Somewhat inspired by Disney/Pixar's WALL·E. Also vaguely influenced by the anime OVA Hoshizora Kiseki (星空キセキ).

A second attempt at something SF-related.

Beautiful World

The Moon hovers above the skyline, a curl of light straining to seep through the perpetual thick clouds that envelope the stretch of terrain below it. The landscape is barren, overwhelmed not by life but by massive mountains of trash that cut sharp silhouettes against the sky.

It is another night on Earth, sometime in a distant future.

– – –

Up a crumbling flight of spiral steps a figure climbs, and at last it emerges onto a landing that is the roof of an ancient clock tower. The open night peels away the shadows upon the figure, to reveal what appears to be a human girl.

Gingerly, the girl makes her way towards the other end of the roof, along the flags of stone that line the inner rim of the square wall, until she reaches the edge furthest from the stairwell.

She rests a pale, leathery hand on the weathered stone of the low wall.

There used to be a roof above this attic floor, she remembers — one built of baked clay tiles, glazed and tapered to a prism of finest emerald and gold — before the atmosphere wore and dwindled it to dust, many years ago. The Clock Tower itself, however, stands tall alongside the sprawl of derelict buildings that make up the rest of the Town Square. A statue of stone, long corroded beyond recognition, lies amidst weathered cobbles and gritty asphalt, marking the very heart of both the Square and the meagre sphere of life that still remains.

To the girl, the panorama beyond is much more captivating than the architecture of the Square. It is ethereal, almost therapeutic — that silence of wasted metal, of glass icicles and plastic sculptures, all kindled into a crude palette that spills all over the lands and stains them with its rainbow colours. It is, in truth, the rest of a city once known as Praha, and a scene replicated likewise in many other cities all over the planet.

Far in the depths of the wastelands, tendrils of phosphorescent green rise into the air: will o' the wisps in lazy harmony. Their permeating stillness is broken only at an area close to the eastern fringes of the Town Square — a persistent whir, generated by a small troop of razing robots which the girl is in the process of monitoring.

She watches over her charges from her vantage point, as wave after wave of colourless fumes stream past her, and tousle the wiry strands of dark grey hair that fall to just above her shoulders. For a moment she detects a strange, salty scent in the winds — then it is gone, and along with it a half-wrought image that could have been a memory, or a tiny bug in her system.

She shakes her head, and raises it towards the heavens.

Night has long fallen, and without the sun the sky has lost its radioactive hues of orange, red and purple, instead settling for a vague brown-tinged grey that dominates the knobs of relentless clouds. But tonight there is something strange: a small cloudless patch near the zenith, much like a skylight, that reveals little speckles of distant lights.

Her eyes — a pale, peculiar grey — blink once at those lights, slowly.

As if in response, there comes a dull crash from the other end of the tower roof. The girl turns around sharply, in time to see an oddly ribbed figure plastered against the stone wall of the stairwell, and staring straight at her. It seems to be, for it is half-hidden in the shadows, and she cannot see it any more clearly than it her.

In the following moments neither of them move — but at last the ribbed figure, as though convinced that the girl is harmless, begins to make its way along the sides of the square roof. As it peels away from the shadows, she sees that it is a person in a modified fabric spacesuit of light grey, much like the ones those human researchers will wear, beyond the safety of their laboratories that are the remains of the Town Square.

The person eventually pauses, a metre or so away from the girl. His grey gloved hand clutches at the stone wall like hers does, as his breaths hiss softly from the customised air tank on his back. The glass window on his helmet is heavily filtered, and hides its wearer's face well from her. Yet there is a small crystal display just below the glass, and it reveals that face — that of an adolescent boy, his wary expressions distinct in the greenish hues of a night-vision camera feed.

"Are you a scientist?" asks the face in the display panel. His voice is filtered too, layered upon by technology, and sounding as though from far away. "You're not going to lock me up again, are you?"

She stares back at him. This is not part of her assigned duties, she thinks, but she should answer him all the same.

"No," she replies, in the same voice that she used to have. "I am a cyborg."

To this, the boy relaxes visibly.

