A Switch in Time (Chronology 1)
Author: Lis Morris
Date: April 10, 1998
Summary: The first entry in Lis Morris's speculative Chronology series about the future of the Creatures series and where it might lead, set in the far-flung future of 2020. Chris is different from the other norns, but he's managed to hide it- until an experiment goes wrong and his beloved Annie is changed forever.
Prologue: Earth, 2020AD
Author's Note: When I've referred to the Hand in the third person, I've used the word It, with the capital I.
"Hey look at this!"
In an attic of an old, 20th century house, a man, whose name is not important, was clearing away a few old cardboard boxes. Dust hung thick in the air, and covered everything in a grey layer. Flat desiccated spiders decorated the floor.
In one of the boxes, he found a smaller box that seemed to intrigue him. He wiped away the grime of over 20 years.
Just visible beneath the dirt, the single word 'Creatures' Further down on the box, he could just make the words 'Win 95' and 'Mac'.
The man heaved a sigh of satisfaction, picked up the box and headed for his computer. Not his new Heptium 6000, but the shabby old thing lying in the corner of the room, quietly mouldering away...
Chapter 1: Leaving Home
Albia, Version 6.
Annie the norn crept up behind her partner, and rubbed his shoulders.
"I don't know what you see in that maths," she said, "Come on, you've done enough work for today."
Chris, sat at the desk, took off his glasses, rubbed them, and put them back on again, in an habitual gesture Annie had always found endearing.
"This calculus the Hand wanted me to do is impossible... I'll finish it eventually! I promised It I would"
"You didn't promise tonight though did you?" Annie persisted. She glanced outside. A forlorn Cloud Butterfly fluttered past in the gathering twilight. As she watched, a bat swooped down and deftly caught the unfortunate insect.
"I've never drawn a Cloud Butterfly.. I ought to try sometime. I wonder if the Hand would like it?"
"Yes I'm sure" said Chris, buried again in his beloved equations.
"Oh come on! Leave that alone, now! It's your turn to make dinner.", Laughing, she dragged him away from his calculations by one arm. Chris was stronger than she, but she managed to drag him 'unwillingly' just the same. "Just as long as it's not carrots again!"
"But I like carrots..."He protested.
Laughing and kissing, they wandered into the garden.
High above them, in the clear, dark air, the Hand watched. Annie saw It, and waved cheerily. Chris looked up, and smiled weakly, and then waved shyly. The Hand made a decision. Annie would be the one. She was the best suited. It had raised Annie Itself, and she was the only norn, out of the 40 in Albia, who was truly comfortable around the Hand. More importantly, she had an incredible thirst for knowledge- and the brains to find out things for herself when she wanted.
The Hand thought back to the incredible conversation of a few days earlier. No other norn had ever asked It what Annie asked that day...
"Hand, can I ask you something?" She had enquired. They had been walking in the Flower Meadow east of Norntown, where most of the norns lived in a warren of interconnected rooms and gardens. Not all norns lived there; some chose to throw their lot in with the ettins, on the archipelago of islands, far away on the other side of the world. The fragrant wind blew her waist length white hair.
"Of course not. Go ahead." The Hand floated in the air just above the norn. It spent a lot of time with Annie when It could spare it. Somewhat arrogantly, she wondered if there was something special about her.
"What are you?"
There was silence in the meadow for a few minutes, except for the cries of distant birds.
"I'm sorry", said Annie, hesitantly. "Was that tactless of me?" Sometimes even she had problems telling the Hands emotional state- most other norns didn't even realise it had emotions, but then, her mother (so she'd been told) died shortly after her birth, and she had been raised by the Hand exclusively. In the middle of the night, she wondered though. None of the other norns knew who had been her mother, and she had heard whisperings behind her back of 'test tube norns'- norns with neither mother nor father.
"No...It's just I have never been asked that before. I'm trying to think of an answer you'd comprehend." It replied. Annie felt slightly nettled at Its easy assumption that she wouldn't understand.
"You know that I neither eat nor drink?"
"We all talked about that! We wondered if you did it in private."
"Doesn't that strike you as odd? After all, a norn that doesn't eat, dies."
