Ward glanced at the ‘el’s’ route again and tried to stop his hand twitching. The emergency cord was right next to his head and someone had stepped on his foot again. He took a breath of body odour and bad nerves and tried to make a space amongst the commuters crammed onto the carriage. By the time he’d made it to the street, he was glad of the rain hitting his face. Bodies flooded past as above city spat the last of its passengers toward the Edge, and Ward plonked his arse on the nearest car wreck. He sat lotus style for a few minutes, getting his breathing under control. There’d been too many fights between him and Liv recently for him to hurry home.
‘Cast her, tell her the bad news that way.’
But when his fingers came back up holding nothing but lint and old job centre receipts. Ward put his head in his hands and tried not to move. Maybe nothing else would go wrong if he stayed still.
Ward lurched through the puddles to the storm drain before the phone could disappear into the city’s guts. When a van began to bounce on its springs with its interior lights flicking on and off his first thought was he should have known better. You didn’t hang around after dark in the hinterlands.
He peered into the storm; there were shapes moving in it now, and they had nothing to do with the bomb-scarred wrecks littering the street. Ward was quickly deciding he needed to be inside. Anywhere would do, pub or cafe, even a newsagents would be fine so long as it was off the road and away from the looters clutches.
Ward’s feet shuffled back without him stopping as the whine of a motor struggling to cope with the weather reached his ears.
‘Who is it? Come on; let’s be having you.’
Metal ticked over a car roof, and something landed on his back hard enough to steal the air from his lungs. He rocketed his elbow into its side and realized his mistake as stars burst across his eyes – not a bio then.
‘Be still. Not move. Make hurt more.’ The voice was so full of static it was hard to make out the words. ‘Subject should try not to scream; procedure will complete quicker that way.’
Ward felt his neck sting.
He was up and in the road a moment later, trying not to bite his tongue in two until he heard the noise he’d been praying for. Ward bucked his shoulders, and the passing vehicle took care of the rest. When the debris had finished rolling into the gutter, he fingered what was left of his jacket.
‘Damn, those were my best threads.’
Ward pulled the curtains back letting light flood into the tiny rundown flat. There seemed a lot of it for such a tiny place; he watched dust sift through the air as an artic rumbled past.
‘It’d be quicker doing ourselves in,’ he said into the noise and the edge in his voice made him want to punch something.
‘Then stop being so high and mighty’ that was Liv his childhood sweetheart and his wife. ‘The landlords on the phone every other day asking why his stately home’s rent isn’t being paid.’
‘Don’t be like that Liv. We did the best we could with what we had after you paid off your Dad.’
They watched each other through the sunbeams, neither moving, not yet. There were still things that needed to be said.
‘That’s not all.’
Liv’s voice tailed off; the job she’d taken to keep them fed was rubbing at her smile like sandpaper.
She looked away, and when he could see her face again, her skin was taught, like she wanted to run but wasn’t sure where.
‘Pregnant?’ He stopped, and blood roared in his ears. When she looked up her eyes didn’t meet his as she dropped the bomb, ‘I want to keep it.’
It was Christmas before he was stood looking down at what they’d produced.
‘Do you think she’s beautiful?’
Liv sounded uncertain as if for once she didn’t know what he was going to say.
‘Yeah, she is.’
Liv gave him the smile; the one she wore when they lay on sweat stained sheets, and she slid close enough to kiss.
Ward was watching telly when they got the visit.
‘Who’s there? That you Tony?’ The doorbell stopped; its noise soaking into the flats walls, ‘What do you want? Liv and the kid are asleep. You trying to give me a heart attack?’
He made himself laugh. He should never have told his mate the landlord had been threatening them with a visit for months. Ward slid the chain off and peered into the darkness. Then the door slammed back into his face.
The ringing in his ears didn’t stop until he was on the floor and in the gap where his front door had stood were his visitors. All Ward could see of one was its chest and a high viz jacket, but it was the smaller of the two that spoke first.
