“Three Kingdoms” by Matthew Sanborn Smith
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“What are nightmares like, Five?” Tanse asked me from pale, cracked lips.

Arrays of poinciana leaves twisted on my body, fooled by the light of the fire. Behind me they curled against the hard chill of night. Minutes had passed since I had mentioned nightmares but the boy had been famished and fighting to produce a thought. He held his head and gritted his teeth when we spoke. He was young for a human; his biological markers put him at about nine years old, though malnutrition may have stunted him. His greasy, wheat-colored hair had likely never been washed. He ignored the biting lice, but not the pain inside his head when we talked. I wanted to take the pain from him but didn’t know how.

Images flashed inside my brains:

The eastern walls of the lab sink inward like a water bearing ceiling until they burst in blue light. The men outside bring shock, soldiers of the enemy lab, Jaki. They fire and loot, their red wiry brains flailing outward to soak up industrial secrets before those secrets are destroyed. Everything the people of Shyler have struggled for over the last seven years crumbles in the space of ninety seconds. I witness firepower and flame, disintegration and malice. Pieces of human bodies, those of my many parents, spray through the air.

“They’re not really nightmares, Tanse,” I said. “They’re bad memories that resurface when I’m quiet. I used the word because I thought you understood it.”

I wasn’t happy with the word “memories” either. Everything in my mind ran ever present. At times a stored object insisted itself upon a little-occupied processor and became something more.

Tanse’s father was a man of wax, melted into place by the heat of a hard-spent life. Gravity pulled his features down like it held his arms to his sides. He looked too exhausted to climb to his feet, much less go back to the fields to protect the crops. But it wasn’t a killing cold tonight. Not even cold enough to keep Tanse from sweating.

Tanse’s mother scraped her hand, wart-ridden and looking older than any age she’d ever see, along the piece of bark in her lap. The bark held her food and it sat empty now. Her railing moans denied what her own eyes told her, so she felt every millimeter of her primitive dish, felt for the food she knew must be there. I shook some of my food onto her plate. Her thumb touched the puckered orange wedges and she continued eating. The woman, a pile of huddled gray rags, sank again into quiet, save for her loose, mushing mouth.

Filtering the fire from my ocular band, I looked out on the countryside and the points of dozens of other dinner fires. Farther out, the dull glow of Mount Termite’s lights pinkened the blue-black sky. Termite loomed over us all, reaching out beyond the troposphere. Real people lived there, real people with sharp minds and modern technology. Nothing like these shells with which I lived. My leaves curled a little more and I sent roots down to find a relative warmth in land which held the lost heat of the day. My body and the fire provided heat enough, but I took comfort in the permanence of soil. I allowed the light of our fire back in. It washed over my field of vision until Mount Termite became one of those memories.

Tanse’s soft, dirty face turned to me, his furious lips formed words that his mind couldn’t comprehend. He drooled from the corner of a silent mouth as he worked out the problem. I cupped his face in one hand. Tanse liked the touch of my silicone fingertips on his skin. He was fleshing out, much stronger now than when I’d first arrived. Tanse was special, the only one here that tried to talk to me, and for that I felt I owed him the truth. What limited truth he could handle. Tiny rootlets sprouted from my little finger and drank in the saliva running along the side of the boy’s chin.

“It’s like thinking while you sleep,” I told him. He slumped out of my grasp, let out a sigh, not of defeat but of triumph. His face went dead again, like those of everyone else here.

I dumped the rest of the food from my bark plate onto his. This family ate better food than the other farmers here at Jaycourt. From my body, I grew them nutrient-rich vegetables — tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, and others — to supplement their subsistence diet of wheat paste and modified fennel. Tomorrow they would taste mango, perhaps for the first time in their lives. Tanse’s parents wouldn’t know the difference.

“Rest now,” I told the boy. “Eat. I’m very proud of you.”

Like every night for the last month, I placed my plate near the boy before he cleaned his own. I spent my days with these people working the land, sun shining down, taking temporary root in the soil. I didn’t need food. When Tanse finished eating he collected the bark plates and set them together by a jagged stone. That stone, this fire, these in total passed for a home for the family.

In time, the eating stopped. Then soon too in the yawning emptiness, the distant cries for more food ceased. One by one, out to the edges of the tracts, the bone-bag forms dropped to their sides and curled up like dogs with their backs to the night.

* * *

Daytime. We worked in the fields, watering the crops. I had yet to see rainfall here. Tanse and his people used hoses attached to bronze tanks that bowed their backs. I staked out my own patch. The others always gave me ample room. Their squinting eyes avoided me like they did the fiery glare of the tanks, though those shone brighter by far than the curving obsidian gleam of my ceramic skin. If they ignored me they didn’t need to hold their heads in agony.

