked on Deano for ages, so the teenager tossed the net aside and headed down to the lowest levels where not even the vermin dare venture.
As Deano went deeper the air pressure increased and passages became narrower.
His torch started to flicker. If the battery ran out now he wouldn’t find his way back up in the dark. There was no point in panicking or expecting a rescue party. Had he called for help there was probably no one up there listening anyway, even if the signal did manage to get through half a mile of rock. If Deano died down in these dark depths, disorientated and dehydrated, he only had himself to blame.
And it was getting very hot.
Keep going, keep going, he told himself. Don’t die without finding out what this sad existence is all about.
Just as the torch beam began to fail there was a sudden rush of clean air. At these depths there should have been hardly any at all... and there was also light. Far ahead, a door had opened and tall, unfamiliar humans were dashing towards him.
Deano didn’t have the energy to run away. And why should he? They were probably the only ones who could answer the questions that had continued to nag him after he lost interest in everything else.
The rescue party moved fast, whisking the teenager to the other side of the door as though the atmosphere outside was fatal to them.
‘We were right. The time-tip field must have passed,’ Deano heard a voice say. It had to come from one of those fabled adults he had been taught about it lessons because it was far too deep for anyone his age.
‘There’s only one way to be sure,’ joined another, just as old, ‘put him in the isolation chamber and see if it accelerates his reversion.’
Deano didn’t like the sound of that, but didn’t have the strength to do anything about it.
There was the creak of a heavy door being opened. The next thing Deano knew, he was sitting in a huge chair looking at an illuminated ceiling.
His teenage limbs no longer ached with the effort of pursuing agile vermin and his clothes were too large for his five foot six frame.
Weirdest of all, Deano’s feet no longer reached the ground.
Then he fainted.
He woke in a room filled with those adults he had only ever seen in teaching aids. Had he been himself, the teenager would have taken it in his stride. But he was no longer 15. His brain was still sharp and he could recall everything from his past life, even though he was now less than eight years old. He wanted to throw a tantrum at the indignity of being reduced to a child, but his teenage intellect told him not to be such an infant.
There was the babble of adult conversation on the other side of the room.
‘That confirms it. The time anomaly has passed.’
‘The boy must have been protected from reverting to his true age by living underground.’
‘So what about those above ground? What’s happened to them?’
‘The time-tip might have accelerated human evolution.’ This voice was unlike the others; it was thoughtful and considered, belonging to a small, ancient woman wearing a laboratory overall discoloured with age. Despite being senior to the others, years of frustration had eroded their deference to her opinion.
‘Oh goodness, Professor Nixon, you don’t still believe that, do you?’
Another scientist asked Deano, ‘Hey kid, how long since anyone on the surface contacted you - relatively speaking?’
But Deano was still trying to take in his transformation. ‘What’s happened to me?’ he demanded in an embarrassingly high-pitched voice.
‘Nothing, nothing at all,’ the elderly scientist explained. ‘This is who you really are.’
‘But I’m just a little kid.’
‘And above, where everyone was exposed to the time anomaly, our ages would have been reduced as well or - much worse - increased.’
Deano hated himself for wanting to burst into tears. To placate him, Professor Nixon explained that the Earth had been struck by a time flux ejected by a cataclysm in the depths of space. Her group of scientists barely had the time to escape to their laboratory in the depths of the Earth where they were shielded from its effect. From there they observed the catastrophic consequences on cameras installed to monitor climate change. Every living thing was affected. Some elderly became infants, some infants became elderly and rapidly died of old age. Those juveniles Deano knew, controlling the remnants of society, had once been mature people who had retained their adult knowledge and experience. No one’s biology remained stable enough to reproduce so the population rapidly dwindled. And then the scientists’ window on the planet’s surface began to fail as cameras were removed and cables corroded.
‘What about the other animals?’ demanded Deano, now realising that the critters he was sent down to pursue were experimental specimens genetically engineered to try and solve the problem of reproduction.
‘Our sensors were focussed on human activity, so it’s difficult to tell.’
‘And now there’s only one way to find out.’
Professor Nixon’s tone was authoritative enough to make the others fall silent at the prospect.
