Tian glanced at his scan­ner as the ground shud­dered with anoth­er con­struc­tor step. He had a lim­it­ed range, maybe twen­ty feet, but it was a crit­i­cal warn­ing sys­tem. The con­bots were blind­ing­ly fast and they would­n’t hes­i­tate to tear he and Salene apart the sec­ond they were sensed. Each bot was eas­i­ly twice the size of a sin­gle human, maybe larg­er, and Tian did­n’t want to tan­gle with one if they could avoid it.

At his shoul­der, Salene drew her bow to its full exten­sion and took aim. The slim arrow bal­anced on her fin­ger blinked green, a sin­gle LED that indi­cat­ed the pay­load was active. She took a breath, and released. 

The arrow shot toward the ceil­ing. It buried itself deeply, pierc­ing right through a sen­sor tow­er’s steel shield. The tow­er shud­dered as its mech­a­nism caught on the arrow, then the entire sys­tem drooped and shut down. The red lights indi­cat­ing active scan­ning fad­ed out. An orange light blinked, an attempt to reboot. Then that light, too, fad­ed to black. 

”We’re clear,” Salene whispered. 

The con­struc­tor took a step that shud­dered through the city. 

Tian took the lead. He dart­ed away from their pro­tect­ed gap in the wall, mak­ing a dash across open space. He slid under a broad pipe. His car­go pants had been rein­forced on the knees and low­er legs with pan­els of scrap. They with­stood the fric­tion eas­i­ly and Tian popped up on the oth­er side of the pipe. He ducked imme­di­ate­ly to the right against a square hulk of met­al. The city was made up of all kinds of parts and pieces, but every­thing was met­al. For miles around, pos­si­bly the city entire­ly, there was noth­ing but mys­te­ri­ous ancient struc­ture main­tained by the con­struc­tors and their conbots. 

Salene ducked under the pipe and fol­lowed Tian against the met­al block. She pulled anoth­er EMP arrow from the batch against her thigh as Tian checked his scan­ner. In the met­al ceil­ing far above them and just beyond the block, was anoth­er sen­sor tow­er. It showed up on his scan­ner as an orange icon that he could tap for more detailed infor­ma­tion. The sub­tle arrow of atten­tion that cir­cled around indi­cat­ed the tow­er’s field of view, and, crit­i­cal­ly, the direc­tion of its pow­er­ful rail­gun. Occasional puls­es of orange washed over the image, shad­owed where the met­al struc­ture of the city blocked the scan. Salene nocked her arrow. Tian held up his hand. The tow­er was turn­ing past them now, they just need­ed to wait for the next pulse.…

The orange wave washed over their hid­ing spot. Tian closed his fist. With expert speed, Salene stood, turned, and drew her aim up at the tow­er. It hung from the ceil­ing like a lump, it’s huge laser rail­gun rotat­ing away. She released the arrow and ducked back down before the next pulse could reach them. Salene nocked a new arrow as Tian wait­ed for the first one to acti­vate. The orange dot on his scan­ner remained sol­id. He gave it anoth­er few heart­beats. It was pos­si­ble that Salene had missed the tow­er, but unlike­ly. Sometimes the EMP in the tip of the arrow was finicky. 

As the tow­er cir­cled around to them again, the orange dot on Tian’s scan­ner flick­ered and died. It attempt­ed to reboot, blink­ing in steady rhythm for sev­er­al sec­onds. Then it shut down entirely.

”Go,” Tian whispered.

Salene did­n’t hes­i­tate. She vault­ed over the met­al block at their backs with one hand, the oth­er slid­ing her arrow back into it’s hol­ster on her thigh. Tian had to scram­ble after her, being less agile. They rushed across the next gap, wove between criss­cross­ing wires, and as Salene approached a wall of pip­ing, she slung her bow across her chest. Their gap was clos­ing, and so was the moment of safe­ty. Salene’s back hit the cen­ter-most pipe and she crouched. Her woven fin­gers came to rest on her thigh and she nod­ded as Tian lined up. He nev­er slowed down. With the kind of ease that comes with prac­tice and train­ing, Tian plant­ed his boot square on Salene’s hands and jumped. She launched him high, her broad shoul­ders lift­ing as much as her thighs to throw Tian to the top of the pipes where a cat­walk stretched off to the left. 

