Future's Shadow (Chronology 3)
Author: Lis Morris
Date: July 24, 1998
Summary: The third 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.
Chapter 1: Albia, Version 6
Something was wrong...
The realisation hit Llanyb like a grendel's slap. This all felt so familiar, as if he'd been here before. And something was going to go horribly wrong.
He shivered, in the first cold of the new winter. The Islands, warm and balmy as they were in summer, became gripped in an unstoppable icy chill during the winter. The norns, grendels and ettins that inhabited the Islands huddled down into the cosy caves, to eat mushrooms and drink malibu, and tell stories of warmer times. However, there were some delights only accessable in winter.
He clutched his mother's arm, while she spoke to him.
"You really ought to try it, Llanyb. It's great fun- you can go really fast once you learn how."
Ynbru, quietly dosing in a corner, shifted and scratched an itch. "Although if you don't know how you can get really bruised." She said, with a sly, sleepy smile.
"I don't like the sound of that." Llanyb shook his head.
Saxh snorted. "Ynbru is just being pessimistic. It's really enjoyable. You ought to learn- we could go out together then." He smiled down at his kid brother.Llanyb liked the sound of that. He'd always admired his much older brother, Saxh. He always treated Llanyb like the grownup he felt he was, when everyone else just saw a little child.
"Well, alright then." He said, grudgingly.
"Can I watch?" said Ynbru, a wicked little smile on her lips.
"No." said Ralana, Llanyb's mother, shortly. "You can fall over, just like the rest of us. I've never seen you ice skate, anyway."
The group of norns stood up and stretched. Ralana held Llanyb's hand as they paraded up the steps into a cold sharp winter morning. The ice had so far only coated the inland seas separating the six islands; later the entire ocean would freeze, and it would be possible, theoretically, to walk to the vast Mainland of Albia. Not that anyone ever did- the norns there were supposed to be quite barbaric and stupid.
He had hung back to watch one of the ettins, its long white locks covered in frost, rooting for frozen food. It turned to him, and seemed to stare at him sorrowfully with those mysterious dark eyes before continuing to forage.
"Llanyb!" He looked back up to see his mother calling for him, standing on the ice. She skated gracefully, a short distance, and then skidded to a halt.
Something was wrong...
The feeling was stronger this time. Something dreadful was about to happen. As he started to walk towards her, his legs became heavier, and everything seemed to slow down... he wanted to run, but his legs would not obey him. Please, not again...
Ralana suddenly looked down in alarm. Tiny cracks were running through the ice, radiating out from her feet. She looked up again, and her face showed a bleak terror. She took a step towards the island, but it just caused more cracks to form.
Llanyb saw Ynbru scream and call her, but he couldn't hear anything other than that sinister cracking. The cracks joined, and Ralana started to slide, inexorably under the thin ice, into the frigid sea. She yelled in panic and reached up her hands as the icy water gushed around her, but the mere act made her sink more quickly.
And still, all Llanyb could hear was the cracking of the deadly ice. As she disappeared under the crust, her eyes were looking straight at him. First they were filled with terror, then with an odd acceptance and peace.
Then she was gone.
"No!" Llanyb sat straight up in bed. Why did that dream keep coming back to him? Or the even worse one, where she was alive, and everything was fine, but he knew that they had so little time left? He was an adult now; that memory belonged in the past.
"What is it?" Ynlar asked sleepily. He had had his arm draped over her, and had knocked her awake with his sudden movement.
"Nothing," he said in a resigned voice, "Just a nightmare." Llanyb shook his head to clear it, but in his mind he could still hear the ice crack.
"Your father?" she asked, sitting up as well. The misfortune of losing both parents when young was such a great one, she felt. His father had got drunk one night- well, he got drunk every night- and decided that eating aconite was a good idea. A pathetic ending to a pathetic life. However, he shook his head.
"No, Ralana. I'm sorry I disturbed you. Let's go back to sleep." He hugged her close to him, comforted by her warmth, and they settled back down.
He heard her breathing settle down, and become regular as she fell asleep again, but he just lay, staring into the dark night of the caves for a long, long time.
Quietly, against the gentle sound of wavelets hitting the sleeping island, someone could be heard sobbing.
Chris stared at his reflection in the mirror. More grey hair! He shook his head woefully. His once blond fur was now liberally scattered with grey, and his green eyes peeped out from under white fringed lashes. He was getting old, and today was a bitter anniversary he had never truly thought he'd see. The Hand had now been dead for more than half his life. He was 25 days old. Twenty-five times winter had circled back to winter in the endless sequence of the seasons. Not ancient, but definitely late middle aged.
Undoubtedly, the stress he had had to cope with during his life had aged him. Look at Annie- two days older than him, but not sporting a single grey hair!
Suddenly he sighed heavily. He didn't see much of Annie any more. As he'd always known she would, she had eventually left him for another. That Andrew. Chris clenched his fists involuntarily. Why did he hate him so? Other norns did not care, or even notice how many partners their mates had got, but if Annie even looked at another norn, he wanted to punch first, explain later. It was at times like this he wished he could talk to the Hand. It understood Chris as no one else did.
He had found out from the Hand that what he felt for Annie was an entirely new emotion. It called it 'love', and told him that he was the only norn sufficiently advanced to feel it, or feel compassion for other norn's suffering. Caused by just one single mutation, apparently. One mutation had royally messed up his life.
