Two hours later we’d managed to find some wheels, but only individual unattached ones, scattered on the ground near smoking heaps of junk, which wasn’t quite what we’d had in mind. The nuclear fireball sun was still up, but it was behind a mountain of dead vacuum cleaners, so everything was shadows, and I didn’t want to think about the kind of things that might come out at night in a place like this.
“I can’t believe the Rolling Steel Roadyard got infected with sentience and declared independence.” Howlaa kicked a pile of tin cans that scuttled away in squeaking dismay – turned out they were some kind of little mechanized hermit crabs, using cans for shells. Not all the cans had been taken over as housing, and some of the cans were still sealed, though the labels were burned off, and Howlaa sheared off the tops of a few with a scary knife and let me take my pick. I passed on the one that looked like eyeballs packed in gelatin and another full of noodles that smelled ranker than Cal’s shoes, but there were some canned peaches in heavy syrup, which gave me a little sugar high, at least, and made a change from apples.
“The unexpected acquisition of intelligence is always a danger here,” Wisp said. “Sentience is a virus in the Machine Waste, constantly configuring itself to run on new hardware.”
“Bloody go-carts couldn’t have waited until we were done with our trip to become intelligent? Or done it a month ago, so another shop would be set up by now? We need transport, and the only rental agency around is off learning about the joys of consciousness.”
“There’s another roadyard at the other end of the Waste,” Wisp said.
“Ha, yes, it’s just there’s leagues of intermittently awakening occasionally radioactive junk between us and there, thanks,” Howlaa said. “Nothing to be done about it. At least the Regent can’t see us here.”
I ate another slithery slice of peach. If I kept eating so much fruit I was going to get the runs like crazy, and that didn’t sound fun out here, where there was nothing but scrap metal to wipe your butt with. “Oh yeah? Why not?”
“Satellites that pass over the Machine Waste don’t stay in the sky long,” Wisp said. “This place is filled with sentient mechanical beings, all desperate to upgrade, and any of them would be delighted to have the sort of sensory array the Regent’s spy satellites carry. There are cobbled-together tractor beams and gravity guns here that can knock satellites down and pull them out of the sky.”
“Huh. So this place used to be an alien spaceship? What’s with the tin cans and fridges and computer monitors and all this other junk then? They eat peaches in outer space?” I slurped the last juice out of my can. I was still hungry, but not hungry enough to try those black noodles. Yet.
“A ship the size of a city,” Howlaa said, tossing sheets of metal and refrigerator doors aside and unearthing the torn leather back seat of a car, which she set upright. I whooped and joined her on it. After two hours of picking our way across uneven – and occasionally independently moving – terrain, my butt and legs were grateful for something resembling a couch. “The snatch-engines pulled the ship here from who knows where, and dropped it to the ground, where it broke like a whole basket of eggs dropped on a concrete floor. The royal orphans – though this was before they were orphans – swarmed all over the wreck, carrying off choice bits of machinery to build bigger and better snatch-engines. The rest they just left here. Bits of the wreck still remain. I wouldn’t be surprised if your jump-engine didn’t originate, at least in part, from that original wreck, though I’m sure the scientists made some major changes. For the past umpty-dozen years the snatch-engines have been grabbing whatever bits of metal and machinery they can find in the multiverse during any idle cycles, picking up junk and dumping it here. The Machine Waste has a little bit of everything from planet-destroying weapons to tin cans full of unidentified meat.”
“Were there any aliens on the ship?”
“The ship was an alien,” Wisp said. “A machine intelligence, though it had a biological brain – apparently the lump of neuron-packed meat so many of you bodied types carry inside you is a common data storage and processing medium. The brain survived the crash, unbeknownst to everyone, and many years later managed to assemble a new body.”
“That was the first steam colossus,” Howlaa said, leaning back in the seat with her eyes closed, as if turning over a pleasant memory. “Oh, I remember the terror the night it marched on the city center, bent on revenge – or so we thought. The Regent was in power then, but the Queen hadn’t been dead more than a year, and everyone expected the Regent to break and run when that giant thing, big as a building, came striding along, weapons glittering, eyes made of stolen satellites, the earth shaking with every step.”
“So what happened?”
“The Regent talked to it,” Wisp said. “No one knows exactly what they talked about, but somehow the Regent… made an arrangement with it. The steam colossus turned and walked back into the Machine Waste, and the Regent configured the snatch-engines to send mechanical matter here. A few years later, a second steam colossus – but a much smaller one – appeared, and went to the palace, and the Regent greeted the thing as if it had been expected.”
Wisp never needed much encouragement to lecture, so he kept going while Howlaa began to gently snore. “The Machine Waste is technically under the Regent’s control, but in practice, it’s no-man’s-land. The original intelligence on the ship made its own sentience into a sort of, ah, you might say computer virus? Only computer viruses aren’t airborne. This free-floating intelligence tries to find usable mechanical bodies, and those bodies then awaken, and begin to upgrade themselves. Those little hermit crabs we disturbed are one of the smallest forms of such intelligence, barely even self-aware, but gradually a few of them will clump together, and they’ll find something bigger to devour or be assimilated by, and before long they’ll be fully conscious and relentlessly ambitious. The best, smartest, most adaptable of those intelligences grow and grow until they’re big enough to be recognized by the original steam colossus… and it gifts them with an armored organic brain, presumably cloned from a chunk of the ship’s original central biological computer, and sends the new child off to work for the Regent. It’s only happened half a dozen times so far, and one of the steam colossi went rogue and Howlaa was sent to destroy it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the machine intelligences end up running Nexington-on-Axis in a few centuries.”
