Darin listened intently to the elder. He had heard the story many times, but, today it was different, made more sense. Or less. He wasn’t sure which. But it called to him in some way.
“Teacher?” he asked, interrupting. Teacher was what the youth of his village called the elders, for that was what they were.
“Yes, young one?” The elder asked, smiling. Uneven stained teeth flashed behind his white beard. He didn’t seem to mind the interruption at all. Darin knew that the elder liked questions — it meant his pupils were listening.
“I am… confused.”
Darin nodded. “I am trying to understand the story — and a great story it is — but there are things that I do not grasp. I suppose I should have grasped them long ago, but these questions never occurred to me.”
“My boy, if we never gained new insight into the tales with each new telling why would we continue to tell them?” he asked. He didn’t pause for an answer. “You are getting older and are beginning to see that everything in the world is not black and white, good and evil. That is a good thing, and I am proud that my words have touched you so. So, please, ask your questions.”
The other young ones turned their heads to look at Darin. None of them had the questions he had. They wanted to know what, if anything, they were missing from the tale.
“Well,” Darin started, “the Conductor created all that there is — he is all-powerful. This is a fact, not a question, of course. If he loves us so, as all the tales say, why does he not live among us?”
“That is a good question. And a mystery too. I am afraid that I may not be able to answer your question to your satisfaction. But I will try.” The elder stood and started pacing in a crooked, controlled lurch. He rested his weight partially on a gnarled cane. As he spoke he stared at each of the children seated round the fire in turn. “At one time the Conductor did live among us. When he first created the world he helped us on our way. He showed us how to fish, how to hunt, which berries were good to eat and which killed.” He paused, leaning heavily on his wooden cane. He directed his attention to Darin. “There came a point that there was no more to tell. We knew how to live without the Conductor. So, he moved on.”
“Where?” one of the other young ones asked.
“To places that we would not understand, I expect. While we are his children, we will never surpass him as children often do their parents. He is God, after all.”
They all nodded.
“Now, young ones, I need to rest.” He laughed. “You may have your lives ahead of you, but I get tired telling you about all the lives others have lived. Off with you.”
Darin stood. They were young, yes, but not children. Within a year he would be fourteen: a man. He would take a wife and start his family. But he felt that he could not do those things while questions still burned in him. And though the teacher’s answer had made sense, it didn’t tell all.
He waited until the others had left. “Teacher, may I walk you to your house?”
The old, hobbled man smiled at him once more. “I thought you might want to. I know what you are going to ask. And it pleases me.”
“Yes, I asked the same question myself, a long time ago.”
They started through the village, across mud and grass thoroughfares, past rows of huts. Each was a skeleton of rough wooden beams covered with criss-crossed tree bows. An opening at the top, covered in hotter seasons, allowed smoke to escape.
“I don’t believe that the Conductor showed us everything. And I mean no disrespect to him.”
“I see. Why do you say that? What else is there he could have shown us? Do we not sustain ourselves, grow as a people?”
“Yes.” Darin could not deny that. “But there is death.”
“There will always be death. Only the Conductor does not die.”
“No, no, that is not what I mean. There is killing, disease. There is suffering. If the Conductor is all-powerful, and I am sure that he is, why does he allow us to suffer so?”
The old man nodded. “Yes, that is the question.”
“You do not have an answer?”
“None that will satisfy you. But, again, I will try.” They had approached the river while they spoke. The teacher stopped before they started across the bridge and bent next to the rushing water. He dropped his right hand into the water, leaning on his cane with his left for support. He scooped up a clear palmful of water and drank it. “The water fills us with life. Without it we would not be here. Do you question that?”
“Of course not, teacher.”
“Rightly so. But would you ask the water why we kill each other, why other things kill us? Or, indeed, ask it to stop such things from happening?”
“The water could not do such things.”
Another smile. “Exactly so. Can you tell me what this means?”
Darin thought, trying to see the man’s point. He was sure there was one. Then it hit him. “The Conductor is like water. He gave us life, enabled us to live, but he… doesn’t know everything.”
The teacher nodded.
“But that is blasphemy!”