‘Good evening sir, my name’s Time and this is my associate, Tide. We’d have liked to be quicker, but you know how it is.’
Behind them the stairwell swallowed the light. There were other visitors crowding the steps down there, ones Ward wasn’t sure he wanted to know about. The larger of his two guests lowered its head and spoke with a voice that sounded like water hitting the hollows of a cave.
‘Deep water got in the way see.’
‘Don’t forget the vents,’ said its companion, Time.
‘That’s right, didn’t want to stay long round them, too hot. No choice though, never a choice. Spat us out like dead fish.’
‘That’s right spreads barnacles like a plague, the sea.’
‘Yes, dry, but thirsty.’
Time smiled at Ward, ‘You’re going to help with that.’
It stepped through the wreckage and produced a clipboard that matched the decaying overalls hanging from its ribs. There was a little badge with the name ‘Time’ and a mug shot on a chain round its neck.
‘Bugger off, chum,’ said Ward.
‘Not yet, Ward, we want to talk to you.’
Ward had dragged himself to his feet and he let fly. He felt his knuckles catch in Time’s hands with a sound like a bone snapping.
‘Robots? You’re not supposed to be down here; this is residential only,’ he said through the pain.
A blow that felt like it could punch through brick found his side.
Ward heard Time say, ‘Leave him, I hate not being able to understand what they’re saying because they’re choking on their own teeth.’
Ward rolled over, he could just see the bedroom. Meks down here was likely to mean one thing.
‘Liv, get the kid, and get out.’
That got their spokesman’s attention.
‘Funny, you should mention that. Your daughter’s what we came to talk about.’
Water dripped from the things joints as it flicked through the manifest in its fist, ‘No. 302 isn’t it Tide?’
‘Yeah, let him up. We’ve got paperwork to fill out.’
Time stepped further into the flat, and Ward got a good look at the thing in the remains of it’s overalls. It had skin the colour of old foam, and when he looked closer, he could see why. It was plastic, and its eyes were as empty as the ocean floor.
‘What are you? You’re not the same as them.’
He nodded at the rest of the figures in the shadows.
‘I’m their supervisor. I represent the Rig. We’ve come to serve notice on your daughter.’
‘You want to repossess her? She’s my kid.’
‘She was, but she’s ours now. We’ve made more than a few alterations via you. You’ve the municipality’s thanks, but we’ve full rights to her. You can see the documents. Should have stayed up to date with your payments Mr. Ward.’
There was a low chorus of amusement from its friends.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You destroyed our implant drone, Mr. Ward, when all it was trying to do was implant the correct compliance sequence. Totally unnecessary, but we’ve become used to it with your type. Now we’ve a job to do and it isn’t helped by uncooperative characters like you. Get the bar code reader ready Mr. Tide.’ Tide produced a device in its fist as its colleague continued, ‘Now dividends have to be paid, debts reimbursed, salaries as well. Fortunately, the procedure worked, and your daughter got what she needs; even if she doesn’t know it yet. Now we must get a move on we’ve appointments to keep.’
Its eyes blurred as data swept across their iris’.
‘Come in here, and I’ll string you up from the ceiling,’ said Ward.
‘Of course, you will Mr. Ward. I’d do the same myself. You see she’s quite precious to certain parties. They’re very insistent about sacrifice. As far as we’re concerned it’s all a bit irrelevant. They’re very old fashioned when what we’re looking at is a straightforward product exchange, oil for time, blood for futures, that sort of thing. It’s been going on for centuries. Without the black stuff we used to extract how is anyone supposed to live? But, your daughter’s got plenty of what they want, and she’s particularly useful after all the others died in transit. The city’s been kind enough to donate her in return for services rendered. She should survive the transition if that’s any consolation. Whether or not she’ll enjoy her life afterward is another matter.’
‘To where we’re sending her. It’s all pretty standard stuff. We’ve got quite good at it what with all the practice we’ve had,’ Time stopped, ‘…well the repossession part anyway.’
Ward’s eyes darted about looking for something he could use to take the smile off its face.
