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Cricket was sure of only one thing.
The WarBot stood in the town square of New Bethlehem, a sun-bright calamity unfolding above him. The city about him was in ruins, the streets choked with smoke, dust, panicked citizens. There was so much input, it was difficult for him to process it all. But above the imperatives of his programming, the knife-sharp alarms blaring inside his head, the need to save the humans screaming and praying and panicking all about him, a single thought was ringing in his mind.
I don’t want to die.
The logika knew he wasn’t “alive” in the strictest sense. He had hydraulics, not muscles. Armor, not skin. There was no electronic afterlife where toasters and microwaves sat around on synthesized clouds, listening to digital harps. Cricket was blessed with the certainty that once he stopped, he just . . . stopped. But even if the Laws of Robotics didn’t make self-preservation the third most important imperative in his hierarchy of needs, the truth was, Cricket had decided he liked existing.
Though his so-called life hadn’t been much more than struggle and anguish lately, it was also filled with possibility. In the past few days, Cricket had made enemies and found friends, had his eyes opened and his world turned upside down. Everything felt bigger, and Cricket felt like he was changing--evolving into something more than he’d ever thought he could be. He felt like he was more.
Sadly, nukes don’t care about your feelings.
“All of you need to run!” Cricket roared. “There’s a missile coming!”
Electronic panic flooded the big bot’s systems as he stomped up to the broken gates of New Bethlehem, a payload of nuclear fire streaking in out of the sky above. This settlement was home to the dreaded Brotherhood, a cult of religious fanatics who practiced an awful form of genetic purity. But even though the city was peopled with the pond scum of humanity, they were still human, and Cricket was forced to try and protect their lives.
Thing of it was, there was no protecting anyone here. As he’d flown away with Evie in the belly of his flex-wing transport, that scumbag Preacher had warned Cricket the missile was on its way. The WarBot knew there was nowhere to run--the blast would simply be too massive to escape. But still, the First Law was screaming in Cricket’s mind. His only concern: the hundreds of humans still in New Bethlehem. He had to help them. He had to save them.
But how do you save the unsavable?
He looked up into the cigarette sky, data scrolling down his optics as he scanned the gray. He saw a tiny black shape burning in out of the heavens like a thunderbolt. Electric despair washed over him. Thinking about Evie. About Lemon. About everything he’d fought for, everything he’d lost, glad in the end that he wasn’t alone. Solomon was here, at least, the sassy logika perched on his shoulder. Abraham was with him, too, cradled in one massive palm. During the chaos of the lifelike attack, the boy had done himself proud--he’d saved the city from burning, even though the citizens and his own mother had been ready to nail him to a cross for his “impurity.”
But in the end, it had been for nothing.
Only a miracle could save them now.
Crick patted Solomon on his metal knee, cradled Abraham to his chest.
“I’m sorry,” Cricket said.
He felt a knocking on the side of his head and turned to look at Solomon one last time. The spindly logika needed to bang on Cricket’s metal skull to get his attention--the WarBot had deafened himself to avoid having to take more orders. He saw Solomon pointing east across New Bethlehem’s smoking walls, the wrecked cars, the ash and ruin. There, glinting in the sunlight, was a monster truck painted Brotherhood red, speeding toward them across the desert.
The big bot sharpened his optics, thinking he was glitching as a colorless . . . tear opened up in front of the truck. The vehicle plunged down into it, disappearing as if into a hole in the ground. A split second later, it plunged right out of an identical tear that opened up just in front of New Bethlehem’s walls.
The truck hit the deck, bouncing and crashing through the gate wreckage with a scream of tortured metal. The Brotherhood and citizens all scattered out of its way, the truck skidding and slamming into a row of rusty autos. Windows shattering, engine smoking, it ground to a halt in the middle of the town square.
“. . . What the hells?”
Cricket saw two teenagers in military uniforms inside the truck’s cabin. There was a dark-skinned boy, a radioactivity symbol shaved into the side of his head. Beside him sat a girl with short dark hair, long bangs, black paintstick smudged on her lips and a slice of Asiabloc somewhere in her ancestry. The youngsters climbed up onto the truck’s roof, bloody and bedraggled.
“What are you doing?” Cricket yelled.
