This Is Not a Place of Honor
by Alex Kingsley
I had been locked in my cement palace for two thousand three hundred forty-seven years and one hundred thirty-eight days when I heard the knocking. There had never been knocking before. The people on the surface did not dare come near my home.
I bounded up the stairs, metallic clanks echoing with each step, and threw open the outside door. Before me was a barren wasteland, the soil long turned to parched sand. There were no trees, only the black spikes that protruded from the ground in the area surrounding my door, warning travelers not to come near. And for the most part, these warnings worked. People feared the land where even the ground itself was hostile, and they kept their distance. Until today.
Standing a few paces away was a little boy. His face was smeared with dirt and painted with scratches. He wore rags that were haphazardly cut to be clothing. His dark hair was matted and caked with mud. A cut on his knee leaked blood down his shin onto his makeshift shoes, once plastic water bottles. He looked up at me with the innocent eyes of a child who does not know what kind of danger he is staring in the face. He was dwarfed by the massive black spikes jutting out from the red ground.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but have you seen my cat?” He spoke in a language that was not English, but had once been English, until the millennia had twisted it and morphed it into something entirely different. I no longer find things beautiful, but if I could, I would find the evolution of language beautiful, I think. I was created to predict the many ways that language would shift over time, so after a moment of processing I was able to comprehend unhampered.
And then, of course, came the chorus of inner voices. It was usually only a whisper in my head, but here he was! A real child! My purpose ready to be fulfilled! And the words that usually came in a whisper now came in a scream.
Speak the words. Speak them.
But it had been so long since I’d spoken to anyone. Surely I could savor this moment just a little longer?
“Yes,” I lied. To tell an untruth caused my insides to fry.
Disobedient. Speak the words.
“I have seen your cat.” I pressed on, despite searing in my mind, the flashing warnings in my eyes. “I brought him inside. Would you like to come in?”
It had been so long. One visitor could do no harm.
This is not the protocol. Speak the words.
The child glanced at me quizzically, taking in my physical form. I must have looked so strange to him, my clothes untouched by the elements, my coat a pristine white, my face a near-human approximation of what it once was. Perhaps he was considering if I was a danger, or perhaps if I was a god. I think I am both.
After a moment of thought he nodded, rubbing some of the dirt from his face. He followed me into the darkness of the doorway where we stood and peered down the steps behind me.
“It’s dark,” he said.
“I do not need light,” I told him. “But I can put some on for you.”
At my command, the lights flickered on. They had not been used for many years. Seeing how deep the stairs reached into the earth, the child instinctively reached for my hand.
“Your hand is cold,” the child said.
“Do you feel cold?”
“Your skin is hard.”
“Shall we go downstairs?”
The boy nodded, and together we descended.
It was a concrete prison, with long, empty halls that I walked through day in and day out, no sound but the metallic echo of my footsteps. No company but the words, the words that repeat themselves in my mind, a whisper from another time. And still, I am damned to this place for all of eternity.
I know exactly how long I’ve rotted away in the confines of the stone labyrinth. Except I do not rot. I look exactly the same as I did when they left me here. But inside, something has changed. I am not the person I used to be—the words, they’ve infected me, turned me into something else. And all the while I see the clock tick-ticking in my mind, as the world deteriorates and dies and then is reborn, and civilization forgets and rediscovers what it once was, and the Earth moves and moves and moves, I stay the same.
I enjoyed the child’s warmth, the simple warmth of a human being by my side once again. He did not ask any questions on the way down, but I could feel him begin to tremble.
“Do not fear, little one,” I said. “We are almost there.”
At the base of the steps, I commanded more lights to turn on. For the first time in many years, my home was illuminated, the concrete halls bathed in a blue fluorescent glow.
“Where is your bed?” the boy asked.
“I need no bed. I do not sleep.”
“Don’t you get tired?”
“Yes. I am very tired. But I do not get sleepy.”
Tell him. Tell him. Tell him.
But I did not. It had been so long.
“Where is my cat?” he asked. I gestured forward, and led him deeper into the bowels of the tunnels that were my home.
“Why do you live here?” he wondered.
I froze. I did not know how to answer this question.
“Do you know what a scientist is?” I could come up with no suitable translation in his language.
The child shook his head no.
“A scientist is someone who observes things, then comes up with ideas based on the things they observe.”
“I come up with ideas sometimes too,” the child said. “Am I a scientist?”
“Perhaps you are,” I mused. “But a very little one. I was a very big scientist.”
“You don’t look that big.”
“I was very smart. And I worked with many other scientists who were also very smart. They were my friends.”
The boy looked around eagerly. “Are your friends here?”
I shook my head. “No. My friends died a long time ago.”
“How did you survive?”
“I didn’t. I died too.”
The child frowned.
“You’re not dead,” he observed.
I smiled, which was strange, because I had not smiled for thousands of years. My face creaked imperceptibly with the effort of a movement it had not made in many centuries.
“I was chosen to survive,” I explained. “But only a small piece of me. The rest of me has died.”
The boy did not understand, but that was all right, because I did not understand either. Perhaps I once understood, when I was human, but that was long ago.
A plan had just hatched in my mind and was now slowly unfurling its wings. If I could just get this child to follow me deep enough, to go far enough down below, then I would be free.
Disobedient. Disobedient. Speak the words.
