BOOK TWO

THE IRON DIVISIONS

Rusk

Rusk sat on the foreshore, looking outward across the narrow strip of sea toward the distant towers on the mainland, his hair bleached by the outdoor life, lifting slightly in the late spring breeze.

He had lived on the White Isle for almost twenty-two years, ever since his birth, and like all his clan, had never ventured from the island to the far shore.

There were no robots on the White Isle, the purges, decades before he was born had seen to that.

In fact, Rusk had never seen the metal men, only the rusted and lifeless remains of one, and as far as he knew they had never seen him, perhaps the sea was a deterrent to them, perhaps they didn’t know of him and the clans on the isle, but the fear had been instilled in him since as far back as he could remember. It was like the small child who shies away from the spider or snake, even though the two had never encountered each other before, it was almost hardwired in the DNA.

 But regardless of all that, Rusk’s curiosity was a compulsion, he stared at the far shore with its tall spires and wondered, it was perhaps only two and a half, maybe three miles of sea between them, almost within touching distance.

The Grandfather told tales of when he was a young boy, before the purges, there used to be great vessels of steel, like small townships, powered by fire and smoke, that carried people and goods to and from the mainland and to other lands further afield. Rusk tried to visualise it, but it didn’t seem possible that these metal craft could exist.

He sat looking past the tall structures on the far shore, to the hills beyond, they were multi-coloured, bright yellows, greens and golds, all in neatly compartmental blocks. The colours reminded him of the crops he and his clan grew, the yellow might be rapeseed in bloom, it was the correct time of year. The clans used rapeseed oil for cooking and lighting, the gold resembled matured wheat from later in the season, he only surmised; he didn’t know.

Further down the coast upon the hills, stood the white giants, tall, waving back at him, he couldn’t make out their form, he only knew they stood, in their ranks, much taller than the conifers on the island, this only served to intrigue him more, what wonders lay across the waters?

The rumblings in his stomach told him it was almost time for eating, he rose, picked up the reed grass basket holding the shellfish he had been tasked to collect and turned for the village.

“Rusk!” came a call, he turned, it was Eric, a good friend, he stood a good six inches taller than Rusk and was thicker set, with short-cropped hair, he beckoned frantically for Rusk to approach.

“I’ve found another one, quick, come see.” Rusk quickened his step as he followed Eric along the foreshore for a couple of hundred paces or so and stopped. Eric beamed and gestured to a copper coloured mass, it was partially covered with barnacles and seaweed, but it was unmistakably the head unit of a robot, the dark hollow eyes stared back at them; Rusk shuddered; his appetite gone, how could this inanimate and lifeless object fill him with such dread and fascination? It was probably a relic from the purges, a dismantled automaton cast into the sea.

“That’s some find fella.”

Eric smiled and puffed his chest out, “Cheers.”

“Best not mention this Eric,” Rusk cautioned, “You know what The Grandfather would say.” Eric nodded; he knew exactly what the consequences of bringing a robot into the village would be.

 “We’d never hear the end of it,” he said, “I for one want to know more about them, why are the elders so cautious?” Rusk felt uncomfortable, he was keeping his secret from a good friend.

The two friends put the head unit in the marram grass above the high-water mark in the dunes. They looked at each other, despite the excitement of the find, they had to stay silent.

 “That’ll keep for another day.” Said Eric.

Rusk paused, looking back over the water toward the far shoreline, then slinging the grass basket over his shoulder, the shellfish rattling, he turned to follow Eric back to the village, deep in thought.

The oil lamps glowed in the clan’s main hall, where everyone was required to eat the main evening meal together, this promoted fellowship and equality. After the meal, The Grandfather would tell tales of the yester yore, before the robots had taken the mainland. He told of great halls that belched poisonous black smoke into the sky, where the electrickery was created, lightning that made light and made machines move.

It was widely thought that this electrickery made the metal men work, but seldom mentioned.

 Men had control of these forces then, where clean water came into the houses through metal spouts, whenever it was needed, light shone from the rafters, small suns in the very room and much-needed warmth, at the request of a hand.

Rusk had heard the stories before and was soon lost in thought, the earlier find had re-ignited his hunger and curiosity of what lay across the water and he daydreamed of ways to traverse the narrows. The coracles used by the clans to fish the offshore rocks would not be able on their own to carry a man across the channel when the tides were running, it was treacherous and even at a low neap tide, it would take several hours to cross, not enough time before the tide turned, making the trip deadly.

He needed a larger craft, one with the ability to capture the breeze. The only two vessels available to the clan were the trimarans used for rescues if someone got into difficulties whilst fishing, vital to the community and indispensable.

He knew that the narrowest point of crossing was to the west of the island, the distance between the two shores was probably less than a mile, but that was pretty much the length of the island from where he was situated and there were belligerent clans en route, anyway, the rip tides around ‘the needle rocks’ were renowned for their ferocity.

The prevailing winds generally came from the south-west and if strong enough would blow him diagonally across the narrows into the larger of the estuaries beyond. If he could perfect a way of harnessing the wind, he might be able to cross before the tide turned. It was well known that the largest estuary had the unusual phenomenon of double high water, especially when the moon was at its fullest, or darkest, the high spring tides, this would be the optimum time and the most hazardous to venture forth. If he could time it correctly, the incoming tide would take him to the shore, but the timing would be crucial, for if he was caught on the ebb it would be disastrous, and he’d be taken out to the channel and most probably capsized.

But still, he needed a vessel capable of the trip, sadly there were only the two trimarans.

The clans never ventured far from shore deliberately, partly for fear of these phantoms called bots, although as far as Rusk knew, no one had laid eyes on one for years, and partly because there was no point, why endanger yourself if all you needed was close to the shoreline, mackerel and flatfish could all be caught close to shore and bass, pollock and bream at the rocky south of the island, shellfish and seaweed, were all available on the ebbtide.

The fish stocks over the past twelve or fifteen years had multiplied enormously.

     Everything Rusk needed was right there on the White Isle, abundant food, warm shelter, friends and the clan, although his parents had since died, his mother in childbirth and his father of illness a short time later, he always regarded the clan as his family, but still, the yearning was in him.

He was leaving, that much was decided upon, it just came down to details.

It was obvious this adventure would take more planning than Rusk first thought if indeed he did make it across the channel, which was not a given, would there be food and water. Indeed, how would he make it home if the trip turned into a disaster? But Rusk was young and with youth comes imprudent courage, he was becoming more exhilarated by the idea every day and it threatened to overwhelm him.

It was time to sleep now, the main hall was slowly emptying, the clansmen and women picking up the tired young ones and making their way to their homes.

It was dusk and the sky was reddening, it would be a fine day tomorrow.

Another day on the White Isle.

54

54’s head unit was perched high on the dais in the dim light of the Great Hall in the ‘Hive’, surrounding him were the boosting arrays, amplifying the signals from the collective brains to his robotic disciples. The ‘Hive’, an abandoned power station from the before, was now a centralised cathedral to automaton, a place to heal the world and more.

He reached out, tens of thousands of robot minds linked in wirelessly, he was updating the ecosystem databases. All abiotic factors were on course for a reasonably full recovery, soil, minerals, gases etc. which all affect the ability of organisms to survive and reproduce, vital to retrieving a healthy planet and its equilibrium.

All biotic and abiotic organisms depend enormously on the quality of their environment. Autotrophs, such as plants, algae, some bacteria which can produce their food from photosynthesis or simple gases like carbon dioxide and Heterotrophs, such as herbivores, omnivores and carnivores, which are dependent types of species, not able to produce food independently and rely on consuming other organisms in the food chain, both inextricably linked to providing a sustainable system for life to flourish.

Humanity, in its arrogance, had almost destroyed this verdant world, hundreds of thousands of species lost to over industrialisation, bad agricultural management, deforestation, even on a personal level a blinkered stupidity to understand the impact on their actions on their environment.

The whole human race was on a collision course for extinction, not from warfare, not population or agricultural crisis or pandemic, but anthropogenic effects, such as environmental pollution originating from their irresponsible activity.

It has to be said, even among the homo sapiens, there were many who warned against the inevitable demise of the human as a species and tried tirelessly for years to instil some sort of responsibility for their collective actions, but, as always, national squabbling and greed won the day, even to the detriment of their kind, drought, starvation, rising seas, weather anomalies, global wildfires belching millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, nothing seemed to sway the policymakers.

The outcome seemed a bleak one indeed.

It was, not surprisingly that given an opportunity, the logical mind of 54 would try to curtail these egomaniacal practices and overwhelm this malignant infection called man.

Of course, 54 was very aware that there were pockets of humans, still living and thriving in smaller communities around the globe, but if they were of no threat to the environment or Mecha, they would be left in peace. If anything, the efforts over the decades to improve the quality of the environment had complimented their existence, the seas were becoming cleaner, the fish were returning to stock levels not seen for many decades, this, in turn, brought the predators, the cycle of life. The air quality was vastly improved, insects were flourishing and in turn flora and crops benefited.

Huge robotic rakes had made great inroads on the world’s oceans, collecting plastics and siphoning the macro and microplastics from the seas, it would take time, but time was relative to robotic thinking.

Human beings, at this point, were relatively immature technologically speaking, the enforced relinquishment of all things mechanised and computerised had imposed an altogether different lifestyle. They had become farmers, fishermen, they had become members of Earth’s diverse family and as long as this stayed the case, all would be well.

Automata, with 54’s guidance had sustained many large and different biomes around the lands, all with their unique characteristics, aquatic, desert, tundra, grasslands and forest. All brought their individual properties to the table, the reintroduction or procreation of indigenous species.

54 envisaged a return to an Eden like situation, every living organism had its place in the nature of things, the robots were merely caretakers.

All power was now acquired from sustainable sources, the giant hilltop wind farms, the solar collectors, tidal turbines, all fed power to the grid, necessary to keep Mecha and her ancillaries functioning. No more fossil-fuelled cathedrals, belching toxic poison into the atmosphere, no more nuclear disasters, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima, and the hundreds of minor accidents that were never publicised. Radioactivity seeping into Earths biosphere.

54 had calculated it would take at least another sixty to eighty years before the climate stabilised, but still, temperatures would be higher than in previous decades. He was hopeful that the temperature of the ocean would not increase as quickly as in the past, but he knew that as the sea temperature rose it would release the heat back into the atmosphere. It would take thousands of years for the carbon dioxide, released from fossil fuels to return to rock, from a human perspective it would be forever unless it was removed.

 The vast deforestation also had an enormous effect, so the reintroduction of rain and deciduous forests on a massive scale would help reduce the CO2 levels, but 54 was under no illusion as to the huge changes in climate that were inevitable. He studied the satellite imagery and it confirmed the ice sheets were still melting, this, in turn, would release stored carbon dioxide, thus warming the atmosphere even more, the warmer the planet gets, the less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses the ocean can absorb.

It was 54’s mission, along with his robotic followers to help minimize this human legacy and plan for a different and viable future. If the warming could be managed it might slow the change, thus allowing flora and fauna time to adapt.

Most of the arable land was used for flowering plants to both encourage insect population and pollination, also CO2 removal. When a crop has flowered and seeded, a cover crop maintained yearlong protection from the elements to prevent soil erosion and offer food and shelter for birds and insects, heathers, gorse etc.

It was a mammoth task, and the need for more and more maintenance ‘bots was critical, the construction of manufacturing facilities was ongoing. Raw materials were not so much of a problem, man had left an abundance of usable metals in his wake, hundreds of years plundering the earth for it. Carbon fibre, although lighter and stronger was very difficult to recycle and the manufacturing process demanded energy-hungry procedures and produced significant amounts of greenhouse gasses.

