So he looked on in cold despair,
and his ruins, they stared back and shunned
the reckless danger he’d unleashed,
fire borne of folly’s ignition.
* * *
A spark. A whirr of gears. A sudden screech — a faint puff of smoke—
Nuparu pushed his goggles out of his eyes and leaned over the robot’s open chest paneling. To the untrained eye, the robot’s innards were naught but a messy sprawl of gears and cables, shoved inside the metallic outer shell like an afterthought. But Nuparu’s eye was trained well; to him, the mechanisms for movement, calculation, and balance all formed an intricate and delicate design, more artistic than Po-Metru sculptures, or Ta-Metru forgings.
Only one, tiny hitch kept the Vahki from being perfect: It refused to start.
A single, dim lightstone dangled from the ceiling; a century or two had passed since Nuparu had hung it, and yet he still remembered having to smuggle down the ladder in the midst of an excavation party. The crystal’s natural light cast a fuzzy halo across the body of the robot, which lay on a table in the center of the room, surrounded by tools and spare parts.
Level 7H was a more-or-less hidden area of the Onu-Metru Archives. No civilians were allowed this deep, and though plenty of Onu-Matoran archivists had clearance to come down here, there was nothing to come down to; 7H was empty and had been more or less abandoned due to uncertain cave conditions, making excavation for Rahi containment centers out of the question. That was why Nuparu’s laboratory was here.
Though, sometimes, the empty level got lonely. Only sometimes. At least no one was here to bug him about the Kralhi.
He examined a particular batch of wires closely, then wrapped a finger around them and tugged gently. They held; the ignition wires themselves were fine, then. Humming a tune to himself, trying to push Dume’s sure-to-be impatient face out of his mind’s eye, he slid his goggles back over his eyes and all but dove into the mess of mechanical parts, a small, handheld lightstone in his right hand to better illuminate the Vahki’s mechanisms.
He would have to report to Dume soon, and surely the Turaga of Metru Nui wouldn’t appreciate a delay.
* * *
Nuparu finished his report and stood silently, fidgeting under Turaga Dume’s gaze.
Perhaps it was how Dume held his staff; he didn’t lean on it, he used it to stand straight and tall. Perhaps it was the Turaga’s gaze: powerful, experienced, with just the right mix of venerability and sternness that the Matoran of Metru Nui so endeared. Whatever the cause, Dume’s small, weathered physical stature seemed to cover a mental power beyond anything a Toa could possess. Control. Self-assuredness. A high political position.
In short, Dume was a natural leader. Anyone who saw him could not disagree.
A good leader knew a lost cause when he saw it, and Nuparu was afraid Dume would see him as a lost cause if the delays mounted. Oddly, in no book Nuparu had read was there any mention of what a good leader did to a lost cause.
Finally Dume stirred, looking out the window in his office. The room was bright, with white walls and a white floor that easily reflected the sunlight caught in the room; everything seemed to gleam in the glow, from Dume’s desk in the back of the room to Dume himself.
“So what exactly was damaged, Nuparu?”
“I — I don’t know, Turaga.” Inwardly, Nuparu grimaced. “It could be the wires, or the AI, or the motor, or even the central power source. I haven’t run a full check-up yet; I wanted to report to you first, because the diagnosis might take a while to complete.”
Dume nodded slowly, turning back to Nuparu, his famed strong-willed gaze meeting Nuparu’s more timid one. “Can it be fixed?”
“Ye- er, I mean, I don’t know, Turaga. As I said, I don’t even know what’s—”
“Other than this problem, the Vahki is almost complete? Including updated blueprints?”
“Yes. To both, Turaga.”
Dume must have noticed the nervous strain in Nuparu’s voice, for a faint smile passed over his face for a second. “I won’t bite, Nuparu.”
Nuparu tried to smile but only succeeded in looking sick. Talking about completing a fully automated robot was one thing; actually building it was another. He had gone through Karzahni and back attempting to create a simple learning program. That had been a delay itself. But it hadn’t put him behind schedule.
“All I’m asking,” continued the Turaga, beginning to pace to the left, “is that you complete the Vahki. If you think you need more time, Nuparu—”
“I don’t.” Nuparu cursed himself for the interruption but could not fight the pride coming over his features. Dume had estimated Nuparu would need perhaps three years to create the first Vahki. But only two years had passed since the first meeting — or, rather, that first meeting after Nuparu’s folly.
A long, slow decade had passed between the Kralhi’s being driven from the surface of Metru Nui and Dume’s summons. The talk had been staccato, lapsing into extended periods of silence whenever either Nuparu or Dume mentioned the Kralhi.
And then Nuparu had waited another thirteen years before Dume summoned him again — this time to discuss the idea of the Vahki. He had told Nuparu to build his own prototype; he didn’t want his own engineers wasting time on a design that didn’t work. Another verbal jab, one that Nuparu could not parry.
