Nerissa gently disassembled Steamy, as he had shown her to do many times for routine maintenance. The plumbing that kept his boiler supplied with water from the tank on his back was clogged with encrusted salt–as Steamy had always said, “Mistress, I must run on sweetwater only.”

The long days and nights on the outrigger, and Nerissa’s own all-consuming thirst had denied him anything but salt water, and she had seen the fruits of her selfishness in his erratic behavior and eventual shutting down. Had Steamy not also taught her to look for signs of a nearby island in the flights of gulls and the schooling of fish just below wavecrest, she never would have found the shoals.

Water roared and broke over the shallows behind Nerissa, which had nearly claimed the outrigger. It was now tied up on the calm end of a small island set amid the labyrinth of sandbars and coral. Someone had been there, long ago: they had dredged up coral and sand from the lagoon to build what must once have been an islet as small as the others into a large rectangle nearly a quarter of the size of the old atoll she and Steamy had once shared.

The buildings were crumbling and full of coconut crabs, but there was also a cistern filled with fresh water, protected from evaporation and designed to funnel rainwater.

Without the bucking and rolling of the Redflower as its outriggers cut into the waves, Nerissa could finally repair Steamy. She could finally rest easy, if only for a moment.

For there were still storm clouds on the horizon, and the island bore none of the red flowers that Steamy had once brought back.

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“What is that over there?”

“A reminder,” said Father, sadly. “Do not approach it.”

Son squinted at the squat shape, shambling about on steel legs and examining the odd rock with steel arms. It looked to him like a can of synthehol come to amiable, blocky life. “Why not? It looks cute…and sad. What’s it a reminder of?”

“A reminder of the limits of making any construct too much like a human without clear purpose,” said Father. “They were built with human memory engrams, with the ability and drive to grow and learn not unlike us.”

“That’s a good thing, right?”

“It might be in other circumstances. But they were designed to take the most toxic, the most radioactive waste that humankind produced and secret it away to places where it would be safe and undisturbed for ten thousand years. Their engrams–the humanity we built into them–led those constructs to question their mission, to abandon it, to seek out others to assuage their loneliness.”

Son looked at the distant automaton with pity. “It’s lonely?”

“Yes,” said Father. “If you let it, it will reach out a hand of friendship to you and speak to you of its thousand-year journey. And the poisons with in, the invisible rays that it was designed to shield beneath miles of earth and stone, will kill you in minutes.”

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In time, the few who knew how to operate the ancient machines of old became pariahs. Their skills, once so useful to the builders of empires, now shunned by those who lived in their weed-choked ruins.

Some tried to use their machines, their great engines of war, to carve new empires for themselves. But they could never extend their authority beyond the reach of their vehicles’ steel arms, and there was no more fuel to replace that which they burned, and no stores of missiles and bullets to reload their emptying racks and magazines. Such petty hedge-empires fell as quickly as they arose; even working in concert, the pilots who had been behind the ruin of their world needed just what they had destroyed too much.

Then there was Hobb.

Hobb’s machine was still functional, if battle-scarred. Its legs had been shot off at the Tombs, and it had lost its right arm holding back the 83rd from the gates of Helion. All but two of its external missiles had been fired, and its countermeasure flares were limited to a single fresh magazine of six–all the techs at Ouroboros had been able to load before the city fell. The pilot’s station was unarmored and exposed, its composite and multiplex stripped off to keep other units running during the Long Retreat.

Still, Hobb might have carved himself out a minor fiefdom with his machine and a little skill, and brought him something greater than his rude shack on the outskirts of what had once been Helion. If only for a bit.

Not Hobb.

He used his machine’s repulsordrive sparingly, to carry him on clear nights to heights undreamt-of by the people below. There, he’d watch the moon rise and the city slumber.

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Nerissa would often ask Steamy if there was anything beyond the distant islets and the reef.

“Everything you want to know is in your books, my lady,” her teacher and servant would always reply, in his reedy voice that issued from pressure-fed bellows. “I cannot speak to the existence or nonexistence of that which is not in my program.”

The books, and Steamy’s daily lessons, did seem to indicate a wider world beyond the atoll. Nerissa has never seen many of the objects and creatures that stood for each letter in her worn alphabet book, and the books and novels in the tower library were ablaze with distant and exotic lands. But Steamy would not–could not–confirm which tales were true and which were false.

“My program allows me to administer the lesson and organize the library, my lady. I cannot speak to the truth or untruth of that which is not in my program.”

Certainly there was no reason to doubt the old automaton was sincere; he performed his daily tasks with aplomb. There were kelp greens to be harvested, traps and baits for fish and crustaceans to be emptied and reset, and of course meals to be prepared. The strong metal piles sunk deep into the rock at the center of the atoll to support the tower also needed regular maintenance; they were a bulwark against the storms and waves that sometimes lashed against the atoll.

Still, on those occasions when the barometers were low and Steamy allowed Nerissa to accompany him to the outlying islets on the outrigger, she would look out to the horizon, through the palms and across the barrier reefs, and wonder at what lay beyond. Perhaps her parents, who had vanished in the other outrigger many seasons ago, leaving Steamy and the books as her only companions.

And then something happened which confirmed her beliefs.

Steamy had gone beyond the reefs in the outrigger, through a passage only he knew, on his annual trip to the islet of Motanu (visible from the farthest islet) for rocks and birds to capture for egg-laying. He returned bearing an unusual crimson object that be wordlessly presented to Nerissa.

She’d never seen one before, but her alphabet book had it on page 6: F for Flower.

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