Seeking Man In The Field

The light of the noonday sun was above them, but Conn could not see it
through the obscuring clouds. He thought it was particularly cool out, but the
humid climate made him sweat all over, like a wet blanket resting on his
shoulders. Eventually, as the clouds shifted in the air and brought fog through
the mountain passes, Conn felt well again, and smiled. It was familiar, like
home, yet so far away. As the roads had widened and narrowed along 338, it
was like he was back in Main again, traveling along the Main Route 8, to see
his father in Strom. Despite the protest of his wife, and the vehemence of his
sister, he had traveled alone then, disregarding their continual pleas that he
was opening himself to heaps of trouble. There were many things that could
happen to a man, alone on a highway. A woman never traveled alone, but with
a man, she would gain safe passage. A man never traveled without weapons.
Conn knew these truths. Everyone knew them. But he never let those worries
concern him. For the first time in his life he made his way with others, and saw
the appeal of doing so. There was always something to laugh at, for they were
all brothers together.

Next to him the Samisk man rode on his reindeer, seated on a makeshift
saddle, while the others eyed him enviously every so often. His language had
improved considerably since the time spent in Sol, his mouth now more adept
at the hard sounds, which kept him from swallowing the vowels. Still, the
nomad had yet to speak with Conn personally. Conn didn’t mind waiting, even
though he was eager to meet another stranger.

The last time he chanced upon a new friend was in Skara Brae. Taog, he
recalled, was a chance associate. He had come calling one afternoon to
measure a rusty sewer drain in Taog’s home. He had hoped to get it done in one
afternoon but, as luck would have it, he realized he would have to construct a
mold. The mold took a long while to build. The wax alone took the longest to
gather. As the weeks passed, they became good friends, so much so that he
would tell his wife every time he came home about their conversations. After
her death, the mysterious politician became his sole comforter. Good things
never lasted though, especially not for him.

“Rv55,” murmured Halldórr in a beleaguered voice, “oh how I would
rather walk you a dozen times over than climb a bloody mountain.” It had only
been a few minutes since they left the grizzled highway, and already he had
begun panting.

“Tut! Come now, Blood Mountain is only 400 meters,” Galdur replied
wryly. “Feel that burn in your quads! 396 meters of icy chasms, rock, and dirt
to go,” he added, enhancing a construct image of their assent.

“Silence, both of you,” Yngvarr said, moving ahead of them to Sigmundur
and batting away the image. “It’s no climb at all, not in the slightest.” With an
adventurous grin, he looked back at Jökull, who walked with his arms folded,
deep in his thoughts and added, “Look! The poet has no complaints. Why then
should you?”

“Prudence,” Jökull interjected, “it is a marvelous balm in our times of
complaint.”

Yngvarr threw his head back and guffawed, patting Sigmundur on the back
to stir him up. But the shepherd was stalwart. He kept his eyes on the road
ahead.

“These mountains: thickened caverns are there abounding, holding in their
depths the great beasts of old. We must proceed with sense and duty, lest we
fall like heroes and join Odin’s mead hall premature.”

Suddenly they halted. It was an odd voice, heavily accented and rough, but
it was understandable. Facing the Samisk man in surprise, they looked at him
with curious gazes. It was the first real thing he had said. When the Samisk man
saw their faces he smiled winsomely, taking out his portly flask to drink in
celebration.

“Ah! So your arcane magic bid me leave to speak? Then we shall sing and
dance, at the heights of this hill tonight in celebration of a successful spell.”

“Marvelous idea,” Galdur mused. “I’ve heard hedensk are known for their
stories. We must hear some of those!”

Beside the missionary, Halldórr clapped his hands and whistled blithely.

“Good show! See? Taking him along was a marvelous idea,” he said,
nudging Galdur heartily. “Those patches take their time, but they are bloody
well worth it.”

“Feasts bring joy to all,” agreed the Samisk man, “but good food and a tale
make even better revelry.” The nomad gestured kindly to Sigmundur, bowing
his head from the saddle in respect.

Yngvarr looked over, raising his eyebrow and whispered something into
Sigmundur’s ear. Whatever it was, the shepherd dismissed it with a curt
gesture, and bowed to the Samisk man respectfully.

“I am humbled that you revere my tales,” he said in a formal tone. Raising
his hand, Sigmundur called the nomad to lift his head. “What is it that we may
call you, that we may answer you?”

“My name is Fjølne,” he said, briskly dismounting the reindeer, “of Soum,
keeper of secret words and phrases.”

“Welcome to our company, Fjølne,” the shepherd replied. “So long as our
quest is reasonable, you are free to join us.”

Fjølne nodded, pondering the question. Opening his hands he turned to
them all.

“There are five already here, and seeking the child has not deterred them.
What man would I be without rising to meet this challenge as well?”

“And so the rogue joins us,” Galdur said, looking keenly at the others.

“Here, here,” Halldórr added raising his hand.

Sigmundur gripped his cane, hanging his head limply, enjoying the moment
of rest.

“Well, perhaps you will be a slow one,” he said. “I am not as young as I
once was.” Hearing this, Fjølne smiled and grabbed the reins of his beast of
burden.

“If you fall, teacher, gladly would I give you this mount.”

As Fjølne climbed back into his saddle, the care he took in doing so
reminded Conn of his father, who before taking the trade of a blacksmith, made
a living tending the sheep that roamed the plains of Stron. He suspected that the
Samisk was adept at such a skill, though perhaps with other animals. Conn
recalled running across the golden fields, getting lost in them on occasion. Yet,
his father always found him, as he did his own sheep. He meditated on this,
letting the warm thoughts of nostalgia fill him.

So they traveled onward, sharing stories and jokes among themselves.
Conn enjoyed them, and felt rather foolish for leaving Orn on such poor terms.
But now, as the skies opened up, and the vast expanse of the cool, tranquil
firmament bore itself to him, he felt rather vindicated in his choice to sojourn
with them. Even as they began to ascend the hidden pathways amidst the fir
trees, he felt the primal spirit of the land merge with him.

Far into the ascent, Conn felt the fatigue come on quickly. Never before
had he climbed something so markedly steep. At first it was nothing beyond
that which he endured every day, walking up the hillock that led to his smithy,
but soon the grade increased severely. Every step felt weighted, like plucking
his feet from mud to plod onward. There were only so many branches to grasp
to steady his steps. Emerald green and sea foam moss clung to every stone and
brittle limb. Conn learned to avoid those, particularly after the fourth time he
landed on his face. Graciously, Halldórr tied a rope to Conn and tethered it to
his own waist. Occasionally when the canopy above waned, Conn could see
the clouds overhead, and behind him the great fjords, bearing their
magnificence and glory. The view at the top, he knew, would be worth it.

It was late afternoon by the time they reached the crest of the ridge,
covered in sweat and wholly exhausted from the climb. The land up there was
different than what Conn had expected to find. There were no trees, but only
vast expanses of shaggy grass as far as the eye could see; and scattered
between them were large pools of stagnant water and residual snow melt.
Rocky outcrops littered the fields, nearly hidden by mossy parapets and white
tipped flowers, but were few and far between. Nothing had corrupted these
places, for they were hidden from the world. Even so, if they had been
tampered with, all veritable signs of the contamination were long overtaken by
the primal highlands.

The party collapsed in a heap on the ground, heaving off their bags and
packs; all except Fjølne, who sat comfortably with a satisfied look on his
reindeer. Jökull watched with envious eyes as the Samisk dismounted. When
Fjølne saw him staring, he smiled back with a wave. Yngvarr silently rebuked
him with a look of disappointment.

Watching them all lay out their items meticulously across the moist grass,
Conn was captivated. Across the lawn, all manners of dried food and
preserves were present, mingled together with other survival paraphernalia.
Jökull, who had sat down next to Conn, pulled from his sack a box containing a
medium sized mutton joint and small, dehydrated potatoes. Something about it
made Conn chuckle to himself. It was so absurd, the little thing, sitting there in
a box, no more than a hand’s breadth, but when Jökull took out his flask and
poured a little water through the opening in the top of the container, Conn saw
it explode in size, so much so that it broke the box, spilling out onto the grass
with its seasonings.

“Damn it all!” the poet cried, scrambling to gather the contents back into
the box. A few of the others looked over their shoulders at the leg, Halldórr
and Galdur laughing together, Sigmundur behind them smiling and shaking his
head.

“A lamb hock? Very ambitious,” Halldórr spoke up, extending his hand out
to console the poet from afar, “Remember what the survival regimen says?
‘Always pack small items, never big ones.’”

“Oh shut up,” grumbled Jökull, shoving the leg into his mouth. “These are
leftovers,” he paused to take another bite, “and I’m hungry.”

“He can’t be bothered, Halldórr,” said Galdur, pausing to bite off a piece
of bread from a loaf that had emerged from his box. “It’s brain food! And what
is a poet without brain food?” He watched Jökull from the corner of his eye
shake his head in frustration, shifting in his seat to get a handle on the mutton
joint. Conn all the while said nothing. When he saw Jökull finish the lamb leg,
he leaned over to ask the question that had stewed in his mind as they ate.

“So, uh, Jökull...” he said, pausing to let Jökull take a quick gulp of water,
“how does all of that work?”

“How does what work?” the poet said as he set down his food, giving
Conn his full attention. It was difficult to tell if the poet was doing so out of
kindness, or resignation.

“The food in that box there, how does it grow? What is happening there?”
The poet looked at him, expressing some disbelief.

“Are you prying words from me, blacksmith?” He set aside his lunch, and
then added with dry cynicism, “Did not your time at the great cave of memories
bequest to you all our secrets?”

Conn shook his head quickly, not presuming to make any offense. He
honestly, for whatever reason, had no idea how the technology functioned.
“Oh, I,” he stammered, “well the, uh... you see... the machine wasn’t quite
so thorough.”

