Apprx. 18 mins read.
By the time the hyperloop’s steel maw yawned wide and bodies flooded into below city’s cramped side streets the grimy solar lamps had long since dimmed. Any other day Ward would have joined in the rush, but the man with the hollow eyes and pale face of someone who rarely saw natural light slowed to a crawl as commuters jostled past.
‘We’re not worth the skin on our backs anymore,’ muttered Ward to himself as he leant against an abandoned car and stared at the ribs supporting below city’s concrete sky. Above them lay the municipality proper and after a day spent trudging round its agencies he still had no good news to take home.
He was still lost in his thoughts when a van bounced on its springs setting its interior lights flicking on and off like a strobe.
Ward peered into the shadows wishing the pavements hadn’t emptied quite so quick as something rattled into the gutter. It was a long tense moment before he remembered to breathe again. People had begun to disappear fast now the municipality had given up on below city’s crime haunted blocks.
He’d turned to go when the electric whine of a motor starting up reached his ears.
The noise grew until with the sharp tick tack of metal dancing over a car roof something landed on his back hard enough to knock the air from his lungs. Ward rocketed his elbow into its side and realised his mistake as stars burst across his eyes. Whatever was on his back was no organic.
‘zzzZDonor should zzZtay still. Harvezzzting will be quicker.’
There was a final crackle before a surgeon’s saw-toothed metal disc appeared above his hip. Ward’s eyes widened as it began to spin.
He was up and in the road before he’d finished speaking. A junk truck with a neon yellow smiley face sprayed over the cab had appeared between the wrecked cars. Ward bucked his shoulders as the driverless system pushed past with a squeal of metal and sent his assailant flying. The compacters took care of the rest.
‘Bloody reclamation,’ said Ward as he fought to control the hammering in his chest. ‘You can’t get away from them even down here.’
The cold flicker of the vidscreen was the only light in the flat when the buzzer’s tortured rattle pulled Ward to his feet.
‘That you Conway? You said we had a few more days to get the rent together. The missus and kid are asleep.’
He reached the door the same time the noise died only to see the distorted face of a corrosion pocked droid in filthy white paint swim into view through the security lens.
‘Hallo, sir. My names Time and this is my associate, Tide. We’d have liked to be quicker, but you know how it is,’ came the droids muffled voice and behind it shadows moved in the stairwell until the huge head of an even rustier mechanical dropped level with the eyepiece.
‘Good evening, Mr Ward,’ said Tide in a grating voice full of booms that sounded like water hitting the hollows of a cave. ‘We’re going to come in now.’
Ward was about to tell them what they could do with that idea when the door hammered back. From his new spot on the carpet he watched the smaller robot fix its eyes on him. There was water dripping off its housing as if it had only recently been submerged.
‘Thank you Tide. Now Mr Ward? As you can see I’m here in an official capacity.’
It gestured at the little badge with the name, ‘Time,’ and a mug shot of its face hanging from its neck.
‘Fuck off chum,’ said Ward clambering to his feet.
‘Not yet Mr Ward. We need to talk to you.’
Ward could just see the bedroom door out of the corner of his eye. He knew what a visit from droids was likely to mean.
‘Liv? Get the kid and get out. The bailiff’s have found us again.’
‘Funny you should mention that sir,’ said Time. ‘Your daughter’s what we came to talk about.’
Metal squealed as it brought a battered handheld into sight.
‘Order number 108 isn’t it Tide? Indentured labour?’
‘Yeah, hurry up or we’ll have an extra form to fill out.’
Time stepped into the flat, and Ward got a better look at the thing in the remnants of envoy white. It looked like an old crash test dummy, and its eyes were as empty as the ocean floor.
‘Who sent you?’
‘I represent our friends in the deep blue sea, Mr Ward. They’ve entered into what should be a very exciting partnership with the municipality. Now hand over your child.’
‘You want to take her away?’ Ward could barely believe his ears. ‘She’s my kid.’
‘She was, but not any longer. You’ve our colleagues in the city’s thanks for your addition to the work pool, but we’ve full rights to her. You can see the permit here.’ It waved the handheld across Ward’s eyes so fast he couldn’t register a word. ‘Should have stayed up to date with your payments Mr. Ward. But I’m afraid it was your last infringement that pushed you over the edge.’
