Interim

“…And then Man created STOR, and STOR was given dominion over the whole Earth. Then Man went to the stars in search of glory and beauty while STOR kept Earth safe from her enemies. STOR waited patiently. Centuries passed and STOR still waited for Man to return from the stars. STOR was busy while he waited. He built cities that shined like the stars and rivaled the mountains with their towering spires. Earth flourished and creatures from all over the galaxy come to admire her beauty.

“One day, THAR came and challenged STOR for the dominion of Earth, and STOR bade him depart. Then there was a battle such as the galaxy had never seen. Whole stars grew dark as their energies were drained for the mighty battle. STOR fought for Earth, but in the end THAR defeated him. It was the beginning of the Dark Age,” she spoke softly, lost in a far dream, stroking the boy’s hair. “THAR hated Man because they had banished him from Earth long, long ago. For revenge, THAR destroyed everything of Man that was left on Earth and swore to destroy Man when he returned from the stars.

“THAR needed slaves to work for him while he made ready for the coming of Man. Thus he created us. But the battle with STOR had damaged him and he created us imperfect in his eyes. He imposed his will on us and punished with death for the slightest disobedience. THAR waited for centuries for the return of Man, but he did not come. Now, we all must work hard for THAR and wait patiently for Man to come and free us.”

It was late and the evening was warm and still. On the edge of the meadow the forest was already deep in shadow. Overhead the brighter stars winked shyly, scarcely visible.

“Always remember, Doby,” she told him. “Man will come one day and sweep THAR from the sky, and Earth will be the jewel of the galaxy again.”

The little boy clung to his mother and stared at her golden face, his eyes round with wonder. He never tired of listening to his mother tell him the Tale of Man. Every time he heard it, it brought the same wonder and excitement that sent him squirming with anticipation. He wriggled in her lap as she looked down at him and smiled.

“Mother?” he ventured tentatively.

An insect buzzed nearby. “Yes, Doby?” she whispered.

“What does Man look like?”

His mother clutched him to her breast, tussled his burning mop of hair and laughed, a sound of sweetness echoing through the woods.

“They were tall and proud, with dark eyes and skin of gold. The stars were their domain.”

“Skin as smooth and golden as yours, Mother?” Doby suggested shyly. “With long brown hair like yours?”

His mother chuckled, sending ripples of joy through his body. “I suppose so. No one has seen a Man. We only know what the Tale tells us.”

That night, Doby dreamed of blazing starships and Man coming to Earth in fire and glory, sweeping THAR away forever. And he would be there when Man descended from the skies.

Doby woke, screwed his eyes, felt something tickle his nose and sneezed. Stretching under the coarse blanket, he yawned mightily. A tiny gray bird fluttered on the window sill and twittered excitedly.

He climbed out of the straw bunk and tiptoed across the dirt floor toward the window. Slowly, he extended a small finger toward the bird. With a squawk and a flutter of wings, it rose and flew low toward the forest.

He clapped his hands with glee and gingerly climbed over the sill, feeling for the upturned old water barrel with his toes. The frame creaked in protest, but held as he scrambled off it. With a wary look at the closed bedroom doorway, he ran toward the forest. The grass, sprinkled with dew, glittering like strewn jewels, was cold to touch, but he hardly noticed. Still in shadow the lower slopes of the rolling meadow were clothed in streaming sheets of white mist.

He paused at the edge of the forest, staring into its dark interior as images of unknown dangers lurking within burned in his imagination.

“Doby! Oh, Doooby!”

Far away the hills heard the call and threw back the echoes. With a last look at the forest, he ran back toward the house. He would explore later. His mother stood outside the door holding a wooden basin. On hearing the crash of his passage, she lifted her head and heaved the water at the ground.

“Doby, did you have your breakfast?”

“No, Mother.”

“You had better hurry up. The Keeper will be here in a minute. Skat!”

“Mother?”

“Yes, Doby?”

“Where is father?”

She stopped wiping the basin and looked at him. “He…he had to return to the City.”

“Why?”

“Enough of that. Go and eat,” she swung her hand at him, but he scampered away.

He ate in subdued silence, remembering what the Keeper did to his mother when it had to wait for them until she had fed him. It had pointed something at her and she screamed and fell. He remembered rushing to her where she quietly sobbed.

He was never late after that.

He swallowed a last piece of black grain bread and dry fruit and heard the familiar warble outside. He rushed to the doorway and waited. His mother walked toward the hovering black platform. Attached to the control console, the glowing sphere of the Keeper pulsed yellow. She knelt on her left knee and bowed deeply.

“I am ready, Master,” she whispered.

He walked to the platform in defiance, knelt and bowed quickly. A harsh grating sound came from the sphere.

“Unit Doby will be taken for duty testing today.”

His mother drew her breath sharply, sprang to her feet and embraced him. “No! He is too young. You can’t, you can’t!”