The big bot saw another shimmering rift open in the air above their heads.
Cricket saw the missile speeding in out of the heavens.
And Cricket saw the boy
The girl dragged a breather mask up over her face, goggles over her eyes, and did the same for the boy as she roared, “Everyone close your eyes!”
Cricket didn’t have eyelids, of course. Nor did he have functional ears to hear the girl scream--he only found out what she yelled from Solomon afterward. Looking upward, telescopics engaged, he saw the missile plunge into the shimmering rift she’d apparently opened with her bare hands and disappear right out of the sky.
Scanning the heavens, Cricket caught movement north. He realized another tear had appeared--like an eraser smudge on the muddy gray. Amazed and dumbfounded, he watched the missile plunge out of this new rift, so distant it was only a speck, and moments later burst into shocking, impossible light.
The humans about him were all cowering in fear. Abraham was curled up against his fist. Even the boy and girl with their goggles had turned away from the blast. And so it was that only Cricket and Solomon bore witness to the first nuclear explosion the planet had seen since the war that almost ripped it to pieces.
It was elemental. Primordial. Fire stolen from the gods. The last time humans had unleashed this awful flame, they’d nearly destroyed their civilization, their species, their world. For a terrible moment, Cricket wondered if maybe the gods had returned to finish the job.
A second pulse followed after the first--a double flash, lighting the heavens with burning white. A fireball blazed inside it, blossoming outward in a moment, spherical, almost beautiful. Cricket’s thermographics measured temperatures in the millions; the molten heart of a new sun blooming brighter with every second.
The clouds were consumed, rippling in circular patterns as they boiled into nothingness. The shockwave struck the earth below, gathering the desert sands and ripping them into the burning sky. The firestorm kept expanding, roiling, churning, flattening as it struck the upper atmosphere, a mushroom-shaped nightmare rising above the screaming earth.
And through it all, Cricket could only look on in horror.
The sound struck him next--though his aural systems were offline, he felt the vibration in his chest. A hammer blow, traveling at the speed of sound, ringing like funeral bells on his metal skin. It shook the ground, shivering the buildings in their foundations. And beyond it, riding across the wasteland like a storm of dark horses with tails of living flame, came a dust cloud bigger than Cricket had ever seen.
“Everybody take cover!”
He could see Brotherhood members and their disciples yelling, saw terror in the folk around him. Many of New Bethlehem’s buildings had been incinerated in the lifelike attack, but he knew the sturdiest structure was still intact. It stood at the bay’s edge, black smoke spilling from its stacks. Frontways, it looked like a cathedral from 20C vids, but its hind parts were the chimneys and storage tanks of a bloated factory. If there was safety left, it was in there.
“The de-sal plant!” he roared. “Everyone inside!”
Some folk began streaming inside, others making for the WarDome or seeking cover in the buildings that hadn’t been burned. Cricket stomped across the town square, lowering Abraham into the shelter of the boy’s underground workshop. Abe slipped out of his outstretched fingers onto the oil-stained concrete, lips moving as he shouted. Solomon watched intently from Crick’s shoulder, then wrote quickly onto the whiteboard he’d salvaged during the attack.
Master Abraham is asking about them?
The spindly logika pointed back into the town square. Turning, Cricket saw the two uniformed kids still atop their monster truck. The girl was tugging on the boy’s pant leg, obviously urging him into cover. But the boy was refusing, standing with his hands held toward the incoming storm.
“That idiot’s going to get himself killed,” Cricket growled.
Solomon quickly wrote on his whiteboard.
That is Master Abraham’s concern, yes.
The big bot turned to Abraham, held out one massive palm. “Stay put!”
Cricket dragged the workshop’s overhead doors into place and, spinning on his heel, dashed back toward the monster truck and the lunatics on top of it. He could see the dust cloud bearing down, roiling, boiling, black. His sensors were already reading the spike in temperature and radiation--anyone in its path was going to get fried. He only had moments before it swallowed them all whole.
“Are you two insane?” he bellowed. “Take cover!”
The boy turned toward him, yelled something and turned back to the looming storm wall. The girl waved for him to get back. But Cricket didn’t have time for a debate--the First Law said he had to save these kids, simple as that. He reached out to scoop them up gentle as he could. The girl held out her hand toward him, and the earth just opened up under his feet.
