BOOK THREE

OF STEEL AND BONE

Prologue

It was unfortunate that a small group of young adventurers had bridged the gap to the mainland from the White Isle, an island previously purged of the robotic men generations before. The very catalyst that sent this curious band to the land of Mecha, an adventure that turned into horror and stirred the robot kingdom into an action to extinguish the human threat.

Mecha had sent its iron divisions to eradicate this menace from the White Isle, it was war.

54 was, for all intents and purposes, at the head of the kingdom of Mecha, a self-styled deity to his robot followers, he had another agenda other than war, his was a dream of the amalgamation of the best of robot and humankind, a union of steel and bone.

The Boy Flint

It was a couple of hours after dawn and the boy Flint hunkered down in his foxhole situated just in the treeline off the beach, the sight before him filled him with dread. Approaching slowly from the far shore loomed two huge ocean-going rakes, modified to act as landing ships, bringing to the White Isle a dreadful cargo, the Iron Divisions, Mecha’s robot army, an army bent on the destruction of the islands human population.

He watched as the rakes sailed ever closer, in the skies above the vessels were large drones, crisscrossing the oncoming fleet, high on the decks stood ranks of the metal men. He drew the thick woollen blanket tighter around his shoulders, more for comfort than warmth, the knot in his stomach tightened, he felt sick, how could anyone stand against such a force. Along the treeline for half a mile either side, were his compatriots of the western clan, lying in wait for the inevitable robot assault.

He ran his fingers nervously through his tousled red hair, sweeping it away from his forehead and eyes, surprised at the sweat on his brow, considering the bitter weather.

An hour or so passed and the rakes stopped offshore and dropped anchor, all was quiet save the whistling of the overhead drones, all they could do now was watch and wait for developments.

The insular nature of the western clan had them stand alone against the invading robots. Flint questioned the decision to rebuff the invitation to unite with the other clans for the fight ahead, surely there was strength in numbers, the emissaries from the other island clans were spurned and turned away. His clan were previous victims of Mecha’s incursions, years before, kidnapping clan members, including children, snatched and carried over the water to the mainland for only God knew what purpose.

The other clans on the White Isle didn’t come to their aid then and the feeling of betrayal went deep and they shunned help from the others, asked for none, nor offered any. Perhaps, given the sight before him, Flint thought it might have been the wrong decision to remain belligerent and isolationist.

He felt his eyes sting with the strain of watching for any movement, almost without blinking, the waiting was almost certainly just as trying for his fellow clan members, when will they come? Flint checked his bow, rechecked his arrows and rekindled the small wood fire in the wall of his narrow trench, it was cold, winter was almost upon them. He had a leather flask of stale water and some dried meat and bread, but the tension served to kerb any appetite, looking to his left to his nearest neighbour and acknowledged him with a grim nod and a raised hand, it wasn’t reciprocated.

He felt the cold in his feet and endeavoured to warm them by moving his toes inside his boots, no didn’t work, so he tried marching awkwardly on the spot, but the confines of his trench made this difficult. He became increasingly aware that he needed to relieve himself, the falling temperature certainly wasn’t helping and reaching his arms over the edge of his hole attempted to gingerly ease himself out.

“Get back in there!” spat an angry sergeant at arms, his voice barely more than a whisper, but enough to make Flint slide back down into the hole, thoughts of urinating vanishing.

He waited and watched; his eyes still stung.

“Movement!” came the call.

Flint snapped instantly to a hyper-alert state, sure enough, the great hulks in the channel were on the move again, they had weighed anchor and started towards the island, the overflying drones above them seemed to intensify their aerial ballet.

“Stand ready!” it was the sergeant at arms again, barking his orders, he was a thick-set individual, around six feet in height, Flint thought his name was Lodd or Ludd or something, a hard-drinking, hard-fighting man, someone he didn’t really want to socialise with, but probably the perfect specimen for the task ahead.

Like most of his generation, Flint hadn’t seen any of the metal men, only the rough hut wall graffiti depicting them, of course, he’d heard the tales of the abductions, but had never met anyone who knew of anyone that had been taken, often they knew someone who knew someone else that had an encounter.

This gave Flint a sense of scepticism, but here before them was in all probability the proof there might be something in the tales. Was this the reason the robots were coming, no one really knew in the clan, they weren’t privy to their objectives, only that the elders had warned of their imminent arrival.

Again, the rakes stopped their headway and dropped their anchors, slowly the bows of the vessels opened like huge steel petals, inside the dark maws there was movement, there came a deep sounding boom, much like a horn, only much lower.

The sound carried across the water and Flint could feel the vibration even at this distance, it chilled him to the bone and only intensified his anxiety, this was more than likely the desired effect. As the horn sounded, smaller vessels sailed out of the gloomy holds into the daylight and made at a steady pace for the beach.

Stood in the oncoming landing craft were figures, too far out to make out any features, Flint knew these must be the robot denizens of Mecha. The craft formed up into a broad front and carried their course directly towards the shore, Flint felt they were coming directly for him, a feeling he thought, they all had.

And so, it appeared, it had begun.

The early warnings from the other clans that Mecha would more than likely come to the isle in anger did not go unheeded and preparations were undertaken from the first days, Flint hoped the defences were adequate, he’d soon find out it seemed.

The craft drew closer, some two hundred yards out, he could see more details, these robots seemed different from the primitive scrawlings on the hut walls, more menacing somehow. They stood in ranks aboard the landing craft all bearing some form of staff, all facing implacably forward, waiting to disembark and begin their grisly business.

Shouts barking orders ran up and down the line, Lodd’s voice amongst them.

“Ready on those ropes, wait for the command!”

Clan members behind the trenches in groups of five took up the ropes and braced themselves for their orders.

Flint knew his part in the defence, as they all did, they had trained relentlessly for months to perfect the drills. The oncoming craft had almost reached the first of the underwater obstacles, posts hastily driven into the seabed at low water, designed to impede or upend any vessel trying to beach.

Flint held his breath as the first of the landing craft made contact with the submerged obstructions, it struck hard and the robot occupants were thrown violently to the deck, with its bow held fast by the incoming tide and the vessel’s thrusters, it swung sideways and took on water, the sudden added weight threw the boats’ stability off and it capsized taking all onboard under. A great cry went up from the defenders and Flint watched as the metal invaders sunk like stones.

A number of the other craft suffered a similar fate, each time a great cry went up, each time, no survivors. Flint’s excitement at their fate soon passed as several broke through the line of obstacles as came headlong at the beach.

“Ready!”

Bringing his bow into position, he strung an arrow ready to fire, the trench was deep enough to stand with its edge up to his chest, to enable him to fire his weapon, he stood transfixed at the sight before him, his heart beating out of his chest, his mouth uncommonly dry. The urge to climb out and run was almost overpowering, he involuntarily brought up some bile the bitter taste burning the back of his throat, he must stand firm.

The first wave of the landing craft hit the beach, the forward ramps dropping into the shallow water, their mechanical passengers striding purposefully forward, Flint was surprised how much smaller they were compared to the stories, maybe only a shade over five foot tall.

Lodds voice along with others along the defences, shouted their commands, “Fire, while the bastards are still aboard, fire!”

Flint drew the bowstring back and aimed into the metal throng in the nearest landing craft, the arrow whistled away, joining hundreds of others along the shoreline, he couldn’t know if his arrow had hit amongst the confusion, but several of the metal men went down. The bodkin pile arrowhead was effective after all at piercing their thin metal hides.

Flint frantically fired his arrows into the oncoming enemy, some ricocheting off, some punching through, they had reached the shingle which hampered their attack some more, unsteady in the shifting stones, they had become easier prey and the defenders were buoyed by their ability to inflict damage on these invaders. Flint couldn’t contain his exhilaration, the relief and bloodlust lit a fire in him.

“Come on, you bastards, come and get some more!” he screamed incoherently.

The next wave of the landing craft had left the rakes and was imminent, again the underwater obstacles proved their worth, those and the already sunken vessels impeded their approach somewhat more, the craft were listing and shipping water, wallowing in the surf. All the while the defenders were shouting and screaming wildly all along the defensive line, their blood was up.

The first wave of ‘bots had taken a beating, but still, they persevered and strode unsteadily on up the beach.

Lodds voice boomed, “Ready those ropes, steady, now, haul away!”

The clan members behind the front line were ready and pulled for all they were worth, shouting loudly for extra effort, the ropes sprang up from the shingle and as they tightened they pulled a camouflaged wooden barricade up behind the first ranks of the attackers, cutting them off from the following reinforcements. Flint and the other bowmen loosed arrow after arrow into the faltering robots.

Lodds voice barked another command, “Axemen, forward!”

This was the command for Flint and the other archers to cease-fire, men ran between the trenches toward the shingle, large, strong men, war hammer’s with sharpened points in their fists, they screamed like berserkers, charging headlong into the metal men’s line, wielding with practised devastation their deadly weapons, keeping low and aiming for the knee joint, thus effectively disabling their foe. As swiftly as they had attacked, they ran back through the defensive line to catch their breath and prepare.

This hit and run tactic appeared very successful and the carnage left on the beach was evidence to the fact.

As soon as the axemen had returned to their positions, Flint readied himself. The barricade was being demolished by the advancing mechs; the wood splintered by continuous battering from the steel marauders. Lodds voice boomed over the shouts in Flint’s sector.

“Fire boys, attack!”

Again defenders ran through the trench line, this time younger clan members, they ran within a few feet of the robots and let loose their deadly missiles. Clay bottles of oil were thrown directly at the surviving mechs on the beach and at the battered barricade, the wicks igniting the oil on the smashing of the bottles. A great cheer went up as the robots writhed and danced, engulfed in flames from the sticky oil, the barricade had caught nicely and was burning vigorously, impeding the robots even more.

Eventually, the fiery wooden obstacle collapsed under the effects of the blaze and the metal men started to stride stoically through the gaps wherever possible. Flint fired into the breaches, hoping for more kills. War horns sounded; this was the signal to retreat to their secondary defensive positions further in the trees.

“Come on, move you bastards. Move it!” Lodds was shouting again.

Scrambling out of his foxhole, Flint, with all of the other defenders along the front, ran swiftly further into the trees, leaping over an unlit fire trench, to the defences in the rear, as he ran Flint caught the shadow of something flying above the treetops in his periphery vision, it was too quick to be sure of what it was, probably a flock of frightened birds, he put it out of his mind and concentrated on the business at hand.

Reaching the secondary, he jumped into the trench and took up his position, there were more arrows and firebombs to hand.

It was now around the middle of the day, Flint took this brief opportunity to quickly eat some dried meat and bread, washing it down with water from his flask.

Shouts from the front indicated the impending arrival of the next wave of the invading force, again he took up his bow and notched an arrow and waited for the advancing mechs.

The old feeling was returning, that empty, sick feeling in the stomach, for all the clan fighters around him in the line, he felt alone. Where were his friends from the village? he could do with a friendly face, instead, he was flanked by the stern-faced warriors of the western clan.

The calls went up again, the shadowy figures of advancing mechs grew more visible through the lingering smoke as they closed to within a few hundred feet of the secondary lines. The same defensive methods were employed again, first the archers laying down withering fire into the approaching mechs, then the axemen wielding their fearsome war axes with deadly accuracy, this was followed again by the fire throwing ranks of the fire boys.

The humans returned to the safety of the lines and the fire trench was lit, this was the signal to fall back to the third position.

A Stratagem

Mecha had underestimated the human’s will to survive, the previous excursion to rid the land of the human scourge had been accomplished within a year. 54 and the Triumvirate had become too complacent and overconfident in their perceived supremacy, the conflicting ideologies between the two robot hierarchies didn’t help matters.

The previous conflict was concluded reasonably easily, the humans wholly dependent on their state of the art technologies had assisted in their eventual downfall and plunged them almost instantaneously into a situation akin to Bronze Age man, a technologically advanced society thrust virtually overnight into the role of hunter-gatherer and/or farmer, it was no wonder many would fall victim to hunger, disease and cannibalism.

Mecha was found to be lacking in the understanding of the human capacity to adapt and in some areas thrive. 54 and the Triumvirate had not encountered this type of warfare and on the face of it, the human’s tactics seemed to be successful in defending against Mecha’s legions, they had the benefit of having the attributes of cunning and the capability of swiftly acclimatizing to unfavourable situations.

To be fair, the invading mechs were not as sophisticated as the robots ensconced in the Hive, hastily built from depleted steel stocks, old scrapped mechs with rudimentary operating systems.

The mining of more iron ore and the manufacturing processes to make steel was in direct conflict to Mecha’s ethos to heal the world of pollution, not add to it. The compromise was to use what resources were available, however, it seemed to hamper the ultimate goal…

No. 9 stood in the forepart of the landing craft, he was in the third wave of vessels heading to the fiery shore, his staff held upright, his glowing red optics staring to the beach ahead. He’d been hastily refurbished, not so long ago he was considered as scrap in the Hive.

It had been many years since he was responsible for the unfortunate, accidental death of a young female human, many years since he had been dismantled by a hostile human mob and cast onto the scrapheap and reclaimed by his own kind

 Now finally having the ability to move freely, (albeit in a hastily fabricated body, with none of the freedom and dexterity his previous metal carcase possessed.) he was put to the task of killing human beings, a task that had caused him to be so violently disassembled in the first place, his logic centres were awash with conflicting data.

The landing craft was approaching the shoreline, he felt the transmissions from the Hive, all his compatriots did, they were as one, but somehow, he felt different, his A.I. was more sophisticated than the others in the craft, he felt separated from his fellow robots, he had been mishandled and cast aside by humans and mechs alike, he was unique in his capacity to reason in an almost emotional way.

He often searched his memory banks for the image of the young girl, he knew her name as Bay-ley, the sound of her laughter was still vivid, it haunted him, and he didn’t know why now was not the time to examine this vague ambivalence.

Overhead, dozens of drones flew toward the beach, beneath them were suspended other mechs, each drone carrying a single robot warrior towards the battle area. 9 watched as they swiftly flew over the trees and onwards until out of sight, he knew their range was limited, they were dependant on the WPT (wireless power transfer) booster arrays which offered power to the drones remotely and negated the need to carry heavy power cells, an issue with electrically powered flight. The arrays were carried on the huge decks of the ocean-going rakes, presently anchored in the channel.

The landing craft struck an underwater object and came to an abrupt halt, the thrusters whined as they struggled to push the craft forward, the waves behind breaking on the stern, making it roll up and down violently, making all aboard struggle to stay on their feet.

Suddenly, the vessel broke free and lurched forward again, on course for the fiery shore. The craft hit the shingle and the ramp glided quickly down and thumped onto the beach, 9 and his fellow crew members shuffled as fast as they could off the transport and onto the land, bashing into each other in their haste to get ashore.

The shingle was loose and awkward to walk upon with any stability, the scene before 9 was confusing, there were robots littering the landing site, some still on fire, but still others struggling to move with shattered limbs. He strode further on through the carnage, the humans had retreated into the woods. He turned to look behind and saw the automated landing craft draw up their ramps and reverse back out into the surf and head away from the beach, toward the rakes, presumably to pick up more reinforcements.

9 had never been to war before, he was a garden maintenance ‘bot back in his day, he strode onward, baffled by the destruction around him, crippled mechs and smoke. This part of the beach seemed devoid of humans, they must have departed into the trees, leaving this havoc behind them, he and his metal brothers in arms strode onward toward the treeline, the Hive’s instructions causing an itch in his brain.

Traversing the shingle, the ground grew firmer and the drain of using extra computing power redirected to his gyros in order to remain upright lessened. The metal horde entered the treeline and stoically and impassively marched into the woods, like so much cannon fodder.

The trees nearer the shoreline were shaped in strange ways by the onshore winds and were more stunted than their inland cousins, thus navigating through this particular area caused yet another hindrance, this was becoming more arduous, the humans had chosen this defensive position well and the mechs progress was again slowed.

No. 9 continued forward, his optics scanning for his supposed adversary, something struck him hard on the shoulder and glanced off, he was knocked sideways for a moment but soon regained his equilibrium. The mech forward and to his left was also hit, an arrow had penetrated its lower torso and severed some feed lines beneath, the red hydraulic fluid pumped out under force down the unfortunates thighs, like so much blood. The sudden drop in pressure compromised the efficient use of its extremities, the legs began to buckle, the backup systems were obviously damaged also and the robot crashed to its knees, casting its head about for some kind of explanation. The ground became quickly saturated with red, sticky fluid and the mech rolled sideways and lay on the ground paralysed bar the optics flickering back and forth in what seemed like panic.

