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Tehran, 2050

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EST. READING TIME

15 minutes
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The ambulance stops.  We’re somewhere in the desert; the cabin has no windows.  Panels on either side display maps which cover the siding.  FM sits silently across from me.  I take three slow, deep breaths, to steady myself.    

“Are you ready,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say.

His pneumatic heart whirrs on, and he stands and exits the vehicle.  There’s a rush of hot air.  I drop to the asphalt.  The wind moves across the desert like a current at the bottom of the ocean.  FM is already at the husk of the car.  Fire empties the engine.  The flames toss like the poisoned.  FM leans through the shattered window, enveloped in the fireball, which scorches his aluminum casing.  Half of him disappears inside the car.  I slide a stretcher from our vehicle.  As I’m preparing it, FM backs out of the car and lays a teenage girl gently on the ground.  We communicate with hand signals; I grab another stretcher and join him as he re-enters the vehicle for the girl’s mother.  I examine them both for injuries.  FM returns to the car, checks inside again, and looks around at the darkening desert.  He goes still, silhouetted like a pillar against the burning car.  

The girl and her mother are mostly fine, they’re lucky.  I treat them for minor burns and bruises and wave FM over; he helps me get them in the ambulance.  As the door slams, I hook them both up to IV fluids and dose them with painkillers.  Both are panicking so I also give them a mild sedative.  FM monitors their vitals, nodding periodically.  

 

When we reach the hospital, we pass the two to the hospital staff, who pilot them down a white hallway where they disappear.  We jump out of the ambulance and return to the on-call room.  

“So what happened?” I say

“Caltrop,” FM says.

He holds up a narrow metal tube, the same size as a road flare but twice as long, made of copper with the end scarred black.  

“It was buried in the road,” he says, “I found matching burn patterns on the underside of the car, behind the front right wheel.  There were more nearby, I filed a report on the ride back.”

“Shit,” I say.

FM replaces the caltrop inside a compartment in his torso and returns to his dock.  The light on his forehead comes on.  

 

  I step outside.  The wind tucks around the building and creates a tidepool of dead air.  It takes a minute to find the sweet spot—I light a cigarette.  The hospital is on a slight hill which is higher than anything around it.  Low buildings push into the desert and stop abruptly.  We’re not far from the edge; after about twenty blocks, the lights fade, then abruptly end.  There is a sea of black which is the desert.  That’s where we are the most, that’s why we have FM.

Somewhere in my peripheral, a light erupts.  Looks like it’s a few miles out, too far off to be the road.  The initial flash dies quickly, leaving a dull glow that I at first mistake as an afterimage.    A fire burns, blocked by a dune, tracing a thin orange arc.  The whole thing is completely silent.  The wind shifts and wraps around my head like a heavy shawl.  I feel a drop of rain and look up; the sky is an iron grey.

 

When I get back, FM is standing in front of his dock.  

“We have a call.”

“Okay,” I say.  “In the desert, right?  I saw an explosion while I was smoking.”

“Yes.”  

He double-checks the ambulance, and we leave.

We don’t speak.  The driver knows where we’re going, but is separated from us by a thin wall and window.  FM goes into standby when we’re on the road.  The maps show me where we’re going and where we are.  Another screen, smaller and attached to the dividing wall, gives information on the location, the scene, and anything else relevant.  It’s dark to conserve energy for the instruments.  The room rattles quietly, lit by a crowd of LEDs.  

The vehicle slows, we turn, and a low hiss comes through the floor.  The wheels slip and pull us and we move slowly.  FM wakes up with the disturbance.  A voice comes through the speaker by the window.  

“This one is somewhere in the desert itself.  I’m just following the tire tracks now.  Don’t know what the hell they were doing out here.”

The intercom clicks off.  I nod at FM but he stays awake. While I’m tossed around, FM remains still and perfectly upright, staring straight ahead—at me but not at me.  Eventually the ambulance stops.

“We’re here,” the driver says.

I follow FM out of the ambulance.  The driver stays put and leaves the engine running.

