Authors: Christopher Buecheler
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Teen & Young Adult, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Fiction, #Science-Fiction
Inside the domed building there was nothing but darkness. Pehr lay on his
back, still panting, feeling the pain of his wounds as a distant, faraway thing
that served mostly to remind him that he was not, in fact, dead yet. He slowly
became aware of Tasha sobbing somewhere beside him, and when he felt her
searching hands touch his chest, he took them, and he pulled the girl against
him. She lay there in the dark, crying into his chest, and Pehr closed his
eyes. Nani’s face came to him then, as it often did in difficult times, a
comfort no matter that she could never be his.
“I doubted,” Tasha whispered finally. “Oh, Pehr, I thought we were both
going to die. I thought my dreams had … had lied to me.”
“I thought we did well,” Pehr said, and after a moment the absurdity of it
all struck him, and he began to laugh. Tasha could feel this, her head on his
chest, and soon she had joined him, still crying but laughing just the same.
The sound of it lightened Pehr’s heart.
“You are insane,” she said at last.
“Probably. I have a few pieces of linen in my satchel. We should dress your
She moved off of him, sitting up, and said, “We’ll need some light.”
“Let me help you, ma’am!” a voice said from the dark, and there was a small
click as they were bathed in cold, blue light. Tasha made a small shrieking
noise, clasping her hands over her mouth, and Pehr found himself up on his feet
though he couldn't remember moving.
Before them stood another of the humanoid metal things, but this one was in
far better shape than its outdoor brethren. It had retained most of its
clothing and nearly all of its skin, and the eyes that peered out at them were
deceptively human. If not for the large, black plug in its chest and they grey
spots at its joints where both clothing and skin had worn away, Pehr would have
thought it a man.
“It’s all right, Tasha,” he said after a moment, relaxing. The thing was
simply standing there, staring at him. If it had been a threat, they would
likely both be dead already.
“I apologize for startling you, ma’am, and you, Mister Prime Minister.”
“I’m not a Gods damned Prime Minister,” Pehr muttered, but the thing only
cocked its head and raised its eyebrows.
“I’m sorry?” it asked.
“Nothing,” Pehr said. “What is your name?”
“My name is Ardis, sir.”
“You’re all named Ardis?” Tasha asked. She had come forward to stand next to
Pehr, favoring her wounded leg and grimacing whenever she was forced to put
weight on it.
“Yes, miss Samhad. All of the Mark Fours.”
“How did you know my name?”
“You met another Ardis outside. All Mark Fours are equipped with a secure,
short-range connection, ma’am. It prevents us from having to ask a guest their
name repeatedly as they move throughout the city.”
“I … have no idea what that means,” Tasha muttered. “But thank you. I …
thank you, Ardis.”
“If I can be of any further assistance, please don’t hesitate to ask,” the
thing said, and it gave a short bow before taking four steps backward, coming
to a stop just in front of a dark marble wall. It turned its eyes to the floor
and stood there in a casual position, as it had no doubt been standing for
centuries – or perhaps even millennia.
Pehr tried not to think about this. The idea that this thing had stood here,
a useless guard in the middle of a dead city, for longer than the entire
history of Uru, filled him with a sense of both awe and raw confusion. It
boggled the mind.
Tasha, apparently, suffered from no such problems. She was looking around
the large chamber that they were standing in, seeming completely at home. Pehr
envied her this for a moment, before realizing that Tasha’s dreams had kept her
from ever feeling at home with her own family. This was perhaps the first time
in her life that she had stood someplace in which she truly felt she
“Tell me about this place,” Pehr said, and Tasha gave him a questioning
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve seen it before. You’ve seen it in dreams, and now you’re here in
real life. Tell me what this place is.”
She ran a hand through her short, red hair and sighed. “It’s still … fuzzy …
but now that I’m here, I can remember more than I did before. This building is
important. I saw lines of blue fire racing from this place, extending forth to
touch every building, every path, every light-globe in the city.”
“This is what you’ve come all this way to find?”