Chris felt that it might not be very 'advanced' to beat Andrew into a pulp, but it would be very satisfying. Not that he ever could have done, he reminded himself ruefully. Shortly after the Hand's death, he had caught a ghastly respiratory infection. It had nearly killed him, in fact. He'd recovered, but had been weak, and lacking in appetite ever since. There was no doubt that Andrew could have knocked him flat in a second if he so wished, and that was true for most of the norns in Albia. Ah well, no one could stop him dreaming.
At least he was still a friend- and sometimes more than a friend- to Annie. They saw each other regularly, but...
Mentally he shook himself. No point brooding over might-have-beens! Things had improved for him since his long ago youth. He had once been feared, as a mutant, but now he had all the norn's respect. They still didn't fully accept him, but respect was a lot more bearable than intolerance. They saw him as the most important norn in Albia, which, in a way, he was.
"Chris, the Hand Norn!" he said grandly. His greying, skinny reflection looked back at him. Somehow the reality didn't live up to the title.
When had they started calling him that? After he had healed the plague, and brought the norns back to the abandoned NornTown. Now the younger norns (which was most of them, these days), who had never seen the Hand alive, treated him with wide eyed respect; the norn with the Plaque, the power of life and death over every norn in Albia.
There was, of course, one norn, now a young adult, who had never had any fear of him at all...
"Daddy!" David came bounding into the room. He had blonde fur, his father's green eyes, and an unruly mat of tangled white hair. Chris turned from the mirror, smiling, to see him running straight towards him, arms outstretched to envelop him in a hug without slowing down one iota.
"One of these days, you're going to squash me doing that!" Chris laughed. "You're too big now. Put me down, please." David obliged, and Chris' feet found the floor again. David had always done that, even when he arms could only reach Chris' knees. Of course, Chris' feet hadn't left the ground then...
"Where've you been?" Chris asked.
"Playing. With Sarah, Fiona, and..."He frowned, and bit his lip in concentration.
"Brian?" Chris suggested.
His face lit up. "Yes!" he cried.
Chris walked over to a shelf and picked up a hairbrush. "Well, you've managed to mess up your hair again. Let me brush it out for you."
David sat down on the floor in front of him, and Chris started to methodically undo all the knots and tangles. Odd, how the children accepted his poor, simple minded son with no problems. At first they had been puzzled and frightened of the child minded adult, but they had soon realised that his strength and reach were very useful for den-building and apple-stealing, and he had been accepted.
It had been obvious very early in David's life that he was not a normal norn. Chris supposed he should have expected it, really. He had been conceived while Annie was still recovering from her expedition to Prehistoric Albia. Her mind had been decimated by that trip. "Irrevocable loss of data" the Hand had called it. Chris thought it had been referring simply to her memories, but as David grew up, it was obvious that her genome had been affected too. She had recovered fully, but David never would.
Even so, Chris loved his son dearly. He remembered the first time he'd come home crying, because one of his friends had been hurt, and he'd not been able to help. Chris could remember doing exactly the same thing as a child. Ironically, David shared Chris' mutation, the one which made Chris the most advanced norn in Albia. Another Hand norn. He, too, could activate the Plaque, which stayed dead for all other norns. Unfortunately, he'd never be able to understand how it worked at all.
Chris teased the last few tangles out of his hair.
"Thank you." He chimed, mechanically.
"Now don't go off playing again," Chris warned. "It's nearly dinner time. Can you go and pick me some carrots please?" David nodded, and bounded off outside to the carrot patch just outside their door.
Chris sighed. David was so full of life, and energy. Just like Annie.
Llanyb sighed. What a dreadful night's sleep. Horrible dreams followed by nightmares. Now he was awake, the dreams had left him with an uncomfortable feeling of melancholy, as if everything was touched with a grey despair. He'd come to the deserted beach on the smallest island at the end of the archipelago, and was sitting staring out over the vast stretch of water eastwards to the mainland. It was a view he liked, looking over to the volcano and the deserted, barren shore covered with lava flows and occasional sulphurous volcanic lake. It was a nice place to just sit and think, and get away from all the other norns. Today, however, fog wreathed the tiny islet, and covered the sand and pebbles at his feet with beadlets of moisture. A small breeze occasionally disturbed the fog, and it writhed around him like a damp caress.
When had he started to hate these islands? Sometime in his adolescence, he supposed. Certainly after his parents had died, leaving him to fend for himself. Ynbru had looked after him, but it wasn't the same care that a mother and father could give. As it was, it seemed likely that he would be leader once Ynbru died. Ynbru herself had favoured him over her two daughters.
He snorted in derision. As if that was what he wanted! All he wanted now was to get out, start again, find a new home. The only place he could go, though, was the Mainland, and that was full of norns already- stupid and decadent, doted over by the Hand that had long ago left the Islanders to full independence. The only other way out he could think of was the one his mother had taken. He gazed down at the sea, and wondered what it was like to feel the cool liquid filling your throat, until the cold spread thoughout your entire body, and you slipped away. Little wavelets came up around his feet, oily and silent in this dismal weather.
As he stood there, a plan hatched, fully formed in his mind, as if it had been there all along, and only just surfaced to his consciousness. An ugly, hideous plan, one that most norns would have instantly dismissed for the chaos it would cause. Most of Llanyb's soul, though, had died, long ago, under the ice of that wintry sea, and all that seemed left was a shadow, living as best it could, coping with the pain.
