The savage cold of Meris chilled my body to the core. The icy embrace of the moon threatened to choke whatever life was left in me. Utter despair had consumed my soul when I began my redemption at Meris. How could I forget those first days? Before it became unbearable, I was transferred to this new, upgraded facility, though it was just as cold, if not colder.
A full 90 years went by — almost an entire life sentence — since I was first stationed at Hieromeris II. I knew everyone there: all of the thieves, the murderers, the conspirators, the exiled, and the unlucky. Their company helped me keep my sanity throughout the years.
Only the deep underground tunnels, which held pockets of liquid hydrogen fuel, reminded us of where we where. There was no way to experience anything other than a shackled existence. The transport pod stopped, and I snapped out of remembering my past.
“Sinners! Prepare to disembark,” said the archpriest. It was the last day of mining again, and the new facility that I was transferred to didn’t have enough fuel to last until the next round of mining could begin. Hieromeris IX could always borrow more fuel from the other facilities. But who will take the blame for the fuel shortage? The Archvicar? Hah.
Sin Dorana stepped out of the transport pod, and I followed her. She was the only friend that I had made at Hieromeris IX.
The archpriest yelled once again, “Sinners! The Archvicar expects four packs of fuel from each of you. Those who don’t meet the new quota will be transferred to Hieromeris I.”
That was enough to motivate anyone. The thought of no outdoor privileges, personal cells a quarter of the size, and severely reduced rest times were enough to motivate everyone. Hieromeris I was the end of the road. If you failed there, you became an eidolon.
Each facility was aided by eidolons, but trying to have a conversation with them was like wringing water from a rock. All their memories were permanently wiped clean, consciousness had been taken away, leaving behind empty shells of what once was. They served the facilities mindlessly until their parts broke down, then they just got reassembled and recycled indefinitely. I’d take ten life sentences over that, any day.
“Stick with me, Galador,” Dorana said. “I’ll show you where I found a huge deposit of liquid hydrogen. There’s no reason to get transferred to that hellhole,” It took 90 years of good behavior for me to get to Hieromeris IX. I don’t know how I would stay sane if I was transferred to Hieromeris I. The possibility of outdoor privileges here is the only thing worth living for. We left the group and ran through narrow and scarcely illuminated tunnels off the beaten path.
I hadn’t asked why Dorana was sent to Meris. I knew she had arrived recently, since she didn’t have that jaded personality that everyone here develops after a few years. Her metallic body looked much newer; there were very few scratches and I couldn’t see a single dent. My metallic shell, on the other hand, looked like it’s been through a war and back. It had taken me years to get used to seeing this metallic body in the mirror.
Dorana stopped at the edge of an abrupt drop. I looked down and saw a massive pool of clear hydrogen. I’d never seen anything like it. We usually find hydrogen in small puddles, but this could have been enough to power every facility for a year.
“We need to be fast. Once the temperature rises, this pool will quickly evaporate and it’ll escape from us forever,” she said.
We turned on our extractors and beamed up as much as they could hold. Four sharp beeps signaled that my harvesting pack was full. A moment later so did Dorana’s. We sprinted back to the transport pod, deposited what we had, and began our run back to the pool to collect more. Sure, we had a full, beautiful pack of liquid hydrogen, but the long path took us a while to get back to mining. It worried me.
I finally asked. “Why are you here Dorana?”
She smiled. I didn’t know android bodies could smile, new or not. I hadn’t seen a smile since… well, since before Meris, back on planet Selsteil. Gods, that was such a long time ago.
“I’m only here for one life sentence. It was stupid, really. I was convicted of micro-treasons. The government apparently found evidence in my work. I was just an archiver. I recorded the life of the vice exodeus of Selsteil, and scandals be damned, I told it straight and true. A few months later, the investigation happened, enemy of the planet, blah blah blah, and now I’m here on the moon,” she said. She earned her first dent as she bumped her head over a small opening that we had to squeeze through.
“But micro-treasons don’t warrant redemption. If I recall, that’s only a 10-year sentence,” I ducked low so I didn’t repeat her mistake.
She gave me a sharp glance before speeding up to get to the mining site. “I killed the investigator, so I received a life-sentence,” she said. Her calm attitude caught me off-guard.
She continued. “You know the drill, you argue as best as you can, they find you guilty, blah blah blah. It’s all unnecessary. Everyone knows that you can’t escape redemption. At least I got to keep my conciousness and memories. And on the bright side, I’ve seen someone here for thirty-seven life sentences, and that boggles my mind. I’ll be out of here in no time compared to them,” she said. “What about you?”
We were out of range of the comforting tunnel lights, and I turned on my armlight as we neared the pool. “I got caught up in something I shouldn’t have,” I said. “Two life sentences. Almost finished one.”
