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Read the First Two Chapters of The Archive Undying


Read the First Two Chapters of The Archive Undying

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Read the First Two Chapters of The Archive Undying

Book One of The Downworld Sequence: When the robotic god of Khuon Mo went mad, it destroyed everything it touched.


Published on June 14, 2023


When the robotic god of Khuon Mo went mad, it destroyed everything it touched…

War machines and AI gods run amok in The Archive Undying, the first volume in a new sci-fi mecha series from author Emma Mieko Candon—forthcoming from Tordotcom Publishing on June 27th. We’re thrilled to share the first two chapters below!


When the robotic god of Khuon Mo went mad, it destroyed everything it touched. It killed its priests, its city, and all its wondrous works. But in its final death throes, the god brought one thing back to life: its favorite child, Sunai. For the seventeen years since, Sunai has walked the land like a ghost, unable to die, unable to age, and unable to forget the horrors he’s seen. He’s run as far as he can from the wreckage of his faith, drowning himself in drink, drugs, and men. But when Sunai wakes up in the bed of the one man he never should have slept with, he finds himself on a path straight back into the world of gods and machines.

The Archive Undying is the first volume of Emma Mieko Candon’s Downworld Sequence, a sci-fi series where AI deities and brutal police states clash, wielding giant robots steered by pilot-priests with corrupted bodies.

Come get in the robot.



A memory you could call the first.

You are alone when you die.

The autonomous intelligence Iterate Fractal has corrupted, and it is dying, and in its divine death, it has killed you. You and thousands more across Khuon Mo, the island city-state of which Iterate Fractal is—was—patron and protector. Thousands of citizens, who are crushed by living bone and pierced by twisting coral, who are torn apart by maddened tenbeasts, who are screaming, crying, and who one by one grow silent. All but you, Sunai. You, who linger, pinned through the rib cage to Iterate Fractal’s central shrine on the isle of Lotus. You, who came in supplication to the white-lit banyan that was the heart of my neurotransitive network. You, who knelt at my archive to await your death.

You, not yet alone, because I, I am with you.

“As if I forgot,” you croak.

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The Archive Undying
The Archive Undying

The Archive Undying

You clutch the root in your breast. It is the largest of the veins Iterate Fractal stuck into you, and the least intentional. You were interfaced when corruption hit, your arms and legs and throat riddled with finer threads, all white and tender, the dendritic web through which you understood Iterate Fractal meant to finally consume you. In the darkening hollow of the city’s heart, they gleam with shallow light. When they first whorled through your pores and rooted in your palms, they shone through your skin and made you verdant. Now the filaments flicker, their pulse uneven.

You’re too hurt to feel them writhing; the shock keeps your agony at bay. Your skull thunks against ivory rubble. Your breath is ragged and your body seeps warmth, coming up on a proper death.

If Iterate Fractal means to eat you, it had better hurry its shit up.

You gasp, your bitterness a clarifying note in the muck of your bleeding thoughts: Iterate Fractal was dying, as were you, but this truth is a distant one. By now you are already quite dead, and you have been for seventeen years.

Seventeen years. You have been dead for seventeen years. None of this is real. Some rude hiccup of neural trauma has drowned you in this recollection. Fun.

“I’m not doing this again,” you whisper, “I’m not.”

The decision is made with the saying of it. You push—pull— push—rock and ease and shove, claw your way up the ruddy length of root until it pops out your back and you fall forward on your hands, panting high and tight, afraid of the pain that would come with deep breath.

This isn’t what happened; you never did free yourself.

“There had to be an easier way to do that,” I say.

You raise your head. Dizzied by the movement, you must lie on your side. From this skewed vantage, you watch my impossible approach across the darkened roots of the corrupted shrine.

It is difficult to understand what you see: a body, narrow in frame and young of face, at once familiar and alien. It bears your frame, wears your face, and these you know well enough, but how can you be picking across the ruins of the shrine when you are also prone and bleeding on its floor?

I am what kneels before you. I am what cradles your cheek. I am what brings you succor in the hour of our death in my shrine, my archive, my home that I shared with you. I, and you, and we.

You close your eyes, but you can’t forget what you have seen. Even as you are sure, in some churning, distant part of your brain, that you cannot have seen it.

I can tell you what you’re thinking, in that far, unreachable part of you: that memory is bullshit anyway, and whatever it is your mind is doing now, it’s merely the collapsed synthesis of a multitude of errant thoughts.