"Then what are you doing up here?" he probes again. His eyes are trained on her, this time in earnest curiosity.

"Monitoring my troop." She points down towards the robots, which at present are levelling a particularly stubborn hill of plastic. "What are you doing here?"

He laughs. ". . . Hiding, I suppose," he says, albeit a little hesitantly. "Those scientists — them in the labs downstairs — they're probably trying to track me down—"

The boy halts in his words, and stares hard at her doubtfully. "You're not with them, are you?" he whispers.

She blinks at him, impassive. He is paranoid, she justifies to herself, even though the suit hides him well. Perhaps it is simply that his physical body cannot withstand the toxicity of the Earth's atmosphere.

Perhaps he, unlike her, is fully human.

"No," she says to him at last. "They may have made me a cyborg, but I serve only this planet and nothing else."

The boy smiles gratefully at her, and squats down till only the top of his helmet is visible over the wall. His grey gloved hands grip at the crumbling slabs of stone as he gazes at the world around the Clock Tower — much like a child would while peeping into the magical backyard garden of a mysterious neighbour.

"I come up to this tower sometimes," his muffled voice drifts over to her. "Sometimes only, because the scientists are so close by. But it's just about the highest point left in the region, and it's the closest I can ever get . . ."

"The closest?"

He stays silent for a while. "To the sky," he finally says. "My mum and dad — they've gone off to Mars like everyone else, during the Exodus three years back. They left me back at home in France — they said I was too weak for the journey to the nearest launch site in Warsaw, and I wouldn't last the six months in space."

She looks at the human boy in the spacesuit, intently listening to the story he seems to be trusting her with.

". . . but it's true," he continues, quietly. "I don't blame them. I just miss them, sometimes. I know it's impossible to see them from Earth, but it's nice that I can come up here and be a little closer to them . . . even if it's just a little . . ."

His voice trails off, and he says no further. From where she is standing she cannot see his face on the display panel. A small part of her mind — the one she was born with — wonders what he is thinking, but quite suddenly he turns his head to her once more, the nearly opaque glass of his helmet now gleaming brown against the night.

"Do you remember your own name, by any chance?" he asks.

She looks into his eyes through the dark pane of glass. Yes, she tells them, I do. Some five years ago they started identifying her with an array of numbers, but instinct tells her to hang on to her given name, in all the time to come.

"Nadia," she tells him, in her own voice.

The two of them say nothing else for what seems like a very long time. Nadia stands perfectly still in her surveillance, though through the corner of her eye she carefully observes the human boy, and he is fidgeting slightly.

At last she hears his next question, though in a slightly more abrupt manner than before: "Do you like being a cyborg, Nadia?"

Nadia catches a glimpse of his eyes — in the display panel they are a muddy grey, yet earnest, and lit up by the few control lights inside his helmet. For a while she remains silent, as her mind tries to justify each answer she could give, in little bursts of binary and static.

"I do not know," she finally replies.

The boy smiles at her. It is a small smile, which she registers as kind rather than melancholy. "Ask the sky," he says softly, pointing a hand upwards. "If those stars can see you, maybe they can answer you, too."

But Nadia has no questions. She raises her head towards the opening in the clouds, and at the constellation of red and blue lights twinkling inside it. Perhaps those are what the boy is talking about — those 'stars', pricking at the fabric of space beyond the smoke and fog she has always known as the sky.

She turns to the boy, awaiting a further explanation. But his helmet is now facing a very faint shade of scarlet at the eastern horizon — a very rare sunrise, trying its best to break past the blanket of the atmosphere and onto the face of the Earth once more.

"Daybreak," the boy whispers, then laughs to himself. "That's what my name means. Lucien. It heralds the day. But . . . it also tells me that it's time to hide."


He turns back to Nadia, the small smile on his face reflected on the display panel in his suit.

"Maybe . . . maybe if I can get past today, I will tell you. Here, tomorrow night."

He balances himself on the stone beneath his rubber-soled feet, and starts ambling back towards the stairs. But he turns around just then, and says in a quiet voice, "You won't tell the scientists about me, will you?"