The pride receded. Dume nodded, passing over Nuparu’s momentary lapse from stolid motionlessness. “Of course, Nuparu. You are very talented.” His lips compressed. “That’s why I’m giving you a second chance,” he said, as if having second thoughts about the matter.
“Turaga... the Kralhi were a fluke. I — I can do better this time, I swear by Mata Nui—”
“So I suppose you had better get back to work.” Turaga Dume stopped; he stood a few meters from the door and turned his head slightly toward it: a clear sign of dismissal.
Already moving, Nuparu nodded again. He placed his hand on the doorknob—
“I expect great things from you, Nuparu,” said Dume as Nuparu opened the door. “Remember that. Your Kralhi are the past now; let us look toward the future, a time of law and order where the Vahki reign supreme — beneath me, of course.”
He had said the last part like an afterthought. Somehow, that set off a warning bell in Nuparu’s subconscious.
“Report back to me only when you’re ready to finally activate the Vahki...” Dume’s eyes glowed a little brighter. “...or when the Vahki proves to be impossible to activate. Either way, I’ll have to have a long talk with you.”
Nuparu stepped outside; the office door closed behind him, the click of the lock echoing faintly through the grand hallway outside. The sunlight streamed through the windows in torrents, starkly contrasting Nuparu’s shadowed mind.
* * *
Your Kralhi, Dume had said.
Nuparu grimaced at the interior of the malfunctioning motor. My Kralhi. The words had been uttered early in the morning, and still, in the evening, they were played and replayed in Nuparu’s subconscious. Another way of saying my mistake — like Dume wasn’t the one to contract me to build the Kralhi in the first place.
That was politics, Nuparu supposed. Take a past mistake, twist it so it jabs another candidate in the back, gain voters. But in this case, Nuparu wasn’t running against Dume in anything. Maybe Dume had just fallen into a political mindset, treating everyone like an opposing candidate. Or maybe he was just still furious with Nuparu and half-failing at hiding it.
That, however, was not the sole cause of Nuparu’s grimace.
The motor’s fuses had burst, every single one of them. It had been flooded with power. The question was, if this motor was identical to the other motors in the Vahki — and Nuparu had checked — why was it the only one to suffer from blown fuses?
On an engineer’s impulse, Nuparu placed the disconnected motor aside and leaned over the Vahki’s open paneling. If his intuition was right, he would be facing perhaps three days’ delay; if it was wrong, the delay would be longer.
Nuparu tried to block that thought from his mind.
Several minutes later, a messy sprawl of carefully disconnected wires lay stranded in the middle of the Vahki, and a semi-triumphant Nuparu was unscrewing the cover to the power source, tongue trapped between his teeth in concentration, goggles hanging askew with one lens over one eye and the other lens up on Nuparu’s forehead.
The last screw came off. And Nuparu swore.
The wiring had come completely undone, some of the metallic protodermis inside the power source had melted with the bare wire tips, and at least one wire too many was at the port formerly connected to the malfunctioning motor. He blinked hard, trying to make sense of the mess, wondering how any engineer could live with tricking customers with junk like this. A moment passed before he realized the goggles were obstructing his vision and moved them out of the way to better see what he was cursing.
The scene before him didn’t look any better.
Well. That’s that. Nuparu tossed aside his goggles and pulled a paper, pencil, and ruler over to the work table. If the only way to get something done is to do it yourself, why not design my own power source?
His tongue trapped between his teeth, Nuparu used the ruler to begin sketching a new power source’s design.
* * *
Merchants’ Square was located in southern Onu-Metru. Most blocks were taken up by singular buildings — the Onu-Matoran were excavators, not archivists, so rather than build skyscrapers they built “horizon-scrapers”, which were referred to outside Onu-Metru as simply “obese”. In the midst of the neat rows of large, domed-roof buildings, Merchants’ Square stood out like a sore thumb: It was filled with large, tent-like stands, manned either by independent merchants or representatives from nearby companies. The products ranged from fruit to art to mechanical parts. Nuparu had come for the latter.
He entered a stand well-known to him. Behind the counter, the trader, Zemya, turned as Nuparu tossed the blueprints on the counter. “Seems like a big project, Nuparu; what’ll it be today?”
The merchant had been in the business of trading and purchasing mechanical goods for at least a century now. Nuparu was a common sight across his counter. Hopefully that would keep him from asking any... delicate questions.
“Good morning to you too, Zemya,” replied Nuparu placidly. He unrolled the blueprints and pointed at each respective design as he spoke: “I need a battery, metal casing, maybe ten input sockets, twenty of your longest wires...”
He had spent all of last night drawing the blueprints. Art was not his forte; now that he could see his lines in the light, he couldn’t help but feel irked by his sketchy angles. “...power moderators, aaand, uh, that’s it.”
Zemya glanced over the blueprints. When he finally nodded, he was halfway to the back room, the blueprints in his hand. “Okay,” he said over his shoulder, “hold on; lemme get the stuff from the back.”
