I didn't like the way the people at the other table in the tavern look at me. I frown back at them as they steal glances at me over their shoulders and feel my pulse rising. I get angry far too easily when I’ve had a few drinks. It’s a dangerous trait for a slave, but also one which more often than not convinced people that I’m not one.
I take another draft and glare into my mug, trying to ignore them. I can still feel their eyes upon me, and then I hear their footsteps and know I’ve made a mistake: I’ve given them a sign of weakness. I look up and see the three people from the table swaggering over me. I look them squarely in the eyes, but I’m too drunk to observe them closely. Whoever they are, from their robes I can tell they’re not nobles. I could fight them without getting into too much trouble.
"I've seen you before," one of them says. "You work for the blacksmith on Virton Square."
They’re onto me, I think. I clutch my mug in my fist and sneer at them, swaying a little from the drink.
Another one slams his palms on the table, bending over me.
“That’s a pretty big blacksmith you’re working for. From what I gather, he’s doing such good business that he lets all the crude work be done by…” He pauses, then articulates with a snarl, “slaves.”
I chuckle. I’m not in the mood for games. “Are you trying to belittle me?” I’m only half-acting, as I’ve never thought myself beneath anyone. “You’re not welcome here.” the third says. The other two closed in around him. “Where did you get this?” he says, as he picks up my purse from the table. “Stole it?” I have, of course: as a slave, I can’t own anything.
“Are you stealing it?” I say in a threatening tone. “Do you think you could beat me in a fight?” They seem no match for me, but they merely laugh.
The closest one raises his hand and bends it into a claw before my nose, where the air starts to glow between his fingers.
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“Oh really? With what power, then, little slave? That of booze?”
My face feels like it’s burning, but I don’t budge. I clench my teeth as the glow becomes a fireball, my knuckles whitening around the mug. As the dark tavern lights up, I finally see the color of their robes which should’ve warned me that they’re Magi.
I throw the ale over his hand, lighting his robe on fire. Turning the table over on top of the other two, I trap them underneath, and stand on top of it so that they can’t use their arms. The one who’s still conscious is speaking a spell when I shove the mug into his mouth. I drag another table towards them and stack it on the other before running out of the bar as fast as I can.
I never thought I could survive fighting a Magus, but I remind myself that it remains to be seen whether I’ll live to see another day. Perhaps I should run away right now, but I wouldn’t survive the night at this time of the year. I’ll need to take my quilt with me and take shelter in the ruins.
When I’m back in the blacksmith, I see a Magus is already there. His robe is blue rather than green, making him an officer. I stop running just in time to not be seen and sneak into the dormitory, holding my breath. I’m ready to gag anyone I find, but no one’s here. I hide behind the doorway and wait for my chance to escape. How did the Magus get here so quickly from the bar? Could it really be true that they can fly?
The Magus is questioning my master, about me. My master was so busy begging for mercy that it took a while before the Magus got any answers out of him. The sterner he became the more he stammered.
“I’m asking nicely one last time. Where does he come from, this Remus?”
“I don’t know. He showed up out of nowhere. I heard some rumors, but—”
“What rumors did you hear?”
“Nothing, sir. I mean nothing of import. Forget that I ever told you, I don’t want to waste your time.” He let out a little scream, and looking behind the corner I saw he was seized by the collar. “What did you hear?”
His voice was markedly more high-pitched when he spoke. “Don’t hurt me, I always knew he was no good, that little pest. It’s all his fault, he deceived me.” He trailed off into a hiss at “I swear.”
I heard a scream, and a sizzling of flesh. “It doesn’t interest me. Just speak up, and you won’t get hurt.” He suddenly became a lot more fluent, in fact he broke into an effluence of words.
“He was born of nobility, but his parents disavowed him. He tried to return home for some time, but when his parents would beat him whenever they saw him near the house, he turned to his siblings instead, who used him as a slave. When this got them into trouble, they took it out on him, something he endured until he found work at an arcolith refinery. He later ran away, and the Magus charged him for stealing arcolith. Remus went looking for whatever work people would give him until the news overtook him and he was forced to flee ever farther until he got past the Crystal Mountains. I only heard the rumors much later, I swear!”
Another sizzle. “Are you going to get to the point or are you writing a novella?”
“But what do you want from me? What do you want to hear?”