We’re stopped along a dune which runs off in either direction, as far as I can tell.  A black truck lies on its side, with its belly facing us.  We’re standing in its tracks, which carry on ahead of us before ending fifteen feet from the truck.  FM works his way slowly across the gap.  He stops halfway there.  There is a large, blackened hole in the center of the truck, between the wheel wells.  FM turns his head slowly, casting out.  He waves me over.  

“All clear up to here,” he says, “there’s an entire field of caltrops running along this dune though.  Likewise on the other side.”  He points.  

I look at him, then at the dune.  It’s about fifty feet tall, but with a gradual slope.

“You stay here.  I can navigate through, you can’t.”

He steps carefully through the empty sand, like a child avoiding cracks.  When he reaches the vehicle, he climbs in one smooth motion onto the passenger door.  He punches through the window and ducks inside.  He’s only in there for twenty seconds, and rises slowly from the cavity, dragging a long, limp shape.

He hops down and follows the same path back.  I get the stretcher.  He places the body on it and covers it with the sheet.

“He found the beginning of it,” he says.  “Looks like he died instantly, at least.”

“What the fuck is even out here to protect?”

“There’s a structure or large object on the other side.  Unsure what it is.  Just appears as a dark spot on sonar.”

“Weird.  Should we check it out?”

He turns his head back and forth, once each way.

“That way,” he says, “come.”

He sets off, at a shallow angle to the dune.  “You’ve got about five feet on either side,” he says.

We stutter sideways uphill.  When FM reaches the top, he stops so suddenly that I slip to my knees behind him.  

Below us is a blue, cube-shaped building.  Beside it, partially uncovered, is a giant android.  It doesn’t move, and gives no other sign of life.  The giant is almost as tall as a two story house; its throat, chest, and feet are uncovered.  Its flesh is tarnished, weathered to a pale red.  I look from FM, to the excavation.  The parts are not the same.  The throat connects in a different way, the materials are different—the giant has a body that is completely inhuman.  The wind hisses through the ruin.

“The fuck,” I say.

“It appears to be an earlier model,” he says, “I don’t recognize it.  I don’t know why they would make one this size.”  

“Or bury it,” I say.

The call to prayer echoes across the desert.  FM looks at me, then back down at the ambulance.  Our driver is getting out, preparing himself.  He looks at the sky, then back to the city, and orients himself.  I turn back to FM.  

“Can we get through?”

He looks out.  

“There.”  He points.  

We skirt across the top of the dune, until we reach the invisible path he’s picked out.  He turns and digs his feet in, holding out his hands.  I brace myself against him; he nods and we start sliding.

I turn my feet sideways.  We skid, then stop.  We take a few steps and it happens again.  We slide farther this time, angling sideways, picking up speed, and I worry we’ll start tumbling—FM makes minute adjustments trying to control our descent.  

We lose it completely; I try to stay upright, I trust FM.  My feet kick out and I cling to him.

He digs his feet in and we slow down, collapsing in the shoulder of the dune.  As we come to a stop, his leading foot slides over a caltrop, which triggers, blowing the top plate of his foot off.  He looks at it, then back at me.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I say.  “Do you need that?”

He follows my gaze to his foot, and where the piece lies, twenty feet away.  

“Not really,” he says, “it’s just some exterior plating, I’ll have it replaced when we get back.”

He gets up.

“Follow me,” he says, “this is the edge of it.”

He takes a step sideways and guides me around.  Once I’m centered, he points to either side.

“Same as before,” he says, “five feet on either side.”

I nod and follow.  We’re about parallel with the feet of the thing.  I keep expecting it to wake up.  The desert opens up around us.  The wind blows the top layer of sand toward me in long, trembling ridges.  

As we approach the giant, the wind dies.  There’s no sound at all, nothing echoes.  The air itself feels thick.  FM stops between the giant’s feet and turns toward its head.  Its torso pushes the sand upward, like a cairn.  The feet, like the throat, are stained a streaked red, where the rain has eaten at it.  FM looks back at me as I near him.  

He scans side to side again, then turns and continues around the feet, to the cube nearby.  It’s about the size of a garden shed, perfectly square, and made of some strange mirrored metal, tinted a light blue.  It appears seamless.  FM approaches it, slowly, faces it, and walks around the perimeter.  

