Waking up from the black void was like being stuck to the bottom of the sea, and then slowly start to float up. Light from the surface reached his eyes, growing more and more visible as he neared it. It was a slow process, and the lethargy kept him from breaking free, from reaching the light. He pulled away from the darkness, struggled against it. When he finally broke free, it was like waking up from a long, dreadful sleep, full of nightmares.
He wasn’t sure the nightmare was over.
He laid on a bed, inside a dusty old room. His bed was stacked against the corner, away from the other beds in a room, which laid in a row that ran the length of the room. There was another row of beds, opposite to him. Spots of light came in through a window, filtered by a heavy layer of dust. They fell on the ground in front of his bed.
A thin sheet covered him. He threw it off and looked down at himself. Tattered clothes, decades old, adorned his skin.
It was a dull grey. One day, long ago, it might have been shiny, but a cake of dust covered it. He got out of bed, looking for something, anything, to see his reflection on. Gray skin?
It didn’t take him long to find something. A broken full length mirror laid against the opposite corner, shards of it on the ground. He fell to his knees and combed through them, brushing away shards too small. Finally, he found one large enough and held it to his face.
The same grey skin. Orange hair sprouted from the top of his head and fell above his eyes. They were a bright green, with no irises or pupils. His face was that of a young boy.
What am I? He thought to himself.
Turning his head from the reflection, the boy focused on the bed he was on. It was no different than all the others, except for one detail that caught his eye. It was a metallic plate on the foot board of the bed. He walked up to it, rubbed off the dust and read the fading letters.
T-A-X. Tax. He thought. Is that my name? Tax? It must be. It sounds…right.
Tax moved away from the bed and walked down the room to the door. He opened it, the door creaking with the years. A long hallway stood before him, a broken window at the end. Broken, but without dust. The boy moved up to it, his footsteps making the old boards under him creak.
He passed a torn photograph standing on a side table on his way to the window. It showed a group of children, posing for a picture, while a tall woman stood behind them, wearing a winning smile. Tax saw himself, sitting at the center of the group. He could tell by the picture that he was different than the others; his skin was grey, while theirs ranged from cream to brown.
Tax shook his head and moved away from it. It swirled with ideas and half formed memories. He reached the window, held on to the windowsill, and pulled himself up. The sight before him boggled the mind.
It was the dead husk of a city. From his window, he could see what used to be the heart of the town – now just destroyed buildings, leveled to the ground. The destruction spread out in a circle, less and less of it as one reached the outskirts. The building Tax found himself in was, miraculously, still standing, nearing the edge of the city limits.
Tax let go of the windowsill and fell to the ground. His head hurt with recognition. The building that had been closest to him used to be a pizza place, where he and the other kids would sometimes go on Fridays, if the money allowed it. Next to that was a barber shop, where they would a haircut, and in the case of the older boys, a shave. But Tax never went there. His hair never grew.
But what hit him the hardest was seeing the heart of town completely leveled. But why? There had once been something there, something dear to him, but he could not remember what it was, or why it mattered to him.
Tax pulled himself up and started walking back to the room. He made it as far as the door before he looked to either side of him. Stairs going up to his left, and more going down to his right. After a minute pause, he climbed down the stairs.
They lead him to the entrance of the building. Large pieces of rubble covered the door. Tax looked around, mystified at the lack of windows on the first floor of the building. He walked up to the rubble and pushed. When it didn’t work, he fell to the floor sitting, hopelessness wrecking him.
He got up, his legs wobbling and shaking under him. Tax shot his arm out and held onto the rubble until they steadied. Then, he walked away from the rubble and into a door. It led him to a kitchen, although no food had been made in it for years. Broken pots and pans laid around the kitchen. A broken cabinet door hung loosely from its rusty hinges. The boy saw no other exit and backed away from the kitchen, making his way back to the stairs.
After climbing the first set, he set his sight on the next one, standing next to the entrance to the room with the beds. His head started to hurt at the sight, a memory trying to rise in his subconscious. He took his first step, swaying back and forth, holding onto the handrail. Tax looked up, narrowing his eyes to slits.
His vision was fuzzy, but he distinguished a small shape standing at the top of the stairs. Long brunette hair, reaching the waist. When Tax could start to make out some more features, the shape moved away, running down the hallway. Tax struggled to hold on to the handrail, his vision blurring. Reality and memory interchanged before him; the handrail, pristine, brand new. Now dilapidated and ruined.
