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?