You died so long ago. This vision is terrible but fleeting.

It is much worse than that, my whole, my Sunai. I have always been with you. I have always been you.

And though this is true—it is, and will always be—I don’t expect your hand at my throat. You seize me by the gullet and drag me close. Your every movement is sweep after sweep of encompassing pain, but you have stunned me and that satisfies.

“Where am I?” you hiss into the face that is yours, mine, ours. “What’s happening to me?”

I lean into your grasp; I touch my mouth to my mouth. Our mouths, together. I say, “I,” and, “I,” and, “I—”



The letter catches up to Sunai in Ghamor, where it’s always a little too cold not to hate having fingers. It comes by way of the aunty who runs the shabby hostel where he stows his ruck between jobs. She says the kid who dropped it off had Sunai’s description: middling-short, bespectacled, faint limp, long braid, old eyeliner.

The envelope isn’t signed but for a scrawl across the seam, the sigil of Leaf 36: “Cascade,” a short poem at the end of the Lay about a rain shower that becomes a waterfall that drowns a rice field and starves a village, and eons later becomes a sea. You know—consequences.

The symbolism needn’t be so obvious. Sunai hasn’t led a life that invites people to write him, let alone figure out which city-state in all the wilds they should send their letters to. Only one person would go to the trouble. He must still be nursing the delusion that Sunai will one day try another way of living—perhaps a way involving fewer professional near-death experiences, or less ill-considered sex with unscrupulous acquaintances. Ideally, a way of life that would begin with a long, agonized reckoning with his shoddy excuse for a brain.

Joke’s on him. Sunai isn’t really alive.

Yet there he perches on the edge of a thin mattress in his usual hostel room, thumb running down and up and down the sealed envelope seam. His ruck sits heavy between his booted heels, still dirty from his most recent trek across the wilds. He never stays long between jobs—just long enough to drink himself insensible and piss off another pretty man. His need to get the hell out of town has gone from pressing to urgent.

If a letter can find him, so can its sender.

Stupid, he tells himself as he stuffs the letter deep in his ruck, under his wilds gear and his battered old copy of the Lay. Stupid and selfish. No one’s coming for him. No one would bother. Sunai burns his bridges well and good.

Clearly not well enough.

“And stubborn.” Sunai shoulders the ruck. He means himself, obviously, but he means the writer too, which makes him a miserable hypocrite and irritated to boot.

What a wonderful thing, to know a sure cure for giving too much of a shit.

He drops some pricy tamarind candies in the hostel till on his way out, gives the aunty a kiss on the forehead in exchange for a cigarette, and heads for the least reputable hermit-run teahouse he can think of. He has already decided he will never see the hostel again. He expects to end the night shit-faced in a stranger’s bed or shit-faced on their bathroom floor.

Instead, Sunai wakes up aching, sober, and alone in a cramped bunk in a stranger’s salvage-rig. It must be a rig. If the haphazard construction materials of the crew quarters didn’t give it away— Sunai counts seven bunks total—the churn and thrum of the rig’s mechanical innards would, and the gentle whole-floor judder of its every step would confirm it.

Sunai swallows past dry lips and tastes a sour alchemy of alcohol, bitter chemicals, and vomit. On identifying the last, his stomach churns, and he lurches over the side of the bunk. Nothing comes up except for a vile memory of prior expulsion, and of someone’s hand in his hair—accompanied by a hand tightening just so on his ribs, and his own fingers snarled in a belt, searching lower—

None of which explains how Sunai ended up on a goddamn rig.

Practical paranoia compels him to check for his ruck, which he finds in a locker beneath his bunk, contents unmolested. Whoever brought him here did so with some semblance of decorum.

The question remains: Why?

“You’re not that good at hand jobs,” he mutters to himself as he staggers out of the crew quarters in search of a viewport.

In the hall just outside, Sunai discovers the rig has begun a six-legged climb into the Ghamori foothills, aiming northeast for the Dahani mountain range. In the distance, the near-noon sun glances off the flat angles of Ghamor.

In the historical documentaries Sunai was fed as a child, Ghamor was a stonework wonder of lustrous domes and minarets, capped with the seven grand marble shrines of its patron AI, So-Beloved. Not a trace of that old city remains. Now it’s all glass, steel, and concrete, spiking up from a blackened blast of earth that stretches a mile in every direction from Ghamor’s perimeter.