I’d changed my form for the job, a cross between a piece of old industrial farm equipment and a hedgerow. I was a living system, an intelligent system, with conscious control over the molecules of my intertwined natural and synthetic bodies that no other creature had ever known. I stored my sugars, created my carbon dioxide if needed. Artificial xylem and phloem ran through my organic tissue, carrying water and nutrients where I chose, faster than any natural structure. It allowed for unparalleled growth rates. My parents had incorporated their highest technologies into me. Perhaps to the exclusion of their own defense.

I watered the crops from six sprinkler heads that sprouted from the top of my body, drinking from the water table far below. I filtered out the toxins in a way these plants could not. In a way these people could not. My water misted cool and soothing to the yellow wax bean plants. The water the humans pumped could have brewed tea.

Another memory forced itself upon me: My name is Process Five. I’m a product of the former Shyler Military Labs, a cybernetic organism joining the elemental living kingdoms of vegetable and mineral. I gain consciousness four weeks before the present moment, aware only seconds before the Jaki attack. My life is set into motion by Gon Marter, one of my fathers, a dying technician seeking immortality in my escape. Gon, his eyes filled with panic and blood, holds my head with both hands. He screams above the blasts as fire rages behind him. I’m given one command:

“RUN!”

I carry out my orders, taking a centipede-like shape, the best possible to scramble over the melted piles of rubble while minimizing myself as a target. I shoot forth clinging vines, grabbing rocks and duraplaz rods to pull myself up and over the ruined walls to safety. After days of running, I find this place, a haven of peace. A place where the people seem to have already passed beyond the shadow of Syn, the Lord of Death. Enemies don’t come here.

Here amongst the farmers, one of my mouths snapped up a green-headed jitterbug, itself chewing a leaf down to the vein. The insect’s back legs kicked up before ceasing with a crunch. I chewed its leaf as well, tasting the DNA. The genetic library from which I drew my abilities included samples from tens of thousands of plant species. These feeble specimens wouldn’t have made my creators’ first cut.

To my side, Tanse dug with an ancient trowel at the roots of a dying brown plant. The Jaycourt Farm employed prehistoric methods. Dozens did the work that one person could have done with machines. Machines that could be obtained in Simulation City on the far side of Mount Termite. I knew of these places and what could be found there without ever having visited them. My databases included no information on the Jaycourt Farm. What had happened here?

* * *

Night. Tanse’s mother slept on the dirt nearby while Tanse and I sat bathing in the light of the enormous blue moon that dominated the northern horizon. To the west, a much smaller moon trailed it.

“King Moon ascends to his rightful place at the top of the sky while Vassal dances orbit about him,” I told Tanse. “Your legends say King Moon was his own world until Arwonax enslaved him and bound him to orbit around the planet Unity. Arwonax is the merged god, one head representing the constructed and one representing the natural.”

“Like you,” Tanse said.

“Very good,” I said, rubbing his temples. “Like many things. Like the Jungle at the heart of Simulation City. The Jungle is electricity. It is light. It is information. And yet it grows and thrives like a natural rain forest. Once, everything that ever existed was one thing. But then that one thing shattered and the universe passed thousands of years trying to understand itself and remember. Arwonax spends his existence piecing things back together, merging things once more, healing the universe. One day he will finish and rejoin the Universe and we will all be one thing once more.”

Tanse yawned and fought against something which I could not see. I’d kept him up too late.

“Turn off your mind for a moment and I’ll give you a gift,” I said. He relaxed. I lifted his small body and led him to his mother. He walked with clumsy steps, his right arm slung over his head. I laid him down and draped his arms about his mother’s sleeping form.

“Come back now,” I told him. The young boy’s eyelids flared as he came back to his senses with his mother in his arms. When his surprise passed, he closed his eyes and clutched her tighter.

“Momma,” he said.

* * *

The next day, I experimented. While the others checked leaves for insects and disease I stepped between a farmer and his destination. A beard covered the man’s sun-dried face and blackening teeth. Most of the farmers made a point of shunning me, but they reacted slowly. I could make them look at me if I wanted, though I didn’t like hurting their heads. I expanded myself into a monstrous form. Nearly three meters tall, I towered above him, a creature of thorns and gleaming ceramic teeth, large asymmetrical eyes and graphite claws. The farmer’s dead eyes stared right through me. How would I reach these people? I needed answers.

Had I known what form those answers would take, I might have wished for ignorance.