Tian grabbed the edge of the met­al grate and hauled him­self over the bar. He spun around in time to see Salene take her final run­ning steps. She jumped off the pipe and stretched her hand up high; Tian dan­gled him­self down as far as he could. They grasped each oth­er’s wrists. Salene walked up the dis­tance to the cat­walk and both of them moved quick­ly on. There was no time to catch their breath just yet. If the tow­er man­aged to reboot before they left the area, the con­bots would be on them in seconds. 

The cat­walk was over­hung with wires loose­ly bun­dled into groups. They came from mys­te­ri­ous sources and they went to equal­ly mys­te­ri­ous des­ti­na­tions. Tian had been tempt­ed more than once to cut through them, just to show the city he could, but a con­struc­tor would rec­og­nize the dam­age instant­ly and Tian did­n’t want their main road crawl­ing with con­bots any more than it already was. 

Salene crawled into an open vent shaft set into the wall, kick­ing loose wires to the side. Tian fol­lowed. The space was cramped, but at least here they were safe from most of the city’s defenses. 

The vent angled upward. It’s twist­ing path brought them from lev­el 164, where Tian had been born and raised, to lev­el 165. Flaking white paint denot­ed their des­ti­na­tion. Tian had nev­er been beyond these two lev­els. He knew there were lev­els below and above, though how far they went he could­n’t say. Rumors cir­cu­lat­ed that the city start­ed on lev­el one, oth­ers said it went even low­er than that. How high it went, no one could say. A year ago, three peo­ple from lev­el 170 had found their lit­tle hid­den vil­lage, so there were at least anoth­er five lev­els above this one. But Tian won­dered if the con­struc­tors weren’t con­stant­ly adding more, just build­ing up and up and up forever.

After she wig­gled out of the vent, Salene crouched to the side to let Tian take the lead once more. They just need­ed to avoid one more tow­er in the ceil­ing, and with any luck they’d be back home before dinner. 

Tian checked his scan­ner before mov­ing away from the wall. The dis­play stretch­ing across his fore­arm was pale blue. No con­bots in sight. He took a deep breath and crouched low. This lev­el fea­tured a spine of pip­ing and wire down the cen­ter and not much else to take cov­er behind. If a con­bot was wait­ing at the end of the hall, there was lit­tle they’d be able to do about it. 

Tian dashed away from the wall and hugged the huge pip­ing in the cen­ter. The met­al was cold to the touch. Whatever flowed through these huge tubes was kept cold enough to make frost flow­ers on the out­side. Another pipe like this one bisect­ed the vil­lage. Harvesting the frost was their most reli­able source of water. 

Tian and Salene crept for­ward, their boots soft on the cor­ru­gat­ed met­al floor. Tian checked his scan­ner every few feet, while Salene unslung her bow and nocked an arrow at the ready. The sen­sor tow­er came into view before it showed on Tian’s scan­ner, and he paused their advance. This tow­er was the hard­est to elim­i­nate. It could see them at a much greater dis­tance than Tian’s scan­ner could reach, and there was noth­ing between them but air. No blocks of met­al to hide behind, no mys­tery wires to shield them. Nothing. 

Salene stood and drew her bow. The com­pound pul­leys flipped and took the weight off her shoul­der. As the tow­er rotat­ed past them, she aimed with patience. 

Something explod­ed fur­ther down the lev­el. It shook every­thing. The sen­sor tow­er twitched in that direc­tion and red lights blinked down the length of the rail­gun. A dead­ly red beam shot toward the smoke and sparks, only to reflect off some­thing and sear the ceil­ing above Tian and Salene instead. 

They ducked and inched back­ward. Those beams could slice through every known met­al and ener­gy shield. What could pos­si­bly have reflect­ed it? Tian shot a glance at Salene. Now was their chance to take out that tow­er, while it was dis­tract­ed with a tar­get. She nar­rowed her eyes back at him and the mes­sage was clear: what­ev­er could defend itself against a tow­er would wipe the floor with them. 