New energy powered his steps as he turned away from the vista of fog and sea; and as he turned back towards the larger inhabited islands, the mist parted to let him through, and silence returned to the desolate island.
Chapter Two: In Suspicious Circumstances
Spring gave way to a gloriously hot summer in Albia, and the flower meadow bloomed brighter than it ever, or so it seemed. A group of norns sat among the fragrant flowers, listening to Annie weaving a yarn. She was telling one of the favourite stories among the younger norns, and she was an excellent story teller. Expansive gestures and an expressive voice combined to captivate her audience.
"... the Hand was both wise and foreseeing. When the plague came, we found It had left special instructions for Chris and myself. Remember that at this time it was not known to anyone but the Hand that Chris was to be Its successor, but so the Hand had chosen.
"When the time comes," It told Chris and I, raising Itself high above us so that It was black in silhouette against the sky, "You will find what you need on the Ettin Islands. Annie is the only norn able to fetch it, Chris is the only norn able to use it." After saying this, it fluttered down to land, far out in the savannah, never to soar the skies of Albia again." Her voice held a theatrical melancholy. Chris, sat cross-legged at the edge of the crowd, caught her gaze and rolled his eyes. She acknowledged his gesture with a fast wink. In fact, they had simply found the Hand, motionless, silent, lying out in the savannah one spring, 13 days ago now, and that grand speech had never happened- there was simply a neat note in a curiously angular script waiting for them back at the house they had shared at that time. The Hand was still there to this day- apparently unchanging, not subject to the normal laws of entropy that made a norn's body disappear after its death. Few ventured into the haunted savannah now.
However, the norns in the crowd were silent, transfixed by Annie's tale. After a short dramatic pause, she continued.
"Many norns died in the plague. People dropped where they were standing, right in the middle of NornTown, and all inhabitants fled to the deserts, or here, to the meadow. Only one brave norn stayed, to fight the plague: the Hand norn, Chris. He stayed to battle it, and keep it from spreading to all of Albia.
"I fled east, to the ocean, following the Hand's dying request. There I caught the boat that sails over the sea to the Islands, to look for the Hand's legacy for the norns It cherished.
"When I reached the Islands, the norns who lived there were waiting for me, and a strange group they were too. They were tall- and dark coloured. Some of them had purple fur, and even purple eyes."
"Purple eyes?" said a wide eyed child at the front.
"Yes, Angela. They're very different from us. I didn't realise just how different until I met their island companions, the grendels and the ettins.
"We all thought, before I went to the islands, that grendels were a myth, a tale from Prehistoric Albia, an extinct race, but no, they're alive and live peacefully with the ettins and norns under one leader who commands all the creatures on the islands." She stopped suddenly at this point, interrupted by an insistent beeping from the Plaque in Chris' hands. He smiled sheepishly, and hurried off to see what the emergency warning had been about.
When Chris got back, the story was just finishing.
"... and that day, Chris first used his powers as the Hand norn, and Albia was safe again."
Chris cringed inwardly as all eyes turned towards him. He smiled weakly.
Slowly, the crowds began to drift away, some back to NornTown, others into the Forest.
"Annie, can you help me?" asked Chris. Annie looked up. He had that troubled, empty look she knew of old. Of all the norns in Albia, she probably came closest to understanding him, although after all these days he still had many unfathomable depths.
"What's wrong? Is someone ill?" she asked.
Chris shook his head sadly. "Dead. An Islander norn. I was wondering if you knew her. Her name is..." he frowned and squinted at the Plaque again. "Yen-bru? I think that's how you pronounce it."
Annie's eyes widened in recognition. "Ynbru?" She pronounced the beginning 'Y' as a vowel, not a consonant. "She was their leader. She must have been very old by now."
"She was 33 days old. She didn't die of old age though- that's what's worrying me. It says here she had high quantities of alkaloid in her system."
"A poison, found in Nightshade, and Aconite, for example."
"She would know better than to eat them!"
Chris nodded grimly. "That's what I thought. This is very bad. Someone has poisoned the leader of the Islanders. I don't like it one bit."
Annie bit her lip. Chris was right. There seemed to be trouble brewing on the Islands.
Ynbru's funeral was a quiet affair, as were all Islander funerals. Her two daughters, Ynlar and Xhale, carried her body to the seashore, as a dour drum beat echoed over the waters. They laid her carefully into the salty water, so slowly that there was not even a single splash. This done, Ynlar sighed and turned to the watching crowd of Albians- not just all the norns, but the four ettins and two grendels too. One of the grendels, Graol, spoke.
"Now we need to find another leader." He rumbled.
"We have not had an ettin leader for many days." Said Fel, in her high, singsong, ettin voice. "Maybe we should have one now."
Ynlar shook her head. "Ynbru told me many times she wanted Llanyb to rule once she was gone. I think we should honour that."
The norns and grendels readily agreed, as did the one male ettin. The female ettin looked hesitant, then finally agreed. Llanyb shivered. He had never fully trusted the ettins. Those dark eyes were just too unreadable. He had the feeling they had never trusted him, either.
"I'm glad you chose me. I have great plans for us all. Ideas that will change our lives greatly for the better..."
And they listened raptly to their new leader.