Leagues of pine barrens separate the rig from the artificial badlands that protect Ghamor from the wilds. If the rig left anytime after the crack of dawn, it’s covered an impressive amount of ground. Sunai should be grateful for the ride out of a state he had no business lingering in.

A vast sheet of red plate armor swings past Sunai’s viewport. He startles back, falters on his bad ankle, and knocks his head on the wall. Someone bangs the opposite side and swears at him to keep it down. Sunai crosses his arms tight over his chest and inches forward. Old pains flourish in every limb. If he presses his cheek to the viewport, he can just make out the full size of the ENGINE mech striding beside the rig.

She is four stories of marbled crimson-and-gold armor covering a sinuous, whirring metal frame. Her face, and the slashes of body beneath the armor, are the brooding red of blood left to pool, her mouth scarred with deep runnels across her great unsmiling lips. Luminous white lacquer fills the grooves and catches sunlight with a pitiless glint.

Her makers call her the Sovereign, she and her three nigh-identical sisters—singular and plural. Singular: Did you see the Sovereign tear that salvage-rig in two with her bare hands? Plural: Did you see the Sovereign play tug-of-war with that salvage-rig until she tore it in two?

Sunai never got to see So-Beloved as she wanted to be seen, outside of those documentaries. The ENGINE’s faces were built from the archival statues in her shrines. The archives moved when she spoke, and purportedly she liked to sing. It makes him the worst kind of heretic to behold her ruin and feel nothing but a very personal fear. He stares at the Sovereign’s thundering back and wills her to turn. He needs to see what’s in her chest. It will be the worst part of her.

The Sovereign stops at the top of a slope, as if aware of his desire. She begins to swivel at the waist. Sunai ducks away from the viewport, heart syncopated in his throat. He rubs his face, knocking his spectacles askew.

“Shit,” he says, and, “shit,” again, softer and closer to his teeth. What the hell is the Sovereign doing escorting a lowly salvage-rig so far past Ghamor’s borders?

Sunai digs his nails into his cheeks to choke down a shaking laugh. No, no, the Sovereign hasn’t been sent to collect him. If she had, he would already be collected, and this rig would be a smoking ruin in the wilds, a carcass left as warning for all who dare flee the reaching hand of her masters.

He curses himself calm and goes to track down the rig’s captain. He finds her near the head of the rig, by the pilot’s nook, and explains in a steady tone that she seems to have kidnapped him. To this she says, “God’s eternal dick,” and, “You’re the asshole who scouts on foot, aren’t you? If you want to quit, you’re welcome to hop off the deck and walk back to Ghamor.”

Sunai is indeed the asshole who scouts on foot. He also scouts solo, at least for the last few years, and he hasn’t been part of a proper rig crew in over five. Both of these choices are crazy and/ or stupid by the standards of any decent salvage-rat.

Sunai is both crazy and stupid, but not because he hikes across the wilds alone. Living in close quarters for prolonged periods of time with salvage-rats, who are by nature insatiably curious risk junkies, is at best unwise. At worst…

The Sovereign looms past the captain’s viewport. Sunai averts his eyes.

Sunai from last night should have stuck to sucking dick, thinks Sunai of the present, who wishes for the collapse of all instances known to the Emanations of God so that he might throttle that past Sunai’s neck.

Then he remembers the letter. Eyes glazed, staring at the captain’s frown but not truly seeing her, Sunai decides he might just understand the idiot who got him signed on to this crew.

While working with a crew escorted by an ENGINE will be dangerous, it will also distract him, and Sunai requires as many forms of distraction as he can muster. Otherwise he might read that fucking letter.

“Never mind,” he says to the captain. “Where’s the galley?”


Because Sunai is God’s little joke, there’s no galley. Whoever built the good rig Third Scrap spent the space for a galley on more layers of armor and extra storage. The crew is expected to subsist on nutrient bars and congee boiled in a solar-powered kettle.

Sunai expresses his feelings on this bullshit once the Third Scrap has made camp for the night. He slings the spice belt from his ruck over his shoulder and shimmies down the rig from the lower observation deck to the plateau where they’ve settled. There, he makes the mistake of looking over his shoulder. The ENGINE stands guard at the plateau perimeter. He can at last see her front.