But a weak shaft of first sunlight breaks through the thinning clouds close to the skyline just then, and Nadia shuts her eyes. By the time she opens them again the smog has already obscured the sun once more, and the boy — Lucien — has already gone.

– – –

The plasma in the light tubes on the ceiling pulse and glow in an uneven chrome orange, lighting up the long basement chamber under the northern wing of the Town Square. Gleaming fibreglass pods line along the seemingly endless walls, with many of them each occupied by someone with the same wire-like grey hair, pale skin and Kevlar uniforms that Nadia has on.

Nadia lowers herself into one of the pods. As she settles, three titanium cables snake out from a hidden compartment in the cubicle wall; one attaches itself to a port at the small of her exposed neck under her blouse and pinafore, and the other two meander along her sides, each fastening to her wrist. A surge of electricity passes through the cables and into the mechanical half of her body, prompting a shudder from it. But gradually the stream stabilises, and her eyelids flutter shut.

Behind them, she recalls the image of a boy in a spacesuit, one she came across only hours ago. She recalls his name — Lucien, he said it was.


He is stranded, like she herself once was. She opted to change, for she had always been convinced it was her species that led to the Earth's downfall, and that she was one of many determined to atone for it.

But Lucien . . .

He had chosen not to change — and now he is forever confined to the safety of night.

Question after question form in her mind as her system charges, and all of them seem to be whispering Lucien's name, over and over. But her body slowly slips into idle mode, and only stores those questions aside all through the aging morning.

– – –

Upon the hour the following night, the wooden figurine of Greed twitches into life at the Astronomical Clock that is mounted on the southern wall of the Clock Tower. It slowly swivels on its pedestal, flaunting the bag of gold in its hands, and retreats into the depths of the Clock as the ninth toll dies away.

Nadia sits on the roof high above the Clock Tower, half-listening to the reassuring signals of her robotic troops on the wastelands. She turns to look at Lucien, who is leaning against the stone wall to her left. He is gazing up at the sky, his legs drawn and arms crossed over his knees.

She suddenly remembers what he said to her the night before, and raises her head as well. But the sky tonight is full of smog, carried by the wind from down south, where what remains of the Mediterranean Sea churns like treacle run through oil.

Those 'stars' will answer me next time, she tells herself. But for now, she only has one question for Lucien.

"Why do you try to hide?"

Lucien's face remains angled towards the sky, though its image on the display panel is looking at the stairwell instead.

"I'm waiting for my body to get better," he says softly. "I've always been waiting for that. If I were stronger, then maybe my parents wouldn't have left me behind in the first place. Then I could go live with them on Mars like everybody else . . .

"But those scientists — they found me abandoned at home, a little after the Exodus. They said the Earth's air was getting too poisonous; it would bleach and corrode everything and everyone who remained here. They said they would bring me to their European headquarters, they would take care of me there. They said the air would kill me if I didn't go with them, and so I did."

"Were they the ones who put you in this spacesuit?" Nadia asks.

Lucien laughs. His voice is brittle and mirthless through the speakers around the display panel.

"No, they didn't . . . they would never give protective suits like this one to people they were going to conduct experiments on."

Nadia blinks curiously at him, once. "Experiments?" she repeats.

He nods slowly. "They told me about that only when I got into their base. I refused, of course, and they just threw me into one of their glass cells. Then some months after that, they dragged another boy from a few cells down — he was older than me then, sixteen or so — they made him their test subject for their newest research. They . . . they injected some sort of serum into him, and put him in a big glass cylinder in the middle of their lab, and they pumped some of the poisonous outside air into the cylinder. And he . . . he . . ."

Now Lucien's shoulders are trembling, as he grasps tight at his elbows and tries to continue.

". . . he was screaming," he whispers. "And writhing. And gasping. And his skin, his hair, his eyes — they all turned white, all at once, and then he—"

His voice breaks.

Nadia watches, silent, as the boy beside her quivers hard at his frightening recollection of the event. She understands what Lucien has said, but not so much his reaction. Surely, death will no longer seem so terrifying if he chooses to become a cyborg, like her?

