There it was again: the dust whipping up from the mountains and forming a vast cloud that stretched on for miles. The orange glow of the setting sun was turned hazy and dim, the shroud of long-ago ruins building up in front of it.
Soon, the the wind would push the dust cloud down from the mountains and to the ground. Soon, it would amass into a size that could no longer sustain itself and would begin breaking apart, but not before raining down on the cities below. But it was not water that fell from these dust clouds. It was metal.
Sirens across the city of New Balarand blared in alarm, warning the few who still lived in such a place to take shelter, to hide underground or in a KnollCorp protective bunker. Even after the rivers dried up and the lands were ravaged by sky pirates from Dannark, people still lived in the city of New Balarand, but the life they lived was one of toil and struggle. One of the many perils they faced on a weekly basis were the cyberstorms that wreaked havoc on the surface.
You see, over three hundred years ago, a great war was fought across the planet of Tsubasa. Once, where there was a great technological civilization that explored the stars and reached new depths under the oceans, soon became nothing but ash, bones, and rusted parts. The gigantic robotic war machines, the ruins of advanced societies, the pieces of everyday life from this former civilization had become the scraps from which the next civilization would emerge.
Or so they wished. For after decades of conflict with vast magical weapons and killer AI, the world had been rendered inhospitable, in many places outright uninhabitable. It was impossible to reclaim a society this far gone… But people persisted.
Even as the ruins of the past were picked up into gigantic dust storms, even as meager farms were decimated and buildings crushed, the people of New Balarand held hope in their hearts. They prayed to their cybergods, waited out the cyberstorm, and then found their version of mana the next morning.
Unlike a graceful god handing out food and water, the cybergods presented their gifts in the form of technology. Fragments of a past no human alive was ever a part of. Pieces of devices long lost to the annals of time and the corrosion of the elements. It was hardly a gift, but it was something many in New Balarand took advantage of.
And today, one young woman was a part of that group: Beatrice of the Ragnell Clan.
With a dainty, malnourished frame and cracked glasses, Beatrice did not look the part of some seasoned warrior. But rest assured, she was.
She was a scrapper, an essential member of society in New Balarand. She was one of the few who could understand the secrets of these ancient parts.and forge them into something new.
And to be honest, she loved it. She loved going out in the morning after a cyberstorm and finding piles of wreckage stacked up all over the ground. She loved sifting through the rubble and looking for new bits of technology. She loved finding the kinds of items that could help her family survive, that could sell for a month’s rations in the beat of a heart.
Sometimes, Beatrice got lost in these trances of hers, bonding to the technology with a certain unexplainable kinship. She felt closer to humanity than ever when she did her scrapper work, and she simply could not explain why.
That is, until this very day.
For this was the day that, underneath broken computers and discarded limbs, she found the head and torso of an android.
It stared at her with dead, motionless brown eyes, and ripped synthetic skin that had faded with the centuries. Its hair was ragged and it had only one ear.
But… Beatrice was taken.
This… this would change everything. She didn’t know why or how, but she knew for certain that the rest of her life would be different.
And then light.
Visual receptors reactivated.
Viewports damaged, but functional. Analysis of internal systems report: major damage to internal systems. Illegal amounts of unauthorized modifications detected.
And one image in plain view: Deep blue eyes and bright blonde hair with a twinkling expression on a young woman’s face.
“You’re on,” she said. “You’re actually on. By the cybergods, you’re on.”
Vocal receptors functional. Testing…
“Testing, testing. The fish twisted and turned on the bent hook. The beauty of the view stunned the young boy. The small pup–”
“And you can speak, too!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never seen an android so functional. Surely you don’t still have your memory banks, do you?”
Cognitive cores functional.
Memory banks functional.
Motor skills untested. Motor cores functional.
Sensory cores functional.
Connection failed. Netnect offline.
Social cores damaged. 40% capacity.
The girl turned her head to the side. “No response? What’s your deal?”
Initializing conversational skills…
444 of 16,725 routines failed. Retrying…
413 of 16,725 routines failed. Proceeding.
“Wh…who are you?” she asked, finally.
The blonde girl giggled. “That’s what I’m supposed to ask you! Well, My name is Beatrice. I’m a scrapper, and I just turned you back on.”
“Wh… Turned back on?” Memory processes… A large explosion in the distance. Hands clapsed together. Foreheads nuzzled. A collapsing palace. “Oh. I… remember.”
“I… Sorry. I didn’t introduce myself. I’m, um, Emi L’Hime. Princess of the L’Hime Kingdom.”
“The what?” Beatrice asked.
“The Royal Kingdom that rules over the Balarand Region,” Emi told her. “I am its heir. And, uh…” Emi’s visual receptors focused in on Beatrice. She was striking, gorgeous in almost every way. She was an angel in the middle of a mechanic’s workshop. The grease splashed against her cheek, the freckles that did the same, that long, curly hair that… “You’re gorgeous,” she blurted.
Incorrect social response detected.
