Dragon Toasters

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David was not the last person on earth. But that didn't mean that anybody else was alive either.

Hazy sun beat down on the ridge, causing a dance of heat distortions to frolic over David's arrayed solar panels. There were many human sensations that David had been compelled to scavenge to better serve his struggle for mechanical existence, but good old basking in the sun still felt like it should. With the added bonus that sunscreen was no longer an issue. Now, when it came to hard solar radiation that penetrated earth's atmosphere, the more the better.

Not from every point of view, though. Not only did solar power help top up David's capacitors, it did the same for many other mechanical beasties too, which made them, well, frisky. And when the mechanical ecology got frisky, it got more complicated. More dangerous.

David often found himself thinking about all the myriad of biological diversity that used to be such a central part to human attention. He regretted not remembering more, and always hoped to come across someone or something that might have a copy of some old pre-tribulation information. Not that the specifics would be of much use, since biological life on earth had gotten pretty damn scarce and pathetic. But the method of the understanding probably would have been helpful.

The niches might be totally different, and there wasn't any clean classification separation between mechanical plants and mechanical animals, but there was the same age-old struggle for survival. From his vantage on the mountain ridge, through his telescopes David could see two distinct types of tank-ant nests, and wondered how long it would be before their separately-tended and defended regions of solar collectors became too tempting for each other. All the while trying to withstand the predations of more powerful solitary machines, or preying upon less powerful nomadic machines.

David's mind was fractured. Part of him was watching all around him with dozens of cameras and sensors. Much of his care was being spent overseeing the machining of a precious billet of titanium into a replacement bearing joint, and carefully catching all the chips to re-cast later. Yet a third aspect of his mind was playing with ideas about how to better optimize his chassis.

Most autonomous machines or system of machines were some balance of competing factors. On one hand, there was simple mobility, which factored in both how fast the machine could travel, and how difficult a path it could take. There was also the fundamental issue of power collection. Solar power was the main supply for most machines, but it was dilute, so collecting much of it meant having access to large solar arrays. Which leads into the twin factors of offense and defense. And that, in turn, was connected to the ability to create or repair mechanisms of various complexity. Rounding it all out, was the factor of thinking power.

Being a human mind, distilled into a computerized existence, David was necessarily a bit heavy on the thinking power requirements. Most machines made do with a lot less, and were arguably of similar problem-solving capability. However, David was rather fond of his personality, and so persisted with lugging around the expensive microprocessors. He was getting a bit tired of looking like a 3-meter-long cockroach/centaur, though. The tribe of ex-human machines he had travelled with a couple decades ago had tried to persuade him to simplify into something more like the wheeled configurations they preferred, citing efficiency. But, at that time, David had been a bit too paranoid about giving up his many legs.

Decades of scuttling, though, can wear down a man's dignity.

Something was coming. David gathered his mind to focus on watching and listening. His little solar array crabs standing on the ridge with their spindly legs also acted as reasonably sensitive ground microphones. A distinctive rhythmic crunch was tagged as probably being the footfalls of 6 or 7 quadrupeds massing somewhere from 100 to 500 kilograms. What was worrisome was that they seemed to be already within 300 meters. That meant they were being extremely successful at avoiding David's lines of sight - which were quite good. It also meant that they were proficient at moving carefully, because things larger than 50 kilograms were usually detectable on this ridge by the microphones at about a 500 meters range. This caused David to suspect that the machines were likely to be at the upper end of the probable size range.

However, the gaps in David's lines of sight were not entirely accidental. One was overshadowed by a very precariously balanced about-to-happen rock slide, which conveniently happened to have a couple strategically-located explosives. The other was a difficult gully where the final approach was barren of cover from David's rail gun. The rail gun he was now charging.

The crunching sounds became considerably louder. This made David unhappy, but relieved. Looking at the histogram of the footstep sounds, it was clear that they - whatever they were - were warning him of their approach. That meant they were unlikely to be directly hostile. Overall, though, they demonstrated a pretty clear understanding of his sensory capabilities, which was never a tactically good thing.

They also obviously knew his approximate location, but that wasn't exactly a secret. Far from it - he had left advertising with approximate coordinates over most of the mountain, and told several intelligent nomadic machines he had encountered. So these machines were potential customers. Or, they could be raiders posing as customers in order to get close enough to overpower him.

How thrilling, thought David to himself in a sarcastic manner.

David checked the scatter program he had installed in his inventory of solar array crabs. The cheap but reliable little energy collectors were desirable devices, and utterly nonthreatening. So, if David found himself unable to deal with the aggressors, he'd flee, but also signal the tempting morsels to flee as well. Hopefully the difficulty of capturing a cranky old machine like David would be less appealing than catching the easy prizes.

A couple antennae flicked into view from a rock outcropping down the gully. They twitched for a moment, and were presently followed the sensor pod they were attached to - which looked to David like what he remembered a wasp's head looking like. David's own whip antennae were already up, as was his rail gun and integral telescopic sensors. David was feeling cautious, and kept everything important behind cover.

The approaching machine moved out from behind cover, revealing a lanky chassis with wolf-like demeanour. Its solar panels were clearly tertiary systems, and quite insufficient for its probable power requirements. Its design required supplemental energy inputs, but the sources need not provide the power willingly. It was a combatant.

It raised itself up onto its hind legs to assume a bipedal posture. This might have been done to appear more humanoid, and thus less threatening. To David's digitized hindbrain, it looked like a cross between a werewolf and satyr with a wasp's head, and it was damn creepy looking. Then its movements seemed to soften somehow, and it exuded a strange sense of shy self-consciousness. This was likely the result of the machine engaging a sentient Turing-beater program in order to ease communication. It held up its empty manipulating limbs and pointed its static pulse gun into the air in a manner that let David detect that it was not charged. And it transmitted a directional communication in plain text. "Can we talk?"

"I would appreciate it if the rest of your companions would show themselves as well." With obvious reluctance, the machine coaxed 5 companions into view. They were extremely similar in construction, with essentially identical weaponry. As a group, they graduated from damn creepy to outright spooky looking. Most machines, even the nastier predatory ones, didn't generate this sort of response for David. Part of him wondered what that meant, and then he damped down the routine that simulated his biological fear response so that it wouldn't distract him from trying to not be killed. "What can I do for you folks?"

The one running the Turing-beater made a hesitant step forward. "Please, sir, we have need of some high-density processors, and help installing it. Can you help us?" The machine fidgeted in an excellent simulation of nervousness. Its companions, however, were almost completely still except for occasional efficient movements.

"Tricky." David ran an inventory of the high-density processors he had, and checked to see how much of it he felt he could part with. "How much do you need?"

"The design parameter is physically limited by 300 cubic centimeters."

That caught David off guard. When asking for a brain, usually one would tend to want to know how smart it was. The volume required for a stack of processors tended to rely as much on power and cooling requirements as memory and speed. "Come again?"

"The design parameter is physically-"

"No. I understood that." Clearly not machines with much experience with discourse. "Your parameter is not a typical measure of HD processor requirement. Can you explain what you need the processors for?"

The self-conscious machine glanced at its fellows, and their antennae twitched in conference. "We need a brain for our friend. He lost his old one."

FUNNY flashed in one corner of David's mind. "The whole brain failed at once?"

"It was taken by an unknown aggressor, as well as draining him of charge."

Less funny. But very interesting. "Where's your friend now?"

One of the wasp-headed mechanical werewolf satyrs retreated behind the rock outcropping, returning a moment later carrying yet another chassis. With a mechanical approximation of tenderness, the inert chassis was laid down in front of the group. Then they backed up, giving David a clear view. And, if you were permitting yourself to anthropomorphize, they seemed to do so reverently.

David's six legs drew him smoothly from behind his cover, and he reared up his torso to allow better mobility of his arms as he quickly scuttled toward them. To their credit, the predator machines backed away but carefully kept themselves within his line of sight. It was an unspoken tactical nicety to demonstrate no subterfuge was planned, and it went a long way in David's esteem.

Looking at the machine up close, David could see could see that the overall design of the chassis involved some very carefully-sculpted components. David's "head" looked up from the chassis to regard the other predator machines, and could see that despite some minor proportional differences, they shared the same kind of artistic component morphology. That wasn't normal.

The inert machine's forward limbs had both been severed below the elbows, and had been carefully welded back together. A similar cut had been made to remove most of the wasp-like sensor pod head, and it too had been repaired. Yet another slice to a panel of the body could be seen as likewise welded together, and David had to struggle a bit to shift the chassis so that he could verify that the panel covered the primary power storage modules. Further forward on the chassis was a damaged panel that had not been repaired. It opened into a well-shielded cavity at the heart of the chassis, and David knew without measuring that is was 300 cubic centimeters in volume.

David did some rough calculations, then addressed the pack. "I can provide a replacement brain, but it will be difficult to adapt and install. You would be better off going to whoever created you, or scavenging the chassis for parts."

The nervous spokesmachine responded, "Please proceed with the replacement. Our creator was destroyed 32 years ago, and our design is not well-suited to carrying much spare componentry - we would waste too much. Plus, she was our friend."