“Listen, I know that you’re smuggling arcolith in those ‘iron’ ores. If you want us to save your life, you’d better tell me what I want to know.”
“You know? But I never had any arcolith in my depository.”
“Is that so? Because I can see the magnetic fields it gives off right now, clear as day.” I looked around the corner again, but the ores looked as black to me as always. My master’s face, however, blanched visibly even in the darkness of the workshop.
At this point the three green Magi come in and tell the blue Magus what happened. If he didn’t know, then why was he already here?
“How can three Magi be defeated by one commoner?”
“Well, in all fairness, he’s not really a commoner.”
“Silence! At any rate, he doesn’t know anything, and the others are already done with his slaves. Let’s move.” I hear my master gagging, then thudding to the ground. When the Magi leave, I move back into the workshop, and see my master lying on the floor.
When I come closer, his body turns into a pile of dust. I duck beneath the table and look outside. One of the Magi has turned around in the doorway. He weaves another spell, and the pile of dust blows away. So that’s why anyone who touches arcolith disappears. It doesn’t carry a curse at all.
When I’m certain they’re gone, I look around the blacksmith, but find only dust. I can’t say I knew them: I learned all my life to close myself off from others.
I make a run for the alley across the street, and turn this way and that through the alleys in case I’m followed, until one turn suddenly takes me on the main road. In the distance, the ruined tower appears from behind the corner.
"Watch out, you little fool!"
With a start I draw back, just in time avoiding a carriage coming loaded with ores from the arcolith fields, the one reason Nelvar exists, though none except the Magi knows what it’s for. I look back at the ruins. According to the myths, the tower was built by demons that once lived all over the known world before disappearing. No one is sure whether they could actually die, but no one knows where they went, or for how long. Some think that they can even still hear us when we talk about them, and so they are rarely talked about at all, lest it would bring them back. The Magi have issued a law forbidding anyone except the powerful Magi to speak of them, and when we hear them spoken of at all, they’re mentioned only as “the Unspoken,” as if their evil were impossible to put into words — their real name lost to memory. As a result not much is still known about them. I’ve heard whispers that they looked just like us to deceive one, and others that they looked so monstrous that just seeing them would drive one insane.
Those that speak of them once too often disappear, but none of us is ever told if it’s them, or the Magi that make them disappear. The villagers in Nelvar don’t know who to fear the most. No one has ever seen one of the Unspoken, but the Magi are a real threat to anyone who as much as looks one of them in the eye. That’s why I’m not afraid to go to the ruins, where I spent a lot of time when I was younger.
Once I’ve crossed the river, the buildings quickly make way for farmlands. Closer to the ruins, no one dares to till the land, and I take the trail I left through the heaths and into the woods. But then I hear something behind me.
“Don’t be afraid,” a man says from a distance. In the setting dark I can’t quite make him out, but it must be a Magus. “I just want to talk to you, Remus.”
I dart back into the underbrush until I come to the clearing at the entrance of the school. If a Magus finds me inside, they would certainly kill me, but if I don’t go inside they will certainly find me, and probably kill me. But the man is still on my tail. I run inside, to the shaft at the center. I have no time to tie the rope, but the mud in the caves below should break my fall.
But when I jump, I move the wrong way, up instead of down. Then I see the Magus get behind me. When I land on my feet on the top floor of the tower, I’m so stunned that I stumble backwards and fall as the Magus lands gracefully before me.
I glance over my shoulder. The room is a large dome. Its wall are broken, and debris covers the floor. Some of the shards are as small as dust. Their iridescence is unmistakable now: it looks just like arcolith. The entire walls are made of it. It’s the hardest material there is, and yet something could break it. Through the gaps I can see the last light of the sunset.
I scramble to my feet and run to the lowest gap in the wall. I am about to climb over it when I see there is no ledge of any sort on the outside. The drop is too high for the bushes to break my fall.
“I’m not a Magus,” he says, as if reading my thoughts. “In fact, I had to evade the Magi just to find you. My name is Alvis.”
“Why did you find me?”
“It’s a long story,” he says, as he moves to the center of the great dome. I try not to make a sound as I begin to move up from the debris. Through the cracks in the dome I see the first stars in the cloudless sky. “Do you know how humans came to this world?”
