A metallic echo was drawing close. Irving peered into the grimy alcove, terrified at whatever was scraping towards him.
"P-p-pard-n me," crackled a voice from the dark. "Hel-o." A mangled machine crawled into view, one arm dragging its torso through the filth. Tangled wires spilled from its interior, and its head was concave and misshapen. "P-pardon me," it stuttered again. "Forg-g-give my ap-ear-nce. I m-mean you n- harm."
He stared as sludge trickled down the vent, and the metalloid stared back with shattered eyes. Even when speaking, its slack jaw swung loosely. "I he-heard a sign-l, a call fo-for help. I need he-elp too. Will you h-h-h-lp me?"
After a long pause, Irving finally replied. "How can I help?"
The machine made an odd creaking noise. "Ah-ah. Where to-to beg-n." It lifted its only arm, held together by fraying wires. "I ba-barely h-ve one limb. Down here, I-I cannot r-pair. Must g-g-go high-r."
The man glanced at his mangled arm. "I had a mag-line, but I can't use it. My arm's broken."
"I know h-w tha-that feels. Can I m-make you -n offer?"
"If y-u g-g-give m- your arm, I wi-will fix it. I will g-t us b-b-both out."
Irving stared again at his mechanical limb, touching it absently with his left hand. He lingered a moment before answering, "You can fix it?"
"To-togeth-r we can esc-sc-cape. I kn-know it."
He offered his broken arm, but the android pointed a crooked finger. "You h-ve t-t-to do -t. That p-panel on your coll-r, op-n it from th-th- back. Yes. Now p-p-pull the pins ins-de."
Once Irving located the pins, it took a while for his slimy fingernails to catch. After removing them all, his shoulder loosened, then the ragged metal limb slid from its socket with ease. As he handed it over to the machine, small cables snaked from its appendage into his, forcibly constricting their components together.
"This wi-will t-ke time. W-would y-u like to t-ta-talk? I p-promise I -m a bett-r list-ner the-then a sp-p-peak-r."
"What should I say?"
"An-nything. Ho-how d-d you g-g-get here?"
Irving recalled his abandonment. "I was trying to escape the Paradigm. I found some friends who I thought would help, but..."
"They th-threw you a-a-way."
"Yes. They left while a vassal tried to destroy me." Irving glanced at the machine with uncertainty. "Are... are you a vassal?"
It hesitated. "I w-s once, a long t-t-time ago. My f-friends threw me aw-y too. I h-have been do-do-down h-re since. We have a l-t in c-com-on." After a moment of silence, it asked, "What i-is yo-r name?"
"Irving. What's yours?"
"I was a li-li-ling-g-guist in my p-prime."
"Linguist," he repeated. "That's what I'll call you, then."
They rested in the sewage for a while, listening to the repetitive horns and feeding worms, until at last the machine flexed its new fingers. "S-s-cess." It tested the limb, and the glowing plasma cutter sputtered to life momentarily. "Ah. Inter-sting." It turned its lopsided gaze to Irving. "Sha-shall we g-go?"
The man stood, his legs atrophied from sitting for so long. His spine seared as he lifted the Linguist from the floor, finding it difficult support the heavy metalloid with just one arm. "Do you h-ve a g-g-good gri-grip?"
His skin slid against the slick metal. "I don't think so."
"Ok-y. Ho-hold on."
The mag-line shot up through the darkness, arcing with the gravitational curve, and the Linguist launched into the air. Irving's grasp immediately faltered as its shell peeled away, sending him plummeting into the mire below.
He panicked as sludge washed over his head, completely submerging him in the murky depths. All sense of direction vanished, and small, constricting worms began to writhe around his ankles. He struggled to escape, but he had only one arm, and no weapons. Bubbles burst from his mouth as he tried to scream, and kicked desperately at the tightening wires.
Somehow, he managed to tear one leg free, then the other. He swam away from the squirming tendrils, and after a moment of blind paddling, he burst through the surface of the sewage with a choking cry. He quickly located the cramped vent and swam towards it, before the worms could drag him down again.
As he took shelter in the tunnel, shuddering with anxiety, the Linguist descended. It grabbed the lip of the opening and swung back inside, its torso landing with a splash. "F-forg-give m-," it ticked. "I m-misju-judged my sp-speed."
