Prologue: Annie's Funeral.
Albia, Version Six. 2020AD Earth Years.
It was a beautifully sunny day, contrasting sharply with the heavy hearts of those present.
The Hand looked at the solemn group of norns standing by the graveside. It was noticeable that there were many wide eyed children there, and few of the adults lacked scars, gained in the recent war. Torn ears were common, and walking sticks only slightly rarer. The Hand was keeping well back from the ceremony: there were some aspects of norn life It was simply not involved in. However, Its heart ached for the loss of the norn It considered its daughter.
Annie had died peacefully- she had simply lain down and not moved again. The cause was plain old age. Her heart had got tired of beating, and given up. She had been 34 days old- ancient indeed for a version six norn.
She was laid out now on a large palm leaf the Islanders had brought as a sign of respect, a single daisy clasped in her cold hands. Her eyes, tightly closed, looked reassuringly peaceful. Her fur had gone a startling white in old age, and the lines on her face were those of a life with much happiness, but also some strain.
The group watched as she was lowered into the ground, and scattered soil and flowers over her grave until she was finally hidden from view. Many of the older norns stifled sobs.
David stood beside the grave, his eyes blank and baffled. He had cried heartily when she had died, but now he seemed puzzled that she hadn't come back to answer his wailing. Leaning heavily on his shoulder, was Chris. His face didn't seem to show any grief at all, to the puzzlement of the mourning norns, just a hooded, tired expression. His fur was entirely grey, and his once bright green eyes had faded to a dull olive. He squinted in the bright sunlight, in an effort to improve his failing eyesight, and his rasping breath could be heard clearly in the silent meadow.
Only the Hand knew the reason for Chris's lack of grief. Chris knew his own time left was possibly less than a day, if not less than an hour. Without his son to support him, he would not have been able to stand at all. Each breath became more difficult than the last. He would soon be with Annie again. Chris may have been a little younger than Annie, but his stressful life had taken its toll.
The grave was filled, and flower seeds sprinkled on the top of it. In a few hours, this corner of the flower meadow would be unrecognisable as a grave. With David supporting him, Chris hobbled back to his sick bed. A few minutes later, David came running out of Chris' room, crying in despair. He'd gone to check on his father, only to find him missing. The Hand shepherded him away, and gave him what comfort he could.
Chris was never seen again in Albia.
Chapter One: Resurrections
Albia, Version Seven. 2022 AD Earth Years.
Albia was young. A scant few days ago, there had been nothing but a wilderness of sand and rock. Now, though, life had begun its slow symphony, and trees and grass had started to grow, and the landscape become haunted with insects and flitting birds.
In this landscape, the three sapient species of Albia toiled to make themselves a home. Ettins built and dug new homes, norns grew and tended the trees and plants, and the grendels used their greater poison resistance and toughness to act as explorers and tasters of new foods. A seaside village, known to the Albians as SurfSea, appeared in a slowly growing patch of parkland vegetation. SurfSea was a collection of draughty stone buildings and caves, piled one on top of the other along a central street. In the vastness of the wild Albia, the three species huddled together.
It was the middle of summer, and for once the houses did not need heating. A cooling sea breeze blew inland, rustling the leaves of the saplings in the parkland.
A young male norn, just old enough to be entering turbulent adolescence, sat reading a book on a stone balcony overlooking the sea. The wind ruffled his blond fur, and he frowned as his green eyes tracked over the pages of the Albian history book.
"...were joined in the first ever marriage ceremony.
The tale of Annie and Chris ends very oddly. Shortly after Annie died peacefully of old age, Chris disappeared. It is not known what happened to him. It is one more secret in a story with so many secrets: what was the virus Annie caught? Why did the Hand become comatose? What drove Llanyb to madness? The questions are many, the answers few."
The young norn shut the book with a loud clap, and then snarled and threw it off the balcony. He then sat, head in his hands, and stared out to sea.
Beneath him, the tide crept in over the pebbles, turning the pages of the book, before claiming it and washing it far out to sea.
Five days passed...
Outside of the ring of greenery that surrounded SurfSea, was a cavern not even the ettins were aware of. It had been empty since this Albia had come into existence, but now there was a creature in there. Torches on the walls guttered and popped, casting a dim, flickering light over the stone walls. An ancient norn lay in a bed in the centre of the cave, almost lost among the blankets and cushions. His breathing was shallow, and his eyes were tightly closed.
Suddenly, the norn coughed, and clutched convulsively at the blankets. His eyes opened, and he glanced sightlessly around before closing them again.
"Why did you bring me here?" he whispered.
"I had to". This voice was not a norn voice- it was deeper, though not as deep as a grendel's growl. The figure in the bed shivered.
"I'm cold." The claw-like hands grabbed at the blankets, but were too weak to move them. "Why is it so dark?"
"You lost your sight. You were close to death."
"I know that."
"I had to bring you back. I think you're going to be needed. I've injected you with telomerase and Life chemical- you'll soon gain back your youth."
"What if I don't want to be young again?" The norn's voice held some bitterness. "I asked not to be exported. I didn't want to be saved!"
"I'm sorry. I had no choice. Great changes are afoot in Albia. I need you, Chris."
Chris realised he could see the faintest grey outlines-dim shapes against a dusty black. One close to him was the Hand, looming over the bed.
"David? You sound so different. I can... hear you." He realised that he had answered his own question- he could truly hear the Hand, not just 'feel' what it had just said. He sensed he was hearing the Hand's true voice for the first time.
"I can see you now." He said, flatly. So many mixed up emotions surged through him- part of him felt angry at his wishes for a quiet death being ignored, but he was also relieved to be cheating death, and a little ashamed.
"Good, the injections are beginning to work. They'll take a few hours to have their full effect. There's something you need to know..." Chris was surprised to realise he could actually hear the uncertain sympathy in the Hand's voice. "I exported you from Albia two years ago. This is Albia version seven."
"Two years?" said Chris, weakly, and then a dagger-like pain hit his chest. Gasping for breath, he was aware of the hand calling anxiously, but he was unable to respond. The pain slowly receded, and Chris gulped in air thankfully.
