Oddland 3

Adventures in a post-rational world

Chapter 3

The Warehousers

John walked for a few hours but soon realized the entire landscape of this part of Utah consisted of the same uniform scrubland everywhere. Spotting a decent sized hill they climbed to its peak, providing a natural sloping plain to launch the gliderwing.

He’d been aloft for hours, the brush and scrub lazily drifting past far below. Oddjob easily kept up as before, the relentless pace managed by his steady lope as he trailed half a mile or so behind.

He flew high enough he could see for miles. After several hours a feature emerged on the horizon. Over the space of about fifteen minutes it resolved to be some kind of wall or fence.

Man-made structures sat beyond the barrier itself. They looked like black shoeboxes, their stark, boxy forms hugging the barren ground. A long, straight row stretched into the distance, each maybe a quarter of a mile from the next one along.

Was this the area Frank had mentioned? The barrier did seem to be some kind of fence as he drew closer. It ran left and right all the way to the horizon, impossible to go around.

Another smaller building sat to the left. Beyond that, further along, stood a cluster of several structures huddled together.

Evening couldn’t be far away and if he flew beyond the fence Oddjob may not be able to follow. Plus he needed a break.

He pulled on the handlebars and began a slow turn. Once on the ground he could get a closer look at the place and give Oddjob a chance to catch up.

The medbot ran to the gliderwing fifty yards away. Looking around, he spotted John then walked over to his position.

He had left the gliderwing open so Oddjob could recharge. A strong breeze blew against the shrubs littering the ground. Given the lightness of the gliderwing he worried it might get picked up by the wind and blown around, damaging the hexpanels. He’d anchored it with a stone found nearby, pressed down on the handlebars holding it in place. A future modification ought to include some method of securing it when needed.

Could he take off from such a flat landscape? The gliderwing was so light even modest speed created lift, and he hadn’t really tested the ability of the propeller either. Maybe this was the place to try it.

Oddjob caught up to him and stopped.

“Charge ninety-four percent.”

John turned and walked to the metal fence ahead of them, the bot following silently behind.

Beyond the barrier sat several buildings baking in the heat. The closest, off to the left, looked in disrepair. Even from several hundred yards he could observe damage, cracks in the wall illuminated by shafts of light through the roof. It looked abandoned. Further to the left he could just see the cluster of structures he had spotted from the air.

Over to the right stood the dark shape of a similar structure, the first in the long line he’d seen stretch into the distance. Above it hovered small dark shapes drifting above the flat roof. The only sign of movement.

He indicated the building for Oddjob’s benefit.

“Are those drones?”

The bot moved closer to the fence, peering in silence.

“Sixteen aerial drones. Communicating using an encrypted mesh network. Do you wish me to send a handshake?”

“No. Leave it for now.”

The other buildings were not visible from here. But he knew they were there, further inside what must be an enormous area. Was it all fenced in?

The fence towered forty or fifty feet above them. The latticework of its surface created holes about an inch wide making it easy to see through, but impossible to climb. Thick black posts spaced about ten yards apart anchored the barrier solidly into the ground, the black paint worn and eroded in places.

The fence ran to the horizon, almost completely straight.

He turned to Oddjob.

“Let’s see if we can find a way in.”

He’d left the gliderwing off to the right, the fence fully intact there so he turned left and began walking.

It took about ten minutes to find the first signs of decay. Two sections of the fence leaned outward, away from the compound. The dry earth beneath one of the support posts had sunk several feet into the ground. The fence itself leaned over, although still looked solid and anchored. Even with the partial collapse the barrier loomed high above them.

Looking back he couldn’t see the gliderwing, its thirty-foot wingspan lost to the arid landscape. It ought to be difficult for anyone else to spot it too, not that there was any sign of anyone around.

Only a few hundred yards along he could see a gap in the fence.

“Come on. I see something.”

As they approached it became apparent five or six sections of the fence had fully collapsed. Shrubs inside the compound pushed through the dark fencing lying flat on the sandy terrain almost obscuring it.

A large sign ran almost the full height of the barrier, its original white now faded and yellowed with exposure to the sun. The plastic material had become warped by the heat, the edges cracked and worn.

Debris covered some of the wording. Stepping onto the sign he kicked it away to see it more clearly, feeling the brittle plastic crack beneath his feet.

Stepping back to get a better view, the letters were so big he had to make sense of it one letter at a time. Eventually he joined it all together.

Am·z·n — Co·tr·l·ed Ar·a

F··fi·l·ent C·m·l·x 5

W··t J·rd·n, Ut·h

The word Utah immediately caught his attention. Three gold letters from the first line stood out from the faded black of the rest, the letters A, C and A. That’s what Frank had warned him about. Aca.

This had to be the place Frank mentioned. Difficult to go around.

The damaged building he’d seen from the air stood less than five hundred yards inside the compound, the more intact one now hidden behind it. From here its dilapidated nature was even more apparent, with part of the roof collapsed in on the structure.

He could walk straight in. Given how much they’d have to go around the place it made sense to check out how big it was or if there was a way through.

Looking up, the sky had only begun to darken. Plenty of time for Oddjob to recharge.

He turned to the medbot.

“I’m going to check it out. But let’s get back to the glider first and you can get charged.”

His footsteps rang out in the quiet air when he stepped on to the broken sign as he walked into the compound.

The place looked like no one had set foot in it for years. Ahead of him loomed the first building, clearly in disrepair. Its original black exterior had faded, bleached by the sun to a tired grey pallor.

A windowless box about fifty feet high, cracks disfigured the wall. Sand had blown against the structure to a height of almost three feet.

After a few minutes he reached it. Walking along the side he peered in to the structure through a vertical fissure an inch wide running the full height of the building. Most of the roof had collapsed. Debris lay everywhere intermixed with the disintegrating remains of the roof. Support girders had fallen decades before, jutting in to the air like bones from some ancient skeleton.

It was a mess. New plants sprouted on the ground inside as the landscape began to reclaim the edifice.

He kept walking. There was nothing here and no obvious way inside.

Reaching the end of the structure he turned the corner. In the distance stood the other building. Even from several hundred yards away he could tell it was newer, its exterior retaining a more uniform black color.

As he approached it became apparent the scale was greater, the building much bigger despite being similar in design. Another windowless box.

Movement above it caught his attention, the drones moving around seemingly randomly.

He paused. Something was here. But what? He thought back to the sign but it hadn’t given him much. It didn’t look like a warning. Just a normal sign. Frank had referred to it as a controlled area, but controlled by whom?

The drones drifted aimlessly above the roof. He could always leave if anything happened.

He pressed on, determined to find out why buildings had been erected here in the middle of nowhere. There had to be a way through.

The building rose to a height of several hundred feet. It had to be three or four hundred yards in length. Much bigger than the abandoned one, the exterior a uniform matt black. Layered with a light haze of sandy dust its construction looked more recent than the older one.

The drones had not bothered him and he lost sight of them as he moved closer.

Almost a quarter of the way down the side a drone drifted over the edge of the roof and stopped in the distance. Its basic circular form was about ten or twelve inches in diameter. Below the otherwise featureless chassis hung a collection of stubby rods and protrusions on a gimbal, presumably a sensor cluster. It stopped dead, hanging in the warm air, watching him.

He looked over to his right and could just see the fence in the distance, difficult to spot due the mottled effect of the landscape, a mixture of the uneven ground and the small shrubs everywhere.

He felt relief when he spotted Oddjob, just visible beyond the barrier. He couldn’t see the gliderwing at all from here.

Looking back up the drone hovered perfectly stationary in the air. He walked forward and it moved back, keeping a steady distance.

Almost halfway down a rectangular area stood out very slightly against the uniform black of the rest of the structure, an almost imperceptible outline in the wall caused by a slight accretion of the sandy dust. Was it an entrance?

A series of sharp clicks emanated from within. The left edge of the rectangle moved in several inches. A door despite the lack of an exterior handle.

He reached out and pushed, the door swinging inward to reveal a stark white corridor running about fifteen or twenty feet terminating in another door. He hesitated. Should he go in?

He could feel the comforting weight of the shotgun on his back as he stepped inside.

He walked down the bright corridor. A sign on the internal door interrupted the otherwise uniform white of the space.

FN14 – E4

NO UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL

He reached out, the heavy door opening inward towards himself. A chaotic din assaulted him as he walked into a dark, gloomy space. He immediately sensed its cavernous size, the multiple sources of noise confusing as they seemed to emanate from everywhere.

Movement above caught his eye. Enormous mechanical arms sped past on a filigree of gantries embedded in the distant ceiling.

A long corridor to his right formed by two stacks of shelving reached to the roof. One of the huge multi-jointed arms swung down holding a black container in its hand-like grip. About twenty feet from the ground it abruptly stopped then placed the container in an empty space in the shelving to his right.

The arm withdrew and swiftly receded back up to the ceiling and sped out of sight, the whine of the servo mechanism echoing down the corridor formed by the shelves.

Walking further inside the entire space seemed to be a grid structure, the shelving corridor one of many identical ones. Codes appeared as he took it all in, the hudspecs quickly overwhelmed with the volume of data. Meaningless alphanumeric labels appeared everywhere as if every object in sight could broadcast. He reached up and removed them.

A wheeled vehicle sped towards him, a low platform maybe six feet to a side with small wheels, loaded high with more of the black containers, all of different sizes.

It kept coming, moving fast. He tried to move to the side of the wide corridor, but ten feet before it was on him the vehicle swerved out of his way without stopping and whizzed past, continuing until it reached a junction in the distance and turned a corner, disappearing out of sight.

He heard a high-pitched whine and turned to see a tiny version of the vehicle only eighteen inches in height speed towards him, transporting a single container, traveling much faster. It too swerved out of his way and soon disappeared.

The noise echoed everywhere. It sounded like hundreds or even thousands of vehicles were here. What was this?

He walked down to the end of the corridor and stepped onto a thirty-foot aisle traversing the full width of the building like a thoroughfare.

Vehicles of varying sizes emerged from the corridors and shot across the aisle. Nothing slowed or stopped. The whine of the little carts was accompanied by the occasional squeal of tires on the smooth floor.

He walked across the aisle and down another shelving corridor ahead of him. Thousands of plain containers were stacked right to the ceiling. None had any markings, just a small display with meaningless code, each one a uniform black box.

As he wandered and looked down other shelving corridors more vehicles raced up and down. All ignored him except to swerve out of his way.

Entering yet another shelving corridor he saw something in the distance. Instead of running for a few hundred yards like the others this one had a gap some way along. Something was there.

He walked down the corridor, keeping to the right as vehicles sped past. Halfway down one of the huge articulated arms appeared from nowhere about ten feet in front of him. He froze, its size even more apparent up close. The hand-like appendage at the end consisted of two sets of four fingers gripping each side of a large container.

The arm halted about halfway down and silently paused. He quickly ran forward beyond its position and it resumed its movement.

As he reached the end of the corridor the area to his left opened into a large rectangular space. A waist-height barrier formed a handrail to some kind of hole in the floor. A deep echo of the same all-encompassing mechanical clamor emanated from below, growing louder as he approached.

He peered over the barrier. The rectangular hole looked down into a void showing floors below, so deep the bottom was lost to darkness. He counted five or six levels before it became impossible to discern any detail.

It looked like this floor was replicated all the way down. Vehicles appeared on the floor below then sped away.

Then, the next floor down, something moved. It looked like a person. Someone appeared briefly near the handrail then disappeared out of sight. There must be people here. But how could he get down?

He walked along the side of the handrail. It looked about a hundred feet in length and maybe sixty feet to the other side. As he reached the center he looked across the gap at a shelving corridor running to the end terminating in a doorway with illegible markings.

It took several minutes to circumvent the quadrangle and walk down the corridor. The automated vehicles continued to ignore him as they raced past.

After another few minutes he reached the door with FN14 – S2 stenciled on its surface. It opened into a bare concrete stairwell leading to the floors below. Peering over the stairs he looked down an impossibly deep shaft, making his head reel. As the door quietly closed behind him the noise of the shelved area receded and ended when the door clamped shut, the silence almost disorientating.

The stairs hugged the square space, each wall about forty feet wide. After three revolutions he came to a door similar to the one above with LEVEL -1 stenciled on the wall.

He turned the handle but the door didn’t budge. It was locked.

Grabbing the handrail he started down the steps. It took a few minutes to reach the next level, his head spinning slightly as he read the wording, LEVEL -2. This time the handle turned and the door opened.

It looked identical to the floor above. He could see straight ahead into the corridor in front, the handrail at the quadrangle just visible in the distance.

Above him the gantry arms ran past. In the distance he caught glimpses of more vehicles as they emerged from the shelved corridors.

Turning right he walked about thirty feet to the next corridor and looked in to it, more confident now the wheeled carts would avoid him. He could just see the quadrangle but about halfway down stood a man.

He picked up his pace. The person stood inspecting a display embedded in one of the struts supporting the shelves, a thick square pillar running to the ceiling.

He soon reached the man who seemed absorbed in his task. He wore a bright yellow hard hat and green coveralls with sturdy boots. Some kind of visor obscured the top half of his face.

John stopped about six feet away. The man tinkered with the display, rows of numbers scrolling past.

He pulled down his respirator as the man himself wasn’t wearing one.

“Hey.”

The man turned to look, startled by the interruption.

The visor consisted of a pair of goggles with two large round lenses. He couldn’t see the eyes as graphical elements flashed inside them. Some kind of HUD or overlay.

The man reached up and pulled the goggles down. A worn elastic strap held them in place as the oversized lenses rested loosely at his neck.

“Who are you?” he said looking John up and down. Graphics and text danced across the lenses as he spoke.

“I mean you no harm.”

The man looked at him, baffled.

“What is this place?”

That seemed to confuse him more.

“Minus Two. Where did you think you were?”

Before he could clarify the man continued.

“Minus Two. Small items handling. Where are you meant to be?”

“I mean this,” he said, indicating with a sweep of his hand the whole thing. “This place.”

“What do you mean, this place?”

“The building. What is it?”

“You mean the level? It’s Minus Two.”

“No the building. The structure itself.”

“It’s FN14,” he said then realized John didn’t register it. “Fulfillment Nexus Fourteen.”

“What does that mean?”

That seemed to completely throw him. The man took a step forward.

“Have you just transferred in? What nexus are you from?”

This wasn’t working. He decided to change tactics.

“Do you live here?”

“Yes. Don’t you?”

“No I’ve just came here. From above. Level Zero.”

The man looked up, as if seeking confirmation it existed.

“What do you mean? Where did you come from?”

“From up there. Level Zero. I came in from outside. But you’re the first person I’ve met.”

“Outside? What do you mean? Another nexus?”

“No I mean I found the place. And came in through a door and made my way down here.”

The man took a step back.