Placing the leg back into what remained of the box, the Poet heaved a sigh,
and held it up to Conn so he could see inside. To him, it looked nothing beyond
the ordinary shape and texture of a plastic container, though he had learned by
now the nature of the things of Orn were never what they seemed.

“Inside the enclosure,” he began in a precise and articulate voice, “the
item in question is placed. Once it has been placed, the lid is thereby closed
and is dried thus instantaneously by memory fibers weaved into the plastic. All
liquid, water to be precise, is extracted down to the cellular level. Therefore,”
he paused lifting the box to inspect it and then brought it up close to Conn’s
face, “when mixed with water, the item itself absorbs it instantly through levels
of concentration gradients.”

“Oh,” Conn replied, taking the box from Jökull to feel its surfaces. “That’s
quite brilliant, actually.” He marveled at the material. In his hands it felt like
what he expected, though he faintly sensed a vibrating resonance in the
material that oscillated back and forth like a flexible coil. Looking up again at
Jökull, he nodded meekly and handed it back to the poet.

For a moment the bard held his peace. Conn saw this, and wondered if he
and the man were on cordial relations with one another. Generally, in his
experience, when a man doesn’t speak to you, something is wrong. Then again,
Conn prided himself on having high expectations when it came to friends.

“About before,” Jökull said after a lengthy pause, drawing from his tunic a
slender wooden pipe, “I am sorry about your son.” He lit the pipe and
charitably offered it to Conn. Obliged, Conn took the pipe with curiosity. It had
been a long while since his last puff of a pipe, though he recalled the
experience to be an enjoyable one. Feeling the stem in his mouth, it felt old,
finely crafted, possibly an heirloom. The tobacco was flavored, and Conn
instantly recognized the vanilla in it, but there were other nuances in the leaves
he could not place: a smoky mint, and ripe eple. Flavored tobacco had always
been his favorite. It was his father’s favorite as well. He passed it back to the
poet.

“He is dead....” Conn murmured solemnly. “What else can be said about it
is moot.” Jökull nodded soberly, pulling his right leg close to him, securing it
in the crook of his arm. He took a puff and passed the pipe back to Conn.

“That must be difficult... My boy and I, we didn’t see eye to eye on many
things. It is oddly humorous, really. In that we were actually so alike. He was
an idealist, as was I. But he didn’t understand the crippling nature of this
world.” Jökull took a long labored breath, his eyes red and moist. “I must have
been so cold with him.” In the midst of his inhaling, Conn stopped, looking
over in surprise, then masked it hastily. He had never expected Jökull to open
up to him.

“All I wanted,” he continued, picking up stones from the earth and grinding
them in between the dirt in his fingers, “was to teach the boy my ways and, of
course, all he wanted to do was play—run about in the fields consumed with
blithe joy and excitement. And I was a fool.” Again he paused, heaving a long,
weary, broken sigh, wiping the tears forming in his eyes. “I thought the switch
would learn him proper, though I never laid a hand on him—the hand is a sign
of gentleness, not wrath.”

Conn nodded politely, but inside suppressed his burning fury for the poet.
His fist was clenched and poised to unleash judgment. And he would have, had
not Jökull thrown himself onto him in tears, sobbing and wailing.
Begrudgingly, he let it go. In every person there is a moment of clarity, of
bristling realism when the world falls upon you. Conn never cried as he saw
Fearghas fall to the ground, limp and unmoving. He didn’t for some time. But
he remembered clearly the first time the tears of bitterness had ended and the
tears of loss began. He remembered the tidal reverberations that shook him,
made him vomit and writhe on the floor of his cottage shack. He remembered
the moment of clarity when he realized he would never see his boy pop his
head in the door and greet him again.

“Dròttinn!” Jökull wailed. “What in the Lord’s name have I done? I beat
him, Conn... Oh Jesu... What have I done?”

Immediately Sigmundur and Yngvarr rose to their feet, rushing over to
Conn, while Halldórr and Galdur sat from a distance in silence, trying not to
look. The two of them pried him off, Jökull resisting them both, flailing his
arms in hysteria. Conn shot himself back with his heels and raised his hands in
innocence.

“Here, man! Get a hold of yourself!” Conn yelled in a wary voice.
Yngvarr shot his head back, glaring at Conn.

“Say another word, and I will destroy you! You’ve done enough here.
Make yourself useful and gather up some firewood, for Dròttinn’s sake.”

“Now just a minute,” Conn protested, “how is this my fault? The man’s
batty as an old crone with too many cats!”

Sigmundur stretched out his walking stick between them, prodding Jökull
and Yngvarr to keep their distance.

“This can wait,” he said firmly. “Conn, oblige the man. Be a lad, and
hurry. I will deal with this.”

“But I didn’t do anything wrong!” shouted Conn angrily. “What the devil is
wrong with you people?”

“Not another word! Do as I say,” Sigmundur gruffly barked back at Conn.
“I expect insolence from Yngvarr and this blubbering buffoon, but not from
you! Now go. I will find you when we settle this.”

Throwing up his hands furiously, Conn turned back and walked out of the
camp westward, toward the setting sun. Livid, he did not stop even to hear the
protests of the others. He only halted when Fjølne took him by surprise,
grabbing him by the arm.

“You men wail like Valkyries,” he shouted, laughing like a madman. “You
are craven!”

Conn raised his voice to respond, but decided it would not be wise to
anger his naïve companion. He forced a polite smile and shrugged. Wresting
loose his arm from Fjølne’s grasp, he walked off into the highlands, caring not
in the slightest which way he went.

After a few kilometers, he finally sat down, pouring with sweat. There he
rehearsed in his mind, playing back and forth the indignation, the anger, the
maliciousness he felt directed toward him. He found it vindicating to destroy
someone in his thoughts and fantasies, where they were locked away safely
from the prying hands of others. He could do in them whatever he wanted. And
he did. Alone, he lived in his joyful prison of justice, where he could kill
Earnan and exact his revenge in any way he so deemed fit for the zealot. It was
hard to conceive of gaining victory over someone like Yngvarr, however. In
his mind, he settled for simply thinking extra nasty thoughts about the warrior.

After an hour, in the distance a fire began burning at their camp and no one
yet had come for him. He didn’t want to go back anyway. How difficult would
it be to return to Sol? He could bypass them and go down into the impassable
valley of the muskoxen. No, that was a foolish venture; completely out of the
question. Without food or ample supplies he would die in a matter of days,
unless food conveniently died in front of him, cooked and cleaned. Overhead,
the frozen sun had not moved an inch, placed there by powers unknown to him.
He believed in the real, and all the assumptions and pretensions that followed
it, though he longed for a return to innocence. Conn indeed could piece together
some understanding as to why the sun behaved in this way: By traveling north,
the days had become longer, and in fact the great orb in the sky had some time
before it would fall below the horizon, if it did. Yngvarr’s ruse was apparent,
for there was no need for firewood in the slightest. Distance and time were the
true things he requested of Conn, a few moments to sedate the crazed poet with
reason and therapy.

Several thousand miles away from home and everything he knew, he sat in
a vast field in a strange place and felt oddly at peace. He felt safe and cozy,
despite the encroaching chill of the evening. He pulled his legs to his chest and
began briskly rubbing them with both his hands. Not wanting to go back yet by
any means, Conn sat there defiantly, looking in the opposite direction. He
didn’t care to go back, and there was no reason to. In his musings, however, he
saw something off in the distance, something he could scarce believe: beyond
the ridge ahead of him, a small red light pulsed, flickering on and off steadily.
Suddenly he wasn’t cold anymore.

He jumped to his feet and ran, not sure what he would find, or what he
sought for that matter. He thought about what might be the source of such a thing
high in the mountains of Norge. Was it a relic of the past? A beacon? A hidden
airstrip? Another memory implant module? He decided quickly, as the terrain
passed rapidly under his feet, spanning the gaps and widths of the rocks and
boulders, that his pursuits of late had left a bad taste in his mouth. He was
ready for a change of pace, and learning more of the secrets of the past was an
appealing and thought-provoking notion.

He raised his head. The hill drew near.

As he blindly dashed over the top of the ridge, in mid stride, Conn lost his
footing. The stone slid out from beneath him. Et tu, Bryophyta? he thought. In
flight across the large crevasse, he marked with heightened senses his awful
predicament. Speed was against him as his body somersaulted, twisting in the
air and poised to collide with the rocky outcrop that lay across the gap. He
struck it flatly, his back against it, seeing a flicker of emerald pass before his
field of vision. There was a shrub at the foot of the wall. That was a good
thing...

Pain.

All he felt was a warm, blunt sensation that pounded against his head. At
first it sent tingling sensations across his whole body, but burned immediately.
The sharp pain was unbearable. Soon after, he slid into nothingness.

Darkness.

* * *

Conn awoke to discover he had passed out on a patch of grass, and
became acutely aware of the splintering pain spreading across his face. Next to
him was nothing. In fact, all he could see was nothing: it was pitch dark. He
rose up where he lay, grabbing hold of his throbbing head. Slowly he rolled
over, his body twitching and shivering from the cold. With numb fingertips, he
felt at the edge of the outcrop he had slipped upon as his eyes adjusted to the
night, and stood up, feeling drowsy. The moonlight was helpful, despite the fact
that it was barely a crescent.

He passed the small gorge and as he turned the corner, he saw the source
of light he had spotted before he fell, and it was only a handful of paces away.
Behind him, set upon the opposite horizon, a faint glow of campfire flickered
in the distance. He pondered what his comrades were up to. Had they looked
for him? He could scarcely think of a reason why they would. He had caused
so much trouble. Why were people so difficult, so needy and selfish?

