The way Akrim described it, the world once was paradise, inhabited by people like us. No one really believed him. I used to listen to his every word, breathless. Three days was the most he ever stayed, the longest without the tribe claiming his work and possessions for the use and betterment of the people. It was a tradition rooted in ancient times when people lived in houses and travelled the lands, seas and air with machines they built. During those three days I absorbed all of his knowledge and through the years he taught me everything I know today.
“This will be the last of my visits, Tanmee,” Akrim said. His hair was bone white and he had difficulty walking. His lower right leg was now ceramic; a recent change due to his fluxer malfunctioning around gray phages that took a leg’s worth of his base material.
“Akrim,” I asked, “who then will speak to the tribes of the times before the Wilding? And which tribe will you join?”
Akrim shook his ancient head. “I have travelled from Svarfallaken in the high North, down to the free state of Gibraltar in the deep south, where the ocean begins and the people talk funny. I have transferred all my knowledge and I will not be a burden to anyone. My next journey I will do without my fluxer.”
I looked at him, eyes wide. “That’s suicide. No one ever managed more than a few clicks without shielding.”
The old teacher gave a tired smile. “It won’t be easy.”
“But all your knowledge…”
“…resides with you and many others. Still, I have something I would like to ask you, Tanmee. A favor.”
I nodded eagerly.
From his backpack Akrim took a canvas bundle that he carefully untied. Inside the cloth were five obviously human manufactured parts. “I believe these parts form a key to our stay on this world. It’s just not complete yet. I suspect that the Fraunhofer has the last pieces. A friend of mine in Münster, Andreas, told me about it. One of his ancestors was an employee there.”
“What is it?” I asked.
Akrim shrugged. “The story does not tell.” He pointed out a gold colored globe. “This is the core. There are six holes, for six modules.” He took the second piece of metal that was jet black and seemed heavy. It fit one of the six holes perfectly. He showed me how to extract the module. One by one he put the other pieces in the globe.
“And what is Fraunhofer?”
Akrim smiled. “Fraunhofer was a research institute for high technology.”
“What will you do with it?” I said.
Akrim smiled at me. “You’re asking the wrong question. What will you do with it?” He pushed the canvas with the parts on it in my direction, together with a small poetry book that I had seen many times before. It contained the works by his favorite poets. He got up, smiled, and placed his hand on my head for a moment. “Once I dreamed of the stars, colonizing space, technological miracles.” He sighed. “Sometimes dreams need to change.”
It was the last time I ever saw him.
Three years later, with the trees greening, I was ready to leave the island of Hilversum, the refuge of my tribe from rising waters and the ever hungry phages. The remains of the city were covered in the uniform, black paint that converted light into electricity that in turn kept the flux lines, set up around the island, operational.
In the last five years no phages had landed on the island, still all tribe members carried with them their personal fluxer. Just in case. Being devoured alive by nano machines was not an attractive prospect.
The years since Akrim’s departure I spent searching for information about the parts he entrusted to me, in the remains of the once omnipresent Internet. It was frustrating; with much of the knowledge I needed residing elsewhere, if it still existed at all. Most that I found in the catacombs of Hilversum, where computer systems from before the Wilding, were still humming along, was meta data, information about the information I was looking for.
As I discovered more and my understanding grew, the importance of the objects started affecting my mood. The device should have been the solution for out of control nano technology experiments. The how of it was nowhere to be found. I did find the names of the institutes that were involved in developing the solution: Hamburg, Hannover, Dresden, Munich, Berlin.
To me the most obvious way to visit those cities was to travel by air. If I wanted to find the other parts, I needed as much time to search as I could get. Using an old, rusty bike I created a supporting frame. Using the printers and old computer supplies I created the wings that I covered in the same paint as used in Hilversum for generating power. During flight they should provide sufficient electricity to support my energetic pedaling, besides maintaining the flux lines woven into the entire structure.
Of course the tribe elders discovered my plans. The day before I wanted to set off they visited me in my workshop, two women, one man.
“Tanmee Johnsdotter,” Jelte Vriesman said. She was the eldest of the women. “We have learned of your intent to travel. I speak for us all when I kindly request you to give up that foolish idea.”
I looked up from the maps I had been studying for the first leg of my journey. The faces of the tribe elders seemed tense. “I see no reason to stay,” I said.
“We see several,” Hans Gortsen explained. “The number of women born is limited. You have reached an age suitable for marriage. Besides, you know the ancient’s technology and your workshop supplies the tribe with valuable services.”
I shrugged. “Others can do it.” I looked at them, knowing they would read the fire in my eyes. “I carry within me all the stories from Akrim and others. The dream of the Old World, before the Wilding, when people could go where they wanted. Those stories must be told. People like us, young and old, must remember that there was once more than there is now. That we are not just the remnants of an advanced civilization, rather the beginning of a new, better human civilization. That’s why I must go.”
Jelte looked at Hans and Fride Bouazhati. “We refuse to allow this. You cannot go.”
I laughed. “That’s not up to you to decide.”
Fride smiled benignly. “You are right. However, the tribe council convenes in the morning. Their advice is binding. And that means you will remain and you will get married. By force if needed.”
I felt my blood turn ice cold. “I thought Hilversum was a free state?”
Fride shook her head. “Freedom is valuable. But there is the greater good and the future of the tribe. Let’s also not forget our traditions.”
“Is that it?”
