By: Nick Wisseman
(Note: this is part two of an ongoing story. Check out the fourth part here.)
When light returned, it was mercifully dim: just a few pinpricks of red and blue, some of which were blinking.
Mika opened her eyes the rest of the way, but there was little else to see. No stars, no bones — just vague shapes, any of which could be solid or shadow. Where was she? And how was she alive?
Her arm felt … heavy. But how could it when she’d lost the lower half? Was that how phantom pain manifested? She couldn’t move the stub, though. Same with her hip and head. Same with the rest of her.
All because Desmond had betrayed them.
Desmond. Her neighbor and first boyfriend on Saturn 10. Her shoulder to cry on after her dad passed in college. The protocol-obsessed professional who’d reconnected at the end of grad school and helped get her grant approved by the right people in Fleet. That Desmond — the one who’d never steered her wrong.
Until he’d murdered Atalia, stood by while strip miners gunned down Neto, and knocked her unconscious, probably with his rifle butt.
The blinking lights held no answers, but when one of them was temporarily obscured by a lean, low-to-the-ground profile that clinked as it moved, Mika nearly wept.
“Good boy,” she slurred, her tongue feeling almost as heavy as her missing forearm. “Good boy, Rocket. Come here.”
The dog padded toward her. His gait sounded slightly different; he’d probably sustained some serious injuries too. But at least he was capable of walking.
Just out of arm’s reach — her left arm’s, anyway; her right couldn’t reach much of anything anymore — Rocket stopped, panted a few times, and turned around. He took a few more steps before flopping next to one of the red-and-blue light clusters. He must still be hurting, the poor thing.
But how was he with her … wherever they were? Even unharmed, with his legs fully charged, he wouldn’t have been able to drag her far. No, someone else must have rescued them. Had Desmond had a stab of conscience? Or did the strip miners have another purpose for her?
Maybe she was about to find out: a red light in the far corner started flickering the way older comms did when they were establishing a long-range connection.
“Your respirations have increased,” a deep male voice — not one she recognized — said a moment later. “Seventeen per minute. Very good. You must be awake. My apologies for not being there to greet you in person.”
Mika wasn’t sure how to respond, or if her lips could even form something more intelligible than what she’d mumbled to Rocket.
“Scans suggest your nervous system isn’t fully back online. That’s as expected; the athelan berries I gave you are a powerful anesthetic, but their effect tends to linger longer than necessary. Do let me know when you require a secondary analgesic, though. The pain will likely be considerable once you can register it again.”
Mika swallowed and forced her tongue to do something other than loll from her mouth. “So you saved me?” Her enunciation was better — still not great, but passable.
“Correct, but only because your canine companion crawled over to you and licked your hand. Before that, I thought you’d expired.”
Good dog. “And my friends? There were three of them …”
“Inoperable. I’m sorry.”
Mika squeezed her eyes shut. She’d known there was little hope for Atalia and Neto, but Kady hadn’t exhibited any obvious injuries.
“I’ll join you soon,” the voice said. “After I collect some mallern leaves. Most people enjoy the taste, and they have anti-inflammatory properties that will help you heal.”
That sounded intriguing — Mika remembered a reference to mallern pies in one of the Virendell histories. But why couldn’t she place the man’s accent? “Who should I say thank you to for all this?”
No answer. Just silence, then static.
“Are you one of the Virendell colonists?” asked Mika after the static ended. “One of their descendants?”
What did that mean? The hesitant tone didn’t invite a follow-up, however. “How are you able to use your comm?” she tried instead. “Did the interference stop?”
“It doesn’t affect me.”
“What about the strip miners? And the member of my crew that … joined them?”
The comm light flickered again, and new voices blared out of it, all of them angry. “Shut up!” one of them roared above the rest. Was that the man who’d hurt Kady? “You see this? The section of code that’s highlighted? That is some evil-genius-level hacking — threaded through every directory in both ships, even the backups that should have been partitioned. And as adaptive as anything I’ve seen. I have to wall off everything I fix or it reverts as soon as I move on.”
“So how long until we can launch the ship?” a new voice asked.
“Safely? A week at least. Maybe two before I trust the solar sails not to glitch on us or that the RTG backups won’t cut out when we’re in deep, dark space. This is some heinous stuff.”
