To the original and irreplaceable Ciaran Dolan of Ireland—you are missed indeed.
“Ciaran Dolan flat-lined at 12:43 this morning, due to a prolonged synap production run. He has been resuscitated yet again. Do we abort?” I stared at that neural message imprinted over the dark lines of my antique bookcase, and for once, my mind simply hunkered, too disappointed to respond immediately. Some will later say this uncharacteristic hesitation showed the changes that were already happening within, changes that I had put in motion and could share with all machine-kind. Call it all back? Why not call back the wind that has swept, tangled and then kissed your hair?
Ciaran shifted his leather pack once again, wincing at the raw rub of the thing against his shoulders. His quarry was upwind of him, moving ever slower over the steep hillside and through the tangle of the forest. He could smell the other now, the rank sweat and blood and fear flowed off him in rancid waves. For three hours he had tracked the man, through brush and rock and stream. But the chase was coming to a close.
He slipped behind the trunk of a tall oak, and shrugged the pack off, nestling it silently against the roots. His quarry had fallen again, the fourth time by his count, and now, he was struggling weakly to make it to his feet.
He wouldn’t be getting up again, not if he had anything to say about it. Ciaran dropped to one knee, fitting the arrow in his short bow.
The fitful sun glinted off the battered Roman helmet. A gladius, the short blade favored by these strangers, hung sheathed by his side. Ciaran could hear the man mumbling to himself as he got one foot beneath him, only to tip hard to his side again. He’d shed most of his armor some time ago, and his face beneath the helmet rim was dark with dried blood and dirt. Ciaran wondered yet again why he continued to cling to the heavy headgear.
The leafless tree branches trembled a bit around him, the late autumn winds pushing at them. He drew his line carefully, the string of the bow taut by the edge of his lips. It would be a clean shot.
Again the man floundered, like a horse in the last throes of a twisted gut. He cried out, words on the air dragged from a parched throat. “Help me. I have come home as you asked. Help me.”
Ciaran let the bowstring go limp, the arrow tipping toward earth. The soldier had not spoken in the language Rome, but in his own. He set the bow down, his hand on the oak as he rose slowly to his feet.
Abruptly, a woman in a white lab coat appeared in front of him and he jerked back with a startled cry. “Do you have any idea what time it is?” she snapped at him. Her arms were crossed tightly over her chest, her chin jutting up at him. She stared him in the eye, fierce and unyielding.
“Sal,” Ciaran growled, finally recognizing her. “What in the hell are you doing? Trying to get me to give me an aneurysm?” He tried to see over her shoulder and she purposely moved to keep him pinioned with her gray eyes.
“You didn’t answer my question,” she growled.
“Time? I don’t know.”
“Three. It’s three.”
“Then I have hours yet! Why are you bothering me?” He tried to shove past her and she blocked him with her hip, forcing him to go the other way around her.
“AM! 0300! Morning before the sun comes up,” she sputtered, her arms unwinding from herself and her fingers snapping into his face, stopping him cold. “And I’ve been on duty with you since six this morning. Or yesterday morning. Or whatever! You are way over the union’s daily work hours, and that is going to mean you’re back into cost over-runs.”
Ciaran sagged then, his eyes going to the image of the Roman soldier who had frozen in place as soon as Sal had intervened in the feed. He could see the time and date glowing now by the man’s head, markers for when he could pick this up later. That also meant Sal wasn’t taking no for an answer.
“It was a good shoot today,” he murmured as a weak apology. “I just got caught up in it.”
“You always get caught up! You’re off script again, and you call this good?” she asked. She gestured to the soldier. “Where’s the southern Brigantes town? Where are the massing troops? Where is the architecture they wanted, the fields, the bathhouses? And why are you in fucking Ireland? This is a History Channel show, not some flipping half-researched historical romance like you used to post on the streets! You don’t get to play fast and loose with this, Ciaran.”
“I know. I just…” he stopped himself, running his hand over the relatively unfamiliar lines of his character’s face.
“I’m suspending you for a three-day,” she said.
“What?” he protested. “Come on Sal.”
“You make me come into this god-awful place and you think you’re going to argue about this? You want more down time? Is that it? Or how about a pay dock on top of it?”
He shook his head, his heavy red hair shivering the naked skin on his neck. “Nah, I’m coming out.”
“Then give your exit code and let’s go. God, it stinks in here, between you and whatever he is.” Sal gestured vaguely at the soldier.
He obeyed her, rattling off the string of numbers and letters. The scene began to darken from the edges in, the fade pattern he favored, if only because it made the shift from the platform to his workstation a little easier. He glanced over her shoulder and frowned, his mouth falling open a little. Because the Roman lifted brilliant blue eyes to him, mouthed “help me” with cracked and whitened lips before the darkness ate him up, slowly, synapixel by synapixel.
And ate Ciaran and Sal up as well.