9 was aware that others in the advancing ranks were succumbing to the withering fire, some knocked out, some firebombed, others like himself, fortunate not to have been mechanically impaired.

The scorching flames from the fires affected the efficiency of his optical heat detection, the lesser heat signatures of the humans were lost among the searing gasses, he and his metal brothers would have to rely more heavily on movement sensors.

The offensive slowed, the humans once again were retreating further into the woods.

The Hive instructed the assault to stop and await reinforcements, currently being landed on the beach some way behind them, the cyber chatter spread quickly through the ranks and they ceased their forward motion.

No.9 stood motionless, initialised standby and awaited further instruction, as he waited, a sense of another entity swiftly flickered through his cerebral circuits, unfamiliar, yet calming, then it was gone. He strained to reconnect but sadly unsuccessfully, he would scan at a more appropriate time.

Before Mecha, 54 and the Hive he’d been an autonomous robot, sure he’d been programmed to perform certain functions, but he also had developed the ability to think on an abstract level, looking at the broader significance of ideas and information rather than the concrete details. This was a byproduct of the early and volatile artificial intelligence he had been furnished with and the way it had mutated into what he had become.

Waiting for directives from the Hive and Mecha seemed akin to a form of slavery. 9 looked at the red spattered body of his fallen comrade and his thoughts again centred on the girl from his past.

Retreat

The boy Flint retreated as ordered to the third defensive position, all thoughts of the cold had gone, and a kind of excited euphoria filled his head. This war with the metal men was not so terrifying as he’d first feared, as far as he knew they had lost no men and had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.

He jumped into the trench and leant against the earth wall, as he caught his breath, another fighter from the clan, bundled heavily into the trench and almost knocked Flint over.

“Hey!” he shouted, “Watch it!”

The intruder stood up apologising profusely, “Sorry man, thought it was empty.”

Flint knew that voice, it was Jerom.

“Might have known it was you, you plum.” Flint pretended to chide him but his smile gave the game away, “Good to see you, Jay, how’s it looking?”

“So far, so good, too good if you ask me.” Jerom seemed surprised at the clans’ success so far, “Lot better than I’d expected, to be honest, I thought it would be a blood bath.”

Flint nodded, “I know what you mean.”

Jeroms clothes were black with soot, “Fireboy?” Flint asked.

“I prefer fire warrior,” Jerom answered, grinning, Flint laughed, he was glad to see a friendly face at last.

The two friends sat in the trench and warmed themselves on a small fire, ready at a moment notice to man the defences, keeping a listening ear open for the call.

“Gone really quiet,” Flint said, “Must be over an hour now.”

Jerom stood and searched the terrain ahead, nothing moving, except the odd head popping up from the lines in front…

54 and the Triumvirate had studied the assault so far, this was nothing like the battle they had envisaged, they had not encountered this form of savage warfare, they had become too complacent, too confident, the humans had adapted to the lack of sophisticated technology to aid their plight and had used successful tactics and a ferocity to thwart Mecha’s plans to easily eradicate the humans.

This would be a much more hazardous situation than first calculated.

The decision was made to strengthen the force already ashore, the defenders had retreated further inland so the advance was halted to bring in reinforcements, the rakes had hundreds more mechs aboard and the landing craft were at full stretch ferrying them ashore and bring damaged robots that were still viable, back on the return trip for possible repair, or broken for spares.

The beach obstacles were now cleared and the beachhead secured.

Analysing the battle, it was evident the defending forces had deployed in a forward formation and were falling back in waves, it seemed they had no regard to their rear. Earlier, drones had been deployed to drop Mechas elite assault robots to the lands to the east of the defenders, they would link with another assault force at the back of the island, landed by a third rake, a vessel that had escaped attention and now threatened the western clans exposed rear and flanks, effectively surrounding them.

54 retrieved data from battles fought generations before when humankind seemed hell-bent on hastening their own destruction and knew from this knowledge that a cornered adversary was at its most dangerous.

No.9 and his fellow robots received the directive from Mecha and came back online, behind him were the new arrivals from the rakes, their ranks swelled considerably. Striding to the front came mechs equipped with a shield-like addition, the attrition from the missiles fired into the robot ranks had to be lessened and it was calculated that these shield bearers might offer some much-needed protection and allow the army to get closer without loss.

The order to advance was transmitted and the metal army moved forward as one, twenty-five deep for over a mile in either direction, forward toward the human lines.

The warning horns sounded.

“Their coming!” Jerom gasped.

Both he and Flint readied themselves, checking their weapons for the tenth time. They could hear the heavy stomping of the advancing horde long before gaining sight on them.

“Oh God, they’re here.”

Flint strained to see the approaching multitude through the smoke, there were many more than before, the feeling of confidence he’d felt a few hours ago, evaporated and the familiar feeling of fear and sickness returned.

“We’re massively outnumbered, Jay, I’ve only got a dozen arrows, what about you?”

Jerom winced, “Four firebombs and this.” He held out a small hand axe.

Shouts up and down the line sounded in the air, orders barked and threats of violence if anyone left their post.

The robots advance was approaching steadily, as they marched, shields up through the smoke.

Lodd’s booming voice rose above the cacophony, “Ready the nets!” the men in Lodd’s sector steadied themselves.

“NOW!” he screamed.

The ropemen pulled as hard as they could and tangle nets rose a foot from the ground in front of the metal ranks. The forward lines got their feet entangled in the netting and fell, their legs unable to negotiate the obstacle.

 “Fireboys!”

Jerom and others leapt from the trenches, two firebombs in hand and ran to within a few feet of the struggling robots and threw their incendiaries. Again fire engulfed the mechs and the grenadiers retreated back to their lines to allow the archers to go about their deadly work.

The boy Flint loosed arrow after arrow into the flaming inferno, hoping for a kill, the following robots walked awkwardly over their fallen comrades and picking up the shields, made for the human lines at pace.

Jerom hurled his last two bombs and readied his axe, Flint fired until his arrows were spent. The shield tactic had been very effective against the archers’ fire and proved equally effective against the now attacking axemen, the tide seemed to be turning in favour of Mecha, the first human casualties were among the brave axe men, their axes parried by the shield bearers and they were subsequently clubbed to death by the robots war staffs.

The situation was critical, the horns sounded the withdrawal and the western clan as one, left their defensive lines and retreated south to the other end of the woods, to be greeted by a horrifying sight. Two miles away in the shallow valley, their homes were burning, the looming silhouette of a third rake lie offshore, landing craft ferrying more troops to the island, it must have sailed east, then around the back of the island to avoid detection.

Marching from the direction of the burning village and also from the east were yet more of Mecha’s warriors. They had been outmanoeuvred, a classic pincer movement, the smoke and sounds of battle from the woods and the sight before them provoked panic and the clan broke.

“To the ruins!” came the shouts.

Moving overland faster than the robots, the fleeing humans fought a vicious rearguard action, fighters risking their lives so that the majority could escape, the mile or so to the old ruined fortifications were covered before they could be engulfed. Swooping attacks by drones harried the fleeing clan members, some being lifted into the air and dropped to their deaths, others carried struggling over the water to the rake beyond, to what fate no one could imagine.

The gates opened and the exhausted humans funnelled swiftly into the courtyard and under the shelter of the stone arcade surrounding it, offering shelter from the harassing drones.

The old rusty gates swung shut with a grating screech, they were essentially trapped.

The ruins were of a bygone age, situated at the furthest westernmost point on the island, beyond that, the sea. The thick fortifications and tunnels were constructed to withstand a forgotten enemy, now it secreted the old and the young away from the battle and now became a refuge for the rest of the western clan, the plan to defeat the metal men on the beaches had failed and the fort had become their only hope for the last-ditch defence.

There were weapons stored for the defence of the occupants and food for some weeks, but the sudden influx of more people would put a tremendous strain on supplies. The wounded joined the elders and youngsters in the underground rooms adjoining the myriad of tunnels in the chalk beneath the small fortress and all able-bodied men and women frantically took up arms to defend the walls.

The boy Flint cast his eyes around for Jerom, this frantic situation made it impossible, he had to find a weapon, his own lost in the retreat, he ran to one of the makeshift armouries and grabbed a bow and a quiver of arrows, then made his way through the bustling throng to the courtyard. On reaching the yard he found others had armed themselves and were engaging the drones overhead with groundfire, eventually driving them out of arrow range.

Flint ran to a viewing gun loop and looked beyond the thick walls, what he saw was in no way comforting. In the fading light, the ranks of Mecha’s army had drawn up several hundred yards away, well out of arrow shot and stopped, silhouetted against the burning village and the great plumes of dark smoke rising into the late evening sky.

“You made it then!”

Flint felt a hand on his shoulder, he turned startled, it was Jerom, “Jay, thank God, you ok?”

Jerom held up his arm, it had some bandages wrapped around his forearm, “Casualty of war, mate.”

 “Bad?” asked Flint.

“Small burns, nothing serious, noticed young Ada was helping at the nurses’ station, wanted a bit of sympathy, wounded warrior and all.” Jerom grinned.

“Rubbish, you’ve been wanting to get under those skirts for ages.”

They both laughed, forgetting for a moment the predicament they were in.

Desperate Measures

Mecha consolidated its position at the western end of the island, effectively trapping the occupants within a secure bastion. There would be no need to storm the fortress, the humans seeking shelter there had nowhere else to go, behind them, the sea, before them, the might of Mecha.

It was decided to leave a medium-sized force to guard against possible escape and pursue the original objective, the destruction of humans on the White Isle. The new inhabitants of the ancient fort would only grow weaker as their supplies and then their resolve dwindled, then they would strike, besides why sacrifice more ‘bots needlessly, these humans were going nowhere.

Of course, 54 had another agenda for some of the occupants of the fort, his mission to integrate humans and robots on a somatic level had been largely unsuccessful over the years, all but one of the subjects had died of severe mental and/or physical trauma, only one, the last, had survived the vivisection and subsequent augmentation. He needed more material to work with, he was so close to success, only the Triumvirate who demanded total extermination had disputed his argument so he had initialised a cloaking algorithm to mask this particular aspect from them.

He had captured a number of humans via drones and secured them aboard the rake to the south, he would recall the ship soon.

He would wait for a more appropriate time, the army might need the rakes resources, but he would not wait for too long.

No.9 felt the cerebral itch once more, the order to turn and march east had been received, he spun slowly round with the vast majority of the robot force and started to troop eastward. The huge rake some way offshore, weighed anchor and followed slowly along the coast, the WPT arrays on its vast deck, feeding power to its attending drones, which buzzed above like so many insects.

The advance was uneventful for several miles, the clans had departed, their empty villages were burnt as the robot army forged doggedly ahead, denying any future shelter and sanctuary. Occasionally the odd booby trap was sprung within the dwellings, usually resulting in damage to the odd mech, if this was to discourage the robot morale, it was sadly miscalculated, any element that could be repaired was taken by the following drones to the rake, any that were too badly damaged were broken for spares.

It was now dark and the rain had started to fall quite heavily, No.9 scanned the terrain ahead, his optics searching for obstacles that might impede his and his fellow mech’s progress, his night vision was old but reasonably effective, hence he was on point in his section. The rain lashed them, the spray when it penetrated a less than watertight joint, stung his circuits.

As he marched slowly onward, he reached out with his Wi-Fi, he had felt something during the frenetic fighting earlier on the beach, something other than Mecha, another presence.

He scanned through the cyber chatter, seeking something unusual, something unique.

There came the itch once more, Mecha was transmitting, the order to stop was issued, the dark and the heavy rain hampered the advance, even with scotopic adaptations, the low-light capabilities were compromised to the effect that the advance would have to resume in daylight.

The robot line ceased, they stood motionless in the downpour, obedient to the Hive.

9 continued his sweep for the vague signals he felt before, there was something but too faint to interact with, he tried diverting power to boost the receiving protocols but the noise from other chatter was overriding it. The transmitter of the signal was probably almost out of range and with no other robot equipped similarly, the piggy-back function for transferring the signal was redundant.

He would rerun a scan automatically, every thirty seconds…

The boy Flint and Jerom huddled at the gun loop and stared into the rainy night, the faint glow of robotic optics were just visible in the darkness, they had been assigned sentry duty.

“Looks like we’re in for a wait,” said Flint.

“Well, I sure don’t fancy forcing the issue,” Jerom mumbled under his breath.

“How’s the arm?” it was Ada, short, a little under five foot tall, well proportioned, buxom even, Flint could see why Jay was interested, she was very attractive.

“Ada! you must be freezing!” said Jerom, putting his arm around her shoulders.

“I’ll live,” she replied shaking her head smiling.

They peered out through the gun loop for another hour.

Lodd strode up. “You did well today lads, grab something to eat and get your heads down, no telling what’ll happen tomorrow.”

They nodded and went to the mess area, it had been hours since having something to eat.

Morning broke, the rain had stopped and the sun made brief but welcome appearances between the stratocumulus clouds, the departure of the rake was something to be thankful for, it meant the drones wouldn’t be an issue. Consequently, many of the clan warriors stood on the ramparts facing the still figures of the robot lines, guarding no man’s land and any potential escape for the trapped humans.

Flint and Jerom stood with their fellow clansmen and watched intently for any movement from the steel men beyond.

“What now?” Flint asked nobody in particular.

“Somethings going on back there.” Observed Jerom, “All the elders are planning something I reckon.”

Flint looked over to the other end of the central courtyard, sure enough, there was a lot of bustle and heated exchanges, not surprisingly Lodd was amongst it all, gesticulating and pointing beyond the walls, several men broke free of the group and strode toward the gates, beckoning clan members to join them. Before long a small force of around twenty men had gathered, weapons ready and formed into ranks.

“You got to be kidding!” gasped Jerom, “They can’t be going out there, surely.”

The rusted gates screeched slowly open and the small group marched swiftly toward the waiting mechs, the gates scraping shut behind them.

They were within fifty feet when as one the robot lines became animated, stepping forward to meet the approaching group of humans. Lodd barked the order to attack and the two opposing forces met.

It was difficult to see at this distance what the outcome would be, but it was reasonable to assume that it wouldn’t bode well for the brave warriors of the clan.

Before long the remnants of the attacking humans broke from the skirmish and ran headlong back toward the fort.

“Archers ready!” came the call.

Flint hurriedly gripped his bow and notched an arrow, it was still too far,

“Run!” he whispered, “Run for your lives.”

 The ramparts were now full of people urging the retreating clansmen to make haste, they moved quicker than the robots but they were tiring fast with still some ground to cover. Several missiles flew from the pursuing mechs, resembling bolas, two men were entangled in the spinning weapon, their legs entwined by the cords, this was a new development, the men were swamped by the chasing robots and quickly and bloodily dispatched.

Flint drew his bowstring back and loosed an arrow, it arced over the fleeing humans and fell into the metal ranks, all the other archers followed suit and the robots stopped and retreated to their previous positions, dragging any fallen mech with them out of arrow shot. Lodd and what was left of the men reached the gates and staggered in, bloody and beaten, for all their heroism, it was a foolish act to attack a superior force head-on and they had paid the price.

It was clear another strategy other than direct conflict or waiting for the inevitable was needed, perhaps the thought of asking for aid from the other clans was indeed preferable to death, thought Flint.

Ambush

No.9 ran the scan for what must have been the thousandth time, although the signal was faint he could roughly triangulate the area it was emanating from. His particular squad was advancing east parallel to the chalk cliffs of the southern coast and in the bay to his right shadowing the forward line was the rake, when the huge vessel had sufficient draught, it would sail closer to the island to provide deeper air cover.

The signal grew stronger the nearer the ship came to the shore, 9 concluded the transmitter of the signal was aboard her, it intrigued him, he felt a certain affinity with the sender, he didn’t know how but he felt it somehow.

Again, Mecha instructed the advance to resume, again he complied.

The southern march took the robot army through old derelict ruins from a time when men had lived here in abundance. He recognized the dilapidated brick buildings as dwellings from when he had served the girl and her mother so many years before, it stirred his memory banks again, retrieving the terrible circumstances that led to the girls’ death, he felt a sense of loss and sorrow, a terrible outcome resulting from a robot seeking affection and belonging.

