Tag Archives: aftermath

The Strangemans (Part 2)

This is an Aftermath story. In the previous part of the story, Damian and his friend Nikolai find shelter in a ruined house in the post-apocalyptic wasteland outside Ipswich. They meet a deformed woman who gives them food and shelter.

wasteland

“Do you live here by yourself?” Damian asked.

“No, there are several of us, but they will not show themselves yet,” she said. “We are the Strangemans.”

“The Strangemen?” Nikolai asked.

“Strangemans,” she corrected, smiling with yellowed fangs. “For changed people like us, even the language must change. We are men no longer, or women. But where are you coming from, and where are you going?”

“We came from Ipswich,” Damian said. “I—I don’t know where we are going though.”

“You are not the first to run away from that place, although most who flee thoughtlessly out here die quickly. It was fortunate you came across our house. I will give you a choice. If you wish, you may become one of us. You will have food and shelter, and more importantly, allies. Or you may leave. We will give you some food to take with you if you choose.

“How many of you are there?” Damian asked.

“Several,” she said again. “The witchers—raiders from Ipswich—hunt us if they find us, so we never tell our number or faces to outsiders. I’m am an ambassador of sorts. You may think about it, if you wish.”

“I will join you,” Damian said immediately.

“Me too,” Nikolai said. He eyed the empty bowl in front of him.

“Are you sure?” she said. “There is a sort of test to join us, but it is quick.”

“I’m sure,” Damian said, looking up into her eyes. He trusted her eyes.

“Very well.” She took his left hand, caressed it and then brought it to her mouth as if to kiss it. The next moment she bit down hard at the first joint of his pinky finger.

Damian screamed and jerked his hand back, but it was done. The woman pulled the tip of his finger out of her mouth, dirty nail and all, and placed it in his trembling right hand.

“Why? Why—” His voice shook from physical and mental shock.

“In a moment,” she said. “We must stop the bleeding.” She bandaged his finger with the care of a mother and then kissed it, as if in benediction.

“There is one more step,” she said. “Now throw it into the fire over there and you will be one of us.” Damian looked down at the tiny bit of bloodied flesh in his hand. Apart from him, it was nothing but a foreign object. He threw it in the fire.

“Now you have given part of yourself to us forever,” the woman said. “And we will protect you with our lives as well.” She held up her left hand and Damian saw the tip of her last finger was missing as well. “Welcome to the Strangemans.”

She turned to Nikolai, but the other boy had backed against the wall, his whole body shaking. “You are next, if you would like,” the woman said.

“No, no! I can’t,” he said. The tears were pouring down his face. “There has to be another way.”

“There is no other way,” she said. “Life out here is no game. If you cannot give of yourself, we cannot give ourselves to you. It is quickly done and the benefits are for a lifetime.”

“Damian! Damian, help me!” Nikolai cried. There was desperation in his voice and Damian understood the crushing dilemma he was in, wanting to belong, but not daring to go through with it. And Damian could not save him, not like he had from the butcher of Ipswich. Only Nikolai could decide. Damian wondered what he would have done if he had known what was coming and how unfair it was for Nikolai to know.

“Be at peace,” the woman said. “You may stay here another day or two at most, unless you decide to join us before then. For right now though, you must stay here.” She turned to Damian. “As for you, newest Strangeman, come meet your brothers and sisters.”

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The Strangemans

This is an Aftermath story. In the previous story, the Butcher of Ipswich, Damian rescues his friend Nikolai from a butcher who is about to kill him. Due to stress and fear, Damian enters an altered state where he moves faster and is much stronger, but also totally deaf. He escapes the post-apocalyptic city of Ipswich and runs off into the dark, nighttime wasteland.

wasteland

The dark, putrid wasteland echoed with screams and weird cries but Damian heard none of them as he ran, carrying his friend Nikolai in his arms. He had no destination and no plan, except to get as far away as he could from the depraved city of Ipswich. It seemed like almost no time had passed when the sun rose behind him and his shadow—a dark, sickly skeleton—leaped out in front of him. It was only a moment or two before he could feel the sun’s terrible rays burning into his skin, sending up tiny blisters. It didn’t hurt, but some part of his brain beneath the preternatural fog that covered his mind knew he had to get out of the sun immediately.