The other Onu-Matoran returned a minute later with his arms full of mechanical parts. “There you go,” he said, and he dumped them onto the counter. Nuparu sifted through them as Zemya slapped the blueprints to the counter beside the pile of parts and continued, “Figure fifty widgets for the casing... ten for the battery, six for each input socket...” His calculations drifted into mutterings before he said, “One hundred twenty widgets, please.”
A hefty purchase. Nuparu gritted his teeth and handed over the money. If the Vahki cost this much to make, what would Dume’s payment upon completion do? Restore Nuparu’s account to normal?
“Hey! — Zemya!”
Another Onu-Matoran ducked underneath the low cloth overhang and leaned against the counter to Nuparu’s left. “Toru,” said Zemya, his voice carefully ambivalent. “Nice to see you.” Nuparu noted the greeting lacked any true emotion. “So what’ve you heard today?”
Toru leaned against the counter importantly; upon Zemya’s irked glance he straightened up again. “Only that Dume’s got another robot army in the works.”
Nuparu, leaning over his pile of purchases, felt his shoulders stiffen. He froze, glancing to the other Onu-Matoran, but luckily neither Zemya nor Toru was looking at him.
Zemya had half-turned to Toru, his hands sliding the widgets into a safe a ways behind the counter. His expression, though still neutral, included conspicuously raised eyebrows. “What?”
“You heard me.”
“Where’d you hear this?” asked Zemya, slamming the safe shut and turning to fully face Toru, taking a few quick steps to lean against the counter directly across from the other Onu-Matoran. His shoulders, Nuparu noted, were as stiff as his own had been moments ago.
“I forget,” replied Toru; “some newspaper or other.”
Zemya’s shoulders relaxed. Maybe he didn’t believe Toru; maybe Toru wasn’t the type of Matoran to be believed; either way, it was good. Dume had impressed upon Nuparu that the Vahki were to be kept completely secret, and if the secret got out Nuparu wanted to be able to claim total innocence.
“Well, then,” said the merchant, his tone noticeably smoother now but carrying the hint of a threat, “maybe the newspaper was wrong. Or maybe these robotic guardians aren’t as bad as you think they’ll be.”
“Nuh-uh. No robots are gonna rule over me, let me tell you.”
“But,” Nuparu said, jumping into the discussion as he loaded his waist-held pouch with his purchases, “the robots aren’t—”
“Look, Toru” — Zemya’s interruption effectively blocked Nuparu from the conversation; Nuparu grimaced — “I don’t care who is watching over us, as long as they do a Karzahni of a good job.”
Nuparu tried again. “The robots aren’t evil; it’s how they’re—”
“But robots?” countered Toru. Nuparu lapsed into an annoyed silence. “Remember the Kralhi?”
Nuparu closed his eyes tightly as he swept the last of the parts into his pouch. The Kralhi were a mistake — Nuparu knew that all too well; so why must he keep being reminded of that fact?
Through the dark haze behind his eyelids, he heard Zemya’s voice as if far away: “Well, these robots aren’t the Kralhi.”
“We don’t know that—”
“And if they were, why would the original Kralhi have been driven out of Metru Nui? Building them over again would waste money, materials, and time.” Silence fell; that and the sound of fingers drumming on the counter finally induced Nuparu to open his eyes. Zemya and Toru were staring hard at each other, Zemya with an expression that indicated simultaneous bemusement and suspicion, Toru with the blank glare of a criminal caught in a lie but unwilling to admit it.
This was as good a time as any for Nuparu to depart. He made for the exit flap—
“Look,” Toru said, his tone desperate, “no matter what you say, they’re robots—”
“I already said that doesn’t—”
“No. No you didn’t. See, robots aren’t like Matoran.”
A pause. Straddling the doorway, one foot outside and one foot inside, Nuparu turned back.
Zemya’s hand was clamped over his forehead in a clear gesture of exasperation. “Toru,” he said, “I know that.”
“But do you want to know why?”
Zemya lowered his hand roughly to the counter with a slap, rolling his eyes, but let Toru continue.
“Because robots can’t feel.” Toru’s finger lifted, shaking in the air between the two. “A Matoran security force, heck, even a Toa security force, would know how to deal with a Matoran without putting them in bed for a week, or — or accidentally killing them. That was the Kralhi’s error; that’s any robots error, because it feels no sympathy, and so we don’t know what it would be willing to do to a Matoran.”
“Dume knows what he’s doing, right? Wouldn’t he keep robots from doing that?”
Toru turned to the doorway, his gaze sliding nonchalantly over Nuparu and to the paved-stone ground outside. “I’m not so sure. Is Dume really so set on the past that he would attempt to replace the Kralhi?”
Zemya had no answer for that.
Nuparu’s subconscious mind replaced Dume with his own name. The sentence still fit. Was he too focused on correcting his mistake to realize he was making another?
No, he told himself. I know what I’m doing. If the Kralhi are my folly, the Vahki will be my redemption.
With that thought set in his mind, Nuparu slipped out of the shop. The cloth exit flap waved in the breeze of his departure as if in farewell.