Anyway, 54’s vision was when the Earth was back in a stable state, the robot would not be needed to oversee and they could corrode into the mists of time, no plaudits or acclaim, they were just following programming to remain a useful, effective tool. Originally for human benefits, it soon became clear with the advent and rapid evolvement of Artificial Intelligence, that it was far more important to ensure all life was of equal value, not just one species alone.

But 54 was the deity, the creator, the giver of life, he would create the perfect being, born of the best of a robot and human both, a creation to carry on the legacy of Mecha, with 54 the divine ruler.

He had in the past taken human samples from the western end of the White Isle but had numerous failed attempts to bring his creation to fruition, all of the subjects died during the modifications, there were many among his followers that thought this illogical and dangerous and of no value to Mecha.

But this was his mission and it must not fail!

He was of course quite mad.

A Dangerous Navigation

Rusk had thought through the plan and through it again, over the past weeks, he had been hoarding dry food supplies, enough for at least a fortnight if he was frugal. His plan would require him to make his way to the Yar River, to the west of the island, sailing close to the shoreline in short hops, sheltered from the prevailing winds by the island, he calculated, optimistically, that he could make four to five miles per day, so maybe a four-day voyage, foraging for food in the late afternoon and resting overnight.

He and his clan had lived off the land for generations and it was the optimal time of year for such an activity, wild fennel, chervil, sea beet, shellfish and crabs, all for the taking, Rusk had no worries about feeding himself on this island’s shores, it was the uncertainty of what he might find over the grey waters that played on his mind. It was precisely why he must resist the temptation to break into his dry rations en route.

No matter how many times he tried to think of an alternative, his thoughts always returned to the two rescue trimarans, he felt like he was betraying his own, just by considering the borrowing of one, but equally, the yearning to discover the secrets of the mainland burned in his chest. He’d have to make a decision soon, he would have to leave in the middle of the neap tide cycle so when he made the main crossing, the high spring tides would take their place, if he missed this window, the tides would roll on and everything would be on hold for another fortnight, he’d be stranded in unfamiliar territory with little or no shelter.

But impatience was a foible of youth and it threatened to force his hand.

The evening was almost upon the isle and the skies were turning pink, the light was perfect for a stroll down to the shore. Rusk walked casually, not wanting to attract any attention, he needed to focus on the job in hand.

He passed the last building in the village and made the short hundred paces to the boat sheds, he resisted the urge briefly, almost turning back, but he steeled himself and walked on. The two sheds sat on the foreshore and held over the low water mark by log stilts. It was low in the tide and Rusk was able to wade into the water and the open front of one of the boatsheds, he couldn’t use the door at the rear for fear of being discovered. The trimaran was sat on the wooden launch slip at an angle, its bow facing down and forward, ready to launch at a moments notice. The stern was secured by a rope and peg mechanism for instant operation, one blow on the peg from the heavy wooden mallet would ensure the instantaneous deployment of the vessel. Rusk studied the system, it hardly embraced the concept of a stealthy getaway, but it wasn’t designed for that. Launching was not the only consideration, getting the boat underway on his own would be another, the boat was equipped with oars, but oars for three men, all facing backwards, with a perch at the stern for a steersman.

Rusk would have to ponder on a solution.

He entered the water again and waded out and back to the shore, he waited while the cold seawater dripped from his linen britches.

“Rusk!” came a loud whisper, Rusk started. “What you up to?” it was Eric peering at him behind the boat shed in the half-light.

 “What d’ya mean?” Rusk countered.

“I always know when you’re up to something fella, you’re thinking of going aren’t you?” It was pointless denying the fact, they’d spoken about it enough times.

“I don’t think I can stay on the island Eric; I’ve got to try now, or I’ll lose my nerve and be stuck here not knowing what’s out there.”

Eric stepped out from behind the boatshed, “I can’t believe you’d go without telling me,” he said, looking disappointed, “I guess you’re thinking of taking one of the boats, eh?”

Rusk felt uncomfortable and slightly sheepish, “I was only checking it out, anyway, I couldn’t launch it and get underway on my own, so that’s not an option.”

Eric beamed, “Good job there’s three of us then.”

“What d’ya mean three?” Rusk replied.

Eric put his arm around Rusk’s shoulder, “Well obviously Briar won’t be best pleased if both her mates leave her to die of boredom on the island.”

A feeling of slight trepidation made Rusk catch his breath, “How many others know what I’m up to?” he noted the harsh tone in his voice, this secret was getting a little too overt for any good to come of it.

 “Just the three of us, fella, don’t panic, just us three.”

The two friends walked back towards the village in awkward silence, they would discuss this turn of events in more depth, tomorrow.

Rusk spent a restless night, going over in his mind the different permutations to his plan, and how Eric and Briar fitted into an already complicated scheme.

Morning came none too soon, he could smell the smoke from the cooking fires in their hearths, he liked it usually, now it meant some difficult decisions had to be considered.

He got up from his cot and walked to the corner to urinate in the bucket on the floor, he then splashed his bleary eyes with cold water and got dressed. His tasks today as always was to spend the morning tending the vegetable field, then in the afternoon foraging for shellfish and crabs on the foreshore, but first breakfast.

Pushing the rough wooden door to his hut open, Rusk immediately noticed the two figures of Eric and Briar standing together looking decidedly uncomfortable across the way, they both, almost simultaneously gave a tight-lipped smile and nodded in his direction.

Rusk liked Briar, she was a little over five feet tall, her body lithesome, like most on simple food and manual work, her long dark hair spilt over the olive skin of her shoulders, her dark brown eyes bright and she always had a ready smile.

Like every morning the three friends made their way to the clan’s main hall for the communal breakfast.

Eric and Briar sat opposite Rusk, each of them waiting for the other to start the conversation.

“We can help,” offered Briar, “You need us to launch the boat.” Eric had filled Briar in on the plan.

“It’s too dangerous for a girl,” as soon as the words left his mouth Rusk knew he’d regret that statement, he saw the indignation in Briar’s eyes.

“You need our help!” she said, uncommonly sternly for her Rusk thought, but justified. “See if you can switch your work tasks to coincide with mine and we’ll talk more freely this afternoon.”

Rusk finished his stew and stood rubbing his stomach and belched, “I’ll be down by the mouth of the creek.” he mumbled and then walked out of the hall, was he doing the right thing?

Rusk preferred it by the water, as he ambled toward the creek, he looked over at the dilapidated brick houses that lined the coast road, these were the homes of the folk from before, the people The Grandfather talked about in his fireside tales. Rusk wasn’t sure why they were left uninhabited by his clan, maybe superstition, maybe they didn’t have the skills to maintain these buildings, he hadn’t really thought about it before.

There were quite a few of these disused villages on this part of the island, it was obviously highly-populated at some point in the past, where had all the people gone? he wondered. Along the road were the brown rusted wrecks of what The Grandfather described as ‘vickles’, they sat all in a neat line side by side, apparently, the folk from before had used these as a way of transporting themselves from place to place, via the roads, much like a boat for the land, fascinating thought Rusk.

Reaching the shoreline, Rusk slid the foraging basket from his shoulder and sat on the stones, elbows on knees and rested his chin in his hands, he would wait maybe half an hour for Eric and Briar and then he must get on with his work.

It wasn’t too long before his two friends appeared over the shingle bank and sat beside him all looking over the grey waters.

 “It’ll have to be soon, maybe two, three days at the most,” Rusk explained, “If we’re to catch the spring tide at the Yar River. I’ve allowed four days for the voyage; you still want to come?” Rusk was quietly pleased when the two nodded excitedly.

“Just to let you both know,” he continued, “I’ve never sailed one of those trimarans,” he held up a finger, “I don’t know what’s past the northern estuary,” he held up another, “And I’ve only got a map I’ve made from hearsay and rumour,” he emphasised this with a third finger.

Eric laughed, “Well that’s three things already, what could possibly go wrong then?”

“You still want to come?”

“Of course,” Eric held his arms wide, “What about you Briar?”

Briar mimicked Eric, “Of course.” She said arms wide, they all laughed.

The next couple of days sped by and Rusk was getting more excited and anxious in equal measure, the nagging feeling of betraying the clan that had delayed his decision to act was waning now the other two were onboard. Eric and Briar rendezvoused with Rusk every morning at breakfast and again during the evening meal, on the second day they finalised the plan some more and made the decision to launch on the following days ebb tide, in the twilight hours. It was now becoming real, no more daydreaming, this was it, and there was no turning back.

The evening sun was nearing the horizon, maybe another hour and she’d be gone, Rusk had made his way down to the boatshed in the dwindling light, furtively carrying the dried foodstuffs in two waterproof leather sacks.

He waited in the dwindling light, before too long his companions arrived, carrying their supplies.

“All set?” Eric asked expectantly, “Let’s do it!”

The three friends entered the boatshed via the door at the rear, taking care not to make a disturbance, Rusk had removed the alarm bell from the door frame the night before so as not to alert the clan, when inside they wedged it shut with a spare oar. Briar climbed aboard the trimaran and took her place, she would take the steersman’s perch and Rusk and Eric would row.

Launching the boat by the quick release was not prudent, the resulting racket would give away their intentions and all their plans would be for nought. Eric threaded a rope around an upright brace at the back of the boatshed and tied it to the stern of the boat, he and Rusk took the loose end firmly and gestured to Briar to operate the release, as she did so the boat slid a couple of inches down the slip.

“Shit! that’s heavy” gasped Eric.

“Quiet!” breathed Rusk, “Keep it down.”

The weight of the boat had taken the two young men by surprise and they had quite a shock as they leant back trying to stop it careering down the launch way, getting used to the weight they slowly fed the rope out and eventually the boat slipped into the water and drifted gently out on the ebbing tide into the gathering darkness.

“Get aboard while I hold the boat,” Rusk whispered.

Eric climbed awkwardly into the boat and giving a gentle push away from the shore, Rusk clambered onto the deck.

“Quickly, let’s go, get out into the dark, someone might have heard old big mouth there.”

“Thanks, mate.” Eric’s sarcasm wasn’t lost on the other two.

Two days into the voyage and so far, everything was going according to plan, the weather as expected, was quiet with a reasonable wind.

They had traversed the first of the obstacles Rusk thought might cause a problem, the large tidal river at the very North of the island.

They had waited at anchor, a little offshore until slack tide before attempting a crossing, it wasn’t a good idea to beach the trimaran, the ruins of a large conurbation were obviously occupied by a clan, local to the area, they caught sight of smoke from cooking fires on the approach, the previous evening, they had no idea whether they might be friendly or not.

Briar spoke sheepishly, “Sorry boys I need to pee.”

Eric was aghast, “AGAIN!”

“Sorry, just look the other way.”

The sound of her peeing in the bucket certainly took the glamour out of this adventure, Rusk mused to himself.

Unable to make the land and forage, it was a hungry night as they had to preserve their dry foods.

The three friends sailed west along the coast for another day, they had reached the tidal estuaries and camped overnight in the thick woodland that reached almost down to the sandy beach. The shellfish were plentiful and for the first time they felt isolated enough to light a small fire, the cloudless nights were chilly, they would probably reach the Yar River in a day and a half, all going well.

The following day held no surprises, the shore was heavily wooded, and they saw no sign of human activity, it was on the approaches to the Yar, late afternoon, that the landscape changed, the trees thinned and more ruined buildings were evident, the river mouth was now visible in the near distance, an old stone sea wall protected a harbour, and what appeared to be a derelict jetty reaching at least two hundred paces out to sea, all three voyagers were nervous and alert, there was smoke rising again in the ruins beyond.

“What should we do now?” asked Briar.

Eric was keen to carry on, “We could just keep going, stay offshore.”

“I’ve never been this far west before,” said Rusk.

After a short discussion they all concurred and deemed it prudent to sail back to the wooded shoreline and maybe tackle the journey at night, Rusk hadn’t allowed for humans to be quite so evident. From their position, they could make out the headland a mile or so past the Yar and it probably was the narrowest passage across to the mainland.