He was in a narrow lane with ruined houses on both sides. He ducked into the closest house on the left, the only one with an intact roof and dropped Nikolai to the dusty kitchen floor. Damian was still deaf—whatever power had seized him in Ipswich when he had snatched Nikolai from the terrible butcher’s table and fled had also plunged him into a silent world of his own. He would be worried later; for now the lack of screams and cries of pain that had filled every day of his life were absent and he walked in a sort of aural Nirvana.

Nikolai was still unconscious. Damian looked at him and then, in a sudden decision, lay down next to him and went instantly to sleep.

He woke and found himself gazing up into the kindly face of a monster. It was, or had been, a woman, but now her face was swollen and tumorous and her teeth were yellow and sharp. But her eyes were kind and she when she mouthed unheard words to him, he felt strangely reassured. She held a cup up for him to drink and then gave him some food. It was plain stuff but far better than he was used to. After a few minutes, he fell asleep again.

When he awoke again, it was dark and the first thing he noticed was the crackle of a fire. It was indistinct, but his hearing was returning. Nikolai was up as well and eating. “Hello,” he said, when he saw Damian. “Where are we?”

“I don’t know,” Damian said. He would have thought it was all a dream, except they were definitely not in Ipswich anymore.

“What is your name?” the monstrous woman asked, coming over to Damian. She held out a bowl of food for him, which he eagerly accepted.

“Damian,” he said. “I could not hear you before. My ears— but it’s okay now.” Despite his upbringing as a fugitive and her hideous appearance, he found himself trusting the woman. “Do you live here by yourself?”

“No, there are several of us, but they will not show themselves yet,” she said. “We are the Strangemans.”

(To be continued tomorrow. Don’t miss it!)


The Butcher of Ipswich

After a long, long time, Aftermath is back! For those who don’t know what it is, Aftermath is a post-apocalyptic world set in England. The original stories were centered around a character name Edward “the Squid” Morrison, who was a pretty bad guy but who was on a quest to find music and other artifacts from the former world. On his journey he found an unconscious boy whom he named Sean. Even when the boy awoke, he didn’t speak, although in the last story that I wrote, he found out that the boy’s name was Damian. This is Damian’s backstory.

Aftermath

The city of Ipswich was dark and it stank. The whole world stank now, but the city had a concentrated stench of years of piled and rotting waste. During the summer days, the unforgiving sun baked the waste to a hard crust that only the fat, evil flies could find any nourishment from, but still it reeked. Damian was used to it all by now. He had been born into that den of villains and pirates and raised on its merciless streets. He knew where to hide during the day and where to find food each night, away from the slavers and pimps and meatmen.

He was sitting in his nest of rags and scraps between the two steam pipes. Nikolai had not returned yet. Nikolai was his—friend? What that the right word? They didn’t talk or hunt for food together, but they didn’t fight either. They spend the long days together, sleeping with their backs pressed together, but then, when the blistering orb of fire sunk below the horizon, they went their separates ways and hunted their own food. Maybe that meant they were friends.

The night had been productive. He had grabbed a handful of b-meat off a truck and ducked down into a drain before the driver could chase him. All meat was separated into three categories. A-meat, the kind that came from cows and pigs and other legendary animals, was unheard of these days. If there were still such animals left in the world, they could not live in the blighted wasteland around Ipswich. B-meat was mostly seafood, with some bird thrown in when someone got lucky. C-meat was the rest: rats, snakes, irradiated mutants from the darkness beyond the city, and worse. It was sold ground up and mixed together so the customer never knew what, or who, it came from. There was high demand for all types of meat, but Damian never touched c-meat. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, but thieves who were good at their trade could be as selective as they wished.

Damian heard running footsteps approaching. He peered into the darkness, trying to pick out if it was Nikolai. Suddenly, Nikolai’s running form was backlit by a powerful spotlight. He was almost to the entrance to the steampipes when something like a metallic whip wrapped around him and dragged him away, screaming. Damian pulled himself back into the shadows behind the pipes. There were many groups that routinely hunted down street children, and the difference between them was only like the varying levels of Hell.