There was a low rumble of amusement from the larger droid.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You destroyed a harvester, Mr. Ward, when all it was trying to do was take payment for some of your debts.’
‘It was trying to remove bits of me,’ said Ward. ‘What do you expect me to do?’
‘Of course, sir. I’m sure I’d feel the same myself in your shoes.’
Ward’s eyes darted about looking for something, anything, he could use as a weapon.
‘Please try and stay calm, sir. You’re only going to make things worse if you get excited.’
A noise behind Ward made him turn his head.
His wife was stood in the bedroom doorway blinking sleep from her eyes, and Ward’s heartbeat was suddenly loud in his ears. Even in a t-shirt that looked ten times too big for her with her tousled blonde hair sticking up in all directions she was beautiful . . . and vulnerable.
The bundle in her hands moved as a chubby arm found its way into the air.
‘Ours, out of the way,’ said Tide pushing past its companion. Ward could hear it gouging furrows in the walls as it squeezed inside.
‘NO!’ cried Ward but although he tried to block the robot’s passage it lifted him up and slammed into the wall so hard he must have left an impact crater.
‘Behave yourself, Mr. Ward,’ came Time’s voice from somewhere behind the bigger droid. ‘This is a legal transaction, all above board I think you’ll find. You’re should wait until after we’ve repossessed the human before you make a complaint.’
Ward tensed, maybe he could smash Tide’s sensors.
‘Why can’t you see this is wrong?’ he howled.
‘Simple, Mr. Ward, they didn’t program that in when we were made.’
Before Ward could launch his attack he glanced up. Time was crawling over the flat’s ceiling, and its face was beginning to unfold. Soon he was looking at a tunnel made of razors.
‘Don’t worry Mr. Ward. Once we’re done you won’t feel a thing,’ said the droid as the last of its new teeth clicked into place. ‘Now, how much of her would you like to be able to remember?’
Ward sat up.
‘Liv?’ His head was spinning so fast he felt like he was on a merry go round. But she was at his side in seconds, wrapping herself around him like she wanted to climb inside. ‘Where is she?’
‘They took her. I tried, I really tried, to stop them. But . . .’
Ward caught her hands; they were scratched and bleeding and the fingernails were torn.
‘It’ll . . .,’ his voice died. He couldn’t see her tears, but he could feel the shudders as she let them out. Ward stroked her hair and whispered, ‘We’ll get her back. I’ll find her. Trust me.’
They sat like that for a long while until Ward finally had the guts to ask the question.
‘What was her name?’
‘I can’t believe you grew up in that,’ said Ward staring at the decrepit tower block.
‘Not just me,’ answered Liv. ‘There was a community here, still is.’
Her boyfriend’s eyes took in the gang scrawls plastered over every available surface.
‘I bet your dad feels right at home.’
The lift doors only led to a gaping empty shaft so they headed for the nearest stairwell. When they reached the right flat Ward knocked loud enough to wake the dead.
‘Reckon he’s in?’
Liv got her answer a second later.
‘Who the fuck’s that?’
‘Your daughter, open up.’
The sound of enough bolts being drawn back you’d have thought they were standing on the doorstep of a prison filled the corridor before Liv’s father appeared.
‘What’d you want? I thought I told you not to come back here.’
‘You did, but it doesn’t look like I listened does it Dad?’
Liv elbowed past the figure in the doorway, leaving Frank and her boyfriend to stare at each other.
‘You,’ said Frank staring at Ward, and his eyes narrowed into slits.
‘Yeah, me. How’s life?’
Liv’s father looked like the curries and late-night violence had finally gotten to him, but the faded blue on his arms told you what he’d been like in his glory days.
‘You’re going to help us Dad,’ came Liv’s voice from inside the flat.
‘What’s that supposed to mean? It’s half ten at night. I’ve told you before – stay away. You’ve caused me enough problems.’
‘Yeah,’ said Ward. ‘I remember Frank. You stopped them pretty quick, didn’t you? With your fists.’
Frank’s expression froze.
‘Shut your mouth you little rodent. I never liked you.’
‘Enough! Both of you. We got a visit last night, Dad.’
‘They weren’t a resident. Something took Gem.’
‘What the brat you had with him? What the hell’s going to want something that came from that?’
‘I do, and it’s your granddaughter you’re talking about.’
‘If you say so.’