“Nothing around here has paid much attention to us,” I said. We’d seen mechanical intelligences go by – including some of the all-terrain vehicles Howlaa had originally been hoping to hire, spindly things with huge fat tires, only instead of being dune buggies for rent they were feral self-propelled sentients, now. There was nothing left of the Rolling Steel Roadyard but a Quonset hut flattened like a giant had sat on it. Which, out here, was maybe exactly what had happened.
“No. You two are organic – whatever else Howlaa might be – and I am Bodiless. Our kind don’t interest the things living here. Of course,” and he lowered his voice, “if any of the creatures realized what you have on your fingers and wrists there, they might become very interested in you.”
Howlaa stopped snoring and spoke, without opening her eyes: “That’s why I want to get us out of here as fast as possible. Even if the jump-engine disguises itself somehow, goes stealth, some things out here are very smart, and they’d all love to get their robo-claws on technology like that.”
“I ADMIT, IT DOES SOUND INTERESTING.”
I pressed my hands to my ears – a few months ago Jenny Kay and I snuck out to go to an all-ages rock show and wound up pressed right against the giant stack of speakers, and this voice was louder than the loudest guitar solo, such a deep rumble that I almost crapped myself, and all the sheet metal around us vibrated with a noise like thunder sound effects. I couldn’t figure out where the voice was coming from, except for everywhere.
Howlaa sat straight up, eyes going wide.
“BUT WHAT IS A JUMP-ENGINE?”
Howlaa transformed into the spider-thing again, and without being told I scrambled onto her back and let the shadow-saddle grab me tight. Wisp didn’t say anything as Howlaa started hauling ass across the junk-filled plain, and that silence freaked me out more than anything else – Wisp should have been explaining, or at least theorizing, talking the way he always did, but if he was quiet, something must be really wrong.
“ARE YOU RUNNING?” the voice boomed. “MAY AS WELL RUN FROM THE GROUND BENEATH YOUR FEET.”
Just like that we started rising up. By which I mean the ground rose up, and we rose with it. The piles of smashed toaster ovens, cell phones, gears with pitted teeth, and coiled wires in silver and copper and gold all rose around us… and something gigantic started to stand up.
Picture a kid buried in the sand at the beach. The kid gets up, elbows and knees poking out of the sand, then all the sand cascades down as the kid levers himself to sitting, then kneeling, then standing. Now imagine you’re seeing this from the viewpoint of an ant, a sand flea, some tiny bug just walking across the sand that covered the kid’s belly. From your point of view, that kid standing up, it’s an apocalypse. It’s the end of the world and the coming of a monster so big you can’t comprehend it, so big you can’t even get a sense of its form.
We were the bugs. (Howlaa literally.) I hung on as tight as I could, and Howlaa’s legs scrambled and twisted and found some purchase even when the ground went diagonal and then vertical, but we went sliding down all the same.
‘TELL ME ABOUT THIS… JUMP-ENGINE.”
“It’s the steam colossus,” Wisp said in my ear. “The first one. No one has seen it for years. It’s… bigger than it was before.”
Howlaa couldn’t speak any language I could understand in that spider-form, but she made some noises like feedback squeals and Wisp sighed and said, “Yes, I know.”
Before I could ask what Howlaa said, we were in a cage, surrounded by these black metal pillars that rose up and curled above us and –
Oh crap. The steam colossus was holding us in its hand. The thick black bars were its fingers. We rose up, up, up, until we hung before the thing’s face. Or maybe I should say “sensory array” or something, since there was nothing you’d recognize as a face, just lenses and things like microphones and doohickeys telescoping in and out and vents puffing out billowing white clouds of steam. “I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF A JUMP-ENGINE,” the colossus said. “AND I KNOW OF ALL THE TECHNOLOGY IN THIS PLACE.”
The shadow-saddle relaxed, and I slid down off Howlaa’s back. She transformed back into her human form. “Randy,” she said. “Miranda. Wait for us on the far side of the Machine Waste, if you can. Look for the Bleak Mountain Roadyard. We’ll get there as soon as possible.”
“What? How am I supposed to –”
Howlaa rushed at me, snarling, a knife in her hand, and I screamed, and raised my hands in front of my face, and
Just like before, when the railgun blew up the autogyro, I crossed space without moving. I landed – but it didn’t feel like landing, I was just there – on the roof of a dark blue Winnebago sunk halfway down in a sea of loose nuts and bolts. I could see the back of the steam colossus off in the distance, its huge legs all covered in hydraulics and pistons, with a row of spikes made of smokestacks running down its back, all gushing white clouds. Its body — wider than a battleship, taller than a skyscraper on top of another skyscraper — gleamed with oil.