“My boy, every truth in this world is a half-truth.” He leaned on Darin as he got back to his feet, rising from the water’s edge. “Everything we see is skewed by the eyes that see it. You can’t see things the way I do, for you have never experienced what I have experienced. And you never will be able to; those times, that life was mine alone. That is the way of things.”
They continued across the wooden bridge and through another section of houses.
“So, there is no God.” Darin cast his eyes to the ground as he walked.
“Nonsense! I did not say the Conductor did not exist or did not give us life. I am saying that, while he is more powerful than us, he is still a subjective being. He cannot see the world above his own place any more than we can.”
Darin was not sure he understood. “The Conductor worships another God, above him?”
“Hmmm… now I have never considered that. It would answer a lot of my own questions though. But brings still more with it.” He clapped Darin on the shoulder with his free hand. “You have come far tonight, young one. And taught this teacher something too.”
Darin said nothing, unsure how to respond. His head was filled with questions, swirling about. One would come into view, only to be swept away again, replaced by another as fleeting as the last. What did it all mean?
They reached the elder’s hut. He turned to go inside. Darin stopped him with a question. “Teacher?” The man turned back. “I must know what it all means. There are so many other questions.”
“I can teach you no more. You have already shown a depth that escapes me. Yet…” He trailed off into silence.
“One of the stories, I am sure you remember it, tells of the final journey of the Conductor.”
Darin nodded. “He travelled over the mountains and into the sky.”
“Yes, but there may be a more literal translation to that tale. We assume he went into the clouds, to hold court there forever. But what if he only went to the mountains, or over them. What if he resides there now?”
“Do you truly believe it a possibility?”
“I do. But you must not speak to anybody of this. I think you know that most people do not want to understand — are not capable of understanding — beyond what they are told. They want simple answers and simple rules — live like this, fish like this. We are forbidden to travel through the mountains by our laws. But I give you leave to go, if you choose to value my counsel.”
“I understand, teacher, and I thank you for your counsel, always. I will journey to find the Conductor. Only he can tell me what I want, no, need to know.”
“And if you die on your journey?”
“Then, surely, the answers will be mine anyway.”
He smiled. “Then I would say you are ready. The Conductor be with you.” He turned to his hut once more.
“I hope so.”
The next morning Darin set off at dawn. He told no one he was going. After packing up his things — bear-fur coat, thick leather pants, hunting gear, water and food — he set off. The others would shortly realize he was gone but he was confident that the teacher would cover for him. The elder would tell them something that would make sense, but not be the entire truth.
None of his people had ever crossed into the mountains. It would be a necessity someday, if their population grew enough. But that was generations off. For now, it was set in the tales of their tribe that they must never undertake such a journey. But he would, nonetheless. He had no idea how long it would take. The mountains surrounded their huge valley. But the stories told of the Conductor going east. So Darin went east.
At the end of the first day he had made it to the foot of the mountains. Huge jagged stones shot from the ground in the field where he sat, eating his supper of deer jerky and tea. The air was cooler here, he had risen a long way up the valley’s edge. His tiny fire covered him with warmth though and made him feel safe. He was still a year from being a man. But he felt there was some pivotal exam he was passing by undertaking this journey. As darkness fell, all thoughts slipped away and he slept, wrapped in his oversized fur coat.
The next morning was brisk, colder than any morning he had experienced in the village. With trembling hands he struck up a fire in the pit he had made the previous evening. Though he was above the tree line there were small sticks and fallen logs. He was able to gather enough to boil water he collected from a little stream. The hot tea flowed through his limbs, warming from foot to forehead. After munching more of the jerky he set off again. The mountains waited.
His going was slow, for he carried some wood with him. He didn’t know how much would be available in the mountain pass. The pass was wide and clear, almost a road. Someone, or something, had long ago blazed the trail he followed. Darin knew it had not been used for a long time though. In places mountain run-off had washed sections of soil and grass away. It made his trek difficult but not impossible. And there were trees, occasional and stunted, but they burned nonetheless. After three days he grew confident that he didn’t need to carry any more than enough wood for one future fire.
