Lately, his thoughts had almost exclusively been focused on finding new oil, knowing that his supply had almost run out. This was how he always had been. Whenever an enticing idea of creation, some winged inspiration, had entered his head, it would keep buzzing like an annoying insect, until he allowed himself to get dragged away in the torrent of it. Former inventions, his life’s work even, would fade away into the distance. Furthermore, he had always been someone that made sure all his tools, and all his resources, were within immediate reach. And so he needed more oil.
He looked around his lab. This space had probably become too big to still call it a lab. Factory would be a more fitting word. Packed with bizarre structures and inventions, bizarre to an outsider at any rate, he knew what every last one of them was for. He was probably somewhat proud of his collection, but he didn’t give himself much time to dwell on this type of feeling. The only feeling he would never deny, was the urge to create.
All his creations, some alive, crawling, others apparently dead but often just in a state of hybernation, had a roundness to them, cylindrical shapes, tubes. The hand of the master was apparent in all of them. This is why the one apparatus that he had not created himself stood out the more. A big, gray, metallic cuboid. This was the only thing he had ever had to take from others. And he still needed it.
He walked over to it as flashes of past conflict, almost unintelligible now, grazed his mind. After all this time, the battery still hadn’t shown signs of giving out, and that was a reassuring thought. Another day of not having to confess to the traces of panic that came with the thought of the machine ever not working anymore. He would need more time to figure it out, and although he had improved his intelligence over time, although he had given himself new, interesting features, he knew there was much he still needed to improve, if he was to understand the machine. It had outlived him, several times.
A snake-like creation slithered past his feet as he entered the required data. “Number 54-758,” he couldn’t help but think. As the coordinates entered his mind, a slight confirming nod, and then he walked towards the northern exit. “All the time in the world,” he thought, “but I will need oil soon.”
The smell of dried blood couldn’t bother him anymore. This wasn’t because of some stoicism acquired through years of war, but rather, he was literally unable to be bothered by it anymore. Not that he had ever been the emotional type to begin with. He had always seen most emotions as blocking his ambitions, anyway. All his brain augmentations had been in his favor, he was convinced. Gazing over the flat, dark terrain as he walked towards the fence, the metallic, huge humanoid figures of the 89-215 caught his eye. They were hauling away debris, as was their intended task, and he realized, they would need oil too. A quick calculation made him realize there was just enough left for about 728 hours, excluding miscellaneous projects. It put a bit more speed in his steps, steps that left small clouds of ash in his trail.
As a matter of fact, everywhere he looked, there was ash, covering the ground. It made him think of 98-756, which was able to make copies of itself out of this ash. All the elements were there. Too bad the 98-765 didn’t serve any other purpose at the moment. But it was one more step towards closing the big circle.
He reached a big cylinder, lying haphazardly between more piles of debris, as if something, some colossal creature, had thoughtlessly tossed it there. The silver-colored object had “58-991” written on it in huge, black letters. He moved his hand in a waving motion, and a hatch opened, with a slight hissing sound. A weak, green light reflected on his face from the inside, as he stepped in. The hatch closed, and as if carried by an invisible hand, the cylinder levitated about five meters into the air. A glowing blue line became visible in the air, slowly expanding further, stretching northward. The cylinder suddenly launched forward, following the line towards its destination.
As was always the case when traveling, several calculation threads were active in his head, putting him in an almost trance-like state. Suddenly, an explosion forced him out of it. Before he could figure out what happened, he felt himself falling down. Having been at least 20 meters above ground, the cylinder crashed loudly onto the gray soil. The hatch hissed open again, and to his slight surprise, he noticed that he was stuck. He looked at his right arm, sandwiched between the hull and his seat. A little bit of bone was sticking out. Grey bone. He noticed a slight pain, but most of his annoyance came from the fact that he was now forced to interrupt several important calculations. The war was all but over, but there was still no rest for the survivors. No rest for any living creature, in fact.
“Hrrrm!” He grunted, as he jerked his body violently, and the sinew and skin that still held the arm together gave way. Some blood splashed on his face, not fazing him. He decided to leave the arm in the cylinder. “There should be a backup station somewhere around here…” he muttered. The rocks were all covered in the familiar grey ash. “Let’s see, twenty-three east, sixty-five north, hmmm… yes… over there.” With the hand that was still intact, he squeezed the stump until most of the bleeding stopped, and then he started walking.