"Umm.. not really. You're just the Hand, not a norn. You've always been there, like the sky and the ground."
"There is a reason. I don't really live in this world, but in another. We call it Earth. There are many other Hands there. More than 40. Many, many more,"
Annie waved a bee away from her face. "Another world? But how come I can see you?"
"What you see of me...." It trailed to a halt. It seemed to think for a few minutes, then continued. "What you see of me is a projection. A presence."
Shaking her head bewilderedly, Annie said "No, I don't understand."
"Ah I know- think of it like this: Imagine there was a figure of you on your television in your house, and imagine you could move it about at will-the figure that is, not the television. That is the way Albia appears to me."
"What? You surely don't think we're just pictures on a television screen! Television has no life, or soul...."
"No, no, no." the Hand interrupted her angry outburst. "I'm not saying you aren't alive. It was just a comparison. I live on Earth, but I also exist on Albia. I have a presence here."
"I see.. I think. Where is your other world?"
"It surrounds this one," the Hand said, adding as Annie started glancing around, "You can't see it, but it is similar to Albia. However, we are life of a very different kind to you. On Earth, for instance, we cannot just walk forward and backwards, or go up and down in lifts or movers. We can go another way as well. We say we have three dimensions, not just two like Albia."
"I don't understand that. You can't go any other way- there are no other ways to go!"
"Neither do I! Trust me, though, it's true." The Hand was beginning to realise just how different Albia was; that perhaps the barrier between artificial life, and biological life would never be fully broken. "There is another difference too. We are not an algorithmic life form."
"Algorithmic life the only kind of life their is!" Annie was beginning to wonder if the Hand was just spinning a fanciful yarn.
"Not me. We are made up of tiny particles that interact with one another. I can't explain that better. I'm a computer programmer not a biologist. No, never mind what a biologist is, it doesn't matter" It added, seeing the question forming on Annie's face.
"These little particles... are they like pixels?"
The Hand gave up. "Yes, they are similar." Annie could tell an outright lie when she heard it. Sometimes she doubted the Hand's intelligence- it seemed unable to answer the simplest questions.
"So you have computers in your world too?" Somehow the thought of tiny, baby Hands being taught at a computer was funny...
"You could say that." It sounded amused, though Annie could not see what was so humourous.
"We live far longer than norns too. I've been in the world always, since the first norns. There are vast numbers of us, living for years."
"What's a year?" Annie asked.
"A long time. 365 days."
"You live a that long? That's tens of lifetimes!"
"We live many years. I can remember when Albia first appeared, 20 years or more ago."
Annie silently shook her head. The Hand could tell some stories! It obviously didn't want to part with its secrets. She remember some of the other fanciful stories it had told her: computers are intelligent, why It floated and didn't fall down, that her world had been 'written'. Written? How in Albia could you 'write' a world, as if it was an equation on a piece of paper?
"No you're making it all up! You just like being mysterious!" Annie giggled, and pulled one of the Hand's fingers as she had when she was little. It rewarded her with a tickle.
"It does sound rather farfetched, doesn't it?" The Hand suddenly held one of her favourite plants, a parsley, which she contentedly ate, before lying back in the long fragrant grass to watch the ever present butterflies flit overhead in the sunshine...
Yes, Annie was the most intelligent of the norns, although Chris came close. Chris however, had always seemed nervous around the Hand, more nervous than most norns- as if he expected to be told off for something. More importantly, Annie was insatiably curious. The Hand remembered, nostalgically, how difficult it had been to keep her in one place as a child! Always roaming free.. well she got that from her father. Well, now she was going on a trip of a lifetime, though she didn't know it yet. It hoped that she would accept the challenge.
"Chris, can I have a word with Annie for a second?" The Hand asked. It had risen straight up through the floor of their house, as it often did when it wanted something. Chris started guiltily at being addressed.
"Of course!" he said, and ran away in haste. Annie turned to face It, a puzzled expression on her pretty face.
"I've got an interesting job for you, Annie. How would you like to travel back in time? To the prehistoric Albia of the first norns?"
"You can do that?" she exclaimed, amazed.