His sensors went haywire, inputs spiking. He was falling somehow, crashing to the earth with a bang that shook his rivets, Solomon tumbling off his shoulder. Cricket looked about, realizing he was somehow a few hundred meters down the street from where he’d stood a second before. He saw one of those bizarre gray tears in the sky snapping shut over his head, his processors trying to make sense of exactly what was going on here.
Did she just . . . move us?
Cricket saw Abraham climbing up out of the workshop doors, black hair askew, tech-goggles pulled over his eyes. He saw the dark-skinned boy atop the monster truck brace himself, feet spread, palms outstretched. He saw a wall of boiling, burning darkness sweeping in out of the north, a storm born in the heart of that brief sun, set to immolate all in its path.
“Abraham, get down!” Cricket roared.
And then, it hit them.
It was strange, watching it all unfold in total silence. It was an engine without the roar. A storm without thunder. It crashed on them like a tsunami, impossible force, unthinkable power. The earth shook, the dark swallowed them, thousands upon thousands of degrees, the burning remnants of the gods’ stolen fire come to scorch them to their bones. But as that elemental fury crashed down upon the walls, as the flood arrived on their broken shores . . .
Something stopped it dead.
The air about them rippled. Awash with tiny sparks, like static on a faulty vidscreen. The dust and fire and withering weight blasted the walls and the outer city to pieces. But in the town square, stretching out to envelop the desalination plant, the broken buildings where the desperate citizens of New Bethlehem cowered and prayed, a sphere of . . . something kept the destruction at bay. It was invisible, intangible, its borders shimmering like the air above a bonfire.
Cricket saw the dark-skinned boy bending into the blast. Behind him, Abraham stood with arms flung out against the tempest, teeth bared in a snarl. The blast rolled over them, a wave of dust and flame. But though the temperature rose, it wasn’t enough to burn them. Though the radiation levels spiked, it wasn’t enough to kill them. And though the shockwave crushed everything around it to dust and ashes, there in the heart of that sphere, earth shaking below, sky boiling above, all was somehow calm. The crackling eye of a ravenous storm.
The worst washed over them, passing the bayside wall and dispersing over the black and foaming ocean. Burning winds followed in its wake, dust and debris swirling against the sphere of force enveloping them. To the north, a mushroom-shaped cloud was rising off the desert floor, kilometers into the heavens. Cricket saw Abraham had lowered his arms and was sinking to his knees. The boy atop the monster truck was swaying on his feet, dragging his goggles off his head. And if Cricket had breath, it would have been stolen away at the sight of him.
The boy’s eyes were burning. Aflame, like the heart of that brief sun. The girl who came with him was looking up at him with awe and fear. As Cricket watched, the boy dropped off the truck and onto the hard-packed earth. The ground shattered beneath him, as if he weighed hundreds of tons. He staggered toward the water’s edge, black footprints burning in his wake. He looked ready to fall, the fire in his eyes rolling down his cheeks like tears. The girl was screaming, pointing at Cricket.
“I can’t hear you!” he shouted.
Solomon banged on his shin, held up his whiteboard.
The ocean, old friend!
Cricket had no idea what was happening, let alone how or why, but in the absence of a better plan, he obeyed. Dashing across the broken square, Solomon hanging on to his leg like some metallic limpet, he scooped the dark-skinned boy up in his hands. An alarm blared inside his metal skull, and he realized the boy’s skin was scorching hot, enough to melt his armor if he held him too long. Smashing through gutted buildings, Cricket carried the burning boy to the boulevard on the city’s edge, the black salt water lapping at rotten piers.
The boy leapt from his palms, out into the sea. Steam burst from the water where he touched it, boiling as the boy held out his arms, away from the settlement, fingers spread. The air shivered, churned, erupted, a storm of gamma radiation and kinetic force released from his outstretched hands, carving through the ocean in a long, sweeping arc.
The waves turned to vapor, the foam to steam. Cricket was blinded for a moment, a great dark fog rising off the churning sea. But when it cleared, there the boy stood, waist-deep in black chop, his T-shirt and cargos soaked through, vapor rising off his skin. Head bowed. Eyes closed. Fists clenched.