This is a really strange fic I just... had the urge to write. XD Updates will be long and infrequent.
Axl hissed, drawing himself up to his knees. What had happened? What was going on? And why did he hurt so much?
He seemed to remember an explosion, and a lot of shouting and screaming. The screaming had mostly been his own voice. Whatever had happened had hurt, hurt worse than anything in his admittedly short experience. Spikes of pain had knifed into his entire body and his eyes had burned horribly. He hadn't been able to see a thing.
Now, though… he frowned, ran a self-diagnostic and then he blinked at the results. He had suffered very strange, systematic damage. It seemed to go inside only an inch, though, so the worst damage had been on his limbs and face. It hadn't reached any vital systems. However, there was a system warning… he was low on water.
Water? Axl glanced around, realizing he was in a desert. A dry, desiccating wind blew the sand into huge dunes, and the sun had the force of an anvil. But Axl wasn't human, and one day in a desert shouldn't have dehydrated him. Theoretically, Reploids had closed systems and should not require water, but Axl had never heard of an absolutely closed system, so Reploids eventually needed to replenish the fluid content of various systems. Still, it should have taken days to reach this point. How long had he been unconscious?
To his dismay, the diagnostic informed him that he had been out almost a week. That was actually pretty impressive to still be functioning in this heat, but he hadn't been moving. Moving made any openings in the system worse. Still, he was parched. He needed water very badly. And another check on the diagnostic showed him that his teleporter was non-functional, and likely to stay that way. If he wanted water, he would have to find it himself.
Axl lurched to his feet, a wave of agony crashing over him. He gritted his teeth, locking his knees until the pain receded. Then he slowly started to walk, trying hard not to think about the odds of finding water in a sandy desert. If he failed to find it, he would not die. The coolant for his generator didn't involve water or oil, and it really was a closed system. But he would go into shutdown to protect his joints and internals when the liquids congealed to the point where nanites could no longer be pumped through his body. Alia would probably locate his locked up body eventually, but that would be humiliating as hell. He could already hear the jokes about sand sculptures.
When he saw the caravan, at first he thought it was a mirage. But mirages didn't make sound, and he could hear the rumbling of the wheels… he broke into a trot, heading towards it.
Mirages didn't spit, either. Axl stopped, shocked, as the nearest camel nailed him with unerring precision. While he needed water, that… wasn't the kind he wanted!
"Woah!" Someone called, and the caravan ground to a halt. Axl blinked as he spotted the long line of people chained to the final wagon. Were they captives? It seemed cruel to expose anyone to this kind of sun, and they seemed to be humans. Then he frowned doubtfully, eyeing the caravan. The covered wagons, pulled by camels, looked like they had stepped from a prior era. But then, with the Mavericks disrupting trade in remote areas, maybe it wasn't so odd. He heard someone speak, and quickly tuned into the local language… a dialect of Arabic. It wasn't quite like anything he'd heard before, but his systems made short work of the differences.
A human jumped down lightly from his perch on a camel, and Axl tried not to feel uneasy. It was difficult. The man was wearing strange, light armor of boiled leather. His skin was as weathered as the leather, crossed with scars, and his dark brown eyes were cool. He smiled, but the expression made him look more predatory than friendly. Axl smiled back anyway.
"Hello. I'm Axl, a Maverick Hunter, and I seem to be a little lost. Um, where am I?" A warning flashed up in his mind, courtesy of his diagnostic system. "And do you have any water?" The man gestured to a boy, who ran off to get some. If Axl had been more familiar with such things, he might have wondered why the man wasn't offering his own canteen. As it was, he didn't think about it.
"You are in the Mugala Desert." The man's voice was soft, but very rough. It made Axl think of someone who had been smoking for years, although the scars on his throat indicated another possible cause. The boy came back with a canteen. "Here. Drink this."
Axl took the canteen gratefully, and drank deeply. The water was slightly tangy from the leather, but his systems treated it like ambrosia. The warnings died down and-
Were replaced by a far more violent warning as the world whirled around him. His entire system was being affected by something, maybe it was a drug or maybe a virus he just couldn't tell… Collapsing to the ground, Axl was vaguely aware of the man above him speaking, then two people lifting him up carefully, by the shoulders and feet.
Then he blacked out, and awareness went away.
When he woke up again, it was to a seriously annoying rattling. Not to mention a million bumps, and each time the wagon bounced, he hit his head on the floor. There was straw, but it didn't really do a lot to cushion the impacts.
"Ow…" Axl sat up with a frown, rubbing his head, then blinked as he looked down at himself. He was out of his armor, and there were some odd metal bands around his wrists and ankles. Reaching up, he found a matching band at his throat. And there was someone else in the wagon with him.
"Hello." She said softly with a shy smile. A beautiful little girl, barely thirteen if Axl was any judge, she had long, silky black hair and large brown eyes. "My name is Shabha. What is yours?"
"Uh, I'm Axl," he replied, blushing lightly. The girl was dressed in a thin linen shift that left nothing to the imagination, and he was painfully aware that she was well into her change from child to woman. She was still very childish, but things were definitely sprouting. "Um…" She smiled sweetly at him, as if she understood his discomfort.