"I can now. I have found... a way. I am interested to see how you'd get on with the norns of that time. They are very different to you."
"A kind of experiment you mean?"
"Just that. I can export you from here and take you there."
"Interesting..."Annie mused. She could just imagine, in her mind's eye, meeting the ancient norns, talking to them, learning their language... or teaching them hers. A thought occurred to her.
"Will I be able to come back?"
"Any time you wish. I shall keep an eye on you as much as I can, and if anything untoward happens, I shall return you at once to present day Albia."
"What will it be like?"
"I could tell you- but I'm not going to," the Hand sounded smug, "I want you to discover for yourself. There is one problem though: What about Chris?"
Annie looked baffled. "What about him?"
"Do you want to tell him before you go?"
"Why should I want to do that?" Annie asked. The Hand had some funny ideas sometimes!
The Hand mentally shook Itself. One thing It always forgot about norns was their startling (and often incestuous) promiscuity. Although they often did stay with one mate for a while- as Annie was staying with Chris- there was no such thing as a long term relationship, and adultery was not frowned upon, or even noticed. It'd also taken the Hand a long time to come to terms with the norn's total selfishness. If a norn nearby was hurt, they would not lift a finger to help, simply because it would not occur to them to do so. Eventually, It had managed to accept that they were just built like that.
"Won't Chris miss you?"
"Miss me?" she looked blank.
"Ah, never mind!" It replied. "You better get ready to go; eat and drink plenty won't you? And make yourself nice and warm..."
"Yes yes yes!" Annie replied. "You don't half fuss sometimes!"
"Well someone has to make you norns eat." It sounded amused.
The Hand hovered closer to Annie and tickled her nose. She giggled. It was so nice when It did that. She sometimes felt that she would do anything, just to have the Hand tickle her again. It wasn't just the pleasant sensation; there was a deeper feeling that she'd done something right.
Chris sat in the one roomed house that he and Annie currently shared. He was a very striking norn; with yellow-blond fur and green eyes, although those eyes often held a solemn, secretive look that Annie had accepted was just part of him. Like a lot of norns in Albia, he was fond of mathematics. Norns seemed to have a natural aptitude for the subject. Annie had never been able to fathom the subject, preferring drawing, but she was an exception rather than the rule. The Hand made use of Chris' abilities now and again, when it had the need. As he thought of the Hand, its silvery voice, heard but not heard, attracted his attention.
"Can I have a word?" It said, softly. Chris turned in his seat. Though he had always been in awe of the mysterious creature, he sometimes sensed a kindred spirit behind It. Even with the powers it could wield, it was, at times, only nornish.
"Go ahead" He said, with a shrug.
"Annie will be going away for a while. She is helping me with an experiment. I thought you'd like to know." The Hand briefly explained the expedition It had planned.
Chris felt like he had been kicked in the stomach. Once again, he cursed his strange perversion, as he saw it. He kept his expression carefully blank. No one must know, he told himself.
"It's not up to me to care or not care" he said airily, smugly acknowledging his good acting. "It's not any of my business." There was a lump in his throat, but he tried not to swallow nervously- it'd give the game away.
"She'll be back soon I promise." It hesitated slightly, swooped in to tickle his nose, then suddenly winked out of existence.
The tickling did nothing to remove the cold lump of fear Chris felt. Something bad was going to happen, he was sure. But there was nothing he could do about this feeling- not without giving away his best kept secret, and possibly with it, his life.
End of Part One.
Chapter 2: Welcome to Babel
"Ready?" asked the Hand.
"Can't wait!" Annie replied, her eyes sparkling with excitement.
The Hand and Annie were together in a small cave, where the other norns would not see them. A small torch crackled on the wall, producing what little illumination there was.
"You won't feel a thing, I promise. Suddenly the scenery will shift, and you'll be there. You may look different, and it may take you a while to learn their language. Good luck, little one!" The Hand disappeared.
Just before Annie, too, disappeared, she though about that term of endearment. She hadn't been called that since she was a child.
Albia, Version 1.
In the kitchen, a warm fire crackled in a small stove, as it always did, not needing fuel or any kind of care. The Hatchery stood quiet, its doors closed, and the clock measured time with its tick tock...
