Summary: In the near future, the warming Eurasian continent releases mysteries new and old. Professor Stefan Rostov and his robot companion Katyusha travel the new wilderness, streaming their discoveries to the world.
A tall Russian man stood before the camera drone, holding a revolver amidst a cluster of broken, spider-like robots. He ran a gloved hand through his brown hair, wiping the sweat from his brow. He flashed a mirthful look on his young face, a smile growing beneath his hawk nose and brown eyes. He loaded five rounds into the cylinder of the weapon, each a coil of wire around a central metal slug.
"Ah, a relevant question from Dmitri in Vladivostok. He asks: Professor Rostov, how would you suggest identifying and dealing with crawlers? I am worried the old apartment down the street may be infested with them."
Rostov pointed the muzzle of his long, black revolver at the corpse of the nearest robot.
"Quick, accurate shooting," he said. "But seriously, there are a few unique signs: broken pipes, rusted metal, occasional power interruptions, and most importantly, mutilated rats or other animals. Here in the wilderness, they gather around abandoned structures and vehicles. In cities, they prefer dark places away from public view."
Rostov picked up the robot in his other hand, and allowing the drone to get a clear view of its underside. Exposed wiring and wrecked springs poured out of the side like mechanical entrails. The small lasers and cameras were mounted on a small, cephalic protrusion near the front. Two mechanical claws hung from the undercarriage, each clasping a bit of wire.
"This is for you, Navid: Crawlers were one of the first clanking replicators, or von Neumann machines, derived from asteroid mining probes," he explained. "There is a popular conspiracy theory, with some evidence mind you, they were deliberately released into vital infrastructure decades ago as saboteurs."
Rostov focused the camera on the head. "They utilize conventional optics, an onboard laser spectrometer, ultrasound, and lidar. They are programmed to seek out easily retrieved iron, steel, and plastic. They induce an electrochemical process to accelerate rust and corrosion, for easier removal of metal. They use an internal electrochemical deposition system to build electronics from bio-polymers, mechanical parts, and new chassis components."
Rostov turned the two tool-tip appendages towards the camera. "They use a soldering iron and micro-torch to connect their components together. They search for spare parts, cut them into feedstock, assemble them, and replicate until exhausting easily accessible materials."
Rostov lowered the body. "Fortunately, they typically do not stray far from where they find their materials. Once a swarm has exhausted easy feedstock, they go dormant. However, nearby activity can spur them to life. They've been known to attack animals, vehicles, and people if we're unlucky enough to blunder into a hive."
Rostov panned the camera out, revealing a broken truck, nearly rusted beyond recognition. Triangular bits of metal were stripped from the frame, yanked out from the dead vehicle's chassis. The curved lines of the Soviet era truck had been reduced to jagged metal shards, like the fossilized teeth of metal dinosaur.
"Like what just happened to Katyusha and I. Fortunately, I loaded my revolver with birdshot and sabot slugs. Outside of EMP bombs and HERF, shotguns and specialized pistol loads are the most effective weapons against them, although even an obrez can work in skilled hands."
Rostov sighed. "For archeologists like myself, crawlers are especially annoying, since they often wander into historical sites and devour artifacts of great value. And that's before considering the structural damage these bastards do. They're like metallic termites."
He hurled the crawler to the ground with great force, and stomped his steel-toed boot on top of it. "Whoever released these things, fuck you."
Professor Stefan Rostov walked beyond the downed robots, and towards a small, four-wheeled vehicle. It had a seat and handlebars like a quad, but supplies and solar panels mounted on the side. Between the handlebars was a curiously canine head. Two cameras, positioned at a slight angle, tracked him slowly. It began yipping like an excited puppy when the drone hovered gut it in frame.
"Katyusha sends her regards from out here in Kamchatka," Rostov said as the machine revved its tires. "Next."
"Okay, so Yingying in Harbin wants to know more about my pistol," he read. "Well, sorry to disappoint, but I have to keep this family friendly."
Rostov paused for a moment, ignoring the chilly wind that swept through the woods. "Sorry. Couldn't resist. Anyway, my sidearm is something of a science project."
He held his revolver in front of the camera. "This is a customized RSh-12.7, modified with Risona Research templates. They allow me to switch between a conventional cylinder, caseless cylinder, an electromagnetic accelerator, pneumatic action, electrothermal discharge, gyrojets, and even more exotic options."
He pulled out a selection of bullets from his belt. "There are shotshells, conventional cartridges, cryojets, gyrojets, coilgun armatures, railgun plasma slugs, pulse bullets, flechettes, black powder loads, flare cartridges, pepper spray, and rubber bullets."