* * *
The Archives’ lifts were normally filled with Archivists or visitors, making it hard to find an empty one Nuparu could use to get to level 7H — or even 6H, for that matter — unnoticed. So Nuparu took a simpler way: the stairs.
He was halfway down the flight leading to 7H when he heard the noise.
He froze, his heart pounding in his ears. A long moment passed before he broke free from his paralysis and took another cautious step down. His mind whirred with possibilities.
Maybe someone had found his lab — maybe he had been followed — maybe a Rahi had broken loose—
Too many maybes flooded Nuparu’s mind for him to make sense of them all. Between quick, short influxes of air, Nuparu swore at his predicament; he could not leave for help lest he risk giving away the secret of the Vahki, but he would be in equal risk if he encountered the whatever-it-was and it was dangerous.
His inventor’s curiosity, piqued as it was, led him down.
From where Nuparu stood, the bottom of the flight of stairs seemed dark. The hallway extended to the right and out of sight beyond the stairwell’s wall; Nuparu moved to place his back against that wall, edging downwards as stealthily as he could. The thought This is a stupid idea loomed in his mind, but if the sound had belonged to nothing, going to report danger to Dume would only make Nuparu seem like a paranoid dimwit.
Now at the edge where the stair flight’s wall met the tunnel’s back wall, Nuparu stopped again. His face was pressed against empty air. He only had to move several centimeters and turn to see what was beyond...
Crunch-crunch came the footsteps, more like sharp objects impaling the dirt floor of the Archives than feet.
Nuparu took a deep breath. Then he leaned forward and turned to look down the hall of level 7H—
The onset of foolishness was sudden and unstoppable. Setting aside his thrumming heart, he walked down the hallway that led to his laboratory. Upon entering the lab, he made a point of silently shutting the door behind him.
* * *
The power source was done.
From the dry feeling in the back of Nuparu’s mouth, the dim blue of early morning had again conquered Metru Nui. From his weakly twitching fingers and hazy mind, he had been working overdrive all night; he ought to remember, but his only memories formed an hours-long blur: working like a drone, disregarding sleep as an easy way out, checking and double-checking his work even as a smoky, indistinct veil fell between his eyes and the world around him. Perhaps, for a while, he had acted as close to a robot as he ever would.
Now all that remained was to actually install the power source.
After a quick nap, of course.
Nuparu leaned his head on the work desk, eyes sliding shut...
* * *
Nuparu awoke. His hands, he noted, had automatically clenched into fists — was it in response to the sound, or to his dream, whatever that dream had been?
This time the sound was closer. Swearing softly, Nuparu took a careful step toward the door. Beneath his Kanohi Pakari, his face felt uncomfortably damp; he placed a hand on the door and then pulled it away, noticing the dirt sticking to it as well.
Sweat was not his main worry. The sound was, or rather his lack of an explanation for the sound. The footsteps didn’t sound like a Matoran’s; they were too stealthy and steady to be a Rahi’s.
Slowly, cautiously, Nuparu pushed open the door. Another moment passed before he abandoned the circular glow his laboratory’s lightstone afforded for the relative drab gloom of Level 7H outside.
Perhaps Nuparu was just not thinking straight. He had been working on the Vahki almost nonstop for the better part of the past month; in that light, it was not so outlandish that he would be tired enough to hear things. His brain was probably just inventing sounds to ease the monotony of working, or enhancing barely-audible ones in the absence of any others.
So that was that. Nuparu slid the door softly shut, making sure it was locked before turning back to the Vahki’s body, laid out atop the work desk like the body of a Rahi scheduled for autopsy. Even the tools were similar: some for opening, some for prying, some for closing seams.
Nuparu picked his goggles off the floor, examining them closely and then slipping them over his eyes. He picked up the welder, flicking its trigger momentarily to make sure the flame was hot enough, then took the new power source and placed it within the Vahki’s body. Back to work.
* * *
The crunch sound came only once more, early in Nuparu’s working. The Onu-Matoran stopped for just a minute before continuing to weld the power source into the Vahki’s body. The noise did not come again.
In the absence of paranoia, his mind thrust questions before his eyes: Are the Vahki truly righteous? Are you wasting your days away building a lost cause? What about what Toru said at Merchants’ Square — that robots can never understand a Matoran, that a robot wouldn’t know when it pushed too far?
Nuparu had finished welding and had started on connecting wires to the power source when he realized he could not answer any of his subconscious’s criticisms. Yes, one could program a robot to be careful; but not all Matoran were the same, and pushing one Matoran just enough to get him back in line might translate to pushing another Matoran over the line and across the street. How was the Vahki supposed to know the difference? It was mechanical; it would be the exact same as its brethren; it could be unable to even comprehend the idea of differences between individuals.
The Vahki could be the Kralhi all over again.
But Nuparu had a job to do, and do it he would. Though his mind protested, his body moved in absence of commands, testing connections, test-firing the power source, correcting gear angles and spotty motor welds. He was doing this not just for Metru Nui; he was doing it for himself, to correct his mistake, to usher in a new age of peace.