Chapter 3: Distant Thunder
"The hand has been dead more than half my life. Yet I still find myself thinking: I must go and ask the Hand about something or other." He looked at the forlorn shrine. The hot wind had blown away most of the flowers that were laid there every spring, but a few brown twigs remained in the blasting heat of the summer. The air was so hot, here in the savannah, it was difficult to breathe. Both he and Annie panted to let off heat, for norns did not sweat.
"I only knew the Hand for a short time, but It taught me a lot. I know what you mean." She said distantly. She slipped her hand into his, her mind not on the sombre subject of the Hand's death any more. What was it about Chris that just made her want to throw herself at him? She had always been attracted to the exotic, the different, and the unique. Chris was certainly all three of those, although she doubted this was the full reason. Deep down, she'd always suspected that he cared for her in a way that she couldn't even begin to comprehend, a way that maybe only another Hand norn would understand.
There was also, of course, the fact, that even old and grey, he was very handsome. His unusual blond fur and brilliant green eyes were a stunning combination. Many of the females were interested in him, but he had never even shown that he had noticed them. Annie drew closer to him, and gently stroked the fur on the crests of his ears. He sighed and closed his eyes in pleasure.
"You really know how to ruin my concentration" he said, and smiled. He turned his full attention to her, pulling her to him, and nuzzling her neck.
"Chris!" Annie heard a muffled oath from the vicinity of her neck. He drew away, and faced the young norn who had called.
"What is it, Yvonne?" She was out of breath, and looked as if she had run all the way here from NornTown.
"Come quickly," she gasped, "There's an Islander in the town! She's asking for the leader, so we sent for you!"
"An Islander? I'm coming!" Chris exclaimed, and both he and Annie ran after Yvonne, who was already speeding back to the town, rapidly outdistancing the two older norns.
Ynlar paced backwards and forwards, waiting. Llanyb was right; the Mainland was far more luxurious and richer than the Islands. These houses were full of comforts, and the variety of food and drink was staggering. Yes, she could just imagine living here.
The Mainlanders looked small, their fur curiously washed out in colour, to her eyes. They also looked well fed, and healthier. It was very easy to be envious.
There was some muttering in the crowd, and they parted to let a greying, scrawny looking norn through. He looked so fragile Ynlar was sure she could have snapped him in half with one hand, but there was a look of determination in his eyes, the look of one used to getting his own way. In a way, he reminded her of Llanyb, there was the same somber look to the eyes, although he didn't have that frightening coldness that she sometimes saw in Llanyb. He held out a hand. She ignored it pointedly, and he shrugged and withdrew it.
"I'm Chris. I'm the closest thing we've got to a leader. It's nice to meet an Islander norn, finally. Annie has told me all about you."
She ignored this attempt at conversation, as Llanyb had instructed her. "Llanyb, our new leader, send me to deliver a message to you." She cleared her throat. "We, the Islanders, will no longer tolerate living under the poor conditions you have forced upon us. We demand you vacate NornTown, in order for us to inhabit it. Even though we are smaller in number, we believe we have a stronger force than yours. Leave now, or you will suffer." With that, she turned on her heels, and stalked off, grimly satisfied with the uproar she left behind her.
"What do we do now?" Matthew shouted above the noise. He ran a hand nervously through his green tinted hair.
"Isn't it obvious? I can remember something like this happening. There was a norn called Mark. He was..." Chris stopped. He was going to say 'a mutant' but that was exactly what he was, and he didn't like to draw attention to the fact unnecessarily. "... not normal. He attacked everyone, and everything. Do you remember the baby he killed?" The older norns in the audience nodded, sadly.
"We leave, now, before they come. We can hide in the savannah. There's insects and fruits we can eat there." He shrugged.
"What?" yelled Annie. "Let them take over our homes, just give up?"
"You know that they have grendels on their side. Why not just run, and save our lives? It's stupid to stay!"
"So what if they have grendels? We have you, Chris. You and your Plaque. I know you can inject just about anything with it." she pointed out. "Get rid of the Islanders, and the problem is solved." She laughed, lightly. Chris spun around to face her, and his expression made her back away.
"Murder? You want me to murder those norns?" he said, his voice rising in volume. "Never! I heal, I don't kill. What you're suggesting is sick, and I won't be a part of it!" He gave her one last disgusted look, and walked away from the group of stunned norns.
Chris was so angry he could barely breathe. He stalked back to his house to get his Plaque. He and David were leaving, no matter what happened. There were caves under the desert which grew mushrooms and had various edible invertebrates in them. It wouldn't be comfortable, but they'd survive.
He entered his house. Two norns stepped out of the shadows behind him. He recognised them as Charlotte and Peter. They had heard his outburst, and there was a distinct air of menace about them.
"What are you doing here?" demanded Chris, too angry for politeness.
"Making sure you help us." Peter grinned nastily. Chris made a sudden, impulsive grasp for his Plaque, lying on its shelf, but Charlotte grabbed his arm in an iron grip.
"Oh no you don't," she whispered. She tightened her grip, and Chris moaned softly in pain. "We're not letting you get away that easily."
Without further ado, Peter grabbed his other arm, and they dragged him backwards out of the house.
Chapter Four: Incarceration
Norns could not only enjoy the leafy floor of the Forest. Amongst the huge trees and hanging ferns, many climbable lianas, lifts and gantries weaved a complex network of airborne byways. Many of the gantries had small treehouses dotted among them, and norns tended to come here to enjoy the cool and peace of the woodland.
