The huge mechanical steps of a constructor rattled every loose piece of metal in the area. It was some distance off, moving through one of the city’s corridors, scanning for defects and anomalies. With each step it lumbered fifty feet or more. Blue and amber lights penetrated six layers deep, assessing for damage and affecting repairs. This was one of a dozen constructors in this sector, one sector of an unknown number. It was not the constructor’s job to concern itself with the larger city. It merely patrolled the levels of this sector, calling for and disseminating smaller construction robots like swarms of spiders to carry out its adjustments. The constructor took another fifty-foot step that rattled the city. Its leg terminated in a three-point, hinged grasper that it used to grip a protruding level in the main corridor. Constuctor robots swarmed down its leg by the dozens in perfectly ordered lines, rapidly executing their instructions.
Some two miles away, 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 reeinforced 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.
This short story will continue, I have a bit of an outline to follow, but I have no name for it! What do you think it should be called?