"I shouldn't have told you so soon!" The Hand wailed. "You need to rest," It continued, "We'll speak when you're feeling a little younger."
Chris relaxed into his sickbed. He had learnt a lot about medicine in his younger days, during the time the Hand had been away. He knew his heart had just momentarily stopped beating from shock when the Hand had told him the news. For the first time, he felt truly afraid to die. Twenty generations of norns had lived since he had been Annie's funeral! To him, it was less than an hour ago. Now everyone he knew- Annie, David, Fel and Ynlar- were long dead.
The hand watched Chris carefully from its cloak of invisibility. It saw the tears start to roll down his cheeks, before he fell into a dream scattered sleep. It began to wonder if it had done the right thing- this was so cruel on Chris. He was a survivor, though, and truly, It had no choice, if Albia was going to prosper under the changes ahead.
As time had passed, SurfSea had become more civilised. Gaps in stone walls had been sealed, so that the houses were warmer in winter, and in the last few days, colourful designs had appeared on the walls.
Annie was responsible for all the paintings. She was that rare thing among norns- an artist. Most norns were talented at science, and mathematics was their playground, but only Annie could paint, out of all 19 creatures in Albia. Some houses had simple geometric designs, while others had vistas of landscapes or intertwining designs of plants and animals.
Currently, she was painting one side of her own house. It was one of the largest in Albia, boasting two stories and a whole three rooms- a downstairs meeting place, and upstairs her bedroom and a nursery with a joint sunny balcony overlooking the sea. So many of the norns in Albia had at one time lived in that nursery, she mused, as little Peter did now. Annie had changed in her time in version seven Albia. Her long hair was now tied back out of the way, and she had become fitter and more muscular from hard work. Hard, yes, but enjoyable, bringing new life into Albia. Brought up by the Hand, she'd had no younger siblings, and only now had she discovered the joy a little child could bring into life. In fact, life was good, except, of course....
"Hey watch where you're going, you fool!" She heard Christopher yell at a passing grendel, down in the street. Annie sighed. When the baby Chris had hit adolescence, he'd become moody and withdrawn, as adolescents sometimes did. She'd shrugged it off, as just part of growing up, but as he'd got older, he hadn't improved one iota. He'd taken to spending long periods of time in the parkland, or out in the desert beyond the planted area, doing what, Annie didn't know. It wasn't until he changed his name to Christopher that she finally realise what was eating him. Thinking back, she'd realised that the temper tantrums and sulky moods had started shortly after he'd found out he wasn't just named after the famous Hand norn, Chris, but actually was Chris, a carbon copy. The more Annie thought about it, the more sense it made. He was living in the shadow of a legend, and the hopeful looks the other norns gave him when anything at all went wrong had slowly worn him down.
Annie could understand it only too well- her own clone had been as heroic as Chris, in a quieter way; overcoming her own instincts for the good of Albia. She had had to put up with the covert glances of other norns, too. It was worse if she and Christopher were seen together- she could see people secretively watching them to see if anything romantic was going to happen. As if she could be interested in a norn she had spoon-fed! She was certain that Christopher wasn't interested in her, either. In fact, he had been spending a lot of time with Cathy, recently. At the same time, though, he reminded her of Chris more with each passing day, and she found herself missing him terribly. How could it be that she cared more about him now that he had been dead for generations than she had when he'd been alive?
The grendel Christopher had insulted laughed, and slapped him gently on the shoulder- gently, that is, for a grendel. The grendels and norns lived in equal numbers in SurfSea, and Annie had been surprised to find that the vicious grendels of ancient mythology were nothing of the sort- once you understood their odd ways. Annie had found them to be likeable, with their odd mixture of gentleness and agression. Grendel families were constantly kicking, punching and fighting, but to them it was just part of every day life. They had soon learnt, after a few broken arms and legs, that norns were a lot more fragile, and now they treated them like spun glass. However, slapping a grendel as hard as you could remained the best way to say 'hello'.
Christopher rubbed his arm, and continued out of her sight. It suddenly occurred to Annie that he was the same age Chris had been when she had left version six Albia. Time had certainly passed quickly.
A cold feeling made her look down. Bright red colour was dripping on her toes from her paint brush. She sighed, shook them off, and went back to her painting.
Chapter Two: Meetings
Chrstopher look up at his new home with the satisfaction of a job well done. He admired the carved wooden struts that held the entire structure up in a tree. It was the first of its kind: make of wood, not stone. He had designed it himself, admittedly with some help from the ettins. The best thing about it, though, was that it was far from SurfSea and the other norns. If he looked back towards the coast, he could just see the crowded stone towers of that village, where norns and grendels crowded thick. Christopher shuddered involuntarily. He'd stopped liking the company of his own species once he had found out who he truly was. The curious looks, the searching stares- they had all suddenly made sense. He'd been young at the time- a mere seven days old, but he'd felt a clammy claustrophobia. He'd instinctively rebelled- acted as irritable and irrational as possible, as if it would erase all memory of the Hand norn.
He much preferred the company of the ettins and grendels. Grendels always lived in the present, and didn't judge someone by past events, and the ettins, well.. the only creature that could understand an ettin's thoughts would be another ettin. They didn't seem to recognise the idea of friendship, or any kind of long term relationship. Christopher often wondered how they managed to breed at all! They were utterly non-judgemental, because for them there was nothing to judge. They wandered across the landscape, observing, examining, and above all, building. There were only three ettins in the world- they did not breed as fast as norns or grendels.
"Very nice," said a feminine voice behind him. His expression lost its normal sullen edge, and he smiled as he turned around.
He turned around to see Cathy admiring his new home.
"Practical, too," she continued, "The central tree trunk gives strength, and the leaves will give shade in summer, but keep off the chill in winter." Cathy had an ettin's eye for architecture; like him, she had been imported by the Hand as a baby, but unlike him, she was not entirely nornish. Half ettin and half norn, she had fine white velvety fur, pupil-less dark eyes, and shaggy ettin hair. However, her face was the shape of a norn's, and she was taller than a full grown ettin would have been. Her most unique feature was undoubtedly the smile that often played around her lips. It was the secretive, introverted smile of one who knew much about life.
