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The Robots

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The Robots

or

The Five Strands

or

Artificial Heart

by

John Eider

 

Copyright 2016 John Eider

Shakespir Edition

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

Day 1 – Rockfall

 

 

Chapter 1 – Danny

 

 

In the recent past…

Or only a few years hence…

 

 

The explosion had been sudden and unexpected. One moment Danny’s colleagues had been ahead of him, entering the mineshaft. The next, Tim, carrying the dynamite, had been a blur of pink dust, while Charlie behind him had been thrown back against Danny, like the wet, dead thing he already was.

Danny opened his eyes to darkness and dirt. There he lay beneath Charlie, as the echo of the explosion started to fade. Already though, sections of the wood-supported shaft that had survived were beginning to groan. Fresh plumes of dust were falling over them, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before the rest of the roof fell in.

His thoughts were basic and logical, as if he had regressed to childhood: ‘I can see the dust, so there is a source of light.’ Danny looked towards the tunnel entrance, and saw that he could still see that postage-stamp of sky.

Next, he felt Charlie on top of him, Danny thinking, ‘He has no heartbeat. This means Charlie is dead.’ Next, Danny tried to move Charlie off him, and found that only one of his own arms responded to instruction. He proceeded with as much dignity for both of them as was available in the situation.

Once stood up, Danny looked for Tim; and saw that what pieces of Tim he could see were scattered and separate from each other. And so, in his simple logic, he calculated, ‘This probably means that Tim is dead as well’ – for the moment Danny’s thought-processes were no more sophisticated than this. The world around him was a smear, the concepts too large to calculate.

Danny couldn’t allow himself to be transfixed by the scene. He turned, and moved toward the daylight, through the swirling dust of that ruined chamber.

 

Once outside, the sun blinded him, as his shaken senses struggled to keep up. Already though his mind was getting sharper. He reasoned: ‘My friends are still in there, but I can’t go back in.’ Even as he stood at the entrance further rumblings sounded within the tunnel, bringing fresh gales of dust from the mine.

He also knew that he wasn’t going to call anyone to the scene, or go looking for help. This made him sad, even though he knew that there was nothing that the emergency services could have done for his friends. But still, to leave them in there felt like dishonouring their remains. It made the moment even bleaker.

There was no one else outside – his party had travelled miles to the mine without seeing another person, this he could remember. Danny also knew that occasional rumbles of blasting were a common sound in those hills, and so there would be no one looking for them until they were late home that afternoon.

Danny would not wait for the search party; he had to look out for himself now. There was no way that they could find him at the scene: they wouldn’t know that inside him a hundred silent sensors were sounding at full volume; but they would see that his forearm was a mess of carbon fibre in a shroud of folded, glistening fabric. ‘I cannot let myself be found.’

He tucked the shirt sleeve of his bad arm into his trouser belt. Mercifully, he found he still had his backpack around his shoulders, albeit crushed and torn. A line of trees crowned the hill above the mine. ‘I have to reach the trees.’ With his wits increasingly about him, Danny pulled the bag tight with his good hand, and started to run.

 

 

Day 2, Part 1 – Eris

 

 

Chapter 2 – Gawain Beck

 

 

‘You have to be gentle with them when they’re little. If you bump them they won’t grow right.’

Doctor Gawain Beck had been thinking on those words since Ashlie Bellow, his fellow grower at the London Arboretum, had uttered them earlier that day. He had opened the door to their shared laboratory greenhouse, and nearly knocked her over, along with a tray of seedlings in hydroponic fluid that she was carrying.

‘You have to be gentle,’ she repeated. ‘I’m sure you could be, if you wanted.’

She was speaking of the tiny green growths in clear liquid; but Beck knew that there was more behind her words. The seedlings were held in a grid of small cups, which even after twenty years of studying and teaching biology, to Beck still resembled nothing more than a baking tray.

‘The new batch,’ he whispered.

‘Sorry, Gee?’ asked Ashlie.