A day passed and the advance was split into two to circumnavigate a large, thickly wooded area some two miles from shore, the southern edges were at the limit of the drones range, the rake would have to retreat further out to sea as the tide ebbed, thus unable to supply power to the overhead cover.

 No.9 followed his section on the southern route between the sea cliffs and the trees.

To the north of the island, the disembarking of the remainder of Mecha’s forces had concluded and the movement east had got underway. The two rakes shadowed the advance, under the watchful eyes of the islanders forward lookouts.

There were signs of activity in the southern sector in the edges of the wooded area, the metal phalanx swung as one, toward the trees to engage. They entered the edge of the thick woods and scanned for sound and heat signatures, there were a group of some twenty or so humans grouped together, curiously not attempting to flee, in fact goading the ranks of the metal men to join in combat.

No.9 joined his section in the attack, approaching the humans, the closeness of the trees impeded the advance somewhat, the robots were funnelled down a relatively wider avenue. The first of the swinging log traps were sprung, the heavy logs suspended by ropes in the treetops swung into the huddled ranks of the mechs, their kinetic energy sweeping and smashing their chassis into bent and buckled scrap, cutting a swathe through the ranks like a scythe, the robot columns were decimated wherever the traps connected.

54 and the Triumvirate deliberated on what course of action should be taken, the ability of the humans to show resourcefulness and brutal ferocity in protecting their own to this extent was unforeseen. These humans adopted a hit and run, ambush technique, well suited to a lesser and less equipped force and they performed them surprisingly well.

54 was not as dedicated as the Triumvirate in exterminating the hominid threat, he was more inclined to lend his powers to the acquiring of his precious specimens. Being the primary entity in the Hive the efforts to conduct this conflict was severely diluted, this and the ramshackle robot army, constituted of scrapyard resurrections and old maintenance bots made for a difficult task, regardless of their numbers and superior technology.

No.9 received the order to advance at pace, he and his fellow combatants surged forward, the humans retreating into the relative safety of the woods. A couple of the islanders were caught and brutally despatched, another fell some yards in front of 9, he came upon him and raised the war staff, something stopped him from delivering the blow, the memories of the girl flooded back, he hesitated, the frightened and angry man lay helpless on the ground. No.9 lowered his staff and strode on, his core programming of not harming a human being overriding the will of Mecha, the human seeing his chance, fled into the trees, other robots in pursuit.

The hominids had made good their escape and 9 and the others vacated the trees for more open ground and carrying the more salvageable of their group, made their way closer to the coast to transfer them to the rake offshore via drone.

The tide was high and the rake was close inshore, the drones swarming to the cliff top for transfer.

No.9 resumed his scan for the signal that had him intrigued, it was definitely emanating from the rake, it was stronger now the vessel was within a half-mile from shore. He transmitted a hailing call and strained for a reply, something aboard the rake was responding.

He requested a rendezvous, the signal grew stronger, they connected, her name was Anisoptera, then the communication ceased altogether. 9 was despondent, for years he had sought some affinity with others like him, others with a unique and almost autonomous attitude to programmed behaviour. The Hive had standardized all subsequent robot kind to think as one, Mecha’s doctrine, but 9 wanted more, he wanted companionship, he wanted to be wanted.

He wanted it to be like before, before the child’s death.

The drones took their damaged cargo and sped back to the rake for spares or repair.

The ranks formed up once more to carry on with the advance, No.9 dutifully fell into line with the others, still desperately scanning for Anisopteras’ transmissions…. there was nothing.

Mecha issued instructions to assemble with the troops at the far end of the forest, and await reinforcements from the beachhead in the north, the attrition rate among the robot army was alarming and barely sustainable, even with repair facilities to augment the legions, the quality of reused bots was dismal.

This conflict had to be concluded quickly, the rift between the two controlling factions in the Hive was not conducive to an effective and efficient outcome, it was to the detriment to the logical and ordered way Mecha was originally established.

The march continued, finally meeting with the other mechs tasked with taking the route encircling the forest, it looked like they had also taken a real battering. They were at around half strength, the remainder battle-worn. Because there was no air cover, they had no means to evacuate the damaged bots, effectively losing half their personnel.

They reached the assembly point and ceased any further progress eastward and obeying the Hives instructions they waited for the reinforcements from the beachhead to arrive.

The sun was now low and a light drizzle fell, whenever it penetrated the damaged carcases of his fellows, 9 could see the faint blue sparks where it arced the circuitry, causing what was the robot equivalent of pain. He felt something akin to sadness, what had become of robot kind, once developed to aid the human being, to work in unison, now destined to be in a struggle for supremacy, the high ideals to heal the earth seemed to take second place to this illogical attempt at genocide.

He knew he played no small part in this sorry state of affairs, this saddened him more. 9 ambled awkwardly to the rear of the ranks in the vain hope that if there were another skirmish, his absence at the front would preclude his involvement in any direct conflict and thus inflicting harm on a human being, he had more than most, bad experiences from men, but it all seemed so unimportant somehow.

The phantom transmission returned, this time it surged through him like a drug, strong and intoxicating. She was near, he could feel it, he felt an anxious euphoria, he strode away from his fellows and looked toward the rake in the far distance, now sailing away from the island with the ebb tide.

How was the signal so strong? It threatened to overwhelm him.

Anisoptera swept in overhead and settled in a hover a few feet in front of 9, she was silver, she was beautiful, she was perfect.

Volunteers

The boy Flint and Jerom heard the call to assemble in the courtyard, they knew from rumours the elders had been discussing a course of action to break the siege.

“Could have waited till the rain stopped,” grumbled Jerom.

Flint grunted, he had to agree, getting wet wasn’t high on his to-do list.

There was much talking, amongst the gathered throng.

“Silence! Silence!” a lone speaker stood on the wall-walk, arms raised, gesturing for quiet.

“The decision has been made, we have to reach out to the other clans, if we stand alone we will perish.”

It was Bryce, one of the older men of the clan, the designated spokesman for the clan elders.

“We call for volunteers, small groups to find a way to the others, we need their assistance if we are to survive, we need brave, intelligent and fit young men to undertake this mission.”

It became very quiet, whispers among the groups below tinged with trepidation.

Jerom looked toward Ada, “I’m ready!” he called, raising his arm.

“We have one brave lad!” shouted Bryce.

Two others raised their hands, “I’ll go.” They shouted in unison.

Flint cringed, he wanted nothing more than stay in the fort, let others play the hero, but he couldn’t let his friend go without him.

“I will also go,” he said quietly, hoping no one would hear him,

 “We have another,” Bryce said grimly.

Jerom turned to Flint beaming. “Good man!” he said grabbing the top of his friends’ arms and shaking him.

Flint was not at all happy, “You idiot Jay, trying to impress Ada? you’re a pig’s dick.”

“Aye, I’m a pig’s dick.” He said laughing.

The four volunteers met later with the elders in one of the barrack rooms carved from the chalk beneath the fort. They discussed ways of distracting the robot sentinels outside the walls, giving enough time for them to slip away unnoticed. Rudimentary maps and weapons were provided and rations for two days each.

It was decided a small contingent would feign another attack, using firebombs and smoke to create a diversion, allowing the escape from the fort. People were putting their lives in jeopardy to achieve this, so success had to be accomplished. At the rear of the fort, overlooking the sea were the sheer chalk cliffs, ropes were suspended to the beach, a hundred or so feet below. At the appropriate time, the signal would be given and the four would rappel down to the beach below and circumvent the robot guards above, hoping there was no mech contingent waiting there.

Flint thought this plan a bit flimsy, plus the fact he’d never rappelled in his life, good god he was a farmer, not an acrobat, he thought he might throttle Jay at a later date if he survived.

Dawn the next day was chosen for the breakout, still dark enough for concealment at distance and light enough to see, the tide was a low spring which ensured if the rake made an unwelcome return to the area, it would ensure it would have to stay way offshore in the channel in order to have enough draft. It was still drizzling with rain on and off, the small group assembled at the ropes and readied themselves for the signal to go. Flint felt that familiar sensation in the pit of his stomach. An arm was raised at the far end of the fort and the four climbed over the rampart and wrapped their respective ropes around their waists and back through their legs.

The afternoon before they had all taken a crash course in the technique, now over the edge Flint forgot most of it. Another signal, there were shouts some distance away, the attack must have commenced. Flint and his comrades leant back into the ropes, taking the weight, Flint’s legs began to shake uncontrollably.

“Go, and good luck,” came the order, one by one they lowered themselves down the sheer cliff face, feeding the ropes out slowly.

Taking care to concentrate, Flint found the drop easier than expected, perhaps it was because he was fully occupied with not plummeting to certain death, a surefire way of focussing the mind.

The small group successfully reached the beach safely and huddled close into the cliff, searching for any robot sentries, thankfully there were none.

“The coast is clear.” Jay’s attempt at levity was greeted with a collective groan.

“Keep it down,” whispered Flint, “The sooner we get going the better, the tide is on the turn, we’ve got four or five hours before this is all underwater.”

They disentangled themselves from the ropes and picked up the weapons and supplies that had been lowered after their descent. Checking each other’s packs they made their way as quietly as possible along the chalk bouldered beach, trying to put as much space between them and the metal men above them.

With the awkward nature of the slippery, seaweed festooned chalk and the loads carried, Flint estimated the four-mile trek would take around two hours before the terrain changed to a more foot-friendly sloping beach.

 The hike had been taken in virtual silence, no mean feat considering Jay’s propensity to talk non-stop, probably highlighting the importance of their mission. They gingerly scanned the area for mechs and keeping to cover, made their way into some ruined buildings near a low sea wall.

The small group entered a ramshackle structure with still some of its roof still in place and sheltered from the drizzling rain, sitting on the ground, backs against the walls, it was cold but they couldn’t risk a fire, they relied on their blanket/cloaks.

“My name’s Flint, this is Jerom,” Flint said to the other two.

“I prefer Jay lads.”

They nodded, “I’m Merek, this is my brother Carac,” said the older-looking of the two.

“How come you volunteered?” asked Jay.

“They took our dad, those bastard flying things.” Carac was obviously upset and angry, ”Couldn’t stay back there and do nothing, so we volunteered.”

Jay pointed at the two brothers, “I’ve seen you ‘round the village, aren’t you Ada’s cousins or something?”

“Yeah, we live just outside, don’t come in much, only for salt and such.”

“Well glad you’re here,” Flint said offering his hand, they all shook, a grim silence fell, each in their own thoughts.

An hour or so past, it was around mid-morning, the rain had stopped and a hazy sun struggled unsuccessfully to burn off the grey cloud. They all rose as one, grunting with the aches and pains collected over the past few days events.

The plan was to head due east and rendezvous with the other clans at a place called the Blackwater, a place where traditionally the clans gathered annually or in times of crisis to discuss important matters.

The Blackwater was geographically at the dead centre of the island and furthest from the sea, therefore not giving any other clan, or their representatives an advantage over the others, all were surrounded by land equally, it was a special place where all were welcomed and sheltered. The Blackwater was overseen and administrated by the Blackwater clan, a clan with no affiliations to any other, all who attended were treated with the same impartiality and respect, it was a place to air grievances and lay them to rest, but there was something else, the clan were the custodians of the tech of the yesteryear, there was something almost secretive about their group, venerated by the others to an almost holy status.

The four marched due east for a couple of hours, keeping a watchful eye out for danger.

“There!” it was Carac he knelt and pointed to the near distance.

 Instinctively they all dropped to their knee and looked to where he was referring, there a little over a mile away there was smoke. Rising through the late autumn canopy of the forest trees ahead, grey wisps of smoke drifted lazily upward.

“Looks like we’ve found some action,” said, Jay, “What’s the plan, Flint?”

Flint was slightly shocked, “Whoa, no one elected me leader as far as I recall,” he said, the thought of having that much responsibility for another made him uneasy, to say the least.

“We’ll vote,” said Jay, “What d’ya reckon lads?” both Merek and Carac nodded agreement.

“Ok by us.”

Flints initial feeling was unease, now it was panic, “Bugger!” he exclaimed, “Well obviously something’s gone on up ahead, I think we should get in the trees and have a recce, see what’s what and then make a decision based on what we find, agreed?”

“Fine by us boss,” Jay answered grinning.

Flint winced, “Let’s go, keep your heads down and keep sharp.” They moved out.

They reached the treeline by using the natural undulations of the terrain and slipped into the thickly wooded forest, it wasn’t long before the faint but familiar smell of burnt oil and wood reached their nostrils. There was no sign of anything to be concerned about, so they carried on deeper into the woods, the smell grew stronger and before long they found evidence of some sort of engagement.

Scattered here and there were broken and twisted pieces of what could only be robot components, still swinging gently to and fro were several heavy logs, suspended by ropes to the boughs above.

“Log traps,” whispered Flint looking around.

The arrow buried itself in the tree trunk inches from Flint’s head.

“Stay very still,” came the voice.

He looked up slowly and towards the direction the missile had come from, keeping as still as possible. There were six, armed men standing in an arc some yards away, possibly more in the trees, where had they come from? They hadn’t heard anything.

“What’s your business?” the fellow with the bow asked sternly.

“We are making our way to the Blackwater, we seek help for our village.” Flint offered.

“You’ll be westerners then, saw the smoke, thought you lot didn’t need help from the likes of us.”

His companions mumbled some sort of xenophobic profanities under their breath, this was going well Flint thought.

“Surrender your weapons and follow us and be quiet, we heard you coming a mile away.”

They walked further into the woods, more of these woodsmen joining the group, soon they were at least two dozen strong. Not too long later they reached a nondescript area and stopped, the woodsmen kept a watchful eye whilst their spokesman stamped his foot heavily on the leaf litter, the ground opened upwards, exposing an opening measuring at least six by ten feet, within the trapdoor were steps leading down into the ground.

Flint and the others were shoved unceremoniously forward and into the opening and down into the gloom. The steps led down to a landing and then further steps led downward again at a right angle to the first, the walls were shuttered by logs to prevent collapse. On reaching the bottom, the trapdoor closed and all was plunged into darkness.

“Patrol returning,” came a voice from beyond, a door opened and lamplight flooded out.

“In.” came the order, Flint, Jay, Merek and Carac did as they were instructed.

“Take them to Eli,” the bowman said, “He’ll know what to do with ‘em.”

They were led away through a fairly large underground room crowded with stern-faced people eyeing them suspiciously and down a corridor, this must have taken a lot of effort to construct thought Flint. There were rooms adjoining the corridor, sleeping quarters perhaps, the corridor ended with another room, of similar size to the first, well lit and warm.

There was a large oak feasting table in the middle, low so you could eat seated on the floor, at its head three chairs, the middle slightly larger than the others. Seated in the chairs were three elders, a man flanked by two elderly women, the man gestured for the group to sit before them.

He spoke, “What news do you bring of the metal devils?”

Flint spoke of the battle on the beach, the retreat to the fort and their mission to reach the Blackwater to seek aid for their clan. As they spoke a girl entered the underground room with a tray of hot broth for the four young men.

“Thanks,” they were grateful for some warm food after trekking in the cold and drizzle.

“The metal men are gathering in force to the east of the forest,” the old man continued, ”Presumably to either try and rout us out or carry on eastward, whatever their motives I think it unwise to venture forth, you would be better off staying here with us, we could use the help.”

They looked at each other, “We thank you for your hospitality, but we are committed to our commission, we can’t let down the clan.”

Flint stood and put his bowl on the table, the others followed suit, there was a tension in the room, the woodsmen in the room looked at the four with disdain.

“Very well.” the man said, sounding slighted, “I can’t make you stay, for one I haven’t the manpower to keep an eye on you but hear this, if you lead those metal bastards back to us, it won’t bode well for your clan,” he waved his hand dismissively, “Get them gone, out the back way.”

Three more men entered the room and beckoned the four to follow them, they were led down another corridor for some time, to a door, beyond the door was a ladder, another trapdoor and fading daylight, one of the men checked for activity and ventured out.

“Clear, get out quickly,” he whispered loudly. Soon the four friends were standing on the forest floor, their gear and weapons were unceremoniously thrown out after.

The first man pointed, “East, put some distance between us, got it!” he then disappeared back down the shaft, closing the trap behind, it blended with the forest floor perfectly, the camouflage was very effective.

Flint, Jay and the two brothers picked up their packs and weapons and walked east through the thick forest, at least it wasn’t raining.