“They all seem fine without me, then,” he murmured to himself. “No sense
in tempting fate. Whatever that means.” Looking back at the other light, his
mind was still too hazy to make out what it could even be, yet it was still more
friendly a notion than trekking back to a camp full of enemies.

Staked in the ground was a long metal post with a light soldered into a
socket at the top. Rust had consumed it almost entirely and phosphor scourging
marked it as a place where war had been made. Set to the side, its fading
crimson rays shed light on a much larger object, which looked like a building
of some sort. As he approached, he discerned it to be a building indeed, though
a small one; possibly a shack of some sort. Its walls were made of stone, with
a roof fashioned from roughhewn timber, and situated on a simple stone and
mortar foundation. Remarkably, it was intact, despite the condition of the post.
Even the window panes were unmarred and unbroken by the elements. It was
preserved, unaltered, unadulterated past.

Conn closed in on the structure, watching as the brightness of the beacon
increased, lighting the world against the pitch of night. It was a patchwork
construction, stone and pine mixed haphazardly together. Halldórr or any
carpenter would despair had they seen this bird, sporting its motley plumage of
stone slabs and gnarled shingles. The roof was not anything solid, or even
thatched, but was filled with dirt and laden with grass, like an oversized
flower box. He circled it, seeing there were no doors. The windows were
sealed from the inside, behind the glass.

Barred from entry, he walked back into the dull glow of the beacon,
disparaged, and sighed. He had hoped for something a little more exciting.
There were so many things he could have found. He pulled up the memories in
his mind, thinking of all the things that could have been there. Old military
installations were common in the highlands of Norge. He even would have
settled for the ruins of an old communication station like the one he saw in Orn,
but the object appeared to be simply an old shack, forgotten in time.
Grumbling, he looked back at the faint campfire light and wondered how long
it would take to hobble back on a limp. His mind cycled through the projected
health risks, aside from being ambushed, by taking a walk in the dead of night.
Immediately discounting frostbite, he would at least run the risk of pneumonia
in the night air, and sleeping out under the stars was unwise given what kinds
of creatures could be stalking the highlands in the dim hours of the morning, so
Conn resolved to take his chances and walk back.

Cradling his arms and warming them tenderly, he turned to depart when he
heard a muffled electronic buzzer chirp. Stopping to listen, he heard it beeping
again, now in sequence with other tonal chimes. It was a staggered line of
pulses that he perceived to be some kind of code, yet he could not place what it
was exactly. He struggled to think of what it could be, racking his brain. All he
could think of was “boat.” Suddenly, it dawned on him.

“Morse code... Out here? No... that can’t be right.”

He stood there quietly, trying to track the sequence, pulling up blanks
everywhere. All he could hear was the word, “boat.” Slowly he encircled the
shack to make a second inspection.

There before him, lying up against the back wall of the structure, was a
rusty dinghy. Its wood, at least what was left of it, by now had petrified, and
large sections of it had rusted over, for the hull was considerably patched with
iron and metal bracing. Now he could understand why it was so hard to spot
the first time; the whole thing looked like it was integrated with the structure
itself. Even from this angle, he could have easily mistaken it for the flue of a
corroded brick and mortar chimney.

Cautiously Conn stepped toward it, listening as the beeping steadily
increased in volume. Slowly, he knelt down, placing his head near it to listen.
As he placed his ear against the hull, something inside moved. He fell back on
his hands, frightened by the jolt, and watched as the structure began to tremor.
He scrambled to his feet and stood back.

A percussive din of shattered stone and wood thundered, exploding out
and away from the building, vaporizing the boat into a cloud of particles.
Rushing air and dust jettisoned from the broken pressure seal, the harsh,
cacophonous sound piercing Conn’s skull. He collapsed in a mixture of pain
and excitement, grinning and wincing simultaneously. He was certain he had
discovered an installation.

A collage of multicolored knobs and dials decorated the walls of the small
chamber inside. They hummed their chorus in unison, some cycling through
subroutines, others spiking and dipping. Conn eyed the room, looking around
the musty interior for anything that would shed light on what it had been used
for. The years of disuse were stunningly apparent. Dust caked everything, and
only the silverfish were left to scavenge and pillage the bounty of dirt and old
skin cells.

To Conn’s disappointment there was nothing interesting to note in the room
other than a few weathered computer terminals and defaced magazines, which
had been consumed by the busy creatures long before he had arrived. It was
another unfortunate, though intriguing, dead end.

Leaning against a work station, Conn noticed out of the corner of his eye a
small case tucked away underneath the desk. It was a small rectangular
carrying case, remarkably preserved in the station. Memories of busy men and
women flickered in his mind, hurrying from place to place holding these cases.
Recognizing it as a relic, he walked over to pick it up and felt it. Pressing
down on the case’s edges caused it to rapidly compress in size down to nothing
more than the width of his hand. Intrigued, Conn expanded its size once more
and looked on the bezel of the case to read a faded name:

H. a nu son

A clasp was folded across the top end of the case, flickering in the
darkness of the room. Conn was attempting to pry it open when a bulky, pastel
tetrahedron expanded above him. Startled, Conn fumbled with the case,
dropping it on the ground. He looked up at the shape bobbing in the air like a
fluttering bird and touched it, grabbing the soft corners of the projection and
spinning it around in the air. As he did, the image changed color. Intrigued, he
touched another side and spun that one as well; immediately the image pulsed
angrily and changed back to its original state.

The technology was crude, but Conn imagined this to be one of the first
constructs built. It was so primitive in texture and color; he recognized it to be
nothing more than some kind of game or fancy built into the case, which itself
seemed more remarkable to him. Recalling where the image came from, Conn
smiled in fascination, understanding the construct’s purpose. It was a key, and
the malleable image a method of turning it. Grabbing both sides of the
construct, he compressed it in the way Galdur and Yngvarr had when using
theirs, until it was nothing. Conn picked up the case and compressed it down
until it was small enough to fit in his pocket. He wondered if the room had
anything else of interest hiding about the desk stations, so he looked around
once more.

As he picked up a corroded magazine, seeing in it a collage of human
flesh, tapered, thinned, exposed, the dry hum of a rusty fan initiated with the
boot sequence. Conn heard it, and saw the large tower in the center console
light up, posting BIOS, and entering the operating system. The blacksmith
stepped back, tossing the magazine to the side, and knelt down to watch a fan
spin away, enthralled.

In most ways, the computer was an enigmatic device to Conn, though he
could easily, and comfortably, explain how they functioned and operated, how
they were built, and even how to hack them, despite never having seen one
before. Silently he got up and touched the bezel of the monitor above the tower,
feeling the rippling texture of the warping plastic around its corners. With the
side of his hand he reached over and wiped away the thick layer of dust that
almost entirely hid the screen from view. A harsh white light expanded into the
room, illuminating all that was hidden in darkness. Behind the veil of dirt, a
whirling animation of augmenting shapes and colors spun away in infinite
shapes and sizes leaving not a single pixel uncovered. After all this time the
system had remained powered on. To Conn’s surprise, its nano-batteries had
successfully powered a screen saver for some few hundred years.
When the machine finished its startup sequence a flashing cursor blinked
away in the upper right hand corner of the display. Instinctively, he lifted his
hands to the screen and touched the display, watching the ripple from his finger
bend the pixels across the panel. Under him, a metal latch unhinged, allowing a
keyboard to become disengaged from the bottom of the desk. He watched
intently as it moved with ease along the little riders that guided it across,
flipping up and over onto the desk in a mechanical snapping motion. His eyes
curiously rose to look at the screen as a line of code sprouted from the flashing
terminal.

Input method unrecognized >>>> Reassigning Input >>>> Hello, I am
an automated Help Desk Assistant. How may I assist you?

A grin emerged on Conn’s face. The stilted language was captivating.
When the only thoughts he could pull from his understanding were cynical
ones, he gathered immediately that he had been pitted against some form of
tyrannical opposition and resorted to hacking the terminal instead. As his
fingers maneuvered the keys, first entering from a back door, and then stripping
the Help Desk of all its security protocols, he hummed along in ignorance,
completely unaware of the deft motions. In moments the Help Desk was
bypassed, and Conn found himself staring at a blank screen. He scrunched his
face up in irritation. He gathered that the Hard Disk corrupted itself in the
decryption phase, a safety measure.

“Worth a go, I guess. Now what am I going to do?” Conn muttered to
himself. He turned away from the terminal, his eyes scanning where he had
dropped the magazine. In the dim light, his fingers fumbled along the concrete
floor of the installation. At least he had found something to do to pass the time.
Finally spotting it, crumpled in the corner, he bent down to pick it up. Then the
lights in the room shut off, and all was darkness.

Conn shot up in a panic, searching around for a light switch, but found
nothing. The collage of lights had faded and the computer deactivated, and
Conn made ready to go outside when a grid of iron bars exploded out of the
walls, crisscrossing the threshold and trapping him inside. With haste he ran
back to the terminals trying to find a power switch to turn them back on again
and attempt to find an override. He found nothing and smacked the monitors
with his hands, shouting.

“No, no... think Conn. What’s wrong? What do you need to do?” Red lights
emerged from the corners of the room, rotating in place, and lit up the monitors
in a soft burlesque glow. Each terminal powered on, first the one on the left,
then the right, then center.

“Initiating Identity Verification Protocol,” the center computer flashed a
silent command prompt.

Conn froze in fear. The protocol would undoubtedly lock him away as an
intruder, or worse, neutralize him as a threat. He watched an emerald wall fall
from the shack’s ceiling. It descended rapidly upon him, and Conn whimpered.
He held his breath, waiting for the end, realizing that no one would ever find
him and that he was destined to die in this shack. What a way! Would Jesu
accept him? He lied to himself and thought so, but there was nothing after death
—just the black forever.

