A lone figure walked through the Aridian desert. The hot sun beat down on her, the sirocco wind blasted and scathed her with abrading sand, and the desert nights lashed her with their cold, but still she walked on, because there was nothing else for her to do.
Her name was Miun. She was a Mieu-type android, perhaps the most advanced of her series. Red-haired, clad in a skimpy vestlike unitard that augmented her dermal sheath with additional layers of titanium and laconia, Miun was designed to be both beautiful and deadly. Only, the synthetic flesh of the left side of her face and her left shoulder had been savagely ripped away. Her internal repair unit should have been able to regenerate this damage, but for some reason it had not. A hitch in the command code, perhaps.
Or perhaps Miun simply did not want to heal. Her artificial intelligence was programmed for emotion, after all, and if it was possible to have emotions, then why not a subconscious mind? One which could not bear to erase the scars left by the battle in which she'd lost her beloved master, Orakio.
They'd ordered her to get away, Orakio and Laya had, while they sank to the ocean's floor with the palace of Dark Force, the demon they'd given their lives to seal. Miun had left them because she'd had no other choice, and had used the Twins' Ruby to seal the passage between the bio-spheres of Landen and Aridia.
Now her work was done, and she walked on.
Aridia was a strange world. It contained the Weather Control Tower, which regulated the climate of the spaceship Alisa III's seven bio-spheres as well as the orbits of the artificial satellites Dahlia and Azura. Its inhabitants were neither Orakian people nor Layans, but a village of robots and lower-grade androids called Hazatak. Miun thought she might stay in Hazatak for a while, losing herself among the pure logic of the emotionless mechanisms. The village was not far now, only one more hour's journey at her walking pace.
As might be expected, the machines that occupied Hazatak did not bother with celebrations. They served no purpose, for them. Thus, the fireworks-like detonations Miun picked up on her sensitive audio receptors could be only one thing.
Miun raced towards the sounds of violence, sounds whose source she'd reach very soon. It wasn't long before she realized that Hazatak was under attack.
Before they'd left to battle Dark Force, Orakio and Laya had issued a last command to the armies they'd led against one another for over a decade of war, a command not to kill. It was a first step towards ending the war, to restrict the slaughter to Orakian robots and Layan biomonsters. It was only a first step, though, and it left many loopholes.
One of which was that the mechanisms of Hazatak were considered fair game.
It was an even more unequal fight than that, though, because unlike the Palman troops, the robots could not choose to disobey Orakio's command, even in self-defense, so they only returned fire against the monsters, not the soldiers in the Layan band assaulting their village. Most of the robots were maintenance types anyway, technicians to assist in monitoring the Weather Control Tower and, ironically, Laya's Treasure, the hidden world within the bio-sphere.
Several buildings were in flame already, and the shattered bodies of dozens of robots lay scattered. Monsters had fallen too, equally innocent victims of a needless battle. As Miun watched, a Layan warrior crashed a fighting staff into the shoulder joint of a big Agribot, crushing metal and circuitry, actually knocking the arm off the robot's body. Though the Agribot could feel no pain, no sense of loss at the damage, for Miun it acted as a spark, a single focusing point for her own loss, her own anguish at the wanton destruction of harmless creatures.
With a howl that seemed to the Layan's ears to distill suffering and rage together in one despairing sound, the Mieu-type threw herself into the battle. Miun ripped the staff from the warrior's hand as easily as a parent might take a dangerous toy from a child, and spun a kick into his jaw that knocked him unconscious.
Unlike the non-sentient robots, Miun might have been able to break Orakio's command if given a sufficiently important reason. She did not try to do so, however; she had no desire to add to the carnage by taking Palman lives. To the monsters she was not so merciful; dreidons, biclops, pulsars, and goldroots all fell before her. Layans, though, were merely left stunned and weaponless.
More than once, Miun took hits in return--a blade here, a claw strike there. She all but ignored her own defense, trusting in her Recover ability to keep her going. Her strategy worked. The Mieu-type was one of the most skilled warriors on the Alisa III, and she cut such a swath of destruction through the Layan lines that they were forced to fall back and regroup. They did not renew their attack, though, but instead seemed to be waiting for something.
Finally, one of the Layans strode forward. He had two short staffs hooked swordlike to his belt, but his hands were empty. Not that this made him less dangerous; many Layans, especially their leaders, were powerful Espers. He had short black hair, and curiously enough, he wore spectacles with thin wire frames. They looked incongrous on his tall, athletic body.
"You seem unnaturally merciful for a combat android," he called out to her.
A parley? Was this a trick?
"In memory of Orakio, I will obey his last command to his followers and take no Palman life," Miun said proudly.
The Layan caught the most significant part of her declaration at once.
"In memory of?" he said, rocking back slightly. "Then the rumors are true. He is..." A look of sudden fear filled his expression. "And Laya?"
Miun hung her head.