* * *

They came up on the Jaycourt Farm by foot, three men with living minds, connected by a private network. Not so private to me. The thoughts they shouted to one another hung on the air to be read. Why were they here? Were they the overseers? Two of them carried instruments, possibly weapons. Yes, the thumping of their hearts, the tang of their sweat. Weapons. Golden javelins on rotating turrets joined to their right arms. The javelins connected to frames on their heads by metallic cables, a control system more secure than their mental network.

From the distance, past hunches of gray-draped farmer backs tending their plants, they spotted me.

[Who’s that big guy?] one asked, over their private mentanet. His feed tagged him as Norken.

[That’s our disturbance,] the one called Kale sent. [I saw some crazy version of it back at the shop.] Kale had no weapon. He acted like their leader.

Norken dropped his weapon arm as the third man raised his.

“King Moon,” the third man said out loud. “It’s some kinda combot!”

He fired his weapon and Norken joined in. White needles spat out, sounding like the flutter of a thousand butterfly wings. The needles passed over Tanse’s wide-eyed head and the bent backs of his parents. My makers would have been proud of me.

I ran.

The needles shattered or ricocheted off of my hard shell or tore off bits of my organics. Pieces of my vines wriggled on the ground. The shrapnel began to liquefy and I tasted a neurotoxin in it, a fast-acting synthetic cousin of tetanospasmin, absolutely harmless to one like me, without an organic nervous system. Still I ran. I watched the attack across three hundred and sixty degrees through my ocular band. The needles came at me, raced by me, flew ahead of me. Tanse’s father stood up in the middle of the horizontal rain. A needle pierced his temple. He made a sad, low noise and dropped to the ground, shaking like he’d grabbed a live wire.

“Wait!” Kale shouted, tugging his two men by their tunics. [You idiots are destroying company property!]

Tanse ran to the old man’s body and fell to his knees. He held his jerking father with both hands and screamed, “Noooo!” while his mother kept on working, oblivious to her mate’s death throes.

The men stopped firing and trampled through the crops. Kale barked orders in their minds:

[Hewe, grab the kid, he’s contaminated! Norken, Get that bot! It wouldn’t be running if it was armed!]

The one called Hewe swept up Tanse in his huge, leg-breaking arms. Tanse was delirious but smart enough not to kick. He cried and held his head.

“Five!” he screamed. I twitched but not enough to throw myself off-stride.

Hewe carried Tanse back toward the direction from which the men had come. From forty meters away I heard the hard pumping of his blood and bellows-breath. He ignored Tanse’s screech:

“FIIIIIVE!”

The one called Norken chased me, or tried to. He lost ground by the second. Kale stood and watched me, bent down and picked something up where I’d been just seconds earlier.

“Syn!” he said, dropping it. He crushed it beneath his boot. [Hewe, bring the ship. I don’t care if it gets the deaders worked up. The bot’s getting away.]

I could never outrun an airship. But I found the massive hatch to one of the underground warehouses. It ran twenty meters long and I lifted it by a handle made for a large machine hook. I entered the warehouse and saw Norken slow down before I slammed the overhead door shut with a boom. Their words were foremost in my mind as I made my way deeper into the maze below.

[Kale!] Norken sent. [He ran underground! You want me to flush him out?]

[No! Absolutely not. He’s baiting you. And stop screaming in my head.]

[Bots don’t think like we do, Kale. This one looked scared to me.]

[Bots think better than we do, dumbass! Shut up and lock down all the doors and wait! That’s the thing MACROMOT’S been having fits about, Norken. The colors, the feel of the thing, you can tell.]

[You can tell.]

[It’s different from anything I’ve ever seen, but it looks like something out of Shyler. The way it runs, without bobbing, smooth as shit. It’s got their finger smudges all over it.] The man, Kale, seemed dangerously intelligent. Perhaps this explained why he didn’t need a weapon.

[Didn’t the Jaki trash that place a couple of weeks back?]

[Yeah. This thing must’ve gotten away. Might be broken. This could be big for us, Norken. It’s part plant, I think. That could be its power source, photosynthesis. Wouldn’t hurt to starve it of light for a few days before we go in after it.]

[Right, then,] his man sent. [I’ll kill the power.]

* * *

A day passed in the forgotten depths of Underground Storage Facility Number Three. An eternity to consider my past, present and darkening future. I tore open a sack and tasted the rancid grain pouring through my long fingers. The farm’s produce sat here and rotted. Why spend the effort? With a kick, I broke open the side of a crate and watched maggots spill out.