Fride nodded. The others as well. “To make sure you don’t get any wild ideas, two guards have been posted outside to keep you here.”
Nonchalantly I raised my shoulders. “We shall see what the tribe council has to say in the morning, when I present my case.”
As soon as the three elders left my workshop, I started to prepare my escape. I had no intentions to wait for the decision of the tribe council. The results of that meeting were as good as certain.
Outside my window I noticed the two guards, each carrying a baton. My personal printer and supplies were already fixed to my bike. My bag of provisions was ready. Akrim’s modules were in there as well, of course.
I waited for proper darkness before I opened the hatch in my workshop and crawled through the low passageway that led into the forest. My bike was a bit further, its wings neatly folded.
I entered the vehicle and cycled to the beach where I unfolded the wings. Using the energy stored during the day and lots of muscle power, I managed to get the contraption airborne. Within ten minutes I was wheezing for breath, but there was no stopping over open water.
A soft westerly breeze lifted me higher and allowed me to slow down on the pedals, catch my breath. In the bright star light I saw the flooded meadows, villages and cities, some roof tops still visible and occasionally a multi-storey flat sticking up like an isolated rock above the water.
I cycled all night until at dawn I noticed the faraway hills of The Veluwe. The wings started their collection and started to feed current into the propellers, finally allowing me to rest and at leisure view the surroundings.
Once there were trees on The Veluwe, deciduous and coniferous, shrubs, various grasses. Now it was a wasteland of conspicuous hills that sported fractal structures. I recognized them as a recombinant species of pine tree. Hardly aggressive, so safe for humans.
A flat field with sand and pathetic lichen at the top of a hill seemed a good place to land. I steered my bicycle towards it and elegantly landed without flipping over. Just before touch down I fluxed. As soon as I had come to a stop I fluxed again, to make sure. A phage or an incidental Von Neumann could cause lots of damage, rapidly.
I checked the batteries in my personal fluxer before getting off. Westwards was the sea, my home, Hilversum, somewhere over the horizon. I took a deep breath. The air smelled of freedom.
A tough piece of flat bread and a chunk of hard cheese were breakfast. While I chewed I gazed at the maps I brought along. Fraunhofer, Akrim told me. But which one? I found out early on that there were dozens of locations in former Germany. Did I have to visit them all to find what I was looking for? And how much time would it take to find the one Fraunhofer institute that held the last parts and once there how could I find them?
For the first time in very long I felt overwhelmed by my surroundings. The world was a damn big place and I suspected that my preparations were by no means sufficient. My thoughts drifted to Akrim who had travelled from tribe to tribe for years and wherever he visited, he told about that same, huge world.
I took a deep breath and inspected my surroundings once more. Moss patches, hardly changed since the Wilding. Pine trees, changed, adjusted by some phage that made the trees grow in bizarre patterns, although –as I had read somewhere-, remarkably efficient at photosynthesis.
The most I saw was the layer of gray ash, like some huge fire had raged long ago. But that never occurred. It consisted of the remains of dozens of species of nano machines, phages and retro viruses that fought each other and, as far as I knew, were still doing that.
First I needed to rest. Carefully I stretched flux lines around the vehicle and my sleeping bag and connected it to my alarms. Even the minutest of threats would activate the flux that would terminate all electronic life. Organic threats were much less of an issue.
In the afternoon my batteries were full, I had slept and eaten and I was ready for the next leg of my journey. Life smiled at me and I felt great.
Akrim told me about enclaves still standing. Far beyond Hive Apeldoorn and the Hengelo fractal trees was peaceful Münster, surrounded by moats and steel flux fences that encompassed the habitable parts like a dome.
Seemingly without effort my bike jumped into the air, pushed by the electric propellers and rising air above the open spots on The Veluwe. From the air the forests were complicated, endlessly repeating patterns. I recognized the overgrown villages that only held the iron skeletons of reinforced concrete structures. The concrete itself had been consumed long ago and repurposed.
Beyond The Veluwe was a briny swamp that submerged during flood, like it had now. Clumps of hardy grass peeked just above the rippling surface. The sea was hardly touched by the Wilding, as if the salt water prevented inroads by phages and nano machines.
A few shreds of dense fog I closely tracked, until the wind took them away from me. If they had approached me, against the wind, they would have been gray phages. The kind that sometimes floated down on Hilversum and that had in the past decades occasionally devoured people. Not everyone always carried a fluxer in the relative safety of the island.
The landscapes sliding past below me were mixtures of competing nano cultures each with their own forts and printed buildings, covered in plants, glittering solar collectors or combinations of all of this with indefinable protrusions. Not a place to walk past, deadly without a fluxer.
At some point I had to evade collections of tubes that shot plushy balls of pink and gray into the air when I approached.
When evening fell the gigantic structures of the fractal trees of Hengelo appeared on the horizon, their tops spreading across the land, illuminated by the light of the sinking sun, the trunk hundreds of yards thick hidden in darkness.
I chose my landing spot with care, a small island in a long, narrow lake. It had normal trees and grass. There were phages and nano machines, but they seemed to have formed a symbiotic relationship with the trees and the grass and were difficult to see. When I passed them nothing moved. They either ignored me or were genuinely uninterested.
To be sure I fluxed the area where I slept and put up flux wires everywhere to exterminate aggressive phages.