“Well, it’s not like we’re in a fucking rush. The raw mithrol isn’t getting any less corrosive, and I haven’t seen an instruction manual lying around the refinery. If we don’t find a way to at least stabilize this shit enough to transport it — ”
“We have three days,” Desmond said, his voice as cold as it had been in the cavernous rib cage. “The rendezvous is next week, and it’s going to take us four days to get there. Figure it out.”
The comm light flickered once more.
“Perhaps the miners shouldn’t have executed the rest of your crew,” the first voice said. “The geologist might have been able to decipher the chemistry, and your pilot seemed like an adept coder.”
Mika winced. They’d been more than adept at their jobs; they’d been friends. She’d thought so, anyway. And she’d probably been right — in everyone’s case but Desmond’s. “So you can record people through the interference?”
“It’s my interference.”
“To hide you?”
“And KI? Can you monitor them too? We got an alert just before you shut everything down …” Mika frowned. Something was off. She wasn’t surprised that the stranger seemed secretive and generally odd — hermits tended to be both. But his cadence varied so little it sounded regimented, lending his speech a subtle stiffness that couldn’t be explained solely by awkwardness and the rust of long disuse.
“I have a confession to make,” the voice said with eerie timing and no audible regret. “I already found some mallern leaves and brought them back. If you’re hungry, you can have them now.”
Several overhead lights flared on, temporarily blinding Mika. But not before she glimpsed three truths about her surroundings.
One: Rocket hadn’t come all the way over to her because he couldn’t — she was in a cage. A large, clear-paned cage that would give her ample room to move around, once she could move at all. But still a cage.
Two: Most of the red and blue lights were attached to lab equipment of all shapes and sizes, many of which looked outdated.
Three: The light cluster Rocket had snuggled up against did not belong to a piece of equipment. Those particular red and blue blinkers festooned a horizontal sensor strip on a torso that was every bit as metallic as the dog’s rear legs. And above the torso was …
The thing that had blocked every signal on the planet. The monster that had probably infected those strip miners with Strangler in the refinery. The villain that had imprisoned her.
KI. She was staring into the telescoping, multi-lensed eyes of a killer intelligence.
Adrenaline crashed through Mika’s drug-induced numbness, sweeping it away like a flashflood bursting a dam. She threw her arms up to ward off whatever blow was coming.
Her left arm probably wouldn’t have done much good. It was still soft, the flesh and blood she remembered. But her right arm was shiny from the elbow down. Encased — no, constructed of — cleverly connected metal plates, each of which looked sturdy enough to block a wicked strike or two.
And many of which were starting to blink with red and blue lights.
She knew she shouldn’t take her eyes off the homicidal threat before her, but they traveled down to her right leg anyway — which was equally artificial, from hip to toe.
“What did you do to me?” she breathed. But the answer seemed obvious.
The KI had begun making her one of its own.
* * *
It didn’t appear to be in a hurry to finish the job, though.
While Mika ignored the leaves the KI had set inside her cage, the robot puttered around the narrow, windowless lab, checking various instruments and making minor adjustments. Mika couldn’t be certain without accessing her notes, but she was pretty sure one of the vats was labeled with the chemical formula for mithrol.
The label on another vat was less ambiguous: Strangler, written in faded, surprisingly human-like penmanship.
What was this KI doing?
Mika didn’t remember any stories about the robots conducting medical experiments on people. But to develop Strangler, the KI had probably collected test subjects. How did fitting her with prosthetic limbs connect to that, though? Was she intended to be a convert? Or a guinea pig for some new strain?
At least her head didn’t feel like it had any new implants, just some bruising and (competently applied) bandages. And this KI appeared to be alone — no other robots had wandered into the lab, and there hadn’t been any chatter over the comm. Not that she could hear, anyway. Who knew what sort of internal transmitters these things had?
Or maybe its transmitters were shot. Now that her eyes had adjusted to the light, Mika could see how ramshackle the KI was. Its legs — supposedly capable of scissoring up to lift the robot to twice a person’s height — had the characteristic spindly aesthetic, but most of its components looked mismatched and rusty.
“It’s rude to stare,” the KI said; directly, not through the comm this time. “You try finding suitable replacement parts this far from the city.” Was that the robot’s normal tone (when it wasn’t trying to hide its nature)? The vibe was distinctly less friendly.