Perhaps even the Toa Mangai would be proud.
And then, somehow soon to Nuparu’s muddled mind, it was all over.
The Vahki lay before him, lit dimly by the lightstone swaying gently overhead. The robot was prone, inactivated. It was also complete.
No odd sounds met Nuparu’s audio receptors as he left his laboratory, a good sign.
* * *
“Hey! Where are you going, Nuparu?”
The morning crowd of Onu-Matoran heading to work bustled around Nuparu. He had hoped the activity would hide his departure. Apparently he would get no such luck. But then, Mavrah had always been an observant little Brakas.
Mavrah slipped through the crowd, grabbing Nuparu’s right arm with his right hand. “Come on, you’ve been gone from work for days. The Chief Archivist won’t be pleased.”
The Chief Archivist, thought Nuparu, already has a letter I gave him from Dume. But he refrained from saying so; it would provide another opportunity for someone to discover the Vahki.
He shrugged, trying to remain nonchalant. “I’ve been on leave of absence for a while—”
“—and building a new project?”
Nuparu’s halted breath gave it away.
Mavrah shook his head like a teacher to a misbehaving student. “Well,” he said, his mouth set in a line, “I guess I can’t stop you.” His hand slid from Nuparu’s arm. “But where are you going?”
Nuparu thought quickly. “Er, Merchant’s Square. I have to get a couple light bulbs.” Which was true. Partially. Nuparu just wasn’t adding that after the visit, he would pay a little trip to the nearby transport chute station.
Mavrah glanced back. “I really should be getting to work...” He glanced back to Nuparu. The two had never been good friends, but they were normally assigned to the same projects, so it naturally followed that they knew each other well. There were differences — Nuparu was what Mavrah called “a loose cannon”, and Mavrah was what Nuparu called in private “a stuck-up boss’s pet” — but generally they got along.
The crowd was slowly beginning to taper out. Nuparu glanced behind himself. “I should get going, too.”
He made to leave. Mavrah stopped him by grabbing his arm again. “Did you hear? Dume’s planning a new robot model, one to replace those malfunctioning Kralhi.”
A long moment passed before Nuparu’s brain caught up to the fact that Mavrah apparently listened to gossip. Another moment passed before he realized he could hear snippets of conversation about the Vahki around him, if he only paid attention: Yeah, Dume’s vying for dictator — Dunno what he’s trying to do, we work hard enough already — I hope these robots don’t replace us...
“Um — where did you find this?”
“I know someone who works for Dume as a nighttime security guard. Last night he heard Dume talking about a new creation. He thinks they’re called the ‘Ahki’—”
“Vahki—” Nuparu corrected before he could stop himself.
And he mentally swore.
“—er — would be a better name. I mean, uh, ‘Vahki’ has a better ring than ‘Ahki’. I don’t — I think — maybe Dume should hire me as his, uh, creative consultant,” Nuparu finished lamely. “Heh.”
Mavrah’s gaze was like a solid wall pressing against Nuparu’s face. Nuparu tried to arrange his features into a casual, neutral expression, hoping the damage had not already been done.
It hadn’t. Mavrah finally shrugged. “Yeah... I guess. What, are names a touchy subject with you inventors?”
“Yes,” said Nuparu, a little too quickly.
Thank Mata Nui Mavrah failed to notice Nuparu’s unexplained defensiveness. “Okay, then. Well, maybe an inventor has a unique outlook on the Vahki’s creation, too. What is it?”
“That we need someone to protect us, don’t we?”
“But whip us into line? That’s borderline slavery, when you think about it. Make the smallest mistake...” He shook his head slowly. “...and you’re punished for it.”
“Dume wouldn’t do that.”
Again, Nuparu swore at himself; again, Mavrah passed over the odd defensiveness in Nuparu’s voice. “If he wouldn’t do that,” asked Mavrah, “then why would he have tried with the Kralhi?”
Nuparu opened his mouth — and shut it again.
“All right, I’ll let you get back to ‘work’,” said Mavrah. “Just — stop by more often.”
“I will,” Nuparu promised, and Mavrah finally departed.
But Mavrah’s questions still buzzed in Nuparu’s mind like a swarm of firefliers, questions he, the Onu-Matoran Nuparu, inventor of both the Kralhi and the Vahki, could not answer.
* * *
Nuparu had been escorted to the door of Dume’s office; his escorts, two genial Ta-Matoran guards, had waved good-byes as they returned to their stations; and his fist was raised over the door in preparation to knock.
But it had frozen there. Noises came from behind the cool, white metal. Talking. Arguing, perhaps.
“It won’t work. The Toa Mangai can keep the peace if needed. These robots—”
“No, Lhikan.” A shock when through Nuparu at the name of the Toa of Fire who led the Toa Mangai. What was Lhikan doing on Metru Nui? “No,” repeated Dume, for that was the only other person it could be, “the Vahki are needed. You cannot protect all of Metru Nui by yourself, Lhikan.”