When he had first met her, he had instantly liked her. She was entirely unique, and that drew him to her. She seemed to be interested in him, too- a lonely norn that always seem to be fighting an internal battle with himself.
They started to go for walks and have long discussions, and Christopher began to feel that this was one friendship he never wanted to lose. It was as if, somewhere along the way, they had been joined by an invisible chord they both could feel, but never openly acknowledged. Simply knowing she existed filled him with a breathless joy, and when she smiled at him, nothing else mattered. Without realising it, or being able to say when it happened, they had fallen hopelessly in love.
They had exchanged the first, hesitant kisses without truly knowing what they were doing, unable to resist the flood of new instincts. Then, finally, there had been that first time, out in the bright sunlight, when the kisses had led to something more. Chris still trembled at the memory. There had been many more times they had joined together since, but none had been quite like that first, tender union of mind and body.
Now, he gathered her into his arms, and she sighed and leaned back into his embrace.
"I'm glad you like it," he replied, "because...." His voice failed, and he cleared his throat nervously. Cathy twisted in his arms. They both started to speak at the same time.
Christopher cleared his throat again. Typical! He'd rehearsed this moment so many times, and now he was making a fool of himself!
"Sorry, after you." He said.
"No, no, it's alright. You first." She said, sounding relieved. Had she got some bad news to impart? Christopher felt a pang of nervousness.
"I was wondering...." He'd forgotten his words! What was it he had been going to say? "Oh blast it, it's all gone wrong now! I had so many nice things to say, and now it's all got jumbled up! Cathy, I wanted to ask you if you wanted to move in with me, in my new house. I made it, thinking that we could both live there." He felt her stiffen in his arms, and then she started to laugh. In his muddled state, he didn't notice that her laughter was tinged with relief. He hung his head in shame.
"I'm sorry, it was presumptuous of me. I should never have asked."
"Oh no! It's not that!" She twisted from his arms, and kissed him. "I came to tell you something today, and I didn't know how you'd react..." She took hold of one of his hands, and guided it down to her stomach. There was no mistaking the small bump there. Christopher gasped.
"I think we'll need to add a nursery, too." She smiled at him, a smile edged with tears and anxiety. He looked blank with shock for a second, then smiled warmly at her, blinking away his own tears of relief.
"It's a deal!" he replied. He picked her up in one smooth movement, and carried up her up into his- no their, treehouse.
There was the sound of giggling inside the house, and then silence returned.
The green ring around SurfSea had now changed to hues of yellow and umber: the colours of the fast approaching autumn. Leaves fell from the trees, and long shadows stretched away from Cathy's feet as she walked along the dusty track to the town. It wasn't a trip she made very often. She tended to prefer her own company, but she did have friends she liked to visit now and again.
The sun shone directly into her eyes, and she hissed in irritation. Autumn may have been one of the prettiest times of the day, but it did make it hard to see!. She shook her head. Being pregnant was making her irritable, there was no doubt. Unconsciously, she brushed her hand along her tummy. When she peered ahead again, she noticed a familiar figure walking down the track in front of her, silhouetted against the sun. She'd recognise that walk anywhere. Strange the way the sunlight streaming past made him look so thin...
"Christopher! Wait for me!" She called, and puffed up to join him. Running took too much energy these days! The figure started, and turned around. Cathy squeaked in shock, for it was not her Christopher. The norn was very thin, and older than anyone Cathy had ever seen on this young world. His fur was almost entirely grey, except for a few blond speckles. His face had a severe cast to it, which disappeared when he smiled suddenly at her discomfort.
"I'm sorry, You've mistaken me for someone else. I'm called Chris." He seemed to be observing her closely- she thought at first he was puzzled by her strange ettinish looks, but his next words proved otherwise. "Are you alright? You shouldn't be out here on your own in your condition."
"My..condition?" She asked, momentarily baffled.
"Well, I'd hate to see someone pregnant come to harm so far away from help." He shrugged.
"How did you know that? It doesn't show yet!" she exclaimed.
Chris looked smug. "I've had a lot to do with norn medicine. You get to spot the signs. Anyway, you haven't told me your name yet."
"Er.. Cathy. I thought the only norn that had ever healed other norns was... Oh." She trailed off into an awed silence. "You're the Hand norn?" Chris rolled his eyes impatiently.
"I hate that title, but I suppose so." Cathy's eyes widened.
"They always said you would return!"
"Well, everyone. It's said that the Hand norn would return to save us if danger threatened." She looked around sharply, but the surrounding area held no obvious peril about to spring out at them.
Chris groaned and hid his face in his hands. "Really? Oh, no, I've been made into a legend! It's worse than the Hand said it was." He shook himself, and arranged a sunny expression again. "You're an ettinorn, aren't you?"
"Half ettin, half norn. Fel's second son was an ettinorn." A shadow passed over Chris's face, and it occured to Cathy that he had lost all his friends, his son, and even his world during his long sleep. How could anyone cope with that? Cathy realised, looking at this older norn, just how different he was to his clone, her lover. There were plenty of signs of past grief on his face, but none of Christopher's sullen anger. Instead, he had a tired air about him, as if all the world's troubles rested on his shoulders, which was more or less true. Cathy suddenly felt very sorry for him.
"I suppose I am then." She said. She suddenly felt shy and a little embarassed, as if she had pried into this stranger's life a little too much. "Uh, do you mind if I ask you something?"
"Why did you come back?"
Chris laughed bitterly. " I didn't have much choice! The Hand brought me back, and gave me injections to make me young again." He looked down ruefully at his grey arms. "Well, youngish. I don't know why he.. I mean, It, brought me back, though." He looked distant for a few seconds, then smiled at her. "So, why don't you tell me about yourself? While we walk to that town over there...".
Annie stretched out on her bed, luxuriating in a moment's peace and quiet. Peter was off with the Hand for lessons, and no one needed her right now. It would be easy to fall asleep, but she wanted to lie and think lazy thoughts for a little while first...
She was back in version six Albia, again, in the dry grassland west of NornTown. It was high summer, and the heat made her pant. However, she was young, so she was chasing lizards. Currently, she was after a red and black striped one she had spotted in the long grass. She pounced, but it scuttled off, as they always did. Laughing, she chased it, backwards and forwards through the vegetation. Suddenly, she collided with a norn, and they both went tumbling. Annie had not had much to do with her own species, raised solely by the Hand as she had been. However, recently, she had been craving the company of her own kind in a way she didn't fully comprehend.