Lying on my back I stared at the western sky that started out a milky blue and gradually transitioned to light pink before turning to dark purple. Slowly stars appeared as the sun moved beyond the horizon. I felt the irony of staring at the lights that once paled next to the lights of the cities of Holland and the wastefulness of the inhabitants who recklessly created self replicating machines and then lost control of their creations. A worldwide Frankenstein, without feelings, nearly indestructible.
That made me think of the Wilding, of my grandparents who experienced the devouring of their world. What went through their minds, knowing their children inherited a world so radically different and inhospitable? Did they feel guilt? Did they try to protect their offspring to the best of their abilities? I remembered my own father’s words who told us about the way his father tried to halt a nano infestation using only a personal fluxer, while his family rushed to safety.
I touched the bag, felt the reassuring lump of the device that Akrim claimed was the solution. But for what? For the problem of phages and nano machines? Fraunhofer was in charge of the many projects that were started to curb the Wilding, to maybe reverse its effects. Apparently they failed. Or maybe they succeeded, but the pieces were, for whatever reason, never combined.
I sighed. Chances of finding anything were remote. Chances that it would work were probably even slimmer. I shivered thinking of the alternative: forced marriage. Probably to one of those creepy Jacobsen sons. No, rather the freedom of the outside world, no matter the danger.
In the light of stars and moon I read a few poems by Bilderdijk, sonnets by Kloos, a piece of Vondel and I remembered the deserved praise Akrim gave their work.
The sun in my eyes woke me. My flux lines remained silent and I felt rested, ready for the next part of my journey into the unknown.
Around me the grass twisted lasciviously. I recognized it as pole dance grass, a harmless adaptation.
On my maps I found the old city of Münster. A slight wind from the west pushed clouds eastward. There would be less light to help me fly, but the wind compensated for that. I might arrive in Münster today, possibly even in daylight, allowing me to ask questions and investigate.
I inspected the wings of my contraption and discovered a few small colonies of nano machines that tried to consume the paint. A quick flux short circuited them and I wiped away the gray ash effortlessly.
To make sure I also inspected my clothes and skin. Everything seemed clean. Satisfied I resumed my journey, leaving the fractal trees behind me.
The German low lands were silent and stark. The green I encountered was an amorphous slimy mass covering several villages. Inside the green slime human skeletons still floated, performing a macabre dance in the softly quivering material.
Streams that I encountered were covered with blood red weed that actively struck out its roots and wherever it could hold on, it dragged its mass of stalks and leaves, leaving behind a track of bare, dead earth.
Once this was fertile land. Green meadows, farmland, orchards and farms. Akrim told me about it. During his life he had seen the world change faster than ever, old nature rapidly replaced by new, semi living structures that followed their own rules that were different than those of the local flora and fauna. Part of me desired that world, that safe environment that humans adapted to but in turn adapted to suit their own needs. At the same time the complexity, colors and ingenuity of these intruders, that we ourselves animated, fascinated me endlessly.
During the afternoon the I saw the characteristic steel fences that comprised the dome shape harboring parts of Münster, safe within its net of high voltage currents that killed electronic and semi organic life. Something was odd.
The windows in the houses were as dark as the parts of the city outside of the dome and rampant weeds had overgrown the lower parts of the fences. It was obvious to me that they must have had an unfortunate power outage, one that could not be resolved quickly enough. I softly cursed. If the trail ended here this might well be the end of my journey. Alternatively I might succumb to whatever it was that had made the people disappear. I decided to set my bike down at some distance from the city.
With an extra flux battery in my backpack I walked to the edge of the fencing. Beyond it were houses, most with rotting vegetables in vegetable gardens and small greenhouses, as far as phages or nano machines had not gotten into them.
The gate was open. The ground was covered in gray ash, so I fluxed regularly to prevent any nano machines from taking hold. Inside the steel dome was an eerie silence, as if all life had disappeared. The new rulers of the Earth talked in the electro magnetic spectrum. Until I entered the main street – literally Hauptstrasse according to the street sign – and heard a deep, ghostly moaning that gave me goose bumps.
I remained very still until I heard the moaning again and was able to decide a direction. A few houses on a door was half open. I walked towards it and carefully entered. The ceiling of the hallway was covered in vines covered with small, yellow flowers that followed me as I passed. A thick branch ran into the living room. When I entered I saw a half disintegrated sofa and an overgrown book case from which almost the entire contents were gone, except for a few thick volumes. The vines don’t like heavy reading.
When I wanted to leave I saw the opposite wall, completely covered in vines. In the middle of the wall a face was visible through vines and flowers. It seemed bleak and painfully distorted. A plucky beard and thick eyebrows convinced me this was a man.
I saw it happen, still I got scared when his mouth opened, producing the sad moaning that I heard before.
“Sir! Sir! Are you ok? What’s going on?” I did not even know if he spoke Hilversum, but his moaning stirred a deep sense of pity in me.
His eyes flew open, his pupils large and black. I think he noticed me. His mouth opened like a fish trying to breathe. “Hilf michhh…”
I looked at the vines that covered him. They were merged with his body that was mostly bereft of flesh. His organs were in little pockets inside the green wall.
“I… there’s nothing I can do.” I did not know if he understood me, until he answered.
“Ich weiß.” He seemed to think, then said in another voice: “Ich know. Hab Durst.”
I poured some water from my canteen into his open mouth and let him drink. Water streamed through his open throat down along the vines. “Better?”
“Ja, danke.” Yet another voice.