“I’m not by myself; I have friends.”
“They’re elsewhere at the moment, I presume.”
“It won’t take a Kanohi Dragon for us to come to Metru Nui for good, Dume.”
A tense silence fell. Nuparu hesitated. Then he knocked.
Dume’s voice rang out: “Enter.”
Nuparu went in on his guard. Toa Lhikan, whose back was to the door, turned his head and looked over the newcomer. Dume was on the other side of the room, looking out the window; he turned to face Nuparu, eyebrows raised, and Nuparu noted that Dume’s gaze skipped over Lhikan.
So they’ve been arguing... about the Vahki, I guess.
“Nuparu.” Dume seemed a little surprised, but whatever was beneath his gaze stayed there. “Has the Vahki” — Lhikan tensed momentarily but said nothing — “been finished?”
“Um... not quite, but—”
“Then why are you here?”
Please let me finish, Nuparu wanted to say, but he didn’t know if Dume would take offense at such a statement. Knowing Dume, he would. “I was going to say,” Nuparu said instead, “that I have finished putting together all the important parts.” A hint of pride bled over into his tone; no matter what Dume used the Vahki for, Nuparu had made them to be robotic guardians of the peace, and that earned a redemption in his book. “What’s left to be finished can — no, will be finished within the half-hour.”
“And your previous setback?”
“Minimal, Turaga. I just had to build another power source.”
“The connections have been tested? The programming?”
“Yes to the first, no to the second. But I assure you the Vahki has been programmed well enough for a basic attempt. The programming took me all of one and a half years, remember?”
Dume passed over the attempt at humor. “Then let us finish this once and for all,” he said.
“Finish the unlawful side of Metru Nui, of course,” said Dume impatiently. He walked past Lhikan as if the Toa of Fire weren’t there, staring hard at the back of his head. “Come, Nuparu.”
“I want to come, too.”
Dume paused. “Lhikan,” he said slowly, “we’ve been over this.”
“Yes. Yes we have.”
In the silence, tension lacing around the room’s occupants like a Fikou spider’s web, the muffled argument between Lhikan and Dume replayed in Nuparu’s audio receptors:
“It won’t work. The Toa Mangai can keep the peace if needed. These robots—”
“No, Lhikan... No, the Vahki are needed. You cannot protect all of Metru Nui by yourself, Lhikan.”
“I’m not by myself; I have friends.”
“They’re elsewhere at the moment, I presume.”
“It won’t take a Kanohi Dragon for us to come to Metru Nui for good, Dume.”
Finally Dume spoke. “Fine.” His voice was gruffer than Nuparu had ever heard it before, and he wondered if Lhikan had struck a nerve. “But let us hurry.”
* * *
Hurrying, as it turned out, was impossible.
Nuparu had gone into the transport chute first with the agreement that Dume and Lhikan would follow several minutes after, so no one would be able to make a connection. By the time the several minutes were up, Nuparu had already exited the chute and laid eyes on the massive protest in the distance, by the southeastern entrance into the Archives.
The Onu-Matoran marched about in circles, fists pumping in the air. Some carried signs that, from this distance, were unintelligible. Their chants, however, carried a long way: “Matoran — over — robots! Matoran — over — robots!”
A trickle of apprehension found its way into Nuparu’s gut. Gulping, he ran to the protest.
It had seemed large from far away; that was because half its mass had been hidden behind the horizon-scrapers. In actuality the protest was enormous. The Onu-Matoran had no shortage of support; Matoran from all metru had gathered here, like the area just outside the Archives was their meeting ground.
Nuparu couldn’t hurry through that crowd.
He made his way forward cautiously. But other, non-protesting Matoran milled about, too, without being trampled by the protestors. Taking a breath, he plunged into the masses, wading through the crowd of Matoran, most of whom, he noted, were taller than he was. He was jostled by Matoran, deafened by their chanting, but the worst impact was not on his senses but in his brain.
If they’re protesting the Vahki... they’re protesting me.
He emerged from the other side. Only a few meters away was the entrance into the Archives. Nuparu threw the levers, nodded to the guard, who seemed irked by all the noise, then stepped over the threshold.
And paused as the crowd’s chant cut off: “MATORAN — OVER—”
He turned. The entrance was raised perhaps a meter off the ground; standing at his peak, Nuparu could see over the heads of the protestors. Lhikan and Dume were approaching, still an akilini field away but coming quickly.
In response, the crowd doubled its efforts. Wincing at the noise, Nuparu continued inside. He made a point of shutting the entrance behind him.
The Archives were empty. No Matoran admired the stasis tubes on Level 1H; no Archivists bustled through the corridors with analyses of newly-uncovered artifacts; even the receptionist’s desk was abandoned.
They had all gone out to protest, apparently.
Nuparu felt suddenly dizzy. Was Zemya out there, hoping that sheer noise and annoyance could change Dume’s? Was Mavrah even now shaking his sign in Lhikan’s face? If Nuparu had not been so focused on righting the wrong of the Kralhi, if he had refused the opportunity to build the Vahki, would he have joined the masses?
