Piles of the misformed distinguish themselves from the night. A purple glow to its sky. They are all shadows, all cut black, and their particular shapes are angular and inorganic. No dirt among the machine piles. The floor of the compound is compound stone, composite stuff that is so broken from the weight of the metal and stuff it keeps. High walls, thick structure, band the massive courtyard of piles, gapped in places by great jaws, steel, molar, gnashing imaginable but stale and static. A scree-raw flock passed just overhead the wires that make some partial ceiling to this little dark cloister. A light blinked on a panel near one of the doors, almost a breath. A few bodies move among the wreckage in misguided motion, graceless things that pull at the junk occasionally. These are the scrappers and they are here through the holes in the walls which are not large, plugged iwth larger rocks too. Only the smallest scan enter anymore, a few of the scrappers. One has eyes among a pile of fibers and cords, eyes with the flat pupil of a goat —a copper-wild nebula spread to each wide lid. Only four fingers, it pulls part a variety of the dangle, searching.
—Whatsit? says another, younger, scrapper, a hood-lamp in its fingers.
—Lightsit, says the scrapper searching the wires.
A quiet sorting continues, and among them, the four pull together in the night at the corner a pile of what can be moved between the gaps in the concrete hole-plugs: a fluid-leak sealant pack, a broken sheaf of square steel and iron, a network of sorted cords, and the severed ends of some female insets.
They look it over, and the oldest of them passes the fluid-pack sealant down below and goes with, eventually fire-lining the remainder of the goods out to a trio of lounging characters and their reptilian mounts.
Not enough to encourage excitement, another night in Warrendale, another night passing the rough dyke-laned tarmac, the city’s peculiar waterways dull and dun under the violet overhead. An odd light blinks and the mounts shoulder the light load, pressed ahead by a gorgon-haired scrapper whose removed its mask and watches the blank lanes ahead for stray dangers. The conversation that might take place among a similar caravan through deserts of the past or forests of the past would fall to the meat of the group, seven of the tiny clan, but until they’ve reached the rough access point, a sewage park where the grate can be slid back and a darkness entered, no one bothers a word. There is something of a chain gang to their movements. The ditches of city dispersal follow the tribe until a subterranean twist passes a natural fork.
Their cavern Home is lit there by the striping of a myriad of mismatched lights, in steady sway criss-cross and rising into the bulged space. They throw back a few of the curtains that break the cavern and reorient them for privacy, unloading and clicking a few foot switches that light a near-clinical examination space. A scrapper with furred leggings slides from the group and returns with a set of the Oldest, inspectors who have wild hairs sprouting around their eyes. The sack of equipment is drawn up. The whole ensemble whistles, and each cable is tried against its respective port. None are discarded but few fit and each is taken by the younger rovers and rubbed of its basic slime and coatings by, allocated by color to a set of hanging racks; one drawer-casing slides out and the little ones fill it with the female ends. The day-workers will adjust those, fit them suitably. Splice if necessary.
So ends a night in the yard. Each scrapper takes a plate form the kitchen nearby, another of the tribe just done scrubbing the lint of old food onto a set of buckets. Skirts swish. Everyone moves to casual dress and the conversation gives us names, foreign names that can’t be written and hardly spoke.
—Say, have to.
The object in question between them as a hundred tiny fibers sprouting from. Coated in oil. It is a plate of some kind, and it, by the nimble hands of the rover who plucked it and refused its donation can be slid into a crystalline box wet with oil too. They pass it amongst themselves.
—Will. But whatsit?
One holds it longest. The others pay deference to its opinion, chewing.
It points its skull, smells the oils with a flat snout and slides the plate in and out, rubs away some of the oil to expose embossed initials O and Z.
They leave it there between them like a dying fire and eat the lentil mash without utensil. Retirement.