I saw him close his eyes again. “I’m looking for a Fraunhofer institute. The one that researched phages and nano machines. Do you know which one?” He seemed to sleep. I wanted to say more, but his eyes opened again.
“Anfang von Alles war Dresden. Hat mir Andreas gerade erzählt. Tabula rasa.”
His words made me shiver. “I know there was research there. I did not know the Wilding started in Dresden.” I sighed. Perhaps it was the right place. I wondered if it was still reachable if the Wilding started there. I would have to find out. It was the best clue I’d had so far.
The man’s eyes turned back into their sockets. “Es kommt. Geh weg. Raus!”
A shiver ran through the vines. A sign for me to quickly leave. I hesitated to leave the unknown man behind. Should I grant him a merciful death? I remembered the other voices coming from his mouth and I guessed he was not as alone as he seemed, so I left him.
Outside the sky was pink like salmon in the dying light of the sun that illuminated the underside of the clouds. Münster’s empty streets made me feel unheimlich, like someone or something was watching me, ready to jump out the moment my vigilance wavered for the tiniest of moments.
With my fingers on the flux trigger I hurried out of the dead city of Münster. At a safe distance I climbed a low hill and turned around. In the dusk I saw vines lashing through the streets, penetrating buildings. I had left just in time.
He knew Andreas. And he said Dresden was the source. And tabula rasa? I don’t think there will be many better clues, if any.
The next morning I ate some dried sausage. My supplies were dwindling fast. That meant I would have to seek food in the coming days. Once in a while I encountered unchanged patches of forest where I might find berries, apples or sweet chestnuts. I would not starve, question was if I would lose more time to foraging then actually reaching my goal.
My trusty bike jumped into the air when I started to pedal. My goal lay almost due east, across the German low lands, in the direction of Göttingen, then Leipzig and then, maybe in three days, Dresden itself. Whatever was left of it, of course.
The memories of the man in the wall, covered in vines, tugged at my senses. I wondered if I should have helped him, in whatever way. I also doubted my resolve if I ever had to kill another human, even if merciful. That was my dilemma. How bad off was he, really? He was being kept alive. Others too, maybe. Why? It was a riddle that kept me occupied while the adapted landscapes flew by below me.
I crossed rivers that had repeatedly flooded, creating series of small lakes that were in turn overgrown by red and purple reeds. Some of them I observed from a lower elevation so I could properly identify changes to flora and fauna. Bizarre birds the size of a small vehicle waded through the lakes on telescopic stilts, while skewering squirming eels with harpoon like feathers that they then devoured through one of many metal beaks spread around their body. I almost ventured too low until a sharp feather smacked into the bottom of my bike.
Another time a cloud of dragonfly shaped metal insects descended on the wings of my bike. I was startled, but figured they would do no harm. Until I saw one of them take the first bite from the paint, immediately followed by a hundred that had by now joined, completely synchronized. I fluxed my bike and the now dead creatures fell off in a cloud of stiff wings where one of the lakes awaited them.
In these moments I started doubting again. Even if I found the solution, if tabula rasa was that, what would be the effect, precisely? Would the metal based nano machines be stopped? Would the phages die? What about the viruses? Biological parasites? Biological nano machines? Or was it just a piece of a bigger solution? A way to weaken the worst of the threats to the human race, giving us the opportunity to adapt until the day we could adapt nature to our needs again, as we had before?
Bad winds and worrying tired me quickly. I nearly missed the approach of sundown. I was fortunate to find an open spot close to Göttingen, where I set down my bike. Dark clouds approached and rain soon followed. I fluxed the ground around me and quickly pulled a transparent piece of plastic over the wings and the cabin and closed off my protective shell with ceramic pins that I pushed into the ground, just in time for the real deluge. I sat back in my chair, two feet off the ground. The ground would quickly be saturated. I felt disappointed that I could not watch the stars tonight.
Somewhere I dozed off. I woke up to chirps and whistles. It was light outside. I looked around, noticed the ground that was still soggy. Everything felt damp. A leak in the plastic cover had allowed rain water to enter and drip along my right arm and onto the bottom of my bike that fortunately had small holes for drainage. I just hoped the wheels wouldn’t get stuck. I stretched and noticed that the open spot was no longer open.
Surrounding my bike were dozens of smaller and larger trees, up to the plastic sheet that I had thrown over my vehicle and myself. Apparently they had sprung up during the night. Or they had moved towards me in an inexplicable way. Fortunately I was prepared for such things.
I rolled up the plastic and put it away while the trees kept chirping and whistling curiously. Next I folded the wings and rolled my vehicle past the stems and trunks until I found a spot that was sufficiently free of obstacles to take off. My fluxer at the ready I walked the path that I would follow until I found a green vine that stretched across the path. A vine covered in small, yellow flowers.
I held my breath as I carefully took a few steps back. I just hoped it would be less active during the day. Quickly I unfolded the wings, fastened them and got on to the bike. Seeing the man inside the wall had impressed me much worse than I originally thought. The idea of being caught by something similar made me shiver. The electric propellers came on full throttle. I added my own muscles and stepped on the pedals with as much power as I could muster.
Close to the vine I pulled up and my vehicle took to the air. Below me I saw the vine lash up, nearly reaching me, but it fell short. Only at about a hundred yards up in the air I calmed down. Seeing the early sun rise helped.
