It was a few years before transpired the Events that would irreversibly change the course of Zed and Grandfather’s life, when the aerodomes had not yet been hoisted up into the clouds and the Engineer-children still occasionally played among the meadows and tall fibregrasses enclosed inside their Habitat.
Zed was picking wild strawberries — at least, that’s what the children called them, inspired perhaps by tales from their parents. She had just picked a bowlful of the plump red fruits when immediately she sensed that something was not right. It was one of those wonders of human intuition — Zed knew not which of her senses it was that parlayed to her mind of the unknown danger, but she knew that danger there was. Perhaps it was her sharp ears that picked up an unfamiliar sound, perhaps not much more than a few decibels in the distance. Perhaps it was rather her olfactory system that smelled an odour never smelled before, or perhaps even it was in the far edges of her peripheral vision that she actually saw something move. Whatever it was, something was not right.
No, something didn’t feel right. There was another presence there with her, down there in the strawberry fields, but she didn’t know what it was. She froze, instinctively — it was one of those reactions that need not be taught but rather is encoded into the very human blueprint. It was certainly not what Grandfather had taught her. See something strange? Hide, Grandfather would have said. Think you can outrun it? Run. But that’s not what Zed did — no, she stood there, without moving a muscle, without even daring to turn her head to scan the scenery or steal a look behind her. She couldn’t move even if she wanted to, and yet all of her senses seemed to be heightened all of a sudden.
And this is when a form slowly creeped into her periphery…
It seemed an automaton of some kind — there was a movement, and a deliberation to the movement. It slowly moved over to flank her, and then came all of a sudden much closer. Until now, she might have even thought it an Engineer-child, perhaps in some disguise, perhaps executing some manner of prank or the other. But this was no human, no — it moved quickly and close the ground, almost like some kind of sentry. And this is what sent a chill down her spine. Sentries — she had heard of them — Grandfather had told her many a fantastical tale about them, and she had a vivid idea in her mind of what they looked like. Sentries, of course, were robots—and not good robots like the ones Grandfather worked for — but the bad kind, the kind that kept a lookout for humans, and indeed that felled many a man in the First War.
What must I do? She had asked Grandfather.
If I come across one. Should I run?
No! Don’t run.
For perhaps the first time in her life Zed had sensed some modicum of dread in Grandfather’s voice, in the voice of the man who represented to her all the bravery and security in the world.
Should I hide?
No! Don’t hide either.
Grandfather’s eyes were large like saucers, and she saw a filament of fear flicker within their irises. Then what should I do? Zed had asked — for her, this was all still just hypothetical, an exercise of the imagination, a saunter through make-believe-land. But she knew that Grandfather had seen many, many terrible things during the War, and had even come face to face with a sentry or two, and, well, clearly lived to tell the tale…
What should I do! she repeated.
What you must do, Grandfather had told her that day. Is not come across one at all.
Fat use that was now! Zed was immediately jolted back to the present, where the automaton still loomed in her peripheral vision, getting every second ever closer, its shadow morphing menacingly across the fibregrass as it encircled her.
Think, Zed, think! What do you know about sentries? Tripodal, Zed remembered, with a short, squat body, and a smooth hull. Yes, that much she remembered, from Grandfather’s descriptive little tales. But wait! This automaton was not tripodal, no. Zed dared to dart another look at its flurry of legs—no, not bipodal either, like a human-type. How strange! Perhaps it was an earlier model, Zed reasoned— either that, or an update. Please, be an earlier model, she thought.
The automaton had certainly noticed her, for it was dipping in and out of her field of view, almost mockingly, before turning suddenly to her with unerring focus — I know you are there, it seemed to say.
By now Zed had managed another brave glance, this time trying to take in as many details as she could before quickly averting her eyes and relegating it once again to her peripherals. The shape and stature certainly seemed to match — it was squat, vaguely oblate, with a low centre of gravity, and seemed to be scuttling across the ground on strange appendages in an altogether inhuman way. However, Zed noticed another odd feature — it was not smooth and featureless like the sentries she had heard of, but rather rougher, more pockmarked, and its hull seemed to be covered in the most unusual sort of thing, with strange patterns playing across it.