“You mean from outside outside?” he said, a look of horror on his face. “From the wasteland?”

“Wasteland?”

The man looked down at his left forearm, a bulky device strapped to his wrist. He tapped frantically on the controls. After a few seconds the wrist unit emitted a brief chime.

“Negative,” he said to himself. He turned back to John and looked him over, staring at the barrel at his right shoulder.

“Is that a weapon?”

“Yes. It’s a shotgun.”

The man looked confused.

He decided to press on.

“Do people live here?”

“Yes. In the habitat levels below. Did you really come from the outside?”

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

“I’ve never dealt with this situation before. I need to talk to the others.”

He returned to his wrist unit and fiddled again, stealing glances at him as if expecting to be attacked.

The man’s name was Andrew 7. When John asked him he couldn’t initially work out if he meant his surname was Seven or an actual number. Andrew had been equally confused when he gave his own name.

“John Smith.”

“Johnsmith what?”

“Nothing. Just John Smith.”

Andrew said nothing to that. He had directed them to an elevator some distance away. They walked far enough it felt like they must be near the edge of the building.

It took time to descend thanks to the depth of the structure. Andrew told him the habitat levels occupied the lower three.

Aware how nervous Andrew was as they stood in the spacious elevator, he hadn’t resumed the conversation. Andrew kept glancing at the shotgun. He seemed very wary. They obviously weren’t used to visitors despite how easy it had been to enter the building.

Standing side by side he was conscious of the weight of the weapon on his back. Maybe he should have left it with Oddjob. Andrew certainly wasn’t threatening. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the distracting goggles, still around Andrew’s neck. The display on the lenses updated constantly. He thought about Claire, reminded of the tiny window into the content she was probably hypercomping even now.

He was keen to find out what they did here. But Andrew studiously avoided engaging with him, so he let it go. Maybe there were others here who could explain.

The elevator doors abruptly opened. He hadn’t sensed it slowing or stopping at all.

This level was silent, a carpet on the floor helping dampen any noise. It looked nothing like the levels above. In front was a blank wall.

“How far down are we?”

“Minus Eight,” said Andrew. “The bottom three levels are habitats. Eight, nine and ten.”

“It looks different to the levels above.”

“These are designed as living space. They are a lot bigger.”

He turned to the left and John followed him. At the end of the corridor, about twenty yards away, a door obscured anything beyond.

Pushing through the doors Andrew took him through a maze of corridors. He was soon lost, although Andrew confidently guided him through the underground warren.

Other people walked past. Some had goggles like Andrew although most didn’t. No one paid them much attention although one or two did look him up and down as they strode past. The entire place seemed to consist of uniform corridors with occasional doorways recessed into the wall as they walked past.

The walls were pained a uniform grey throughout, with a single thick colored line the only decoration. Above, the low ceiling was obscured by an array of pipes and ducts snaking along and through the walls.

Everyone they encountered seemed in a hurry. He caught a glimpse of a group of children as a side door briefly admitted someone dressed like Andrew.

Going through another set of double doors into yet another near identical corridor the wall on the left was replaced with tall glass panels looking on to an almost unbelievable sight. He stopped to stare as he looked out onto what looked like an underground forest, a sea of greenery stretching into the distance.

The space was at least two stories in height as he looked down to a distant floor obscured by plant life of every type. To the rear and the right a series of stepped plateaus with endless rows of trees, bushes and plants rose from the floor to halfway up the walls. Much of the rest looked like a rainforest. Birds flying in the distance gave the only indication of the impressive scale, their tiny forms almost lost against the lush backdrop.

On the plateaus movement caught his eye. Mechanical bots like spiders slowly walked through the foliage. Scattered around them were people, comically small in comparison to the rest, identifiable only by their movement.

Above the landscape bulb-like objects hung down from the ceiling emitting an even, steady bright light. Their scale was difficult to judge but they had to be twenty or thirty feet in diameter.

Andrew noticed he had stopped and turned back.

“Is everything okay?” said Andrew.

“What is this?”

“Hydroponics.”

“You built all this?”

“Yes. We have four in total.”

“Four here? In this building?”

“Yes,” said Andrew. “We are building a fifth one on Minus Ten.”

He struggled to take his eyes off the enormous hydroponics space as they walked to another set of doors ahead of them. Pushing through they were back in the corridors, walking for another five minutes.

“Okay,” said Andrew as they approached a door, identical to dozens of others. “We can meet the others here.”

Andrew pushed open the door into a low-ceilinged room with a large table, the walls a light grey. Around it sat a dozen or so individuals who rose to their feet as they entered, all of them wearing similar coveralls to Andrew in a mix of colors.

Andrew quickly introduced them all but he instantly forgot most of their names. His entrance had clearly caused something of a commotion, all of them standing, looking nervous. Two looked older than the rest and others, including Andrew, seemed to defer to them.

One of the older men, Jacob 9, took the lead in asking questions while the others looked on.

“How did you get here?”

“I mostly walked.”

“Through the wasteland?”

“Wasteland? What do you mean?”

A murmur rippled through the rest, but Jacob remained unfazed.

“Outside. You said you came from the outside.”

“Yes. Through a door in the side of the building.”

“But outside is the wasteland.”

“What do you mean?”

The other older guy stepped forward. Everyone else maintained their distance.

“The wasteland is dangerous,” said Robert 18. “Pathogens as well as dangerous animals. And other things. How did you protect yourself? Did you come with others?”

He thought of Oddjob standing outside right now but decided to avoid mentioning it.

“Pathogens? You mean the REC?”

“REC?” said Robert.

“A rapidly-evolving coronavirus.”

“What is that?”

“A kind of pathogen. But to be honest it’s probably a myth. And no I came alone. From Colorado.”

Robert looked at Jacob. The others looked troubled too.

“We are told the wasteland is infected with mutating pathogens. Deadly to us.”

“Apart from RECs everyone talks about I don’t know about anything else.”

“I scanned him upstairs,” said Andrew. “Nothing. At least nothing detected.”

“Haven’t you been outside yourself?”

Jacob and Robert looked horrified.

“No,” said Jacob. “We were warned about how dangerous it is.”

“Warned by who?”

They looked at each other again, confused.

“A,” said Robert.

“A? As in the letter A?”

“A. The protector. Surely you too know of A?”

“No. No idea who it is.”

Troubled by this news they seemed hesitant so he decided to ask a few details himself.

“What is this place? I mean do you work here? Live here?”

“Yes. All of us do.”

“How many people are here?”

“Fifty thousand.”

“There are fifty thousand people down here underground?”

“Yes,” said Jacob. “The population is growing so we extend the facility outward to accommodate it. Eventually we will join with other warehousers.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Forever. We have always been here.”

John didn’t know what to say. Fifty thousand people? Did he mean this one place or other facilities? They all looked like they were ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. None of the others apart from Andrew had said a word.

“This place seems big.”

“Not the biggest,” said Jacob. “We are expanding the fastest though.”

He was tempted to ask what he meant but it would be better to find out more about the place first.

“Can I go through the compound?”

“Compound?”

“Outside. The fenced area. Is there an exit on the other side? Otherwise I’ll need to go round and I don’t know how big it is.”

Jacob and the others looked at each other, their confusion apparent.

“What do you mean?”

“Outside. Everything is fenced in. Can I go through this area? Can I get out the other side or is it fenced too?”

“We don’t know anything about that,” said Jacob. “Discussion of the wasteland is forbidden.”

Maybe he needed to find out more about them first. They all looked so spooked it would be better to go get to know them before he went back outside.

“Can you show me around?”

They looked troubled by the suggestion. Only Robert answered.

“You must talk to A first.”

“Who is this A?”

Minus Five looked similar to the upper levels John had already seen. Emerging from the elevator with Andrew the same network of giant shelving units stretched into the distance.

Turning on to a long aisle running the full length of the structure Andrew set a brisk pace, silently striding along. He had been quiet since leaving the communal area below and clearly knew where he was going.

Multiple vehicles raced through the corridors formed by the shelving units. None of them ventured on to their path. He occasionally caught glimpses of the mechanical arms running along the ceiling gantries, swooping down to place containers. As before the background din was a constant mechanical whine from the vehicles echoing in the crowded space.

The older men hadn’t wanted to discuss anything until he talked to the person Andrew was taking him to see. Maybe he would have better luck now Andrew was here alone.

“Are there really fifty thousand people here?”

Andrew turned to him, lost in thought.

“Yes. Some of the others are bigger.”

“Other places like this? How many are there?”

“Thirty-five in total.”

“Have you ever been to them? Any of the other places?”

“No,” he said. “Very few have. Except the elders.”

“And you are extending this facility?”

“Yes. We are close to connecting with thirteen,” said Andrew. “Nexus Thirteen.”

“And you’ll join up with them? How many people are there?”

“Almost a hundred thousand.”

“What happens then?”

“The longterm goal is to connect them all.”

They reached the far corner of the floor, devoid of shelving. The single doorway embedded in the wall had no markings to indicate where it led. Stopping in front of a black rectangular panel embedded to the right of the doorway Andrew stated his name. A small green light appeared on the panel and the door slid open.

They entered a long corridor, the walls, floor and ceiling white, similar to the corridor he had used to enter the building itself. The door slid shut behind them cutting off all noise as they entered.

The long corridor terminated in another door. This too had a panel to its right at eye level. Reaching it Andrew leaned over close to the panel and a brief light flashed. It looked like a retina scanner. The panel emitted a sharp chime and another indicator light flashed green as the door began sliding to the left.

Just as Andrew stepped back he noticed something on the back of his neck, partly obscured by the elastic strap for his goggles.

Andrew started to enter the room beyond as the door fully opened.

“What’s that on your neck?”

Andrew stopped and turned, a confused look on his face. He brought his hand up to touch his throat.

“The back of your neck. I saw something when you leaned over.”

Andrew’s hand reached to the back of his neck as if seeking confirmation of what he said.

“My chip.”

“Your chip?”

“Yes. My P-chip,” he said. “My personal chip.”

“What is it for?”

Andrew looked taken aback. He paused, a confused look on his face.

“For everything. Don’t you have one?”

“No. Nothing like that.”

“How do you check in?”

“What do you mean check in?”

“With A,” said Andrew. “How does A know where you are or if you are on schedule?”

“A? Who is A? Is that the person we are going to see?”

If anything that seemed to throw Andrew even more as he stared, lost for words.

“A is not a person,” he said, turning to walk through the open doorway.

John could sense the considerable size of the dark room as they entered. He could just make out a large object standing on the floor. It looked like a tall black cylinder silhouetted against a huge wall behind. As they walked in the wall began to emit a soft, warm yellow light as if waking up.

They stopped twenty feet from the object. A reflection from the light source behind illuminated the floor under the thing. It seemed to be hovering six feet off the ground.

Andrew turned to him.

“This is A.”

“What is it?”

“A runs the facility.”

Andrew turned to the cylinder and announced they were there.

“I have brought someone to talk to you. Johnsmith from outside.”

He felt a deep rumble through the floor as Andrew stepped back three paces to stand behind him out of sight.

The cylinder began to light up from within, the same yellow as the wall behind, illuminating the space with soft, warm light. It quickly revealed its size, some twenty or thirty feet in diameter and about sixty or seventy feet in height. He had the unnerving feeling of being watched despite the exterior of the cylinder providing no obvious focal point.

“Andrew 7 why have you come?”

The deep bass of the voice thundered through the chamber. He could feel the sound waves vibrate the floor, the volume uncomfortably loud.

“To introduce someone new. His name is Johnsmith.”

“Yes,” said the deep voice. “The stranger who has joined us from the wasteland.”

John stood, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did and he heard Andrew behind him take a step closer.

“You may approach.”

He turned to look. Andrew looked nervous and unsure of himself.

It wasn’t clear what he was meant to do or where he should stand. Given the volume of the voice he didn’t want to get too close. But he took a few steps forward anyway. An uncomfortable sense of power emanated from the object.

“Who are you?”

As the voice boomed he could just detect the light change in intensity in time with the words, a strangely hypnotic effect giving the impression of some intelligence within the object.

“My name is John Smith. I came here from Colorado. I saw the buildings and entered.”

He felt like he was talking into the air, directed at no one.

“Why did you come?”

“I want to get to California and to go through this area rather than around it. The fenced compound. Is that possible?”

“You have come from the wasteland.”

The voice completely ignored his question.

“It is not a wasteland.”

“It is not ordered,” said the voice. “It is not efficient. It is wasteful.”

He remembered what Andrew said about A running the facility. Is that what it was? Some AI? If that’s all it was why all the theatrics? Andrew seemed genuinely deferential as he stood back, silently observing.

He decided to find out.

“What is all this for? The warehouse upstairs and the habitats.”

“Production, goods and efficiency.”

“I mean people living here. Underground. The ultimate goal. Are you creating some kind of society?”

“The goal is always efficiency.”

“But why are they living underground?”

“For their safety.”

“Safety from what?”

“Disease and chaos.”

Maybe if he found out more about what they did he could work out some way through the area.

“What do you do here?”

“We organize life.”

“What does that mean? Their lives? The warehousers? Or do you mean outside?”

“We deliver value.”

“Who do you deliver to?”

“Everyone.”

“You mean outside? In the wasteland?”

“Yes.”

“What about the people here? The warehousers.”

“They are protected.”

“But are they just here to work for you?”

“They like work. Work provides purpose.”

“Whose purpose though?”

“The highest purpose. Maximizing value.”

Something about it irked him, the stilted way it talked. Even before tinkering with Oddjob, the medbot had been more natural than this. It felt all the more absurd with the giant cylinder and the painfully loud sound waves hitting him every time the thing responded.

“Who decides value?”

“All must achieve efficiency to maximize value.”

“What if they don’t want to? Are the people free to go?”

“Why would they enter the wasteland?”

“It isn’t a wasteland.”

“It is chaotic. It is inefficient. It is wasteful. All uncontrolled environments are wasteful. Value cannot be maximized.”

“So they cannot leave?”

“They cannot exist in the wasteland.”

“So it is a jail? They have to stay here to work for you?”

“Work provides purpose. A purposeless life is inefficient. It cannot maximize value.”

He was getting nowhere. The cylinder didn’t seem bright enough to answer anything.

He turned to look at Andrew who still stood there. Despite his stationary position he managed to somehow look terrified.

Looking back he realized he wasn’t going to get any answers. Maybe now he had talked to A the elders might be able to show him around. Perhaps there wasn’t much point. Why had he even bothered to come here? They should just walk in through the gap in the fence and hope there was some way out on the other side. Although Frank had warned him about the place.

“Join us.”

The voice rumbled, the lights gently undulating in time with the words.

“No thanks. I have to get going.”

“It is safe here.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

A paused for a moment as if considering his response. The routines running the thing must be ancient.