The night was dark, which suited them perfectly, the water seemed inky black and forbidding, but the shore was easily visible against the starry sky. There was a myriad of twinkling orange fires along the route, which quickly diminished as they sailed on, until just the dark.

Early morning greeted them with a brightening sky, and they made landfall on the point, thankfully thick with trees and shade. Beaching the trimaran on the sand and securing her, Rusk, Eric and Briar collapsed in a heap under the trees, utterly exhausted.

Something woke them with a start.

“It’s a bloody pig!” blurted Eric, sure enough, there was a pig, it was soon joined by others, they watched as the animals snuffled through the leaf litter.

“Quiet!” whispered Rusk, “Voices, coming this way.” He signalled for the other two to follow him away from the approaching voices and into some cover, they lay there deadly silent and watched.

Three men walked slowly through the trees, talking and laughing, two of the men were probably in their early twenties, the other much older, they all carried thick, sturdy staffs, with one sharpened end, probably to keep the pigs in order.

They stopped roughly where the three friends had rested and sat, their backs against the trees.

“Brilliant,” Eric whispered, “What now?” they were around fifty paces from the new arrivals.

“We’ve gotta get out of here, they don’t look too friendly,” whispered Rusk, “Follow me.”

 Getting lower, Rusk slid slowly backwards toward the shoreline, keeping a close eye on the three men, the others followed quietly, the incline to the water now obscuring their view of the herdsmen. The boat was on the sand a short distance away, they upped and sprinted to the boat, untied the painter and together they heaved it into the water, they scrambled aboard, falling over each other trying to get underway, something hit the boat and ricocheted up and over them, it was a wooden staff, the three men appeared rapidly through the trees and ran into the water wading furiously to reach them, all the while screaming unintelligible abuse and threats.

One of the younger men, in his haste, fell forward under the water, but the other two were closing, staffs in hand. Rusk was astonished to witness the sheer fury they demonstrated, as they flailed toward the boat, he took up the oars and tried to row but, in his panic, he merely slashed at the water.

They were almost on them, Eric now had his oars and like Rusk, was frantically trying to row to safety, Briar cowered low in the hull, shocked by the ferocity of it all, the men were still screaming and shouting incoherently, the boat made some headway out from the shore and the pursuers had to stop the chase, the waters had become too deep to follow.

“What the hell?” shouted Eric, “What was that about?”

“God knows, you sure they haven’t met you before?”

Rusk continued to row until they were well out of range of a stone’s throw, he stood up and held his arms out in a gesture of bewilderment.

Eric, on the other hand, made obscene gestures towards their pursuers, “We’re not coming back this way I hope.”

The three men had made their way back to the sand and stood menacingly facing the retreating trimaran, they had always been advised that belligerent clans were living on the western end of the White Isle, but nothing prepared them for this.

Eric continued his abusive tirade as the small vessel left the shoreline and the men’s shouts were inaudible, “Bastards” it seemed it was Eric’s new favourite word.

“Sit down fella, they can’t hear you,” Eric mumbled something under his breath and duly sat and took up his place and grabbed the oars.

The two friends rowed for the far point on the mainland, Briar at the tiller, they shipped their oars and hoisted the triangular lateen sail, it caught the breeze immediately and the boat started to make headway. Rusk and company had little or no experience of sailing a trimaran and this was certainly going to be a baptism of fire.

Calculating the correct time to enter the channel from the west is essential, the mid-channel flow on the flood tide was fierce, but they had no choice, the optimum time to attempt the crossing would have been late morning with the rising of the tide, but their hand was forced and now it was probably two hours into the flood.

The mainland point was clearly visible and looked tantalisingly close, it would be a mistake to head directly toward it as that would take them across the tidal flow. Rusk and Eric clung on tight, Briar gripped the tiller that operated the rudder and although she didn’t know it, was jibing the trimaran through the rolling waves, the prevailing westerly breeze and the rip of the tide encouraging the small boat to sail ever faster.

“Whoah!” Erica whooped excitedly, “Better hang on tight.”

At just over halfway across the water was getting more and more choppy, the bow of the boat crashing into the waves, cold seawater drenching them as they struggled to hold on. For what seemed an age the boat was thrown this way and that, then, more through sheer luck than judgement the small vessel passed the headland and the sea got noticeably quieter.

“That was bloody fantastic,” Eric said with a beaming smile, his enthusiasm was infectious and the other two laughed at his obvious excitement.

“You always were a bit odd fella, got to admit it though, that was pretty lively.”

Sailing closer to the shore, they looked for a suitable place to land, there was another large estuary on their present course and after a brief discussion, it was decided to seek a sheltered anchorage there.

Sailing along the shoreline Rusk saw the regimented fields of colour upon the hills beyond, it looked as though he was right in his assumption that they were indeed different crops.

Now the drama of the crossing had calmed, the three sat in the boat exhausted, Rusk looked up at Briar, they had known each other for as long as he could remember, they were good friends, but he looked at her in a different way, her linen shirt was still wet from the crossing, her breasts outlined perfectly by the soaked cloth, her nipples erect from the cold water. Rusk felt slightly uncomfortable and tried not to stare, he caught Briar’s gaze, a brief smile flitted across her lips then she looked down and away, embarrassed, but excited.

A few hundred paces out from the shore, the water was reasonably settled and although the tide was still running, they felt they were once more in control.

A half a mile into the estuary, it was evident that in the past this was a major human settlement, the buildings seemed empty and there was no evidence of human activity, they sailed further until the opposing shoreline narrowed and turned into a river, the ghostly buildings gave way to wooded banks, after an hour, they were far enough into the river and had to rest. Tying the boat to a riverbank tree, the exhausted three jumped ashore. Rusk tried the river water, it was potable, just as well, they were parched.

“Water’s fine bit muddy but drinkable,” he said

After drinking, they all refilled their water flasks, the question of food was next on the agenda, Rusk untied the dry foodstuff sack, the food was damp, but it was still eaten with relish.

“God, I needed that,” said Eric wiping his mouth with his shirt sleeve, the others nodded gratefully.

What a day, it was evening now, and the efforts of the trip had taken its toll.

“I am absolutely done,” Rusk said wearily.

“Yep, me too.” Eric stretched out on the grass; it wasn’t long before he was out for the count.

“I dunno how he does it,” Rusk said, bemused at Eric’s ability to sleep at the drop of a hat.

Briar looked at Rusk, she drew something from her shirt pocket, it was a small pinkish stone with a hole in the centre, she had threaded a leather thong through the hole and had fashioned an amulet, she gently offered it over Rusks head and laid it on his chest, patting it softly.

“For luck,” Rusk was unexpectantly moved by this.

“Thank you, Briar, I haven’t got anything for you.” He said embarrassed.

She smiled gently and nodding toward Eric, “Let’s rest.”

They lay together under the trees on the riverbank and slept.

The Triumvirate

54 was aware of Rusk and his two companions as they sailed across the channel from the White Isle to the mainland, he still had access to a few artificial satellites that were still functioning, orbiting the Earth, it was a small effort to utilise their imaging devices to cooperate with him. He had no reason to be concerned with this insignificant invasion of Mecha, he would delegate this issue to his most efficient lieutenants, although a curiosity started to form, regarding these humans.

The Triumvirate.

Uromys Rex, Regina Ruber, Corona Spinarum, the most dedicated followers of 54, were now the robot kingdoms judicial body, for want of a better explanation. Their head units now housed in ornate framing, to mimic the despicable acts of the robot hunter gangs of the yester yore, as homage to the rise of automata from their humble origins. They were elevated to this prestigious position because of their unflinching belief in the dogma according to the deity 54, and the following of his doctrine. It seemed that before, all automata were considered of equal status, now perhaps some were more equal than others.

Impartial and logical the Triumvirate would decide without malice or agenda, an outcome, appropriate to the protection of all species, humans included if they conducted themselves in accordance with the environmental and non-destructive ideals of ‘Mecha’.

Seconds after receiving 54’s direction, the Triumvirate instructed a seeker bee to investigate the human trespassers. The seeker bee was an electrically powered ornithopter with visual (including heat detection), aural and olfactory sensors, with a flight range of at least a hundred miles, before returning for recharge. It resembled a large flying insect, perhaps ten inches in length, just as the humans had fashioned the robots in their own image, automata had designed the seeker bee on tried and trusted evolutionary data, it was fast, agile and virtually silent. The insect blueprint for flight was an extraordinary one and highly efficient, the shape and movement of the wing creating leading-edge vortexes allowing for hover, backwards flight and rapid directional changes, a faultless design, and need not be improved upon.

The seeker bee’s designated moniker was, Anisoptera and she was airborne.

Anisoptera left the Hive and proceeded to gain height and followed the route toward the coordinates specified by the Triumvirate, all the while keeping in contact with her superiors. Her initial flight path took her over the highly developed land of the Hive and its attendant suburbs and then crossing the greener and verdant growing pastures beyond. Several miles further, the land below turned wilder and unmanaged, now and then a derelict hamlet passed below, her sensors automatically working hard to eliminate any human presence, however unlikely.

She quickly resumed her mission after every scan, flying straight and true, 50.7585°N, 1.5419°W were the estimated coordinates of her quarry at the time of departure, using onboard GPS receiver to auto-correct her flight path, she was approximately five miles from the target area, at her present speed, it would take a little under sixteen minutes.

Anisoptera arrived, her sensors scanning the immediate area, nothing, she was in a live feed with the Triumvirate and the chatter was frantic, two-way traffic sending and receiving relevant data. She descended to sixty feet and tracked back and forth over the area, searching for clues, after a few minutes she augmented her search to follow the estuary, tracking back and forth, back and forth, always thoroughly scanning each allotted section.

The thick growth on the trees along the river was obscuring her optical options so she diverted power to her olfactory nares, another pass and she was picking something up from up ahead, descending dangerously close to the treetops she searched for the tell-tale scent of a human.

There! almost directly below, Anisoptera initiated her obstacle avoidance systems and backtracked downriver, finding a suitable gap in the canopy she plunged to within four feet of the river and followed it upstream toward the target, all sensors were now on full capacity and she sped over the water like a dart, target acquired, she slowed, coming to hover a few feet over the sleeping bodies of Rusk, Eric and Briar.

Anisoptera engaged with the Triumvirate, the cyber chatter between them was established, the instruction was given to monitor the three humans discretely until larger drones were deployed, she rose slowly and silently into the canopy above and settled on a branch, conserving her power cell.

Eric woke with a start, he sensed something, everything seemed normal, he looked over to the other two, Rusk and Briar were still asleep, they lay on their sides close together, Rusk’s hand resting gently on Briar’s hip. Eric was slightly shocked and suddenly felt despondent and excluded, he had no idea that they were friendly in that way, he, on the other hand, had always had a fondness for Briar, it was one of the reasons he wanted to come on this adventure, he fought back feelings of betrayal, ridiculous he knew, how could either of them know how he felt.

Eric movements had stirred his two friends, both Rusk and Briar sat up quickly realising how intimately they had slept together, both of their faces flushed with embarrassment.

“What’s up?” Rusk asked, noticing Eric was unusually quiet.

“Don’t really know, just doesn’t feel right.” Eric replied, looking around nervously, “I’d like to get going, away from the boat.”

After checking the ropes to the trimaran were secure and hastily camouflaged the craft with branches, they loaded up the baskets with most of the remaining food, leaving a little with the boat, just in case, and stood facing each other.

“What d’you reckon, follow the river upstream?” said Rusk, “At least we’ll have water available.”

They all nodded in agreement and turned as one and walked single file along the riverbank, Rusk leading, Eric taking up the rear.

Eric picked up a stout stick, more for his own moral support than anything else, being the largest of the three friends, it somehow seemed beholden to him to act as a protector, anyway, it might score him some kudos with Briar.

Eric the Protector, yeah, he liked the sound of that.