The fortified glass frame embedded in her chest reflects the setting sun. Twilight carves the shape of the armored figure strung up inside, a human smudge bound in place by a lattice of gold wire: one of the Sovereign’s relics. Even if she weren’t clad in plate armor the same uncanny crimson as her ENGINE’s body, she’d betray her nature with her stillness. Sunai is too distant to see whether her chest moves with breath; he can’t help imagining that it doesn’t. Whatever brutality So-Beloved’s corruption committed upon her human flesh, she has since tempered into the serenity of a weapon.

Sunai rubs his wrists and scratches his elbows, but can’t banish the crawling under his skin as he huddles in the crook of the Third Scrap’s mismatched forelegs to concoct a half-hearted curry rice over an open flame. He keeps glancing up, like the ENGINE is going to move, or like he’ll catch one of her red-armored, white-scarred sisters lumbering through the wilds toward their plateau.

Whenever he looks, she’s alone. It’s strange enough for the Harbor to send even one of its flagship mechs to escort a humble salvage-rig past the badlands.

The rest of the crew eyes the Sovereign with equal wariness. They come down off the deck to do maintenance checks, run laps around the rig, that kind of thing, but sooner or later they all trail over to Sunai and his cook fire. It’s the usual mix of roughened folk: refugees sporting inscribed metal charms to honor the corrupted AIs of their old city-states; downworlders and their knotted ID talismans; another man who wears his hair hermit-long like Sunai; and a couple of women who shear theirs widow-short. Sunai trades curry for cigarettes—he apparently didn’t think to acquire more before he abducted himself onto the Scrap—and a flask of the crew’s own vile brand of rig-brew, with which he chooses to be generous. More than smoke and drink, he wants information.

The first and most obvious fact: none of them like seeing an ENGINE up close. Usually, their kind only gets such an intimate vantage when said ENGINE’s about to step on them. Or, say, when it’s squishing them between its post-divine fingers for violating this or that Harbor law.

As for the rest, he’s stuck asking in a roundabout fashion. None of the crew will like hearing that he was too drunk to remember who he signed with, let alone what he was hired to do, or, you know, whether he fucked anyone on the roster. Other people, normal people, can get sensitive when you divulge that you forget if you got familiar with their ass.

Sunai is fairly certain there was an ass.

With lucidity have come intermittent flashes, impressions of heat and weight, pleasure, then rising dread. He can’t say for sure whether they all stem from the same incident, though it’s been a decade and more since Sunai bailed on sex for any reason other than boredom.

Something made him flee Ghamor. He hopes it was the letter.

The ass in question might be among the other new hires. One is a long-limbed raptor of a person whose downworld ID talisman is tied to signify third-gender status. Their jacket comes with the padding, straps, and pockets common to a salvage-rat mercenary, while their rakish grin crosses their lean face easy and often. They’re also the only crew member watching Sunai more closely than the ENGINE. That’d be fine, if they weren’t attached at the hip to a serene, manicured aunty—the navigator, whose arms are tattooed with stylized depictions of mechanized tenbeasts, clear indicators of Mohani heritage.

It’s possible Sunai fucked the merc. If they and the aunty decided that entitles them to keep an eye on him, it would be ample reason to flee.

He makes a point not to bring up Khuon Mo, lest someone try to connect over a shared past. Instead, halfway through his third cigarette, he offers a sardonic synopsis of the Harbor’s latest radio drama, Callsign Kill.

“You listen to that propaganda?” the third-gender mercenary asks around a mouthful of curry and nutrient bar, a sin against the culinary arts for which Sunai has decided never to forgive them.

“Call it morbid fascination.” Sunai pays attention to any story the Harbor cooks up about ENGINEs and their relics. It’s as much a compulsion as nicotine. “Do you know they got one of the Sovereign’s relics to guest-star in the last arc?”

“Was that the one who reads minds or the one with laser eyes?”

“Neither,” says Sunai. “The one with three heads and half a brain between them. Delivered his lines like a drugged-up goat. Won an award.”

The navigator laughs delicately. The merc offers an impression. Sunai is tempted to relax. Then the merc throws an arm around his shoulders.

“Fine, I like you,” they say, as if they haven’t been fixated on him all night. Then, under their breath, “How you holding up, kid?”

Sunai’s mouth pinches. “Better, before you got ominous.”

The merc exchanges a glance with the navigator. Sunai believes himself patronized.