However, the silence had now been disturbed. Whispered threats, muffled thumps, and groans of pain could be heard coming from one of the highest of all the houses.
Chris lay curled up on the floor, trying to avoid as many of the vicious blows as possible. With one final brutal kick, Peter and Charlotte left him alone, and went to stand guard outside his impromptu prison.
Chris rolled onto his back, and gasped for air. It seemed that there wasn't enough oxygen in the room. He tried to focus on the roof above him, but it was all a blur. He couldn't tell if this was because his eyes were watering, or his sight was failing, but he honestly didn't care either way.
A wave of nausea passed over him, and he closed his eyes and swallowed hard. Concentrate on breathing. Slow, deep breaths. Gradually, his breathing returned to normal, and he opened his eyes again, to see the roof clearly this time.
Carefully he sat up, awakening a whole new host of aches and pains. Gingerly he checked himself over. Everywhere ached, but nothing seemed broken. There was no telling if there was any internal damage though. He guessed he was just bruised, and winded. He knew that he was no use dead to them. Or alive, come to that. He gritted his jaw in determination. No matter what, he wouldn't help them now. He had tried to help- spent his whole life trying to help the norns in Albia, and this was the thanks he got. Enough was enough, he was getting out. Let the whole lot of them fight this stupid war, he no longer cared. He would take David, and leave for the desert caves. This was assuming he lived through the next few hours.
He shook his head in bewilderment. It was as if they had all gone crazy. Suddenly the world he has lived in his whole life had turned alien, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Even if he had the Plaque, what could he do with it? Put all the Islanders to sleep? All that would happen is that the Mainlander norns would come and slaughter them. The same was true if he put the Mainlanders to sleep. If he put them both to sleep, they would just wake up again, and the fighting would go on.
If one side won, the other would just come back in a few days, and another battle would start. Chris could see, in his minds eye, fight after fight, clash after clash, disappearing into the mists of the future. There would be no peace ever again, in this once peaceful world.
Thoughts of battles and Albia's future faded slowly into dreams, and Chris' head sagged against the rough wood of the treehouse as the light slowly dimmed.
Birdsong woke him up the next morning. For a second, he lay there, enjoying the gentle warmth and peace of the early summer morning, before the memory of the day before hit him. He eyes flew open, and he groaned from the stiffness in his abused body. He'd fallen asleep sitting against the side of the hut, and his back was sore from the splintery wood. He tried to slowly stretch, easing cramping muscles, and stood up, and walked a few tottering steps. Which side was likely to win? It was hard to say. There were only 13 norns on the Islands, as opposed to 26 on the Mainland, but the Plaque did not record ettins and grendels, so there could be any number of them. Grendels were a lot stronger than a norn, and more than a match for four norns, and the ettins? Who knew? Annie had only seen an ettin in the distance during her visit there.
Peter stepped into the treehouse, and broke Chris' musings. "Good morning, Hand norn, sleep well?" Chris stayed silent, refusing to even look at him. Peter shrugged.
"It's obvious that you've decided not to assist us, so we've brought in extra help." What Charlotte said next was the last straw, the final threat that sent Chris to his knees, and made everything disappear in a red haze. "We've got David. Help us, and he won't be harmed."
"What?" he screeched, hysterically.
Peter smiled. "You heard." Chris snarled and threw his entire strength at Peter, leaping at him, trying to wipe that smug smile off his face. Something struck the back of his head, hard, and he fell to the floor, gasping, barely conscious.
"You know you'll help us. We'll be outside, waiting for you. Once you join us, you can have the Plaque back."
Chris blearily shook his head, and hauled himself upright. He turned back to Peter, and his expression made Peter look fearful, for the first time.
"If you harm him," he said in a low whisper, "Even one little bit, you will die." Chris stood up, leaning on the wall of the hut for support. "Slowly. Painfully. A little glycotoxin here, a little lead, maybe, there." In the dim morning light, his eyes seemed to glow, and Charlotte and Peter started to back away.
"Next time you're feeling sleepy, or a little achy," He called after them, "You'll wonder. You'll wonder if that's the last feeling you'll..." dizziness came over him, and he swayed, "Ever... have!". They ran outside in terror. Involuntarily, he let go of the side of the treehouse, and fainted.
Later that morning, he was sat, staring at the side of the treehouse wall, trying not to think. Afterward, he was to remember this as the lowest ebb of his life; the moment when he lost everything. He was disturbed from his reverie by the sounds of a discussion between two females and a male norn. All norns of the same sex sounded similar, so he couldn't tell who it was. He guessed it was Charlotte and Peter, plus one other. They seemed to come to some agreement, and the door opened.
Annie stepped through. Chris clambered to his feet in rising hope, but it was soon dashed.
Annie smiled sadly. "They said you wouldn't help, so I've just come to say a final goodbye." Annie looked at Chris, and was shocked. His fur was dull, and tufts were missing here and there, exposing raw skin. His eyes looked slightly glazed, as if he had had a bad blow to the head.
"Annie..." he croaked, and burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably. She ran across, and embraced him. Quietly, she whispered into his ear.
"I'm here to help!" she hissed. "They've got David- I won't see him harmed. I brought your Plaque." A warm, smooth surface was pressed into his hand. He gasped, and started to speak. Annie placed a warm finger on his lips.
