Zed and the Automaton

 

It was a few years before 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 occasionally played among the meadows and tall fibregrasses that were enclosed inside the perimeter of their Habitat. Zed was picking wild strawberries—at least, that’s what the children called them, perhaps inspired by tales from their parents—and she had just picked a bowlful of the plump red fruits when she immediately 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 the auguries of some unknown danger. Perhaps it was her sharp ears that picked up a sound altogether unfamiliar, something no louder than a few decibels in the distance. Perhaps it was her olfactory system that smelled an odour never smelled before, or perhaps it was in the far edges of her peripheral vision that she saw something move. Whatever it was, something was not right.

Something didn’t feel right. There was another presence there with her, down in the strawberry fields miles away from the nearest dome. Zed froze, instinctively, a manner of reaction that is not taught but rather seems 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 quickly look behind her. She couldn’t move even if she wanted to, and it seemed as though in this moment of complete stasis, all of her senses were heightened all of a sudden. And this is when a form slowly creeped into her periphery…

It was 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 a sentry of some kind. And this is what sent a chill down her spine. Sentries—she had heard of them—Grandfather had painted lovely pictures of them in her mind with his fantastical tales, and at some point, probably even an actual sketch or two. Sentries, she knew, were bots—not like the good bots that Grandfather worked for—but the bad ones, the ones that roamed bloodthirsty all the lands and that felled many humans in the First War.

What must I do? She had asked Grandfather.

Eh?

If I come across one. Should I run?

No! Don’t run.

For perhaps the first time, Zed had sensed some modicum of fear in Grandfather’s voice, in the voice of that man who represented to her all the Bravery and all the Security in the world. Should I hide? No! Don’t hide either. Grandfather’s eyes were wide. Then what should I do? Zed asked—for her, this was all still a 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 could even believe that he had at some point encountered a sentry or two, and, well, clearly knew what to do, for else he wouldn’t be here.

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 thought, immediately jolted back to the present, where the automaton still loomed, getting 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, squad body, and a smooth hull. Yes, that much she remembered, both from the stories and the sketches. 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, and always turning 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 its strange appendages in that altogether inhuman way. However, Zed noticed another odd feature—it was not smooth and featureless like the sentries, but rather, rougher, with a more pockmarked feel, and its hull seemed to be covered in the most unusual thing, with strange patterns playing across it.

Zed’s eyes widened. 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 it made of her.

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 face into her flesh—

She screamed.

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.

The automaton 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 levitaton! Zed thought—a good feet or two—and

Zed lost her balance—sending the bowl of strawberries flying through the air—

The automaton turned towards it—suddenly distracted—

Zed caught her breath—

And the automaton suddenly let go of Zed—

Zed exhaled at last—

And the automaton darted towards the bowl that she sent flying.

Zed’s mind was working in overdrive. Some sort of motion-trained system, she reasoned. That was probably why being still worked for as long as it did. Yes, of course, that must be it.

She took another look. The automaton had just found the bowl, and was momentarily distracted.

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 towards her once again, 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, grabbed a handful of wild strawberries. As the automaton reached her, she flung them up into the air, launching them as far as she could away from her.

The automaton, suddenly diverted, began pursuing them.

It worked.

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, in the direction of their aerodome, 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 to see if it had gone.

Because she knew it hadn’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 getting closer
and closer—in fact, she would soon be no more than a few metres away. She kept running, running as fast as she could—she could make out the silhouette of Grandfather, between her tears— Grandfather, no!

He turned towards her, curious.
You have to get back!

Grandfather didn’t move.
Get inside!

Zed was almost at the porch now, and the automaton was at her heels. Worryingly, Grandfather didn’t seem to be retreating, he 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, now going after Grandfather, launching itself onto him.

Grandfather was taken aback.
Oh!

Grandfather, it’s going to kill us! Zed shrieked, through tears, burying her face in his body.

No, Zed.
Grandfather stood, motionless.
It’s okay. It won’t hurt us.

She looked up at him. It wont?

No, Zed. It’s just a cute little doggo, you see.

A what?

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?
Grandfather chuckled.

Oh, Zed. You’re going to really, really enjoy tonight’s bedtime story. I’ll tell you all about them!