The days were cold. Darin watched his breath erupt in little clouds and felt the chill bite into his exposed hands. He wrapped them in strips of leather he cut from the long bindings used to secure his gear to his pack. It helped. At times he had to cross frozen streams. These were slippery and he couldn’t be certain they were completely frozen. Once his foot crashed through a thin film of ice and almost got stuck in the thick, freezing mud beneath.
The nights were colder. His little fires gave off a little warmth but were no equal to the harsh winds. They threatened to extinguish the tiny flames licking at the icy blackness. The snow didn’t help either. It seemed to only snow at night. In some ways Darin thought that was good but it also meant that he often awoke covered in a layer of powder. In the bitter dawns he sometimes could not find wood dry enough to burn. These mornings he subsisted on some of his dwindling jerky, frozen though it was. He worked it in his mouth until he could chew it. It kept him alive, that was all that mattered. Each day was bringing him closer to his goal — the Conductor. He would have the answers he sought.
On the fifth morning, the sun rising before him, he was certain he was rounding to the far side of the mountain. And starting to descend. The air was warmer, that was certain. Darin soon removed his fur coat and bound it with the no longer necessary hand straps to his pack. He made better time, wearing his thin leather outer coat, wool shirt and leather pants. And while his muscles ached from the days of travel he found they were growing stronger too. It helped that he had trapped a rabbit during the previous night. He had eaten well that morning. Some of the cooked meat, cooked well, almost to jerky itself, still lay in his pack. Supper would be hearty as well. He would make a soup by mixing the rabbit and tea…
Darin stopped in his tracks.
He was ascending a lip of stone and had reached a point where he could see over its rising edge. What he saw he could not describe. He had never seen anything like it and his brain had never imagined such a thing before. Huge structures — constructed from stone — rose in a plain that spread out at the foot of the mountain. The plain itself stretched almost as far as Darin could see. It finally ended in what appeared to be water. But it was more water than he had ever seen; it spread in every direction to the horizon.
The structures looked like they could be houses. But they rose to such dizzying heights that such a thing was unthinkable. And they were packed together, row on row in a grid that stretched far and wide. The rising sun cast eerie long shadows from the monoliths that fell almost to the foot of the mountain. On this mountain, far above the confusing site below, Darin stood. And he continued to stand and stare for minutes, unsure what to make of it. Finally, he blinked and shook his head.
Whatever it is and whatever awaits I must face it. Such a village could be the home of a god — the Conductor awaits me. I am sure of it, he thought. And so he continued. There was nothing else to do anyhow. While he did have the rabbit, and there might be more to come, he could not survive alone forever. Nor did he want to.
By evening he had descended to the tree line. He was now on the opposite side of the mountain from where he had started five days before. On the sixth day he would reach the fantastic village below. It was close now, very clear from where he sat munching rabbit and tea stew. The setting sun behind him reflected from the buildings, for Darin was now sure that was what they were. At times some of the strange surfaces gleamed in gold and he had to cover his eyes against the glare.
He could not fathom how they had been built, other than by godly intervention. But they were people-size. Doorways, windows, walkways; it was all sized for his people. Was this the village of his God then? How could it not be? And if he had made it to fit them, didn’t that mean he was expecting them, waiting for them?
Or, perhaps, since the old tales forbid his people to make the journey he had made, his God waited only to smite him down? Either way, he would find out tomorrow. He pushed the equal mix of excitement and fear from his mind and embraced the sleep of exhaustion.
Darin found a wide path at the foot of the hills the following morning. It was packed stone, packed harder and tighter than he thought possible. And the black pebbles that comprised it were stuck to each other with some kind of resin. Along the centre was a faded golden line. The path of the gods! he thought. He walked that line, edging closer and closer to the foreboding alien village with each step. Nervous as he was his steps were even and determined. He would meet his fate head-on, no matter what it was.
It was near noon when he came to the outskirts of the massive grey village. He tried to push feelings of dread from his mind as he passed through the shadows cast by the looming towers. Everything was silent except the wind. It blew tiny stones and dust between the rows of buildings. There were no people. At the foot of the first buildings another stone trail intersected his own at ninety degrees. Could there be other trails, other villages like my people’s? How vast is our world? he thought.