Then something incredibly stupid happened. My foot slipped on a small sheet of liquid hydrogen near the edge of the drop to the pool. Dorana couldn’t react in time, and I plummeted into the abyss. The liquid was so light, my metal body cleaved through it like it was air, and I sank without any resistance. The cold seeped instantly into my very core, more intense than I could have ever imagined. The glacial chill slowed down time. My thoughts stretched, my optics blurred, and my body creaked as I curled into a ball. I felt brittle, like glass dropped from a great height.
Everything went dark soon after.
I awoke to the dull sound of a door closing near me. Somewhere in the distance I could hear and feel a low hum, and the more I focused on it, the closer it seemed to be. It was a warm sound, familiar and safe, like a song. Then the horror of it struck me like a sledgehammer to my metal cranium.
“Did I miss prayer?” I said, desperately trying to recognize where I was.
It was Dorana. “How’s your brand new core feeling? All recharged and ready to go?”
I repeated my question.
“Well, it’s been a day since they installed it. We just finished prayer a few minutes ago,” she said.
A stain on my record. How could I argue for my outdoor privileges after that?
“I need to head outside before they close the gates to talk to some sinners. It’s important, but I can’t tell you anything until I confirm the rumors,” she said, and opened the door. “Once you’re at 100%, come talk to me.”
She gets to go outside? Does everyone else get to go except me in this damned facility?
I looked around the small stone-gray chamber. I was sitting on a charging stool, and there were thick cables protruding from my back. An emergency recharge. I checked my torso plate. Eighty-seven percent — good enough. I ripped the cables out of the ports in my back, and let them dangle above the floor. A sharp noise hit me from the side.
“Sin Galador, the Archvicar will see you in this room shortly,” it said.
I heard the door open again, and an archpriest, holding some new variant of an energy rifle, walked inside. He gave a quick look at me, then another robot entered.
Marvelous. It was always a sight to behold when you got to see the Archvicar walk around the facility. A stunning red cloak, with a clean chrome blue body. The archpriests were organics, and they never looked like they belonged here. But the Archvicars looked like they transcended this place.
“Sin Galador. You’ve missed prayer today,” the Archvicar said, his voice smooth as a river on a calm day. His optical sensors focused on mine, though his were an unnatural dark shade of purple.
“My apologies, I was stuck here recharging because — “
“I know what happened. You also failed to reach yesterday’s fuel quota. You transferred here not long ago, and already you’ve started to fail both the gods and the facility. Hieromeris IX is not for you. A transport for Hieromeris I will arrive in three days from now, and I hereby declare you to be pending transfer out of my facility. May the gods guide your path.”
The two quietly left the room. They had swept in like a hurricane and passed just as quickly.
Gods be damned!
I walked through the high, narrow hallways of the facility. It was home to over 6,000 sinners, and around 500 archpriests keeping it all together, yet it felt empty. The quick, sharp sound of my metal footsteps against the gray floor echoed above me, and faded away as it bounced off the walls. I passed the eidolon support room, then sped by the mining transport entrances that descended underground. Charging stations. The prayer hall. It was so similar to my last facility, except it looked newer, and had one important distinction.
A massive room appeared at the end of the hallway. The air felt colder, and the sound of the floor under my feet produced a dull, full sound unlike in the hallway. Several enormous black gates spanned the room, while archpriests patrolled the catwalks above. They carried large weapons that I had never seen before. They were sinister, silent, and patrolled overhead with an unnatural sense of calm. I imagined that they would not hesitate to use their weapons to reduce runners to slag and ash in the event eidolons failed to deactivate them first.
Every black gate was sliced in the middle by a thin crack of light. They moved slowly, but soon I could see the secret that was hidden from me for 90 years. How I wished to see something that they hadn’t built for me. How I wished to feel something that wasn’t meant for me.
I didn’t have the privileges to go through those gates, but perhaps the archpriests didn’t mind if I merely looked, and glimpsed a new world.
Strong winds blew a slurry of methane ice into the facility. The fierce contrast in colors was breathtaking. A crystal blue ground with rough white blotches clashed with the gray walls of the facility dominated. Fiery orange clouds, with dark reds and streaks of yellow, flowed like a river blessed with a painter’s brush overhead. A large group of sinners were returning to the facility. Ice clung to their metal feet, and what looked like snow stuck between their various joints and ridges all over their bodies. It started to melt as soon as they stepped inside the facility.
“First time seeing the great outdoors?”
I turned my head. Dorana found me.
“I’ve got some bad news,” she looked around. She came closer and spoke in a hushed tone. “I’ve asked around. The Protocardinal is coming.”
