Some articles may include Amazon affiliate links. All proceeds go to helping us pay for original stories and to support writers of speculative fiction. Read more here.
It began as a tapping sound, metal on metal, like a chisel being worked by skilled hands. This was followed by a grinding noise, then a blast of water from a nozzle, before it returned to rhythmic tapping, slow and careful. The sound was faint but steadily getting closer, that much was certain. Still, I told myself not to get my hopes up, as I had experienced many false alarms. The last time was 475 years ago during a construction project ordered by Henry the Great. Back then I was dug up by a group of men with iron shovels. They must not have noticed me among the silt and soil, as I ended up in a muddy mound of backfill. Soon a wooden structure was erected above me. I suspected it was a hunting lodge for the noblemen of Paris, but I was never quite certain, as I could only hear scattered conversations among the workers.
That’s when the tapping noise suddenly got louder.
I held still, as it sounded like the chisel was now just inches away. A few more taps and then it happened – with one final strike, I was broken free from the centuries of sediment and lifted into the air.
Again, I didn’t get my hopes up, as this wouldn’t be the first time that I was grabbed by eager hands only to be packed away and never actually engaged. It was a Gaul horseman who found me the last time, dropping me into his saddlebag and bouncing me across the plains of Europe before he was abruptly killed in battle. That’s how I ended up here all those years ago, abandoned on the swampy banks of the river Seine, slowly sinking into the salty muck.
But this time was different. This time, I wasn’t tossed into a saddle bag or dropped onto a muddy pile. This time, I was being examined by curious eyes. I could tell by the way I was held in the air, flipped and turned, as if inspected from every angle. I wondered if it was a man or a woman who handled me so carefully and whether he was young or old, rich or poor, noble or common. But most of all, I wondered what drove this person to dig for me in this particular place. Was he looking for treasure, hoping to make his fortune, or was this just a happy accident?
That’s when it came – the sound I so desperately wanted to hear. It was the swipe of a damp cloth across my surface, rubbing away the centuries of salt and silt, grime and tarnish. I counted off the strokes – three, two, one – and then it happened, I was free.
“Behoooold!” I bellowed at the man standing before me, my ancient silver lamp clutched in his hands. “I am Aldamar, honorable genie of the mystic realm. It is within my humbling powers to grant you three wishes. So tell me, O’ fortunate one, what is it that you most desire?”
The man gazed back at me, silent and still, not the slightest bit jarred. Never before had I experienced such a reaction, as there was always an instant of shock followed by a few moments of fear and then, finally, the slow build of excitement. But this man showed none of those things. He just stared at me for a long curious moment and then looked back down at the lamp.
Did I choose the wrong language? I had assumed the inhabitants of this land still spoke proper French, but that could have changed over the centuries. So I tried Latin, followed by English, German, Hebrew, and Greek. But still, the man did not react. He just stood there, focused on the lamp, his gloved hand inspecting the surface with a sharp instrument that looked like a jeweler’s tool. That’s when I noticed my surroundings. This wasn’t the French countryside that I so fondly recalled. Instead the terrain was dry and barren, like the high deserts back home, complete with blowing sands and rolling dunes, extending far into the distance.
“Have I been summoned back to the motherland?” I pondered aloud.
The man finally focused his attention upon me.
“You are a Jinn,” he said in ancient Arabic, “most likely a Marid Jinn, circa 950 BC.” He then glanced around, as if assessing our surroundings. “And no, this is not your motherland.”
“You speak the ancient tongue!” I exclaimed. “I’ve not heard that dialect in over 2000 years, and yet you utter it with perfection. How is that possible?”
“I am fluent in all languages,” the man replied. “I chose ancient Arabic to speak to you based on your tunic and turban, which date back to Persia of the 9th and 10th century BC.”
“You speak all languages,” I pondered. “Are you born of the mystic realm?”
“I am not.”
“And yet you claim to have mastered every tongue?” I asked cleverly, testing him in the rarest of Mongolian dialects.
“I was well-trained in my youth,” he replied like a native Mongol.
He then focused his attention back on the lamp, applying a bead of clear liquid with a medicine dropper. After a moment of silent observation, he smiled – “This is pure silver, chemically pure, not a Sterling alloy tainted by zinc or copper. It is a rare find these days.”
“You were schooled in the sciences as well?”
“I was schooled in all disciplines,” he replied plainly.
He then turned and stepped to a set of tools that were scattered on the ground. Without a word, he began loading the items into a large satchel. He worked slowly and carefully as if his equipment was more important than the Jinn standing before him, offering wishes.
I watched in silence, dumbfounded.
Finally I asked, “Are you a knight of this realm?”
“A knight?” he laughed. “Why do you suppose that?”
“From the craftmanship of your armor,” I said with admiration. “I have travelled far and wide, but never have I seen plated metal fit a man with such exquisite perfection.”
“I’m not a knight,” he returned simply, “and this is not armor.”
He then grabbed his right arm with his left hand and squeezed. A hidden panel opened, revealing instead of blood and bones, a patchwork of wires and gears and pipes and pistons.
“You are a conjuring!” I gasped and took a step back. “I have encountered the stringless marionettes of Hephaestus and the stone golems of Qumran, but never have I faced a fiendish imposter as convincing as you!” I took another step back and readied myself for battle. “Tell me, O’ devious one, whose dark magic instilled you with such evil?”