"And those are just the ones I've used this year," he said. "As part of my research program, I've specified the need for this weapon and its options. This revolver is fairly rare, but I understand my use has increased demand for it. Honestly, though, keep it reliable. For melee, I like a kukri or axe that doubles as a tool. For ranged, a simple shotgun, bolt-action rifle, obrez, or even an air gun will be sufficient for most novice explorers. Next."
"Okay, so Rick in Cleveland wants to know if I plan to retire sometime," he said. "Honestly, I'd use a full-body prosthetic to replace my current one if I have to. Until then, I have Katyusha to protect me."
The four-wheeled robot yipped happily.
"Okay, that's it for now. I've got to set up camp for the night," he said, waving. "This is Stefan Rostov signing off, from the Ostern Esoterica channel."
Katyusha rolled up behind a tree, and began to unfold into a tent. Rostov pressed a button on his thick glove, and the camera drone returned to a slot on Katyusha's side.
"Good work today, girl," Rostov said, handing one of the damaged crawlers to his friend. "Chow down before bed. I think you need the feedstock."
The robot yipped happily. Rostov built a small fire before them, and Katyusha opened a small compartment in her "head." A thin prehensile tendril, light enough for surgery and repair work, fed the corpses of the dead machines into Katyusha's shredder. The grinding gears greedily devoured the scrap metal, and unseen mechanisms in his companion sorted components to their proper place. The mechanical mutilation was a melodic sound to his ears, which beckoned him to sleep.
As fatigue wore heavily on the young professor, Rostov gazed out over the scenery from his campsite. The starlight above was naked and raw, like a milky flow over a yawning abyss. The sky and the distant horizon, a row of snow-capped peaks, now merged as they swallowed the sun behind them. The dark blue ocean was as now as wine-dark as Homer's Adriatic, and colder than hell's heart. The trees that towered around them were massive wooden pillars, each an arboreal city of fauna. There were few places in the world as unsullied by humanity as this, even with the rising seas and encroaching deserts to the far south. In the shadow of that primordial darkness, he drifted to sleep.
Rostov's rest was rudely interrupted a moment later. A brilliant light seared his retinas, even he'd closed his eyes. He was not in his tent, but he threw himself to his feet. Adrenaline drove his eyes ever-upwards, until he saw it. Katyusha roused from her standby and rushed to his side. He stood transfixed as it crossed the sky, tumbling to Earth like a dying sun. Without prompting, Katyusha launched the camera drone and aimed its lens upwards.
"It's coming down somewhere nearby!" Rostov exclaimed excitedly. He threw on his augmented reality glasses and ran through the woods. "It's not very big, based on the estimates. Either way, we're lucky to see it!"
From the hill they'd camped on, Rostov saw it sink beneath the trees at the foot of the hill. He forgot his fatigue, and he sprinted towards the crash site. It was easy to identify the path of flattened trees, although he was unable to directly see the impact. Behind him, he heard Katyusha's motors keeping pace with him. He spirited past the skittish, fleeing deer, and flights of panicked birds. His glasses' night-vision mode kept him on the path. Katyusha moved beside him, as they reached the edge of the crash site.
Rostov froze. The blast impact was smaller than he'd anticipated. A ring of fallen trees surrounded the object's resting place. The blackened wood still sizzled in some places. The woods were eerily silent, save for the slow steaming of singed timber. No birds sang. No animals stirred. Nothing in nature dared disturb the crash site, nothing but a man and his robot.
Rostov examined the object closely, and he drew his pistol without thinking. There was something about it that kept him back, far more than the threat of radiation or fire. The object emitted a peculiar presence, something inexplicable that triggered his survival instinct. As he identified the object, his curiosity increased. Katyusha growled and slowly stepped back. He found himself doing the same.
Rostov identified it as a Soviet-era Soyuz capsule, a spacecraft no longer in service. The Soviet decals that covered the craft aroused both caution and curiosity, just as the scorch marks along the vehicle's body. The craft's blackened bottom bespoke a successful, if troubled reentry. He scanned the numbers along the craft, and sent them to the government's channel. The automated reply came that there was no Soviet era craft, or indeed any one, to use that number. He would have started streaming, but the hatch opened.
Inside, Rostov saw the solitary occupant of the capsule. The lone cosmonaut was clad in a faded spacesuit, similarly covered with old Soviet signs. In its gloved, limp hand was a pistol. As his eyes wandered up towards the head, he gasped.
The cosmonaut's head was a grinning, empty skull.