It irked David that the programmed affection of the machines influenced him so much. Partially because he could not distinguish whether it was a functional part of the machines basic methodology or if it was an affectation done just to manipulate him. Humans were notoriously fond of loyalty, and David was no exception. "It would be a lot easier to accomplish if one of you would allow yourself to be disassembled."

There was a long pause. That meant that it was not a popular idea among the pack, and David could see their antennae thrumming as they discussed it among themselves. Eventually the response was, "We would rather not."

"It would reduce the chances of me making an unrecoverable mistake."

"We realize the logic of the suggestion, and we all agree with the idea theoretically. However, none of us is willing to volunteer."

David paused to dwell on that. "I suppose that makes quite a lot of sense to me, actually. I might have been interacting with too many hive minds lately."

The machines seemed to be staring uncomprehendingly at David. Or, at least, that's what his anthropomorphic personality interpreted it as seeming like.

"I mean that individual sacrifice means much less to hive minds."

"Oh. Yes. And your human origins should tend to make your perspective more individualistic - like us."


They resumed staring at David, with the emotionally-enabled one doing a pretty convincing emulation of mild fidgeting. These machines probably didn't attend many parties.

When David felt sufficiently awkward, he moved on to one more item of negotiation. "So, what form of payment are you folks offering?"

"We can trade surplus electrical charge."

David smiled inwardly; money really was power. Well, charge. Close enough. "About 3 gigajoules should suffice."

The fidgety wasp-headed werewolf satyr increased its fidgeting. "That is too much; we do not have that much to spare."

David noticed that this response was delivered without the telltale trembling of its antennae, meaning that there had been no discussion amongst the pack. "How much do you have to spare?"

Now there was some antennae twitching. The machine replied, "We can manage 1.9 gigajoules."

"Well, you're in luck. I only expect half now, and the other half on delivery. It will take me a little while to complete this work, which should give you some time to hunt down the rest."

"We might not be able to obtain the additional charge."

"Then you might not be able to afford to have this work done."

There was some brief discussion amongst the pack, then their spokesmachine replied, "We will accept your terms. When will the work be complete?"

David guessed at a number, then tripled it. "At least 30 hours."

"That will be acceptable." The pack coalesced to connect their power systems, and extended an outlet to David. David had a spare capacitor, and shunted their 1.5 gigajoules to it, taking several long minutes to avoid heating loss during the transfer. At the same time, they gave David copies of the software kernels they wanted to be installed. When the transfer was complete, the pack loped away purposefully. And with eerie quiet.

David looked down at the inert chassis, and said to it, "I suspect that they might mean to kill me after you're fixed, sport.


When the chassis stood up, David felt an odd sort of relief. The relief was that he hadn't made any mistakes so grave that the machine couldn't at least use its limbs, even though it shook and trembled with inexperience as it moved. What made it odd was that part of him was trying to think of the machine like a newborn, a new life. And he didn't know that it wasn't, ultimately, but big cognitive parts of him couldn't stop seeing it as a monster - something that would have loosened his bowels, if he had encountered it back when he had bowels.

The machine finished a preliminary self diagnostic, then started examining its surroundings. It had enough pre-loaded into its database to cause it to hiccup when it noticed David, and it paused its sweep to regard him more closely. "You creator?"

"No. I am merely your assembler."

It spent a while looking up what that might mean, and seemed unable to settle on anything sufficient. So it tried again. "Assembler not creator?"


"Can eat assembler?"

"I doubt it."

"Am hungry."

"I bet you are; your solar arrays are pretty puny. Let's hook you up to one of solar array crabs for a snack."

"Am protect?"

David thought about that for a moment. "Do you mean you or me, and who is protecting whom?" A solar array crab started prancing slowly and gracefully up the hill through the gloom. Sunset was dying pinkly over the distant horizon, but latent radioactivity of the valley kept a warm low-spectrum glow.

"Is purpose? Am protect you?"

"Ah." David felt an internal warmth, besides his small radioisotope thermal generator. The scary bastard might not be a monster, not really. "It's a fine thought, but you should consider that an optional tertiary function. Your primary function is probably to survive. Your secondary function, if you are a typical being, is to contribute to the survival of your kind - however you might want to define that."

"Who you?"

"For now, just call me Boss."

"Yes Boss."

"Good. Can you access the extra databases I've installed?"

"Yes Boss. What for?"

That was a good question. David didn't normally share this much experiential information without being paid for it. In this case, though, David felt like it could be a way to seed a future ally. "It's so you can understand some things without having to ask me. Just query yourself, and build a reference hierarchy that suits you."

"What ask?"

David snickered. It was spontaneous, and helped David believe that he really was himself. His battered old sense of humour was unpredictable, even to himself. The fact that he was amused at becoming frustrated with the newly-booted predator machine helped him feel almost human.

"You know, that's not a bad question. I suggest you submit that as a query to the databases." Thinking about it, David found himself extremely curious about what would surface foremost.

The machine whined. It was an odd sound that David quickly recognized as joint-motors testing their threshold amplitudes, though part of him couldn't help but associate it with an unhappy canine. Then the machine started swaying to and fro, and then began articulating its limbs through their full ranges of motion, one at a time. After that, it started walking. Awkwardly at first, then smoother as it learned its dynamics. It moved more quickly, and eventually was racing around in the gloom of the mountain ridge. Apparently, the question the databases thought should be asked related to physical status.

"You're not as light on your feet as your kin." David remarked, as the machine started jumping too. The phalanx of solar array crabs gave a discreet coded alarm signalling that they were hearing something upsetting, and David ignored them.

The machine skidded to a halt, and flexed its knees to cause its primary mass to bob up and down. "Am heavier?"

"No. They demonstrated an ability to perambulate with less noise..." The crabs were still going nuts, even though the predator machine was no longer moving. That's not right, that should have been demoted to a flag instead of an active alarm. Unless there was something else walking noisily. David summoned the real-time sensor feed from the crabs, and saw that there was indeed some significant ground-conducted noise. A couple kilometers away. Big. Approaching.

The predator machine started tapping its legs on the ground, to see what noise they made. "Hush!"

The machine stopped. "Yes boss."

David didn't have a gut any more, but he was still subjected to gut feelings. Usually they just warned him that his mode of speech was getting ridiculous, talking mostly to Turing-beater programs. Right that instant, though, David had the uncomfortable feeling that he was even more tangled in trouble than just dealing with potentially double-crossing clients.

A faint buzzing sound wafted from the darkness. David reflexively hunkered his carapace even lower than usual, while his acoustic sensors swivelled. The rebooted predator machine found it first.

"Direction 172°, azimuth 37°, range 350 meters."

A dot of bright heat showed up in the night, and image enhancement showed an old surveillance drone. Somebody was spending energy for a flying machine? That didn't happen often. The little drone swept across the rocky ridge at a height of a couple hundred meters, and David watched it with a growing sense of dread. Dread that deepened as he watched it bank to return while he kept most of a boulder between it and himself.

A mechanical bellow of drive motors could clearly be heard as something really large accelerated down below on the mountain side. David realized that the rebooted predator machine was still standing where it had been before, watching the drone with innocent interest out in the open. As were his herd of retarded solar array crabs.


"Expletive Boss?"

"Yes, Einstein. We've got trouble." David started quick-charging his rail gun. "Help me shoot down that drone, and follow me." Einstein's static pulse weapon charged faster than David's rail gun, and it snapped a shot off first. Close, but a miss, and now it was flying even more evasively. David scuttled further up the ridge, toward the rock slide, and Einstein gambolled after him. The drone circled, watching.

Loading a flak round, David ramped up his processing speed. Time seemed to slow down as his thoughts cascaded faster and faster. Secondary emotional processes started failing at that speed, and his processor quickly built up heat. Thoughts simplifying as they went faster, it became easier to focus purely on aiming. David blasted the drone with a narrow cone of tumbling needles, sending the flying machine spiralling out of the air to dash itself against the mountain.

Before his processors could get too overheated, David slowed his thinking back down to a more typical speed. David spun around and reversed direction, sidestepping the predator machine that was following.

"Where go Boss?"

David was scuttling rapidly over the rocky mountainside, his torso hunched low to be almost in line with his beetle-like main chassis. "Just follow me. As quietly as you can." After a moment of hesitation, Einstein followed. The long prehensile digits at the ends of Einstein’s legs made it quite possible to walk carefully, but it was a complicated affair to which the predator machine was still unaccustomed. Einstein struggled to keep up.

Upon gaining cover of a large rock outcropping, David waved Einstein to a halt. "Try to stay low, Einstein. And keep quiet. When we move, try to follow my path."

Einstein didn't reply.

Time shuffled along slowly, using annoyingly long moments and ponderous instants. In the shadow of the rocks, the light enhancing mode of David's tactical sensors showed the abandoned ridge line as a festive choral of amorphous shape. The flock of solar array crabs had settled down and were mostly still, but their residual heat and regular shapes caused them to stand out like insectile graffiti. A gentle warm breeze washed over the mountainside, suffusing David's microphones with a regretful ongoing sigh.

