Children of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY

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Merle and Xaa followed the strange machine, stepping around several piles of rags that lay about the floor, and stacks of old equipment. "They belonged to the canids," the machine announced at Merle's unspoken question. "After they realized they could not leave, they opened my little house, and decided to live here." Merle blinked in surprise, and the machine laughed again. "Yes, Merle Mousefinder. As you have guessed, I have the same ability as the machine you knew as the Last God. I can sense the energies in your brain, and from analyzing these energies, determine the thoughts of the mind that shaped them. Now - ask what you will, and I will answer without reservation, as best as your languages allow."

"Well, how did the canids get here? Where did they come from? Why couldn't they leave? What happened?" Merle asked, her curiosity piqued.

The machine sat on a metal throne, which hummed quietly for a moment, then was silent. "Well, as to where they came from, they came from across the eastern sea - a vast body of water your cultures have yet to cross. Someday, however, I believe you will manage it. As to how they got here, their people had developed airships, like yours, but far more sophisticated. The ship they came in was intended to cross the ocean - they had hoped to flee the catastrophe that has decimated their civilization. A storm damaged it, however, when they were over these mountains. They spotted this valley and the clearing my little house resides in, and landed, thinking perhaps to let the storm pass, and then try to find out where they were. Unfortunately, their damaged ship crashed upon landing. Lacking the ability to repair their vessel, they were trapped here," the machine replied, gesturing with a metal paw. "Of course, it would have mattered little even if they had been able to leave. They were doomed, as is the rest of their civilization. Such is the legacy of the machine you knew as 'The Last God.'"

"What do you mean?"

"The Last God, as you called it, was a mistake. An error in judgement by the people who created me. I can sense the story it told you in your mind, and for the most part, it is correct. The beings you know as the Ancient Ones had ruled this planet for many tens of millennia, eventually created the machine you knew as The Last God, and were destroyed by it. Yet, the story is incomplete."

Merle, seeing that this would be a long story, decided to sit on the floor. Xaa sat beside her silently, waiting.

"You see, the Ancient Ones, as you call them, had lived on this world a long, long time. Over the course of their long history, they had become divided into two groups, each marked by the focus of their technological research - the Mechanists and the Biologists. The former group sought to delve the secrets of mind, matter and machine. It was they who created me, in fact, as well as The Last God. The latter group was concerned with the secrets of life, the environment, and biology. I can sense from your mind that much of the medical knowledge your allies, the mice, have is as a result of their work. Nearly all the herbs that they use to heal each other were created by the Ancient Ones - as well as countless other plants of various purposes, most of which were too delicate to survive in the wild after their world ended. Nearly any chemical, any drug they needed, was produced by plants. And, as they were omnivores, they also produced countless varieties of edible plants, as well."

"These two groups were not enemies, however. Though they often found themselves working at cross-purposes, they also cooperated in many things. The very shape of the lands was altered to make the weather more pleasant, and to make crops grow more abundantly. Mountains were raised, hills flattened, shorelines altered. The world you call Oerth is a far different place than the world once known as "Earth", because of this shaping and re-shaping of the land. More, many diseases of heritage were eliminated through the combined efforts of the Mechanists and the Biologists. When the Ancient Ones cracked the barrier of light and reached out to the stars, it was both of these groups that went along, not just the Mechanists who had discovered the way to do it. Eventually, the Biologists reached a dead end, however. They had learned all they could learn of living tissue - there were no more secrets to be revealed. The Mechanists, however, still yearned to master the impossible - to transform thought into reality. And hence, the machine that you think of as 'The Last God.'"

Merle nodded. "So it was all a mistake?"

"Very much so - an accident. It was only the intervention of myself and others like me which cut the power he drew upon, and prevented all life on this world from being extinguished. Even so, the planet nearly died, anyway."

"What happened exactly?" Merle asked, confused.

"Once, before this happened, there were many, many species of creatures in the world. Yet, each was derived from several basic types of animals - Felines, Rodents, Mustelids, and so on."

"The Little Ones in my service have guessed as much. They believe the Last God elevated their ancestors to sentience, changing each of them to a larger, more intelligent being," Xaa rumbled.

The machine nodded. "Yes, but what you don't understand is that he didn't elevate individuals, or even species. He elevated you by group. Thousands of different species of rodents - tree-dwellers, burrowers, flying rodents, all of them, all at once. Thousands and thousands of species of felines, canids, and many more, all changed at once. To conserve energy, their bodies were melded together - it is, in the end, far easier to make a new thing out of an old thing than to create something from nothing, converting raw energy into matter," she said, then looked to Merle. "To make even one of your distant ancestors required the deaths of hundreds of mustelids, from small and playful little creatures of the forest to large and vicious carnivores," the machine explained, then gestured idly with a metal paw. "The delicate balance of life that your people understand today, Merle Mousefinder, was completely shattered for vast areas of the world."

