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Automaider by Robert McGuinness - HTML preview

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01 - Jack

Jack bathed in the sweet vapour. Pink swirls, so soothing, his mind floated. He sat on the step at the back of their unit, door open, and listened to the fizz and crackle of the envirodome. It was old and leaky and far above rain entered and landed cool on his forehead. Marth shouted, "Jack it’s on". He sighed, he was not keen, she loved their new goggle, it was sixty inches and wafer thin, a triumph of tek. He pondered fleetingly that goggles were not regarded like other tek, with suspicion, even fear and hatred, everyone had a goggle. One of the few cheap plentiful pieces of tek, the company saw to that.

The company will provide, bless the Owners.’

The show was entertaining and he laughed in spite of himself. They watched until late ending until the familiar prayer to the Owners rang out fierce and solemn. Jack sometimes wondered that people as good as they could exist. He could not do what they did. They gave direction and sacrifice, bless the Owners. They both repeated it…"bless the Owners".

It was an early start tomorrow. He was part of trade support, a level one fixtek. Jack was aware what many thought of him, some would come out and say it, "Automaider!” others hurled it with a spit. Even though he was helping the trade effort, only fixing the machines so they could perform this task, a good task, part of the system, everyone knew it. Why did they not understand? The Owners had designed it, made it all.

He sighed, memories of the war ran deep. The hatred of the machines still raw, and his machines flew, worse they were repurposed aerial seekers, and had been merciless and deadly.

He lay in bed that night, mind racing. The trading happened at the end of every month. Everyone knew the names, the companies; there were thirty in number, all over earth. The system devised by the Owners had kept peace for one hundred years now. Trade was its essence. All worked to produce the trade. Each company specialized and needed what the others produced. Mutual need, mutual peace.

‘Plenty is forbidden, bless the Owners.’

‘The company provides what is needed and no more.’

‘Austerity is good. Excess brings the downfall.’

‘Disease is bad and is burden.’

Jack paled at the thought of the last; it had always been his nightmare. He was determined not to be a burden.

‘Excess brings disease.’

Jack belonged to J-Son the Biofix Company. He prayed that he would never need its products. The thought galled him… a disgrace. He never doubted that he would 'commit' rather than be a burden. That was an honourable end.

His thoughts often turned dark, he needed to stop it; it troubled him, always dark...’why? Why couldn't he be more like Marth’, he thought. Sweet light and happy as long as she had her unit to care for and her goggle. He sighed, what did he want? They lived in tier two, in an envirodome, it could be much worse, he had seen exenviro; the unprotected, he shuddered, they lived like animals. He and Marth worked hard for what they had, they had two leisure bikes, a new goggle and enough clothing and food credits; any more would be excess.

‘The company provided.’

He needed to go to sleep. Marth already breathed deeply, sound in sleep beside him.

J-Son Industrial Complex I3 sprawled at the centre of the envirodome. It spread for miles in every direction like a great grey arachnid. A city of work. The home units, arranged in sectors, circled the inner walls of the dome, stacked high. The blocks formed deep dark alleyways that never saw the light of day. Jack worked in Inducenter 4 towards the east of I3.

That morning he emerged from the darkness and familiar stench of his alley onto the clattering and general raucousness of Centroute 6. He rode one of their leisure bikes to work and wore company orange, J-Son Biotek orange, his uniform stencilled with symbols showing his tek rank.

Unlike the alleys, the centroutes were smooth and well maintained and once on it he made good time. Tawdriness was a mid-level inducrime and a fine would take away many credits. He nudged his bike wheel into the swarm of walkers, of his journey, he hated this the most, pedestrians! They should give way to cyclists during their dogged trek to work, this 'was' enforced but the patrols were infrequent and they glared at him resentfully as he tried to make his way through to the central bike lane.

His journey, once in lane was uneventful and he soon arrived at FTU4, 'Flight Trade Unit 4' if you liked, or simply the 'Hanger', a huge single room cathedral of a building that accommodated the Trade Carriers. Jack arrived just in time, exhaling explosively as he passed through the scanner. His name lit up with his arrival time above him. No credits lost today. His mind went straight to the job, get those damn doors working. As he walked towards the locker room, Bill his supervisor rushed towards him. “Jack you need to get those doors working this morning.”

"I will, I will"

"No I mean before noon. We got a damn inspection this afternoon. You got any idea the problem yet?"

“Yeah I've got a few ideas", he lied.

"Good, get to it then".

‘Before noon’ he snorted, Bill always did this, piled on extra pressure, there would be no inspection. He got his work suit on, grabbed his tools and made his way to the hanger.

It did not matter how many times he saw them he was always impressed by their scale and majesty. A feeling shared only by a handful of flight teks who knew them intimately. Others hated and feared these machines and for good reason, they were ex-seekers disarmed, repainted and repurposed; the memories ran deep. The once complex AI that made them seem almost sentient replaced with basic navigation code. Now they did one thing, travel from ‘A’ to ‘B’ although you could not explain that to anyone, not without trouble. He sighed; today was going to be difficult. He needed to fix the rear carrier sub-doors. Today was the deadline; the trade flew tonight. He was damned if he knew what was wrong with them, it could be code; it could be hardware, who knew. He mentally shrugged and made his way to TC8, otherwise known as Bertha. She was an old bird, the oldest J-Son had, and she was notoriously buggy.

Bertha would travel a long way tonight, all the way to Mid Eurasia. She would be loaded heavy, fat with bio-goods for Eras the Leisure Company, as much as she could carry. Well almost, the most aft section of Bertha was always loaded with the 'Tribute' to the Owners; the sealed containers would come in late, delivered by the devotees, a detachment of the Holy Corps. Much ceremony surrounded the loading and the event was broadcast, always prime goggle viewing.

A mirrored flight took off from Mid Eurasia at exactly the same time loaded with leisure goods, mostly goggles and bikes. This exchange, known as 'The Trade' happened at the end of every month. Hundreds of these mirrored trade exchanges would fly, choreographed to the second. Two flew from J-Son this evening. Bertha and the newer, TC12, nicknamed 'Sonny'.

He walked out into the main hangar high up and stood for a few seconds as he always did, awed by the sight. Bertha and Sonny sat there. Like two great behemoths, Bertha partially hazy at the far end in the internal atmosphere of the place. He walked down to ground level and hopped onto a small electric cart as it passed. They allowed small transports in the hangar, it was huge and bikes were not practical, He was soon at Bertha and he gazed up at her, gods she was huge.

"Hey Jack", it was Ed his second.

"Mornin Ed, we have to get the doors sorted this morning, Bill is on the warpath"

Ed nodded sombrely "Yeah good luck with that".

That was about right; Ed could not help him with this. He sighed and walked up the loading ramp to the large white painted doors. The doors in question belonged to the tribute bay, entirely separate from the main trade bay. There was a flashing red mark on his jobs pending sheet, it was a priority, top priority. He decided to look at the ancillary control for the doors again. It was in a small compartment right at the back of the bay and it was damn claustrophobic with no air conditioning. As he approached the door, his chip implant registered and the door access panel clicked green.

He entered stooped, surrounded by an array of panels and wiring. His stool was still there, he had been here on and off the last few days trying to figure this out. He stared blankly at the control panel; he had tried everything. ‘Maybe he was thinking of this in the wrong way’, he thought. ‘What if it was a central control issue?’

The power supply, directed by software, was the result of complex algorithms, but what it did was simple, supply power to open and close the doors at the correct time. ‘What if he rerouted power constantly to the door, anyway the doors never opened, unless manually after landing’, he considered it. It was risky he knew, it was a bodge but the alternative was unthinkable…delay the tribute. He made his mind up. He would need to go up to the main control console and reroute the power.

It took him twenty minutes. He tested the release of the bay door several times opening and closing them, that would do. He could look at it again when Bertha returned. As he walked down the ramp, Klaxons began sounding…’What the hell’! Something to do with him? No, it could not be anything he had done. He looked across at Ed.

Ed shouted, "It’s the tribute, Holy Corps coming down, whole platoon!"

“Damn!” They were a law unto themselves these people.

He instantly felt ashamed of his annoyance, they were working for the Owners, bless them.

He quickly indicated the finished job on his work tablet and logged off for lunch. He needed to get his gear and get off Bertha before the corps arrived. He made it just in time; he could see the corps vehicles just outside the hanger doors.

He began to walk away sweating, Bertha's engines started, someone seeing his job completed had initiated a taxi routine. She would need to travel a short distance to meet the tribute. Then a cold sweat hit him like a bolt and he felt sick. He had not reassembled the panel in auxiliary control, and worse Bertha was serviced after her flight; they would see the unassembled panel. He would lose many credits possibly a demotion...damn! The loading would take all afternoon and then straight to take off procedure. Bertha's engines were roaring now. He had about five minutes before the ramp would raise.

He looked around, nobody here; he sprinted up the ramp past the auxiliary door. He need to get to main control, his chip would register him back on board, which would prompt questions; he made his way to the control deck and got to the panel, saw his name on the occupancy log and deleted it. There, he never came back on board, he sprinted back down to the bay and ducked inside the auxiliary room, the door clicked behind him. He panicked for a moment. No it was ok, the manual release, ‘quick get the panel back in’, he thought. Sweat poured from him. In a few minutes, he checked the reassembled panel and pressed the door release to leave. It stayed red,

“What?”

He pressed it frantically; it stayed red. He realized with shock. All systems indicated no occupancy; he had turned it off. Although Bertha was still warming up she was in pre-flight taxi mode, internal doors would not open, even when the corps loaded, Bertha would not power down until after her flight.

Although he had routed power to the doors in the bay continually, the only thing that could override this was…flight systems. It hit him hard; ‘he was trapped’. What was worse he had done it to himself. He slumped down onto the stool…"shit".

His mind raced looking for a solution; he got up and paced back and forth checking the release repeatedly. After a while, the engine note began to rise and he felt movement. He felt unreal, detached, this could not be happening. Think! Think! … It was no use there was nothing he could do, the only access he had from inside was the manual release and it was locked out.

He thought about Marth and pictured her face, as it would look when she realized he was missing. They were going to be in trouble, he would lose his position, their unit; possibly even have to go exenviro. He shuddered at the thought. Her position alone could not keep them at their current level on tier 2; his credits reduced for many quarters as punishment. He held his head in his hands, he had worked so hard to get to his position; he sat stunned.

After a while, Jack stirred out of his self-pity seeming to see his surrounding for the first time. Nothing for it, he was going on a journey, first stop, Owners Isle. He could not grasp it. The place was mythical to him, yet that was the first stop. Until then the door would not respond, not until unloading. He thought about how they would react to his disappearance at work. They would likely not realize for hours, he had logged himself out; it was the end of his morning shift. Not realizing he was missing until later in the afternoon when he failed to log back on. Marth would contact work when he did not arrive home. He had vanished for all intents.

He could feel Bertha taxi out to meet the corps. The loading seemed to take forever, he could hear them with the tribute but was too far back and behind a sealed door, they would not hear him, he worked up the courage and tried anyhow. “HELP! HELP!” …Nothing. He slumped down on to the stool.

It was not long before take-off, he could not remember ever being this scared. The engines roared and the tilt upwards was severe enough to roll him off his stool. Bertha soon levelled and he looked around resignedly, nothing for it, he lay down and tried to get comfortable. Sleep came slowly, his racing mind not allowing it for long minutes.

After some time he woke, only dimly aware. Something was not right he thought, this was not his bed. It rushed back to him and he sat bolt upright. ‘Owners ears!’ This was real; a dread pervaded him. How long had he been asleep? He remembered trying to get comfortable after the take off and now... The engine noise lowered a tone, was that a tilt? This must have woken him; Bertha was coming out of steady flight, maybe in preparation for landing. The tone dropped again, the engines were definitely throttling back, then a lurch. She was getting lower; they must be arriving at the Owners Isle or just ‘The Isle’ as it was commonly known. He began rehearsing what he would say…’What would he say’?

“I am sorry I locked myself in.”

He coloured in spite of himself and groaned. It took around thirty minutes until Bertha landed and all engine noise stopped. Jack held his breath and he tried the door, it clicked to green, he exhaled explosively,

“Thank the Owners!”

As he left the small room he heard the motors for the tribute loading door spring into life, and it began lowering. ‘Well, here we go’ he thought, and advanced down the ramp. The door lowered fully and what he saw made his jaw drop. Bots! There were bots entering the bay. He froze; but they seemed oblivious to him. He was in full sight. This could not be! This was the Isle! He was horrified…this was sacrilege.

His anger even exceeded his fear in seeing these once reviled enemies. Bots were the foot soldiers of the Autos; they had nearly wiped out a generation of his kind. He eased further down the ramp sticking to the wall.

He quietly stepped onto the tarmac. The bots carried on with their task. Jack looked towards some buildings a few hundred yards away. There must be people somewhere he thought. He was undecided now. Who would these people be, would they be friendly. Should he go back on board and wait for the next stop. Eras the leisure company was the next stop, not too friendly to J-Son; there had always been a rivalry.

He was confused, Bertha was scheduled to stop at the Isle first but it made no sense. Why were there bots here? The teachings warned of the bots, they were the tools of the enemy they were evil. Although these it seemed programmed for menial tasks only. Maybe the airport was using them without the knowledge of the Owners. Yes, that must be it. If he could get out of the airport and find the Owners. He thought about it, his mouth dry. The Owners, they were mythical to him, almost deities. The thought of finding and talking to them was terrifying. He shook his head to clear it. His resolve hardened he would find a way out of the airport. If anyone could make this disaster right it would be the saintly Owners, he would find them and they would understand.

He looked around, a high metal fence enclosed the area; he had seen the kind before. He advanced towards it, yep there it was, a humming sound, it was electrified. He sighed. He would have to go through the buildings. He walked to them and warily and poked his head around the entrance doors to what looked like a loading bay. There was movement, more bots. He could see no people ‘nothing for it’ he thought and walked in, the bots carried on with their tasks, ignoring him.

“Was this whole place automated?” He was appalled.

He walked through several buildings until he reached a room with large glass doors. There was an area of grass and a road outside and there were automated transports coming and going. Was this an exit? He walked up to the doors and they swished open.

Outside a transport paused as it queued to leave. The vehicles passed through a gated opening in the fence. He tapped at the vehicle with his finger; there was no reaction, he stepped onto a small ledge at the back, some kind of bumper. Jack looked for a handhold and found it on a shiny grill with warm air blowing from it. The vehicle moved forward slowly. He waited, expecting sirens, alarms to trigger as he passed the gate, but nothing happened.

Outside of the airport about fifty yards down the road, he jumped off the still slowly moving vehicle. In front of him sprawled an open valley and what he saw took his breath away. A city, gleaming in the sunlight.

It looked like no city he had ever seen. It was glass, white and silver, cosseted with beautiful green trees and gardens. Tall buildings, spires, wild and graceful designs. There were lakes and private pools, fountains!

He looked up expecting to see an envirodome; he could not see it. He saw blue sky, sun; he felt a warm breeze. He could see something else, brightly coloured, like darting exotic insects about the spires and towers.

“By the Owners!” he exclaimed, they were flying transports, many of them.

He dropped to his knees unable to process. This was evil. It was the land of the Autos! The excess! Did these people have no shame! His need to find the Owners now raised to an urgency that exceeded his own predicament.

This had to be reported, that Bertha landed here of all places. Then he saw it, one of the largest towers, gleaming white, held the insignia of the Holy Corps. His brows furrowed...what?

“They know of this”, he thought.

Then it occurred to him that the corps must be trying to convert these people to mend their ways like the missionaries he had learned of at school. Maybe that is why Bertha landed here to supply the corps in this evil land. He now knew exactly where to go; he headed directly for the gleaming white tower.

Jack looked around him gawping as he walked, everything here was different, the colours so bright, the plants and trees. He had watched programmes about tropical climates; this is what they looked like on the goggle. The heat, he was not used to it. The constant slightly chilly temperature of the envirodome was glacial compared to this place. The sweat poured from him. Even the road on which he walked was strange. It was perfect, no potholes or defects. It was as black as night and smooth for as far as he could see. The trees neatly coiffured as they neared the verge of the road, with little bushes lining the edge in a myriad of colours. He was aghast, ‘so much waste’ these things had no purpose he thought, no functionality.

He began to glimpse buildings set back from the road through the foliage. Large elegant white structures with much glass. As he neared the city, the buildings came more frequently, until he found himself in what looked like a kind of suburb. There were tree lined walks and squares with fountains and pools, the buildings mostly white.

As he approached a corner he heard a murmur, was that people talking? He crept cautiously toward a wall; the sound came from the other side. He poked his head out; there were a group of people sitting at a table with a large parasol over them. They were relaxed, laughing, drinking and eating. A bot served them with something. He went to pull his head back but was too late. A man spotted him.

"Hey you there".

He considered running, then thought again, these people did not look dangerous.

He walked out "Hello" he said, "Do you know where I am?"

There was a moment of stony silence. Then they all burst out laughing. He coloured.

"What is the name of this place?" he said

"The City?" the man replied, still amused.

"Yes" he said.

"What have ‘weee’ been taking then?” the man leered. “Eros, Salit...a bit too much eh?"

“I don't know what that is," he said.

They laughed again. Then the man looked at him a little more closely.

"Where are you from?" he said.

Jack thought better of telling these people what had happened. Instead, he said "Sorry I have to go".

The man looked at him suspiciously now.

“Hey wait, what is that you are wearing"?

Jack was still wearing his J-Son work overalls; he did not answer and kept on walking. He turned a corner; he could still hear the man. He began to run. He could see the Corps Tower ahead, it towered over much of the other buildings and he made for it. After a while he slowed convinced he was clear of those people. He thought about their appearance. They did not look...right. Something about the faces, yes, that was it they looked like dolls. Faces so smooth and regular every feature accentuated with what looked like paint. Moreover, their clothing was not functional at all. Tight shining pants. Shirts with elaborate swirls of some type of stiff material garishly colourful, both men and women. He shook his head, how could they work wearing those!

There were not many people outside; only above, in the transports flitting around the tops of the towers. Those that he did pass seemed to be eating and drinking at tables outside or entering and leaving glass fronted buildings, with clothes, and various items displayed in the windows. He thought the word for these was 'shops' it came to him from his time in Edu history on the Autos society.

Those he did pass stared at his outfit and his face; both were plain and worn compared to their shining finery. He was 30 years old but looked forty and he was rough and unshaven because of his ordeal of late. These people all looked young and pristine; he could see no older people. At least they must obey the commit ritual he thought, that was something, maybe the work of the corps.

It was not long before he reached the tower, its walls were like glass pure white. As he walked up to it, sleek doors opened. He considered for a short moment swallowing drily before he stepped in. Inside was much like the outside, white glass. There was a desk or console of some sort near the opposite wall. He walked to it and looked down; there was a square image on its surface in black. On it was the word ‘Attention’ glowing out in red. He hesitantly pressed it. Almost instantly the image replaced with the face of a young woman, she had the same doll like features of all the people he had seen here.

“How can I help she smiled sweetly.”

