Long Ago

Cold and weak and sick, she dragged herself on through the rain. Somewhere through the sheets of falling water was home. Home would provide a shelter from the rain, but not the cold… the cold was forever.

She was of a species that no one in the future would recognize as human. Wretched and pitiful, wasted thin from starvation, her body covered only by a matted coat of filthy black hair. Dark, uncomprehending eyes looked out from beneath a heavy, pronounced brow. Trembling, scarred fingers clumsily reached for the next rock in front of her, closed around it, and slowly, painfully dragged her shivering body forward, across the wet ground. Gravel scraped against her distended belly, tearing her skin. She made an inarticulate noise of pain, a mewling groan, for she didn't have the strength to scream.

Up ahead. Up ahead was home. Just a little farther, then the rain would end. But the cold would stay, as it always did.

It was here that the white creature appeared.

The fact that it was the first of its kind to set foot on this world was of no importance to it; it had no concept of pride or honor. It was merely fulfilling its function as an extension of the whole, as its kind had done from the beginning of time. The physical sensation of water falling on its body was unpleasant, but merely a distraction. They couldn't afford distraction. It focused all of its attention on the animal that was making its labored way toward an outcropping of rock… a cave. It tilted its head, analyzing the situation.

The animal had rudimentary intelligence, clearly. It had enough sense to know that the cave meant a reprieve from the falling water. But its vital signs were fading fast… even if it managed to reach the cave, sickness would claim its life before long. The white creature processed the data, cross-referencing it with the experience of the whole, and determined the best way to proceed. It blinked its red eyes once and opened itself to the animal's mind.

It would have felt disappointment, if it were capable. The animal had no language, no higher reasoning, not even a concept of cause and effect, only instinct and basic response to stimuli. There was just the barest spark of sentience within her. Still, though… given the right sequence of events, a spark could become a flame. The white creature tilted its head, and phrased the thought in the simplest way it could.

Can you understand me?

Slowly she turned her head and looked at the white creature for the first time. She had never seen anything like it before. A living thing, she knew. Living things sometimes were food, sometimes were danger. At the moment she was simply too tired to try to learn which it was. It had made sounds in her head, sounds that confused and frightened her… Quivering, she shrank back from its red eyes.

The creature blinked. If you understand, then listen. You are ill, exhausted. Your body is failing. Up ahead is your home, isn't it? It projected the thought of the pitiful little cave at the animal.

Her dull eyes widened. The living thing had sent her a picture of her home. More frightened than ever, she summoned her last reserves of strength, crawling imperceptibly faster toward it. If she lost her home, she lost everything… all that was left was cold and pain.

It doesn't have to be this way, the white creature thought at her. You can stop it. You can become something more than you are, if you desire. I can help you, if you help me in return…

Somehow, impossibly, she had dragged herself past the lip of the cave as the creature sent things to her mind that she couldn't comprehend. Inside the cave were littered the remains of her last few meals, and a sad little circle of worn-down grass and moss that was where she slept. Feeling darkness at the edges of her being, she heaved her quaking body into that circle, her chest rising and falling.

The white creature followed her. I know at least part of you understands me. We would not have chosen your kind otherwise. Do you hear me? Simply think of what you want, and I can provide it. That's all you need to do.

Her heavy eyes stared at it. Though she was still afraid of it, something in her grasped a fragment of its meaning. It had what she needed. What she needed to keep on living, to keep the pain and darkness away… Though it took all of her will to do so, her primitive mind sent something back to the creature: No more cold.

Very well, then. It was a simple enough request, easy to grant. Just the fact that the animal was able to communicate her desire showed that perhaps she could have thought of the solution by herself one day, given enough time.

Perhaps. But that was not how its kind worked. Its kind had a mission.

The contract has been made. Your wish has surpassed entropy, thought the white creature, its body glowing with power. Slowly it reached for the animal, drawing something from her…

When she awoke, she felt… different. Better. She had no way of describing it. New pathways had opened. Possibilities were there that didn't exist before. She was still weak and wet and sick, but now she understood that she didn't have to be that way… she could change.

Slowly, as if drawn by some other force, the scarred, leathery fingers of her left hand reached for one of the rocks on the floor of her cave. They closed around it, brought it close. There was another rock in front of her. There was a faint glimmer inside her mind… She lifted the first rock up high, then drove it crashing down on the second.

Light. Light leaped from between the two rocks, and struck a patch of dry, dead grass sprouting from the cave floor. The light caught, and spread, and bloomed, and it was as if the cold were being driven away… Her trembling hands reached for the blazing light, like the one in the sky, but smaller, closer…

Impressive, thought the white creature. This will do.

A Month Later

It had to admit some form of surprise… or at least an unexpected result. The animal's wish had not only affected the individual, but the rest of her species. The knowledge of how to drive away the cold had spread like a virulent plague. Already, all across the fertile little valley where they dwelled, fires were burning throughout the night.

The white creature watched with interest as its contract fell backward, struck by a particularly large and brutish male of her species. It felt her fear and confusion, her desire to strike back, but she simply didn't understand why. She had brought an end to the cold, why was she being hurt for it?

Interesting, thought the creature. I suppose this is entropy in action, isn't it?

It watched as the male picked up a rock from her cave floor… one of the same two rocks she had used to strike the first spark. He brought the rock down on its contract's skull, as if he intended to make fire from her. But no fire emerged, only a spray of blood and grey meat. The white creature felt its contract's life flicker, sputter, and fade away, her last thought a confused wail that begged for its help once again.

Clearly this species needs further enhancement in order to remain a viable asset. No matter, thought the Incubator as it turned and vanished into the darkness. From now on, there will be others.