Short Story: The Well of Souls

“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.

Bonus Short Story: Just Another Day

The horizon was a mix of neon and white with the occasional yellow of an old incandescent or fluorescent bulb in the quilt-work of high-rises. Their exteriors were either gleaming, freshly cleaned cement and steel, or dilapidated brick-work, soot-covered from decades of smog. From a distant enough overhead view, sections of the city-streets would be plastered with headlights from vehicles whose owners had yet to make the switch to flying craft. Only the police craft would stick out, their red and blue flashing in groups or singles.

At one corner drugstore with them, was Detective Arnold Rhein. It wasn’t a stretch to call Rhein a veteran of the force. Indeed, he was well-known by most in the precinct. Even for a brief while, by the Press, when he uncovered a Mayoral-aide’s murder that implicated the Mayor in a scandalous conspiracy.

Those days were long gone now. Rhein was near the end of his rope. He’d prematurely grayed decades ago, before cars flew. Now steel-haired, a permanent, salt and pepper tinted his five o’clock shadow. He’d often scratch it to think, infect the air with sand-paper sounds of nails on scruff.

Presently, sand-paper sounded in Armen’s Corner Drugstore. Rhein squatted at the feet of a fresh stiff. The body wasn’t even cold yet. Obvious signs of a struggle adorned the counter in over turned beef-jerky stacks, scattered candy-bars and other miscellanea.

Armed robbery gone awry. The stiff’s gut-wound said as much. It wasn’t precise or intentional. The bruise formed along the bridge of the stiff’s nose, through its crook and to his forehead, said he’d been headbutted and the gun went off. A trickle of blood that he’d made no attempt to wipe away said he was in shock or dead too soon after for it to gain purchase in his mind.

Rhein straightened to survey the scene better. Armed robbery gone wrong. That was it. Simple. Nothing else stuck out. A few, errant bills had been left behind in the drawer. Small bills, not worth risking the time once the sirens started blaring.

The upstairs neighbor had called the police, come down to check on the clerk and found him dead. The old woman with curlers in her hair was wrapped in a bathrobe assaulting to even the most deadened senses. She was a neon-teal beacon with a powdered-white face from hastily glomed on make-up. The curlers created a laurel around her head of clashing, hot pink.

Rhein looked away. He’d been on the job a lot of years, enough to discern two things; this would end up as another unsolved murder, and that woman had no sense of taste. He strolled back across the drugstore, slipped out for a uniform in charge of the scene. He’d already yielded to Rhein’s experience, acting as middle man to keep the blues orderly while the Detective did his thing.

“Detective,” the uniform said with a nod.

“Officer,” Rhein began. “Call the coroner. There’s nothing here. Typical smash and grab gone wrong. The only way we’d’ve caught the guy is if we’d seen him running out with the cash.”

The officer seemed to understand. He flipped his little memo book closed. Rhein stepped around him and through a line of cruisers to his unmarked, four-wheel car. He’d never cared much for the fliers. They handled like refrigerators, big and bulky with no grace, and undeserving of the power of flight. He preferred the old gas-guzzling, air-polluters he’d known his whole life.

But that was the nature of things now. The old got older until they ended up stiffs, took their ways with ’em to make way for young and new.
He drove on through the city: the future was progress that had no place for him. Traffic was horrendous, but better than before fliers. Everything was different– yet somehow, the same. He wasn’t sure when the change had started, but instinct and memory said somewhere between wives two and three. Now Carol, wife four, was looking to get the long end of the stick. The others hadn’t been so fortunate. Rhein had been “married to the job” before Carol, a cop in his prime, then a detective with something to prove. The relationships could’ve never hoped to survive.

Carol had a detective nearing retirement though. Rhein wasn’t even willing to take the extra effort anymore of double-checking things. He made a call, and it was over. Nose to the ground was for greenies that hadn’t learned the cyclical nature of the city and crime. They were still too young to have the skills that allowed him a lone glance to make a call. Only time and experience could allow for that. Rhein had both, wasn’t sure he wanted either anymore.

To any other Detective, especially a greenie, he’d have seemed a burn out. The truth was paradoxically nearer and further than most knew. Rhein wasn’t a burn-out in the usual sense, he was merely worn down. His mind had gone from the razor-sharpness of a freshly honed blade to the dull, age-worn metal of one eons older. Forty years of work had worn it down.

His unmarked car rolled up to his tenement on the city’s outer-edge. He put it in park and killed the engine. For a moment, he sat there staring, watching cars and fliers pass on the road and in the sky.

The world had changed, and not for the better. His world, the one he’d come from anyway, was smaller, more tightly-knit. People had worked for one another, and with one another, all to make life better. Personal gain had been the side note then, societal gain the main passage. Now everyone was out for themselves. The world was too big. Cities had tripled, quadrupled in size to accommodate the ever-growing global census. With them rose violent crime rates until one could no longer hope to make a difference, no matter how hard they tried. At least, if they could, it took a technique Rhein didn’t know or could never learn.

The old guard had to inexorably resign, move on, fade into history to become a forgotten relic. Why not start here, with himself? He saw no a reason not to.

A few moments later, he exited the elevator to the squalor of his tenement’s hallway, pushed his way into the meager apartment he’d afforded on a cop’s salary. He found Carol in bed, covers up to her chin. He went about quietly undressing, slipped into bed.

She stirred, “How was work?”

He pulled her in to his bare chest, stared emptily at the ceiling, “Just another day.”