Chapter 17

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Nadya opened her eyes

She found herself standing on a small outcropping of rock, poking out of a wide pool of molten stone. The pool itself was at the top of a broad mountain that overlooked a burning plain. The sky was tinted a hellish red, and the horizon was jagged with volcanoes spewing dark gases into the atmosphere. Occasionally, an asteroid burned a hole through the firmament, dragging behind it a bright tail of plasma. The sun was harsh and white, gazing menacingly from just above the horizon. The magnetic field of the planet was tortured under its unending gaze, twisting and stretching in painful ways, burning with green and red flames where it met the young atmosphere. All was silent. Even as the supersonic asteroids screamed through the sky, they made no sound.

Nadya was surprisingly unconcerned about this vision of apocalypse before her, if rather confused. As she regarded the glowing rock that surrounded her, a single, resounding drum beat sounded from nowhere in particular. It shook the stones and seemed to echo for a few moments.

Gradually, the rock cooled, turning from red to a dull grey, then finally shattering into an abrasive sand, broken by an unfelt wind. The volcanoes calmed and stopped spouting their debris into the sky. A few clouds formed and died under the crimson backdrop. The mountains in the distance began to slump, driven into the ground by erosion. The sun glided silently toward the zenith.

Very gradually the planet cooled. Water hauled by an endless barrage of comets began to rain on the boiling surface, covering the sphere in a thin, transient film of toxic fluid. The moon, bloated and red, swung violently around the planet, pulling the new oceans with it. Tides like none seen since ripped across the barren shores, clawing at the stony outcroppings and turning them to dust. The waters, filled with chemicals carried in the frozen hearts of comets, raged and boiled. Rain fell only to evaporate immediately upon striking the ground below, and many oceans that managed to hold their position momentarily fell to the heat quickly. A few, however, lay stable in topological basins, throwing themselves at the cliffs that contained them. At the pace of a glacier, the waters conquered the planet.

Another drum beat.

Within the steaming oceans, unusual chemicals began forming. Organic molecules imported by yet more asteroids coalesced. Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen organized themselves into complicated structures, coaxed into their new shapes by the furious energy of the roiling oceans and the churning, poisonous atmosphere.

The sun set, after only seven hours, revealing a sky full of unfamiliar constellation. If one looked at the stars carefully, one would notice that the tiny dots were drifting. Very slowly, but they were moving, as the sun and all the other stars wheeled around the galaxy, a shoal of puny fish being caught in a whirlpool. But Nadya was not looking at the stars, for she was intent on the water that lapped soundlessly at the shore in front of her.

Eventually, through a combination of chance and sheer quantity of trial and error, a molecule emerged that had a shape that could create itself. It could attract other molecules, cause them to latch onto itself in such a way as to complement its own structure, creating two different halves that carried the same information. It sheathed itself in more hardy organics, evolving to coexist and work with other simple chemicals. The results were tiny, replicating units, consisting of billions of individual molecules working in unison. They struggled to survive in the terribly inhospitable waters. The sun above skewered them with radiation, degrading the strands of organic molecules that allowed them to replicate, while the residual heat of the planet burned them from below.

The sun rose after eight hours of darkness.

Of course, all this molecular evolution happened on a scale far smaller than Nadya could see. All she noticed was the continent sailing calmly through the primordial seas. Forever it marched, with no sign of change. The moon receded into the heavens, as tidal forces dragged it faster. The sun took longer to arc across the sky as the Earth lost rotational momentum to the moon.

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