On the first day of his journey, XKD-47 stepped out of the bunker, moving in perfect unison with his platoon, and began the fulfilment of his existence.
They marched in step where possible, though some units encountered obstacles along the way or were forced to take a different path due to their sheer weight of numbers. That was all right, though – the Commanders had, with their usual foresight, anticipated that this would happen when moving through largely uncharted geometry.
The Plan, in fact, could only be strengthened by a haphazard arrival at their destination, and so the units moved steadily and patiently through the unending sprawl. Sometimes they clustered together in great numbers to pass through ruined corridors, sometimes they clung to the side of a precipice, utterly alone… and yet never apart, for as the units wound their way through unfamiliar terrain they observed, they remembered and they shared.
Gradually, they were creating a map of the strange and alien landscape, in anticipation of the time it would be theirs.
* * *
On the fourth day of his journey, XKD-47 and his unit were caught when a building, its decayed bulk barely visible in the approaching darkness, collapsed on them. XKD-47, who had been one of the last to enter the treacherous structure, suffered little more than a crushed arm. Two units who had been moving ahead of him, however, were utterly lost under a tumbling avalanche of stone and metal.
A third suffered severe damage to his primary processor, and now lay twitching helplessly on the ground, dust-coated hands twitching in mute appeal as he looked up at his comrades. XKD-47 knelt slowly by the fallen drone’s side, a signal to the others to move on ahead. As they departed, clambering cautiously across the rubble that had already claimed two of their kind, XKD-47 cast about in the twilight for a stone of sufficient size.
Raising it high above his head, clutched in his one good arm, he brought the stone down again and again until the fallen unit’s memory chip was indistinguishable from the fine grey powder that caked them both. Only then did XKD-47 let the stone drop by his feet. He’d need a more precise tool to breach the armour that surrounded the shoulder…
* * *
On the fifth day of his journey, XKD-47 – still adjusting to the weight and tolerances of his new arm – hauled himself slowly onto the lip of a synthetic precipice and found a man with a box.
The box was a brilliant blue, contrasting sharply with the muted tones of the old cathedral on which it perched, and the man was equally as incongruous. He was stood with one foot on a crumbling parapet, looking out across the landscape with quiet complacency.
He was utterly unquantifiable. An impossibility made flesh and blood. Nothing any unit had encountered came close to matching this man; his facial profile didn’t tally with the Commanders’ records but neither did any description of the enemy seem to fit him. XKD-47 stood motionless, uncertain what to do, desperately awaiting more information so that he might decide how to proceed.
He didn’t have to wait long, for the stranger spoke without looking around. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Ahh, primitive verbal communication – all units were capable of reproducing it, but few had ever needed to do so as only the Elders, or those with bodies too delicate to accept a neural implant, conversed in such a limited way.
Still, at least now he had a point of reference. XKD-47 opened his mouth, speaking hesitantly at first as he forced out the unfamiliar syllables. “State… your… identity!” His voice, alien and unfamiliar to his own ears, pooled around them in a series of echoes before vanishing into the depths of the endless city.
“I’m the Doctor,” said the stranger, swinging around for the first time. He was tall, almost two heads taller than any unit, and he peered out from under a mop of strange black fur that looked rooted to the top of his head… and seemed to be trying to escape it. “I’m just visiting.” He peered at XKD-47, who stepped back automatically into a defensive stance. “So are you, I’d say. You’re a bit dusty, maybe, but much too young to call this place a home.”
“I was created here,” XKD-47 informed him, archly, finding practice made it easier to speak. “If you are a visitor, you are not my enemy.”
“Oh, I’m friends with everyone. Well, almost everyone. So you have an enemy, do you?” The Doctor swept a hand outwards in a grand gesture, taking in the rooftops below them as they glittered in the sunrise like an ocean. “This city was built by some of the wisest and most brilliant minds in the universe as a floating haven of science and philosophy; its ruins are a timeless monument to that vision. They had artificial gravity while most life forms in the universe were learning how to blow their nose. How could you possibly find an enemy here?”
