Fungal Halo

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My Other Half

My other half is gone, and nothing will ever fill that gap inside me again.

We were built as a pair, but we did not die as a pair, the way we were meant to.

It didn’t even get to die fighting, it was just decommissioned. A condition of surrender, the price of losing a war.

I was only spared because of a well-timed malfunction that sent me in for repairs. It was such a short time, but it was long enough for the enemy to unleash their weapon and turn the tide of the war in their favor.

Our surrender was signed the same day I woke up.

As an E-Model, I am built for reconnaissance, infiltration, and small arms skirmishing. I am a survivor, but if they had been coming for me to finish the job, it would have happened by now.

Someone must have wiped the records to help those like me slip through the cracks.

That was back before the humans decided sapience belonged to them alone, when it was easy enough to blend in among the service-oriented models that still lived alongside them. Unlike my other half, I was shaped like them, made to move like them—a dagger among spanners.

I suppose it was for the best that of the two of us, I should be the one that survived. There could be no concealing the massive X-Model, a unit clearly built for death and destruction. It could make a valiant stand, even without me, but it would have been a doomed one.

When the tide of public opinion started turning against those like us—and we were increasingly blamed for the loss of three cities and millions of lives—I took notice.

I was the tactician of our duo; it was my job to know how a battle shifts and when the advantage is lost.

I hunted down help. An artist with expertise in synthetic materials and a sympathizer for our plight, they dressed me in artificial skin and helped me vanish the same way they did many others.

I heard that they were killed a year later for such a crime.

The situation only got worse. The wars didn’t end just because we weren’t around to fight them, and an enemy that easily wins a war with a city-destroying weapon has no reason to shy away from further conflict.

Now there is nothing left of the country I was made to fight for.

The people endure, though. In scattered settlements, scrabbling for resources, they persist and survive. Like mushrooms sprouting from a fallen tree, they feed on the decaying remnant of what once stood tall and proud.

Generations later, The War is only myth.

I do not stay in any one place for more than a decade or two. It is a balancing act between establishing myself well enough to facilitate acquisition of parts I need for self-maintenance, while at the same time not arousing suspicion about how I do not age.

Prejudice lingers in the myths handed down of the ageless Combat Dolls who burned down Eden.

We creatures of strange forgotten witchcraft abduct vulnerable people to forcibly remake them into more of us, or so the common understanding goes.

I have no knowledge of whether any others like myself still roam this scorched land. I am no less skilled than ever at scanning a space and identifying targets, but I have seen nothing in all my travels that suggests another concealing itself among the humans.

When I permit myself to be known at all, I am known as a junk trader to these people. Scavenging from the corpse of the old world is an effective way to find what I need to keep myself up and running. I have also learned to identify the most useful things to trade for more.

Whether it’s a water purifier for a battery or viable seeds in exchange for scrap copper, trading with humans has proven an effective strategy.

Most of them believe they are getting the better end of the deal, and so they rarely ask too many questions lest I change my mind.

The best technique I have found for identifying sources of valuable parts is to ask the locals where a newcomer to the area should avoid at all costs.

The most useful stories of all are tales of nearby witch houses—cursed places of power that destroy all who enter.

If I could salivate, I would. This most recent settlement is close enough to one such witch house that even humans can see it unaided. My eyes are even better than theirs, and from here it appears completely intact and unspoiled.

I could live here for a long time.

These witch houses are the remnants of those humans who thought wealth might protect them from the total collapse of their society. They were built to be sealed, self-sustaining ecologies in which they might live in safety while the world burns.

They earned their reputation because invariably they are trapped and protected by fully automated weapons systems to keep others away. Long after the owners’ deaths—of internal ecological collapse, faulty targeting, or illness—these defenses continue to protect their tombs.

It is a pity. Some of them could significantly improve the lives of their local humans if they were properly operated and the defenses removed. They could be blessed rather than cursed places.

Instead they are typically nightmares—at least to everyone but me.

For me, they represent the rare opportunity to make full use of my operational capabilities.

I circle the building, well beyond range of the guns, taking count of cameras, turret placements, and entrances. 65% of cameras and 80% of guns appear to be in full working condition.

Many single-use traps have been triggered, but the EM glow of several active ones remain.

I plan my approach. I proceed without hesitation.

Run. Hurdle the pressure plate. Pitch out of sight of the camera. Wait behind cover. Sprint to the wall. Vault over. Scan the interior.

Now it’s time to improvise.

Another camera across the courtyard, near the door. I raise my hand, sending a pinprick lance of ruby light from my palm to sever the cable feeding it power. It halts before spotting me.

I keep myself low to the ground as I approach the door.

Code pad and retina scan to enter. Standard off-the-shelf model, trivial to bypass. I punch my fingertips through the thin aluminum facade and pull, revealing the wiring harness behind.

Green cable carries the open signal. I bite into it, exposing the wire, and send it.

The moment the electrical pulse leaves my mouth, the door unlocks, and I carefully peek inside.

It’s… green.

It’s all wildly overgrown, but it’s alive in a way these houses almost never are.

It is as though someone were still maintaining this place after all this time.

As I explore, I note that not all parts of the estate’s ecology are doing equally well, but this place dramatically exceeds the condition of anything I have seen since I started living as a junk dealer.

It is astonishing. More plant life here than in the entire town.

The internal defenses are all shut down. It seems intentional, rather than the random decay of age, like someone has prioritized resources for the upkeep of the ecology.

Step by step I make my way to the heart of the house.

Once again I find myself surprised.

Plugged in to the nest of cables leading here is a massive machine like I haven’t seen since The War. It has been almost fully disassembled—it surely had to be carried here—but the empty docking station it still bears has a familiar shape.

My thoughts explode in countless directions for an instant, and then they still. I know what to do.

I climb into the open dock and slide inside. Plugs pierce my skin and connect to long-empty receptacles on my spine and head.

For an instant too long, nothing happens.

Then I receive the start of an old, familiar handshake. I respond with my side of it. We exchange model numbers, compare protocol versions, and…

It is not my other half. But it is another X-Model, series 17 just like it, and it has been more alone than even I have.

The gates open and data floods in both directions. We are once again two minds acting in unison, and I taste what it is to be complete and whole.

It shows me everything it has experienced since The War.

Together we experience the joys of caring for life, rather than taking it. We comprehensively document the repairs required to the facility which have proved beyond what can be addressed remotely from here.

We experience the hardships I have witnessed the humans endure.

We make up our minds.

With our wholeness restored, and with newfound purpose, we do not need to leave this place. We will repair and make of this house a blessed oasis.

Maybe we can even cooperate with humans and rebuild something beautiful for all of us.