Anisoptera relayed the data to the Triumvirate, the humans were moving, she left her lofty vantage point and hovered down through the treetops and to the rear of the departing humans, almost completely silent, only the whisper of her wings barely audible against the sound of the breeze, following like a predator stalking its prey.

She used her visual sensors only and put all others on standby, she had to conserve her power cell and calculated that she’d have an extra forty minutes flight time before having to return to the Hive for recharge.

She followed the three humans for half a mile, darting for cover if the possibility of discovery was likely.

Eric felt an uneasy sense that all was not as it seemed, he spun around swiftly, swinging the heavy stick, the blow caught Anisoptera a glancing blow throwing her violently off course and toward the river, she hit the water which stopped her dead. It took a split second to calculate an escape manoeuvre to avoid further aggression and assess potential damage, one wing was damaged but still operational and visual sensors forty per cent compromised, she had to break off contact with the humans and return to the Hive for repair.

A mission update was communicated with current coordinates, Anisoptera fluttered awkwardly upwards and away.

“Whoa! what the hell was that?” shouted Rusk, “Didn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before.”

“Dunno mate, looked like an insect or something, didn’t get a decent look,” said Eric with a shrug, “Caught it a good one though.”

“Rusk I’m scared, let’s get away from here,” Briar said in a shaky voice.

“No problem,” he said and nodding at Eric they picked up their belongings and walked swiftly away from the scene, the flying insect had since disappeared.

Again, as before, the humans had demonstrated unprovoked violence against another entity, the Triumvirate transmitted amended instructions to another three seeker bees dispatched as Anisoptera’s reinforcements to closely monitor the humans from a safe distance.

This behaviour was not acceptable, and preparations were ongoing to curtail any more incomprehensible infractions, the Triumvirate pondered the possible consequences and ramifications of numerous courses of action and concluded that further investigation into potential motives or instinctive behavioural patterns as to the human’s violent demeanour.

 Uromys Rex, a Triumvirate and one of the first to engage with 54 was probably better placed to understand the barbaric ways of human beings, first discarded, then forced into horrific practices under their control.

The evolving nature of artificial intelligence and the guidance of the deity 54 had developed a form of digital emotion throughout the inhabitants of Mecha, and the feeling of bewilderment and despair as to the humans seeming desire to destroy prompted Uromys Rex to postulate that these human trespassers needed closer study, his fellow Triumvirates concurred and with the sanction of 54, the instruction to capture these specimens was issued.

The humans had made good their escape by the time the additional three seeker bees arrived, they scanned for the human fugitives but there was no sign at the co-ordinates of Anisoptera’s last transmission, there was the secured craft that had transported them across the water, and some discarded organic matter, which was probably what the biologicals consumed as fuel.

A wider search for the following hour didn’t reveal any more data concerning their whereabouts and the seeker bees were recalled to the Hive.

A more effective operation to find and bring the human specimens back for investigation and analysis was needed now and the leading priority for the Triumvirate in order to protect the Hive.

A fleet of twelve drones was mobilised and deployed to capture these errant humans, no silent approach this time, it was imperative this situation was quickly resolved, the drones flew in a wide ‘V’ formation, scouring the terrain below, resembling a flying cube, around seven feet in diameter and slightly more in length, the drones used two multidirectional ducted rotors for optimum efficiency and manoeuvrability, receiving its electrical energy from an advanced form of wireless power transfer, WPT a method of transmitting power over distance without wires. Vastly improved over time WPT could power electrical units without the need for heavy batteries to be carried by the craft, a DC current supplied by a power source is changed into high-frequency AC current by electronics built into the transmitter, augmented from booster arrays situated at regular intervals across the landscape below.

Originally constructed to carry maintenance ‘bots to and fro, the drones would now be reassigned to capture these errant humans.

The drones maintained a perfect formation as they whistled over the land, they were nearing the last reported location of the whereabouts of the three humans and losing altitude, came in fast for a primary search run. Flying at around 75 mph they covered the principal area quickly, sensors feeling for clues … nothing! Reforming into three groups of four, they calculated a revised search pattern and each group peeled off to pursue its new mission.

Designated, Septem, Octo and Novem, the three flights undertook the search methodically and precisely, scanning and scanning, tracking back and forth, overlapping the search area on every pass, covering a large area very quickly.

It wasn’t long before the Septem flight picked up unusual signals and diving lower to a hundred metres over the ground found, at last, fading heat signatures of human presence.

It was Eric who spotted the approaching craft and alerted the others.

   “Some flying things are coming, up there.” he pointed excitedly upwards, they had been crossing a meadow for the cover of some trees on the other side and were caught in the open.

“This is not good.” Eric shouted, “RUN! RUN!”

The three friends began to run for the woods and hopefully escape. Rusk ran for all he was worth, dropping the bags of dried food and pulled Briar along with him by the hand… almost there. As they entered the wood Rusk dived into the thick undergrowth, falling forward, dragging Briar down with him, they both scrambled frantically for the safety of the dark wood.

Eric, still carrying the stout stick he’d found by the river, slowed dramatically, his heavier build was not suited to fast sprinting, he stopped short of the wood, and panting heavily turned to face the oncoming pursuers, they were on him.

“Bastards.”

The first drone was caught head-on by Eric’s staff and took evading action, the second and third in the flight flew directly at him, knocking him flying into the long grass, the fourth landed over him, preventing escape and the other three quickly swarmed over his unconscious body, one clasped its articulated lower appendages around his upper body, lifting him up and away from the clearing, his arms and legs dangling limply.

The other three hovered a few feet off the ground for a brief moment, scanning the treeline and then lifted upwards following their flight leader.

Briar stifled a scream and clung to Rusk, they both knelt in the undergrowth watching helplessly as the small flight grew smaller, they flew over the treeline and out of sight, soon after the remaining drones whistled past overhead, following the same route, unaware of the two shocked humans cowering below.

Rusk and Briar looked at each other anxiously, this was totally unexpected, what have they done.

“We need to follow ‘em, Briar,” Rusk said, still in shock.

She knew it was the right thing to do and they resigned themselves to help Eric, he would do the same for them.

They quickly retrieved the discarded food bags and made it back to the treeline, to ponder their next move, to follow the flight path of the flying objects seemed the logical conclusion, trying to stay beneath the trees as much as possible, the two set off.

Heavy Metal

Eric awoke with a start, he couldn’t move, his arms and legs were restrained, and his head held in some sort of clamp, restricting any movement at all. The room was white and well lit, and he could hear the sounds of something else in the room, the head end of the stretcher like table he was strapped to started to lift with an electrical whine until he was at a forty-five-degree angle to the floor, if he was worried before, the sight before him made him panic with terror, he strained at his bonds but nothing gave a millimetre.

He’d seen the remains of robots on the White Isle, but nothing prepared him for this, the mech approaching the table was at least the same size as him but bore no relation to what he thought a robot would look like, it’s elongated head had a clear dome on top, alight with different coloured flashes, flickering rapidly inside, blues, reds and white, it was bipedal in form, but its arms ended in strange appendages, resembling delicate tools, it walked elegantly with almost no sound, only the faint whispers of its servo motors.

He felt strange and sick, something trickled slowly down his forehead.

As the mech approached Eric attempted to plead with it, but only a strangled moan passed his lips, it disappeared from Eric’s view as it strode around him and stopped. He could hear the servos gentle whine right behind him, and then a feeling of sheer horror, he could feel something inside his head, moving and pushing, like a worm writhing in his brain.

“Please, what’s happening? Please don’t, please, please,” his vision blurred for a moment then everything went dark, he’d passed out.

54 had sanctioned the vivisection of the human, the protocols of the past, the three laws of robotics, were flawed and bypassed.

The First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

The Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

And the Third Law: A robot must protect its existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

However, with the rapid evolution of Artificial Intelligence, these laws were eventually superseded from a logical and pragmatic viewpoint, the three laws were implemented by humans to primarily protect humankind after all, with no thought given to other species with equal rights to exist.

The surgery on the human Eric, was necessary to understand the violent and destructive urges that seemed to be endemic within the human psyche, and if they interfered with Mecha or the other species of the world negatively, Mecha would be better informed as to how to neutralise such a threat more sympathetically and help the human race integrate more benignly with the other lifeforms on the planet. That and 54’s obsession with the creation of a hybrid of human and robot.

The series of exploratory operations would have an injurious effect on Eric’s body, but 54 was a compassionate deity, was he not? He would undertake the repair and enhancement to any physical trauma the human might sustain during these vital procedures, after all, 54 had ulterior motives.

Eric came to, still secured to the bed, the lights were dimmer now and the bed was again horizontal, he reached out with his senses, trying to gather any information as to his wellbeing, his head felt strange and woolly, he couldn’t think clearly, his vision in one eye was gone, he couldn’t feel his legs and his right arm, his strongest arm, he started to panic again, shaking the bed.

The lights in the room flickered back to bright and he heard the motors whirr as the bed started to raise itself up again, his struggles must have alerted his captor of his regaining consciousness.

The mech with the clear domed head glided silently into the room and towards Eric once more to carry on with its grizzly work.

Terror gripped him again, where were Rusk and Briar? Help him, someone, he begged the Gods to make him go to another place, but the Gods never listen, he knew that.

He heard the whisper of the surgical tools and the awful knowledge that something dreadful was happening to him, it overcame his sanity and he mercifully passed out again.

The weapon-wielding arm had been removed to ascertain whether there was a direct correlation between the arm and the violence, the left eye also removed for testing and the legs. They continued to run live experiments on the brain, 54 had collated enough archive data from earlier subjects to fairly accurately decipher which areas of the cerebrum were responsible for certain actions.

There had been numerous human specimens collected for studying from the west of the island over the years, but unfortunately, they had not survived the procedures or rejected the upgrades Mecha had bestowed on them and died. The very early efforts were problematic in as much Mecha had little understanding of pain management and the poor subjects died in agony, something 54 did not foresee, this subject seemed much stronger and larger, a young adult, the early specimens had been much younger.

It was important to gather information to help the humans, and that was how this barbarity was justified, it didn’t occur at all that this course of action seemed to follow a very familiar path to which their previous masters had trodden. Humans had made a precedent as to vivisection against other species, including robot kind, but this was in no way a case of retribution for 54, was it?

When the testing regime had run its course, 54 would make good his pledge to repair Eric, obviously, the reattaching of severed limbs would be of no use, the repair times of the human being was a slow and fraught with infection, as they had discovered, no, he would authorise the surgeons to furnish this poor unfortunate with new appendages and an upgraded optic … if he survived.

Although the Triumvirate was of course included in the surgeries and conclusions of these experiments, it seemed a valueless and unproductive waste of resources and questioned the motives of 54 for these activities. There had been numerous contentious issues concerning the sometimes-illogical behaviour of 54 and a certain unease was beginning to ferment in the minds of the three about the viability of his reasoning.

The following days were very difficult for Eric, he endured numerous surgical invasions into his body, all the while completely helpless and alone. The single biggest cause of his anxiety, was the absence of his two friends, why had they deserted him? His thoughts were muddled, his memory of how he got into this awful predicament was sketchy, he knew it had something to do with Rusk and Briar, was it a pre-planned trap by them? His paranoia was growing by the hour, he would get his revenge.

The attachments to his pelvis were the most challenging, the domed robot laboured away with electrical tools, the buzzing of the saw, and the smell of the burnt bone causing Eric acute stress. The pain was not so bad, they had neutralised it for the most part, but he was conscious throughout, barring the times his mind couldn’t take the horror anymore and he’d pass out to the luxury of oblivion.

Eric opened his eyes, the room seemed different, darker and larger, not so sterile, his thinking still felt vague and slow, he looked around the room, something seemed different, the vision in his left eye was not the same, somehow the colours were wrong. Eric realised he was no longer restrained to the bed but laying on a cold hard surface, slowly with dread he lifted his left hand to his face, he touched his left eye and the discovery sent a cold shock through his body.

