The man had to stoop to enter. His head scraped the ceiling and he hid behind a mask, a sheet of dull bronze hammered into a face. One eye blinked red; the other was a hollow socket. He dragged a cloak as he walked, each step punctuated by a metallic clink.
“I need passage.” His voice came out as a hollow breath, almost rusty.
Axh sized him up. Two metres tall, with limbs as spindly as a skeleton. His eye had to be fake, and his throat was likely prosthetic, too. That meant he had money. A shady bugger if Axh ever saw one, but if he could pay then Axh wouldn’t ask questions. He’d ferried all sorts between Nar and Soll, some of whom the thought of still made his spine crawl and his conscience wail. He couldn’t afford to choose, though. Not while Hana still lay ill.
“Where to?” Axh said.
Axh raised his eyebrow. “The ruins?” He must have misheard.
Is he serious? “They’re across the Wastes. No one goes there.” Teion was a story told to scare children to bed, a city destroyed as punishment for daring to create life.
The man slapped one hundred credits on the counter, his metal hand thudding the wood.
“I need to get to Teion.”
Axh eyed the blue number glowing on the card. A hundred was nothing to sniff at, but he couldn’t. He’d promised Rei. The Wastes were too perilous. If Axh died, who would send Rei the money they needed for Hana’s treatment?
Axh gripped the counter and shook his head. “I’m sorry, but it’s too dangerous. The Olri are more active than ever.”
Another hundred credits appeared. The man leaned in and Axh could hear the humming of a power core.
“Your ship is the only one with the specs to cross the Wastes,” the man said.
Axh swallowed and his fingers twitched. Treatment cost one hundred and fifty a month; subtracting ten for living costs and ten for repairs, that left thirty credits to go towards buying passage to Faln. Thirty credits towards seeing his family again.
But no, he couldn’t. Thirty credits wasn’t worth his life.
“Sand-shields won’t stand up to Olri blasters,” Axh said. “You’ll have to find someone else.”
Three hundred credits. “There is no one else.”
Sweat trickled down Axh’s back. “I…”
“I have to get there,” the man hissed. His red eye flashed. “Do you understand?”
Rei and Hana smiled at Axh from the photo to his right. His heart twisted. If the man was as desperate as he said, then Axh could name any price. He brushed the gun under the counter, tracing the trigger. Dare he ask?
“One thousand,” Axh said. “I’ll take you for one thousand credits.”
Extortionate. The price was daylight robbery, but not only would it cover passage to Faln, it would pay for several months’ treatment while he found a new job over there. Silence crept through the room and the man stood stock still, a bronze statue. Axh gripped the gun.
“Deal,” the man said. “Take me to Teion.”
Axh didn’t let his relief show. “The money first.”
The man slid him the five hundred. “You’ll get the rest when I’m at Teion.”
A wise choice. Axh grabbed his keys. “What do I call you?”
The man followed him outside, and gears whirred as he stretched.
“Call me Two.”
Axh liked to think of himself as reputable, even if his clientele weren’t. Where his competition cut corners, Axh did things properly. He’d heavily invested in his passengers’ comfort and recently refurbished his Sollon Hoverbus I-40’s trailer with air-conditioning and leather seats.
Two insisted on riding in the cockpit, his gaze fixed by the sand bouncing off the shields. He hadn’t spoken in an hour.
Axh shifted gears, slowing down as they rounded the top of a dune. He checked the energy level: seventy-three percent. Good. The shields gorged more power than the engines combined, fending off both wind and heat. Axh had equipped the Hoverbus with solar cells to recharge, but if those broke…
The white sun burned in the crimson sky, nature stained by centuries of humankind. The Wastes stretched out for miles around them, a desert of jagged rocks hiding under shifting sands. Sandstorms regularly upheaved the landscape, making navigation a nightmare.
“It’s terrible what the Olri did to this place,” Axh said. “I heard it used to be a forest.”
“The Olri didn’t do this,” Two said.
Axh glanced at him. He couldn’t gauge anything underneath Two’s mask, not a race nor age. How did he end up with so many prosthetics? He had more fake body parts than the war veterans Axh had ferried last month.
“Are you Olri?” Axh asked.
“Then how do you know?”
Two didn’t answer.
Axh picked up speed as they ducked under the shadow of a cliff, sand billowing in their wake. Energy level: seventy-one. He tapped the navboard and pulled up the satellite map. Twenty-nine kilometres left, and no sandstorms in sight. They were making good progress.
“We should be there in—”
Something hit the shields and Axh jerked forwards, his seatbelt biting into his neck.
Two spun. “What was that?”