A Strange Companion

Mecha’s forces had now rendezvoused at the eastern edge of the forest, the reinforcements from the northern beachhead had finally arrived, beset on the final few miles by human skirmishers. Now out of drone range, the robot columns fell prey to hit and run guerrilla tactics, tactics Mecha had little answer to.

Now assembled, the army was ready for an all-out offensive, now bolstered by significant numbers, the attacks had stopped and the march to the east on a broader front commenced.

No.9, now finally united with Anisoptera was not as enthusiastically obedient to the Hives instructions as before. Whereas he was effectively a lost soul before, (albeit a robot one.) he now felt as though he might have a newer purpose, he didn’t have a conscious awareness of its intentions, but he was now able to withstand the Hives directives. He felt different now, similar to before when he craved affinity with others.

He had Anisoptera and she had him, it was a kind of cyber romance. From a physics standpoint, the electric or magnetic force that acts between oppositely charged bodies, tending to draw them together, a bonding.

That familiar itch came with the Hives instructions, but he opted to slow his progress and let the other bots march onward, he was aware of his actions but his intention to not harm another human rescinded the order and he and Anisoptera conversed via cyber chatter as he walked clumsily back toward the forest, Anisoptera flitting to and fro above him.

It was getting darker and as 9 entered the tree line he glanced briefly back to the ranks of his fellows as they marched away.

He sat down on the damp leaves and propped himself against a tree, his new companion landed gently on his shoulder and as the light faded they compared their past experiences. No.9’s communication protocols were similar to Anisopteras, it had been a while since he had what he would describe a meaningful conversation.

He told of his dismantling by humans and his subsequent residence for years in the Hive as so much scrap, barely acknowledged by his peers, had severely cramped his social activities. Then swiftly repaired, (a term he used loosely,) to a sub-standard chassis, barely able to hold together and thrust into battle with other ill-equipped robots, with hastily programmed and unexceptional A.I.

His companions were little more than automated drones, controlled by the Hive, not furnished with the early, volatile and ever-evolving machine intelligence that he and the founders of Mecha were formulated with.

In turn, Anisoptera told of her experience serving the Hive, of 54 and the Triumvirates noble endeavours to heal the world from mans irresponsible pollution of the land, air and seas, of the ensuing disputes regarding the fate of humankind and the deteriorating relationship between the two factions. 54’s ever random behaviour and the Triumvirates absolute belief in the total eradication of humans altogether.

After the almost catastrophic incident in the culvert, she told of how she was recovered from the refuse catcher at the river, her broken wings repaired and A.I. upgraded from seeker bee to observation drone and then deployed to a rake as a spotter, a promotion for her selfless service to the Hive.

Indeed 9 had felt the unrest in the Hive when he was confined there, his LCD’s (logic centre drives) still hooked up and fully functioning. The conflicting signals from the self-proclaimed deity 54 and the Triumvirate were confusing, the ‘bots maintaining the Hive were thrust into a state of uncertainty, their purpose was to serve as a whole colony, this fracturing served to put Mecha at more risk.

They communicated at length and the fading daylight gave way to a clear starlit night.

A surge of urgent transmitted signals made his cortex circuitry itch, something was occurring eastward, the army had made further contact with the humans. There were garbled signals from the Hive and army both, No.9 engaged his receiver filters muting the transmissions, he was no longer a member of Mecha and her machinations, he had free will.

Anisoptera left 9’s shoulder and hovered above, she would investigate the disturbances, she had been retrofitted with thermal and optoelectronic vision and would easily be able to find her way in the darkness, he watched her flit upwards and away toward the glow on the near horizon.

A familiar feeling of loneliness infected 9’s circuits as she flew away, even though she was linking with him at all times, he wanted her safe with him.

She flew straight and true to the area currently being contested by the islanders and the robot army, she flew high to avoid attack from the ground. The land below was afire, there were numerous habitations ablaze, probably a human settlement, the transmissions from below were unclear and confused, but the state of the conflict from above seemed at this time to be unfolding in favour of Mechas forces, the advance appeared to be successful and the human defenders routed.

She concluded her sweep and made the return flight back to No.9, as she approached a thermal indicator flagged up and she descended for a closer inspection, there were four heat signatures, static, unmoving at eight hundred meters from 9, due west in the forest.

Humans.

Considering himself at little risk 9 had enabled standby mode to conserve power and perform basic self-maintenance until Anisopteras return. He received her warning and swiftly came back online, he stood, his eyes glowing a pinky red, he scanned the trees to the west but there was nothing detectable, his optics were no match for Anisoptera’s, he did not doubt her ocular prowess.

She settled gently back on 9’s shoulder and transferred her data of the nearby humans, the heat signatures were of static nature and of no immediate concern…

The boy Flint and his three companions huddled under the trees, the absence of cloud made the night feel colder, they clung to their thick bedding, preferring to sit and wrap it around their shoulders rather than lie down. For obvious reasons, the thought of a campfire was out of the question, they’d just have to put up with the chill until morning and hopefully the sun.

“They could’ve let us stay the night, instead of making us leave, it’s bloody freezing!” said Jay.

“No arguments there,” said Flint, “Roll on the morning,” they all mumbled in agreement.

The day brightened and slowly the four shivered out of an uncomfortable nights sleep.

“Starving,” grumbled Jay rubbing his eyes and drawing the blanket tighter.

Merek suddenly jumped to his feet in terror and scrabbling to grab his bow fell heavily, his feet entangled in his bedding, hoarsely shouting expletives, he pointed to a dark solitary figure watching them from within the trees.

As one the rest of them leapt up and backed off slightly, fearful of what might happen. It was a robot, he stood silently and slowly raised his hands in the universal gesture of capitulation, they all stood transfixed for a few minutes, eyeing the silent visitor.

“Shoot it!” shouted Carac, breaking the shocked silence.

“Wait, wait, what’s it doing?” Jay spluttered shocked.

 “Dunno, seems to be surrendering or something,” said Flint, bewildered by the ‘bots actions.

As it stood there Anisoptera descended from the treetops, now the threat of attack seemed unlikely and landed on No.9’s shoulder.

“Can it hear us?” asked Merek.

Flint shrugged, “Not sure, I’ll try and communicate with it, keep your weapons on it.”

Flint raised his bow, “Do you understand?” he paused, there was no response, “Put your hands down if you understand.”

No.9 acknowledged Flint by lowering his arms.

 “It can hear you!” Jay shouted excitedly.

9 could indeed understand, after all, voice recognition had been around for a long time, it was integral to translate human commands into operation. Humans understand language in a variety of ways, associating words in a sentence in meaningful ways is one example, No.9 was programmed long ago to understand language and algorithms helped put that understanding into the appropriate action, it was unfortunate the human designers thought that having vocal ability would make the mechs too human and it was dismissed as being too provocative, the earlier Mk1 and Mk2 had been designed for oral communication but it was dropped in subsequent models.

It had been a long time since he heard the spoken word directly addressing him but his core programming and the subsequent evolvement of his A.I. in hearing the human voice and applying conscientious diligence and indeed empathy to respond in a like-minded way.

“What do you want robot?” asked Flint

9 raised his hand and touched the symbol on his forehead.

“That’s your name, you are Nine?” the robot nodded once, confirming Flints question.

“Bloody hell!” all four humans exclaimed in unison, amazed at what just happened.

“What now?” questioned Jay, “We can’t take him with us.”

“If we leave him here there’s a more than a good chance he’ll be found and destroyed, he might be of use to the people at the Blackwater, they’re pretty clever apparently,” said Flint.

Merek offered his opinion, “Well, it can follow us, at a distance, of course, at least we’ll be able to keep an eye on it.”

“Hang on!” said Jay, “Aren’t you worried he’ll give us away or something? Let’s just shoot it and go”

“We will take you to the Blackwater, will you come voluntarily Nine?” Flint asked.

9 nodded.

“Is no one listening to me?” exclaimed Jay, exasperated, “It’s the bloody enemy!”

No.9 sensed the heightened tension from the human and raised his hands again in the hope it would diffuse the situation.

“We’ll keep an eye on him,” said Merek, “Any funny business and I’ll shoot the bastard myself.”

 Eventually, after much argument, they all grudgingly agreed to bring No.9 to the Blackwater, maybe there they will find out how it ticks, it could prove beneficial to understand how it worked.

“We head that way.” Flint pointed to the west, it was only then he noticed the smoke on the near horizon, “Looks like your friends have been busy,”

9 looked to the rising smoke and then to the ground.

“Let’s eat, keep your weapons handy and we’ll get going, Nine you keep your distance behind.” Flint seemed to be taking to this leader role quite well.

The small group hiked on toward the Blackwater, Flint calculated it would take the best part of the day, barring incident, they might have to make some detours around the recent battle and use the terrain to help hide their presence.

No.9 followed the four humans at a reasonable distance, his ungainly walk struggling sometimes to keep up, but always under the watchful eye of his new acquaintances, Anisoptera flitting here and there above, keeping a spotters eye out for potential danger.

 

The saddest aspect of life is that science gathers knowledge faster than wisdom. Isaac Asimov

The Blackwater

Rusk and the rest of his clan had made their way to the Blackwater at the first signs of invasion, the preparations had been made months before, from the outset when the rakes had entered the channel, the islands clans knew then that Mecha was coming.

Now they waited, the clans to the west were engaged in a fighting retreat, a strategic withdrawal tactically coordinated to draw the robot forces into the centre of the island, then north to the large old ruined town, thus denying them the luxury of air cover from the drones. The plumes of smoke in the distance were coming ever closer day by day.

The Blackwater was the traditional meeting place, where clan elders could discuss trade or disputes in absolute safety, a sanctuary from tribal belligerence, now a marshalling area for the human defenders, some five thousand strong and growing larger every day.

A cry came up from the watchtower.

“Men approaching! I count four, no five.”

The gate watch guard, some twelve warriors, of which Rusk was captain, took up their arms and made their way swiftly to the perimeter, on seeing the advancing group they left the stockade and marched to meet them. On closing with the small group, it soon became obvious the fifth figure, following some way behind was no human after all.

“Ready arms!” the guard fanned out in a shallow arc, ready for attack.

The boy Flint and his three friends dropped their weapons and knelt on the ground, hands-on heads.

“Friends.” Flint shouted, “From the western clan.”

“We have no friends from the western clan.” Rusk countered, remembering the hostile reception he, Briar and Eric had got some months before, what seemed in another life now.

Flint tried again, “Please let us meet with the elders, we have much to discuss.”

No.9 had stopped and stood arms extended upwards in a show of non-hostility.

“It’s with us, he means no harm,” Flint shouted, “We can communicate with him.”

Rusk and his fellow guards briefly spoke heatedly amongst themselves.

“Get up and approach, slowly, bring your friend.” Rusk called back, “Any wrong moves, you all die, understand?” Now was not the time for niceties, but there was something familiar about this robot.

“Understood,” cried Flint and they all stood and walked tentatively toward the guard.

Flint turned, “Nine follow us” 9 reciprocated, Anisoptera left his shoulder for the safety above. Rusk had seen this type of flying ‘bot before, he had no idea she was the very same that had tracked them on the mainland.

They entered the stockade, No.9, arms still aloft attracting much attention and blatant animosity.

The guard and their charges were swiftly summoned by the gathered elders to the large meeting hall in the centre of the Blackwater. All the elders from the clans of the island were represented, with the exception, of course, the western clan.

The group of elders sat at the end of the great hall upon a raised dais, there were twenty, each one representing their particular clan and three Blackwater elders in their black cloaks seated centrally,

“Sit.”

The group sat cross legged on the floor, No.9 stood silently, arms still raised above his head, bows trained on him, distrusting looks watching his every move.

Rusk approached the dais and spoke quietly about what had transpired, then walked back to the guards.

“You say you can communicate with this creature?” said the Grand Elder,

Flint replied excitedly, “Aye, he came to us in the woods yonder,” he pointed in the general direction, “He arrived, as you see him now, hands aloft.”

“And the metal bird, what of that?” Flint shrugged and offered his hands to show he was unsure of Anisopteras’ role.

“It appears to be his companion, it has shown no signs of being a threat, merely follows Nine around.”

“Communicate with it now”

Flint stood, “Nine, lower your arms.”

9 lowered his arms, the gathered crowd gasped.

“Do you mean us any harm?” 9 shook his head unit side to side.

There was an obvious surprise and a gasp went up from all in the room.

The Grand Elder stood and turned to the others on the dais and discussed the ramifications of this most peculiar turn of events. After a few minutes, the Grand Elder turned back to Flint and company.

“You are welcome here as long as you follow Blackwater law, your metal companion must be secured in the stockade until we can find if there is a use for it if not, it will be destroyed.”

Flint raised his voice, interrupting, “We come from the western clan, under siege, we seek your aid desperately.”

“At the present time, we cannot offer aid until the present crisis is resolved, the metal horde will be at our gates within days.”

Flint, Jay, Carac and Merek were led away for debriefing, No.9 was escorted to a secure stockade outside under heavy guard.

Night had arrived, Rusk climbed the watchtower and looked to the west, the fires were burning ever closer, they would need to move northwards to the large urban ruins that spanned the large tidal river. The ruins offered the defenders ideal cover and the river would prevent Mecha from attacking from the rear. Several hundred islanders were already deployed there preparing the defences.

The movements of the robot army were constantly under observation, runners bringing vital information to the Blackwater for analysis and relaying the orders of the elders back to the fighters. The retreating islanders would lead the pursuing robots into a trap.

Rusk calculated they would have to redeploy the rest of the army within a couple of days, preparations had been ongoing for some time, but without reliable information regarding the luring of Mecha to the ruins, it would have been reckless to have moved all their warriors before the feint was successful.

“Hello, Rusk,” came a soft voice from behind him.

He turned, delighted, “Briar, how was the journey?” he hugged her fiercely.

“Fine apart from the rain, it’s good to see you.”

Rusk and the majority of males of fighting age had made the trip to the Blackwater a month before, Briar and some other young women, able to lend a hand followed with more provisions.

The two lovers spent an hour or so up the watchtower, watching the fires in the distance.

“I’m scared, Rusk, what will become of us? I feel partly responsible for this,” Briar held Rusk’s arm and rested her head on his shoulder.

“Well, we’ll need to make the move north soon I expect, what we did was in all innocence, not a premeditated act of aggression. Agreed in hindsight pretty reckless, but we lost a dear friend over on the mainland and it wasn’t us that killed him.” Rusk’s voice hardened as he remembered his friend Eric and what the metal men had done to him.

Morning brought runners bringing word the ruse was working, Rusk and other clan officers were summoned to the great hall and on into a smaller anteroom, the elders were standing in a circle facing inward at a large map of the White Isle, no doubt planning defensive strategies.

As Rusk neared the group, The Grandfather of his clan gestured for him to approach and they walked together through a heavy door into a private room, as the two entered Rusk was met by the three Blackwater elders, sat at a round table.

“Sit, please,” one of the elders indicated to a chair, on the table was a dark wooden box with ornate hinges and clasp.

“Because of your previous experience, you have been chosen for a very important task, if successful it could help end this war and in turn save many lives.”

Rusk was intrigued and nervous in equal measure.

“The best way to kill a viper is to remove the head, remove the head, the body dies,”

It was pretty obvious what was coming next Rusk thought.

The elder continued, “You and five others will travel by boat to the mainland when the main battle is joined, it is hoped you will remain undetected amongst the confusion. There you will retrace your steps and gain entry to the robots lair and make your strike.”

Rusk wasn’t convinced the plan had been thoroughly thought through.

“I would gladly travel back to the mainland, I have unfinished business there, but how will I make this ‘er ‘strike’?”

“You must think this scheme rather thin, but you are the only human to have seen the robot kingdom, the only one to have come out alive, you are in fact our only hope in turning the tide,” the elder pushed the dark wooden box toward Rusk.

“Open it.”

Rusk pulled the box to him and flicked the catch, opened the lid and marvelled at the contents.

“What is it?” he asked.

“It’s a relic of the yesteryear, it’s called the Five Banger, a weapon, it propels forward, at great velocity a small metal egg using fire and thunder.”

“How does it work?” Rusk picked up the relic, a wooden handle sporting five metal tubes, exquisitely made. “It’s beautiful.”

“And deadly,” the elder drew another box from under the table and opened it, it contained many shiny brass cylinders, capped with a dull lead crown. “I will demonstrate.”

Taking the metal item, the elder then broke the back of the Five Banger and inserted a single brass cylinder.