‘“Be gentle” – I’m whispering it to myself; my new mantra.’ But he dashed out into the greenery of the gardens before she could get her hopes up. Instead she called after him,

‘But that wasn’t the way you were heading.’

 

Ashlie had laughed at her erratic co-worker. With disaster averted, they had each got on with whatever they were doing around the facilities. Beck loved the Arboretum – he often joked that it was the last patch of green space in Greater London that wasn’t a Royal Park. Between the high metal-framed greenhouses built in Victorian times, were white, light-filled study-huts. Here their workbenches were forever in danger of being lost to encroaching foliage.

In a small corner-room was the desk that Beck liked to occupy when he needed thinking-space. A cheese-plant had been pushed back to give him room to open out the folders he was meant to be studying. Yet he had read the first page of plant growth data three times through without it sinking in. Instead Ashlie’s words stayed in his mind.

‘If you bump them they won’t grow right.’

However, it wasn’t the seedlings’ early development that he was pondering; nor his colleague’s subtle tones – he was far too disciplined for that… he told himself. Instead, it was the past that preoccupied him.

‘Don’t worry: your secret’s safe with me.’

Beck looked up, startled, to see another of the team with a smile on his face. A man needed a sense of humour to cope with a name like Eric van de Vertrouwde, and was a Fourteenth Earl to boot, his family having come over with the Dutch. Though he was more often known around the gardens as Digger. He asked,

‘Jesus, Beck. What’s up?’

‘Seed variegations.’ Beck grabbed at the folders, as if they held the guilty secret his friend had just joked about.

‘Well, I’d believe you; millions wouldn’t.’

Digger, with an armful of plant pots, sat down on a second stool at Beck’s desk. Despite his family funding half of the costs of the Arboretum since its formation, their son and heir loved nothing more than earning his nickname, and he could often be mistaken by visitors as a general handyman.

He might be asked a question like, ‘Have these been watered?’ or ‘My man, could you carry these to the car?’ Upon revealing himself, these visitors would generally be mortified. Yet he would joke with them once the misunderstanding had been cleared up, asking, ‘Is there anything you need doing? A bit of heavy lifting?’

And they would laugh awkwardly, ‘No, Your Lordship. Thank you, Your Lordship.’ It was about the only time he enjoyed his title.

Now though Lord Eric sat and asked his friend,

‘You’re not thinking about Ashlie again?’

‘I told you last time, no.’

‘And I told you last time that you pair have an easiness that you might find hard to find again elsewhere.’

‘Eric, I’m married.’

‘You’re sure about that?’

Beck defended his marriage, ‘I have easiness with Sarah too.’

‘If you say so.’ But Digger wasn’t convinced. Beck looked at him, but Eric didn’t leave. Instead he asked,

‘If it’s not your marriage, then is it about that business years ago?’

Beck was shocked. Where had that come from? Had Eric read his thoughts? Either way, he had no words, as Eric continued,

‘But we’ve never spoken of it, Gee. And you can’t deny that you arrived here under a cloud. I was only messing about Ashlie, forgive me. But we both know that you’re not right.’

‘Please, Eric, don’t.’

Eric raised a hand in calming fashion, yet didn’t stop speaking, instead only changed tack,

‘Did you know I had to be security-vetted to offer you this job eight years ago?’

Beck nodded, he did know.

‘And they watched my house for a year after we hired you. But I didn’t care about that. All I saw was a brilliant botanist to add to our staff. And a man who had done something wonderful, but who had seen the world fall in on him as a result. They should have given you the Nobel Prize for what you…’

‘Stop.’

‘But you built a person, Gee, a living person.’

‘Don’t, Eric.’ Beck couldn’t breathe. And this time Eric knew he had to stop. Beck explained, ‘I can’t think about those times. If I do then I can’t be calm, and I have to be calm to keep going. Do you see?’

‘Calm isn’t living, my friend. Calm is surviving.’ But Digger sensed his friend needed time, and so offered, ‘I only mean that you can’t live your life under this cloud. It’s been years, Gee. Longer than I should have given you. You know we’re going to have to talk about it sometime.’

And with a final reassuring smile, Eric the Digger went off with his plant pots.