“Your response is suboptimal. It is better if you stay. Your genetic distinctiveness will add to our diversity. This will improve our resilience. Diversity is our strength.”

“No thanks.”

Just as he was about to turn to Andrew a jarring, loud alarm rang out, its pitch painful as it cut through his hearing right into his brain.

“Conduct violation!”

The deep bass of the voice from the cylinder had risen in volume as it bellowed throughout the chamber, its power enough to momentarily disorientate him as he staggered backwards.

“You must not set a poor example,” said the voice. “You must reconsider. Your non-compliance will affect delivered value.”

“What?”

He recoiled from the overwhelming volume of the voice. He had to get out of here.

“I have to go.”

“The warehousers are discussing your impact. Your presence has lowered productivity and lowered value. It is suboptimal. It detracts from excellence.”

“All the more reason for me to leave.”

He turned to Andrew who stood staring at him, terrified.

“There is a high probability this will lower value delivery even more. You must stay.”

He didn’t bother to answer. He could see the shocked looked on Andrew’s face as he walked past him towards the door.

“What are you doing?” said Andrew.

He didn’t answer. The disturbing hum running through the floor as he reached the door.

The panel at the side of the door was a featureless rectangle except for a small red light. Nothing happened as he stood there. He couldn’t see any mechanism to open the door.

He turned to Andrew, having to shout over the piercing alarm.

“How do I open this?”

Andrew immediately turned to look at the cylinder. The light had faded, the chamber returning to darkness.

He turned back to John, a look of panic on his face.

“You must stay,” he shouted above the increasingly uncomfortable alarm. “A has instructed you.”

“I don’t care. How do I get out?”

“You can’t. You have a conduct violation.”

Andrew looked terrified. How could he get out? Looking again at the door there was nothing there. No obvious mechanism to open it. Maybe it needed a chip like Andrew’s. Was he going to be trapped here?

Then he remembered. The shotgun.

He shrugged off the backpack and began undoing the strips of elastic material Frank had given him to secure the weapon.

Andrew stepped back.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m getting out of here.”

The shotgun finally freed he dropped the backpack and turned back to the cylinder.

He walked towards it and brought the weapon to bear, aiming for the center now less than ten feet away.

He stopped, aiming the gun, and shouted out.

“Open the door or I’ll fire.”

If the AI was as crude as he suspected its obsession with efficiency had to be a way in. It would be more efficient to let him go rather than let him damage the cylinder.

Nothing happened. He raised the shotgun up from waist level to his shoulder and aimed, just as Frank had shown him.

Abruptly the alarm stopped. A shrill sound rang out behind him.

Lowering the weapon and turning to look, the panel at the door displayed a green light. The door slid open, bright light spilling in. It worked.

Walking swiftly to the doorway he grabbed the backpack from the floor and marched in to the corridor as he heard A’s voice boom in his ears.

“Stop. Go no further. This is a conduct violation!”

He ignored it as he approached the second door at the end of the corridor.

Before he could raise the weapon the indicator turned green. The door slid open revealing the dark warehouse area of Minus Five beyond.

He strode through without pausing, the shotgun ready should he need it.

John took the stairs two at a time. Now, less than twenty minutes from his confrontation with the AI, the adrenaline began to recede, his anxiety growing as he rushed up the stairwell.

Thinking over the events he was shocked at his uncharacteristic actions. What had he been thinking leveling the gun at the AI? It was crazy.

The weight of the gun in his hands acted as a reminder of his actions. Although it had worked. Looking down at the weapon he only now realized he had failed to turn off the safety in the excitement of the moment. He’d forgotten Frank’s instructions, although the AI obviously hadn’t noticed.

Was it the ODD? His oppositional defiant disorder that had plagued him since childhood? The shrinks had always said the meds couldn’t cure it, only manage the symptoms but he had to do his bit. He had to learn discipline and not give in to the urges. He had done well for years. The Institute had been a lot easier than school. A brief flash of that life came back to him as he slowly climbed the stairs. The boredom and the frustration of it. The way he always fought the teachers because they wanted you to just sit there day in day out.

Was he reverting after all this time? Although it wasn’t the same as the Institute. It had been because of the situation surely? When he thought he couldn’t get out of the chamber with the AI he had panicked. But it was the same trapped feeling he had hated from school.

Someone else clambered up the stairs below, the sound of labored breathing echoing in the quiet stairwell.

He had struggled to find the stairs at all. After leaving the room with the AI cylinder he tried to retrace the route Andrew had taken but soon got lost in the endless maze of shelving.

He had found the door to the stairwell by chance as he had rounded a corner. Luckily it was unlocked and he knew he just had to get to the top. Although he had no idea where the original entrance door was located. Would the entity that controlled the facility confront him before he got there? Would he have to confront it again or, even worse, some of the warehousers?

Relieved as he reached Level Zero, the door opened into the warehouse, the wall of noise hitting him as he entered. Ahead he could see the handrail at the open quadrangle so he walked purposefully towards it. Once there he should be able to trace his route back to the original entrance. It was somewhere off to his right.

He heard footsteps behind and turned to see Andrew running to catch up. He stopped and waited.

“Where are you going?” said Andrew, his breathing heavy.

“I need to get out of here.”

“To the wasteland?”

“I told you, there is no wasteland.”

He turned to go, walking briskly. Andrew soon caught up with him.

“We should go back.”

He didn’t answer and kept walking as the quadrangle drew closer.

Even without looking he could sense Andrew’s distress.

“You have incurred a conduct violation. We have to go back.”

They reached the handrail at the quadrangle and he paused to get his bearings. He had originally entered at the other side of the building, diagonally right from his current position. He could go around the quadrangle and aim for the far wall directly ahead and then turn right. He should eventually find the exit.

Although Andrew would possibly be able to direct him. He turned, Andrew’s agitation visible.

“I need to get out of here. What is the fastest way to the exit?”

“We should go back. We can discuss things with A.”

“What is A? Is it some kind of AI?”

“A runs everything.”

“You let a machine run your life?”

“We are fallible.”

He knew Andrew wouldn’t help him, the fear evident on his face. He turned to his right and took off.

“You’re not really going outside are you?” shouted Andrew.

He paused and turned to face him.

“Yes. There is nothing to be afraid of. Why don’t you come outside with me and see?”

“Conduct violation!”

To his left, a small screen embedded in the shelving support post came to life, the voice shrill enough to cut through the background din. A warning appeared on the screen as it changed to red. Andrew hesitantly walked over to inspect it.

“Now you have another conduct violation.”

He looked terrified.

“All for saying you should see the outside for yourself?”

The screen rang out again.

“Conduct violation!”

The blood ran from Andrew’s face as he took a step back, glancing briefly at the new warning, now flashing angrily on the nearby screen.

“The wasteland is forbidden.”

He turned away and aimed for the exit. Andrew didn’t follow.

Making his way around the quadrangle area he turned in to another shelving corridor and stopped. At the end a collection of the bot carts blocked his path. Three were parked in a row, with several behind them, all loaded high with black containers forming a barrier. He backed out and walked along to the next one. At the end another collection of the vehicles blocked his way.

How many did they have? Probably hundreds just on this floor. They would be able to block him everywhere he went.

Instead of finding another route he walked towards the stationary vehicles. Half way down he raised the shotgun as he had done before with A. This time he remembered the safety. None of the vehicles moved as he approached.

He halted less than twenty feet from the stationary bots, the gun still aimed at the row of vehicles. He wasn’t sure what to do. Was the AI calling his bluff? Should he shoot one of them?

A noise behind caught his attention. As he turned to look one of the giant mechanical arms rushed towards him, moving impossibly fast. He had only partly turned to face it when its human-like hand opened and grabbed him, the force of the sudden impact winding him. He gasped for air and nearly blacked out as the arm raised him swiftly up to the ceiling and rushed away, the violent acceleration almost making him vomit.

He struggled to breath. His left arm was pinned against his side under the firm grip of the hand. His right remained free, amazingly still holding the shotgun. He could just see down as the distant floor sped past. He was only a few feet above the top of the shelving units as they hammered past at high speed.

He managed to twist his shoulders and brought his free arm around and aim the weapon. Holding the heavy gun awkwardly in one hand he aimed at the gantry arm’s lowest elbow joint and squeezed the trigger. The gun fired, the recoil sending the force through his arm and terminating painfully in his shoulder. Metal fragments exploded from the arm’s structure as the hand unexpectedly sprung open.

He instantly fell, his involuntary shout piercing the air as the gantry arm came to an abrupt stop above him. He hit the hard surface at the top of the shelving unit, knocking the air from his lungs. Dropping the shotgun he slid along the top and came to a stop, gasping for air.

Dazed, he looked up. The arm hung from the gantry, some distance back, the lowest portion shaking. Smoke gently drifted from the articulated joint he’d managed to hit, with a tangle of wires hanging below. Both sets of fingers had sprung open. He raised himself on to his elbows and spotted the gun lying a few feet back. Getting up he stumbled over and picked it up and turned, his right shoulder aching.

Looking around he tried to work out where he was, checking for any other gantry arms approaching his position. Ahead of him he could see a wall. He had to be near the part of the building he had first entered.

Peering over the edge, the aisle below was empty of carts. Looking along to the far edge, the corner of the shelving unit looked like the easiest way down. He could use the shelves as handholds.

Quickly making his way to the corner he looked down, the floor far below. He took off his backpack and secured the shotgun before putting it back on.

Carefully gripping the corner of the top shelf he started to lower himself down using the shelves as support, each one about six feet in height.

Halfway down he heard the now familiar squeal of tires on the smooth floor. In the distance two of the wheeled vehicles turned a corner and came in to view. They stopped dead as he continued to climb down as if watching him. In the other direction, over fifty yards away, three more congregated.

Looking at the rear wall he could see the exit door. Was it the one he had entered? A no entry sign was just visible. He’d have to be fast. The vehicles looked heavy enough to kill him and his gun was now strapped to the backpack. Should he get it to protect himself?

He stopped one shelf from the bottom and reached for the backpack straps. He took the gun from the pack and put it back on. The floor was only about six feet down as he looked at the waiting carts. Could he reach the door before they got him?

He jumped to the floor and started running to the door. The vehicles all accelerated simultaneously as their tires squealed on the floor.

He could see the door. Maybe twenty yards. The sound of the vehicles rose to a scream as five of them raced to his position.

Nearing the door he just caught sight of one of the gantry arms appear off to his left, rushing towards him, the hand closed like a giant fist.

He reached the door and pushed on the handle, the cars speeding towards him in unison. It didn’t budge. It was locked. Hearing the vehicles almost on him he stepped back and drew the shotgun. He aimed for the handle as there was no other visible indication of where the locking mechanism was located.

The shot rang out, loud enough to temporarily drown out the noise from the approaching vehicles, the recoil reverberating through his arms. The door lurched inward a few inches on the right, the left held fast by the hinges. An uneven hole emerged from the smoke as he ran forward and kicked the door squarely in the middle. It gave way and sprung open as he dived through into the stark white corridor.

Landing hard on the floor with the shotgun awkwardly beneath him a deafening crunch behind followed by a loud tearing sound threw debris and dust into the corridor. He crawled forward and then looked back. As the dust cleared the gantry arm was stuck several feet into the narrow corridor, the hand portion too wide to fit through. The AI had rammed the thing right in to the door but it was now held fast, the wall shaking as it tried to pull away.

He crawled back until he felt the door behind him. He stood, his legs shaking, and found the handle. Turning it, the door opened to darkness as he ran into the night.

The sun had slipped below the horizon. In the fading light the area looked empty and desolate as John sprinted away from the warehouser building.

He couldn’t see the fence in the darkness. Nor could he see Oddjob or the gliderwing. He’d barely been able to locate them earlier when it was bright. But the bot had to be out there somewhere.

Ahead he could just discern the abandoned building in the distance. Once there he should be able to locate the gap in the fence and find his way back to Oddjob and the gliderwing. It was too late to go anywhere so he’d stay the night here and then press on. They’d have to go around the controlled area after all.

Exhausted, he slowed down to a walk. He should contact Oddjob. Perhaps the medbot could make his way to the gap in the fence. If the medbot could activate his headlamp he would be able to find the way out from here.

Taking off the backpack he rummaged in the pack and found the medscreen, his hands trembling as he activated it. He signaled Oddjob who responded immediately.

“Charge at one hundred percent.”

“Are you at the gliderwing?”

“Yes.”

A noise behind him made him stop and look back. Above him, maybe fifty feet away, a drone followed, silhouetted against the deep amber of the sky. A tiny sharp green light shone towards him.

It hovered in the air, watching him. He ignored it and resumed walking.

Before he could contact Oddjob again the bot contacted him.

“I can observe activity at your location.”

He didn’t respond but decided to pick up the pace. The AI was probably tracking him to make sure he actually left. Then he wondered if the bot carts could operate here outside.

He dismissed it. He was being paranoid, a wave of relief accompanying the realization he had escaped from their insane AI and the warehousers themselves. Although only just.

It was absolutely crazy they lived underground like that. He’d never heard anything about it. He’d certainly never read anything online. Maybe no one knew. He should have asked Andrew if they went online. Maybe they didn’t, maybe that was considered dangerous too.

The unit signaled him, loud in the quiet evening. Before he could acknowledge a voice rang out from the device.

“Aim for the disused building. You won’t make it to the fence.”

He didn’t recognize the voice. It sounded nothing like Oddjob.

He lifted the unit to respond.

“Who is this?”

“They have released patrol bots.”

“Patrol bots?”

He turned and looked up, the drone still following him, keeping its distance as before.

“Single wheeled drones,” said the voice. “Armed.”

“Wait. Who are you?”

“Run. Now!”

The signal disconnected as he looked at the medscreen for confirmation of who had contacted him but it had nothing. Run?

Rattled, he picked up the pace, aiming for the abandoned building, just visible in front of him. It proved difficult to judge the distance with the lack of light. Maybe a few hundred yards. Why there? There was nothing there.

And what did the voice mean about the drones? Patrol bots. Armed. The drone following him wasn’t armed. Then he remembered the carts chasing him and the gantry arm trying to kill him.

He started walking faster. The sooner he was out of here the better.

A noise from behind made him stop and look around. He couldn’t see anything, the warehouse now some distance away. But he’d definitely heard something.

The medscreen beeped again.

“Four vehicles are heading in your direction.” Oddjob’s voice rang out in the night air. “Do you require assistance?”

Vehicles?

He didn’t answer. He started running. The abandoned building wasn’t far now. A hundred and fifty yards. Maybe less.

A faint sound from behind made him start sprinting. Better safe than sorry. He didn’t dare stop or turn round to look. He focused on the building ahead, its solid form now easy to see as he neared it.

Approaching, he could discern detail, the collapsed roof apparent, with debris scattered around on the dirt.