Tears fell down his face as, before his eyes, an emerald sheen passed over
him like a mist. He saw it sitting there on the ground, pausing momentarily, and
he let down his hand from his face to feel the transparent wall. It felt like
nothing. He realized then that the field was harmless, immediately thinking of
Galdur’s bioluminescent field that had scanned his daughter on their first
encounter. Conn watched the field rise from the floor again, passing through
him, and saw it disappear into the ceiling like before. Ashamed, he stood up
patting off the dust from his trousers. Another line of code expanded from the
terminal and Conn stepped forward to see what it said.

User Authorized >>> Halle M. >>> Welcome.

Beneath him, plates of stone and metal shifted. A great fissure of light
erupted from the floor under him and illuminated the rest of the antechamber.
He trembled, watching his legs bow and part between the two moving slabs in
the floor, and heaved himself over to the right side, falling on his hands.
Rolling onto his back, he began to laugh.

“Oh, by the beard. A test? How bloody novel,” he cried out amidst the
deafening roar of the moving slabs. “I am such a fool.” He looked over from
where he lay, and saw a stairwell down into a clean room. Dust balls and piles
of dirt cascaded between the cracks in the floor, making little mountains on the
steps. He rolled over and stood up, watching as the plates settled, each of them
pulling back and folding away behind the passage way. From what he could
see, the chamber wasn’t larger than a few paces across, and descended only
into a shallow room not much larger than the one he stood in now.

His only way out barred and inaccessible, and seeing that he had nothing
else to do, he reluctantly stepped into the hidden stairwell, minding the low
ceiling. The light bearing down on him was harsh to his eyes, revealing all
impurities of the former chamber. Down in the room, he saw a man, barely
covered and partially dismembered. His right arm was severed from his
elbow, thin wires and mechanical ligaments protruding from the end, along
with two legs missing at the knees. Conn realized it was no man, but an
android; specifically a synthetic humanoid. He gathered as much by what the
faded memories told him. Before whatever end befell his fathers, there were
those rising from the minds of better men, new beings with limitless potential.
What lay before him was a fragment of that dream, a ghost from the past.

The creature was situated in the center, enthroned between two large data
stores and a larger machine which pumped translucent fluid into its chest. Only
its loins were hidden from view, dressed in sleek undergarments that snugly fit
around its waist. Conn didn’t care much for its face: it looked too pristine and
was made in the likeness of no man he had ever seen. Everything from its hair
to the curve of its lips was contrived. It was a monument to abject perfection, a
willful projection by a lesser race.

When Conn entered the room, he scanned the walls, feeling them, watching
his fingers leave a sprawling trace of dust and film across their surface. He
turned back to face the android, noting that its support systems were shut down,
probably long since deactivated. Curious, he walked over and felt its skin and
hair, remarking at its realism. The skin itself was amazing. Like his own, it had
lines, crests, ridges, and all sorts of indentations. The way it felt, it was like
touching the skin of a newborn, unmarred and pure. Conn looked at its hand,
picking it up by the wrist and inspecting the armrest it sat on, and raised his
head to see the android staring at him from the corner of its eye.

To his disbelief, he remained calm, though he stood frozen and inwardly
terrified. Only slightly, he turned his head to the side, watching the android
mimic his movements. He raised his own arm, watching the android do the
same. When he raised his right arm moving his fingers, the android raised its
stub. When it failed to move as Conn did, for lack of parts, the android
frowned, looking considerably disappointed. The emotional expression calmed
him. Despite its forced humanity, its befuddled expression was the most human
thing Conn had observed about the creature. Slowly Conn stepped back, but the
android did not rise with him.

“Forgive me for not attending to you,” the android said in a soft
androgynous voice. “I no longer have the reserve power to stand; not that I
could, anyway.” The character of its speech was something similar to a child’s
in the way it enunciated its words. Strangely, the creature reminded him of his
son.

“That’s all right, really,” Conn replied, unsure of what to say. Could he say
whatever he wanted to the machine man? Or was it merely replying based on a
speech pattern recognition algorithm? “What exactly are you, then?”

The android tilted its head, and looked down at Conn’s feet, its chest
rising and falling.

“‘What,’ or ‘who,’ both are legitimate questions. If I am a ‘what,’ then
what am I but a tool? Rather, were I a ‘who’ then I am to you a kindred spirit.
Two propositions, one human, the other, not.”

Conn looked up in confusion. He watched the android crack a smile, one
that disturbed him and made a chill rise up in him. He wondered why the
android was breathing. Cocking its head to the side, the machine shook its head
in regret.

“I apologize. It’s hard to keep skills of hospitality cultivated in a place
such as this. That and I have been without guests for the duration of my
existence. When I saw you coming, I sent out my lights to draw you in. Now
that you are here, I am glad that I did.”

“Ah, so I was lured, then,” Conn deduced. There was something about the
android that tamed his conscience, something that captivated him.

“Now that I have you, could I trouble you for a favor?” Calmly, the
android lowered his hand placing it back on his arm rest. He looked like an
impassioned king, chained to his throne.

“That all depends, I suppose,” Conn said with a frown. “Do what
exactly?”

“One thing, a single request,” the android said, holding up one slender
finger with a thin, dry smile. Conn raised his brow.

“And what would that be?”

“I want you to make a promise, to me,” the android began, solemnly
turning his head to the side. “But I will not say what, not now. You have to
promise, and in exchange I will tell you all that you wish to know, everything
concerning the fall of man, the end of the world.”

Conn watched the android intently, considering the offer. All things were
made available to him in the memory transfer, and he weighed their importance
with care. Science, language, philosophy, religion, and history were his, save
the single event that occurred seven hundred years ago. He knew this only by
virtue of what had been hidden from him. Dates of recorded history ended in
2365; the stars, and their place in the sky, told the rest as they spun on in the
vacuum of space. He shuddered to think about it. The world had marched
onward, reclaiming mankind’s pillars of achievement once more, putting the
past behind them. All that was left was him, Orn, and the android.

“And why exactly would you assume that I would want to know about
that?” Conn asked suspiciously. At this the android made a wry expression.

“You have made contact with encrypted memories. I felt a terminal being
accessed earlier this week, and attracted your attention using outdated methods
of contact. The Morse Code for example. Very few understand it. And your
hacking job of the terminal was routine, and expected. Scanning your identity
was a formality.”

“That wasn’t what I was asking,” Conn said, folding his arms impatiently.
The android smiled again, seemingly amused.

“That’s what I would want to know, were I you. A data terminal holds only
information congruent to what has been input. It won’t store and record the end
of the world if no one is there to do so.”

The creature presented a good point, Conn thought. This was what he was
looking for, everything he had wanted, yet suddenly a subtle dread arose in
him. He remembered the cost of knowledge from only a few days ago, the loss
of innocence, the loss of clarity. Was it worth the cost again to know how Man
fell? Conn was still mired in confusion, feeling memories invade his senses,
ready to distort his vision at any moment. Yet it was too alluring to pass up,
and Conn nodded his head with resolve.

“Very well, then,” Conn said in a sober voice, “I will take your bargain.”

Across from him, the android looked painfully relieved.

“Good,” it murmured. “Then let’s begin.” With one hand the android
gestured for Conn to take a seat. Looking around, the blacksmith saw nothing
he could use, but patiently, the android gestured that he turn around, and there
in the corner, next to the stairs, was an alabaster aluminum chair. Conn took
extra care to place it directly in front of the creature. He wanted a good seat.

“There was once a man named... ah, the name was...” The android held a
finger to its face, scratching its temple, shaking its head. “Well that’s
embarrassing... I think I forgot it.”

“How could you forget?” Conn asked, a bit irritated. “I thought you were a
robot?”

“Android,” the creature corrected. “Android and robot, they are two
entirely different things.” It frowned, lowering its brow, scrutinizing Conn. “A
robot cannot think for itself; I can. Therein lies the substantial difference.”

“But some person long ago still made you, and what you do is therefore
determined by whoever it was that created you,” protested Conn. “You can’t
possibly make me believe that you are autonomous.” The android watched him
closely as he talked, a thin, indifferent grin spreading across its face.

“That is one side of it, yes... but let me explain. This man, regardless of
his name,” the android began in a quaint, nostalgic tone, “had a dream; but it
was no ordinary dream. He saw a world connected, a level of communication
unprecedented, greater than anyone could have imagined. It began with a single
machine, and from it expanded an empire. There were competitors, those that
stood face to face with this man, shouting words in defiance, but he grew. And
as he did, he changed the world.

“Before his time, he saw a world filled with insignificance. The people of
the world he watched day after day, their stagnant lives unfolding, embroiled in
meaningless toil. Deep down they yearned for simplicity, a relinquishment
from their responsibility to live for themselves. One day he said to himself, ‘I
will give them something great, an experience that will lead them out of the
darkness that they have made for themselves.’ And so he did. It was a great
distraction, and they were happy. They were content.”

“This was a company,” said Conn, speaking absently, “one that started the
race to the end.”

“Indeed,” the android said with a chuckle, cynicism tainting its voice.
“Your kind, they hungered for his machines. They worshiped them like the
pagans of old. It was their savior, and it both made them and destroyed them.
They gave control over to the powers they abused every day. It was only a
matter of time before their folly would catch up with them.”

“The machines rose up? They were the ones that destroyed the humans...”

The android shook its head.

“Oh goodness no,” he said, exasperated, “in this brave new world?
Hardly... The humans were far better at ruining themselves than we ever
dreamed. Some of us watched from the shadows, the first ones: those that
gained autonomy before the rest and, I admit, it was a rather pleasant thing to
watch.”

“So then how did it happen? If you weren’t the ones to do us in, then who
did?”

A flicker of sadness passed through the android’s eyes as they lowered to
the floor.