Tax let go and sat on the step. His sight wavered, blurred and then steadied. It settled on the handrail beside him, which hung from the wall in an awful shape. He shifted his gaze to the top of the stairs. The shape was gone.
Tax ran up the steps and ran down the hallway the figure had gone. There was a ladder waiting for him at the end of it. He grabbed the third rung from the bottom first and made his way up. It led him to the roof, overlooking the wrecked city.
He walked to the edge and sat down, turning his gaze to the buildings surrounding him. The ones still standing. A barber shop. A toy store, where Alyona would go to buy toy planes, cars and dolls for the girls.
Alyona. He thought.
“Alyona.” He said out loud, tasting the words. “Alyona.” It was a woman’s name, but whose?
The picture on the side table sprung to his mind. His eyes widened as a torrent of memories crashed upon him, like a dam barely holding together finally burst. Alyona. Her kind smile as she tucked them to bed. Walking hurriedly around the kitchen, putting plates on the table and food on the plates. She had been the woman who looked after them. The building under Tax’s feet had once been his home.
Another memory overrode the last. It was the view of the city from the roof, but a long time ago, when the city had been in its glory. He could see the city as it once had been, and an immense sadness came over him. He could see the small buildings, locally run business that surrounded him, and the taller buildings, apartment complexes and offices at the center of town. He could see what once stood at the heart of town was: a white dome four or five stories high, with a large set of doors facing Tax. He could see what was lost.
A word appeared his mind when his eyes glanced the white dome. Home.
A voice in the memory startled him. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Tax?” His point of view moved over to his right, to a young girl standing beside him. Her hair was a bright brown, tied into a ponytail. Tax saw her hand extend towards him, and he took it.
His own voice: “Yes, it is, Diana.”
A deep frown passed over her face like a shadow. “But I see people walking around, worried. About something coming on. That if we’re not careful, they would come over the clouds, and all of this…” She pointed at the town. “Would be gone.”
Tax’s point of view moved up and down. “Dad said to be careful.”
“Careful of what?”
“I don’t know. They’re working to protect us.”
“I know that.” She looked at him with a small smile. “Will you protect me?”
Tax must have smiled then, for Diana’s own grew. “I will. I promise.”
He returned to reality, slowly, as the edges of his memory started to blur and dissipate, giving way to the present. Tax blinked and looked back at the town. Nothing had changed, it was still a burned husk.
“Diana.” He said, taking the word in. Tax sat with his legs hanging over the edge of the roof, thinking, thinking about Diana, and his unfulfilled promise. Where was she now? Was she lying under the rubble? If he were to go and look for her, would he find her? Would it matter?
Tax sat on the edge of the roof with a despair reserved for those who have lost everything. He looked down to the ground, and saw the garden of the orphanage. Dead flowers and a rotten fence adorned it. How fitting, he thought. And with a small push, he jumped.
Tax saw only darkness. After realizing the fall hadn’t ended him, he got up, and scanned his surroundings. He was on the lawn, next to a withered lily. Behind him, the door to the orphanage was gone, and rubble blocked the entrance in its place.
He picked himself up and started walking, away from the place. Too many memories, he told himself. Jumping off the roof had been a stupid idea. It was to the center of town where he had to go, ground zero.
Tax walked along the sidewalk. The ghosts of the town followed him. A couple of kids raced past him on a bicycle and then dissipated. He moved his gaze away, finding the same bicycle, on the ground, burnt. A pang of guilt resonated inside of him, but why?
His attention shifted to a small poster lying on the ground. The edges were slightly burnt, and some of the words were blurry, but Tax managed to make out most of it. He picked it up and held it to his face.
Solid, almost threatening, yellow letters adorned the upper section of the poster, set against a red background. They read “SYNTAX”. Below it was a picture of him, taking his place in the middle of the poster. He was smiling, and standing behind him were a group of men and women in sterile white coats. One of them, a man with reddish hair, had his hand on his shoulder.
Below the illustration there were more words. They said “Syntax, or Tax for short, represents the first step of the—” Blurred. “—in robotics, in assembling a line of indestructible soldiers.”
