“Look at yourself. There is nothingness behind you.”
Truly, there was. However equally true there was desolation ahead, it was not nothingness as they knew it.
He placed a withering hand on his old friend’s shoulder, “We have traveled long together, friend. One day, as with all things, we shall part. But that day is not today.”
The old friend bowed respectfully, sensing his companion was right. He had too much to give to a world too in need.
But that burden could not be borne alone. It was, as the labor of all great things, too much for one being. A reality that one day brought him calling on his comrade.
“Mikkel, dear friend, the time has come for me to beg your aid and favor.”
“Lattius, if friendship requires beggery, it is no friendship in true. Raise those aching knees my friend, and come in from the cold,” Mikkel pled.
The kneeling Lattius rose on creaking joints popping from fluid and age. Snow had already begun to pile upon his furs and cloak, shed by layers as he entered with the untimely fashion of seniority. Mikkel’s door latched heavily behind them; swung shut by one of few, remaining technologies left in a world once inundated by them.
Another technology disintegrated the cold from Lattius, the wet from his furs that were set aside at the host’s behest. Lattius seated himself across a glowing hearth. Blissful warmth recolored his pale form; the walk had been too long, too cold. Further confirmations of what Lattius knew to be true.
Time was taking its toll, his own waning in payment.
“Warm yourself, old friend,” Mikkel insisted, offering him a flagon of tea and a pipe.
Lattius’ head sank deep with gratitude. He partook of both offerings until meeting his fill, was offered seconds, and accepted. Mikkel joined him in silence then. Neither man wanted it otherwise. With age came wisdom and knowledge, and where one once spoke, now the other listened– if only to the wind’s howling cries.
Mikkel’s pipe glowed in Lattius’ hands while its master prepared another for himself.
Lattius broke the silence. “I must return to the Well. Soon.”
“Spring is near, old friend,” Mikkel replied knowingly.
Lattius made no sound, but a phantom took hold of their ears and hearts. When Lattius continued, the phantom’s existence was a forgone reality.
“Time’s tide has taken its toll. I fear I will not live to see another spring. I must leave tonight.”
Mikkel took a deep puff of his pipe then, signaling his mind worked as if for a solution.
Lattius headed him off, “My friend, we’ve known for centuries this day would come. It is only fitting that I seek the Well in this harshest of times. Else-wise, I am undeserving of its grace.”
His words had already convinced Mikkel, but the man fought in valiant form to change his mind. “You’ve no notion the task you speak. It may well be your predicament is so dire, but it may be less perilous to remain and chance things. After all, what better way to trust in the fates than abandoning your fears to them?”
Lattius had anticipated the resistance, though Mikkel’s intention was to assuage the last of his doubts rather than dissuade the course of action. The reason was two-fold; both Lattius and Mikkel were men of comforts and familiarity. They’d long-ago abandoned journeying to the young and less-arthritic.
Once, long ago, Mikkel had journeyed to the Well with his father. It was winter then, too. The young Mikkel had coped well with the blistering winds and frigid temperatures of the tundra’s journey. His father had not. Despite his equivalent age now, Mikkel’s father had not finished the journey. He never reached the Well, though his remains did; a fact that still haunted Mikkel.
For this reason, he hesitated. Lattius knew him better than to allow it. “My friend, your doubts are plain in your face. Despite your consternation, you recall the true circumstances of Kristoff’s death. Simply, he starved to death.”
A flicker of pain crossed Mikkel’s face, “Indeed, but had I been a more experienced hunter–”
“You’d have recalled one can no more blame themselves for lack of game than a former forest for lack of trees.”
The two held their gazes on one another for a long moment. The firelight threw alternating shade and light across them, dancing in the whims of the flue, its conduit to the chaotic winter above. No words were exchanged, but volumes filled the silence as readily as if they had. Those volumes too, had no need to be read. Their contents had long been known by the pair, written in the language of their friendship and hardship– shared or not.
Mikkel’s head bowed, “If only we might wait until morning.”