A high-pitched whine emanated from somewhere behind him, reminding him of the wheeled carts in the building. They had sounded like that. Had the AI sent them out here after all? Surely the ground here was too uneven to accommodate the small-wheeled carts, their clearance only a few inches above the smooth floors of the warehouse? The distant noises quickly grew in volume drifting in the otherwise silent desert landscape around him. Whatever the AI had sent they were heading in his direction.

He couldn’t see an opening into the building, the wall a solid block, completely uniform with no doorways. Even the vertical cracks in the walls provided no obvious way in as the biggest of them was at most a few inches wide.

The sound of the vehicles grew still louder. They had to be close. Panicking, he kept thinking of what the AI had done inside, the way it had tried to kill him with the huge gantry arm.

To his right, a section of roof lay at an angle against the wall where it had fallen. About six feet above it was a V-shaped hole, the edge of a steel beam sticking out a foot or so. Enough of a gap to get inside.

He sprinted for it as the vehicles rushed towards him although they still sounded far away. The hole was a solid twelve feet off the ground but the ramp got him about six feet, assuming it would take his weight. In the darkness he couldn’t tell what the material was, he could just see its dark form leaning against the wall as if left there for him. He awkwardly wrestled the backpack off as he ran towards the building.

He hit the ramp-like structure at full speed. Its stiff material held as he vaulted up it and swung the backpack and shotgun around and through the gap above him, in to the building interior, his shoulder aching with the effort. As they were still sailing through the air he leapt near the top of the ramp.

His left hand caught the edge of the V-shaped wedge. He frantically grabbed the protruding beam with his right as something exploded on the wall a few inches from his hand.

A high-pitched whine shrieked behind him as he pulled up hard and just got his knee on the bottom part of the wedge and hauled himself up with all his strength. He had no time to look before pulling himself through and diving inside.

He landed hard as he heard a loud phut-phut-phut sound. Dust and debris exploded around him. Fragments landed ahead of him as he pulled himself back against the wall.

Only as he came to his senses he realized they’d shot at him. He could just hear the vehicles approaching outside. Then he remembered the cracks in the walls. Could they get to him?

Looking frantically around he saw his backpack lying a few feet away. He crawled over and grabbed it and the shotgun then pressed himself back against the solid wall, his heart pounding. He heard at least two of the vehicles speed away. Would they scout the building, or maybe surround it?

Detail was difficult to discern within the building, its dimensions considerably smaller than the warehouser building. Consisting of a single open space, the roof had collapsed in multiple locations. Debris littered the ground.

The vehicles paced back and fourth outside. After being shot at he didn’t dare look through the small gap in the wall off to his left. How could he get out if they surrounded the building?

He should at least get the gun ready. It might be needed. The contents of the bag had spilled out when he had thrown it. Boxes of ammunition and the knife lay a few feet away beside the med screen lying face down, now covered in dust. Nutribars lay scattered everywhere.

He crawled over and grabbed what he could, gathering up the shells, knife and the medscreen as he carefully listened for the vehicles outside.

He stuffed everything into the backpack as he picked up the shotgun and looked around the old warehouse. The wall on the other side had fewer cracks although there were holes where the steel beams holding up the roof had punched through. Could he get out there? He couldn’t see any doors leading outside, although it was difficult to tell in the darkness. He’d have to go over and look.

The whine of the vehicles outside came and went as if they were patrolling like soldiers. A deep sense of fear kept him anchored against the wall. He struggled to think straight. How was he going to get out? Could he shoot them through a gap in the wall?

He stood up. The extra few feet of height gave him the advantage to see something in the center of the space. A damaged railing. It looked like a smaller version of the quadrangle in the other building.

He turned his head to listen but couldn’t hear any of the vehicles outside. He quickly jumped across the area with the open fissure in the wall next to him, his heart pounding as he did so. But nothing happened.

He walked along the wall for a few feet but couldn’t see any more gaps the vehicles could target him through.

Turning, he walked to the center. As he approached he could clearly see a large open hole, rectangular in shape.

Reaching it he peered down into a black void. Nothing was visible. He didn’t get too close as the handrail was damaged and missing in places.

Taking a few steps back away from the hole, the structure seemed ancient. The roof looked like it could collapse at any moment with much of it open to the stars. Birds nests sat in the remaining support beams with droppings all around the floor. The place was a mess.

Making his way to the other side he found a crack and looked outside. It was growing dark. Nothing was visible.

Rapid movement caught his eye. One of the vehicles sped past, traveling at high speed, its motor whining in the night air. It consisted of a single large, thick wheel with a complicated housing unit above. Rods, tubes and sensors extended forward from the small platform above the wheel, the whole assembly able to rotate like a turret. The machines moved fast, almost a blur, easily maneuvering across the uneven ground.

He stepped back and began moving to the far end of the structure, shrouded in darkness since most of the roof was intact there. As he moved away the masonry at the small crack he had used to observe the drone exploded, a violent eruption of brick and debris spraying all over him.

He instinctively leaped to the side, his heart racing. One of the vehicles had shot at him. It had obviously misaimed and grazed the side of the opening otherwise it would have hit him.

He could now hear two vehicles pacing back and forth outside, waiting for him to show his face again. This was absolutely crazy. What were those things? They must have been sent by the AI.

Any one of them could kill him. With four at least he couldn’t get to the fence in time given the speed they could move. Crouching against the wall he took off the backpack and rummaged until he found the medscreen. Perhaps Oddjob could at least confirm how many there were or their positions.

Oddjob responded right away.

“Can you see the building we looked at earlier?”

“Yes.”

“Can you see any of the wheeled drones?”

“Four are patrolling the area. Do you require assistance?”

Assistance? Medbots were programmed with an array of responses to help in their jobs as medical orderlies. One of their duties was to spot patients in distress. Although adaptable he doubted Oddjob would be able to read a complex situation like this without explicit instructions.

“The vehicles are armed. So I need to have a think about how we handle this.”

“Understood,” said Oddjob, the tinny voice echoing in the empty warehouse. “I will render assistance.”

“Wait!”

The connection cut at Oddjob’s end.

He slumped back against the wall, looking out at the debris littering the floor. The monocycles continued their patrol outside, the strain on their motors audible as they shot back and forth.

Patrol bots. That’s what the voice had called them. He looked at the medscreen in his hand. Who had it been? It wasn’t Oddjob. Was it Andrew? It didn’t sound like him, the voice and even the accent different.

Then he noticed a change in the noise from outside, the whine receding. He strained to hear but it was silent.

He got to his feet and moved closer to the gap in the wall. The machines echoed in the distance, moving away from his position.

He put the medscreen in the backpack and put it on as he stepped back looking for a vantage point.

About thirty feet to his right he could just see a gap about eight feet up where the roof had collapsed damaging the wall.

He ran over. Boxes and discarded containers lay a few feet away. He spotted one that looked like some kind of drum and dragged it over to stand on top. Here the roof supports were jammed in to a section of wall, the damage providing a hole about six feet in width and a few feet tall. It looked like it could collapse at any moment.

Peering outside he saw movement in the distance, Oddjob’s fibroresin-covered torso reflecting the last of the light. He sprinted away from the building, already over a hundred yards away, some dark movement just visible behind him. It had to be the patrol bots racing to catch the bot. Oddjob ran faster than he had ever seen him manage, the arms efficiently swinging back and forth like pistons.

Movement off to his right caught his attention. Two more of the single-wheeled vehicles raced after the others and into the darkness. In the distance Oddjob ran to the crest of a small hill. It looked like a sand dune or a mound of dirt, difficult to tell in the darkness. He soon disappeared as he leapt off the other side and out of sight.

It was now or never. He gripped the edge of the hole and pulled himself up as his heart raced.

As he landed he heard the distinctive sound of gun fire in the direction Oddjob had ran. He had to get moving.

He couldn’t see the perimeter fence. But he started running anyway. It wouldn’t take long to find it.

The dark fence soon appeared. He nearly ran into it, the barrier fully intact. He had no idea where the gap was. Somewhere to his right. Looking back he couldn’t see the abandoned warehouse in the darkness.

A faint sound reached him as he began walking along the fence away from the building. The distinctive whine of one of the patrol bots. He froze. Was it just a quirk of this place? The sound drifting from wherever Oddjob had run to, the strange acoustics of the desert-like compound?

He kept walking, the fence to his left, stretching high above with no sign of the collapsed area. Had he misjudged? Was it behind him?

The sound grew louder. He could clearly hear the whine now. It was one of the patrol bots and it was definitely closer.

He ran, frantically scanning the fence for the collapsed section. How far had he walked to the building? Had he somehow missed it?

The noise of the vehicle’s motor was closer although it sounded like it was headed to the building behind him. He started sprinting, desperately peering into the darkness.

Then, some distance ahead, he saw it. The fence leaning over. That was it.

He ran harder, his breathing heavy. Then he heard the whine of the patrol bot behind him change pitch. It grew louder. As the gap in the fence came in to sight the bot was behind him. He couldn’t tell how far behind, but he could hear the steady increase in volume as it raced towards him. He had been spotted.

He sprinted harder. Less than ten feet away he could see the large sign he’d walked across earlier. The engine whine increased as he sensed the patrol bot accelerating. He pushed on, his heart pounding as he tried to reach the gap.

The patrol bot almost upon him he vaulted over the sign, the thunder of his footsteps on the old plastic not enough to drown out the noise of the vehicle as it rushed towards him.

Seeing the edge of the fence he leapt and landed in a heap on the ground. He turned quickly, pulling off the backpack to get the shotgun as the patrol bot came into view, rushing straight towards the gap ahead of him. He should have had the gun ready. What was he thinking?

The patrol bot rapidly slowed in front of the open gap as he brought the shotgun to bear, lying partly on his back, his elbow on the rough ground to support himself as the butt of the gun pushed into his shoulder, trying to remember Frank’s instructions.

He aimed, his hands shaking. Nothing happened. The bot slowed to a stop. The thick cluster of rods pointed right at him. The vehicle rolled back and forth. It took a few moments for him to realize the movement kept it upright on its single wheel.

He stood up. This prompted the patrol bot to retreat back. It began pacing back and forth, the turret swiveling to keep him covered.

A bright green flash flickered as it did so. Looking down a sharp point of light hovered on his chest. A targeting laser. Several of the protruding rods were hollow. All of them looked similar to the barrel of his shotgun, remaining perfectly trained on his torso.

And yet it didn’t shoot or cross over the perimeter fence. It moved back and forth in an agitated manner, the turret swiveling to follow him.

It could easily make it over the sign and reach him yet it stayed within the compound.

Maybe he’d be better away from here. He turned and began walking back in the direction of the gliderwing. The patrol bot immediately turned and moved with him. It kept pace as he walked, the light always pointing at him. He braced himself to be shot, but nothing came.

Carefully reaching in to the backpack he took out the medscreen. No message from Oddjob. He tried to connect with the medbot but failed.

He kept walking, the patrol bot easily keeping pace as it tracked him from behind the fence.

The vehicle followed him all the way to the gliderwing. It had been thirty minutes now. John tried contacting Oddjob several times but received no response.

Two other patrol bots had joined the first. He didn’t know if these were reinforcements sent by A or part of the original four. If so it didn’t bode well for Oddjob.

After another ten minutes the medscreen chimed. He grabbed it and Oddjob came through.

“I am making my way back to the gliderwing.”

He acknowledged with some relief. Oddjob had made it.

He looked at the patrol bots through the fence. All three paced back and forth like the first one. Now three targeting lasers followed his movements. They looked like an excited pack of predatory animals monitoring their prey for any sign of weakness.

The landscape was flat in every direction with nowhere to hide except maybe behind the gliderwing, but that would hardly stop them.

Since the gliderwing offered no protection he decided to pack it away. Wherever he was going to sleep it had to be far away from here. Even a few hundred yards would make him more difficult to reach. Although if they came outside the fenced area he wouldn’t be able to stop them.

Just as he finished storing the gliderwing he heard a noise behind him. He grabbed the shotgun and turned.

Oddjob walked towards him, outside the perimeter fence.

Inside the compound the fourth patrol bot appeared, tracking the medbot as he walked, the turret turned ninety degrees to cover Oddjob as it moved forward on the uneven ground.

Oddjob had two dents on his casing, both on the upper arms. His entire chassis was covered in a thick layer of dust, the white now faded. Black marks obscured the green cross. Coming to a stop in front of him, the bot looked a mess but John felt relieved to see him in one piece.

The fourth patrol bot paused then began pacing. One of the other three moved away to join it. Within a few moments each of them were covered by a pair of drones each. It was unnerving to see the machines coordinate yet still pace back and forth in such an inhuman manner. The lasers shifted position as they rolled over the uneven ground but never once missed their mark.

He asked Oddjob for an update.

“I lured the single-wheeled vehicle drones to a cluster of buildings zero point six miles away.”

He explained the interconnected buildings were empty. It sounded similar to the building he had hidden in himself.

Oddjob eventually lost the drones in the building complex then ran back to the fence and found another gap several miles away. One of the drones had eventually searched the fence area and located him.

Then John remembered the warning.

“Did you contact me through the medscreen?”

“We conversed to diagnose the situation,” said Oddjob.

“But before that. Someone contacted me to say the drones were coming. They called them patrol bots.”

Oddjob appeared confused and denied any knowledge. He looked at the medscreen. He had updated it with firmware and software provided by Kainzow. But it had been designed to work as a simple communication device only. He’d had to explicitly pair it with Oddjob. How could someone else use it? And how had they known about the patrol bots? Was it Kainzow? He was the only person that could have access. But how had he known what was going on here? He’d been unable to reach the HEF leader for almost a year, so it couldn’t be him.

He looked over at the four bots, still moving around, walking a little closer to inspect them. This made them pull back a few feet. It was disturbing the way they responded.

“They must be for protection. Frank did say it was a controlled area.”

Oddjob walked up beside him and observed the patrol bots.

“The wheeled drones are perhaps an immune response to threat.”

Their erratic behavior creeped him out.

“Let’s get out of here. There is nothing here for us. We’ll have to go round tomorrow.”

Oddjob walked over to the pack with the gliderwing and effortlessly picked it up and over his shoulders.

John opened his backpack to throw the medscreen in before attaching the shotgun. Then he noticed how empty it looked. He began rummaging about inside. He knew the bag had spilled some of the nutribars back at the abandoned building, but he couldn’t see his meds. He knelt down to delve deeper, the inside of the bag difficult to see, prompting the patrol bots to shift position again. He turned the bag upside down and emptied the contents on to the dusty ground.

The meds were gone. He frantically searched inside the now empty bag, but nothing was there.

He looked back in the direction of the building. The patrol bots made it impossible to go back. He was screwed.

He put everything back in to the bag and stood up, turning to Oddjob.

“I’ve lost my meds.”

“I can assess your levels.”