"They're both gone."
"No..." he whispered in horror. "I've heard that they fought their last battle, but..."
"She died bravely," Miun offered.
The Layan's hand snapped up, rage burning in his eyes. Grief, as it so often did, found an outlet in anger.
"She died to stop things like you from conquering our world, from making us slaves to technology!"
He glanced around at his fallen troops, at the battlefield.
"Since you've chosen, for whatever reason, to fight with honor, I'll make you and offer, android. Combat by champions. If I win, then this village of mechanical nightmares will be destroyed. If you win, we'll abandon the field and return to our home bio-sphere. One on one, like Laya and Orakio."
That isn't how it was at all!
The logical part of her mind recognized the offer as her best chance of success; if Miun turned it down she would have to face the Layan general anyway, together with at least some of his forces.
"I accept," she told him.
He did not charge to meet her hand-to-hand, nor did he choose to attempt a spell. Instead, he clenched his fists, his jaw tightening, and the outline of his body blurred. Flesh, bone, clothes, and weapons alike seemed to merge into a body that swelled and grew. In seconds, Miun found herself facing a black-scaled dragon with opalescent eyes and razor-keen fangs and claws. Unlike most beasts, its foreclaws included an opposable digit, so they could serve as hands if need be.
"You are one of Orakio's most advanced creations. It is only fitting you should face one of Laya's!"
A Dragon Knight! Miun realized. Warriors who could transform themselves into an incredibly powerful beast while retaining their full intellect. They were indeed among Laya's strongest minions; Miun wished there had been one or more with them during the battle with Dark Force.
She had wasted too much time marveling at it; the dragon opened its maw and disgorged a spout of flame at her. The firebolt struck Miun's side, badly scorching her. The android tried to trigger her Recover utility while closing the range to attack, but it was slow to respond. Instead of a rush of power channeled to her damage control functions, it was more like a trickle. She staggered as she ran, and the dragon lunged, knocking her down with a buffeting sweep of its wings, mauling her abdomen with its claws. Miun fell, apparently inert.
Her opponent let loose a triumphant roar of pure, animal exultation, and turned to the village that was his prize. Miun, not quite defeated, managed to turn her head, watching through optical sensors that were blurred and stuttering. Slowly, her damaged body was rebuilding itself, but there were major injuries that would take too much time.
The dragon opened its jaws, focusing on a tiny Whistlebot, a technical specialist model with no combat capacity at all. Miun thought of Laya's Treasure, the secrets it kept, and how the robots of Hazatak maintained it. Then, instead of a helpless robot, she saw, lying there, the broken body of Orakio, barely clinging to life, awaiting his enemy's last strike.
Power was rerouted through tormented channels to leg muscles, renewing them, restoring them, and she lunged through the air, throwing herself between the serpentine monster and its victim. She did not take a glancing hit from the dragon's fire this time, but absorbed its full force.
The Whistle beeped in surprise, acknowledging the unexpected fact of its own continued existence, but that wasn't what Miun heard as her circuitry shut down.
"Thank you, Miun." A ghost's whisper, echoing in her audio receptor.
The Dragon Knight resumed its Palman form in shock, looking at the shattered body of the Mieu-type before him. Her sacrifice--it couldn't have been anything else--had jolted him out of his killing rage. He felt only an empty feeling at the loss of his lady.
He didn't want to destroy anything any more. Not even one of Orakio's machines.
A jewel glittered in the sand where it had been jarred loose from Miun's buckle. The Dragon Knight stooped down and picked it up. As one of Laya's commanders, he recognized the Twins' Ruby for what it was, the key to the Landen bio-sphere, so he slipped the gem into a pocket of his cape. Landed was an Orakian world; the jewel would permit an invasion at some later date.
Looking down at the wreckage of the android, though, he didn't think there would ever be one.
"Get the injured," he ordered his troops. "There's nothing worth wasting our lives on here. We should be home, defending Aquatica."
There was grumbling, but the soldiers obeyed. The robots of Hazatak, not programmed for war and seeing their foe retreating, made no attempt to continue the conflict. The Layans and their monsters were soon gone, having disappeared across the dunes.
Many hours more had passed, and Azura and Dahlia were high in the sky before the Mieu-type stirred.
Her faulty self-repair system, slowed to a crawl, had somehow managed to put Miun back together, still operating under her command to engage the Recover utility despite the fact that her self-awareness had been shut down and had to be rebooted. When this, at last happened, she jerkily rose to her feet, all alone in the desert night.
"I saved him," she said to the whispering wind. "Some day, he'll come striding back to me, black sword in hand, and I'll..."
Her voice broke off, her words continuing silently in her own mind. Miun wasn't quite aware that she had been speaking at all. Perhaps it had been the dragon's fire, or perhaps the corruption had been internal, a mind hiding from itself, but whatever the reason she was...damaged.
I'll see him again someday.