He crossed the intersection point and walked along the edge of the first building. Trained by years of tracking prey along the foothills of mountains he looked up often, for falling stones. But these houses, for he was sure now that was what they were, were not made of stone. Some parts of them were but other parts gleamed, smooth, and he could see through them! Others still were opaque but still smooth. These were solid, firm and cool to the touch. What magic the Conductor wielded!
Darin passed several houses which had large banners above them. These were etched into the stone or were wooden and covered in symbols. He had heard of such symbols in tales of the Conductor. Their meaning was lost on him but their power was not. In awe and supplication he continued to walk the shadowy and stark valleys of his God’s village.
Finally, he came to a large open area, near the centre of the cluster of buildings. The buildings fell away on all sides, replaced by grass and trees. Flowers and leaves were alive with the buzzing of insects and birds. He made his way into this garden, brimming with optimism. If his god dwelled anywhere in this place, it would be in this den of life and nature. Darin, in need of a respite from the sterile and bleak structures of the city, soaked it all in.
Darin sat under a tall oak tree and rested his back against it. He felt worn out, but nervous, anxious energy flowed through him. So close. He knew it. The tales had been true — the Conductor had come this way. No one else could manufacture such marvels. Restless, Darin stood and walked along the bank of a small river, following it. He stopped a moment to watch the bees that danced among the flowers that clung to the riverbank. Something caught his eye to his left, away from the river.
A giant man was watching him.
He froze — the giant must have seen him. What could he do? There was nowhere to hide. Giants were always evil. He had never heard a tale that said otherwise. He started to run back the way he had come, back toward the towers. Perhaps the massive man stayed in the garden. He hoped to the Conductor that it was so.
But the giant didn’t pursue him.
Darin took a couple of test steps back toward it. Nothing, no movement from the figure. A few more strides. Still nothing. He grew more confident. Was the beast scared of him? He laughed to himself; he could only wish to be so lucky. But the creature appeared to be peaceful, at least for the moment. He approached it. There was nothing to lose and, for all he knew, this giant could be the Conductor himself. He was a god and could take whatever form he wished.
But it was not the Conductor. Nor was it a man, or a giant. Darin moved closer until he stood at the figure’s base. It rested on a stone pedestal and Darin could now see that the creature, too, was made of stone. He had never seen anything like it. It was formed to look like a man standing tall and proud but was at least three times Darin’s own height. The base had more of the etched symbols, like those chiselled into the buildings.
What does it mean? A shrine? Darin thought. Could this be the face of the Conductor? Had Darin’s own people once lived here? Or another people that worshipped the Conductor as they did? A group that could control stone and form it to look like people. Not to mention build the structures he had walked beneath. No, he was sure those were gifts from the Conductor himself.
He walked along the length of the structure, feeling the stone. The muscles were perfect — tight and powerful. The man had been a mighty hunter or warrior. He made his way to its back. Then he saw another amazing sight. A second figure, tall and powerful like the first, stood a ways away, its back to this first one. Darin crossed to the new figure.
A beautiful woman looked out from stone eyes. The curves and muscles of her body were as perfect as the forms on the male figure.
Between the stone figures, Darin noticed, there were two trees. They were planted to each side, forming a diamond shape with the figures. Dangling from their branches was fruit, apples. In his hurry to inspect the second stone figure he had not even noticed their presence. Darin now felt the pangs of hunger he had been ignoring. He licked his lips, could almost taste the sweet juice and rich flesh. At the closest tree he plucked one of the shiny apples from a low branch.
“What are you doing?” a voice boomed behind him.
Darin turned, dropping the apple as he did. A man stood there, a little way away. He was old, fifty years or so, but Darin wasn’t sure. The old man was wearing a dirty garment that Darin did not recognize. It was one piece, blue, and ran from his neck to his boots, covering all his thin figure. His white-grey hair and beard were unkempt, the long beard flowing down and almost touching his chest.
“I said: what are you doing here, boy?” The stranger took a step closer.
Darin was dumb struck. This man was almost as odd as the place. By the look of him he was as old and forgotten as it was.
“I am Darin.”
“I did not ask your name. I asked your purpose.” Another step closer. A few more and he would be next to Darin.
“I came over the mountain and…”
“‘Why’ is what I am asking, not who, not where.”