Emi needed to reboot, or reinstall, or… something…
Beatrice’s face had gone red. That meant she was… happy? Emi couldn’t read the situation anymore. Oh no…
“I’m sorry,” Emi said. “I believe I have been damaged. I was in a blast and–”
Beatrice waved her off. “Don’t worry about it. You’re real cute too, you know.”
Emi felt a jolt of electricity through her circuits. Systems malfunctioned left and right. If she had the capacity to express her embarrassment right now, she would certainly make it. “I… I regard your comment with great r-respect,” she said in an attempt at her usual regal tone. It did not come out as she intended.
“An android that blushes. Never thought I’d see the day,” Beatrice said.
“Blushes…? What do you mean?”
“Your synthetic skin! It’s as red as a tulip.”
“Oh my! How do I make it go away?”
“I wonder…” Beatrice stepped up so close to Emi that she could no longer see all of her face. And then she felt a pair of lips against her cheek. A quick smooch. “What did that do?”
Beatrice put a finger against her lips. “Maybe that was a little too fast, even for a robot…”
“Please warn me… Warn me before you do something so cute, young Beatrice.”
“Sorry, sorry,” she replied. “But… was it okay?”
“….Yeah…. But, um, I do have a question, if you don’t mind me asking. Where… am I? Can I go home once I am repaired?”
Beatrice’s expression darkened. “I’ll have to catch you up on that. It’s a little heavy.”
Heavy… Emi’s mind flashed back to the last second of consciousness before she ended up here. An explosion, a shockwave, and a building collapsing. Her own palace. What if… No, she didn’t want to think about that right now.
“In better news, I’m already getting you a better frame for your body. Old Statusian’s trading me some parts for arms and legs that’ll work real well. Top of the line custom product. Not just scraps.”
“I would indeed like to walk again…”
“Until then…” Beatrice smirked. “Maybe we can get to know each other, Emi?”
“I’d… love to.”
Beatrice hadn’t told her parents much of anything, just that she had found something–rather, someone–extremely special. So at dinner in their underground apartment, she opened up the door to her workshop and let her project reveal itself–or, herself.
Beatrice’s Mom and Dad sat at the dinner table, with three bowls set out for their nightly ration of protein soup. But when they beckoned her to sit down, she waved them away.
“I want you to meet someone,” Beatrice told them.
“I hope it’s not another boyfriend,” Dad said, chuckling.
Beatrice groaned. “You take the fun out of everything. Just let me do my thing.”
A few metallic footsteps against the staircase later…
And Emi L’Hime presented herself to Beatrice’s parents.
Her head and torso were the same as Beatrice had recovered from the cyberstorm– patchy and scarred up, but still humanlike enough to fool the casual eye. Her limbs, however, were completely cybernetic, white-and-black custom-mades from Old Statusian. They cost a pretty penny in spare parts, but it was worth it. Emi strode into the living room with an elegance Beatrice had never seen. She was like a princes… Probably because she really was a princess.
Beatrice had fetched a flimsy pajama t-shirt to cover Emi’s torso, but other than that, she showed off her robotic self with pride.
Her parents’ jaws dropped.
“This,” she told them, “is my girlfriend Emi.”
There was a lot of explaining that had to be done after that.
You see, Beatrice never planned to fall in love with Emi or form a romantic relationship with her. It just sort of… happened. After weeks of tinkering with her and scrounging up parts for her to get her fully functional, she had gotten to know her closely. Very closely. Long hours of just talking about life, trading stories about Emi’s time in Old Balarand with Beatrice’s tales of New Balarand. They had become smitten almost instantly. Love soon came after. So did kissing… and stuff like that.
It was good to see Emi using her body with confidence. She had been so worried that she wouldn’t possess the same motor skills she once did, just like her social skills had apparently degraded from damage. Really, other than her awkward demeanor, she had progressed so nicely.
But maybe Beatrice was blinded by love.
“An android from the L’Hime Kingdom…” Dad muttered. “I wasn’t even aware a L’Hime Kingdom existed…”
“I’m so sorry about that,” she responded. “What has happened to your people, the way you are forced to live… It’s all the fault of my generation, the people who waged the war. Perhaps I am to blame. I could have brokered peace with the human kingdom of Doros, but instead I wanted to drag it out longer until they conceded more rights for androids. And androids now no longer exist…”
“Except for you,” Beatrice said.
“You’ll have to tell me all the stories, please,” Dad said. “I am something of a scholar of the old world. A firsthand account of what life was like, from a princess no less, would be stupendous. Please.”
“Well… I told your daughter plenty already. Perhaps she could relay–”
“Please,” he begged.
Emi proceded to tell a series of extremely long stories about her life as the android princess of the L’Hime Kingdom. She told of how her people were once a spacefaring kind who came back home only to find great prejudice against them. They established their own monarchy and carved out a place for themselves, but before long the whole world had become embroiled in strife. It was the kind of story you’d find in an old dusty book, or maybe in a holo-film if you could get it to play. It was filled with adventure, tragedy, and romance–not the kissing kind, but the literary kind.
