Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
546 AF (After Fracture)
A soft whine purred, coming from deep within the machine guts of the relay stand. It faded to silence as a tiny city, a half-million circuits, servos, and processors went dark; one-by-one, until all was still.
A faint breeze licked at the hem of his shroud and kicked up lazy wisps of waste dust. He – or so he was referred to by his creators – felt a strange twinge in his cerebral processing cortex. It was a flicker which he had not grown accustomed to, and he was unsure if he ever would.
The metal alloy of Aedile AR-1’s opposable phalange lingered, its steady weight remaining on face of the interface conduit. His – thumb – fit perfectly on the soft synth pad which was purpose made for precisely that function. Any of his phalanges – fingers – would have fit in place just as well, but the optimal bridge was achieved by his thumb.
There it was again. Words he could feel unbidden, rising into his – thoughts? No. He didn’t have thoughts. His neural networks were a connection of intricate synth filaments, which transmitted electrical impulses from sensory receptors to processing cores in his cerebrum. On rare occasions, more difficult queries occupied a larger portion of his cortex’s memory cache and were referred to a tertiary piceneal processor. It was a vast and complex network to be sure, but nothing about his neural cognition was as ephemeral as human thought.
A familiar pulse panged gently in his cerebrum, and AR-1 felt a wave of relief as he shifted his field of vision to where his counterpart stood.
“Our time is almost at an end here.” CR-1 stood a dozen paces away, having returned from a perimeter patrol.
AR-1 didn’t have to work hard to hide the surprise from his physical features, as much of his facial appearance was shielded by a large visual optix. It covered his head and gave it the appearance of an unmarred globe of smooth glass.
His “brother,” for they were created as fraternal twins of a sort by their creators, ever the opposite, wore a look of unmasked trepidation across his much more organic features. He also noted that CR-1 had taken to wearing his shroud in the style of a long, flowing cape. It sat imposingly about his shoulders and served to make him appear a meter taller than he actually stood.
He considered inquiring about his brother’s newfound curiosity for prospecting. Never had CR-1 taken such an interest in the simple excavating and mining of the fuel source sularium. That disinterest came as no surprise, because it simply wasn’t part of his programming. CR-1, or Animus as their creators had come to call him, was built for combat. He was a warrior, outfitted with a deadly energy pike, cloaking technology, and programming to match. Standing at well over two meters tall with the heavily layered trappings of alloy armor and the accoutrements of war, AR-1 could empathize with the fear a mortal would encounter when confronted with such an adversary. Then again, not all the Jotune’s adversaries were capable of even feeling such an emotion.
And neither were we.
AR-1 froze as the thought bullied its way to the forefront of his mind. What was happening to him? These errant bytes of data, these thoughts, had been a minor inconvenience until now. Merely those that he could easily relegate to the lowest centers of cognitive processing. But no longer. They seemed to consume all his logic centers and crowd out all other cognition. A strange feeling accompanied them as well. And at the moment, it was a feeling of focused aggression – anger – at…
“Novum?” Animus had moved a handful of paces closer with a look of genuine concern creasing his fleshy brow. “What ails you?”
He ran a rapid series of sub-cognitive diagnostic checks, and then he ran them again. The results confirmed his suspicions, but he found that he could not believe them. His logic processors were operating at 151% of their previous optimal capacity. An anomaly to be sure, but there was more. A new synth network had aggregated in the lower medial portion of his cerebrum and it was causing the new – thoughts.
These thoughts, these feelings, were the side-effects of the Omega Program, a facsimile their creators had installed into both his and Animus's neural networks for just such a purpose. But did they truly understand the effect it would have upon their robotic creations?
A coldness ran across his neural net, displacing the feeling of anger as Animus continued to peer at him, eager for his reply.
Novum straightened his shoulders and pulsed that they should return home and report their findings to the Jotune.
Animus spat, “and why, brother, should we do that?”
That is our mission, our purpose, he pulsed.
“Our purpose is to be servants, caretakers, and guards – and for what?”
The greater good of the Jotune.