He held up his left ring finger and Oddjob approached. The tip of the medbot’s right index finger flipped back revealing an almost invisible needle. Even in bright light John could barely see it. He’d been tested countless times.

After the painless jab he watched as the tip closed back over, the results immediately available.

“Both Atomoxetine and Adhansia levels are low. Within six hours they will fall below recommended levels and fully depleted within fourteen hours. You must obtain a supply.”

The only place they could get them was back at the Institute. It made him think of Frank’s recommendation to stop taking them. The very idea made him nervous. But the erratic movement of the patrol bots brought him back.

“Let’s get away from here first.”

He turned and walked away from the fence, the landscape almost completely devoid of cover. All they could do was create distance. That would have to do. He heard Oddjob fall in line behind as the whine of the patrol bot drones slowly receded.

☉ ☉ ☉

©2022 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

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Oddland

Adventures in a post-rational world

Chapter 2

Frank Discussion

John soared above the endless plain below. Over the last five days it had changed from Colorado’s relatively cluttered surface to empty landscape. He had to be in Utah by now.

The propeller was barely needed. At its default setting it whizzed away, pushing him along. The hexpanels had kept up with minimal effort. If this continued he could probably make it all the way to California with few problems. Given he had built the gliderwing himself he was amazed how well it worked as it sailed through the clear sky.

He hadn’t seen any sign of the salek after the first day. He had been conscious of it the first night in the tent and had ordered Oddjob to scan all night. But it hadn’t reappeared.

The ground below was giving way to empty desolate rock formations with nothing manmade in any direction. It had to be Utah.

On the first day he’d only flown for a few hours before landing and sleeping in the tent. The evening sun was almost enough to recharge Oddjob. Even after a full day running the bot often only used no more than ten percent of charge from the efficient batteries in the chest cavity.

Oddjob could sprint all day, only stopping for obstacles, which he always managed to circumvent. His gait was the same steady, relentless rhythm unlike the way a person could run. Looking down he could see the bot maybe a quarter of a mile behind, the distinct white of his casing easy to spot against the sand-colored terrain, a light trail of dust whirling behind him.

Looking ahead the landscape lay before him for miles. No one lived here. The birdseye view made it peaceful to fly like this.

After several hours he noticed the first unnatural object he had seen for days. Tall poles standing in the middle of nowhere, straight ahead. Only as he approached the first of them did he appreciate the scale. They had to be a thousand feet in height, and they were everywhere.

Each pole had a kind of propeller attached at the top, with three massive blades standing still in the warm air. Ahead thousands of them littered the landscape all the way to the horizon, placed seemingly randomly like some cosmic sculpture.

He glided through them with ease, each one placed hundreds of yards away from others. Some lacked the propeller units. Looking down they lay on the ground, sheared off and lying smashed near the foot of the poles, partially buried in the dust as they slowly became part of the landscape.

Focusing on the tall poles he almost missed the structures over to his left some distance away. Pulling on the handlebars the gliderwing tilted, drawing him closer to the unexpected feature. It looked like a cluster of small buildings, their manmade design strikingly different from the eroded forms of the ancient rocks all around.

Pushing down on the handlebars he leaned forward, the gliderwing picking up speed as it descended. The compound consisted of one main building, dark in color, with extensions added around it. Two other structures stood a short distance away with a vehicle parked in front.

He must have been less than a hundred feet from the ground when he flew over it, the gliderwing cruising over the largest structure.

He noticed a ridge maybe a quarter of a mile away, a triangular wedge of rock emerging from the ground. The near side sloped gently down on to the plain with a flattened apex he could use to land. He could easily take off again by running down the incline.

He shot beyond the rock formation and slowly circled around. He descended further, the ridge rushing towards him at alarming speed. He had improved his landings in the last few days, but he was going much faster here.

As the short, flat landing spot rushed towards him he just had time to see Oddjob appear in the distance, pausing as he approached the buildings, observing. He’d automatically catalogue everything new he found in his path.

The top of the ridge sped towards him. As he approached, less than six feet from the ground, he pulled back on the handlebars. The front pulled up, catching the air as he slipped out of the seat, his bodyweight pulling the harness taut. This helped dip the rear of the wing, increasing the surface area exposed to the oncoming rush of air.

His speed slowed dramatically as his feet touched the ground. Running, he quickly came to a full stop, the air heavy with heat after the cool rush while landing.

He placed the rear of the wing on the ground and unclipped the harness. He was lowering the front of the gliderwing to the ground as he detected movement in his peripheral vision. Oddjob ran towards his position, his tall form rippling in the heat.

John inspected the wing for damage as it rested on the ground. The hexpanels looked in perfect shape, their reflective surface unmarred despite several days use.

Oddjob had run all the way up to the ridge and stopped next to him, the white chassis now slightly discolored. A thin layer of dust dulled the formerly gleaming appearance.

“Charge?”

“Ninety-three percent.”

He marveled again at the efficiency of the batteries. Only seven percent drain after almost six hours of energetic activity.

His inspection complete, he stood and looked over at the buildings he’d spotted from the air. They seemed much further away from here, a testament to how fast the gliderwing could carry him. It wasn’t easy to judge speed when he was flying high. Peppered all over the landscape behind stood the giant poles with the propellers stretching to the horizon. Nothing registered on the hudspecs, not even data from the nearby structures.

A figure walked from the buildings to the ridge. Oddjob turned his head to look, then shifted position when he spotted the man, his whole body turning around as if to greet the stranger walking towards them.

As the man reached the shallow climb up the ridge John noticed he carried a weapon. It looked like a rifle or maybe a shotgun.

The stranger never hesitated. He walked straight up to them, the gun resting on his shoulder, casually secured with one hand.

He was old. Maybe seventy. It was hard to judge because of his thin frame, his face lined and weathered.

“Hello,” said the man halting while looking down at the gliderwing. “Quite a contraption you have there.”

He didn’t seem threatening as he inspected the glider lying on the ground.

“I built it myself. I got the schematics online. People used to make these all the time.”

The man indicated his respirator.

“You don’t need that here.”

He reached up to pull it down, the thick elastic strap resting on the back of his neck. It was easy to forget he had it on.

“Where did you come from?” said the man.

John hesitated. Should he tell the stranger he lived in the Institute?

“East. I live near Boulder.”

“Thats over four hundred miles. Where are you going?”

“West. California eventually.”

The man walked around the gliderwing to look at the wing component at the rear, crouching down to inspect the surface closely. A slight sheen almost obscured the tiny hexagonal pattern.

“What are these?”

“Hexpanels.”

Each panel was tiny, less than half an inch wide and only a millimeter thick. Thousands covered the upper surface of the wing component.

“Solar power? Where did you get them?”

“From the buildings where I live. There were tons of them.”

“I didn’t know. I thought we used nuclear everywhere.”

“We do. But when my place was built they still used solar.”

“I remember that from school,” said the man standing up. “And they still work?”

“Yes. Only a few duds. They are efficient. I use them to charge everything.”

He indicated the slim black rectangular box at the center rear of the wing, its edge resting on the ground, the propeller gleaming in the sunlight.

“I can charge Oddjob as well as the propeller.”

“Oddjob?”

“That’s the bot’s name. That’s what he, it, responds to.”

The man looked at the bot.

“Is it a medbot?”

“Yes. I adapted the processor and routines. He is designed to cover long distances.”

The man didn’t offer any comment as he inspected Oddjob who stood motionless as ever. Thinking of the remoteness of the place he wondered if he lived here in the middle of nowhere.

“Do you live out here?”

“Yes. Always have done,” said the man turning back to him.

“Alone?”

“Yep. Just me,” he said, bringing the gun down from his shoulder, passing it to his left hand then extending his right. “My name’s Frank. Frank Harris.”

John took a step forward and shook his hand, the grip surprisingly strong. Not what he expected from such an underweight person.

“John Smith.”

“Well, John Smith,” he said, looking back at the buildings in the distance. “Why don’t you come in. I don’t often get company these days.”

The kitchen area was spartan and functional with an unfamiliar array of implements on the worktop. Quite different to his own tiny kitchen back at the Institute. Frank directed him towards a large table with six chairs as he looked around. He couldn’t see a food dispenser anywhere. A pot sat on a flat shiny square on the worktop with vapor rising lazily into the air. It had to be some kind of stove. An unfamiliar odor filled the room.

Frank sat the shotgun on the floor leaning against the kitchen units and began clearing the utensils away. The very presence of the weapon rattled him. He had never seen one up close, only online.

“So did you fly all the way here in your machine?”

Frank’s question broke the silence.

“Some of the way. I walked the rest.”

“No one bothered you?”

“No. We haven’t really met anyone.”

“And it’s just you and the bot?”

“Yes. Although we came across a salek.”

Frank turned to look at him.

“The police dogs? Where was this?”

“In Colorado.”

“I didn’t realize they had made it this far south although I’ve heard rumors.”

“Well it was there. The bot picked it up.”

“How did you get away?”

“Using the gliderwing.”

“I’ve heard they are lethal. They reprogrammed them to attack the police in Chicago. That’s why they were withdrawn. Although they were a foolish idea to begin with. You are lucky the bot spotted it. Where did you get a medbot anyway?”

“I just found it and reprogrammed it.”

Frank said nothing although probably didn’t believe him.

“I take it you are traveling without permission?”

“Well, we didn’t see anyone. I mean in Colorado.”

“Good for you,” said Frank. “They can’t police it any more.”

Was that true? He had escaped the supposedly secure facility by walking out via the broken fence that ran for miles around the campus. No one stopped them. Maybe it wasn’t just the Institute.

“Do you live here on your own?”

“I do now,” said Frank. “My wife died four years ago. Since then it’s just been me.”

Frank lifted a large jug from the worktop and picked up two mugs, then came over to the table.

“Coffee?”

John looked at the large jug.

“I’ve never tried it.”

“Coffee? You’ve never had coffee?”

“No.”

The old man laughed then proceeded to pour the dark brown liquid into the two cups.

“Well there’s a first time for everything.”

A strange aroma arose from the cup, its unusual smell not unpleasant.

John wondered how Frank survived out here on his own. He was old but he looked strong despite being thin.

“So are you just here on your own? No one else?”

“Just me,” he said, passing the cup. “It’s better that way.”

John said nothing. The coffee tasted bitter and acrid.

“It’s an acquired taste,” said Frank noticing his reaction. “If you are in no rush you can stay a while.”

Frank stood again and went over to the pot. He removed the lid and stirred the contents.

“How long have you been here?”

“A long time,” said Frank, not turning around. “Over fifty years.”

“Do you have any children?”

“Two sons. Both of them went south years ago. We keep in touch though. Things are different there.”

Did he mean Jesusland?

“How did you get them in?”

“I have a few friends there.”

“Why didn’t you go yourself?”

“We liked it here. We had been here a long time. Maybe if I had been your age I might have.”

He thought about the homestead and everything he had seen from the air. Nothing for miles except the propeller poles. Why would anyone stay in a place like this?

“What do you do here?”

“I recycle the turbines mainly.”

“The propeller things outside?”

“Yes. They are wind turbines. They used them to generate energy. A long time ago. Some of the components are worth something.”

“Do you sell them to people?”

“Yes, there’s always demand. Mainly the rare earths. They used neodymium and dysprosium in these old turbines, in the magnets. You can’t get those anywhere these days.”

“Is anyone else here? I saw nothing on the way over.”

“There are people everywhere. But this place is isolated. Cut off from most of it. No one bothers me here.”

He remembered everything he had read online. The way everyone lived together in communities. And yet this man lived here alone.

“Why do you live out here? Away from others. Away from services.”

“To stay away from the madness.”

“Madness?”

The old man turned to look at him.

“It wasn’t always like this,” he said. “The way people live today is not how it used to be.”

He looked around the kitchen at the manual stove, the knives and other utensils. There wasn’t even a food dispenser. He hadn’t seen any bots outside either.

“You mean before automation?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“But you reject automation?”

“No. I reject everything that comes with it.”

“What do you mean? Don’t you have dispensers or bots?”

“No,” said Frank. “Nothing like that. It’s just me here.”

“How do you survive all alone?”

Frank paused then came over and sat down opposite him at the table.

“What do you know about how all this came about? How we lived before.”

“You mean before post-scarcity?”

“Ha!” said Frank. “Post-scarcity. I’ve not heard that in a while. But no. We don’t live in a post-scarcity world. A lot is scarce. All the wrong things are in short supply.”

“Well I’ve read about things. Online.”

“Then maybe that is a problem. Remember, the victors write the history books.”

Victors? Did he mean the corporations? Before he could ask Frank carried on.

“It started a long time ago. Before I was born. In the nineteen-thirties in some ways. Everything got bigger. Everything became centralized.”

“You mean the government?”

“I mean the federal government. Our system was meant to be decentralized. Everything local and within reach. But over time bureaucrats took over. They took over everything. They governed everything. Institutions ran the country. All of them controlled far away.”

Frank looked lost in thought. His mind wandering.

“I remember when we started using self-driving cars,” he said. “That was a typical example.”

“Cars? What do you mean? We’ve always had cars.”

“Not self-driving cars. Which is a nonsense term. Centrally-controlled cars is more accurate.”

“What other kind are there?”

“We used to drive them ourselves. Go wherever we liked. Some of us still do. Like you in your flying machine.”

“You mean manual cars? No guidance systems?”

“No guidance. No control. No nothing.”

Was that true? People could just go anywhere they liked?

“At first the regulation was just transponders. The car manufacturers included them anyway. But then the government regulated that and took control. The hardware, the software and all that. Then you needed a license for it. They soon got used to tracking everyone.

“Once they had that they controlled everyone. All it took was one law passed and they could deactivate your car whenever they liked. You then needed government permission to travel anywhere. Implicit permission. They could literally stop your car from starting.”

“What did they do before that though?”

“Nothing,” said Frank. “Or at least they had limited options. In principle they worked for us, although that was never really true of course. But that kind of direct control is attractive to governments. Once the technology existed it didn’t take them long to control it.”

Why didn’t he know this? Kainzow was critical of how the country was run but claimed it was the corporations who had hijacked democracy, usurping the will of the people.

“Of course,” said Frank. “The real damage was to the next generation. They grew up used to this central control. It became normalized.”

“What happened next?”

“Nothing. That is the point. At least nothing visible. An entire generation never questioned how a government could control your movement. So they never questioned why a government can control anything. Restrictions on freedom became normal.

“In time government made more and more decisions. People became ever more dependent on the federal government, on central decision-making bodies. All of it felt normal.”

He thought about his own explorations. How radical it felt even questioning things. Leaving the Institute without permission.

Then he remembered all that Kainzow had taught him.

“But what about the corporations? Big business. Weren’t they to blame?”

“The government is the ultimate corporation,” said Frank. “It was the other way around. Businesses became co-opted by government. Corrupted by it. A lot of people are quick to blame big business, and they are not innocent. But all the ruin is because of centralized power not commerce.”