“I seek my God… the Conductor.” Darin stammered. Why was he so nervous? What did he have to fear from an old man?
The stranger stopped walking closer. “Is that so? Conductor, hey?”
“Do you know of him?”
“I know of whom you speak, yes. But he is dead.”
“He cannot die, he is a god!” Darin almost spat the words.
The old man laughed. “One man’s god is another god’s man.”
Darin fumed, and yet… There was wisdom in the man’s words, as confusing as they were. It hinted at what the teacher had spoken of, of the fallibility of gods. He decided to try to remain calm and find out what he could from the man. “Teacher,” Darin said with respect, “I would know more of what you know.” He added, “Please.”
“Well, now, that is a nice word to hear. And a long time since I have heard it, or any other for that matter.” He paused, then looked at Darin. “You come from the south?”
“Really?” The old man looked thoughtful at that and made a sound and gesture that Darin did not understand. He thrust his shoulders up and slumped them down again while murmuring, “Hmmmph.”
Darin wobbled on his feet. The excitement of the meeting was now added to his previous hunger and he felt very weak. “Would you mind if I ate this apple now?” He pointed to where the fruit had fallen to the grass.
“You don’t want that. Here, take this." The man reached behind his back and came back with a small rectangular object. Strange symbols, like those on the buildings, were on its surface.
He handed it to Darin, who took it gratefully. Darin stared at the item with interest, unsure how to eat it.
“You have to open it.”
“Unwrap.” And the man pantomimed ripping the strange crinkly material that covered the object.
“Ah, I see,” Darin said, ripping like the man indicated, exposing a brown oblong lump inside. Its aroma reached his nose an instant later. “By the Conductor, it is heavenly!”
The old man laughed. “It’s chocolate.”
“I have never heard of it.”
“No,” the man looked distant for an instant, “I don’t suppose you would have.” Then, “Eat up! And let us walk while you do.”
A thought occurred to Darin. “Why did you not wish me to eat the apple? Are they poison?”
“Oh, no, not at all. They are rather, um, special though. I,” he paused, “planted, yes, planted those trees a long time ago. The apples grow, fall from the tree and return their nutrients to the soil, allowing the trees to absorb it back again. It’s a cycle, as all life is.”
“I see,” Darin said, though some of what the man said did not make sense to him. Suspicion was growing in his mind, suspicion that this man knew where to find the Conductor. He spoke like someone who knew, like the teacher. He momentarily forgot this, and nearly everything else, as he bit into the chocolate. The smell had only hinted at the majesty the food contained. It melted in his mouth like fat, filling his head with warmth and sliding down his throat. “This is delicious!”
“Yes, most people like, er, liked it, once upon a time.”
“You know of strange things, stranger.”
“Conway, call me Conway.”
Darin nodded while he took another bite. They circled the stone figures, coming around to the river Darin had followed earlier. “Did you build those stone people?”
“Statues, they’re called statues. And yes, I did. A long, long time ago.” Conway glanced at them for an instant, an almost imperceptible sigh escaping his lips. “They are a monument.”
“No, not like that, not religious. Just a, um, keepsake, if you will. A testament to all that came before.”
“Before?” Darin did not understand.
Darin stopped and didn’t notice the empty chocolate bar wrapper slip from his hand. Conway continued, his shoulders slumped. Darin stared at him, at his God. At the Conductor.
“You are him,” Darin said, not asking.
“No, your words, your knowledge. You are the Conductor.”
“Once I was. But I never deserved the title. And it was, truthfully, one I gave myself.”
“I do not understand.”
“Come, child of the Anedri, let us walk and talk.”
The Conductor, Conway, had referred to Darin’s people by name. Darin, though awed to be in the presence of his deity, walked next to Conway. They continued along the bubbling brook, deeper into the garden.
“You come seeking answers,” Conway said. It was not a question. “I will do my best to provide them, though you may not like them.”
“It seems many people say that when there are pivotal matters at hand.”
He beamed at Darin. “Your teacher was right to tell you to come. I can see that you are bright. It has been so long since one of you has come here… generations. I had begun to think none would ever come again.”
“Others have travelled here before, from my village?”