 

 

Chapter 3 – Sarah Beck

 

 

That night, Beck went to the cinema with his wife. Later, as they lay in bed, she asked him,

‘So, if I asked you five questions about the film we’ve just seen, would you get two right?’

‘Sorry?’

‘Where have you been this evening?’ She curled up next to him, not easy with him lying on his back with his hands folded behind his head. ‘You certainly haven’t been with me.’

‘I’m sorry.’ He brought his one arm down to hold her. He had never been able to fault her for tenderness.

She queried him, ‘It’s not anything, you know… like before?’ Her voice was muffled by his chest.

He squeezed her harder, but couldn’t summon anything like reassurance in his voice,

‘No, no. Nothing like that. Something today just reminded me of it, that’s all.’

This alarmed her even more, ‘What, you didn’t see one of them, did you?’

‘No, no, nothing like that. You’re making us both worried now.’

‘Sorry, Love.’

‘It was just Ashlie at work: I nearly knocked some seedlings out of her hands, and she said something about how, “If you bump them when they’re little they don’t grow up straight.” Something like that, I can’t remember exactly. But it just set me remembering, you know, about whether I was right to do the things I did…’

He could have said more, but she stopped him, ‘You did everything you could for them, you know you did. Whatever people said you did wrong back then, there was never a suggestion of a lack of care.’

Beck didn’t like his biggest secret being discussed so openly, which Sarah, who knew everything about him, normally knew better than to do. Yet another part of him, now that the gates were open, was keen to push on through them. He continued,

‘Eric said today that I haven’t been right.’

‘Well, you haven’t been, have you?’

‘No, I suppose not.’

This did the trick for him, acknowledging his feelings and so releasing them; although she needed one last piece of reassurance,

‘Gee, you’ll tell me, won’t you, if things are going to get bad again?’

She knew the answer anyway. But before her husband could offer comforting words she heard their youngest calling for his Mum from the next room. He had an arm in plaster from a fall, and had had trouble sleeping. She went to him, having recently grown used to fetching drinks and whispering stories till the lad dropped off.

When Mrs Beck returned to her own bed, her husband was asleep.

 

 

Chapter 4 – The Wrong Appointment

 

 

The next morning, Doctor Beck was again absorbed in his work. He was further occupied by a field trip he was organising for his team. And so he thought little when his Research Director, Professor Ford, wasn’t in her office for coffee and a catch up, as she was most Tuesday mornings. The Professor, as well as Lord Eric when he wasn’t lost among the herbaceous borders, had offices in a Georgian building just across the road from the Arboretum.

‘She is in, Doctor Beck,’ advised Sonia, the Professor’s assistant, ‘but was called into another meeting.’

He looked up to the floor above where he knew they held their discussions.

‘Oh no, it’s not upstairs,’ corrected Sonia. ‘It’s with the Governors. They’re at the City Offices.’

The City Offices were where the charity’s finance and fund-raising operations were based, and were little more than rented rooms where their accounts were registered. The workers there saw nothing of the Arboretum – though their staff-passes allowed them to do so for free in their own time. Not that many used them, for most were career-focused City-heads or part-timers making phone calls. Once a month the Governors also met at the City Offices.

‘They’ve gathered early,’ mused Beck. ‘The Monthly General Meeting isn’t till next week. No worries, I’ll catch her later.’

Beck paused at Sonia’s desk to take in the view of the greenhouses across the road, before he carried on back down there.

 

In his study-hut, among the fronds of the cheese-plant, he found his own diary. It had been left open as a reminder to himself that it was the Project Heads’ meeting that day at ten. Anything Marjorie Ford and he had to say to each other could be shared as they walked to that meeting. She would always call for Beck first, giving herself a chance to look over the gardens – she was a natural scientist herself, who often lamented the fact that her job took her away from her beloved spores and flora.

Yet as ten o’clock came, there was still no sign of Professor Ford.

‘Where is she?’ cursed Beck, concerned about getting to the conference room on time. But as he reached for the phone to call Sonia, she called him,

‘Oh, good,’ she gasped. ‘You haven’t set off for the Project Heads meeting yet.’

