It was definitely night-time outside the sewer, and just as dark as it had been out in the wastelands, dark and, I now knew, moonless in the dusty sky. Conversant apparently didn't see a need to light up the streets of his city, but here and there a light would sparkle in the distance like a star. I wondered if that was where other constructs lived, or if they were lit for some other reason... although I couldn't think of any as I stumbled along in the dark. The urge to go to one of those lights was strong, but Palavar held my hand tightly and led me along the streets cheerfully, occasionally pointing out some landmark I could barely see by the light of their eye. The buildings were mostly intact here, and we were definitely far inside Conversant's 'bubble,' because the air was easy to breathe.
"This used to be a place humans judged each other in--"
"A courthouse?" I guessed. The building was just an ornate silhouette framed in neon magenta, but it was austere in way that brought to mind... old men in wigs, wielding mallets, for some reason. Not in a comical way, but a way that made me want to avoid the building entirely, even though whatever structure of law had been upheld there must have been gone for... for a hundred years or more. All these institutions lying empty, where people had fought and lived and talked and slept…
"No no, on a screen. You know, for fun. They were an odd species."
I shook my head to dispel my morbid thoughts. "Oh, uh... telescopic shows, right? Video fiction?"
"Yeah, I think so, but beamed through plastic so they took up a ton of room. Hey, have you ever seen any of those? Conversant has thousands of them stored in his memory. They're not all fiction. Although there isn’t as much distinction between the types as you’d think.”
"No, I told you, I'm only..." I tried to count nights back to when I’d first awoken. "...three days old... probably?" Maybe a week. No idea how long I had been out in the sewer. I didn't feel like the entire incident with the doctor-- which still made me shudder to think of-- and travelling across the wastes, exhausted and dehydrated, made for a very good first three days of life... but I was certain it wouldn't get better from here.
Or... maybe it would.
Palavar's fingers tightened against my palm to pull me quicker along the road. Meeting them had definitely been the nicest part of being alive, and thinking of them leading me someplace safe for a while gave me a deep sense of relief... except that's what I had thought when I was travelling with the Surgeon, too.
"Well, I don't know what you did for those three days," Palavar said defensively. "You could have just been watching video the entire time."
"That's true," I said, and laughed a little. The laugh made my throat sting. Dehydrated... that reminded me. Yeah, my throat was burning and I had a massive headache. I didn't have anything else to say about video, since I only knew what it was conceptually, so I just changed the subject abruptly. "Do you have any water?"
"Oh, yeah. Don't worry, we're almost at my place. Do you want to wash yourself off?"
"Uh, no, I ... want to drink it." I hoped that wasn't a dead giveaway towards my apparently valuable, fragile, fleshy human status.
"Huh... coolant is a little outmoded, isn't it? Well, whatever you want to do with it. I won't judge you."
Somehow, and despite what they had said about humans being the odd ones, I doubted that last sentence was true.
Palavar took another turn, this time off the street and through a narrow doorless frame into a building that, to me, and in the dark, at least, looked functionally identical to the other buildings on the street. They led me up some curving and narrow stairs. I tripped more than once in the dark and scraped up my knees. It was dusty, too, though it was clear someone-- probably-- hopefully Palavar-- went up and down these stairs a lot.
"Aren't you afraid someone will break in?" I asked when we'd gotten to the top of the stairs and I'd caught my breath. Maybe being a robot would be better. Maybe all of the humans had just transcended being out of breath and achey all the time.
"Yeah, but that's why I set up sensors in the hall to tell if it's my heat signature or not," Palavar said, casually. I looked around the hall nervously. I couldn't see anything in the dark, of course. I don't know what I expected... lights, maybe? Little red laser tripwires?
"But yanno, there's not that many people in the city now. Conversant had to recycle a lot of them after this incident a few years ago where an outsider came in and really made a mess of things, and he just didn't bother constructing new people. He put up the filter bubble instead and started a cleanup and observation program. I wasn't there, I read all the logs. I feel like he's been getting lazy lately. Oh, you know... you said you were made by... who, again?"
"The Surgeon..." I said, with a sinking feeling.
"Hm... no, that wasn't the outsider, so it’s probably fine."
"What did you mean by... recycle... them?" I had a lot of questions, not all of them even related to this worrisome conversation, but that was the one that popped out of my mouth first.
"Oh! Nah, don't worry. They were already dead." Palavar paused at the end of the hall, in front of what took me a second to understand was a door. Unlike the rest of the hall, which was stone or some kind of cold plaster, the door was metal. "Sorry, Conversant," Palavar added, before kicking the door open so suddenly and violently that I flinched. I stood in the hall, tensed for a fight, but nothing happened; Palavar just rolled their shoulders back and then looked over to me. I thought maybe they were responding to something I couldn't hear...