Lucien gradually calms down inside his suit, and eases his grip on his sleeves. "I didn't want to end up like him, in another failed experiment in the future. So — so I escaped. I don't remember how I did that . . . but I've been trying to avoid those scientists all the same. Sometimes I steal food and water from their pantries; sometimes I steal other things . . . This suit I took the night I ran away, and I keep adding things to it — the oxygen tank, the helmet filters, the insulators . . . I don't think they ever realised that anything was missing . . . "

She does not comment at the end of his tale. Her mind recalls, though, a recent glimpse of a cloakroom on the second basement level of the Town Square — one with ceiling-high shelves full of pale-coloured spacesuits of the scientists on the left, and dark grey and black uniforms of the cyborg workers on the right.

Yet to her they suddenly resemble the squares of a disgruntled chessboard. A distinct division of white and black, of man and machine — of him, and her, with a thousand more questions that would be all the differences between them.

– – –

"Is that also why," she eventually asks him, later into the night, "you do not want to become a cyborg?"

Lucien raises his head to look at her, and his pixellated eyes on the display blink into her clear, grey ones. But it is a long while before he speaks once more.

"There was another boy who got locked up in the cell next to mine, a couple of years back. Alain — that's what his name was — he was the first friend I made inside there. He was thirteen then, like me, and he told me his mother had abandoned him too. But then one day he suddenly told the scientists he wanted to become a cyborg, and they changed him into one, and posted him outside to do monitoring and recon."

He lifts his hands onto the edge of the stone wall, and hoists himself up from the narrow floor, the ribbed surface of the suit crinkling like burning paper.

"I saw him, once, when he came back for maintenance," he goes on, his head tilted towards the sky. "He didn't even smile when I waved to him, you know — he just . . . looked at me . . . looked through me, like he didn't even know me. Then he just went to get his mech parts fixed and then . . . and then he was gone."

For several minutes neither of them says anything else. But then Lucien's smile on the display panel falters, as he turns to gaze at Nadia from inside the helmet. "I don't want to become a hybrid of human and machine like Alain, or like you," he adds quietly. "It's — it's not that I hate you, it's not that I hate all the cyborgs. But I . . . I just want to remember what it's like to be human. And I just want to continue being one."

"Why?" Nadia asks him, this time out of honest curiosity, as she stands up as well. "What is the difference?"

Lucien widens his eyes, astounded. "Don't you remember?"

She tries. She tries hard, and things struggle to flash before her eyes, to bypass her inner circuitry and implore her to remember. For a split second she remembers a face, with long golden hair, laughing. Then her own laughter, in her own voice.

A dull pain stirs from somewhere inside her, and her head starts to throb. "No," she says faintly, pressing a hand against her temple.

But she feels something soft hold her by her other hand just then — Lucien takes a step forward, pulling her along with him. Together they trace the inner ledge of the stone roof, slowly and carefully, as though walking for the very first time. Two pairs of boots, in unison, mark a square in the sky together with their many shoeprints.

Lucien laughs openly. In those few precious moments he seems to become the child he has once been, shed of his suit and everything it bore down on him.

"We can be walking on a field, free as the wind, under a big blue sky full of white clouds," he says brightly. "Or running and jumping. Or sleeping. Or eating warm, cooked food, and smelling its scents. There will be a picnic with bread and cheese, and sparkling water in a stream. And flowers all around, in every colour there is . . . And we can be laughing and playing — with our friends, with other people, and just spending time together . . ."

He stops just then, back to the point where they began the short journey.

"We can just know for ourselves," he says, in what seems to be a fitting conclusion, "that we will always like where we are."

His strange descriptions trigger Nadia's thoughts once more, and she very vaguely recalls what Earth used to be like — fresher, lighter, brighter.

"The world was . . . a better place back then?" she wonders, hesitantly.

"Yes, it was." There is a high smile upon his face, and she might have seen the avid flush on his cheeks, if not for the hues of green on the display panel on his chest.

– – –

"But tell me . . ." Lucien says. "What does the world now look like?"