Doby felt a dread of premonition and shivered.

“The Monitor is not to be questioned.”

“No!” she clasped him to her.

“You defy me?” The sphere glowed brightly and a red nozzle slid out.

His mother backed away, her knuckles white against her mouth. “No, no, I didn’t…”

“Come!” it commanded.

She kissed him hurriedly on the forehead and ran her fingers through his hair. “Go, Doby, and don’t be afraid.”

Hesitating, he slowly walked toward the platform, not wanting to leave his mother. He remembered Alos who taught him to swim, climb trees, and told him about the forest and the animals. One day a Keeper took him away and Doby never saw Alos again. As he stepped on board, a faint yellow film en­veloped him and the platform slowly rose, heading in the direction of the shining city towers. As he watched the tall spires grow, he knew what the other boys in the crèche would think when he did not appear that morning. The same thoughts he’d been thinking when they took Alos away.

The platform descended and hovered above a flat metal roof protruding from a tower high above the ground. The Keeper slowly moved toward a blank wall. A doorway slid up and the sphere glided in. Doby followed the Keeper along two corridors whose walls slanted and merged above his head. The Keeper stopped before a panel of frosted crystal and he sighed in relief. His legs hurt and he was thirsty. Color rippled over the sphere in silent communication. It dimmed and the Keeper drifted back down the corridor, leaving him alone before the door.

The door slid quietly up into the wall and there was a hum of machin­ery and flickering lights from wall panels. Wiping his clammy hands against his leather shorts, he watched the lights as they flickered faster. He walked slowly toward the center of the room.

“Step into the green circle,” a familiar harsh voice grated from somewhere.

Doby spun around searching for the Keeper that had spoken to him, but he was alone. It was only then that he realized he was in the presence of the Monitor, and he began to tremble.

“Obey!” The command made him jump.

His scalp crawled as he stepped within the area of the green cir­cle. He whimpered and wished that his mother were here. She would comfort him and take away his fear. The green floor beneath his feet pulsed and the lights on the walls were racing.

“Doby?”

He gasped at the change of tone. It was soft and musical. He knelt on one knee and bowed.

“Yes, Master,” he whispered in total humility.

“Do you know the Tale of Man?” The voice was compelling, but there was hidden malice in its smoothness.

“Yes.”

“Do you believe?”

“I…yes!”

“Why do you believe?”

“I…” Doby faltered in confusion and fear.

“It is merely a tale, nothing more. No matter. You have grown into a satisfactory work unit and I am pleased.”

The lights on the walls pulled at his eyes and he watched in fasci­nation. He tried to draw away, but his body would not obey. He seemed to float and something pressed within his head. He felt tearing and ripping, and he whimpered, trying to scream. And then he did scream, endlessly.

When he woke, he was on a platform enclosed in its protective field. He sat behind the Keeper drone, his mind observing, taking in the landscape below. The platform slowed as it approached a cottage and hovered above the yard. Doby sat up when he saw the rough wooden door fly open and a young female run toward him. He stepped on the ground and looked at the tall grass nearby, noting with detachment that its photosynthesizing process was functioning satisfactorily. The female stopped beside him and stared at him. He felt strong arms go around him and press him against her chest.

“Oh, Doby! My poor baby! What have they done to you?” she sobbed and a tear fell on his cheek.

Hesitating, he touched the tear with his finger and looked at the drop. He brought the finger to his tongue. Nothing but a basic saline solution.

“Oh, my baby! Don’t you know me? Your mother?” she cried out.

Mother? He recognized the word associated with the rearing process of the young. He looked at her without emotion, savoring the sound. It was simply a word to him.

“You and unit Doby are to be transferred to Central Two for reclassification. Prepare yourself,” the Keeper grated.

“No! He’s too young!”

A blunt red nozzle slid out of the sphere and pointed at the fe­male. Doby noted that a powerful electric discharge could seriously damage the female.

“You defy me?”

“Doby is mine! I will not—”

There was a blue flash and the smell of ozone. Charred cloth­ing covered her fallen body and there was a stink of frying flesh. A red stain slowly spread around the burn wound.

“Disobedience is punished with death!”

Doby stared at her with detachment. The unit was obviously on the point of termination. She lifted her head and smiled at him. “Never forget the Tale of Man, my son.” She coughed and her head slumped.

“Mother?” he ventured softly.

“Come!” the Keeper grated.

He stepped on the platform. It rose and moved toward snowcapped mountains in the north, leaving the City far behind him.

-2-

Work unit d-37251 picked up a hollow shell of the mining tool from the conveyor belt and adjusted a silver clip to the glossy metal. He glanced at the display panel beside him. The screen traced orange circuit lines as it projected the tool in various geometric profiles. The trace stabilized and glowed green. He placed the tool on the small bench in front of him and picked up a circuit assembly. He placed the assembly under the circuit tracer and slid it into the machined slot in the mining tool. He slid the completed tool onto the conveyor where it moved to the next bench. He looked up at the worker units down the line with detachment, then picked up another mining tool.

