Adventures in a post-rational world
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.
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?”
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.
“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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.
“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?”
“You mean outside? In the wasteland?”
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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?”
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.”
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?”
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?”
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?”
“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.”
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.
☉ ☉ ☉
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