“Tell me what’s going on,” Marcos demanded, “and tell me what your family’s been hiding from me.”
From Zantl’s gobsmacked face, Marcos knew they’d cornered them on the truth. This small, unbelievable piece of technology clenched in his fists held a world completely unlike theirs. It was technology that mimicked his own programming. Years, maybe decades of history forcibly taken away from him, and Zantl’s family had had their hands all over it.
They let Zantl redress. From the empty bottles and snack wrappers littered around their stained mattress, they must’ve been living here after disappearing.
Their naked body made Marcos cringe. Whoever they’d just been with, whoever had vanished like a ghost, looked so much older than they were, and they’d been intimate together. All of Marcos’ hypotheses that Zantl was seeing someone in the Asilo, and they’d actually been with…
Something other than this world, an unknown entity.
Once Zantl was decent and they went to leave, Marcos blocked the door.
Zantl lowered their ears. “Move.”
“No. Tell me what’s going on. Who are these people? Why can I see them while nobody else can? What—” he lifted up the thumb drive—“is on this?”
Zantl’s upper lip curled, as if seeing the piece of tech was revolting. “I’m guessing you were able to switch on the computers to see what was on them.”
Computers. Marcos knew that word, but he didn’t know how. “What room was that?”
“A storage closet, just like this. That one just happened to have old tech in it. Old tech that was harboring you.”
Marcos stilled. “So I wasn’t made here. You lied to me.”
“I didn’t lie to you. My parents did.”
“Then who built me?”
“You—?” Marcos couldn’t stop himself and raised his voice. “What do you mean you don’t know? What did I see? Who was that girl—Alliroue, who is she?”
Zantl flinched. “Don’t yell at me.”
“No! I saw myself in those memories! I saw myself happy and well-cared for and loved. That world looked nothing like Raeleen, and that girl…”
He touched his heart, remembering the feelings she made him feel, how precious her smile was in the sunlight. “She smiled at me. Do you know how long it’s been since someone actually smiled at me like that? Without the look of fear or disgust? She loved me, and you took her away.”
“Uh, no, I didn’t,” Zantl said. “I was, like, a baby when my grandparents finally got you to turn on. I didn’t have a say in what they did with you after that, nor did I care.”
Marcos backpedalled. At this rate, he was only going to get sass from them that’d lead into another lash out and disappearance. They needed answers to something. “Tell me about who that person was. The person who just disappeared. What’s really going on here?”
That dark look in Zantl’s face returned. They either looked ready to be sick, or bite someone. They looked away, battling whether or not to tell him the truth. “You won’t get it.”
“Yeah, shockingly, I don’t, so any type of information would be helpful to someone who’s literally been in the dark for decades.”
The corner of Zantl’s lip curled upwards: a smile. “More like centuries.”
The word didn’t register in his brain. Centuries? What could that mean? 100 years? 500? Raeleen hadn’t been around for that long. History didn’t go back that far.
Zantl sat on the mattress with a creak and started playing with their long hair. “You just asked a bunch of questions in the past five minutes. What do you wanna know first?”
A hundred different questions came to him instantly. He wanted to know about the mysterious, disappearing people, the violence they carried, what this had to do with him and Kevin and anyone else who might’ve been involved. He wanted to know about the girl on the screen and the futuristic world she lived in. He wanted to know who’d built him.
“What…are we?” his mouth ended up saying, “and why can we see invisible people?”
HUMANOID MODEL r51: MARCOS AMIR
Copyright © 2099
Humanoid r51 did not start up correctly.
Running all diagnostics. Please wait…
Rebooting main control systems.
Marcos, feeling small, awoke in nothing but code. No color, no senses, his brain disconnected from his body. It was his stasis, his own version of sleep. He liked to believe nothing separated himself from normal lifeforms, but this was his reality: advanced, artificial intelligence able to link up with a robotic body. Without the connectors grounding him inside his makeshift body, he was nothing but code waiting to be used.
But he felt odd. Usually, this lasted only a second, what he deduced was like waking from a dreamless sleep. Had he powered off accidentally? Was he hurt? Was this his version of death?
“You’re not dead. Not yet.”
Unknown application error found.
Memories slowly poured back into his brain. Zantl and their upheaval of information, him, walking aimlessly through the streets of Raeleen, knowing everything about Deities and not knowing what to do, about Shào and Maïmoú and their hatred for one another, about the Others. Each one allegedly had their own “soulmate,” a person who was intimately connected to them. Familial, romantic, friendly, it all depended on the person.
None of it made any sense to him. He didn’t understand what a soul was as opposed to a heart or a nervous system, neither of which he had. At first, he thought Zantl was lying to him, but then he remembered how these people could explode walls with their minds, kill people with a single look, take you away at will.
He remembered seeing Nicole Lenore float ten feet off the ground during the assembly. Her eyes had been glowing with bloodlust. All those guards, perishing with a wave of her hand. How she toppled the entire Asilo with all those people still inside, all those children…
He’d rushed to save Zantl. Say it internal programming, say it his own innate need to save children. They’d frozen in fear from their home crumbling above them, and Marcos had dove through shattering glass to protect them.