Annie appeared next to a lift which seemed to be made out of bamboo and of a type similar to the ones she'd seen in the forest of Modern Albia. She staggered sideways, out of shock, and then looked up to get her bearings. The colours around her seemed oddly muted, with a golden sheen to them. The place looked deserted. She tried to take a step forward... and promptly fell over. Picking herself up, she realised her entire body had changed. Her waist length white hair (of which she'd always been proud) had shortened to a disorganised fuzz around her head. Her fur had lost the russet tinge, and become a mottled tan, except for her feet, which were a dark reddish brown. Two green bands decorated her wrists.
She took another cautious step, and this time managed to stay upright. So far, so good. Beyond the kitchen, she could see a small garden, with carrots growing in the thin soil. Seeing the carrots made her realise how hungry she had become during the preparations for the journey, and she walked rather stiltedly out of the hot, stuffy kitchen.
When she had eaten the carrot, she dropped it, and watched it turn back into a little sprout further down the patch. At least some things haven't changed, she thought to herself with a pang of homesickness.
It was an idyllic place. Bees buzzed lazily over the beelacanth blossoms, and there was not a breath of breeze. Annie, of course, did not know that wind of any kind was absent from this world.
Where are all the other norns? She thought to herself, and continued right to explore for them.
There, nestling among the herbs, she found one. Almost.
The red and yellow striped egg throbbed, as the little norn inside twisted and turned in a bid for freedom. Finally, with Annie standing impatiently over it, the egg cracked, and a baby male norn was born...
"Em flib" It said, standing up and tapping its foot.
"What? Where are your parents, little one?" Annie asked, hunkering down beside the tiny norn. There were obvious differences between what she thought of as 'normal' norns and this child. The limbs and body did not seem to be entirely of a piece, and the body colour was duller, except for the legs, which were a startling red.
Annie tried to pick up the little norn, and found that either the norn was too heavy, or her new form was not strong enough.
"Em foo dat" said the baby, staring straight into her eyes. Annie, like all norn females of her time, could not resist.
"Oh all right! Come here, little one. What shall I call you? I know: Christoo. I know a norn called Chris in my world. He's a very nice, handsome norn."
Can you say it? Christoo!"
"Good!" She reached down and tickled Christoo's nose. He giggled.
"Gege" He replied. Annie giggled.
As time passed, Annie decided to teach Chris to speak. He learnt far faster than a norn of Modern Albia, but there were a few hiccups along the way:
"Christoo eat carrot"
"Christoo push dis"
"Christoo eat carrot"
"No, eat carrot."
"Christoo eat carrot"-tickle, tickle.
"No, Christoo push toy!" Annie shook her head in despair. Were all prehistoric norns as contrary as this?
Even with the various annoyances of life in prehistoric Albia, Annie was beginning to enjoy herself. A long ignored maternal instinct had surfaced, and was being fulfilled. Christoo grew up, all of a sudden, one day, and was able to walk on two legs, rather than crawl. The change was so sudden it had startled Annie, but she just assumed it must be normal. Shortly after this, she had discovered a set of books that greatly speeded up the learning process, and also taught Annie the rules governing the prehistoric Nornish language. One day, however, everything changed, and very much for the worse.
Christoo and Annie were in the garden again, picking carrots, and giggling when occasionally the chosen carrot bounced away like a ball. Christoo suddenly looked up.
"look grendel." He said, his innocent eyes not showing any fear or understanding.
Did I hear correctly? She thought. The grendel, to her, was a myth, used to frighten children into eating their supper, a creature... from... the distant past? Hastily she looked behind her, to see the green hulking form, red eyes gleaming. The stink of it hit her as it came closer. Its eyes were fastened on the small form of Christoo.
"Christoo come lift" she commanded. Christoo, for once, did what she said, and wandered over to the kitchen lift.
"Christoo pull lift"
"Pull lift." he agreed, and ascended into the nursery, out of harm's way. The grendel, now missing its first choice of target, shifted its malevolent gaze to Annie. Maybe, she thought, with her superior knowledge and intellect, she could beat the creature. Trapped in a corner as she was, she couldn't run...