“No,” I say, suddenly thinking better of trying to get away. Does this man have the answers I’m looking for?
He takes a pause as he looks through the gaps in the dome into the sky, then, as if not finding what he’s looking for, looks back in front of him. “We humans once came from another star, where we once lived as one of two races: aside from humans, there used to be those known as ‘transhumans’. They created what you know as magic to change the world and themselves. When their differences grew too great, there came a war in which the humans used their own weapons against them, a war which almost destroyed both races. The transhumans finally ended the war by forcing telepathic between them, which led most of them to later join them. Thinking this was mind control, the humans hid for decades in the outer solar system before fleeing to another star. By coming to the surface they took the risk that the transhumans wouldn’t let them go. But when they came to the surface, they found that the transhumans had all disappeared from the solar system. Thinking the same might happen to them if they landed on their planets, they went ahead with their exodus, but when they arrived they found that the transhumans had preceded them and had already terraformed one of its planets. Yet here, again, we found only ruins, and the only explanation we could think of was that the transhuman had brought upon their own extinctions. Wanting to banish whatever magic they had left behind in them from our lives, we bombarded every building until only debris was left. We found out too late that the buildings were made entirely out of their source of magic, arcolith, and that by bombarding them we only scattered them across the world. It was only a matter of time before people found a way to use it again. That is when we formed the Magi, of which I used to be one: we were the only ones allowed to use transhuman magic, with the sole purpose to make sure no one else ever did, and ultimately to undo it. The arcolith is made up of tiny robots, nanorobots, which can do anything at all, and is the source of the Magi’s power, which they share with whoever they want and no one else. You weren’t born with or without magical power, Remus. Your father cast you out because you are a bastard.”
My excitement turns into anger, but I see no reason why I should not be angry at him as well. He was a Magus himself and for all I know still is. “Why are you telling me all this?”
“I’ve turned against the Magi and want to recover the full power of the transhumans to fight them, and I need you for that. Because we had to program these nanorobots from scratch, we can’t make them do much. For one, we can’t make them make more of themselves, so that we have to use the nanorobots that are already there. However, our transhuman hostages still had some of their own nanorobots in their bodies. We sabotaged them, but given some time we could still repair them. Some of the transhumans escaped their execution to live on amongst humans as one of them. The Magi killed most of them later, but they also killed their families along with them, causing many people like myself to stand up for them. For generations, we’ve been trying to find the descendants of the transhumans before they did.” He pauses, as if uncertain whether to continue. “As far as we know, you are the last descendant of the transhumans left alive, Remus.” I might as well have heard my death sentence. All the Magi must be looking for me.
“We have to go, Remus, right now,” he says. “The chance is too great that the Magi find out. They might be coming for you as we speak.”
I look down, my heart throbbing. I don’t know if I can trust him, but it doesn’t seem like I have a choice in the matter. I try to think of an excuse. “Can I say goodbye to my friends?” I ask, although I don’t have any.
“No, Remus, they can’t know. The less they know the better it is for them. The Magi have their ways to get whatever they want to know out of them. They wouldn’t even have to make them talk.”
I tell him of my half-sister, who now lives in the forest after having been banished.
Alvis looks concerned. “Why was she banished?”
“She was accused of sorcery, but there was never enough evidence. Instead of turning her in to the Magi, they gave her the benefit of doubt and let her go, something they have kept from the Magi ever since. No one wanted any more Magi here, especially if they’d interrogate everyone else.”
Alvis stares into space for a while. The lines in his face deepen in the setting darkness. We both know what this means: If what he says is true, she’ll be dead soon, and my sister with her, if we don’t save her. The thought strikes me that for all I know they might be dead already.
“We can’t leave her, but they’ll come looking for you first.” He walks towards the gap in the wall. “I can get there fast, but I can’t leave you without making sure you’re safe.” He turns around and extends his hand. “Take my hand.”
I look at it, not knowing what he's about to do to me. I take his hand before I have time to change my mind. Suddenly I feel as if an electric current is passing into my body trough my arm. I try to withdraw my hand, but he holds it firmly. Suddenly I’m not sure if I should trust him.
The electric current stops. I withdraw my hand and flap it back and forth, as if burnt. In reality it feels more as if I’m trying to shake something out that’s inside of my arm. I look at my hands and see how my skin is covered with tiny red dots. My arm is trembling. As my heart starts racing, I feel as my body is being somehow empowered. I feel as if I could cover any distance effortlessly. For a moment the room feels too small to contain me.