Zed was trembling now. This was a bot-type she had never even heard of, which meant she had no idea if it was beastly or benign, intelligent or algorithmic — indeed, she didn’t even know what she was to it — friend or foe — or maybe just — food.
It was then that she saw its optical visors — two large, black orbs, unlike those of any sentry, fixed unwaveringly at her own eyes. Her heart nearly stopped, but before she could even process this hellish visage, the automaton neared her foot, placing a feeler on her shin and lowering its head into her flesh—
The automaton screamed.
Or rather, it was more like a radio burst — a short, sporadic stream of frequencies, loud and clearly intended to disarm. Whatever it was, it was unlike anything she had heard before, and Zed screamed again, involuntarily.
The automaton also vocalised, this time louder, and in more animated bursts. It started encircling her again, repeatedly butting against her with its hull and its feelers — the sensation — it was —
Suddenly the automaton launched itself in the air a good feet or two — a levitaton! Zed thought, even as she swerved to avoid it —
Zed lost her balance, sending the bowl of strawberries flying through the air —
The automaton turned towards it — momently distracted —
Zed, on the ground now, caught her breath —
The automaton let go of her —
Zed exhaled —
And then the automaton darted towards the bowl that she had sent flying.
Zed’s mind was working in overdrive. Some sort of motion-trained system, she reasoned. That was probably why being still was so effective. Yes, of course, that must be it.
Opening fearfully a single eye, she stole another look. The automaton had just found the bowl, and was temporarily diverted —
She knew she had to act fast. She had perhaps seconds before it would come back for her.
And then, right on cue, it did.
The automaton turned her way again, the bowl having been acquired, and whizzed towards her, emanating those sharp, intermittent sounds.
It was fine, because Zed had a plan. Or at least as much of a plan as she could muster. It was not much of a plan, really.
As the automaton neared her, Zed reached down and grabbed a handful of wild strawberries. Just as the automaton reached her, she flung them up into the air, launching them as far away from her as she could.
The automaton, once again distracted, leapt after them.
A few seconds’ head start. That’s all she had. It would have to do.
Without looking back, Zed began running. She ran and ran and ran, straight in the direction of their aerodome, and ran until the muscles in her calves began throbbing with pain. Still she ran, as fast as she could, and didn’t dare turn around once to see if it was gone.
Because she knew it wasn’t.
She could hear it, shrieking behind her, probably just at her heels. She could almost feel how close it was.
And yet, she ran. Tears streaming down her face, she could barely make out the aerodome as it got closer
and closer — indeed, soon she would be only a few meters away. She kept running, running as fast as she could, and then finally — she could make out the silhouette of Grandfather, from in between tears —
He turned towards her, curious.
You have to get back!
Grandfather didn’t move.
Zed was almost at the porch now, and the automaton was at her heels. Worryingly, Grandfather didn’t seem to be retreating; he simply stood there looking at her with a puzzled expression. Surely he saw the
automaton in pursuit?
Zed pummelled into his arms, crying. At the same time, the automaton reached them, and launched itself onto Grandfather.
He was taken aback.
Grandfather, it’s going to kill us! Zed said, through tears, burying her face in his body.
Grandfather stood, motionless.
It’s okay. It won’t hurt us.
She looked up at him —
No, Zed. It’s just a cute little doggo, you see.
A pupper. It’s been a while since I saw them around here, actually. Who’s a good boy? Grandfather said, this time towards the automaton, in a strange and childlike voice. Zed was deeply confused.
What’s a pupper-doggo? She asked, quizzically, for she had never heard of such a thing.
It’s an animal, Zed. Nothing to worry about.
What’s an animal?
Oh, Zed. You’re going to really, really enjoy tonight’s bedtime story. I’ll tell you all about them!