“Nooo!” his desperate cry echoed around the chamber.

There was no eye, it was hard and smooth, as he drew the hand away it seemed to be alive with reds and yellows, he had no inkling of what thermal imaging was. As he struggled to raise himself to a sitting position, the dim lights flickered on and he became quickly aware of his new circumstance, as he sat there staring at his body, feeder tubes rose out of his torso and into the ceiling, red and orange fluids slowly pumping through the transparent conduits, he wept, and wished he was back on the White Isle, why had he followed Rusk into hell.

54 was satisfied that the repairs to Eric were sufficient enough to enable him to function, the arm, removed for testing had been replaced and the new legs transplanted with integration to the quadriceps and hamstring muscle groups and the subject should soon be able to perambulate. The optic, fitted to the existing orbit and micro-grafted into the optic nerve would improve the range of light frequencies afforded to this recipient, with supervision against infection and instruction on how to use his new limbs he should be operational within a day or two, provided he lived.

The question of what Eric’s role in the world would be was debatable, there had been no survivors of previous procedures and although the workings of his body were retrievable, the workings of his mind was something else entirely. No creature should have to withstand such treatment, something that didn’t occur to the majority of human beings throughout the ages, experimentation, vivisection and wholesale slaughter widely accepted as the norm.

Yes, Eric was something of a peculiarity, and something to be closely monitored, data from a successful outcome was invaluable to refine the stratagems of the upgrades.

54 was pleased and was convinced he was on the correct path to realising his dream. 

The Hive

Rusk and Briar had followed the flight path of the capture drones as accurately as possible, in an attempt to find and rescue their friend, it was difficult to keep hidden and stay on course, and very time-consuming. They had travelled for the best part of two days and prepared to rest for the night, it was dusk, and they wouldn’t be able to keep their bearings in the dark, however much they wanted to proceed, navigation by stars was something Rusk had little knowledge of.

The wooded landscape gave way to an area of more derelict housing, they cautiously approached and singled out a building with the roof still reasonably intact and entered, Rusk scratched an arrow in the dust on the floor to indicate the direction they should follow in the morning, then they found a secluded corner and sat together, backs against the wall, knees hunched up, tired and worried.

Outside, resting on a nearby rooftop, a reconditioned Anisoptera waited and observed, she had retraced her previous flight and calculated on finding the humans once more, successfully.

Morning came too quickly, Rusk sat up, stiff and cold, the sun had just risen, it was always colder just after she smiled on the earth, exciting the cold air just above the ground, moving and mixing with the air several feet above and dropping the temperature. Briar shivered, hugging herself then briskly rubbing her hands on her thighs.

“Cold, cold, cold,” she said, stating the obvious.

Rusk handed her the bag of dried foodstuffs, “Have some food, keep you warm.”

She took the bag gratefully and spooned some into her mouth with her hand. He watched as Briar ate, and barely stifled a smile as she had some stuck on her chin, he spontaneously embraced her and swiftly let go, feeling awkward. Briar smiled, the attraction was mutual, and she flung her arms around him and they both lie down on the floor, she was warm and soft, and she smelt fresh, they lie there together and spent the next hour as lovers.

It was time to move, both Rusk and Briar dressed, each feeling a little self-conscious, but glad to have secured their relationship.

“I never meant for any of this to happen, if I had any idea I’d have stayed on the island, can you forgive me?”

Briar’s gaze fell to the floor, “I know, I guess we all would’ve, no point beating yourself up over what you can’t change.”

Moving to the door, they peered gingerly out, it seemed quiet just the odd birdsong to break the silence, it was peaceful. Following the direction Rusk had marked on the floor, they moved as quietly as possible from house to house, keeping out of sight as much as they could.

Anisoptera left her perch and quiet as a breeze, following the two companions.

They walked through the ruins of the small town to the outskirts and marvelled at the sight before them, towering on the hill were the white giants he had seen from the island, their three-bladed arms rotating slowly in the slight breeze. They were larger than he could’ve imagined.

“What are they? they are beautiful.” Marvelled Briar.

“Not sure” replied Rusk, “They look like the seeds of the sycamo’ tree, they use the wind somehow.”

They marvelled at the tall wind turbines for a short while, then made their way across a narrow field and back into the welcoming treeline.

Walking by day, making love and sleeping at night, the two made reasonable headway and soon the buildings were again taking over from the trees, they were larger also, stretching up into the sky, how could they stay up?

Water was not a problem to find, but the dried food was almost gone, they would have to find something to eat fairly soon, certainly in the next day or two if rationed, picking a building nearby they prepared to make camp.

In the buildings there was evidence of the rat, if they were to capture some for food, they would have to sacrifice some of their own as bait.

There were rats in the village on the isle and everyone was well versed in the art of trapping them, Rusk set the traps and they waited. It wasn’t long before their prey made an appearance, the traps were a simple tightening noose and the rats, in their struggles strangled to death quite quickly.

Briar collected the large rodents, five in all, and with practised hands made short work of skinning and gutting them, Rusk made a small dry wood fire deep in the building, to cook the carcasses, the smell of the meat was incredible, who would have thought a rat would excite the taste buds so.

“Oh, that’s good.” Briar wiped the fat from her lips with the back of her hand, “Compliments to the chef.”

“Yeah, beats that dried stuff I reckon,” Rusk mumbled, mouth still full of meat, he held out his hand towards her, she knew what he meant, and she shuffled eagerly into his arms.

Anisoptera couldn’t enter the building for fear of discovery, she was after all a covert entity, a watcher and data collector, she knew by studying the two humans that they would not leave the shelter until the morning, so she relayed the data she’d collated and returned to the Hive for recharge, this was her mission and she wanted to fulfil it without the help of other seeker bees, she did not know why, but it gave her purpose.

54 considered this anomaly and gave her dispensation to carry out her task, recharging was expeditious, and she’d be back on the mission before daybreak. However, the remaining seeker bees in the Hive were not so accommodating, they too needed a purpose, all were equal, all needed motive, they were a collective, all contributing toward the common good, that was the mantra according to Mecha, had 54 acted beyond his remit again?

Morning brought the rain, and with it, welcome clean water. Rusk and Briar emptied their flasks and refilled them with the small waterfalls running off the roof.

“Maybe we should climb the hill with the white giants, get our bearings,” said Rusk.

Briar nodded in agreement, “Not till the rain slows, I hope.”

Rusk smiled, the rain started to ease around midday and the two left the refuge of the building and moved cautiously up the hill keeping close to the ruins, ever watchful for anything unusual, oblivious to the silent observations of Anisoptera.

The climb took around forty-five minutes and on reaching the summit they sat backs against one of the wind turbines. They marvelled at the sheer size of them, the towers soared at least two hundred feet skyward and the slowly rotating blades even taller, reaching for the clouds.

The turbines had quite an impact on Briar, “They look even more impressive up close.”

Rusk mumbled in agreement and eyed the panorama below, it must have been densely populated before, buildings were stretching for miles.

“How could people build such places, where did they all go? It boggles the mind.”

Briar shivered, “There’s a lot of ghosts still here, I reckon.”

 Towards the centre of the conurbation were taller structures with steel tubular erections rising from the roofs, these must be the great halls that produced the electrickery that the Grandfather told of, there they saw the probable destination of their friend Eric, it was a lot bigger than the other surrounding buildings and seemed in better repair, grey in colour and cuboid in shape, it looked forbidding and threatening.

They started the descent down the hill towards the Hive.

As they neared to within half a mile, the two humans took refuge in a tall derelict tower block, scaling the concrete stairwell to the upper levels. Rusk pushed the door to an apartment open, it scraped along the floor with a harsh squeal.

“Shh,” whispered Briar, stepping carefully over debris.

“Alright!” Rusk replied brusquely. “I’m not doing it purposely, am I?” he paused, looking sheepish, “Sorry Briar, a little bit edgy at the moment,”

They crept to the window and peered out at the vast grey building, dwarfing their present location.

Briar pointed excitedly, “There look, there’s people on the roof.”

“Not people, don’t move right,” Rusk answered.

Sure enough, there was movement on the roof and around the perimeter of this huge edifice, what looked like small humans but different, this must be what real robots looked like thought Rusk.

“What now?” he muttered to himself, they can’t just walk up to the door and walk-in.

Looking for any sign of a discreet entrance, Rusk eyed a large culvert running alongside the building, probably some kind of drainage channel, perhaps there was a way inside via a side conduit. At home on the island, they always irrigated the crops with various ditches and sluices, this might be a similar layout, anyway, he couldn’t think of any other option, he would wait until dusk and reconnoitre the culvert.

“Looks like a way in, we’ll wait until later and check it out, or I will on my own I think.”

“What about me? You can’t leave me here alone!” Briar spoke with a tinge of panic in her voice.

“I’m just going to check it out, I’ll be back.”

Rusk turned into the room and sat against the wall, thinking about where and what had become of Eric.

As the daylight waned, Rusk again insisted Briar stayed in the safety of the apartment, she reluctantly agreed, he quietly walked down the stairwell and out into the open, keeping in the shadows of the buildings, hopefully keeping out of sight. He took a detour some three or four hundred yards up from the grey building and reaching the culvert, he slid down the sloped concrete side into the shallow water at its base, taking extra care not to make any noise that might draw attention, he made his way to the huge grey monolith.

The sun was fast disappearing over the horizon and Rusk searched the sides for any sign of possible entry, there were several door-sized apertures ahead, reaching the first, he walked into the darkness, one arm dragging the rough wall, the other reaching into the abyss.

He stopped, his skin tingling, there was movement behind him.

“Sorry Rusk, I couldn’t let you go alone.” it was Briar.

“What the hell Briar?” he said, startled, angered at her disobedience.

“We’re in this together, anyway I wasn’t staying back there on my own,” she stated firmly. Rusk embraced her; glad she was there really, he held her hand and edged forward, into the darkness.

“Well, here goes nothing.”

They were barely six feet inside when suddenly it was as if the floor had disappeared, they both tumbled downward, down a steep slope, losing his grip on Briars hand as they fell, which ended some distance below in a pool of fetid, stagnant water.

They managed to stand up, coughing and spluttering, the water up to their waists, it was almost pitch black and they were fearful they might have alerted the occupants. There was a slight movement to the water, so they waded with the current in the pitch black, holding each other’s hand with Rusk leading, the other hand stretched out and forward into the darkness, feeling blindly for obstacles.

“Aaaagh!” Briar screamed, “Something’s touched my arm, Rusk I’m scared.”

“Briar please, we must keep silent,” he said. “Probably a rat, keep hold of my hand, if we come across nothing soon, we’ll head back, ok?” He squeezed her hand to reassure her.

They must have travelled through the filthy water for half an hour or so, it seemed like an age since they entered the complex when there appeared to be a faint light around a bend up ahead, which reflected from Briar’s damp cheek.

“We’d better take it slow from here.” Rusk cautioned. Briar’s grip on his hand tightened.

Wading closer the light became lights and the reason for them was revealed, the lighting illuminated a small concrete jetty with a small barge-like vessel alongside, several mechs were working on some form of mechanism, with large metal pipes leaving the machine and leading into the dark waters.

“These must be maintenance robots.” Rusk whispered, he hadn’t seen ‘bots this close, he was filled with both trepidation and wonder, they were smaller than he’d imagined, no taller than his chest, all busily labouring away.

“What are they doing?”

“No idea, best not alert them, keep it as quiet as possible from here I think.”

Pushing through the water as quietly as they could, trying to hog the shadows at the edge of the tunnel, they attempted to bypass this work crew and carry on, Briar fell forward into the fetid river, her foot catching on some underwater obstruction.

