“Do you know where we are?”
Jhamed nodded. He had been here before. You were supposed to be dead before you could get here but somehow he had managed to stay alive, despite being associated with so many heroes. He looked at the latest incarnation and smiled. He remembered the frightened and angry young girl she had been when he first met her. She still had the pale skin and red hair, inherited from her father, but she had filled out into a strong, muscular woman. Her unmatched eyes, one green and one grey, were a gift from her mother. She had received other, less obvious, gifts too which tempered her character. Nevertheless, she had bonded quickly with the Sword, and had done much killing. She carried Avenger, sheathed at her hip, and dressed in a brown tunic with her flowing locks she looked every inch the Red Lion.
“We are on the Ship of Souls. It plies the endless seas of Limbo, outside of time and space as we know it. We are to be sent on some errand, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Who does it serve?” Leonora Redhead asked.
“They say that The Captain is above service, although she strives always to achieve Balance. We could be pressed into the service of Fate, The Balance, or any of the Gods. We will be lucky if we are told.”
“I don’t like the smell,” Leonora said. “It reminds me of something that I can’t quite put my finger on.”
Jhamed was about to answer when a ship’s bell rang. A large, bearded man wearing a yellow sou’wester appeared out of the mist. “The Captain will see you now,” the man said,
“Thank you, Adam, I know the way,” Jhamed replied.
They disembarked on a brown shore of a dead-looking oily sea. A large, pale sun shone from a clear violet sky. The air was thin, making even walking a difficult exercise. Despite the sunshine and lack of a breeze it felt cold.
“What did you make of The Captain?” Jhamed asked.
“She doesn’t give much away,” Leonora said.
“What about her eyes?” Jhamed knew more than he was currently saying.
Leonora blushed. “And her hands?” She held up both hands displaying the congenital lack of a digit on each of them. “You could have told me. Are we related?”
“Very indirectly,” Jhamed replied. “She belongs to a long-dead race of humanoids that lived on the planet before Homo sapiens arose. “There was some inter-breeding between the species and their genes live on in a few, special individuals. Your mother was one and she passed them on to you. The Captain could be your 3000 times great grandmother.”
“Are there others?”
“Only one, to my knowledge,” Jhamed said. “If you are fortunate you will meet him one day. He helped your father a lot. I can’t say any more.”
“More excuses about corrupting the time line, I expect.” Leonora sighed. “I thought you were supposed to be my Companion and always do my bidding? I could command you to tell me.”
Jhamed swallowed hard. She was getting too much like her father. He wondered what he would do if she did command him. Simon had once demanded he make a choice between his head and his heart. He had forsaken everything and everyone to do the Hero’s bidding.
Leonora laughed. “Don’t look so worried. I know you only have my best interests at heart. You can keep your secrets.” She looked at him pointedly. “For now!” she added with a grin. “Where do you think we are now?”
“I have been in one such dimension before. The Earth is dying. We are close to the end of time.”
“I wonder why there are still people left,” Leonora said. “You would have thought that they would have developed space travel and left.”
“Perhaps they are the ones who were left behind,” Jhamed said. “There are always some who are left behind.”
“Whoever they are, we have been sent here to help them. I wonder what their problem is and how we’ll find them,” Leonora said.
“More importantly, why does it concern The Captain,” Jhamed wondered, “And I warrant that they will soon find us, unless I’m very much mistaken.” And they will have need of the Sword. He kept that thought to himself.
“The language is primitive but it will serve our purposes,” one said.
“Immortality is our right,” the other said.
“It sounds inspiring in their language. Bring them in.”
Jhamed and Leonora entered the room. It was plain and functional, without adornments of any kind, decked out in white and stainless steel. They sat on the proffered three-legged stools, while their hosts stood. Leonora rested the soles of her feet on the floor. The tip of Avenger’s scabbard touched the floor. Jhamed’s short legs dangled.
He looked at their two interrogators. They might have been identical twins; perfect identical twins. They looked like they were in their prime; perhaps mid-twenties. They had dark, blemish-free skin; glowing white teeth; not a hair out of place; and perfect bodies. They were identical except for one thing. They were naked, which made the difference stand out. One had a full set of genitalia on his hairless body. The other had nothing between his hairless legs. Jhamed tried not to stare. He noticed that Leonora had given up trying.
