Siquidem uita breuis, sensus hebes, neglegentiae torpor, inutilis occupatio, nos paucula scire permittunt, et eadem iugiter excutit et auellit ab animo fraudatrix scientiae, inimica et infida semper memoriae nouerca, obliuio
"There you are! I thought I told you not to come down here. It's not safe to be wandering about."
The little girl turned around, blushing slightly.
"I'm sorry, I was just curious..."
"Look, I know why you're here, but believe me, this is just junk I've found in the scrapyard. It's useless."
"Like I was?"
The man gave a her a small smile. That answer, so like her, he thought.
The girl peeked again into the room in front of her. The dim light from the bare lightbulb that hung from the ceiling barely managed to delineate the various shapes strewn on the floor. At a glance they might have appeared to be just rusty piles of metal, but upon closer inspection individual figures and forms could be made out.
An arm here, a skull there, sometimes even complete bodies, albeit severely damaged, lay immobile on the ground. It was strangely eerie, as if the presence of death could be felt. However, this could not be, for none of these creatures had died, as none of them had been alive to begin with. And yet, some of them perhaps did possess a soul, once.
"What is this?"
The girl knelt next to one of the metallic carcasses. It lay with its back against a corner of the room, its legs spread out on the floor. The once shiny surface was cracked and worn, the discoloured metal dented and scratched. Part of its head and most of the left arm had been eaten away by corrosion, and two small holes punctured the stomach. In spite of this, the torso still had a slightly green hue, and the two smooth protrusions from its chest left little doubt about its gender. The girl let out a muffled cry of surprise when she peeked inside and saw the body was empty.
"Where are the insides?" the girl asked, puzzled.
"Oh, it's not a robot body. It's an exoskeleton. A powersuit."
She renewed her inspection of the suit, gently running her fingers over the surface of the helmet.
"So there was a girl's body inside?"
"Most certainly!" he said, somewhat surprised at the candor of his reply.
"Tell me, Ido, how did you find it?"
The man shifted uncomfortably on his feet.
"Ehhh, well, you know, I just came across it, like you."
Ido was never a good liar. The girl turned towards him and gave him a penetrating stare. Funny, how this sweet little girl's expression could suddenly become so menacing from one moment to the next. But her features immediately softened, her lips forming a hint of a smile.
"Please Ido, it's important... to me"
He paused, looking back at her, into her beautiful honey eyes, and sighed.
"Very well," he finally said, "it was a couple of years ago, soon after I found your new body. My discoveries had encouraged me to go to the farthest reaches of the scrapyard. I had picked a bad day for the hike, though, as the..."
* * * * *
The man stood atop a huge pile of scrap, wiping the sweat from his forehead while studying his surroundings. Mountains of trash and debris as far as the eye could see. And in the skies, as always, the looming skycity of Zalem.
"I'd better return before I die of thirst out here," he thought, grudgingly. "This was certainly a wasted da..."
As he turned around to head back a rather large, flat shape caught his eye. It looked like a simple metallic plate, but there was something attached to the surface. A handle.
He quickly climbed down the hill of junk and, as he got closer, he noticed that it was indeed a door of sorts. He cleared the debris and pieces of metal that lay on top, half expecting it to have been torn off its hinges and thrown away. He soon found, however, that it was actually covering an entrance. The door had been obviously built to withstand most conventional punishment. By tapping its surface he could tell that it was at least a couple of centimetres thick. But it was also very ancient, and the small hand-held blowtorch he carried with him on his expeditions had no trouble cutting through the weakened lock. Still, it was heavy, and the rusty hinges made it hard to move. Finally, after a few minutes of struggle, he managed to open it halfway.
He turned on his pocket flashlight, and stepped inside. He slowly walked down a narrow corridor, studying the walls in an attempt to determine what this place was. A few minutes later he stepped out of the passageway, and was immediately taken aback by the size of the vault he had entered. It had either laid buried under one of the piles of trash from the scrapyard, or the corridor had a slight slope which had led him underground. He thought the latter was most probable.
Peeking into the darkness, he carefully advanced. As the beam of light swept the walls, he could tell that time and humidity had begun to severely corrode the thick shell. He could almost sense the metal's fatigue.
But not all damage was Nature's wrongdoing, however, as his flashlight suddenly illuminated a large hole in the wall. The smooth surface had become twisted and torn, scorched by some sort of blast. Slowly sweeping his flashlight sideways he soon discovered that the walls were riddled with scars, the unmistakable signature of an ancient battle.