Far below me the city of Göttingen started. It was a dark green hole, many dozens to hundreds of yards deep, with overgrown buildings that had sunk there for unknown reasons. I also saw the large versions of the vines I’d seen before, yards thick stalks that smothered everything, covered in the same yellow flowers. The green sea below seemed to move in a hypnotic pattern, like the regular breathing of a sleeping human. I stepped on the pedals and took my vehicle upwards, helped by warm winds that rose from the deepness of the hole. The same unheimisch feeling I had in Münster, I had again. I was glad to leave the city behind.
Around noon the fever started. First there was nausea, followed by shivers all over my body. My muscles sometimes refused to work and my vehicle floated calmly on, light from the sun feeding the propellers.
I knew something was not right when my right arm turned stiff and would no longer obey. My sweater was tight around the swollen limb. On a deserted, bare field I set down. With my left hand I took the first aid kit from behind my chair. It contained several antibiotics, bandages and scissors. Carefully I cut away my sleeve until my right arm was bare.
I swallowed a few times when I realized I was dealing with a phage infection, a silent killer you could run into just about anywhere. Fortunately they could be neutralized with a fluxer if you were fast enough. I’d been infected for at least half a day. My skin had turned gray in spots and geometric patterns crisscrossed it like some kind of electronic circuit board.
Will this be the end of me? Anger. Can’t be. Can’t end like this! Alternatives. Can I amputate my arm? But how? And then what?
I rummaged around in the box and checked the antibiotics one by one. None of them was suitable for phages. What is? Wait… I took my fluxer and placed it on my arm. Pain shot through my body and all my muscles spasmed. I pressed the button and the pain and the spasms disappeared. Once more I pressed the button, knowing I would not get them all. I kept fluxing on various parts of my body until the battery was empty.
A thought surfaced in my mind: Tabula Rasa. If I want to survive this I’ll have to hurry. If it reaches my brain or my heart, it’s over. In my head I prepared a schedule to use the fluxer every three hours or as often as I needed it.
I took to the sky until at dusk I started to get nauseous again. Leipzig seemed a dead city whose buildings lined the horizon like crumbling black teeth. A deserted six lane highway that passed the city was the perfect spot to land.
The gray spots on my arm had spread further and I felt heat in several places on my body. The fluxer again worked wonders, making me feel better immediately. Fortunately my batteries were fully charged in the ample sunlight.
Being in a hurry I considered flying on in the darkness, but the light of the stars was not bright enough to properly navigate. In daylight my maps were quite readable and I was able to identify the landscape passing by below. In the dark this would be impossible.
Walking was hard. I had an irrational fear that my legs were infected, until I considered that I had just pedaled for over six hours and worked hard to distract myself. It was just regular muscle ache.
I finished the last of my food. The coming days I would be hungry. I could only hope for some old, forgotten canned food or fresh fruit growing in the wild. Right that moment I thought I was the loneliest woman in the world. Even being married off to one of the Jacobsens seemed an attractive alternative, but just for the tiniest of moments. I grinned that my aversion turned out to be stronger than my loneliness. Still, my situation was far from ideal. I set my watch for the next three hours and tried to sleep.
The irritating beeping seemed to go off almost immediately. I opened my eyes, saw that three hours had passed. Feeling despondent I took the fluxer and inspected my arm. The gray patterns were nearly gone. I wiped my other hand across the last spots and gray dust fell away from my skin.
Have I killed the phage? Euphoria. Did the fluxing do that? Realism. No, that’s nearly impossible. Doubt. Is the phage mutating right now? Will it change its strategy? Cold sweat. What if I faint while flying? Acceptance and shrug. A quick death is preferable to being eaten alive, slowly. And it sure beats being married off to one of the Jacobsens.
I set my watch.
The sun lit up the cabin of my bike and woke me. I was disoriented for a moment. A slight headache made me rub my head until I saw the black ruins of Leipzig all around me.
Then I noticed the blinking display of my watch. Damn, empty battery. Fear. Did the phage return? Check.
I looked at my arms and legs, took off my sweater and looked down my shirt, between my breasts. Nothing, no gray patterns. I took a deep breath.
Relieved I put my clothes back on, drank some water and started the vehicle. Effortlessly I slid off the freeway, over the edge and floated over the remains of Leipzig. The city was dead, nothing moved, rusted car wrecks were about the only color in the drab landscape.
I pedaled with energy that I hadn’t had for days. Perhaps my muscles have finally got used to the pace.
A few kilometers beyond Leipzig a vast forest began that still resembled the forests that I knew from pictures in ancient books. I remembered the small island near Hengelo with its symbioses of flora and fauna. I assumed the forest was like that. I was almost sure of it.
For hours I glided over the soothing green. Whether it was the presence of that familiar color, the fact that for once my muscles weren’t aching, the knowledge that I had survived a phage infection or being close to Dresden, I felt great.
:: query: Designation?
What’s that? Who said that?
:: query: Designation? Name?
My heart skipped a beat and I gasped. “Who said that?” I spoke out loud. I looked around me through the plastic windows of the vehicle to see if someone or something was outside.
:: answer: Designation We, Us. Swarm suffices.
“I’m either going mad or I’m already there.” Again I said it out loud, partly to convince myself nothing was wrong, partly to test if I was awake and still part of reality.
:: query: Going mad, explain?
“Cut it out, fun’s over.” I felt my throat constrict and my earlier fear, when my arm was still swollen, returned. Is it an after effect of the phage?