At far as they knew, Deano was the first to survive the sudden reversion back to his true age. All previous attempts to send anyone above, away from the shielding of the bunker, had been fatal. The volunteers had either rapidly aged or reverted to embryos. But now the pumps drawing air from the surface were beginning to fail and what rations they had left were barely edible. They had to return to the surface of the Earth. Knapsacks were packed with as much equipment as they could carry and Deano’s baggy clothes were adjusted to prevent them hampering him as he took the lead.
It was a long way for the surviving scientists, especially the older members like Professor Nixon. When they reached the levels where Deano used to work, they refreshed themselves from the meagre rations the vermin catchers were allowed.
The boy’s seven-year-old brain could barely recall the way out to the world above. Fortunately one of the scientists had retained a map of the lower depths when hastily packing to escape the time flux and was able to pinpoint the nearest exit.
As he had already reverted, Deano volunteered to go out first into the daylight he had not seen for so many years, half expecting to be set upon by those hateful infants who had condemned him to his subterranean existence.
As they emerged, the scientists braced themselves, hoping to find that everyone had safely reverted to their true ages, though expecting a world of utter devastation. Had the first been true someone would have met them by now, but everything remained quite for too long.
Something far more disturbing was waiting.
The seven-year-old blinked hard in the bright sunlight of a silent, deserted world.
Suddenly there was the penetrating trill of a bird. Given their short lifespans they should have died out. Then the trilling was joined by a chorus of other birds... They were much brighter and larger than the ones he had been taught about.
The scientists emerged to stand and stare in amazement at what was left of the world they had escaped from.
This was not what most of them had expected. There was no sign of other humans, dead or otherwise. Everywhere was infested by cat-sized creatures; crosses between rodents and lemurs. Once they realised that the arrivals were harmless the air was filled with their high-pitched vocalisation as they returned to busily constructing rabbit-sized cities from the rubble of human habitation. The descendants of the vermin Deano had hunted avoided the huge, empty cocoons dotted about the derelict offices and homes. Whatever had been incubating in them had recently emerged.
Professor Nixon was unusually quiet as the other scientists debated what they were. Deano could see that she already knew and was not prepared to tell them the dreadful truth: better they worked it out for themselves.
As the discussion continued, other exits from Deano’s subterranean world opened and the rest of the exiles emerged, blinking in the daylight and amazed that they were reverting to their true ages. Adults who had been infants and infants who had been teenagers were swapping clothes. Thankfully, because they had been protected by their subterranean existence, none of them dwindled into embryos or crumpled to skin and bones with accelerated ageing. All the same, introductions were complicated when the 15-year-old you had once known could be anything between five and 50.
The scientists and new arrivals agreed to form exploration parties for the sake of security, even though the only activity appeared to be by the creatures busily building their city.
Without warning one of the critters recognised Deano.
It squeaked urgently.
‘Hi,’ said the seven-year-old.
The others turned to wonder if the boy and creature were playing some bad joke. Then the rest of the animal’s companions stopped working.
This was the teenager who had released them before he went exploring in the subterranean depths, but he wasn’t quite as they remembered him.
‘She knows you?’ asked Professor Nixon.
‘Think they want to show us something,’ explained Deano.
He followed the creatures to a cocoon which was still intact.
Something inside it was moving. A luminous glow radiated through the cracks in its fibrous shell as it unzipped.
Everyone was engulfed by a bright light. When their eyes recovered they were aware of a figure glowing with phantom radiance.
Even the scientists stood speechless, until Professor Nixon admitted her worst fears, ‘Accelerated evolution.’
Deano was too startled to understand. ‘What?’
‘The nature of the time anomaly ultimately changed and instead of ageing, the survivors metabolisms were sent into accelerated evolution... as I predicated it would.’
Deano stared at the phantom figure and demanded with childlike impertinence, ‘Who are you?’
The newly emerged energy form said nothing. Expressionless, it dissolved into the air like steam.
‘What was that all about?’ he demanded.
Another scientist was loath to answer, ‘Perhaps it wasn’t able to communicate.’
Professor Nixon corrected him. ‘It evaporated before it could transmute into a higher life form. Humans are not ready for enlightenment. That will take another million years.’
Deano gasped. ‘So it really has disappeared?’
The Professor turned to the other search parties which were joining them. ‘It looks as though we will have to get used to the idea that the world will now be populated by Deano’s furry friends and fluorescent birds.’