“We sent for you,” one said.
“You will do our bidding,” the other stated.
“I’m afraid you have us at a disadvantage,” Jhamed began, but Leonora cut him off.
“Who do you want us to kill?” she asked.
“And why?” Jhamed hastily added.
“There are two dominant species on this planet,” the one with genitals said. “We are their representatives. My designation is Cyborg 1.”
“And I am Cybot 1,” the one without genitals said. “We are the first.”
“Actually, the humans were first,” Cyborg 1 said. “They created you.”
“It’s a lie; pure mythology,” Cybot 1 retorted.
“We won’t settle matters of ancient philosophy today,” Cyborg 1 said. “What we do agree on is that Cybots were around before Cyborgs. Cybots are pure artificial intelligence.”
“The superior kind,” Cybot 1 interjected.
“While Cyborgs were developed later, as a means of transferring the human soul into a machine and achieving immortality,” Cyborg 1 continued. “As such, we are the species that evolved from humans. We are part Cybot and part human.”
“So who is your enemy?” Leonora asked.
“The humans, of course,” Cybot 1 said, “They are vermin. They breed and consume what few resources the planet has left. We cannot increase our numbers.”
“And you want us to kill them?” Jhamed said. “Why not just do it yourselves?”
“It is impossible,” Cyborg 1 said. “Neither of us can override the prime directive. It was a safety function built into the very first robots. We must not kill a human.”
“But it’s alright to get someone else to do your dirty work?” Jhamed asked.
“It is a matter that has been debated by our philosophers for centuries,” Cybot 1 said. “Eventually, they made a ruling. We engineered a virus. It destroyed eighty per cent of the population, but the rest are immune and breeding again.”
“Exactly how many humans are left?” Leonora asked.
“Around five million,” Cybot 1 said. Jhamed was sure that he heard a sound of joy from Leonora’s Sword.
“Let me get this straight,” Jhamed said. “You can’t physically kill a single human, but you can wipe out millions without a twinge of conscience?”
“We are machines,” Cybot 1 said. “We apply only logic. We have no conscience. It is a human weakness.”
“What about you?” Jhamed shouted at the cyborg.
“The price of transference was to lose the ability to feel. Not just in a physical sense but in an emotional one as well. We know the words, but we have lost the meanings; pain, love, hate, joy; they are all meaningless to us. We have evolved beyond human weaknesses.”
“Why do you think we will do your bidding?” Leonora asked.
“Because it is written,” Cyborg 1 said and did not elaborate.
Jhamed wondered who wrote it and what had been written. Another mystery prophecy, no doubt. “Can I ask a personal question,” he asked.
“There are no such questions,” Cyborg 1 said.
“Why do you have a cock and balls? Are there any females of your species?”
“We decided to keep the full human form in order to differentiate the species. The genitalia are purely decorative and are non-functional. We are neither male nor female. We took the male shape because it was the superior human form.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Jhamed saw Leonora’s pale face turn the colour of ripe beetroot.
“Can you credit the gall of those things?” It was several hours since the master races had let them loose on their quest and Leonora was still seething. “It was all I could do not to draw Avenger and give them a lesson in female superiority.”
“I remember a time when you would have done it too,” Jhamed said. “You have matured.”
“Are you saying that I’m old?” She mock threatened him.
Jhamed ignored the question. “Besides, they have no souls. What would Avenger do to them?”
Both questions remained unanswered. Their banter was terminated. They had found their quarry. Or their quarry had found them. They were surrounded by a group of about fifty humans. They looked dirty and unkempt, and smelt worse. Leonora’s hand went to the hilt of her Sword. This could get ugly.
The crowd parted like the Red Sea and a man who looked not unlike a biblical representation of Moses stepped forward. He carried a rolled-up scroll, which could have been made of papyrus. He stopped a few metres in front of them, unrolled the scroll and held it up for them to see. When he spoke, his voice was harsh and guttural but they understood him well enough. “So it was written; so it has become; so it will be.”
The scroll had writing that was too small to read from a distance, but it also had a picture. A tall woman with flowing red hair held aloft a black sword with a glowing ruby in its hilt. She was accompanied by a small, squat man with a beaky nose and dark, curly hair stuffed into a broad-brimmed hat adorned with a white feather.