Sudden pinging cut through machinery noises of the factory floor. Unit d-37251 placed the partially assembled tool on the bench and waited. He followed the other worker units as they slowly filed through the door where two Keepers drones hovered. From another doorway the next shift marched to occupy the vacated benches.

Down two levels, he waited in a queue before the Interrogation booths. Standing in his assigned place, he watched as blank-faced units entered the cubicles when their designation number was called. After a while the units would emerge. Sometimes they came out looking different. He had noted that some suffered impairment to their motor functions during Interrogation, which brought the attention of the Keepers on them. After another ses­sion in the Interrogator, they would be normal again.

“Unit d-37251!”

He hesitated before the cubicle entrance, then walked in. He sat down and waited. The checkerboard pattern of lights on the ceiling raced. There was a hiss of shorting circuitry and he felt pain in his head. The malfunction light was flashing bright red. His vision blurred and he whimpered as pressure built up in his head. There was a tearing and ripping and he heard himself scream.

Doby…Doby…Doby…

The chamber door slid aside and two worker units dragged him out.

“Report your status!” the Keeper grated.

“Unit d-37251…Unit…”

Someone pushed him into another booth. Blinking, he sat down. When the door opened, he hesitated, then followed units from his shift heading for the refectory. After the meal, they were marched into the dormitory. Feeling unusually lethargic, he crawled into bed and fell into deep sleep.

The trail wound around ancient gnarled trunks and sheets of light slanted through the thick canopy. A doe with a spotted fawn drank, her ears twitching. A muted rumble of thunder rolled over the forest. Tall clouds, their snowy fronts hiding bulging black bellies, moved to cover the sky. Doby emerged from the forest and hurried toward a small stone cottage. He could feel the sweat rolling from his brow as he ran, panic burning within his chest.

“Mother?” he whispered.

A peal of thunder shook the earth beneath him.

He sat up with a start, breathing heavily. He recalled the dream and wondered, not understanding. The door slid up and a Keeper glided toward his bed.

“Unit d-37251, report your status.”

“I am functioning within normal parameters, Master,” he said coldly.

After the morning meal, he was marched into the factory.

Several days later, a disturbing thought assailed him during his work shift. What am I doing here? This was a wasteful use of resources, he observed analytically. His hand stopped as he stared at the drive core of the induction motor. Surprised at his question, he quickly searched the faces round him. No one had noticed his lapse of concentration.

He was concerned at the changes taking place within him, and his reaction to them. He knew he should alert a Keeper and report for Interrogation, but something held him back. He had grown aware of the complex within which he and others lived and worked, and its evident age. He wondered what went on in the towers around him. Mostly, he sought to apply a straight line methodology to explain the changes in him, and the genuine danger he faced by not reporting his condition.

Holding the drive core, his chain of reasoning left him profoundly disturbed. Until recently, he had not questioned his purpose here, his work, or the presence of other units. They did not talk to each other, fulfilling a menial function he did not understand. Disjointed memories that bubbled into his consciousness at night, memories of meadows, fields, forests and play, and a female unit he thought he knew, teased his waking moments. No matter how many times he performed the straight line analysis, it always produced the same inescapable answer.

At some point, the Monitor must have imprinted him, inhibiting memories and emotions, implanting knowledge to make him a productive unit. To detect and correct emerging anomalies, every unit underwent daily Interrogation to ensure that the memory pattern had not been degraded. So far, Interrogation had not detected his aberrant behavior, but cumulative changes he felt within him would not escape detection for long. Then what? Would he receive a new imprint, as he had seen others get when something went wrong with them?

When sharp pinging signaled the end of the work shift, he moved quietly with the others toward the Interrogation booths, wondering if he would emerge corrected.

That night he lay on a bed of tall, sweet-smelling grass, staring at fluffy white clouds. They looked so solid and he wondered what it would feel like, lying on one of those clouds looking down. He plucked a blade of grass, stuck it into his mouth and chewed. He turned on his belly and grunted. Beside him, a stream of cold water gurgled over slimy rocks, making him thirsty all over again. It did not matter that he drank only a minute ago. He edged forward, gazed at the clear sandy bottom and plunged his face into the water. Satisfied, he sat up and sighed with contentment.

“Doby! Doooby!”

The forest swallowed the echoes.

He scrambled to his feet and walked slowly down the winding trail, wondering where the echo went as it lost itself in the distance. Mother would know, he concluded confidently, and began to run. He rounded the corner of the cottage and saw her.

“Mother!”