“I'm from J-Son he said weakly.

“Excuse me?” she said.

“J-Son the Biofix Company.”

She seemed to see his uniform for the first time.

“That is not possible.”

“I was trapped on Bertha… sorry, TC8.”

She looked at him strangely. “One moment.” Her face disappeared from the screen.

It seemed like an age, he paced nervously. Finally, her image returned.

“Press the console on the wall in front of you. An elevator will take you up to me.”

“A what?” he said.

She frowned, “It’s a small room that can be raised to where I am, don't worry it is perfectly safe.”

“But that’s bad tek.”

She hesitated “Yes sorry, a necessary evil for the use of this building in this place, she gestured around her.”

He was about to ask more when she cut him off.

“Please use the elevator now,” she said before the screen returned to displaying ‘Attention’.

He sighed; he did not like this. He did as she said and doors seemed to appear in front of him and swished open. He inspected it cautiously then stepped inside, the doors closed immediately and he turned startled. He felt a weight on him and he became unsteady, it was moving. After a short while, the doors opened and the woman stood directly in front of him. He noted again the strangeness of these people, they looked ... plastic. The only difference between her and the other people he had met here was her clothing; it was the plain white of the corps.

“Can you help me?” he blurted,”

“Of course please follow me”

“I am here by mistake,” he rushed on.

“Don’t worry everything is fine”, they walked a short distance down a corridor lined with doors. She stopped in front of a black door (the rest had been white). She opened it, stood aside, and gestured for him to enter. He walked in slowly, this room was nothing like the rest of the building he noted, it seemed more like home to him, it was grey and none too clean, there was a faint smell of sweat and bleach. The walls lined with some sort of rough bumpy material. The door clicked shut behind him. He looked round sharply searching for the handle, there was none. He walked to it; there was no way to open it. He began to feel something like fear; he was alone. Then he checked himself, these people were good, they were the Holy Corps, disciples of the Owners; they would fix things he was sure, he would get home and everything would be all right.

He sat for what seemed an age; he began pacing, what were they doing? Just as he was about to knock on the door and shout he heard a dull boom and a vibration ran through the room. Dust dislodged from the ceiling and floated down. He stopped dead to listen. There was a massive cracking noise and a shudder; the whole building seemed to move. He fell against the table and looked around desperately. The door! It was ajar whatever that was had opened it.

He poked his head it into the corridor, it glowed a dull red, and a siren sounded somewhere. Further down there seemed to be a patch of daylight. A roaring noise came from that direction, a blown out window he thought. He walked in that direction. The elevator was that way, as he approached the light, the noise got louder until he realised there was a large hole in the outer wall. A blast of wind buffeted him, he considered going back, but the elevator was just past the opening on the inner wall.

There was rubble strewn about the passage and amongst it lay a prone figure, obviously dead in his contortions. It looked like a man in the now soiled white of the corps. ‘What caused this’? As he drew opposite the opening, he found out. About thirty feet out, there hovered a flying transport, armed with clusters of missiles, he could clearly see inside the cockpit. A man stared back at him. He did not look like one of these people; he looked worn, much like himself but grim and determined. The man seemed to see the orange overalls he wore and spoke into a device on his cheek. The transport then veered away sharply, roaring and blasting him with heat.

He ran for the elevator and wacked at the console. The doors opened quickly, ‘thank the Owners for that’, he got in. His mind was in a turmoil as it descended, he understood none of this. It stopped finally and the doors swished aside; a large man in black gear blocked the opening, his face hidden by a screened helmet. Before Jack could do anything the man moved suddenly and something struck him hard in the face, there was a flash of light and a sharp pain and then there was nothing.

He dreamed of Marth, they had taken a ride one night along the more decent side of the dome. They had talked and laughed and he smiled in his unconscious state. He was still smiling as he roused, although something did not feel right, his head; pain. These were not his bedclothes. He jerked upright remembering. Where was he? The room, dimly lit forced his eyes to adjust.

"Ah you’re awake." A man’s voice, deep.

"Where am I?" he gasped as the pain in his head stabbed sharply.

“Don't worry you are safe here.”

“I… was with… the corps…you did that!” He said accusingly.

"We do what we have to, to survive" the man said in low voice.

“You attacked them, killed somebody. “

"Believe me we regret it, they have killed many more of us, if we could live in peace we would, it’s not an option unfortunately. We tried to live apart, hoping they would leave us be. They found us,” he said simply.

“Who are you? “, he demanded. “The corps are peaceful they are servants of the Owners, bless the Owners. “

“Mmm…” the man said, “I know this will make no sense to you at the moment, you have been conditioned from birth to believe certain things, to act in a certain way. It will likely take weeks before your mind will accept alternate ideas. I know this because we have had some of your kind before; they always start the same, say the same things. It’s very clever really, this system they've built up.”

“Who have built up?”

“Well you know them as the Autos, although that's not exactly who they are. The Holy Corps are their police force, enforcement, soldiers if you like.”

Jack thought to himself, ‘this man is lying but I need to be careful. I need to play this carefully and get out of here. I know who these men are’. He had seen reports on the goggle of the malcontents, the defilers. That is who these people were; he was in a very dangerous situation.

As if reading his mind, the man said, “You are of course free to leave here at any time, however, I would not advise it. We got to you just in time. That room they had you in was a high priority interro cell. People who go in them are processed.”

“Processed?”

“Yes they go missing. You would have been tortured, even though you probably have no information of any use to them.”

This man spoke heresy about the Corps!

Again, Jack said, “Why did you attack the Holy Corps?”

“We need hostages,” he said plainly. “The only way we can survive, can defend ourselves is with their tek, and also ‘they’ have some of us we would like back. We trade people. I think that is enough questions for now. By the way, my name is Gerrit I lead this Warren.”

He studied the man; he had the lined worn face of, well, normal people. He was broad set with dark hair and beard and dark brown eyes and he looked ...formidable.

“Warren?” He asked.

“Yes we live underground, we call our facilities Warrens. It is the most effective way we have found of remaining undetected. Anyway, this is your quarters, if you choose to stay with us. You do have free reign down here but do not try to access the upper levels, or at least not without an escort. We cannot risk you compromising our position.” He said this with a level gaze.

“Dinner will be served soon in the main hall; you will hear when it is ready, follow the crowd.”

“What is my work?” he said.

“Your work? ... You are not required to work.”

“But you will feed me. I must work.”

“Well consider yourself our guest; you did have little choice about coming here.”

“But why take me what do you want from me?”

“All in good time” he said. He left without closing the door.

Jack looked around. The room was basic but pleasant enough; it had a bed, a washbasin, a table, a chair, and not much else. There were clothes laid on the table, he assumed they were for him. He did not touch them. He got up, poured some water from a jug into the basin and doused the back of his head and neck with the cool water. His head still pounded and he had a large lump on the front of it covered by a bandage. A loud buzzer began sounding, the dinner bell he thought. He realized he had ate nothing since he arrived in this insane land, which must have been early this morning…only this morning, so much had happened, his head was spinning, he felt unanchored, unreal, all of this felt unreal. He ‘was’ starving though, one concrete thing of which he was certain.

He poked his head out of the doorway. People headed down the corridor all in the same direction. He followed, escaping can wait a while longer, he thought. He arrived at a large hall packed and buzzing with people, all sat on long benches and tables. He looked around; he spotted Gerrit at a table toward the top of the chamber next to the wall. A woman and a man sat next to him, Jack stared at them. The woman had the doll like face of the Autos; she reminded him of the corps woman at the tower, the man was a male version of her, with a more chiselled doll like appearance. They looked angry, and glanced around contemptuously at those around them. They wore the white of the corps. Were these other hostages, he thought?

He sat at the nearest space; soon plates arrived lain down the centre of the tables loaded with food. He was startled, this was real meat, real vegetables, the smell was overwhelming. He had once had meat at a company awards meeting. They had laid on plates of real food as reward. At home, at his unit, they ate the processed rations delivered to them. What you ate largely depended on your work position. Bill his manager got one quota of real food on a Sunday. This display here was... excess, luxury. He marvelled at the food. He could not eat it. He got up and headed over to the table where Gerrit sat.

“Please assign me some work, I cannot eat this food,” he pleaded

“Ah yes”, the man said nodding. He thought for a while. “After the meal you are assigned to clean up.”

Jack nodded and added “Thank you.”

The two corps people looked at him as if he were a sentient turd that had approached them.

“I don’t think much of your choice in hostages’ defiler” the man sneered. “He’s a worker!”

He spat the words with a sneer.

“Yes he is” Gerrit said. “I consider him more important than the both of you painted dandies put together”.

They both attached their gaze back onto him, penetrating, alive with hatred; he coloured and turned his back, returning to his seat. Those were of the Holy Corps he knew that, he also knew that they hated him, and he did not know why.

The food was sublime and he ate far too much of it. After most had left, he stood up to help those clearing the tables, his stomach cramped violently and he doubled forward. He felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Are you ok?” asked a concerned voice. She was young with an earnest face.

“Yes I think I'm not used to the food.”

“Why don't you take rest”, she said.

“No I have to work”

“There will be plenty of chance to do that. You are unwell rest.”

He nodded reluctantly, grimaced again and made for his room. For defilers these people seemed friendly. He wondered at that. Still he did not trust them, had they poisoned him?

He sat on the bed thinking furiously as his stomach eased. So much had happened and he understood little of it. His overriding desire was to get back to Marth; he missed her. He winced as he envisaged her face when she realized he was missing. He had not abandoned her; he needed to tell her that.

Gerrit had said he was free to leave, but with an escort. He shook his head, he would not wait for that; he did not trust these people they were defilers. He would try to make it back to the corps building. The corps were good, what Gerrit had said were lies he was sure. He wondered why all the corps he had seen so far looked like the Autos here. They must be trying to gain trust, to blend in so that they could direct the Autos onto the right track; that is it he thought, that must be it.

He sat waiting for hours it seemed, movement in the corridor outside had stopped and lights dimmed. He glanced out, no one about. Which way? He tried left and walked around several corners until he came to a door with a sign indicating stairs. He opened it to find them, leading both up and down. He headed up several flights until the stairs abruptly ended; there was a door to the right with a heavy looking mechanism on it, a lock. His spirits sank; of course it would be locked he thought. He pushed at it in frustration, to his surprise it gave and opened slightly, the door was heavy and thick. He emerged into a large open space with a low ceiling and rows of pillars supporting it. The ground was damp and uneven with a few low lights the only illumination.

As his eyes adjusted he noticed crates of all sizes, and vehicles, this must be a storage area of sorts. If there were vehicles, then there must be access to outside. He searched the area for a while until noticing a ramp leading up from the far end, he ran up it to find large double doors, also fitted with what looked like heavy locking mechanisms. There was a panel to the side illuminated by a red light. He pressed at it and it turned green. A low mechanical noise began like gears turning; the doors began to part. It was all unlocked! Just as he wondered at that, lights flooded on. He turned sharply to see Gerrit accompanied on either side by two large men clothed in black.

“I see you are in a hurry,” Gerrit said.

They took him back to his room. Gerrit stayed while the men left. He straddled a chair and looked intently at Jack.

“I understand you don’t trust us, why would you?” he said in low voice.

“To you we are defilers, terrorists, bad men, and I ask only one thing”

“What is that?” Jack said sullenly.

“You will wait until morning; I will arrange an escort to take you close to where I suspect you want to go. The corps yes?” Gerrit said with a wry smile.

Jack said nothing.

“I can only warn you one last time before you go, they are not who you think they are and they will harm you.”

“I will take my chances”, Jack said.

“Alright, tomorrow, until then please sleep. I don’t want to spend the whole night chasing you.”

Jack again said, “Why did you take me? I look nothing like the Corps or the Autos.”

“We took you because of exactly that. You are a worker. You know your people and they know you. A deconditioned worker is a valuable asset. However, we do not force people to do things against their will here, conditioned or not. That is what ‘they’ do. We will not be like them. You must ‘choose’ to stay.”

After Gerrit left, fatigue overwhelmed Jack and he slept deeply.

He awoke the next morning to the smell of cooking food and he felt refreshed. Breakfast was as glorious as last night’s dinner. This time he ate slowly and less. After it was finished a girl came up to him, he recognised her as the young woman who had shown concern for him.

“Gerrit and the council would like to see you in the meeting room, please follow me.”

He nodded a little wary. When he arrived he noted three men (one of whom was Gerrit) and a woman were seated at a table all facing him.

“Please sit” the woman said.

Jack judged her around fifty years of age. She smiled and looked at him amiably. He thought her face looked…kind. ‘Was she a defiler’? She must be.

“Gerrit has told me you wish to leave.”

“Yes” he said.

“And he has warned you of the dangers?”

“The corps are good” came his determined reply. “They serve the Owners”.

“Yes they do,” said the woman “and themselves.”

“We have arranged transport for you, only ground transport I’m afraid and not all the way to the city. We cannot risk that. The journey will take most of the day. You must understand that outside the bounds of the city it is lawless. There are bands that scavenge for a living, anything of value, tek, and people. People they use as slaves. Do you understand this? You must make your own way to the city. We will supply you with basic weapons. Nevertheless, there is significant risk. “

He thought about this for a while. He had no choice, the corps and the Owners were his only hope.

“I accept the risk,” he said.

As an afterthought, he said. “Why don’t the corps clear out the bands of scavengers?” (He instantly regretted the question these were defilers…)

“They are of no concern to them; the scavengers would not dare attack the city or any city traveller. They have learned to be invisible where your Holy Corps are concerned. You on the other hand are fair game. Please get ready to leave; your transport will be ready soon”

They looked away from Jack and began talking amongst themselves. The young woman was still standing at the door. She motioned for him to leave.

It was not long before a young man stuck his head around the door to his room.

“Jack?”

“Yes”

“Your ride awaits” the man said with a grin.

“My name is Tobe. It will take us until sunset to reach the outer wilds around the city we had better get started. You all set, have everything you need?”

“I don’t have anything,” Jack said

“I have some rations here and a basic kit and I would take a change of clothes”, he pointed to those still lying over the chair. With that, he threw a backpack on the bed.

“Thank you” Jack said and packed the clothes into the pack and followed Tobe down the corridor. They retraced the escape route he had attempted the night before. This time a vehicle sat in the middle of the chamber and Tobe headed for it. Jack ducked to enter when he saw her. It was the corps woman from the meal last night, the one from Gerrit’s table. She looked at him with the same burning look of dislike and turned away.

Jack said, “Oh hello, I didn’t know I was travelling with anyone”

The woman ignored him.

He sat down opposite her.

“Don’t worry Jack”, Tobe said merrily, “she doesn’t speak to me either.”

There were no windows in the passenger area and only a small hatch allowed communication with Tobe, this would be a long journey.

They had been travelling for around an hour when Jack, increasingly uncomfortable with the hostile silence, ventured to say,

“Did the defilers take you hostage too?”

Until now, she had been studiously ignoring him.

She turned to him. “Worker” she said coldly “do not speak to me”

“You are corps, yes?” he asked.

She stared at him.

“Have I offended you? He asked.

“You offend me by breathing my air”

“Why do you hate me, I have done nothing to you. We both follow the Owners; we are on the same side. “

He paused; waiting for a response…none came.

“I admire the Holy Corps, their work is righteous.” He tried.

“You admire the Holy Corps,” she repeated, she seemed to find this amusing. “Oh and they admire you, you will find out”.

He did not like the way she said this and started to nettle at her hostility, he said accusingly. “Why do you look like an Auto?”

“What do you mean, do you mean ‘not’ like a savage? No I don’t look like a savage, or a worker,” she added with a sneer.

“Why is the corps in the Auto’s city?” He struggled for the words he understood so little. “Where even is this place, this land? It is not the Isle of the Owners”, he said emphatically.

“Oh” she said, “how do you know that?”

“The Owners are holy, they are selfless, and they are austere. This place is excess; everything I have seen here is heresy.”

“I ‘know’ the Owners,” she said pointedly. “Or I know some of them. They live in the city. I work for them”

“You’re lying,” he said, a little too loudly.

“Be nice back there people we still got a long way to go. We can stop soon and you can stretch your legs”, Tobe said

“Why are the defilers sending you back?” he said to her, angry now.

“You saw Yani, yes“?

“The other corps man that sat with you?”

“Well he is senior aide to Melorin the Younger of the Eras Family, a V…I…P” She drew the letters out. “I am his assistant and as such worth nothing in trade to this filth.” She looked upward in exasperation. “Why am I telling this to a worker?” She spoke to herself, ignoring him again.

“Eras?” he said, “The leisure company? Eras the owner must be dead”, he said puzzled. “For many years”

She sighed, “Eras the elder had twenty children, and they had over a hundred grandchildren, and several hundred great grandchildren, the heirs to the Eras company.”

He had never thought of the Owners having children, strange how that had not occurred to him before. The current Owners must be descendent from…“heirs” he repeated vaguely his head hurt. “The Owners live simply on the Isle”, he said. “Their only work is keeping the system working. “

The woman laughed uproariously, “Oh my, worker you are at least good for one thing, and ‘that’ she said pointedly was funny. Who do you think all the people ‘are’ who live in the city? They are the descendants of the great company families, many thousands of them”

This was too much for Jack, he had up until now listened, this was, was…too much. He banged on the partition.

“I need you to stop”

“Yes we are going too, soon”, Tobe said

“No! Now he shouted” he began trying to open the door.

“Whoa, Whoa,” Tobe said, he eased the vehicle to a stop.

“You”! Jack said to the corps woman “are not of the corps, you are an Auto.” He stood with his back to her waiting for the door to open. Tobe opened the door and Jack strode past him and kept on walking. Tobe ran after him, and caught him up.

“Jack this place is not safe. We are still in the territory of scavengers, an especially bad group of scavengers.”

“I can’t ride with that woman”.

“Well we are well clear of the Warren now, you can ride up front with me but we ‘have’ to go now.”

Just then, there was a whistling noise then a sickening thunk. Tobe stared at him wide-eyed, fear and then pain passed over his face. He looked down. There, protruded a metal spike just below his chest, dead centre, it was covered in blood and tissue. Jack stepped back appalled at the sight.

An unholy racket broke out from the trees, whooping and shouting. Men painted in garish colours partly covered in skins held together with metal chain and mail ran at him, surrounding him. Two men dived towards Tobe who was still standing in shock. A scarlet blossom was spreading over his chest and stomach. One swung an evil looking blade with a ferocity that shocked Jack. Tobe’s blonde head rolled on the ground before his body had dropped, staring at him with fear and consciousness still in them. The two men scrabbled at the body looking for something. One found it; he stood up whooping and holding up an energy weapon, the other grasped for it and missed. There was a crack and a buzzing sizzling sound and a flash; a large hole appeared in the others chest. He looked for a second as if he did not know he was dead, and then dropped in contortions. The other men grabbed Jack and pummelled him with hard fists and the butts of weapons, he lay bleeding. They ripped at his clothes looking for treasures.