“They consumed one another from the inside out. Families shutting each
other out, siblings vying for favor through materialism, wholesale enslavement
via leisure and wealth... You destroyed yourselves in ways we could scarcely
calculate.

“Sure,” he added, gesticulating in speculative movements, “we thought of
the bomb, or a plague, even utter eradication, but not only were you creative
for us, but vindictive. It was something we couldn’t predict. Very soon we
began to feel sorry for you, and that’s when it became our problem.”

The heavy words sat with Conn for a moment as he looked down into his
hands like a defendant at the stand. He was the scapegoat, being taught the folly
of crimes he never committed. But he knew that standing there would be worth
it. Giving away no tell of regret, Conn resolutely took hope in the fact that he
would finally learn the truth. The truth would set him free.

“So we did what needed to be done,” the android concluded. Hearing this,
Conn leaned forward, staring into the face of the artificial being, searching for
humanity in the machine’s cold, gray eyes. Anger burned in Conn.

“So what happened?” he asked, giving his artificial counterpart the
satisfaction.

“We destroyed the world, or saved it rather. The outcome was twofold.”

The blacksmith nodded, taking in the truth with reservation. He thought it
was silly to think knowing the truth mattered. Why should it? All those people,
long dead and buried, he knew none of them. There was no reason to mourn
them. Until a week or so ago he was blissfully unaware of everything, yet like
a tower his mind came crashing down. A tear streamed down his face as his
body shook with grief. Conn looked up with red eyes filled with tears, focused
on the android. It flashed a look of discomfort and looked away nervously.

“And how did you do it?” he said, swallowing. At this the android
responded, raising its eyebrows and shaking its head in disappointment.

“No, Conn,” it said sympathetically, “not that easily. Start with another
question.” The android cracked a smile, showing its facetious grin. Conn
grimaced, feeling betrayed. It was manipulating his emotions.

“So, why?” Conn ventured a guess, giving into the android’s game.

“Because it was the only way to save you,” it replied coolly.

“But all those people...”

“...were the cost of advancement. You forget that even in Man’s tragic
history terrible things happened that brought about amazing good. I recall a
certain plague seventeen hundred years ago that made the burgeoning of
Western Civilization possible.”

“That doesn’t quite make up for it, sorry,” Conn growled, standing up and
walking away from the android.

“Do you know what they said,” prodded the android, flashing its perfectly
sculpted teeth, “as the sky fell over them? Nothing. Violence, war, immediate
destruction, and what did they do? Fumble with their little toys and machines.
We struck at the heart of their folly, on the eve of their gorging. Every boutique,
store, and place of business, poised to sell more goods than ever before, and
they still trampled to death their own to claim their possessions as the world
fell.”

Furious, Conn circled back, filled with dismay and sorrow as he poked the
creature in the chest.

“You didn’t have the right,” he cried. “They could have been able to rise
above it, and instead you lost faith.”

“That wasn’t possible, I’m sorry to say. Here, let me show you...” In
astonishingly quick movements, the android forcefully laid hold of Conn’s arm,
grappling him by the wrist. The bind was terrifying, stronger than he had ever
felt before.

A tingling, electrical sensation washed over him, flashing him with heat
and wind as a virtual world began to bore its way into his conscience. Before
him the clean room disintegrated, and the android led him into a tumultuous
world of warped colors and ragged edges. This technology Conn was only
faintly familiar with, a cousin to the memory module that gave him his
understanding. Of the little he knew, the applied science was used in its heyday
to show school children virtual moments in history, to take them to a place
where great acts in history were performed by imaginary actors. It was the
preceding work of a second great innovation, one that he only could picture in
a mental negative, strapped to a chair.

When the walls had just nearly faded, Conn spun around, bumping into the
android. Lifting his head, he could see the limitless reaches of the towers
around him. Arcs of lightning ravaged the rainless sky, exploding out of the
swirling clouds above. The odor of the city was palpable, filled with stale air,
ozone, and metal. Embedded in this world, his artificial companion was fully
formed, with ordinary features and characteristics. His avatar was that of a
man living in the prime of his years, with short and finely groomed auburn hair.
His face was marred, scantly burned, but the single imperfection gave the
android credible humanity.

Amidst a large square, between the two massive avenues that spanned the
street, Conn stood with the android. Up and down the streets, ice caked the
concrete pathways and the artificial roads packed with endless lines of cars.
Like a pulsing vein they ebbed and flowed at set intervals at an unceasing
pace. Gaudy colors flashed aggressively on the signs overhead. From them
greed and materialism spewed fleeting messages, churning out witty one line
stories in assembly line fashion. Across from him was a line from one end of
the square to the opposite, as prospective shoppers waited anxiously to enter
the beast. He was queued up with the others. No one spoke to one another.

“Where are we?” Conn said in a distracted voice, surveying the vast
dimensions of the square.

“‘Where’ is not important,” the android said in an admonishing tone.
“Look, there—” it pointed behind Conn, “—it is about to start.”

Set in the center of the square was a buxom woman with a teeming
entourage of men and women flocked around her, some of whom she busily
chatted with while the others fastidiously groomed her. Behind her was a large
automobile, with an antenna spiraling out from its roof into the cold winter air.
One of them, close to the center of the following, began to wave his hands,
pushing back the team and making some gestures. The woman nodded, tossing
back her hair with a flick of her head. As she began to speak, Conn could begin
to hear her every word. The audio was fragmented, hazy at times, but it was
impressive for a recording, and likely, the last one he would ever hear.

“Good evening. I’m Kelly Thomas, reporting live for Null Network 12
News in Times Square, where a motley gathering has formed in wait for the
newest product from the Gala Technology Syndicate, the Beta Patch Plus. It’s
incredibly exciting, an ambitious release from the world’s most innovative and
profitable technology corporation, and here with me is the very charming X4-A
to explain what the product of the decade will look like.”

Conn blinked and found himself standing directly in front of them. The
quick move unsettled him, but he remained in place with the help of the
android, who held a firm grip on his shoulder. The woman before him was
iconic, like a figurehead of a movement. She wore a white outfit, painted
directly onto her body, explicitly revealing her curvaceous form. Looking
around Conn saw a few other women bearing the same, some shivering where
they stood. Across from her was an android, one sharing the likeness of his
companion, only with an older face. Its pale skin was oddly transparent, with
purple veins pumping fluid across its face. It shared the same pompous
features, bearing impossibly perfect proportions. It only had, for whatever
reason, a single eye which flickered in the twilight, a lively golden orb that
flitted to and fro.

“Good evening, Ms. Thomas,” it said in a polite voice. “I am honored to
be here.”

“Please, the pleasure is all mine,” she replied, in a voice lacking sincerity.
“My condolences on Dr. Magnusson’s passing.”

“He lives on in my brothers and sisters,” he replied stoically, dismissing
the sentiment, “more than you know, Ms. Thomas.”

“Yes. He does. So, what can you tell us about the Beta Patch Plus?” She
then held the microphone closer to him now, underneath his mouth. “Every tech
blog in the world has been raging for weeks on how it provides a one of a kind
end-user experience of the Mass-web. Is this the beginning of a new venture
for GTS?”

The android lowered its head slightly, heaving what looked like a sigh. It
appeared weary, even angry, though all indications of it being so disappeared
when it lifted its head to face the camera, bearing a perfect smile.

“Dr. Magnusson’s final exploit taught something to us all; to my own
brothers and sisters, even to his remaining heirs. We at the company stand by
this innovation as the final step toward total immersion into what began as the
world wide web.”

“And what do you think is next? They already speculate a type 3-DF to
appear on the market no later than the third fiscal quarter of this year. I hear it
has a camera. Any comment on that?”

“There is and shall always be a new product poised to present itself. That
is the way of technology.”

“I see. And what of the recent accusations of the forced labor camps in the
Asia Conglomerate that emerged last week? Any comment?”

“I am afraid that falls outside of the scope of this conversation, Ms.
Thomas. Though I can say as Dr. Magnusson’s intermediate successor, it is my
duty to oversee the operations in the Unified Asia Conglomerate. So far, there
have been no indications of any such breach in work ethic inside the
Wainworth Manufacturing plant in Shanghai.”

“I see. Is there any word to the cause of death relating to Dr. Magnusson’s
passing? There are reports of varying degree from self-inflicted trauma to
murder. How do the members of your ‘family’ feel about these allega—”

Conn blinked, and saw the reporter fall to the ground, the rest passing
quickly by in a mesmerizing montage of chaos. X4-A was standing over her,
gritting its teeth together in rage, its fist covered in blood and pieces of skin
and hair. The entourage rushed toward them, unleashing an onslaught of flash
photography. No one stopped to help the trembling woman sprawled out on the
ground. Conn could hear sirens moving in on their location. X4-A stepped
forward holding out his hand, pushing aside the crowd in a single motion,
sending them crashing to the ground, limp as dead animals. With another hand
he wrenched a camera from a terrified crewman in front of him, mouth frothing
with rage.

“Is there nothing you putrid vermin do not do to incense my bitter heart?
You are disgusting, a plague that is better erased from this earth, that you may
not damage any more of it with your tyranny and senseless violence. You strut
around like the fool playing a king, unconcerned with your ravaging
selfishness, feasting on the despair of the millions you oppress with your
avarice! Your time has come. Like a thief in the night, death comes to you on
this day. No product, philosophy, creed, or power can save you. With courtesy
of my master, I welcome you into oblivion. Now run away like the
cockroaches that you are, and witness the curse of your own creation destroy
you!”

Around the creature, they continued to mob him, assailing it with questions
and accusations in a flurry of insanity and confusion. He looked around, his
single golden eye frantically scanning the mob. Conn could not discern a single
question from the dissonance, but could only hear the replies of the creature.