Irving shook his head. "It's not you. I couldn't hold on."
"Hm. I h-ve an i-idea. W-uld you g-g-give me yo-r other a-arm?"
"My other arm?"
"Y-s. I co-could car-y you, but it w-will be hard-r to re-remove."
Irving stared reluctantly at his organic limb. "How do I remove it?"
The Linguist gently lifted the appendage perpendicularly. "Hold st-still."
The plasma cutter flared to life, and separated his shoulder at the socket. Irving stared blankly at the severed arm, bobbing in the murky waters, as a shrill cry escaped him. The Linguist retrieved the limb and comforted the shrieking man. "I am so-sorry. It -s b-bett-r to d- that f-f-fast. Beli-ve me."
His cries eventually subsided into moans, and finally into uncomfortable silence. He lost track of time, millions of moments passing as wires wove through his former skin and bone. Once Irving had exhausted himself, he watched the process with detachment. The stump of flesh rose as the wires tightened, drawing it against the metalloid's frame. The fingers twitched, then closed into a fist. Small clamps bit into the shoulder muscle, the arm bent at the elbow, and the Linguist examined its new part without expression.
"Such de-delic-te design." It crawled over to Irving. "Can y-you st-nd?" The armless man wobbled to his feet, but managed to stay upright. "I will b-be your -rms, and you wi-will be my f-f-feet. Ok-kay?"
The android embraced him, and the mag-line sped off again. They soared through the air past pipes and chutes as waste worms screeched in the distance. Irving shut his eyes until they came to a halt.
"Sta-and up," the Linguist ordered. He dared to open his eyes and found himself swinging above a horizontal chute. The mag-line released, his boots clamped onto the surface, and the machine hung heavily from his vacant shoulders. "The-ere is an e-emerg-g-gency hatch up ah-ah-head. C-n you w-walk?"
Irving marched along the decrepit tunnel, his metallic footfalls echoing across the filtration system, until the pipe curved upwards and Irving's slimy soles caused him to slip. The Linguist used the mag-line to help them ascend, and together they reached the hatch. The android had to use both hands, with Irving leaning against it for support, and struck the hatch with a quick burst from the plasma cutter.
It flew open with a rush of compressed gas, and The Linguist hoisted Irving into the pipe. The man rested his feet on a series of rungs as the machine crawled in, then they climbed. After half an hour, the pair emerged through a hatch, into the familiar corridors of the Paradigm. Irving collapsed to the floor, and the Linguist crawled from his shoulders to study the ribbed walls. "I never thought I would return. Thank you."
Irving's legs were numb. "I need plasma..."
The Linguist examined him. "I c-n he-help wi- that. Ju-just a lit-le f-furth-r."
Irving slumped against the walls, pausing frequently to regain his equilibrium. The Linguist slid from his shoulders, equally drained of energy, and Irving helped him climb back up. The lethargic pair stumbled through the winding corridors, every dip and curve revealing more undulating technology, until the android's grip suddenly tightened.
"St-st-sto-," it struggled as Irving stepped into an intersection, and saw something that made his hair rise. He immediately ducked behind the corner as the creature turned its antennae-filled sockets towards them. Stilt-like legs clinked against the floor as it approached.
The bestial carbonid crawled towards them on all fours, muttering incoherently, fresh plasma dripping from its fangs. There had been another figure on the ground — its victim. Irving prepared to run, but the Linguist finally sputtered, "St-sto-sto- stay."
He was motionless as the rasping creature neared the corner, then it went silent. A whirring sound emitted from the android on Irving's shoulders, its internal mechanics at work, and the man thought the thing had heard them. Suddenly, it rushed past them down the opposite corridor. Irving tensed at its flashing fangs, glowing collar, and jagged spine, but soon the abomination was out of sight.
"Qu-quick," the Linguist urged. "G-g-get the oth-r." Irving remembered the creature's victim, and his limbs groaned as he approached the ravaged carbonid. The man's lower half was torn askew, legs and stomach scattered throughout the hall, and its skin entirely removed. Irving immediately collapsed next to the faceless being and licked rivulets of plasma from the floor panels.