Tasha pointed at the staircase. “Down below, I think, we will reach what I
have come to find. What
have come to find.”
Pehr considered this. Of course they would need to descend and find whatever
it was that Tasha sought, but he had grown tired of walking into the unknown.
There were limits to what Tasha could tell him, but perhaps there was another
that he could ask.
“Ardis,” he said, turning to the metal thing, and it immediately lifted its
head to look at him.
“Yes, Mister Prime Minister?”
“What is the name of this place? This building?”
“This is City Control, sir.”
“What happens here?” Pehr asked, though the name made it clear that Tasha
was correct about its importance.
“On the upper levels there are offices for many of the city’s top-ranking
officials, sir. They are involved in making laws, deciding policy, and other
matters of state. Your office is on the third floor, in the west corner, with a
“What about this floor?” Tasha interrupted.
“There are two wings on the ground floor, ma’am. To your left, you will find
the library of congress. To your right, you will find the department of public
“And down below?” Tasha asked, and Pehr thought he could hear something in
her voice that was very close to greed.
“Below this building, ma’am, you will find Central Processing, the largest
server farm in the entire city. Our mainframe takes up most of the floor, but
there is a reception area and the communication interface.”
“Do you have any idea what that means?” Pehr asked Tasha in a low voice.
“Not exactly, no, but I think it’s important. I think there is a tremendous
amount of knowledge stored in this place. We must try to acquire at least a
part of it.”
“You know this from the dreams?”
“Only fragments, Pehr. I don’t
much of anything … I can only
“And your senses tell you to go below.”
“Yes, below, to what the thing … to what Ardis called Central
The metal thing spoke again. “If you wish to interact with our mainframe,
Miss Samhad, you will need a security token and a temporary password. You can
obtain both at the reception desk.”
“Thank you, Ardis,” Pehr said. “That will be all.”
The metal thing bowed again and returned to its post against the wall.
“You’re becoming comfortable with them,” Tasha said, smiling a little.
“I’m not comfortable with anything in this entire damned city,” Pehr
grumbled. “Now let’s go down these stairs to the ‘reception desk’ so that we
may obtain your ‘security token’ and your ‘temporary password’ so that you can
do whatever it is that must be done.”
Tasha’s smile widened at his sarcasm; she didn’t understand these terms any
more than Pehr did, but he had no doubt that she would figure them out. Tasha
was quick-witted, logical, creative … all of the things that he had envied
about Jace, really. Pehr had always been pleased with his own physical
abilities, and even with his knowledge and understanding of people, but he had
often wished for quicker wits and a more creative mind. He had envied these
things in Jace, and now he envied them in Tasha. Sometimes he wondered why
either of the two ever put up with his slow, deliberate mind.
“Leg,” he said, pointing at her wounds, and she nodded. Before starting in
on the bandaging job, he also handed her a few pieces of salted tral meat. For
his own part, now that the adrenaline from the chase had subsided, Pehr was
ravenous. He gnawed on a piece of the meat as he worked. Tasha wolfed hers down
as if starving.
“Can you help me with the stairs?” she asked him when he was done and they
were both standing. “I think if I try them on my own I will end up in a heap at
Pehr nodded. He was impressed with the girl’s stoicism; the cuts in her calf
were deep and wide, the worst of the injuries either had sustained, and must
have been very painful. He supposed that the elation she was feeling, having
finally reached this place that she had dreamt of for so long, was keeping her
mind off the pain.
Pehr stooped down and Tasha put her arm over his shoulder. She seemed ready
to attempt to shuffle down the stairs, but Pehr had other plans, and she made a
little squeak of surprise when in one smooth motion he dipped, put his right
arm under her knees, and lifted her into his arms.
“This isn’t necessary,” she said, and Pehr didn’t even bother responding to
that. He began to descend the staircase. After a moment, Tasha stopped lying so
stiff in his arms and accepted what was happening. The stairs were wide and
shallow, not hard to navigate even with his friend in his arms. They curved
around and around as Pehr descended, dropping several stories below ground.
When at last they reached the end, he set Tasha down, and she glanced at the
doorway in front of them.