"I'm so glad they put you in with me. They must have decided we're both to young to… play." Her smile was positively wicked as he blushed more darkly. "I've been so lonely here, for so many weeks." She raised a hand to brush back her hair, and Axl noticed metal bands identical to the ones he was wearing.
"Please, can you help me? Who are these people? What's going on? What did they give to me in that water?" Axl asked urgently. "Uh, if you know." He added belatedly, realizing that a girl trapped in a wagon might not know a lot. She shrugged, making things move in intriguing ways beneath her shift, and Axl looked away.
"This is a slave caravan, run by the merchant lord Absnaka. We will be taken to Antarkos the Fair to be trained, then sold. I don't know about the water… how did you get here?" Shabha listened to his quick description of the explosion and subsequent appearance in the desert sympathetically. "Some terrible, malign magic must have brought you here. Oh, but you were lucky this caravan found you! Most would not have stopped to spit upon you, and left you to die alone. It is really much better being a slave than being dead. There was probably a sleeping potion in the water." Axl almost laughed. Magic? The girl had some truly bizarre notions.
"How did you end up here?" he asked, curious. The girl shrugged again, then sighed.
"My father was a rich merchant, but my mother died birthing me. Papa never had much time for my brother and me after that, so my brother became fond of drink and dice. Papa was a bit stupid about my brother, and said I didn't need a trade since he would take care of me. So my papa died a year ago, and my brother ruined the business in less than a year. When all the money was gone, he bet me at dice, and lost," she said. "And so I am here." Axl stared at her in horror.
"Your brother lost your freedom at dice?" It was a ghastly thought. What kind of brother would do such a thing? But Shabha nodded calmly.
"He was very stupid. He should have sold me, not gambled. I am worth ten gold pieces even now," she said, tossing back her hair. "When I am trained as a concubine I will be worth fifty. Very stupid."
"You WANT to be a slave concubine?" Axl said carefully. He'd never imagined anyone having this kind of attitude. She was taking her slavery completely for granted… she grimaced, then shrugged.
"I would rather be a pampered merchant's wife, or a craftswoman, but that cannot be. So I will be a concubine, and I will get paid one silver a week for many weeks. If I save and save and save, when I am old I will buy my freedom. My money will be a dower and I will find a husband. Maybe, if I am lucky, a rich merchant will marry me when I am young and beautiful. Slave girls cannot marry noblemen, but merchants may marry whoever they please." She reached down, and picked up a ceramic plate. "Would you like something to eat?" Axl was suddenly acutely aware of how long it had been since he'd had a meal. That was another thing his internal diagnostics were complaining about.
"Thank you," he said as he took the plate, then looked the food over. There was bread, cheese, a hunk of roasted meet and a tiny slice of lemon.
"Make sure to eat the lemon, or you will get sick," she advised him, and Axl blinked. Why would…? Oh, vitamin C.
"No, I won't… I'm a Reploid." He wasn't sure how she could have failed to notice that, but she seemed to have. He bit into the meat as she looked puzzled.
"What is a Rep-loid?" She asked, confused. Axl blinked, chewing and swallowing his mouthful. The meat tasted odd, something he'd never had before.
"You know, we were all made from X's pattern… um, what is this?" He said dubiously, pointing at the meat.
"Roasted camel. One of them broke a leg, and waste not, want not." Axl froze for a moment, looking at it… then took another bite. It was actually not that bad. "Who is X?"
"Mrrph?" Axl blinked, then swallowed. Who could not know about X? "The guy who saved the world from Sigma? Maverick Hunter extraordinaire?" Shabha shrugged.
"I do not know what a Reploid or Maverick Hunter is. I think Sigma is a constant in math, no?" Axl swallowed hard, this time with no food in his mouth. How could anyone not know about Sigma?
And her whole attitude was… alien. Even in the poorest, most desolate countries of the modern world, slavery was not taken for granted the way she seemed to take it for granted. And slaves weren't guaranteed a silver… silver?… a week, either. Everything she said hinted at a culture that was almost completely alien to modern Earth. And if she hadn't heard of Sigma…
"Where am I?" Axl whispered, his appetite gone. For a moment, he seriously considered whether or not the explosion could have killed him. Could this be the afterlife? It seemed terribly real and painful for life after death, though. Could he somehow have been teleported here, to… to what? What was here?
"Where am I…"
Later that day, Axl got his first experience with how slaves were kept in line. It was not an enjoyable lesson.
After his talk with Shabha, Axl had finally decided it didn't really matter where he was. Life after death, a hallucination, alternate reality or something weirder, it didn't really matter. What mattered was not being a slave. Maybe Shabha would passively accept the indignity of being bought and sold, but he wasn't about to!