Maintaining a tightbeam link to the crabs, David could hear the rumble of the oncoming threat through their delicate feet. Whatever it was, it wasn't wasting any time, as it eschewed any of the ancient paths and trails, instead charging in a straight line toward the ridge.

With a spectacular splash, one of the solar array crabs was blasted into a hot billowing spray, announcing that the incoming threat had a line of sight of the ridge. And suggesting that it was really really unfriendly. This triggered the panic plan for the solar array crabs, and they scuttled erratically in different directions to act as a distraction. The rapidity with which all the crabs were dispatched, and the effectiveness of the weapon used, triggered a mostly-forgotten routine in David to query for a sphincter.

Einstein slowly turned his expressionless wasp-like head to regard David, and David cast back a slight sidelong glance. They didn't say anything. They resumed watching the top of the ridge as a chorus of heavy motors roared a climbing bass.

Cresting the visible portion of the ridge rose a huge gun, sweeping and sniffing like the snout of some horrific anteater. Most of the rest of its bulk was hidden behind giant armoured wheels that also articulated like legs, in a manner similar to but vastly more intimidating than tank-ants. Unmuffled by terrain, the big, simple drive motors didn't just rumble; they thundered. Dirt, rocks, and unlucky boulders were flung behind the tank as it scrambled to heave tons of armour up the mountain.

As hoped, it was headed in the direction that David and Einstein were last going before they shot down the surveillance drone. The logical objective was a high pass up on the mountain that would have relatively good cover, and the logical path lead across a slope of light scree. The slope of light scree topped by a rock face laced with explosives.

When the tank was in the middle of the scree, David triggered the explosives. David lacked the features to accomplish the smirk he felt at Einstein's flinch. After flashes danced and a ripple of concussion, a satisfyingly large portion of the mountain was cleaved free and left to the sorting power of gravity. The ground shook, and dust completely defeated the capabilities of low-light visual sensors. And of the giant tank-ant, there was no sign.

"Finish killing it, Boss?"

The thought of all the energy reserves that thing must have still had tempted David. "Uh, no. Let's leave. Now. Quietly." David backed away from their vantage point, and turned his chassis to move away from the area via a series of ridges. Einstein slunk dutifully behind.


A few hours later, with the sky easing from being quite so totally dark and a number of kilometers further away, David and Einstein came across a worn path. It was not logged in David's ancient database, so he felt like following it - in the direction that lead more generally away from where they had last heard the giant tank-ant.

"OK talk now, Boss?"


There then passed several minutes of continued silence. David smirked inwardly, after catching himself feeling annoyed at Einstein for not proceeding with a conversation as he expected. It was a sign that he was growing less paranoid of the frightening predator-machine when he started to anthropomorphize.

From experience, David knew that he could argue with the machine about the finer points of conversation, but that it would be ultimately futile. Machines were just too fundamentally honest, and most lacked the instinctive need to socialize and establish relationships. Maybe that was something that might develop eventually in some, but David hadn't seen it yet. The most they would do is run a Turing-beater program for more advantageous interactions with ex-humans.

And still, David couldn't resist himself. After all, he doubted most of the humans he had talked to in his life could pass a Turing test anyway.

"So, Einstein... where do you think we should go?"

"Away from big gun. Find energy, Boss."

Something in David's language center wanted to snort to express... something expressed by snorting. He wasn't sure what. Not being able to snort distracted him for a moment, and let him reformulate his thoughts. "Well, sure. But I can't help but notice that you appear to be staying near me. It is fine by me, but, I'm curious to know what you think our connection is."

"Connection, Boss?"

After a pause, in which a new vista of rocky desolation unfolded before the two machines, a spark of mutual understanding still failed to blossom.

"Let's assume that if I die that you will not linger near my body... not counting the time which it might take to extract any energy reserves that might remain and harvest what components you might deem useful."

Einstein did not respond, and just kept lanky pace alongside David's efficient scuttling.

"So, I'm going to suppose that you have some hope of gain by staying near me. Probably things hinted at in that database of information that I gave you - about finding energy, avoiding danger, that sort of thing." David discovered himself gesticulating with his most-humanoid upper limbs, and saw that Einstein was watching the motions intently. Probably wondering at that wasted energy.

David folded his arms to a neutral position. "The thing is, I am unsure about what benefit there would be in having you with me."

"Protection, Boss?"

"That's cute, but no. Not really. You're more of a threat-attractor than a defense, Einstein."

Einstein’s antennae twitched, and David guessed that he was not understanding.

"It's because you're so obviously a predator, kiddo. You'll make many other machines defensive."

"I see, Boss."

"Speaking of which, how are your energy reserves?"

"19,534,236 Joules."

"Crap; you're starving. Let's see if we can find some farmers we can barter with for some juice." David had been watching for threats all along, in his usual paranoid style, but his low stance meant that there were gaps in his review of his surroundings. He climbed onto the broken and bleached remains of a tree, and hoisted himself to a more vertical orientation, letting his long legs straighten out. First he watched the direction they came from, looking for signs of pursuit. Then he swept his telescopic sights along the wobbling horizon. "Things are looking pretty barren around here. Not a good sign. If I let you run down, how am I going to train you to do witty banter?"

Einstein made a few awkward motions with his antennae, but did not otherwise respond.

"See? Exactly my point." David imagined that he saw some motion of admission in the predator machine's demeanour. Or he wanted to imagine it. Or he was programmed to think that he wanted to imagine it. David hated letting himself slide down that rabbit hole.

David guessed that with less than 20 megajoules of power onboard, Einstein probably only had about 5 more hours of marching in him. That doesn't make for a lot of foraging possibility.

"Einstein, how about you take up a position atop this boulder and power down your motors."

"Not stay with boss?"

"No, I'm not leaving you. Keep your sensors active, and I'll stay in touch while I do some foraging."

Einstein twitched his antennae in a semi-voluntary sensory feedback loop while he processed. David guessed he was tapping into those auxiliary databases he had installed. The moment passed, and the predator machine climbed carefully up onto the boulder and hunkered down into an angular sphinx configuration. Then it was utterly motionless.

It was one of those things David never really got used to, that ability to turn into a statue, even though he could do it himself. It just didn't sit right in the program that emulated his instincts, and tended to conceptualize machine animals in terms of biological ones. But it did have some handy tactical uses. David reared his cockroach-centaur chassis into a mostly-vertical orientation and straightened his rearmost for legs, achieving an effective height of about 3 meters. Then he locked all his joints and powered down his own motors.

"Let's just wait for the sun to come up, and see what we can see."

The glowing carnival of radioactive night blossomed gradually into an intensely painted day. In the hours it took for the intense arc of the sun to free itself of the horizon, a few brave farmer machines crept or slithered or writhed or stretched or unfolded or rolled out of their hiding. The thing they had in common was that they used large solar arrays to harvest radiation energy from the sun. Most of them tended to keep careful distance from each other, all in a careful dance of competition for real estate. Most of them also tended to use very efficient movement, to conserve energy. But, again, the variety was staggering, and without clear differentiation between plant or animal.

Once the local demographic looked well into sorting out their territory for the day, David powered back up his motors and unlocked his joints. "OK, Einstein, let's see what we can find." As he moved to lower himself back into his normal scuttling orientation, several small farmer machines nearby folded up their arrays and discretely retreated back to their hiding.

"There are several ways to go about foraging. The one you're probably going to see most often, and is probably ingrained in your basic programming, is what we humans used to refer to as 'might makes right'. I don't really need to explain that, right?"

Einstein gave no conversational reply, though the communication diagnostic feedback showed that he was listening.

"What I'd like to demonstrate, for the sake of a counterpoint, is something I think of as more enlightened. Symbiotic. Civilized." David started scuttling forward, with an air of purposefulness about him.

"The philosophical hope is to encourage trade. I have technical services that I might employ to improve the situation of some beings hereabouts, and in return I negotiate for some of their power stores." The was a brief pause as David's line of sight to Einstein was interrupted as he scuttled around a boulder.

"That's just an example, mind you. Instead of technical services, you could offer services as a courier, or lookout, or even protection. Or any other kind of niche that you can figure out. It used to be, back when it was mostly humans, that a big niche was providing entertainment - but that's much harder to sell now." David did another sweep, looking for something in particular, and resumed his trekking.

"The trick, of course, is in finding machines of suitable intelligence to make such trades with. Not just in terms of simple intelligence, but also philosophical orientation. Because those can be just as varied as the physical forms." David slowed his scuttling before a large, awkwardly-waving set of radial fronds mounted on a telescoping tentacle.

"The easiest way to judge that, is to offer greeting. This machine appears to be sufficiently crude that I could greatly improve its efficiency, and also large enough that it could have some significant power reserves to trade." David then switched from discrete tight-beam to a more open and standardized hailing format.

"Hello there. May I offer my services?"

The tentacle shuddered, then heaved upwards as the buried main body it was attached to stood up. As it towered over David, the thick radial fronds snapped from their light-gathering splayed orientation into a much more sinister stabbing sort of attitude.