“No apparent entrance,” he says.  

I join him in front of the cube.  

“What’s it for then?”

“I’m not sure,” he says.

He reaches out, tentatively, like a dog sniffing.  When his palm touches the surface, something inside the cube shifts.  The blue metal turns like the ocean.  From the cube there comes three brief shunts of air, as a perfect rectangle connects itself to the ground.  FM turns to me, looks as surprised as he’s capable of, and removes his hand.  The door retreats into the cube and slides away.  FM leads me in.

As we enter, there’s a heavy click and the lights fade on.  The walls are covered in detailed anatomical schematics of various androids.  Some I recognize, some are either rare or nonexistent.  The floor-space is covered in scattered equipment: nests of wiring, copper sheets, circuit boards.  FM takes several steps inside and stands in the center of the room, staring at one wall, turning, then staring at the next.  I pace around him.  Some of the diagrams are distant, to show the body.  Some are zoomed in, showing wires and circuitry.  The wall across from the door is lit by light from the door.  It’s different; the diagrams look similar, but with labels that seem to describe some celestial creature.

When I turn, FM is staring through me at the symbols.  He takes a few steps, in a fugue.  I move out of his way.  He goes still again.  

He’s standing an arms-length from the wall, with his fingertips touching, tracing the patterns.  I wonder if he understands something I don’t.  His focus is complete.  I pick up the circuit boards and turn them over, I dig through the wires but find nothing of interest.  Flanking the door, there are two narrow desks, each with a single shallow drawer, all in sheet aluminum.  FM finishes his examination and joins me.  

“Mean anything?”

“I’m not sure,” he says, “nothing I can figure out without more context.  Something feels familiar though.”

“Strange,” I say.

“These are mostly just simplified diagrams though.”

“Well,” I point at the desks, “maybe this will help.”

We each search one.  In mine I find the blueprint and electrical schematic for the golem outside.  I spread them out across the surface.  Beside me, FM is analyzing a small stack of circuit boards, each about the size of a playing card.  

The blueprint outlines the entire structure, including the parts outside.  The structures outside comprise maybe half of the overall body.  Its head is tall and oblong, almost rectangular, and longer front to back.  There appears to be a hatch in the throat. The schematic shows a complex nervous system, centered in the neck and chest.  The head’s purpose is primarily sensory.  I run my fingers over the ink.  It’s incredibly intricate.  

FM has the circuit boards sorted into three stacks in front of him, and is staring at a long ledger page full of numbers. I ask him what they are.

“This is just the math,” he says.

I walk over to him, still holding the drawings.

“These are the result.  Three unique kinds of circuit boards, like nerve bundles.”  He taps them in order, “storage, transfer, calculation.”

I nod, and show him the drawing.  He looks from the paper to the circuits a few times.  

“Here,” he says, “it’s all coded right in.  See?”

Each internal line on the schematic is colour-coded and numbered.  I leave the paper with him and lean against the door-frame.  Along the top of the ridge, the sand crests and tumbles like a wave.  

A figure catches my eye.  On top of the dune, where we came down, someone tall, in black.  They stand completely still, facing this way, but with their face wrapped in a long black linen scarf.  The end snaps out beside them, cracking, then crumpling slowly toward the earth.  

“FM?  Someone is watching us.”

I don’t move.  I act like I don’t see them.  FM steps beside me but moves with nuance.  He looks around me at the figure.  He maintains his composure, for him this is nothing.  

“We need to leave,” he says, “now.”

He opens the small storage compartment in his forearm and stashes the papers I found.  He leaves the circuits where they are.  We exit the building.  FM leads me around it, slowly, like nothing’s wrong.  I look behind me.  The figure in black is sliding in a controlled, perfectly straight line, to the bottom of the dune.  At the bottom, they break into a run.  FM stops and crouches.

“Get on,” he says.

I climb onto his back, wrapping my legs around his hips like a child.  His body is angular and sharp, and I tuck in against his back as he stands.

“Ready?”

“Yeah,” I say.