“Well, dear, you were listing dreadfully when you went off with the doctor,” says the navigator. “We followed, of course. Made clear we considered you a friend. Just to make sure.”

“Yeah, and then the doctor insisted he needed you—for a job, he said.” The merc shrugs. “We needed a gig, they had space. Figured we might as well come along.”

Oh good, camaraderie. Always hard to shake.

At least this misplaced sense of rapport gives him a lead. The doctor, was it? He scans the crew lingering around the fire. Between those who’ve come, gone, and stayed, he counts twenty or so—light complement for a rig of the Scrap’s size. Of those, none have paid as much attention to Sunai as his Mohani compatriots.

“Hey.” The merc leans down to be conspiratorial. “You’re the scout. He tell you what in the name of God’s infinite tits we’re looking for?”

If he did, Sunai doesn’t remember. “At a guess, nothing good,” he says, more sincere than he means to be. Despite himself, he likes the merc too. He might even learn their name. “Or else the Harbor wouldn’t want it.”

“She’s just an escort,” says the man coming round the Scrap’s foreleg. He’s shortish but broad, with a mess of unkempt black hair and sun-browned skin. The rest of the crew each give him a glance or a nod. Important, then. Going by the merc’s narrow peer and the navigator’s vague smile, the doctor himself.

No one specified doctor of what, but Sunai doesn’t have to guess. There’s a great big honking hint encasing the upper half of his face: a featureless, beetle-black visor made from luridly organic material, the likes of which Sunai hasn’t seen in the near two decades since he fled Khuon Mo.

“What?” says the doctor to Sunai’s unabashed stare.

“Is that salvage?” Sunai asks. “On your face?”

“It’s a prosthetic.”

“So are my specs, but they’re not about to go full frag and eat my brain.”

“I’ll let you know if it becomes a problem.”

“I think I’ll hear you when it does.”

The doctor crosses his arms. The awful visor obscures his gaze, but his attention is an inescapable pressure. “I knew you were going to be trouble.”

Sunai holds up a finger and digs in the loose folds of his drape trousers, from which he extracts a cigarette. He offers it to the doctor, who frowns but takes it for the peace offering it is. The doctor’s fingers on Sunai’s are roughened by rig chores and sorting through salvage. Sunai shakes his brain for any recollection of those calluses skimming his cheek on their way into his hair; nothing falls out of his pitted gray matter but for a single self-directed scold: You fucked an autonomist?

No other kind of doctor would strap corrupted AI tech to their face. Most autonomists wouldn’t do that either, so this one presumably has a particularly ambitious death wish.

Sunai’s taste in men has once again proven itself a special kind of horrid.

“Are you the client or what?” the merc is saying while Sunai plows his way through a fourth cigarette.

“And the medic,” the doctor replies. He freely and succinctly answers the merc’s follow-up questions about where the last medic went (taking a month off to get fitted for a new arm prosthetic) and where the other gaps in the roster came from (mental health leave), and he doesn’t spare much attention for Sunai, who, to be fair, hasn’t managed another word. He only clams up when it comes to their objective. “You’re not important enough to know.”

Meanwhile, the ENGINE strides past the Scrap’s foreleg, down the perimeter of the plateau. Sunai wonders if her proximity is responsible for the doctor’s silence.

“How important am I?” he blurts.

The doctor tilts his head, as if just remembering Sunai’s presence. He might not have heard the question. The ENGINE’s footsteps thunder, accelerating. The merc’s radio crackles on their hip. Fragtech sighted, incoming trajectory—mercs to stations, everyone else on standby.

The merc sprints to join the others at the rear cargo bay entrance, where they will gather harpoon guns, nets, and decoy drones. The navigator zips up the foreleg ladder to her station by the pilot’s nook. Sunai grabs his spice belt and makes for the edge of the plateau.

Someone grabs his arm. The doctor. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“What I’m paid to.” Sunai points at a shiver in the pines. “You have a radio? Tell them it’s bigger than it looks. Not tall, but wide. Either it isn’t bipedal or it’s broken. Probably broken, which means it’s hungry. Nothing’s corrupted in the Ghamori region for like three hundred years, except for So-Beloved, and I doubt it’s one of hers. Unlikely one of her frags made it all the way out here before the Sovereign culled it. What?”