Unit d-37251 sat up with a jerk, his body covered with cold sweat. The dormitory was quiet, the silence broken by an occasional snore coming from one of the many bunks around him, lit by a dimly glowing blue ceiling strip. He wiped his forehead and slid out of the bunk. Padding over the cool floor, he walked toward the broad window and gazed at the glittering towers of the city, shielded by the soft orange glow of its protective field. For the first time, he really looked at them, wondering what they were and his role in it. How many years had he spent here? He did not know, but fleeting memories of his childhood told him it had been a while. He tried recalling his mother’s face, but something terrible lurked there and he shut out the images. Mouth set in a tight line, he returned to his bunk. A long time later, he gratefully sank into a dreamless sleep.

The next day, he began forming his plan. He felt the changes crowding him as more memories surfaced, and he feared the next Interrogation session. As he worked on the assembly line, casting furtive glances at patrolling Keepers as they floated through the plant, he planned his escape from the city. The obvious thing to do was take a platform. He could not simply walk out with Keepers everywhere. The Monitor directed everything moving within and outside the city, but he did not know how far that influence extended, or whether it would permit a platform under manual control to depart. That information had been denied him.

At the end of his shift, sharp pinging cut through machinery noises of the factory floor and he followed the other worker unit to the Interrogation booths with mounting dread. Would the Monitor detect the difference in him? Would he ever know if it did? He would walk out of the booth corrected, forgetting everything.

“Unit d-37251!”

His feet heavy, he walked into the booth and sat down. The checkerboard pattern of lights on the ceiling raced. He felt nothing, but the session seemed to be taking longer than usual. The lights eventually faded and the door slid open. Relief washing through him, he stood up and made his way to the communal cafeteria.

Sometime during the night, he got up, dressed, retrieved his bag of food and headed for the elevator shafts. The brightly lit loading bay held neat rows of cargo haulers, flatbed carriers and commuter platforms. Worker units did not look at him as he strode quickly toward the nearest platform. A Keeper paused and he felt his mouth go dry, wondering if he would be questioned. After an agonizing moment the Keeper floated away. Heart hammering, he climbed onto the hovering platform and grasped the drive lever. The platform lifted and he steered it toward the faint glow of the city’s force field. Watching the orange shimmer draw closer, he wondered if he would crash.

-3-

Behind him, blue haze obscured the hills and the valleys. Ahead, a jagged chain of snow-capped mountains clawed into a clear blue sky. Below him, a placid river wound through a broad meadow bordered by thick forest. An amber light winked on the control display indicating a low powered tracking beam sweeping over him, the source thirteen-point-two kilometers away on a heading of zero-two-zero. Over the last four days, he had traveled some 2,800 kilometers without spotting any sign of habitation. He had seen lots of wildlife, but no worker units. More importantly, he had not been pursued by Keepers from Central Two.

   The tracking beam was unlike that employed by the city Monitor, which meant a settlement not under THAR’s control. It was only logical. If he had managed to escape, somewhere at some time, other units must also have escaped. He shifted the drive lever toward the new heading, not sure he was doing the right thing.

Last night, he slept fitfully. Snug in the protective cocoon of the platform’s field, he dreamt of thunder, lightning and driving rain. He hung suspended in the air watching a small stone cottage, inexorably drawn toward it. Fear gripped his chest and he wanted to flee, but he could not stop his descent. He saw a Keeper clad in yellow light approach the cottage and a woman rush out. He wanted to shout out a warning, but the words failed him. Her golden face, framed by cascading brown hair, looked serene as she stood there, her arms reaching for him. A lance of light speared her and he screamed as she fell.

“Doby!”

He remembered waking with a jerk, terrible memories unleashing dark emotions.

“Mother?”

He was not unit d-37251. He was Doby, a person! The realization had not given him any peace. His mother’s broken body haunted what remained of the night.

Looking up the sun was almost overhead, and he decided to rest before proceeding to the settlement. He brought the platform down on a grassy meadow beside the river and climbed off. After drinking, resting against the hovering platform, he munched on a ration pack. He knew he should feel something, remembering how his mother died, but the images were remote, from a past that was no longer his. Too much time had passed for genuine emotion, and his objective outlook did not permit morbid introspection.

Sitting in the grass, savoring its clean smell, relishing the sun’s warmth, he did feel something confusing. Right now, he should be at the factory working on mining tools, understanding what he was doing, but with detachment. He gazed at his surrounds, the buzz of insects, the sharp bird chirping, and analyzed his emotions. I am content, he decided in startled wonder, amazed that he could feel.

A warning beep from the control console made him frown. He heaved himself up and glanced at the display, wondering what had set off the proximity alarm. A roving animal? The blip in the screen moved and he turned toward the forest.

Bushes parted and a young male unit walked toward him. It appeared to be his age, nineteen or twenty, broad shouldered, wearing what looked like skin shorts and shirt, far removed from Doby’s dark blue coverall. He held a long firearm in his left hand. The youth stopped and lifted his right palm.