He did­n’t dis­agree. But before Tian could wave her back, anoth­er mas­sive explo­sion rocked the entire level. 


A cloud of black smoke, back­lit with the gold­en glow of fire, bil­lowed across the ceil­ing. Tian watched the rail­gun twitch, seek­ing a tar­get and find­ing none. The heat of the fire prob­a­bly con­fused some of its sen­sors. Then a mas­sive con­bot crashed over the cen­ter spine of pipes and wires, and strug­gled to right itself on the floor. Two mechan­i­cal legs were miss­ing on one side, giv­ing the mech a drunk­en look as it attempt­ed to com­pen­sate. Red lasers strobed in the direc­tion of the fire, then twitch-focused on the tiny, dark fig­ure of a man as he dove off the pipes toward the con­bot. He rolled against the floor, popped up sud­den­ly to the left, and dodged the con­bot’s first laser shot by inch­es. He acti­vat­ed some mech­a­nism on his arm that glowed blue.

The rail­gun in the ceil­ing found the stranger. Red lights began to charge. Tian hissed at Salene, ”Shoot it.”

She stood straight, drew, fired. The arrow flew in a beau­ti­ful line, strik­ing the sen­sor tow­er direct­ly at the base of its gun. The EMP trig­gered on impact, shut­ting down the rail­gun before it could fire. But the con­bot rotat­ed its red laser eye toward Salene.

”Shit,” she said.

She and Tian ran. The con­bot’s nine remain­ing legs pound­ed the cor­ru­gat­ed floor with echo­ing doom, mov­ing the mas­sive robot far faster than either of them could hope to escape. If it did­n’t shoot them dead, they would be crushed under the mech’s met­al spike legs, skew­ered like trophies.

An ener­gy shot made Tian duck instinc­tive­ly, but it was­n’t from the con­bot. Blue elec­tric­i­ty enveloped the mech, freez­ing it in place for a heart-wrench­ing moment. Then the con­bot col­lapsed to one side, and as the body of the beast fell, Tian saw the strange man perched on the pipes. His right arm was extend­ed, and the mech­a­nism there smoked. The entire lev­el shud­dered when the con­bot crashed to the floor. 

Salene grabbed Tian’s shoul­der, pulling him away, but he resist­ed. He want­ed to know who this stranger was that could bring down a con­bot with one shot, who could appar­ent­ly blow up its legs to inca­pac­i­tate it. How had he launched it across the pipes stacked fif­teen feet overhead?

”Who are you?” Tian called. The fire glowed red behind the stranger, out­lin­ing a sil­hou­ette, Tian was sure he’d nev­er for­get. Even at this dis­tance, the man looked tall and his shoul­ders were broad. Tian need­ed to know more about him. 

The stranger lept light­ly off the pipes and approached them. Tian moved to meet him, despite Salene’s grunt­ing protest. As he came clos­er, Tian real­ized the man was wear­ing a skin­suit from head to toe. It glit­tered sub­tly with stored pow­er, and out­lined every angle and bulge of mus­cle. Tian licked his lips and tried to focus. ”Do you have a name?”

”You two should­n’t be here,” he said.

The stranger’s voice was odd­ly rough. Dark with some injury or dis­tor­tion. It sank into Tian’s ears and made his whole body tingle.

Salene grabbed Tian’s shoul­der. ”Hey, we just saved your life.”

”No, you inter­rupt­ed my hunt.”

The stranger took anoth­er step clos­er, close enough to loom over Tian even though his skin suit­’s mask hid his eyes behind flat black pan­els. Then his knees gave out.

Tian caught the man rough­ly and col­lapsed under the unex­pect­ed weight. They both hit the ground hard; Tian on his knees, while he hugged the stranger awk­ward­ly around the chest. Tian peeled one of his hands away, and it was red with blood. 

”He needs help.”

”No,” Salene started.

Tian rolled the man onto his stom­ach and gasped. The entire back of his skin­suit had been torn away, the body beneath burned and bloody. ”We need to help him.”

”No we don’t.” She took a step back. ”We’re out here to get more meal blocks, Tian, not res­cue an idiot.”