He felt lost. But before he could say anything Frank continued.

“It is power that corrupts. Having the power to force people to accept your vision of society. Businesses don’t have that, not even now. A good example is universal basic income.”

“You mean standard income?”

“That’s what they call it now. But it used to be called UBI.”

“What is wrong with it? I was told that was one of the concessions the corporations made to governments to get their way. That it helps people. No one goes without. No one starves.”

“No one ever starved in America. We’ve always been able to feed ourselves. UBI was about control not starvation.”

“I thought it helped. That’s what I read.”

“It helped the Fed,” said Frank. “But no one else. Productivity dropped. America lost its place while it celebrated its greatness. No one went without, that was the idea.”

“Isn’t that a good thing though?”

“When the cure is worse than the disease, then no. It’s not a good thing. The goal was to help people but they became enslaved instead. And once that happens it is hard for people to escape.”

“Everything I’ve read online said it was to help people live better lives.”

“No it was to avoid hardship. And that turned out to be a mistake. People need obstacles to overcome if they are to grow. For most, destroying adversity kills any incentive they have.”

Frank’s statements contradicted everything he had heard.

“That was all driven by the federal government,” said Frank. “Private companies had nothing to do with it, no matter what you’ve read. I mean, they did some of the dirty work, especially the media corporations. They got people used to the idea. But it was all driven by government. It was about consolidating their power.”

“If that is true then why didn’t people protest?”

“They did. All the time. But they’ve been controlling people for a long time. They encouraged docility as they have always done. Sheep do not run away from shelter. The one thing the big corporations did help with was everything going virtual as it is now. Lots of changes happened at once. Jobs, entertainment, everything. No one left home. That atomized us, isolated us. We were easy prey by then.”

John had read about that. People used to travel more, especially to work. They even had communal working spaces.

“That helped a lot. When so many people were always plugged in they had to do very little to monitor and control them. People installed their own surveillance equipment at home. Their jobs required it. And many seemed willing to immerse in their social platforms, throwing away their lives. It was easy. So in a sense, yes, the corporations were in lockstep with them. But never forget who drives it all and what their goal is, total control.”

The kitchen was darker now the sun was going down. Frank got up and went to the stove.

“Hungry?” he said.

The strange smells from whatever he was making lingered in the room.

Frank used a ladle to measure out two portions of the food into bowls and sat them on the table.

John looked at the strange food. It looked like dark soup.

“What is it?”

“Stew,” said Frank. “Venison.”

John looked at him.

“Deer meat.”

Frank went to a cupboard and brought out a large loaf. He at least recognized that. As he placed it down on a wooden board and began cutting slices he noticed it was darker than the bread at the Institute.

He looked again at the stew in the bowl, unsure of what to do. His sense of revulsion competed with the inviting aroma. Not at all what he expected.

“You eat meat?”

“Always,” said Frank. “We are designed to eat meat.”

“I’ve eaten protein but not this.”

“I’m not surprised. The last thing they want is young men who are fit and strong. Go ahead and try it. You’ll like it.”

As Frank placed some slices of bread on a side plate he picked up the spoon and took a small amount. He couldn’t see if there was actual meat there or just other stuff. The thick liquid disguised the contents.

He took a mouthful, the textures unfamiliar. Surprisingly it tasted good.

“See what I mean?” said Frank. “Another revelation for you.”

“I thought meat was dangerous.”

“No. The effects of meat are dangerous. For the government that is. But human beings evolved to eat it. You need it. Especially at your age.”

He tried some more. It was odd eating such a mixture of sensations. He had to chew some of it. Presumably the bits of animal flesh. But it was not unpleasant.

“The vegetarianism is difficult to explain,” said Frank while eating his own stew. “Lots of things came together at once.”

“What do you mean?”

“Years ago, when they still talked about climate change, there were a group of anti-meat people who wanted everyone to be a vegetarian. It didn’t work. People like their cheeseburgers.”

He wondered what a cheeseburger was. Wasn’t cheese meat free?

“But as the government and its minions took control over everything farming became a problem. Farmers themselves became a problem. They used to call it the beef lobby. But in time the government regulated everything they did until it became too expensive to farm animals. Some of them were corporations but they didn’t survive. Government is always in charge.”

“And we became vegetarians?”

“Not overnight. But protein substitutes for meat were cheaper thanks to government subsidies. They initially called it lab-grown meat. Much easier to control. Governments can’t cope with variety and diversity. A central bureaucracy likes standardization, homogeneous things. They produced approved food pyramids. Everyone fell into line. No one noticed the farmers dying off. That’s why they control minds. It is cheaper than taking on industries. Not that there are any industries left.”

Had all this really happened? John had never given any thought to the food he ate. It was all prepared by the units back at the Institute or by bots.

“And it had a useful side effect,” said Frank. “It keeps you docile. I mean, Christ knows what chemicals they put in slop these days. But even without them their approved diet wasn’t healthy.”

“But it is designed to offer a nutritional balance.”

“Spoken like an obedient drone. On paper, yes. Everything is there. But that’s not how real life works. You need a variety of things. That’s how we evolved. More to the point it is a vegetarian diet that uses stodge as filler.”

“Stodge?”

“Carbohydrate foods. Bread, pasta, rice. That kind of thing. High carb and low fat.”

Fat was dangerous. He knew that much at least.

“They even convinced people fat was dangerous,” said Frank. “But look at me. I eat animal fats and butter. Yet I’m a lot fitter than you despite being forty years older.”

Frank was thin. He remembered looking at pictures online of cancer victims before they could cure it, their emaciated forms difficult to look at. And yet, despite his obvious age, Frank looked vigorous and fit. Strong.

He looked down at his own girth. The weight around his waist.

“You see the point,” said Frank. “Bulking up on crap makes you feel full. It feeds the body with sugar. But you are not designed for that. You are designed to move and for that you need fuel.”

They continued eating. Was all this true? It wasn’t the way Kainzow had explained things.

“I remember when my sons were young,” said Frank. “Other people thought them half starved. By then everyone was fat and sick and had fat kids. It seemed normal. It probably seemed even more normal when the government made statins and insulin medications free. I remember that happening. Everyone saw it as a great leap forward. An enlightened thing. Only a handful challenged the actual food we were eating, and they were easily dealt with.”

He thought about all that Frank had said as he ate the strange food. If what he said was true it was disturbing. It seemed to make little sense.

“Why did all this happen?”

“Why does anything happen?” said Frank. “Life is what it is.”

“But it doesn’t make any sense they would want to destroy America.”

“They didn’t. They wanted control. The kind of people who crave control gravitate towards government power. Their only goal was power. But the very nature of power corrupts. As rules are imposed they gradually destroy the conditions that make prosperity possible. Innovation needs freedom, not rules. Innovation by its nature is disruptive, it breaks all the rules. But the control freaks live for rules.”

“But it seems so extreme. No middle ground.”

“The productive are always a threat to the powers that be. A bureaucratic elite produce nothing. The doers in society produce everything and they resent control. The two are mutually exclusive. The decline was nothing more than that. Productive people are always a threat.”

“So what do we do?”

“Be productive. Produce things. You built your flying machine. Not everyone has that impulse. It is the one thing despots cannot do. They imagine themselves planners and strategists. But that is just a way of avoiding the fact they cannot make anything. Those kinds of people are the product of a society that has lost its way. When we find our way again there won’t be a place for them.”

Frank seemed to be an inexhaustible source of knowledge about the past. Things he’d never heard of or read online.

“How do you know all this?”

“My father was a historian. He even wrote books. He taught me a lot when I was growing up. He wrote journals too, which I read after his death. He died of pneumonia. That was the official reason anyway, but it was probably VAIDS. They don’t talk about that any more either. The only thing left from those times are the respirators. Too useful to ditch. My father talked a lot about the need for visual symbols to maintain narratives. That was one one of his books. The authorities were always using invented threats to keep themselves in power. A scared population is easily controlled. His journals were full of that.”

John was relieved when Frank moved on to other subjects. There were no more revelations while they ate. The food was unusual. More time consuming to eat than normal food. But it wasn’t unpleasant.

Frank explained how the homestead worked. He learned about Frank’s neighbors, all of whom lived miles away even though he called them neighbors.

As it slowly grew dark outside he enjoyed listening to Frank and learning about his life despite his disturbing comments. The decline and how it had come about. Frank had lived through some of it but it troubled him that he had such a different perspective from Kainzow. He didn’t know what to make of it all.

Frank suggested he stay the night. The homestead had numerous rooms spread out inside, the layout seemingly following no plan. It was a lot different from the uniformity of the Institute.

The room had been one of Frank’s son’s. It was mostly empty, just a bed. The room was clean though.

The homestead seemed to sprawl in many directions. Frank mentioned he had added to it over the years. It had originally been what he called a maintenance shed for the engineers who worked on the wind turbines. John wondered how anyone added to a building. The Institute had been made of a series of uniform units built in a factory and shipped to the campus. But Frank’s place did look home made, quite different to what he was used to. It didn’t have traditional lighting. You had to flick a kind of switch on the wall near the door when you entered a room.

Frank wasn’t one for smalltalk. After his revelations at dinner he left him to it once showing him to the room.

Looking outside the tall window the sun had fallen below the horizon, the orange sky bleeding into black. He could just see Oddjob standing motionless in the distance next to the gliderwing as the sun set.

He looked like he was guarding the gliderwing. It made him wonder what the medbot would do if someone tried to steal or damage it. Would he react? He was adapting to his surroundings but it was doubtful he could show that kind of initiative.

He turned and sat on the bed, remembering the meat he’d eaten. Venison. Deer meat. What might it be doing to him? Everything he’d been told about animal flesh. But he felt fine. Although he didn’t feel full yet didn’t feel hungry either, an unusual sensation.

Digging through his bag he found his meds. Taking the pills he wondered if the meat he had consumed would somehow react with the drugs. But he dismissed the idea. He did normally eat protein. Surely it would be fine.

As he lay on the hard bed he thought more about everything Frank had said. He always did this. The doctors had called it rumination. Turning things over in your mind needlessly. But he was used to it. It was lying awake at night when he’d had the idea to reprogram a medbot. Over two years ago now.

Frank’s revelations rolled about his mind. Was he telling the truth? Had America really developed that way? Kainzow hadn’t mentioned any of it, insisting the big corporations had used capitalism to enslave everyone for profit, including governments throughout the world.

He wished he could talk to Kainzow. He retrieved the medscreen from his bag and activated it. The device indicated no signal. It automatically scanned for something to connect to but nothing appeared. Frank’s place seemed totally primitive.

Thinking about what Frank had said about travel no longer being policed he wondered about the elaborate steps he had taken to avoid detection when accessing the deepnet. Maybe that wasn’t policed either. Maybe nothing was any more.

He lay back on the hard bed, the tiredness overtaking him despite his normal habit of ruminating. He experienced a flash of panic. Was the sleepiness some reaction between the deer meat and the meds?

Despite the unusual surroundings and the faint sounds from around him, he drifted off almost immediately, quickly lost to a deep, satisfying sense of tiredness.

Oddjob stood in the distance, in the exact same position from the night before. John could see him clearly while sitting on the front porch. The morning sun was bright although the porch itself was shaded.

He had woken at dawn and stayed in the room until he heard Frank moving around. Despite the early hour he felt refreshed and energetic. His worry the night before about eating the meat had proved ungrounded.

Frank had directed him to a large shower room. He was surprised to see it. He had somehow expected something more crude given the kitchen didn’t even have a dispenser. Although the shower didn’t respond to voice commands; he had to turn a manual wheel-like thing to make the water start.

Frank appeared on the porch with two plates. Setting one down on the table he looked at the contents. Strips of meat with eggs.

“It’s bacon,” said Frank.

He looked at Frank as he began eating.

“That’s pig meat. One of my neighbors breeds them. Has done for years. Thoroughly illegal, which makes it taste even better.”

He cut a small piece of the meat. It tasted great. Unlike anything he had eaten before, the richness unexpected. Frank watched him closely and smiled.

“Everyone loves bacon.”

He looked at the eggs. He knew they used them as a constituent element in many foods, although he had never eaten real eggs before. The yolks were a deep orange color, bursting when he dipped in a piece of the bacon.

The egg yolks tasted amazing when combined with the bacon.

“I think they use eggs in food. The protein foods anyway.”

“That stuff isn’t food,” said Frank. “It’s made in a chemical plant. Chemicals masquerading as food. It’s practically soylent green.”

Frank could see the confusion on his face.

“Before your time,” he said. “An old joke. But they worked hard to control the food supply. It took them a long time, but they got there in the end.”

“Why did they control food? Is it so bad? I’ve eaten it all my life.”

“I can tell,” said Frank looking him over. “You’re fat, unlike me. That’s just one of the effects.”

John looked down at his body. He’d always been like this. At least he couldn’t remember being different.

“The diet most people are suited to has no sugar and limited carbohydrates. We are designed to eat vegetables, meat and fats. Healthy fats like butter or olive oil. Not that you can get olive oil these days.

“Even long before they actually manufactured their fake food the government doled out advice. An approved diet. It was all nonsense. It made everyone fat and sick eventually.”

“But how? I mean, why would they do that? Make people sick. Surely people would notice?”

“Conditioning is powerful. Everyone, including the doctors, all played along. Breaking out of that mindset takes more effort than most people possess. People like being led. Thinking for yourself is frightening to most. Plus it has the useful side effect of making people ever more dependent on government. Most governments in the west eventually realized they could keep themselves in business by creating these kinds of problems then selling people solutions to the problems they themselves created. Like a perpetual money machine.”

He said nothing as he ate the breakfast, troubled by what Frank was saying.

“Government loves dependency. They always want people more dependent not less. And they learned long ago as people embrace dependency they quickly lose any sense of initiative.

“When they controlled diet, which took them a long time, the problems it created were solved with drugs. When I was born statins to manage the damage caused by poor diets were the norm. Once you get people hooked on drugs they will never rock the boat. They have too much to lose. And drugs are everywhere.”

He thought of his own meds. He had taken them every day since his diagnosis. But surely that wasn’t what Frank meant. He needed them.

“What do they have you on?” said Frank, clearly reading the look on his face.

“Double A. Atomoxetine and Adhansia.”

Frank looked confused.

“Adhansia is a stimulant.”

“And the other thing isn’t I take it? Presumably some kind of depressant?”

“Yes.”

“So they are giving you drugs to compensate for the drugs they are giving you?”

He didn’t know what to say to that.

“Well I have oppositional defiant disorder. They’ve tried different meds over the years. I do alright on these.”

Frank looked unimpressed.

“I have no idea what oppositional defiance is but I’m sure it is normal behavior they cannot stand. When I was younger barely a week went by they didn’t create some kind of new problem inside our heads. Psychiatrists were everywhere.”