"Sorry, I thought it would be good to apologize." Palavar said, still staring at me. Their expression was unreadable behind that bright, crimson eye.
"There's no need to apologize," I said, nervously picking at the pocket of my trousers and trying not to imagine the Doctor's millipede body swarming up the stairs, silently, behind me. Had the Doctor been who had started the "incident"? Or was it the Surgeon...? I was sure, from the way he'd 'greeted' the Surgeon, that Conversant liked neither of them, and even more sure he was aware of both.
"To Conversant," Palavar said, eyes narrowing at me. "Since he can hear everything in the city."
"I meant, uh, to me. You... you've been really... helpful." So far, I amended in my head, silently.
"Oh, sure. Sorry about apologizing. Anyway, come inside? Are you waiting for something?"
I just let that apology stand, since I could see a cycle forming, and followed Palavar inside the room. They blinked, or-- something-- and light flooded the room. I yelped and covered my eyes. There was so much going on that I couldn't see, or hear, or smell! Invisible signals... heat spectrums... motion trackers in the halls... Hadn't I had goggles in the breathing mask? Where was the mask? I hadn't thought of it since the Surgeon had said the words that doomed me to Conversant's ... goop. The backpack hadn't been in the sewer, had it? I hadn't seen it, and then I'd just been so startled by the presence of another person... I really was stupid, wasn't I? No wonder humans had gone extinct.
Of all my thoughts, that was the the thing that made panic seize me, and I sat down heavily on the floor. At least my eyes had adjusted enough that I could see that the floor was clean through my fingers.
I didn't want to cry in front of Palavar, and I definitely didn't want to cry over the loss of my dumb mask. But without it... without it, I couldn't leave the city again. There wasn't food here... there wasn't anyone but Conversant and Palavar, as far as I could tell, just those two squatting in the preserved corpse of a dead civilization.
Palavar squatted in front of me, their head tilted. "You okay?"
I shook my head. No point in lying. I didn't have my backpack, I didn't have my mask, I didn't have even the small amount of food I'd entered the city with. If I didn't tell Palavar I was human, and that I needed to eat and sleep and all of that, I would starve to death here. And if I did tell Palavar...
...who knew what would happen?
"Ah!" Palavar clapped their hands together. "That's right! You needed water! Did your joints lock up or overheat? You're a pretty retro model, aren't you? Hold on a second."
"You have no idea," I mumbled. I uncovered my face, took a deep, deep breath, and steeled myself. "Palavar..."
Palavar paused on the far side of the room, where they were scooping water out of a tank. "Yeah?"
"I lost something important to me in the sewer..."
"Was it your memory?"
That was said so lightly that I couldn't tell if it was a joke at my expense or not. I shoved my irritation aside and pressed on. "No, a backpack."
"Hmm... no, I didn't see anything like that. What was in it?"
"Uh... some stuff... and a mask that let me operate outside of the city..." Robots said things like 'operate', right? Or was that just robot doctors?
"If it's important, you really have to be more specific than 'some stuff'," Palavar said cheerfully. They had a cup dripping with water in their hands. The room... was really nice, actually, with colors on the walls-- pictures-- bathed in a cooler light that was easier on my eyes than anything else I'd experienced yet had been. There was even furniture-- they stood next to a table with some apparatus over the water tank on it, and next to that there was a couch. "What'd you need a mask for? Did Conversant install a boundary modification so you can't leave? Oh dang, did he steal you from the Surgeon?"
"No, look..." The headache pounded worse every time Palavar spoke. I didn't want to take anything they said personally, or snap at them, but I was so tired and so sore. "Look... I uh, I have to tell you something. I haven't been honest. The backpack has food in it. I need it or I'll starve to death. And I need the mask to breath outside. The unfiltered air will kill me."
"The air?" Palavar tilted their head again. "When you say food, do you mean nutrition? Or fuel?"
This was it. There would be no turning back. I clenched my hands into fists, ready to run to the closed door if it would open for me, ready to to dash for the table and dump everything off of it to defend myself if I had to.
"Nutrition. Palavar... I'm human."
Palavar dropped the cup into the tank. The water swallowed it with a quiet 'gloomph'. They looked down at their hand, as if surprised that it had betrayed them, and then up at me. Even with their one red eye dark in their face, I couldn't read their expression. I was ready to run.
"That's it? Ywain, you're so silly. Obviously, I’m human too!"