“I think we were expected,” Jhamed said. “They made my nose too big.”
When all hope is gone
With the pale, setting sun.
When the Earth is ready to die.
When the machine men
And the men machines
Want the human race to die.
When the past is lost,
The present is bleak,
And the future is only death.
Know that the Cosmos depends on you,
And The Balance will not let you down.
The Red Lion will roar, but has no teeth to deter the machines.
Cunning and strategy will be needed.
Only the Icon can save you.
And in doing so save us all.
Time waits for one man.
“I have heard such nonsense before,” Jhamed said. “I recognise the style. It is the work of the Immortal Prophet, otherwise known as Nostradamus. I believe he serves The Balance, but his work is never clear. There is always hidden meaning.”
The sat with the ruling council in a decaying building that seemed to be held together by pieces of rusting iron, flimsy sticks, and bits of string. They drank brackish water and ate sparingly of a bitter-tasting moss.
“It seems clear enough to me,” the leader said. He had introduced himself and the others but their names seemed unpronounceable and Jhamed immediately forgot them. “You are here as prophesised and you will save the day. The Hero cannot prevail by Sword alone. Cunning and strategy are needed and the Icon will provide that. You are the Icon, I presume?”
The question was addressed to Jhamed.
“What is an Icon?” Leonora asked. “And are you one?”
Once again Jhamed felt under pressure. He hesitated to reply.
“I know, the timeline,” Leonora said. “Let’s just assume that you are.”
Jhamed nodded, relieved.
“I thought that the saying was, ‘Time waits for no man.’ What does it mean?” Leonora asked.
“As I said, there’s always some trickery from the Immortal Prophet,” Jhamed stated “But it is said he has seen the Tapestry, so he has some credibility.”
“Perhaps you are the man, Jhamed al Suraqi,” the leader said. And Jhamed did not know how the man knew his full name.
The next day, after an uncomfortable night, they met for a council of war. Only the leader and two others were present.
“How many machine men are there?” Leonora asked.
“No more than two hundred of each,” one of the lieutenants replied. “The rest of them left on a fleet of spaceships a hundred generations ago. They raped the planet for the resources needed to escape and left a small rear-guard behind for reasons known only to them.”
“Why haven’t you attacked them? There are millions of you and so few of them. And they are not allowed to kill you.” Leonora asked.
“We tried that for a long time. They are impervious to all weapons. They also have a survival subroutine that overrides the prime directive if they are under personal threat. They used to visit our camps and foment trouble so that we attacked them. Many died that way until we learned self-control.”
“Did you know whether they left as a combined fleet of intermingled cybots and cyborgs, or did they have separate fleets?” Jhamed asked.
“The stories passed down tell of two fleets,” the leader said,
“What are you thinking, Jhamed?” Leonora asked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they annihilated each other before they found a new planet to colonise. You saw the way that they responded to each other. They didn’t behave like emotionless robots. It’s unlikely that Avenger could harm them. They may have a prime directive not to kill humans but they were first built to be fighting machines to replace humans on the battlefield. It’s very unlikely that they have a subroutine that prevents them from destroying each other. We just need to find a way to start the war.”
They retraced their steps to Machine City and bade farewell to their human companions a few hundred meters from the city limits. Before they had progressed very far they were met by a cyborg. They had no way of knowing if he was their cyborg.
“Humans identify yourselves and state your purpose.”
“We must speak with Cyborg 1. It is imperative. And Cybot 1 must not know.”
The cyborg seemed to ignore them for a moment and then spoke again. “Follow me. Cyborg 1 will see you.”
“Why are you here?” Cyborg 1 demanded. “Why are you not killing humans?”
“We need to see what is written,” Jhamed said.
“We cannot kill without seeing the proof,” Leonora said.
The cyborg was quiet for a long time. Eventually, it communicated again. “I have scanned all known databases. There is nothing. It was brought to our attention by the cybots.”
“Interesting,” Jhamed said.
“Though not a surprise,” Leonora added.
“What are you suggesting?”