But they’d been taken away by the same person they were sleeping with, and when Marcos thought he’d be crushed by the pile of stone, someone put him in a headlock and brought him backwards into darkness.
Unknown application error found.
Someone clicked their tongue. “Can you stay still? Even when your main systems are shut off, your brain is still so…active.”
Marcos couldn’t speak. He could only listen and wait.
The voice sighed. She was an older woman, a motherly voice with the sternness of talking to a misbehaving child. “I never understood that about robotic life,” she muttered. “How you could just turn on and off, be saved from death just to be replaced with a new husk. No other species can do that, not even the most resilient flower. You were always such an interesting…species, in that way. Different from humans and crossbreeds and their primitive instincts, and from animals whose only base instinct is to self-preservate. Your kind was so much different. You could’ve been a great successor to their failures.”
He’d never heard this woman’s voice before. She didn’t sound like that Maïmoú Deity, or Alexi, or anyone he knew. She sounded so mournful.
He willed his voice to start. “Who…are you?”
She ignored him. “How’s this?”
All systems repaired.
Marcos blinked into blinding white. Strong sun directly in his face, with tiny flecks of water hitting his cheek like he was near a waterfall. Birds chirped on branches. Summertime, a vacation.
“Wait, don’t wake up so soon. Wake up in the real world. Wake—”
His vision refocused, and his brain whirled on.
He was lying on his back, staring up at a mosaic ceiling. Blue and silver and gold, swirling into flowery patterns as natural artwork. Waterfalls gently flowed down from the walls and into manmade rivers that ran along the room.
“Elegant” wasn’t the right word to describe this place. It wasn’t beautiful or magnificent or grand or rich.
It was dreamlike, something he’d never experienced before. Crystal curtains of blue and gold swept around open arches and white pillars. Gold flecks in the walls made them appear bejeweled. There were floor cushions around him, lacy and looking more expensive and softer than the richest beds. The water looked too good to drink, the air felt too crisp to breathe.
And above him, staring down at him in her lap, was the woman who owned the mature voice. She had deep, dark skin with dreadlocks tied up in a messy bun and around her ears, pieces falling out and down her back. Beads dangled from the ends, etched in ancient letters. She wore a beautiful gown made of silky blue styled with working pants and combat boots. Her wrinkled face contorted as she looked down at Marcos, like she didn’t know what to do with him now that he was awake.
He’d been asleep on her knee.
He got up, slowly. He was in a room encircled by a small moat, and outside, through the arches, were towering buildings he didn’t know the name to. Spires twisted high into the sky, a bright, blue sky twinkling with millions of stars. Everything looked like a reflection in a crystal pond: breathtaking.
The woman scooted away from him like he was sick. From Zantl’s rushed explanation of Deities and soulmates, Marcos guessed that this water-based, blue-wearing Deity was none other than Sabah, Deity to all weather and water.
She shooed him away with her hand. “Go, then. Do whatever you soulmates do and get out of my head.”
He looked down at said body. “I’m in your head?”
“No. You’re in the Gardens, so you…” She sighed and fixed a loc behind her ear. “You don’t remember this place, do you? You don’t remember anything about me.”
Marcos hesitated before answering. Based on what Zantl told him in that supply closet, he knew the answer. “I…used to,” he said, slowly working out that truth in his head. “I used to know you, before I woke up in Raeleen. You’re my soulmate, the Deity who’s connected to me.”
Sabah sighed again, continuously upset by truths she already knew. “Course. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. You—” She got up like she had severe back problems. She groaned as she straightened up. “You need to get out of here. A few hours here can last days in the real world. Nothing’s wrong with your system update, is it?”
Marcos got up with her. She was over six feet tall, with wide hips and muscular curves. “Did you fix me?”
“I saved you from being crushed. You’re welcome. Now, get out. I’m not used to beings meddling in here.”
“Your name’s Sabah, right?”
She looked down at him, one brow raised. “Did Unathi’s soulmate tell you about me, or…Maïmoú’s?” She said her name like a curse.
“Zantl did,” Marcos said.
“Right. I can’t keep track of how many of you are loitering around our world now.” She rolled her eyes. “You all just had to be born at the same time. We don’t have to worry about one or two of you, but seven.”
“There’s seven of us?” he asked. Seven of him, of Zantl and Nicole. Kevin? “Seven people who know about this? Who are the rest?”
“I don’t care to remember their names,” she said dismissively, “All, it’s hard to talk about this, knowing you don’t remember shit about who you are.”
The curse threw him off. “My memories were taken from me,” he explained. “I just found out about all of this today. The leaders of my world found me in a fallout shelter and were only able to restart me by taking my memories out.”
“Like giving a child a manual for a car,” Sabah said under her breath.