“I don’t know what those markings say, but the ‘reception desk’ must be
through there,” Pehr said.
Tasha was already limping forward, and Pehr followed. Inside, another Ardis
machine stood behind a wide, curved table made of a smooth black material that
Pehr didn’t think was stone. Like its brother upstairs, this version of the
metal thing was in much better condition than those that served duty outside.
It tracked them with its eyes as they entered, and said, “Hello Mister Prime
Minister. Hello, Miss Samhad.”
“Hello, Ardis,” Tasha said, stepping up to the desk.
Pehr joined her and said, “We need a … a token. And something else. To speak
with your fainrane.”
“Mainframe,” Tasha corrected, and Pehr merely rolled his eyes. The Ardis
unit reached down with its right hand and brought it back up, placing a tiny
black object on the flat surface in front of him.
“Certainly,” it said. “This is your security token, which will allow you to
open the doors. Just press it against the pad to your left. Please note that
all security tokens expire exactly twenty-four hours after their first use.
Once you are inside, Allen will ask you for today’s password. Today’s choice
“Fishy what?” Pehr asked, bewildered.
“I’ve got it, Pehr,” Tasha said, taking him by the shoulder. “Thank you,
“You’re quite welcome, ma’am,” the thing said, and it returned to its state
“Who is Allen?” Pehr asked, and Tasha shrugged.
“Does it matter? Some new thing that we won’t understand, most likely. It
won’t be human.”
“It has a human’s name. What if it’s a survivor?”
Pehr had long since become used to Tasha’s flat declarations about things
she should have had no way of knowing, and he didn’t bother to argue. The girl
with the purple eyes took the tiny black object from the desk, limped over to
the large double doors ahead of them, and pressed the object against the pad
that the Ardis unit had mentioned. Pehr watched as the doors slid back on their
own – this city never ceased in its display of wonders – revealing a dim
hallway that curved off to the left after a few paces.
“No sense waiting,” Tasha said, and she walked forward. After a moment, Pehr
* * *
The communication room was flat and blank and made entirely of featureless
metal save for the ceiling, which was a single pane of glowing white light. In
its center there was a metal cylinder, perhaps six inches in circumference,
which stood at chest height. The room was otherwise empty, and for a moment,
Pehr had no idea how to proceed.
“What are we supposed to be communicating with?” he asked, and Tasha shook
“I … don’t know.”
“Did we miss an entrance somewhere? Perhaps this is a storage space?”
“No, there weren’t any doors.” Tasha sounded frustrated, and Pehr couldn’t
blame her. This was an empty room with a castrated lump of metal in its center.
After all they had been through, to arrive in this place was infuriating.
“I’m going to go back and beat that Ardis thing until it tells us what is
going on,” Pehr said, turning toward the doorway through which they had
entered. Tasha reached a hand out and touched his shoulder, stopping him.
“Allow me a moment,” she said. “After that, I’ll come with you and hold it
down while you punch.”
Pehr glanced over at her. “Was that a joke, Tasha? Are you unwell?”
“Shut up,” she said, but she was smiling. She stepped slowly forward, toward
the cylinder in the center of the room.
“Are you going to touch that?”
“Do you think I should not?”
“This city has proven that anything could be deadly …”
“How encouraging,” Tasha growled, and she dropped her hand down on the
rounded top of the cylinder. The response was instantaneous and terrifying; the
lighted ceiling went out, plunging them into darkness, and before they could
even react, the voice spoke.
“Password, please!” it roared, the sound louder and deeper than any human
throat could produce, and for a moment there was silence save for Tasha’s
breathing, and for Pehr’s. At last Tasha found her voice, and she croaked out
“Vish … vichyssoise?”
“Password accepted. Welcome to the mainframe.”
The blackness lightened a bit, and Pehr could now make out Tasha’s form in
front of him again. She still had her hand on the cylinder, as if afraid even
to shift position. He was about to take a step forward, perhaps to place a hand
on her shoulder in solidarity, when he was instead given witness to the most
amazing thing that he had ever seen.