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.”
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.”
“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.