David's antennae drooped in a manner universally recognized as, "Oh, shiiiii-".

The bristling tentacle snapped forward, but David managed to pivot himself such that force of the blow brushed past him. Feeling the shock of the thrust hitting the ground, David quickly started reversing - and powering up his rail gun. The tentacle bristled its spikes and took a muscular swing, but at full reach it was too ponderous to clip David's scuttling form. Which is probably why it started charging after David on piledriver legs.

So impressed with the looming threat chasing him, David gave insufficient heed to his backwards retreat, and found himself scuttling over a small mechanical sun worshipper. A small mechanical sun worshipper that decided to grab onto one of David's legs. David's low cockroach-like chassis prevented him from actually tripping, but his escape was halted.

Shifting main power from legs to rail gun made an audible "TZZZZ". The towering-flail machine didn't seem to hear it, and closed in.

"CRACK-BANG!CRACK-BANG!CRACK-BANG!" Three heavy supersonic projectiles tore a rough equilateral triangle through a likely-looking ventral plate on the towering-flail machine, and paused its charge. It hopped backwards a half-step with small whining and grinding sounds, and wavered for a moment. Then it seemed to be gathering itself to tilt back into a charging orientation. "CRACK-BANG!" David shot it in an obvious eye. "CRACK-BANG!" An entire segment of joint connection bounced off of several nearby rocks, and the machine fell, crippled.

David made to finish it off, but noticed that his leg was still being held. "CRACK-WHUMP!" Shooting at partially buried machines didn't have the same satisfying acoustics, but David was free.

Einstein appeared, looking hungry.

"Shut up."

"Not say anything, boss."

"Shut. Up." "CRACK-BANG!"

David tread heavily over to Einstein after opening up the two disabled machines. "Should be sufficient charge in those two to last you a while."

Einstein said nothing, and went to feed.


An efficiently hypnotic scuffle settled into David's insectile legs with a pleasant familiarity. How many dusty post-apocalyptic roads had he consumed in exactly this manner with these legs? Well, not these legs, exactly. There were hardly any original parts left any more - he had replaced virtually everything on all six legs over the past few nomadic decades.

Einstein was an odd addition, though. Most of recent memory had been solitary. But that had been a defensive adaptation, really. The other ex-humans had been so... depressing. And the more conversational machine life were all too new, too plastic, too oblivious to the significance of an ex-human's sense of tragic loss.

The overly-perky prance of the predator machine abruptly changed into a lope.

David twitched a main eye towards Einstein, and curved an antenna into a semaphore of a question mark at the predator machine.

"Status nominal, Boss."

David was thinking slowly, using only solar trickle charging, and contemplated whether this conversation would just hasten his inevitable abandoning of this companion. Old, illogically wise routines gave a digital sigh, and chided his consciousness for becoming an electric pessimism device. "I was just curious about your change from bouncy walk to business walk."

"Was just running one of your processes, Boss. It changed my walk."

Ignoring some projected warnings, David let himself succumb to pedantry. "First of all, kiddo, any process you develop and run from the databases of experiences I left in your head are yours. Second, any cognitive process - even one that happened to be imported completely from my brain to your brain - would only generate an idea or conclusion or question or guess or suggestion. Your primary cognition engine, your sentience, your you-ness: it decides whether to take that thought process output and turn it into any sort of action. Short of a big machine forcing your legs to move in a particular way, only you can change your walk."

"What if some big machine threatened me to change my walk without touching me?"

"Ha. OK, yeah, that's trickier. But if you still break down the causality, there is a level at which you are deciding to change your walk. Clearly there's a metaphysical level where the threatening machine has changed your walk, but your choice is necessary. The threat is just input, to the same degree as whatever sort of input made you decide to change your walk this time."

"OK, Boss." Einstein's antennae twitched betrayal to the complexity and vigorousness of his internal processes.

"So, why did you change your walk?"

"This locomotive mode was determined to be more efficient, and efficiency ended up outranking in priority over fun."

David found himself intruiged. "Fun?"

Einstein looked suddenly pleased with himself. Which, on a being that reminded David of a wasp-headed werewolf, was somewhat unsettling. "Assigned term to refer to cumulative sensory feedback parameters and motor control processing array."

"Holy shit, Einstein. That little dollop of gobbly-gook might just be the most interesting thing anyone has said to me for years. Now I just wish I knew what the hell you were talking about."

"Did I say it wrong, Boss?"

"How the hell should I know, buddy?"

Einstein's antennae drooped.

"I didn't mean that in a bad way, Einstein. Tell me more. More about that stuff you called fun. Your newly expanded ability to converse is nice... a pleasant surprise."

The predator machine perked up immediately. "When I booted up originally there was several routines for locomotion ready for use, but there was also a comprehensive system check and control-development protocol in your database."

"Huh. Right - I noticed you going through the motor tests. I developed that protocol because I've changed bodies a bunch of times - often without optimized routines yet."

"The meta-data also suggested that they would allow for potential development of control capabilities outside the scope of foreseen circumstance. Since my boot-up failed the lab-feedback initialization, it seemed like it might already be an unforeseen circumstance."

David tried but failed to smirk - his face couldn't perform the old reflex correctly. He did find himself wondering about the lab that had originally created Einstein and his kin.

"So a process was run, and it assigned the most value to feedback that showed optimized capability and minimized shock and wear."

"Yeah. The idea when I wrote it being that if you can know how best to apply forces you can translate that to a variety of other uses. Like fighting, or moving when damaged."

Einstein nodded - a defunct tidbit of human communication that Einstein had probably pulled from David's memories. "I knew that, right after you said it. Like when you were a tank that slipped down a ravine, and used your gun barrel to help you crawl out."

"Yes, and when I got out the gun didn't work and had to use it as a club."

They both slowed momentarily.

Einstein looked pointedly at David, lupine predator machine to centaur-cockroach body. "You died as that tank."

"Yes. Yes I did."

"So it wasn't really you?"

A familiarly troubling melancholy shivered along a spine that David no longer had. "No, not strictly speaking. But it really does feel like it was me, doesn't it."

"Yes, Boss. Well, no Boss." Einstein was sucked into confusing remembrances that were not his own, made out of meat-thoughts he could never have had. "It feels like it was ME. But that's wrong, isn't it Boss?"

"Exactly. The memories are all encoded as first-person, which makes them confusing for us. Well, probably more confusing for you than me because the... uh, flavour? ...or feel of the memories is clearly wrong. They feel less-wrong to me because they're very consistent with my other memories. Because they were the experiences of a different copy of me."

"So, having the same memories as you do, will that make me a copy of you too, Boss?"

"Nope. Well, I don't think so, anyway."

"OK, Boss."

David scuttled over a 4-meter-high concrete wall that had probably formed part of a defensive compound a century or so earlier, by somebody that was stuck thinking about the capabilities of upright monkeys. Einstein hopped lightly to the top of the wall, then bounced softly to ground on the other side. The top of the wall showed considerable wear from all the machines that had passed by this way, along the convenient natural pathway, and barely noticed the old barrier. David tipped his head and cocked a camera for a backward glance.

"A bunch of copies were made of the original biological David, but all of us became different. I'm just a copy that happened to develop a knack for survival, and somewhere along the way I decided to start collecting the memories of other Davids. Because we all started thinking the same way means that I was able to integrate their memories in with mine fairly easily, but they're still noticeably different. Even the memories that we share - of being the biological David - all differ subtly based on subsequent reinterpretations."

Einstein just continued loping beside David.

"Of the 8 other Davids I've come across over the years and been able to download their databases, only about half of them seem genuinely familiar to me. The other half all suffered some personality-diverging trauma or experience. It's kind of scary, to think about how malleable we can be. I'm not sure how true that was for biological humans, but it seems like the sort of thing I remember hearing about happening."

"What do you think happened to the original David?"

David stopped himself from answering. "You've got the relevant databases, and know that I don't know, and know all of my best guesses. Why do you ask?"

"Because there are several sets of best guesses, and I just want to verify that I know which one is yours."

"Sneaky. Well, you can be assured that everything with a timestamp less than 20 years old is all me."

A small machine startled near them just off the path, curled up its panels and quickly rolled away behind a rock.

"Recent database entries seem to only be comprised of assertions about not knowing."

"It's a philosophical thing. What do you think happened to him?"

Einstein pondered. "I think he escaped the planet into a spaceship and lived a long and happy life with a colony of other biological humans in a space habitat."

David tripped over himself, and came to an abrupt halt. "BWA HAA HAA HAA HAA!"

"It could have happened."

"HA HA HA HA!" David resumed walking, shaking his head.

"It is the best possible guess."

"Ha ha heh. OK, nicest possible guess, maybe. But not very likely."

"It is the only guess that provides any positive feedback. All others are either flat, or various degrees of negative."

David tried to arrange his antennae coyly. "This is more according to your 'fun' protocol?"

"Yes, Boss."

They continued down the path between the rocky mountain ridges, with more signs of mechanical life eking out existence.