Tian pulled his small back­pack off one shoul­der and dug out a pre­cious med­ical kit. ”Don’t you want to know how he took out the conbot?”

”It was an EMP–”

Tian pealed the seal off the med­pack and pressed the gel sur­face firm­ly against the stranger’s mid-back. Immediately the pack acti­vat­ed, seal­ing and san­i­tiz­ing the injuries as the gel crawled out­ward on its own. There was­n’t enough to cov­er the man’s entire back, but Tian only had one. It would have to do.

”Conbots are immune to EMPs,” Tian said.

Salene snort­ed. ”It was a big EMP. Look, I don’t care. We can’t drag him around and expect to get home safe.”

Dragging… yes, he could drag the guy. A sled would be a lot faster. Tian turned to assess the fall­en conbot.


He whirled on her. ”You go get the meal blocks, Salene. I’m not leav­ing him like this.”

She gaped at him for a moment, then threw her bow over her head and shoul­der, and scoffed. ”Then you’re an even big­ger idiot,” she said. ”Have fun.” Salene did­n’t even look back at him as she jogged away. 

Tian dis­missed her con­cern. Food was impor­tant, sure, but if they could fight back against the city? That was even bet­ter. Maybe they could carve out a space larg­er than six or sev­en car­go crates. Maybe Tian could even have his own room rather than shar­ing with six oth­er men. This stranger had tech­nol­o­gy Tian was des­per­ate to learn about. 

Satisfied that the med kit was doing its job, Tian took a moment to check the stranger over for addi­tion­al injuries. He manip­u­lat­ed each limb, search­ing for bro­ken bones, scratch­es, and the like. The skin­suit still glit­tered with stored ener­gy. Tian hoped it would­n’t dis­charge by acci­dent. Was the dam­age in the back critical?

He checked the man’s right arm close­ly. Tian ran his fin­gers across a met­al brac­er there not unlike his own scan­ner. But he’d seen this device shoot and inca­pac­i­tate a con­bot with one ener­gy pulse. Clearly it was more than a sim­ple scan­ner. Whatever gen­er­at­ed the laser was­n’t imme­di­ate­ly obvi­ous, though, and Tian moved on. 

Tian found anoth­er rip in the suit along the front of the brac­er. The dam­age had tak­en the skin suit­’s glove with it, expos­ing the stranger’s dark, flush skin. Undamaged, sup­ple skin. Tian fold­ed the torn edge of the skin suit away from the wrist and exposed a tat­too. A num­ber sev­en dig­its long. 

”Who are you…?” Tian stood. He got to work dis­as­sem­bling a pan­el from the con­bot that he could rig as a tem­po­rary sled. 

Salene would make it to the meal block print­er with­out a prob­lem. She was quick and always took safe routes. That meant she would­n’t come back this way, though. With the dam­age from the fire, and the fall­en con­bot, the local con­struc­tor had prob­a­bly already sent more mechs to inves­ti­gate the dam­age and affect repairs. If they found Tian, he would­n’t stand a chance. But the uncon­scious stranger would be even more vulnerable. 

He had to move quickly. 


There were two routes back to the vil­lage. Back the way Salene and he had come, through the nar­row vent, or along the city’s major cor­ri­dor where the con­struc­tors trav­eled their pre-pro­gramed paths. Tian reviewed what he knew of the con­struc­tor sched­ule as he assem­bled the makeshift sled and dragged the stranger awk­ward­ly on board. He was odd­ly heavy. Then he set off toward the city spine, the cen­tral gap where the con­struc­tor’s traveled. 

The path along the cor­ri­dor was exposed to the con­struc­tors, but with the local con­bots swarm­ing over here thanks to the fresh dam­age, per­haps Tian could get away with it. Salene would take an alter­nate route from the meal print­er and prob­a­bly beat him home to boot. But he had­n’t lied to her when he said he need­ed to save this man. Even if he was­n’t will­ing to share his tech­nol­o­gy, he prob­a­bly had knowl­edge about the con­bots and the city itself that could help the vil­lage. Sure, they had water and reg­u­lar print­ed meals, but was that real­ly all the city could give them?