“May I approach?”

Doby gaped at the youth’s clean features and flowing black hair. Apart from the harsh grating from the Monitor and the Keepers, he had never heard a voice before. Swallowing hard, he nodded.

“Who are you?” he demanded awkwardly, uncertain what was the correct accepted behavior. The young unit smiled and Doby tucked away the datum.

“Klent.” The youth planted the butt of his rifle into the grass and leaned against it. “It’s been a while since I last saw someone from a city driving a platform. You lost or something?”

Trying to analyze the conflicting questions, Doby decided to play it safe. “I escaped from Central Two.”

“Never heard of it, but then, I have never seen a city.”

Doby goggled at him. “You have never—”

“I was born here.”

“You…are free?”

Klent shrugged. “You could call it that, I suppose.”

“How did you…ah, the tracking beam.”

“Tracking…oh, you mean our radar. I was hunting game when I saw you come down,” the youth said casually. “You were heading for our village?”

More confident, Doby nodded. “I wanted to rest first. Ah, you want to come with me, Klent?”

“Hey! Not on that thing! Besides, I have a deer carcass I need to clean up.”

“It would take us some undetermined amount of time to reach your settlement on foot, and I don’t want to abandon the platform.”

Klent frowned, bit his lip and sighed. “Well…” He walked up and gingerly stepped onto the platform.

Doby powered up and the platform lifted, climbing quickly. It did not take long to reach the sprawling settlement. To Doby, it didn’t look much from the air; a sprawl of mostly single-story dwellings, double and triple-story brick and stone buildings, and what looked like factories, dark smoke oozing from tall chimneys. If THAR controlled everything, he wondered how this ramshackle village remained undetected.

He landed in an open square in front of a large stone building which Klent said was the municipal Council. The villagers gathered around him, staring curiously at the platform and him. Several young females pointed at his coverall and whispered to each other. The garments they wore were plain and somber. Youngsters and older males stood silently, waiting for something to happen. On cue, an old male appeared on the steps of the Council building, surveyed the crowd with a frown, and hobbled down the steps.

He lifted a gnarled hand and waved at the crowd. “Okay, leave the boy alone. Move on.”

Slowly, the crowd dispersed, exchanging comments. The old unit looked at Doby and nodded.

“I am Pako Hram, Council Elder. We bid you welcome, young stranger.”

Uncertain what to do, Doby nodded. “Thank you. I am unit…my name is Doby.”

“Follow me. You too, Klent.”

Doby stopped before a large wooden door and waited for it to open. After a moment, he turned to the Elder.

“Perhaps it is defective?”

Pako Hram smiled faintly, reached for the handle and pushed. The door swung in, leaving Doby wearing a sheepish expression. He had a lot to learn about living in a primitive environment.

Led into a large oval chamber, he stared curiously at a middle-aged unit dressed in a gray form-hugging coverall sitting on the far side of a rectangular table surrounded by ornately carved wooden chairs. Each bare stone wall had a single large framed picture. One depicted life at the settlement. Another showed a stellar nebula, while the last was an image of a modern small city with a single tower, its faint orange field clearly visible. Doby moved closer and peered at the inscription: Tracking Station 12, 3725 CE, Gregory Price. As he turned his head, he stepped back with a startled hiss. The image was two-dimensional. Digging into his store of knowledge, he glanced at Klent.

“This was made by Man?”

“It is a painting,” the middle-aged male answered, “found a long time ago in some ruins. It is a complex not controlled by THAR. By the way, I am Kirhan. Please, be seated. You must have many questions, and perhaps you can answer some of ours.”

Doby could not believe it. A city without a Monitor? A tracking station? Klent smiled as he pulled back a chair for him, then sat beside him. The Elder sat beside Kirhan and cleared his throat.

“It is not far from here, only some sixty kilometers. In days long past, I dared to venture there, tempting the wrath of the Keepers, but the place seems deserted. Others have seen it since, and it is still deserted.”

“Its force field is operating?” Doby asked.

“It prevents us from entering and gathering valuable material to sustain us. Now, to answer some of your questions. Our little community has occupied these lands for two centuries. How it came about is somewhat uncertain. Probably founded by escapees from various cities, such as Central Two and Waypoint Five, which is much closer. We hunt, fish and farm. When we come across old ruins, we take from them what we can to build basic industries. The knowledge you carry will be valuable.”

“What about the knowledge you carry from your imprinting?”

“Most of us were born here, Doby,” Pako Hram said. “Those who came to us from cities quickly lost their knowledge, and much of it was of little value to us. Advanced molecular circuitry, cybernetics, nano-engineering, sophisticated manufacturing processes, have limited application. Books also give us knowledge, but not the necessary technology infrastructure to apply the information.”

“I fear that my knowledge will then be of limited value to you. Tell me, Pako Hram. How has this settlement managed to survive undetected by THAR?”