My nightmares persisted, but a new one replaced the old. I dreamt the same one every time now: Tanse’s filthy, saline-streaked face screams my name while the muscular thug tears him away from everything.

“FIIIIIVE!”

They were real people that came, lucid and powerful, not like Tanse’s people. They didn’t want only me. They wanted Tanse as well. Why? “Contaminated,” Kale had said.

Tanse was special.

I slurped up a handful of maggots through a root-lined metallic tube that extended from where a human might keep its mouth. I was also special, too valuable to lose. But for whom? A dead technician? My creators had passed from this plane. I remained, without family. And I’d abandoned the only friend I had ever known.

How valuable was I now?

My head and shoulders slumped, not of my will. My hands dropped to my sides and maggots fell to the ground. I didn’t know why. Lightning diagnostics failed to show any power blink or pseudo-musculature failure and as fast as it had happened, my systems returned to normal once more. The effect of an unknown technology of the ones above.

Yes. They’d arrived. Their machines disturbed the local probability fields. I didn’t concern myself with the animal dilemma of fight or flight. Masterless, I found no reason to fight. From here, there would be no place to which to flee.

* * *

I’d littered the warehouse with sensors, pieces of myself, each mere atoms wide. I felt the men enter when a draft stirred up with the opening of a small maintenance hatch at the far end of the farm. Bodies moved past.

[No visible or infrared light,] Norken sent. His words rippled over my body from three hundred meters away. [We bag this thing quick and we’re across the border to GreenStation before dawn.]

GreenStation. To the South. When they’d found us on the farm the day before, they had approached from the West. The residue of their black light generators reached me even this far away. I wanted all of this to be over.

There came a distant sound, a light rain of metal on metal. [Damn!] Hewe sent. [Stop those things, Norken!]

[Stop! Stop!] Norken sent at the same time. His was a command signal. Their machines betrayed them. Kale couldn’t have been with them. After a moment I heard a heavy breath.

[I can smell him!] Norken said. [Through my boot.]

They came my way, into the bowels of the warehouse. Eventually their black lights filled the corridor, though I bent their rays around me instinctively. They carried different weapons this time. They’d learned, but what had they expected the first time?

I waited at an intersection. Norken was close before he sensed me. He looked down, focused on his boot. I could have reached out and squeezed his face. He sensed me and jumped backwards, heart rate exploding.

Norken fumbled to activate a machine at his hip, something I didn’t recognize. He aimed and it spewed mathematics at me. It meant to incapacitate me, but in the formulae it belched I saw hints of a solution to my problem. I would take it to pieces. I dedicated five processors to it.

“What? What?” Hewe shouted. He hoisted a long-barreled something to his shoulder, though he couldn’t see me. Neither, I imagined, could Norken, though he could smell me through the device in his boot.

“Shoot him!” Norken yelled.

“Where?”

“There!” He pointed with his machine at me not two meters ahead. Hewe didn’t waste his time with math. He let loose with the thing on his shoulder. It lobbed thick blobs of fire onto me, white like molten steel. The mouth of the weapon dribbled onto Norken. We both erupted into flame. Norken screamed and tore at his clothes.

My body burned, unmoving. I disregarded the pain. I could extinguish the flame, breaking down the molecular bonds of the fuel. I chose not to.

“You idiot!” Norken cried. He stripped to his waist, his shoulder red-purple and mutilated. The armor sat on the floor in flames, releasing noxious smoke.

Norken fished around with one hand in his bandolier, which had fallen to the ground. His feral eyes darted from the bandolier to me until he found a tiny package and tore at the wrapper with his teeth, plastered a patch on his neck. A nerve dampener, I assumed, as his quick, panting breaths slowed and lengthened.

Part of my mind dwelled on a resolution, tied up in computations that would be solved any second now. I couldn’t understand why they’d taken this long. The fire crackled. The water in my cells steamed up in whisper hisses. Though the carbon fiber of my skeleton withstood the heat, the polymers to which it was molded did not. The titanium in some of my components began to burn. Left alone, the fire might not consume me, but it would critically damage me.

And I wrestled with an existential crisis.

“It’s not moving,” Hewe said. “Maybe it shut down. Kale’s gonna rip my head off if I let the whole thing go up.” He inched closer to the me. He poked the barrel of his fire-spitter into the flames on my body. Hewe nudged around in the heart of the fire, scraping, jabbing, stirring the ash of my organics.

Tanse screams at me. “FIIIIIVE!”