How far did the city go? Who had con­struct­ed the con­struc­tors and where were they now? Where did the met­al come from? And if the con­struc­tors saw humans as a pest, why did they build and main­tain the food printers?

Tian had ques­tions the elders in his vil­lage could­n’t answer, and some they threat­ened to exile him for. Salene had vol­un­teered him as a run­ner as much to get him away from the elders as to help him find answers out in the city itself. He owed her for that. But even if she was will­ing to scour the city with him, he could­n’t blame her for run­ning at the first real sign of some­thing dif­fer­ent. The con­bots abhorred dif­fer­ence. Everything in the city was built to the con­struc­tor’s exact­ing, mys­te­ri­ous stan­dard and the con­bots were the agents of that standard.

This mys­te­ri­ous, pow­er­ful man was like­ly a thorn in the con­struc­tors’ side. Hopefully they did­n’t have a way to track him.

Tian adjust­ed the wire straps he had rigged as a har­ness over his shoul­ders. In the short time he’d allowed him­self, Tian had scav­enged the most valu­able parts of the con­bot that he could access. The vil­lage tapped into the city’s nat­ur­al pow­er grid, but they only sipped from a dozen dif­fer­ent access points to avoid draw­ing atten­tion. The braid­ed wire Tian had har­vest­ed should allow them to upgrade the old­er wires and per­haps estab­lish one or two new points. He’d also grabbed the con­bot’s bat­tery array, which weighed as much as his mys­te­ri­ous stranger. The bat­tery alone was worth risk­ing the main cor­ri­dor for. Hopefully Salene would for­give him the res­cue mis­sion when she saw that.

The final piece Tian had scav­enged was the con­bot’s brain. The black box hous­ing every­thing the con­bot knew. Tian had a safe rig tucked away near the vil­lage that would allow him to plug the box in and read all that data. Or, it was sup­posed to be safe. Tian had­n’t ever found a brain box to plug in before. But there was noth­ing actu­al­ly con­nect­ed to the rig but a plas­ma inter­face so the worst it could do was curse at him…right?

Tian smiled at him­self. He would­n’t know until he tried. He’d just have to keep Salene from snoop­ing around for a few days. He did­n’t want her wor­ry­ing until he actu­al­ly had some­thing to wor­ry about. 

When Tian dragged the sled to a hall­way junc­tion, he spot­ted the flak­ing remains of white paint on the met­al floor. At some point there had been a series of arrows here, but who or what they were direct­ing, Tian had nev­er dis­cov­ered. Their des­ti­na­tion also remained a mys­tery since some cor­ri­dors were more well trav­eled than oth­ers and what had once been a through­line was now only patch­es of paint here and there.  Tian dragged his sled over the mark, wear­ing it fur­ther, and turned left toward the spine.

The hall­way ter­mi­nat­ed at a broad shelf bor­dered by defunct repair ter­mi­nals every thir­ty feet or so. A pair of six-axis arms brack­et­ed each ter­mi­nal, all of them fold­ed into the rest­ing posi­tion and with­out pow­er. It gave the wall the look of a mul­ti-limbed insect, just wait­ing for prey to wan­der too close. Opposite the ter­mi­nals, the shelf stretched anoth­er twen­ty feet, then end­ed abrupt­ly at the spine. The shelf dropped away to open air, the ceil­ing, some fifty feet over­head, stopped at the same place, and beyond was noth­ing but air for hun­dreds of feet. In the far dis­tance, the city resumed in much the same man­ner as Tian’s side. There were lev­els stretch­ing down and down as far as any­one could see. And up. Each one per­fect­ly built and main­tained by the con­struc­tor and it’s con­bots. Each one iden­ti­cal except for the lev­el num­ber paint­ed off to one side of a sup­port column.

As far as Tian knew, there were no bridges or spans from one side of the city to the oth­er. If any­one had ever crossed, he’d nev­er heard of it. 

