The Long Shadow by vegetables
”Can I just say something?” said Darwin for the eighth time. The Doctor strode on ahead, not looking at him.
“Well, if you’ll be that way,” he said at last. “It's not been easy knowing, you know. What we’ve all got coming up, some way down the line. Old Empires falling and new ones making war; the awful things that men will do in my name!”
The Doctor stomped on, the expression of her back unchanged.
“What I’m trying to say,” snapped Darwin, “is that I judge myself every day! I judge and I judge, without the help of some puffed-up Lord of Time. Or Archbishop. Or baboon. I'm proud of what I’ve done, don't get me wrong! To be remembered at all is a great privilege. But at the end of one’s life one sometimes wonders… if it might have been better to have accomplished less.”
The sun was getting low in the sky by now, and Darwin's shadow stretched out far behind him. The Doctor's shadow fell on his tired face, until at last its owner turned round with a smile.
“Hard, isn't it?” she said. “Getting old. I've done it lots of times, and it never gets any easier.”
“You know,” Darwin went on. “my life's work. All about how order rises against chance, yet the work itself did rather have chance as its architect! I don't know if I’d even have left Edinburgh if it hadn't been for the advice of that one man–”
“Ah, well,” said the Doctor a bit too quickly, “time and chance happen to us all, eh? Hey, look at these orchids!” she said in a desperate way, “I’m sure we’d enjoy talking about those.”
“He was a curious character, though! Dress sense quite out of style for the time. In fact, in a funny way, he reminded me of–”
Suddenly his face darkened, as the Doctor looked very guilty indeed.
“–he reminded me of you,” he said with a snarl.
“Ah,” said the Doctor. “That. I can see how that might look… a bit bad?”
“BAD?!” roared Darwin as his whole body shook with rage. “Damn right, it's bad! It was you, wasn’t it? You got me to leave because you knew what I’d discover if I did.”
“Yes,” said the Doctor, unable to meet his gaze. “But I’m sorry.”
“How could sorry be enough? All this time you’ve known me and never once thought to say that… that you set me up! Didn't you? Back then, in the Galapagos, a thousand other places besides! Always being helped along, like a child with his sums! Why, one could go far as to say that natural selection was not discovered by a professor,” he said, pointing his finger at the accused, “but by a mere Doctor–”
“Charles,” said the Doctor quietly. “Charles, please. It's not like that, not really–”
“Every day I get letters about how I’ve disproved God,” shouted Darwin. “Would that they knew the truth! That God exists and meddles in our affairs, and always judges us as we go! How many,” he said with tears now in his eyes, “how many human achievements were helped along by you? Are we anything at all without your guiding hand?”
“You are everything,” breathed the Doctor. “You must know I do think that. And I didn't…”
“...your theory,” she said at last. “Someone would’ve had it, whether I’d been there or not. Some ideas just happen to societies, whoever’s around at the time. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't matter who has them, not really. Especially an idea like yours, one that sets people's minds on fire. And I can't change history, not really. But sometimes, well... sometimes I can make the best of a bad job.”
“But I’ve seen the future,” said Darwin. “And it's awful, worse than our worst imaginings.”
“Yes,” said the Doctor. “So you know what it means when I say it was worse when it wasn’t you. When someone else discovered evolution, someone with an agenda. I’ve seen that future, and I had to turn away: more gas and death and jackboots, all done in the name of a theory. But not in your name. Surely that’s worth something? To prevent some of the horror that's coming, no matter the cost to you?”
“If it was a choice,” said Darwin. “But it’s the same with all your friends, isn’t it? You break us apart in a second, when it’s all for the greater good. But maybe sometimes we don’t want to be that good. Maybe sometimes we just want to be left alone.”
“You came to me when I was mourning, and you came with a little girl. Whether it’s today or my whole damn life, you can’t seem to leave me in peace! You turn up in your box, and before I know it I’m being chased by shadows–”
Cardinal Bless burst from behind a nearby tree.
Beneath their feet, a mass of shadow sagged into being.
“Oh,” sighed the Doctor. “That was so close to being well-timed.”
“Hey!” said a voice from another direction entirely. “Get back to our ship! You, and that friend you have there!” Pilotoon Fliss appeared from another part of the wood, jabbing her tail at Darwin. Chris bobbed uncomfortably on the Pilotoon’s back, tied on tight with uncomfortable wire.