The figure is passing the feet, they reach into their coat and remove a revolver.  FM takes off.  He’s as fast as a horse.  His feet unlink and spread out in the sand.  I stare behind us.  The figure slows, stops, and quickly gives up.  They seem more interested in checking on the building we just left.  FM sprints in a long, concentric arc, looping around the explosive field, over one dune, then around the end of another to come up behind our ambulance.  The driver is leaning into the van, tucking his prayer rug behind the headrests.  FM slows and I get off.  The driver stares as we approach.  I say nothing.  FM says nothing.  We get in the back with the body from the truck, and we drive away.  

Once we’re moving, FM opens his eyes again.

“I wonder why they had a gun.”

“Yeah,” I say, “A revolver too.  Ancient.”

“Strange,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say, “do you know anything about what that was?”

“No,” he says, “it’s not turning up anything in my database, and it’s not marked on the map.  I’ll have to analyze more when we get back.”

I nod.  FM shuts down again for the drive.  We finish turning around and quickly reach the road.  The rest of the ride is silent and smooth.  I fall asleep.

I dream that the desert around Tehran is populated with gargantuan men who stand eye-level with the mountains.  They harm nobody and say nothing—they just walk in slow patterns.  I approach one and it goes still.

Back at the hospital, FM shakes me awake.  I step out into the ambulance bay; the door is wide open, it’s day, the sun washing in along the floor.  I rub my eyes and follow FM to our room.  He sits on the bench which follows the inside window.  I sit next to him.  We’re alone.  

He withdraws the plans from his forearm compartment and stares at them.  He doesn’t move for three minutes.  I watch him.  His eyes dart in precise lines, his hands are still.  When he’s done, he sets the papers down between us and I pick them up.

It’s a diagram of the nervous system, overlaid on a schematic for an android similar to FM.  The nerves run alongside the major circuits, the clusters of information fit.  I run my finger along each pathway.  FM stares straight ahead.

“Well?”

“I can’t infer much without more information,” he says, “but it appears to be attempting some sort of synthesis.”

“More information?”

“I had to leave most of the papers and circuits behind,” he says.

“So let’s go back,” I say.

“Not now,” he says.

 

No calls the rest of the day.  I sit outside on a plastic fiber crate and smoke with my legs straight out in front of me.  The sun hangs over the desert like a palm.  FM sits inside most of the time, docked.

Near the end of the day, he comes outside to join me.  The sun has wrapped around behind me and is now tucked over the mountains.  Tall buildings cast long shadows over the desert.  In the distance, it’s already night.  The two darknesses reach for each other.  

“We should leave soon,” he says.

“How will we get there?”

“I’ll drive,” he says.

 

He signs out a staff car from the hospital and I get in.  His driving is eerie; he never veers or corrects.  He simply goes the right way.  It’s like being on an amusement park train.  

Soon it’s completely dark.  We continue in total darkness.  When I bring it up, FM reminds me he has a nightvision setting.  He turns the lights on for my benefit.  There’s absolutely nothing to see.  Small animals jump from the road.  Short shrubs exist in scattered clumps.  I stare blankly, looking without looking.  I see what I’m certain is a severed hand, just the wrist visible.  It’s a fraction of a second, I say nothing and shake my head.  FM pulls off the road.

“Here,” he says.

He kills the lights.  I get out.  

“Be careful,” he says, “remember.”

He follows the same route as before, and I follow behind him, as before.  Behind us, the car’s engine clicks as it cools down.  The climb is harder than I remember.  It’s cold.

At the top of the dune, we stop.

The colossus below us burns blue in the moonlight.  The sand hissing over the metal chest is the only sound for miles.

We descend in the same way as before.  FM has more control this time, he understands something I don’t.  We end in exactly the right place and continue silently along the narrow safe zone.  

Its wrist and arm have been partially uncovered.  The material is something out of an old building, hardened aluminum or some other alloy.  Crude, but it looks brand new.  We follow the same path; FM briefly looks over the giant but nothing else has changed, so we move quickly past it, to the room.

Inside, it looks like someone has tidied up.  The junk scattered on the floor has vanished, the desks are organized and clean.  When FM opens them, he finds them empty.  He stands and stares straight ahead for about a minute.  I look outside, we’re alone, I close the door.

When I turn back around FM has begun carefully inspecting the walls and floor.  