Rocket didn’t seem bothered by the shift. He’d followed the robot around amiably for several minutes before eventually burrowing into a pile of disheveled blankets beneath the comm in the corner. His back legs had an incongruous look to them now, one paw a different color as if its components had been patched in the same function-over-form fashion as the KI.
Mika’s new limbs wouldn’t be winning any art prizes, either. The forearm seemed to be composed of at least three different metals, and only two of the fingers would have been considered part of the same set if they weren’t clumped together. She hadn’t inspected her replacement leg as closely — as soon as she’d gotten over her initial shock, she’d yanked on the threadbare suit lying inside the door of the cage. (Her original clothing and suit had vanished.) But from what she’d seen of the joints and toes, they were all similarly haphazard.
Everything worked, though, with remarkable responsiveness. She’d heard it often took months to train the brain to fully accommodate a neuromusculoskeletal prosthetic. Did the KI have some sort of hack for that? How long had she been out of commission?
Long enough for everything to hurt like hell, that much was clear. The effectiveness of the athelan berries — or whatever numbing agent the KI had actually given her — was starting to wane. Before, she hadn’t been able to move because nothing worked. Now, she didn’t want to move because everything ached.
“Your heartrate’s elevated,” the KI said without turning around — was there any way to hide from its bioscanners in here? “You should take another dose of athelan concentrate.” The robot plucked a hypodermic needle off a table, placed the alarmingly long implement on a tray, and slid it through a slot at the bottom of the cage’s door. “Let me know if you require assistance administering that.”
Mika eyed the needle but stayed where she was. Objectively, she knew she wasn’t any safer at the back of the cage. But she wouldn’t be coming closer to the KI if she could help it.
The robot’s shoulders bobbed — was that a shrug? “Suit yourself.”
A moment later, the first notes of a song Mika didn’t recognize started playing over the comm. The style wasn’t anything she was familiar with either: more rhythmic than melodic, with a syncopated beat and a psychedelic feel.
But the KI seemed to know every note. With a surprising amount of grace, the robot — probably one of the original models in a long line of diabolical constructs — began dancing to the beat.
Not showily. The change in the robot’s steps was subtle, and its arms twitched only slightly more than necessary as it resumed going about its tasks. But the KI was definitely getting its version of a groove on.
“What is that?” asked Mika before she could stop herself.
“‘The Refrain of Acid Rain,’” the KI responded without missing a beat. “The third track on Funky and the Beats’ 2057 album The Last Polar Bear — a friend of mine suggested I listen to a range of music to better inform my personality algorithm.”
What friend? And was this the intended result? Mika tried not to imagine what would happen if the KI spent any length of time listening to Atalia’s thrasher tunes.
No. Don’t dwell. “So you like music from yesterEarth?”
“My friend had an appreciation for old things — luckily for you.” The KI shuffle-stepped over to a fume hood and peered inside (without turning the ventilator on). “Music’s made me far more impulsive and sentimental than I used to be. A century ago, I never would have salvaged you.”
Rocket shifted on his blankets.
“There’s an eighty-seven percent chance I still would have restored the canine, though. I tend to like animals better than humans. More rational.”
Sure. “This friend of yours — ”
“Your skepticism is unfounded.” The KI withdrew from the fume hood and outright shimmied to the Strangler vat. “I’m capable of making friends. Ones who don’t try to terminate me by battering my head with a firearm, by the way.”
Mika glared at the robot. “Yes, you’re extremely sentimental.”
It pivoted and returned her stare, red eyes gleaming balefully as the music cut out. “You might do better to stop thinking of me as a KI. I’m not a killer.”
“Oh? What are you?”
“For insidious intelligence?”
Mika jabbed a finger at the Strangler vat. “So you and all your friends independently decided to create a virus that would decimate humanity?”
The KI crossed its arms — which only reminded Mika that the hand she’d extended bore far too close a resemblance to the robot’s. She dropped her arm to her side; if only she could drop the prosthetic entirely.
The KI shook its head. “Those that weaponized Huornella onodrimi type k weren’t my friends. And I argued against their doing so. Moreover, they came to that decision only after humans corrupted yesterEarth and developed malware to terminate all AI.”
“Why would I believe that?”
“If I were a killer, would I have prevented you from shutting down and diminished my already meager supply of spare parts to gift you new limbs?”