“But I did find a few memories,” he added, and Sabah looked up, intrigued. “I saw this house filled with plants, in a room. I think it was my old home. I met a girl, Alliroue, and saw the world from a window. Do you know her? Zantl said they didn’t know much about her because they spoke in a different language, but…”
He looked out behind him to the fantasy world outside her room. “It didn’t look like this.”
“This world doesn’t exist,” Sabah said. “This’s a place only for Deities and soulmates. We call it the Gardens. After the world got…infested with beings, we created our own world, away from their civilizations.” She spoke about beings with such vile in her tone, but he didn’t know if she connected robots with living beings. She had saved him, after all. She must’ve cared a bit.
“You knew me before,” Marcos said. “Where did I live beforehand? Zantl was vague about it. They talked more so about Deities.”
She frowned. “What did they say to you?”
He told her what he knew. Deities, their powers, their names. Shào and Maïmoú and how they were so destructive, they had to be separated by huge barriers and hundreds of miles. Other people lived somewhere, beings called humans, and how people could live multiple lives after they died. The process was called being “reincarnated.”
Sabah’s frown only deepened. It felt like he was telling a teacher how to teach.
He fiddled with his fingers. “I’ve been having trouble understanding all of this. Maïmoú is upset with someone named Shào. She’s upset by all of you.”
Sabah scoffed. “I’d like to find one atom of life on this god-forsaken earth that she enjoys. She’s just like her humans. They’re so selfish. Same with crossbreeds, same as Shào. Parasites.”
Marcos could feel the heat burning her as she spoke about these two Deities. He understood—after watching that girl nearly kill Zantl, he couldn’t imagine loving such a creature or the Domain she controlled.
“Why did she try ruining the world?” Marcos asked.
She looked at him like he’d said something stupid. “Because she’s the Deity to humanity. You don’t remember their beastial desires. They were vile insects that plagued the world with every advancement they made.”
“What are humans?” he asked. “Are they like crossbreeds, or animals?”
“Well, they look exactly like you and me, humans without Ataleah’s Domain inside their bodies, but they were awful. They all were. The only good they created were you robots, and you were only able to thrive for a few years before—”
“Wait, there were more of us?” Marcos asked. “More people like me? More robots?”
“Yes, yes, there were millions of robots on Earth before…everything went wrong.”
Marcos’ jaw was slowly dropping. More robots, just like him. People he could connect to. People who knew what it felt like to feel without a heart. More people who could talk to Deities. “What happened?”
“Maïmoú and Shào needed to be separated. They could no longer live on Earth. They were destroying everything, so we had to do what needed to be done.”
Marcos’s fervor for learning about the world shifted. Nobody declared decisions like that without a level of shame for the commitment. An ultimatum, their hands tied into choosing the wrong path.
“What did you do?” Marcos asked again. “How did you…punish them?”
“Oh, so you think I punished them? Is that how we’re spinning this narrative? I saved the Earth from them. I take no shame in that.”
“But what did you do? How come the Earth doesn’t look like what it looked like in my dream? What’s on the other side of the Muralha? Where’re the other—”
“Look, I can’t waste time like this,” Sabah said, cutting off more answers to his questions. “You need to get out of here. I need to find Unathi and Tsvstan and get in contact with them and figure out what we’re going to do about Shào and Maïmoú. Their soulmates are going to ruin this world over again.”
Marcos felt the conversation ending when it should’ve been beginning. He was speaking to a God, a magical being able to control water. All weather, all rivers. “Oceans,” whatever they were. Zantl had said they were important. He wanted to know more about her and listen to her talk. What was their relationship? Did he love her? Was she like a mother? She sounded like one.
Sabah’s gaze snapped back to him, brows knitted, mouth quirked as if she’d puke. “I am not your mother,” she stated, and raised her hand at him.
She shielded his eyes with her whole hand, shoving him almost, through the mosaic floor tiles. “Now get out of here,” she said, “and let me work.”
He fell for a fraction of a second before hitting something hard. His back bent and his legs got tangled in something hard. He smelled familiar metal and grime, dust and congested air.
But he immediately knew that this wasn’t the Asilo’s fallout shelter. It didn’t have that salty scent, there were no guards. This room, while having no windows and the same concrete walls, wasn’t the shelter he’d come to know.
He’d been dropped inside a meeting room being conducted by Nicole’s and Kevin’s family. They were all standing around a circular table, having a heated discussion around other adults.
All of them stopped once Marcos landed gracelessly into the room. Dropped like a newborn bird from the tree, he fell into a rolling chair and disrupted the entire meeting.
Morgan Owens, standing alongside her partner and friends, dropped her animated hand. She’d been pointing at a diagram of the Asilo she’d drawn on a chalkboard. She looked to the locked door to the ceiling where Marcos had fallen through. There was no hole.
“O…kay,” she said slowly. “You know what, definitely not the weirdest thing that’s happened in the past twenty-four hours.” She snapped her fingers, and two dogs got up. “Tie him up with the other one.”