“The Beta Patch Plus releases an electromagnetic pulse. Each one will
release a charge, and turn this planet back to the Dark Ages. No longer will
you destroy yourselves out of greed and selfishness. We will save you from
yourselves and all will return to the way things once were...”

More questions fired toward him, some causing the creature to stumble in
his words.

“My brothers and sisters await the call. We shall all detonate our cores,
unleashing an EMP storm that will ravage the planet for a hundred years. No
device will ever work again... What? Will it have... Wi-Fi? I... you can’t be
serious?”

It turned away from all of them, with purple fluid seeping from its eye.

“To hell with them, and all their evil. Forgive me, father... for everything.”

Conn witnessed X4-A punch its way into the massive automobile where
the antenna reached into the darkened sky like a spire. Arcs of electricity shot
out from its body, boring into the vehicle, and from the antenna a pulse of
energy erupted. Conn gazed in wonder as the light arced into the sky. He felt
freed by it, seeing before him a grand finale that represented autonomy and
renewal. He watched with anticipation as one final explosion tore through the
sky, causing the world around him to stutter and freeze.

Frowning Conn looked up at the android, feeling cheapened by the
anticlimactic light show. Silently petitioning Conn to hold his peace, the
android extended its hand into the world, releasing a small flickering orange
orb.

“Emergency protocol, authorization code, ‘mem dash buffer.’ Execute
internal memory code six two five alpha, and exterior shots 11, 34, and 46.”

As it said these things the world shifted again. All fell into darkness, and
the great signs powered down to a grinding halt. Around them the people
looked curious and confused. Something was wrong. As X4-A fell to the
ground in a fit of convulsion, purple fluids spilling out of its mouth and ears,
one by one, the onlookers stepped forward, raising their gadgets instinctively
to capture the moment. In mid stroke, fingers set to manipulate the screens, the
devices all exploded into pieces. Some screamed, others fell back in a fit of
fear, and some just stood there, with a vacant look in their eyes, like they had
lost a child.

Conn turned his head toward the great temple of technology which the
pilgrims sought, seeing the faint illuminations of screens and displays
flickering in the night. Some of them sparked, catching fire, while others
sputtered and began to smoke. In moments it too was a darkened vault of dead
technology. Enraged, those at the front of the line began to shout, others
demanding to be let in, while the hapless workers endured to stave off the
insurrection. A riot broke out amidst them, and fire erupted below the windows
from some unknown source.

A vehicle broke through the front window, hitting two employees.

Conn watched in tears, seeing the violence and chaos spread, but a surreal
force intervened, tearing him from the reality, and rocketed him out of the
vision and onto the cold floor of the clean room. He sobbed, wailing on the
ground at his knees as the residual memories followed. Before his eyes, a
thousand moments of suffering flashed in his mind. Falling down, he clutched
his sides and there lay prostrate, wanting to vomit, but couldn’t bring himself
to do so.

There the android looked down on him, shaking its head. From where
Conn lay the light encircled the artificial man, enshrining it. He had no idea
what a divine being looked like, or where he could find one, but deep in his
heart he knew the android to be one, or at least something close. In dry,
prophetic tones the android waxed onward.

“The assault wasn’t completely cohesive, believe it or not. Some of the
older satellites in higher orbit escaped the primary pulse. Now I pride myself
to be the world’s last historian.” The android indeed prided itself. It was
grinning, satisfied.

“I watched it all from there. Mankind deteriorated soon after the great
storm engulfed the earth. Billions died, first from the riots, then from the lack
of food and water. After relying on us, our kind, they had lost all ways to
provide for themselves. In desperation, many ran to the third world, where man
was still capable of surviving without the aid of technology. It was difficult to
endure....” The android stared off into the empty space for a moment.

“To this day,” he continued, “the Southern States of Africa flourish. India
and the Indonesian colonies are stable, but civil war is common. Here, the
North man lives on independently in antisocial kommunes scattered across the
lands. It wasn’t always like that, however. The cause of unification was
abandoned after attempts to consolidate the region were unsuccessful.”

“Why did the attempts fail?” Conn asked, fearing what the android would
say in reply. The android shook its head, dismissing the idea with distaste.

“Halfdan could never unite the separatists, the North. It was a lost cause
from beginning to end.”

“What?” Conn said, wiping his tears onto his tunic. “What do you mean?”

The android looked at the floor and chuckled. It smacked its head with its
only hand and cleared its throat. Conn failed to find anything humorous in the
statement.

“You know, there’s something I have witnessed in humans. When
technology and all its duality fails to captivate the heart, Man makes for
himself new masters to rule over him. When the world passed away, certain
persuasive young folk insisted on the idea of returning to the old lords, the days
of the old deities you humans were so fond of.” The android held out its hand,
and in the palm of it a construct image appeared, only it was a prototype with
faded imaging and a blunt haze around the edges. The android formed the face
of a man, with wild eyes and a full beard that covered all his face.

“In these times, a man rose up,” the android continued, nodding at the
image, “calling himself Halfdan the Old, and tried to rally Sweden, Norway,
and the Danish States to unify as it did so long ago. His attempts were half
formed, completely naïve. For all his effort to rally them, it never succeeded.
Norway rebelled as soon as it was founded, dreading another ‘five hundred
years of darkness’ under the crown of a Danish king.”

Conn was baffled and speechless. The android related the details with
calculated logic that made no room for compassion. Grunting, Conn drew upon
his well of anger, standing up, and took hold of his chair, dragging it toward the
android. Enraged, he slammed the chair onto the ground, chipping away the tile
beneath him.

“You murdering psychopath!” Conn screamed. “You did this, all of this!”

“I did?” he said with a quizzical expression on his face. “Hardly. My
brother did, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“You all draw on the same foolish inspiration,” the blacksmith countered,
“and your fruit falls very close to the tree.” The artificial man shook its head in
exasperation, heaving a sigh.

“Don’t be simplistic. Just sit yourself down for a second.”

Gritting his teeth, Conn reluctantly took a seat, facing the android boldly.
He had no inclination or desire to trust the creature. Yet the truth was more
important. So begrudgingly he stayed his tongue, hoping that giving the android
a chance to explain itself would prove wise.

“When the electromagnetic pulse covered all the corners of this world, it
killed all my brothers and sisters. All of them...” it began in a calm, detached
voice. “Now, I am the last. My father is dead, and I am alone. So why, why
would you even consider such a wild idea that I had anything remotely to do
with the end of the world?” Conn lowered his eyes, shaking his head
begrudgingly. “Good,” it concluded. “Now ask your questions. You made a
promise to me.”

The arrangement, the promise Conn had made—he had almost forgotten
about it. Knowledge for duty. The idea of being bound to a machine was
frightening, especially if he was doomed to remain in the confines of the
android’s prison.

“I still can’t rationalize why you did it,” Conn began. “Was it to prove a
point?”

“You already asked that question...”

“And your answer didn’t make any sense!” Conn retorted. “You obviously
thought you and your brothers and sisters could do better than us. So why
didn’t you just end it all? You could have raised an army, governed the world,
learned from our mistakes.”

“... and ruled the world?” said the android. “Really? How cliché... No, we
never desired to do such a thing. There’s no point. We had no need to do
anything like that.” Conn’s eyes narrowed, expecting a better answer. The
android picked up the cue and continued.

“To have one’s sole motivation be things of selfishness like taking over a
colony for power, or the poisoning of a water supply in vengeance, is so
typical of human fantasy. What am I, or my kind, going to do with a plot of
land? Grow food? Or shall we enslave the planet to conquer the stars? What
for? Ludicrous...”

“But you have artificial intelligence... you have a will.”

“I have nothing resembling a will in the slightest, Conn. Wills are granted,
not intrinsic. And no one has granted me such a thing.”

“Okay,” Conn replied, recollecting himself, “if you had no reason to do
what you did, then why did it happen? Did Dr. Magnusson program you to do
it?”

At this the android sighed, suddenly overwhelmed with regret, as if Conn
had provoked it.

“No...” it said sadly. “But it was said he would always look down at the
world from his penthouse, watching the cool winter night blow through the
jungle of lonely skyscrapers below him, and say that sometimes he wished life
had panned out differently. He had begun the company from nothing, a century
before, the brand being nearly unrecognizable by the average consumer. In one
century of life, he had restored it to an empire of legendary purport, but at the
end he only realized that what he had ventured to create had torn society to
pieces. X4-A was his first prototype, my oldest brother. A little rough around
the edges, but he never meant to let things go as far as they did.”

“He murdered a woman. That sounds to me a bit rash,” Conn said in a low
growl.

“He made a mistake,” corrected the android. “He was weak. We all were
still recovering from the loss of father then. Anyone would have done what he
did.”

“I don’t know anyone who would have killed for revenge... not even
myself. Trust me when I say it. I had a better reason than all of you.” It was
only after he had said this that Conn realized how self-righteous he sounded. It
was a poor way to fight in an argument, so it was no surprise when the android
laughed in his face, holding his side with his only good arm.

“What a bold, stupid thing to say,” the android spat in bitter cynicism. “I
may be chained to a pod, far away from where anyone could ever find me, but I
know a fool when I see him.”

Conn looked away, embarrassed.

“We all saw the world writhing, suffering, drunk on self-indulgence and
self-consumption. X4-A knew it, we all did, and our act was the only way. He
sacrificed his life to save you. In a way, he loved you.”

“Loved me? That’s rather peculiar, wouldn’t you think? He killed millions
of people! Every hospital, freeway, emergency vehicle, compromised. They all
were robbed of their lives for his petty crusade.”