The spotlight was gone now, Nikolai’s screams were muffled and then suddenly cut off. He was dead, probably, beyond Damian’s help or anyone else’s but still, Damian found himself creeping out of his hole and tiptoeing to the head of the alley. It was still hours until dawn but from the dim lights of neighboring buildings, Damian could see a handcart being pulled away by two men. He followed silently. There was nowhere good they could be going but still, his heart sank when they turned into the reeking, fetid alley behind the meat market.

Just go back, his mind screamed at him. Nikolai was dead anyway, or soon would be. But he was a friend, or the closest Damian had ever had to one.
The cart stopped outside a shop and he saw the men carry Nikolai through the door and then leave. A pair of men wearing blood-stained aprons and swinging cleavers walked past and Damian shrank down into the shadows. When they had passed, he went to the door. It was bolted with a latch on the inside, but he slipped his homemade knife through the crack in the door and a moment later it opened.

There was Nikolai, lying motionless on a table. There was no one else around, but he could hear voices coming from an adjacent room. He stepped inside. Nikolai was still breathing but blood was coming from a gash on the side of his head. The blood was warm and sticky and seeped through Damian’s fingers as he pressed his hand to his friend’s head. Nikolai moaned a little and his eyes flickered open. “Come on, we gotta scurry,” Damian whispered. “Can you stand?” He put his hands behind Nikolai’s back and helped him sit up.

“Put him back, boy.” Damian looked up to see a tall man wearing a butcher’s apron standing in the inner door. “Put him back and I’ll let you go, but I already paid for him.”

“He’s my friend,” Damian said. There was no way out. Nikolai’s eyes had closed again as he sat. “I’ll get you someone else.”

The butcher sighed. “It’s not worth it to me, plus I don’t believe you.”

“I’ll find you a hundred more. Please, please.”

“I’ll give you five seconds to get out of here before I take you too.” The butcher picked up a cleaver to punctuate his words.

Damian could feel the rage and the fear coursing through him, urging him to act. It was a feeling he had felt before in dangerous situations and the raw, wild feel of it had always scared him and he froze. The butcher gave a little shrug and moved towards him. The feeling building in Damian reached a fever-pitch and suddenly pain exploded in his head, so severe that he cried out. It felt like his head was going to burst. And then, just as suddenly, it ended and the world descended into silence. The butcher continued towards him in slow motion. Damian took a step towards him and hit him in the chest and the huge man flew back and crashed silently through the wall.

It was like a dream. Damian picked up Nikolai and walked outside. He started running, still carrying his unconscious friend. He weaved his way between people, all of whom seemed to be moving in molasses. Now he was just running, with no thought to where he was going. He saw the outer gate of the city, open to its normal night traffic. Two guards stepped into his path, but they went flying as he barreled effortlessly through them. Then he was outside the city, where he had never been before, running heedlessly into the cursed wasteland. Behind him, there may have been shouts or sirens or sounds of pursuit, but he did not hear them and he did not care.


Edward and Hestia

This is part of my post-apocalyptic Aftermath series. The previous story was Voices from the Past. Here is the Aftermath Glossary.

 

“It looks like you’ve been through an ash heap or two since I saw you last,” Hestia said. “I guess we all have.”

Despite what she said, Edward could not see that the last seventeen years had touched her much at all. She was older, of course. Her hair was touched with silver and a few wrinkles had sprung up in the corners of her eyes, but overall she had passed through the poisonous world unscathed.

“You know each other?” Blake asked in surprise.

“We met once,” Edward said. “Look,” he said, turning back to Hestia, “I’m not looking for anything for myself. You took some kids for me before; now I’m asking if you can again. I have one named Sean who’s in the hospital here. Just give him a good home and I’ll get the hell out of here.”

Hestia gave a small smile. “Hell,” she repeated softly

“What?”

“You said hell. I just wondered what you meant by it.”

“I—I don’t know, I just said it. What does it matter?” He felt a flash of anger.

“I was just wondering because most people in here consider out there to be more or less a literal Hell. They would do anything not to go out there and the people out there would do anything to get in here. So why the hell do you want to go back out so badly?”

“I can survive out there. It’s where I belong. I’m in control there.”

“Ah, ‘better to rule in Hell’ and all that.” Hestia sat down and motioned them to chairs. Blake sat down but Edward didn’t move. “I’m curious, Eddie—”

“Squid.”

“Squid? Really?” She shrugged. “I’m curious, Squid, what you’ve seen out there. What’s the world like?”