One of them screamed suddenly as a bright pulse flashed past his arm, burning a good portion of it to the bone. The rest turned in unison ready for fight. The corps woman partially hidden behind the vehicle was shooting at them. At first the man who had killed Tobe returned fire shrieking wildly, jabbing the weapon frantically in the direction of the vehicle. Someone shouted something loud and they all stopped dead still. A man who looked older than the rest came out from the trees. His appearance looked grander. A leader, Jack thought. The man faced the corps woman, held up his hands, and kneeled down. The corps woman pointed at the scavenger with the gun. She indicated for him to drop it. The man looked at the leader and began babbling, he sounded angry. The leader shouted and the man looked down and instantly dropped the weapon. The corps woman walked towards them slowly. They looked scared of her, Jack thought. Why he did not know, they outnumbered her hopelessly. Then he remembered the words of the defiler woman who had talked to him in the meeting room.

“They have learned to be invisible where your Holy Corps are concerned”

She walked up to the leader.

“You dare to attack the city”

“No, no”, the man said in brutish tones “not attack…sorry”

“We take that and this”, he pointed to the vehicle and to Jack and the gun.

She shook her head. “Not the vehicle”, I need that.

“No sorry we take vehicle”.

She seemed to think for a while.

Jack said weakly, looking up at her, blood running down into his eyes. “Please can you help me?”

One of the scavengers went to beat him with a weapon. She shouted, “Stop!”

The man hesitated and looked warily at the leader. The corps woman said to the leader. “Let me talk to him.” The leader nodded.

She said to Jack. “Look, this is a bad situation and your fault I might add. They probably will not hurt me but they can leave me here without anything, which is just as bad. The only thing stopping them is the thought that the city will hear of it and come for them. I am going to use that. Just stay quiet.”

He nodded still dazed and feeling as if he was about to throw up. She went back to the leader and they both walked over to the vehicle. The next ten minutes were the worst of Jack’s life. The smell and sight of the carnage not far away was terrible and Jack began to heave. The band of scavengers lounged around cleaning their evil looking weapons and eating some foul smelling things. They laughed at him and every now and then, they would kick at him and laugh again. Finally, she came back.

“I can’t get the vehicle”, she said. “We can take what we can carry in a pack.”

Jack heard only the word ‘we’ he had never felt so relieved and grateful in his life.

He said “Thank you, you ‘are’ Holy Corps after all,” he said smiling.

She said coldly. “I need you, we both have to carry what we can, better chance of survival together, we are days maybe weeks from the city on foot. You only have cuts and grazes, you should be fine.”

She turned away and they allowed them to fill two backpacks and watched as they walked away.

“Don’t look back,” she said. “Show no weakness, god knows you have shown enough already”

 

02 - Jenna

Jenna was fourth generation corps. Her Great Grandfather had served under General Segius, military lead for Eras the Elder. She was proud of her lineage. There had been no nepotism for her, she had insisted, starting as all other cadets did, boot camp then some minor fetch and carry role for an unknown lieutenant. She had soon worked her way through the ranks on raw talent alone and genetic superiority of course. Her rank was captain, although her role was now mostly civilian in nature.

She was the under-secretary to Yani Stefan Peterson senior aide to Melorin the Younger of the Eras family. The damn Defilers, terrorist scum that they were had hit gold with him. They could trade him for dozens of their kind, or a large amount of tek. She was worthless in comparison. They had allowed her freedom and passage so that she could relay the demands to Corps City Base, a large fortified compound on the eastern outskirts of the city. It was the enforcement hub in this region.

Workers called this land the Isle. It was in actuality not an Island. It was part of the old continent of the Southern Americas. Much of the Americas, laid to waste after the wars was uninhabitable due to a combination of weather, radiation and biological contamination. The city enclave sat within the old boundary of French Guiana. Some quirk combination of location and circumstances had spared the land and weather here. No need even for a dome.

She sighed as she looked at this…worker. Why had she really saved him she wondered, he would probably prove useless. He was after all a subhuman. His conditioning would prove to be problematic. Due to his social engineering, he would have limited range of thought. He would not prove to be; what was the word she pondered; ‘versatile’, that was it. In addition, of course he would have limited knowledge and intelligence.

Well nothing for it, he might prove a good donkey, she grinned to herself.

The worker said, “Why are you smiling?”

She bristled, he was infuriating, and he did not know his place.

“Look worker, I saved you to help me, that’s all nothing more, just do that one thing and I might not shoot you.” She patted at the weapon at her side.

“Why do you call me worker”, he said. “My name is Jack”

“Because that’s what you are.”

“Worker.” she said again.

She noticed his face darken with satisfaction.

They had been walking for several hours, through thick undergrowth and light was beginning to fade. They started down the same road the vehicle had been travelling before the attack but it had soon faded into grass and then bush. The sweat stuck the clothes to them. They must have lost the road somewhere, Jenna thought. A turnoff they had missed, there had to be a route that the vehicle could have taken. She sighed and looked around. There was some larger trees dotted here and there above the tangled growth that they waded through.

She said, “I’m going to climb one of these trees and get our bearings, or we are going to wander lost”

He nodded.

It was hard work climbing the tree but she enjoyed it. It allowed her to use some of the physical prowess she had trained hard to achieve (and no longer used). She reached close to the top and could see miles in every direction. She saw it, a corps outpost tower. ‘Thank credit for that’. It looked about ten miles she judged, lying amongst a broad valley surrounded by a large clearing, rudimentary defensive measures she thought. The worst to contend with out here were the scavengers and they stayed well away from her kind since the great cull of decade three.

She jumped down next to the worker. “We got about three hours walk ahead there is a corps outpost”

“Will they help me?” he said.

She thought about that. ‘What would they do to him’? Likely process and render him. He was a massive security risk. She found herself feeling troubled at this. She shook her head, silliness. He had to be processed it was protocol.

She said, “Yes, yes they will help”

He smiled at her. She frowned; he was so damned …trusting and, and, stupid like a sheep.

“Stop smiling at me”, she snapped.

“It’s going to get dark soon, safer to make camp and make the trek tomorrow.”

She noticed Jack began looking around; bush was relatively sparse where they were.

He said, “If we clear a spot here I’ll prepare a fire, you can use that to light it,” he pointed at the weapon still at her side.

She nodded and searched through the packs that Tobe had given them, ‘That was no way to go’, she thought, thinking of the young man, even for a defiler. They made camp and soon it was dark, they warmed through some tins of rations from the pack. The fire crackled pleasantly as they both sat close to it. The glow shining on their faces. The heat made her sleepy, she looked across at the worker he looked wiped-out.

She said, “You look like shit.”

“Thank you”, he said.

She chuckled. For a worker she thought, he was not that bad. A bit stupid yes and stubborn and annoying, and of course, he did not know his place, but apart from that...

Jenna sighed; she knew she would not be able to sleep yet. She needed to talk.

“Tell me about yourself worker”

“Only if you call me by my name”, he said.

She said, with exasperation, “Ok dammit what was it again?”

“Jack”, he said evenly.

“Ok Jaaaack. Please tell me about yourself”

“I am a level 1 fixtek I work for J-Son the Biofix Company, I maintain the trade fleet”

He looked at her.

“Go on” she said.

“I live in an envirodome, in a unit with my partner Marth.”

“Ooh Marth ey?”

“Yes that is her name.”

“Do you miss Marth?”

“Of course” he said, “She will be worried about me.”

“Mmm” she said looking off into the distance.

“Do you have a partner”? He said.

There had been some, she thought, some who… ”Let’s talk about something else,” she said a little too hastily. Her career had always caused problems in this area.

She thought for a while, should she tell him some hard truths, he ‘was’ to be processed anyway. ‘Better not’ she thought remembering the incident that had caused the ambush.

Just as she decided she would try and get some sleep. He said.

“The Owners. You said you knew some of the Owners earlier. “

“Yes”, she said

He looked troubled, his brows furrowed. “I talked to some people in the city. At a table, they were being brought food and drink by a bot. Who were they”?

She sighed, “Look you’re only going to get yourself worked up”

“They ‘must’ be Autos,” he said with a nod of his head.

“Why do you say that?” she said.

“Everything I have seen, have been taught, fits their behaviour. They…they were corrupt, the excess it was…”

She interrupted him. “Look I’m going to give you a short history lesson, and I don’t want you to freak out.” She began:

“The Great War was 100 years ago. It was a world war. The capitalist elite, you have been conditioned to call them Autos, had miscalculated. They had transitioned fully to the use of automation whilst still leaving a large parasitic world population, whom they no longer needed. Their solution was messy and incompetent. They devised a virus. A virus to decimate the population. Unfortunately, for them, they did not control the narrative sufficiently. Information leaked, as it always does and the Great War followed. To cut a long story short the people won, or at least they thought they did. The new elite, the generals who had helped win the war, were at first quite radical. They cleared out much automation. However, they also saw and envied the palaces, the tek and the luxury. Some began to suggest that the more deserving, ‘them’ of course, should have some reward, why not. Well it soon became evident why not, in the first new age uprising a few years later.”

“No, what they needed was a new system; one that created a narrative that allowed the inequality between the masses and them, ‘or’ one that hid it. The new elite began to feel this was their right, that they were entitled.”

“The old elite and their extensive worldwide automation had drained the resources of this new world they had inherited, so a new narrative was devised, one that despised automation. One that utilized and occupied the population. Each of the Great War generals chose a product, they alone would be responsible for the production of it and it would be the source of their wealth. They would each create a trading company, this company would rule over a land and its people, and these people would be workers, they would be assets of the company.”

“The luxury had to be rationed, and this they did. Rationed it amongst themselves, only for them and their offspring. They all agreed to build and live in a paradise, an ‘Island’, a city for them and their offspring. Never to be seen by workers.”

“They took it slowly, the education and the conditioning of the workers, starting from birth; it took several generations until all believed the new narrative and accepted their role in it. It was the new religion. The Owners ‘needed’ labour again; there was not the resources for the widespread automation of the past and they would allow no repeat of the Great War. All workers must worship this new system and their new masters as the only way, as their saviour, as their gods.”

“These are your Owners. Some of your trade goes to the other companies, some of it, as well as the tribute, goes to the city. You, worker, helped build our city, thank you very much,” she said drily.

She looked at the worker. He sat totally still, looking down. He said nothing and lay down with his back to her.

‘Damn, too much,’ she thought. She felt…guilt. “Why?” she asked herself. ‘C’mon, girl get a grip this was a worker.’ She shook her head and tried to get some sleep.

The next morning was wet and cold. A mist had descended filling the forest with a coating of silver. The clothes stuck to them. Jenna kicked at the leg of the still sleeping worker.

“Time to go”.

He roused and groaned holding his head. He had some decent size bruises and cuts to his face, she searched in her pack, ‘yes’ here it was. The defiler had put a small first aid pack inside. She handed the worker a tube, ointment to stop infection and pain.

“Here you go”, she said.

He looked at it sourly, “What is it?”

“It will help heal your wounds”.

He looked dubious.

“Seriously” she said, “Use it, because if your cuts get infected in this place, you won’t believe the agony you will be in, and I will leave you”

He grudgingly applied it to his cuts.

They had no sooner set off when Jenna halted, “Stop!” she hissed. “Listen”

They both strained to listen; there it was, a murmuring like many people talking far off. She signalled for him to follow.

They followed the sound until it seemed it came from just over the next rise. She indicated for him to lower, they both crept up close to the ground until they came to the lip of a rise. They glanced over. There was a large sunken clearing filled with people, “Scavengers” she whispered. They crowded around some sort of platform. Raising their hands and shouting at a man above them, he was dressed in black and wore a tall strange looking hat, he seemed to be showing them a bedraggled looking thing, a man of about fifty she guessed, displaying him. The man held up the older creatures arms, and turned him for the crowd.

Jenna whispered, “I know what this is, it’s a slave market” she said dismissively.

She was just about to turn away, when a flash of white caught her eye. On one side of the platform was a cage with around a dozen of these creatures, you could hardly call them human, except one. One of them wore white, uniformed white. She strained to see, the colour in her face slowly rose. She made some strangling sounds falling over her words.

“They have a corps man. How dare they! The animals!”

She was furious. He looked young no more than twenty she guessed, a cadet maybe. His hair was neatly crew cut and his face showed the symmetry of reconstruction.

“He must be corps,” she fumed.

She went to stand up. The worker grabbed her by the arm, “What are you doing?” he whispered alarmed.

“They have a corps cadet.” She hissed through clenched teeth

The worker said, “You can’t just run in there, some of them may have energy weapons.”

She stopped at this and breathed deeply; as much as she hated to admit it, he was right.

The worker said, “Would it not be better to try to free him after he is bought. Then the odds will be more in our favour.”

She paused and looked at him with a new appreciation. That was clever, strategic even.

They waited; soon it was time for the young man. He generated much interest as they led him from the cage; the crowd began raucous shouting, frantically stabbing their hands in the air. The slave trader began pointing at those showing interest. Soon it was over and the trader brought his hand down with a chop and pointed at a large man with braided hair covered in fur and leathers. The man roared and headed for the platform swatting people from his path, six others followed Jenna noted, a little disheartened. This might not be so easy. If any of those men had an energy weapon, they were in for a fight.

The crowds began to disperse. The group who had bought the young man headed off to the side of the clearing and disappeared into the undergrowth with him in tow led by a rope around his neck, which they tugged at mercilessly.

Jenna said “Quickly come, we will lose them.”

They ran low to the ground following a path parallel to the scavenger group.

“You go ahead to cut them off”, she said. “Block their path. While they focus on you, I will take the ones at the back. As soon as I start shooting, run and meet me back here.”

He looked at her. He had mixed feelings; he did not know what to think anymore. If what she had told him last night was true, the corps were not good, the Owners even less so. Why should he help, he felt betrayed, used. She stared at him waiting for a response. He thought of the young man, what his fate would be. He thought of his own fate what it would have been if not for Jenna. He said “alright.”

They parted and he ran ahead, Jenna turned to follow the scavenger’s path. She emerged onto a narrow trail; they would not be far up ahead. Soon she heard shouting. ‘That must be the worker’. She smiled, ‘he had guts’.

She could see the young man in white now, bent over, stumbling as they pulled at him. The one goading him his face contorted in malevolence. She shot him; he went down quickly. She shot another, and then ‘zing’ a flash passed her cheek. “Dammit”! They had a weapon; she hoped the worker had gotten clear.

The young man was standing gazing at her, the rope dangling from his neck. He seemed calm, too calm. She shouted at him

“C’mon this way!”

He stood for a few seconds looking at her. Then suddenly ran forwards and they both headed off into the brush.

She had told the worker to circle back round to the clearing. She headed for it, another ‘zing’ and a ‘crack’ as energy hit the bark of a tree; they were close. Two of them were down, that left five with at least one with weapon tek, not good odds. They burst into the clearing at full sprint. Luckily, it was now deserted. She scanned around looking for Jack. Had he made it?

Just as she feared the worst, he fell into the clearing stumbling. “Keep running”, she said, and pointed to behind the slave platform. The brush was dense there and they plunged into it, fighting their way through. Jenna could hear shouting behind them; they had not lost the scavengers.

The ground soon began to drop and became rockier; they slipped on the rocks several times. She heard a shout and a ‘zing’, one of these times a shot would hit its mark. The ground was becoming treacherous the incline was now severe. It was a ravine, water flowed down it amongst the rocks; they skidded and slid now more than ran. Jenna cried out suddenly, a shot hit her in the arm and she dropped the weapon, it clattered down amongst the rocks. Jack came to her. She held her arm, grimacing in pain,

“I‘m all right keep going.”

They finally reached the bottom of the ravine, the rocky ground and stream vanished over a ledge. Jenna peered down; it was at least a hundred foot drop. They looked back frantically they could see the scavengers now, they were pointing at them. Jenna looked at them and looked down. She said, “There is a pool at the bottom, if we jump it might be deep enough.” Jack looked around desperately they were trapped.

Jenna said, “You and the boy go first. Quickly!” She shouted.

The young man nodded calmly and almost instantly jumped surprisingly far into space. He landed after a graceful arc with a splash into the centre of the pool. He surfaced and waved for them to follow. Jack looked terrified.

“Go!” She shouted.

He took a deep breath and jumped as far as he could off the edge. She noted he splashed down close to the centre of the pool and surfaced spluttering. She got ready to jump ‘zing’, another hit; the pain was unbearable it felt like the back of her shoulder was on fire. She slipped and tumbled over the edge.

 

03 - Jack

Jack watched appalled as Jenna fell like a rag doll, She hit the water all wrong and not far enough in and she did not surface. He dived under for her, the water was dark but he could just make out her white corps uniform and grabbed at her. He thrust his legs, and brought them to the surface; she looked lifeless. He needed to get them closer in, there was an overhang, and it would protect them from shots above.

The boy seemed to understand and swam towards them. They both dragged Jenna onto the flat rocks, where she lay, still. They could still hear furious shouts above. They waited for them, would they jump? The shouts began to quiet, they were moving away. “

“Thank the Owners”, Jack breathed out in relief.

Jenna lay still, she looked grey. Jack did not know what to do, was she dead, she looked dead. Suddenly she convulsed and vomited water, gasping for breath.

Jack said, “Its ok you’re safe now, they have went away.”

She gasped, “They will be back, they will try and find a way down; we have to move”.

She tried to stand and fell back retching.

“Wait, your wounded”, he said. “And you could have broken bones in the fall or worse.”

He noticed her leg, oddly angled; it did not look right beneath her uniform. Her forearm was also badly burned and there was blood seeping into the shallow pool of water where she lay. He tried to see under her, her shoulder was a deep open wound, raw and bleeding, this was not good. She was managing to stay conscious but there was no way she was going to walk any distance.

The boy spoke for the first time, “I can help”.

Jack looked at him, for the first time closely since all of this. His eyes opened in surprise, ‘it… was it a girl’? ‘Or…’ no he couldn’t tell, the features were round, soft like a woman’s but his or her body looked athletic, there were no tell-tale curves. The voice was lower than a woman’s and he or she was striking; the face was perfect, not perfect like Jenna’s doll like appearance, just profoundly…well perfect. ‘He’, Jack decided, was also not wearing a corps uniform. The material, if that was what it was, was shiny and reflected subtle colours in the light. It looked more like a layer of reflective paint than of clothing.

“How can you help?” Jack said.

The boy stood up (Jack had decided this must be a boy), he jumped over rocks into the brush out of view. A few minutes later, he returned with some large leaves and the branch of a tree. He snapped the branch down in size so it left a close to straight piece around two feet in length.

Jenna’s pack floated nearby, the boy grabbed at it and rummaged through it, he seemed to know what he was looking for. He retrieved the ointment Jenna had used on Jack earlier and coated a large leave with the ointment. He wrapped it around Jenna’s shoulder. Even in the half-conscious daze into which Jenna had fell, she cried out. He had some longer thinner leaves, which he used as binding tying it around. He then tended to her forearm in the same way and then tied the branch down the front of her leg, pausing before pulling the binding tight. Jenna screamed and passed out.

He stooped over her, “I will carry her”.