The norn who had landed on top of her looked stunned and slightly confused. He looked slightly younger than her- almost a child, still- and had piercing green eyes.
"Who.. who are you?" He stammered.
"Annie." She replied, suddenly tongue tied.
"I'm Chris." He looked unsure of what to do next.
"Get out of here!" The Hand suddenly appeared, and hit Chris hard. He tumbled through the air, and landed, unconscious. Annie screamed, and ran away from the suddenly alien hand. It grabbed hold of her hair, and hoisted her so high up into the air she could see the whole of NornTown, stretched out beneath her. Then it let go. Screaming she plummeted towards Albia, hair streaming out behind her like a pair of ghostly wings....
She woke up with a start, shivering from head to foot. Terrible, awful dreams! She shook her head irritably, but the sense of danger hung around her. The Hand had never hurt her- so why should she dream such a thing? It troubled her more than she cared to admit.
As she became more aware of her surroundings, she realised she could hear excited voices, both norn and grendel, calling from the street. Puzzled, she went downstairs to see. The shouting got louder as she reached her front door, and she cautiously pushed it open to peek out. Outside, a mixed group of Albians of all species clamoured and shouted, clustered around something she couldn't see.
"What's going on?" she shouted. A grendel on the edge of the crowd noticed her, and poked the nearest norns to make them turn around. The noise died down, and the crowd stood silently, waiting for her reaction. Reaction to what?
As they parted to let her through, she finally saw the object of all the attention. An old grey norn stood at the centre of the throng. Slowly, he turned around. She caught her breath. If she hadn't been so shocked, she would have noticed that the old norn's face held a similar expression of astonishment to her's. He was someone Annie would have recognised anywhere.
"Chris? You look so old!" Annie cursed inwardly. That was possibly the worst greeting ever!
"I am." Chris just smiled tiredly, then shook his head in bemusement. "The Hand didn't say you were here!"
"Well," she replied, "I am." It was a lame thing to say, but she felt suddenly tongue tied. "And so are you, already, in a way."
"The Hand imported a copy of you as a baby. He's an adult now, and he calls himself Christopher." Chris' expression suddenly went utterly immobile.
"Really?" he said, stiffly. All the warmth had disappeared from his face as if by magic. Annie wondered what she had said to upset him so.
"Yes. It'd be interesting for you to meet each other, I think." She looked around the crowd of staring norns and grendels. "I don't know where he's got to, at present, though." Actually, she had a very good idea that he was hiding somewhere, watching all this. That would be just his way. She smiled. "Well, we haven't said welcome!"
"Thank you. To be honest, I feel a bit overwhelmed." He looked oddly at Annie. "Very overwhelmed." He repeated.
Christopher peered out of a nearby window, just as Annie had predicted. He hissed in anger. He was back! Now his life would be worst than ever! Everyone would be looking backwards and forwards between him and Chris- unbearable! Annie's interest in Chris was intriguing, though, especially since he didn't seem to be interested in her. Christopher stifled a sudden snigger. There was a certain justice in that- it seemed that Annie didn't measure up to her version six doppelganger, either!
Chapter Three: Discoveries
A glass flew through the air, and hit a wall. It smashed into a thousand shards and tinkled onto the floor of Annie's house. There was something very satisfying about smashing glasses, she thought briefly. Not that it made her any less angry, but it did give her anger a momentary focus.
What was wrong with Chris? Annie could see he was interested in her, but he remained cold and distant. In fact, he seemed to be avoiding her. She sat down. No point getting so angry about it. Deep breaths, now. She'd never felt like this in albia six, but after her importation to version seven, she'd started to miss him more and more, and now he was back, it was unbearable.
"What noise?" Peter padded through, looking up at her with sleepy eyes. The little purple norn trailed a blanket in one hand.
"I broke a glass accidently. Hey, watch where you're walking- you don't want to get glass in your feet!" Peter looked at the floor in fascination, then up looked up at Annie and stretched out his arms.
"Up." She scooped him up, and he placed his tiny arms around her neck, and promptly fell asleep. She carefully sat down, and arranged the blanket over the sleeping baby. Dealing with Peter had made her feel a bit calmer now. A thought occurred to her- Chris was curious about the world, so why not offer him a guided tour? She gritted her teeth, and decided that she would not take no for an answer.
The air was so hot and dry that it took their breath away. Even the gentle breeze was no real relief. It was utterly, silent, too- no bird calls or insect chirrups disturbed the sandy desert. Annie and Chris climbed up the shifting face of a dune, and admired the vista of dunes and sand blasted rock.
"Beautiful!" Chris exclaimed. "There was nothing like this at home." Annie sat down on a rock, but stood up hastily, as the rock began to slide down the face of the dune.
"I've always liked it here. So desolate, but it's a good place to sit and think. As long as you have something to drink with you!" She watched Chris carefully. During this trip, she'd realised that Chris had something on his mind. He was distracted. Annie was patient, though, and she'd use all her reserves of patience to find out what it was.
"Albia seven is so... wide!" Chris laughed, stretched his arms out to either side.
"I find it hard to remember what living in two dimensions was truly like, now. Now, let's go and teleport to another favourite place I know. The southern mountains. They have snow on them, even at this time of year."
"I could do with a little ice and snow." Chris agreed. Annie reached out her hand to him. He looked at it as if he had never seen a hand before, then grasped it uncertainly.
They walked back to the simple metal plate set in the ground. Annie punched in the teleport code for their next destination. Or so she thought.
A flash of light, and they appeared in a small room. Chris looked around him.
"Not very snowy, or mountainous." He pronounced.
"I must have put in the wrong code" Annie said, glaring at the control panel as if it was to blame. "Let me try again."
The room was dark and somewhat dingy. The machinery in it looked oddly antiquated, as if someone had taken a lot of cogwheels and pistons and piled them together. A dusty monitor on one wall lay dead. The air had an unused smell.
"We might as well have a look around, first." Chris said, walked slowly around the room.