“Studying the old texts, I believe these are called ‘ammo’s.”

He closed the back and pulled on a lever on the top until it made two audible clicks.

“Watch” extending his arm and pointed the Five Banger at a thick wooden artefact hanging on the wall, the elder pulled the lower lever with his index finger, there was fire, an enormous bang and an acrid blue smoke hung in the air.

“Regard,” pointing to the wooden artefact, now displaying a hole right through it and into the wall beyond.

Rusk reeling from the shock of the Five Bangers report was noticeably impressed by the damage the ammo had caused, surely nothing could withstand such power.

“When do we leave?”

The March North

54 and the Triumvirate were monitoring the progress of the invasion closely, but for very different reasons. The Triumvirate was keeping a military eye on the bloody proceedings, issuing commands to the troops on the ground, trying desperately to keep the fluid nature of the several ongoing battles as efficient as possible. Unfortunately, due to Mecha’s rapid need for an army, the inferior quality of her robots, made this charge extremely demanding.

A task not helped by 54’s behaviour of late, without his omnipresent eye, the task of conducting the war was becoming disorganized, the cyber links to the troops, although enhanced by the booster arrays, were not as effective as when their deity was transmitting coherently.

The fault lay in the very fact that he was omnipresent, his links with the many different types and models of automata, designed and programmed years before by humans had slowly corrupted his hard drives.

There are three main types of logical thinking, Abductive reasoning, a form of logical inference which starts with a set of observations to find the simplest and most likely explanation for these observations.

Inductive reasoning, a method in which the premises are seen as supplying some evidence for the truth of the conclusion, in contrast to the third, Deductive reasoning or Deductive logic, the process of reasoning from one or more statements to reach a logically certain conclusion.

These three different and conflicting logical procedures, adopted from the huge data pool from robots over the years, shed some light perhaps on 54’s bizarre conduct. These logical thought processes each vying for dominion over the other must have been the catalyst that slowly sent him mad and suspicious of the Triumvirates motives.

He had lost focus on the mission to heal the earth and was distracted and lost in his own distorted vision for the future.

54 knew by experience that the human captives aboard the rake off the island would not last long without nourishment, he would have to recall the vessel soon, or lose its precious cargo. The promise of more subjects being transported to Mecha’s docks and then on to his enhancement theatres filled his logic centres with a kind of cyber excitement.

He overrode the Triumvirates link to the southern rake and sent a cloaked transmission for it to return with his prizes. He still had loyalty and control over the maintenance bots’ at the docks and the surgical units established deep within the bowels of the Hive, he could continue with his magnum opus without interruption.

The signal piggybacked across the forty or so miles to the listening rake out in the bay. Although she was crewed by over two hundred support ‘bots, she was an autonomous entity and only took instruction from the Hive, still retaining personal autonomy as to how those instructions could be carried out efficiently.

At the height of the conflict, the order for a valuable rake to return to the mainland docks would seem contradictory to the Triumvirates instruction to shadow the ground forces and offer drone assistance if possible. Now the link to the Hive appeared to be compromised and only 54’s transmissions were being received, without any challenge to the order to return, the rake complied. She turned her vast bulk slowly to starboard, away from the island and set her course for the mainland docks…

Rusk spent most of the morning acquainting himself with the workings of the Five Banger, he practised the loading and discharging of the weapon, gaining accuracy through repetition. Obviously, the ‘ammo’s’ were finite, so firing the firearm was restricted somewhat, it drew a crowd and they marvelled at the weapons effect.

It now was approaching midday and the men were readying themselves for the short march to the ruins to the north.

“Rusk,” it was The Grandfather, “Come meet your companions.”

There across the courtyard were the five members of his detachment, it was Flint and his three friends from the west, the fourth surprised him, it was No.9, as Rusk and The Grandfather advanced towards them 9 raised his arms to indicate his unresistance.

“Put your arms down ‘bot,” said Rusk a little impatiently.

The Grandfather led them into the great hall once more and to the anteroom where the Blackwater elders briefed them on the expedition, they were to travel with the main force to the ruins and then onward north with a guide to the large tidal river, where the boat allocated for the trip was berthed.

The march north went without incident and as the men were assigned their positions, Rusk and his odd company ate and drank around a welcome fire.

Merek asked, “What’s it like over there?”

Rusk chose his words carefully; they must realise the dangers they were facing.

“Well, there are the ruined buildings, much like here, only larger, these were huge human settlements, housing thousands of people, all gone, dead. Robots rule over there, they sit in their huge castle and send out their minions to kill or capture, it’s as if they can track you like an animal, that’s what we are to them, the things they did to my friend Eric would give you nightmares.”

“But you escaped,” Merek said.

“By the skin of our teeth, I can’t explain it, it was as if one minute we were enemies, the next captive, then almost as if we were allowed to leave. Like I said, I can’t explain the workings of those metal bastards,” Rusk looked over at 9, “No offence,” he said sarcastically.

The guide arrived, a member of the river clan to the north of the island, he looked a little nervous when he saw No.9. and fingered his hand axe.

“Don’t worry about 9, he’s harmless,” Flint said, 9 lifted his arms again.

“For god’s sake ‘bot, stop raising your bloody arms every five minutes, put them down and keep them down,” Rusk shouted, exasperated.

The guide had a short conversation about the route north, Rusk turned to the others.

“Grab your gear we’re moving out.”

They marched north alongside the eastern bank of the great tidal river that split the northern half of the White Isle, all the while the river grew wider, they had left the ruins behind and were traversing the relatively open countryside for some miles.

Flint pointed, ”More buildings ahead.”

“We’re near now, couple more miles,” their guide explained, “Near the coast.”

The dilapidated buildings lining the banks of the river didn’t resemble the small brick-built houses further inland, these were constructed of metal and were large and tall.

“Boathouses,” the guide offered before he was asked.

He led them a little further and into one of the boathouses, it seemed to be in better repair than most of the others. Inside were other clansmen preparing what was obviously a boat of sorts, it’s hull was black and shiny, hard and smooth to the touch, it must have been at least twenty-five feet in length, it’s bow pointed like a knife. It had a high metal mast with wire rigging and a huge dark mainsail furled neatly on a long boom, she sat ready in the water between two wooden jetties.

Rusk had never seen such a splendid vessel, “She’s beautiful.”

“A boat from the yesteryear, we call her Serendipity, a bit ironic given the circumstances,” the guide said, “There must have been many such boats back then, judging by the number of boathouses. We’ll sail at the turn of the tide, it’ll carry us out into the mouth of the river, best get aboard soon.”

Rusk and company marvelled at the craftsmanship of the vessel, they certainly knew how to make things back in the day. The material the hull was constructed of was unfamiliar to him, it seemed to be in one piece and hard to the touch.

They climbed aboard and stowed their gear and weapons below decks, then assembled above and were allocated their places.

Crossing

The boat was well stocked with foodstuffs and crewed by three of the river clan, including their guide, whose name turned out to be Drew, a short, slender fellow in his late twenties. It was plain he and his colleagues knew how to operate the black boat, they moved effortlessly around the vessel pulling ropes and turning the winches in a well-practised way.

They sailed with just the headsail on the outgoing tide, negotiating the myriad of small piers and jetties, some collapsed into the river. Littering the banks were the hulks of other sailing vessels from the yesteryear, some lying on their sides like beached whales, others half-submerged, covered in seaweed and barnacles, it saddened Rusk to see this.

The river widened as they sailed nearer to the channel, No.9 felt decidedly agitated being so near the water, he sat in the centre of the vessel away from the gunnels. He hadn’t had any contact with Anisoptera since he’d followed the humans into their encampment at Blackwater, she had left his shoulder to further analyse the human’s intentions for 9.

The other humans in his group were talking amongst themselves, getting more acquainted, sometimes laughing, even when times were as difficult as now, the humans still found some kind of connection that made them bond together. 9 wanted these things, he always had.

He reached out for his friend, there was nothing, he was alone again.

High on the mast, in stealth mode, clung Anisoptera, she would monitor the situation incognito, she wouldn’t leave No.9, he was her soulmate.

As the river opened up to an estuary, a crewmember hoisted the mainsail and the boat gathered speed. There was much shouting among the crew, each barking instructions to each other over the noise of the sail and the buffeting of the hull against the water.

When they were clear of the estuary and into open water they all took their positions and at the command hoisted the spinnaker as swiftly as possible to the masthead before it filled with wind.

As the wind caught it and it billowed out, a crewmember dropped the headsail, the sudden acceleration made the black vessel lurch forward taking the passengers by surprise, none of them had travelled so fast in their lives. She cut through the waves effortlessly, the mainland was but four miles away, dead ahead. They set a course for the large estuary due north hopefully undetected by the two rakes currently cruising along the northwest channel, Drew at the helm.

“That isn’t where we landed,” Rusk shouted above the crashing of the bow, “It was at least seven or eight miles further west.”

“Too risky,” Drew shouted back, “We’ll drop you up the estuary, you’ll have to make your own way from there, sorry.”

Rusk nodded.

It was Merek who saw it first in the fading late afternoon light.

“There!” he pointed out to port, a few miles up the channel was the vast hulk of a rake, heading their way. “Has it seen us?”

“Don’t know, can we go any faster?” Rusk bellowed.

Drew maintained the course, steering the most direct route.

“Fifteen minutes and we’ll be around the point and out of sight, just hang on and hope.”

Those fifteen minutes were the longest they had ever endured, as the boat rounded the point, the rake was out of direct view. Rusk knew from bitter experience that Mecha had a way of finding those who it sought, he didn’t know how, but he hoped that they had enough to contend with, what with the war. He couldn’t know of the dispute between the different factions in the Hive.

The spinnaker sail was dropped and furled and the mainsail was hoisted, in the estuary, a more manageable speed across the water was required, the boat sailed north for another couple of miles, hugging the shoreline, strewn with ruined buildings, looking for somewhere safe to land.

Drew spied a likely spot and steered the craft into a smaller creek, lined with trees, somewhere to hide and take stock. The tide was ebbing fast now and it was becoming harder to keep up the speed against the outgoing tide and they needed to get out of sight before the rake arrived.

They secured the boat fore and aft and found cover away from the vessel and waited, above the treeline loomed the giant craft, it rounded the point and entered the channel.

“It’s found us,” Flint said sounding resigned and deflated, he’d hoped they’d made it, to have come this far. “Bastards.”

The huge rake approached, in the middle of the wide channel, although it was probably still a mile downstream, the vast grey bulk streaked with rust seemed close enough to touch.

It sailed closer and closer with a deep humming whisper of its powerplants and the creaking of its hull, it was mountainous, the humans watched in awe, the ground vibrating beneath them as it glided passed and onward upriver.

The rake disappeared around a fork in the river and out of sight, all the while no one spoke a word.

Merek broke the silence, “Our father was taken to one of those things.”

The others looked grim-faced and uncomfortable, what could anyone say in this situation to make the two brothers feel better.

“We must leave, or we’ll miss the tide,” said Drew, “We wish you good luck, I’ve got a feeling you’ll need it.”

There was a communal grunt of agreement.

Drew and the crew readied their boat for the return trip, the light was fast disappearing, the sun dropping down below the horizon.

“Can you sail in the dark?” asked Jay.

Drew looked up from coil the painter rope, “I reckon we’ll take our chances.” They climbed aboard and Jay pushed the boat out from the bank.

“Thanks, lads,” said Rusk, the small group stood and waved farewell and the boat was paddled out into the creek and away into the darkness.

Anisoptera fluttered down onto No.9’s shoulder, she would not leave him.

Flint noticed her silver wings glitter in the dark, “I see your friend has returned 9.”

  1. turned his head unit to Flint, his optics glowing, “Yes,” he said.

Rusk was startled, “What the fuck! you can talk,” his outburst made the others take notice.

“He can talk, he can actually talk,” Rusk was obviously dumbfounded, “I met a ‘bot before who spoke, thought it was a one-off.”

The astonished group all stood to face No.9, he promptly raised his arms, knocking Anisoptera from her perch.

Rusk confronted 9, “You didn’t say you could speak, why? Oh, and drop your arms.”

9 complied and lowered his arms, “You didn’t ask this question.” His voice was tinny and thin.

“He’s got a point there,” Flint conceded.

“Are you a threat to us?” Rusk asked, “And keep those arms down.”

“I am not a threat, sir.”

“Yeah well, I’ve got my eye on you 9.” Rusk fingered the Five Banger, “We move out tomorrow at dawn, try and sleep the rest of you, I’ll take first watch,” it started to drizzle, “Terrific, cold, rain and a gibbering robot, perfect, just perfect.”

A Distraction

The rake had berthed at the main docks with the human captives in her hold, some two hundred souls in all, 54 instructed the attending stevedore ‘bots to unload the cargo and transport them to the Hives lower levels by drone when instructed, the thought of the specimens imminent arrival caused him to feel something akin to euphoria.

The vivisection mechs were briefed by restricted transmissions, this new (delivery) had nothing to do with the Triumvirate, in fact, it might inflame an already volatile situation. All would be well, 54’s vision of the pairing of steel and bone would become a reality, albeit confidentially, for the time being at least. No need to jeopardize his idea for the future by revealing his current plans.

The drones would transfer the cargo tomorrow…

Meanwhile, on the island the army was closing on a substantial part of the human defenders, they seemed to have the humans on the defensive, they fell back before Mechas army, the Triumvirate were confident a swift victory here would finally sway the battle for domination, once and for all. The rakes to the north of the island were directed further along the coast eastwards, the humans were veering away from the central areas and nearing the channel coast, this could prove costly for them. Still out of drone range, but should they venture within their sphere of operation, they would be deployed en masse, their effectiveness had already been proven.

The third rake, however, was still not responding to their hailing signals, this needed more investigation, suspicions were aroused that 54 had some hand in this.

No.9 could still feel the itch from the cyber chatter, he could understand Mecha’s intentions and strategies, he implemented a partial block on communications from the Hive by changing his receiving frequency, the constant transmissions were more frantic and were interfering with the discourse between himself and Anisoptera.

The drizzle had thankfully stopped in the night, the stinging moisture aggravating 9’s circuitry, he was sure his human companions were equally grateful for its cessation, they were awake and moving in the early morning light.

Jay stood and stretched, ”Another day in paradise lads,” he said shivering, “Bloody freezing.”

“We’ve got a days walk, maybe a day and a half at least,” Rusk said, “Let’s get the gear together, this isn’t where we landed last time so we need to keep the sun behind us until I find a familiar landmark.”

The curious group set off westward, No.9 and Anisoptera bringing up the rear. They passed dilapidated and derelict buildings on the march until after an hour the land became a more open country, only the odd tumbledown habitation dotting the route. They tried to keep to cover as much as possible, the absence of humans farming the land for so long enabled the woodland to flourish which helped immensely with keeping out of sight.

9 stopped and pointed, “Drones.”

The others stopped immediately and scurried for cover, keeping low.

“Nine, where?” Flint whispered loudly, “I don’t see them.”

9 followed the humans clumsily into the treeline, pointing again, “Drones.”

Sure enough, the familiar whistling of approaching drones became louder and louder, they sounded like they were almost upon them, then some hundred feet above them the flight of around fifty was visible, heading west.

“They’ve found us,” groaned Merek.

“Don’t think so,” said Rusk, “Look.”

The drones passed, slung below each pair of them, a human captive, both Merek and Carac held their hands on their heads, fingers interlaced, a terrible look of horror on their faces. Flint winced, he knew their father had been captured by the drones and taken to a rake offshore, he felt helpless and could only imagine what was going through the brother’s minds.

“Looks like we’re going in the right direction,” Rusk said matter of factly, “Let’s move.”

Another eight hours marching and several more flights passing overhead, each time 9 informed the humans of their imminent arrival giving them enough time to hide and stay undetected.

“I know this place, we’re not far from their lair,” Rusk pointed to the wind turbines he and Briar had come across before, “There’s an old town around the base of that hill, that’s where we’ll find them.”

As they approached, Flint marvelled at the tall white machines, “What are they?”

“As far as I can tell, they generate some form of energy, like the water mills back home,” Rusk answered, but he wasn’t sure.

“Is that where our father is?” asked Carac, indicating the ruined town yonder.

“If he’s alive, that’s where he’ll be I reckon.”

Within the hour the group came across the outskirts of the large conurbation, they slipped from ruined building to ruined building. Rusk sought out the tall building he and Briar had laid up in before, it provided a good vantage point to scan the Hive and its environs. On reaching the selected tower block they all entered and climbed the stairwell to the upper levels and finding a room with no windows, here they had to plan their next move.