I asked her if she was certain. He must be planning something big. “I won’t be here three days from now anyway,” I told her. I was about to ask her what it was like, what it felt like to be outside of the facility, to see a vast open world unexplored by sinners, before she continued again.
“He’s coming tomorrow. And he’s not bringing gifts. And what he’s going to do… well, nothing matters anymore if his plan goes through,” Dorana said.
We were the only ones left in the room, except for the archpriests who occasionally glanced down at us. She spoke even more quietly.
“He’s going to introduce mandatory voice recording software for everyone, so that the archpriests and archvicars will have access to every spoken word. If we damage ourselves in any way, we will have to pay back the cost of repairs through additional service time. That could be years for every replacement part. That’s not all. We will have to work for every personal recharge by mining more fuel. Worst of all, he wants to suspend outdoor privileges in every facility on Meris. Completely shut it all down. I have no idea why, but that’s all I could gather.”
“Something strange is going on for such a sweeping list of changes,” I told her.
“I don’t care. This is too much,” she attracted the attention of an archpriest. He stared at us, still as ice.
Then she whispered as softly as she could, “I’m going to kill the Protocardinal. Don’t try to stop me. It’s for the good of everyone here.”
I walked past the poster beside my cell that proudly displayed the Law of the Savior. It was early morning, and everyone was lined up against the railings of the third level catwalk. Down below, I saw a procession of archpriests at the far end of facility. The Protocardinal, no doubt, was among them, slowly walking towards us.
I tried to talk her out of it. It would only make things worse, I told her. But Dorana was a stubborn soul, and the fact that all the organics, the Protocardinal included, wear lifesuits that can withstand just about anything didn’t make her reconsider. Punching, stabbing, nothing of that sort would work. And even if she succeeded, what will come of it? I knew we would all pay a terrible price, though I couldn’t say what it might be. A Protocardinal can’t die without consequences. I prayed that she would let it go.
I looked up, and I saw Dorana on the sixth level. Something seemed odd about her.
As the procession continued its path towards us, I kept looking at Dorana. She’d moved, bumping shoulders with other sinners on the tightly packed catwalk, and that’s when I saw it. She figured out how to remove the shield case around her internal charging pack, and it looked like an uncovered organ. Everyone around her looked mindlessly at the procession below, and paid no attention to her.
I glanced briefly below, and saw the rich purple and red of the Protocardinal in the midst of the procession. He was almost directly below us, and then he stopped.
“Sinners of Hieromeris IX, I greet thee. May the gods bless thee, and help thee on thy path to redemption,” his voice was deep, strong and genuine.
I looked back up to the sixth floor but couldn’t find Dorana among the crowd.
“The world outside has become much more dangerous since I have visited last. There are forces beyond that wish to corrupt us, and tear our faith from us. These forces wish to bring death to our doorstep, and take thy right to live multiple lifetimes. They wish to make life dark, barbaric, and short.
“Tis indeed a sore decision, but it must be made to guard all that we have all built: a sense of immortality, and a closeness to the gods themselves. I, therefore, must issue a canon decree, effective immediately among all facilities on Meris,” the Protocardinal said.
Above, several sinners parted like water in the wake of a ship. I saw Dorana gain speed. The archpriests turned their heads, and raised their weapons.
I don’t know what made me do it, but I jumped over the railings and fell three levels down to the ground. As I fell, Dorana vaulted over the sixth level railing and positioned her body to land on the exposed charging pack. I landed beside the Protocardinal, and a short second later a powerful explosion tore across the ground floor. It sounded like a wall hit my head. I felt my body rip apart. Then everything turned black, just like in the mine.
“I see thou hast fully recharged, Sin Galador. Tell me, art thou able to speak?” said a familiar voice.
My optics opened and the blurry image of reality gradually came into focus. I was in the same room as I was after the mining accident. An archpriest stood by the door. I looked to the right and saw the Protocardinal sitting nearby.
“I owe mine life to thee. If thou had not shielded me with thine own body, we would not be conversing at this moment. Eight archpriests perished in the explosion, and we shall soon have prayer for them,” he said.
I removed the charging cables from my back, and examined my body. I remember feeling parts of me being stripped away by the blast, but everything seemed to be new and functional now. They must have given me a new body instead of repairing my old one. Though it didn’t feel like a rebirth.
“Now, Sin Galador, the Law of the Savior permits thee to ask a favor of me. If it is within mine power, and the gods will it, I shalt grant it. Speak.”
As it so often happens when you die and are reborn, you wake up confused, and feel that you are missing crucial bits of information to make the transition back to the living.
“What happened to Dorana?” I asked.