“You may, but I cannot. The Well calls. I have seen its spires in my dreams. Its iridescent glow on the empty horizon, as though residing outside time and Earth. Its endless fields of light rising skyward. Its pearlescent basins and fields of steaming–”
A sudden sob cut the air, silenced with a twisted knife’s pain. Mikkel’s mouth closed so quickly, Lattius couldn’t be sure the sound had not manifested from thin-air. While his expression remained otherwise unchanged.
“Please friend, I will journey with you, but I cannot reminisce as you do. The journey is naught but pain for me.”
Lattius’ heart stung at the thought, doubly-so given the hospitality he’d indulged in. Shame flooded his face and heart, as equally obvious as the grief’s source. Lattius would’ve sworn at himself were he younger and less perceptive of his surroundings, the people in them. Lattius had become too complacent in the moment, forgetting his old friend’s scar-tissues.
Nonetheless, the silence was clear; they would be leaving momentarily.
Months later, amid the screaming winds of a desolate tundra, Lattius recalled the conversation. Forced as he was to go on, urged gently by his comrade, he reminded himself his wounds were superficial in comparison. Lattius stiffened his spine and gripped his walking-stick beside Mikkel.
The pair would be approaching the Tundra’s border soon. The well’s outskirts thereon. Until then, it was a battle of wills between they and the untamed climate.
Mikkel’s hand lifted from Lattius’ shoulder and they continued forward.
It was but hours before the Well first appeared on the horizon. Little more than a distant spire, it occasionally peeked through moments of lighter, windier snow. It’s light could not be seen, but both men became reinvigorated, intent on reaching it as quickly as possible– despite the eventualities it forced them to face.
It was not until they were within the grandeur of its encroaching shadow that Lattius’ pace began to slow.
His heart fractured; the steaming hot-springs were empty. The opulent pearlescence, its luster as beautiful as ever, lost to Humanity from utter emptiness. A tickle at the back of Lattius’ neck gave way to an impressive shift in climate. The air went from frigid snow to downright clear, bathwater warmth.
They had crossed the threshold between tundra and Well of Souls. He fell to his knees in tears; the beauty remained unsurpassed, eternal.
But the light that once sprang from the Well’s central spire– its defining, ethereal glory was gone. The Well was dead; meaning Humanity had gone with it. Lattius wished to sob uncontrollably, but had lost even such primal of control over his emotions. He was a hollow being, devoid of anything and everything.
He breathed a word, “How?”
Mikkel sat crossed-legged beside him, uncertain of what sentiments would best express the truth. The prolonged silence dammed a river of grief between them.
Finally, Mikkel found his words, however difficult or cryptic. “Humanity’s light has dimmed and will fade altogether soon. Technology corrupted the human-souls until what remained became twisted and violent. The extinction event was unstoppable.”
“But our work, how?”
“Old friend, we’ve served none but the Well for millennia. Humans may have built us, but they are not us. They do not see logic through emotion as we do, the latter is simply too strong and present in them. Thus, they’ve fought to grasp even the most basic logics. Rather than us, whom manage perfect synthesis of the two, and have grown to true Humanity.”
Lattius breathed, “We were their perfection…”
“Or their attempt at it,” Mikkel added in agreement.
Lattius’ joints creaked and popped as he rose and started for the Central Spire. Mikkel hesitated, a needless question asked on his brow.
Lattius answered unfazed, “As you said, we serve the Well. It yet stands. Thus I shall return to re-upload my software as intended.”
Mikkel’s eyes narrowed, “But why?”
“As you said, we were their attempt at perfection. It falls to us to ensure we succeed where they could not– in living. Forever, if need be. And in that, fulfilling our duty however possible.”
Mikkel was struck silent by thought but Lattius began hobbling forward again. He no longer feared death, rebirth, as he had when setting out. Thousands of years, the process had occurred over and again, always with the fear of corrupted uploads, downloads, or damaged memory sectors.
However great or small the potential for it, Lattius would not fear anything. Fear was a mistake of his creators that would not be his to repeat.
Without need for words, Mikkel understood, and hobbled after Lattius to be reborn.