‘Please try and stay calm Mr. Ward. You’re only going to make things worse if you get excited.’
There was a noise from further back in the flat.
She was stood in the bedroom doorway, blinking sleep from her eyes. Ward felt his heart thump.
The bundle in her hands twitched, and an arm groped at the air as Time began to speak, ‘Ours, I’m afraid. Out of the way please Mr. Ward.’
Tide’s figure moved into the corridor hunched over with its head scraping the ceiling as the figures that had been hiding in the stair well flowed in after it.
Ward felt himself lifted up and slammed into the wall so deep he must have left a crater.
‘Behave yourself, Mr. Ward. This is a legal transaction, all above board I’ll think you’ll find. You’re going to have to wait until after we’ve repossessed if you want to make a complaint.’
‘What’s wrong with you, why can’t you see this is wrong?’ howled Ward.
‘I believe a human like you would call it being sick, Mr. Ward, so sick with hunger it hurts. It’s been a long time since we weren’t.’
Time’s face began to unfold, and soon Ward was looking down a tunnel made of razors.
‘Don’t worry Mr. Ward we’ll be quick.’
Ward sat up.
His head was pounding so badly he could barely remember his name. But she was at his side in a second; wrapping herself around him like she wanted to climb inside.
‘They took her. I tried, I really tried to stop them, but they said if I didn’t let them all they’d leave me with was her skin. What am I supposed to do with that?’
He couldn’t see her tears, but he could feel the shudders as she let them out.
‘We’ll get her back; where did they go?’ said Ward.
‘They didn’t say, just that she was theirs.’
‘I’ll find her. They’ll be in some rat hole round here judging by the state of them, robots are worse than scabs.’
‘How do you know?’
‘They’ll work for anyone. Anyway where else they going to go? They’d be cleaned off the streets in seconds up above.’
‘But the Edge’s huge; there’s thousands of people living here.’
‘I’ll ask your Dad,’ Ward tried not to let how that made him feel show.
‘You won’t. You said next time you saw him you were going to knock his teeth out.’
Liv’s Dad was six foot two and built like the meat factory he used to work in. Right now Ward would have fought him just for the hell of it.
‘He’s friends with all the scallywags round here. One of them will know where she is. Come on Liv we’ve got to try.’
‘What about the cops?’
‘I can’t believe you lived in that.’
He looked up at the soot stained concrete. The burnt out flats had had their windows covered with peeling chip board, and they were the lucky ones. Every pane of glass within a stones throw of the ground had been smashed.
‘Not just me.’
I bet your Dad feels right at home.’
When they reached his flat Ward belted the door loud enough to wake the dead, but no one appeared to find out who it was making the noise; you didn’t where Frank was concerned.
‘Reckon he’s in?’
Liv got her answer a second later.
‘Who the hell’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 as Frank appeared in the darkness.
‘What do you want? I thought I told you not to come back here.’
‘You did, but it doesn’t look like I listened does it?’ said Liv.
She elbowed her way inside leaving Frank and her boyfriend to stare at each other.
‘You,’ Frank’s eyes narrowed to slits.
‘Yeah me, Frank. 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 still told you what he’d been like in his glory days. Liv’s voice broke the deadlock.
‘You’re going to help us Dad.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean? It’s half twelve at night. I’ve told you before; stay away. You cause me enough problems as it is.’
‘Yeah, I remember that Frank. You tried to stop that though, didn’t you? With your fists.’
For a man as big as Frank he could still move surprisingly fast when he wanted. Ward found himself flattened against the wall with an arm at his neck.
‘Shut your mouth you little rodent. I never liked you.’
‘We got a visit last night, Dad.’
‘They weren’t a resident, something took Gem.’
‘What the brat you had with him?’ Frank dropped his arm, ‘Who the hell’s going to want that?’
‘I do, and it’s your granddaughter you’re talking about.’
‘If you say so.’
‘I thought you might be like that,’ said Liv. ‘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 my Dad. How long do you think you’ll last if people knew how weak you’d got?’