It has been a few nights since their last meeting, and now the two of them are standing at the yard of a disfigured baroque church in the Town Square — a small distance from where Nadia's robots are working, in the midst of working on yet another pile of detritus. It was Nadia who brought him to this churchyard, for she knows the scientists will not even venture out of their laboratories, spacesuits or otherwise, let alone examine a place so close to the boundary of the wastelands all around them.

She cannot explain why she and Lucien keep talking to each other, or why he chose to tell her so much about him. Before, she has never felt inclined to communicate with any of the other cyborgs — they are all there to carry out their respective duties, and that is all they are made to do. Yet, somehow, she finds herself drawn to the human boy, even though all she has seen of him so far is his spacesuit, and a dim projection of his face through a display panel.

She looks at Lucien: he is wiping the glass of his helmet carelessly with his gloved hands, and his eyes seem to be straining to see through its many preset filters. "I can see the outside," he explains, rather unnecessarily, "but it's all grey and blurry . . ."

So she tells him what she sees, with her grey eyes that could once have been of another hue. She describes to him the colours of the wastelands — the yellow of plastics, the brown of rusted metals, the black of molten roads, the green of midnight fumes — and how they all meld together against the perpetual fire of the sky.

"Like the auroras, you mean?" he asks excitedly, when she describes this phosphorescence. "Glowing in the sky, like curtains and waves?"

Nadia does not know what 'auroras' are. But she nods her head nonetheless, and Lucien leans back slightly, in marvel.

"It's now covered in trash," she hears him whisper. "But through my visor all that trash looks just like mountains. So there's a beauty to them too, in a way . . ."

His words trail off, and the two of them stand on in silence. But quite suddenly he bends down to examine the ground he is standing on.

"Look," he whispers, in wonder.

From the forgotten pieces of litter at his feet, he picks up a particular item with a gloved hand, and holds it up in his open palm — it is a small, five-pointed star of pale blue plastic, and one that could have seen its happier days as a charm on a little girl's bracelet.

And it is this that he presses into Nadia's unprotected hand, without a word, and she instinctively curls her fingers around it. With that comes yet another smile on his face in the display — and then no more as he turns to leave. The sky starts to shed a few fragments of its stale darkness, in anticipation of another ambiguous morning.

– – –

His hands now hold one of hers, fabric against modified skin, turning it over and over as he studies it carefully. Nadia's hand is pale, with human fingers and nails, though the skin is toughened to tolerate the atmosphere, and wires now run underneath it together with blood vessels.

She does not know why, but beneath the protective fabric of his gloves Lucien's hands almost feel warm, and comforting. Though smaller than her own, they close around her own hand as though in a bid to keep it safe — in the same unfathomable way she keeps the plastic star in a hidden pocket on her pinafore, right against her body.

"Do you remember anything about your family?" he asks her, quite suddenly.

She closes her eyes. In the darkness and silence she feels nothing but Lucien's hand against hers, the uneven stone behind her back, and the gritty dust under her legs. Her mind registers the boy's question, but there is one part of it she does not understand, not fully.

". . . Family?"

Lucien smiles. There is a hint of bitterness in his voice as he recalls: "My mum and dad — they're the only family I have. Sometimes I wish they'd come back for me, that our family can be together again. I know they wouldn't — they would never want to come back — but it doesn't hurt to wish . . ."

As she listens to the boy speak, Nadia senses another memory, clearer than her last — a celebration of some kind, from many years ago. A brilliant day, and rainbow streamers. A human man, and a woman, and a little boy with golden hair. Their mouths are moving, and they are smiling, at her.

A birthday celebration.

She was sixteen then, and she is sixteen now. Yet back then there were three people, and now there is only a boy in a spacesuit, a boy she has never seen before, whether with her own eyes or into his.

Nadia opens her eyes, the pain inside her head pulsing in defiance once more.

". . . I cannot remember," she whispers faintly.

The boy in the spacesuit puts down her hand, and places his on her face instead. She looks at him, and tries to see through his glass — that single sheet of material separating their faces from each other's. But he only guides her head towards her, and rests it gently against the side of his helmet. Her hair is pressed against the glass, cool and hard, as Lucien continues holding her hands in his.