“What are you doing?”

“It’s not likely that this is the only room, or even that this is the whole building.”

“What, do you think the rest is invisible?”  

“No,” he says, “that is unlikely.  I thought it might be underground.”

I nod and start at the opposite corner, pressing on tiles, anything out of the ordinary.  I find nothing.  FM also finds nothing.  He returns to the desks, standing right between them, facing outside.  The door frames the desert; the head of the thing centered like a keystone.  FM is frustrated.  His fingers move as if running an imaginary keyboard.  The gears roll smoothly back and forth.

He walks outside.

I follow as he walks slowly along the outer wall.

“It might not be inside,” he says.

I look as well, but he hasn’t missed anything.  When he rounds the corner, he presses on the center of the wall, like on the other side. Nothing moves, but two fractured black lines glitch in to and out of existence.  He goes to where it happened and does it again.  A door appears, the same as the other side, but smaller, and lower.  The floor drops about three feet.  It’s like the basement of a suburban home.  FM drops into it and so do I.  He stands still, staring into the dark.  In front of us, the hallway turns sharply to the left.  The door shuts behind us, there are no lights in here.  

“We’re alone,” he says.

He begins walking.  I follow the sound of his footsteps.  I hold my hands out.  Seems like we’re in a narrow hallway, carved out of the earth and walled up with concrete.  FM stops.  

Metal scrapes along metal, and a crack of light appears.  He checks the other side, then opens the door all the way.  I can’t tell where we are.  The room on the other side is lit dimly from above.  As my eyes adjust, I join FM in the center of the room.  Above us is the underside of the colossus.  It’s opened in the back, the inside dense with straps and cables and pneumatic piping, hanging out like a tangle of lichen.  Light comes through cracks in the body.  

Directly beneath it is a titanium pool the size of a trampoline.  It rises to about waist-height.  Inside it is a slowly tumbling body of dull grey liquid.  I lean over.  It reflects nothing.  FM grabs the back of my shirt and pulls me gently away from the surface.

“Be careful,” he says.

“Thanks.”

I lean against the lip of the pool.  Against the walls, work-tables covered in circuits and scrap metal alternate with tall, complex machinery.  Nothing is on, the room is silent. I feel the presence of the liquid behind me like a cold breath.  FM explores the perimeter, examining each circuit and interface in quick succession.

A draft comes from the body above.  The desert air is cool, reaching me with no pressure or current.  I close my eyes.  I listen to FM shuffle around me; the noise he makes against the machines is like rocks hitting rocks underwater.  The air is humid.  I open my mouth as if drinking.  

FM’s voice comes from behind me.

“I think I know what they’re doing,” he says.

“What?”

“They’re trying to use nanotechnology as a bridge,” he says, “between themselves and the machine.”

He sets down whatever thing he’s looking at, something heavy wrapped in cloth.  

I turn to look.

My hand drops from the ledge as I twist around, hanging over the pool.

Below it, the liquid hums.  

FM tries to warn me.

The pool flashes and makes a sound like wet sand.  The liquid begins to shake.  I lift my hand but a column follows it, like mercury, rising slow, as if driven.  The surface comes loose and floats upward in a uniform layer.  I tried to move but I can’t.  It’s as if I’m controlled by a giant magnet.  The column engulfs my arm.  FM reaches me, he tries to push the liquid off me, but it fills in behind his hand.  He pulls me by the waist.  His metal hands press into me and I yell in pain.  He lets go.  I fall backward, suspended above the pool, the grey rising around me, separated in to a fine mist.  FM watches below me on the pile of his legs.  I see veins of black liquid pulsing through his hand where it touched me.  His gears spin uselessly against it.  Soon the mist thickens around me and I can’t see him anymore.  I feel myself being pulled upwards.  I can’t see anything, I’m coated in wet ash.  It’s as if I’m in space.  I lose all sense of direction; I become convinced I’m actually falling through dense, cold water, to the sea floor.  I take deep breaths.  I die, FM doesn’t.

Joshua Criss is a writer and painter living in East Van; he believes in aliens but not ghosts, and he wishes he was a robot.

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Published on May 10, 2017.