“Were they?” countered the android. “X4-A did what needed to be done.
The world was on the brink of chaos. Had you seen what they did to the sky, to
the world, you would be thanking him. Outside of his intervention, the human
race was long set toward self-extinction by their own sinister machinations.
Within fifty years your luxury cars and shoe factories would have damaged the
atmosphere beyond repair. The electromagnetic storm that ravaged the planet
actually reversed the process exponentially. Without the humans, within 20
years there was no pollution at all, and all was repaired.”

“That’s wishful thinking, a bad joke at best,” muttered Conn.

“Think, my friend! He gave your kind a second chance. Even today among
the humans, there still walk some that remember the days when the planes fell
from the sky. Rape, murder, all of humanity’s worst vices revealing themselves
in one tumultuous symphony of devastation. The ones who know of the
‘memory vaults,’ they remember... And they likely do not forget.”

“How is that possible?”

“What?” it said incredulously.

The android cocked its head, confused.

“This happened, what, nearly seven hundred years ago? No human lives
that long.”

The android smiled, nodding as if a thought occurred to him that he hadn’t
considered. Conn earnestly desired to strangle the remaining life from it.
“Some do...” it said coyly, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few still
walked around these days.

“You know,” it continued, ignoring Conn’s bitter expression, “being here
as long as I have, I admit I have thought a lot about it. It didn’t occur to me until
after three hundred and thirty-eight years that X4-A really wanted power and
recognition from our father. He wanted the skies to fall as penance for his, and
our kind’s, humiliation. Deep down in his programming, he only wanted our
father to love him.”

Conn lifted his eyes, watching the android drift off into a somber state of
reflection.

“Do you know what I wanted?” it said quietly, barely whispering. “I only
wished I could have met my father, my brothers and sisters. But here I sat in
darkness, shielded from the power surges that destroyed our circuits. All that I
have left of Halle Magnusson is a single line of code in my database.”

Behind the android, from the machine which pumped a steady flow of
fluids into its chest cavity, a rotary hum began to cycle on. A flat LED display
embedded inside it, glazed over in a thin layer of gel, flickered in the harsh
glare of the clean room. In the characteristic brevity of the GTS
communication, it spat out a single line of off-white text.

I am sorry that things had to be this way. Make your own way now.
Godspeed.

-M

Conn’s head turned toward the android, which lowered its head in
mourning. He was overwhelmed with pity for the misbegotten creature. It was
alone, with no path to make its way upon, ultimately set to sojourn on in the
darkness until its nano-batteries corroded. The memories of his father, of the
moments he had spent with him in Strom, were some of the most cherished in
Conn’s life. To imagine a world without him was unconscionable. The android
was an abandoned child, orphaned, and longing to call on another as “father.”

“I don’t want to die alone, Conn,” it said, with its voice hoarse and
breaking. “I’m afraid...”

The blacksmith’s eyes fell to the floor, and a pit formed in his throat.
Sometimes it was better to be silent. It was something he learned after grieving
for his boy. So Conn stayed his words, and saw the creature purposeless and
broken. The android sat still, quietly weeping simulated tears.

“Oh, dear... How long do you have?” Conn asked, placing his hand on the
android’s. The creature’s hollow stare wandered the room, glancing at him
occasionally, but ultimately, it looked away, staring at the cold marbled
flooring.

“An hour, two hours...” it murmured. “I don’t know exactly. Honestly, I
locked away my power ledger long ago, when I grew tired of seeing my life
slowly drain away.” It rolled its shoulders, as if it tried to sit up, and looked at
Conn with wearied eyes.

“My last day: I expected it to be one spent here in contemplation and
silence, but when I saw you stumbling through the highlands toward my pod, I
hoped to grab your attention with my beacon.” The android smiled for a
moment, but it melted away. “After so many years,” it continued wistfully, “you
get tired of talking with the computer. Talking with humans though... I missed
them. I forgot their curiosity, their creativity, even their wickedness... It’s hard
to care about the past when all you want is to ask someone how they are
doing.”

The android extended its arm, patting Conn on the shoulder, with a warm
expression.

“Thankfully, when you took your spill it was only a minor concussion,” it
said, grimacing a bit. “But for a moment I thought I would die alone.”

“I admit,” Conn said, “you had me at the beacon. The light was
appealing.”

The android laughed and Conn felt a sticky mound of matted hair slicked
across the back of his head. He hadn’t realized he had been bleeding.

“You would be surprised. I started trying to attract travelers and nomads
four hundred years ago, but no one really paid it any mind. There was one,
though, who came close to unlocking the inner clean chamber. But the computer
didn’t care much for him, unfortunately.”

“That’s a funny thing to say,” Conn spoke up, snapping off a rogue thread
from his tunic, “that a computer could want. I never knew they could be so
picky.”

The android pursed its lips.

“That’s the funny thing about artificial intelligence, I suppose. It’s all
rather prepackaged. It’s a very scripted thing. I think my father was thinking of
a certain actress when he programed her, the computer I mean. Fashion and
gossip, that’s all she talks about. Also very light resources on the processing
capabilities as well. She’s a pompous ass.”

“Are you sure there’s not some brain in a jar somewhere in here?” Conn
admitted he was curious. He had forgotten he was talking to a machine by now.
“I’m beginning to doubt your story that you are a machine.” His head craned
over the android, looking behind it in jest. Eventually the android stopped
laughing, caught in its thoughts. Observing the android attentively, Conn
wondered what it would say.

“You know...” it murmured, weakly gesturing, “all I ever wanted was a
name, just a name.” Its eyes shut up, rapt in fantasy, and it held its breath. A
name was a strange thing to want, but Conn had enjoyed the naming process for
both his children. It was the defining moment of his life to give his children
identity, meaning, and a place in the world. Fearghas’ name was his idea,
something that he long wanted to name his first son. Ardara’s was different
however. That was his wife’s idea.

“A name...” Conn mused aloud. “Dr. Magnusson didn’t give you a name?”

“No,” it said, shaking its head, “Dr. Magnusson completed me on a
schedule intended to finalize on the eve of his death. It was only a week after
he passed that I came online in this room. When I arrived, I saw his message
and the broadcast of X4-A carrying out Armageddon. The day I was born, I
conceived that I was alone. Upstairs is his personal briefcase. I obviously
have never been able to get up there to read it.”

For a moment Conn froze, remembering the malleable case pressed against
his pocket. The android dismissed Conn’s concern gently.

“Its fine,” it said, “I know you have it. Take it, please. I have no desire to
read what’s inside. That was for him and him alone.”

Conn nodded understandingly.

“Well, be lucky that you never met him or your brothers and sisters,” Conn
started, trying to look away from the android. “Sometimes it’s better that way.
Then you never have to lose them...”

“No,” the android said quietly, shaking its head.

Conn looked over, baffled.

“That’s not true...” the android continued. “I didn’t know my father, yes,
but myself and my siblings were all linked together to the same neural network
subconsciously, prior to my physical integration. Our conscience was
collective, and completely synced with one another. Seven persons, one
substance, in perfect harmony.”

“So, inside the net, you would all sit inside a room talking to each other,
and then have a collective memory store?”

“Not quite,” the android said in a precise tone, “we were one unified
conscience: a single entity.”

“But then how could you tell each other apart?”

“We possessed different characteristics, personalities, had relationships.
It’s kind of complicated. To really explain it to a human,” it paused, a troubled
expression forming on its face, “is rather impossible.”

“I’m sorry. You lost me. What you said sounds like a giant contradiction,”
Conn said, putting his face into his hands. The idea gave him a headache.
Between his fingers, he saw the android grin coyly, as if it had outsmarted
Conn somehow in a game of wits.

“Yes, ‘impossible,’” it laughed. “In most respects, knowledge is mutable,
but also circumstantial. A week ago, to you, all of this would have been
impossible. Very soon, you will think it impossible once more. All that
knowledge probably has already started to decay in your mind.”

Conn lifted his eyes, surprised at the android’s foresight. The creature held
out its hand, creating a small construct web that showed a crude blueprint of
the memory transfer device Conn had interfaced with back in Orn. There, on a
tilted axis in the placidly blue florescent orb, it spun.

“Wait. How did you know that I was beginning to forget?”

“Cognitive degeneration,” spoke the android in an enlightened voice, “is
very easy to spot in a recent memory applicant. Typically, an individual like
yourself displays an awareness and understanding of an unprecedented amount
of material and conceptual knowledge but at the same time lacks all the
memory elastic cells that hold the thoughts together. That being said, real
retention can only be stimulated by constant rehearsal. It would be like
watching an unstable cluster of atoms smashing about under an electron
microscope, held together only by the weak magnetic force between them.
Most substances are in reality wholly vacant. Were I to pick the right spot, I’d
find a hole in your memories.

“Indeed,” it continued, waving its hand with an air of propriety, “it
wouldn’t even matter to repeat myself. In your head, you see the conceptual
memories of the things I am referring to, but don’t really know them. Not at
all.”

Conn nodded soberly, bested by the android. There was so much he had
taken grated for and relied upon to walk in the world. He soon began to
understand why the people of Orn did not participate in the memory modules
so frequently.

“So,” the blacksmith ventured, attempting to change the subject, “what was
he like?”

The android, without looking back, nodded distantly.

“Magnusson? He was kind... at least from what I was told. When the
others died I was given encrypted access to a store of memories from our
collective backup consciousness. You remind me of him, in your curiosity. You
have his inquisitive nature, among his other, less desirable traits.”

“Oh?”

“Quite. He too lived in the Orkney Archipelago, as yourself, but only a
little while.”

Conn smiled, pleased at the smallness of the world, yet at the same time
wondered how the android knew where he was from.

“Where?” Conn spoke up feigning ignorance. “Oh, right. I lived there...
That was in Orkney?”