"Shh! They mustn't know. The Islanders are already on the beach, you haven't got very long. David is being kept on the next gantry down, west from here. Find him, and hide, please! I've.. I've got to go soon, and join the fighting. I probably won't see you again." She looked at him with fearful eyes. The slanting rays of the morning sun caught her fur, showing grey speckles in it that he'd never noticed before. Wrinkles surrounded those hazel eyes, but the norn who looked out of them was just a terrified child.
"Annie I..." the words stuck in his throat. "I'll miss you. You were more to me than my own life." Annie looked confused for a second, and then nodded, and ran out before he could say any more.
Chris bit his lip and tried not to cry. He'd cried enough. Now it was time for action.
The cool salt breeze ruffled Llanyb's short, purple hair. He took a deep breath, and looked proudly at the shore.
"We're here, finally." He announced to the waiting Islanders; norns, grendels and ettins all. They looked slightly scared, but determined, driven on by his speeches.
"Here's the plan: There are many levels in the forest. Spread out, up and down, and press forward. Deal with any resistance you come across. I want norns in pairs, grendels on their own, and the ettin all together in one group on the forest floor." Ettin were not designed for warfare; hence keeping them together as a unit. One ettin on its own would not stand a chance.
"Ready?" he cried. The assorted Islanders cried back spiritedly. He'd achieved it, reached the Mainland. Suddenly he felt weary. Somehow this was not as he expected it to be; the Mainland had always meant freedom, a new lease of life to him, but now he was here, he felt no different. Still, it was too late now to go back.
The fight to capture the Mainland began.
Charlotte stirred uncomfortably. It had gone very quiet since Annie had left.
"He's very quiet in there. Do you think he's ok?" she asked .
"We were pretty rough on him," Peter admitted, "Maybe we ought to check he's ok."
Charlotte grunted and suddenly doubled up, her face contorted.
"What's the matter?" Peter asked in alarm.
"Pain!" She cried, and passed out. Peter stared around in alarm, but nothing had changed. Then the pain hit him in a single agonising wave, and he too collapsed to land on top of Charlotte.
Chris opened the door, and daintily stepped over the two unconscious norns, Plaque in hand. He ran over to the nearest bamboo lift, and pressed the down button.
In the east, the first faint shouts and cries of pain could be heard.
Chapter 5: Cry Havoc
"David!" Chris yelled at the top of his voice, trying to be heard over the screams and clamour of the approaching battle. Second by second, the noise was getting closer. That meant the Mainlanders were losing.
The lift shuddered to a halt, and Chris leapt out, wincing at the pain from his abused muscles. West, Annie had said. He briefly wondered about her; if she was still alive, but there was no time for grief now, he had to find his son.
He ran west along the swaying gantry, towards another tree house. Francesca, the oldest norn in Albia, was guarding it; how necessary this was, was debatable. If they has simply told David to stay, there he would have stayed. She straightened up when she saw Chris approaching. He quickly tapped his Plaque a few times, and she crumpled onto the floor, deeply asleep.
"David? Come out!" Chris yelled again. David emerged, looking puzzled and frightened, his hair in even more disarray than normal.
"Daddy!" He cried, and ran, arms outstretched, into Chris. "Why is it so noisy?"
"I haven't got time to explain, David. We've got to get away from here." He heard footsteps below him. Instinctively he turned David's head into his shoulder, so he wouldn't see.
Matthew, eyes alight with terror, ran along the gantry below them. A female grendel followed him, and finally caught up with him. She hit him over the head with a sickening crack, and threw his lifeless body over her shoulders to lie in a tangled heap behind her. Then she grabbed a lift down, presumably in pursuit of another unfortunate norn.
"What was that noise? It sounded nasty." David declared, his voice muffled by Chris' fur.
"It doesn't matter." Chris replied, and saw that, indeed, one life was nothing anymore- many norns were dying, his Plaque confirmed. To think it would come to this, a world endlessly broken by conflict and stupid envy. He had never felt so useless in his life. The only thing he could do now was save David's life.
A low pitched grunt broke his reverie. He looked up, dreading what he was going to see. Another grendel standing on a tree branch with dissected the gantry he was stood upon. His red eyes stared at him, unreadable. His body was covered in green scales, and his sides heaved.
Chris hastily pushed David away from him.
"David, run!" he screamed, his voice finally breaking. David took one last look at his father, his innocent, round eyes filling with tears, and scampered off.
Chris slowly turned back to face the grendel, and his nemesis. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, and he could hear a roaring in his ears, as each green, narrow foot thudded down, making the gantry shake once more.
So, this was how it was all going to end, he thought. Finally, it's all over. A strange feeling of release swept over him. No more decisions, no more of anything.
He stood up straight, and faced the grendel. At least David had escaped. The irony was that David, with his crippled mind, stood more chance of surviving than Annie. He hoped he would find the desert caves. Annie was probably dead by now, anyway- and what was the point in living without her?
The grendel raised his arm, ready to bring it down in a deathblow so hard that he probably wouldn't even feel it. Chris did not even try to avoid it as it swept down.
"Enough!" A silvery voice, more felt than heard, rang out, loud enough to be heard over the entire battle.
Chris was the only norn in Albia in a position to observe what happened next.
A room was silent. It was filled with myriad computer parts, and half assembled machines. Books and mugs of coffee covered the surfaces until very little could be seen of them.
One computer, a heptium 6000, had a small light shining on its surface to proclaim it was switched on at this very moment. Occasionally, it clicked as it accessed its hard drive.