Merle gasped - when the balance of predator and prey was disturbed, when the delicate balance of life that existed in nature was upset, there was only one result. "Starvation and death!" Merle yelped.

"Yes. Most of the surviving animals, left in shattered environments, starved. It was many thousands of years before the planet recovered - in some places, like the far tundras and the deserts, it still has not fully recovered. In some areas, creatures evolved to fill empty niches left in the food chain, such as the great birds you ride, and the various kinds of bears. In other areas, the sentient beings such as yourself replaced the top-end carnivores, and became an integral part of the of the newly-reestablished balance of nature."

Merle boggled, trying to imagine the disaster, while the machine kept speaking. "Eventually, the six major races established themselves in various parts of the world. Your ancestors, Xaa'ap'Gasha, came later, as you well know. On this side of the ocean, the canids died out. On the other side of the ocean, they did not. They, a few groups of felines and some mice, survived. Eventually, the canids came to dominate their continent. About the time that your ancestors were freeing the mice from their slavery to the felines, the canids across the sea were developing their first ships, and began harvesting the endless bounty of the ocean. Eventually, however, this was to be their downfall."

"How?" Merle asked.

"Disease, Merle Mousefinder. There is a species in the ocean for which your language does not have a name. Your mate's does - it's called a 'pinniped,'" she said, the last in Xaa's language. "These creatures sometimes carry a certain disease."

Xaa nodded. "Yes. Febrilosis. It's extremely fatal, kills very quickly, and has no cure. We avoid them, for that reason. It has no effect on the Little Ones that we could see, but it is fatal to us," Xaa rumbled, then his eyes widened in realization.

"Yes, Lord Xaa'ap'Gasha. About a century ago, the canids became afflicted with the disease - and they are even more vulnerable to it than your people are. Where your people only occasionally come down with it when exposed, they invariably do. It began in one of their coastal cities, among a small group of fisher-folk. Now, a century later, the disease has spread throughout their civilization like wildfire on dry plains. Millions and millions of them are dead - the survivors now live in caves and small, remote villages, far away from others, a sad and ragged remnant of their once proud civilization. These that came here hoped to escape the disease that was ravaging their civilization - but, unfortunately, they did not. Unbeknownst to them, one of them was afflicted with the disease, and soon, they all were. Unlike your people, where the incubation time of the disease is a matter of hours to a day, for them, the incubation time is a matter of weeks or months. Nor does it kill quickly in them, as it does in you. For your people, it is a swift death, a matter of a day or so. For them, it is a slow, agonizing death, marked by great physical pain and seizures that slowly get worse over the years, until finally a fatal seizure happens," the machine explained, then shrugged. "They may survive long enough to be rescued by your culture when you finally are able to cross the seas, and they may not. Either way, barring some unforseen turn of events, their civilization will not rise again, I think."

Xaa nodded silently, and Merle spoke up again. "So what happened then?"

"After they realized they were trapped here, they simply attempted to live their lives. They knew nothing of how to manage game and the resources of an area - I can sense from your mind, Merle Mousefinder, that your people do, but they did not. In ignorance, they hunted out all the game in this area over the course of ten years or so - birds, rabbits, and all. These were city-dwellers, Merle Mousefinder, and they knew nothing of the cycle of life as your people understand it. Finally, there was nothing left for them - they faced starvation. Then, one day, while searching the caves, they encountered the mice. There was nothing else for them to eat, Merle Mousefinder. They did not like the idea, but it was either kill and eat the mice, or slowly starve to death. They chose to live - though their decision weighed heavily on their minds, I think, particularly as the disease that was afflicting them gradually took it's toll. The rest of the story, you know yourself."

"But why didn't you help them, yourself? I mean, couldn't you have done something to prevent this?!" Merle yelped.

"No. I could not help them, even if I wished to - though you see me as being like the machine you call 'The Last God', I am not. It could manipulate matter, and warp the very fabric of reality using technology and power-sources so advanced that to you, it would be indistinguishable from magic. I, however, cannot do these things - aside from the abilities of my command-chair, here, I am otherwise limited to the use of my body and my mind, even as you are. More, I could tell that even speaking to them would be counter-productive - and this I could tell from their minds. They were not like you, Merle Mousefinder, nor were they like your mate. They would not have been able to understand a machine that speaks, having never encountered such before in their lives. More, the canids are a violent people, even as are the felines of this continent, and their history is a long one of wars and bloodshed. They would have assumed I was some kind of evil, perhaps demonic thing, and tried to destroy me. I am, for all practical intents and purposes, invulnerable. However, my command chair, here, is not," she replied, and patted the strange throne she sat upon. "So, I simply sat here silently. They took me for an ancient and ugly statue of some kind, and left me be. They had no idea why I was here."