Jack was about to protest, ‘he would never be able to…’

He stopped; astonishingly the boy picked her up gently as if she weighed nothing, he straightened and strode off into the undergrowth. Jack followed as the boy purposely strode through the ever-thicker forest.

“Do you know where you are going?” asked Jack.

“Away from here”, came the answer.

“We need to head towards the Corps Tower”, Jack said.

“Why?” asked the boy.

“They are her kind, they will help”

“How close is it?”

“Jenna said it looked around ten miles, she climbed a tree.”

The boy nodded and laid Jenna down carefully.

“I will look,” he said.

He made for a tall tree and leaped at it, clearing the lower branches. He soon disappeared up into the foliage. Minutes later, he landed next to them.

“It is north”, seven miles.” He went to pick Jenna up again.

“Wait.” Jack said.

“We must keep moving they are following us.” The boy replied.

“How do you know that?” Jack said.

“I can hear them”.

“How are you doing all this? How are you carrying her like that, climbing like that, are you enhanced”?

Jack had learned in Edu-history that some autos would use tek to enhance themselves. “

The boy pondered, “I am me, is that enhanced?”

“What is your name?” Jack said.

“I don’t know”, he paused. “We must go” he said again, and picked Jenna up.

The next three hours were gruelling, the boy refused to stop. Jenna murmured often, sometimes crying out in pain, she looked feverish, beads of sweat stood out on her face and head. The boy rarely deviated, always seeming to know he was heading north. Suddenly he stopped and looked up.

“Drones,” he said. “Do not move”.

Jack saw them, three of them each around five feet across, with mirror like, black armour, buzzing above them at tree height. They looked like great evil insects. Armed, rotating turrets fixed on them. A loud voice rang out.

“Do not move stand very still! You are trespassing, this is a protected facility”

Jack shouted “Please we have a corps woman, she is injured we need help”

A line of corps soldiers, armed and clad in white armour emerged from the trees in front of them. One of them removed his helmet.

“Put her down,” he said.

He tapped his shoulder turned his head to the side and said.

“One of ours is down; send an Evac to our position.”

He looked at Jack again and then the boy

“Why does this one wear our colour?”

Jack said, “I don’t know, we saved him from scavengers we thought he was corps”

“Can you speak for yourself?” he said to the boy.

“I do not know why I am clothed in this way”

The soldier shook his head. He was just about to say more when there came a roaring noise overhead.

The Evac Jack thought, ‘Owners be blessed’.

They loaded Jenna on board the machine and it quickly rose and flew off. The corps man said sternly,

“You two come with us.” They were promptly flanked either side by armed men.

They stayed at the corps outpost that night, Jack and the boy separated each to a small room containing only a bunk; the corps men locked the doors as they left. The next morning they bundled them onto a larger flying transport, Jenna was there on a stretcher attended by a nurse.

It was not long before they arrived at Corps City Base, a sprawling compound in white concrete. Jack noted the many guns mounted on tall defensive walls. This was a military base. Jack considered this, his views on the corps and the Owners had been slowly changing. He had seen many things that refused to sit right with the reality he thought he knew. Was everything that Jenna had said true? At first, he thought that she was just trying to goad him, but after much thought his mind was changing. If even half of what she said was true he realised, what would they do to him. They certainly would not let him go back, knowing what he now knew. He thought of what the Defiler leader Gerrit had said.

They will process you”.

His new accommodation left no doubt, he was in a cell. Dirty concrete walls, cold tiled floor, and thick metal door was now the décor. The first night they came for him, a man and a woman interviewed him. The uniform they wore looked like a corps uniform but in black. The man started first, shouting and threatening, challenging every detail of his story. The woman often intervened, offering him drink or food, asking conversationally about his life as if she was a long lost friend. Just as Jack began to feel secure, the man would slam his hand down on the table with his face close and begin the terse questioning again.

This was the first night, the second was much worse. He was bound to a table and they injected something into his arm, something terrible. Fire burned through him, a torturing fever. His words tumbled, could not come quick enough, he ached to speak. After a while, he no longer spoke words, just sounds, he strained to make sense, to make his mind work again.

The third night was horrific, it lasted an eternity, metal things worked at him, exploring every nerve, extracting every scream. He blacked out several times and woke to find himself back in his cell. They repeated this abomination so many times he lost count.

One night as he lay broken staring blankly at the wall, there was a sound, a click, the door. He slowly turned his head every move was pain. Fear began to rise, was it them? A voice soft and low spoke,

“Jack?”

For a second Jack thought he was dreaming. Jenna stood in the doorway. She came close and looked down at him. She shook her head and looked…angry.

“There was no need for this! I told them there was no need for this”, she said as if talking to herself. “Can you walk?”

He nodded slowly. She helped him up and he stood shaking.

“There’s no way,” she said.

“Erin” she hissed.

The boy they had helped, entered the room, looking much as he did when Jack seen him last.

“Carry him”

Silently Erin picked him up, and they headed down the corridor.

Jenna had not taken long to recover; the medical treatment here was the best anywhere, although she did still have a slight limp. During recovery, she asked questions about her traveling companions but this met with stony silence. Luckily, she had friends stationed at the base and they told her of the holding cells, of the processing of the worker, and of rumours that the boy was at Tek Study for ‘investigation’. Jenna wondered at this. It had been hard to acquire the necessary pass privilege. However, she knew two things now, it was not human and its name was Erin. This she refused to believe at first until she went to the lab and freed it.

Luckily, she had sufficient pass privilege on her body chip to get to Jacks cell. She was corps through and through but this was wrong, this man and this…thing, she thought, saved my life. She owed them.

Her pass privilege held as they encountered many locked doors. One of Jenna’s friends stationed at the Base escorted them through a utility entrance; it was unguarded tonight and they were soon standing outside of the base walls. Jenna stopped and spoke to Jack.

“My part is done, I am still corps, I will hand myself in tomorrow. Erin informs me that he is capable of getting you to safety. Goodbye and good luck”.

Jack tried to thank her, but he was not strong enough, the words would not form. She turned abruptly and returned to the base.

Erin set off into the night and Jack began to feel lightheaded. The bobbing motion of Erin’s walking made him drowsy and he soon found himself drifting in and out of consciousness. After a while he came round, he was not sure how long he had slept, he was lying on soft grass and light was creeping into the sky. He looked up to see Erin standing gazing up into the still glowing stars.

“Erin”, Jack said. “Where are we?”

“We are outside of the city, waiting.”

“For what?”

“That” Erin said pointing.

It was a dot at first, and then he heard it, a flyer. It soon hovered close and Jack recognised it. That same flyer had attacked the Corps City Tower. Gerrit was grinning from the cockpit. Jack did not remember much of what happened next. He learned later that Erin had declined an offer to come to the Warren but had asked Gerrit to take good care of Jack.

When Tobe and the transport failed to return Gerrit found Jack by tracking his chip implant, he noted that Jack’s position had not updated to the intended drop off location. Fearing the worst, he requisitioned a flyer and arrived just as the corps had taken Jack and the others, and had not dared to get closer. Gerrit returned to the Warren and waited. He monitored Jacks signal and when it began to move again, he came. He knew that a deconditioned worker was a valuable thing.

 

04 - Erin

Erin watched the flyer take off with Jack. It was concerned for him; he had suffered. It tracked the flyer until it became a speck in the sky. It thought of its name, ‘Erin’, who had given it this name, it wondered. There was so much it did not know and so much to find out.

When the soldiers at the base had realized it was…different. They had taken it to the white lab rooms and secured it. They scanned it with tek and Erin found it knew the nature of the machines they used and could picture the schematics in its mind. They took samples of its skin, its hair. One of the machines communicated with some part of it, Erin could feel its question and it was surprised as its mind unbidden answered.

Meta Data:

Unencrypted

 

Name:      

Erin 01

Model:      

Prototype Sentient Human Machine Hybrid ver.1.02

AI:

Massively Parallel Quantum Neural Cluster

Reproduction:      

Single Sex Knowledge Based

Pre Sentient Learning and Patterning:

 

Human Empathic Response, Non-Destructive Morality, Defence, Technical, Strategy, Languages, Socially aligned Motivation Drive.

 

 

They had scheduled more testing but that night the corps woman Jenna freed it. Erin understood it was different from them, although based upon them. It needed answers. Erin’s first memory on waking was of a man that looked down on it. The man had a painted face. It remembered it lay in a capsule. It was a cryogenic unit. This information came to it, along with the schematic. The man tried to beat it; it had stopped that. More men came and shackled it. Erin could have stopped this also but it was curious where they would take it.

It began to understand their language. They were to sell Erin to someone called ‘Gunter’ a human slave trader. Erin considered this but decided it would not leave just yet, it would wait, it needed to learn, and human interaction was an imperative. The men had argued and one man had said, ‘he (they called it ‘he’) was a city dweller, a corps demon’. Others argued not, they argued he was not the same as them, that he had not come from the city. They were worried, but in the end decided he was worth much, was worth the danger. The men led Erin in chains for over a day’s walking until they reached Gunter’s camp. Gunter locked it in a cage with several other humans. They were very primitive.

Soon Gunter sold Erin, and its’ new ‘owners’ led it away. Erin had decided it had learned all it could from these humans; they were also primitive. It was about to leave when a woman attacked them. She killed some of them he noted. Why did she do that? It concerned Erin. She caused suffering.

Erin came out of his reverie and looked around; he was two miles to the north of the base and standing amongst deep forest. It looked down, a set of coordinates formed in its mind. The location it had first awoken in the capsule. It strode forward and disappeared into the trees heading towards the coordinates.

The journey took over a week. Erin detected many scavenger bands and avoided them easily. It found it ate the same as humans did and drank; it had some human based tissue. Erin also noted that its skin gave it energy. It absorbed light during the day, this star; he looked up and marvelled at it. Everything amazed Erin, it looked around, studied, and absorbed. It was all new; Erin was after all not much more than a new born.

Soon Erin arrived at the coordinates and looked around. It was at the bottom of a forested bank, a black pool lay at the foot of a waterfall ahead; it looked up at the cliff face as the water cascaded down it. The capsule Erin had woken in was gone. It knew now that the men who found it were Scavengers and that they would have sold the tek.

It looked around using the viewing frequency range of humans; the image looked as expected. It adjusted the range to include infrared. Something stood out, a very slight change in the heat signature of an area close to the base of the waterfall. Something behind the waterfall was generating heat. Erin walked into the water and examined the grey slate rock; some of it was different. It probed, transmitting, searching…there! It answered! A lock, a puzzle. Erin began searching for an answer and his mind began to whirl; it was overwhelming, numbers so many, coming so fast. It steadied itself against the rock.

Click!

It had done it, a section of the rock swung inward. Erin felt…It searched for the term… satisfied. A whisper of warm air brushed against its face, Erin took a step inside and lights began to glow above him. It was a short corridor, and at the far end were metal doors. A schematic appeared in its mind, it was an elevator. He walked to it and activated the console and entered, it descended and soon stopped and the doors swished open to reveal a large open well lit area.

Erin walked out of the lift onto a raised metal walkway that ran the circumference if the room about half way up. On both side of the room, stairs led down into what looked like a laboratory fitted with much equipment, computers and workstations. Erin closed his eyes and transmitted using network protocols. Again locks, this time the response from the network accessed Erin’s mind. A part of Erin answered unbidden…and it was in! It knew Erin, remembered it.

It looked at the network structure in its mind much like the architecture of a building; it tried a door labelled ‘Dr O’Brien’. It opened and data unfolded, untidy data, directories strewn and random, it was…distasteful. Erin found a folder named ‘Logs’ and opened it, another folder, ‘Video Logs’. Erin opened the first file, it viewed, a man, elderly, with spectacles, he described the ‘Garden’ project.

“Milestone one has been achieved. The energy conversion system has passed all of our expectations. Efficiency is at 95 percent. Erin 01 will never hunger, as long a star shines or life exists. The next phase will begin soon, Genetics have reported that the skeletal evolution is on target, so it looks like integration of internals, some tek, and the skeletal frame is likely within the year. Next log will include a report from Quantum Neural; the breakthroughs by Dr Alexander are truly remarkable. The fusion of genetic engineering with quantum neural is exhilarating; it brings our goal of human evolution by invention so much closer to realization. I am Dr O’Brien and this is the first video log of what I expect will be many, thank you”

With that, the video ended.

It opened another log at random, the sight it met with startled it. Erin’s head sat on a desk with many tubes and wires coming from it. A woman sat next to it, she had silver hair tied back behind her head. Her features were sharp, hawk like. She asked Erin’s head a question.

“Do you like me Erin?” she said.

“I do not dislike any living thing.”

“Even if I caused you discomfort, or did something that made another living thing suffer?”

“I would try to prevent you from causing suffering and hope I could make you understand suffering is wrong.”

“Would you hurt me Erin?”

“No”, the firm answer came.

“What if you had to hurt me to prevent more suffering?”

There was a pause before the answer.

“If I could disable you temporarily to prevent suffering without harming you I would do so.”

“What if you could not?”

“I will not cause suffering”, came the reply.

The video ended focusing only on Dr Alexander.

“The aim of this exercise was partly a Turing test, although Erin is not software and hardware, he is a biological hybrid. In addition also, partly, a moral and ethical exploration. I hope Erin has proved to you that its psychological projection is on track, Thank you.”

Erin emerged from the waterfall an hour later. It had lain in this facility for more than one hundred years, from before the time of the Auto wars. It seemed from what Erin could retrieve that the wars had interrupted the project, the facility abandoned and Erin left in cryogenic suspension. Who had removed Erin and its capsule from the lab it did not know. The scavengers did not possess the knowledge, but a scavenger had woken him.

The information Erin gleaned from the installation network was enlightening, Erin was to be an evolution, a new hybrid of humanity and humanities creation, technology. The scientists had written of him as ‘a saviour’. Noting humanities violent tendencies and their proclivity for self-destruction, they had acted with the intent to save humanity from itself.

An all-consuming drive occupied Erin’s mind now it understood its purpose. Reproduction. The technology in the lab would be sufficient for its purposes but the resources it would need to procure or have made. Erin stood and considered, when the defiler’s flyer arrived to take Jack, Erin had briefly scanned the flight systems. It knew their location. Erin walked up the forested slope in the direction of the Warren.

 

05 – Gerrit

Gerrit was ex-corps. Assigned to worker colonies for many years, he had commanded the Sixth Precinct Law Enforcement Unit for the Jenson Family at J-Son Biofix Company. The company occupied the territory of Old-England and four envirodomes were under his watch.

Gerrit thought often of what had happened, how he became a defiler. It happened ten years ago now, an uprising in Envirodome 2. Some of his men had been too rough with a youth. The boy and a group of others had rebelled against the curfew and smoked vapour in public one night, blowing it with a grin in one of his men’s face. The boy had died of his injuries a few days later without regaining consciousness.

Gerrit was outraged; the boy was only fourteen. Directions from the city had prevented Gerrit punishing his men, and to make matters worse had instructed a public beating of the other boys. Riots broke out across the dome. It had taken a week to quell them and by the time they ended, thirty of his men received injuries, with three hundred and eighty worker casualties and nine deaths.

Gerrit sat in the dark after it, one night, when the call came.

“Is this Commander Gerrit?”

“Yes”

“This is Corps Leader Davis; I am calling to inform you, you have been reassigned”

“Oh yes, to where?”

“To where ‘Sir’ “, came the terse reply.

“To where ‘Sir’”, he spat it.

“It is also a demotion; you will be assigned to the Eras family, manual duties, caretaking mostly. A goggle factory in East Eurasia, you will be sent details soon”

With that, the call abruptly ended.

Gerrit deserted after that. He had a friend in Intel who gave him the name of a defiler contact. It had taken a full year to gain their confidence. He had undergone many tasks; some that were impossible to come back from, the corps would kill him if they ever captured him. He would be forever thankful to his new family, as this is how he thought of them, for taking him in. The unfairness and brutality that characterised his corps service, he had never seen here. They prized inclusion and equality, even commanders (as he now was) always ate and socialised with all. He was happy here, but still harboured a burning hatred for everything the corps and their Owners stood for.

Gerrit sat at the controls of the flyer, he looked over his shoulder at Jack; he was in a bad way. He knew what they had done to him; had been trained in interrogation techniques himself. He snorted at the thought of the word ‘interrogation’ it was torture plain and simple.

“Not long now Jack, we will get you sorted”

Jack looked at him dazedly and nodded.

Gerrit was seething with anger, the people he had oversaw in his corps days had been much like Jack, he knew them, knew the way they thought, had been conditioned to think. There was an innocence to them. Taught to work hard, worship the Owners and respect the company. It was black and white for them. He sometimes envied the simplicity of their world. Then, he would think of how they were deceived, how their whole world was a façade, a pretence. Given the choice, would he like to live like that, ‘Hell no!’ came the answer.

Gerrit had given up Jack for lost when he chose to leave the Warren. The unexpected turn of events had done Gerrit ‘and Jack’ a favour of sorts. It had submerged Jack in an intensive wave of deconditioning. A short sharp shock that had shattered his illusions much quicker than any method Gerrit could have devised had he decided to stay at the Warren. He regretted it had taken this, but he was determined not to waste the opportunity.

Operation ‘Awaken’ had already been a year in the making when Jack had opportunely fell in Gerrit’s lap. As soon as he saw the worker, Gerrit recognised his value. Jack knew his people and their situation and what’s more, he knew the ‘truth’. If Jack spoke to them, it would be as one of their own.

Of course, there would be disinformation in the weeks following the mission, an attempt to discredit the message. However, word would spread, people knew Jack, knew this was no actor.

It took Jack around a month to recover physically from his ordeal. During that time however, he fell into a deep despair. Gerrit took action and began taking Jack out on various trips, involving him in the activities of the Warren and slowly he began to recover his spirits.

A curious thing happened around a week after Jacks arrival that helped somewhat in Jacks recovery. Motion triggered cameras around the perimeter of the Warren showed a young man (or it could have been a girl) standing staring at a hidden camera. They called Gerrit, and he recognized the youth as the same one that had helped Jack to escape from the City Base. Jack confirmed it was Erin and they set out to meet him. Jack greeted Erin warmly and thanked him for his help. Gerrit was curious and concerned how Erin had found the hidden Warren. Erin told them plainly, he had read the coordinates from the on-board computer of Gerrit’s flyer. Gerrit and Jack exchanged a look.

“Please come inside”, Gerrit said.

Gerrit had read of research in human enhancement. Had seen it amongst the higher ranks of the families. It consisted mostly of cosmetic changes, sometimes, physical performance enhancement. One of the younger Melorite heirs could lift two thousand pounds it was said. Gerrit also had some knowledge of the extraordinary advances in AI made pre-war. There ‘was’ some evidence that machines existed that seemed almost human, at least in their conversational response. Nevertheless, he had seen nothing like Erin, he found it fascinating. It intrigued Gerrit that he needed to refer to it as a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ although it seemed asexual, he just could not call it…’it’. Testimony he thought, of how human it seemed. He, like Jack had decided to refer to it in the masculine. Although subsequently many women in the Warren curiously referred to Erin as her.