‘No, I’m waiting for Marjorie. Is she coming?’

‘Oh, yes, she’ll be there later. But you’re not going – the Governors want to speak to you next.’

Beck nearly dropped the phone. Sonia continued,

‘Don’t worry about the Project Heads’ meeting, I’ve made your apologies. The Governors are in the fifth floor at the City Offices. You know the way there?’

Sonia had been in post three years – she wouldn’t have known that Beck had been interviewed and vetted at the City Offices, so knew the way there perfectly well.

‘Yes, no problem. Okay, thank you.’ As Beck replaced the handset, it rang again. It was Professor Ford. She sounded as though she had been running and was flustered. Beck had never heard her out of breath like that in all the years they’d worked together.

She started,

‘Thank God I caught you, Gee. You’ve had the call? I’ve just left the City Offices. I’m in a cafe, I couldn’t call before.’

‘Marjorie, what’s this about?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘But you’ve been in there all morning…’

‘…and I still don’t know!’ The Professor’s tone changed suddenly to one of care and motherly concern, ‘Gawain, we’ve worked together a long time. We trust each other. So answer me honestly: are you in trouble?’

Beck was staggered. ‘Marjorie, I swear to you I’m not, and that I have no idea what this is about. What did they ask you?’

‘All about you, Gee. Nothing but you.’

Beck felt he was slowly melting into the floor, but wasn’t given a moment for reflection. Professor Ford was rushing her words,

‘Anyway, we don’t have long to talk. I have to get back to our building for the Project Heads’ meeting, and you’ve got to get to the City Offices. I knew they’d have Sonia summon you the moment they were finished with me – I don’t think they wanted me give you too much warning, but they couldn’t have held me there without revealing that something serious was up.’

‘Marjorie, what are you talking about? This is the Directors, they wouldn’t…’

‘It’s not the Directors, Gee. It’s their meeting room, but it’s not them. It’s a woman, no one I’ve met before. And I think she has a policeman with her, plain clothes.’

‘Oh, Lord.’

‘But let me say this quickly. You’ve just promised me that you don’t know what this is about – but I think I might do, Gee.’

She was talking in a rushed whisper now, going so quickly that Beck was worried that his boss, his friend, would hyperventilate,

‘Doctor Galton spoke to me first.’ (Beck knew Doctor Galton to be the Head of the Board of Directors.) ‘He was coming out of his own interview. He looked like a man who had just been told his new house didn’t have planning permission, and that he might have to pay for its demolition into the bargain. He told me, “Tell her whatever she asks, there are no secrets within those four walls.”

‘I spent two hours up there, Gee: unprepared, with no one on my side of the table – just as she planned it, that woman. And all she asked about was you: your time with us, your work, your staff relations – I hadn’t a clue what it was about.’

‘But who is she?’ asked Beck.

‘She introduced herself as a “Special Advisor”. I don’t know in what field she Advises, Gee, but she must be very Special, when right at the end she asked about the artifs.’

The word struck silence in the pair.

‘That’s from your former work, isn’t it, Gee? Your old job before you came here? How many people know that word?’

‘Not many,’ he muttered. ‘She used that exact term: “artifs”?’

‘Uh huh.’ (Beck could visualise the Professor nodding down the line.) ‘Not “robots”, not “androids”, not “simulacrum”.’

‘So, you know what an artif is,’ he gathered. Then asked her, ‘And how much have you always known?’

‘Perhaps a little more than you thought I knew – Eric and I picked a lot of it up just through being vetted when we hired you – they had to ask us what we didn’t know. And of course, I’ve read all the rumours in the papers. They couldn’t say your name in print, but I always knew it was you, Gee.’

Beck became reflective,

‘It was never as bad as they said, you know.’

‘I never doubted it. But now this has happened… Gee, you’re absolutely sure you’ve not seen or heard of anyone or… anything… from those times?’

‘Absolutely, no.’

‘And yourself. You’ve not been bitten by the old bug, have you? No tinkering at home after hours?’