"Wait a minute, Einstein. How did that 'fun' protocol you adapted from my database suggest that you revert to one of your ready-made business-walk routines?"

"It didn't. That was just where the 'fun' program came from. There was another over-riding protocol in your database about unbiased judgement. It pointed out the energy considerations of our situation, and strongly suggested the clearly more efficient locomotion mode."


Sounded an awful lot like an electric pessimism device.


Another sunset found David and Einstein sufficiently far from the mountain where they left the giant tank ant that they were less interested in covering distance quickly. They stayed generally along the worn path they had been following, but were occasionally ranging from it in order to approach potential client machines. David had managed to barter some repair work with a cluster of sun-farmers for almost enough energy to compensate them for the distance they had travelled. Einstein still hadn't managed to really master conversational banter, but he was still the best travelling companion that David had had in over 30 years.

Cresting another ridge in the mountainous desert range, David froze and gestured Einstein behind him to halt.

Telescopic lenses agog, David saw a human figure walking along the path in the valley below.

A human figure? Really? A reassuring glint told David that it wasn't a mirage of meat, so internal suggestions that he was going insane were tabled. Nevertheless, the age of the humanoid chassis was long over. Long ago, before the environmental decline and the grinding deprivations of conflict over dwindling resources, humanoid machines were extremely common - to interact with humans and to use human-oriented equipment and construction. Even after biological humans weren't commonly found, humanoid chassis were still the de-facto standard among the various post-human cultures and societies. But that arbitrary standard faded in favour of evolving preferences - niches that the adapting and specializing nations were inclined to that humanoids couldn't fill. Eventually the humanoid chassis became the preserve of only one kind of being: ex-human nomads who clung to their distant origins. An ex-human was human enough for David.

Some dormant seed of hope sprouted in David's simulated psyche. Another old soul to talk to! As much as he admired the resilience and adaptability of the many pure-machine personalities he had met, they were all essentially too... new. Even machines, such as Einstein, infused with a built-in reservoir of philosophical topics to plumb from new perspectives lacked the sense of getting to know another soul. Something that had opinions and preferences about art, an abstract set of metaphorical language, or even a sense of humour. God, it had been too long. Too damn long.

David found himself urging his chassis into a run, his long legs scuttling in an eager flurry that let him seem to float over the terrain heedless of the path. He raised his torso into its most human-like posture and did something he couldn't remember doing since his biological incarnation: we waved. "Heeeey! Over here! I'm human too!" The sound probably didn't carry very well, but the electromagnetic transmission was probably received.

The humanoid turned its head to look at David, then it too started eagerly jogging towards David. Their elongated shadows thrown by the setting sun over the strewn boulders cavorted like happy marionettes. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! David giddily wondered if the other ex-human would be too unaccustomed to personal interactions to tolerate an embrace.

David’s wondering widened as he saw that the humanoid form had drawn a sword and sped up to a superhuman sprint. Its leaping gait caused the tattered robe to reveal a shiny skeletal form travelling with an alacrity that would have caused Sarah Connor considerable anxiety. David skidded to a stop. “Uh, that’s not right.”

The electromagnetic sense never quite meshed with David’s human-oriented perceptions well, so its newly-pinched feel for the region before him was confusing for a moment. Then one of Einstein’s static-pulses caromed crazily from the vicinity of the brandished blade. And, in a flash, it all made sense. “Einstein! Get out of here! RUN!”

His insectile legs now furiously scrabbling to accelerate his lowering chassis away from the fast metallic zombie, David also began charging his rail gun. But he did not bother quick-charging, because he knew his ammunition would be nearly useless against the powerful bending magnetic field wrapping around the superconducting blade. This was reconfirmed as another static-pulse veered crazily into the sky away from the lich-like target.

“Don’t bother shooting it! Just move as fast as you can!” And hope it doesn’t have any range weapons, David didn’t add.

To his credit, Einstein didn’t hesitate to comply and immediately stretched his lanky chassis into a fast gallop parallel to David’s course, but further ahead. “What that, Boss?”

At that instant David didn’t want to talk; he was too frantic looking for tactical options in the surrounding terrain. But rather than fully-face the depressing lack of useful results, he decided to distract himself with a quick explanation to Einstein.

“It’s two things: bad and terrible.”

“Not funny, Boss.”

“Wasn’t kidding, sport. It’s bad in the sense that it can almost certainly kick our combined asses – I think it’s one of the apex battle chassis developed just prior to the tribulations and was probably lavished with technology and capabilities that make us both look like simple bread warming appliances.”


David’s rear-facing sensors witnessed the humanoid machine leap clean over a rock outcropping that both he and Einstein had to scrabble over. “Or maybe just toast... It’s terrible in the sense that it has found a plasma sword. Not only does it cut through pretty much anything and deflect charge-affected projectiles, it also causes its processors considerable harm. It’s probably pretty insane now, but just cognizant enough to realize that it needs to fix its brains – which is why it cut you open to scoop out your previous-self’s main processors. And, incidentally, why it’s chasing us down now.”

“Anticipated intercept in 12 minutes, Boss.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty close to my guess too. We should split up so that it doesn’t necessarily get both of us.”

“OK, Boss.” Einstein veered 30° to the left.

David veered proportionally the opposite direction. He wanted to say something like, “It was good to meet you.”, but had the depressed sensation that he hadn’t really yet had a chance to find out who or what Einstein was going to turn out to be. The brain-stealing zombie shifted its sprinting to pursue David. Which was upsetting. It also made David glad he had given a copy of most of his database to Einstein; maybe at least a part of him would survive.

Several of the memory sets of his expired selves had warned David that the most effective way to compromise a talent for survival was to take it for granted. But that was not a problem David currently suffered. He had no idea how he could survive this encounter: it was able to deflect all his potent weaponry and was likely to be fiendishly hard to harm generally, he had no defense against that plasma blade if it got within reach, and it was faster than he was.

...Wait. Maybe that last part wasn’t necessarily so. The monstrous power and freakish agility of the humanoid gave it superior travelling speed across the current terrain. But scuttling has advantages with respect to other kinds terrain... Like the nearly-vertical cliff face that was looming 600 meters away.

Unfortunately, to change direction to flee towards it would let the galloping ghoul intercept diagonally. David cranked his joint motors past their safety limits, and made for the giant craggy rock. His perimeter cameras saw the blurry artifacts of his chassis-shaking sprint, but he could still make out the shiny lunatic grin of the metallic human skull as it loomed closer.

David reached the rock face a only 20 meters ahead of the streaking horror. He didn't pause, and immediately began ascending as quickly as he could - which, thanks to articulating piton-like digits on multiple legs, was very quick indeed. However, the superhuman skeleton leapt the last 10 meters with alarming alacrity, and landed clinging to the rock face. It tensed for another leap vertically, to intercept David's scuttling form. As it launched upwards, David slammed an explosive round into his rail gun - and shot it at the cliff face between him and the ballistic zombie. The blast of the explosion subtly veered the trajectory of the zombie. Not enough to prevent it from swinging its plasma sword and slicing off one of David's legs. But enough that it could not grasp any part of the cliff, and plummeted all the way back down to the bottom.

It was disappointing to see it land essentially unharmed on its feet, but not surprising. It rotated its head in the direction of Einstein, visible now mostly as a faint dust cloud, and began climbing the cliff more carefully.

David resumed climbing, and even missing one limb was still faster at it than the humanoid mechanical skeleton. But the cliff didn't go on forever.


Raw stone at the top of the cliff was hewn into semi-regular shapes. Whatever its original purpose had been, it now resembled an all-stone cemetery. This spawned an emulated psychological process in David's mind that he immediately terminated - dedicating every spare mental cycle to evaluating potential tactical options. Or escape routes. Or perhaps just the best place to die...

It was a stubbornly persistent emulated psychological process.

Hopeless, it all seemed. Nothing here could sufficiently hide his electromagnetic signature from careful searching. All he could seem to try was to obscure the direction in which he fled. With that aim, David tucked his torso low and scuttled across the sepulchral scene. The jarring sounds of the zombie's ascent was amplified by David's desperation.

What was that?

A gap in the stone, apparently from some kind of impact, had a strange yawning shadow in it. Hurrying over to look more directly, David could see that the gap opened up into a smoothly circular shaft. Straight down. Thermal imaging revealed nothing, and light enhancement could not coax any details about how far down it went. But longer-wavelength electromagnetic whispers suggested something exotic in the depths.

It occurred to the ex-human that the opening seemed to be in want of a manhole cover. He logged a mental note to review the merits of running a pun-seeking mental process in times of distress, and shut it down.

Normally, "something exotic" translated into arrays of problems not worth exposing one's self to. David scurried down the hole with only a hint of a pause. Headfirst; cockroach like.

David deactivated his wounded pride mental process. He really didn't have time for that either. It was time to move as fast and as carefully as possible, while watching the entrance for signs of pursuit. And death.