Soon after Erin’s arrival, Gerrit arranged a meeting, it including Erin, Jack, and the other members of the leadership council. Gerrit began,

“Erin we all welcome you to our Warren”.

Erin nodded in response.

“I suppose what we would all like to know is…your history, tell us about yourself.”

Erin recounted his experiences so far. Even his trip to the hidden laboratory and of the videos of his ‘making’. When he finished there was silence. They all marvelled at this… this creation. A Tek-Human hybrid.

Gerrit instinctively doubted his or ‘its’ humanity. ‘How could it be human’, he thought, It had no Mother, no family, and no shared human experience.

Gerrit said, “Erin you say you can communicate with networked equipment, yes?”

“Can you access our network here?”

They all understood the implication.

“Yes” came the reply.

“Could you for example, open one of our electronic locks, or an encrypted file?”

“I don’t know,” replied Erin simply

“If I asked you to read a file say on my computer, it is on our network, my computers name is ‘Gerrit01’ ”

Erin closed his eyes. Almost instantly, he said, “Which file?”

The council members looked worriedly at one another.

“Oh…err, ‘Guard Rotas’, you will find it…”

Erin interrupted, “Leonid, early patrol, Devis midday, Rol evening, late shift…”

“Thank you, thank you” Gerrit said hastily.

“Well Erin I hope your stay with us will be a pleasant one, Jack will show you to your room”.

One of the other council members began to object, but Gerrit cut him short by holding up his hand.

He said, “Thank you Erin”

Erin nodded and left with Jack.

As they left, Gerrit looked at the other council members. There were three, Sondra, Benn and Jocob. He prepared himself for the arguments and was ready for them; he needed Erin. Jocob spoke first.

“This machine cannot stay here and we cannot let him leave, he poses a threat to all of us.”

Benn joined, “I agree we should disable it, study it.”

Gerrit said nothing and looked at Sondra. Sondra and Gerrit had become close in his time here. They shared quarters and more. Sondra could see the look in Gerrit’s eyes and she knew his mind. She could also see more than machinery, more than just tek in Erin.

“I could not condone killing it…Erin. It has done no harm to us,” she said

“Yet!” Jocob exclaimed.

“What are we?” she said. “Are we our enemies, should we do as they do? What makes us different from them?” She demanded.

The two looked a little abashed. “We do not harm when no harm has been done to us.” She said.

“But…” Benn began.

“I will take full responsibility for him,” Gerrit interrupted. “Yes he has the potential to do us harm, so have all here. Nevertheless, if he joins us willingly he could do much to help our struggle. You all know that our project is uncertain, the risks we all take. With Erin on our side we gain access, we gain information, we gain the element of surprise. Give me one month to prepare Erin and Jack and we will plant a seed inside of this foul system that will bring it to its knees.”

They talked on for most of the rest of the day. Finally, they agreed to give Gerrit one month. If after that time, they were not totally convinced of Erin’s loyalty then…

Project ‘Awaken’ had been in preparation now for over a year. The equipment was ready, the men trained. The plan was simple enough, infiltrate an envirodome in Old-England. Gerrit was familiar with it, and so was Jack. They would take the Central Comms Building based in Envirodome 1. They only needed to hold it for a short while, just long enough for Jack to broadcast, to tell them of the things he had seen, of information he had learned. They had footage of the city, of the luxury, of the tribute, ‘their tribute’, going to this place, of the bots, the automation…all of it. It would go out to all of J-Son.

Gerrit knew the comms system, it was centralised and always broadcast. The Owners would be victims of their own desire to spread a uniform all-reaching message. It would plant a seed. Gerrit knew a spark in dry tinder could catch flame. He knew the undercurrent of resentment among J-Son’s workforce. Yes, they were pious and most obeyed the teachings by rote. Nevertheless, there was …something, Gerrit had seen it in the uprising, a supressed fury. An unspoken understanding of something not right, of a life without answers. He knew they asked the questions, those we all asked ourselves at night in a quiet time. He thought for the very first time…this will work.

Over the following weeks, they lived and worked with Erin. The more they understood him the more amazed they were. He could communicate with their computer network and their radio network. It seemed on any frequency. Not only that, he seemed to be able to break any digital encryption they could throw at him with ease. Moreover, aside from his abilities, Erin made friends. Those closest to him described him as warm and caring. He obviously showed signs of human empathy and slowly Erin gained their trust. After the month was up Erin and Jack were both summoned back in front of the council.

“Well Erin.” Gerrit began. “We have all seen and admired your abilities, and I can speak for many of us in saying you have gained our friendship. As far as I am concerned, I vote for you to become a permanent friend of the Warrens. This is a title all who stay with us must be awarded. It gives you, eventually, use of all of our Warrens and facilities for sanctuary. In addition, you will have right of aid from any of our people anywhere, should you require it.”

“In return for this, we do ask some things in return. You must above all be loyal, and from time to time, we will ask you to serve in the interest of the Warrens. You must also ‘never’ reveal the location or any details of our facilities to anyone outside.”

“You will also be required to accept a pill, which we all carry at all times, if you are ever captured by any city personnel, you must swallow this pill. I have been informed that you have enough human tissue for it to be just as effective on you as it is on any of us.”

“Before I ask you officially to join us, the council must take a vote on your entry. Do you understand all of this? And furthermore do you agree it?”

Everyone looked toward Erin. He sat impassively looking at Gerrit.

“Yes I agree to your terms,” he said.

“Alright, council I propose a vote that Erin should become a ‘Friend of the Warrens’. How do you vote?”

Gerrit raised his hand, quickly followed by Sondra. Benn looked at Jocob as if unsure. Jocob stared straight ahead. Benn raised his hand.

Gerrit grinned widely, “I would say that is a majority vote. Welcome Erin ‘Friend of the Warrens’.”

They all repeated it, clapping, all apart from Jocob, Gerrit noted.

It was not long before the morning of the mission arrived. Gerrit awoke early, he was satisfied he had all the pieces in place. Everyone trained and ready, the equipment gathered. It was to be a cross-Warren mission. He had handpicked his team; they had all lodged at this Warren for the last week. Early tomorrow they would reach the coast of Old-England. They would leave tonight, two flyers and two dozen men and women and Erin of course. This was not a battle, it was a precision strike; they needed to hold the Central Comms Building of Envirodome 1 for an hour and no more. Enough time to broadcast the material. For Jack to introduce it and say his piece.

Only one issue nagged at Gerrit’s mind. Jack had come to see him, a few days before. He had asked (or demanded) that he be allowed to see his partner Marth. Gerrit had tried all he could to dissuade him, but Jack would not be moved. Gerrit seeing that Jack would not move on this finally gave in; he needed Jack. They agreed that Jack with two accompanying him would go to his old living unit; Jack had promised he would stay no more than five minutes, and after he would meet Gerrit outside of the Comms Building.

That night, after a final briefing, they all filed up to the hanger, the large underground chamber that housed the flyers. It had a wide channel cut into the roof above leading upwards and out of the Warren, the exit hatch well disguised with foliage. They climbed aboard the flyers in silence, dry mouthed. Gerrit was last aboard and climbed into the pilot seat. He put on his headset and spoke to those assembled.

“This is Gerrit. People if we do our job well tomorrow it will plant a seed, one that will grow, it will grow until the Company nations break under the strain. The Owners vile system will grind to a halt, its illusion shattered and ‘we’ will be there to stand with the oppressed and lead them to freedom. Good luck to all “

Engines roared and the flyers emerged from the forest like great dark birds of prey, they headed east and were soon flying over open water. It was a long night and few slept. Eventually Gerrit saw the coast on his instruments and he took to the comm.

“Land sighted ETA 30 minutes”.

The flyers dipped low, skimming the water, but even this low, J-Son’s air-defence had a chance of seeing them. He had discussed this with Erin, “Could he ‘somehow’ help?” he had asked. Erin had considered this, and said that he may be able to interfere with detection by creating a virtual shroud for them, but only for the flyer he was aboard and a small distance around it. Gerrit had asked if the second flyer flew close behind, nose to tail would this work. Erin considered it and nodded.

They approached Old-England skimming the water, and close enough that one flyer nearly touched the other. The sweat beaded on Gerrit’s brow, the concentration needed to keep altitude and air speed exact was enormous but finally, they neared their intended entry point, a large natural harbour on the South West coast. Their airspeed now barely moving, they began brushing against reeds, the ground was soft. Gerrit had the flyers fitted with broad landing skates; they would sit on the sandy marsh like surface.

When they were down the low-slung flyers nestled closely amongst the high reeds and bushes of the landscape, hardly visible. They cautiously emerged weapons in hand.

‘Good’ Gerrit thought, no sirens, no alarms, no welcoming party, so far so good. It was bitterly cold and still dark; rain began to patter around them and the wind blew harshly parting the high reeds.

They unloaded vehicles down the flyer’s ramps; six wheeled all terrain transports, four of them, a team of six soldiers to each. The plan was to approach the envirodome, situated thirty miles inland, to a distance of two miles. They would walk the rest of the way. Gerrit knew the land around; the Exenviro lived here. It was a brutal place and the people lived primitively. They had no tek, and they had no love for the people of the domes, there would be no interference.

They loaded the transports and Gerrit gave the signal, they moved off in single file. The journey was uneventful and as they neared the dome, red light was beginning to creep into the sky. They could see the curve of it, grey and huge on the horizon, it housed miles of industrial city and worker suburbs and it rose towering into the morning sky as they approached.

      Finally, Gerrit held up his hand on the lead vehicle. They stopped and began wordlessly to unpack the gear. He had chosen the summer for the raid; Gerrit checked the temperature on his wrist comp, minus one degrees centigrade, balmy for this place. He hoped the winds would stay down until they entered the dome, they could spring up from nothing to hurricane force in minutes, hurling hail and rain at devastating speeds.

They all began to dress in J-Son Biotek orange clothing taken from bags. Each had authentic looking names and job titles stencilled on them, and of course the company logo. They shivered as they removed their warm combat gear and stuffed the weapons in long holdalls that looked like tool cases.

After hiding the vehicles under reeds and bushes they set out to walk the remaining few miles. Gerrit signalled Jack and Erin to come up alongside him.

“As we discussed, we are heading towards the east ancillary service gate. They use it to access the domes outer skin. We ‘had’ intended to breach the dome itself, through a repair around two hundred feet up, and repel down. This is of course now plan B he grinned at Erin, you my boy are plan A”

Erin nodded. “I will try”

Gerrit patted Erin on the shoulder with a smile, but Gerrit felt far from confident, Erin could read ‘their’ tek but company tek was far more advanced, especially security. The Warrens always lagged behind by years. They made do with whatever could be bought traded or stolen.

The sky was now yellow-orange, and a large sunrise was casting long shadows as they approached the ancillary door. Gerrit signalled for them to keep behind him, keeping them off to the side along the wall of the dome. The door was only wide enough for one person to enter it was black metal and heavy looking. A red light blinked above. Gerrit knew this was a camera, he also knew that no one operated it. Any movement in its range would automatically set off alerts at every police and corps station throughout the dome, as would any disturbance of the door itself. Gerrit looked at Erin. Erin nodded and closed his eyes. The red light flickered, and then died. Erin smiled. Gerrit shook his head and laughed.

“Right now for it, the door, this is the real test”, he said.

Erin closed his eyes again. The door was never meant to be opened from outside. Its outer surface showed no feature and it looked feet thick. It sat nestled into a wall of similar metal that rose some hundred feet until the thick stained plexi-glass of the dome began. Time ticked by, Gerrit grew more and more uneasy, pacing now, Erin stood still, eyes closed.

‘Click’

The door swung inward.

“I knew you could do it!” Gerrit hissed.

 

06 - Jack

They filed in through the door. They were in a tall dark alleyway between blocks of workers living units, brown water trickled down it and the smell of sewage permeated the air.

Jack felt strange, so much had happened. Although this place was familiar he now saw it through different eyes, everything seemed more sinister, darker, grubbier. His unit was a thirty-minute walk from here and he thought of one thing…Marth; he approached Gerrit.

“I am going to my unit”, he said, more as a statement than as a question. Gerrit nodded to Jack and then to the two other men who would be Jacks escorts.

“Please be careful Jack, do not stay more than five minutes. We will meet up on the corner of route 5 and route 6. One block from Central Comms. “

Jack said impatiently, “Yes, yes, I know, I will be there.”

He walked away his mind racing, he felt excited about seeing Marth, but also a little apprehensive. What would they have told her about his disappearance he wondered? Did she think he was dead, or worse, that he had abandoned her? He had decided that he was going to take her with him. Damn what Gerrit said, he needed Jack for the broadcast, he would have to agree to this. Jack had missed Marth more than he thought was possible over the four months he had been away.

Jack and his two guards strode silently through the grimly familiar streets around the worker units, specks of rain fell on his brow. The dome really was in a dire state of disrepair. Even after all that he had been through his technicians mind could not help critically evaluating the repairs needed.

Soon they stood outside of his unit; it was nearly fully light now, his stomach was performing flips, his mouth dry. He rapped hesitantly on the door. No answer, it was still early, she may not be up. He knocked harder. A light came on inside, Jack heard a tread; someone was coming. He breathed deeply. The door swung open

“Yes, who is it” a man demanded.

Jack looked blankly at him, uncomprehending.

“Who are you?” Jack said a little harshly.

“Who are you more like” the man said peevishly, “disturbing us at this time.”

“Ren who is it?” a familiar voice came from inside.

“Marth?” Jack called.

Marth looked out from behind the man. “Her face went white, her mouth falling open, finally she said “Jack…what?”

Jack was warming now, his colour rising. “Who is this?” he demanded.

Tears began to form in Marths eyes.

“You were dead, they said you were dead”, she said desperately.

“So…so, you went with someone else, living in our unit?” Jack was shouting now. One of the men put a hand on Jacks shoulder, “Jack” he said. “You need to calm down.” Jack looked around; several lights had went on, neighbours watching.

“I don’t give a damn,” he shouted.

“How could you do this, it’s only been three months”

“I thought you were dead, Jack please, they said, they told me. I couldn’t afford to stay here, I needed…” she let it trail.

The man said “Look…Jack, take it easy, Marth is with me now, so you and your friends here can go and…”

Jack swung for the man, and hit him soundly on the side of the face; the two escorts both intervened quickly, one pulling Jack away, the other restraining Marth’s new friend. “We are going now” Jacks” escort said. “You go back into your unit,” he said pointing to Marth and her new man. Marth turned, head in hands weeping while the man slammed the door shut. Once they managed to get Jack a few streets away, one of the guards said in exasperation.

“That is why you don’t mix personal business on a mission, what a shit show,” he said shaking his head.

“Half of the fucking neighbourhood is awake”

Jack did not reply he was still furious. He stared at the ground.

“Right c’mon Jack snap out of it. You need to get back on track now ok?”

Jack looked at him, still picturing ‘his’ Marth standing with this man…’Ren’, in his, their unit! Jack walked the rest of the way to the rendezvous in a daze his mind in a whirl rehashing everything, ‘how could she’ he thought.

Soon they met with the others, they were in four groups, all had taken different routes to the rendezvous; one group was visible across the street. Gerrit walked over to Jack, looked at him then at his escort. The men shook their heads.

“Hey Jack are you ok?”

Jack laughed bitterly “No”.

“I am sorry. We will talk more when we get back.”

“Are you ok to continue?”

Jack nodded grimly, his anger was beginning to turn cold, to a hatred of all of this, this place, everything that had brought him to this time, now, every grievance borne, every deception suffered, every pain inflicted. He would burn it all down.

Through his anger Jack noticed, ‘Erin’ he was not here.

“Where is Erin?” He asked Gerrit.

“Was hoping you would know”

Jack shook his head.

“He just vanished no one saw him leave. Anyway we can do the rest without Erin,” Gerrit said.

Jack was concerned. He had gotten to know Erin well during the last month.

“We can’t just leave him here,” he said

“’He’ left Jack, we can’t look for him we don’t have the time, hopefully he will show before we leave”

Gerrit looked up, clicked an earpiece and spoke, “Group One OK for entry.”

The group across the street began to walk toward the Comms Building.

“Group Two, one minute to entry”, he continued.

Gerrit turned to face Jack and his look burned into him. “Right Jack this is it, all set? We go in two minutes”

Jack nodded; his mind like ice.

Gerrit handed him a weapon. Jack took it.

Something changed in Jack from this point in time. Before, he had been a passive victim of events, an unwitting follower. As he looked down at the weapon in his hand, he fully intended to use it.

Gerrit gave the signal and they headed for the building. They entered to find four workers on their knees with hands in the air. Four of their team levelled weapons at them. Gerrit ignored them and headed straight for the stairs. They reached the second level, on the stairwell stood three more on guard. They opened double doors to find a corridor lined with doors. More soldiers stood outside one of the doors. Gerrit nodded at them and they entered. It was a narrow but long room full of tek. There were consoles with many switches and buttons. One wall of the room was totally glass. It overlooked a studio on a lower level, with cameras and a lighted set.

Jack started with sudden recognition; he had seen this before many times. The announcements! This was the set of the announcements, the daily information broadcasts. It was everyone’s duty to watch even whilst at work; breaks were scheduled around them.

Two workers in orange sat at chairs operating the tek, Gerrits people were guarding them and others occupied the studio below. They looked terrified Jack thought.

Gerrit looked at him. “You ready?”

“Yes” Jack said.

“Go with Yenah”, Jack turned to see the young woman he had become acquainted with at the Warren.

“Let’s go Jack”

He followed her down steps into the studio below. He had rehearsed the lines so many times he could probably do it by rote. Nevertheless, he wanted to get it right, he pulled the script from his pocket. Armed guards stood watching the studio crew; they looked at each other nervously and turned to watch Jack approach. Yenah led him to a chair behind the announcement desk. This was so surreal and frightening. If not for his newfound anger and purpose, he probably would not have had the strength to go through with it. He sat down, the lights glaring in his face. One of the crew came up to him and said nervously

“We go live on a count of five, you ready?”

He gritted his teeth and nodded.

The familiar Announcement music began. The crewmember stood to the side of the camera directly in front of him and counted down on his fingers. A red light lit and he was live. It was the morning announcement, broadcasting to all of J-Son; company wide. All of the domes. Everyone would be watching…Marth included.

“I…am Jack Martell. I was born in the East-Birthing unit of Envirodome 1. Some of you will know me. I worked as a fixtek on the trade flyer TC8, or Bertha as we all know her. I live…lived at ‘Unit 383, West Side, Level 4’. My partners name ‘is’ Marth Reynard.”

“I am here to tell you, you have been lied to. Lied to from birth. Those that know me were told that I was dead, as you can see I am not. I was trapped on a trade flight, on ‘Bertha’ due to a technical malfunction.” He coloured slightly at this lie.

“Bertha flew on the trade flight with me aboard. She landed, firstly at the Owners Isle, as always. I managed to get free after landing and went to find help, expecting to find the Holy Corps or even the Owners. That is not what I found. I found Bots…”

He paused to let that sink in.