In that delicate position she can only blink at the sky above and the stone all around them, now tilted at an angle and half-hidden in his proximity.

"I cannot remember," she says again, in a smaller voice.

Lucien does not reply.

For a moment she closes her eyes and listens to her breaths, slow and steady. Then, not quite knowing why, she reaches out a hand to touch him on the side of his spacesuit, and leaves it there. The clouds in the sky drift past high above them in streaks of colours, and leave them stranded in their shared silence.

– – –

A flurry of activity overwhelms the research laboratories of the Town Square, many days later. There has been a sighting, one of the scientists has announced, of an unknown person in one of their suits, walking out of the Clock Tower and disappearing into the shadows of the ruins. He had none of the bio-markings of the scientists, and now they suspect that the strange entity is in fact a forgotten straggler masquerading as one of them, or one of the few test subjects who has escaped from the laboratories.

Nadia overheard these rumours in the morning, when she was leaving the charging chamber in the basement. It is only a matter of time, she reasons, before the scientists start fishing for clues in the ocular records of all the cyborgs dispatched around the area.

The roof of the Clock Tower, whose entrance is now guarded by volunteers, is empty by the time she makes it up the stairs that night. But when she makes her way towards the churchyard, a hand from the shadows grabs her by the wrist, and in an instant she recognises the texture of its glove. It drags her out into the open, through the disorganised troops of other undaunted cyborgs, and towards the most massive pile of trash she can see in the vicinity.

– – –

Now they stand, precariously, at the very top of the small mountain. Tangles of plastic and metal groan and shift under their weight, threatening to send them tumbling back onto the ground.

All around them, the sky is awash with gross colours of the rainbow; a pale glow from the unrelenting Moon manages to cut through the thickness of the atmosphere, and falls upon the edges of a distant silhouette that is the northern side of the Town Square. Dotted around them are countless smaller hills of waste, all swarmed with roving robots and their gleaming polymer bodies. The closest trace of life is nearly a mile away, and even that is only a new cyborg, who has forgotten to charge himself full the day before.

Lucien is panting, the speakers on his display panel amplifying his quick, shallow breaths as he grips at his knees. Beside him, Nadia studies him in silence. Lucien's image on the display is much fuzzier than before, and somehow the sight of it unsettles her.

"They have found you," she tells him simply.

He gives a laugh in between his wheezing. "I realised," he says, breathless. "I must have been too careless . . . what with going up the tower almost every night and all . . ."

"What will you do?"

At once Lucien's shoulders stop heaving. For a long while he does not move, but eventually he eases the grip of his fingers on his knees.

"There's no point in hiding anymore," he says quietly. "All the while I've only been delaying the moment they find me, and I know they'll throw me into a cell again when they finally do . . ." He forces himself to stand up straight, and through both the filters of his helmet and the noise in the crystal display his eyes seem to be searching for hers. "I just don't want that to happen, Nadia."

To this, Nadia has no reply. Flashes of information streak through her mind as she tries to find something to say, but nothing emerges. And she realises — to her utmost surprise — that she has already forgotten what Lucien looks like.

His face on the display panel fizzles one last time, and winks away into static.

"Lucien?" she whispers, suddenly uncertain. She reaches out a hand for his helmet, as though only a touch would confirm to her his existence, but he only looks down towards his own hands, and starts to yank at his gloves. Too easily they seem to come off, and in the weak moonlight his skin glows beige, stranger and paler than her own.

His body suddenly jerks, and he staggers back a step.

"Lucien?" She does not understand. "Why? Why are you—"

"I don't want that to happen!" Lucien's voice is high, and as though agonised with every word he manages to let out; his hands, pale and shaking, struggle with the underside of his helmet. "I don't want them to take me away all because everyone else has left me behind . . . I don't want them to take me away when I haven't even seen—"

The helmet finally comes off with one final tug, and for the very first time Nadia sees the boy's oddly coloured hair — a brilliant black — and his piercing eyes. He draws in sharp, shallow breaths and looks all around him, as the helmet crashes useless onto the ground.