The door opened, and a man, whose name was not important, entered. He crossed over to the computer, and flicked the mouse. The screen lit up. It was plain blue, indicating a wolfling run. During a wolfling run, the game was speeded up tremendously by not displaying graphics or sound, and ran at many times its normal speed.
He switched the wolfling mode off, and gasped, as he saw the row of deaths displayed in the status bar of the game.
Hastily he grabbed the mouse, and started to type.
Albia, Version 6.
Utter silence suddenly rang out, deafening by comparison to the noise that had been there before. The grendel was gone, simply vanished, as had all the other Albians.Chris froze in shock for a few seconds, then glanced around himself in disbelief.
"Daddy?" David called out, his voice growing in volume as he ran back towards Chris. "Where have they all gone?"
"I.. I don't know." Chris replied, spinning around in bewilderment. "I think there's only you and me left."
"And the Hand." David pointed out in a matter-of-fact voice.
"What?" Chris asked. David pointed west, into the sky. A tiny dot was speeding towards them, and as it got closer, the shape of the Hand became visible. It floated to a halt besides him, and shook a few dried flower stalks off. Chris could only stare in utter bewilderment.
"You're dead!" He exclaimed.
"What? No, I wasn't dead. It's hard for me to explain. I wanted to see how you would cope without me, on your own. I wish I'd come back sooner. I have never heard of anything like this happening." It was silent for a second. "I see you found the Creatures Object I left for you."
Bewilderment rapidly turned to anger, then to rage. Chris threw the Plaque onto the floor.
"Do you mean that this.. this.." he gestured wildly about himself, "Was all simply a test?" he raised his voice. "Do you know how many have died? You will never, ever, ever, do that again!" He finished talking, and found himself glaring at the Hand, nose to fingertip. He suddenly realised he had yelled at the Hand and ordered It about. Him, a mere norn. Anger quickly turned to embarrassment.
"Urm..I mean..." he stuttered.
The hand reacted in a very unexpected way. It reached up, and tickled him.
"I think you've developed more than I ever imagined you would, Chris. I'm proud of you. You're entirely right, too. I've meddled too much in this Albia. With you, with Annie, with the Islander norns. I'm sorry. I'll do my best to put it right."
At this point, David crept out shyly from behind Chris, and reached out to touch It. The hand tickled him, and his face lit up in delight as he giggled.
"This must be your son. He looks very like you. Annie was pregnant when I left, I remember."
"Yes, his name's David." The hand jerked upwards, a motion Chris had seen It do before when it had been amused about something.
"Really? How ironic. That's my name." The Hand shivered, as if trying to laugh. Chris did not even try to hide his astonishment.
"You have a name? I never even thought about that!"
"Yes, I do, and to answer your next question, there are female Hands too. In other Albias, in different places." It-no, He, Chris corrected, answered.
"Now it's time to fix this terrible mess. I have been learning new things. I can now give all the norns your mutation. That will stop the fighting."
"Can..." Chris swallowed painfully. "Can you do anything for David?" The Hand was silent for a long time. Chris wondered if it was looking at David, right through to his genome.
"I could. It'd take time, but I could do it. However, can you imagine suddenly gaining intelligence, after days of being a child? It would be no kindness."
Chris sighed. "Yes, I suppose you're right. I just sometimes wonder who'll look after him if anything happens to me."
"I will" the Hand replied, "It would be a pleasure."
Chris shook his head. "I hadn't thought of that. I've become so used to living in a world with a dead Hand."
The Hand started to float off, and as it did, norns began appearing like raindrops. Wails of grief and pain were heard as the newly engineered Hand norns realised what they had nearly done, or worse, already done. The grendel appeared where he had left, hand still raised. He jumped with shock, and then ran away in terror.
All the Albians seemed to be slowly heading downwards and east, to a small clearing in the forest. Many norns had blank expressions, and Chris noticed one Islander supporting Yvonne, who seemed to be limping badly. Chris took the lift down with David holding his hand, and noticed that the crumpled corpse of Matthew was still lying there. As he descended to the ground floor, he saw many other dead norns, curled up, or staring with glazed eyes at the sky. He also saw one ettin, her white locks in disarray, draped over a branch like a rag doll.
The clearing was full of norns, with the hand weaving backwards and forwards among them. Islanders simply gasped and stared, while Mainlanders ran about after Him, asking Him questions. Chris stepped out of the lift, which started to rise again, presumably to collect another norn who had just arrived back. The number of norns left was pitiful. He could see 14 Mainland norns, and only a handful of Islanders.
Another norn appeared, right in the centre of the clearing. He was obviously an Islander, from his purple shock of hair. He stared about himself in terror for a few seconds, then clutched at his throat, and pitched forward, to lie dead on the leafy floor. Chris automatically started to run towards the fallen norn, but the Hand got there first.
"Import death." He said sadly, hovering over the norn, "That happens sometimes. There's nothing I can do about it." Chris bent down over the body.
"This is a shame." A high pitched, sing song voice said behind him. He turned round to find himself staring straight into the dark, unfathomable eyes of an ettin.
"He was our leader, Llanyb. Such a sad life, such a sad death." The odd creature shook her head. "We didn't want this, but it was his plan, and it happened. He was an angry norn. He lost his parents when he was too young to cope. His mother drowned, and his father died of aconite poisoning."