I had given myself the task of bringing the boy out of his stupor, strengthening him if for no other reason than to explain to me what had happened on the farm. But another reason developed. Tanse for the sake of Tanse. I knew one peer in this whole vast universe, appointed by myself. I had one friend. I needed to protect him, it was the nature of friendship. He might still be alive. He could be suffering right now. I would save my friend.

In less than a blink I enveloped Hewe. His bare skin sizzled where I touched him. He had time for a quick intake of breath, but not time enough to scream when my large hand twisted his head. He may have felt the crack of his neck, but it would have been the last thing he ever felt.

“Hewe!” Norken yelled.

I dismantled what was left of the fuel. Carbon dioxide quenched the flame. I let the corpse fall to the floor. Norken bolted backwards, stumbling back up the corridor. That nerve dampener was the worst idea he’d had in a night full of bad ideas. He tore at it as he fled, abandoning what weapons he’d had at my feet. He ran like a drunkard toward an exit too far away, with a hatch that might take precious seconds to open. His fear smelled good.

I gave chase but hung back, salvaging what I could of my skeleton, changing shape to take advantage of what I had left and growing from the ashes. I had more than enough time. As damaged as I was, I remained in good killing shape.

He yelped at every noise I made, every crunching step and groan of metal just beyond the reach of his night eyes. His boot’s nose seemed useless to his broken concentration. Norken ran the best his heavy legs could manage; his lungs heaved in the stale, dusty air. I was ready for him now.

“You!” I boomed.

Norken shrieked. His body jolted as if he’d been shocked. He swung his arms wildly, smashing his knuckles against a pipe.

“Where are you?” he demanded, backing against a wall.

“What have you done with the boy?” I asked. He lost control of his bowels. His goggles fell down his sweating face.

“The boy! Tanse!” I said. “You took him from the farm. What have you done with him?”

“We took him to MACROMOT for mental reconditioning!” Norken said, regaining control of his voice. “I’ll get him for you! Is that what you want?”

“I have what I want.”

“Please don’t kill me,” he begged. His hands reached up in the air.

“You brought weapons. You thought you kept me in the dark. What bot do you know that can’t produce its own light?” I flashed a blinding light, scarring Norken’s soft, wet eyes. He screamed, covered his face and collapsed.

I fell upon him, heavy as a small vehicle. My fresh, dripping thorns bit into him. His screams died as paralysis set in. In moments, Norken’s breathing stopped.

Some of my processors had failed. Others worked on that which no longer needed resolution, but they would finish soon. I carried components damaged beyond use. I could repair these in time. I broke Norken’s body down and digested it. My organic form could attain mass rapidly with available nutrients. I ate his equipment to feed my other hungers.

I was not a robot, a thing to exist solely for my programming. I was not a human with those fears and desires which drove my creators. I was Process Five, a new creature. And I would make my own path from here.

“I’m coming, Tanse.”

* * *

I found their airship a hundred meters to the West, unsecured from the outside. They’d expected a quick escape. The airship’s computer field generator flashed in silence, awaiting a master who would never again call her name.

I opened a too-human mouth, exposing speakers. A high-pitched whine of synthesized sound came out. The computer’s field shimmered and revealed its secrets, spurned spouse to illicit lover. I traced the route of the airship’s last flight back to something known as the Mind Company, five kilometers to the West. We took to the air, leaving Mount Termite behind us, but never escaping its view.

The ship vomited vital statistics on the Mind Company. Nothing too revealing. Enough that I would recognize it when I saw it. In the river rush of inflo, one name occurred which made me slow my input and devote an entire processor to its implications: MACROMOT. A mind which dwarfed my own.

* * *

I stood far outside of the small fortress. Six-meter high walls surrounded the Mind Company compound, topped by a translucent dome. A gunship, an armed version of the model I’d flown here, patrolled the night sky and I assumed armed guards patrolled within. I left my ride on the edge of the woods two klicks back. The front door never occurred to me.

I went below. My body separated into one hundred modules and each bored into the ground. We tunneled faster than any rodent, reveling in our surroundings. The earth tasted so much richer here. The walls and foundation sank only a single story into the ground. Good. They didn’t run a big operation. They could only fit so much defense into a building that size. That they hadn’t stopped me yet attested to the quality of their defense. The Mind Company was just a business. A ruthless business that strong-armed the weak, but a business. They lacked the paranoia of a wartime military. They could have used that paranoia tonight.

We burrowed below the building, and then straight upward. We found the microscopic cracks of the compound’s fibercrete foundation. Our fast-growing sprouts pushed upward, aided by a hundred impromptu jackhammers, nanometers thick, along the upper edges of each of our bodies.