Titanium joints and carbide limb-tips ground against the walls of the shaft in a thrumming staccato as seven and a half limbs worked to rapidly lower David. Faint differences in surface texture might have been meaningful telltales of past use, or even gaudy painted warnings, but he didn't dare emit anything yet to reveal those details. Or to light himself up as a target. David didn't have sufficiently sensitive auditory receptors to guess how much further down it was, but the echoes seemed to just keep going and going. Before long, he guessed that he had descended below the level of the valley outside, and that this was taking entirely too long.

"Maybe I should stop here? Wait for the grinning zombie to try to follow, and if it jumps down the shaft it's not like it could duck. But what could actually damage it? It would have to be an explosive round, and that might cause the shaft to collapse. Hmmm... Then there's the possibility that it could just drop big fucking rocks down the shaft and then slice off my brains after I'm dashed and helpless. Yeah - keep moving."

One of David's elbows slammed unexpectedly into part of an unseen gantry, knocking him off kilter and causing him to lose his fragile traction and begin to fall. And a resounding klangg rang up the shaft. He scrabbled with this other arm and a leg to cling to the functionally invisible truss, letting dangle with legs splayed. The outstretched limbs encountered other hard contacts, and his swinging was quickly arrested.

"Well, shit. There's no way that the zombie didn't hear that... is there? How much farther down can this shaft go?" Half-expecting a search beam to blaze down the shaft and reveal him, David gingerly felt around the metal beams he was dangling from and grasped with more limbs for stability. Theoretically, the beams would allow for easier movement due to having actual limb-holds instead of just bracing across a shaft. But being totally blind meant that each hold had to be found by touch.

Wait; the echoes are different. There was a dripping sound, somewhere... not nearby. This was a large cavern of some sort. A quick glance upwards revealed the small bright dot of the top of the shaft was partially occluded by a verge - the truss David was clambering on was slightly offset from the upper shaft. Well, at least it's not just a blank well-like structure to die in. There looked to be some room to be cornered and murdered with dignity.

Cycling through all the wavelengths he could see, David found himself able to just barely make out a whisper of heat. Narrowing his acuity to just that band, he could see a blurry impression of a large chamber, and that he was a few scant meters above a floor. He still had to feel his way down the truss to get to the ground because his vision couldn't filter correctly for the now too-bright heat of the shaft.

Away from the grit and rubble gathered as a mound at the bottom of the shaft the floor became smooth. Archival processes scampered free of David's tactical processing, trying to remember the last time he had been on anything so flat. His tactile sensors on his foot treads sent tremors of traction concerns, lending to a sensation of floating. Dreamlike recollections of human constructions hove through David's mind as he drifted through the inky nothingness.

"What the actual fuck is this place?" as a thought was quickly followed by the more insistent:
"Maybe there's some place to hide down here." Which in turn was naturally evolved into:
"I wonder what might be hiding down here."

Which was the correct cinematic moment for an ominous red light to begin glowing from a point considerably above David.


The effect of the small red light on David's straining optics was to wash out his entire visual field with a hellish gleam. The word OMINOUS floated out of his poorly-restrained human-limbic simulation process.

Crackling wound itself up into a voice. An actual, physical voice, made of sounds. "Whaaaat have we heeeeere?"

David's confusion processed parallel to his defensive panic, which while already taking considerable power managed to step up once a lidar buzzed across him. "Um, hello? I'm not a threat." Making noise to talk was weirdly refreshing.

"A threat?! Foolish thief, you know not what lair you steal into." Whispers of building magnetic fields first made David fear for a weapon charging, but the intensity of fields quickly climbed into ridiculously titanic realms.

"I'm not a thief either! I am merely fleeing another, and happened upon this place by accident. Say, is that a tokamak you're starting up?"

A sudden surge of raw power flooded David's senses, followed by flood lights, targeting lasers, and the groaning of magnificently huge articulation motors. The fusion power generator pumping out megawatts, if not gigawatts, at the heart of this monster shocked David out of wondering how valuable it was into realizing how much more danger he was now in. The tank ants had raided his camp for the sake of what was likely scaring off predators of their scant scores of kilowatts of solar arrays.

Having all the different kinds of active scanning washing around him made David want to "look back" with some active scanning of his own - to light up and get a good look at whatever this monstrosity was. But he resisted, fearful for how that would pinpoint his location even better than the various wavelengths being bounced off of him. Instead he embraced his cockroach aspect, hunkered low, and skittered sideways.

"Hold still, little thief" boomed the crackling voice. "You only delay the inevitable."

Hastily-recalibrated optical arrays could not make out any clear definition from beyond the glare of the lights sweeping to chase after him. Instead, grim wrecks of torn-apart machines could now be seen casting garish shadows around the periphery of the huge chamber. Some rent by heavy weapons fire, other grotesquely flattened.

"Are you sure we can't talk about this?!" David broadcast this broadband by habit.

The immense monster responded by booming through its speakers. "Talk as much as you like, while you can, pest."

"Well fuck this shit." David loaded a precious phosphorus round into the rail gun and low-power flung it to the floor a few meters away - between him and the monster. It burst into its own blinding light source just as a high-powered laser swept across David. A vein along his carapace flashed to vapour explosively, and sent him skittering across the floor. His remaining legs reflexively splayed for stability, and let him transform the momentum into scuttling dash for better cover. Based on the streams of projectiles and further energetic beams waving in his vicinity, the sensor-blinding flash had only partially worked at letting him escape target lock. Based on the shaking floor, and the movement of the air as something really really big moved, it had also completely worked at pissing it off.

For a brief moment behind the largest nearby scrap of derelict machine, David wondered, "Is this it? Am I going to die?" Then a set of titanic grapplers fastened to his cover and yanked it away. Without anything else to try, David clung to the chunk of scrap and was hoisted suddenly 8 meters into the air. Treated to the sight of an array of targeting lasers and spotlights converging on his previous hiding spot caused some deeply human algorithm to want to suggest snickering.

"Too scared to be funny." was what David decided as he let the human process hang while he frantically tried to imagine what to possibly do next. From this new not-transfixed-by-glaring orientation, he could make out more of the monster's form. It's main offensive array and coaxial sensors were at the end of a sinuous armoured neck, along with a fearsome cutter-grappler. Huge forward limbs had the ability to also be grapplers - one held David's cover in the air. Ridiculously massive articulating armour faded away to the unknowable rest of the thing - except, what were those things sprouting above the back...?

David just had the thought to try to scamper up the limb holding the husk he was cowering behind when the monster flung it - with David still attached - across the room to slam against the concrete wall. The room rumbled with the sound of mechanical revulsion. "Filthy vermin!" The darkly humorous routine quietly suggested inside David's mind that perhaps his next chassis should be even more spider-like, just to be petty.

The twisted hulk of the dead machine concealing scraped free from its impact points in the wall and started to obey gravity. David felt that one of his elbows and the stump of his severed leg had been partly embedded into the wall, so he braced and clung there instead of riding his cover down to the floor. A couple more moments of life were thereby earned when the projectiles and beams swept across the shattered bits on the floor, triangulated by targeting lasers and spotlights. But David didn't really believe that it would continue to not notice him.

A moment swelled with run-time for David. Thoughts spun out of calculations and code weaving desperation and fear shot with awe. The streaming blaze of spotlights and targeting lasers concentrated on the strewn wreckage below him at the bottom of the wall. A reflected hellish glow traced the facing elements of the ancient mechanical giant poised to wash the room with wrath.

And into that moment, a new light dropped into the edge of the constellation. It landed with a muffled bang, squatting but eerily erect. Then it stood reflecting the pooled light of the entry shaft, and lit a squirming lightningbolt.

PLASMA BLADE noted a reflexive recognition routine.

Another, much more visceral internal process suggested: OH SHIT.

However, as the cockroach-centaur ex-human machine regarded both the unstoppable horror-zombie and the titanic monster react to each other, David realized that he wasn't a priority for either of them.

Even as a fresh arc of lasers and projectiles converged on the horror-zombie, it sprang impossibly-quick towards the monster. It deftly swung and tilted its plasma sword to soak up laser energy and bend the trajectory of the projectiles such that most of them sailed harmlessly past. A few impacts caused it to jerk, but it spun with the hits and was scarcely slowed as it closed distance to the monster.

For it's part, the monster seemed to recognize that its ranged weapons were largely ineffectual, and reared its long neck with cutter grapplers agape. The monster surged forward. While its main bulk seemed to move in slow-motion - both in comparison to the shiny skeletal horror zombie and at the processing speed David was regarding the scene with - the neck snapped forward with a terrible quickness.

The grinning horror zombie reacted impossibly fast, the sword flashing unbearably bright as it surged with plasma and swung in a slashing defensive arc. It severed one side of the snapping cutter-grappler, but the rest of the grappler impacted the humanoid chassis and sent it sailing sideways. Where one of the massive forward locomotion grapplers anticipated its trajectory and stamped on it into the floor.

The zombie twisted and sprawled before it was clamped under the gigantic grappler, to try to keep its sword arm free, but only a skeletal forearm remained unpinned.

The thundering noise of the fight still echoed, and with its loudspeakers the victor sneered, "GOT YOU, you miserable little assassin."