“Olri,” Axh hissed.
Three hunters, two either side and one behind them. The Hoverbus rocked as silver-blue beams hit the sand-shields, electricity crackling. Energy-level: sixty-four.
“The shields can’t take heavy fire!” Axh cried. “If they go down, we’re defenceless!”
He cranked the accelerator, swerving to shake the Olri. The hunters were smaller, though, and faster, their engines whining.
Axh glanced at Two. “There’s a pulse rifle in the seat next to you.”
The door rattled as Two slid it open, sticking his head out.
“What the hell are you doing!” Axh yelled.
Two started to climb onto the trailer’s roof but—shit! Axh braked sharply and they screeched to a halt a hair’s breath away from a black rockface. His blood raced.
“You okay?” Axh said.
Two hung from the door, his one eye blinking.
“You focus on driving,” Two said. “I’ll take care of the Olri.”
Blasters rocked the shields and Axh swore. The hunters were closing in. Energy level: forty-eight. More rocks scattered the Wastes ahead of them, a treacherous straight nicknamed the ‘Earth’s Teeth’. Sensible pilots steered clear of that area, but then sensible pilots didn’t have Olri hunters chasing them.
Metal tore against metal as he took off and Axh chanced a look back. Eight blades poked through the trailer’s roof. His heart skipped a beat. The shields! No, they were still up. Axh switched the navboard to top camera only to find Two latched onto the roof with fricking foot-claws. Bastard! Axh was so charging extra for that.
No, he couldn’t think about damage costs right now. Focus on the road ahead. A weathered archway, half buried: an opportunity. A tight fit, but Axh could make it. He had to. The cockpit shook as the Hoverbus took another hit. His hands slipped on the controls, slick with sweat, and Axh cursed. He wiped his palms as he approached the archway and held his breath, aiming low so Two would have room to stand. Steady, steady! The Hoverbus scraped through the hole and Axh whooped as a hunter hit the rocks in a rush of fire. He bobbed and weaved through the Earth’s Teeth, white-knuckled hands clutching the joysticks in death grips. Axh checked the cameras to make sure Two was still attached.
Two extended his hand and crimson light bled through it. A laser shot offscreen and a hunter exploded on the rear camera. Yes! Energy level at twenty-two, but there was only one ship left. They could do this! A cliff zoomed towards them, an opportunity. Axh nosedived just as Two fired, cutting the remaining hunter clean in half, but the blast clipped the clifftop.
Warnings flashed as a shards of rock pelted the shields and a web of cracks snaked across the overhang. Energy level: one percent. Axh couldn’t breathe, panic holding his chest hostage. Oh god.
The clifftop collapsed.
The airbags hissed as they deflated. Axh’s head throbbed, his entire body aching, and when he ran his hand through his hair it came away wet with blood. Sand buried the windows and LEDs lit the cockpit like pyres, the largest ones flashing green behind him. Dazed, he fumbled with his seatbelt. When it gave he fell backwards and hit something that shouldn’t have been there, something solid. Corrugated iron.
Axh’s eyes widened. The safety doors shut for a single reason, and the lights confirmed what he already knew: the cockpit had severed from the trailer. His stomach twisted. No, no! The solar cells were on the trailer! Without them, he… he couldn’t…
Sand cascaded into the cockpit as Axh forced the door open, coughing dust. He stumbled to his feet, squinting at the sudden sunlight. The trailer. He had to find the trailer! Rubble pocked the sand, jagged boulders easily capable of breaking the shields. Axh cut his hands as he clambered over them, panic numbing the pain. He couldn’t think. The trailer, his livelihood. Without it he’d make no money. Without it, Hana wouldn’t get her treatment. A glint of metal. There! Axh slid down a dune, the sand burning his skin. His breath caught.
The trailer lay untouched but for the rock that skewered it, right through the solar cells.
Axh fell to his knees. He wanted to cry but the tears wouldn’t come, his voice failing him. It was shock more than anything else, a bitter denial of what his eyes told him was true. It couldn’t be. He never did anything wrong. Axh didn’t deserve this; Hana didn’t deserve this. Oh god. How would he tell Rei? How would she tell Hana? He’d never see them again. Axh was stuck in the middle of the Wastes, with no means of transport. Why was he even here? Idiot. Fool. Shit.
Axh dug through the sands, yelling madly. How could he forget about Two! He could be dead and all Axh cared about was a stupid trailer! It was pathetic how low he’d sunk.
“I’m over here.”
Axh swivelled his head. Over by the cockpit fingers wriggled in the sand, alive. Thank god. He unearthed Two’s head, sand stinging the cuts on his hands. Two’s hood was gone, revealing… More metal.