And when she finished, Dad had only one comment: “Who else knows about Emi?”
“No-one,” Beatrice replied. “Old Statusian knows I was building a robot, and I made an appointment with a man named Dr. Ido to see about buying synthetic skin, if he has the right kind. But nobody else knows a soul, not even Bodhi.”
Emi put her robotic hand around her shoulder. “Beatrice is trustworthy. I can verify this.”
Beatrice giggled. “You’re such a loser.” She felt a tiny static shock, a clear sign that Emi was feeling embarrassed, as often happened.
“Synthetic skin, eh?” Dad shook his head. “There’s only one reason you’d want to give this girlfriend robot of yours all her nerve endings back, and I–”
“Dad! Gross! I’m not talking about that with you. And anyway, I just want her to feel like herself again! She’s done a lot for us.”
“I… Well… Uh…” Emi stuttered.
“You know how I can even afford something like synthetic skin?” Beatrice asked. “Because of this woman here. She’s solar powered and her charge lasts for weeks. She can fill up power cells, and then I can sell them to people who need it.”
“You’re using Emi as a giant battery? Beatrice, that’s….”
“…Genius! My daughter never ceases to amaze me.”
“And me,” Emi added, but then she got embarrassed again and accidentally shocked Beatrice.
“Ow!” Beatrice yelped. “Stop doing that…”
Most nights, it was too frigid to even be outside. The days were hot, and the nights were icy. But at this time of the summer in New Balarand, the nights were still bearable.
And on the roof of Beatrice and Emi’s house, the two women laid in a makeshift bed made of discarded fabrics, worn-out rugs, and other assorted soft cushions. It was the lap of luxury for Emi.
Just being able to feel her own skin again was something of a marvel. Months had gone by where she was unable to go outside for fear of being noticed. Months had gone by where she could not feel the touch of her own lover.
But all that had changed finally.
So the two laid on the rooftop and cuddled together.
Well, at the moment, Beatrice had gone back underground to use the bathroom, something that Emi still could not fully process in her cognitive cores, but was very glad she did not have to do. So Emi was alone to cuddle with her own skin.
And cuddle she did.
Wow, she felt so amazing. Being able to feel again, being able to sense everything around her. It brought her back to a simpler time, before the war or before her entire world was destroyed. A time when she could frolic around a meadow and collapse on the ground with her friends. All those friends who were now dead and completely forgotten, her memory banks literally the only evidence they ever existed.
At least the stars were pretty…
Emi could never see the stars back in her time. The cities were too vast and bright. Aside from the few homes powering their lights with power cells sold to them by Beatrice, New Balarand was black, which allowed for so, so much beauty.
And speaking of beauty… Her wife had come back up to the rooftop.
Beatrice wore nothing but a thin, holey nightgown. And nothing ever looked more pretty than her in this moment.
“You look so good in that gown,” Emi said.
“That’s funny,” Beatrice said. “I thought I’d look better without it.”
After Emi let out the expected static shocks, Beatrice followed through with her threat and then collapsed down on the bed beside her. Emi turned on her side and let Beatrice wrap her arms around her. She squeezed tight and pressed her chest against her back. Skin against skin, like it was always meant to be. This was what love was all about, Emi thought.
“I can… feel you, Emi said. “I can feel you. I can hardly believe it. It’s just so…” Emi began to weep, though no tears came out for obvious reasons.
“I want you to feel so much more of me,” Beatrice whispered.
“Oh, Beatrice, maybe later. Can’t we just stay like this for a while?”
Beatrice kissed her on the cheek, and then on the back of the neck. “That’s fine, honey. You’re the princess, after all.”
“Hehe, I am.”
And they began to cuddle in the silence of the night in New Balarand–
That is, until the whistling winds began.
Until the giant clouds began to form around the mountains off in the distance.
Until those clouds made their approach towards the city.
“A cyberstorm’s brewing,” Beatrice said. “Sure you’re not in the mood?”
Emi rolled her eyes. “Come on. Let’s get everything downstairs.”
“Will do.” Beatrice took their not-bed and carried it down to their shack of an underground home.
Emi looked back at her wife. Well, wife not in any legal sense, not that there was such a thing as a law in this place. They had married each other in spirit, and that was what mattered. That look on her wife’s face, that twinkling anticipation… That was what Emi lived for. In all her years as a princess of a large kingdom, she never saw anything so wonderful as Beatrice’s face the night of a cyberstorm. She had the heart of a warrior, the spirit of a true scrapper.
Maybe Emi still had no place in this world, maybe she was still an outcast in every sense of the word. Maybe someday she would figure out a purpose for herself and things would change. But as long as she was by her wife’s side, by the woman who brought her back to life after three hundred years laid dormant, Emi couldn’t think of any place she’d rather be.
The two women went into their house and waited out the cyberstorm as debris crashed against the surface with loud bangs and small explosions. And they fell asleep to the tune of the storm, hand in hand.