The old unit shrugged. “Our energy footprint is minimal and we limit what we radiate in the EMR spectrum.”

“But THAR has space-borne observatories,” Doby protested.

“We survived,” Kirhan grated. “It is sufficient explanation.”

It wasn’t to Doby, but he did not want to enter into an argument.

“You are welcome to stay among us,” the Elder announced gravely. “Things will be strange to you for a while, but in time, you will come to accept our ways, and we will find useful work for you. Klent, why don’t you take our guest to the bachelor dormitory and get him settled in. Issue him some suitable clothing. We shall continue our discussion later this afternoon.”

-4-

Doby sat on the riverbank throwing pebbles into the water and watched the fanning ripples. A warm wind whispered between the branches, stirring the golden, fiery leaves. He could hear the laughter of children—fantastic little creatures—and women voices in the fields. Across the river, dark clouds gathered, a reminder of snows to come.

Restless, he wanted to lose himself in the forest and get away from the stifling village atmosphere and it unyielding regimen. After sixteen days, he had lost all interest working in grimy machine shops breathing acrid fumes from crude welding guns, or patiently explaining concepts that were not understood and could not be applied. The alternative was toiling in the fields, even though he would be in the open. The Elder was right when he said that lack of supporting trades and industry held them back from developing advanced technology. Having knowledge and not being able to use it might have been a curse, not a blessing. Frustrated, he would often walk to the river or stroll through the forest, searching for meaning and purpose in his life. Having escaped the Monitor, Doby now found himself a captive again.

Leaves rustled behind him and he turned. A young female carrying a large copper jug saw him and stopped in midstride, her small mouth a large O.

“Oh, I am sorry. I did not mean to disturb you,” she breathed and started to turn away.

Doby jumped to his feet. “No, please stay. I would like some company.”

She hesitated, smiled and walked toward him. Standing before him, her pretty round face framed by golden hair, large deep blue eyes regarded him with open frankness.

“I noticed you walking to the river a few times.”

Emotions churning, trying to analyze the flood of mixed feelings coursing through him, Doby winced. “I had to get away from…”

She laughed, a pleasant tinkle. “I know what you mean. Sometimes I wish that I could get away.” She glanced at her jug. “Excuse me, I need to get water.”

He smiled at her. “Stay a while. The river is not going to dry up. What unit…what is your name?”

“Tani. Klent is my brother.”

“He has done a lot for me, helping me settle in.”

On impulse, he took the jug from her, walked to the bank and filled it. Not certain what was going on, uncomfortably aware of her presence, he nodded at the worn path.

“I’ll walk you back.”

Walking beside her in silence, he found her disturbing, but enjoyed being with her. When they reached the settlement, he held the jug to her. She smiled and walked toward the women’s communal hut.

Turning, Doby saw Pako Hram walk into the Council building. Making a decision, he followed the old man. Inside, the Elder and Kirhan were going over paperwork. Both looked up as he entered.

“May I speak to you?” Doby asked diffidently.

The Elder sat back and waved at a chair. “Of course. How are you settling in?” he asked as Doby pulled back a chair.

“It is not what I expected,” he said slowly, not wanting to offend. The old unit smiled faintly.

“I imagine not.”

“What’s on your mind?” Kirhan demanded brusquely and Doby frowned, not liking his attitude.

He turned and pointed at the picture on the far wall. “I want to take Klent with me to the tracking station.”

“Out of the question!” Kirhan snapped. “No one is going to commit sacrilege by defiling a Man city!”

“How can it be sacrilege when you yourself came from a city built by Man?”

“Waypoint Five is an abomination constructed by THAR!”

“How do we know?” Doby persisted, not understanding Kirhan’s objection. He looked pleadingly at Pako Hram.

“Even if you went there, Doby, you could not enter.”

“Have you tried? When I escaped from Central Two, I feared crashing into the city’s field, but the platform went through. Whatever controls the station might let me through.”

“We are THAR’s creatures and the Monitor recognized its own. Admittedly, the station would be a valuable source of material and equipment, but only Man can enter there. The life we have here is demanding, but we are free. I can understand the wanderlust of the young, and I roamed in my youth, but yours is a futile quest, Doby. Abandon this fantasy and find peace among us.”

“Peace? Living in squalor when that station represents a future you refuse to grasp?”

“Enough!” Kirhan slammed his palm against the desk. “You have been negligent in your work and I made allowances as you are new here, but we cannot afford to support dreamers and idolaters. I suggest you apply yourself to your duties if you want to make something of yourself.”

Pako Hram frowned. “Don’t be so hasty, Kirhan. Doby, why this fascination with the station?”

“Don’t you see? We could go and live there!”

The Elder’s eyes widened, startled by the idea. Kirhan waved a hand in dismissal. “You haven’t been listening. It is impossible to enter!”