"There's two tubes here. They look almost designed to fit a norn." Annie stepped onto one of the two circular platforms. "Do you think that's a good idea?"
Chris was pulling at a lever on the other side of the room. "I think it's stuck. Oh, there we are!" the lever clanked down, and then shot back up of its own accord. Nothing happened.
"Must be broken." Annie shrugged. Suddenly, a mechanical groan filled the air. Bolts of static electricity flew across the ceiling towards Annie. Then, they faded away, and the machinery groaned to a halt. Both norns had the oddest feeling that they had just avoided some catastrophe.
"I think it's lacking power." Said Chris, once he had got back the ability to speak.
"Please don't do that again." Annie pleaded. "What are you looking at now?" she asked, sounding a little petulant even to herself. This place seemed sinister, and she heartily wished to leave, now. Chris was punching at a brightly coloured keypad. The buttons were huge- far bigger than necessary for a norn's hand.
"I think this is a gene reader," he said, "Can you go and stand over in that alcove?" Annie did so, and a bright magenta light briefly flashed over her.
"Yes, it is! The Plaque read a few genes, but it wasn't as in-depth... let's see, biochemistry, dendrites... here's the instincts, too." Chris trailed off into silence, his forehead creased by a frown. He looked back up at Annie, and down at the display again.
"What is it?" Annie asked.
"There's instincts here," he said distantly, as if not hearing his own voice, "That force us to obey the Hand. Whatever It tells us to do, we must do it. It's as if we've been programmed!"
Annie's expression of horror matched Chris'.
Christopher was making one of his regular visits to SurfSea to meet Aoulle, a grendel friend of his. He was gathering people to invite to the housewarming party that Cathy and he would shortly be holding.
Even though autumn was fast approaching, the day was hot, and Chris was very thirsty by the time he reached the town. There was a fountain outside Annie's house, so he decided to take a detour before going to the grendel's caves.
"But we can't tell them!" Chris' voice. Christopher jerked his head up to listen. Even though he considered his older double the bane of his life, he seemed unable to ignore him. He carefully avoided using the word 'obsessive' even to himself.
"We don't have the right to keep this secret!" That was Anne, her voice close to a wail. Christopher felt momentarily uncomfortable at the sound of his adoptive mother so upset.
"I don't know. I really don't know." Sounds of feet pacing. Christopher crept closer, the sounds of his footfalls hidden by the gurgling of the fountain. He could see Chris, facing away from him. Did his fur have less grey in it than before? No, don't be silly!
"I wish I had never taken you to that room."
"Well, it wasn't deliberate. I wonder what the code was? It must be one digit wrong from the southern mountains, I'd think." Chris sounded placatory.
"I don't intend to go there again, ever."
"That's my point! You didn't want to know about it! We can't tell anyone- it'd just cause... well, I don't know what. It wouldn't be pleasant, though."
"I suppose so." Annie sniffed. "What about the Hand?"
"I don't think we should let it know we know. It might... uhh, nothing."
"Nothing, I didn't say anything!" Chris' voice seemed to contain some distant regret.
Christopher crept away quietly. Chris was too fond of playing the wise old norn already! Here was another secret he could be so infuriatingly smug with. Well, it wouldn't work- if Chris was going to keep his mouth closed, Christopher would let the truth fly free!
Out of earshot of Annie's house, he strided towards the nearest teleporter, Aoulle and housewarming parties entirely forgotten.
Annie got out of bed again to rearrange the blankets. Some nights, her mind would endlessly chatter until she wanted to shout at it to just stop thinking, and let her rest. Tonight, a single word was going round and round in her head: Why?
The Hand had betrayed her. Betrayed all of them. Their very genes showed the evidence. She'd admired and loved the Hand; now she found herself wondering if she had simply been made to feel that way.
Perhaps a breath of fresh air would help. She stepped out onto her balcony, and took a deep breath of the fresh cool air, salted with sea smells. Tonight was still, and the waves lapped lazily at the pebble beach below. Was that a figure down there? Annie squinted to see more clearly. Yes, a norn, sitting on a larger boulder at the water's edge, looking out over the foamy sea. His head was in his hands. Whoever it was, they looked upset about something. Annie was a soft hearted norn, and simply had to go and see if she could help.
She hurried downstairs onto the road. Closer to the norn, she could see it was either Christopher, or Chris. His shoulders were shaking. The moon came out from the clouds, suddenly, and illuminated the scene. Silver light shone off greyish fur. It was Chris, then. She paced closer to him.
"Chris?" The figure stiffened, and hastily held a hand up to its face to wipe away tears. He turned around, with a smile painted across his face like a doll's.
"Annie? Couldn't sleep?"
"No..." She decided not to explain why. "I saw you down here, and I thought you looked like you could do with some company." Uninvited, she sat down beside him. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing, nothing at all..." he sighed, and shook his head. "I miss my family. It seems like only yesterday. I miss David, and ...." He suddenly stopped in embarrassment, and stared at his feet.
"You miss Annie." She finished softly. "I understand that. I've lived a different life: I'm not the same person she was." Chris looked up in admiration.
"You really do see, don't you?" he whispered. He looked directly at her for the first time since he had arrived. Annie suddenly felt her throat go dry.
"Well, I suppose I've had practise. After all, I can see that you and Christopher are very different."
"I haven't met him yet. I think he's avoiding me." Chris' face twisted with some bitter emotion. "Maybe he doesn't like having competition." He stopped suddenly, having said more than he intended.
"Competition? What do you mean?" Realisation dawned, and Annie started laughing.
Chris looked at her in irritation. "What is it?"
"Oh, Chris! We're not partners. I'm his foster mother! Do you really think I could be interested in a norn I remember wetting the bed?" As he turned to gape at her in open astonishment, she added softly. "There's no one here for me."
"I've been making a fool of myself." Chris mumbled, looking at his feet once more. "I'm sorry."
"You're apologising for putting someone else's feelings first. I don't think that's something you need to be sorry about." He looked up at her, with an expression composed equally of longing and fear. Annie could only gaze back, with her own fragile look of desire.