Tian hauled his sled and its car­go at a steady pace par­al­lel to the spine gap. The shelf extend­ed in this direc­tion far­ther than Tian had explored, mak­ing it one of the most direct routes back to the vil­lage. But its prox­im­i­ty to the spine, and that same stretch of emp­ty space that made it so easy to trav­el, also left Tian exposed. His sled scraped loudly–metal against metal–and he could only hope that he’d guessed right. With the con­bots inves­ti­gat­ing else­where, he hoped he was safe.

The entire city shud­dered as a con­struc­tor took a step. On the shelf, Tian stum­bled to his knees and stayed crouched there for sev­er­al heart­beats. There was nowhere for him to hide, nowhere to run, and the sound of that step had been far too close for com­fort. Tian checked his scan­ner but noth­ing showed up on the faint blue dis­play. He cursed again the short range of his tools.

Tian grunt­ed and got back to his feet. If the con­bots were com­ing he had to move, if they weren’t, he still need­ed to move. He pushed him­self to a healthy trot, lean­ing into the wire har­ness of his sled. He passed ter­mi­nal after dor­mant ter­mi­nal on his left, short bor­der­ing walls with fold­ed arms, ready to receive an injured con­bot and fix what­ev­er need­ed fix­ing. Tian had seen con­bots repair each oth­er, too, when the ter­mi­nals were too far away. Maybe they had learned to fix each oth­er from the ter­mi­nals and no longer used them. 

There was much they did­n’t know about the city and bots that lived in it. Some of the elders were con­vinced the con­struc­tors and every­thing they man­aged were sim­ply try­ing to keep the city main­tained, but Tian had his doubts. Why would­n’t the bots be able to learn just like peo­ple? And if they could learn, why could­n’t Tian teach one to help them? That was his real goal with the con­bot’s brain box. With a bot work­ing for the humans, they could do more than just sur­vive from day to day. Maybe they could explore the oth­er lev­els. Maybe they could find oth­er peo­ple out there!

The mas­sive, three-toed grasper of a con­struc­tor passed silent­ly by the shelf where Tian jogged and held fast to the floor below, rat­tling the entire city as it did so. Tian skid­ded to a stop and dove behind his sled. He cov­ered his head with his hands and tried to swal­low his gasps of fear. That foot alone had been larg­er than a con-bot. At least fif­teen feet across each toe, maybe more. And that was only one leg of a constructor–the thing that pro­duced con­bots by the thousands!

On his arm, Tian’s scan­ner vibrat­ed soft­ly. A prox­im­i­ty warn­ing. Tian scoffed. A lit­tle late for that! If the con­struc­tor had seen him, he’d already be dead!

A hand land­ed heav­i­ly on Tian’s shoul­der. He screamed and jerked away, found him­self caught by the sled’s har­ness of wires, and fell over him­self. He slapped his hands over his mouth and breathed hard through his nose, eyes strain­ing so wide his jaw mus­cles hurt. The injured man on his sled grunt­ed. ”Get mov­ing, that’s just the for­ward leg.”

His voice was hard and full of grav­el, but it got Tian mov­ing. He untan­gled the wires and with a final glance toward the unmov­ing leg of the con­struc­tor, he leaned into the sled. He had ques­tions. So many ques­tions. But he also knew the con­struc­tor was busy scan­ning floor after floor of the city, deploy­ing con­bots en masse wher­ev­er it saw fit. And if it spot­ted Tian, he was done for. 

Heedless of the scrap­ing met­al, Tian hauled for­ward at a rapid clip, eyes fixed ahead, search­ing for the hall­way that would take him away from the shelf and toward the vil­lage. He would­n’t be able to fit him­self and the sled through some of the final pas­sages, so it was a good thing his res­cue had wok­en up. 

Another leg of the con­struc­tor passed silent­ly by Tian and he watched in ter­ri­fied won­der as the three-toed end of it grasped this lev­el of the city. Two toes on top, one on the bot­tom. It secured the foot with a hydraulic hiss as he ran by. Tian glanced back­ward. The two legs he could see both extend­ed upward, past the ceil­ing of this city lev­el. The con­struc­tor was above him, then. He knew from lessons back in the vil­lage that the con­struc­tors had a dozen legs or so–just like the con­bots they built. They moved along the spine by hold­ing onto the lev­els on both sides, which allowed them to move up or down as they wished, scan­ning as they went. The body por­tion, he’d heard, was large enough to house the entire village…if it was­n’t filled with con­bot assem­bly. He’d nev­er seen one of the beasts in per­son and now that he was so close, Tian was torn between fas­ci­na­tion and fear. He was curi­ous, and it would prob­a­bly get him killed.

