Moving through the corridors the janitor went, cleaning up the odd spill here and gathering up a stray piece of garbage there. It was a lonely existence since his two fellow workers Now and Then had been sent to work over in Elsewhere but it gave him a sense of purpose in his old age. He did his job well – always had done in fact. Few aberrations or blooms got past him for very long.
As he flowed through the universe and all the layers beyond it, he gazed upon a spinning ball of rock joined as it was by eight others of varying sizes in an elliptical orbit around its sun. In the vast darkness of space he could see its surface covered by waters and the restless landmasses thrusting up from beneath. Soon there will be life here, he thought. Already he could see the beginnings of it in the bloom of primitive amoeba type life forms appearing in the shallow seas and oceans. Soon they would be teeming with all manner of creatures until some sufficiently developed arrangement of cells dragged itself ashore to take its first breath of untried air.
As he billowed above and around the Earth he pondered the necessary curtailment of their expansion. One part of him knew full well what was required of him but then When remembered his colleagues Now and Then. They had been even more efficient than he. If he made it look like it was easy to manage this wing of the Universe just as they had done, chances were he would be moved on too and from what he heard Elsewhere was not the sort of place he wanted to spend his twilight years. The word wasm Elsewhere was frenetic by comparison.
It was situated close to the heart of the Paeleron Galaxy where life cropped up with annoying frequency. The radiation spewing from within its cluster of nebulas propagated blooms in the most unlikely of places. It sounded absolutely disgusting to someone as pernickety as When. He looked down at the dirty little planet below and suddenly it didn’t seem quite so bad.
On that basis he went off to see if anything untoward had got caught in the gravity wells of a distant black hole leaving the troublesome little planet alone to fester. It didn’t take him long – just sixty thousand years, which was far too soon to go back. So with little else to do, he completed a few circuit inspections of his zone over the next couple of hundred million years before eventually allowing himself to go back for another look. To his dismay he discovered it was now almost totally inhabited by a species of giant reptiles. Many of them killed and ate one another, emitting vast amounts of methane into the primitive atmosphere. He watched them for a bit till he felt fairly certain they were not going to evolve into a less toxic strain of life all on their own, then he flexed his cosmic muscles as it were and took hold of their temporal pathway and squeezed it hard until it finally withered and practically all of them keeled over and died.
He studied the rest of the species on Earth until he was forced to withdraw to deal with some displaced comets hurtling past Orion’s Belt. They were easily sorted but it was still too soon for him to be checking up on his planetary scale petri dish again. So he crossed over to report back to his superiors, albeit rather untruthfully it has to be said. They didn’t seem to suspect anything though, because after all his zone was always clean as a whistle. Why would they possibly imagine he was allowing a controlled outbreak to spread just so that he could look useful again? He left their presence feeling decidedly smug with his little scheme.
That changed to anticipation as he pushed through the filaments of space and time to take yet another look at his project. The primates now had supremacy. Some had even developed the ability to walk upright on two legs. A few had begun using rudimentary tools. He told himself that he would have to watch this strain. And so he did with a growing disquiet. Like the dinosaurs before them they warred with each other but in a different way. It wasn’t just about food. It was also about power. They loved to be masters over the destiny of the weak. In fact they seemed to get drunk on it. As time went on they even learnt to wage war from a distance, either sending their minions to sacrifice themselves for the greater good or by pushing buttons from a place of concealment and safety. Their activities made for compulsive viewing. They were like nothing he’d ever seen before. Maybe this was because he’d always tidied up his zone so thoroughly, he mused. Indeed he wanted to do so now but he found that he couldn’t. So he left them unchecked and went off to tend the rest of his territory like a man leaving his seedlings to grow in a window box.
Several centuries on they’d spread through the solar system like mould. He panicked when he discovered this and hastily began unravelling the foundations of their sun. As he worked he looked down at their miserable little efforts, filled with indignation that they should exist where they were not wanted. He tugged at the roiling energies within the star reminding himself of their lowly origins. This was meant to make it easier for him to pull the plug but his recollecting of their humble beginnings produced feelings of empathy and consequently guilt. He had forgotten that his own species once existed in physical form too, roaming planets and worshipping the stars.
Half-heartedly he examined them even more closely, searching for a pretext to eliminate them, one that he might use to justify to himself. But instead he found even greater reason to refrain. The majority were a lot like the TimeKeepers in their attitudes as well. They established territories and patrolled their borders. They methodically identified and eliminated threats and viewed anyone different with suspicion. Those at a lesser stage of social and economic development were often viewed as less than, just as the advanced primate species on Earth had been to When initially.
These discoveries shook him to the core. Suddenly he released his hold on their sun and backed away to the very edge of the galaxy where he could think things through. What was wrong with him? Why did his responsibilities suddenly seem so wrong?
Because they are wrong, he told himself.
He’d seen the humans clearing their fellow species from their homelands and in some cases exterminating them en masse. And now he could see what that behaviour looked like. The colonials for example strode around the globe like they owned the place which was laughable from his perspective. But he was beginning to question whether his own species, the TimeKeepers, were really any different.
He circled the nearest star and considered this…
No, they were no different really. The humans had gunpowder, the TimeKeepers controlled time. Both can be tools of abuse in the wrong hands.
When felt odd. None of the old beliefs he subscribed to made sense anymore. He wished someone else would step in and take over. But that was unlikely to happen. So instead he reached down and began to unravel his own timeline until finally he ended up on the other side and then he locked the door.
Humans were free to do whatever they wanted now within their own solar system and When’s job as the Janitor of Zone 29459328 was utterly secure.
He couldn’t wait to tell the others he’d had to quarantine that funny little solar system over on the outer edge of the Milky Way…
Good job he was known for telling the truth, otherwise they might think he was telling porkies.