"Annie... do you still, um, like me?" He swallowed and blinked quickly. He sounded like the young norn, almost still a child, she had first met back in version six Albia, all that time ago. She placed her arms around his neck, and kissed him, slowly and gently. Chris clutched her, and refused to let go. Finally, they separated, and she sighed.
"I've waited a long time for that." She said.
"Just that?" Chris grinned impishly. It seemed such an odd expression on his face- she was used to seeing him wear solemn, wistful expressions, rather than joyous ones. They had both changed greatly, but the old spark was still there- maybe stronger than ever.
"Well, maybe not just that." She admitted. He stood up and offered her a hand. She took it, and they strolled back to Annie's house, occasionally stopping and kissing.
The moon went behind the clouds again, and the night was dark.
Christopher rather liked the dim, dusty room. It was old, and had obviously been deserted. Maybe even the Hand didn't know about it. When he was here, he felt that the whole world was one remove away. The thick layer of dust on the floor contained two sets of norn footprints. One set led to a lever, then on to a control panel. The other set led onto a raised, circular plinth, then fidgeted there for some time before returning to the teleport.
Christopher went over to the dark control panel, and switched it on. Yellow and red light illuminated his face, grotesque in the odd lighting. His expression changed to one of vengeful satisfaction as he read the scrolling readout.
Chapter Four: Revolutions
Annie woke up next morning to the sound of birdsong. A lark had taken to singing from her roof for several days, now. She found it a lovely, relaxed way to wake up. Dusty sunlight shafted through the window.
There was a sigh, and the norn holding her shifted slightly. The memory of last night flooded back to her, and she murmured in content, and snuggled back into Chris' arms. His blond fur brushed past her nose. Blond fur?
"Chris?" she called softly.
"Hmm?" he muttered sleepily. She had always woken up faster than he. He blinked, and smiled warmly at her.
"You've changed colour."
"Huh?" To her disappointment, he sat up and released her from his embrace. He inspected his arms thoughtfully. Not a trace of grey was left. "The Hand said this might happen. The rejuvenating injection take hours to have their full effect. How old do I look?"
"Urm.. about the same age as Christopher. Except..." she hid her face suddenly in embarrassment.
"Well, you're much, well, thinner." Chris was skinny where Christopher was muscular, his muscles poorly defined in comparison.
"Oh" Chris sounded relieved. "Yes, I know. I was very ill when I was younger. It's always left me with a reduced appetite, so I became my scrawny self. Now, tell me," he hugged her close again, "Do you regret last night?"
Annie relaxed into his arms. "Not one bit."
Peter entered from the nursery room. "Annie, I'm thirsty!" he complained. Chris stiffened in shock with a barely suppressed squeak. Peter glanced at him in puzzlement.
"I've got to speak to David, right now!" he cried, and dashed out of the room and down the stairs. Peter giggled.
"He's funny norn!" He declared.
"Yes," replied Annie, staring at the stairs in puzzlement, "He is." Wasn't David Chris' son from version six? Why would Chris call for him now?
"David! David? Come here now!" Chris pelted down SurfSea's main street, scattering norns and grendels alike. He looked hurriedly from left to right, but never slowed down. The Hand swooped down behind him, and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.
"David? Aiieeee!" He was effortlessly picked up, much to his surprise. The Hand's strength was frightening, but not as frightening as being so high up: he could see the whole of SurfSea beneath him, the sea and the surrounding parkland. He closed his eyes hurriedly as a sudden wave of dizziness passed over him. He squirmed in the Hand's grasp.
"Please put me down!" They started descending towards the edge of the parkland, and going down turned out to be even worse. His stomach lurched uneasily. Chris groaned. The Hand reached ground level again, and gently deposited Chris on the grass. He curled up on his side, and shut his eyes, moaning.
"Are you ill?" asked the Hand in concern.
"The," he gulped for air, "flying. It made me sick."
"Fascinating, I didn't know norns could get motion sickness. Just lie still and take deep breaths, you'll soon get over it." Chris noted with resentment that the Hand sounded more amused than sympathetic. However, his head was rapidly clearing, and he was feeling much better already, even though his stomach felt like someone had stirred it with a spoon.
"So what did you want to see me about? I had to pick you up quickly- you were making a prize fool of yourself."
"Huh?" For a second Chris couldn't remember what he was doing there, then the anger returned. "That baby Annie is looking after!"
"Oh..." the Hand replied in sudden understanding.
"Don't you know he was a murderer? Why did you bring him back?"
"I talked to Fel about it. It was circumstances that drove Llanyb to murder, nothing more. He deserved a second chance, just like you."
"Me? Oh, you mean Christopher. We only needed a second chance because you messed up our lives!" He hissed, angrily.
"The norns here don't know about how you left us to cope without any help for days on end, how you made Annie lose her mind; they don't know anything about all your little experiments!" Chris was now shouting, nose to fingertip with the Hand.
"But, I didn't...."
"And now I find out that our very genes make us obey you! Explain that!"
"What?" It sounded puzzled now.
Chris sighed explosively. "You don't know, do you? Our instincts tell us to obey your every command. I know you can read and alter genes, how did you miss it?"
"I didn't know, I swear!" The Hand squeaked.
"How did they get there then? Who put them there? I've always had a feeling you were hiding something from us. What is it you know?"
"Someone was bound to ask, sooner or later. I'm not going to tell you. Some things are best left buried. I won't tell you why you were made, but we do want what's best for you."
"Ha!" Chris barked, "What's best for the species, maybe, but not the individual. I've figured that much out."
"I've just been trying to put right the things I did wrong in the past." It said, quietly.
"Maybe in future, you should leave the past in the past, where it belongs." Chris said gently.
"I've made so many mistakes." The Hand said, mournfully, "Maybe importing you was one of them."
Chris shrugged. "Too late now. Annie and I have agreed to keep this secret. Make me a promise, though: no more meddling."
"By meddling, do you mean..."
"I mean anything!" Chris snapped, "I'll go back to SurfSea now. On foot."
"Alright. I'm sorry, Chris... for everything." The Hand drifted away. Chris shut his eyes briefly, and took a deep breath.