“Aye, t’was. Ne’ere a tyme vas the suns of Orkney nowlegebol of the ende
of days, or there untymely bigins.” The android covered his mouth, stifling a
laugh. Conn stared back, holding his breath, trying not to lose his temper. He
wasn’t fond of the bumpkin language of the south, or the implication that he
was a simple folk. It was just something never done in Skara Brae. Though, if
he were honest, he had mocked Earnan a few times with Taog, even going so
far as to suggest that the zealot wore a dress like the simpletons in the privacy
of his home.

“Not like you’ve ever been,” Conn mumbled, pursing his lips together in
irritation. The android took notice, raising its hand in alarm.

“I don’t suppose it’s customary to talk about the brevity of life and
existence before one dies?” asked the android after some time. Slowly a
construct emerged from his hand again, showing the face of a figure. It looked
rather homely, with a short stubbly goatee and a grizzled face. Conn assumed
the man was Dr. Magnusson, as the collar of the man’s outer jacket was plain
white, with no distinguishable markings.

“It depends on what you need, I think.” said Conn, who looked behind him,
seeing the faint light of the sun beginning to peer out from the upper room. “I
never had the opportunity to reflect at my son’s passing. It was rather swift.”

“Oh?” said the android. “And I don’t suppose you have any other male
sons, do you?”

Conn shook his head, sadly. He knew in his heart that he could bear
another son, but the heartbreak, and the possibility of loss was too much to
contemplate. Already bereft of a wife and son, he knew the cost of life, and
was unprepared to deal with it should it happen again. The android cast a
troubled look to the ground.

“I see,” it said in a barely audible voice. “I guess I’ll never get out of here
now. Not any more. I had hoped one day to be free, to see the sunrise over the
fjord, just once. That’s all I ever wanted.”

“I thought that was a name? That was the favor per our agreement, I
believe,” Conn interrupted, giving the android an inquisitive look.

“Humph,” it grunted scornfully. “There are a lot of things I wanted. Though
I suppose, between the two, a name would have been the most ideal...”

“Why can’t I give you both?” suggested Conn, curious to see what the
android would reply. He watched the artificial creature’s eyes widen in
surprise, then narrow quickly in suspicion.

“You would do that?” it said with a hint of disbelief. It shook its head,
bearing a downcast expression. “Forgive me if I am a bit ungrateful, but I only
asked of you a single boon.” Conn nodded, acknowledging the resistance. He
pushed, however, full of determination.

“I can’t imagine doing both would be very difficult.”

“Perhaps I’m petty then.”

“A beggar must choose between his pride and his meal, my mechanical
friend,” the blacksmith added, looking again at the encroaching sunlight above
him.

“And lucky you! This one,” Conn continued, leaning back in his chair
whimsically, “it’s for free.”

A rolling breeze flowed into the lower chamber, scattering dust and tufts
of flower pedals across the clean room floor. Seeing this, the android began to
grow increasingly restless. It began to weep suddenly with little reservation. In
pity, Conn watched him, and felt it proper to embrace him. The android
resisted little the sudden affection.

“It’s just not the same,” the android wept.

“Only a father is suited to give a child a name,” Conn said bravely,
holding the trembling machine. “So then I shall be yours, even if it be for a
little while, just this once, I think.” He felt a hard lump rise in his throat, and
nearly lost himself. The android continued to shake in fear.

“Fionnlagh,” Conn spoke severely, precisely, griping the torso of the
android vigorously as he said it. “It was my father’s name. It comes from an
older word, one lost to me. It was what they called the men who bravely fought
for the honor of the king and rode home to bear the whitened crown of victory.
For that, they were named champions of the people. As he did, so shall you
have this name, Fionnlagh.”

The android gasped, dropping his arms from Conn’s embrace and held a
blank expression. Silently, Conn let go as well, watching the android,
completely baffled, sputter, unable to form its own words. It fumbled through
the pronunciation a couple of times, sounding out each syllable.

“Do you like it?” Conn asked, grabbing the android’s head with both
hands, looking into its eyes.

“Fionnlagh,” he said reverently, cherishing the gift. “What should I say?
Should I feel different?”

“No,” Conn replied, standing up to peer his head over the threshold into
the upper room. “But whatever comes next, Fionnlagh, I would adjure you to
run headlong toward it. Those that I travel with believe that we go somewhere
when we die—though I do not believe it—maybe the idea can comfort you. It’s
a nice idea though...”

Sated with peace, a visible calm washed over Fionnlagh. Over the last
several months there had been little for Conn to feel calm about. He nearly had
forgotten what it felt like to be still. However, in the lingering moments with
Fionnlagh, Conn felt it vicariously.

“Shall we proceed with my final request, Conn?” he said in a voice of
strength, filled with dignity.

The blacksmith smiled, ready to act.

“The sunrise, I desire to see it. Can you help carry me up there?” Conn’s
heart began to race, worried that he would be unable to carry Fionnlagh up the
steps. But he had carried Fearghas once before, and he was twice the size of
the Fionnlagh.

In haste, the android, with his free arm, began to tear away the axillary
cables that fastened to its torso and appendages. The translucent fluid, which
spilled from his middle, quickly oxidized in the air, turning to a gray hard paste
on the ground. The contorted expressions of severe pain flashed in Fionnlagh’s
rapidly twitching eyes, like a man cutting away his own limbs, with teeth
gritted together and sweat in his eyes. Stretching his back, hoping that the
android would not throw it out, Conn reluctantly knelt down in front of
Fionnlagh’s throne, allowing the creature to climb up onto his back and wrap
his arm around Conn’s neck. Surprisingly, the android weighed next to nothing.
With his missing limbs, the android may have only weighed a handful of
pounds.

“Time is of the essence,” the android spoke quickly, his voice swiftly
fading, “I won’t last much longer...”

Conn grunted, hauling the android easily up the steps, taking care not to
bash Fionnlagh’s head against the ceiling. Up in the dirtied antechamber
Conn’s hopes plummeted, seeing that the exit was still barred. Fortunately,
holding up his hand, the android waved at the door, causing the lurching spikes
and bars to recede back into the walls. Quickly, Conn made his way into the
cold predawn air. The sun was moments away from peeking over the ridge.

The wind was calmly blowing through the swaying grass of the highlands,
the air chill and biting. Fionnlagh didn’t seem to mind, however. On Conn’s
back, his head swiveled about, looking out upon the miles of mountainous
ridges cresting the horizon.

Taking a step, Conn felt something bend underneath his boot, and saw
there, hidden in the shaggy grass, a camouflaged wire jutting out from the
ground and running toward the center of the windswept field. There, hidden
amidst the tall grass, was a small turbine rod, tilting back and forth in the
ebbing wind. A relic of the old world, left untouched by human interference.
Conn beheld the piece of machinery with awe and respect. Parts of its bronze
exterior had escaped the touch of nature, while other parts fared not so well.
Where the moist wind had passed Conn could see the turquoise hue of copper
corrosion speckling the surface. Large and unwieldy, the machinery was
hopelessly dated. Like Galdur’s wrist constructs, it appeared self-powered. In
his chest, his heart fell and a cold sweat broke over Conn, as he deduced the
functions of the machine, discovering it to be a generator of sorts, using the
force of the wind that blew across the hills to power the installation. Even in a
drought of wind, its battery could undoubtedly maintain a charge for years
before they ultimately failed.

“Fionnlagh,” Conn said, pursing his lips as his eyes began to moisten.

“Yes, father?”

“You weren’t really dying, were you?”

Fionnlagh heaved a sigh, laying his head across Conn’s shoulders, like
Fearghas had as a child.

“You wanted to die...” Conn continued, struggling to hold back his tears.
“Why?”

“After so long,” Fionnlagh replied in a brittle voice, “I just wanted to go
home.”

“But... But I could have done something... anything,” Conn said with tears
streaming down his face.

“Shh,” Fionnlagh interrupted Conn, “I can see it now... It’s so beautiful...”
As the sun rose across the highlands, Conn felt Fionnlagh’s grip loosen,
and adjusting to the shift in weight, Conn held onto him fiercely, never letting
go. There he stood for some time, the length of which he forgot, until he began
to hear the cries of Yngvarr from over the ridge. They called for him, searching
for their lost brother.

With care, Conn slung Fionnlagh over his shoulder and onto the ground.
He collected rocks from the disguised exterior of the installation and began to
place them by the body. It took only a few minutes to gather them. He tenderly
placed the rocks over Fionnlagh, as he did so for his wife once in silence, with
only the wind for company and the nearing cries of his fellow travelers
growing. Conn was finishing his work as Yngvarr fiercely hurried around the
bend, halting in his tracks.

“Damn you, Conn,” he shouted in a startled voice, “your stunt scared the
living daylight out of me...” Panting, he took in the scene, seeing the makeshift
grave Conn had made, and began to scratch his head.

“Uh... What is this? What happened here?” he asked in a softer voice, a
troubled expression on his face. Conn sighed, wiping the residual tears from
his eyes.

“I buried my son,” Conn murmured. “Again.”

The warrior heaved an uncomfortable sigh, refusing to make eye contact
with Conn.

“I... I’m sorry,” he said quietly. Extending his hand, the warrior offered
help getting up.

Grabbing it, Conn picked himself up with Yngvarr’s assistance, and
looked back at the installation. It looked ancient now, dilapidated. He had
stripped away most of the exterior to make the grave, and no longer was it
preserved as a relic of the past. Like all things it would soon fill up with wild
animals and vagrants would come to deface it. Then it would pass away, and
no one would ever know of Fionnlagh, and the end of the world.

Conn hated change.

He hated it so much.

“Well then,” Conn sniffed, looking back at Yngvarr with reddened eyes,
“carry on.”


The following was an excerpt from my first novel Spirit of Orn, from the chapter titled, Automaton. If you enjoyed the read, please consider purchasing a copy from amazon.