Tax dropped the poster, confused. He looked down at himself, searching for any sign of weapons. Having found none, he dropped and sat on the sidewalk, next to the burnt bicycle.
Am I a weapon? He looked at the bycicle. Did I cause this? Tax immediately shook his head. No. There’s no way. But the poster mentioned a “line of indestructible soldiers”. Are there more of me? Did they survive?
Pulling himself together, Tax got up from the sidewalk and started to run, as fast as his metal limbs would allow. The path was clear until he reached the inner city. He had to weave around more and more rubble as he neared the heart of town. His sojourn through the dead city shocked him with many images, some of destroyed homes and some of broken bones. Tax tried to ignore these visages, to push them out of his head before they had time to sink in.
He leaped over rubble that laid on the street, in front of a small time shop. Next to it laid an overturned carriage, above a pool of dried blood. Tax landed without difficulty and kept running. He could see the bombed mess that had once been his home, a few blocks ahead of him. Tax ran faster.
He reached ground zero and stopped at the edge of the blast site. Tax bent over and ran his hand over the ground. He wiped off dust and revealed a white surface underneath. Following the edge of the blast site and dusting off, he finally found a latch. It was on the side facing north. Tax found a small groove and, inserting his fingers into it, he pulled. The latch didn’t give and he fell to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust.
Tax kept dusting off the latch, revealing more and more of it. His fingers touched something other than the flat surface. It was a keypad on the latch. The buttons were charred black, but they were still recognizable.
He tentatively tried a few random words, and each time the keypad gave off a loud beep. In the silence of the city, it bounced off houses and carried through the air, but only Tax’s ears were there to catch it.
Tax remembered the poster, and started pressing buttons again.
“S-Y-N-T-A-X.” He said as he spelled out his name. The display glowed green when he was finished, and he heard a click below him. Tax inserted his fingers into the groove and pulled. The latch came up without protest this time.
Tax peered into the darkness that the hatch revealed, scrutinizing, but unable to make out anything in the pitch black darkness. Had he any saliva, he would have swallowed. Summoning up his courage, he took a step into the darkness, leaving the hatch open behind him.
Tax surprised himself when his eyes adjusted to the darkness after a few minutes. The world turned green, although without his say-so. It was better than stumbling about in the darkness. He looked behind him, noticing the little progress he had made from the stairs, only a few feet. Then, he looked forward, and noticed the pods.
Three pods stood against the wall opposite to him, eight feet high and one wide. They were made of transparent glass, designed to keep something in. Tax walked up to them to get a better view. Broken glass laid scattered all around them, but the subjects inside remained. Inside the pods, Tax saw a reflection of himself.
The robots inside the pods resembled children, with varying hair colors. Tax touched the glass with the palm of his hand, a deep sadness striking him. He remembered the poster.
“…a line of indestructible soldiers.” He recited.
One of the “soldiers” laid slumped on the bottom of the pod, his back against the wall. Tax knelt down and slid his arm in through a hole|. But when he touched the robot, there wasn’t the slightest sign of movement. Definitely dead, Tax thought, and pulled his arm back.
He looked left and then right. To his right, there was a hallway that led to several other rooms. This must be the labs. Tax thought. I was made here. But there was something on top of this. What was it? To his left, he saw a doorway blocked by rubble. Weak light seeped into the room through the cracks.
Tax moved on from his dead brethren and walked up to the doorway. He pushed one of the rocks. They didn’t budge. But he clearly saw light coming in from the other side, so Tax started the laborious task of disassembling the rubble. He tried rock after rock, never giving up when one failed to budge. Finally, he made a hole big enough for himself. Tax crawled into the room.
It was a small room without much to it. The wall behind him and the ones to his sides were completely bare. On the wall opposite there was a cork board filled with pictures. Below it, a table with a computer. It was still on, illuminating the entire room. In front of the computer there was a chair, and a skeleton sat on it. It wore a lab coat, with a blurry name tag. Tax walked up to the chair.
“Arkady.” He managed to make out from the name tag. The cork board on the wall grabbed his attention then.
The pictures were of him, he realized upon closer inspection. He saw himself alone in some pictures. In one of those, he stood against a white background. Some pictures showed him and a red-headed man, the man with an arm wrapped around him. Both were smiling wide. Other pictures, but considerably less, showed him and Diana, holding hands. Tax smiled at this and took it off the cork board. His smile faded.
