The city bustled around Harald as he made his rounds, delivering things from far-off cities and towns to the east. The colonists here were trying their best to survive on the border of the salty flats that stymied most attempts at growing anything, but it was their connection to their old lives that truly gave them purpose.
Most had shuttled here when there was a promising find in the desert: a ruin out in the desolate wastes of white, crystalline salt. The problem was, most that searched for the ruin were lost in the flats, for every direction looked the same to the horizon once you lost sight of the foothills. The people that built this little town – Trestle – were those who stood on the precipice of that vast and daunting expanse and realized the folly of it all.
Now, people like Harald ferried letters and packages between Trestle and other settlements, bringing news from family members and friends on the caravans that crawled out this far. Some enterprising people had begun selling salts and fulgurites, which allowed the town to flourish with the newfound wealth and imported food. There was even talk of setting up a new caravan to a settlement farther north from here, but Harald knew it wouldn’t be long before his time was up, and he would never see that blistering frontier.
He’d been running this route for so long, he’d seen children grow to adults, and the passage of time wore him down, despite his metal frame. In a few more decades, the humidity and salt might just cause his joints to cease altogether. And who would be so dedicated to make the month-long trip year-round, even through the ice winds and the isopod breeding season?
Harald had seen as many drop dead on his tours as had left after one or two runs. Living out here took a will of pure steel, a constant vigilance for any sign of trouble, and a mind bolstered with hope against the inevitable.
Harald stopped to enjoy the shade of a pagoda in the late afternoon heat, his plating pinging and popping from the intense waves rolling up off the white-hot flats below. The scent of salt was ever-present here, and even in the shade, he felt weary. He looked down over himself, his metal fatiguing in places, his legs worn smooth with many lifetimes of walking.
His body was decorated with many heirlooms and gifts, things he would wear until they were reduced to dust: the badge from the seventh Opium War, given to him by an aged general whom he had helped regain contact with survivors, and over time, gain some modicum of closure and aid to those he had done wrong;
A flower held in stasis, powered by a miniaturized piezoelectric battery, to remember the Fields of Nutenburg – now no more than a barren steppe of micromachine dust;
Chalk drawings of animals and people preserved over with sealant, like windows into the past, from the peoples of the southern islands. He knew he could never make that journey again, not with his body in the shape it was. They served as a reminder of his eventual dissolution into nothing but remnants, much like those that adorned him.
As he was absorbed in his reverie, he noted a small figure heading up the road to him, frame set heavy with determination and purpose. Drawing closer, Harald noted it was young Viola, a child he had seen grow into a veritable leader and scholar. She must have been well into her fourties by now, and her son was rumoured to be setting out on a dunebarge to explore the salt flats further west, leaving her free to begin her studies again.
“Viola!” Harald called out to her, though he was sure she had seen him well before. “Won’t you join me in the shade?”
As she approached, her pace did not slow, and Harald found himself recalling her tenacity, even as a child. She had once approached him, barely four years old, and demanded he take off his armor before he died of heat stroke. She’d said-
“What are you doing hiding in the shadows, tin man?” Viola’s voice, husky with age, cut through the memory brutally. “Too afraid of a little heat?”
“Rightly so, my dear.” His voice rattled within the ancient voicebox; a dead person’s tones, well out of time and forgotten by all. “Even a metal man as myself should fear the beating heart of that eldritch sun above!” He pointed to the paint flaking from his dome and shoulders. “Sunburn’s a nasty thing!”
Viola laughed without irony, slapping the stone ledge Harald sat on before joining him in the pagoda’s cool void. “You’ve heard talk around town?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” Harald grimaced, though his face did not show the subtleties of it. “Seb is, after all, your son, so it shouldn’t surprise you.”
Viola turned on him. “What surprises me, old man, is that nobody else seems intent on stopping him. He won’t listen to me, and nearly everyone in the town is calling it the Sixth Wave!” She snorted. “As if they knew what the first Five were about.”
Harald studied Viola for a moment, recalling her fervent study of the past and steadfast refusal of exploration for adventure’s sake. “So you’ve come to the postman to ask for help, is it?” He prodded her side. “Why, I’m touched.”
“Your words, Harald, not mine.” Viola tensed at his jab and returned one of her own. “You’re the closest we have to an elder, so maybe you can shake his head loose of this silliness.”
“You wound me, little bird.”
“I’m not a child anymore, Harald.”
“And neither is Sebal.” Harald noted pointedly.
Viola merely huffed and stared out at the blinding salt flats.
They sat in silence for what felt like half the day, but eventually – like always – Harald gave in. His was a duty to serve, after all.
“…I’ll try to talk to him, Viola. But I make no promises-“
“You will?!” Viola returned, breaking her silence like a hammer through sodium-glass. “Oh, Harald, thank you thank you!” And at once she was a child again, hugging him tightly and kissing his cold metal cheeks.
Harald managed to extricate himself from her grasp and held her at arm’s length. “But if I can’t convince him not to go, you mustn’t hold that against either of us. He is an adult now, no matter how you measure it, and it is his life to decide.”
Viola went silent once more, then nodded solemnly. “He’s my only boy. And he’s more stubborn than I am.” She looked back at the rolling flats. “If anything, maybe it’s jealousy of his willingness to do something so…rash, so freeing.”
“Viola, you see him as the boy you raised. I know that; why, I remember seeing your parents raise you, and I dare say you were just as much of a handful until your folks gave up the reigns.”
“The reigns?” Viola inquired, searching Harald’s stiff countenance.
“If you have a wild thing in your grasp, you’re just as likely to do both of you harm trying to keep it pinned.” Harald patted her arm, giving it a tender squeeze then standing brusquely. “You’re better to let it loose and come what may.”
With that, he started his walk out of the lengthening shade of the pagoda down the hillside, and behind him, Viola’s strained voice called out.
“You do your best, old man! And if you can’t stop him, you teach him all you can before he’s gone!”
Harald stopped briefly, then nodded, more to himself than anyone, before continuing the long trudge to the edge of Trestle.