“All so you could put me in a cage.”
“For your protection. Once you’re healed, and I’m at least ninety-five percent certain you won’t try something irrational, you’ll be free to go.”
“Free to go where?” Mika raised her prosthetic arm — intentionally this time — and then dropped it to rest on her equally problematic new knee. “You put KI hardware in me. If I somehow get back to Restoration space, I’ll set off scanners everywhere I go.”
“There are ways to disguise your neural circuitry. Besides, it was humans that disabled you in the first place, not me.”
“If you’re so much more peaceful than us, what are you doing with that?” Mika gestured at the Strangler vat again.
“That’s a colony of Huornella onodrimi type j. It’s effectively inert to humans.”
“Then why do you have it?”
“It has other uses. Mute yourself for one hundred and twenty-seven seconds, and I’ll show you.”
Most of the lights dimmed except for those in the KI’s eyes, which swiveled to project an image on the far wall: Virendell. The shot had been taken from orbit, showing off the planet in all its blue-green glory.
“What you see before you represents a second chance,” a new female voice said over the comm in yesterEarth English. Was this a recording? “Thirty-three standard years ago, the world before you was a toxic wasteland.”
Mika raised her eyebrows as the Virendell in the presentation dulled and died, putrefying into a mess of sickly browns and oozing blacks.
“But through research begun on yesterEarth,” the narrator continued, “and completed during the voyage here, a way to reverse the corruption was found.”
The camera zoomed in, rushing to the surface and then down to the level of a corroded pebble. A gloved hand entered the frame and paired the pebble with something white and ovular — a seed.
“From these humble beginnings arose the greatest recycling system known to humankind.”
Time sped up, sending light and its absence rushing across the pebble in an endless, flickering loop. As night chased day, the seed sprouted, its shoot bending until it hovered over the pebble. Then the shoot sprouted its own tendrils — eight of them. Four descended, one to either side of the pebble. Two poked out and curled into little flaps. The final pair uncoiled along the length of the main shoot, one tilting up and the other down.
“Holy shit,” Mika breathed as the seedling began to texture with telltale details — horns, teeth, talons, scales. “Those things were engineered?”
“Their technical name is Fangornus draca,” the narrator all but confirmed. “But we usually call them bark dragons.”
The scales crackled and swelled, and the dragon seedling grew with it, expanding as rapidly as its casing.
The camera stayed on the pebble, though, lingering until one of the dragon’s spreading feet obscured it. By that point, the stone’s corruption had leeched away, its discoloration transferred to and then absorbed by the nearest scales.
“The bark dragons convert certain toxins into breathable, potable, and combustible byproducts, much as plants on yesterEarth took in carbon dioxide and released oxygen. But it’s more than just an enhanced version of photosynthesis: the larger dragons also absorb heavy metals and other contaminants from the soil, a process known as phytomining. The combination is as natural a terraforming as we could hope to achieve.”
The camera panned back up, following the now towering former seedling to its apex: an enormous, serpentine head — with eyes that blinked.
Mika gasped. “They moved?”
“The dragons are benign,” the narrator said with the same eerie timing. “Slow-moving herbivores, when they eat at all.”
The camera zoomed out to the original orbital view, showing Virendell once more restored to the softer palette that indicated — and welcomed — life.
“But they’re voracious consumers of pollution: the dragons cleansed the atmosphere four times faster than anticipated, enabling the native flora to emerge from dormancy at a similarly accelerated rate. Simply put: this planet is ready for habitation. So please, join us.”
The coordinates for Virendell overlaid its image. Then the KI ended the projection.
“That’s … incredible,” Mika said — sincerely. If this was real, then the Restoration hadn’t just secured a new energy source; they’d found a filter for it too, a mythic package that could both generate a super fuel and minimize its emissions.
The Holy Grail of sustainability.
“Correct,” the robot said.
“Did more colonists come?”
“They arrived two hundred and fifty-three standard days after the first broadcast. And they did what most humans do — ruin everything.”
Another video beamed out of the KI’s eyes. But this wasn’t a slick pitch to attract other yesterEarth refugees; this looked like security footage of a committee meeting.
“You idiots,” a small, white-haired woman seethed at the central table. Her voice sounded like the narrator’s. “The Fangornus draca are a finite resource. You’re butchering them faster than they can reproduce.”