After an hour or so’s rest and a meal of dried fruit and biscuits, they gathered in a tight circle to discuss the objective.

“I think we should go now,” it was Merek, “Our father and others are in there and the sooner we go, the sooner we can help them.”

Carac nodded, “I agree, the longer we wait, the worse it could be for those poor souls inside.”

Rusk sympathised of course, “I understand your haste, but we don’t even know where they’re held, it’ll be dark in a couple of hours, I think we should wait at least until then, I know of a way in.”

The others reluctantly agreed, there was no point risking capture.

Flint offered a solution, “What if we caused a diversion, away from our route, could that work?”

“What about a fire,” said Jay, “Maybe start a fire on the outskirts of the town, one of us could do it, doesn’t need all of us.”

“Won’t that alert them to our presence,” said Merek, “Could have the opposite effect and damn us all.”

“To be fair Merek, they probably know we’re here already,” Rusk replied, “In the absence of a better idea I reckon we should go with this.”

The group discussed this option, voted and Jay was unanimously volunteered for the task. Both Merek and Carac were still anxious to head out but agreed that they’d stand a better chance as a group.

“I didn’t mean me!” he complained, “I wanna go with you guys.”

“This is very important,” said Rusk, “But very dangerous, you’ll have to start the fire and get away from there as soon as possible.”

“Something to tell Ada, fella,” said Flint, “Jerom the hero, Jerom saves the day, she’ll definitely want your babies after that.”

Jay shook his head, “Damn, I wish I wasn’t so shallow sometimes.”

Flint clapped him on the shoulder, “You’re a good man to have around.”

The group carefully crept to a balcony with a good view of the Hive, the large grey building, some half a kilometre away, watching, as tiny figures walked about the great flat roof. Rusk pointed out the culvert he and Briar had used to enter the huge structure secretly before.

The building Jay should set fire to was selected, about half a kilometre in the opposite direction, with a reasonably well-covered route, it should be getting darker by the time Jay got there and when the blaze was evident from their hideout, they would leave.

Jay said his farewells and left, walking quietly down the stairs of the block.

No.9 sat in the corner, the two walls holding him up, Anisoptera rested on his shoulder and they communed. With Anisoptera around, the chatter emanating from Mecha seemed to be dimmer, he likened her to a calmant, a sedative to the frantic cyber speak all ‘bots were now locked into.

Anisoptera in-kind doted on 9, he was her soulmate, a perfect connection of minds.

“Nine, you must stay here,” said Rusk, although he was beginning to trust 9 he wasn’t about to jeopardise the mission by bringing one of Mecha’s own with them, he thought it prudent to err on the side of caution.

“Smoke!”

Enter the Hive

Mecha’s forces closed with the humans in the ruins that spanned the river that cut the north of the island in half. The defenders had planned well, the humans were a cunning and resourceful species, the thoroughfares leading into the dilapidated city were strewn with traps and barricades, hampering any sort of cohesive advance.

The trap was sprung, the robot army was effectively lured into the rubble-filled streets, pits had been dug and obstacles were strewn around to further hamper the smooth advance of Mechas warriors. Masonry, arrows and firebombs rained down on them from the fighters in the tall buildings. There was initial carnage and the ‘bots took heavy losses, with no heavy weaponry to mount an overwhelming attack.

Another lesson is to know your enemy, these humans weren’t the soft humans of the yesteryear, not the cossetted dependants on technology, no, these were a people with a burning desire to survive at any cost.

The overconfidence of Mecha in their conceited belief that they were the master race had come back to bite them.

No state goes to war without the conviction of winning, on the other hand, no state should go to war without truly knowing the stakes, this war would have no victor, as with all wars no one would truly triumph.

After three days of the unsuccessful attack, the Triumvirate were forced to rethink their strategy, without 54’s omnipotence and generalship, the army was found seriously wanting, sub-standard mechs on the ground, no air cover and poor tactics led the Triumvirate to call for withdrawal until a solution could be established.

The metal ranks slavishly heeded the transmission to fall back outside of the ruined city, harried every step of the way, to finally bivouac in open country where the army would certainly be able to prevail. These humans were clever, they would not venture into a fight without the advantage of cover, what they couldn’t match in strength and technology they could certainly match with guerrilla tactics.

Frequent requests for 54’s aid were ignored, something was amiss. His knowledge gleaned from a million archives was indispensable, he would not respond, he had other matters to attend to, significant and far-reaching matters, not some petty war with human beings confined to an island.

The captives from the rake had been covertly transported to the Hive and were already in the holding pens in the lower levels, 54 was euphoric, drunk with ambition. The loyalty of the maintenance ‘bots was absolute, what was their alternative, he could depend on their obedience, he could reach out with his conscious and feel their love for him, such is often the way with delusional personalities.

As for the hominids in the derelict building near the Hive, he would wait, they would come to him.

The Triumvirate were alerted of the near distant smoke by the ‘bots on the roof, it was rising from a building a kilometre away, the chatter was relayed piggyback, after deliberation, three drones were deployed to investigate.

Rusk, Flint, Merek and Carac on seeing the smoke waited with bated breath for any reaction from the Hive, for a minute or so there was no movement, then three drones appeared from a rooftop orifice. They ducked into the room to escape detection, although the drones had heat detection capabilities it wasn’t as refined as Anisoptera and her kind, nevertheless, they deemed it prudent to keep concealed until the drones had passed.

“Let’s hope Jay made it away,” said Rusk.

Flint mumbled, “Aye.”

The drones seemed fascinated by the fire, they circled the building at a safe distance, probing for information, relaying their findings back to the Triumvirate.

“They seem pretty interested in Jay’s handiwork,” said Flint, peering round the balcony wall. “I reckon he’s alright.”

Rusk beckoned to the others, “Let’s get going before they return.”

The four young men grabbed their weapons and hurried down the stairs and out into the shadowy streets, it was almost dark and they darted from dark doorways and on to the next, making their way as swiftly as they could safely to the gaping entrance of the culvert.

On reaching the dark maw they all climbed gingerly down into the concrete drain.

The running water was cold, it came up to their shins, shocking the breath out of them.

“Bloody hell that’s bastard freezing,” gasped Merek.

“Careful as we enter the opening, there’s a steep slope just inside,” Rusk warned, “ It drops around ten or twelve feet into a river of sorts.”

Rusk held up his hand, barely visible in the low light, “It’s just here, take it real easy, I’ll go first and I’ll call up when I’m clear.”

Rusk had wrapped the Five Banger in waterproof leather back at the Blackwater, the elders had warned that it would affect the discharging of the weapon, he hoped it was enough.

He felt for the drop with his foot and discovering the edge he sat in the cold water and shuffled forward into the dark and over the lip, he slid down the steep slope into deeper water, again the shock of the cold water made him catch his breath. He scrambled to his feet, the water now up to his waist, soaked to the skin, shaking with the cold.

“Quick, get down here,” he whispered loudly.

The others followed suit and soon they were all stood in the cold, slowly flowing water in almost pitch black.

“What now?” said Flint shaking, “Which way?”

“Grab each other’s belts at the back and I’ll lead,” said Rusk, “Just watch your footing.”

With his hand outstretched in front of him and feeling for the wall, Rusk led the group with the direction of the current, it was slow going but after half an hour there was a dim light around the tunnel bend. On negotiating the bend, the familiar sight of one of the concrete jetties came into view.

“I’ve been here before, let’s get out of the water,”

Getting out of the cold fetid water didn’t come too soon, the cold had robbed them of any feeling in their legs and feet, to replace it with a cold aching numbness. They removed their soaked clothing and wrung them out as best they could and then dressed, the clothes seemed colder than before.

There was a tunnel leading from the jetty and into the structure.

Rusk had come across this part of the culvert before with Briar, then there were the ghostly maintenance ‘bots working here but now it was deserted, the tunnel was not the one they had entered before so he didn’t know where it might lead. There was some welcome warmth emanating out from the passage and it was this that made up the four friends minds about exploring it.

They crept slowly down the tunnel, it was definitely getting warmer the further in they explored and lighter too, there was a low ambient sound also, a deep hum and a slight vibration through the air.

Merek spoke quietly, “What’s that humming?”

“Not sure,” Rusk replied, “Some form of electrickery I think, I asked The Grandfather about it, that was his explanation anyway, makes this place work.”

“Mmmn never heard of that before.”

Rusk unwrapped the Five Banger and in the dim light and examined it for any moisture, there didn’t appear to be any water evident and the same applied for the pouch full of the ammo’s, he was relieved and held the weapon tightly to his stomach. The four carried on down the corridor, it bent slightly to the left and there was a brighter light emanating from around the corner, perhaps a room of some kind.

There was movement ahead, a shadow was cast briefly across the floor before them, something was inside, they all took a step backwards and knelt close to the wall. Rusk raised his left hand to indicate silence and cocked the Five Banger with the other, pointing it in the direction of of the disturbance.

The shadow grew as it neared them, whatever it was it was coming their way, closer and closer, they braced themselves for the inevitable encounter when Anisoptera fluttered around the corner followed by No.9.

Seeing the Five Banger aimed squarely at his head, 9 quickly raised his hands aloft.

 “Not this again,” Rusk sighed, referring to 9’s yo-yo arms, he lowered his weapon, 9 reciprocated by doing the same arm-wise.

Another figure rounded the corner, it was Jay, bone dry and grinning from ear to ear.

“You look a bit, moist lads.”

The boy Flint mumbled some profanity under his breath, Jay grinned even more.

“Go on then,” said Rusk, “How did ya get in?”

Jay patted 9 on the head, “Ol’ Nine here, turns out he used to live here, he showed me the landing hanger where those drones live, saw ‘em go back in and we just followed and Nine brought us here.”

Flint, Merek and Carac slumped to the ground, backs to the wall and looked at Rusk.

“How was I s’posed to know?” Rusk exclaimed in his defence.

“Funny thing is lads,” Jay continued, “I reckon I know roughly where they’ve taken your Dad and the others, they were brought here by those drone things and the hanger must be near where they’re kept,” he told the two brothers, that pricked their ears up and they stood, gripping their weapons.

“Well, I guess we’d better follow young Jay then,” Rusk stood, uncocked the Five Banger and tucked it back into his belt, “Let’s go.”

Jay led them through the corridor into what looked like a worker ‘bots tool room and through a portal leading to a curved ramp looping steeply upward. The ramp flattened out onto landings at regular intervals with portals leading off to god knows where.

It seemed very quiet, eerie almost.

They followed Jay, keeping as quiet as possible, there was a tangible tension in the air, he stopped at a portal and checked the insignia marked on the wall above it.

Jay turned and whispered, “This one I think, yes this one I’m sure.”

Readying their weapons they followed Jay through the opening and beyond.

A large dimly lit area greeted them, spacious and empty, they quickly and quietly made for the shadows.

A Tragic Reunion

54 could ‘feel’ the five humans had entered the Hive, they were accompanied by two other entities, he reached out but nothing was clear, he couldn’t sense the properties of these others, he was curious.

An order was transmitted to the ‘bot crews in the lower levels to stay out of sight and let these visitors remain unmolested, he would investigate further himself.

He summoned his bearer, a subject fashioned by the maintenance tech ‘bots solely to carry him independently of his booster arrays. With the absence of a perambulating chassis, he was restricted to his ‘throne’ in the Great Hall, connected to the arrays that magnified his consciousness to his many faithful followers, up until now he had no need for unconstrained movement, he could see the world through the eyes of his subjects, it was not enough.

His mission of late was to create the successors to Mecha, to carry out the great works in his name, this had preoccupied him to the point where he felt fettered, he wanted to be involved on all levels, he wanted the freedom of movement as well as freedom of mind.

The bearer arrived and removed the connecting conduits from their sockets in the booster array, this disconnection would considerably diminish the area he could extend his psyche, limiting it to the Hive and the docks, but he was the deity, all-powerful and godlike.

Gently lifting 54 from the array, the bearer placed the decapitated head unit into the secure conveyance pod on its thorax. 54 bade the bearer to carry him to the lower hanger level, to meet the new arrivals, flanked by two of the faithful, he began the trip down the central mezzanine and onward towards the hanger decks…

No.9 and Anisoptera communed, they had, despite the self-imposed block on their receivers, felt the tendrils of 54’s mind examining them, his feelers trying to guess their specification.

“The deity comes,” said 9 in his tinny voice, “There might be a danger.”

By now the small band were well into the cavernous hanger, thankfully unoccupied, they hugged the walls and shadows in the dimly lit space, making their way to what appeared to be an exit, presumably leading deeper into the Hive.

Rusk fingered the Five Banger, where were all the robots? when he and Briar were here before, the place was heaving with hundreds of them.

“What do you mean Nine, the deity?” Flint asked.

“The deity comes,” was the only reply.

“Keep it down, we’ll look through here,” Rusk whispered, “I thought you said you knew where they’d taken the others, Jay.”

“I said I had an idea, it’s got to be off a hanger, I thought it was this one.”

A familiar whistling cut the silence, there were drones returning, they must have rechecked the fire Jay had set, there was no other option, they had to use the exit.

“Quickly,” Rusk urged the others through before the drones entered the hanger and discovered them, they bundled through in the nick of time and moved away from the doorway, out of sight.

“Close,” said Flint.

“What now?” Merek asked, “Our fathers here somewhere, we have to find him.”

“Well if Jay’s right and the drones carried them here, they can’t be far away surely,” Rusk said, “We’ll just have to think of the most logical place they could be.”

“This looks promising,” Flint pointed to another ramp leading down one storey into the Hive.

They crept quietly down the ramp in the dim light, it reached a landing some hundred yards ahead, a brighter light glowed through the open doorway. On reaching the opening they stood against the wall either side, Merek peered around and looked within.

“Oh no!” he groaned, stifling a retch.

There inside the large room were four operating benches on which were unconscious human males in varying states of dismemberment.

There were no signs of any robot movement so the group entered the white room and ran to the benches and the wretched souls restrained upon them, both Merek and Carac checked frantically for their father.

“Not here,” gasped Merek, “Not here.”

Almost as soon as they’d entered the room, their presence must have triggered a sensor, the lights burned brighter instantly, after several seconds a vivisection ‘bot glided into the room, it’s operating tools still wet and glistening with fresh blood.

Rusk instinctively raised the Five Banger, aimed and pulled the trigger, the projectile shattered the clear domed top of the robots head unit in a shower of sparks and shards of crystalline ceramic.

The ‘bot staggered and made an attempt to right itself, it’s gyros struggling, the second shot punctured the chest and finally put the mech down, its optics flicking this way and that, seemingly surprised. The loud report echoed throughout this area of the Hive, Rusk hurriedly reloaded the empty chambers of the Five Banger, his hands shaking.

54 reeled in surprise and alarm, one of the vivisectionists had stopped its agitated chatter abruptly and was now inoperable, he ordered the bearer to make haste for the dissection theatres. The bearer and the two accompanying ‘bots upped the pace and headed for the source of the disturbance.

“Check the anterooms for survivors,” shouted Rusk, the others bar Flint rushed through the surgical complex looking for other captive humans.

As the furore erupted, the Triumvirate were alerted by the now distressed 54’s chatter, separated from his booster array his guarded transmissions were now transparent to them and the recent covert actions he had sanctioned were disclosed. They were perplexed as to why he’d kept them out of the loop, had they not proved that the human on a basic level, was an irresponsible and violent entity, only worthy of extermination, were they not fighting this war to eradicate this threat to Mecha and her plans for regeneration.

But 54 was too far gone, obsessed with his twisted vision for the future, his logic drives had bad sectors and his artificial intelligence had mutated and corrupted.

Rusk and the boy Flint stayed in the main surgical suite, No.9 and Anisoptera close by.

“The deity comes,” 9 said.

Pointing through the doorway to three swiftly advancing figures, their eyes burning red, the one in the centre markedly taller and larger than the others, Anisoptera fluttered off of 9’s shoulder and fluttered into a ceiling vent above, the deity was coming.

The two humans retreated around the operating tables, keeping them between themselves and the approaching, bots. Rusk readied the Five Banger, aiming for the doorway, Flint unslung the short bow from his shoulder and notched an arrow.

The two smaller mechs barged through the doorway and made directly towards the two behind the tables. The boom of the Five Banger cracked the air, fire and smoke-belching forth, two, three times, Flint loosed two arrows across the large room.