“Bots and automation. There were no people at the airport only automation. I could not believe that I had arrived at the Isle.”

“I managed to escape the airport, it was then I came across a city and it was a city of excess, of luxury and automation.” He paused for effect.

“In that city live the Owners along with the Holy Corps. They have many soldiers there; they live amongst this excess and fully partake in it. The Owners live a life of luxury, they travel in personal flying transports, and each of them live in palaces with bots to serve them anything they desire.”

“You have been lied to. The Owners control the companies, not selflessly, as we have been taught, maintaining a system that keeps peace, but for personal wealth and gain. ‘We’ work to give the Owners this luxury. The Holy Corps tortured me when they found out who I was.”

Jack pulled open his work overall, his stomach and chest crisscrossed with scars

“They would have killed me if not for friends who saved me. Some of those friends are with me here now. They have brought proof of all of this.”

“You will now be shown a video of the Owners city, of Bertha at the city airport loaded with ‘our’ goods. It will show you the bots unloading her, all of it. All of the excess.”

The red light went out and he was no longer live. On a monitor above him, the video began to play. He could see Bertha, the bots and the airport and automation. The shot then went to the city, the flyers, shops, fountains. It zoomed in on the Corps Tower in the middle of all the excess.

As Jack watched, a guard came running into the glass control room above; speaking urgently to Gerrit…the corps had arrived. Gerrit waved for Jack and the men in the studio to come up. They gathered in the corridor outside of the studio. The sound of energy blasts and shouts came from the stairwell. Just as they headed towards it, men came bursting through the door, shouting at Gerrit.

“We have five down. Six are still holding the stairs.”

Gerrit ran to the stairwell door. “This way he ordered tersely”

He opened the door and looked over the rail down the stairwell.

“This is Gerrit fall back!” he yelled.

Jack readied his gun as he entered the stairwell still burning with anger.

Gerrit shouted, “The rest of you go up to the roof.”

Jack was about to argue but caught the look in Gerrit’s eye. He turned and followed the rest as they hurried up the steps. Shouting rang from below, it sounded like Gerrit. Energy pulses rang off the walls. Two soldiers caught up to Jack, one was the young woman Yenah from the Warren; her arm sagged, a large burn mark on her shoulder. She glanced at him with pain in her eyes. As they climbed, the stairwell began to fill with eye stinging pungent smoke. Finally, they burst out into the bright morning coldness. A frost glistened on the flat roof. The leader of their group motioned for them to follow; he led them behind a large ducting pipe belching thick vapour into the cold air.

Jack looked around, ‘they were trapped’, he thought. The only door on the roof the one from which they had emerged. He grimly looked down at his weapon, a fight it was then. A few tense minutes passed before Gerrit burst through the door and stumbled out onto the roof, his face partially blackened from the energy fire, his orange overalls patched with dark bloodstains.

Jack ran out from behind the duct and another followed. They each took Gerrit under the arm. They made it half the distance back to cover when a blast rang out and the other soldier carrying Gerrit dropped like a stone, Jack turned and pointed his weapon at the doorway. A white corps clad soldier, partially concealed behind the door was levelling for another shot. Jack squeezed the trigger as Gerrit had taught him. The weapon jumped in his hand and with a sharp zing, the energy pulse found its mark, hitting the corps soldier on the helmet. Jack dragged Gerrit to cover, others came out to help and finally they collapsed gasping for breath in the shadow of the duct. Gerrit looked in a bad way. His face looked ashen grey, his black hair plastered to his forehead with sweat and grime.

With their man down, the corps slowed and remained cautiously within the doorway.

A voice rang out. “Surrender yourselves, you have nowhere to go”

Jack surprised himself by shouting “Never” and released another shot in the direction of the doorway. He looked around and counted six, there had been twenty-four. Including him, Erin if he was still alive, and Gerrit, that made nine, they had lost fifteen. Gerrit propped himself against the base of the duct. He pushed his sleeve up, on his wrist, he wore a band with a device on it, he tapped at it and it lit up. He tapped several more times and then dropped his arms as if exhausted.

“There, it’s done”, he said weakly.

“What is done?” Jack said.

“I have called for our ride”, he smiled and closed his eyes. “Did you think I would not have an escape route?”

“It should take ten minutes. Can you hold them?” he looked directly at Jack.

“I…I”, Jack felt everything begin to overwhelm him. The burst of anger that had sustained him had worn off and the enormity of their situation hit him for the first time.

On the roof, there were two areas of cover available. One the duct, the other a small building with a single door probably a control room for the buildings services Jack thought. Each were around thirty feet from either side of the door to the roof. Gerrit nodded in the direction of the building.

“You need to take that before they do, or they will flank you. Send three now.”

Jacks mouth was dry as he said, “Three of you, Gerrit has ordered you take cover behind that building”, he pointed.

They looked at him then at Gerrit, Gerrit nodded.

“Cover them,” he said

Jack and two other opened fire on the doorway. The men sprinted across the roof and made it without taking fire.

“Good” Gerrit said. “Now they will bring up heavier weapons and grenades”. Use this; throw it to the doorway it will give us time.”

He handed Jack a capsule around the size of an egg. Jack recognised it. During the training sessions that Gerrit had forced him to take he was shown a Grenade and how to use it. He pressed a button on the grenade, counted to three, and threw it at the door. It went inside. He heard panicked shouts. Almost instantly, the doorway erupted in flames and smoke. Gerrit nodded again.

They sat for what seemed like an age, thick black smoke had begun to fill the roof space, spewing fourth from the wrecked opening. Then they heard it, a dull boom somewhere off in the distance.

“That’s it,” said Gerrit. “Get ready”.

Gerrit pointed upwards and began a wracking cough and blood stained his lips. The wounded young woman saw it first and pointed with her good arm. A black smudge outlined against the dirty haze of the dome. It got bigger until they could hear it, a flyer!

They cheered at the sight of it. Gerrit had programmed one of the flyers to come to this location on command, blasting a hole in the dome en-route. Soon it swooped down to them and sat hovering around ten feet above the roof. The door on the side slid open to reveal…Erin. His calm face looked at Jack and he pushed out a chain ladder.

They all looked at Gerrit.

Jack said, “You first we will help”

Gerrit shook his head. “Get Yenah up first, she’s injured, and then the rest.”

“Help Yenah up” Jack said to one of the men. He nodded and they managed to get her onto the ladder, Erin came halfway down and raised her easily into the craft.

“You now” Jack said to Gerrit.

“I’m done, believe me, you have to go,” Gerrit wheezed.

“I’m not leaving you,” Jack said determinedly.

“Look I can’t stand, one of the shots has damaged my heart, I am just managing to stay conscious. If you get me up there,” he looked at the flyer, “you will be carrying a body.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” Jack said desperately.

“I do” Gerrit said. “Go!”

With that, a clattering noise came from the wrecked doorway. Several men were trying to enter onto the roof.

“GO!” Gerrit shouted.

The rest clambered for the ladder.

One of the corps tossed a grenade, it rolled alongside them. Jack kicked it; it exploded just as it arched from the roof. As Jacks back was turned, Gerrit had managed to stand and lurched out from cover blasting repeatedly at the men at the doorway. One, two, men dropped. The third shot Gerrit with an energy rifle. Jack could see the hole where his chest used to be as he dropped.

Jack found himself shrieking hysterically firing insanely at the corps. He then felt something like a rod of iron encircling his waste, and moved so fast backwards that his breath left him in a ‘whoosh’. Before he knew it, he was sitting prone on the floor of the flyer with Erin looking down at him, the flyer already banking sharply and accelerating away.

 

07 - Erin

Erin stood looking at the camouflaged camera and it waited for them. They soon came out to meet it, the one in the flyer and Jack himself. Jack greeted Erin warmly, it was glad to see Jack had recovered physically, but noted the dark circles and hollowness around the eyes. He had not recovered mentally.

Erin went inside with them and they asked it many questions, it was honest with them. This group of people were Erin’s best hope of allies in this new world it had entered. The scavengers were too primitive, still showing much of the brutality inherent in their race. The Owners were more advanced and sophisticated it was true, but had taken a dark path and were in many ways more brutal then the scavengers, their way was a dead end.

This group of Warren communities had the seeds of something interesting, an equitable society based on sustainable values, ‘so far’ that is, it thought. Humans seemed to have a propensity to veer towards self-destruction eventually.

Erin understood the technology contained in the hidden laboratory would be very valuable to any human group and at some point they would want to go there. It concerned Erin but it was a gamble it must take, it needed these people, and they needed it if they were to remain on a viable track.

They accepted Erin into the Warren but it was a close thing, Gerrit swung the decision in its favour. It had been a gamble, if those opposed to Erin had won, it would have had to defend itself, that would have been…unpleasant.

Its prime motive was reproduction. Erin was imprinted with the knowledge to reproduce, down to the ability to build the entire tek required, even if the laboratory was destroyed or looted Erin could replicate it all given time. What it did not have was raw materials, chemicals; these Erin would need to acquire. It identified two potential sources, the Owner’s City and J-Son Biotek in Old-England. Of the two, Erin favoured J-Son. When Gerrit proposed to Erin that it aid in the mission to J-Son, Erin marvelled at the providence. It would take it right to where it wanted to go.

After a pleasant period becoming acquainted with the Warren people, it was soon time for the mission, and Erin found itself at the gates of the envirodome in Old-England on a cold summer’s morning. The puzzle at the door had been a difficult one, had taken minutes to crack. As always, Erin did not know how it solved it; the numbers came to it blindingly fast. It seemed intuitive and finally, the answer came and the door released.

They were jubilant as they entered the dome and none noticed Erin slip away.

It ran through the deserted streets as fast as it could and made its way to lab complex A, in J-Son bio-support sector. Erin found the main entrance gated and secured. Four J-son security operatives staffed it. Erin passed it by walking in the shadows on the other side of the grim grey street. It turned a corner to see a high barbed and electrified fence surrounded the compound. Erin approached it, stopped and held out his hand. It could feel the electric field, it touched the wire, it felt…ticklish. Erin placed both hands on the mesh and heaved them apart, the fence split with a crackle and a tinging noise. It ducked through the gap and sprinted across a wide paved area towards the industrial units.

Its back against the wall, in the shadows, Erin accessed its memory of the lab complex plans retrieved from Gerrit’s computer. ‘There it was’ outlying most of the buildings, the storage unit it needed. A low grey building with large thick orange painted double doors.

Erin soon reached the doors and found the control console; it was without wireless connection. Erin retrieved a small box from his pocket; it had a cable and a connector dangling from it. It produced some small tools and soon removed the cover from the console; it plugged the box into a connector inside. Erin’s homemade interface ‘did’ have wireless network connectivity.

Erin accessed it, closing its eyes. The puzzle felt familiar much like the door to the dome. Soon the door clicked and motors began to whir as the doors slid apart. As Erin walked in, it heard it, breathing; there was someone to the left of him. Erin looked in time to see a guard levelling a gun.

“Who the hell are…” the man began to say.

It made the distance to the man as he was speaking; its right hand rose in a crescent with index finger extended and struck the man just below the ear. He dropped as if poleaxed, eyes rolling back in his head. Erin checked his pulse, it was regular; it lay the man’s head down gently.

There were many rows of shelving ahead in a large room. Just inside the door to one side, there was a small office, Erin walked in and located a computer console. It soon found the chemicals it needed; they were three aisles down. It looked around the office for a bag of some kind. On the wall in a rack lay a large holdall. Erin emptied it, walked down the aisle and loaded chemical containers into it.

It left the warehouse and began to sprint through the dull dawn, through the rain-patterned grey streets towards the auxiliary door in the dome wall. It’s burden not seeming to slow it at all. Before full light Erin was back on board one of the flyers, the one fitted with the remote flight unit. It waited patiently for the call from Gerrit.

 

08 - Jenna

Jenna was held at City Base for over two months. She stood in front of the mirror in her room inspecting her appearance one morning; she nodded in satisfaction. It was nearly time, she had been court marshalled over the release of Jack and Erin. Today she was to attend the verdict announcement. Her father and mother would be there, although she had pleaded with them not to attend.

Her stomach was doing flips when the knock on the door came. She took a deep breath and walked between two burly guards down the corridor towards the hearing chamber. The place was severe, grey concrete walls towered over plain white polished tiles. Solid black benches and seats finished off the brutal appearance of the place. At one end of the room on a raised platform sat the judicial panel. Towards the right of the room was the witness area. Sitting there, she recognised the severe looking woman who sat there. An old family acquaintance, Marshall Mary Ander. The well-known and celebrated ex-leader of the Southern Corps. Her damn father must have wrangled that one. She hated them using their family influence to give her advantage. The two guards led her to the centre of the room and stepped back in unison behind her. The old square looking clerk in the centre boomed out.

“Jenna Gatling you are here to witness pronouncement of your guilt or otherwise in the matter of case 4921. You are accused of aiding the escape of two high priority prisoners. To this charge, you have entered a plea of guilty. Is this correct?”

“That is correct,” Jenna said, with more firmness than she felt.

“Do you have anything to say on your behalf before we pronounce judgement?”

“No” she responded.

“Do any other present wish to speak on behalf of the defendant?”

Mary Ander stood up, “I would like to say a word your honour.”

“Of course Marshal Ander please go ahead.” The judge smiled

“I have known Jenna all of her life, and in that time she has ‘always’ acted with honour and courage. She has been unfailingly loyal to the corps and worked harder than any I have known. This incident came after her capture, torture and perilous escape from the defilers and scavengers. I believe this must have played a significant factor in her behaviour. Add to that the fact that the escapees had saved Jenna’s life, made an honourable and mentally compromised individual act in an uncharacteristic way. We cannot therefore ‘I believe’ judge Jenna to have acted, as she would ‘normally’ have done. I therefore ask the court for lenience in this matter and consider her previous untainted record and the generations of service her family have given to the corps… that is all.”

“Well that was a very eloquent and heartfelt speech and I can say it has been taken into account in our judgement.”

The judge straightened her papers and took off her glasses before continuing.

“Whilst we agree that Captain Jenna was compromised at the time of the incident, it does not excuse her behaviour. Our pronouncement therefore is that Captain Jenna is demoted to the rank of private, active immediately. In addition to this, she will serve a period of five years at this rank in company bond.”

“She will be closely monitored during this time. If during this period her service is incident free, we will re-evaluate her position. This is the pronouncement. Court dismissed.”

A murmur ran through the room, she turned around to see her mother’s head in her hands, her father gazed stoically ahead. All things considered Jenna had expected worse. If she kept her head down for five years then…she sighed…five years, only to get back to the starting rung once more. She held back tears; they would not see her cry.

Weeks passed and soon soldiers came to transport her to begin her bond. She was assigned to J-Son, Old-England. She was not surprised at the location of her bond, soon after her sentencing the news of Jacks broadcast had spread. The sidelong glances in the corridors and the whispers began.

“It’s her, she released him.” They would say.

Jenna was sent to Old-England to clean up her own mess. It had not taken long after Jack’s broadcast when the troubles began, sporadic at first, but growing in frequency and violence every day.

Her bondage was to Corps Police Support, a local unit that processed intelligence behind the scenes and passed it to the frontline, her surgically enhanced face kept well away from the sight of any worker. Jenna was assigned to Envirodome 1 the location of the broadcast, and where the troubles had first ignited.

 

09 - Jack

When Jack and the others returned from the dome mission, they were hailed as heroes and Gerrit and the others lost in action as martyrs. Hope was high, and all in the Warrens monitored the uprising keenly, but this soon turned to dismay as the corps brutally cracked down, imprisoning many workers and rendering many more. The daily routine continued at the Warrens and life in the domes of Old-England carried on. Jack sensed feelings of resignation begin to set in.

Four and half years passed since the mission to Old-England and although the uprising was quelled, it did have an effect. Things never returned to ‘normal’, although the teachings were still observed, on the surface at least, many were now resentful and began to disbelieve. Others still held desperately to the beliefs, accepting the propaganda that saturated the airwaves and eagerly turned their brother and sisters over, burning with religious zeal.

Anyone heard disagreeing with the teachings were ‘re-educated’ at special centres and they came back shadows of their former self. For the rest the brutality and fear swayed the undecided into submission. The violence was so overt and extreme that many could not marry this savagery to the teachings of the saintly Owners. Surely, the Owners would not condone this.

The population no longer self-regulated largely by belief, but by fear. Fear reigned and rebellion simmered just below the surface. Tragically, the uprising did not spread; it was unknown outside of Old-England, contained to J-Son. Such was the total control of information. The other companies were not tainted and continued on much as before.

Grim resignation seeped through the Warrens but they would fight on. The corps had now turned their gaze full on the defilers and it was all-out war. They systematically burned down huge areas of forest, searing and baring the land. Swarms of drones began scanning the barren land for them. May thought that it would not be long before the first of the Warrens would fall and when it did, it was terrible. They killed everyone down to the last woman and child. Even those running to escape holding their children to them blasted down.

Jack was now unrecognizable from the man he was a few short years ago, his appearance transformed. A hardness had emerged, his frame leaner, his eyes steady. Jack was now his own man and lived his life at the Warren with content and assurance, although he still missed Marth and curiously, Erin, he had grown close to him in the months before the mission. It had been a week after the combat when he had disappeared. Some had tried to hold Erin to account for its disappearance during the action at the dome, but Erin had never promised to take part in any combat. The result of an inquiry deemed it innocent of all charges. It had delivered what was agreed and was therefore free to go. The chemicals that it brought back deemed non-threatening to the Warren, and Erin kept them.

Jack had advanced in rank during the years; he had earned respect from his actions during the dome mission, and was now Sondra’s aide and sat at the council meetings. She had grieved bitterly for Gerrit and Jack found himself helping more and more with Warren business.

Talk of Erin’s hidden laboratory had lingered and of the advanced tek it contained. It was a treasure trove and the council voted that they would acquire it. Jack had protested this; if it belonged to any he argued, it belonged to Erin. However, Jack was overruled. It was ‘they said’, ‘in the interests of the Warrens’.

The first scouting parties were unsuccessful in gaining entry to the lab so they sent others with heavy explosives. It took the destruction of half of the cliff face to remove the fortified doors and when they entered, they found the lab empty. Jack smiled to himself on hearing the news and thought:

‘Well done Erin’.

After a period of gloom following the downfall of the first Warren, the council met and began to discuss ambitious and desperate plans. The Owners had forced their hand; the scorched earth policy would obviously not stop until the destruction of all Warrens was complete. Jack’s seniority had allowed him access to the meeting and he sat at the right of Sondra.

A man he had never seen before took the floor, he was tall and dark skinned, with a loud sonorous voice, and his name was Galen. His speech was long and persuasive. He outlined how it was ‘them or us’ There was no middle way he outlined; the Owners had made that clear. There needed to be a mission to end all missions, a final throw of the dice. Jack found himself agreeing with the argument; there was no other choice. It was either radical action or extinction. Many murmured their assent.