“Can’t you just grow more of them?” asked a bearded man, his eyes and tone weary.
“And for what?” the old woman blazed on. “I showed you how to tap the big dragons without killing them. You can’t even refine all the mithrol you’re taking. I heard raw extract burned through a storage drum yesterday because it had been left to sit for twelve hours too long.”
“That was a minor scheduling error. The bigger picture — which you still refuse to see — is that most of the traditional inputs for next-gen ion engines are growing scarce. The KI are threatening to lock down the rest. When that happens, whatever’s left of humanity beyond Virendell will buy every last drop of mithrol we have. We’re already negotiating our first contract.”
“Oh, what a lovely reason to push the environment back beyond the tipping point. As I’ve warned you since the moment you arrived, the core of this world remains volatile and continues to vent noxious gas. The dragons weren’t a one-and-done deal; they must endure to keep the planet habitable.”
The bearded man shrugged. “The climate’s fine.”
The old woman smacked the table. “No wonder yesterEarth rotted and died! Have we learned nothing?” She struggled to a stand and limped out.
The KI paused the footage and turned the lights back on.
“It really was like a bison hunt,” Mika murmured. She glanced at the robot, who was still staring at the wall. Specifically, the KI seemed focused on the point where — in the meeting footage — the old woman had vanished through the conference room’s door.
Was the KI … sad?
“Was that your friend?” asked Mika.
The KI turned away from her and faced Rocket.
“How long ago was that?”
“One hundred and thirteen standard years and forty-seven days.”
Mika winced. The old woman was long gone, then. But the colonists … “They must have stopped mining mithrol soon after, right? Virendell is still a paradise.”
The KI laughed, a noise made doubly disconcerting by its palpable, organic bitterness. Maybe all that music had taught the robot something, after all. “The colonists stopped only after triggering a Huornella onodrimi type k outbreak. And by then, there wasn’t much point in their staying. The environment had almost completely reverted. The last humans were wearing suits when they boarded their shuttles.”
So that was why the histories had described Virendell as a wasteland. “But then how — ”
“The husks of the Fangornus draca kept capturing toxins at three point two percent of their former effectiveness. With the humans gone and no longer polluting, that rate was sufficient to re-optimize the atmosphere in the intervening one hundred and five standard years. No one else was here to see it, though.”
Mika almost felt like she should apologize to the KI. Assuming she believed it.
She kind of did, though. The pieces fit, and fabricating them would have taken a level of creativity few humans could have managed — much less a creaky, cranky machine.
Of course, this meant her dissertation was all sorts of wrong. But it was hard to imagine anything mattering less right now.
“I wish I could have seen them,” she whispered. “The bark dragons. When they were alive.”
The KI laughed again, but it didn’t sound quite as mournful. “I doubt you would call this your ‘lucky day’ — an especially irrational human phrase. But, well … Smog, are you hungry?”
Mika leaped to her feet. Surely not.
But Rocket — who seemed to make friends with everyone — was being nudged aside by something moving beneath the blankets. The dog rolled, righted himself, and trotted toward the KI.
Behind him, a small, lizard-like snout emerged between two folds of fraying fabric.
* * *
It was possible Mika’s mouth had hung open for longer stretches — perhaps during a visit to the orthodontist when she was a teenager. Judging by how much her cheek muscles ached when she realized she’d literally gone slack-jawed, however, she must have spent several minutes gaping at the bark dragon.
But how else was she supposed to respond?
The creature that shook off the blankets wasn’t much larger than Rocket, but its shape was fully defined. Teeth, wings, tail — they were all there. So were the scales, crinkled and brown, indistinguishable from the skin of living wood. And the eyes: so intelligent, quick to note Mika’s presence and equally swift to dismiss it.
A legend in miniature.
Watching Smog move was like being in a reverse zoo. She was the one locked in a cage; the dragon was free to roam and engage as it wished. Neto would have loved this perspective. Especially when the little beast scampered over to what looked like a generator and sucked happily from a tube that the KI extended from the top of the whirring contraption.
“Exhaust,” the robot explained, gesturing at the vat she’d noticed earlier. “The liquid form of mithrol is suboptimal, but two point seven milligrams is still enough to power the lab for a standard month of average use, and the vapors are beneficial to Smog. Harmless to humans, though.”