Pain pounded through her body as the grendel hit her again. She was being pummelled, and she was beginning to realise that superior intellect did not equal superior fighting power. Slowly, she could sense her strength being drained away, and it was becoming difficult to think of anything beyond the pain. She slapped back, with all the force her bruised body could muster, but the grendel just laughed and slapped her again.
Her awareness began to fade, along with her eyesight. Giving a small but heart rending cry, she curled up on the floor under the onslaught. Just before she passed out, she saw the lift descending from the nursery, carrying Christoo, who like all young norns, had been playing with the lift button.
"No..." she croaked, but as her vision faded, she knew it was too late for her to do anything about it, as the grendel lumbered over towards the child.
"Annie?" A voice. More felt than heard. It seemed to buzz around her head, leaving unpleasant echoes. She knew that voice...
"push norn" A small furry hand reached down and tickled her.
"norn" These voices were norns. Further off, a ball bouncing.
"Come Hand. Come toy." the first voice commanded, and feet scurried off into the distance.
"Annie? Can you hear me?" She moved her head slightly, making it ache. She felt stiff all over, and as she looked up, a wave of dizziness and nausea passed over her.
"Annie hurt." She cried plaintively.
"Annie push Hand"
"Annie, wake up now." The Hand gently tickled her. "The grendel's gone."
Annie shook her head to clear it.
"When... grendel... the grendel attacked me!" She sat bolt upright, causing sparks to fly in front of her eyes.
"It's gone. I got rid of it. I found the norns attacking it, and you and Christoo curled up side by side."
"I feel.. so sick." She muttered.
"The grendel secretes a poison. You got a bad dose. You'll be all right, given time."
"And Christoo? What about Christoo?" A rising anxiety had her in its grip, as she remembered those last few nightmare seconds.
"Annie... I'm so sorry..." The Hand moved, and she saw that It had been obscuring the tiny, curled up corpse of the child she had known so well. He looked as if he was lost in pleasant dreams, except for the absence of any breathing.
"I didn't get here in time, and he was so young." The Hand said sorrowfully.
"It wasn't your fault." Annie replied dully. Her head felt so thick, as if she was unable to think properly.
"You looked after him very well. He was very happy. These norns do not have the maternal instinct you have."
"Can I bury him?"
"There is no graveyard in Prehistoric Albia. I will mark his passing though. I already have, in fact. His body will disappear soon. It'll just vanish."
"I want... to stay with him." She said. It didn't seem real. Nothing seemed real, and talking in Modern Nornish was proving more difficult than she though it would after speaking only Prehistoric for so long. She had to concentrate to remember every word.
"Very well. Get some rest. You need plenty of sleep, and food. You're still not at all well." The Hand did not add that she was only alive due to constant energy injections. The fact that she had spoken in Prehistoric Nornish on waking vaguely worried It.
Annie sat and watched the child until it finally disappeared. Then she sat and watched the space where Christoo had died, hoping for darkness to come, and wondering why she couldn't cry.
Darkness never did fall, though, and she never shed a tear.
When she was fully well again, she went off in search of the other norns. The Hand kept a quiet eye on her, but in reality she hardly remembered the little norn she had brought up from hatching. If the Hand had known this, It'd have been worried. Very worried indeed.
Annie, in the meantime, just wanted some company, and vaguely thought that there must be other norns around the place somewhere that she could play with. She wandered through the carrot patch, temporarily distracted by an odd carrot than bounced when she dropped it. Well nourished, she continued. When she reached the other side of the herb patch, she heard the tinkling of a piano, and the voices of norns.
"Emily push music"
Of course, she thought. I must speak prehistoric nornish to them, or they won't understand me. She was quite pleased with this train of deductive thinking.
A ginger coloured male, with tiny horns and a dark mane of hair, walked over and kissed her.
"Get off!" she cried, and slapped him.
"Ow! Gege." he said, then, the slap forgotten, "Roger food."
A female, her hair tied back in a ponytail, and oddly coloured bright red lips, came over and tickled her. She tickled back, and they both giggled.