Yes. He would have, and he would have done so spiritedly. No Matoran should be ruled by a robot; no Toa should be forced to answer to artificial intelligence. Had Nuparu been so blinded as to not see that from the beginning?
But he had a job to do.
His reverie was shaken by Dume stumbling through the Archives entrance. Lhikan was close behind, spinning and slamming the door shut. A pounding of fists could be heard through the metal door; the protestors’ chanting, though muffled, permeated the stone of the Archives’ walls. The dirt even vibrated.
Lhikan grimaced. “Dume, I told you—”
“Not now,” Dume interrupted. He turned to Nuparu, frowning at the confused flickering in the Onu-Matoran’s eyes. “Come; let us make history.”
“This door won’t stay closed for long.” Lhikan’s words came through firmly closed teeth.
Dume shook his head and chuckled. To Nuparu, the action was alien; humor seemed kilo away. “They’re too worked up to think about throwing the levers,” he said. “Hold it nevertheless until we’re out of sight down the staircase. Nuparu?”
Nuparu blinked hard, throat muscles bulging in an attempt to say something. But his mouth refused to open; and, finally, he surrendered. “Yes, Turaga,” he said in a voice that felt like lead.
They had passed Level 5H before Lhikan caught up to them at a run. “I have a feeling the protestors aren’t so riled up as to be stupid,” said the Toa of Fire. “I swear I heard a click when I released the door.” He pointed ahead to the doorway into Level 6H. “Let’s cut through here. Nuparu, can you lead us?”
In answer, Nuparu took the lead as the three turned into the corridor. He did not trust himself to speak.
* * *
Nuparu led the Toa and Turaga through Level 6H at a clip, cutting through cross-corridors were he could. A dissented murmur could be more felt than heard through the stone, every now and again resolving into a word or two, but no one said anything. Perhaps they were too scared of jinxing their good fortune thus far.
They rounded a final corner and came to another flight of stairs. Nuparu, still in the lead, leapt down the steps two at a time. He rounded the corner, pointed straight ahead to his laboratory’s entrance–
He froze, expecting at any moment a philippic on his hesitation. But Dume only said in a murmur, “Nuparu, do you know of any Rahi that would make that sound?”
Nuparu cocked his head to the side, thinking. Then he shrugged. “I can’t tell just from the sound what Rahi it is.” Simultaneously a thought coursed through his mind: That noise was louder than before...
“But you’re an Archivist; aren’t you supposed to know everything about Rahi?”
That was a widespread stereotype, and Nuparu opened his mouth to say so.
The words died unsaid on Nuparu’s tongue as he turned. A shadow had moved into the right hallway, a shadow as familiar to Nuparu as his own two hands.
Dume jolted as if in shock. Lhikan drew his twin greatswords. Nuparu froze, silently muttering to himself, “No... no...”
Down the hall, the Kralhi canted its head, as if confused by the sight of a Matoran, Toa, and Turaga together. Its confusion lasted none too long, though; it raised its tail, and a pinprick of light began growing at the tip.
Nuparu was the first to react. “Cover!”
The light blossomed like an explosion, resolving itself into a sphere that suddenly shot down the hallway. Nuparu and Dume dove around the corner, onto the stairs; Lhikan dodged in the opposite direction, pressing himself against the far wall. The bubble flew down the hallway beyond the stairs; a second later, a thump was heard.
Lhikan was already gone.
“The delinquents must be apprehended—”
The sound of fire met Nuparu’s ears, mixed with the vhoomsof launched bubbles and the clangsof Lhikan’s swords striking metal. Taking a deep breath, Nuparu leaned around the corner—
Just as his eyes cleared the barrier of stone, a brilliant flash lit up the corridor. The iridescent afterimage hovered in the middle of Nuparu’s field of vision as he watched Lhikan leap, duck, and strike in a vicious blur.
The Kralhi was half-scorched, victim to Lhikan’s powerful blast of fire just moments before. Its four legs moved quickly to keep it out of range of Lhikan’s swords. The Toa of Fire was breathing hard, but still managed to gracefully somersault over a bubble and land on the Kralhi’s back.
Charging his sword with fire, he sliced off its tail.
It fell roughly to the ground. The Kralhi went ballistic, reaching backwards to strike Lhikan with its swords. But Lhikan was already gone; he stopped several meters away, caught Nuparu’s gaze and jerked his head toward the laboratory door in the opposite direction, and then darted into a nearby empty room. The Kralhi followed—
There was a clang, a flash, a lick of fire, and the Kralhi fell out of the doorway to the ground, its body sparking wildly. Lhikan exited as well.
In its death throes, the Kralhi ground out, “Unauthorized machinery — must — not be built...”
It fell silent.
* * *
When everyone was in the laboratory, Nuparu shut the door; the lightstone quivered upon the impact, its halo of light drifting lazily over the work-in-progress torso of the Vahki.