“That’s my friend you’ve got there!” shouted the Doctor. “You give her back!”
“Huh,” said the Pilotoon. “You know, I suppose I could. I was just using her to guide me to that scientist you’ve got there, and it looks like you’ve bought him to us anyway. How about an exchange? One friend for another, eh?”
The shadow that had swollen up near Darwin and the Doctor was like a spitting sun, a great circle blasting out silhouetted shapes. Among these was a shoal of tiny shadows like snapping fish, which spat out of the blackness and made their way towards Fliss.
“Watch out!” said the Doctor, as the shadows circled the Pilotoon’s feet. “Those things’ll kill you!”
“Hardly!” laughed Fliss. “What’ll they do; take me back to my ship? It's not as bad as all that, you know!”
As she spoke a shadow-fish swam up her hind leg, leaving a trail of nothingness behind. Darwin gasped as he realised he could see through the path of the shadow, as if there had never been any leg there at all. Another shadow swam up the Pilotoon’s body, then another, and she hardly had time to scream before she was gone.
The uneaten ropes that had held Chris dropped uselessly to the ground. Chris squealed, scampering away from the shadows before the fish could gobble her up too.
“Pilotoon!” shouted Bless in horror. “But I should have known.”
He turned to his prey and bared his giant teeth.
“I have seen what your sin does at a distance, Charles Darwin. Where I’m from you’ve been dead for so long, and yet still you cause so much grief and pain. So many cardinals turned from the true faith, because of your hollow theories! But to see young Fliss cut down by you– it makes me see you are worse than even I had thought possible.”
“They can't have been very good cardinals, if you don't mind me saying,” muttered Darwin. “Wherever it is that you’re from. I don't know they’re as incompatible as all that, my theories and the church.”
“BLASPHEMY!” yelled the furious baboon. “Insults adding to injury! For that you will know what it means to feel true pain–”
Darwin looked back past the cardinal to the forests beyond, where the trees cast their long, straight shadows. The sun was very low in the sky now, and his own shadow cast a great line in front of him, like a stream of misery falling from his form. You might almost think it could reach those trees, this close to the end of the day.
“I know what it means to feel true pain,” he said softly.
And then he cackled and stood bolt upright, a manic grin plastered to his face.
“Oh no,” said the Doctor. “Don't do that. You need to be an expert at faces, to pull off a grin like that!”
“You see!” laughed Darwin, ignoring the Doctor completely. “Your friend is just the start of it. All of you are! Your religion; your species? You don't know the half of what I’ve done.”
He bounded over to the knot of shadow that seethed upon the ground. He was barely a religious man now, but he still prayed as he ran to that place– that the shadow creature he hoped for was within that mass of shade, so he could save his friends and not just meet his end. Perhaps God heard him, just that once in his life: shadow swam up him in a way that did not slice through him, and in his mind he felt a horrendous pain.
When a man is hated enough, he gives that hate a face. When Darwin thought of the people who despised him, he saw it in a certain way: a flurry of letters and angry articles in The Times. And without realising it, he’d come to think of those images as the same thing as the hate they represented, to be the totality of the hate for him that lay in the world. It was what he'd expected to face when the Lethe cloaked itself upon him, and in less than a second he knew how he’d been wrong.
He saw people both human and not, spread through so many lives and years. On some level he’d known how many lives the future could hold– but now he could see them all, in a way a human mind should never grasp. He saw every person who would ever be damaged by him; how every turn of phrase in his writing had shattered lives. Some of the fears people would take from his work were justified and some of them were not, but in that moment Darwin saw how that didn't really matter. All that mattered was the pain, and all of the pain was real.
He was a gentleman, above all other things. He would not strike a child, or punch a man unprompted. That would be more than uncivilised; it would be inhuman. But he had taught how the world could act in inhuman ways, and now he saw how he had done the same.
He’d meant to make a clever speech, to save the day. Like she always did, no matter the man she was. But it all seemed so much harder as his shadow boomed low and long…
...right over Cardinal Bless, who watched as his job was done for him.
I’m still grinning, Darwin realised. All that pain, and his expression hadn't changed. He channeled that grin into his voice, as he stood in the blackness of the world.