"Annie push norn."
"Push" said the female, and tickled Annie again. Annie liked this norn. Wonder what her name was?
"What?" asked Annie.
"Look" said the norn.
"Look norn". Give me strength, thought Annie briefly.
"Sophi look." Sophi finally said.
"Sophi yes." Said Annie, and tickled her.
Just then, the norn that had kissed Annie so against her will, Roger, coughed. Annie backed away in fear. She knew how a sick norn could pass on disease. She remembered... somewhere else? Where? Somewhere she had lived, where a disease has swept through the norns. Only two old norns had died, but everyone had been very ill, including her.
She picked up a spinning top, lying at her feet, and nonchalantly walked away.
"Sophi come toy!" she called.
"Sophi come." Sophi replied, and started to walk slowly away from Roger.
"Let's get out of here!" Annie muttered under her breath, coaxing her new found friend to come with her. Another norn behind her, a child with blond hair, starting coughing as well, and as they turned and ran, they saw the Hand swoop down to tend to the sick norns.
The Hand felt flustered and overworked. The Plague had spread to six norns, who It had managed to move into the basement by the still; quite an achievement with the stubborn, independent Prehistoric norns. It placed a heater down there, and watched over the coughing group of norns, trying to make them feed, and injecting them with drugs when needed. Eventually, the epidemic began to ebb, and some norns started to recover, when to the Hand's horror, the virus mutated, and another sweep of disease blighted the norns. The Hand laboured on, determined to save them all, even the old and infirm.
Annie, in the meantime, was playing ball with Sophi. The norns played ball in a rather odd way; instead of bouncing or throwing it to one another, they both tried to bounce it at once, occasionally running away with it by way of variety. Annie could not remember being so happy, but then she could no longer remember very much at all.
"Annie run!" she screamed picking up the ball and heading for the kitchen. When she had been... where? Hadn't she lived somewhere else once? Spoken another language? The thought was forgotten as the dropped ball bounced across the floor, recapturing her attention.
"Sophi push toy." Sophi said, racing into the kitchen with her arms outstretched to the ball. Annie tickled her nose.
"Annie push norn." The ball bounced erratically back the way they had come ,and they followed it, laughing, out into the sunlit garden.
It was a voice. A voice more felt that heard, one that was difficult to disobey. One even her melting mind remembered.
"Annie? Are you there?" She only understood one word of that: 'Annie'. The Hand floated into view from beneath the ground.
"Hand" said Annie.
"What is it? Sorry I've away for so long. There was a bad plague. I saved them all though."
"Push Hand" Annie said.
The Hand felt the first stirrings of dread.
"Speak to me Annie!" It pleaded, tickling her head. "What's wrong?"
"Hand" she repeated, reaching up to be tickled. Tickling was nice. All her thought processes were now along the lines of 'this is nice', 'this is not so nice'.
"Oh, my God..." whispered the Hand.
"Gege" gurgled Annie.
"Annie run!" she suddenly shouted, running away from the Hand, a grin on her face. The Hand did not follow, and forgetting all about it, she found a music. Music was nice. She push it, enjoying the noise. Suddenly she disappeared from Albia. The piano played on forlornly for a few seconds, before silence fell again.
End of Part Two.
Chapter 3: A Farewell to Secrets
Albia, version 6.
Chris looked up, hearing the Hand shouting his name. He had been trying to work through an equation, but failing miserably, not being able to concentrate and not admitting to himself why he was so distracted.
"Oh my God, Chris it's terrible. Something awful has happened, and it's all my fault..." The Hand swooped down gracefully straight through the ceiling, and hovered at about waist height. Instead of coming to a standstill as usual though, it thrashed backwards and forwards across the room, sometimes passing straight out through the walls before returning. Although Chris normally found the Hand's emotions hard to read, even he could tell It was exceedingly distraught. Annie could always tell It's mood, but no other norn could. He'd not even really believed Annie when she said that the Hand had feelings too. It seemed that Annie was right, after all. He stood up hastily.
"What's happened?" he exclaimed.
"It's Annie!" Chris went cold inside- no, not that, please...