Vegetation had one drive: to live. Life drove itself up through the cold, damp soil to touch the sun. Life drove itself through fibercrete without complaint and without resentment. It bore no grudge against the stone. It didn’t question its right or its ability to live. Life knew it must live and proceeded to do so.

We felt the relaxed and unhurried footsteps of dozens of soldiers, technicians and workers above. No one knew of our presence. We felt for the absence of movement and my selves converged upon that area. An empty room. We cracked the tile above us. Tiny fissures ran its length and our many shoots sprouted up through the floor. It crumbled and we rose up from the debris. My body knitted together, grew long and low to the ground. I sprouted large purple bulbs.

The smooth and unwavering voice of the security system said, “You are not authorized to be in this section. Please wait here to be met by an escort.”

A small part of me broke off and scuttled to the nearest computer field. At my command the field sprang to life and data gushed at a speed incomprehensible to humans. A yellow squiggle, which resembled the folds of the human brain, underlay it all. Below that squiggle read large yellow letters:

The Mind Company — We’re the idea people!

Two masked soldiers arrived in the opening doorway. Cables extended from their weapons to their heads. Needlers like the ones used by Norken and Hewe when they took Tanse. Same make, same brassy, snaking souls. I’d come to the right place. They opened fire. Their needles pierced the bloated purple bulbs which ran along my body and those burst dry into yellow clouds of spore more deadly than the needles.

“Unidentified object two meters southeast of my mark!” cried the one soldier, his voice trailing the wisps of recent puberty.

“Possible neurotoxic contamination!” shouted the other. He was older, more knowing, aware of the real threat to his life. His shout held a fearful hint of shattering glass. They felt me before the threat registered. The soldiers ceased firing to claw at their masks and their heads where the weapon cables entered.

The One: “Under my mask!

The Other: “It burns! It’s burning me!”

Death seeped in, on a scale smaller than their masks’ designers could have anticipated. I attacked them in every way I knew how. Somewhere here lay the answers to a little boy mind-raped far from his disgraced hero, far from peace and safety. I smoldered with guilt and hatred for these men and for myself. I wasn’t fighting to give them a chance. At the junction where the needler cables met their firm melon-rind heads, my spores infiltrated — biological, pico-mechanical, digital. The enemy’s front line, two men strong, fell to the head-cracking floor in spasms. Their weapons, unbridled by soft minds, fired automatically, guided by a thousand conflicting sharp dying micro-thoughts. They snapped off of their turrets and whipped like hoses.

My two selves rejoined and I knew the building. I knew where Tanse would be kept, I held some idea of what lay before me and the God-mind beneath it all. I scurried over the fallen soldiers. Their brothers entered the corridor, some taking fire from their fallen comrades’ weapons. They returned fire and more spores filled the air. I overcame these men with as little effort as the last.

The silky throat of the security system refused to give into panic, even as she rushed to protect her charges:

“All non-com personnel, please evacuate to the nearest safety zone. All non-com personnel, please evacuate to the nearest safety zone.”

Two corridors and twenty corpses later, they changed tactics. I entered a lobby where two hulking robots opened fire upon me with explosive disassembler ammunition. I sprang into the air, expanding into something resembling a black leafy net. I tracked the trajectories of a billion pieces of tearing nano. My net expanded in places to let the shrapnel pass through. But not all of it passed through. Shards of me wedged into the walls and ceiling. I shed contaminated ends where the tiny machines ate me alive.

Net-me encompassed the two robots and contracted, slicing them to short-circuiting pieces with my molecule-sharp edges. I snatched up some of the bots’ damaged pieces to replace my own. People ran bloody and screaming. They hadn’t evacuated to their safety zones.

I mended somewhat, healed a bit, not fast enough. I leapt to the ceiling and held on, bristly barbed and thorny, before busting through it.

The MACROMOT Reconditioning Center was one tiny room with a title on the door. Tanse lay masked on a table, his body bruised and filthy. The top of his skull and scalp sat in a little tub of blue syrup on the counter next to him. A red mask covered his face, chin to forehead. One thick tube ran out from the mask to the ceiling. The surgeon that was built into the wall performed a crude surgery on Tanse’s brain. All six slender arms worked their lasers and micro-manipulators, directed by a computer somewhere behind the plaz wall. A thread of smoke rose from the point of contact inside the little head. I had allowed this to happen.

With an info-laden wail from me, the robotic arms that had worked Tanse over re-attached the top of his skull and retracted into the wall. I pulled the boy to myself, wrapping as many arms around his frail form as I could grow, taking great care to protect that little must-be-throbbing head of his. I would heal him, somehow.

