A silver-haired woman walked down the dusty lane. A cold chill kissed her cheek, and she gripped her cloak about her tighter. It was a fierce night, harsher than she had expected, though not bad enough to summon a magical transport. The celestial beings didn't like being summoned for mundane tasks, and witches that called on them often soon lost the use of their services.
She glanced up and saw the outline of a building ahead. She hunched forward into the wind, counted her steps, and tried to guess how close she was. Her right leg felt heavier, weighted down by an enchanted blade. She wore it out of habit, as the metallic beasts in the area had long ago learned to leave her alone.
She heard an electric hum, and turned to see a large, black machine approaching. Despite its thick, tank-like treads, it glided smoothly over the ground. It passed, coming to a hard stop in front of the building.
A tall man got out of the back of the vehicle, which shut off naturally. He stood there looking back at her, his white-gloved hands resting on a silver-topped walking cane.
She thought about shouting "hello," but didn't know what to say after that, and she was having a hard time keeping her breath. Finally, they stood next to each other.
"Felicia," he said, "good to see you."
"Blythe," she said, and began walking past him towards the building's steel doors.
Blythe matched step.
"Why do you think Leucyd called us here? A breakthrough in the portals?" he said.
"I doubt it. He wouldn't be this mysterious," she said.
"He could need help."
The doors slid open in front of them. Long strips of neon-blue bulbs switched on, revealing a wide and tall corridor. The lighting was electric, not magic. Due to their respective backgrounds, Blythes and Felicia were two of the rare few that could tell by looking.
A panel slid out of the wall, and a man stepped out. He had the long hair and white robes of a wizard, but the piercing, curious eyes of a scientist.
"Good afternoon Dr. Blythe," Leucyd said, shaking his hand. "Mother," he said, giving Felicia a hug.
He stood back for a second, sizing them up. He turned, and they followed.
Three pairs of orange goggles hung by the door of Leucyd's workroom. Leucyd grabbed a pair and kept walking, and the others followed suit. The room was well-lit, though cluttered with graphs, models, tools, and bits of circuitry.
At the center of the room, an android lay stretched out on its back, eyes dull and stomach opened up as if for surgery. Its head was large, inhuman yet shaped in man's image. A machine would have no need for the large, steel jaw.
"Meet Rem," Leucyd said, smiling, "his brother, Rom, had to be put down, but I'm pretty sure I solved the, ah, bug in the aggressive index."
"It's just a robot?" Blythe asked.
In the distance, a loud, metallic clang-clang-clang started up. Leucyd didn't pause.
"Robots, sure. We all know robots. AI and all that. But that's not what this is. This is sentience—true sentience, a self-aware being that can learn and explore as a human does. And I'm not talking about learning as I programmed it to learn, or-"
"And how did you manage that?" Blythe wasn't excited anymore. He looked irritated, bored. He'd come on the promise of a grand discovery, and what he got was Leucyd being Leucyd. Perhaps he had made a smarter machine, but even so the Scientific Council would just reclassify AI to include whatever progress he'd made, and that would be that.
"You see," Leucyd said, "there's an element of Rem's composition that's been missing from quantum robotics."
Felicia looked up from the android. "Leucyd, did you capture the soul of a Tree wanderer?"
"No. That is what it looks like though, isn't it? It took more energy than it takes to run this entire building, but that soul is home-grown, forged."
"That's impossible," Blythe said, crossing his arms.
"Everything's impossible, until it's tested," Leucyd said. He punched a few keys on a control panel, and Rem started whirring to life, its eyes blinking with static.
Felicia jumped back, her hand on her sword.
"What kind of safety mechanisms are in place?" she asked.
"Good question. The nanocooler uses tiny electromagnetic prongs, which I polarized and placed on opposing ends of a quantum dot crystal. Electrons have to change their spin when bouncing back and forth between the prongs, which burns the energy (and thus the heat), of the crystal. So the quantum computer core should be perfectly safe," Leucyd said.
"I meant for us. What kind of safety mechanisms are in place for us."
"You have your goggles?"
"Nothing built into the robot? Any kind of overarching laws to only serve and protect humanity?"
Leucyd threw back his head and cackled.
"Heavens no! Where did you get such a funny notion?" he said.
The whirring climaxed, and Rem's eyes glowed to life. From its chest cavity, long, spirally strands of white light twisted and flickered.
Felicia stared. She recognized the strands, the magical essence of life, though she had never seen them this clear, and never outside an organic form.
"Fascinating!" Blythe said, "Computers and magic intertwined. Only you could do this, Leucyd. Say, what if we-"
"Chhhhhhhhkqrrrkkk," Rem said.
Leucyd beamed as a father watching his newborn.
"That's adorable. Rem's learning to use his vocals," Leucyd said.
"Chhhhheeelp... Chhhest...," Rem said.
"Right, my apologies, Rem, but I don't quite have your torso finished," Leucyd said.
He turned to Blythe and Felicia.
"I have him connected to the quantum computer, so he can think and feel, but I haven't designed anything to keep the soul in place without damaging it, and I haven't motorized his limbs yet," Leucyd said.
"Wouldn't it have made more sense to finish the other stuff first, and then the soul?" Blythe said.
"Ah, but the order of convenience is not necessarily the order of discovery," Leucyd said.
Blythe nodded. For a moment, no one said anything. The scientist and the witch stood in awe, and Leucyd in flush exultation. This was the invention of the wheel, the capture of fire. This was man reaching for the heavens, and bringing his hands down from the clouds gripping lightning bolts.
And just like that, Leucyd's energy left him. His face looked pale, worn out, as though he had aged five years in a single moment.
"I'm tired," he said, turning to Rem, "Goodnight, friend."
He kissed the side of Rem's large, metallic cheek, flicked a switch, and Rem powered down.
Leucyd lay down where he stood. Felicia found a dirty pillow and blanket in the corner and tucked him in.
Felicia and Blythes took off their goggles at the door, and left the way they came in. Doors shut behind them, and lights turned off as they left. They said nothing until they were under the open wild of Electrica's sky.
"I'm surprised you didn't Magic your way over, on a night this cold." Blythe said.
"I don't have so much of the stuff that I can spend it willy-nilly. Just wait, one day you'll run out of whatever powers that damn machine of yours."
"Speaking of which, my, ah, chariot could seat one more, if the lady wants a lift."
She smiled, and felt her eyes water from something more than the wind, but shook her head. "Never again."
He nodded, and turned towards his machine. It started naturally, and the back door opened for him.
She hunched forward, and began trudging home.