"What's happened to her?" He said, trying to hide his distress with a thin veneer of calm. Norns aren't bothered about the welfare of others, he told himself firmly. Only sick mutants like him. His secret must stay that way.
"I didn't know it would happen." the Hand was talking quietly now, almost to itself. "She reverted to a Prehistoric type. I can only describe it by saying she has lost her mind." It sounded low and hopeless, and hung near the floor, but Chris hardly heard the end of the sentence, for the roaring in his ears. Despair and grief warred with fear and anger for supremacy. Forcing his voice to remain calm, he said:
"It's...Can you...Will she recover?" he finally asked, blinking to keep the tears from his eyes, and cursing his stuttering sentences for giving away his emotional turmoil.
"I think so. It'll take time, but she should gain back her full intellect. Her memory, though is lost, forever." The Hand floated closer to Chris, almost touching. "I'm afraid she won't remember you at all."
"I've.." Chris spluttered, "I've got to go!" he cried, and ran before the Hand could see his tears. As he ran, he sobbed out loud for Annie, and also for himself, for now his secret was out, his life was surely near its end.
Beyond the meadow, outside NornTown, there was a wild area of forest and tangled lianas, riddled with secret walkways and lifts. The bottom layers of the forest were often visited, and the leaves the trees dropped made good bedding material. Higher though, where few norns ventured, except by accident, heart rending cries could be heard, coming from a decrepit looking tree house. Chris was sat on the floor, his head resting against the wood of the building, staring into space. He felt unable to stop crying, and unable to start, trapped in a never ending present, since the future was unbearable, and the past, unthinkable. He got up and paced, fur thoroughly soaked with tears, and his lips drawn back in a rictus of pain as he whimpered nonsense and grief stricken syllables. His throat was hoarse from screaming, but he hardly noticed as more sobs wracked his body. Crying did not help; did not bring any ease to his heart, but tore him apart more with each sob.
Slowly the sobs subsided, and he was left staring fixedly at the wall. Despair spread its grey, suffocating blanket over him. His life was over. Forfeit. The Hand must know now what a sick norn he was, after hiding it all his life. He didn't deserve to live- he never had. He'd heard the whispers of euthanasia, and knew this was all he was good for. A new calm came over him. Nothing more could be done to him now. No more acting. He would die as what he truly was; no more lies. Then he remembered Annie again.
"No, no, no, no, no!" He screeched, his by now husky voice echoing out into the silent forest. He could stand it, everything- if she was with him, but she was not there anymore. Even if she recovered, she would never know him. To him, she was dead, and worse than dead, because she was still there. A norn who had lost its soul... and he would be the only one who cared. In sudden rage, he smashed his hand into the side of the house. Pain flooded his body, but he repeated the action, over and over again. In an orgy of self hate, he hit and hit and hit- until his knuckles were bleeding and bruised. Still he continued, leaving bloodstains that quickly disappeared when he moved his hand. Pain was all he wanted, all he deserved, all he could understand right now. Maybe if he hit enough, he would pass out, and not have to stand the pain for a short while...
The Hand hovered just out of site. Bewildered and worried, It had followed him here. Now he was injuring himself, and the Hand could not allow that. It took swift action.
Chris suddenly felt very tired, and was asleep before he hit the wooden floor.
Chris awoke slowly, with a vague feeling that something was terribly wrong, somehow- and then the memory flooded back.
"Annie!" he wailed, tears coming afresh to his sore eyes. He picked his bruised body gingerly off the floor, cursing as his abused hands twinged with pain. He looked up- and found himself staring straight at the Hand. The shock made him stop crying.
"She was my daughter." The Hand said distantly. It seemed to be talking more to itself than to him.
"Your daughter?" Chris asked dully, too tired to be surprised by anything anymore.
"She did not have parents. There is such a thing as a test tube norn, I know you all have wondered about that. She was one. I brought her up myself. Hands have maternal instinct too. Her real parents were Francesca and Stephen."
Chris remembered those two norns. Francesca was a towering intellect, frighteningly bright. Stephen was, well, not, but he did have an unrivalled ability to get himself into trouble. They had never been able to stand one other. The intelligent, and the curious- and their daughter was Annie. It made sense.