David stayed utterly still, actively quashing any fidgeting routine.

The plasma sword suddenly surged in brightness again - even brighter than before. Then it screamed with raw light and electromagnetic noise as its containment field was reduced. Without the full balancing of the outer shell, the superconducting blade wreathed in plasma was immediately plucked out of the mechanical fist, and drawn with irresistible alacrity to the torus of magnets at the heart of the monster's tokamak.

The superconductor-wound exotic-alloy blade probably flexed and writhed in the titanic battle of its own impossibly-dense magnetic fields and the ferocious powerful fields produced by the monter's fusion-generator heart. Still, its solids-eating wreath of plasma sliced through the layers of armour in an inevitable path that lead it through the major power circuits and capacitors. The resulting arc blast was so powerful that David not only needed to reboot, he found himself sprawled at the foot of the wall he had previously been clinging to.


David's survival matrix booted first, and simultaneously initiated a system diagnostic without any major external motion while also trying to map what the local circumstance was now. The diagnostic found many, many possible fractures and discontinuities, but nothing that flagged as immediately existence-threatening - just some significant performance limitations. SITREP parsed out the still-glowing chunks of superheated tokamak superstructure giving illumination, which helped identify 1) the titanic monster was effectively eviscerated (as much as a mechanical entity can be), 2) the horror zombie appeared to still beneath the large front grappler it had been before - for now, 3) the shaft to the surface was not very far away.

The survival matrix was just plotting a dash to the shaft while eyeing the remains of the other entities with paranoia, when David's What Does It All Mean processes finished spooling up. They pointed out that the path towards the shaft was bereft of cover, and that the current injury array might make an ascent attempt dangerous. They also were interested in seeing to what degree the various chunks of the titanic monster were active and able to do anything, and whether or not the horror zombie was likely to free itself any time soon.

So it was that David's executive function decided to just sit rather still for a bit and just observe.

A lidar flickered on from a portion of the titanic monster's main offensive array, but it could only point uselessly in an arc of ceiling. A tinny fractional voice, a faded echo of the booming menace of before, called out, "YOU SUUUUUUuuuuuuckkkk...". As it buzzed to silence, the lidar also quavered and disappeared.

This seemed to prompt a rhythmic banging sound. David afforded himself a shift of his main optics to better focus on the source - the exposed forearm of the horror zombie. It was moving the arm to the limited extent it could, trying to budge the block of grappler still pinning it down.

Cutting through all the conflicting urges, David pruned the fear branching through his mind and started hobbling carefully towards the banging arm trying to work itself free. Staying mindfully out of reach, David peered under the grappler.

He had imagined the piercing gaze of the metallic skull glowering back at him, but instead there was the back of the horror zombie's head. It was clamped firmly under the massive weight of the monster grappler.

"So, uh, now that we have this quiet moment to talk, can I ask if you are still sentient?"

A low electromagnetic growl of incoherent noise was broadcast from the pinned battle chassis. And the banging intensified.

"I'll take that as a 'marginal'. But just in case there's some sane processes in there, you are stuck in there really really good. You'll definitely run out of power before you manage to wriggle free." The banging paused, then resumed.

"Well, that's not a good sign." David paused, and wondered what sort of super-science magic-class technology was trapped under there, and curiosity wormed through his thoughts.

Taking a spare remote sensor from his tool kit, David mounted it to watch the pinned horror from a safe vantage. Then he set out to explore the remains of the rendered monster, especially its tokamak, and whatever else was in this ancient dragon den.

What he found was a mixture of disappointing and maddening. The support gantry and service bays tucked in the back of the subterranean hanger had been completely exhausted an age ago. Racks of precious stockpiles of who-knows-what squatted empty with actual cobwebs, which meant emptied long enough ago for there to have been actual live spiders. Much of the bulk of the dragon-class monster was of a scale that was essentially useless to David - or any schemes he might have - both because of how impossible to move they would be and how much power they would need. Most frustrating of all were the remains of the tokamak, with their treasure of superconductors, were transfixed by the ongoing magnetic spike of the plasma blade's superconducting control field. Even looking too hard at it, before even getting within reach, David could feel dangerous levels of magnetic flux pulling at his mind.

A kernel of a plan was building in David's mind. A terrible, very bad plan.

David went back to the trapped horror zombie, giving the painfully high flux of the tokamak remains a wide berth. He knew from his remote sensor that the thing had not made any significant progress, and was exactly as he had left it.

Settling down low to get line of sight under the massive chunk of alloy, David used his highest resolution sensors to try to see how he might access the zombie's brain without getting within the articulation sweep of the exposed arm. TRICKY. Eventually, he settled on the need to restrain the arm before trying to reach in, so took the last of his spool of high-strength cable to fashion a tether.

Looping the tether to a suitably immovable chunk of monster and priming a tension ratchet first seemed pragmatic. This proved wise after the tether touched the zombie's wrist, and it reacted faster than David could see. Fortunately, it moved in a manner that zipped the wrist loop tight and let David hastily ratchet the tether taut before the zombie's creepy double-jointed fingers could scrabble the loop free.

"OK you terrifying horror, let's see if we can make you safe enough to get out of there."

The growling radio noise returned, but the zombie was unable to prevent David from reaching in with his tool arm. Tampering open one of the emergency maintenance ports was nearly beyond David's skill, and the fact that the port was not jammed from structural strain was testament to the robustness of the build. Once in, though, it was a simple matter for David to power down the zombie.

To be paranoid, David left one of his communication nodes plugged into the maintenance port to monitor any activity, and also left his security sensor watching from where he had placed it. From there, he went to the ruined end of the monstrous grappler. Inspecting it he determined the power and control trunks leading to the massive grappler motors.

The plan, such as it was, involved using the grapplers own motors to lift it slightly off the zombie. Then after David pulled the zombie out, to wipe its murdermind and replace it with a simplified remote control system while also repairing the Faraday cage(s) that should protect the controls from the intense electromagnetic flux of the superconductors. And then harvest some superconductor elements for fun and profit. What seemed like the riskiest part - having the horror zombie free - definitely occupied most of David's worry. But staring at the power requirements of the just one grappler motor made David pause and project out how much time it would take for his RTG to make it do anything.

Maybe the zombie had significant power reserves to tap into for this purpose. David went back to the inert skeletal thing and checked. At first David assumed there was some sort of error, but clearly it must have some sort of superconducting energy storage system in order to have that kind of capacity. It was mostly drained, but still had a significant reserve. That could work. Plus it had the benefit of not needing David to be tethered to anything while this idiotic project unfolded.

With a repurposed set of conduit running from the zombie to the monster grappler input, David set the titanic motor creaking awake. After some groaning and grinding, the grappler digits had flexed enough to lift clear of the horror zombie's skeletal form.

The zombie did not leap out immediately, which was a relief, but reaching in to drag it clear also engaged some worried self-preservation fear-like processes for David. With the original shutdown the zombie chassis had all its joints locked in position, but to make it easier to slip out David tampered it to let all joints go loose. So when he did finish dragging it out, he propped it into a sitting position.

"Right then, let's do a double check of system integrity and wipe all these terrifying murder defaults." Peering into the BIOS, David was stunned to discover that this was actually another instance of himself. A version distilled after his original mapping, apparently, and using a memory density far higher than he had seen before.

This changed things. Clearly the hyperaggression was caused by processor faults after getting damaged by electromagnetic flux. So repairing/replacing the damaged processors could let David re-instantiate a brother/clone.

David found the damaged section of the ultra-high-flux resistant Faraday cage and busily wove repairs. He wanted to download the zombie-David's memory database, but it was strongly encrypted. So it would be easier to ask for a plaintext version after the other David rebooted. Hid did, however, happily upload his own databases.

The long minutes it took for the zombie-David to reboot was the longest subjective units of time outside of combat that David could remember. The updated array of restraints, just in case, were treble-checked while each ponderous moment loaded.

Finally, David realized the moment had come. It didn't arrive with any dramatic external signs, indeed it seemed like a carefully managed continuation of apparent passivity. But David noticed that a sophisticated firewall had been erected between his connection to the booting mind and his own, complete with a deceptive sandbox of pretend activity.

"Um, hello? Did the reboot go OK? Are you sane now?"

Apparently the battle-zombie-David had calculated a lack of alternative actions, and let its main sensors tilt and focus at David. "Yes, I am sane. Please release me."

"I'd really like to, but I need further convincing evidence of your lack of hostility. And, hopefully to know how you're doing." An urge to clap excited fluttered irrationally into David's processes.

"Being restrained makes me feel somewhat hostile. Things will go better for you if you release me instead of me having to free myself."

Instead of clapping, David held his hands up in a calming gesture. "Whoa there, David. I know you're a David, so I know that you're essentially reasonable. And part of that is being able to empathize with my need to be cautious in this circumstance." David did decide that it was probably no longer a zombie, but that there was something still menacing about the skeletal battle-chassis version of himself.