As he carefully advanced he heard the whole structure creak, its integrity worsened, undoubtedly, due to his tampering. He was beginning to worry that the whole thing might collapse any moment, and was seriously considering forfeiting his curiosity when he tripped and fell forward.
He staggered a few steps, but somehow managed to maintain his balance. He spun around, pointing the flashlight to the ground.
The head stared back at him, grinning.
He knelt down next to it. One its eyes was missing. Looking closely he could tell that the mecha was probably as old as its surroundings, which surprised him somewhat. Lifting the head, he inspected the neck. The edges were smooth, the decapitation had been clean and probably swift.
He walked towards the centre of the room, a circle of light illuminating the floor. He soon found the body he was looking for. He also found another one he wasn't.
The second robot's head was still firmly attached to its torso, and seemed to be undamaged. Its body, however, was another matter altogether, as a hole the size of his fist had been torn through its chest. One of its arms had also been shattered, and upon closer inspection he noticed a weapon attached to it. Although the barrel had been cut in two, he could still recognize it was a sort of machine gun, perhaps a small calibre cannon. This was something he had not seen in many, many years.
He found another mecha, this one apparently unharmed, except for two long needles protruding from his neck joint. Another smaller body lay next to it, and for a moment he stood still, contemplating it.
It lay face-up, the visor in its head smashed. He immediately recognized it as a humanoid powersuit.
One of its arms was missing.
Nervously, he approached it, slowly leaning forward until his face was above its head. Taking a deep breath, he pointed the flashlight through the broken visor.
He stood up, startled. With every new discovery he kept pushing the date of things backwards in time. Just how old was this place?
He looked back at the suit. He noticed it was quite damaged, no doubt due to the confrontation. Had she (for he had already noted the female shape) fought the robots? It seemed highly unlikely that a human, even one in a powersuit, could defeat such an army.
He continued his search, and found three more mechas before he came across a second suit. This one was in an even worse state than the first, its back almost split in two, its chest riddled with what were probably bulletholes. The remains of its occupant, obviously another female, had long since ceased to exist. Unlike the first unit, which was coloured blue, this one was white. It made him wonder whether they had indeed fought on the same side, or maybe they belonged to different armies. The mechas, however, all seemed to be of the same type and model, and probably attacked as a team.
He had to take at least one of them back to the lab. The robots, interesting as they were, could not begin to match his curiosity about these suits and their owners. He decided to get the blue one, which was in a marginally better condition.
As he headed back he found two more robots. He could tell they were different from the ones he had previously encountered because of the damage. One of them had had his head vertically cut in two, from the top of its skull to the neck. The other had three holes which completely went through its body. Probably some kind of high power laser, he thought.
He finally found the first suit. As he was about to lift it up, hoping it wouldn't be too heavy to carry, something made him turn around. He slowly lifted his flashlight, and carefully peered into the dark.
A couple of metres away, near the corner of the room, he distinguished two figures. He advanced towards them, stepping over the remains of yet another robot.
They were two more powersuits. The smaller one, which was a now a discoloured pink, lay on the floor, both its legs crushed from the knees downwards. Its head lay on the lap of the larger green suit, which was kneeling next to it.
After a moment, he approached them. The green suit seemed undamaged, but a closer study revealed two holes in its side, close to the stomach. Even though the humans had apparently triumphed in the end, the last survivors must have been badly wounded. The occupant of the green suit had probably been the last to die alongside her comrade.
He froze when he suddenly realized she had been trying to comfort her companion, cradling her head between her arms.
* * * * *
"I should have left the suit inside. I can't help but to feel guilty about the fact that it belonged there somehow. But I was a younger fellow, and then knowledge was everything to me. When I returned a couple of days later the chamber had collapsed, and this is the last thing that survived.
I ran some tests on the suit, but ironically found quite little. All the circuitry had rotted away, and although I could determine the workings of some of the weaponry and guidance, it turned out to be nothing special. Ingenious, but primitive. Still, I guess it was quite a technical feat, a thousand years ago."
"A thousand years!?!", the girl looked back at him, wide-eyed.
"At least," he replied.
The girl thought silently for a few minutes, contemplating the ancient suit in front of her.
"Do you think I might be a little bit like those women were, all those years ago?"
He paused for a moment.
"I don't know," he knelt next to the girl, putting an arm around her small shoulders, "I don't know if they fought for greed, revenge, justice, or perhaps simply because they had to."
He looked into her large honey eyes.
"But I do know this. The person who wore this suit stayed besides her friend during the last moments of her life, comforting her. It takes someone very courageous and special to do that."
"I only know one other such person, and she is here with me."
back to the Short Story Page.Rearview Mirror, 9 March 1996