"So you see, she was special to me. If I had known how Prehistoric Albia would affect her, I would never have sent her there." Suddenly breaking off from its musing, it seemed to notice Chris again. It swooped low and tickled his head.
"Tell me what's wrong, Chris. I've never seen a norn act so upset before." The Hand had been astonished at the reaction of Chris on hearing the bad news. Never had It seen so many of a norn's drives all shoot to maximum at once.
Chris went cold all over. For a moment there, just a moment, he had thought he was safe. He realised that now the nightmare he had always had was reality: the Hand knew.
"It's..." he started, his throat tight, but the mere act of speaking seemed to break down a barrier inside. Suddenly he felt so old and weary; no more secrets. Death was better than living a lie any longer.
"It's just me. I'm not normal. I never have been normal- just a sick, mutant, norn. I... never fitted in as a child. When one of my friends fell over and hurt themselves, I wanted to do something to help- I couldn't bare to see them in pain. All the other children would look at me so oddly if I tried to help- as if I was mad. I soon realised that I would have to hide- to pretend to be normal. It never was more than an act.
"Then, one day I met Annie." in spite of himself, he smiled distantly at the memory. "She was in the herb garden, collecting parsley. When I saw her.. I don't know how to describe it... I knew she was going to be important. She was different to any other norn. After I met her, I didn't want to look at another female. It's sick I know, but I wanted to spend my life with her- never leave her, stay with her always. And now," he gulped, tears started to run unheeded down his cheeks, and he was unable to finish the sentence.
The Hand hadn't moved, or shown any kind of reaction, not that it was easy for Chris to tell anyway.
"I knew, Chris." he looked up at the Hand.
"Knew what?" he asked.
"I knew you were a mutant, from birth. I studied your genome. There was an odd mutation in one of the genes controlling your brain. I thought nothing had come of it. You've hidden this from me very well."
"Well, it has." Chris looked at the Hand, sudden anger in his eyes. "I may be a mutant, but I don't deserve to be killed!" The Hand moved back a pace or two.
"Killed? I don't understand."
"I remember Mark, the norn who slapped everyone else, and talked rubbish. We all called him a mutant. And one day, he just disappeared. I heard the rumours of euthanasia."
"What? Of all the... I never kill norns! I took Mark away- he was a danger to the other norns around him. He lived his life on one of the islands of the ocean archipelago. He died of old age, eventually, I promise! One moment- I think I understand something now- did you think I would kill you if I found out you were a mutant?"
"Well, aren't you?"
"No!" the Hand sounded more than a little angry. As Chris flinched back, It added, "I'm sorry. I lost my temper there. Chris, there is no way I would ever kill a norn for being different, especially you."
"Especially me?" Chris asked, unemotionally. This whole conversation seemed to have taken an unreal turn- it all seemed to be happening in a dream. The nightmare scenario- of the Hand finding out about him and confronting him, had turned out not to be a nightmare, and he was not sure he could cope.
"Would I kill the first norn, ever, who truly thought like a Hand?" It heard Chris gasp in surprise, but continued. "We have a name for the emotions you describe, Chris. Compassion, and love. We Hands consider these to be the noblest emotions we can feel. Chris, I'm proud of you- you are the most highly advanced norn in Albia."
"I'm what?" said Chris blankly.
"I think you are the first of a new kind of norn- a special kind of norn. Maybe the first of a new generation of norn- the Version Seven norn. Don't worry any more. Live your life as you see fit, with my blessing, Chris." with this final, astonishing, sentence, the Hand sank beneath the floor of the treehouse.
As the Hand disappeared, Annie was revealed behind where It had last been. Her hair was shorter, and she had lost the red tinge to her fur, but she was still unmistakably the norn he... loved?
"Annie?" Chris called out gently.
She looked up, her bright eyes blank and innocent. Suddenly, a smile spread across her face. Had there been a glimmer of recognition there? Chris thought so, or, at least, hoped so. He kissed the top of her head tenderly, and took hold of her hand.
"Annie come." He said, and they walked off into the forest.
And so it began...