Frank gave her an odd look then, midway between exhaustion and fear, like he knew what was waiting out there beyond them where the lights didn’t quite reach.
‘Lotta young kids looking for a challenge same as usual,’ said Frank. ‘It doesn’t change. Alright, wait a minute I need to think.’
Frank fingered the peeling wall paper for a second before tearing some into strips.
‘Look, Frank,’ Ward did his best to sound reasonable, ‘You know everyone round here from before they roofed over. Point me in the right direction and 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; it depends. What did they look like?’
‘One of them was like the sort of gear you see on the lower levels from when they were roofing over. But I don’t think that’s what they are, the other was high tek, or it was once. There was water on them as well. The lower levels are dry these days.’
‘Tell him what happened when you got attacked,’ said Liv in his ear.
When Ward finished the look on Frank’s face made him want to leave right then.
‘You’ve been poking your nose into things you shouldn’t have, haven’t you? You need to be careful. Things change, it’s not the same round here as when I was a lad. Back then, I pissed off a lot of things I shouldn’t but I knew what they were. There’d be a queue right round the block if they all came visiting for me today. Frank laughed, but there wasn’t much humour in the sound.
Now its different, there’s things out there even I don’t know about. I stay in here it’s safer. Your problem is what’s responsible for this has gone official on you.’
‘I’ve been waiting for you to say something like that. You know what it is don’t you?’
Frank nodded, ‘It’s been looking for a way to get back at me for years.’
Frank headed into the lounge, by the vid box stood a half bottle of whiskey. The old man unscrewed it, and they watched his Adam’s apple pump as it brought the liquid to his gut.
‘They’re from the rigs aren’t they?’ said Ward.
‘From the old oil rigs before we ran out, yes. But that’s not the worst of it. They’re petrol addicts.’
Frank shrugged, ‘Some people like crack, some people like gear; then there’re others who like blood, and others still that like petrol, diesel. You name it; they’ll do it; LPG, gas, when they run out maybe even a bit of crude. Most of them are Meks, but there’s the odd Bio in the mix that’s been altered to deal with it. They’ll do pretty much anything to get to it too, gets them into a lot of trouble. There’s nowhere left above you can still nick it now the populations been upgraded. The Edge’s all that’s left. The rigs carried on supplying for a long time after the collapse. At least the deep sea ones did before the oil finally ran out and they got fancy with all that fusion cell rubbish. That white thing’s one of their automatons. You should be thankful that’s what’s got your girl not one of the spark heads. They’re a lot worse. You wouldn’t want to see the state of Gem once they’re done with her.’
‘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.’
Frank’s lips twisted to reveal the gold still clinging to his teeth.
‘Problem was the source; I should have known better than to use Middle East surplus. They’d only been nuked the year before. Turns out Meks are susceptible to radiation as well.’
‘So now they’ve come for us, and my daughter in particular?’
Frank grinned, and Ward started forward.
‘Calm down son; they’re out to get the oil flowing again. That’s all that’s important to them, remember that.’
‘Oh no, they’re too frail, and it’s impossible anyway now the fields are dry. They want to make a bargain.’
‘With things, you don’t want to mess with.’
Franks smile was so wide now you could count the gaps.
‘Where are they then?’
By the time they left the block it was dark. The warrens round Franks were well known as the worst on the Edge but neither of them could wait.
‘They’re going to be ready aren’t they?’
Liv slid a hand down Ward’s cheek as he brought his face toward her.
‘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 anyway.’
Hades Place was where the virals had gone off back when the last of the Kombattants had been fighting themselves to a standstill during the civil war. Now, all you could see through its windows were stars shining through the roofs.
‘He said the house was one of these.’
‘Don’t look like much do they?’
Ward paused, the air felt like someone had brushed it the wrong way long enough to draw sparks, ‘They’re in.’
‘Let’s go round the back. They won’t see us then.’
The back yards were full of beams, barbed wire, and rats. As they went deeper the low thump of machinery reached their ears .