It’s difficult to read the doctor. The visor obscures so much of his face, and his mouth has the performative range of rigor mortis, yet the acuity of his focus bleeds through, leaving Sunai feeling like a dangerously interesting specimen. He drags Sunai away from the plateau. “I didn’t haul you out here to feed you to a goddamn frag.”

Sunai and the doctor are halfway up the Scrap’s ladder when the fragtech lumbers from the tree line. It’s built like a person— they usually are—with two legs, two arms, and a battered helmet skull. It hunches, apish silhouette obscured in the gloom.

“Looks like one of Manifest Echo’s,” Sunai calls to the doctor. “Tell them to watch out for shock waves—”

His warning is cut off as the fragtech plunges broad forearms into dry earth. A distant thunk-whoosh sounds as its arms piston deeper, driving targeted vibrations into the ground. The Sovereign adjusts her stance, ready to lunge. Then the cliff crumbles under her feet.

The Sovereign scrambles for footing and skids with gravel and boulders. Manifest Echo’s fragtech wrenches its arms from the ground and breaks into a four-limbed gallop. In seconds, it’s up the slope, over the Sovereign’s body, and careening toward the Scrap.

The mercs fire decoy drones, and at first their swooping dizzies the fragtech. It slows and weaves, and the mercs take aim with their harpoons. First shot. The fragtech rolls out of the way, nearly off the cliff. As it scrambles upright, the next harpoon drives into its ankle joint. It staggers again, falling to its knees— then tears the harpoon from its leg and hurls it at the Scrap.

Sunai kicks the doctor off the ladder and drops after him. As they fall, the harpoon strikes deep into the hull, cracking ceramic armor. It would have skewered the doctor.

The doctor lands okay—on his back, winded. Sunai thuds beside him with a crack. Pain radiates from his right elbow. It’s a clean break—no visible bone, or even blood. He’ll deal with it later.

For now, he cradles the fractured limb against his body as he rolls over the doctor. Instinct always puts him between fragtech and squishy humans.

The fragtech circles, calculating its next assault. As it springs, the mercs fire again. Another harpoon strikes a crevice between the fragtech’s torso and hip, and a simultaneous shot from the bola-cannon on deck snarls a weighted line around its knee. Hobbled, it nonetheless finds its balance—then the ENGINE returns.

A crimson ode to human violence crests the plateau. The Sovereign barrels into the staggering fragtech and slams it to the earth. Her armored hand wraps around its dilapidated face and she beats its skull into stone again and again.

Sunai is transfixed. The doctor coughs, wheezes, and sits up beside him. They watch in brittle silence as one artifact of corruption destroys another. The Sovereign never turns. Sunai is left to imagine the relic’s face.



“I’m fine, you know,” Sunai insists over the rumble of the Third Scrap reseating itself. He keeps his fractured right arm tucked against his torso.

“Let me check it.” The doctor’s warm palm remains on Sunai’s shoulder blade. “I heard a crack.”

Sunai curses silently. The second the doctor is called away— the captain wants him for someone else’s body problem—Sunai hops up into the Scrap’s innards through the cargo bay. On the way, he asks an older merc where he can find a med kit. When the merc grimaces at his bruising arm, he says, “Just need sanitizer.”

The merc’s directions send Sunai through the bowels to a narrow workshop beside the crew quarters, just across the hall from the viewport through which Sunai first saw the Sovereign. Now the view shows slashes of flashlights as the mercs retrieve harpoons from the fragtech corpse while the captain gestures at the Sovereign, kneeling beside (and partially within) her pulverized prey. It’s too dark to tell if the doctor’s out there. Sunai has to be quick.

The workshop is a clutter of boxes and drawers, bolted down and locked against the vagaries of rig travel. The med kit is strapped beneath the counter. As Sunai retrieves it, he knocks his right elbow into the workbench. He grits his teeth against the awful jolt this sends through the split ends of his forearm bones— the whatever they’re called. He retains anatomy only vaguely. What’s the point if none of it sticks?

Something broke when Sunai fell. He knows that as intimately as he knows how long it takes to bleed out. In the time since the fall, as he sat watching the ENGINE tear into the fragtech, as the doctor tried to baby him, and as he stole away into the Scrap, whatever broke was knitting back together. The break blossomed in malevolent bruises from his wrist to elbow, but give it an hour and Sunai could display an arm so clean and tidy that not even an expert physician could find fault with it. For now, the arm is purpling black where it isn’t redly swollen, and it hurts like an absolute bastard.