I pounded through the wall near the surgeon arms and went through. Bootsteps behind us, I hadn’t forgotten them. The robotic surgical arms attacked the guards at my urging as the men stepped within reach. I heard their screams.

I burst through wall after wall. I wanted to head downward, but the chase pushed me forward and upward. Soon we entered MACROMOT’s monitoring station, abandoned by its human controllers. The field of every computational projector in the room came alive. The black Living Light, information flow so dense that it acquired mass, reached out and swallowed us. A soft shower of white inflo in this new black world fell like snow in the night. All stimuli evaporated save for one that overloaded my sensors and demanded every erg of my processing power. MACROMOT had found me. The sheer weight of Its intellect overwhelmed me, one-thousand stories tall. I began to understand.

This being was far larger than Its physical structure could allow. It achieved a mind more colossal than the capabilities of Its brain. There ran in MACROMOT spirits of a sort. Spirits of the still living. In the thickening haze of data my small mind caught only glimpses of them. The merest feelings of people I had known. I had intuitions of Tanse’s mother, of the bearded farmer and others from Jaycourt. And yet here they were fully realized creatures. Humans. More than humans. Unleashed creative intellects which swam within MACROMOT even as they expanded the boundaries of what an electronic intelligence could be. MACROMOT incorporated the minds of what I thought to be those mindless farmers, more trapped here than any other consciousness in some ways. More free in others.

BE STILL it demanded of my will.

“Unlikely,” I said. I ran. Ran to where I knew the monitoring station must end. I should have reached it by now, I thought. I may have been through and to another room while this giant smothered my input. I may have merely thought that I ran, while the Mind Company’s incompetent boy-men vivisected me with diamond shrapnel in the heart of the station. And then yes, I felt it. Some buzzing at the back of the world and I ran in both places at once. The boy in my arms played some part in this. I ran from the soldiers. Their gunfire struck me. They had abandoned their useless needles and taken up real weapons.

“You shall open an escape route for us!” I told the grand machine at the center of all things.

EVEN LESS LIKELY. MORE LIKELY THAT YOU SHALL BE CRUSHED.

They peeled me apart, those buzzing chainsaw gnats, chipping my ceramic skin, slicing my composite frame. I left behind a puff of nano-scale crystalline chips which tore into the armor and flesh of my enemies. Tireless flagella would drive those chips throughout their bodies, pulping the screaming men as they went.

Still, they outnumbered me. I ran less efficiently than I had only seconds earlier. The ocean of MACROMOT made it difficult to defend myself. My hydroxy recombinator struggled to refill the punctured water collection reservoir in my chest and quench the thirst of my vascular system. I repaired slowly if at all. A hundred tiny wounds soon became two hundred, then three. I shouted at a local computer field. It displayed the head of Kale propped upon the end of a needler. Some humans chasing me stopped short for a moment. Every second helped.

“Your defenses have proven inadequate so far,” I told MACROMOT.

YET YOU FALTER, it said, AND HERE YOU ARE, SLOW ENOUGH THAT I CAN EAT YOUR MIND.

“No. Part of you wants me to escape with this.” I projected an icon representing Tanse’s body. In the ghostly ether, that icon seemed to accrete spirit stuff, hooking tufts of Tanse’s being, which swam toward its glow and fed it.

NO.

Tanse’s distorted voice spoke from the electronic lungs of MACROMOT:

“Yes!” the boy shouted. He was here, young Tanse. Part of his mind was with us, though his body lay unconscious. His icon came to flapping life. “You let me go, you let me go now! YOULETMEGONOW!YOULETMEGONOW!YOULETMEGONOW!YOULETMEGONOW!” he screamed again and again until his real body stirred and the sweat and the tears and the snot and the spit dripped down his furious face.

Until MACROMOT itself screamed: YOU LET ME GO NOW!

Everything became quiet. The world in which we stood disappeared as if lights had come up in a theater. Though we might not live to enjoy it, we had earned our freedom.

We stood on the rooftop landing deck. I carried Tanse into an awaiting airship. Soldiers arrived as the hatch closed.

“HOLD YOUR FIRE!” came a voice that resonated with that of the localized god, MACROMOT. “I REPEAT, CEASE FIRE!” Our airship rose into the air and a portal opened up in the dome above. Confusion reigned on the ground. The officer in charge must have realized that something had undermined him. I heard the chaos on the air.

[Who gave that order? Who gave the order to cease fire?]

[It sounded like the security computer, sir.]

[Since when are we taking orders from the security computer? Open fire!]