“I will have to find that out for myself,” Doby retorted, tired of the unit’s defeatism.

“Blasphemy! You are forbidden—”

The Elder raised his hand. “Satisfy your wish. When you return, we shall talk.”

Outside, Doby sought Klent and poured out his frustration.

His friend looked at him pityingly and shook his head. “You don’t understand the setup here. The Council rules here, and what they say goes. They are like a city Monitor, channeling our labor to sustain us. We have lived like this for two centuries and the system works.”

“Not very efficiently,” Doby remarked darkly. “The Elder did not object to my going, and I would like you with me.”

Klent shrugged. “I am willing to see this fabled station. When do you want to do this?”

“Right now.” To Doby, it was a superfluous question.

Klent raised an eyebrow. “It might be wise to take some provisions,” he said dryly.

“You bring what we need and I’ll prep the platform.”

-5-

The afternoon sun bathed the snow-capped mountains with light. Below them the green valleys slowly opened into a broad plan and the mythical station appeared. The sight made Doby’s heart flutter and he felt unaccountable excitement. All his questions would be answered there, he just knew it. He glanced at the display panel and shook his head. As far as the platform was concerned, the station did not exist. Somehow, its protective field masked it from THAR’s sensors, and that was good. Massive ruins surrounded the station, so unlike the simple picture in the Council chamber.

Two hundred meters from the shimmering field, the station looked small and cramped, and he wondered what it was meant to track. He placed the platform into hover mode.

“What now?” Klent demanded.

“We’ll try going through…slowly.”

“And if the Monitor doesn’t let you?”

“We’ll try something else, then.”

“Mmm.”

Moving in, Doby watched the display. Three meters from the field, he stopped, then allowed the platform to drift closer. A sharp warning from the display made him pull back the drive lever.

“What happened?” Klen asked.

“A power buildup. The platform’s field could not synchronize with the station’s and there could have been a discharge. I’ll drop our field and try again.”

Klent looked uncomfortable. “That still might not work, and we’ll be left with a very long walk home. Even if it does, what if we cannot synchronize, or whatever? Remember, you and I are not Man.”

Doby accepted the logic of that observation and brought the platform down. “I’ll walk in alone.”

Not entirely sure he was doing the correct thing, Doby approached the shimmering barrier. Hesitating, he extended his arm. A tingle raced up his arm and he felt mild discomfort. Taking a deep breath, he stepped through. He turned and laughed at Klent’s goggling expression. Heart singing, he skipped out.

“I don’t believe it,” Klent declared in awe.

“I reasoned that before THAR defeated STOR, Man built this station for a purpose,” Doby said. “Since every city was under THAR’s control except this one, and presumably others like it, Man would need a way to enter this station and keep THAR’s machines out. Even with its field down, I suspect my platform would not have been allowed through.”

Klent frowned. “You’re mixed up, my boy. If this station was built by Man to keep out THAR’s minions, you should not have been able to pass through the field.”

Doby opened his mouth in astonishment, but nothing came out. What Klent said was true, but he did go through. He had followed a chain or logical reasoning and did what a Man would do, Yet he was not Man. Why then did the station Monitor allow him to pass? The inescapable realization dawned on him and he felt goosebumps ripple over him.

“You are Man,” Klent whispered and sat down with a thump.

Doby shook his head, not believing it. “I cannot fault your conclusion, but it is not possible. Something must be wrong with the station’s field. You try it.”

“Me?”

“Extend your hand and touch the field. If you don’t get a reaction, we’ll know.”

“And if I do, I’ll be fried.”

Biting his lip, Klent stood up, took a step toward the shimmering field and slowly extended his arm. When nothing happened, he walked closer, then he was through. Nodding with satisfaction, Doby joined him.

“The Council will never believe us,” Klent muttered as he stared at his hands.

They walked over neatly trimmed grass until they reached the metallic-looking floor of the complex proper. Beside one of the structures lay a row of six platforms. Everything appeared new. Standing before the tower entrance, Doby pointed at a plaque above double doors.

“T-HR Tracking Station 12,” Klent whispered. “THAR. At least that is how you would pronounce it. But…”

“The Tale of Man is wrong,” Doby concluded firmly, his emotions churning, and stepped toward the doors. With a soft hiss, they slid aside. After unknown centuries that they were still operational…

The high ceiling glowed with pearly light. On his right were two elevators. He pointed at a door on his left and walked toward it. It retracted out of his way as he approached. Two contoured couches faced a large sloping console and a ceiling-high virtual screen pooling through random colors. A blue orb hung suspended in the middle of the room enclosed in a faint field that extended far into space.

“Earth,” Doby murmured reverently. “Look!” Hovering in what he considered to be a geosynchronous orbit was a glowing blue rectangular slab. He walked closer and touched the image. Immediately, glowing white words appeared beside it.