Of course, to some extent, Reploids had always been bought and sold. At first, they had been treated just like real robots… as property. That hadn't worked since Reploids were also intelligent and free spirited. Eventually, through negotiations and accrued legislation, a more companionable relationship had emerged. Reploids cost money to make and they couldn't expect humans to make them without getting something out of it. Heck, they could hardly expect other Reploids to make new Reploids without getting something out of it! So typically, new Reploids were "sold" to the company that had commissioned them. That company was responsible for their upkeep – apartment, food, etc - for a set amount of time, but paid them no real wages. When that time period was over, the company was obligated to pay full wages but no longer had to arrange upkeep. That was up to the young Reploid, who should have learned how to take care of himself by then. And if the youngster chose, he could leave to pursue other dreams.
The result tended to work pretty well. Most Reploids were willing to put in enough time to cover their cost, and a lot stayed with the job they had been designed for. The fact that they had to be paid full wages when the initial contract ran out made the humans happy, since it meant they weren't losing their jobs left and right to cheaper Reploid labor. And all of that explained why real robots, like Mets, were still being used. They might be stupid but you didn't have to pay them.
Axl had never experienced any of it, since Red had found him in an abandoned building. But the arrangement seemed fair enough to him. Especially since there was an out, if the situation they were placed into was intolerable. Any Reploid could apply to the military or the Hunters, and if they were accepted, they would square accounts with the parent company. It wasn't a really good reason to go and fight, but it was an escape.
But this was something else. When a man unlocked the door to their wagon and stepped inside to take the empty plate, Axl tensed. He'd knock the man out, take his keys and-
Just before he leapt, spikes of pure agony hit him. He collapsed into the straw, twitching, too breathless to scream. The main spike was in his neck, and warnings of network disruption flashed through his mind. The result was complete paralysis below the neck, and he could only watch and suffer as the man left the wagon.
Once he was gone, the pain slowly eased. He forced himself to his hands and knees, and saw Shabha watching him.
"You were going to attack him, weren't you?" She said, her voice hard, as she stared at him. Axl winced, raising a hand to his neck, and nodded. "Stupid!" She shook a finger at him, managing to not look ridiculous despite her age. "The collar of obedience will hurt you every time you disobey or act against them. And it punishes you by what you know is wrong, so you cannot evade it. Do not do that again!" Her expression suddenly turned haunted. "If they think you are difficult and unfit to be a slave, they may activate the collar and leave you… it takes days to die of the pain." Axl shuddered at that horrible image. It was worse because he knew she was right. That kind of disruption to his neural system would kill him eventually, but it would take a very long time. "Axl, you must learn to obey!"
Despite his anger, Axl had a sick feeling that she was right.
A few days later…
Axl contemplated some very pleasing, violent images as he carried a plate of food over to the campfire. The bands gave him twinges of pain, a foreshadowing of what would happen if he dared try to make his fantasies reality. He thought the pain was worth it.
Over the weeks of travel, he'd developed a deep hatred for the slavers. Not for his own sake, but for the sake of the people chained behind the last wagon. Shabha had explained things to him the first time he'd been called to serve food at the evening campfire.
"We are not to be touched, you and I. Nor any of the other slaves in the wagons. We are young, or beautiful, or skillful… something that makes us valuable. The other slaves are not valuable."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because… Axl, slavers are cruel or they would not be slavers. I do not mind being a slave because I am young and beautiful and I would have starved with my brother, but there is so much misery here. The woman at the back, they are old, or ugly and will be sold as drabs for coppers. There is no reason for them to reach the city… undamaged. Do not act despite anything you might see."
That had turned out to be very good advice. Axl's lips tightened as he heard a muffled sound of pain from one of the tents. He knew it wasn't right to be fantasizing about killing humans, but he doubted anyone would have blamed him under the circumstances.
He delivered the plates, then went to help some of the other slaves tend the camels. He was uncomfortably aware of someone watching him leave. He had been provided with linen shifts similar to the one Shabha wore, and in the wicked heat, he had given up on modesty and put them on. It was very comfortable, but when he served at night, he was conscious of how exposed his body was. Fortunately, Shabha had been right about no one daring to touch him. According to her, the slave pens at the city were not nearly as vile as this little caravan, but they would use any damage as an excuse not to pay full price.
A chill wind blew through his hair as he walked over the sand, and he sighed in pleasure. He loved night in the desert. The heat of the day was punishing and the wagon was stifling, but at night, he could enjoy the icy air. He hadn't known how cold a desert could get at night.
A camel whuffled at him as soon as he reached it, and he grimaced as he realized this particular bunch hadn't been fed. He was tempted to just leave them and let whoever was neglecting his job get punished, but that would be unfair to the poor camels. He went over to the wagon with the animal feed, and started to pull out some bails. He also gave the camels water, but sparingly. What they had left needed to last until the caravan reached the next oasis. Axl sighed, and patted one of the camels on the nose. It snorted, splattering his hand with snot, to his disgust.
"You are a lot of disgusting, filthy animals," he told the indifferent camels. "Stupid, too." Sighing, he sat down beside a wagon, and looked up at the stars. "Damn. I'm actually eager to get to that stupid city."
Anything to get away from the filthy slave caravan.