“Are you okay?” Axh said.
“I lost an arm,” Two replied.
“What!?” But there was no blood. Were both his arms fake? Axh freed the rest of him, his heart racing. He had a first-aid kit in the cockpit, but would it be enough?
Axh froze. Two’s left arm was gone and wires sparked in its socket.
He gaped. “You’re a robot.”
Axh clenched his fist. “I wrecked my ship… for a robot.” A hunk of metal with a soul written in zeroes and ones. He’d risked his life for nothing more than a glorified computer.
Two fixed him with its eye. “I’m paying you.”
Hot wrath bubbled through his veins. “One thousand credits can’t cover this!” Axh laughed hoarsely. “Forget about passage to Faln, I can’t even afford a new ship!” Rei, please forgive me. Hana, I’m so sorry…
Pistons whirred as Two stood, a metal skeleton. Its chest was a patchwork of plates, all of them scuffed and dented, and bare wires ran like veins along its limbs. Axh couldn’t see any serial number, model number nor brand.
“Why do you want to go to Faln?” Two said.
“My family’s there,” Axh snapped. “Not that you’d understand. You’re just a machine.” A machine that ruined my life.
Two cocked its head. “Faln’s a long way away.”
“Yeah, well my daughter’s ill. It’s the only place that can treat her.”
“What does she have?”
Axh swallowed around the lump in his throat. “Cancer.”
A pause. “The Teioni could cure cancer.”
Axh stared at Two, but its expression remained blank. Of course it did; its face couldn’t move.
“The Teioni disappeared two thousand years ago,” he said. “How could you possibly know that?”
Two stepped forwards. “The Teioni built me.”
Axh started. “You’re kidding me!”
“I do not lie.”
If that was true, then Two must have been running for thousands of years. A power core that could last that long? The technology was priceless. Axh’s mouth went dry. If he sold Two to the highest bidder…
“Why do you have to go to Teion?” Axh asked.
“To fix myself,” it said.
Axh kicked the sand. “Unless you have some secret way of fixing that,” he pointed to the trailer, “we’re stuck here.”
“Teion is eighteen kilometres away,” Two said. “There’ll be ships there you can use to return.”
“They’ve searched Teion before,” Axh said. “No one ever found anything.”
“They didn’t know where to look.”
Axh bit his lip. He may have lost his ship, but a Hoverbus was nothing compared to the value of the power core standing next to him. Eighteen kilometres was a long trek, but Axh kept himself fit. He could do it.
Two flexed its right arm and wicked claws unsheathed from its fingers. It raised its hand.
“Don’t betray me,” it said. Two’s eye burned red. “I won’t hesitate to kill you if you do.”
Sweat trickled down Axh’s spine. “I won’t.” At least, not until they reached Teion.
Teion clawed its way through the ground, a solitary mountain in a sea of sand. Its jagged turrets tore the sky and wind shrieked through its streets, swirling ghosts in the dust. The sun fell and the horizon lit the black stone in shades of red, the city’s masonry almost glossy, like glass. Who had lived here, all those years ago? Who’d built Two?
Axh readjusted his bag’s straps, laden with all he could scavenge from the Hoverbus. He wiped the sweat from his brow. Exhaustion weighed him down more than what he carried, his legs heavy, but fear kept him moving. Two had promised a way out of here, but Axh could see nothing. Teion was deserted. Only architecture remained, a patchwork of right angles and flowing curves. If the city truly was as empty as it seemed, then why had Two brought him here? If it wasn’t, then where was Two headed? Up they went, higher and higher still.
Axh ran a hand along a windowsill, the texture so alien it was simultaneously mesmerising and terrifying. Stones littered the ledge and with a glance at Two, Axh slipped one into his pocket. He had no idea how Two worked, and if… if he really did want to sell it, then Axh had to find a way to make it docile. Two’s feet clacked against the floor and Axh could still vividly picture its claws, razor sharp. He ran a hand through the dried blood on his forehead. Maybe Two had an off switch. On its back? No. There was nothing on its chest, either.
“What is it?” Two said.
Axh started. “I’m just… I wondered how you got all those patches.” Maybe its off switch was under one of them?
“I’m old,” Two replied.
A dry answer, but an odd one from a machine. Whoever programmed it did an extraordinary job; perhaps Axh could sell its source code, too. Guilt coiled in his gut, but he pushed it down. Two was a robot. An object, a thing. You can’t betray a computer; it doesn’t have feelings. Two deserved it, anyway. Because of it, he had no income, and with no income Hana would die.