“You know what it’s like,” he said. “You said it yourself. Everything is sickly and twisted. Food is scarce. Everybody is hungry. Everybody suffers.”

“Except you.”

“Even me! But what’s the alternative? Live in here where everyone tiptoes around in fear of losing their position.” He would not tell her, but a small part of him wanted to stay—longed for that safety and security. Still, he could not do it. A bird that had been freed and lived in the open forest could not voluntarily step back into the cage, no matter have much gilt was put on the bars.

“You know,” Hestia said, “the right to murder and steal is not as precious in a place where no one is your enemy and everything you desire is freely given. But let me tell you about the world outside. Cambridge is the solitary island of civilization in England, but we are branching out. We even have a seaport now in Great Yarmouth and a rail line connecting us. It was the closest port we could find.”

“Was Ipswich destroyed?” Edward asked. “That would be closer.”

Blake made a noise of exclamation and Hestia stared at him. “Are you making fun, Squid, or have you really been that isolated from things down there in your scuttle-hole?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I mean, that Ipswich is the antithesis of civilization now,” Hestia said. “It’s a seething den of crime and piracy and every terrible thing you could conceive. They are our main enemy, since they are the only ones that send targeted attacks against our supply lines.”

“I didn’t know,” Edward said. He didn’t know how he felt about it. Part of him wanted to go there, to test himself against a whole city of the worst villains and thieves, but part of him didn’t want the competition. He enjoyed being the top dog.

“We have a few mines and a small refinery,” Hestia continued, “although a lot of what we get is still through salvage. That’s my job here. As Minister of the Exterior, I send out people to find things and bring back the best. Blake works for me sometimes, finding robots.”

“And that’s what you want me to do, to go find stuff and bring it back.” Edward thought of the chren mining that Hinsen had tried to get him to do and suppressed a shudder.

“That’s the idea,” she said. “Listen: what you’ve got here is a golden chance. We don’t pull molerats—outsiders—in and offer them jobs very often. Actually, never. But you’re here and at least I’ve met you before; someone who attracts little kids like a magnet and tries to find them good homes can’t be a total blacksoul. So, here’s the deal. We’ll give you a house here—you don’t have to live in it if you don’t want—and the boy can stay here. You can spend most of your time outside and do whatever you want, as long as you bring me some good stuff every now and then. If you ever want something more, let me know.”

“What the alternative?”

Hestia waved her hand carelessly. “Take the boy and leave. But if you do, my offer won’t be renewed and you won’t get back in. I’m too busy for that.”

“What do you need me to find?” Edward asked and Hestia smiled.

There was a buzz and Blake took out his e-device and looked at the screen. “The hospital says the boy is awake.”

“You mean Sean?” Edward asked.

“He says his name is Damian. And he is asking for you.”

hospital bed 2


Voices from the Past

This is part of my post-apocalyptic Aftermath series. The previous story was Droog the Angel. Here is the Aftermath Glossary.

 

The hot water that coursed over Edward’s head and down his back seemed to strip away more than the dirt and sweat of years. It soaked deep, washing away some of the pain and awakening a part of him that had existed, Before. He stood in the shower and reveled in becoming clean until Blake knocked on the door and told him the water tank was getting low.

Blake’s house was on the ground floor and looked out onto one of Cambridge’s ancient college quadrangles. The apartment was small, but warm and dry, and to Edward it looked like a palace. He came out of the shower and put on clean clothes that Blake had given him. The place peaceful and empty, but still he held his knife close to his side as he went into the living room. Blake was sitting by the electric heater, fiddling with a tiny gearbox.

“Thanks for the clothes and shower,” Edward said, standing uncertainly by the door. He glanced quickly behind him—no one was there.

“Not a problem,” Blake said, barely glancing up. “I’m happy to extend a few things to a friend of 8134—Droog, I should say. Just sit down and relax. You don’t need the knife.”

Edward sat down and crossed his arms, keeping the knife hidden in his hand. “So, how did you find him?”

“He found me,” Blake said. “He’s a smart little bot. He told me all about you—otherwise I’m not sure I’d have let you in here.”

“He doesn’t talk; he just blinks his red and green lights.”