:: answer: Swarm is phage.
“This is ridiculous. The phage is dead. Come on Tanmee, it’s the stress of the last days, you’re hallucinating.”
:: fact: Swarm understood attacks. Swarm regrouped. Designation Tanmee.
I pushed my hands in my eyes. “Stop it! Stop it!”
I breathed deep. Relieved. Perhaps I had been hallucinating. To make sure I inspected my arms and legs again. Not a trace of infection. My eyes did hurt, probably from pushing my fists in them.
My thoughts wandered off to the face between the vines. Not human anymore, though with human aspects. Both more and less than human. Then again, what defines a human? What is humanity?
I was never much for philosophy so my distrust came back in full force.
Reaching the end of the forest and the beginning of an open plain distracted me. The horizon showed the silhouette of city towers. Dresden. An end to all this. A new beginning, whatever that may be. If I can find the final pieces of tabula rasa.
My trusty vehicle slowly descended to the north west side of the city, once the location of the airport. I was not sure if that was still there or that it had been overgrown. If I couldn’t land there, one of the many roads of the city that I saw on the map should suffice. The main reason I wanted to land there was that one of the Fraunhofer institutes I wanted to visit was close to it.
The airport was still accessible. Carefully I set down on the concrete. Below the half collapsed roof of a hangar were several ancient airplanes, mostly business jets, their paint flaking, tires disintegrated, the windows yellow and opaque from more than a century of neglect.
It surprised me how little Dresden had actually fallen victim to the nano machines and phages, when that Andreas person claimed the Wilding originated here.
I wonder if there’s still some food in those planes? It was a possibility. The planes looked untouched and some airplane food could last eternity. Or so I’d been told.
I pushed a passenger stair to the first airplane and tried to open the door. It was locked or it had corroded shut. I twisted and pulled as hard as I could and finally felt something give. With a tearing sound I opened the door. The door handle fell to the ground, the metal twisted and broken.
A stale vapor left the airplane and I coughed a few times, hard. I understood that I forced the door open, but I did not immediately realize how much strength that required. The possibility of the presence of food dominated my thoughts.
I ducked and stepped through the low door into the plane. A thin layer of dust was on everything. I recognized it as harmless dust, not the remains of phages or nano machines. Through the aisle I reached the back and a small galley. I rummaged through the cupboard and finally found a few cans with completely disintegrated labels. I also found boxes filled with plastic bags that contained dried up cashew nuts. I opened one and carefully tasted one. It was hard, dried out, but the taste was still there and they hadn’t spoiled. I swallowed a mouthful with some water. Food worthy of the Gods.
I emptied the boxes in my bag and added the cans. I was ready to investigate the city. I put my bag in my vehicle and only took a knife, my fluxer, water and several bags of cashew nuts. I walked across the airport in the direction of the nearest neighborhood. As I studied the buildings, my view turned red, then blue, then became so clear and sharp that I staggered. “Whoa, what’s this?” Was it the nuts, were they spoilt?
:: fact: Optimizing visual perception completed.
Wait, it’s still there. I wasn’t hallucinating? Thinking about it gave me cold shivers.
:: query: Tanmee processing structure. Probability of ten dimensional or higher estimated at more that ninety percent.
The question surprised me. I was now almost sure that “something” was inside me, which made me panic. Then again I was talking to that “something” and that calmed me. A bit. Not much. Process structure? Brains? I considered for a few moments, not knowing if my thoughts could be intercepted, before answering: “Fact: I am a God in my innermost thoughts.”
Silence. Scary silence.
Slowly I shrugged, although I felt much less sure than I pretended to be. I used the access way to leave the airport. The streets of Dresden were a mixture of very old, early twentieth century architectural styles, with occasional modern and hypermodern buildings in between. They were all equally dirty now, covered in moss and vines, sometimes fully overgrown.
Metallic flashes of insects flying by were visible in the green on the buildings.
From the shadows I walked onto an open square, into the sunlight. At that moment it looked like I had entered a green valley, filled with life and hope. Even the air was fresh, crisp, like the start of a new day.
According to my map the Fraunhofer institute I had targeted was a few streets beyond the square. I noticed a path through the brushes, took my fluxer in hand and started walking.
After six paces my feet stopped. Literally.
:: warning: Hostile life form detected. Halt required.
Now what? I felt real fear this time. If the phage could stop my body like this, how then could I be sure I was still me?
:: observation: Speculation. Swarm intentions good.
“You are reading my mind. You control my body. How can I every trust you?”
At that moment the square split open and a nightmare maw in green and red filled with endless rows of white fangs appeared. It clapped open and shut a few times, in vain, before sinking back into the square.
“Right,” I said. I swallowed a few times. “That’s a start.” I tried to step back. That succeeded without issue. “Another path might be better.”
Carefully I found my way past the idyllic square. I should have known better. Beauty in this world often hid deadly dangers.
:: query: Definition beauty.
“Listen, Swarm, I don’t know what you are and why you are inside me. I’ve never heard of anything like this. I’m confused, angry, sad, scared and lots more and I really don’t feel like answering stupid questions.”
:: query: Definition beauty.
I sighed. Persistent bitch. “What I like. The things my sight and senses tell me are beautiful.”
:: fact: Swarm has no concept of beauty.
“Too bad for you. And I mean that.”
:: fact: Swarm learns from Tanmee.