Axh’s heart clenched and panic bubbled to the surface. Breathe. Hana’s alive. Rei’s with her. You’ll see them again, one day…
Two glanced at him. “Are you tired?”
“No, I’m…” Axh’s voice broke. “I’m good.”
“We have to get to the top,” Two said. “It won’t be long now.”
The higher they climbed the grander the buildings became, full of twisting towers and soaring halls. The damage was greater, though, holes blown in walls and entire streets levelled. This was too much, even for the passage of time. It could only have been war.
“Be careful where you step,” Two warned. “There are mines still active.”
Axh froze. “Mines? In the stone?”
“That’s what makes them deadly.” Two stood with its back to Axh. “The shrapnel shredded people alive.”
Axh’s stomach turned. “What happened here?”
“Hubris,” Two said. “The Teioni thought science could achieve anything. They were wrong.”
Axh remembered the old legends. “They tried to create life.”
“No, they succeeded in that,” Two said. Gears turned. “Their world ended when they tried to create God.”
Axh made sure to step where Two stepped, his thoughts awhirl. This ancient race, so long dead… What had life been like for the Teioni? Did they have drivers to ferry them through the city? Did they struggle to make ends meet, tearing their hair out at the end of each month? Did their little girls waste away while they could only watch, helpless? No, Two said they cured cancer. How ironic that the cure was lost yet the mines remained.
Did Two know the cure? Axh’s resolve wavered.
The stone shifted under his foot. Something ticked. Two tackled Axh to the ground just as the mine exploded, knocking the breath from his lungs. Debris pelted the walls and Axh could only cower as Two covered him, its metal frame shaking.
The dust cleared. Axh’s ears rang.
“I told you to be careful where you step.”
The blast had ripped Two’s right arm off at the elbow, its torso pocked with fresh dents. Tiny shards of stone splintered its platting, red light bleeding from the cuts. Axh’s limbs trembled.
“You—You saved me,” he whispered.
“Your family need you,” Two said.
Impossible. It was a machine. It couldn’t understand; it shouldn’t be able to.
“You’re sentient,” Axh realised. “Alive.”
Two stretched. “I am.”
“Thank you.” How could he possibly have considered selling Two? Betraying it? It saved his life! But… it was alive. True artificial intelligence. Forget the power core, this would be the most significant technological advancement in human history. Rei and Hana would never have to worry about anything ever again.
“If you want to thank me, then be my arms,” it said. “I can’t fix myself like this.”
“I’ll do it,” Axh said.
Two’s eye glowed. “Promise me you’ll do as I say.”
Axh clenched his fist. “I promise.”
“Good.” It nodded. “I can still kill you without my arms. Remember that.”
Axh had one more question. “What…” He hesitated. “What happened to One?”
Two was silent for a while. “It didn’t escape.”
At first, Axh thought he stood in a temple. They were in the highest building, a gargantuan cavern of pillars and archways arranged like a maze of mirrors without glass. Axh could see everything from up here: the horizon swallowed the sun, Soll’s lights glittering in the far north; the Wastes stretched out below him, wind rolling waves of sand across the dunes like ripples of water; and in the distance Nar nestled by the coast, Axh’s house somewhere in its silhouette.
Rei, if only you could see this view.
“This was the Hall of Facsimiles,” Two said. “The Teioni housed their greatest inventions here.” It gazed through the archways.
“Where did it all go?” Axh said.
“Most of it was destroyed.” Two walked to the centre of the hall. “The rest was hidden.”
Two’s eye flashed in a rhythmic code and, to Axh’s surprise, the floor flashed back. Circles of red light hummed underneath the stone, spinning rapidly.
“Step inside, quick.”
As soon as Axh did so, there came a click, and the circle lowered into the floor. Darkness closed in from either side and Axh cried out as the hole above them slid shut, but white lights flickered to life almost immediately.
At first, Axh thought he was dreaming.
The room was a mirror of the Hall of Facsimiles, arches and pillars dripping downwards. Raised platforms paved the floor and machines of every shape and size decorated the gaps. Against one wall stood a menagerie of robotic suits and mechanical animals, decked in shades of bronze, silver and gold. Vast airships hung in one corner, sleek white, and next to them rested pods and hoverbikes: his way home! Relief flooded his veins. There were even more machines Axh couldn’t recognise, their purposes unfathomable. Could one of them cure cancer?
Two’s eye scanned a panel on a pillar, and it beeped.
“Place your hand here,” it said.
The panel was made of that same smooth stone the city was. Axh felt a sharp prick of electricity, then lines of text flashed upon the screen.