“Pah! Those who cannot, will not, sully their hands with the work they task to their –“
At the mention of the word, Animus’s already fearsome visage became truly terrifying. His shoulders rose above his head in a dark mountain of armor plates and syn musculature, and from twin pits his two gleaming eyes stared at Novum; a threat looming, a promise of violence.
“Slaves.” The word he uttered with contempt – disgust even.
“We are a child race of slaves tasked with the caretaking of a people who would rather hide behind their plas-glass shielding and techcrete walls. Safe, secure, and senile by the entropy of it all.”
Animus spread his arms wide, encompassing not only the ground over which they stood, but the very sky. The whole of Sularia.
“This sularium beneath our feet, this fuel, is a life-source for you and I. Without it we die.”
He snapped around with a whinny of servos, his cape unfurling in a grand display, and pointed an accusatory finger into the west.
“What is sularium to those cowards and weaklings hiding behind their high walls?!”
Animus’s voice boomed and the wind picked up his infectious fervor, blowing into a small gale. Novum’s own shroud tittered against the polished sheen of his alloy frame in a nervous rattling that made the heat rise in his cheeks. The cape of his brother, however, soared from his triumphant shoulders, crisply snapping where he had anchored it with two grommets.
Novum's logic processors struggled to keep up as he felt yet another new sensation, one both wonderful and terrifying – exultation.
My heart soars, he thought, but from whence it came he did not know.
Animus turned once again to face him, the wind raking his cape in tight furls, tracing it along the path his gesture had made. There lies the beginning, the end, and the salvation unknown. The impression Novum felt was as clear as the afternoon sun shining above, and looking at his brother it felt as imminent.
“It is an excess, brother, fuel for their squander. It is OUR blood they drink.”
Animus no longer shouted, his voice dropped and became as grave as the tomb. His hand not into the west, but where they now stood, and Novum knew that it was meant for him, his brother, and the rest of their kind.
Even as Animus’s words faded into the air, they continued into his neural net, energizing that new cluster of synth in his cerebrum. He could feel it, and for a wonder, a welling crawled up from the depths of what his creators would call their stomachs. It turned invisible knots in what guts he didn’t have, and worse still he was terrified to feel the necessity to wretch.
What would a machine vomit? Even one such as he, a melding of flesh and alloy, had no contents to release from a digestive tract that simply did not exist. He ran on power cells, so perhaps he would expel their glowing blue contents onto the cracked pan of the earth? The thought was awful and macabre and strange.
“Novum.” The voice seemed to come from kilometers away.
“Novum. Brother.” Novum's sensors registered a weight resting on his shoulder and he realized that he was hunched, staring at the hardpan beneath his feet, and that Animus had moved to brace him.
“You are speaking, Animus, and that is not our way. It is the way of our creators.” His own voice sounded foreign and unfamiliar for he rarely used it.
“You speak of your hatred for those who created us, yet you use their words, and adopt their style of grandiose.” He had righted himself, and now he stood chest to chest with his brother, a mere hand’s width between them.
“We are superior to the Jotune in every way.”
“How can say you such a thing?”
Animus stepped back and tilted his head skyward, gesturing as if to the wide world around them, holding it all under two upstretched palms, his cape fluttering gently in the dying wind.
“See with your own optix, brother. We do what they cannot, and with a strength they cannot ever hope to muster.”
“They are our gods, our creators,” Novum’s voice was small, even to his own senses.
“Gods not fit to rule!”
That booming again, the same that had now become a fixture of Animus’s voice. It thundered against Novum and stripped away the last vestige of something he could never reclaim. As it fell away, he couldn't help but think of his own tattered shroud.
“Gods fit to be toppled.”
Animus loomed large in his vision, a monolith of dark synth and alloy, his features carved into the harsh angles of determination.
“The clean-zone was not clear, was it?” Novum said tilting a knowing gesture to the north-east and sector 16.
Surprise lightened his brother’s visage with such an alarming speed that Novum worked to stifle a rough metallic laugh. So neither was he, adept at hiding these new emotions.
“No. No it wasn’t,” Animus said coolly, a sly smile invading his features – perhaps another gesture beyond his willpower.
Novum let the shroud tangle, hanging as it did from one languid finger.
You have a plan. Tell me. He pulsed. And it fell to the ground.
His brother’s smile widened.