I laughed for a moment. “Humor. Just shut up about it, I want to focus on these streets.”
The institute was a few kilometers further. The streets of Dresden were eerily empty, except for vines and layers of filth on once white buildings. There were no car wrecks, no piles of garbage, as if the city had continued operating after the Wilding, autonomously, removing cars from the city and cleaning up the garbage.
The building I was looking for was overgrown with a variety of vines. The windows on the lower floors were all broken, the higher up windows seemed cracked but intact. They were covered in a thick layer of moss and algae.
“Getting in won’t be a problem.” I noticed I was talking to myself. I suspected the presence of Swarm had something to do with it. “If other people saw me now, they’d think I was a raving lunatic.” Who cared anyway. If I could find Akrim’s modules, all this would be over. “But, where would you hide a project that is a matter of life or death for all the world?”
On the south side I found an access into the basement of the building. In a distant past a sewer pipe had probably broken. The remains rotted into a thick layer of mulch that now hosted scores of mushrooms and fungi in the moist atmosphere. I fluxed regularly, alert for movement or unknown patterns.
From the basement a stair house allowed access to the upper floors. The lower floors were overgrown by vines that had come through the broken windows. It was hard to establish the purpose, once, of this floor, but I suspected it would have been reception and administration. More interesting stuff would probably be on the higher floors.
Several labs had doors and windows with biohazard signs. It was hard to imagine even more dangerous viruses and bio threats than what I had encountered outside could exist.
The endless halls and corridors of the building with doors on both sides depressed me.
“Think, Tanmee. You’re a researcher, you build ultra advanced, highly expensive technology that should work with the technology of other institutions to create a ‘solution’. Mankind’s survival depends on your success. You would have the biggest department, the most equipment and everything aimed at inventing the perfect module, in cooperation with dozens of your fellow researchers. There would be a manager to guide the process. With an office nearby. And most likely a secure place for the invaluable results.”
I walked for more than an hour through the corridors until I reached a stair leading up that was odd. There was some kind of air lock and a stair house that was all thick, reinforced glass. The air lock was closed. Above it was a single sign that I recognized immediately. A capital H with an arrow on top. Magnetic field strength. Oersted. A fluxer, a big one.
I pushed the big, yellow button in the door frame. Nothing happened, as I expected.
“So, brute force it is then.” I took my knife from my pocket and pushed it in the tiny crack between the two halves of the door. I put my foot against the door frame and pushed, hard. The door did not budge. I pushed harder. I felt the movement and fell to the ground, the handle of the knife in my hand. Broken. I sucked on the cut in my right hand where I had fallen past the broken blade. The door had budged a half centimeter, no more.
“Damn.” I kicked the door, to no effect, of course. “Easy now. Think before you hurt yourself again.” I opened another bag of nuts that I swallowed down with some water. “Fire. An axe.” On my way up I encountered several red cupboards with fire fighting equipment. One storey down I opened one of those. It had hardly rusted. Next to a half disintegrated rubber hose was an axe, well rusted, but probably still quite usable.
With renewed strength I attacked the door. Fifteen minutes later I was ready to give up. With all my hammering the door had opened perhaps one more centimeter. Angrily I hit one of the windows, but didn’t even manage to scratch it. “Shit, where are those mindless Jacobsen hulks when you need them.” I threw the axe away, put feet against the door frame and pushed. My muscles creaked and protested. “Argh, give me strength!”
:: fact: Swarm can help.
I felt force enter my arms, legs and back and slowly the doors started sliding open until there was enough room to push my body through.
I got up. You’re hurt. Be smart, take care first. I looked at my hand that was covered in dried blood. With a piece of cloth I wiped it away, expecting painful stinging from the wound. My skin was whole. A very light line was proof that the wound had been there. “Alright, that is impressive.” I felt ill at ease suddenly, knowing I would eliminate Swarm once I found the last of the modules. If I found them.
“Nonsense, Tanmee. Think of the world. The higher purpose. Save humanity.”
I pushed my body through the opening. On the other side were several skeletons with desiccated remains of flesh still on their bones. The inside of the door was scratched, as if they had tried to open it with their hands. I realized this may well have been the researchers, locked inside their lab once the power died.
I shoved the bones to the side and mounted the stairs. The upper floor was indeed a giant lab, filled with equipment. The atmosphere was dead, empty, the machines silenced without power, the tanks with fluids dried up, no biological or mechanical life had ever entered here, such was the security of this floor.
On the northernmost tip of the building was a closed off space. Sunlight entered the windows that were hardly touched by moss and algae. A sign next to the door told me that Herr Direktor Prof. Schliessinger once held sway here.
The door was unlocked. Inside was a large desk with a leather office chair, a skeleton in an expensive costume sitting in it. The skull looked up, a neat round hole in its forehead. I walked around the table and saw an old pistol lying next to the fallen hand of the skeleton.
The office was empty. No cupboards, baskets, chests or any other means of securing valuables. Just windows and an empty, dark marble or granite covered wall. Empty. Blank. Tabula Rasa. I looked at the wall carefully and walked to and fro before it.