“See it!” he shouted to the baboon. “See what I see, the things I’ve done to the world! The people that I have scarred,” he said, “and the faiths that I have crushed. And you’ll just be the next of them,” he snarled, “who thinks he's so very special. That slaying me will change what I already am; that my blood can bring back the God your people have lost! But forget my theory, monkey. Look at me, and ask yourself this: what kind of creator would make a man like this? What kind of monster–”
Darwin was interrupted by a shape in ordinary clothes, shoving him out of the shadow as gently as it could. The Doctor stepped into the space where her friend had been and grinned, her expression seeming far more natural than Darwin’s had. Shadow streamed up and around her, drawn like light into a void.
“It’s me, is the answer,” she said. “His creator’s me. I don’t know if you got that. Because it was me who set it in motion, behind the scenes. And it’s me who’s the cause of it all: everything he did, and everyone he hurt. You want to see your monster, Cardinal? You want to see a God? Then look at me, you idiot! Look at the bloody Doctor!”
And she grinned, a huge, goofy grin that should not have been able to terrify.
“’Cause it's all me, you know,” she said. “Darwin is only famous because of me! He’s only alive because of me! And his species, and his planet! Life itself, and all of reality! Everything we find beautiful in this world.”
“And everything we regret,” she said.
Her shadow began to stretch from her body, on and on with no end in sight. It caught the cardinal as it stretched and then just kept on going, as if it would run and run until it encircled the world. The Doctor was still grinning, but Chris could see the pain building up in her eyes– of every life she had ever scarred, in the thousands of years she had lived.
Bless stared up at the Doctor’s darkened form.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “What did you just say?”
“That I'm incredibly old and powerful and terrifying,” said the Doctor, who was now forgetting to grin. “Didn't you take any of that in? I'm channeling, you know, what's quite a lot of pain–”
“Yes, I felt all that,” said Bless. “But I'm a member of a Holy Order; it’s my job to deal with pain. Don't you know anything about what my profession involves?”
“Doesn't really come up,” said the Doctor. “This whole territory’s pretty new to me, to be honest. Look, is looking at the awful consequences of our lives doing nothing at all for you?”
“Nothing whatsoever,” said Bless cheerfully. “I know that I'm a sinner.”
“Oh, thank God,” said the Doctor, letting her body slump down. She thrust her hands into her pockets and bought out her special tools — screwdriver in one hand, spanner in the other — and let them blast out awful scents and sounds. The darkness around her screamed in its silent way, then fled back to the safety of the forest.
The Doctor slumped to her knees, panting with exhaustion and despair. Cardinal Bless padded over to her, and when he spoke his voice was thick with awe.
“You could thank God yourself, of course,” he said softly. “You’re one of the Lords, aren't you? Those just below the angels. Tasked by the Father to watch, with only one foot in the world.”
“Um,” said the Doctor. “I'm not sure that's how I’d describe–”
”But you are, aren't you?” said Bless. “A Lord of Time. Any fool could see that!”
“But,” said Darwin weakly, “but she looks exactly like us–”
”Maybe not any fool,” Bless went on. “But the point is that you came here, didn't you? You intervened, in the distant past of our kind. One could almost call it—” his eyes grew bright “—intelligent design–”
“Ah,” said the Doctor. “Well. I suppose… from a certain point of view–”
“Everything my people feared because of him,“ said Bless, jabbing his tail at Darwin, “was because we thought we were no better than men. But that isn't true, is it? Without you they’d be nothing, all scrabbling around in the dirt! And it sounds like you’ve had to help them out a very large number of times.”
“We are pretty rubbish,” said Chris, looking bored.
“How many times have you had to save us baboons, Doctor?” said the Cardinal. “I can't say I’ve heard of you poking around the place.”
“You’re pretty good at taking care of yourselves,” said the Doctor, looking at her feet.
“Then it's as the Bible says! Life's useless creatures helped along by God’s angels, with us baboons as the outcome of it of it all.” He paused. “Although angels are usually male–”
“Well, so am I,” said the Doctor, who wanted the Cardinal to go away.
“Does all this mean that nobody’s going to kill me?” said Darwin.
“Oh, there shouldn't be any need for that!” said Cardinal Bless. “This has all just been a terrible misunderstanding.”
“Right. Well. That's good, I suppose.”
The four of them looked at each other, all feeling uncomfortable about their species.
“I don't suppose,” said Darwin after a while, “that a baboon would have any interest in tea?”
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