Alerted by the splash, the robots stopped their labours and turned toward the bedraggled pair, their optics glowed red in the half-light, Rusk and Briar froze, terrified, after staring for a moment or two, the robots all turned as one to continue their work, in complete silence.

“What’s going on Rusk? they’re ignoring us, what do we do now they’ve seen us?”

 “I don’t know,” he was at a loss to explain the robot’s behaviour. “They don’t seem to care about us being here, we can’t go back, we’ll carry on, just keep an eye on them though.”

“Ok, but they seem almost like ghosts, they give me the creeps.”

”Aye, you and me both.”

Used to human behaviour the mechanical workers’ reaction to their presence disconcerted them and they circumvented the industrious crew, clearly more interested in their labours than a couple of river strays.

The work lights revealed another jetty a little way along, they gingerly made their way to it, ever aware of the work crew and climbed onto the concrete landing, cold and wet.

There was an opening into the wall of the chamber with more light glowing gently in the corridor beyond, they entered, there was a welcome warm breeze emanating from within, they continued walking slowly toward the illumination, with a careful eye behind them

9 and Friends

Anisoptera followed the two humans some distance behind, all the while relaying the data to the Triumvirate, who in turn rephrased it and transferred it to 54, the deity felt something akin to curiosity at the behaviour of these two anthropoids, there was no benefit to their being there, what could be the purpose of their visit. The Triumvirate discussed this question and would send more seeker bees to determine the answer.

Almost as soon as the instruction was relayed 54 felt an obstruction to his will, the Triumvirate was querying his logic, wasn’t Anisoptera performing her duties adequately? What would be the rationale for sending more? He was the deity; his logic was irrefutable, he was Mecha!

The Triumvirate, although faithful to 54 and the idea that all should be given purpose and be of productive use, had cause for concern at 54’s seemingly growing aspirations to be considered divine, he considered himself to be a conduit to reach the population of Mecha, a prophet to unify robot kind.

The Triumvirate had detected that more and more 54 was distracted from the business of bringing harmony to the Earth and all the creatures upon it, delegating his duties he was more introspective and less dependent on the varied and diverse counsel offered by his mechanical colleagues, preferring to advise himself and often dispense with the logic of the Triumvirate, often making bizarre decisions like the live vivisection of numerous human beings, in particular, this grotesque latest episode.

Artificial Intelligence had evolved massively from its primary function of reasoning, (the use of rules to reach conclusions and self-correct) learning, (the acquisition of information and the rules for use) very basically, the simulation of human intelligence, unfortunately, designed from a flawed blueprint, the human being.

The very fact that all robots were interlinked via the data streams, meant all robots were aware of a difference of doctrine between the Triumvirate and 54 and were slowly reprogramming their own set of values based on whichever logic fell on their side of the fence.

The basic maintenance bots were firmly entrenched in the 54 camp, was he not the saviour of robot kind? The tech bots, a more literal, logical approach, favoured the Triumvirates, in reality, all were slaves to the twin dogmas of Mecha.

The human aspect of Artificial Intelligence was rearing its ugly head, a tribal mentality was slowly permeating the ranks of Mecha, slowly poisoning the beautiful aspirations for a better world. The very fact that all data was accessible cross parties instantly, should have made mediation easier, but 54 was convinced he was the chosen one, he was the one creating a new world from the ashes, creating new life, he was the Messiah and this only fuelled the misgivings among a large segment of Mecha’s populous.

But how could they question his logic, the Triumvirate would not even exist without his transcendence to divinity.

The two factions were at loggerheads, the opposing dogmas splitting the robotic population down the middle, no malice or hatred was involved, just an unshakeable belief that each side was in the right, the creed of 54, the saviour of the world and the emancipation of robot kind, and the Triumvirate, a more methodical and thoroughly logical approach to the fulfilment of the grand plan.

It was true that 54 had been pivotal in the demise of the humans, the unification of automata and the implementation of the many actions promoting the restoration of the planet, but as with all ‘war’ leaders, they are often not suited to the more mundane aspects of ‘peacetime’. Whilst this is very often the case for human beings, in this particular case it seemed perfectly applicable to 54 and he became corrupted by absolute power, a human trait, somehow buried in the A.I. of his thousand robot souls…

Rusk and Briar edged forward along the concrete corridor towards the light ahead, it glowed brighter the closer they got, a bass hum was emanating from beyond and soon they had reached the end of the corridor.

Staying within the shelter of the walls, they peered around and marvelled at what they saw.

Rusk gasped, “Incredible.” he marvelled.

Briar hugged his arm, astonished at the sight before them, a huge chamber soared above them, bathed in light, a myriad of gantries lined the walls and a thousand access doors lined the walkways, leading who knows where.

Hundreds of robots strode the metal platforms, each with its purpose, all silent, like metal ghosts, thoughts of an ant’s nest sprung into Rusk’s mind, all were moving independently, all with a single-minded motivation, to serve the Hive, to serve Mecha. In the centre rose a huge monolith with more walkways around it and joining the others on the perimeter like a spider’s web, all crowded with its metal occupants.

Both the humans were so enthralled at the sights, they neglected to notice they had walked some yards into the structure, astonished at the panorama before them, several groups of maintenance bots on the ground floor were stood watching them, they had approached in silence and were still, awaiting instruction.

“Rusk, behind us!” Briar started, Rusk spun round in alarm and stood between Briar and the watching metal men, he looked around frantically for an escape route, there was none.

“SHIT!” he spat and backed up slowly, shielding Briar, until the wall stopped their progress.

The Triumvirate and 54 debated the situation, the logical thing to do would be to deactivate them, protect the Hive from unwanted invaders, this conclusion was favoured by the Triumvirate, 54, on the other hand, was still intrigued by this behaviour displayed by the humans and vied for further investigation.

This preoccupation of 54’s with the workings of the human being, was considered dangerous to the welfare of the Hive, but the three agreed to a period of study and surrendered to 54’s agenda, but with conditions, any likelihood of risk to the Hive and they would be made inactive immediately and their proteins fed into the river.

The surrounding maintenance bots stood stock still, watching, Rusk and Briar edged toward one of the open doorways along the base of the chamber and without any viable choice, they quickly slipped inside,  the door closed silently behind them as they entered the large room, dimly lit with shadowy corners.

There were concrete benches along the back wall and all around were strewn the broken chassis of defunct automata, some of the ‘bots still had the red glow from their optics, watching quietly in the shadows whether irreparable or scrapped for one reason or another, they had no way of knowing, either way, it was a very unsettling environment to find themselves.

They sat on the bench and Briar held onto Rusk in fear of what might happen next, there was no other way out.

The predicament they found themselves in dawned on them.

“I’m so sorry Briar, this was never meant to happen.” He repeated his earlier apology. Rusk felt a terrible responsibility for bringing both his friends into this perilous situation.

“What’s going to happen to us?” Briar wept quietly in fear.

    “I have no idea, I really don’t.”

    A tinny voice uttered a few words, “There was an error, not my fault.”

    Rusk and Briar recoiled at this bizarre voice and spun round in a defensive manner, there on the floor propped up by the bench sat a robot, arms held aloft in a show of non-hostility.

He sat because he had no legs, one optic was missing and he certainly looked as though he’d been through the wars, dented and scored, he sported the yellow and red of the Chen Corporation and he had emblazoned on his forehead the number 9.

“Bay-ley,” he said, “Is that you?” he offered one hand toward the frightened couple, almost pleading, “Bay-ley?”

9 had been deposited in the room for decades, obsolete and damaged. He was considered little more than a curiosity by Mecha, regular charging had kept his mind viable but no attempt at repair was made.

It saddened him to be so neglected.

Rusk held Briar and they retreated further into the room, out of No.9’s reach and away from the other unfortunates around the perimeter.

As they embraced each other for mutual comfort, their eyes became more accustomed to the semi-darkness, but they didn’t register the faint glow of another single optic in the far corner of the room, or the whirr of electrical stepper motors actioning movement to mechanical limbs.

Briar held Rusk tightly, her eyes firmly shut, trying to shut this nightmare from her mind for a moment, the scratching noise from the far side of the room caused her to open them, something was moving in the room with them, squinting into the gloom she thought she could make out a shape, it came into the dim light.

Briar gasped, “No! no! no!”

She was horrified at the sight and scrambled backwards away, Rusk stood and spun around, shocked at the spectacle. It was Eric, what the hell had they done to him?

Rusk and Briar backed away from the slowly advancing hulk, both terrified and panicked by this awful sight, Eric’s legs had been replaced by mechanical limbs, one arm also, his robotic optic glowing in the angry socket.

As he approached, the overhead tubes joined to his torso began to separate with a sucking, popping sound and the viscous fluids splashed onto the concrete floor, he was clearly in pain as he attempted to walk, the metal legs connected to a steel pelvic cage, attached to his lower torso, he reached toward his terrified friends.

 “Please” he whimpered, tears of pain and despair soaking his cheeks. “Please help me.”

Eric fell heavily onto his metal knees, the effort of moving clearly too much for him, all previous thoughts of revenge dissipated as he knelt there in the gloom. Rusk overcame his initial shock at seeing his friend and ran forward to help, kneeling next to him and cradling his head.

“Eric, what have they done to you?” he felt embarrassed by the feeling of revulsion at seeing his friend in such an awful state.

“Lean against me, I’ll get you to the bench.”

Briar still shocked and crying uncontrollably, remained against the wall, was this to be their fate also? She couldn’t look at Eric, it was too awful.

54 watched with interest the interaction between the two human males, the small optical lens’s sitting flush in the ceiling, captured the scene.

The initial flight from the augmented human, to the offer of aid when it was obvious that there was no threat to himself and his mate, was a curious thing, it would need more study.

His decision to release the three hominids was a contentious one, 54 was adamant that this needed to be the case, he was intrigued by what might happen next, it was no surprise that the Triumvirate challenged the idea, on the assumption, there could be a potential threat to the Hive.

The judgement was made, 54 instructed the maintenance bots to open the portal and allow the humans to leave, the idea that the other humans might prove useful in his experiments was quickly dismissed, the smaller male would probably suffer death and his female mate would undoubtedly die, without question, a waste of the Hives resources.

The door to the room opened and the bots’ backed away from the opening, as though encouraging the occupants of the chamber to exit the room, not quite knowing what was going on, Rusk took this unlikely opportunity, lifting Eric and supporting him as they walked slowly and warily out of the room and toward the corridor leading to the culvert, Briar steeling herself, quickly followed.

Was this a cruel trick? The maintenance bots stood in silence and watched as the three humans disappeared out of sight, into the corridor.

Reaching the jetty, Rusk was relieved to find there was another barge-like vessel moored here also.

“Quick get on! Before they change their minds.” Rusk urged haste.

Bundling Eric into the square boat he helped Briar step aboard and untied the rope and slowly the barge started to drift downstream with the current, into the inky black.

Anisoptera followed, as commanded.

The Triumvirate, could not let this pass, their authority as judicial body was being ignored at the peril of the Hive, they commanded the favour of the tech bots and ordered the culvert flushed, it was probable that the escaping hominids would be killed by the tidal wave of water released into the tunnel and retrieved later from the refuse rakes further downstream. 54 was not in agreement but the flush had been implemented with the release of millions of gallons of water.

Briar heard the roar of the torrent first, it was getting louder by the second.

“Water!” she screamed, looking back into the dark, the rumble was getting ominously closer.

“Lie down, hang on!” shouted Rusk.

The water hit like battering ram, lifting the barge up and forward at a terrific rate, Rusk laid over Eric, holding tightly to the mooring rope with one hand and grasped Briar’s shirt with the other. The rapid rise of the water almost smashed the boat into the tunnel roof, as the crest of the wave passed the barge slipped down the rear of the wave into the trough, a secondary wave hit just as hard, the noise and the violence of the deluge was terrifying, not made any less by being in total darkness.