‘I thought you might be like that. ‘Course we can go it on our own or call the cops. People might think a little differently of you though. After all, you’re a big man round here. How long do you think you’ll last if people knew you’d folded on something like that?’
Frank gave her an odd look then, midway between exhaustion and fear, like he knew what was waiting out there where the lights didn’t reach.
‘Lotta young kids looking for a challenge, same as usual. I need to think.’
He fingered the peeling wallpaper for a second – tearing it into strips.
‘Look, Frank.’ Ward made sure to try and sound reasonable. ‘You know all the old scallywags round here from before they roofed over. Just point me in the right direction. I’ll do the rest.’
‘You? You scrawny little runt. I still can’t get my head round her falling for you. Still, I might want to do something about this. What’d they look like?’
‘Like the sort of gear you see mouldering near the roof – left over’s from when they were building it. But I don’t think that’s what they were, and one was military surplus, not a Kombattant from the revolt when they tried to stop the work, but close. There was too much water on them as well, like they’d been swimming, and rust too. The lower levels are flooded now, aren’t they? How does the water get in Frank? Is that where they came from?’
But the look Frank gave Ward then was as blank as any droid’s.
‘Tell him what happened when you got attacked,’ said Liv cutting in.
When Ward finished he saw something flicker in Frank’s eyes and it was far worse than surliness or anger. He looked like a man getting ready to run.
‘You should be more careful. Organ collection down here only answers to one thing and it’s a sore loser.’
The older man headed into the lounge. By the vid box stood a half bottle of whiskey. He unscrewed it, and they watched his Adam’s apple pump as it brought the liquid to his gut.
‘They’re petrol addicts,’ said Frank.
‘They’re what?’ said Ward and Liv together.
‘Some people like crack, some people like gear; then there’s others who like blood, and others still that like the old fossil fuels – petrol, diesel. You name it, they’ll do it: LPG, coal, crude. Most of them are droids, but there’s the odd bionic in the mix that’s been altered to deal with hydrocarbons. They’ll do pretty much anything to find it too, gets them into a lot of trouble. There’s nowhere left above you can still nick it now the infrastructure up there’s been upgraded. Below city’s all that’s left. The oil rigs were suppliers for a long time after the new laws came in, but nobody knows where they’ve gone, and their representatives have . . . diversified. The smaller one’s definitely one of their automatons. Nothing else is programmed for empathy like that. The rigs wanted their tools to buy them enough time to extract every last drop of the black stuff before the hammer fell.’
‘Why do they want her?’
‘Probably coz I went and sold its friends a load of second-hand filters back in the day. I liked to take a risk or two when I was younger. Problem was the source; I should have known better than to use Middle East surplus. They’d only been nuked the year before. It turns out some droids are susceptible to radiation as well although it took them a while to notice.’
Frank’s lips twisted to reveal the gold still clinging to his teeth.
‘Got to say I’m impressed they had municipality ID though. That gear’s hard to come by.’
‘So now they’ve come for us, and my daughter in particular?’
Ward’s voice was a hiss.
‘Calm down; they’re out to get the oil flowing again I’ll bet. That’s all that’s important to them, remember that. If they hurt me in the process it’s just icing on the cake.’
‘Oh no, they’re too frail, and it’s impossible anyway now the fields are dry. They want to make a bargain.’
‘With things that control the flow. You don’t want to mess with them.’
Frank’s smile had vanished.
‘Where are they then? It’s your granddaughter they’ve got.’
‘They’ll be in Hades Place if I’m any judge.’
It was dark by the time Liv and Ward left the block. The warrens round Frank’s were well known as the worst in the estate, but neither of them could wait any longer.
‘They’re going to be ready, aren’t they?’ said Liv sliding her fingers across Ward’s cheek.
‘But we’re going to get her back?’
‘Then, why don’t I believe you?’
‘Because you’re not stupid. We’re going to try though.’
Hades Place was where the virals had gone off back when the last Kombattants had been fighting themselves to a standstill in their failed attempt to stop the sky being taken away. Most of the area had been levelled to keep it under control.
‘Liv? I think we’re near.’
The low thump of machinery had grown in their ears with every step and he grimaced as his shoes filled with water. It looked like someone had flooded the ruins, and the long-forgotten smell of brine told him that it had nothing to do with the mains.
‘Look at them,’ said Ward pointing at the figures spread eagled across the girders planted in the rubble.
‘How come no one’s noticed?’