There, the hall­way! He’d almost missed the chalk mark on the wall with his dis­trac­tion. He took a hard left just as the city shud­dered with anoth­er con­struc­tor step and Tian shook his head at him­self. Getting a glimpse was­n’t worth his life. Not when he had both a bat­tery and a brain box to show for his rang­ing today. 

At the next junc­tion Tian brought the sled to a halt and began dis­as­sem­bling his wire har­ness. ”Can you walk?” If his res­cue was mobile things would be a lot easier.

The man rolled off the sled onto his hands and knees, then strug­gled to his feet. He had to the lean against the wall, but he was upright. ”You sal­vaged the bat­tery. Well done.”

Tian beamed. Praise for his work was uncom­mon. But he also tend­ed to come home emp­ty-hand­ed. ”Leave it there, I’ll send some­one back for it.”

”Isn’t that risky? Leaving it alone?”

Tian shrugged. ”I can’t lift it far and you’re in no…shape…to.…”

The stranger hauled the bat­tery up in his arms with no appar­ent effort. His skin­suit glowed blue around his shoul­ders and back. Tian shut his mouth and got to work coil­ing the wires. He did­n’t for­get his brain box. With a nod, he led the way. 

The cor­ri­dors here were at most two peo­ple wide, and sev­er­al times only a sin­gle per­son could pass, but the trick was the final squeeze side­ways between two walls of met­al that seemed to dead-end. Tian shuf­fled his way down and knocked twice on the wall at the back. A sin­gle knock replied. He knocked three times. And then the entire wall shift­ed to the left, reveal­ing a dec­o­rat­ed, hid­den space where Tian’s entire vil­lage of a hun­dred had made their home.

The sen­try who had opened the way for them closed it again when they cleared. Tian man­aged anoth­er two steps before Salene tack­led him from the side. ”You made it! And with salvage!”

”A bat­tery,” Tian nod­ded behind him at the stranger and Salene stiff­ened against him.

”You brought him here.” She hissed in his ear, ”You showed him the way?”

”He was uncon­scious until a few min­utes ago. And we have that bat­tery thanks to him. Maybe show a lit­tle courtesy.”

Salene huffed, but when she stepped away to greet the man, she was all smiles. Tian dropped his load of wires to the side where there was room to stretch them out and inspect for dam­age. Hopefully his rig­ging the har­ness had­n’t bent any­thing too badly. 

He joined Salene in time to see the stranger bow stiffly at the waist, his arms still full of bat­tery. ”Pleased to meet you. My name is Nyo. And to whom do I owe my res­cue?” he asked, head turn­ing to Tian.

”I’m Tian,” he said. ”It was nothing–”

”Nonsense. You spent a med­pack on me, which I’m sure you have in short sup­ply. I will replace it.”

Tian and Salene exchanged a sur­prised glance. Did Nyo know where to get more? Or did he have a stash of them someplace?

”You saved my life, that is a debt I will repay.” Nyo bowed awk­ward­ly over the bat­tery at Tian this time. 

Tian blushed and tried to deflect the atten­tion, but he was secret­ly pleased with the way it made his gut tight­en. ”Well, Nyo, wel­come to our lit­tle vil­lage. We could real­ly use your help.”


This sto­ry is avail­able from April 5th — 13th. If you’d like to be noti­fied of free fic­tion when it goes live, please join the newslet­ter! You can buy your own copy on my web­store, or your favorite ebook store. Special thanks to my Patrons who made this short sto­ry possible.

This sto­ry was avail­able from April 5th — 13th. If you’d like to be noti­fied of free fic­tion when it goes live, please join the newslet­ter! You can buy your own copy on my web­store, or your favorite ebook store. Special thanks to my Patrons who made this short sto­ry possible.