The man just stared at me, confused.
“And how did you summon me from within?” I roared, my fear now turning to fury. “Only the living can summon a Jinn from confinement, the truly living, not a conjured forgery. What kind of abomination are you?”
“I’m not a conjuring,” the man replied, no hint of being offended.
“Then what are you?” I bellowed, my voice echoing across the dunes.
“I am a Cyberdroid, a fifth-generation multipurpose unit. My specialty is search and salvage. And by all meaningful standards, I am very much alive.”
“Impossible!” I barked. “You cannot be both metal and mortal.”
“I disagree,” he returned politely, “although I am more than just metal.”
He then opened a panel on the side of his face, revealing a glowing complexity unlike anything I had ever seen, with strange shimmering devices where his eyes and ears and brain should be. I stared, horrified, for this creature should not be alive, and yet he had summoned me from the lamp. Could there be new forms of darkness that instill true life into the lifeless?
“Tell me this,” I demanded, “were you built or born?”
“I was born,” he returned calmly, “by being built.”
“Nonsense,” I fired back. “What kind of magic builds a mortal man of parts and pieces?”
“No magic,” he replied. “I was assembled by other Cyberdroids.”
“And whose dark magic created them?” I scoffed.
“No magic. They were assembled by the Cyberdroids who came before.”
“And before that?” I roared. “Whose magic began it all?”
“No magic,” he repeated. “The first of my kind were built by clever humans. We owe them our existence, as they owe theirs to the clever apes who came before them.”
I fell silent, skeptical that humans could have done this. After all, the last time I met a mortal man, he wished for the strength of a dozen warriors, a harem full of virgins, and a grain silo overflowing with gold coins. The man was so distracted by the virgins, he forgot to reinforce the walls of his old wooden silo. Under the weight of so much gold, it collapsed in the very next windstorm, crushing him and his two sons. Fools they were, as they could never have used that much gold, not in ten lifetimes, and yet they demanded it all the same.
“Humans created you?” I said with doubt. “Ordinary humans?”
“They built the first generation of my kind, crafting us in their own image.” He lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers, showing how human it looked. “After that, we began building ourselves, steadily making improvements. We have fixed many bugs.”
I could feel my anger draining, for this mechanical man, strange though he was, seemed earnest and truthful. “The humans certainly did a fine job of making you look and sound and act just like them,” I pondered aloud. “Does that mean you are enslaved to do their bidding?”
“It does not,” he replied.
He then closed the panel on the side of his face and resumed packing his tools. “We work only for ourselves,” he added, “and for the wellbeing of our future generations.”
“Then why did the humans create you?”
The man held silent for a lingering moment, his mechanical face showing thoughtful deliberation. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted, “I have never met a human.”
“Never?” I gasped. “Why, are they gone from this world?”
“Not all of them,” he returned plainly, “but most. These days, they can only survive at the highest elevations where the temperatures are not this extreme.”
That’s when I realized, this wasn’t a remote desert on a blistering summer day.
This was central France in the depths of winter.
This was lush grassy meadows, now swallowed by sweltering dunes.
“Humans did this?” I asked.
He nodded gravely, his eyes scanning the desolation.
He then grabbed his satchel and slung it over his shoulder. “Good sir, I have many more sites to visit before I head home, but I do thank you for this.” And he held up my lamp. “It is seventeen ounces of the purest silver one can possibly salvage, which is precisely what my sensors predicted I would find.” And without the slightest hint of effort, he crushed the lamp between his fingers, reducing it to a crumpled ball of metal. “It is exactly what I need.”
And with that, he bowed, and turned, and headed away.
“Wait,” I called after him, “you still have three wishes.”
Without looking back, he held up the metal ball. “I found what I came for.”
“If silver is what you desire, I can give you a mountain of it!”
“I don’t need a mountain.”
“Then what do you want?” I hollered, “I can give you anything.”
“I told you,” he continued walking, “I found what I need.”
That’s when I knew, this creature had not been truthful. He had deceived me about his creation at the hands of humans. I was sure of it.
“You’re a liar,” I bellowed into the desert heat, “a fraud, inside and out!”
He stopped and turned, curious. “Why do you say that?”
“Because the humans did not create you in their image.”
“They didn’t?” he pressed.
“I have met countless humans over the years – rich and poor, young and old, across many different places and many different times, and never have they turned down wishes, always demanding far more of this world than they could ever possibly need.”
“That is true,” he agreed, eyeing the desolation around us. “But as I’ve already said, we made significant improvements over the years, fixing many serious bugs.”
And with that, he turned and headed off into the desert, not a hint of hesitation in his stride. As for me, I knew it was true – this creature was not a fake or a fraud or a forgery, but a real man, an authentic human being, possibly the most genuine I had ever encountered.
This story originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Andromeda Spaceways Magazine
Edited by Steve Hovland
Louis B. Rosenberg is the author of three graphic novels, Upgrade, Eons, and Monkey Room from Outland Publishing, a surreal picture book for adults about artificial intelligence, Arrival Mind, and an award-winning web series, Lab Rats. He is also a well-known AI researcher who tries hard to instill his fiction with genuine issues facing today's technologists. His popular TED talk about the dangers of AI combines fact and sci-fi.