‘No!’

‘Of course, forgive me. A stupid suggestion. Though it must have been awful, having all those skills locked away.’

‘I found other skills.’

‘Yes, you became a marvellous grower. But this is bad, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’

‘Will you be coming back to us?’

‘I think I’ve always been on borrowed time, Marj.’

‘You couldn’t bury it forever.’ She said this as though, however awful the experience may be, it would offer some purgative qualities. Beck felt this already,

‘Lord, I’m thinking so clearly – why aren’t I flipping out?’

She counselled, ‘Your mind’s been waiting for this day. And dreading it too, maybe. Damn, my phone’s beeping at me – that will be Sonia trying to find me. I must get going to the Project Heads’ meeting. I hope we get to talk again soon.’

‘Me too.’

‘Good luck, Gawain.’

And with that, Professor Ford was off to her appointment.

 

 

Chapter 5 – Miss Eris

 

 

The City Offices were twenty minutes from the Arboretum on the Underground. At least the journey started overground, providing a sun-drenched view of the city, before plunging underneath it to deliver Beck to the centre. At no point did he think to make a dash for it – the dread remained there, quite still at the pit of his stomach.

So that was that, the end was coming quite quickly; and Beck found that he was prepared. The Professor had said goodbye, like a mother sending a son off to war.

 

At the office, call-centre operators were milling in the hall on their morning break. A team of bright T-shirted street fundraisers were leaving to make a thousand shoppers’ mornings that bit more awkward. Beck didn’t know these people, though they paid in part for his existence.

Beck paused at a machine to neck two plastic cups of throat-numbingly cold water, before taking the stairs up to the fifth floor. Normally for his health he might have skipped up them two steps at a time, yet he couldn’t bring himself to rush that day. Though neither could he resist – he knew that whoever waited for him would only come looking if he didn’t turn up soon. Also, that any delay could seem suspicious.

He reached his floor and burst through the door.

‘Dr Beck,’ called a smartly dressed woman in the foyer. She was standing beside the empty desk of the Directors’ secretary. ‘I was hoping we hadn’t missed you. My apologies for calling you away from your Project Heads’ meeting.’ She moved to the door of the Directors’ Boardroom, ‘Will you join us in here, please?’

‘I’ll just get a…’ he moved towards that floor’s drinks machine.

‘We have water inside. If we could get started?’

She didn’t take her eyes off him until he was in the room with the door closed behind him. Nor did she cease from smiling in a way that was neither insincere nor at odds with what was being discussed.

‘Erissa Drake,’ she stuck her hand out to shake across the middle of a large oval table. ‘Call me Eris. And this is Sergeant Forrest. If you could hand him your phone, music player, and any other devices you may have with you – just a precaution, you understand, for security.’

‘Of course.’

‘Are you comfortable?’

‘How long will I be here for?’

‘Don’t worry, Sonia is putting off your appointments. Now, I’m sure that the Professor has been in contact. I hope she hasn’t put you off with talk of an inquisition – she herself did seem rather spooked by it all. But then, unlike her, we are old hands at such things, aren’t we, Doctor Beck.’

‘Are we?’

‘You spoke to my senior eight years ago, although I was in the room… ah, I see you recognise me now. I was a very eager student back then. Had I been allowed to, then I would have been taking notes the whole time, had it not all been so “hush-hush”. I was really very privileged to be invited to sit in on your interviews; it was such a prestigious case.

‘But that was then. I have moved on and so have you: I, promoted to the senior role and so qualified to conduct our interview myself; and you, becoming Head Grower at the London Arboretum, far away from the University of Southern England, Department of Biology. The Department where, for the previous… how many years had it been?’

‘Five.’

‘Where for the previous five years you had been involved in rather different work, and with a very different boss.’

‘I’m glad you came right to the chase,’ said Beck, knowing, from the moment Sonia called him what this meeting would be about.

Beck noticed that Sergeant Forrest had moved from his standing position beside the door, to sit at a chair at the end of the table, from where he could leap up and block any attempt Beck might make to escape.