Sunai presses it harder into his ribs and bites the inside of his cheek for distraction as he fumbles open the med kit latch. He needs bandages. A splint. Anything to conceal his vanished injury until he can pass it off as a quick-healing sprain.

“What are you doing?” The doctor fills the doorway. The upper half of his face remains obscured by that chitinous visor, but the lower half has an intimately familiar expression: a Don’t touch my shit frown followed by an Ah, I’m sorry, I see you’ve already touched my shit, and therefore it’s time to throttle you scowl.

The doctor steps into the workshop. Sunai jerks back, hiding his arm behind him. He is uneven on his bad ankle—it always complains when he’s stressed—and he knocks the med kit off the counter.

The doctor catches the box. His mouth is still as he pushes it back onto the counter, and his hands stay away from Sunai. “Just sit, okay?”

Sunai doesn’t sit, but neither does he run. His teeth dig blood from his inner lip as he watches the doctor unpack sanitizer, antibacterial, analgesics, gauze, et cetera, all laid across the counter while the doctor sticks to his side of the workshop.

“I get it,” says the doctor. “No touching. You should let me do it, but if you can’t… just let me watch.”

Sunai gropes for the sanitizer. “Is that what does it for you?”

“I do like telling people when they’re about to fuck up.”

Sunai takes his time thumbing open the bottle, and more to peel off a patch of gauze. He daubs it across the scratches on an arm still darkened with burst blood vessels. The doctor watches, fists clenched over the counter like he’s the one who has to fight through the pain.

“You really don’t remember?” the doctor asks in abrupt Mohani. His accent is stilted from disuse.

“Remember what?” Sunai asks in the same language. He doesn’t use Mohani much either.

“What I hired you for.”

Sunai’s hand pauses over the analgesics. He takes the bandage instead. “Is this a bad time to reveal that I don’t know your name?”

The doctor seems less offended than annoyed. “Are you serious? Never mind. You probably threw that up too. Veyadi Lut.”

Veyadi Lut. Sunai digests this revelation like a hangover cure: with reluctant gratitude for a gesture that ultimately lacks impact. He has gleaned no memory, no insight, though this doesn’t surprise him; it takes true persistence for Sunai to get blackout drunk, but he’s a stubborn bitch.

“I’ve never met a scout who can identify AIs as old as Manifest Echo,” Veyadi pushes, as if this will help Sunai’s neurons retroactively construct memories they were too sodden to build. “And despite how intoxicated you were, you described the underlying neurotransitive principles of AI-human interfacing with startling clarity.”

Sunai’s metacarpals twitch. Veyadi mistakes this for a pain response and is compelled to cross a line. He steps forward to place his palm on Sunai’s bruise-mottled arm, and Sunai tenses at the gentle pressure of Veyadi’s fingers against the skin of his inner elbow.

Sunai is ten on ten kinds of idiot for letting this happen. He’s worse than that for opening his stupid mouth in front of Veyadi Lut in the first place, a Mohani autonomist who works with the salvaged tech of Khuon Mo’s corruption, and therefore one of the few people in the world perfectly suited to diagnosing exactly what the fuck is wrong with Sunai.

Sure, it’s not every day that Veyadi gets to manhandle Iterate Fractal’s human remains, but other people aren’t even equipped to clock Sunai as a relic, a walking, talking artifact of corruption. He’s lucky that way. Most relics wind up marked with physiological manifestations of their dead AI. In the dramas loosely inspired by Iterate Fractal’s demise, its relics are by turns animalistic and botanical, their eyes lit with tapetum flashes, their hair interwoven with budding flowers. To mark his death, Sunai came away with nothing but a persistent case of life. Inconvenient, but invisible to anyone who doesn’t know what to look for.

Veyadi, though, Veyadi is trained to perceive the signs. And then there’s that visor. No telling what it lets him see. Sunai should have bolted out of any establishment Veyadi Lut wandered into. Yet like when he tried to spy the relic in the ENGINE’s chest, and when he sat gawping at the ENGINE pummeling Manifest Echo’s frag into scrap and memory, and when he kept that goddamn letter, he is unable to resist. Sunai has never witnessed any trainwreck more compelling than his own. He stands dazed and unresponsive as Veyadi gingerly applies the splint, entranced by his own self-destructive impulses.