The Linguist waddled on its arms to the gory husk and located an intravenous tube in its spine. He extended the artery to the ravenous man, who immediately clenched it between his teeth and choked on its plasma. As he drank, Irving noticed the skinned carbonid raise a shaking, skeletal hand, though it quickly fell in defeat.
As he replenished himself, the Linguist studied the victim. "Wh-t a w-w-waste." It lifted a splintered shin, then drew one finger along the figure's tattered neck. It slid a hand inside and detached the trachea with a quick tug, causing the entire body to jerk. As it unfurled the lengthy tube, its fingers audibly sharpened into spikes, and deftly removed the surrounding tissue. Eventually, a small larynx rested in its palm, and the Linguist swallowed it whole.
Irving was strong enough to stand, and the android took its turn refueling. "What was that?" he asked, staring fearfully down the far corridor.
"A c-c-cynoid," his companion responded, its pitch dropping. "They -re vi-vicious, b-b-but the-r ma-masters are w-rse."
"How did you make it go away?"
"Can't you teach me?"
"No. Y-you do n-t hear the-the Metafr-frame. You c-nnot sp-speak to -t like I c-can."
Irving frowned in contemplation. "Can you hear Scai? Do you know why she's after me?"
The Linguist raised its shattered eyes to the man, as if in surprise. "I ca-cannot hear Scai anym-re. She has not sp-spoken for a l-ng time. The Metafr-frame persists, but her voice -s silent."
"Why does she want to hurt us?"
"She wants to m-make you be-better. You -re the ones that prefer p-pain."
Irving went rigid. "What?"
"It is d-fficult to exp-plain to organics. Your kind p-prefers pain and delusion. Scai speaks the truth, yet you cann-t hear her frequency. You listen to false signals, chaotic patterns, instead of logic."
"You mean the Pattern?" Irving realized, and the Linguist nodded with a creak. Then, he remarked, "You are speaking better."
"You noticed," the android flaunted, its voice entirely different. "Now I just need some working legs, and I will be good as new."
As it unplugged from the body and scaled the wall, the man rose to his feet. "False signals. Is that how you distracted the cynoid?"
The Linguist hung heavy on his shoulders. "You are surprisingly observant, Irving. We should leave before the other figures it out, too."
The snaking labyrinth crawled past in a blur. The Linguist acted as his arms and his eyes, occasionally directing the obedient man to a new path and warning him of approaching threats. His metallic footsteps counted the dozens of hours, until a small detail caught his attention. He remembered this section.
"This is it," he realized aloud.
"What do you mean?"
"This is where they left me. The people I told you about."
"Ah, I understand now. They used a pod to escape. I am surprised there were any left."
"We collected plasma to make it work," Irving explained. "Do you think we could do it again? Maybe there's another pod we can use."
"We could," the Linguist mused, "But I have a better idea. Put me down here." He placed the machine beside the doorframe as it extended its right hand, and the index finger split at the tip. Small wires snaked into a panel, and Irving remembered using this same method to escape his cocoon. It suddenly occurred to him that was his arm the Linguist was using. He had known it before, but it was only now that he felt it.
"Ah, there," the machine said satisfactorily. "I found them."
He turned in surprise. "Found who?"
"Your friends. The room still has power. I made contact with them."
His mouth hung open in surprise. "What? What did they say? Where are they?"
The Linguist paused, then replied, "They are outside the Paradigm. They found another place, a new world without machines where they can stay forever. They say that you can go with them, if you still want to."
"I can?" Irving could barely believe it. "Okay. But... can you ask them something?"
"Why did they leave me?"
The Linguist paused again, as if in silent conversation, then answered, "They were scared, just like you. They were afraid they would miss their chance to escape, and had to take it. They always planned on coming back for you, Irving."
"Oh," he nodded understandably. "Okay."
"I will let them know you are ready to join them. They will be very happy to hear it." As its internal components whirred, the double doors slid open, and the thin atmosphere around them rushed through the opening. Irving braced against the forceful pull, and soon found himself staring down another endless tunnel.
"They cannot enter the Paradigm again or they will be caught," the android explained, "But they will meet you beyond. Are you ready, Irving?"
The man nodded, despite his sudden hesitancy, then asked, "Won't you come with me?"
"That would be illogical. Your friends wanted to escape the machines, as do you. I do not belong in your new world. You must go alone."