As I walked I again experienced the shifting of my gaze from red to blue. Suddenly I noticed a pillar shape in a corner, artfully hidden inside the wall. Intrigued I walked over. There was something there, perfectly concealed, invisible unless you knew where to look. Still, I had seen it. I pushed it and something clicked. The pillar started to move until it had shifted out of the wall about twenty-five centimeters. My heart was racing and I gasped when I saw two familiar shapes inside the opening that had just been exposed. “The modules.” A lead weight seemed to clear my shoulders. I laughed, in the sunlight, for the modules I had found, for Akrim’s life work now near finishing, for the future of mankind and my own, in a world free, or more free, of the nano threats and semi biological phages that threatened our daily lives. Enough would remain, for sure, but balance could be restored and who knew, afterwards, perhaps another human civilization.
I took the two modules in my hands. They were comfortingly heavy, full of potential and promise. I stuffed them in my coat pockets and started the journey back to my vehicle where I had left my things, through the lab and the long corridors of the institute and back onto the streets of Dresden.
If I walked fast I might reach my vehicle before sundown. I would immediately attach the modules, no time to lose.
I walked past several high-rises, typical former East German concrete blocks. As soon as I turned the north corner in the direction of the airport, my path was blocked by a huge turkey tail growing out of the side of the building. It caused a continuous downpour of fine dust.
A gust of wind blew the dust my way and I felt tiny pricks on my bare arms. As I watched I saw the skin where the pricks happened, swell up and in seconds, before I could even use the fluxer, I noticed dark nodes appearing underneath my skin.
“Spores, damn,” I cursed. And fast ones too. You’re a goner, Tanmee. Phages and spores, great combination. Just when I got hold of the modules.
:: fact: Intruder detected. Activate defenses.
“Sure, how do I do that?” No answer. The itch on my arms did retreat significantly. The black spot turned red, then the light brown of my skin. All that remained of the spores was heat.
:: fact: Immune system reinforced. Swarm integration completed.
I pushed the fluxer against my skin and wanted to activate it, but Swarm’s voice interrupted me.
:: fact: Danger averted. Request: Not use fluxer, weakens Swarm.
“That’s against every instinct or reason I have.”
:: fact: Immune system reinforced. Fluxer not needed.
“Is there anything you can’t do, Swarm?”
I walked past the turkey tails at a respectable distance and found my way back to the airport, more determined than ever to end all the invisible threats to humanity. If the intruder inside me will allow it, of course. I have my doubts.
Keeping my fluxer ready I walked on, well aware of the dangers in these streets. The lead weight had returned on my shoulders. What if I failed now, so close. Those spores just now were deadly. Around every corner, underneath every stone, behind every wall was danger, the unexpected. Earth had become deadly, mutated into something our ancestors would hardly recognize and which horrified them most likely.
I breathed a few sighs of relief when I entered the open space of the airport. My vehicle was neatly parked where I left it. At the end I nearly ran. My stomach and belly were full of butterflies at the thought that the moment of liberation was fast approaching.
In the light of the setting sun I took my bag from the vehicle. I set up flux lines and performed my usual routine to secure myself. I had no idea how long the modules would need to activate, if they would work at all. I liked being prepared for the worst.
Hastily my finger pushed the modules into their designated slots inside the core. The final module I inserted slowly and reverentially. The completed puzzle I placed before me on the concrete of the runway.
Slowly a metal iris opened at the top of the core. Below it was a single, red, pulsating button. My right index finger hovered above the surface, alert for signs that my action would be stopped. I caught myself that I was actually waiting for it.
“Any last words, Swarm?”That’s the least I could do for him. It. Them. Whatever they are.
:: observation: Swarm knows not the meaning of Tanmee’s words.
“When people feel or know they’re about to die, they sometimes say a few final words. Beautiful or intriguing words to remember the dying person by.”
:: observation: Humans are complex. God in their innermost thoughts.
“And you know this from being with me?”
:: fact: Swarm remembers the earliest times. Swarm waited for a host for years. Hostess.
“And I just happened to be there?”
:: query: Do Gods not make their own fate?
“Philosophical questions when I’m asking for last words.” I pushed my finger closer to the red glow of the button.
:: fact: People have last wishes, besides last words.
I nodded. “Do you have a last wish?”
:: query: Swarm would know beauty. And feeling.
“You think I can teach you that?”
:: fact: Gods can.
I folded my arms on my stomach and looked up at the first stars that appeared now that the sun began to sink below the horizon. I thought of Akrim, his dreams and his life, devoted to finding a solution for humanity’s challenges.
“You sure picked some God to teach you that. You helped me, kept me from danger, saved my life. Several times, actually. And I tried to flux you.”
:: fact: Flux weakens. Swarm wants to safeguard existence. Yet understands Tanmee. Swarm accepts decisions.
“Swarm has found purpose.” I rubbed my eyes with my hands and looked up at the sky that was turning black, showing ever more dots of light. An idea started to form, a careful consideration of pros and cons of using Akrim’s solution. Carefully I removed the last module and the iris closed again. I removed all the modules and put them in my bag.
“I will help you achieve your goal, Swarm. I don’t know how, we’ll have to discover that. In the mean time you protect me. Perhaps we could even spread you amongst my people, like a vaccine, so we can protect those too.
:: query: Tanmee suggests symbiosis?
“I think you can call it that.” I nodded slowly and took a deep breath. I was new and improved. I would follow in Akrim’s footsteps and try to educate my fellow humans, those that remained and help them with the Swarm symbiosis, allowing them to lead a fluxless life and an opportunity to repopulate the Earth.
For the first time in forever I look at the points of light above me and dream of travelling to the planets, far out into space.
Like Akrim once did.
But I will never give up the stars.