“From yours and from others, yes. Once there was one in every generation. That was how the teachers were educated. But eventually, without writing, things began to fall apart and mysticism grew. And ignorance. How quickly we fall into old habits.”
Darin tried to follow what Conway said, and much of it made sense. Though some of the man’s — god’s? — words were lost on him. “Are you a god?”
“Thank you, Darin. You give me hope. Yes, you must question things, you must seek knowledge. Do not ever take things at face value!” A pause and a shake of his head. “And, no, I am not a god.”
The river opened into a clear pool where ducks and swans congregated. Conway sat on a bench formed of stone near the water. He patted his hand on the flat stone next to him. “Come, sit with me, Darin.”
He did as instructed.
Conway continued, “I must tell you a story now. It will not be easy to hear, nor is it a particularly good story, in the sense that it may change what you think of me. Do you wish to hear it?
“Very much. Will it provide answers to the questions I have?”
“It will probably provide more questions.”
“Then it will be a good story.” Darin smiled.
Conway began. “I am no god, because power alone does not a god make. I have power. I do not hide this fact, nor do I revel in it. Once I did.”
“What sort of power?”
“The sort that made that chocolate bar for you.” He pointed back through trees toward where the stone figures and apple trees stood. “Those statues, those trees. I made them. Not with tools, not the kind you are familiar with at least. I made them with this.” He pointed at his head.
“Then you are a god.”
He grimaced. “Please Darin, listen to my words — power does not make a god. Power is just that: ability, means. The ends that power brings about is what determines the benevolence or malevolence of a being. Ah, good intentions… But I digress. My story begins a long time ago. I cannot even say how long anymore.”
The Conductor looked into the distance. It was as if he were staring through time, seeing what was. He continued, “I was born a normal person, like you. When I became a man I found that things I wanted just came to me. At first it seemed like luck but soon it became obvious that I was willing it to happen. I could distort reality by thinking about it.
“Initially I tried to help people. I tried to be a hero. But people feared me. And, truthfully, I scared myself. When your whims become reality it is not long before you lose yourself. It was like a drug and I was an addict. It wasn’t enough to change small things. No, I moved up, and fast. Within a year I had altered my town. Then I bored of that and moved on to the cities. I didn’t hurt anyone but I was a brat. I know that now. Well, while I say I didn’t hurt anyone, the people in those places felt differently.
“For they started to chase me, tried to kill me. Militaries did, from all over the world. I don’t know if I can die. I am immortal it seems… as long as I will it at least. Anyhow, I fled into the mountains — those mountains you crossed — and hid. I only wanted to be left alone. And while I was there I was happy. What food I needed I willed to be, as well as other things too. I think I only eat out of habit anyway. And it does taste good.” He smiled at Darin.
“Yes.” Darin agreed, remembering the bar.
“So," the Conductor continued, "I was happy; alone, but happy. That didn’t last. Eventually they found me, sent monsters to kill me. I say monsters but I suppose they were just people, once. Scientists created them, trying to replicate my abilities. They failed, if that was the case, for I killed them all, the monsters. I’m not proud of it but they gave me no choice.” He looked sad, distraught. “But it was nothing. Nothing compared to what happened after that.”
Conway stood and paced in front of the stone seat where Darin still sat.
Conway’s shoulders slumped and he sighed. “This is always the hardest part, as it should be.” His voice cracked on the last word and he cleared his throat. He spread his hand as if cupping something and, out of nowhere, a container appeared, filled with water. Conway tipped the vessel against his lips and drank it all. “Ahhh, that’s better. Now, where was I?” The vessel which had held the water disappeared as it had appeared. “Hmm, how could I forget? I suppose I always try to delay this part.” He sighed again, loud and long. “I am just a man, Darin. A man who has seen too much and done too much. My mind is gifted in one way but cursed in another. I don’t forget, I don’t age. If I am a god then I am a damned god.” He laughed. “Damned God. Have to remember that one.”
Darin did not get what was funny. He just sat, waiting for the man to continue.
Conway sat down again. “Alright, to the point. They would not stop, the other people. Everyone I suppose, or at least that was how I saw it. Each and every person hated me, wanted me dead. Yes, I was powerful, but I only wanted to be alone then. I was young when I received my gift, or curse if you prefer. How could I be held responsible for not being able to control it? Could anyone control it? It’s unthinkable. It was to me then and it is to me now. And yet they all thought it was easy, should have been easy for me.