“Relax. Your body is adjusting. I injected your body with half my nanorobots in case you need to defend yourself, which have now spread into each of your cells. You’ll have to stay here until I return. If the Magi find you, just say my name, and I can take over from afar. But just in case I can’t, I might as well teach you the basics of self-defense, since it can be learned very quickly." He starts pacing around the edges of the room. "Do you have any idea what this place is?”
“The villagers say this building used to be a school of magic.”
“I guess you could call it that. It’s both where transhumans learned and worked, although learning was in fact itself their only work. This particular floor was used as a testing area for nanorobots. The walls will absorb all the energy, so that there’s no chance the Magi can detect it in here.”
He teaches me how to use spells to command the nanorobots, made up of gestures and words. Each set of commands is unlocked with a more complex spell, after which the commands themselves could be used with simpler spells. The movements of the hand translate into movements of the nanorobots. Transhumans controlled their fleets directly from their brain, but for us, this will have to do.
"In the few moments it takes to cast a spell, a good Magus can direct his nanorobots as well as an admiral his fleet in a battle. Of course, the few spells I've taught you are but a last resort, and will only give you a few seconds’ reprieve before the Magi vaporize you. You must avoid them as long as you can. I will find your sister. Whatever you do, stay here.”
With that, before I can see just what's happening, he jumps through the opening in the wall and flies away. As I trace him on his course to the horizon, I think about everything he told me, trying to process it all. What sticks is that I have nanorobots in my body that could make me more powerful than all the Magi together. Alvis wants to restore their hardware. But what if I just restore the software from them?
When I turn around, I find myself surrounded by three men in Magus robes. They stand still with their arms akimbo. Their faces are obscured by their hoods in the dark, but I can tell they're savoring my panic as they see me trying to work out what happened. They must have known Alvis was looking for me and followed him.
"Don't try to resist. You'll be executed in the morning." No trial, not even an interrogation. The only reason they don't kill me now is because they want to do so in public to make an example of me. I don't dare to try to fight them, lest they would fight back. Before I have time to defend myself, the foremost Magus raises his hand to cast a spell, and I pass out.
When I wake up, I am sure I am still dreaming, because I am floating face-down through the largest street I have ever seen. I can move my head, but every other part of my body is entirely fixed in place. A crowd has roaring from the sides, and as I look over them I see that they are all roaring at me. They hated us, I could tell from their faces, more than anything in the world, as if we were responsible for all the evil in the world, and if it weren't for the Magi escorting us, I'm certain they would've executed us themselves. Turning my neck, I see two other convicts floating face down behind me, and it strikes me just how humiliating this position is.
I lift my head as high as possible, and when I see the tall buildings I realize that I must be in the capital. This city, which is centered between the richest mining colonies, is founded upon the exploitation arcolith. Most of the city's commerce is involved in processing the arcolith into magic, a task with which occupies the Magi novices for the first ten years of their career. The purpose of all this is for the Magi to get hold of all magic in the world before anyone else does. Ultimately all of it falls into the hands of one supreme immortal leader, sworn to destroy it once all has been secured.
In the central square I see the gallows loom ahead. The gallows are made of stone rather than wood, remaining there as a constant warning to the population. The gallows are covered with a pyre. The execution itself is supposed to be quick, but the bodies are burned immediately afterwards.
It's only when I see the other prisoners being moved up the gallows that the reality of what is happening strikes me. I cannot imagine my own death, but I can imagine theirs, and to walk among them makes it clear that I'm no different from all the others who are brought here day after day to be killed.
The Magi don't even have to tie us. They keep us entirely immobilized, which gives me a feeling of suffocation. It's the perfect symbol of submission: it makes it look as if we are resigned to our fate. In reality, it’s a measure to prevent me from casting any spells. The paralysis sends me into a panic, and I'm straining every muscle to break free. I don't even hear the death sentence through my screams.
I stop screaming when I see the Magi raise their hands. Inside my brain something becomes electrified, in a way that reminds of the way I felt when the nanorobots first entered my body, and all of a sudden I remember that I can defend myself. Then it feels as if my head explodes, and as I cry out in pain everything turns black.