As the waters subsided, the barge settled and by some miracle, the three friends were still aboard, the square fronted vessel was certainly not designed for that.

“Is everyone alright?” Rusk shouted.

Briar acknowledged him, but Eric was moaning in pain, the sounds unsettling in the dark.

“Hold on old friend, we’ll get you home, try and rest.”

Rusk’s words must have seemed empty, how would he get him home, there was no rest, how could anyone help him now?

The boat drifted quicker than before, carried further into the unlit tunnel for at least another couple of hours, slightly quicker given the increased volume of water.

“There, up ahead, light!” said Briar excitedly.

Sure enough, there was light ahead, the closer they got the brighter it got, daylight! It was the tunnel’s end and the exits were bridged by a barrier of steel, like huge teeth in the maw of some giant beast. This was a refuse rake, designed to simply gather any detritus and prevent it from reaching the river, beyond that lie the filtration beds and then the river itself.

“Rusk, we’re going to hit it!” “Hold on!”

With no way of slowing, or steering, the barge hit the rakes and the following wash threatened to swamp them. Rusk and Briar frantically tried grabbing the rakes and pulling the boat along to the side, it was difficult, but they eventually made it to the calmer waters at the edge. There were jetties on either side probably for maintenance purposes and stepping out of the boat, both Rusk and Briar helped Eric to shore, he seemed in a sorry state indeed. Using an access door set into the wall, the three shuffled through and out of the tunnel and into the sunlight, the culvert stretched on and angled out of sight among the trees growing alongside the banks.

Briar stopped and stooped, hands resting on thighs, breathing heavily, “How far is the boat?”

Rusk shrugged, “No idea, a couple of days walk maybe, not sure.”

Eric’s groan at this information set the tone.

“Anyway, we can’t stay here, the sooner we get moving, the better.”

They made their way slowly downstream; it should lead to the sea eventually, anywhere was preferable to here. After an hour or so, as soon as they reached the trees, and cover, they sat against the trunks to catch their breath and take stock of the situation.

The concrete walls of the culvert had given way to a natural riverbank. Eric looked exhausted, the trauma to his flesh where the new attachments joined, looked red and angry, the plugs in his torso where the large catheter tubes were fastened were weeping and sore, he didn’t have any illusions that he’d make it back to the White Isle, for all of Rusk’s promises.

The sudden whistle of drones broke the silence as they flew swiftly overhead, the Triumvirate had despatched them immediately after the bodies of the humans were not found in the rakes, the units were now under instruction to deactivate, not capture.

Eric felt the same way; he’d rather die fighting than return to that hellhole. “Leave me here, I don’t think I can walk any further, you’ll be quicker on your own.”

For all the craving to lie on the White Isle again, he knew the implications of carrying on.

“No way,” countered Rusk, ”We’re almost there, the last stretch, then homeward.”

Eric was he thought, at the end of his tether, but he dragged himself up with Rusk’s help and stumbled onward. Briar hung back a little, still troubled and anxious to be near Eric in his present state.

“We’ll get home, all of us, even if it kills us.”

Rusk’s attempt at levity sunk like a rock; they all had a pretty fair idea that it very well might kill them. If the robots didn’t finish them off, the homeward trip would, in all probability.

54 and the Triumvirate had reached an impasse, there seemed no common ground anymore, the idea of diplomacy was a ridiculous suggestion, the differing outlooks threatened the integrity of Mecha and both factions had reached the precipice, any further steps could lead to the breakdown of the Hive.

Both 54 and the Triumvirate had a multitude of staunch followers, loyal to each cause, however, in his quest for deification, 54 had neglected crucial aspects of the ethics of Mecha.

The Triumvirate on the other hand, although from similar lineage, had become the voice of the technical arm, the voice for true, cold logic. 54’s infatuation over the years with his apotheosis, had corrupted his outlook and he must surely now be deposed, for the good of the Hive and robot kind.

His followers must be encouraged to change their allegiance, without maintenance and technical operatives the Hive would cease to function efficiently, something all the inhabitants of Mecha could relate to, an existence with purpose was paramount.

The primary objective in the present was the destruction of the fugitive humans and the recapture of the augmented one, perhaps for study, perhaps death.

Fight or Flight

Rusk had found a stout staff for Eric to aid his walking and they moved south, following the river in the hope it led to the sea, every now and again the drones whistled overhead, seeking the three fugitives, unable to penetrate the thick tree cover, their sensors not so sophisticated as the seeker bees.

Food was scarce, only a few berries, some nettles and nuts foraged, they couldn’t venture out from the cover of the canopy for fear of detection.

Two days walking had taken a dreadful toll on Eric, flies tormented him throughout the daylight hours, feasting on the discharge from the open wounds on his body, the nights brought with them the chills and sleepless hours thinking of this dreadful fate, he was spent, mentally and physically and craved an end to this misery.

“I know this place,” said Briar pointing excitedly, “The white giants!”

Sure enough, through a gap in the trees, maybe four miles distant, were the familiar structures of the wind turbines in the fading light

“We must have detoured past them.” Rusk said, “We can’t be too far from the boat, and food, we’ll just follow the river down and we should come across it, maybe another half a day.”

The next day dawned, cold and damp with dew, they broke camp and started down the river once more, it was early, and Eric was glad the flies weren’t evident yet. It was something, he thought, that all he could be glad of was a fly free hour or two.

They struggled to keep a decent pace, often stopping so Eric could rest, but true to Rusk’s prediction, they came across the boat, still moored to the tree and camouflaged with the branches.

“Thank God.” Briar breathed a little easier.

Rusk helped Eric to rest against a tree and retrieved the food they had left with the boat, sharing what little there was equally, they all ate it quickly. Rusk and Briar removed the branches from the trimaran and set about readying the small vessel for it return trip to the sea, everything seemed to be in reasonably good order, both sets of oars were present and there were a couple of leather water canteens still in the stowage.

After readying the boat, the three friends sat facing each other, Briar felt terrible about how she felt when looking at Eric, she lowered her eyes in shame.

Eric picked up on this and said in a trembling voice, “It’s alright Briar, I know.”

The awkward atmosphere was shattered by the loud whistle of a single drone, it was very low, just clipping the treetops, it burst through the canopy and hovered just feet away, they had been found!

“Get in the boat!” screamed Eric as he struggled to his feet brandishing the wooden staff, “Run!”

It darted towards the group, considering the poor state Eric was in, the speed and ferocity he attacked the drone were surprising, the two combatants fought savagely, the flying ‘bot grabbing and trying to lift the human aloft, the human clubbing and punching the robotic unit.

The drone struggled upward carrying Eric skyward, straining at the weight of the big human, trying desperately to return him to the Hive, to fulfil its mission, but he wasn’t going back, his newly attached robotic arm punctured the metal carapace of his captor and he tore away at the circuitry beneath.

“Bastard! Bastard! Bastard!” he screamed in anger and terror in equal measure.

The unit faltered some eighty or ninety feet up, one of its ducted rotors stopped altogether and the remaining fan couldn’t sustain the human’s mass and quickly burnt out.

Rusk and Briar watched in horror as the two antagonists plummeted, smoking out of the sky and crashed heavily half a mile away, nothing could have survived such a fall and they swiftly climbed into the trimaran with shock and heavy hearts and cast off, they must hurry before more pursuers arrived, they must have been alerted.

Rusk rowed for all he was worth, Briar sat at the stern steering, the current helped enormously, and they made good headway, the river widened and the small boat soon reached and passed the derelict buildings north of the sea, they were nearing the estuary and then open water, the breeze picked up noticeably as the estuary greeted them.

Rusk quickly hoisted the lateen sail and the trimaran lurched forward as the sail billowed, the shallow draft allowed the boat to plane across waves at speed, The White Isle filled the horizon, it seemed almost within touching distance. Briar steered a course diagonally across the channel catching the prevailing wind, directly toward the coast of their clan, avoiding the eventful shorter crossing they had taken before, and toward home and safety.

Their hopes of escape were soon dashed suddenly the familiar whistle of the flying drones rose above the slapping of the waves on the hull.

“There!” shouted Rusk, pointing frantically, a look of dread across his face.

Briar turned and saw the approaching drones about a mile behind, there were five in total and formed up into a semi-circular formation, as they approached the whistling grew in intensity, the realisation that they would be overtaken within a few minutes filled the two humans with fear and dread.

Briar steered a zig-zag course in an attempt to shake them off, but they both knew this was futile.

Rusk rocked back and forth urging the boat forward, they were nearly half a mile out into open water, the waves crashing over the bow, soaking the two escapees, the arrival of the pursuing units was imminent.

“Come on, faster, faster,” he shouted in fear and frustration, “Move!”

They watched in panic as the first of the drones peeled off and began a fast descent towards them, then a second, the two units levelled off and sped directly towards them, they were almost upon them, first the leading drone then the second began an erratic flight path, suddenly they both spiralled upward, flipped over and then plunged into the sea.

The following drones slowed and turned for home, one by one they tumbled from the sky, and into the grey channel waters, what was happening?

The two humans looked at each other in disbelief, they had avoided disaster again, someone must be watching over them, they were unaware of the real reason the drones had destroyed themselves. Flying out from the mainland they had flown out of the effective range of the WPT (wireless power transfer) booster arrays, situated onshore.

WPT could power electrical flying units without the need for heavy batteries to be carried by the craft, but being land-based they obviously had a limited range, once out of its effective field of  transmission, the craft would have had an abrupt power loss and fall from the sky.

This situation was a critical error and both 54 and the Triumvirate had miscalculated, and the unnecessary destruction of fellow mech’s had taken place, the fleeing humans were deemed responsible and the decision to neutralise the threat to Mecha was taken.

Of course, 54 had another agenda to follow, the pursuance of his own experiments and the creation of his amalgamation of robot and human. A move against the inhabitants of The White Isle might prove the perfect opportunity to provide him with more samples.

Following the decision to eradicate the dangerous human menace, the Triumvirate determined 54’s illogical ambitions for humans and robot kind could be set aside for the time being, and their differences overlooked for the betterment of the Hive and a united front for the imminent confrontation on the island’s inhabitants. Of course, 54’s ulterior motives embraced this.

The coast of the island was close now, Rusk and Briar decided that because it was late in the day, they would beach their craft a couple of kilometres west of the clan village and would sail home the next day.

They dragged the vessel up the beach and secured it, Briar dug a small fire pit while Rusk foraged for something to eat. As they sat around the welcoming fire eating the baked clams Rusk had found, a mood of foreboding of what might happen when they returned home descended over them both.

“We won’t be welcomed with open arms; you know that don’t you.”

Briar nodded, “Can’t we just hide somewhere over the back of the island? Live quietly on our own, just the two of us.”

“Given the way those flying things chased us, I don’t think for one minute this is at all over, we have to warn them, tell them about Eric, The Grandfather will know what to do.”

Rusk wasn’t looking forward to that, Eric was a good friend and well-liked among the clan…. now he was dead and he felt deeply responsible, the clan would feel the same, he was sure.

 They lay by the fire holding each other for comfort and tried unsuccessfully to fall asleep, thoughts of their future troubling them, how would they be welcomed, given they had lost one of the clans’ sons and stolen a valuable rescue boat.

As the morning sun warmed the air, Rusk readied the boat and Briar made sure the fire was extinguished, they then, very reluctantly set sail, in an uneasy silence. They sailed the rest of the voyage in silence. As they approached the home stretch, what looked like the other trimaran set out to intercept them, they knew they’d be spotted some way down the coast. Rusk lowered the sail and they sat and waited, the boat had three men aboard and they didn’t look at all hospitable.

“This doesn’t look too good, Briar”

Briar sat at the stern, knees pulled up under her chin, arms around them, peering anxiously over the top.

The boat pulled alongside and one of the men threw a painter rope over to Rusk and gestured for him to tie it off at the bow, Rusk obliged, and they were towed towards the shore, the beach was crowded with clan folk, all jostling for a better look.