Norns have a faultless sense of direction, and Chris headed on a direct course for SurfSea as soon as the Hand had left. The Hand had dropped him right on the edge of the planted land- behind him stretched muddy wilderness, and in front, the first grass was pushing through the soil. As he walked closer to the town, saplings appeared, and then fully grown trees and bushes. At one point, he saw an ettin, carrying a log somewhere.
Chris hardly paid attention to the burgeoning landscape, however. The Hand had said more than It had intended to: "I won't tell you why you were made", It had said.
So, they had been made... Annie had recently told him about her discussion with the Hand, an aeon before, in albia six, about millions of long lived, almost immortal Hands, each looking in on their own private worlds. Chris had, like most norns, always thought of the Hand as a caretaker of the world and the creatures in it, almost a force of nature in Itself. Did the Hand's species have the power to create three entire species? And if they did, why had they done so?
Did Albia fill some emotional need in them? That seemed likely, but a dark quiet voice inside wondered if they were simply some toy, or a game for the Hands to play. A chess game, where each piece had a life of its own.
Chris' musings were suddenly cut short, when something barrelled into him from behind, and pinned him to the ground.
"Hey!" He cried, twisting and writhing until he was lying on his back. Glaring down at him was... himself!
"Shut up!" Christopher yelled. He pulled Chris to his feet, and threw him against a tree, knocking the breath out of him. "I'm sick of you, you know. You've been the bane of my life. They all think you're so heroic, but I know that you're just a normal norn who had a lot of luck!"
"Luck! You'd call it luck, would..." Christopher slapped him across his face, so hard it stung, and his eye started running with tears.
"I've seen your 'oh so wise' attitude, and the way you hoard all knowledge for yourself, and I am sick of it. I know what you found in our genomes, and I'm not going to keep it secret. And you are going to leave."
"Leave? How exactly?"
"I don't care!" Christopher yelled. "Somewhere away from me, away from SurfSea."
Christopher had a well muscled athletic frame, from days of farming and building. In an out and out fight, Chris supposed, he'd undoubtedly win, but his own skinny body gave him certain advantages in terms of speed... he squirmed out of Christopher's grip, and ran away.
He didn't get very far, though, because Christopher caught up with him, and tackled him from behind. They rolled onto the grass in a tangle of arms and legs, coming to rest finally with Chris pinned on the ground.
"Got you!" Christopher snarled in triumph. Chris looked up at his captor, then started to laugh. Christopher's expression of puzzlement just made him worse, and his laughter rose to an hysterical wail.
"What?" asked Christopher, shaking him violently. Chris seemed to calm down slightly, his eyes bright with tears.
"It's something Annie once said," he gasped between giggles, "She once said, days ago, in albia six, that I always seemed to be fighting with myself." Chris broke into another helpless gale of laughter. Christopher stared at him for a second, and started to laugh, too, a high pitched laugh of relief after a lifetime of tension. He realised that, for the first time, he truly knew who he was.
The laughter echoed through the trees, sending birds and animals fleeing in all directions.
Two nearly identical norns were getting very drunk. They had found a tantris bush, and were methodically stripping it bare.
"Need 'nother berry" Christopher murmured, and got to his feet slowly and patiently.
"Get me one, too. I've got room for more!" Chris giggled, and slowly fell over. Christopher came and sat down besides him, and hauled him upright again.
"You know, I've got a real brotherly feeling for you. S'like I've known you for ever."
"We're clones! More than brothers."
"But, you're not the supreme being everyone thinks, just an ordinary norn." A wild hand gesture knocked a caterpillar off a nearby bush. "Sorry." Christopher apologised to it.
"Everyone called me a mutant when I was young," said Chris, morosely, "Bunch of weird people, they were. They all hated me, you know. Cowards!"
Christopher stood up. "That's so sad!" he announced. "Let's go and..." Chris never found out what Christopher intended to do, as he tripped and slammed, head first, into a tree.
"Christopher?" he asked, suddenly sober and thoroughly alarmed. He went over and examined the rapidly growing bump on his clone's head.
"Where've you been? I was worried sick!" Annie ran out of her house, and then gasped in shock, when she saw Chris, carrying his unconscious double in his arms. There was something about seeing the two clones together that was eye-crossing.
"Uh...Christopher fell and bumped his head." Chris said diffidently.
"That's why you've got a black eye, is it?" Chris flinched guiltily. "And you both smell of tantris. Drunken brawling! Who would have thought it?"
"No, he fell, he really did!"
"Ha! You're like a pair of children, fighting in the dirt! Put him in my bed to rest, and then go and jump in the sea- that'll sober you up!"
Chris hung his head in shame. "Alright." He plodded inside with his heavy burden. Somehow, being told off by Annie was worse than any slap from the Hand.
Christopher stirred. Lying still, he knew something was different. He couldn't hear Cathy's gentle breathing besides him, but that wasn't it... the bed. The bed was different. His opened his eyes cautiously. What was he doing in Annie's bedroom? He knew it well from his childhood. His sluggish mind threw up a memory- him and Chris, fighting, Chris' laughter, getting drunk, a tree, coming closer...
Christopher winced and felt the large bump on his head. Moaning, he sat up and stretched. His mouth was so dry! He needed cool water. He stood up, and the world span. Everything seemed edged slightly surreal, as if in a dream, and wild, impossible colours seemed to hide just out of sight. His head felt too heavy.
"Annie?" he called, suddenly worried. Annie rushed in from downstairs.
"You shouldn't be on your feet, lie down. You've got a light concussion, the Hand says." She held out a glass of water to him, and he drank it greedily.
"I've told everyone to leave you alone for some peace and quiet," The Hand floated through the floor into view, "No permanent damage done, though."
"Well, I better go. I left Peter playing on the beach. I have to make sure he doesn't decide to go swimming." Annie tucked Christopher back into bed, as if he was a little child, then left.
Christopher waited until she had gone, then faced the Hand. "We have to discuss something." He said.
"Chris and I have talked. We clones share everything, you know." He sneered.
"What does that mean?" Christopher demanded.
"The secret is now out. I knew it would come out sooner or later. Do whatever you feel is right." It replied, in an unreadable voice, and disappeared before Christopher could ask it anything more.