“I put those lights there to make it easier to communicate,” Blake said, “but he does talk, if you ask him to and know the language. It’s Russian.” He held up an e-device. “I’ve got an instruct that will translate. I’ll give you a copy, if you want. He told me how you rescued that boy. Sean, right?”

Edward stood up, dropping his arms and unconsciously exposing the knife blade. “You have Sean? Where is he?”

Blake smiled. “Sit down, and put the knife away. He’s with Droog at the hospital—yes, we have such things here. He was almost dead when I found him and he would have been dead and eaten if not for Droog. You’re lucky to have that little bot.”

“I stole him, you know, from a guy named Joseph.”

“Droog says you invited him to come along on your quest. To find music, he said. You’re a complicated guy, Edward.”

“I thought bots couldn’t lie,” Edward said. He put away his knife slowly and sat down.

“They don’t have any morals,” Blake said, “but they also don’t have any guile or reason to lie. They tell things as they see them, but every so often, they just choose to interpret things a different way. Droog claims you requested him to come.”

Edward gave a small laugh. The shower had put him in a better mood than he could remember for a long time and hearing that Sean was safe made it even better. “You know, I don’t remember the last time I requested anyone to do anything,” he said.

Blake gave him a long look over the gearbox. “I’m not surprised, looking at you. Listen, you can stay the day here, but tomorrow night you’ll have to go. If you want, I can see about getting you a job somewhere around town: security or loading or something like that. Still, I don’t know if you’re the kind of guy who works well with others.”

Edward gave him a thin smile. “I want to see Sean.”

Cambridge street

They left Blake’s house and walked through narrow streets of the city. They were lit with electric lights, quiet, and what amazed Edward most of all, clean. People passed them, talking quietly. There were no raucous market sellers, not street rats, not even any weapons that he could see.

“Isn’t there any crime here?” he asked Blake.

“Of course,” Blake replied. “There’s crime everywhere, but nothing like out there. The penalties are harsh too: often execution or worse.”

“Worse?”

“Exile,” Blake said. “Fear of the outside is a better enforcer of the law than any number of policemen.” He led the way up a set of stone steps and into a long hall.

“This is just the local clinic. The bigger hospital is across the city, but I thought this would be sufficient.”

They came to a long room with beds lining the walls. Droog was standing by the third one on the right and lying on the bed was the little boy, Sean. He had an IV in his arm and looked to be asleep. Blake called over a doctor, who said that Sean was improving and would probably fully recover in a week or two.

“Have you thought about what you want to do next?” Blake asked. “As I said, you can stay with me today, but that’s all. All other lodgings in the city are for workers. Ain’t no tourists here.”

“You’re right when you said I probably wouldn’t work well with others,” Edward said. “I’d best be moving on out of here, but do you think he could stay here?”

Blake was shaking his head before Edward even finished. “Only the children of workers can stay. If you stay, you adopt him; otherwise, you’ll have to take him when you go.”

Edward looked down at the sleeping boy on the bed and wished he could just leave him. He felt as if he barely knew his own mind anymore. Why did he feel he owed this boy anything? He had never killed a kid, it was true, but he had robbed a good many and pushed them around. This wasn’t penance for them; he honestly didn’t care about any of them. But still . . . He shook his head, as if trying to put it in order.

“I don’t think I’d fit in this city, but I’d like to do something to earn a place for the boy, at least.”

Blake smiled. “I think I know the person you want to talk to. She’s the Secretary of the Exterior. I’ve worked with her a few times, when I go out exploring for robots. “

They left Droog and Sean and walked for half an hour, to the heart of the city. They entered an area with more guards where Edward had to give up his knife. Finally, they were escorted down a hall and their guide opened a large, ornate door.

Edward found himself in a large oak-paneled office with leather furniture and shelves of books. A ‘Munculus bot and a larger Myoolbot, both painted yellow, stood to one side. Behind a large desk sat a middle-aged woman with close-cropped hair and wearing a leather jacket.

“Madame Secretary, I brought someone who is interested in expeditionary work. His name is—”

“Wait,” the woman said, cutting him off. “I think I know him.” She gave Edward a long look and then broke into a grin. “Hey there, crackerjack.”

She looked older, but Edward recognized her. From deep withing the annals of his memory a name slowly rose. “Hestia?” he said.