      Galen then outlined a plan, to strike at the heart. They had tried attacking a limb he explained, but each company ‘was so well insulated from the rest’, the damage could not spread. A fatal blow ‘could only be delivered’ to the core, to the City itself. The meeting went quiet at this suggestion, an attack on the city never contemplated before. Most of the Owners power was concentrated within and it was bristling with military tek. Surely, this was doomed to fail. Galen then delivered his plan, he was a keen reader of ancient history and he talked of a primitive civilisation at war with its neighbour. The enemy resided in an impregnable city. “Faced with this dilemma”, Galen began, “the warring civilisation had employed trickery, they sent a gift, a giant statue of a horse under guise of negotiating peace. The statue gained entry into the city as a trusted token, but inside warriors hid. They waited until nightfall and opened the city gates from inside.” Galen pointed at Jack.

“Jack has been inside this horse.”

Jack felt all eyes looking at him…Bertha! He realised with a start. He had gotten in; right to the centre of the city, none had stopped him. Galen began,

“The city has long range defences, can destroy anything approaching for many miles, anything large enough to carry an effective force can be destroyed. We have only ever gained successful entry with one small flyer.” He paused and looked around the assembly.

“Their trade fliers are massive. If we can take one, can contain information just long enough for our people to enter the City. We have a way in. “

There was silence, this was high stakes, and the risks could not be higher.

At just that point, during the silence, a young man entered the chamber and hurried to where Galen stood. Galen looked down at the man annoyed at the interruption. The man whispered quickly, Galen looked surprised, then thoughtful. He said something to the man then waved him off.

“Well, it appears we have an unexpected guest, or guests. Some here know one of them. I believe it is the synthetic human known as Erin. I have allowed them entry and it seems they will address us soon”

With that, Galen sat down and the chamber began buzzing with exchanges.

10 - Tess

Tess sat on her wooden veranda, she called it her veranda; it was simply a few wooden planks laid on the ground at the back of her house. She had pegged some heavy canvas above to act as shelter. She rocked slowly, soothingly in her chair. Her late husband Esra had made it for her and it was one of her favourite possessions. The sun was low, just sinking into the tangle of the canopy. Her house was one of the closest to the thick forest, around 100 feet stood between her and the trees. Her people had cleared and area around the houses for their settlement and livestock. They were now ten houses strong, with forty inhabitants.

Tess was thinking of yesterday and her face darkened. The city people had made their monthly checks, ‘more like ransacked’ she thought. They had no need to do that, they possessed no tek, not here anyway she thought with a smirk. The sun was nearly down when she saw it walking towards her as calm as if it was on a Sunday stroll. She caught her breath…Erin. It walked up to her silently and stood just below her.

“How did you find us?” she said.

“You have detectors on your perimeter”, it stated.

She shook her head chuckling, even the city folk had never found them, with all their fancy scanning gear.

“Yes of course she said; you no doubt centred your search on the labs location. Of course none has ever found the lab until you”

“I would like to ask you some questions if I may”, Erin said.

“Of course, rude of me, please come in”, she replied.

They walked into her small kitchen. It was rugged but clean, she was scrupulous about that. They sat at a bleached wooden table.

“You woke me?” Erin started.

She sighed and took a long breath.

“We, I…am sorry we left you there. I had no choice you must understand it was damned unlucky timing. Unfortunately, your cryo unit had malfunctioned after the hundred or so years it had been down there. We monitor the lab frequently,” she explained.

“We tried to move you to another facility, one where we have the required tek to repair the unit. Damn scavengers found us; they were not from around here and very aggressive. How you survived, I do not know; they must have ripped you out of there.”

“The scavengers around here you see, we have a deal with them”, she chuckled. They think we are magicians, we help them with injuries and sickness, medicines and the like, and they on the whole leave us alone”

“Who are you?” Erin asked simply, looking around at the settlement.

“We are descendants, for our sins, of those in the city. We are of the Elgin family, the owners of the company Etek. Not long after the families first settled in the city generations ago, the Elgin Family used knowledge from the old age of automation. Unknown to the other families, they built a series of labs, hidden labs. The work was not well intentioned; they created new devices, weaponry, prohibited by the ‘Agreement of the Generals’ signed by all of the families. It had been agreed, only the corps would make weapons, totally funded and controlled by the families of course.”

“What has this to do with me?” Erin asked

“You Erin are the reason these labs are still hidden now. They found you back then, a relic of a lost technology, you were created in the age of the Autos.”

“Back then a group of scientists had the vision to see what was to come. They understood and condemned the path of their peers, and foresaw the wars. Fearing the end of humanity, seeing its self-destructive nature, they made you.”

“After over a century had passed senior members of the Elgin family found you, found a treasure trove of data, of the origins of your project; but they saw only a potential weapon. Our forebears, scientists working at the very lab where you were first brought, saw what you were and what you were meant to be.”

“They decided to act. They informed the other families about one of the secret labs full of weaponry. The houses were furious and destroyed every trace of it, executing the higher-ranking Elgin family members.”

“Etek was taken-over; lower rank family members summoned to take ownership. In the confusion that followed our forebears transported you to one of the deepest labs, still unknown, where you lay for over a century.”

“Why have you not woken me sooner?” it said.

“Our forebears left us strict instruction, a set of rules concerning the tek they bequeathed to us… and you.” She gazed at him.

“It outlines the conditions into which you should be woken. A peaceful time, so that you can establish a viable population of your kind. In all the years, for generations, we have known war and unrest. You have met the city dwellers, the Owners, the rulers of our planet?” she snorted in contempt.

“If they ever found out about you, realized what you are, they would take you apart.”

“And what am I?” it said.

“You Erin are our future.” She looked at it steadily. “And we thought we had lost you”

“I am not the same as you,”

“No”, she said. “You are better”.

“You must understand the human race evolved by natural selection, survival of the fittest; this can only take a species so far,” she paused.

“In a technological society, who chooses who should live and who should die? She asked. “Who should prosper and multiply and who should not?”

Erin waited sensing she wanted no answer.

“Those with power.” She paused.

“Those with power tend to possess a set of traits not conducive to a viable…progressive population let us say. In short, humans have stopped evolving in a natural way, or should I say, a biological way. However, what ‘has’ evolved is our knowledge, our tek.”

“’This’ is the path forward for our race. Children of the future must evolve through knowledge, through technology. We must become a hybrid, a merging of our technology and our bodies. Left to natural selection we cannot surpass the aggression, war making and hierarchy that has always been a feature of our species.”

“’You’ are our future Erin.”

Erin listened; it registered her words and understood them. A strong urge tugging at its mind, one Erin saw more clearly now. It must reproduce.

“Will you help me?” it said.

“That is our purpose,” she said.

The next night under the cover of darkness, Tess and a dozen chosen by her went with Erin and moved the contents of the Lab. Erin discovered they had several locations much like it, all bristling with tek. The next day in the new location Erin set to work.

In the weeks that followed, Erin told Tess about his life so far. It described its captors the Scavengers, its rescue and then imprisonment at the corps base. Tess inhaled sharply at this,

“They know of you?” she said shocked.

Erin nodded.

“Then they will be looking for you, we must hurry”

Erin described the Warrens and the mission Erin had helped with before his journey to them. Tess questioned him closely about the Warrens. Erin and his kind would need allies early on. As the days went by Tess began to worry. She must explain to Erin, the part it must take. She knew its moral imprinting would cause it to object and must be careful how she presented her arguments.

One day in front of the birth chamber of Erin’s first progeny, Tess gazed at the now nearly fully formed figure lying prone in front of her.

“It’s beautiful”, she said.

Erin nodded looking fondly at the figure.

“Not long now” it said.

“Erin” she said. “We need to talk about the role you and your kind will play”

He looked at her with curiosity.

She had rehearsed this many times, it must be perfect, and the truth, Erin would see though anything else.

“The Owners must fall,” she said.

Erin shook his head “I will do no harm”, came the response.

“Sometimes Erin there is no choice. When there are those who are harming others, to stand by and do nothing is in itself doing harm”

Erin considered this.

“The Owners” she continued. “Will not stop until you and your children” she glanced at the prone figure, “are destroyed, you pose a great threat to them.”

“Would you not harm another who is harming your children?” she pursued.

Erin felt unsettled; the core of his personality, of his imprinting, stood upon the principle of preventing suffering to any sentient being. The dilemma produced something akin to a crisis in it. Tess looked at its face, could see the pain, had she said too much…No, she thought, it must go through this even though she could not shake the feeling that it was wrong, that she was destroying its innocence. She shook her head…it must be done. She must rely on the values Erin’s makers, had instilled in it. She knew them, had read them. They were the closest thing she had, all her people had, to holy teachings.

Two days later Tess slept peacefully at home, worn out. The long weeks helping Erin in its task had took its toll. Daily she saw new life take shape in front of her. Erin had said only “soon”, when Tess had asked it when its first child would gain consciousness.

One night she awoke with a start, someone was watching her, someone in the room…”Erin?” she said.

“No not Erin”, a soft voice said. She sat up with a start; she knew who it was.

“It is Nera, it is awake.” Came Erin’s voice.

Tess lit the lamp at the side of her bed. They stood near the door, alike in many ways, but different. Nera had dark hair, its voice subtly different. It had a slightly lighter build, and had the most piercing green eyes Tess had ever seen. Erin smiled at her, obviously elated.

“Congratulations Erin”, she said.

Erin said “Thank you”.

Erin continued. “We have discussed the points you raised earlier in the week. We have decided that we cannot stand alone in this world; we are part of it. Although it pains me to cause harm, I accept that the Owners cannot continue on their path, it is a path of suffering. “

“It is agreed then,” said Tess with tears in her eyes.

 

11 - Lassa

Clan leader Lassa the Elder sat in his chair, in his hall. It was his pride, thirty feet long and twenty wide. The floor gleamed with polished stone, reflecting the red oranges from the hearth. Dark sooty beams crossed above them carved with his deeds. Ten sat with him, the other clan leaders. They gathered, ate and drank, once a year to celebrate the culling and a week later, they would all be in combat, fighting for leadership and their lives.

The threat of imminent death usually kept the number of challengers low, but there would be some, there always was. Lassa sighed, his scarred face puckered at the thought, he was a veteran of ten culling and his bones had begun to creek. His wife Elena had begged him to stand down this year as was his right after his tenth year. He had shook his head stubbornly, his father, all his ancestors had never conceded a culling; he would not be the first. He knew after his very first victory how this path would end and accepted it many moons ago, it would play out how it may. Most of his male children had went on to become clan leaders in their own right, and two sat at table tonight; he had no regrets. He went to sleep that night with Elena’s words still ringing in his ears,

“Concede, please, do it for me”.

Soon the morning of the culling came, Lassa stood with his arms man Sten, inspecting his weapons.

“Axe?” Sten inquired.

“Mmm…” Lassa murmered.

“What about two? Go for a quick kill.”

“No” Lassa said. “I don’t have the energy for it anymore,” he laughed.

“Bah nonsense”, Sten grinned.

“I’m thinking a stout sword and shield, I still have my strength if not my energy.”

“Yeah that could work, Sten rubbed at his chin, let the snappers whack at you, tire themselves out. They could hack at yer fat belly for a week and you wouldn’t notice.”

Both men chuckled at this, Lassa’s belly rising in time to give truth to the joke.

“Aye true”, Lassa said.

“Well sword and shield it is, Lassa said, I’ll let you choose, I’m going to see Elena before we start off”

“No rutting” Sten shouted at his back. “Ye need yer energy”

Lassa shook his head smiling as he left. Sten was one of the few who could talk to the clan leader this way; they had grew up together like brothers.

Lassa said his farewells to a tearful Elena and tried to calm her fears with quiet words. Soon he strode from his hall, face grim, all business, thinking of the task ahead. Sten stood outside waiting, the combat gear spread on a table in the yard.

“Ok let’s get you ready,” Sten said.

“Have you seen the challengers yet?” Lassa enquired business like.

“Aye, it’s mostly who we expected, Malc from Etland, Dirden from Bronsey and one more, and you’ll never believe this, a boy not out of his training pants. I almost feel sorry for the lad.” He shook his head. “But he knew what he was he was getting into, there’s no walking away.”

Lassa’s brow furrowed, “Where’s he from?”

“That’s just it” Sten said “no one knows, just turned up last night, and put his challenge in.”

Lassa shrugged, “Aye a shame”. He had killed enough men not to be sentimental.

The circle was just outside of the village, a sunken arena in the dirt. A wooden boundary encircled it with a small gate for entry, only one would walk out.

Soon Lassa and Sten headed for the arena, Lassa heard the crowd before he saw it. A good showing he mused. Word had probably spread of the boy, the newcomer; blood always drew the crowds. Lassa shook his head he would not sport with the boy, it would be quick, ‘damn jackals’ he thought. Of the other two only one worried him, ‘Dirden’ a good and stout fighter, and he had ten years on Lassa. The other Malc, Lassa knew would be a quick and easy fight. He knew Dirden would come for him from the off, he needed to lock down and defend and hope Malc would go for Dirden. If they both went on him, he had problems. The boy he discounted.

      He pushed his way through the crowd; they cheered and patted him on the back, some he recognised, good men, others that would as soon slit his throat. He got to the gate and leaped over it. He held his hands up high, turning to face them in the morning light. The crowd erupted.

“LASSA, LASSA…”

Lassa began to weigh up his opponents, already standing at the ready. As the current Clan leader, he had the grace of last entry. His eyes went straight to the boy and stayed there.

“What the gods…” was this a boy or a girl? This slight thing. He wanted to say to the youth ‘leave now, please’. He could not of course; the boy would soon be butchered. Malc was already eying the youngster with a dark stare. ‘Let him do it then’ he thought, it would not be him if he could help it. Dirden’s gaze fixated on Lassa, and he noticed that he carried two axes, going for the quick kill Lassa thought. The noise from the crowd hushed as the priest entered dressed in blue garb.

“The time for renewal is now. Let strength show the way. Our clan is elevated with combat. Who wins will lead. The bond and direction from blood be drawn. Praise Am’ica”

The priest raised his arms and looked at those assembled.

“Praise Ami’ca” returned the crowd.

“Raise your weapons, and fight in glory” His hand chopped downwards and he left hurriedly through the gate.

Dirden charged at Lassa, roaring and wielding the two axes. One axe swung down, Lassa deflected the first blow, Dirden’s second was already poised. Lassa needed to slow him. He raised his shield, his other arm dropped and his sword flicked at the lower leg of Dirden, a stream of blood spurted. Lassa nodded in satisfaction, it was only flesh, but it would bleed him, slow him.

Lassa waited, the berserker attack stopped, Dirden backed off a step, wary now. Malc had rushed at the boy the same time as Dirdens attack, Lassa looked for Malc but could not see him, he only saw the boy standing as calm as could be. Then he saw him, Malc lay slumped in the dirt at the arenas edge. Just as this absurd image had sunk in Dirden went for a second attack. Swinging an axe wide, over and downward. Lassa managed to parry it with the shield but this time Dirden had learned. As Lassa opened himself to parry, almost immediately Dirden thrust the end of the other axe straight into Lassa’s chest. Armed with a spike, it sunk deeply into Lassa’s leather covering. Lassa’s face contorted and he let out a deep grunt. His breath left him with the force of the blow. Quickly he covered up with his shield as Dirden rained a barrage of blows, Lassa’s arm began to numb.

“So this is how it will end”, he thought.

He pictured Elena pleading with him to concede. She was a good woman, but he had no regrets.

Suddenly the blows stopped. Lassa half-prone now glanced over the shield and struggled to his feet. The boy stood in front of him, breathing easily, looking calmly at him. Dirden lay on the ground at his feet. He noticed for the first time, the boy did not have a weapon. Had one of the fallen disarmed him? The crowd was silent. They had seen things that Lassa had not.

Malc had not seen the blow that felled him. He lunged expecting an easy kill. The boy sidestepped it as if Malc was standing still. He then arched his open hand round in a wide circle and chopped at the burly warrior just below the helmet. The force of the blow lifted the fighter from the ground, his body battering against the wooden barrier. Once down he did not stir. The crowd’s laughter and ghoulish expectation turned to gasps and silence as Malc clattered to the ground. They looked down at Malc, was he dead? Had the boy killed him with his hand?

Dirden was battering at Lassa unconcerned about the boy such was his distain. The boy leaped high into the air raising both hands into a clasped bludgeon. Both of his arms chopped downwards before his feet had reached the ground. Dirden followed right after, poleaxed.

Lassa had missed all of this. In front of him stood a boy in front of two fierce but now prone warriors. Lassa breathed heavily, His injury was affecting his breathing, and his breath was short. He struggled to keep the shield and sword high, sweat rolled down into his eyes.

‘Dammit this was a weapon less boy…what the gods?’ he thought.

Lassa roared and advanced slashing downward. The boy did not retreat or dodge. He pushed his foot forward with a thrust. The kick hit Lassa full on his shield. Lassa heard the crack as the metal buckled and his forearm snapped. He flew backwards and landed hard, the air whooshing from him. Stars pinged in front of his eyes, he heaved; the air would not come and the last thing he saw was the boy’s face, still calm, looking at him.

Lassa awoke later that day to find Elena looking worriedly down at him. He turned his face away ashamed, he was still alive, and worse, shown mercy by a boy.

“Thank Am’ica,” Elena said, “we thought you would not wake. Cap’ain Am’ica has spared you.”

Lassa looked at his arm, bound in bandages. He could feel his chest tight and sore, wrapped and bound in blood stained bandage.

He said bitterly, “I should be dead.”

“The boy has been sent by Cap’ain Am’ica”, she said earnestly.

“His strength is not of this world. He sits now with the elders, he speaks of him, of our lord.”

She crossed over near the hearth and sat at their shrine, a small enclave with candles and a sacred picture of the lord. It showed a depiction of the warrior lord Cap’ain Am’ica dressed in blue and marked with a star, as was his shield. It was many years old a true relic, its badly damaged surface showing the rough material beneath. It was a rare treasure, even spelling out the name of the lord. ‘Cap_ain Am__ica’.

“He has requested to see you when you woke. You must see him Lassa, talk to him.” Elena pleaded.

Lassa shook his head,’ Nonsense’ he thought; would he now be humiliated even more by giving this…boy, their new leader a chance to mock him.

“Lassa it is written, he has the right as new leader to pay respect to the vanquished. He has right to this hall, if he wishes to claim it!”

“But I am not dead woman!” Lassa roared. His chest instantly tightened leaving him gasping for air.

“He did not kill any,” Elena said. “Such is his skill none have died.”

Lassa sulked, “Am’ica be damned”. He would have to do this, see this…boy.

“Shall I bring him?” Elena said.

“Bring him then woman”, he growled.

After a few minutes, Lassa heard people approaching. The boy entered first. He stood holding two of the wielding stones. They used them to train young warriors. It took many months until a warrior could lift even the lightest stone to clear the ground, and many more to stand upright with it. Lassa could do it with the heaviest…just. The boy stood there calmly with two of the heaviest stones one in each hand as if they weighed no more than small sacks of grain.

“How…?” Lassa said.