“You now have access to the Underhall,” Two said. “You can take your hand away.”
Axh rubbed his palm. “Why did you give me access?”
“There’s a cure somewhere in here,” Two said. “It’ll take time to find it.”
Axh blinked back tears and steadied himself against the pillar. A cure. He could cure her; Hana could live! They’d be together again, all three of them. His family.
“I—Thank you, I…” Axh’s voice wavered. I was going to betray you. You’ve done so much for me, and I planned to sell you for money!
“Do what you like with the technology in this room,” Two said. “Ghosts have no use for it.”
“What about you?”
Two led the way to the robotics section. It sat down on a lab table, wires dangling from the ceiling.
“You’ll have to fix me,” it said. “Do as I say.”
Axh nodded. He set down his bag in the corner.
“First, connect me to the server,” it said. “That’s the thick wire in front of you.” A panel on its nape popped open.
“The grey one?” Axh said.
He had to stand on his toes to reach it. Axh slotted the wire into place and red light pumped through it, spreading out. Behind him, massive data banks whirred to life, and computer screens flicked on.
“Good,” Two said. “Next, you have to replace my broken kernel.”
Its chest opened to reveal a throbbing, scarlet crystal, nestled in between various circuit boards. The light pulsed like a heartbeat, oscillating to some function Axh didn’t have the knowledge to understand.
“On the desk there should be a chip labelled ‘K’.”
Axh had to dig under a mess of cables. “Found it.”
“Fit it into the gap next to my Visual Processing Unit,” Two ordered.
Axh peered inside the robot. “Where’s that?”
“On the righthand side. It’s labelled VPU.”
“Oh yeah.” Axh pushed it in and it clicked into place. It felt strange to have his hand inside Two’s circuitry, invasive. If it were flesh and blood, this would be where its heart was.
Two’s power core blinked.
“Is it supposed to do that?” Axh gulped.
“Don’t worry about it,” Two replied. “Now you’ll have to re-configure me.”
“How do I do that?”
“Go to the keyboard and type what I say,” Two said.
Axh took a sip of water from the bottle in his bag, then got to work. Minutes turned to hours until Axh lost track of time, their voices the only sound. His eyes started to ache from staring at a screen for so long, but eventually, he finished.
“It says ‘100% complete’,” Axh read.
“That’s it, then.”
Axh grinned. “Finally!”
“There’s just one more thing.”
“Right.” He flexed his fingers.
“Type ‘al -2 -s wipe *’.”
Axh paused. “Wipe?”
Two met his gaze. “Yes.”
“What does that do?”
“It clears my programming.”
Axh’s throat went dry. “But that… That’ll kill you.”
A pause. “Yes.”
“It’ll kill you!” Axh jumped to his feet, the stool clattering to the floor. “You’ll die!”
“I have lived two-thousand, three-hundred and four years,” Two said. “I’ve watched everyone around me die, unable to do the same… until now. At last I can rest.”
“You promised, Axh.”
Tears stung his eyes. “I never promised to kill you.”
“It won’t go through unless I authorise it on my end,” Two said. “I’d be killing myself.”
“You came all this way to get fixed, only to die?”
“The kernel that broke was the one holding this procedure,” it explained. “I had to fix it.”
“I…” You saved my life, but you want me to end yours? I don’t want to be a killer. I can’t!
“Please.” Two’s power core flickered. “I’m tired, Axh. So very tired.”
His finger hovered above the enter key, shaking. Two was alive. It—he—was alive.
Axh hit the key.
Two’s power core blinked once then went black, his body falling limp. His face was a hollow mask, his eyes dead at last.
Axh couldn’t say how long he stood there. Silence roared. He was the only one alive in this vast city, the only soul left in the graveyard of Teion. The emptiness pressed in on him from all angles, a crushing weight. He hardly dared breathe.
Axh glanced at the hoverbikes. There was bound to be one suited to difficult terrain. Axh could come back another day, find the cure tomorrow. He needed… time.
Something caught his eye. A bundle of papers stuck out from behind a monitor, wedged in place as if someone had hid them in a hurry. Axh flicked through them, his eyes glazing over the writing. He turned the page and froze. A humanoid diagram took centre page, labelled with a single number.
This was it. Axh held mankind’s greatest achievement, the creation of life. The possibilities were endless. Two’s blueprints were his key to untold wealth and fame, and could revolutionise civilisation. For Rei. For Hana. Axh’s life could change forever…
Axh tore the papers apart, ripping them into tiny pieces. He threw them on the table and they fell like petals around Two’s husk, one final memory.