He sighed. What to do now? His thoughts followed each other in tiny circles. Too much, all too much, and he was so tired, so very tired. His eyes drooped, but he refused to sleep. He had many grendel friends, and Cathy knew all the ettins. If he so wished, he could summon the entire population of Albia into SurfSea for a little meeting. As long as he could get Annie and Chris out of the way, first. His head rolled back onto the pillows, and he dropped into a dreamless sleep. The glass dropped from his lax fingers onto the floor.
Cathy came into the room, walking softly. She picked up the glass and placed it carefully on the bedside, then sat and stroked Christopher's head lovingly, smiling her secret ettin smile.
Chapter Five: Birthrights
To the south of SurfSea, a promontory of rock jutted out into the foamy sea. Seagulls wheeled above, crying their lonely cries, and newly colonising moss made the ground slippery underfoot.
"Careful!" Chris called as Annie nearly fell. He caught her around the waist, and hauled her upright. His arm stayed around her waist, even when she was stable on her feet again.
"Where is he? He should have been here by now! He did say here, didn't he?"
"Definitely. You don't suppose that bump on his head has affected his memory?" Chris looked genuinely worried.
"The Hand says not. He'll have headaches for a bit, that's all. I don't understand you and him. One minute, you hate each other, now you're friends." She smiled mischievously. "Or were you fighting over me?"
"Ok, I admit it- we were.. and I lost!" Annie laughed as Chris picked her up and swirled her off her feet. He realised that he felt rather odd, and it took a second for him to place this new emotion. He had felt joy, sadness, even near-suicidal misery in his life, but he had never before felt content like this. He'd lost so much, but in this harsh new world, he'd come to finally forgive himself- simply for being him. He was at peace with himself. He gathered Annie into his arms, and kissed her gratefully.
"Annie." Annie jumped, and looked around. It was the Hand, but it sounded oddly melancholy.
"What is it? We're busy."
"Christopher is telling everyone about the genes." Chris stood bolt upright, and nearly dropped Annie unceremoniously onto the rocks.
"He promised not to!"
"He must have lied. All the Albians are in SurfSea, listening to him."
"We've got to stop him!" Annie squirmed out of Chris arms.
"Too late. I've got to go and face them. Will you both come with me?"
At first, Chris was puzzled, then he realised the simple truth: the Hand was afraid to face its own creations. Had they come so far from their simple beginnings? Could it be that they were now superior to the race that were their makers? He could sense that this was some sort of crucial point in Albia's history- whether he went or stayed would affect all three species forever.
"We'll go." Annie said, firmly.
Christopher was standing on a convenient piece of stone that the ettins had been taking off to add to a new building. From his vantage point, he could see the whole population of Albia. Three ettins, eight grendels, six norns. Not many, but Albia was still young. Getting his clone and Annie out of the way had been so easy.
"All the evidence I have presented shows that we were made by the Hands. They built us to obey their every whim, like automatons! But I say this: we don't have to obey our instincts, we can fight back and say no! Are you ready to slap the Hand that feeds you?" The crowd cheered. His audience had rapidly progressed from puzzlement to anger. He lapped up their applause. He would be more famous than Chris! He thought of generations of parents, telling their children the story of the Albian rebellion.
"We are capable of independant living. Norns, can farm, ettins can build, grendels are our protectors..."Christopher stopped suddenly in mid sentence. The crowd had gone silent and solemn. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, and he turned around. The Hand floated there. It drew Its fingers back for a sound slap ...
"No!" A commanding voice shouted. It was a norn's voice, but so full of authority it was impossible to recognise. Chris stepped into view, with Annie by his side.
"It's wrong to punish us now. We don't need to learn from you, any more."
"So you agree with Christopher then?" The Hand's voice was unreadable.
"No." Chris shook his head sadly. "I've seen what happens if you're not here. I never want to see it again. We need you."
"I don't think you know everything I know, Chris." Christopher said, glaring angrily at the Hand. "Haven't you ever wondered about our parents?"
Chris shook his head. "They died before I hatched."
"They died, because the hand killed them to make us. Our father was a grendel."
Chris gasped in shock, and turned to the Hand.
"I thought the version six gene splicer was harmless to the donors," the Hand said, "I wanted to see what a grenorn would be like. You came out looking like an ordinary norn, though. Until I looked at the mutations in your genes." Chris shook his head, slowly and sadly.
"It's all too much. Too much meddling. I think Christopher is right. We don't need you any more. It's time for us to be on our own."
"I'll leave, if I'm not wanted any more." The Hand replied, much to the assembled company's surprise. "It must be a unanimous decision, though."
Annie looked up sharply. "I don't want you to leave!" she said. "You've been like a parent to me."
"I always thought of you as my daughter, Annie. You were always my favourite norn. I'll stay, if you don't want me to leave."
She looked back and forth over the crowd. They stood silent and tense, now. She noticed Cathy has a distinct bump in her stomach. She'd lay soon- a baby that was neither norn, ettin, or grendel, but a mixture of all three. What would such a creature be like?
"Annie," Chris called. He held out his hand to her.
"I'm sorry." She said. Then, she started to walk towards Chris. "I'm sorry- Father."
"I'll miss you, Annie. Most of all, I'll miss you." It said, and swooped down to tickle her briefly. It then flew up into the cold autumn sky, until it was just a speck The speck danced against the sun for a few moments, then grew larger again. As it fell, it resolved into a black rectangular shape. It clattered into the dirt by Chris feet. As he picked it up, symbols lit up on its matt black surface.
"It's the Plaque." He mused. "The Hand left it for me."
Cathy sighed with relief. "We're safe then, with the Hand norn to protect us." She said. The Albians cheered.
"No." Chris shook his head, sadly. "I've been the Hand norn, and now I'm tired." His eyes tracked over the audience, and then rested on Christopher. "Now it;s your turn."
Christopher smiled, and took the smooth plaque from Chris' hands. The creatures around him cheered even louder, calling his name out in joy. He felt a peace within his heart that he'd never felt before. This was his birthright- now it was time to live to his full potential.
David sat back from his computer with a sigh. He'd completed the game. The whole aim of Creatures Seven was to lead the norns to independence. It had not happened the way he'd planned, but everything had worked out.
From now on, he'd just watch.