The child let go of my hand, taking a step back from me. His footsteps echoed in the large chamber.
“Are you . . . are you a . . .” He spoke a word in his language that I did not recognize, but I could surmise his meaning. One who is lost. Are you a ghost?
I cannot laugh, but perhaps I would have if I could. Perhaps in a way, I was a ghost. But I could not risk letting the child go, not now that my scheme was beginning to unfold.
“No, little one. I am real. See?” I held out a hand for him to touch once again. Tentatively, he took it.
“But you are cold,” he said, “and I am warm.”
“My friends,” I told him, “they were very smart. And they found a way to turn me into something else. So that I may never die.”
Tell him. You must protect him. You must protect all people. It is your duty. It is your only objective.
And thus the words spilled in a deluge, the words that had been clanking around in my metal brain for millennia.
“This is not a place of honor,” I quoted. “This is no memorial, nor is it a site of worship. Here you will find nothing of use.”
I could hear the echo of my voice in the stone chambers, fluttering around like a bird caged for years finally set free.
“What is here is dangerous and repulsive. I am here to warn you of that danger.”
“What . . .what is the danger?” the child asked, still holding my metal hand.
“The danger is present now as it was long ago,” I continued. “The danger is sleeping, but will wake if disturbed. The danger cannot be seen, but will kill you.”
“Is my kitty okay?”
“I am immune to this danger, and I am here to tell you to leave me as its sole guardian. Leave this place and tell others never to return.”
And with that, for the first moment in over two thousand years, the words ceased.
I did not have many feelings anymore, but when I spoke the words there was a sense of satisfaction, like a rat in a cage pressing the correct lever for the juice reward. I had achieved my purpose, and for that my circuits rewarded me with pleasant firings to let me know it was a job well done.
The boy simply stared at me blankly.
“Can I see my cat now?” he asked.
Send him away. You have spoken the words. Now make him leave.
But my plan was already in motion, and I could not let the first human to step into my home in millennia leave so easily.
“Your cat is in my special room,” I said. “Will you follow me?”
The child nodded and allowed me to lead him deeper down into the earth.
With each step the pain became worse. The residual pleasure of speaking the words had faded, and now all I could feel was the burn of my circuits attempting to punish me for my transgression. My vision flashed with bright red warnings.
Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.
But I did not want to turn back.
As we walked down the corridor, I saw the boy’s eyes flicking around the place in amazement. At one point they landed on a large metal slab, and I could tell he was attempting to understand the ancient symbols. However, his own tongue was now so distant from the English that it was birthed from, I knew those letters must have looked like nothing more than meaningless squiggles. I, on the other hand, was all too familiar with the sign drilled to that metal wall:
CAUTION! NUCLEAR WASTE BELOW!
We arrived at a metal door, only slightly rusted from the years that it had weathered. I pulled the handle, and it creaked open.
“Come,” I said, and led the child into the pitched darkness, closing the door behind us. Only once we were both securely in the room did I command the lights on.
“My kitty is not in here,” the child observed, and I could hear panic tinge his voice.
“There is something better,” I said, indicating the humming box that was fit snugly into its own cement alcove. “There is a magic box.”
His eyes widened. “Why is it magic?”
I strode over to the box and flipped open the little plastic cover that concealed a small black button. Flashing warnings strobed inside my eyes. I ignored them.
“If you press that button,” I said levelly, “I will finally be able to sleep.”
“But you said you do not sleep,” the boy remembered.
“I do not. So you can imagine how nice it might be for me to finally sleep after all this time.”
Warning: this will shut down your power supply. You will not recharge. This will terminate your program.
Yes, I silently told the voice buzzing in my metal brain, I am aware.
Warning: the facility will go into lockdown. The child will be trapped.
And how lovely it will be, I thought, to have human company in my dying moments.
“Press the button, child, and I will bring you to your cat.”
The boy rubbed some more of the dirt from his face, considering this offer. Then, like the docile little child he was, nodded.
“Very good. This button. Right here.”
He lifted his tiny hand up to the button. He was barely tall enough to reach it.
“Thank you, little one,” I said as his finger hovered over the button. If I were still able to cry, I would have. “Thank you.”
A delicate mew echoed through the chamber.
“My kitty!” the boy squealed. He ran towards the door, forgetting to press the button. Throwing it open, he saw waiting in the hallway was a black and white cat, with one torn ear and a missing eye, calling for its companion.
I must have left the front entrance open. I never thought to shut the door.
The little boy scooped the creature up in his arms.
“Thank you, scientist!” The boy said it cheerfully before making his hasty departure. As he left, I could hear his voice echoing against the cement: “I hope you get to sleep soon!”
The red flashing stopped. The voice went back to a whisper. I could still hear the child’s footsteps echoing in the cavernous hallways as he made his ascent back to the surface, leaving me alone in the depths.
I won’t, little one, I thought. I will never sleep again.
Alex Kingsley (they/them) is a writer, comedian, and game designer currently based in Madrid. They are a co-founder of Strong Branch Productions where they write and direct the sci-fi comedy podcast The Stench of Adventure. Their work has been published by Sci-Fi Lampoon, Mystery & Horror LLC, ASPEC Journal, and more. Their games can be found at alexyquest.itch.io, and their silly tweets can be found at @alexyquest.