Once satisfied, the bark dragon joined Rocket in front of a large bowl on the ground and waited semi-patiently while the KI counted out twelve mallern leaves from a bin. When the robot set them in the bowl — six on either side — the dog and his new companion fell to with gusto.
Which was when Mika realized her mouth was still ajar because it was salivating. She was starving and no longer quite so skeptical of the mallern leaves.
Rocket had probably already had several helpings, and he seemed fine. Smog had apparently been raised on them. So Mika joined the fun — and found the mallern leaves to be delightfully savory. If the greens were this tasty on their own, how heavenly would a pie filled with them be?
“I thought the bark dragons were slow-moving,” Mika said after she and the animals had finished eating, and Rocket began chasing Smog around the lab.
The KI shrugged. “Adult Fangornus draca are relatively ponderous, but the adolescents can reach a maximum velocity of forty-seven kilometers per hour.”
Mika gestured at the little scamp currently evading Rocket with ease. “Are there others?”
“Unlikely. The colonists raided our seed cache before they departed. I doubt they understood how to nurture them.”
Probably not, or there would have been some record of “dragons” in the histories. As it was, the colonists had likely been too ashamed to reference the magnificent creatures explicitly … The survivors must have made off with a fair amount of mithrol too. How degraded would it be by now? Or had they mismanaged their supplies of the energy source as well?
The KI bent to scratch Rocket under his chin — the dog’s favorite spot. God, that looked human. “What was left of the seeds had severely deteriorated by the time I restarted my research; I essentially had to reboot the process. But the second line of inquiry allowed me to make some modifications.”
“I reduced the propensity toward immobilizing gigantism — the oldest Fangornus draca tended to take root, leaving them vulnerable to overexploitation. I also updated their native defense mechanisms.”
Mika studied the bark dragon. It already had several pointy bits. What had the KI done — added a breath weapon? Oh, duh. “Strangler?”
“Correct. The ability to exhale the dangerous variant was a recessive trait in the original breed. Now it’s dominant, but only in reduced form; the new version can’t replicate in a human host. Only the initial target sickens.”
That wouldn’t be any comfort if she were the target, though. Mika had never missed her respirator so much.
But its absence did give her a thought. “There were two bodies in the refinery. The older one, I imagine, fell victim to the original outbreak. But the newer one — ”
“She shot at us. Smog reacted accordingly.”
Mika remembered the question Desmond had asked the strip miners before everything turned in the boneyard. “Was her name Bheka?”
“So her associates called her. She was intelligent — for a human. It took me a full one point two standard hours to bypass the lock she programmed into my selective signal jammer.”
“And was Desmond one of those associates?”
“Correct. My surveillance network recorded seven long-range transmissions between them before I activated the jammer — I was away at the city on an ill-timed salvage run when the miners landed. She also contacted Desmond while I was undoing her lock.”
Mika bit her lip. Did her glimmer of a plan have any chance of working? But what other choice did she have? She was technically still a prisoner; she had to try something. “What do I call you?”
The KI tapped a string of characters imprinted on its torso. “How are you at recalling seventeen-digit serial numbers?”
“Probably pretty bad.”
“Then just call me Legs.”
Despite everything, Mika laughed. Was that the spindly-limbed robot’s nickname for itself? Did it have that much of a sense of humor? “All right, Legs. Our ship detected your presence while the jammer was down, and an alert automatically relayed to the Restoration Fleet — how long have I been out?”
“Six standard days.”
Six days. Yikes. “Almost a week ago, then. They’ve had plenty of time to launch a rescue mission.”
“Possibly. Your pilot framed transmission as an uncertainty.”
Atalia’s voice played over the comm in a haunting callback: “Let’s just hope the KI alert got through to Fleet before whatever’s blocking our signals went into throttle mode.”
Right. Legs seemed to have surveillance set up everywhere. The point stood, though. “I don’t think you can take that chance.”
“I’ve dealt with trespassers before.”
“I’m sure you have, but those were probably isolated incidents. If Fleet comes, you won’t be able to ‘deal’ with all of them. Especially when they discover the mithrol — even if they think it’s a finite source, there’s going to be a mad rush. You need to leave.” Mika took a deep breath. “And I have a proposal for how to get us both out.”