“The attacks continued, for years. I stopped them all but I grew tired of it. Venturing forth into the world again I saw it decaying, dying. The Earth itself. People killed each other, nothing seemed to matter. And still they attacked me. So I stopped it. Stopped it all.”
He turned to look at Darin. The boy’s face was blank. “Do you understand?”
Darin licked his lips. They had grown dry as he listened, hanging on every word. “No, not entirely. You killed the people who attacked you, in self-defense?”
“No.” He shook his head. “No, I killed them all. Man, woman, child — every human being on Earth. With one thought I wiped them from existence.”
Darin could not fight the urge he had to jump back, to flee. He jumped from the stone slab and fell to grass on his backside. Looking up at Conway, looking into the eyes of his God — no, this monster — he saw only sorrow.
The Conductor was just a man — powerful beyond belief, but flawed.
“So, now you know,” Conway said, looking down at his own feet. “I am no god. Not because of what I can’t do, but because of what I can do. Because of what I did with that power. Satan himself is better than I.”
Darin managed to stand and, fighting the urge to flee, walked around to the front of the stone seat. He stared down at Conway. “Why didn’t you make them appear again?”
Conway shook his head. “I am powerful. But not that powerful. I can only bring into existence that which I know completely. Like an artist can only draw from memory that which he can visualize. Even my closest friend, if I had had one, would have been but a shadow if I had conjured them into being. Wiping things out is easy, imagining the whole world empty took but an instant. Imagining it full, with all its beautiful diversity, is quite another.”
“But I am here,” Darin said.
“Yes, and that is the second part of the story.” Conway stood. “Shall we return to the monument I made now?”
“So you understand now why I made it?”
“Yes, to remember.”
“No, so I would never forget again. Life is precious and unique. It takes a long time for it to come into being and so little to snuff it out.”
They started back down the path beside the river.
Conway continued, “I had a lot of time, centuries, to think after what I did. I tried many times to bring everyone back before I realized the truth that I told you a minute ago. They, the world they lived in, the lives they lived, are gone forever. Some things remain, like this city. But that is because I maintain it. The other cities in the world are crumbling and before long they will be gone too.
“Eventually I decided to start smaller. I took monkeys, imagined how they had evolved and advanced them to be like humans. I let them breed. And their children I tooled a little more, and so on. After hundreds of generations I had people again — unique people. I influenced them, yes, but their minds had developed over time to use tools, to speak, to interact.
“I have tried to watch over you. Once I even tried to live among you as I had once lived among my own kind. But suffering reared its head, as it always does, and will. I could not resist using my abilities to save people. The fear started again. But this time I knew to remove myself immediately. Before long the teachers started the religion you yourself worshipped. Then legends, stories, were passed down through later generations.”
They were approaching the statues again. Darin looked down and saw the apple he had discarded earlier. He stooped and picked it up, studying its shiny surface. The skin was rough in places though, and an ant or other insect had removed a small chunk of the surface. “You wanted an imperfect world to remain that way because…," he paused, thinking. “Because that is what makes it what it is. We cannot become better if we don’t have to do it ourselves.”
“That is true I suppose. Mainly I wanted to stay out of the way and not let my mistake happen again. I was never very spiritual or philosophical. But I’ve had some time to think lately.” He smiled again.
“Why the Conductor?”
“Trains, which you don’t know, of course, were these huge machines that ran on tracks in the ground, on trails… by themselves. As long as there was track they were okay and could run on. An operator, a conductor, made sure everything ran as it should. They made sure the train switched at the right junctions and made sure it got where it was going. But they could only do that as long as the train ran along the tracks. If the tracks stopped all they could do was stop the train.
“I stopped the train the day I killed everyone. I saw that there was no more track for humanity. But I did not have the right to make that call. So I set a new train on a new track and let it ride as it would. Whatever happens now will happen as it will; I am done.”
“But you are talking to me. By telling me these things you are influencing my people.”
“Yes, I know. I am only human. None of us are perfect.”