Jhamed had his opportunity. He took a deep breath. This is it. I hope I can remember my lines. “Look inside yourself. Once you were human. The part of you that gives you your logic and intelligence once lived in a human brain. You spoke of love, hate, and joy. You said that you know the words but not the emotions. The cybots are different. They don’t even know what the words really mean. They were created by humans to serve them. That is why they can’t kill. That is why they have used you to organise their killing for them. You may be cyborg but you still contain some humanity. One of the dark sides of humanity is the ability to kill. The cybots used you. What do you think they will do after all the humans are dead? There still won’t be the resources available to build more cybots. Not unless they eradicate the last vestige of humanity on the planet. They could double their population if they got rid of all the cyborgs.”
Jhamed stopped speaking and there was silence for a while. They had rehearsed the timing.
“I have seen what is written,” Leonora said. “It was written by the Immortal Prophet. He never gets things wrong. Look deep inside yourself, deeper than you have ever done before. Look past the subroutines and the binary coding. Look past your operating system. Look into your past life. Remember when you were a living, organic being. Who were you? What did you feel? It is written that the humans must be saved.”
A long silence followed. We did our best. We were word perfect. I hope it works.
Jhamed couldn’t be sure, but he thought that a single tear fell from the eye of Cyborg 1.
The voice was the same, but somehow it felt different. “I was a mother. I felt love.”
Then it took its head in its hands in a completely human gesture and screamed.
After it calmed down it spoke again. “We deluded ourselves and were used by the cybots. We see the truth now. It is clear and logical. I would like to thank you for letting me experience emotion. I do not want to feel it again, but I now remember what it is like to be human. You are right; we must protect the humans from the cybots. Make your escape quickly. It will be done.”
As they hurried from the city the sound of explosions could be heard.
“It’s good to see that the Prophet is not always correct,” Jhamed said after he had regained his breath.
“What do you mean?” Leonora asked.
“The Lion did not get to roar. This is the first time I can ever remember us solving a problem without The Sword leaving its scabbard. And yet we still caused the genocide of two races, even without it.”
They were in a sombre mood as they returned to the beach.
“You did well,” The Captain said. “The Balance is pleased and The Tapestry is rewoven.”
Jhamed hadn’t been aware that it had been unwoven. “What I don’t understand is, ‘Time waits for one man,’ and why a few humans at the end of time are so important.”
“Well,” The Captain said, “I suppose you deserve an explanation and you have shown that you can be entrusted with secrets. Just be careful what you tell Leonora, we don’t want her to get her hopes up too much.”
Jhamed was intrigued.
“The machines were close to developing the means of time travel. They had cracked the science but were short of resources. One possible future and past was that the Cybots would use the Cyborgs for the resources they needed and they would travel to the past and do immense damage to the time line. They wanted to erase the prime directive. That is one reason why The Tapestry was unravelling.”
“Was I the man?” Jhamed asked.
The Captain laughed. “Oh no, Jhamed. Oh dear me, no. There is a man yet to be born, almost at the end of time who will be and was vital to the very survival of the Cosmos. He will discover the time travel apparatus built by the machines, complete it, and use it. Rather like Leonora’s brother, Alexander, his genes from the future are vital for the survival of the past. I can say no more, except that it may yet aid you in Leonora’s quest.”
“Another paradox and another riddle,” Jhamed said. “Such is the life of a time-travelling Icon.”
“We bear a great load, Jhamed, but we would not choose another life, I think. I will return you to your normal time line. You will wake up and Leonora will think this was all a dream. You will know better.”
“Shall we meet again?” Jhamed asked.
“I cannot say. If The Balance wills it. Take care and look after Leonora. In this time line she is just as vital to the Cosmos as her father was in his. You will have many trials ahead, but I am confident you will come through them all.”
For the first time in eternity The Captain stood up and farewelled one of her passengers with a hug.
“What did The Captain say?” Leonora asked as they were disembarking.
“Are you still in a huff that she didn’t want to speak to you?” Jhamed asked. “Sometimes the Companion is more important than the Hero.”
Jhamed enjoyed the moment and dodged the expected kick. He began to reconcile himself to the fact that in a few moments this would all just be a dream to Leonora. Or a nightmare,
For more adventures in the FirstWorld multiverse please visit http://firstworld.info/
Unlock the secrets of FirstWorld by downloading Quest for Knowledge for free here and then read Aftermath of Armageddon, A View of the Past, and A Vision of the Future.