‘No wonder the areas empty. Look at them.’
Each house had a pair of heavy girders planted in their yards and a figure spread eagled across them.
‘How come no one’s noticed?’
‘Hades Place’s empty has been for years. It’s a no-go zone. No one’s supposed to live here, the contaminations too bad. Can’t you feel it?’
Ward could, the bump where he’d been bitten was itching so bad he was surprised the skin hadn’t come off. He pulled Liv close, ‘You should go.’
Liv looked like she was about to tell him what she thought of that when the nearest door opened and the noise grew louder, flooding round them like a sea.
‘You’ve been waiting,’ said Ward.
‘Of course,’ something like a grin appeared on Time’s face. It would have looked better if some of it hadn’t fallen off at the same time, ‘it wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t welcome you.’
Ward had thought the only thing the crosses held were the rain eaten corpses of the under projects former residents. He’d been wrong. Meks were crawling along the bars everywhere he looked.
‘Give me my daughter.’
‘Of course Mr. Ward. If you’d like to step this way? They’re getting impatient. It’s a long way through the muck, and they’ve been waiting a long time. You can go with her too if you like. The more, the merrier. It’s not our fault they were so specific about age. All we want is the black stuff back.’
‘The oil,’ said Ward.
‘Need it,’ began the automatons companions and they’d crept close enough you could hear the ache in every word.
Ward answered for both him and Liv, ‘We’ll go.’
‘Good, follow me,’ said Time.
‘They’re going to kill us you know that, don’t you?’ Liv’s hand found Wards as the sound of pistons rose to drown everything else.
‘What else are we supposed to do?’
‘Where’s my daughter?’
‘I’ll show you,’ said the Rig’s automaton. You could still see its smile, even in the dark, each tooth gleamed.
Ward squeezed Liv’s hand.
‘If you get the chance, run.’
‘I wouldn’t do it Liv. There’s so many depths round here; so many holes to swallow the unwary, so many sub clauses to our contract with the city. I’m sure they won’t mind taking the sacrifice’s mother too. There’s still plenty of future left in you.’
The noise of machinery was coming from a ragged hole torn through the tenemants foundations. Ward poked his head over the lip and looked…‘Down there?’
Ward’s nostrils burned as he peered over the edge.
Years back he’d seen footage of the old disasters when hydrocarbons had grown so rare they’d started punishing people for their use. What Ward could see below him looked like a sea bird drowning in an oil slick, and the machines around his daughter were bleeding more with every second. As he stared the little bundle twitched and a ripple spread over the lake’s surface. It looked so ready to snap it put his teeth on edge.
‘We’re going to send her through soon,’ said Time. ‘It’s almost ready. With the drills striking oil again the rigs will run.’
‘Fuel,’ said Time’s companions.
‘Quiet, he gets the message,’ Time waved its companions into silence.
The machinery had begun to judder and shake breaking the pools surface into a thousand ripples as more came to life. But Time hadn’t moved and light was beginning to crawl over its face from below as though a sea down there were parting.
When Ward hit Tide’s side the robot went over without a fuss with its eyes never moving from the sight in front of it. The noise of plant kicking into life grew louder and Time’s fuel lines shone, fat, and full down its back just visible through the pitted metal. Ward gritted his teeth and slammed his knuckles through until he held a fistful of them, and pulled. When Time dropped to its knees with the last of the light fading from its eyes like a stack’s flare going out Ward’s howl was so loud dust sifted down from overhead. He finished ripping what he’d found there out and ran for Liv, his trophy clutched in one hand spilling petrol and oil like rain.
‘Take this,’ Ward gave her one end of Times spine, ‘and don’t let go.’
‘It won’t reach; she’s gone look.’
Ward already had; the surface of the lake was as flat and black as if there had never been anything resting on it.
‘It doesn’t matter, just be here when I get back.’
Ward took a breath of air that made his lungs burn, and for a moment he felt like he was in the flat when Liv had told him she had a kid inside her.
The spill better not be deep.
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