As Nuparu slipped on his goggles, he wondered:
The Kralhi had detected the Vahki, but rather than destroy the machine it had waited for its creator to appear. Did that mean it was less concerned about the machinery itself than the troublemaker? — or had the machine assumed the Vahki would draw its creator back?
If the former possibility was correct, the Kralhi had a serious impairment in its programming. If the latter possibility was correct, the Kralhi was perhaps smarter than even Nuparu had realized. Either way, the Kralhi was sure to have called its allies; perhaps they were even now approaching.
A very faint crunch was heard. Nuparu gritted his teeth and gripped his tools.
Lhikan and Dume stayed respectfully silent as Nuparu tested every single part of the Vahki thoroughly against a mental checklist: Yes, the gears worked; yes, the A.I. was properly plugged in; yes, the audio receptors had been installed correctly...
When everything had been checked, double-checked, and in some cases triple-checked, Nuparu swung the chest hatch closed and began to weld it shut. Sparks danced into the air; the familiar white noise of plasma melting metal was soothing, perhaps the only familiar thing to happen today.
“You know,” said Dume thoughtfully, “this could turn out to be a good test run for the Vahki.”
Behind his goggles, Nuparu blinked. “What?”
Dume shrugged. Nuparu turned back to the Vahki and tested the Kanoka launcher installed on its head one last time.
By the time the welding was done, Nuparu could hear two sets of crunch-crunches. “Darn it,” he muttered, lifting the Vahki’s head and opening the hidden access hatch there. His fingers flew over the switches: A.I. activation, motor activation, quick diagnostic, et cetera. “Lhikan” — for the Toa of Fire had gone to the door, hand on its handle — “don’t go out yet. You might not be able to handle two by yourself.”
Nuparu’s finger landed on the last switch and stopped. Even in his dire situation, he could not help but hesitate. Flicking this last switch would ignite another conflict, one worse than any battle against Kralhi: one against Matoran, against friends who wanted nothing more than freedom, against Toa Lhikan who would rather risk his own life than put others’ in jeopardy.
In the end, redemption and his own life drove Nuparu beyond that barrier. He would deal with the problems later. He had done so with the Kralhi, and he would do so now.
Eyes closed tightly shut, he flicked the ignition switch.
There was a spark. A whirr of gears. A sudden screech—
And sans theatrics, the Vahki sat up. Its head rotated slowly, bringing into focus the three beings around it. Nuparu held his breath a moment, praying that his programming would work, and then stepped forward and said aloud, “I am your creator.”
The robot’s optic sensors focused on Nuparu, who pointed to Dume. “That is Turaga Dume, our—” His voice caught. “—our leader.” The finger shifted to Lhikan; the Vahki’s optic sensors followed. “That is Toa Lhikan, a friend. Friend.”
For a moment, Nuparu thought the Vahki was going to attack. But it simply sat there, motionless.
Another deep breath, and then Nuparu opened the door. For the Vahki to understand its enemies, it had to see them.
The Kralhi were already half an akilini field away — far too close for comfort. “Those are Kralhi,” said Nuparu, trying desperately to keep the franticness out of his voice. “Kralhi are enemies.”
The Kralhi’s tail tips began to glow. Lhikan moved forward to grab the door himself; Nuparu shook his head.
“You destroy enemies.”
The Vahki considered that for a moment, head canted to one side. Twin balls of energy appeared on the Kralhi’s tails — Lhikan tensed as Dume stood to the side, observing the situation as calmly as ever—
Two Kanoka disks later, the battle was over. The Kralhi, one now lying in a smoking heap on the floor, the other frozen solid, had never gotten to fire.
It was oddly symbolic, having a new creation destroy the older, more flawed one. That eased Nuparu’s conscience somewhat.
* * *
Getting out of the Archives proved more problematic than getting in had. But the Vahki was safely deactivated in Nuparu’s laboratory, and the blueprints were hidden in Dume’s own waist pouch; without anything apparent in his hands, Dume’s story of visiting the Archives for recreation managed to tide the crowd over long enough for him and Lhikan to slip away.
Nuparu was left behind. His job was done; he was needed no more.
Dume had told him that after enough Vahki were manufactured to keep the peace, Nuparu’s role in their creation would be revealed. Nuparu had resisted the idea; Dume, however, was as stubborn as he was venerable. “Credit,” he had insisted, “should be given duly. And you, my friend, are due for credit.”
Which meant the blame for the Vahki would fall squarely on Nuparu’s shoulders in an act of political backstabbing. Never mind that Nuparu had created them out of a thirst to prove himself in Dume’s eyes. The other Matoran would see him as a monster creating other monsters.
Perhaps that was all he was.
The sun had not yet reached the apex of its arc. Slipping again through the protest, Nuparu emerged onto empty streets. Of their own accord, his feet shifted his direction toward home.
Someday, he vowed — someday he would create a machine that would not rule over Matoran but coexist with them. The Kralhi were not his only folly.
Edited by Legolover-361, Jul 03 2012 - 08:45 AM.