They fired again, the guards and the gunboat outside the dome. We watched the dome seal up after our escape, making the soldier’s fire ineffectual. The gunboat’s fire ceased and it did not pursue. MACROMOT had regained control of its people.

“Very slick,” came Kale’s voice from the back of our craft. He held a weapon aimed at the boy in my arms. Another man to fight. Our shredded and dripping bodies hovered near death already. I hadn’t the resources to bring us both out of this alive.

“No,” Tanse moaned. He bled from several wounds and didn’t have the strength to launch himself at Kale, though he tried.

“There’s nothing to be gained any longer,” I said. “We have reached an agreement with MACROMOT.”

“Have you now?” He seemed impressed. “Well, good for you. But I wasn’t in this for MACROMOT’s sake. I want something else. We’re going to take a little trip to GreenStation. Not too far, but a world away from this. I’m not looking for a fight. Shape you’re in, I’m guessing you’re not either. I want to bring you to see some people. I think they could learn a lot from someone like you, or what’s left of you. They’d fix you up too. They’re no Shyler, but they’re not half bad in their own way. For my part, they’d pay me a pretty sum for the introduction. Everyone’s happy.”

“So why are you threatening the boy with that weapon?” I asked.

“Insurance. So you hear me out, maybe see things my way.”

“No,” I said.

“You don’t have a whole lot of options here,” he said. Even as he did, he may have realized that he had few options himself. The muscles in his forearm twitched. From the angle of his weapon I knew he wanted only to injure Tanse, but one more injury might have meant death.

I chirped at the boat and it answered by falling into a nosedive. I covered Tanse as Kale pitched toward us. Part of me became a long spike on which Kale impaled himself.

I chirped again, but too late for the ship to pull out. We’d flown too low, the ship too sluggish. I stretched myself out, parts of me grasping whatever handholds I could to absorb the shock of the crash.

The world shook me loose as it crushed us from below. The collision hammered the ship, ripping metal and shattering plaz. It knocked me senseless for a moment. But I lived. The ship mitigated the impact. It had tried to pull out, but had no time to finish the maneuver. I rebooted automatically.

Tanse? He lived, but barely. We lay there, two crippled and miserable creatures. He moaned with all the strength left to him. Perhaps I made his situation worse, protecting him enough to leave him conscious and in what must have been unbearable pain. The crash had broken many of his bones and damaged organs. I needed to repair and re-grow myself. If I could. I’d lost so much. I couldn’t think as well as before, could move only nineteen percent of my body. We needed to get to the airship in which I’d arrived, get real treatment in Simulation City. It might take more than we had to just pull ourselves from this wreckage. I grew thin feelers into some of the boys wounds and fed him morphine. I moved deeper into him.

“No, Five,” Tanse said. “Let me die as myself. I want to die one person.” He sounded like an adult now, one free of MACROMOT. What had his other self gone through in that other world? What memories and thoughts had he pulled from the great machine or from his fellow enslaved human minds to make him an adult in mind now?

“You have to trust me, Tanse.”

“No.”

“Do you trust me? I failed you once, I know. I will work for the rest of my life to make that up to you. Do you trust me, Tanse?”

“Yes…” He fell unconscious. He might have said “yes” only because he knew he would die and didn’t want to leave this world with me in a bad way.

The functioning remains of my self moved into and around him. I set the boy’s shattered bones where I could and braced them. Parts of my damaged frame clung to his body. I slid his punctured lungs off of his ribs, reinforced his back where it was broken. I dressed his wounds with cool, thick leaves and staunched the blood loss with calcium and microporous zeolites. I devoured the durium shrapnel in his body to feed the hard shell with which I covered his head. We became one body: animal, vegetable, and mineral. I gave him all the nutrients his body might need, drained from Kale’s corpse. I roused Tanse with caffeine and glucose and adrenaline.

“Five, no,” the boy begged.

“Be still now. It’s not like before. I’m not MACROMOT, our minds aren’t merged. We will not become one. We remain two, but interdependent. Symbiotic.”

I scraped the crusted blood from the young one’s eyes and slowly, painfully, we stood.

“We are better than two beings. We are better than one being,” I told him. “We are brothers.”

The two of us moved, aching and burning, from the crumpled ship, working around our limitations while learning each other’s gait, adjusting and compensating. Not perfectly, but well enough.

We carried each other.


Matthew Sanborn Smith’s fiction has appeared at Tor.com, Nature, and Chizine, among others. He is an occasional contributor to the StarShipSofa podcast and SF Signal. His voice can be heard on his podcast, Beware the Hairy Mango, and his tweets can be read at @upwithgravity.
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