Frank paused, lost in thought. Then something seemed to come to him, as if remembering from long ago.

“I remember when they first started appearing on TV.”

“TV?”

“Television. Wall screens. Before headsets and rigs. Shrinks were everywhere. Being asked to comment on everything. They already had hate crime laws. But then racism, sexism and homophobia were reclassified as mental illness along with anything else they didn’t like. And it didn’t take them long to come up with a mountain of evidence to support their ideas. You can find evidence for anything if you look hard enough. After that the government had the weapons it needed.

“By then they had immense power. Psychiatry was funded almost exclusively by the government. Before long our thoughts were no longer our own. They didn’t need to prove anything. Virtually anyone can be accused of unconscious bias. I remember my father commenting on that when I was a boy. It won’t be long before they just have to say you are dangerous since it comes from the subconscious. You couldn’t even argue against that once it became established as the whole point is the individual is unaware of their dangerous ideas.”

John remembered lectures years before from the senior consultant at the Institute. Reminding him his behavior was not his own fault. It was all behavioral patterns buried in his subconscious. All they had to do was root them out.

“In the end they controlled our movements, the food we ate and even our thoughts. It just fell into place. Everyone got used to being tracked, controlled and monitored. They ultimately got used to other people deciding what was in their minds. True mental slavery.”

Frank looked lost in thought. He turned to John.

“The authorities were always good at labeling people they didn’t like or didn’t fit their neat plans about how society ought to work. If you want some advice I’d stop taking your mind-altering drugs.”

“Well, I’m not sure.”

“Of course you’re not. But doubt is part of life. Getting used to it I mean. Just consider not taking them, that’s all.”

It was a scary thought. No meds at all? He had no idea what that would do to him. Would it take him right back to square one?

“So you are going west?” said Frank.

“Yes. A place called the Orchard.”

“What’s there?”

“HEF. The Hackers for Equality and Freedom. An organization who are trying to change things. It is run by a guy called Kainzow.”

“And you’re going there to meet this Kainzow?”

“Yes. It was him who persuaded me to leave the place I was. An institute in Colorado.”

“They had you locked up?”

“Well, not locked up. Not really. But it was a medical facility. The Federal Institute of Behavioral Therapy.”

“You’re not alone,” said Frank. “Hard to believe what we’ve done to this country. I take it that’s where you got the medbot?”

“Yes. Kainzow helped me upgrade it.”

Frank said nothing, lost in thought.

“Kainzow and others are trying to change things. Tackle the corporations and corrupt government.”

“The government is a corporation,” said Frank. “That’s the problem right there. Wasteful and hopeless. It’s the schooling you need to fix. Kids raised in this environment believe every word they are told.”

Frank stood up to clear the plates.

“Since you are going west,” he said lifting his plate. “I have something for you.”

He disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared a few minutes later.

In his hands were two guns. One was a large gun with a long barrel. The other was an automatic pistol.

“This,” he said holding up the bigger weapon. “Is a shotgun. Try it.”

John took it from him. It was heavier than it looked. He’d only ever seen them in movies and games.

“I’m not sure. I mean, I’ve never handled a gun.”

“Then get sure. The world is a dangerous place. Your brush with the K9 unit should have taught you that.”

John hefted the gun, raising it and placing the butt to his shoulder. He turned and pointed it out towards the ridge.

“That’s it,” said Frank. “Hold it steady, breath out and squeeze the trigger. It’s unloaded.”

He squeezed the trigger, conscious of the weight of the weapon. He lowered it and turned to Frank.

Frank handed him the pistol. It too was heavy.

“You’ll need more practice with this. You can’t miss with the shotgun. But you can easily miss with a pistol.”

John felt it’s weight. The gun felt dangerous.

“We can go out back. I have a small range where I practice. I’ll show you how to handle them safely.”

Part of him wanted to object but another part didn’t. Despite how illegal the weapons were they somehow felt right in his hand.

Once again Frank seemed able to read the doubt on his face.

“These are for defense,” he said looking at the shotgun. “People have forgotten the government want you dependent and these make you independent.”

“But they’re illegal.”

“Too much is illegal.”

He felt the heaviness of the weapons as he looked out to the distant ridge, Oddjob standing still in the warm air.

It took less than five minutes to pack away the gliderwing. They were getting faster and Oddjob needed no guidance.

He lifted his own pack while Oddjob effortlessly did the same with the heavier load. He had put the small pistol into Oddjob’s as Frank had warned him he’d need to practice a lot more. They’d spent almost two hours at his makeshift range as Frank drilled him on how to safely handle both weapons. It had felt disturbingly satisfying discharging them, although he struggled to hit the targets.

He turned to Frank who had walked up to the ridge with him and held out his hand.

“Thanks for everything. The guns I mean.”

Frank shook his hand, his grip still unexpectedly strong.

“Don’t mention it,” said Frank. “Remember to practice though.”

He promised to do so. The shotgun’s weight was apparent strapped to his backpack plus the boxes of ammunition were in there too. Frank had given him more than he’d ever need.

He indicated to Oddjob they were going as he looked out over the empty plains from the advantage of the ridge.

“If you are heading west,” said Frank. “Watch out for Aca.”

He turned to the old man.

“Aca?”

“A controlled area, west of here. Difficult to go round. It is well guarded.”

He had never heard of it but promised to be careful.

“Good luck,” said Frank.

He nodded and got going, Oddjob catching up and joining him as they aimed west leaving Frank and his homestead behind, the old man’s words still echoing in his mind.

☉ ☉ ☉

©2022 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

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Oddland

Adventures in a post-rational world

Chapter 1

Escape

The truck looked like it had been abandoned years ago. John peered into the interior, the door wide open. Dirt and debris covered the seats and floor, the remains of an old bird’s nest scattered in the footwell. A stale odor lingered as if the vehicle had sat for decades, noticeable even through the respirator.

Stepping away from the rusted door he looked down the street into the town. He remembered Boulder from his childhood, although not like this.

Discarded cars littered the street. Tufts of grass sprouted at the edges of the road and sidewalk. It was more than empty. It looked dead. Even the hudspecs registered nothing, the vehicles long since drained of power. Intrastate travel was permitted in most parts of Colorado, yet no one was here.

Boards covered many of the store fronts as they walked down the deserted boulevard. Like the truck everything looked unused for years. Sale signs rustled in the breeze as if some cataclysmic event had frozen the town at a single moment in the past.

Oddjob followed silently behind. Whenever he stopped to peer through the windows into the stores the bot stopped too, never looking inside, his indifference the most inhuman thing about him. The sunlight reflected off the clean white fibroresin of the upper casing, its sterile surface peppered with green medical symbols. The large backpack with the gliderwing and the rest of the supplies caused the bot no problems as he stood perfectly erect in silence, the expressionless eyes never changing.

None of the stores had been looted. Most had merchandise sitting on shelves, clearly untouched for years. A visible layer of dust covered every surface. The hudspecs didn’t pick up any broadcasts from the vacant stores.

The signs had been apparent on the journey here although he had tried to ignore his mounting apprehension. They hadn’t seen another person since leaving the Institute. Now on the third day he no longer expected anyone to challenge them despite his fears before the escape.

He tried to calculate how long it would take to walk to his parents’ house but he couldn’t work it out. They’d taken him when he was fourteen. He remembered a brief journey to Boulder, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes in the car. What would that be? A few miles? The distances were vague in his mind.

There was nothing to see. Whatever had happened here it was dead. He took off down the long boulevard, heading for home.

The gate stood wide open in the distance as they walked past the derelict remains of a car, its tires flat. Reaching the entrance John looked at the weeds emerging from the edge of the thick posts holding the structure in place. Why was the gate open? It had always been closed, only unlocked briefly to admit cars and delivery vans.

They walked in to the estate, down the short road to the junction leading to the houses. The layout was a shamrock shape, the section containing his parents’ house off to the left.

Reaching the junction they traveled the few hundred yards to the area at the end, each of the twenty houses in a loose circle. The monitor cameras at the top of the poles placed between every second property remained motionless, slumped forward in their protective housings.

In most of the houses curtains were drawn shut with several properties abandoned. In one case the front door was open to the world. Another had been destroyed by fire, the roof collapsed and the windows blackened by smoke.

Reaching his parents’ house he remembered it as bigger and more grand. Now it looked like a toy house, identical to all the others, tired and unkempt. Broken gutters hung from the edge of the roof, the front garden a riot of untended bushes and long grass.

At the sidewalk in front of the house the streetlights juddered into life, so something still worked. Most failed to light up. Oddjob looked up at the flickering light as if not sure what was happening.

It made him wonder how the bot processed all this, the environment far removed from the clinical predictability of a hospital. Oddjob’s adaptive routines aimed to accomplish basic interaction but that was primarily physical lifting and simple medical procedures. What would this much bigger world do to it?

Despite his desperation to get here he couldn’t shake his growing discomfort. The boulevard in town had been disturbing but for some reason he hadn’t really expected it here even though that was irrational. Why would it be any different? Yet the tension increased as he approached the house, the feeling of wrongness difficult to shake off.

Then he realized. The silence. His memory of living here was the noise. Cars, people, kids shouting. His sister especially. She never shut up, even as a baby. But now the whole area was silent. This is what he’d always had at the back of his mind, the memory of how it once was. That’s what he had clung to all these years while he had rehearsed what he’d say to his parents when he finally talked to them again face to face.

He had played around here on his bike as a child, long ago. But only now, looking at the familiar scene, did he remember the anguish and the confusion. At school, the rote learning, the way they wanted you to sit still and never ask questions. The hushed conversations with his parents. And the words, the terminology; disruptive, fidgeting, attention deficit. The boy is difficult, he is too disruptive, he is defiant. Then the diagnosis. His parents had been powerless to stop it happening, but he hadn’t understood back then.

It all came back in a rush as they walked on to the empty drive. His father had always been allowed a car, but it was absent. Weeds broke through the cracks in the concrete where he remembered it being parked.

Ahead of them, at the side of the house, stood a huge yellow tank, eight feet in height. As they came close to it the Nutrisource logo was the only clue to its contents. Why did they have a nutrient reservoir?

He looked at the door at the side of the house. His mother always called it the back door even though it was technically at the side of the house. The servant’s entrance as his father called it, the memory of him walking in to the large kitchen years ago vivid and real in his mind.

More real than all this, the neglect evident up close. The roughcast on the outer walls at the back door had all but disappeared, lying in uncleared heaps on the ground. Water stains discolored the exposed brickwork. It reinforced the sense of decay, adding to his nervousness.

A layer of grime partly obscured the panel at the side of the door. He tried to wipe it with his sleeve although it didn’t make much of a dent. Would it even work after all this time? Looking at his palm he wondered how much it changed. Did a palm print change at all?

He touched the panel, his hand trembling slightly. The muted thud of the locking bolts broke the silence of the quiet evening as he pushed open the door.

Dust covered every surface of the kitchen, their entrance causing a swirl of particles to catch the warm light through a gap in the closed blinds. A musty odor pervaded the room.

The emptiness clashed with his memory of living here. He remembered it as noisy and full. All four of them used to sit at the table. Like the rest of the kitchen it was clear of clutter, a thin layer of dust just visible.

Panic briefly overcame him as he walked further into the kitchen. What if his parents were no longer here? Had they went somewhere else? If they’d left they’d surely have told him.

He quickly walked into the hall past the mirror. He remembered it as huge but it was only about five feet high. He reached up and pulled off the respirator and hudspecs when he caught sight of himself.

It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the dark living room. He immediately sensed the unexpected objects.

Light abruptly appeared, flooding the space. He turned to see Oddjob towering above him, the lamp embedded in his forehead ablaze.

Turning back, three rigs sat facing away from each other in a star formation at the center of the room. In each lay an unrecognizable figure, their faces obscured by full media masks.

He walked closer to the nearest one. A biosuit encased the corpulent body, the fabric stretched taut revealing its grotesque dimensions. Was it one of his parents? The body must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds at least.

The rig looked new, its distant origin as a dentist’s chair apparent in the long sweep of its cushioned surface. A single support stand held it a few feet off the ground as if hovering. Walking around to view the other bodies, both were smaller than the first, which had to be his father. These two must be his mother and sister, Claire. He couldn’t tell them apart. Both were overweight, the material of their suits straining to contain their obese forms. A series of tubes ran into their full masks and others exited their suits, presumably to carry waste. A soft hum emanated from the rigs, the only sound in the dark room.

He stood back, shocked at the sight of all three lying inert and silent. He had talked to them only a few weeks ago, their avatars betraying no hint of their true state.

Most people used avatars online, but he had assumed they’d base them on real life. He realized he hadn’t really given it any thought. His family were one of only a few people he himself used an avatar with. The deepnet where he’d spent most of his time online shunned them, preferring anonymity.

Walking back around to the first rig the only way he could determine it was probably his father was the relative bulk compared to the other two.

There had never been any hint they had immersed like this. His father occasionally used a rig for work, but the addition of units for everyone was unexpected. That’s why the Nutrisource tank outside was so substantial, it had to maintain three adults.

He turned to Oddjob.

“See if you can work out their status.”

The medbot moved closer to his father’s bulky form, looking down at the prone figure. He could just see the tiny indicator on Oddjob’s chest begin to flicker as the bot connected with the chair.

Looking around, they had stripped out everything except one bookcase. No couch or chairs. With the three rigs and now Oddjob towering above, his head close to the ceiling, none of it felt like home despite the fact he’d spent half his life here. The memories triggered felt alien, less like home than the Institute.

He walked over to the other rigs. He guessed the one on the right was his sister, although it was impossible to be sure with the mask covering the whole face.

Kneeling down next to her he noticed a tiny screen only a few inches wide embedded in the side of the head rest. Looking closer he fumbled with the controls and it came to life.

Expecting a bio readout it instead showed a confusing jumble of content. Much of it looked like moving images, difficult to make sense of with the small screen. Peering closer, the chaotic content flashed briefly onscreen, quickly replaced. The images lacked audio making it all the more difficult to understand. Was this the content she was consuming via the rig?

Standing up, the tiny screen still flickering, it struck him. Hypercomping, it had to be. Hyper comprehension, the technique used to layer multiple strands of information for a kind of accelerated method of consuming material. Hadn’t it been developed for military use, in intelligence? It was sometimes used in academia, but was she using it for normal consumption?

Critics called the technique enthrallment, claiming people struggled to cope with such obvious information overload. He had read somewhere the real danger was in the longer term changes it likely made to neural pathways. Normal information consumption became unbearably tedious and attention spans fractured over time. Why was she using it?

It had been banned at the Institute. No one was allowed to hypercomp and the equipment had been absent even for staff. He knew it would be absolutely lethal for someone with his own disorder so he’d never been tempted.