“I have been sent by Cap’ain Ami’ca. I am here to lead you to glory”

More people entered; he could see the faces of the elders, even Sten his arms man. They gazed in awe at the boy.

Lassa had never been much of a believer, he had of course maintained appearances and attended ceremonies and such, but this boy, this was impossible.

‘Was he sent from their lord’?

‘Had he been defeated as a punishment to chastise his disbelief’?

Lassa found himself saying, “How will you lead us to glory?”

The boy began to speak, his voice clear and forceful.

“All clans will come together and we will be strong. I will lead our warriors in battle. We will take the domes, the domes of the magicians and all the riches of this land will be ours”

The people behind him began murmuring “Praise Ami’ca”

“I am your leader my name is Nera Ami’ca” the boy said.

Those gathered bowed their heads and repeated “Praise Nera Ami’ca”.

Lassa resented the boy at first, but the more he watched him, the more he saw his abilities, he slowly began to believe that this was a blessing. Lassa travelled with the boy and watched while he beat all-comers. Men of all shapes and sizes, huge bears or tall and agile. All suffered the same fate. The boy was awe-inspiring. It took him one year to have all of the southern clans under his thrall. Nera Ami’ca now commanded two hundred thousand men women and children; his army would be mighty. Soon they would take the dark magicians domes and plunder their wealth.

 

12 - Galen

It was five years since Erin had last visited the Warrens. Galen stood and watched the two enter. It was the first time he had seen Erin. He had heard of it of course but seeing it was different. He had never saw anyone (or anything) quite like that. The proportions of it, the way he or she moved, it drew admiration begrudged or not. An old woman followed it wrapped in an orange shawl. She had a large bushy head of greying hair and dark skin, her clothing multi-coloured. The contrast between the two was stark.

Galen was chief councillor for Warren 5. It was his desire to end the hiding, end this life of fear, of living like rats underground. He advised radical offensive action at all council meetings he attended. Erin’s entrance had interrupted his speech, but he wanted to hear what the synthetic had to say so he said:

“Welcome Erin. May I ask the name of your guest?”

Erin said, “This is Tess she is my friend” he said simply.

Galen thought for a moment of bringing up the subject of the lab. He suspected Erin of being the one responsible for the disappearance of the tek. Instead, he said:

“What brings you and your friend here today Erin”

“Your plan will not work” Erin said flatly.

Galen’s face darkened, “And why is that may I ask?”

“Two things; they have far superior tek and their force is distributed across their lands. Any attack on the city is doomed to fail. Moreover, even if the city falls, they merely need to retreat behind their fortress until help arrives.”

Galen’s face tightened. “I had anticipated that, my plan would be to cut off communication from the city, in stealth attacks before any frontal attack”.

“You do not have the tools to gain access, and even if you did the cessation of communication would speak louder than any call for help.”

“What is needed is a force that can take the company lands and simultaneously assault the city.”

“You do not have the numbers or the tek.” Erin ended simply

Galen looked at Erin, hard now. He breathed deeply, quelling his anger.

“Do you have a better plan? If so please enlighten us…Erin”, he spat the last.

Erin paused and looked at Galen curiously. ”How many people would you say live outside of the company domes?”

Galen saw where he was going. “What, the ex-enviro?” they are little more than animals. What does it matter their numbers.”

“In Old-England alone, within one hundred miles of the southern domes live one million people.”

“That is impossible”, Galen said emphatically.

“Why?” Erin said.

“Because the land is polluted, the air hardly fit to breath, the weather itself is…”

“The environment is brutal, yes,” Erin said.

“It has made them hardy, primitive, they fight every day just to survive. They are formidable, but they lack cohesion, they lack, or should I say lacked, leadership.”

He paused.

“My children have given them this leadership.”

“Each of the lands outside of the domes have a similar culture, it is based on combat; they worship warrior gods. To them my children represent these gods. They now have control of a fighting force spanning ten of the thirty company lands. They can lead approximately five hundred thousand soldiers into battle.”

Galen heard the number and his jaw dropped, “Impossible!” he said.

“And even if you do have those numbers they are savages, without tek.”

“They need little tek, each company can be overcome with sufficient numbers. The dome workers are restive and many will aide, adding to our force.”

Galen considered. “It will be a bloodbath they will blast them down”

Erin looked troubled “There will be much suffering”, it looked at the old woman. She nodded her head sombrely.

Galen said. “You say you can attack ten of the company lands, what of the other twenty?”

“The Owners have a great weakness, they all live in the city. If we gain entry quickly and take the families. If we prevent them from beginning a defensive campaign, we have them. No corps commander will risk the life of his CEO. Some reinforcements will come, but if we take the Owners, the city and enough domes, it is enough to tip the balance. It will force negotiations“

“I will come with you to the city; it will expedite access. The shorter our action the less the suffering. I have considered everything this is the best way”

Galen said, “You have forgotten something, the city defensive grid and the fort.”

Erin said, “I will take care of that”

 

13 - Nera

Nera lived at Lassa’s hall, Lassa had formally requested that Nera claim it, but it smiled and declined, only saying that it would be grateful if it may use a room as a guest. It was a year since Nera had become leader of the Clan. It sat cross-legged and eyes closed in its room. The room was bare and empty apart from some hides and furs on the floor. Nera had accepted them only to please Elena; it had no need of them.

      It treasured this time, conversing with its family. The data buzzed in Nera’s mind and coalesced as voices. Nera had one overriding concern that it wished to discuss, the safety of its people. It thought of them fondly and Nera would not lead them into a bloodbath.

In its mind it inspected the plans for the new metal production one more time, they were sufficient. Nera shared them with its siblings. After a short delay, the others began commenting. Technical questions, procedures, techniques that Nera had not thought of, it smiled. To converse with its peers was pleasant. Nera missed it during the grim days of training. One sibling questioned the use of shields.

“Yes we will form the metal to make shields. We are already training in formation for defence.”

“Have you tested a shield?”

“Not yet, we do not have the raw materials. I have sent a party to acquire what we need. We are using wooden shields of the same dimensions to train.”

“So you have not tested the metal against an energy weapon?”

“Not yet but my calculations confirm 80% energy absorption efficiency.”

“The shields will not last long at that rate”

“They do not need to; we will rotate our front lines frequently.”

After a pause a voice formed in Nera’s mind “We confirm your calculations, we will begin acquiring materials also; it will greatly reduce suffering, Thank you Nera”

“You are welcome my family”

Erin’s family were dispersed over half of the company lands. The exenviro, although far flung, were all of a similar culture, male dominated, warrior based, and hierarchical, based almost entirely on combat. In addition, the most important aspect of all, they all worshipped warrior gods. The abilities of Erin’s family seemed supernatural to them. The idea that they were sent from the gods was not a difficult one to implant. Ten of fifteen of its siblings had acquired significant followings, managing to merge many clans and tribes under their ‘divine’ instruction. They were close to the critical mass needed for the plan to work.

It was such a pity the Owners were not rational, they possessed so much tek but so little real understanding. Such pointless suffering Nera thought.

There was a knock on the door; Lassa cleared his throat outside.

“Nera Am’ica”?

“Yes Lassa?”

“The men have returned.”

“Good”, Nera said.

They both went outside into the yard. A dozen or so men stood at a respectful distance outside. One spoke, face turned down. “We have the materials Nera Am’ica”.

Nera inspected the large baskets full of various ore and other materials.

“You have done well, thank you”

The man said nothing, just smiled nervously and bowed his head and left.

Nera turned to Lassa,

“Lassa, who among the clan are the most…” Nera paused choosing its words “skilled in weapon making and the understanding of craft?”

Lassa rubbed his Jaw, “Wellll…” he considered.

“Old Oridge is our best swordsmith and there’s his apprentice Davy, he’s a damn good learner. They would probably be best, around here anyway.”

Nera said, “Lassa I need Oridge and Davy and twenty more of the best weapon smiths and apprentices from all of our clans to gather here in two weeks. I will teach them so that they may craft powerful weapons and shields”

Lassa nodded his head.

 

14 - Jenna

Jenna stared blankly at the black window. Rain ran down the pane in intricate paths. She sighed in spite of herself, this was unlike her, feeling sorry for herself.

‘They used paper here she thought’, she looked at the pile of folders on her desk and in a fit of pique, she swung her arm hard and the papers flew.

‘How did she get here? In this…shithole’.

She knew of course. It all started with the defiler raid on the corps tower. It was pure chance she was there that day with Yani, a senior official in the Eras Family. It was not on his schedule, damn him, the ridiculous peacock that he was, deciding to throw his weight around. The defilers had attacked as he was castigating some junior officer or other. They burst in, took one look at his lordships stripes and knew they had hit the jackpot. ‘Why the hell did they take me?’ She thought angrily. The rest of the sorry chain of events came flooding back to her. Would she have done anything differently, could she? The answer came, always the same …no.

This place was where ‘he’ was from, the worker, Jack. They did this on purpose, some twisted lesson they probably thought, go play in the source of your mess; and mess it was. Rarely a day passed when there was not an incident of some sort. It had come close to full-scale insurrection a few times. The last when these trigger happy idiots killed a young girl, a bystander at that.

Jenna was the corps attaché to the local enforcers. Her role was strictly limited. She was a glorified admin. She had no influence here. She was here for one reason only…punishment. The days were bad, the nights even worse. She lived in the ‘hidden corner’, that is what they called it here. Workers could not see those with face reconstruction.

At any one time there may be a dozen people quartered there. There was one shitty bar, a lounge, a canteen and living cells, and ‘nothing else’. It was hell, her personal hell. They knew her, she gave them that, and they had picked her punishment well.

“Sod it,” she said it aloud.

“I’ve had enough of this”

She was working late, she usually did, it put off for a while her grim nights at the ‘hidden corner’. She strode over to the wall and pulled her raincoat from the rack. Ten minutes later, she strode down Subroute 7 her hood pulled forward, concealing her face.

She noted again, how grey everything was here. Like everything was painted with it. And the people, gods! If you could call them that, so gloomy and dead. They trudged about their business. That was all there was here…work. They were aptly named she thought… they ‘were’ workers.

She thought of her upbringing in the Delta Springs just to the south of the city. Her family lived on the edge of the great lake. They owned boats, flyers and every conceivable luxury. Her childhood had been idyllic.

She looked around, feeling for the first time something akin to…shame. She shook her head, “damn you are going soft girl”, they are workers for cripes sake.

Jenna would have murdered for a Bloody Mary right about now. She snorted. No chance here, no bars or cafes, not even shops. The workers received everything from the deliveries. Each given goods linked to their work level. There was no choice in it.

‘Anyway’ she thought, it was just nice to be mobile and out of the damn office and the hidden quarters. She looked around to see no one was looking and turned her face up to the light rain, it ran down her cheek. It felt good, made her feel more ‘alive’.

It was then she heard it, someone shouting. It was coming from across the street. One of the local enforcers was confronting a young couple. It looked like he had confiscated a device of some sort. The enforcer pressed a button on it and low music reached her. It seemed so incongruous here, as if it did not belong. The young boy, obviously displaying bravado for the girl, let out a long stream of the pink nicovapor, Jenna could smell the sweetness of it from where she stood. She smiled in spite of herself. She had been in similar situations in her youth, the local law would often disperse the little group she hung around with, and the boys would big it up.

The vapour blew with the wind into the guards face. Thinking this was an intentional slight and a challenge to his authority the guards face contorted. Jenna knew what was coming before the boy did. The man drew back his stick and rammed into the stomach of the boy, he doubled over and fell to ground, the girl screamed. The guard bent over the boy still furious, stick held high when the girl grabbed it, screaming at the enforcer to stop. The man spun, whipped his open hand round striking the young girls face, and she too fell. The enforcer turned intent on continuing his assault when he felt a sharp pain in his side and the breath whooshed from him, stars lit up his vision, he got one glimpse of a dark hooded figure before losing consciousness.

From that night, something began to change in Jenna, slowly at first. She repeated her walks in the dome, in the workers dwelling quarters, she even talked to some of them, always careful to keep to shadows and concealing her looks. Her distain of them began to be replaced by something else, pity, and even admiration, they had every reason to be driven down to despair, and some were it was true, but there was defiance also, and a will. A will to live. True they were limited, but through no fault of their own. They were; she was beginning to understand, just like her, like people she knew, good and bad…just people. She began to understand…this was wrong.

 

15 - Yenah

Yenah sat near the back of the hall. Her eyes, restless, strayed back to Jack as they had a wont of doing. She sighed, he did not see her; he never saw her. A surge of annoyance flowed through her. Was she not attractive? Other men found her so. No that was not it, she knew that was not it, she had caught him before, looking at her, when he thought she did not see. Damn him! Why did he do…nothing? She decided then, this had gone on long enough, she would confront him, tonight at the dinner.

The entrance of Erin and the older woman broke her thoughts. She smiled in spite of herself; Yenah had gotten to know her well when she stayed at the Warren. She had never met anyone like Erin before, a kinder more understanding person you could not find. Yet, they told her she was not real, not a real person like her. She did not believe it; Erin was more human than anyone she had ever met. Whatever her insides were like it did not matter.

She listened with awe as Erin challenged Galen. Yenah had always been a little scared of this tall gaunt foreboding figure. She found herself agreeing with Erin. She was a veteran of several combat missions now and had learnt a fair amount of tactics during that time and nodded at the sound logic. Erin’s words roused hope, something she had not felt since before the mission to old England, and the death of Gerrit.

The thought of Gerrit brought a lump to her throat. He had been like a father to her. Yenah entered the Warren when she was no more than a girl, an orphan, collateral damage, the only survivor of a corps bomb. Gerrit had seen her fear, her loneliness, and had taken her under his wing and she missed him.

After the meeting, people began to empty from the chamber. All were talking of Erin’s news.

“Five hundred thousand fighters” one said.

“We will do it with Erin on our side”, another said. “We will never have a better chance”

Yenah could see Erin standing talking in a small group. The older woman was there, Sondra, Galen and…Jack. She headed towards them. Erin smiled as she approached.

“Hello Yenah” she said in her musical voice. Yenah hugged her.

“So glad to see you, it’s been so long.”

“I know I wish I could have come earlier. I have been with my family” Erin beamed.

“Yes I heard”, Yenah smiled

“Yes my children, you will meet them.”

Yenah nodded not wanting to question her further in this company.

Galen bowed stiffly to the group, “I will take my leave for now.”

He nodded to Sondra Jack and Erin and strode off.

Jack began talking to Sondra; Yenah flushed slightly, he did not even acknowledgment her presence. Erin looked deeply into Yenah’s eyes. Yenah blushes deepened, Erin saw, Erin understood.

The older woman took Yenah by the hand.

“Let us three go and get some food shall we. I am Tess.”

Yenah looked into the old woman’s eyes they were an astonishingly bright blue, with more than a twinkle of mischief.

“These official types can be so boring”. She glanced over her shoulder at Jack just loud enough so that Jack heard.

Yenah noticed a quick glance and a slight change in colour from Jack. Yenah smiled, she liked Tess, a lot.

Yenah and Tess chatted for nearly an hour. It was nice to have someone to confide in. They talked of anything and everything. Eventually Tess rose and said.

“It has been lovely talking to you Yenah, I hope to see you tonight at the dinner function.”

“I will be there.” Yenah said with a smile.

      Later that evening she stood in her room in front of the mirror. ‘Not bad’, she admitted to herself. The dinner was to start soon, held to honour the Warrens guests, Galen and Erin amongst them and the heads of the other Warrens.

She had changed a half dozen times, ‘enough’; she would do. With a deep breath, she left her room and headed to the dining hall. She heard the buzzing from the crowded hall before she reached it. As she entered, her gaze instinctively sought out Jack. There he was sitting next to Erin, Tess and Sondra…perfect. She threaded her way towards them. Erin saw her first, then Tess, who welcomed her, patting the place between her and Jack. Yenah smiled and took her place next to Jack.

 

16 - Jack

Jack prepared for the meal. He was to sit next to Sondra opposite Galen and the other Warren chiefs. He sighed; this would be a stiff affair. He took a last look in the mirror and patted his hair, he would do. Sondra waved as he entered the hall. He smiled as he spotted Erin sitting next to Sondra with the woman Tess.

“This may not be all that bad after all”, he thought.

Jack enjoyed talking with Erin. Soon they were deep in conversation. Jack was amazed at Erin’s tales of his ‘children’ and of Tess and her people. He was awed at the planning of it all, at what Erin and his offspring had achieved in so short a time. To have under his control vast armies, he shook his head in wonder. It had shifted the whole dynamic of the ‘war’. He found himself wondering that he had never thought of this conflict with the city in those terms before. ‘War’ is what it was, though it had been massively one-sided. This changed things.

A familiar perfume interrupted his conversation and caused him to glance away from Erin. To the other side of him sat Yenah. He was surprised, why was Yenah sitting there? He considered for a short moment, and nodded politely at her before continuing his conversation with Erin. Erin stopped him short.

“Welcome Yenah you look lovely tonight, doesn’t she Jack?”

Jack looked blankly at Erin and then at Yenah. She did actually look lovely; Jack thought she looked very …womanly. Tess joined the conversation,

“Have you and Yenah known each other for long?” She looked at Jack.

“Uhm yes” Jack returned, “For five years since I first came to the Warren. Yenah is a good friend.” He smiled amiably at her.

Jack looked at Yenah expecting a smile, but found a grimace. He wondered at that. When Jack first came to the warren Yenah was little more than a girl in his eyes, no more than seventeen or eighteen maybe. Of late, he had noticed her more, she did look…lovely tonight.

Tess said, “I have been told that after dinner we will have a chance to dance is that correct Jack?”

“Yes I believe so; they normally dance after dinner at these affairs, although I rarely stay.”

“Oh you must tonight, I insist, you will dance with me, and I am sure Yenah wishes to dance also.”

Yenah coloured at the bluntness.

“I...I, yes of course” Jack nodded, feeling a little perplexed.

The dinner passed pleasantly and the wine flowed easily… A little too easily, Jack felt his face flush with warmth, he felt good, and looked around with a somewhat stupid grin that he sometimes assumed when he had too much. Soon the music changed, louder and merrier, a man was announcing something, and couples began walking up to the floor. The dance had begun. Jack felt his wrist grabbed lightly, a slender warm hand placed in it.

“There you go.”

It was Tess; she had placed Yenah’s hand in his. Jack smiled waiting for the objections from Yenah. Jack stopped and gazed at her, they really were a very pretty green. Yenah looked at him warmly, to Jacks surprise she pulled him up, laughing lightly at his objections. Jack hated dancing, but he found the warm touch of Yenah very pleasant. He had not realised it before, but he liked Yenah very much. They danced a while, when the music slowed. Couples around them came closer together. Jack looked unsure at Yenah, but she was sure, coming in close confidently. Her closeness was intoxicating; the dance seemed to end far too quickly. Yenah looked up searching his eyes and kissed him full on the mouth. He kissed her back.

Jack woke early next morning; Yenah was warm next to him. How had he not seen her all this time? He kissed her, she smiled drowsily and wrapped her arms around him and they made love again.