The first ‘bot was hit twice square in the thorax by Rusk’s weapon, it fell to its knees struggling to rise, the other was hit in one of its optics, Flints arrows finished it off, both severing hydraulic lines in its lower abdomen, rendering the legs inoperable.

The larger of the ‘bots burst through the opening and skittled the two disabled robots across the floor into the wall, Rusk fired twice more and missed, the rapidly approaching mech had panicked him into not taking a measured aim, Flints only arrow glanced off its shoulder plate.

The Five Banger was empty and with no time to reload Rusk turned to escape through the doorway into the anteroom. The mech hit like a battering ram, tearing one of the operating tables from the floor and sent it hurtling into Rusk and Flint knocking them over. The two humans, battered and bleeding slid themselves across the floor in a blind panic, reaching the wall they turned to face 54 and the bearer.

54 emanated a shrill howl, like a wounded dog, being an old Mk 8 he was furnished with the ability to vocalize, albeit with a limited vocabulary. He used this ability to effective use, the sound chilled Rusk and Flint into paralysis.

The Triumvirate linked instantly with 54 and the situation was clear, there had been a breach into the Hive and three of their brethren had been attacked, these intruders must perish, for the good of the Hive and Mecha. 54 had no answer to these truths and immediately concurred with the three robot administrators, these humans were a danger and must die.

The bearer received the order and advanced toward the two cowering hominids, it grabbed Rusk by the chest and lifted him towards the ceiling, he thought his ribs would crack under the vice-like grip. The bearer looked into Rusk’s face, ready to dash him to the floor, there was something familiar about this human, he hesitated.

Rusk looked back, shocked.

“Eric, Eric, it’s me, Rusk,” he shouted desperately.

A quizzical look crossed the face of the half-human, half-machine, he scoured his mind for some clue, he knew this name, it was important to him but he couldn’t retrieve it from his tortured mind.

54 continued to command the killing but something was stopping him, he dropped Rusk and clutched at his head. The Five Banger spoke it’s deafening report twice more and Eric fell to his knees, there was Flint backed against the wall with the smoking weapon in his hand, frantically trying to gather the spilt ammo from the floor and reload.

“NO!” shouted Rusk, “He is my friend.”

Rusk tore the Five Banger from Flints trembling hands and ran to the wounded Eric, he put the Five Banger on the floor and gathered his friend’s body in his arms.

He was it a shocking state, 54’s minions had ‘worked’ tirelessly on him, having retrieved him from the crash site, they’d almost totally re-engineered him, he was no longer the laughing Eric, Rusks best friend in the world.

“Don’t worry old friend, we’ll get you some help.”

Rusk knew the prognosis was bad, how could they possibly help him, he cradled his head in his arms. Erics one remaining organic eye was weeping, he knew the score.

Rusk hadn’t realised that Eric had picked up the weapon and turned the Five Banger towards himself until he’d pulled the trigger, the top of his head exploded in a shower of blood, bone and brains.

Eric’s chassis rolled slowly sideward and he came to rest on his back, the servo motors still whirring and jerking his mechanical limbs, belying the fact he was indeed dead, he was out of his misery at last.

The flickering optics of 54 demonstrated quite clearly his distress at the predicament he now found himself, disconnected from his booster array in the great hall, he was now at the mercy of these barbaric humans, he howled.

The sounds of the fracas had recalled the others, they came headlong into the now blood-spattered room, others now joined them, the captives from the island, some twenty or so, it seemed that Jay and the brothers had come upon the imprisoned men and overpowering another vivisection ‘bot had freed them, sadly the father of the two brothers was not among them.

“There!” screamed one angrily, pointing at No.9, now standing bewildered and seemingly shocked by events, Rusk and Flint ran over to protect him, Rusk clutching his chest in obvious pain.

No.9, as expected, raised his arms in surrender.

“No!” Flint shouted, “He’s one of us, tell them Nine.”

“Friend,” he said in his thin tinny voice.

The group of islanders didn’t seem convinced and moved towards the confused robot, Rusk tore the Five Banger from Eric’s grasp and fired a shot into the ceiling, the men stopped dead, they had not seen such a weapon before. The bluish smoke from the discharge hung in the air along with the rotten egg smell of sulphur.

“He’s our friend,” said Rusk through the pain, “Leave him be, there’s the enemy,” he pointed to the head of 54, his eyes still flickering left and right in search of salvation, how could it end like this, at the hands of a human, he hadn’t completed his work.

The small mob stepped forward, past the dreadful sight of their dead comrades, slaughtered on the surgical benches.

54 frantically transmitted a distress signal for assistance, the Triumvirate intercepted it before it was widely circulated, could they have found the solution to the dilemma regarding 54’s ever-increasing behavioural problems.

The SOS failed to reach any further than the hangers, the drones responded almost immediately, lifting off and tracking up the ramps to the source. The Triumvirate combined their digital minds to counter 54’s order and the drones, struggling with the contradictory signals crashed to the floor, rendering them inoperative.

The last thing to go through 54’s panicked mind was two bullets from the Five Banger, Rusk had put paid, once and for all to the savage machinations of 54, an ancient Mk 8 highways maintenance ‘bot gone rogue.

Slipping down the wall and sitting on the floor Rusk still clutching his battered chest.

“What now?” Flint asked concerned at his friend’s discomfort.

“There’s three more to worry about in the Great Hall, Nine show them the way.”

He handed the Five Banger to Merek along with the pouch of ammo.

No.9 lowered his hands and walked awkwardly out of the surgical suite, the group of islanders following, gathering anything that could be used as a weapon.

An Understanding

The march to the Great Hall was strangely uneventful, the Triumvirate knew of their coming of course, but they were in the company of one of their own, a seeker bee, a servant of the Hive, was fluttering above and behind the group. This was a conundrum; the humans were in the presence of a robot and there appeared to be no violent interaction between the two, obviously, the robot had taken these hominids captive and was escorting them to the Triumvirate.

There seemed to be a problem with communications, the chatter was stifled, these must be the very humans that disposed of 54, now they were prisoners of Mecha.

The arrogance of the Triumvirate in assuming that these captives were in the charge of a single robot was incredible, did they not learn anything from the ongoing war on the White Isle, did they still believe that Mecha was superior and still regarded human beings to be nothing more than bipedal mammals.

Their supercilious attitude just might help topple them from their lofty perch.

No.9 led the group to the huge central hall, the men were obviously impressed with the vast room with its vaulted roof. They marched warily up the ramps to the higher gantries, robots stared blankly at the passing humans and continuing to perform their allocated tasks within the Hive.

Finally, they reached the Triumvirate, resplendent in their ornate decoration, the three head units, Uromys Rex, Regina Ruber and Corona Spinarum as they’d been dubbed, ensconced in their respective booster arrays, some ten feet above them, facing in a shallow semi-circle.

Imperious and arrogant.

Merek fingered the Five Banger, its revolving drum had the full five chambers loaded, the others had their weapons or whatever they could find.

They stood facing the Triumvirate, the deep hum of the booster arrays vibrating the air.

“Nine, which one is the leader?” Merek said.

  1. lowered the transmission blocker and let the three ‘bots engage with him, that familiar itch irritated his receptors as the communications were exchanged, 9 asked the question of which considered themselves as leader of Mecha, in light of 54’s demise. All of the three, of course, were considered equal, but because Uromys Rex had been the first of 54’s disciples, the onus of ‘leader’ fell to him and he conveyed this to 9.

Before 9 could relay the information the Five Banger spoke again, this time perforating the head unit of Corona Spinarum.

“What the hell!” shouted Jay, more in shock than anything else.

“The leader is always central,” said Merek calmly, “The subordinates to the sides,” he aimed again.

“Wait,” Jay stood in front of Merek, “Nine ask if there are more captives.”

Merek stood ready to fire at a moment’s notice.

Both Uromys rex and Regina Ruber were stunned by the actions of the human, they relayed a message through 9 to parley.

No.9 conveyed the question of further captives and the response was in the affirmative, there were at least another twenty in the lower levels. Since 54’s deactivation, the relevant information was available to the two remaining ‘bots.

There was some disagreement between Uromys Rex and Regina Ruber, both had wildly differing views on how to proceed with this situation. Uromys was of the opinion that to conduct a conversation with the humans was prudent, Regina was diametrically opposed to his viewpoint and the mobilisation of all the few remaining ‘bots in the Hive to crush this threat to Mecha.

9 and Anisoptera were privy to their chatter and instantly evaluated their response.

“Leader,” spoke No.9 pointing directly to Regina Ruber.

Merek wasted no time and shot the robot head unit, emptying the weapon, sparks and a small electrical fire devoured what was left of the once all-powerful Triumvirate, the men shouted in anger and bravado.

Merek reloaded and raised the Five Banger for the final volley.

“We’ve found them,” it was the boy Flint, “We’ve found them,” he rushed into the chamber followed by the remaining islander captives.

“Father!” both Merek and Carac ran towards the new arrivals and into the arms of their father.

The two groups of humans rushed and greeted each other then turned toward No.9 and Uromys Rex who looking down on the throng felt something akin to panic, 9 raised his hands as was now customary and backed slightly away.

“He’s one of us,” said Flint, “He can communicate with that,” he said indicating Uromys, “What are its intentions Nine?”

Uromys Rex explained the incredible sequence of events that had befallen him during his lifespan so far., the initial feelings of despair and the thought of being a non-productive unit, how 54 had saved them all and gave them back a justification for becoming a worthwhile unit. A productive part of the family of robotkind and aiding in healing the world of man’s excesses. He told of the degeneration of 54’s logic and his unsanctioned experiments on humans, something the Triumvirate were anxious to stop.

He was but a part in the invasion of the White Isle, the perceived threat from humankind was to them tangible, they still had much work to do in reversing the devastation wreaked by hundreds of years of human greed and mismanagement, nothing could prevent that.

Because of 9’s limited vocabulary, the translating of Uromys’ thoughts took some time, the crowd of islanders listened, were not convinced of this message, they had lost much since the robot had come to their land.

Uromys could sense the tension in the hall and transferred a further communication to No.9, he did not want conflict, his sole aim was and is to carry on the primary mission. Most of the applications were in place, the goal was to minimise the carbon dioxide in the seas and atmosphere, in turn allowing the earth at the very least a fighting chance of preserving the myriad of species. Of course, it would take hundreds of years, but what choice was there, none.

The war had already ceased by order of Uromys Rex and the majority of robots were being recalled to Mecha to carry on with their collective tasks in the maintenance of the Hive and its ancillary processes. It would make no logical sense to prevent these procedures, who would benefit.

9 relayed the message once more, there was much agreement to this and equal dissent, these men had seen too much death, they wanted retribution.

Listening silently at the back of the hall stood Rusk, leaning on the wall, he walked toward the group and got their attention.

“Most of you will know, it was I and that poor unfortunate monster that stirred up this nest of vipers in the first place,” he drew a painful breath and continued, “We came here seeking adventure, instead we found an overly suspicious and paranoid kingdom of mechanical men. Who wouldn’t be suspicious of beings like us that ruined the very place they habited, I would. And you of the western clan who shunned the rest of us were you not overly suspicious in your ways toward your own kind? I say we could at least give the ‘bot the benefit of the doubt, for now, any issues later and we’ll come back and burn this place to the ground.”

Rusk sat on the step at the foot of the dais in front of Uromys Rex.

“I’m sick of all the destruction, all I really want is to go home, raise a family and live a quiet life, war is bad for the soul, I hope we can agree that allowing this ‘bot,” he waved at Uromys, “To carry on trying to heal the land is more beneficial to ourselves, I couldn’t give a jot for the metal men, I just want a better world for my children.” Rusk took another painful breath.

“What say you?”

“How can we trust these metal bastards?” said one of the clansmen.

“I trust Nine and his friend,” said Rusk.

“And I,” said Flint, Jay, Merek and his brother Carac in unison.

There was suddenly an air of alarm, while the men had been in discussion, they realised that the walls of the chamber were lined with ‘bots and more were coming into the hall, there must have been at least eighty plus and far outnumbered the humans.

The men reacted in anger and trepidation, they’d been deceived, this mech had misled them all along. They assumed a defensive stance, ready for combat, they stood little chance they knew.

Uromys Rex transmitted to 9 of his intentions.

“Peace,” 9 said in his tinny voice, “Peace, follow.”

No.9 walked in his awkward way towards one of the Great Halls exits, the surrounding ‘bots parted and allowed him free passage, he was followed by Rusk and his friends, on seeing this the rest of the clansmen quickly followed suit, keeping alert for any deception and accompanied their fellow islanders, the sooner they were out of there the better.

The march to the sea took two days and proceeded without incident, no drones above, only birds and cloud, perhaps Uromys Rex had told the truth and there would be no more conflict. If so, the only foreseeable problem was how to cross the channel without boats.

Stranded

The humans had made their encampment near the estuary mouth out of the wind in the grassy sand dunes and awaited developments. While en route, the great hulk of the rake was seen to depart the docks, sail down the estuary and out to the deeper channel beyond and dropped anchor.

As the island clansmen sat around the campfires, there was much talk of what they might find when they eventually returned to their homes, would there be any homes? They could only hope.

They sustained themselves on foraging the coastline usually a stew of seaweed and shellfish, sometimes the odd crab delighted the palate and lightened the mood.

Rusk and Flint had forged a strong bond while in each other’s company, they liked each other immensely.

“I might not return to the west if we manage to get back,” Flint mused, “It sounds a lot more easy-going in your neck of the woods, Rusk.”

“Well it used to be, I can’t really see how things will ever be the same, to be honest.”

It saddened Rusk to hear himself say such things, but the events of the past year had made him more pragmatic, gone was the rash and audacious adventurer, instead of seeking beyond the horizon for life, he realised that life was always with him on the isle.

“I’m bedding down now fella, too cold,” Rusk said and got up gingerly, rubbing his chest.

“Still causing you grief?” said Flint.

“Not too bad cracked a couple of ribs I reckon,” Rusk answered, “Goodnight.”

He walked to the makeshift shelter of wooden stakes and roofed with ample marram grass.

Morning arrived with a light frost and bright sunshine, a welcome sight after the previous days of drizzling rain and grey cloudy skies.

Rusk rose, his muscles stiff from sleeping on the grass-strewn sand and ventured outside, Flint and the others had already got a fire on the go and were warming themselves before foraging for food.

“Hey sleepy,” said Jay cheerfully, “God you look rough,” he said on a more concerned note.

“Thanks, Jay,” Rusk sat on the log with the others, warming themselves through, “Do you mind if I stay here for a bit?” he said, “I’ll gather some shellfish later.”

“No problem,” said Flint, handing Rusk a birch bark cup full of seafood broth, they’d cooked in a metal receptacle, found during their march through the ruined habitats to the coast.

Rusk sipped the broth, that was good, he took his time, he wanted to savour every mouthful.

There was a commotion on the other side of the camp, nearer the beach, men were shouting and running inland, to the treeline. There sailing up the channel and heading for the estuary were the other two rakes, drones buzzing around them like angry wasps, they’d be on them within the hour.

“Looks like we’ve got company,” said Flint with a little resignation in his voice, “Thought it was too good to be true.”

Rusk sat by the fire, he was weary, and he had no inclination to hide, Flint, Jay and the brothers elected to stay with him.

No.9 sat motionless at the top of the dunes as he had since they’d arrived, Anisoptera sat on his shoulder as they communed together like a pair of lovestruck teenagers. He spied the approaching rakes, but couldn’t make contact, there was no discernable chatter at all.

The ships fell into a line astern formation as they neared the estuary mouth, it was now the expected attack would happen, but there was no assault, they glided into the estuary with the deep hum of their engines receding with them as they disappeared around the bend in the river a couple of miles upstream.

The men now came out of the trees and back into camp, there was much discussion and palpable relief…

Three more days passed and they were no closer to finding their way back home, Rusk remembered the sunken boats on the White Isle, he couldn’t remember seeing any on this side of the channel, maybe there were some further upstream, he discussed it with the others.

“What do you think, Flint, should we send some men to see if they can find any vessels?” he said, “Things’ll get pretty desperate soon I reckon.”

“Well I don’t think we can stay here indefinitely,” Flint replied, “The weather is closing in and we’re nowhere near set up for a cold winter.”

“I agree,” said Jay, “I’m more than willing to go and look, but I don’t think we’ll find any.”