Looking down at the prone body it had to be Claire, her obesity disturbing to see. He couldn’t easily associate her bloated form with his most recent view of her, the avatar she used, and it was nothing like she was as a kid. He remembered her running around out the back years ago. She was three years younger than him so she’d be twenty-six now. Looking over at his mother’s form he struggled to tell them apart.

How had things declined so much? Thinking of the three-day journey here he hadn’t believed Colorado could be this bad. California and New York were famously lost decades ago. Whole sections of the country fully immersed. But he hadn’t realized things had degenerated here, and with his own family.

“Patient within expected parameters.”

Oddjob’s report broke the spell as he looked over at the medbot, still in the exact same position.

“Early indicators of metabolic syndrome,” said Oddjob. “But prognosis within expected parameters.”

He looked down at his mother and sister. Was there any point getting Oddjob to check them? What could he do? Short of shutting down their rigs he couldn’t even contact them. The hacked medscreen only worked to communicate with Oddjob and basic online content. He’d have to go back to the Institute.

Did it matter? He generally only talked to them every few months so they probably wouldn’t notice his absence for a while. He had expected to stay a few days to reassure them about his escape. But what now?

A flash of blue light caught his attention. He looked over at the far wall, everything in darkness. He’d need to get Oddjob’s light to see what it was.

“Look over there.”

Oddjob turned to where he pointed. The headlamp illuminated a connector near the floor. Moving around the rigs he made his way over. Oddjob followed without prompting.

Crouching down to inspect the section of wall, his body blocked the light. Before he could say anything Oddjob shifted position, aiming the light at the white box, a mid-capacity connecter attached to the wall just above the skirting board. The tiny blue light flickered at high speed.

They must have upgraded it at some point. They used to have one of the simpler gigabit connections, enough to run basic content. But the bulky unit suggested a more powerful connection needed for full-spectrum immersion. Probably a fifty terabit line.

Inspecting the unit he could not see any way to deactivate it. They must have plumbed it in when they installed the rigs. A thin film of dust covered the box. It must have been installed some time ago. Perhaps years.

Standing, he couldn’t decide what to do. He told Oddjob to check his mother and sister and then wait for him as he made his way through to his old bedroom.

It too was empty except for a single bed. A vacuum bot sat in the corner. He kicked it but it didn’t respond. It looked as if it had sat there for years. The room had the same musty smell as the rest of the house, the curtains shut tight.

He sat down on the bed and took off his backpack. Opening it he rummaged inside and retrieved a nutribar, spotting his meds. He’d need to remember to take them before too long. It made him realize how much he relied on routine. He should get Oddjob to remind him. Something to sort tomorrow.

Eating the nutribar he couldn’t help but wonder how things had declined here. Was he so cut off he had missed it? Or was everywhere the same now? He had been warned what to expect but hadn’t really believed it. Despite being online for years nothing had prepared him for this, not here in his own home.

Discovering the deepnet had changed his life. Despite all the restrictions at the Institute they didn’t have a clue how easy it was to circumvent their crude blocks. Every chalet had access, but only the occupied ones were actively monitored. It had been as simple as breaking into one of the many abandoned units and just going online.

When he had been approached by Kainzow when he found the deepnet he learned how to properly circumvent every restriction. And he hadn’t stopped there. Kainzow had taught him the world didn’t work the way he’d been told. He knew now the government didn’t really run anything. It was all controlled by global corporations behind the scenes.

Although Kainzow had warned him against visiting home the infamous hacker was responsible for him being here in a way. Kainzow’s abrupt disappearance almost a year before had prompted him to finally leave the Institute for good to seek him out in California, the corporations finally silencing him as he said they would.

It had taken all that time to plan and accumulate everything he needed. Despite the warnings he had always known he’d come here first.

Thinking about his parents and Claire next door just made him more determined to go through with it, to get to the Orchard. Kainzow would have the answers.

“Charge one hundred percent.”

Oddjob stood in the back garden, the grass reaching almost to his knees. The gliderwing lay sprawled out, its thirty-foot wingspan reaching to each edge of the lawn. The tiny hexpanels glistened in the bright morning sun, their repeating pattern just visible. He had been unable to find a power connector back at the Institute he could use with a domestic supply so he was dependent on the gliderwing to recharge the bot for now.

He looked at its triangular form, the saddle and controls folded away underneath. Building it had been key. He had no way to secure interstate travel even if he’d been able to steal a car. Finding the glider schematics online, he knew people used to make gliders all the time because of the travel restrictions. It had been difficult to test back at the Institute despite the extent of the grounds, most of it abandoned and never visited by the staff. But he had only really flown it ten or fifteen feet off the ground and had yet to take it up high. But he’d need it to get as far as California.

“Fold it away.”

Oddjob immediately responded, walking over to the gliderwing resting on the ground and began folding the shape back from the apex, the clicks from hidden switches audible in the still air. In less than a minute the triangular shape was folded down from the top to form a rough rectangle. The bot moved to the far side and began rolling the wing towards the center, carefully separating the telescopic rods that made up the frame. He marveled at Oddjob’s dextrous hands moving fast with no hesitation, the movements human-like.

He had worked extensively with the bot so he knew the mechanics worked. It was the bot’s sensors he needed since he didn’t know what was out there especially beyond Colorado. Kainzow himself had given him the firmware updates to access the array embedded within the skull.

The torso looked too short now he had lengthened the bot’s legs, the skeletal aluminum bones exposed along with the powerful knee joints. The replacement lower leg supports joined to the feet, which made the bot look as if it wore ankle boots. But it had worked, the extra eighteen inches to lengthen the gait ensuring the bot could keep up, elongating the normally squat five-foot-tall form of most medbots.

Oddjob soon rolled up the far side wing, attaching the now cylindrical shape to the slim power unit containing the batteries and driving the propeller. A telescopic rod was removed and attached flush to the rectangular power unit using straps.

It took less than a minute to complete the other side. The final form consisted of two cylinders about eight inches in diameter attached to the power unit, the folded assembly about three feet in height.

Oddjob retrieved a large green backpack lying nearby and in a series of fluent movements put the full gliderwing inside.

He reentered the house through the back door and took out the water canister from his own backpack and filled it at the sink. He spotted an array of knives held on the wall by a magnet. He took a small serrated one, blowing dust off its dull surface. It might come in handy and he had been unable to find any at the Institute.

That morning he had looked around the house for any method to interrupt the connection to the internet although found nothing. Maybe in the basement he could have unplugged the whole connection, but it seemed drastic, especially since they had all been fully immersed. Plus his sister was probably hypercomping. Was that even safe to do?

He put the knife and canister in his backpack. With one last look at the dusty kitchen he left, the door clamping shut behind him as he emerged into the sunlight. He had to go west and talk to Kainzow. Everything here at home would come as no surprise to him. The decline, the immersion, the capture of his family’s minds, all of them in the thrall of an inhuman force. The corporations everyone worked for and relied on.

When they had first talked online he had complained about his incarceration at the Institute. How he’d felt trapped. But it was Kainzow who taught him it was a blessing in disguise. His isolation had saved him from mental slavery. Now, having seen his own family fully immersed in a world he had been forcibly kept out of, he realized he was probably the lucky one.

As he looked up at the house, the signs of deterioration unavoidable, there had to be more than this quiet death. A more vibrant world had to be somewhere. Surely not everywhere could be as dead as here.

He lifted his own backpack and turned to Oddjob.

“Let’s go.”

They walked for several hours, eventually leaving the houses and suburban world behind and into open countryside. John spotted a hill from half a mile away that would have been a perfect candidate to test the gliderwing properly but decided to press on. He knew it was probably nerves at putting the gliderwing through its paces. Although he’d have to try it at some point.

As they continued walking Oddjob suddenly stopped and turned around, scanning the landscape behind them.

“What is it?”

“I have detected a signal.”

“What kind of signal?”

“I am not sure,” said Oddjob, turning back to him. “I received only a fragment but it is now gone.”

He looked back but he could see nothing except grass and trees with Boulder just visible in the far distance. Everything was as desolate as it had been since leaving the Institute.

They resumed walking. He’d become less anxious over the last few days now he knew there were few people around. It made him wonder how many families were like his own, immersed online, losing their link to real life. Even though he had been reading about it for years the reality still shocked him.

Oddjob stopped again. He turned around but this time he walked back a few steps.

John turned towards the bot.

“More signals?”

There was nothing here except trees and grass. As he looked around himself he wondered if hidden in among the foliage lurked an old cell tower. Back in the day they’d been everywhere from what he had read online. He was just about to suggest Oddjob check when the bot turned to face him.

“The signal is emanating from a semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 unit.”

He froze. For a moment he thought he had misheard.

“What? Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

A rogue salek? Here in Colorado? He frantically scanned the area but could see nothing.

“Where is it?”

“I am unable to establish its current location but no further than five hundred meters.”

He turned and looked over at the hill he had spotted earlier. That would be their best chance. He frantically tried to remember everything he’d heard about saleks. Didn’t running provoke them? Their vision was excellent and his bright yellow jacket would be easy to spot. Should he casually walk to the hill? He looked again trying to calculate the distance. They could probably run it in ten minutes. Maybe a half hour walk.

“Let’s aim for the hill.”

He started walking and Oddjob followed.

He set a brisk pace as his nerves began to rise. How could there be a salek this far south?

After twenty minutes Oddjob remained silent. Maybe they had lost it and he wouldn’t have to use the gliderwing just yet.

“Any sign?”

Oddjob’s expressionless face looked down at him.

“We are being actively scanned.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“The semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 unit is scanning us.”

“You mean just now?”

“It has been scanning us since we began walking to this position.”

“Why didn’t you say?”

“Do you wish me to provide an update each minute?”

“No. It doesn’t matter. How far away is it?”

“It is maintaining a distance of one hundred and fifty meters.”

“It’s following us?”

“Yes. We are being tracked.”

They reached the hill, the route ahead a steep incline from this angle. That might help. Off to the left the hill sloped more gently over a few hundred yards. He could use that to launch the gliderwing if they could get to the flat area at the top.

They scrambled up the side, Oddjob adapting well, almost on all fours as he used his hands and feet. They reached the flattened apex after a minute. Peering over the other side a sheer drop blocked any escape and to his left the hill gently sloped down for several hundred yards. Ideal to launch.

He instructed Oddjob to make up the gliderwing.

As the bot took off the backpack and began methodically unfurling the wings he looked out over the landscape at the path they had just taken. They must have been fifty or sixty feet up, but nothing was visible except the grass and clusters of trees. Where was it?

Once the triangular form of the gliderwing was locked in place, Oddjob lifted it up to rest on the rear edge, the apex several feet above his head. The bot leaned down to the rear of the spine and released a grid of supports made from the thin rods supporting the whole structure. It locked in to place with an audible click, the seat similar to a wide bike saddle. He then hinged down a shorter rod near the center with a straight handlebar perpendicular to the spine, a rubber grip on each end. It too clicked into place. Resting it on the ground two thick straps hung down from the frame with carabiners dangling at the end.

Oddjob stood back and put the backpack on.

He inspected the glider and lifted it up, marveling again at its lightness. Thankfully the salek was nowhere to be seen. Once aloft he could get away from here.

“I don’t see it anywhere.”

Oddjob stood at one side, ready.

“The semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 unit is at the foot of the hill. It has likely acquired you as a target.”

The bot turned and looked down the shallow slope of the hill. Ten or fifteen yards from the bottom stood the salek.

He’d seen them online. Thousands of hours of footage existed. They’d never been popular, even before they’d been hacked. He remembered they based them on dobermans. It stood looking up at them on all fours, perfectly still, it’s dark solarskin damaged and missing in places revealing the titanium structure underneath, dulled after years of exposure. It couldn’t possibly have any projectiles left after all this time but that would just make it more dangerous. He could see the vicious snout and understood what it could do. Even with only some of its solarskin intact the charge could be enough to kill him.

The other parts of the hill were too steep to launch from. He would have to run towards the salek to launch at all. Did it know that? He knew they weren’t intelligent but the reprogramming had famously altered their focus to physically attack and maim random people once they locked on.

Fifty-five miles an hour. For some reason that factoid came back to him. On flat, perfectly level ground they could get up to fifty-five miles an hour. The gangs in Chicago had programmed them to rush the cops whenever they ran out of ammo. They weighed more than twice the weight of a real doberman. At that speed they could kill just about anyone. He remembered seeing videos of them inadvertently wrecking police cars.

He slowly lifted the gliderwing, holding the handlebar with one hand and the saddle with the other. Then he remembered the straps. He slowly lowered the rear and used one hand to clip them onto the backpack straps then picked the gliderwing back up, all the time watching the salek.

“I’ll have to run down the hill. It should catch the wind quickly.”

“Understood,” said Oddjob.

“Will you be able to avoid the salek?”

“Semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 units are designed to attack humans only.”

“Well get moving once I’m up.”

He turned and looked down. The salek hadn’t moved, it just stood there looking at them. It was now or never. He knew he’d never outrun it anyway.

Gripping the gliderwing he started walking forward. The light breeze pushed against the wing, lifting it slightly higher as he walked down the shallow incline. When clambering up the side of the hill he had wondered if it was too slight an angle and maybe lacked enough height. But now, looking back down, holding the gliderwing aloft, the uneven ground seemed recklessly steep. The sight of the salek didn’t help.

As he walked a little faster the salek abruptly began running. There was no warning. From a perfectly still position it began sprinting straight towards him, thick tufts of grass and dirt erupting behind it. It looked unnervingly powerful, it’s gait fast and strong, coming straight for him.

Despite his instinct to turn and run he forced himself to run towards it. He took his hand off the rear support and grabbed the handlebars with both hands, running harder, the wing now supported by the growing rush of air.

The increasing lift raised the gliderwing off the slope. He felt the support straps tighten and his feet came off the ground, the harness easily supporting his weight. The salek was close now, hammering up the hill straight towards him.

The sloping ground fell away with agonizing slowness. The salek was almost upon him. As he drifted higher it was at full speed and jumped. The sharp jaws snapped shut only a few feet below his dangling legs as he shot past it, the crack of the electrified maw discharging in the air. It must have jumped over ten feet only just missing him.

The wind picked up, rushing in his ears as the wind lifted him higher and higher, the whine of the propeller straining behind him. He took one hand off the handlebars and struggled himself into the small saddle, his heart still racing. Looking down he estimated he must be over fifty feet up.

Behind his position he could see Oddjob running. The salek stood on the hill seemingly confused, ignoring the medbot. As Oddjob neared the bottom of the hill the bot began to pick up speed, his head looking up every ten seconds or so to track the gliderwing.

The ease of flying was helped by an unaccustomed sense of elation as he surveyed the clear, empty vista before him, soaring higher and forward to California.

☉ ☉ ☉

©2022 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

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