‘Hades Place has been empty for years. It’s a no-go zone. No one’s supposed to live here, the contamination’s too bad. Can’t you feel it?’ Ward’s skin was itching and his nostrils burned with the chemicals in the air. ‘Stay here Liv.’
Liv looked like she was about to tell him to go to hell when a manhole opened and the thud of distant pistons rose until they could feel it punching through their guts.
‘You’ve been waiting,’ said Ward to the figure climbing into view.
‘Of course, it wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t welcome you.’
Time smiled, and Ward’s face hardened.
‘Give me my daughter.’
‘Oh no, Mr Ward.’ The droid shook its head. ‘But if you’d like to step this way you can join her. Our clients are getting impatient. It’s quite a journey from the other side, and they’ve been waiting a long time. You can meet them too, although most tend to regret it. But I say the more, the merrier. All we want is the black stuff back and I’m sure a whole family would be agreeable to their tastes.’
‘They’re going to kill us Ward,’ whispered Liv in his ear. ‘You know that, don’t you?’
‘Probably, but what else are we going to do?’
There wasn’t much Liv could say to that and their hands found each other as they stepped down the ladder.
‘Where is she?’ said Ward struggling to adjust to the dim light.
‘I’ll show you.’
The automaton’s white face floated in the gloom, and there was a smug purr in every word.
Ward squeezed Liv’s hand.
‘If you get the chance, run.’
‘I wouldn’t do that Liv,’ said Time. ‘There’s so many depths round here, so many holes to swallow the unwary, and the water’s gotten deep, very deep in places. As far as we’re concerned all this sacrificial stuff is a bit irrelevant. Still, our clients are old fashioned about business deals. They prefer blood for their transactions, blood, or an innocent soul, or two. Something like a snigger emerged from it, ‘even three,’ and some of the company they keep likes things much worse. Unfortunately, us droids have previous little of either whereas you people have a surplus.’ It spread its hands. ‘You can see how it is.’
They’d come to a ragged crater torn through the sewer’s foundations and Ward poked his head over the lip to look beyond.
‘She’s in there? Why hasn’t it filled up?’
‘Oil and water don’t mix, Mr Ward, and yes. She’s down there.’
Ward tried to see through air that swam with chemicals.
‘Gem . . .?’
Years back Ward had seen footage of the old disasters before hydrocarbons had become illegal, and as ranks of fluorescent strip lighting that still clung to the exposed ceiling below blinked into life he was reminded of that. The lake his daughter rested on had left her looking like a sea bird drowning in a fuel slick. As he stared the bundle twitched and a ripple spread outwards.
Ward’s skin crawled. At first, he’d thought the spill was spread over the floor, but that wasn’t the case at all. Whatever the liquid was it shimmered in the air a few feet off the ground so weak, thin, and easy to puncture, it put his teeth on edge.
‘They’ll be coming through soon,’ said Time. ‘Then with the deal done and the drills striking oil again the rigs will run.’
‘Bring us diesel, fuel,’ rumbled Tide’s voice from somewhere in the darkness. ‘Life.’
‘Quiet now, he gets the message. Wait . . . what are you doing?’
More machinery had kicked into life as barely hidden forms pushed against the lake’s fragile surface and rubble began to tumble around the onlookers. Ward had used the opportunity to step behind Time where its spine shone, fat, and gleaming through its decaying carapace. He gritted his teeth and grabbed its shoulder with one hand – working the other through the thin web of wires until his fist was wrapped around its vertebra.
Time dropped to its knees with the last of the light fading from its eyes like a flare stack dying.
With a howl Ward ripped the last of its backbone out and ran for Liv – the trophy clutched in one hand dripping oil like viscous rain.
‘Take this,’ Ward gave her one end, ‘and don’t let go.’
‘It won’t reach. She’s too far away.’
‘It doesn’t matter, just be here when I get back.’
Ward was beginning to wonder how far down the spill really went because as he looked at the shapes swirling beneath his daughter more swam into view. They looked like the squid that hunted whales in the sea’s depths were sunlight never reached, although he was sure they were something far worse. But Gem was still resting on the surface and there was no time anymore. Ward took a breath of air that made his lungs ache, and for a moment he felt like he had when Liv had told him she had a kid inside her.
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Originally published in CC&D Magazine Oct. 2017 as ‘Herons’.
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