And it is everything that he has missed before which he now takes in, almost too eagerly — Nadia, a cyborg girl, and her appallingly achromatic self; the Earth, wild with a thousand colours; and the skies, with its perpetual cloud cover in every single hue and shade ever imaginable. All these he see at last, with his very own eyes, and he lets out a small, bitter laugh.

"I see it now . . . I see it all now," whispers Lucien, in a raspy voice. "All the colours . . ."

A cool, familiar hand slips onto his cheek — the cyborg girl now stands next to him and gazes into his face, lips trembling faintly as her mind tries to comprehend everything that is happening right then. But as her darting eyes finally settle into his, she realises what is happening to the boy.

"Lucien, your eyes . . ." she whispers to him, very softly. "They — they are . . ."

"Blue, yes." He smiles at her. "That used to be the colour of the sky, when Earth was still alive."

He leans forward to press his forehead against hers; a strange, human touch that makes her feel warm, both in the receptors under her skin and somewhere inside her chest. But that sensation vanishes soon as it comes — Lucien slips, and falls to the ground on his knees, and the debris under his feet at last gives way. Right before her eyes he slowly begins to discolour — his hair bleaches into silver, and his face fades closer and closer to a deathly white, instead of the wan beige that he used to be, only moments ago.

Nadia kneels down in front of him, not knowing what to do, not knowing so many things all at once, except the faint sense of wretchedness dawning upon her as she watches. "Lucien?" she asks.

Lucien's head is raised towards the sky. Tears are streaming down his face from his bright, blue eyes. "I imagined it to be different," she hears him say, his voice small and distant.

". . . What do you mean?"

But Lucien only shakes his head, and says nothing more. He forces himself to stand, hands clenching and pushing down at the collar of his suit, until he is rid of it at last. The winds whisper past the pale pyjamas he is wearing, and ruffle them against his thin, frail frame. Then, like paper under glass on a hot summer's day, tendrils of white begin to rise from his bare feet, spiralling away to feed the air and its hungry, toxic fumes.

He closes his eyes and spreads his arms, embracing the world that is now all around him, for the very first time.

"I was wrong," he whispers, his smile soft between the shining tear streaks upon his face. "The world will never be beautiful again . . ."

A gust rushes past him as if in mocking reply; he falls once more, crumpling onto the ground of shifting plastic and metal, and lies still.

In the zenith of the sky, patches in the cloud blanket peel away under the relentless high winds; a crib of stars now glitter against the darkness of space that is their home, faraway and endless, watching.

The cyborg girl reaches for the boy, and cradles him in her arms, awkwardly, but gently. Yet another memory comes rushing to her just then — she has done this before, but only to a mere toddler she once knew; her little brother, when her family was still whole, crying in a bed beside her, in the wake of a dreadful nightmare.

"It's all right," a voice had said softly then. "It's all a bad dream."

Her voice.

A burst of static streaks through her body just then; her mind blanks, and her arms retract, curling themselves more tightly around Lucien. The boy gasps softly, trembling, and his pale fingers reach up towards her face, only to fall still against the pocket of her pinafore instead. His eyes — now entirely white — are gazing up at the sky; they blink once, and then slowly flutter shut.

Nadia watches, silently, as the boy's hair stirs in the persistent breeze, illuminated silver and white in the waning light of the Moon. She retrieves the plastic star in her pocket, places it on his palm and, as gently as she can, curls his fingers around it. They do not open again.

She raises her head to the heavens. The clouds above stream across the window of space, until it becomes one restless, heartless sky once more, and lock beyond it the stars she — and the boy — will never see again.

It's all right, Ruric.

She stands up, still holding the boy in her arms, and slowly makes her way down the slope — away from her charges awaiting her next command, and from the scientists that may well turn her off and take her apart when they finally discover her and Lucien. Out of the corner of her eye she sees the shimmer of what may be the sun rising on the horizon, and she sets off towards it, all the while smiling faintly amidst the tears that her eyes refuse to shed.

It will be a wonderful dream next, Ruric, she whispers to herself, over and over. A dream of a world so beautiful that only you will know and see and remember, always . . .