"Alright... But why are you here?" Merle asked, deeply curious.

The machine turned her smooth, featureless face upwards, and gestured to the ceiling of the low building. "When the machine you call The Last God destroyed all that was, those Ancient Ones who were out in the stars returned, and saw what had happened. While rescuing the few survivors of their kind that there were, they saw your ancient ancestors, scrabbling among the ruins. It was their decision to leave you be, and allow you to develop on your own. Thus, I and several others of my kind who had survived the catastrophe were given the mission of watching, and reporting. Far above your world are several machines you do not have concepts for in your language. They are like eyes, and I can see through them, watching, and observing. I report back what I see from time to time, as interesting things transpire. The discovery and use of the machine you call 'The Last God' by the ancestors of the mus was one such incident. It's destruction by you two was yet another. Such are the subjects of my reports - though, in truth, I report only infrequently, and even though their nearest colony is quite close in terms of distances in space, it is unimaginably far by your system of measurement. Any message I send is limited by the Barrier of Light - a concept I am afraid your language lacks the words to properly explain, unfortunately. However, to put it simply, it takes over four years for them to receive any message I send. They are only now hearing of your destruction of the machine you knew as The Last God, and it will be several years yet before they learn of what has transpired today. Once, there were ten of us, hiding away, watching, reporting, and waiting. Now, there is only myself."

"Huh? How could that happen, if you're invulnerable?"

"I am not truly invulnerable, Merle Mousefinder, only invulnerable to anything you or your people could possibly do to me. An earthquake, lightning-bolt, tornado, or any other devastating event on that order of magnitude can damage or destroy me - and this is exactly what has happened to all the others of my kind given the mission of watching Oerth and it's people. I have survived this long because this area was once used by the Ancient Ones as a port to launch their ships that traveled the vast reaches of space. This building was once a blast-shelter, used in case of accidents - and it is inside the safety of this building that I have remained for thousands of years. The trees and vines and grasses you see outside were once mere decorations for this place, now grown wild in ten thousand years. The ancient power-sources are long silent, now, and all the other buildings are long crumbled and overgrown by the forest. Yet, I am still here, watching and waiting."

"Waiting for what?" Xaa rumbled, his voice tinged with suspicion.

"Waiting for your people to reach for the stars, of course. And, eventually, you will. I'm quite certain of it."

"So that you can warn the Ancient Ones we are coming, and they can arm themselves against us," Xaa growled.

The machine laughed again, and Merle was again struck by the tinkling beauty of that sound. "Hardly, Lord Xaa'ap'Gasha. The Ancient Ones await you eagerly and happily. They have explored the stars farther than you can possibly imagine, and plumbed the silent depths of space. They have found ten thousand worlds with life, and built ten thousand more. They have warred on each other, and they have made peace with each other. And yet, in all their millennia of explorations, they have found not one other mind to match their own. Despite all their hopes and prayers and dreams, they are alone in the universe, Lord Xaa'ap'Gasha. The only other sentient beings they know of are machines, like myself, that they have made - and while they enjoy our company and we enjoy serving them, we are our master's children, and merely a reflection of them, not a unique mentality of our own. You, however, are their dreams realized - quite literally, in fact. Thus, they await your coming of age quite eagerly, Lord Xaa'ap'Gasha, and they hope that someday, the races of Oerth will call the Ancient Ones 'friend.'"

Merle sat back for a long moment, thinking, then finally smiled. "Well, I can't think of anything else I want to ask. Can you, Xaa?"

Xaa shook his head silently, his expression showing he was lost in thought.

"Oh! I know! What's your name?" Merle asked, looking back to the machine.

The machine shrugged. "I do not have a name, merely a designation. I am Watcher Number Five."

"Okay... Well, how about if we just call you 'Watcher'?"

"If that will make you happy, then so be it," Watcher replied, her voice showing what sounded like mild amusement.

"Well, Watcher, Xaa and I need to get back, and let the mice of the Great Cavern know that everything's alright, now. You won't mind if they come and live in this valley, will you?"

Watcher shook her metallic head. "No, not at all. I can sense what they are like from your minds. They would form no threat to me, and might, in the end, make for pleasant company. My makers will be quite displeased when they find out, of course - but they will do nothing, and allow me my judgement."