The archpriest answered this time, “She’s gone. There wasn’t enough left of her to even serve as an eidolon.”
“I must have been out for a few days. Am I still on Hieromeris IX? Aren’t I to be transferred?” I tried to say without emotion.
“Given thy sacrifice, thou shalt remain hither and instill thy bravery in others,” said the Protocardinal. His accent was difficult to understand, but I nodded politely.
One favor. Dorana’s gone, and asking for her revival would be pointless. I have no need for repairs. My transfer has been waived. It almost seemed I scarcely needed anything else. My mind was housed in a shiny body without a single dent or scratch to be seen. Then I remembered what was missing.
“I need outdoor privileges. Protocardinal, can you grant this favor for me?”
He looked at me, then turned his gaze towards the floor. My words made the room cold, and a heavy silence descended upon the three of us. The Protocardinal took another look at me, but his eyes were filled with thoughts that I couldn’t decipher. Finally, he opened his mouth, and the spell of silence and cold lifted instantly.
“I shalt grant thee this. But I must warn thee, thy privileges shalt not be permanent. This goes not only towards thee, but other sinners as well as I take time to reevaluate our predicament. However, thou may exercise thy privileges after prayer. May the gods guide thy path,” he said, and they both left the room.
The entire facility performed prayer longer than usual. Many simply dispersed afterwards, but about 20 to 30 went in the direction of the black gates to exercise their outdoor privileges. I followed them.
It took considerable effort not to sprint ahead. This was going to be the first time I’d experience a new environment in over 90 years.
The gates opened slowly, and soon the outside world poured into my optical sensors. Icy methane was swept into the facility, but melted before it could touch the floor.
I took my first step into the unknown. A satisfying crunch of ice cracked under my heels, and a hard chill seeped into my body. My self-preservation unit started to whirr, as heat flowed back into my metal arms and legs. It worked much quieter than my previous body. I checked my charge, and I was still healthy, only a few percentage points off the maximum.
I looked back and saw several archpriests patrolling the high walls of the facility, eight levels above ground. They had the same menacing weapons as I had seen in the gate room.
The orange sky was darker than the last time I saw it. When we were about a hundred paces away from the gates I stopped to look around. The landscape of Meris was breathtaking. I could see small, icy mountains in the distance. A gentle swirl of wind kicked up a flurry of ice particles. The sound of it was like a sweet symphony for a tired soul. I collapsed on my knees from the sensory beauty of it all.
Suddenly, everyone stopped their slow march. Their focus lay somewhere in the distance, but I couldn’t see. Getting up from my knees I nudged a few sinners out of the way, and saw two tiny black dots on the horizon.
We stood there, motionless, watching the two points grow in size as they came closer to us.
After a few minutes I could distinguish them from each other. They looked alive, the left being rounder and taller, and the right being skinny. Suddenly, a deafening siren blared behind us.
“Defensive formations! All sinners return to the facility immediately!” A few energetic shots were fired into the skies. A warning.
I felt that everyone around me shared my thoughts and feelings. We didn’t want to go back. We were frozen between fear and curiosity.
“Final warning. All sinners return to the facility immediately. Archpriests assume defensive positions,” a hollow voice said. The archpriests were preparing themselves for something that we didn’t understand.
Several plasma bursts hit near us, turning the methane ice to a hot vapor. I ran forward, and others scattered in all directions, confused and in despair. No one ran back.
More plasma shots were fired, this time hitting several sinners. Legs and arms melted away, bright red holes carved through bodies, and the sound of ice vaporizing around us made everyone run faster.
A devastating sound erupted, and my left arm was blown apart to hot metal bits. Crazed, I kept running and didn’t look back.
We could see the figures clearly now. The left one looked like a walking, black monument, a towering figure with a cloak and thick metal body. The one of the right was a much thinner robot, with cables and wires protruding out of its head like hair. Its torso was wrapped in what looked like gold bandage.
The thin robot raised its long, narrow weapon, and fired over our heads. I looked back to see that every shot it made collided with the plasma bursts coming from the facilities’ archpriests, somehow intercepting them before they reached us.
We stopped in front of them. The towering robot on the left raised its hand, and the palm glowed in a strange blue. The sound of electronics shutting down buzzed through the air. The monitor on the inside of our right arms that displayed the time left until our redemption, as well as the details of our conviction, went blank.
The presence of the facility in my mind felt like it was swept away. I felt as free as I was before I was sent to this moon. It was an unfamiliar feeling, but uplifting and stunning.
The figures turned around, and slowly started to walk back.
We followed them, two strangers that led us to the unknowns of Meris. I felt safe with them, though I had no idea where they were leading us. I talked to the others, and they had no clue who they were.
We followed all the same.