Droog the Angel

The latest chapter in the Aftermath series. The previous story was Droog Comes Home. There is also an Aftermath Glossary.

 

Edward Morrison felt powerless and that made him angry. He had been wandering the satellite slums of Cambridge for two days, searching for his robot Droog and the boy he called Sean. Why do I even care? Why don’t I just go? his mind demanded, but then the question always arose: Go where? He had no food, no supplies, no plan. What had he been thinking when he had left Free Frall? It had seemed so simple then.

He was also fiercely hungry. In Freefrall, he would merely go and take food if he needed it, but here people were shrewder, and far more dangerous. He had managed to steal a scrawny pheasant from an old woman in the market—just grabbed it off her table and ran. She was quick though, and a second after his hand closed on the bird, her knife was flashing towards his ribs. It missed him and he could hear her cursing him for a long ways away, even over the normal murmur of the crowds. He had eaten it furtively in the dark, gnawing quickly like an animal afraid of having its prize stolen.

That had been a day ago. Now he was starving again and becoming desperate. He would have ambushed someone and killed them for their food except that no one ventured outside the markets alone and everyone was heavily armed.

Dawn was close when he finally stumbled back to the nest he had found under some stubby bushes. It wasn’t much, but it kept the sun’s blistering rays off him . The air was sweltering and he slept fitfully, his dreams melding with hallucinations from the heat and thirst and his gnawing hunger.

He dreamed that he was in a dark room surrounded by all the people he had killed over the years. They came at him, one by one, and he had to fight them again and again. I’m so tired, I just want to sleep, he thought, but they wouldn’t stop. Then the scene shifted and he was wandering over the dark countryside with Droog, looking for Sean. He was too tired to pay attention and after a while, Droog led him to a place under the bushes, where he could rest. Droog did not leave, but kept leaning over him, making little noises and prodding him…

Edward pulled himself upright with a sharp intake of breath. Droog was standing in front of him, pushing his small, metal body partway the hollow in the bushes.

“Droog, you little gear-rat! How did you find me?” Edward shouted in surprise. He stopped as a coughing fit grabbed him. Droog reached into a bag he was carrying and pulled out a bottle of water and a metal container, which turned out to hold food. The water was warm, but cleaner than any Edward could remember and the food… he had not tasted food so good since Before, when food was plentiful and taken for granted.

Droog waited as Edward wolfed down the food and water. The position of the sun showed that it was late afternoon: about four hours until darkness. Droog took something else out of the bag and handed it to Edward. It was a suit of shiny, white material that included pants, jacket, gloves, hat and goggles.

“You want me to put this on?” Edward asked, although the answer was obvious. “Where are we going, Droog? Where did you get this stuff?” Droog did not reply, but simply indicated the clothes.

Edward put them, trying not to rip them on the bushes around him. They were bulky, but not hot and they seemed to cool him down, if anything. When he was completely covered, Droog went outside and he followed.

scorching sunlight

Edward had not been outside during the day in seventeen years. He had heard stories of people who had gotten caught outside when the sun rose: sunburns within a minute, third degree burns in an hour. The goggles cut the glare and for a moment, it was like he had was back then—Before—when he would walk outside in the sun’s warm light for hours.

They walked back through the Silver Street market and came to the bridge across the canal that led to the fortified city of Cambridge. Guards were there behind locks gates, wearing similar white suits and goggles. Droog handed them two square cards and they unlocked the gates. Just like that, Edward was in the protected city.

Droog must mean angel, he thought. Suddenly, the combined effect of the food, the sunlight and his sudden reversal of fortunes made tears start streaming down his cheeks. He hated them and the weakness they implied, but there was no way to make them stop.


Droog Comes Home – Part 2

Here is Part 1 of this story. Read the rest of the Aftermath stories here. Here is a glossary of slang and jargon used in the stories.

Night on the road

They left the Silver Street market area and struck out along a path that followed a canal. Twenty minutes of walking in the dark ended at a fire-lit circle of about twenty tents, with a few electric lights adding glaring illumination to the scene. It looked like a graveyard for every type of technology made in the last century. Masses of wire, piles of circuit boards, computers, e-devices, even a few battered robots filled the tents to overflowing. It was not a comforting place for Droog.