The attackers betrayed themselves way too early through their screaming, which would have meant their instantaneous demise if he would have been at full capacity. It was a bit of a surprise that there were surviving humans, here. But he knew a thing or two about resilience, himself. In these desolate, life-less areas, covered in grey-black ashes, all life had to fight for its right of existence. He counted six men standing on an elevated rock formation, about twenty meters higher than his position, half a kilometer away. These were not elites, he noticed. Scavenged clothing, faces covered in a mixture of sweat and ash. All of them were armed, however. Blood trickled down along his hand, and found a way to his leg.
“You see? All you do is follow the blue line!”, the apparent leader told the other men, a grimace on his lived face. “It’s a clone. Kill it fast, take all the glowsilver, and burn the rest properly!” He raised his rifle to point at him, as the men started running at him, screaming, and the shot soon followed. Calculating the trajectory of the bullet was easy, but to his dismay, his body was too damaged, a bit too slow to perform the correct evasive movement. And he had noticed this too late. He could only move his heart out of the trajectory by jolting to the right, and a chunk of his left arm was blown off. How did this old fool know where his heart was located? Heavy bullets, too? He decided on his next maneuver, and tried to take a step back, but tripped over a piece of rock and fell backwards. “I knew that was there!” He noticed himself speaking out loud. “What is wrong with my systems?”
He landed on his back. The pain didn’t bother him, his augmentations had made pain less instinct, more information. He could make rational decisions during emergencies, as his thoughts stayed ordered. The leader and another shooter stayed back, the rest of the group, not carrying long distance weapons, closed in. Two more bullets went through his body. He realized that he had never sustained such injuries before during all of the war. Some of the clones had, so he had lived the experiences, but not him. He realized he had to act fast now.
It was a good thing the backup station had already noticed him, and reacted properly to the distress call. A cylinder came up from the ground in an explosion of ash. “Don’t let him get to it! These cylinders are dangerous!”, one of the men yelled. “We have to finish him now!”. He tried to stretch his arm out to touch the cylinder, but he noticed that he couldn’t properly use it. His diagnostics seemed to be off, for some reason. He saw his blood drip into the ash, and form little clots. “Does it end like this?” he thought. Not even a fraction of his goals had been realized, he knew, as he pushed against the rocks with his feet, trying to move towards the cylinder. Time was moving very slowly now. The shooters were reloading, and the others were very close, their swords raised in the air. The grayish hue of the ashes was visible on the blades. Failure reports started to flood his diagnostics system. A feeling of warmness started to pulse from his wounds. That felt way too human, out of place in his improved body. Way too seductive.
Two bullets went through his leg. He pushed the warmth away from his consciousness, and retook control of his nerves. He enabled all the pain filters. It was seconds before he would stop functioning, anyway. But he couldn’t move his hand, no matter how he tried. The arm was fully done for, it seemed. He was close to the cylinder, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to get inside it. He closed his eyes, started the final routines, and lost consciousness.
When he opened his eyes, and looked around, there were large, dark plains all around him. Some small hills, but mostly flat land, and all of it shimmering, polished. No vegetation, no soil. Cylinder-shaped creations were protruding from the ground, as far as he could see. Smaller creatures crawled between them. He knew this place. He knew what everything here was doing. He knew the function of all of it. He knew the extractors, the shapers, the removers, ah, the re-fitters and the menders. And he knew the songs of all their hums, he knew them all. As he had many times dreamed, his brain sang along with them, his mind resonated.
He reached out, his arms intact, silver and gray now, and the world moved as he saw fit, as he willed it. “Is this what it feels like, when all resistance has been overcome? Is that even possible?” A pause. “Is that even preferable?” A somberness took hold of him. “No, this is a crossroads, masquerading as an end! This sweet buzzing of a thousand silver cylinders, it is so enticing, and so poisonous, to my soul!” He grabbed hold of one of the cylinder trees, and he knew this silver was malleable. One of his fevered dreams, not yet completed, but in the grey ash, he knew he had already found its genesis. His hands shaped the knife with the certainty of a master-smith. That had been his first calling, after all. And even the knife sang to him, in unison with the rest of his dream world, as he plunged it into his forehead.
A man was born, 500 meters to the east, underground. He was born full of knowledge, and with his purpose already fully clear to him. He felt a bit riled up, a bit agitated, but he was quick to let those feelings go. He simply dispatched a hundred 54-758, and one 44-489, to the location in the message. They would turn the perpetrators into the nourishing ash, so they could take their place in the circle. For a moment. he pondered whether he should start preparations to at last take the green strip, and prevent future mishaps like this. “But resistance is what forces improvement…” he muttered. He decided to just find out how the diagnostics system could have been compromised, so he could update it. He let himself slide deeper into the cylinder, right before it was launched into the air. He was on his way to get oil, it seemed.