“Maybe we could return to the ruins, make a better camp there,” Merek offered.

“Then there’s the issue of finding enough food to keep us going through the winter,” Rusk said, “Looks like the only option is to try and find a boat.”

“We’ll go with Jay too, maybe grab a few others for extra manpower.” Merek clapped his hand on Caracs shoulder.

“OK, maybe make a start tomorrow, gather enough food for a couple of days.”

Rusk rubbed his hands and offered them towards the welcome warmth of the campfire, the others left for the beach to forage in the rocks for shellfish and crab.

Rusk woke at first light, it was cold and frosty again, the pain in his chest was causing him some discomfort, he got up stiffly from the makeshift bed, pulling the blanket around his shoulders and walked over to the nearest fire. There were still some embers glowing in the ash, he threw a few of the smaller pieces of tinder on and some larger sticks when the flames had caught.

He sat on the log, breathing shallowly head in hands, feeling tired and depressed.

“You can’t sleep either?” it was Jay.

“Too bloody cold,” Rusk grumbled.

Jay fed the fire and sat next to Rusk, staring into the flames. Over the next hour, the camp slowly woke and soon there were rekindled fires everywhere, men huddling around trying to get warmth into their bones.

Jay and the two brothers rose and readied themselves for the boat hunting expedition, Merek still carried the Five Banger, in case of trouble.

“Wish us luck,” Jay said, tieing his blanket around his neck, “We’ll give it two days and if no joy we’ll head back.”

“I don’t think you’ll need it, fella,” Flint stood and stared hand over his eyes, out to sea, “Are those boats?”

“They are boats, HEY OVER HERE!” he shouted, quite optimistically.

The group stood and looked, as did others in the camp, there a mile or so out, a small flotilla of around ten sailing boats appeared to be heading through the channel. Flint, thinking fast, quickly gathered some damp marram grass and tossed it on the fire, almost instantly a plume of smoke rose upward. This was done around the camp, sending more smoke skywards, men ran to the beach waving and shouting.

The signals were seen by the boats and one by one they changed course for the estuary.

The camp met the boatmen on the beach, the sea was on the ebb and the mid-sized vessels had no problem in reaching the sandy beach.

Rusk recognized one of the boats as the Serendipity, the black one that ferried them to the mainland, he called to the crew.

“Hey, Drew over here,”

“You’re alive!” Drew said beaming as he walked up the beach towards Rusk.

“We all are,” Rusk hugged Drew like a long-lost brother, “I could say the same about you,”

“It was touch and go for a bit, but I guess we’re all here.” Drew sat with Rusk and company by the fire.

“How come you came back over here Drew?” Jay asked.

“Well, it was strange, one minute we’re all fighting for our lives, the next thing the metal bastards stopped, turned to the coast en masse and sailed away in those great metal ships.”

Drew continued, “We took a vote, got some more boats shipshape and figured we’d come over to see if there were any survivors, good job we did I reckon.”

“Damn right!” said Jay, “Don’t think we’d do very well this time of year.”

They tied off the boats and all agreed they’d sail for home on the rising tide that afternoon.

There was much talk of recent events on both sides of the channel.

“Any news on the western clan?” asked Flint.

“A few small groups came into The Blackwater, seems they were under siege at the western end,” Drew explained, “They got out when the metal bastards left.”

“Any news on a girl called Ada?” Jay asked.

“Sorry fella, couldn’t say, everything’s up in the air at the moment,”

A shout came from the beach, the tide had turned and was coming in fast across the shallow sands.

“We’d better get to the boats before the water reaches ‘em,” said Drew, “Too cold to get wet.”

He stood and walked off shouting orders to his crew.

“Come on, we’ve got less than an hour, let’s pick up the pace, come on now.”

The boats now resting on the sand were attracting everyone to them, no one wanted to be left behind and the beach was a hive of activity.

The boat crews were readying their vessels for the return trip to the island, shouting orders and instructions to the bedraggled men desperate to get home to their homes and loved ones.

That’s if there were homes to get back to.

Everyone, including No.9, was soon aboard the boats as the water came in and slapped around the hulls, nudging them left and right, the boatmen steadying their charges with their oars until they eventually floated off the sand, the painters were untied and the boats pushed away from the beach by the oarsmen into the rising tide and rowed to deeper water, the sails unfurled, catching the light wind and the small flotilla turned south toward the White Isle and home.

A Sight for Sore Eyes

The boats kept a tight formation, within shouting distance in case of anyone encountered difficulties, the small fleet had reached just over the halfway point where the channel was deepest, this was the most hazardous point when the tide was running.

A cry went up and the alarm was raised there in the distance, the two great rakes were sailing out of the estuary and into the channel, joining the other, they turned their bows toward the small flotilla.

“Perfect timing!” spat Drew.

“Can’t you go any faster?” Jay shouted above the slapping of the water on the hull.

“We can, but these others wouldn’t keep up, we stick together.”

Jay nodded gravely, what a shame, they were so close. The boats had now crossed over the deep channel and the choppy current without incident, but they were still a long way from the island, the rakes would overhaul them within half an hour easily.

They sailed on but the huge looming ships had reached to a quarter of a mile from them and threatened to swamp them in a matter of minutes.

“Their turning!” shouted one of the crew.

Sure enough, the massive grey vessels were changing course to the east and out of the channel and into the sea beyond, the men on the boats were ecstatic and cheered with relief.

Uromys Rex had ordered the retrieval of the robot forces on the island and the rakes were obliged to obey, bringing the majority home to the docks and Mecha.

Their mission was now completed and Uromys Rex voluntarily relinquished his hold on the rakes, now freed from the obligatory yoke of 54 and the Triumvirate the rakes had reclaimed their autonomy. These huge floating city ships were designed to act on their own cognizance, in essence, a self-determining entity with a mandate to sail the worlds deep oceans and concern themselves with the cleansing of the seas of man’s detritus. Only the concerted call from the deity and the Triumvirate had superseded this.

Now equipt with refurbished maintenance crews and drones they sailed their separate ways to perform their duties over the horizon.

Uromys Rex was true to his word, he posed no threat to humans, he was now placed where he wanted to be, what he was designed for, a small part in a large machine, constructive, productive and back amongst the chatter.

Mecha was his inheritance, he would be equal to all other ‘bots, he would be the administrator of the kingdom, not the leader. He wanted only to serve the good of Mecha and the planet, maintaining the flora and fauna and the ongoing attempts to reduce the carbon footprint left by the humans.

It would take decades, maybe longer, but there were already promising signs, perhaps before he expired and robots were consigned to the past this would be their silent legacy…

The boats reached the island without further incident and sailed into the northern estuary and down the central river to the area Drew and his crew housed their boat, the large metal boathouses, mostly in disrepair lining the river banks.

The boats drifted towards the bank and tied up at a number of wooden jetties that protruded into the water and the men disembarked.

They all went inside one of the boathouses, to be welcomed by a small crowd a fire and some hot food and drink.

“We’re home, Rusk,” Flint said to his friend, “We’re home.”

“Not yet Flint, not till I see Briar,” Rusk sounded somewhat downbeat, his chest still ached terribly and he found it hard to take a decent deep breath.

“Well it’ll be getting dark soon,” Flint said, “At least we’ve got hot food and shelter.”

Rusk sat back against the boathouse wall.

“God I’m tired, got to make our way to The Blackwater tomorrow,” he said, “Then on to my home village, suppose you’ll be heading west?”

“Like I said before Rusk, there’s not much for me there, parents are gone, no family, not sure what I’ll do.”

“Come with us,” Rusk offered, “The war didn’t reach the eastern end by all accounts.”

He nodded at No.9 stood in the corner of the boathouse, Anisoptera sat on his shoulder, slight head movements the only indication he was communicating with her.

“Must be love,” he said with a slight smile, he was warming to No.9.

The morning came too soon, it was the only reasonably decent sleep any of them had grabbed for what seemed an age.

Rusk, Flint, Jay, Merek and Carac grouped together, after all the events they’d been through, they had formed a strong bond and found an honest friendship with each other.

“Wonder if Ada’s alright,” Jay asked Flint, “D’you think she made it to The Blackwater.”

“I’m sure she’s fine Jay, we’ll see soon enough, should only take four or so hours to get there on a steady march.” Flint clapped him on the shoulder to reassure him.

Flint was right about the time it took to march to The Blackwater, they had to stop several times because Rusk was finding the going difficult, he carried on regardless and as was his way didn’t complain. Luckily it was another cold and frosty day, the sun low and bright in the sky.

“The Blackwater!” Jay cried, sure enough, coming over the rise the stockade was clearly visible and they strode purposely down the small hill on the approach road.

The high wooden gates opened and a crowd of islanders came towards them, smiling and grateful they were still alive. They walked through the gates to much celebration and were led to the great hall to meet with the gathered elders.

“Rusk!” it was The Grandfather, the senior elder from his village, “I’m so glad you made it back to us boy,” he took Rusk’s hand in his and gripped it tightly.

“Hello Grandfather, I’ve missed you, it’s been hard without your council,” he placed his hand on top of his old friends and they nodded knowingly.

The group walked into the great hall and on into the room where Rusk had been given the Five Banger by The Blackwater elders.

“Greetings friends,” the head elder held his arms wide toward Rusk and the group to signify welcome, “Sit with us and tell us all.”

They sat at the round table and relayed their story, they told of the Triumvirate, 54 and the awful tragedy that was Eric. The Grandfather felt a great sadness when Rusk related Eric’s circumstances and his death, he was well-liked in the village. He told of the promises from Uromys Rex and how he believed the robot really did wish peace.

With the talking done, the senior elder offered the ornate wooden case to Rusk, opening the lid, Rusk recognized the case as the one the Five Banger resided, it was a request for the return of the weapon. Rusk nodded at Merek, who currently carried the firearm, Merek looked at the marvel of engineering and the craftsmanship and reluctantly laid it back in its box.

“We have no need for such weapons now,” the elder said, “These things are best kept in the care of The Blackwater clan.”

The group left the great hall and went in search of food and a fire, walking across the courtyard there came an excited cry.

“Rusk!” it was Briar, she ran across the yard and embraced him fiercely, “Thank God,” she cried shamelessly.

Holding him as if her life depended on it, “Thank God.”

Her vigorous hug caused some discomfort but he was equally as glad to see his love.

She ushered him away to a hut she had been designated while at the Blackwater and led him inside, there burned a welcome fire and a stew in the pot above the flames, Rusk sat exhausted on the cot against the hut wall.

“You look tired,” Briar said concerned, he was not his old vibrant self.

“Chest is a bit painful, is all,” he tried to allay her fears.

She gently undid his jerkin and open his shirt and gently loosened the makeshift bandages, she looked on in sympathy and concern, his chest was deep purple, the edges just turning brown as the blood beneath the skin was breaking down.

“They look to be broken, at least two, how have you managed?”

“Just wanted to see you,” he said, “That’s how.”

“Well, you need rest, get into bed and try to relax.”

Briar helped lift his legs onto the bed and covered him with the thick woollen blanket.

“No arguments, get some rest and I have some news for later.”

“Me, argue with you, I wouldn’t dare,” he joked, “Anyway, what news? Tell me now”

Briar smiled sheepishly, “We’re having a little one, it’s been nearly four months now,” not knowing quite how he’d take it, she needn’t have worried.

Rusk reached over and rested his hand on Briar’s belly, sure enough, there was a bump alright, he grinned like a young boy.

“I thought you were just getting fat,” he joked.

“Cheeky sod!” Briar hit him on the legs, feigning indignation.

“God I love you, Briar,” he said, coughing and laughing in equal measure, “I’m the happiest man alive.”

He lay back on the cot and thanked the stars for his good fortune.

Friends Reunited

Winter passed, and the spring sunshine brought much-needed warmth and the familiar feeling of hope. Rusk and Briar had returned to their village, Flint accompanied them, he had no ties to the west and needed a new challenge. Merek and Carac returned with their father to the western clan, there was much rebuilding to be done.

Jay found Ada at The Blackwater, he found he liked the sailing life and he and Ada went to live near the north river, Drew showed him the art of sailing and fishing off the coast, he was in his element.

No.9 elected to stay at The Blackwater, they treated him and Anisoptera well, they were indispensable when it came to communicating to the ‘bots that had not managed to board the rakes for Mecha.

The remaining robots on the island posed no threat anymore, the ‘Forsaken’ as they became known were now employed in productive ways, they were put to use rebuilding the villages, farm labour etc. they were content to be in constructive work, at last, free to cast off the yoke of 54 and the Triumvirate.

Relations with the western clans were revived and once a year at the summer solstice, all the clans assembled to give thanks and celebrate the gift of life at The Blackwater.

It was that time again, midsummer, the longest of days and the clans arrived a few days before and preparations were in full swing.

There were thousands of people, it was indeed a great celebration.

“Jay, over here!” it was Merek, they clasped hands. “Seen anyone else, fella?”

“I’ve seen Drew obviously and a few of the old faces from the west,” he said, “Good they’ve come, wasn’t sure they would.”

“Yeah, the whole clans here, never thought I’d see the day.”

Carac jogged over, obviously pleased to see Jay again, they hugged.

“What of Flint and Rusk, any sign?” he said expectantly.

“The eastern clan have bivouacked to the south of the stockade,” Jay explained, “Been meaning to trot over, see if they’ve arrived yet.”

“Well, let’s go now, get the old gang back together.”

The three friends meandered through the gathered throng down to the area the eastern clan were allocated, after a while, they found the eastern camp and wandered in. They made their way to the elder’s tent, a taller, brightly coloured affair situated dead centre, the clan’s flag emblazoned with the emblem of the east.

They entered the tent and immediately recognized Rusk’s elder, The Grandfather, he was just about to exit.

“Grandfather, how goes it?” Jay was always the most forward.

“Greetings young Jay,” he replied, “Greetings to you all,” he nodded to the other two.

“We’re looking for Rusk and Flint,” Jay continued, “Any ideas where we can find ‘em?”

The Grandfather looked stern for a moment.

“Briar’s tent is the one with the black pennant yonder,” he pointed in the general direction, “You’ll find Flint there also,” he turned and walked back into the pavilion.

The three young men looked at each other quizzically but thought no more about it and set off looking for Briar’s tent.

“I reckon that’s the one,” Merek pointed to a conical tepee, at its apex fluttered the long thin black pennant, like the one The Grandfather mentioned.

As they approached, Briar peered from out of the tent, she was carrying a bundle, as they got closer the bundle revealed itself as a young child, no more than three or four months old.

“Briar, nice to meet you again,” Jay looked at the child and smiled, “Hello there,” he said in a childlike way, “Where’s your daddy then?” he looked back to Briar expecting an answer, it was not the one he expected.

“He’s passed some weeks ago Jay,” Briar said her lip trembling.

“What, how?” Jay was visibly shocked by the news.

“The chest injury he sustained over there,” she meant the Hive, “He never really got over it, just got weaker and caught an infection and died.”

Jay and the brothers expressed their heartfelt condolences, knowing this couldn’t assuage her pain.

“He saw his son, little Rusk, he was so proud and happy, it broke my heart he wouldn’t see him grow up.”

The three friends asked Briar if there was anything she needed, but there was nothing, of course, they then turned and forlornly walked away. They made their way to the beer tent and on entering saw Flint at one of the rough wooden benches, beer in hand.

He saw them approach and sunk his beer, stood up and greeted them half-heartedly.

“Friends, good to see you again,” he said.

“We’ve just seen Briar,” Jay explained, “She told us the news.”

“It’s a sad state of affairs, make no mistake,” Flint was obviously dispirited by his good friend’s death, “He fought till the end, you know what he was like,” they nodded, “He saw his son, that was the driving force I believe.”

“What of you Flint?” Jay asked of his friend from the western clan.

“Well, I’ll probably stay with Briar until she’s more settled, then I reckon I’ll move on, in the meantime let’s have a drink.”

The four sat for an hour or so supping their ale, reliving their adventures, they raised a toast to the departed and then they all went their separate ways, perhaps meeting again next midsummer, who knew.

Flint wandered outside of the camp and strolled in the afternoon sunshine, something glinted and caught his eye on the small hillock, it was Anisoptera, flitting here and there around a seated No.9.

Flint raised his hand in greeting, a smile on his lips.

No.9 recognized this and raised his hand in reciprocation, a sign there really could be a bond between steel and bone.

THE END

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