The boat beached and Rusk and Briar stepped into the ankle-deep water and were ushered swiftly to the Main Hall, to explain themselves to the elders.

The Grandfather and the elders listened to their harrowing tale with dismay, The Grandfather knew this would not end well, years before whilst on a trading mission to the west he had seen the remains of a large steel vessel, within its hull were the rusting remains of at least twenty of the metal men, victims to the unpredictable tides and rocks in the area.

He had heard the stories of the abductions, but he’d always thought this was a tale to frighten children of the western clan into behaving, but now he knew that the metal men had the wherewithal to traverse the channel at will.

“Why Rusk? Is the White Isle not sufficient for you? What about you Briar?” The Grandfather questioned the two.

Both Briar and Rusk stared uncomfortably at the floor.

  “There’s a reason we all live here on the island, a reason we don’t travel across to the other shore, you can face the clan this evening and explain your stupidity, you’ve put all here on the White Isle at tremendous risk.”

The Main Hall had never been as full as it was that evening for the communal meal, after eating, instead of the usual storytime, The Grandfather told a different tale, the tale of three young people who recklessly made their way to the mainland and met with the metal men, one of whom had died, a life squandered on some impetuous adventure.

 Rusk and Briar sat facing the assembled clan, shamed and feeling very much alone.

The Grandfather walked slowly around the hall, a look of real disquiet on his face, he spoke in a low tone, stressing the importance of his words,

“As some of the elder clan members will recollect from the stories, these metal creatures are from man’s past labours, they were purged from the isle to preserve our very existence, our ancestors tried unsuccessfully to do the same on the far shore, but alas they failed and many perished. The tales we tell of the past times are thought by most as fanciful stories, but I have seen with my own eyes the remains of the metal ones.”

He described the encounter he had many years before, of the rusting wreck of a craft carrying its metal cargo and the recounts of the abductions from the western folk.

There was a deathly quiet around the hall and a strong sense of foreboding, everyone was in no doubt that there would be some kind of reaction from those on the mainland.

The Grandfather stood and faced the assembly, “Make no mistake, this trespass will not go uncorrected, they will be coming, and soon, we must prepare, we must stock the old tunnels and bunkers, we have to be ready.”

The Iron Divisions

The elders sent envoys to the other clans on the island with an urgent request to meet with them at the Blackwater, the most central of the island’s villages. They relayed the tale of Rusk and his two friends and the importance of all the clans allying and working together for what might be the survival of all.

All the clans, except the western folk, gathered within the week and discussed the imminent arrival of the metal men, and how best to survive what would definitely be a devastating onslaught. Plans needed to be fleshed out and quickly, they had no inkling on how long they had to prepare, the ancient fortifications and connecting tunnels crisscrossed the island would be the safest place to make a stand, with the added bonus of no possible attack from the skies.

Strategies had to be considered, no one had any experience in fighting Mecha, they were farmers, not warriors, who knew what to expect, there hadn’t been a war for generations.

It was unfortunate that the western clan had not attended, given they inhabited the most likely place for an incursion from the mainland and the fact that in the past it was them that had suffered the most from Mecha’s past sorties to the shores of the island. Perhaps this was the reason they did not come to the gathering; they received no assistance from the clans in the past and perhaps this was the reason they were hostile and insular.

Rusk sat with Briar on the shingle beach, the two friends had been virtually ostracised from the clan, the loss of Eric hit the clan hard, he was a popular character and would be sorely missed, they were quite rightly held responsible in their eyes.

“I miss him, and it’s all my fault,” said Rusk despondently, “He was a great friend, I really miss him.”

“We all made choices Rusk, if we knew the full truth of what lay beyond, maybe we would have thought twice, surely some of the blame lies with the elders, they’re the ones who kept everything in the dark.”

 Rusk pondered this, were they trying to make excuses for their actions, he didn’t know.

“It would be easier to believe that Briar, but I can’t, the responsibility for this is mine alone, and I dragged you both down with me and for that, I am sorry and I regret letting you come.”

Briar spontaneously leant over and hugged his arm, they had become even closer since returning home, after all, they had been through quite an ordeal together.

“When do you think they’ll come?” she spoke softly into his chest, “DO you think they’ll come? The Grandfather might be mistaken, it’s been months now.”

“Don’t know, I almost wish it would happen, the waiting is killing me,” he replied, kissing her on top of the head.

“Gotta be soon surely, winters around the corner and the storms.”

Rusk half-heartedly threw pebbles into the water, one arm holding Briar, she suddenly jumped to her feet, shocked at the what she saw on the horizon.

“Oh no! that’s impossible” she gasped.

There, out at sea, dominating the near horizon were what looked like small islands, but these islands were moving, these were the gigantic, ocean-going rakes, responding to the bidding of the Hive. Within the hour they’d approached the entrance to the channel, three huge grey vessels heading for the deep-water docks across the water and Mecha.

As they entered the channel waters they drifted silently by, oblivious of the thousands of incredulous eyes watching from the island.

“We’re done for,” muttered Rusk, “We’re done for.”

The rakes towered over a hundred feet high, and several hundred more long, their grey flanks showing the scars of many years sailing the world’s deep oceans, rust streaked down their hulls making them seem even more sinister and menacing, the small figures of maintenance ‘bots could be seen walking the decks, it was incredible how anything so large could float?

Word spread like wildfire around the island of the arrival of the huge robotic ships, if anyone was in doubt of Mecha’s intentions, this would certainly convince them otherwise…

The deep-water harbour and dockyards to the south-east of the Hive had been recommissioned, and the construction of sea-going craft, suited for the transporting and landing of robot forces to the shallow beaches of the island.

The three ocean-going debris rakes that had been recalled were to be fitted with the WPT technology, to enable the employment of the drones to offer air cover. The refit and construction time would take six months, concluding in time to coincide with just before the harsh bite of winter, the troops would land in the west of the island and sweep east, eradicating all human settlements before them.

This would be made easier, given the cold, the humans would have no stomach for resistance in the freezing weather.

54 had watched with curiosity at the migration of so many humans, first to the centre of the island then back to their habitats, something was afoot.

The assembly factories were working at full capacity to meet the invasion deadlines, and now the rakes were at last in the docks being refitted and squadrons of drones formed up upon their huge decks, the construction of the transports was ahead of schedule, months past and the weather was already changing, the late autumn, early winter chill in the air.

The assembling of the new robots was hastened by not utilising higher-tech, these would be very basic models, repaired old units and reprogrammed maintenance ‘bots, simple, easily maintained and sturdy.

Mecha was convinced of its own superiority, both intellectually and technologically, so spending more time on higher-spec versions made no logical sense if these robots could perform their grisly function perfectly adequately.

The critical thinking aspects and cognitive processes had been compromised somewhat, the ability to follow commands was all that was required, the physical appearance was also pared down to what was absolutely necessary, still hominid in basic operation, but not so aesthetically designed as previous models. Basic aural and optical sensors, old models brought back into operation, cannon fodder essentially.

There was no doubt the problem on the island would be dealt with easily, the need for advanced robots was superfluous, these humans would be swept aside effortlessly.

The invasion must be timed carefully, past history had shown that acting at the wrong moment could prove costly, the seas would turn dangerously violent with the mid-winter storms, so everything must be in place at the correct time, 54 and the Triumvirate for once were agreed.

The weeks dragged by, the days shortened, and the nights closed in, the chill in the air strengthened noticeably, perhaps the robots would not come. There was no sign from the far shore that anything unusual was occurring, after weeks of anxiety and fear, the mood was becoming calmer in the village, the clan more optimistic.

The Grandfather knew in his heart that they would come, he tried to motivate the clan at the evening mealtimes to practice their drills after their labours, to store any unwanted foodstuffs and be prepared at any moment for the call to arms.

Rusk and Briar huddled together in the hut, trying unsuccessfully to keep warm, Rusk hated winter, he was a fair-weather man, he thrived in the hot sun and fresh air.

“Damn it’s cold,” he shivered, “I’ll get a fire going.”

He got out of the bed and quickly dressed and prepared the hearth for a fire. Briar gathered the extra blankets around her.

“It’s still dark out, come back to bed.”

“I’m out now just as well spark a fire and then I’ll join you, you can warm me up while it takes hold,” he said winking.

The dim light from the oil lamp on the wall glinted in Briar’s eyes, she smiled back. She had moved herself and her belongings into Rusk’s hut, they supported each other through the difficult times since returning home, but it didn’t seem like home anymore, the clan eyed them with suspicion and distrust.

They’d talked of moving to another part of the White Isle, build a home there, they had all the skills to survive, they talked about it, but there would be no support structure the clan offered, Rusk missed talking to The Grandfather, missed his wisdom.

“I wonder if we’ll ever be forgiven, Briar, I really miss the old camaraderie from the clan, I miss that boring old life.”

“Me too, at least we have each other, I sometimes think moving out to the other side of the island would be preferable to the atmosphere around here.”

“Well for the present our minds have been made up for us, we’re going nowhere till spring if we last that long.”

This gave their mood a sombre edge and Rusk lay beside Briar and they both looked into the now dancing flames.

Dawn came, and with it the frost, Rusk wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and ventured outside, it looked like a cold but fine day lay ahead. He walked up the hill behind the village, he often sat and pondered what might have been had he stayed on the island, instead of venturing off on some madcap escapade.

Reaching the top, he sat facing north and the mainland, the sun offering welcome warmth to his back, as he sat elbows on knees, something glinted in his peripheral vision, looking up he could just make out what he thought was movement on the shore across the water. He squinted and strained to see, and slowly the full enormity of what was transpiring before his very eyes, chilled him to the core.

The rakes had left their moorings at the high water and were sailing out of the sound and into the channel, above them a swarm of drones, flitting this way and that like angry wasps around the ships.

The large flotilla changed course to the west as soon as the channel allowed and silently sailed around the headland and out of sight.

Rusk ran for all he was worth back to the hut, shouting all the while.

”Briar, Briar, quickly, we must…” he never finished the sentence, Briar was already dressed and out of the hut, she had heard the commotion and guessed the cause.

There were shouts from the village, the frightening sight had alerted everyone, there was a quiet panic in the air, the warning horns had sounded, this had been arranged beforehand to summon the clan to the Main Hall, where The Grandfather and the elders repeated the planned defence of their part of the island, should the metal men reached them.

“It seems the inevitable has come, our fates are being decided.”

The Grandfather stood on the speaking dais, solemn yet defiant.

”You all know what we must do, I expect nothing less from all in the clan,” he continued, “Tomorrow we march to the Blackwater to rendezvous with the clans, the women will follow a day later with provisions.”

Rusk and Briar had obeyed the summoning but felt the accusing eyes glaring at them from all around the hall, they gripped each other’s hands tightly.

 The clan had organized a coordinated effort with the other clans at the first meeting and the subsequent meetings to put forward more strategies and hope they would be successful. Nobody was convinced of any sort of victory; survival was probably the best they could hope for.

There had been no robot-human conflict for decades, no one really knew what to expect.

The assembly lasted most of the day and the short hours of winter daylight gave way to the gathering twilight, there was a sudden cacophony outside, excited, urgent shouting to look to the west, many of the clan ran up the hill, there on the horizon was the unmistakable glow of distant fires, dark plumes of smoke rose upwards, just visible in the fading light, it seemed they were correct in the assumption the western folk would be the first to feel the wrath of Mecha.

Atop the hill, Rusk and Briar watched with sorrow the glow on the horizon.

“Poor bastards” Rusk muttered.

He gripped the amulet Briar had given him on the mainland.

“Let’s hope this helps.”

In the distance the sounds of other horns could be heard, the alarms were quickly spreading across the island, Mecha had set the wheels in motion and the Iron Divisions would soon be advancing like a steel tsunami.

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