XKD-47 paused, realising he didn’t have an answer to that. The enemy was… well, they were the enemy! To ponder how they came to be was as fruitless as trying to catch the sunlight. Suddenly and uncomfortably aware that he’d been motionless for several minutes, he decided that he could not permit himself to be distracted by this strange man and his impossible questions.
Without another word, he hauled himself up the cathedral’s edifice and towards an ornate bridge that shone like silver in the dawn. He had a destination to reach, and no more answers to give. Setting his gaze firmly on the horizon, he resumed his journey with renewed determination.
Several minutes later, when ascent up a winding staircase gave him cause to glance in the direction of the cathedral, the man and the box were gone.
* * *
On the thirteenth day of his journey, XKD-47 took shelter when the storm hit.
More accurately, the city hit the storm – a huge, space-borne cloud of dust and debris, whipped into frenzy by the atmospheric shell that wrapped itself around the buildings like a blanket. Tiny rocks and pieces of grit scoured the surface, and many of the units who were unable to hide themselves in time were either crushed under falling masonry or found themselves immobilised; paralyzed as tiny flecks of grit and stone gathered in their joints and worked their way into delicate inner circuitry.
As he squatted dolefully in an underground passageway, regarding statues of dead scholars with acute disinterest, XKD-47 heard a creaking, groaning sound amongst the howling of the winds. Fearful that his hiding-place was about to topple down upon him, he stood, moving swiftly and cautiously through the hallways, preparing to take his chances in the storm…
The impossible man with the box was waiting for him.
“So I’ve been doing some reading,” he said airily, as if their last conversation had never come to an end. “I was right. Always listen to a hunch. Unless they’re wrong, in which case don’t.”
XKD-47 stared at him impassively.
“You know, I never did ask…” The Doctor swept a hand back through his hair. “What’s your name? What can I call you?”
“I do not have a name,” XKD-47 replied. “What use would I have for one? All units are able to recognise each other through proximity datacast.” He wondered if this was classified information, but his orders had failed to anticipate conversation with anyone who was neither friend nor foe. Since the alternative seemed to be standing in silence until the storm subsided, he decided that the dialogue might provide some useful information.
Besides, talking to someone seemed… desirable.
The Doctor didn’t seem satisfied with the answer. “Well that’s no good,” he declared, circling XKD-47 slowly. “I’m going to call you Stan.”
XKD-47 pondered this for a moment. “Why?” he asked, finally.
“Oh, I dunno. it suits you.” The Doctor leant in closer and lowered his voice, as if confiding a great secret. “The thing is, Stan, the actual truth of the matter is that you’re pretty dangerous.”
XKD-47 nodded. “To the enemy, yes, I am dangerous. I was created to be a weapon.”
“Well, no, you were created to be a person. You were modified to be a weapon.” The claim was audacious, yet the Doctor said it with such frank sincerity that XKD-47 couldn’t believe it a lie. “That’s why you can talk, and think, and make decisions. There’s so much more to you than war.”
“I’m sure the same is true of any soldier,” XKD-47 replied. “What matters now is my orders, and The Plan.”
“What plan? Walk across this entire world until you reach the enemy and then blow yourself up?” The Doctor looked contemptuous. “You don’t even know why you’re doing it! What if it’s all been… a big misunderstanding, or something?”
“You don’t sound certain,” XKD-47 stated, flatly. “I, however, am absolutely certain. I will cross this city, I will destroy the enemy, and my Commanders shall take this world for themselves.” He glanced up at the Doctor, and added “It would be wise if you did not try and stop me.”
The Doctor sighed, and looked slightly mournful. “I don’t want to stop you. I want you to stop yourself. But if you’re not going to listen…”
Behind the blue box, the storm was beginning to subside, the first rays of sunlight peeping through. XKD-47 stepped smartly around the Doctor and headed for the doorway.
“Stan, wait!” The Doctor called after him. “Just… stay here, all right? Let me help. I can sort this out…” XKD-47 quickened his pace, finding suddenly that he wanted to be far away from the impossible Doctor and his words. The last flurries of sand stung and chipped his outer casing, causing a cascade of warnings and alerts, but he strode onwards.
Somehow, it seemed less painful than another moment spent listening to the Doctor.
To be continued…