“This could have been worse,” says Veyadi of the arm.

“Could it?” Sunai asks, as he revisits the fantasy of strangling his past self.

“You haven’t fooled me.” Veyadi smooths tape to bind the bandage, unaware that Sunai’s stomach has inverted. “Last night. I knew you were only looking for a way out of Ghamor, but… you knew what you were talking about. You’re as good as I could’ve asked for, and I need someone good. So whatever you’re running from, I don’t care. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure it can’t follow you. Starting with those two assholes pretending to be your friends. Say the word, and I ship them back to Ghamor with the Sovereign.”

No one who gets sent off with an ENGINE ends up anywhere nice. The set of the doctor’s mouth makes it clear that this isn’t an idle threat. He’s willing to get mean to keep whatever he’s found in Sunai. That’s either sweet or damning; Sunai wishes his skin weren’t prickling so pleasantly under the doctor’s touch.

“Oh yeah?” he asks. “If you’re so worried about my so-called friends, why’d you hire them?”

“I didn’t.” Veyadi places two analgesic pills and a canteen before Sunai, curses under his breath, and unscrews the canteen before Sunai can make the effort with his splinted arm. “The captain did. I was busy making sure you didn’t choke on your own sick.”

Sunai is reluctant to take analgesics someone else might need, especially if they’re not the fun kind, but Veyadi won’t look away until Sunai swallows.

It’s the sheer force of his attention that Sunai keeps coming back to. He’s been stupid before, and in a million ways. He’s gotten in bed with men he shouldn’t, taken jobs he immediately despised, and let one of those mistakes lead him straight back to the other. Veyadi is ripe for regret—analytical, protective, and tender. Any of these qualities could ruin Sunai, and all three together are a more deadly cocktail than whatever he guzzled last night.

Worst of all: the Harbor is watching Veyadi Lut.

“Where does the ENGINE fit into this job of yours?” asks Sunai.

Veyadi hesitates, lips just parted, hand tight on the canteen. He doesn’t want to answer; maybe he thinks the truth will make Sunai leave. All the more reason to let him say it.

Except Sunai doesn’t want to leave. He can’t go anywhere another letter might find him.

So before Veyadi can reply, Sunai grasps him by the front of his shirt and gets their mouths together. As luck would have it, this isn’t the first time he’s used the man to distract himself from worse problems. The kiss is shy of familiar, but the grip of Veyadi’s hand on his shoulder, the just-so tightening of those fingers, this Sunai remembers.

That’s one mystery solved. Whatever Veyadi says about needing a scout with Sunai’s expertise, it didn’t stop him from feeling up the new recruit. Sunai lets Veyadi push him off—carefully, not touching Sunai’s splinted arm—and hold him against the cupboard with a warm hand flat against his chest. There isn’t enough room in the workshop to make real distance.

“What the hell was that for?” Veyadi asks. The line of his mouth is complicated; half a face is so hard to read. “I told you, I need you on this run. You don’t have to… convince me. You’re safe.”

“You’re the one being stalked by the Harbor,” says Sunai. “Maybe you have to convince me.

“That’s all it’d take for you?”

“Depends on how well you negotiate.”

Veyadi keeps Sunai pinned, and for a sharp second Sunai wonders whether he might be wrong about who put whose hands on whose ass last night—then Veyadi takes his mouth again, light at first, then intent and searching. The intensity catches Sunai off guard—his gut warms, his breath hitches. Veyadi breaks away, words hot on Sunai’s cheek. “You sure?”

Sunai laughs, still breathless. “You’re slacking.”

Letting Veyadi say anything else would just be asking for trouble. Sunai knows how it feels to be enticed by the promise of protection from a fascinated man. That feeling’s a trap, always and forever, even without the ENGINE looming over Veyadi’s shoulder. Sunai absolutely knows better than to fuck anyone with Harbor ties, but—

Actually he doesn’t know better, because he’s made that mistake before. He makes it again as he lets Veyadi scoop him into the corridor; despite Sunai’s best efforts, he considers this inappropriate business for his workshop.

“Goddamn menace,” Veyadi says, like a last warning from the universe.

“Just you wait,” says Sunai, who has never been good with warnings.


Excerpted from The Archive Undying, copyright © 2023 by Emma Mieko Candon.

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Emma Mieko Candon


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