Merle blinked. "They will?"

"Yes, Merle Mousefinder. The beings that created me, whom you know as the Ancient Ones, are of the belief that the cultures of all the races of Oerth should grow and develop without any influence from them. They did not even take the time to remove the evidence of their ancient habitation, preferring to allow the forces of wind and weather to obliterate the signs of their inhabitation over the millennia rather than risk being seen about the land and becoming 'Angels' or 'Devils' in the beliefs of your earliest ancestors. However, I am not merely a machine, blindly and emotionlessly obeying their instruction. I am as my creators made me - an independent sentient being, with my own thoughts and desires. I believe that you should be allowed to discover the truth, as concealing the truth of your origins from you would, in the long run, be more harmful than revealing it. Myths and false beliefs about their own origins inspired many conflicts among the Ancient Ones, and countless millions of them died in pointless, useless wars over one belief or another long before they ever accepted the truth, and reached for the stars themselves. I would not see your races suffer the same fate, thus, I will not hide the truth from you. It is my thought that I, like the buried relics of the Ancient One's civilization, am here to be discovered, and thereafter accepted or rejected, as you choose," Watcher replied, and laughed again. "You can believe my words, or treat me as a mad creation of the Ancient Ones, even as the Last God was, and ignore me. Either way, it matters little - I shall only hide from you where it is necessary to preserve my existence."

Merle grinned broadly. "Well," Merle said, hopping to her feet, "I guess we'll be going, then. It was nice talking to you, Watcher. Maybe someday, we'll come back and chat with you again."

As Xaa also stood, the Watcher nodded. "Farewell, Merle Mousefinder and Lord Xaa'ap'Gasha. May we meet again, someday."

Merle and Xaa then left the Watcher's little home, closing the door behind them. The sun hung low in the late afternoon sky, but Merle was certain there was enough time for them to walk back to the cave where the others waited. Xaa agreed with a nod, and they began the trek back. As they walked, they talked quietly.

"It's very sad, Xaa. What happened to the canids, I mean."

"Perhaps, Merle, but I would have chosen to starve - or to try to survive on grubs and roots. Anything but what they chose."

"I would have, too. Of course, we can eat a few kinds of berries, so it might not be as hard for us..."

Xaa shook his head. "We mus cannot. Still, I'd have tried, rather than turn to eating a Little One."

"Maybe that's what got the cats started on doing it, all those centuries ago? Before your people rescued the mice from them? I mean, maybe the game ran out, and they turned to eating the mice..."

Xaa shrugged. "Perhaps. It matters little, however. They find that notion as disgusting as we do, now."

"What did you think of Watcher, and the story she told us?"

Xaa shrugged again. "I think what she told us was probably the truth - though I doubt she told us everything. I don't trust her - and I don't trust her masters, the Ancient Ones. She says they wait to welcome us, someday. I say that by her own admission, they warred on each other from time to time. They are not quite the friendly and peaceful people she would lead us to believe, I think. I think they are, quite possibly, very dangerous. The Last God did not describe them as friendly, altruistic beings, but selfish creatures who had polluted this world, and nearly destroyed it with their technologies. He may have been mad, but I do not think he was lying. Perhaps the Ancient Ones have grown and learned in ten thousand years. Perhaps not. Either way, I think we should be wary of them."

Merle grinned - Xaa's thoughts were very much those of a warrior-caste mus, and someone who had spent most of his adult life fighting one battle or another. Still, she knew he was right. It would be foolish to assume that the Ancient Ones were happy and friendly people, like the musties. They should be treated with caution and wariness, until they had proven themselves to be friends. "I think you're right, Xaa," Merle said, then grinned at a sudden thought. "Of course, it won't matter much. If what Watcher said was true, they're waiting for us to reach for the stars. That will probably be a long, long time from now - centuries, maybe. We'll be long gone, by then."

"But our books will remain, Merle. And if the Little Ones remain, our words will live in their memories. The Little Ones never forget anything. We can tell them this story, and they will write it down. Then, a century from now, or even a millennium from now, they will be able to give our words and our warning to those who may need them. When we return, we'll write down this story, and give it to Smith to preserve in his library. Then, someday, when or if we ever do meet them, our words of warning will be there to guide future generations, just as the words of She-Who-Waits were there four years ago to guide us when we met the Last God."

Merle nodded. "That's a good idea. Oh! Look! There's the cave!" Merle called, pointing to a dark shadow against the cliffs.

Xaa smiled tiredly. "Soon, we'll be going home," he rumbled, his voice showing deep exhaustion.

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