Another day. The hive warms during the day and the sound of the city’s maintenance purrs overhead. The processing plant aboveground is drummed by a series of membranes, great rubbers which like levees or dams will hold back the uglier flows, to be scrubbed by some long-armed characters with long tools, too, passing them through a labyrinth of suction and pressurization, eventually matted in a series of metal mesh weaves, electrified, and dosed, pumped out, towards the fields distant where farmers of bean, oat, corn, and larger-scale cereals await. Beneath the plant though, it is simply warm and busy. The rovers are a tribe numbered three-hundred at census, allowed a child to each, thirty children under-age to occupy themselves. Thirty exactly to match the Antiques, who in beds—or hammocks if in one of the older famiiles—roost higher towards the warmer-light-lit regions of the roost, throughout the day slowly losing their minds, charged with passing the morals of the clan to the new ones.
The remaining two-hundred and forty work. The sections encircling the center of the cave place are broken by panes of cloth which can be run down whichever track to create something of a room if necessary; during the day, hardly a break in the place, except around the the feed. The rovers bustle around old scav and new. They match and clean, scrub, splice, sort. When enough has been rung from a certain rag, there is a cart that shifts the dirtiest bits out into the tunnels whence it further layers the walls by a set of the reptilian patchers, friends of the tribe who live among the dyke waters.
There are repairs made to the things which are broken: the hunters’ weapons, the long scale kitchen with its broad-wire electrics, and recently, a boat. The lead electrics and metalworkers patched a plan together from various pages of advertisement and encyclopedias laying among the trash heaps to make a metal-hulled thing floating in the large channel nearest the grates. All the rovers are swimmers. Nearly amphibious with coarse hides and coats. Now that the boat’s large parts are floating, important to reinforce its basings. A team apply the water sealant discovered last night, moving alongside the vessel in the brown water with the self-pressing bottles above them in a flexed arm, tread, apply, tread. The boat is a trimaran with webbing, old mesh from the water plant spread in bedded warp over the individual canoe-shaped floats. A series of overhead tarps are easily unrolled.
The hunters were out among the tunnels, looking for desperate homeless from the cities, or runaways, children, whatever is. The humans are larger, but in groups of three or four, one can be hobbled and brought low. There are eight groups of four each, who communicate in clicks not so different from the patchers underwater language. They’ve learned language of the overland types, English and some Spanish, from a child who they freed eventually rather than eat.
—Too much, is what the Antiques had said when the fires were being stoked.
The girl’d been with them for months by then, huddled in the larger cell they kept feed in. She’d never been unkind and always spoke of her father’s morals and the way he treated others. Fond memories for the tribe, who still treasure the bracelets the girl had made while among them. This was years ago. Her name’d been Iole.
The box and its port was brought to attention and reported by the rover who had hidden it. Naturally it was punished for withholding, seven straps and a public sleep for weeks. The rovers were all quiet on this, since they were punished as much as it when exposed to its sleep. The box was investigated though and the wild-haired scrapper’s suspicions were brought before the Antiques who’d not seen something this advanced. They performed tests, and it purred electric and grew hot among the small caucus of considerate experimentation, so they shut it down and another day went into a night within the den.
The scrappers went out that night. The hunters returned as they left with a field-dressed corpse. They acknowledged each other as they passed, both with their respective dangers, neither arrogant to a particular self-importance. The reptilian mounts crept behind, and the gorgon-haired scrapper scanned with its wide eyes for stray dangers.
The violet twinges of the overhead world drew out from the city yonder. It rose, grainy in the pollutant, buildings like big stone geometry. There was nothing unnatural about it any longer because it had nothing to compare to. As far as anyone in the tribe knew, the world stretched to the horizon and stopped, out where the dykes dried in the fields, the furthest. Few felt need to walk beyond: the dykes brought food because all living things follow the water; the plant generated warmth.
The young rover who’d been strapped earlier held a part of the boat plan and a sketch of the strange box it’d found the night prior. It knew which pile to start searching, even if it didn’t know for what. They spread out, each their own orders.
The machine caused the footing underfoot to both wrestle for the rover’s feet and claw at them. Each was dextrous enough. But the noise when a salmon-skinned rover let it’s foot down too abruptly gave rise to a shrieking: metal on metal and then as it fell down the pile, on metal on metal and glass. It hardly ended when the tumbled equipment had based out. All them stared up at the doors that rung the second floor. There were dogs the men kept—they’d lost count of the bodies gone to the dogs. They didn’t count anymore. This would draw them. They retreated into the cracks of the base and slid past the crumbling tunnels and mortar, and warned the waiting loungers without much need: apparently the noise’d gone past the walls and all were hidden, alert, near the set of powerboxes that kept the lights on.