Cold filled Chris' heart as he listened. "Aconite?" This was a secret he knew he could never tell anyone.
The ettin nodded. "It was an accident. He ate it while drunk. Still, it is too long ago to be concerned about that now. I suspect I will be the new leader of the Islanders. My name is Fel. You are welcome to visit us whenever you wish." She held her hand out.
Chris grasped it. "And the Islanders are welcome here, too." He raised his voice. "Any Islanders who wish to remain on the Mainland, may do so." Many of the norns looked up, startled, but nodded in agreement.
"One final thing." The Hand declared.
Annie appeared in the middle of the group of norns and ettin.
"Chris?" she asked timidly. What had happened? She had been on the outermost edge of the fighting, using the Power of the Past to fight from a distance, and suddenly she was standing in the middle of the forest, and everything had changed.
New emotions assailed her so strongly she dropped to her knees with a moan. What had she been doing? How could she have beaten other norns? She held her head in despair, trying to make the memories go away, forever. Warm arms enveloped her, and she looked up, into Chris' green eyes.
It was as if, for a telepathic moment, they both knew everything. The world seemed to fade away, until there was just her and Chris, in a silent, endless white void. She heard her voice speak, from a long distance away.
"Now I understand."
"I've always felt this way, about you." He replied, gazing deeply into her hazel eyes. She saw, in those solemn green eyes, all the pain, the regrets, and the lost hopes a lifetime of loving her had brought him. And now she understood.
"I'm sorry." She said, and felt a warm tear course down her cheek. He reached down, and caught it on his finger. It shimmered in the light.
"It doesn't matter." He held her face in his hands, and kissed her gently. He had never thought it possible that she would love him as he had always loved her. Now, finally, at the twilight of their lives, they had found each other. The bright day of youth may be over, but what an evening lay ahead of them.
The room was full of the noise of metal upon metal. It was filled with myriad computer parts, and half assembled machines. Books and mugs of coffee covered the surfaces until very little could be seen of them.
A computer sat upon a table, its innards spread far and wide. The owner of the computer, whose name was David, pushed a large chip into place deep within the machine. He sighed with satisfaction, and began methodically putting it back together.
He switched on his brand new Octium 10000, and smiled as the screen lit up.
Now the upgrade was complete, he could try his new game.
Albia, Version 7.
Desert stretched out in every direction. Random dust storms blew here and there, piling up tiny dunes against the first few plants.
Annie suddenly appeared. She staggered sideways a step or two, then gaped at the enormous vista surrounding her.
"This can't be prehistoric Albia!" She exclaimed. The Hand appeared, floating in the hot air besides her.
"No it isn't. This is the future." It said.
"The future? How can it be the future?" she asked.
"How can I explain it? When you went to Prehistoric Albia, an echo of you was left behind. You, Annie, are that echo. The other Annie returned to modern Albia, and lived a long and eventful life there."
"You mean I'm dead?" asked Annie in surprise.
"That Annie is, now. She died peacefully of old age. You're alive, though."
A growing suspicion formed in her mind. "How long ago was that?"
"You always were bright. 600 days, give or take a few."
Her mouth dropped open. "That's 30 lifetimes!" she cried.
"Yes. Remember I said I was long lived?" The Hand seemed smugly amused. " I don't think you believed me at the time."
"I do now!" She looked around her. "There's something different... very different."
"Before I exported you, we discussed the nature of my world, remember? I told you that in my world there were more directions than up and down, left and right."
Annie looked around her; up and down, left and right... then forward and backwards.
"I can see what you mean now." she whispered in awe. She looked down again, and saw a dark form on the sand. She danced back, away from it, but it followed her.
"What's that thing?" she said, pointing.
"Only your shadow." It replied.
"What's a shadow?"
"It's a dark patch where you block out the sun. Version Six Albia didn't have them did it? I'm sorry, I hadn't realised you'd be scared. It's nothing to be alarmed about."
"Future's Shadow..." she muttered to herself. She looked up again at the vast desert. "Am I alone here?"
"For the moment. However, I want you to meet someone." She heard a cry on the wind and turned around. A baby norn, so young that its fur was still damp with yolk, stared back at her. He had blond fur, and deep green eyes that seemed to have unusual depths in them, even at this young age. A depth which she had only seen in one other norn.
"Chris?" she said, walking towards the child.
"Like you, there was an echo of Chris. I made it shortly after he was born, because I thought he would be a special norn."
Annie reached the baby Chris, who held out tiny arms to be picked up. For a second, he looked straight at her and smiled, and there seemed to be a flash of recognition. Then the moment passed, and she picked him up.
"He always seemed a little odd to me." She mused. "Not quite like the rest of us."
"He wasn't. He was the most advanced norn there was. He had two mutations which made him more Hand-like than any previous norn. His maternal instinct gene was duplicated, and the duplicate gene mutated so that instead of caring merely for any children he may have, he cared for all norns. Now all norns carry that gene, including you. He led an unhappy life, back in Version Six Albia, and only found happiness in old age. I wanted to give him a second chance."
"This is our new home then?" asked Annie.
"Yes. Make of it what you will." With that, the Hand sank through the floor. There were many norns, curled up sleeping in their eggs, for It to attend to.
Annie looked around her, and saw the shape of distant buildings on the horizon. She started to walk towards them.
As she walked off, it started to rain, for the first time ever.