“OH,” it said, turning – its upper body just rotated, its legs not even moving, like its torso was on a lazy susan. “THAT’S A JUMP-ENGINE.” I could see its arms now, all four of them, black metal covered with shining bumps that could have been the domes of telescopes or the closed roofs of missile silos. It opened its hand, and a tiny black speck fell – Howlaa. I shouted her name, but the falling shape twisted somehow and became a flying shape, long and snaky with big wings, streaking off toward me.
I was sure Howlaa would land and pick me up, but she just went past above my head, close enough for me to feel the wind from her many wings, and I screamed, told her to come back, to save me, damn it.
“DON’T BE AFRAID,” the steam colossus said. “YOU’LL BE PAST PAIN AND FEAR IN A MOMENT.” It stepped toward me, and just its approach must have triggered whatever turns on the jump-engine’s self-preservation circuit, because I teleported again. This time I wound up in the huge curved dish of a radio telescope, only there were big chunks missing from the surface of the dish. I was way up high, and though I’m not especially scared of heights, there are heights and there are heights, so I dropped down to my hands and knees and crawled as close to the edge as I dared. The steam colossus was still visible, but it was just a speck on the horizon, way past the point of reaching me, and I looked around, trying to figure out how I was supposed to get down off the world’s biggest satellite dish.
“NOT FAR ENOUGH,” the voice boomed, and I looked around, freaked out, because the voice was coming from the ground all around me. I crept up closer to the edge and looked down, and there were dozens of things clumping and grinding and rolling and spindling toward me, robots made of old lawnmowers and gurneys and tanks, things with mirror-balls for eyes and chainsaws for hands.
“Jump, jump, jump,” I whispered, but nothing happened – would I have to wait until a chainsaw was coming at my face before I jumped? One of the things rose up on telescoping legs like two cherry-pickers until it was higher than the edge of the satellite dish, though it was still pretty far away. It lifted an arm of polished copper pipe and something went thwock past my ear. I looked around and there was a wicked dart with fins stuck into the metal of the radio telescope’s dish, and the metal started to smoke.
They were shooting at me with acid-filled darts. And that still didn’t trigger the flight-or-more-flight mechanism.
I had a stupid idea, but it was better than no idea, so I ran for the other side of the dish, and without even looking, I jumped off.
I looked down once I was falling. There was nothing fancy underneath me. Just a big jumble of rebar, steel spikes pointing out in all directions, ready to impale me twenty different ways. I closed my eyes.
This time I did land, though not as hard as I should have, and rolled a couple of times and ended up on my back. The jump-engine had decided to save my life, again, once I didn’t give it any choice.
I opened my eyes. The sky was still there, the sun a ball of frozen fire just beyond the edge of my vision. I reached out my hand, dug my fingers into the ground, made a fist, and lifted my hand.
Grass. There was grass in my hand, and dirt. I sat up, and though I could see a bunch of white three-sailed windmills on a distant hill, I knew right away I was out of the Machine Waste. For one thing, there were trees. There were animals, too, sort of like cows but bigger and way shaggier, hairy like yaks, chewing the grass off in the distance. I was on a hill that lacked yaks or windmills, but was clearly part of the same geographical family. Beyond the hills I could just see a dull gray sparkling plain that must have been the Waste.
It looked pretty far off, and I wondered how long it would take me to get back to the edge of the Waste to meet up with Wisp and Howlaa. I wondered if I wanted to. Sure, I sort of understood why they’d taken off and left me to my own devices like that – they trusted in my device, the jump-engine, to save me when they couldn’t. But still. They could’ve told me the plan. And what if the stupid jump-engine hadn’t worked? Would they have come back for me?
Then again, I didn’t know where else to go. Off I trudged, over hill, past shaggy things, under windmills, until my feet ached and I was thirsty. I sat down on a nice big round rock and stared at the green hills in front of me, humps of grass hiding the horizon. The nuclear sun was getting dimmer, its last rays turning the sky pinkish, and things that weren’t exactly stars became visible in the sky.
“Miranda. You’re a long way from home.”
I just sat there. I recognized the voice – sort of nice-grandpa-sounding, definitely old. “You’re the Regent,” I said. “Beamed down from another satellite. Can you hear me? You got microphones hidden here? Maybe in one of those big yaks over there?”
“I don’t need microphones, Miranda.” The Regent stepped around me, still wearing those robes, hands clasped behind his back. He stood, his back to me, watching the sun go down. When the last rays of light vanished, he turned, just a shadow among the shadows. I couldn’t see the smile on his face, but I could hear it in his voice. “I’m here in person, Miranda, because you’ve landed on my country estate. Do you like it? It’s very pretty. Reminds me a bit of my childhood home. Except for the windmills and the woolbeasts.”
“Don’t come near me.”
“I won’t. I won’t threaten you by word or deed. I won’t so much as raise my voice to you. I’d hate to trigger your little escape hatch.” He shook his head. “It would be shame for you to run away before you hear my side of the story.”