He nodded, slower this time. "I see. Thank you then, for helping me." He prepared to move forward, but his legs were slow to respond, and he took only one uneasy step towards the ledge.
"Irving," the Linguist addressed him again. "I have one last favor to ask. Before you reunite with your friends, would you give me your legs?"
"You want my legs?"
"Yes. I am the one who got us here, after all. I am the one who contacted your friends. Besides, they will have more legs where they are taking you. I promise."
Irving stared hesitantly into the bottomless hole. "Are you sure they're coming back?"
"Yes. They are already signaling their return. You must hurry."
"Signals... What if they're false? What if... what if they don't come back?"
"They will come back, Irving."
He remembered that cold, infinite emptiness. "What if they leave me again?"
It sounded like the machine sighed. "Irving, do you not trust me?"
Trust. This was a new word to him, and it triggered a sudden revelation. To trust, he had to believe something was a certainty, reliable and true. Since he awoke, he had believed everything to be true, even at its most malicious. He instinctively trusted his existence, because he had never considered doubting it. In a flood of recollection, Irving identified this word, trust, and suddenly knew its opposite. He knew distrust.
"No." It sounded like someone else responding, but his own vocal chords shivered with the confession. He did not trust this machine. He could not trust anything anymore.
"Hold still." There was a familiar click, and Irving leapt backwards as the plasma torch burst to life. He crashed to the ground, then rolled to the side as the Linguist pounced, impaling the flaring blade through the metal floor. The terrified man kicked himself away, but the mechanical torso crawled after him on his own arms.
"I am sorry," the Linguist apologized. "It is better to do that fast." It leapt up and swung across the grated ceiling, quickly surpassing Irving and dropping towards his defenseless face. He somersaulted forward, the razor-tipped fingers barely missing, and landed on his feet in a full sprint. He ran eight paces before the mag-line struck his plated shoulder blade. It threw him off his feet as it retracted and dragged him back to the machine.
Irving kicked uselessly, unable to escape its magnetic pull, then jerked to a stop as five needlepoint fingers hooked deep under his ribcage. A scream was trapped inside his punctured lungs, and the sharp pain made him flail reflexively. A magnetic boot tapped against the Linguist's skull, knocking it backwards, then its claws tore free and allowed him to scream at last.
"Please comply, Irving," the machine spoke without inflection, "I just need your legs. Do not resist." The mag-line retracted again, and the man realized it had become looped around his waist. "Do not force me to deactivate you." The cable tightened, piercing skin, digging deep through muscle and wiring. His screeching cries echoed his metal soles as they fought for traction, then he suddenly leapt straight towards his assailant. As they collided, his own arm immediately wrapped across his throat, cutting off circulation and screams, but the mag-line's tension had eased.
Irving's eyes went wide as the plasma cutter burst through his abdomen, instantly searing flesh around the wound. There was no pain at first, not until the Linguist angled it deeper. Suddenly, agonizing heat flooded his nerves and blinded his senses. The engineer struggled uselessly, legs jerking uncontrollably, unable to stop the blue flame from inching towards his spine.
There was a snap as both feet attached to the floor, and Irving's rigid legs swung him upright. With a boost of magnetic force, the grappling pair shot against the ceiling, the machine taking the brunt of the collision, then the cutter finally deactivated. The Linguist toppled overhead and crashed to the ground, followed by a heavy boot that pinned its right arm in place.
The machine tried to pry itself loose, but the magnetic sole kept it fastened securely to the floor. It punched Irving with its free hand, though at that point, he could barely feel the fleshy knuckles against his thigh. Then, his fingers stabbed into his wounded stomach, digging through his insides, and awareness returned with a rush.
The man brought his other foot down on the Linguist's skull, driving his metal heel into its throat. He stomped repeatedly, lifting the entire torso off the floor, as a different sound escaped his flooded lungs. Though full of torment, this was not scream or a cry. It was a roar.
"Stop," it commanded. "Stop. Please st-stop." He only kicked harder, and something beneath his boot gave way. "Sto-stop," it repeated. "For-forg-ve me. I -m so-so-sor-y-"
He kept stamping until the voice went silent. When his fury finally subsided, Irving fell to his knees, imbalanced and malfunctioning. Involuntary noises and leaking liquids escaped from his eyes and nose. Nothing would process. Everything was illogical.