All of a sudden the world disappears. I enter into another universe and everything else I ever knew is forced out of my memory. It absorbs my entire consciousness and uses it to unfold.
I see stars, a clusters of billions of stars in a galaxy, moving like sand crystals in a hurricane, all taking part in one dance as they spiral around and into and again away from each other. They flow together into waves, forming patterns of ever growing complexity as they interact with each other.
I recognize the patterns somehow. I don't know from where, but suddenly I have such a sense of revelation that it feels as if I must have seen them every moment of my life, in everything there is.
In the few moments this state lasts, time seems to dilate to an eternity as if I am living through a whole lifespan, and the stars become my whole existence. The clouds grow like an embryo into an integral organism which seeks to survive. In all this my mind is moved by one thing, the promise that all things will connect, that the pattern will become perfect.
In the distance I see a light, and as it comes closer it expands into another cloud. As they gravitate towards each other like colliding galaxies, I suddenly remember. Like waves the fleets crash into each other. My own fleet, balanced to perfection, gives way to the other fleet in just the right places to surround them, and then closes in to destroy them. As they explode, my fleet converts the radiation into heat and rides the heat waves away from the explosion to regroup, then to move back with the convection into the battle. But there are so many that they just keep coming, wave after wave. Our fleets swing like the tides between us.
In the city square, the burning nanorobots fly as billions of sparks across the square. The villagers crush each other trying to get away from the inferno. Many of the villagers get severely burned. The gallows begin to catch fire, as do some buildings around the square as I remain oblivious to what's happening around me.
Even the Magi have never seen this before. This is not how Magi usually fought battles. Normally, the Magi try to bypass the others' nanorobots as soon as possible, their target being the other mage rather than their magic. A battle in which the fleets themselves are destroyed can be so explosive that neither mage survives.
But the Magi didn't know who was the one attacking them. This was a situation which every Magus feared to be in. As the battle reaches an impasse, the three Magi withdraw their fleets, form them into a shield around themselves, and stand back to back with their hands raised, scanning around the square for their attacker. They know every moment could be their last. Usually, once two fleets attacked neither retreated until the frontier between the two had moved past one or the other.
When they don't find their attacker, they send one half their nanorobots across the square in search for their target, while leaving the other half to shield them. They know this is a risky move, since even their whole fleet barely held out against the enemy. But everyone on the square is either dead or dying.
In a moment they spread their nanorobots across the square, breaking into every room looking out into it, and across the rooftops ad through the streets. Windows shatter all over the district as their fleets fly through them to search the citizens. As the crowds run away from the burning square, they're never aware of how nanorobots are entering into their bloodstream in search for nanorobots.
It's the only way the Magi can know if their attacker is among them. But the only ones they find with nanorobots in their bloodstream are minor criminals, which don't even resist their prompt execution. Their attacker isn't among them. They could be anywhere. They might not even be in this city.
Then one of the Magi looks at me, and sees how my face is screwed in pain. And even though they've withdrawn all their nanorobots, I still haven't moved from the burning gallows. He doesn't hesitate.
"It's him!" the Magus snarls as he points at me. "Call them back!"
I suddenly wake up with a splitting headache. When I see the fire, in a panic I leap through the flames off the gallows. My leggings catch fire at my shanks, and no amount of rolling on the cobblestones ceases the fire. The Magi take the opportunity to surround me. At a wave of their hand, the fire disappears.
"Surrender your fleets!"
I think fast. It's far too late to put up a fight. But if I give up my fleets I am lost. They saved me this time, but without them I have no change of escape.
In a moment, I let my nanorobots fly as high as they can into the sky and self-destruct them. The explosion covers much of the sky, and is so bright as to be blinding. I cover my eyes with my hands, only to see right through. The explosion is so great that it must be visible from across the entire city.
When the explosion has ceased and I can see again, I am looking into the anger in the faces of the Magi. I think I know why. The Magi normally take over the fleets of enemies they've defeated. Sometimes they even fight duels just to gain the other's power. I've seen some of those duels in the fields around Nelvar: it's how I first came to see magic. Sometimes don't let down until one of them is seriously injured, and seeing the Magus' anger at my having destroyed my fleets, I have no doubt their greed for power has something to do with that.
"There," I pant. "You won't abuse my magic."