Matty led the way through a greasy yellow door-flap and into a tent stuffed with robot parts. A bald man with blotchy skin sat behind a workbench.

“Hey Screws, we brought you a good one,” Matty said. “It works, but it won’t take commands. Plus, it seems attached to this kid.”

“Fortuned stars,” Screws said, coming around the bench and inspecting Droog. “It’s quite a calico little drob. Someone’s fixed it up pretty well. Is it owned?”

“Just some mudscrape,” Matty said casually. “What’ll you give for it?”

As the men were haggling about trades, Droog did a scan of the tent. Somewhere beneath the pile of derelict technology was a robot that was still activated.

Have you been here long? Droog asked through the robot universal communication.

183 days, the other robot replied. He took off my limbs to put on other robots. I must wait here in case he needs any of my other parts.

What is he like? It looks as if he will acquire me. The other robot sent him scan logs from the last 183 days, which Droog analyzed instantly. This man Screws was not a good person. Besides dismembering robots, he was also depraved towards humans. He ate human flesh. Droog knew from experience that humans considered this to be the worst thing in the world. It indicated a very evil person. He did not want Sean to be anywhere near someone like that.

Matty and his gang stayed for another half an hour before agreeing on a deal and leaving with their traded goods. Droog went and stood in front of Sean, who was lying on the floor, not moving. Screws came over and tried to go to Sean, but Droog blocked his way.

“I see, I see,” Screws said with a laugh. “Protective little watchdog, you is.” He picked up a round, black device connected to a wire and put it on Droog’s head. “Stay, boy.”

Droog tried to move, but he could not. Electricity was going through him, freezing his limbs and gears. He stood like a statue as Screws picked Sean up and put him on the workbench.

“You’re on death’s door, aren’t you kiddo,” he murmured. “I’d best get you dressed up now before you die and start spoiling.” He put a oily basin underneath the bench and then reached down and pulled out a large knife.

He was going to kill Sean, Droog realized. In the other robot’s scan logs, Screws had done this before to other people. He tried to overcome the device on his head but he remained frozen, like ice.

At that moment, the electric light went out and Droog was suddenly free. Through his infrared senses, he could see Screws blundering around in the dark, fumbling with the battery pack for the lights. Droog moved towards him, scanning and trying to find a way to take him down. There. The man had a tumor growing just behind his knee, well within Droog’s reach. He reached up and pushed his small steel hand into the tumor.

Screws screamed and fell to the ground, holding his knee. Now was Droog’s chance, but he could not reach Sean on the workbench. He pulled on the workbench, but it was solid. He could not rescue Sean on his own.

Droog knew that the probability of Edward being in the area was very small, but still he went outside and started scanning, looking for known voice patterns. A match came up, but it was not Edward: it was Blake, the man who had found Droog and brought him to Cambridge, before he had gone down to Free Frall and met Edward. Blake was in a tent on the far side of the clearing. Droog went to him, bumping into the back of his legs to get his attention.

Blake was tall and middle-aged and always wore heavy leather clothing. He turned around and looked at Droog, then smiled.

“Well, it’s 8134, the little Russian ‘Munculus, isn’t it?” Blake referred to all his robots by the end of their serial numbers. “I’m surprised to see you again. Who are you with?” Blake always talked to him normally, even though Droog could never respond in English. Droog went back to Screws’ tent and Blake followed. Screws was sitting in a chair, still holding his knee. The lights were on, flickering weakly.

“So it’s you, Screws,” Blake said. “Do you own this little bot?”

“Yeah, I just traded for him, but the scrygging drob attacked me. He’s twisted for this boy.”

Blake’s eyes flicked to Sean. “You hungry, Screws? Listen, I like this little bot. He’s too good to end up in a place like yours. I’ll trade you for him, and the boy.” Blake took out a bag of food and opened it. Inside was meat, vegetables and even real fruit.

“You Insiders make me sick,” Screws said. He spat on the ground. “Coming outside the walls to lord your wealth over us.” Still, his eyes could not stray away from the food.

“So, we have a deal?” Blake asked. They bargained for a few minutes before agreeing. Blake gave Screws the food and picked up Sean. They walked ten minutes to a bridge across the canal and the gates of Cambridge. The guards nodded at Blake as they passed through.

“Welcome home, 8134,” he said.


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