The dogs came around. Their barking preceded. The rovers understood the whole family would be on the chase. No luck staying togheter.
They pushed the reptilian mounts into the water and the loungers who held their bridles ducked in beside them, laying horizontal and clucking their mounts to swim. The dogs and men might not know them. They removed the saddlebags. Let them drop. Hoping, unlikely, that someone down river would comb up the valuable leather and stitching. They breathed just through their noses and the dyke-muck threatened to drown.
The youngest simply ran. They pulled forward onto their arms too, fingers tearing at the scrabble of the long lane. The smallest dogs passed into a street light maybe bigger than the largest scrapper by a half-body. If it reached the runners it would turn them belly up so the bigger, slower dogs behind, the dads and brothers, would eat its belly first. Then they would circle back in similar, looping speed because this is what the dogs had always done, and it was effective to an infinite degree.
At home it would be hours later. The investigators would’ve risen twice to find only each other. They would’ve pissed and the lights changed as the overhead plant kicked out of gear because it ran at night. The hunters leave then, the butchers passing them, and the lone rover would pull itself just far enough into the tunnel, back hips so twisted to make it look as though it’d been pressed in. Round black eyes as wide as could go, chattering. They’d cover it in bedding in a warm edge of the tunnel and it’d never speak but just moan and even the knowledge how great the pain was in it’s dying, they’d believe, this little tribe, that the pain of it was the most important part, the coins it paid to cross.
They found the mounts’ satchels and the mounts came too. It wasn’t much. The tribe was delinquent, all deeply mourning. It took that long for the overseers to consult the Antiques who said that always after this kind of push, the body deserves a rest, and so, with the exception of the kitchen, a silence overtook the savengers and they rested or walked in very pedestrian, pinned steps.
So passed a night and a day.
A new group of scavenger were shifted to raid the scrapyard, positions replaced. An upswell in momentum meant the boat was vigorously attended. Several electrics solved the power of its motorworks, and the propulsion allowed forward and back. The wheel gave it maneuvering and the odd craft puttered through the wide network of canals with eager and proud crew, who alternated as captain. The pieces recovered from the scrapyard on That Night were cleared and sorted. There was another box of thick, wildly-colored metal with an oil sheen and a pill, the length of a hand filled with blue crumb-powder. The plug unit on the exterior of the box was adaptable. Thin silver-spider wires waxed inside, stubble and an old one took a finger to the oils, matching them by scent. The adapter was linked through a set of powerboxes to screens and gauges and some trays were brought up, plus a spare powerbox. The kitchen was called to bring a vat of their rendered fat which was separate and melted and poured into the box. All was plugged in—electricity shaking the obscuring fat in plaintiff whine and no one would get too close but several of the Ancients had crawled to a low-deck staircase on wheels to witness from above how the spider-slim wires wove discriminate among the chunk of the kitchen fat.
Simultaneous a robotic voice from the affixed speakers and a printout display said the question “Location?” then a spawn of data points printed as more wires linked, the system’s internal mechanisms bypassing the manual demands, networking to satellites thick as rings in the overhead, invisible sky. This was Dimsbury Plant, 1014.67 N, 232.33 E of Charlottesville, about 161ft below ground, off the dyke maps by fifteen hundred feet. Without eyes, cameras, without heat or short-range censors, Ozone was just a spill of components but he was booted, and asked aloud and to the screen.
—Who composited me?
Several of the rovers went for plugins to install auditory input and the language and translation workers who spent days among the audio and newspaper components they’d scavenged began to talk and explain who they were, gleaming from the robot that what it’s primary function was a mapping solutions intelligence. No records of a past subsisted. All ownership had been dismissed.
They wondered what to do with it and decided to install it in the boat.
Previous: Ozone : Volley
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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