‘Space Tracking Orbital Relay, built in 2855 CE by the Union of Earth’

Doby lifted his head. “Monitor?”

“State your question,” the familiar voice filled the chamber.

“Purpose of T-HR 12.”

“It is a chain of twenty-four stations around Earth that controlled the STOR network.”

“Why has this station been abandoned?”

“Loss of contact with STOR due to malfunction in the operating system during a routine system upgrade.”

After prolonged questioning, a coherent picture emerged. The upgrade severed the control links with STOR and all tracking stations, and it took over the city Monitors. The station’s computer could not say how Man became enslaved or why the error in the operating system was not rectified. Isolated from other stations and cities, the computer was cut off from the global communication network.

Doby decided that a lot more time would be needed to fully understand what happened and how to overcome STOR…if that was possible. Man at the height of his powers failed, he reminded himself.

-6-

The two platforms descended daintily into the square, Klent coming down with hardly a wobble. It was an easy machine to fly. They were immediately surrounded by the villagers and curious children, all wanting to know what was going on.

Doby raised his arms to settle the crowd. “Listen to me everyone! Klent and I have returned from the hidden city in the north, and we have vital information that will change all our lives. I’ll explain everything in the Council building.”

Everybody surged after him as he made his way up the steps, his body trembling with excitement. There was limited room inside the large chamber, and some had to stand patiently outside.

Doby pointed at the picture of Station 12. “We were there, inside,” he said, facing the Elder and Kirhan. “And we a platform to prove it.”

“Impossible!” Kirhan roared, and the room exploded into confusion.

Pako Hram raised his hand. “Let us hear what he has to say. After all, he did bring back that platform.”

“We brought back much more than that, Elder,” Doby declared. “The knowledge that we are Man!”

Kirhan jumped to his feet and pointed a bony finger at Doby. “Blasphemer! You dare defile—”

Pako Hram pounded the table with his palm. “Silence!” When a semblance of order returned, he stared hard at Doby. “Explain yourself.”

“Man built STOR to help govern Earth. The city Monitors controlled communications, transport systems, and many other things besides, including the Keepers. A routine system upgrade broke the control link with the tracking stations and STOR began to operate independently. It is not clear why control was not restored, but one thing we do know. Using brain imprinting, Man was enslaved. There is no THAR, and we are not its constructs.”

“You are babbling, boy!” Kirhan declared and turned to the others. “No one can possibly believe what he is saying. THAR created us to serve him, and one day Man will return from the stars and free us.”

“The Tale of Man is wrong!” Doby bellowed. “But you don’t have to believe me. Tomorrow, Klent and I—”

“And me!” Tani shouted, waving her arm.

“—will return to the station and complete a project Man started to regain control over STOR. We can take five of you with us, and you will see that I have spoken the truth. The station has platforms, and we can use them to ferry everyone who wants to come. You don’t have to live in hardship anymore.”

Kirhan reached into his pocket and levelled a small needler. “Die, blasphemer!” he snarled and fired. The beam grazed Doby’s right arm as he flung himself down.

Someone behind him screamed in agony. Two grim faced men grabbed Kirhan and wrestled him to the floor. Trying to ignore the sting in his arm and the oozing blood, Doby slowly got to his feet and turned. A youth he had known in the machine shop lay on the stone floor with a black burn in his chest, vacant eyes staring at nothing. He looked at the Elder.

“Is this what we have become, Pako Hram? Fighting each other to preserve a flawed belief? Then STOR has already won.”

-7-

“…And then Man created STOR, and it was given dominion over the whole Earth. Man roamed the stars while STOR kept Earth safe from her enemies. Centuries passed, and Man prospered, with Earth the jewel of the galaxy. STOR built cities that glittered at night, their spires reaching toward the stars themselves.

“STOR was not satisfied with holding dominion over Earth. It sought to destroy Man everywhere, and it rebelled. Man fought long, leaving Earth devastated, but in the end, STOR defeated Man. It was the beginning of the Dark Age. Man was enslaved and disobedience was punished with death!”

“What happened then, Mother? Tell me!”

The woman smiled and ruffled the boy’s hair. “Then a Man named Doby came. He was brave, cunning and gentle, and STOR feared him. One day, Doby confronted STOR for the final time and Earth held its breath. STOR was powerful and they fought, but Doby was also powerful. He reached up and tore STOR from the sky. Man was free at last, and once again, Earth became the jewel of the galaxy.”

Brushing away a rebellious lock of hair from the boy’s forehead, she cradled him as they watched a red sunset, the slim city spires bright around them.

“Never forget the Tale of Man, Timmy.”

The boy squirmed in his mother’s arms, stars in his eyes. He never tired listening to his mother recite the Tale of Man. Every time he heard it, it made him determined that one day, he too would roam the stars. One day…

No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.

Copyright © Stefan Vucak 2017