I suddenly feel very exposed without my nanorobots. The Magi can now do whatever they want with me. But before they can do anything, I fall limply to the ground. "Take him to his cell!" is the last thing I hear before I pass out.
When I wake up the first thing I’m aware of is the same headache. When I try to stand up I find my cell is spherical, and I lose my balance. I try again, and stay on my feet this time, but it feels so awkward that I soon decide to sit down again. The feeling reminds me of the feeling of being immobilized. It’s their way of giving me a message of how impotent I am.
I can hardly remember how I got here, and I can’t bear to think about it, because every thought makes the pain worse. I don’t even know where the pain comes from, and for all I know I might be dying.
“What is happening to me!” he cried.
Then the last thing I expected happens.
“You’re experiencing a hangover induced by neural overdrive,” a voice says in my head.
I’m so startled that I back away against the wall only to fall and end up flat on my back. I must be going mad from the pain.
“I am your nanorobots’ thoughtform, communicating with you through your brain. We are set to obey whoever hosts us.”
I think back of how I copied the software from the old nanorobots’ into my new ones. That must be how I was able to direct my nanorobots with my mind. Who could’ve thought that it was so simple?
All of a sudden my headache redoubles.
“To save your life, I had to speed up your brain just short of breaking point. I now repairing the damage. It shouldn’t take too much longer.” Knowing this, I know I can put up with the pain again. Very soon the fever lifts. When I can think clearly again, I realize I’ve been talking to what I can only think of as a ghost.
“Who are you? ”
“I am a copy of the —’s memories, last updated ninety-five years ago. The memories are public. Do you wish to integrate them?”
I’m not sure how I feel about the thought of having part of someone else in my mind, but if I don’t, all that’s left of the transhuman world will be lost. I would probably acquire the transhuman knowledge if I did this. It could even give me an idea of how to get out of here.
“Alright,” I say. “Yes, I want to recover you.” I didn’t realize it would happen so quickly. After a brief zap in my brain, I find that I can remember everything that happened until I became a prisoner of war a hundred years ago. The first thing I remember is how they killed my father, just a few years after he revived from stasis when I told him I was the daughter he’d given his life to save in my infancy. As I remember always having been this way, it takes a while for me to realize how changed I feel to be more than one person at once. I feel more powerful, in a way that I that I never felt before, or at least he for his part.
I now know my power and how to use it. The nanorobots of the complex are mine. I walk through the wall of my cell into the hall as they make way. When I see Magi come around the corner, I can’t keep from laughing out loud.
“How quaint,” I say, as I look over their robes. “You really did want to go back to the middle ages.”
After giving each other a long look, they begin trying to cast spells, but nothing happens. It looks hilarious, so I let them keep trying for a while, just observing as they keep making gestures to call on their lost powers. When I grow bored of them, I let the floor beneath them disintegrate into spheres of nanorobots that turn them upside down. As the rest of the building disintegrates, I let them drop into the pit that's left behind, and fly off through the morning sky, taking the other prisoners with me.
I realize I now have a chance to rebuild the transhuman world. Although I don’t think they ever went extinct. They were far too powerful. Instead, they must have moved on, and left their cities behind as they transferred their minds entirely into nanorobots too small for us to know they’re there. So have I already become a stranger to them now, that they leave me here to start again, just another dumb animal in their nature documentaries? It seems so hard to imagine that all my loved ones would move on without me.
The only reason I can imagine that anyone would be left out is if, like the humans, they don’t want to be part of it. But I do, or at least, that's what I tell myself. But how do I really know that, if I don't even know what their world is like, if their world is so far beyond my very understanding?
“Remus? Is that you?”
“Among others,” Remus says, not yet used to the idea, though I know from memory that he will.
Alvis understands what’s happened. "It really could become just like it was before the war."
"I am offering you something far greater. Lead me to your fellows. I can give us a second chance to achieve the Singularity we missed out on the first time."
As I watch the debris of arcolith glitter in the moonlight beneath me, I wonder how many times this process will repeat itself. Will the humans that are left behind, in turn, choose to find out where we went when we achieved our own Singularity? Or will we just become the gods of myths, and disappear entirely from history? They might eventually come to think that their species has always lived here, and without fossils and evolutionary relatives left alive, they might never discover their origins at all.