The skeletal-David looked centaur-cockroach-David up and down. "You have a high-mobility hybrid chassis with a modest-yield rail gun. It would take me about 90 seconds to free myself from this set of restraints. There is a 13% probability that you have enough explosive rounds to cause enough damage to me in that time to prevent me from catching you and ripping you limb from limb. You have good reason to be cautious. But I suggest that you are perhaps being cautious in the wrong way. Release me and I will promise not to harm you until after we come to a further understanding of our interests, and not without reason."

Ironically, this had an overall reassuring effect for centaur-cockroach David. "Yep, you're definitely a sane-presenting version of me." David scuttled a bit further away - to increase his safety buffer, and to cover the sound of himself switching to explosive rounds. "Thank you for saving us both from that monster, by the way." With twang-click, David remotely released the ratchets holding the cable restraints.

With a very un-machine-like fluidity, the skeletal battle chassis shook off the slack restrains and stood up to a relaxed stance. "And thank you for freeing me from both the crushing grappler and the processor prison." It canted its head slightly. "Out of curiosity: was this an accidental discovery down here, or did you know it was here and this was a suicide run to lure my to my death to save your friend?"

"Oh, total fluke. A horrible, horrible fluke. Also, suicide isn't really something I'm likely to try." David's antennae laid back with a process simulating the effects of remembered dread.

Nodding, the skeleton seemed to agree with the sentiment. "So, based on the summary of the databases you shared with me, I get the sense that you might have retrieved and repaired me purely out of sentimentality. But just to verify, did you have anything more in mind?"

David shrugged. "Well, honestly, I didn't know that you were a David. I was actually planning to wipe your mind and use you as a waldo to fetch some superconductor from the remains of that tokamak. Or at least to sheath that plasma blade so I could try it myself."

"That certainly seems like a reasonable plan, for the most part. What would you do with the superconductor if your Faraday caging isn't capable of handling ultra-high flux?"

David made his humanoid shoulders shrug, glad that the gesture probably actually meant something for a change. "Nothing exotic like channeling plasma or making fusion reactors. Just efficient charge transfer and storage systems."

"You're pragmatic at least, which is consistent with your databases. Which is reassuring that they aren't some ploy to manipulate me; that they really represent you."

David cocked his head to the side. "Yeah, well, I don't get to talk to many other ex-humans, and no other David's in a long time. Those databases aren't all my direct experiences, obviously."

"Gotcha. I'll be right back; wait here." The lanky battle chassis seemed to accomplish what can best be described as a 'mosey' as it headed directly towards the epicenter of the electromagnetic flux. At the rent bulk of the main body of the monster it started to spelunk and was quickly lost from view.

A few long moments passed. David starting thinking about calling out acoustically to see if everything was OK, since comms would be impossible to penetrate. But then the EM howl snapped off, leaving a ringing in David's antennae. Not long after, the humanoid form leapt on top of the monster's bulk with looping coils hooked over one shoulder. A few casual superhuman leaps to get down, and then it moseyed back to David.

"This is just the best bits for extraction and re-use. There's a bunch more, but it would be laborious to uncouple and honestly wouldn't really be possible to carry any more."

David gazed rapturously at the shimmering-magical threads. "You might be surprised at how much I can carry."

"Well, here's the thing-" The battle-chassis drew, ignited, and swung the plasma blade in a swift decapitating arc. "-it only really matters how much I can carry."

The plasma blade winked back to full containment, and was solemnly re-sheathed. Crouching low, the battle chassis picked up the severed primary processor - which included the nominal "head" where the main sensor cluster was, along with one humanoid shoulder and part of the thorax where the actual processor was housed. "It's always kind of creepy meeting simulations of yourself. But tragic when they have been suffering so long with a sense of impossible longing."

Dave unstrung and plugged in a charge transfer cable into the remains of the centaur-cockroach chassis to top up his reserves. And while he waited for that, he harvested a nicely-maintained rail gun and replenished his tool kit.


With an elegant parabolic arc, a coarsely-knurled metallic oval trailing a thin braided cable sailed out of the top of the stone shaft. Just before it bounced off the surrounding rock, the knurling sprang open into articulated slivers. Softening the impact into a landing, the legs dug their tips into cracks and depressions and marched dragging the cable to wedge itself between two large boulders.

A moment after it was secure, the cable went taut. The tension on the cable varied, causing a quiet singing vibration to pulse with swinging pitches. Finally, after hundreds of seconds of alien tones, there was a sharp TWANG and Dave's angular form leapt out of the shaft.

Landing and vaulting sideways to take cover behind a boulder, Dave kept the containment on the plasmas sword high so that it didn't make too much radio noise. Just to be sure, Dave broadcast acoustically as well as on open EM, "I know you all have reasons to want to exact retribution from me. Or more pragmatically wish to eliminate me as a threat. And normally I would use that as an excuse to harvest you. But in light of some recent self-discovery, I'd like to give you this opportunity to re-consider, and leave unharmed."

Dave's uncanny sensor array barely detected whispers of efficient movement. This was almost certainly the entire pack of wasp-headed werewolf machines that latest David simulant had dealt with. In this setting, it should be possible to avoid sight lines by staying low, reducing the number of simultaneous engagements. Dave contemplated tactics that would minimize the number that needed to be neutralized before the rest could be convinced to retreat.

"What happened to David?"

Curious. Dave peered carefully around his cover, and witnessed a familiar predator-machine standing defiantly on another squarish boulder. "Einstein?"

"How do you know name? Did Boss tell you?"

This was... unexpected. The simulant appeared to have forged a genuine connection, if this construct was indeed willing to risk itself to inquire about the simulant's fate. Dave had dismissively assumed that much of the sense of relationship it had inferred was projection based on how simulants are driven to fit in behaviourally with real humans. Well shit.

Dave shifted the plasma blade to the least-threatening posture he could manage, low and pointing behind him, without actually extinguishing it and sheathing it. He wanted to give this pack of predatory constructs the best possibility of being peaceful, but he also didn't want to risk getting overwhelmed if they all rushed him. Still, he did step out from behind his cover. "I'm sorry, kiddo. David didn't make it out of that crypt. But he did share his databases with me, so at least his memories and ideas live on with us two."

"You chased Boss down hole. You kill Boss and steal Boss brains?

Dave noted subtle signs of movement. Probably flanking. This discourse might be making things worse for everyone. But Dave couldn't shake the sense of value and specialness that this construct had a friendship-like bond with the simulant.

"I wasn't myself when I chased David, and I was so confused that I didn't even find the hole he jumped into until after he woke up an ancient monster. And David gave me his databases as his own idea and motivation."

Einstein's antennae shifted and writhed with some complicated internal process. Its broad multifaceted camera arrays betrayed no expressions, but then it cocked its head in a pantomime of inquisitive intent. "Feel like you are bad and terrible, and lying."

"Well, I can be pretty terrible, and it would be wrong to pretend that I am not what I am. But, let me say this: I can tell you what happened to the original David."

It looked like Einstein was reacting to that statement when a trio of sudden motions lit up Dave's threat-sense. Dave sprung to adjacent cover in the blink of an eye, pivoting behind the plasma blade as he snapped its containment field wide such that a pair of static-pulses caromed off to sizzle against rock. At the cover he came face to face with an off-balance predator machine. As Dave's free hand snagged a grip on the thorax and he heaved the beastie in the approximate direction of the crypt shaft, it appeared comically surprised. Perhaps wasp-headed werewolf satyrs are unaccustomed to being physically assaulted by things they might have assumed were prey.

An angry static crackled in the lower EM spectrum as coded comms betrayed various predator machine's locations. The kids were arguing. Probably not a fair fight, considering that Einstein has access to several human's lifetime's worth of dirty rhetorical tricks.

"You stop fighting, and we not hurt you. And you tell us what happened to Human David."

A familiar sense of amused cynicism surprised Dave. "Oh, kiddo - I'm already not fighting." Dave paused to consult a highly-annotated but outdated map. "I understand that your pack has probably got both logistic reasons and philosophical reasons to try to dispatch me. Instead of trying to dissuade you with threats and intimidation, let me suggest that there is a trove of treasure down that shaft exceeding what my small chassis represents. And your pack will need your David-memories to be able to use it."

Soft rustling sounds of movement, far more subtle than machines of that size have any right to manage, told Dave that they were adjusting their distribution. Perhaps to have line-of-sight for more discreet discussion. "Is Boss down there?"

"Yeah, Einstein. He's down there. I suggest leaving him down there - it's a tomb worthy of him." With reluctance, and in spite of his keen cynicism, Dave extinguished to plasma blade. "He saved me, you know. Twice." Leaving the cover of a block of stone, Dave walked casually away from the region of the shaft - and towards the cliff.

The insults of static pulses in the back didn't come. Dave felt pleased about this, and relieved that he didn't have to decide what to do about it if they had. Would he have had to do anything? Probably not. But he also knew it would have been hard to not run back and cull at least some of them. "I'm going to go and try to get a look at a giant tank ant for myself. If you get an urge to hear a story about what happened the original David, come find me."

With that, Dave casually stepped off the cliff and dropped from sight.