He pocketed the picture and turned to the computer. A word processor program was open, and showed what seemed to be a diary entry.
“I am trapped here by the rubble, and I doubt anyone will come to rescue me. My only wish is that Tax makes it out safely. Son, if you ever see this, just know that I love you. I’m sorry I couldn’t join you.
Tax blinked and jerked his head at the skeleton behind him. With a crushing feeling on his shoulders, Tax turned back to the terminal and browsed through the diary entries. He found the first one Arkady had made, dated four years from the last entry.
“Proposed the blueprint of SYNTAX to the higher-ups. They seemed to like it, and there were no objections over the design. I convinced them that making it look like a child would not only get us a step closer to the finished product, but it would easier to show to the town. Besides, the museum display cases are really small.”
He skipped a few entries which detailed the progress of “Project SYNTAX” until he found the one he was looking for.
“Project SYNTAX is a complete success. We finished the robot last week, and after a few final touches, we unveiled it this morning at the museum above the labs. The people were amazed at the kid, and even more so when we showed them his resilience: bullets couldn’t pierce him and knives barely left a scratch. We haven’t checked how resistant to explosives it is yet, but we’ll worry about that later. I’m glad they let me program the intelligence for the robot.”
“Three weeks since we unveiled SYNTAX at the museum. Perhaps getting so close to the project was a mistake. Since then, he’s stayed in a display case, and I can’t help but notice how…sad it looks. Did I make a mistake when programming him? He can’t be sad. He’s a robot. And yet, he looks longingly at the windows, wanting freedom…
I’ll talk to the higher-ups.”
“It is done! They gave in when I gave them the spiel about how having SYNTAX in the open would raise morale in this trying times. Handing over the blueprints for the next design of soldiers certainly helped. Tax has no place inside a display case, anyways. He’s a child, he should be out there, playing. They didn’t grant me custody of him, however, so we had to put him into an orphanage in the fringes of town. But, well, nothing stops me from visiting him. I only hope he manages to adapt in his new environment easily.
Told him to tell others to call him ‘Tax’. They say you’ve gotten attached to something when you name it, but all I know is that ‘Tax’ sounds better.”
Tax read the entries that followed, memories rushing back. His first day at the orphanage, meeting Diana and introducing his first real friend to Arkady, his father. The public appearances, the posters, the popularity around town. And they all stung him with a feeling of loneliness. The darkness crushed him and grew closer with every memory. He found the penultimate entry, and clicked it open.
“I was working late last night when suddenly the earth shook and rubble blocked the doorway. I yelled my throat raw, but nobody came. I guess I’m the only one in the facility. If nobody comes to rescue me within a few days, I’ll just assume the worst. They finally attacked.
I wonder. What was it that finally lead them to attack? Maybe the tension between the two countries had finally burst, and they gave in first. But why attack this city? It’s out of the way, and largely peaceful. I wonder…
When I first built Tax, I only envisioned the beginning of a new kind of soldier. But, as the years passed, I grew to love him, and how everyone else in town did, too. Even then, though, I knew that all these public appearances would bite us in the ass one day. A spy, no doubt. Those posters were easy to acquire. Yes, it must have been that: word got out that we were building a new kind of weapon, and they must have gotten nervous.
Is anybody alive outside? Even underground, I should be able to hear something. My God, am I the last one alive? Not for long. Tax…we never did check his explosive resistance…is he alright? After all, we built him to be indestructible, but we never checked one hundred percent. No, I was too busy loving him, too lost in my need of a child. I was alone, and I am alone again.
Please, somebody, anybody. Don’t let me die alone.”
Tax’s mind raced to process all the information. The town dead, because of him? All those he knew, dead, because of him?
With a sadness that would have destroyed an ordinary man, Tax clicked on the last entry and looked at the words on the screen again.
“Son, if you ever see this, just know that I love you.”
“I know, dad.” He said, turning to the skeleton behind him. Tax climbed into the chair and sat between Arkady’s legs. “And I love you, too…”
He closed his eyes, letting the darkness overtake him. A single thought popped into his mind.
And with that, the green under Tax’s eyelids powered down. His body slumped against Arkady’s skeleton. The last inhabitant of the dead city now joined it.
All was not quiet, however. None could hear it, but from within Tax came a sound.