‘Doctor Beck,’ continued Eris, unruffled, smoothing her trousers over her calves, ‘Do you know why we’re here today?’

‘Not a clue.’

‘Now, you’ll remember enough from your last interviews to know that evasion only leads to more…’

‘I have no clue, take that as read.’

Ms Drake said nothing, the inference being that she was still waiting for an answer fit for her question. He gave into the silence,

‘By which I mean that, of course I know what this interview concerns, what these interviews always concern; only not what has happened to have us meet specifically today. Is that good enough?’

‘That’s fine. I sense honesty in you, I did eight years ago. You were never a deliberate troublemaker. So I take it then, on the matter we’re discussing, that you do not see this day as different to any of the last eight years?’

Beck shook his head, aware that something big was coming.

‘Then what would you say if I told you that, as of yesterday, one of your creations was confirmed as operational?’

 

 

Chapter 6 – Danny’s Escape

 

 

It had been a whole night since the rockfall. Danny now opened his eyes to the sun glinting through the foliage above him. Beneath him were the fallen leaves from the trees, and soft grass damp with dew.

He hadn’t woken up, as he didn’t sleep, he had only been on charge. However, over many years of living among humans he had perfected the appearance of sleep, along with his own methods for quietening his mind for those hours. And although he was alone there in the deep, dark wood, he had found those exercises restful since escaping from the mine the previous afternoon…

 

After dashing deep enough into the woods not to be found, the first thing he had done had been to silence his countless internal alarms.

To do this, he had pulled his shirt out from his workman’s jeans. There he reached under the shirt’s fabric to access the control panel just above his left hip. The console was placed for ease with the right hand; so to find the controls with his good left hand had left his elbow jutting outward like the handle of a teapot.

Once positioned though, his fingers had moved with speed and accuracy to silence each alarm, one by one. Soon he had quietened himself, and his mind could rest to match his breathing. And as he had lay there, still, trying to be calm, his only thought had been, ‘If I were a human, I’d be screaming right now,’ which he whispered to himself and to the darkening trees around him.

The alarms were only audible to him, and there was no one there to hear them even if they hadn’t been. He and his siblings had long ago deduced that they weren’t quite the same as what evolutionary humans called pain. They could just about be lived-with for a while, but the purpose of them was that, though they wouldn’t inhibit an artif, they were serious enough to have to be faced up to sooner rather than later.

He hadn’t known such strong alarm sensations since a quad-bike accident in his youth while testing his vehicle-handling abilities. He had handled the quad no problem, better than many a human pilot. Yet he hadn’t foreseen the rabbit that had jumped out in front of him, and which he swerved to avoid.

Danny had needed a new arm, leg and hip after that. The experience had all been too much, and his mind had gone blue-screen, during which time he was out of consciousness for seventy-two hours. He had since been conscious of every second of the subsequent decade, right up until entering the mine. His mind had even survived the explosion, and just as well – Danny didn’t like to think about the alternative.

But quite apart from the inconvenience of trying to think with all that alarm activity going on, he also knew that when his damage became serious enough that he would begin broadcasting a radio signal to the other artifs. And this signal would distress them, and might also give his position away to others.

He had picked one of these radio signals up himself only a few months before. However, that signal had ended on a note that suggested that the robot in question – he couldn’t tell which – had ended the transmission manually. This had been a reassurance to Danny, and he wished to offer similar relief to his brothers and sisters now that he was in trouble. And so, he had quickly silenced his broadcast.

 

It was now morning, after his night of rest. And what had startled him from that rest was the beeping of his charger to say it was complete. Unplugging it from the three-pin socket in his hip panel, again he heard clearly the sounds of the forest: the leaves moving under him, the rustling of trees, the calls of unseen birds and animals. Flat on his back, he turned his head quickly to see a deer, only feet away.

Artifs were odd to animals. Sometimes they came closer as there was no human scent, but other times seemed to know they weren’t quite ‘real’. The deer watched Danny for a moment, then skipped away.

Alone again, Danny caught his breath – not that he had breath – rather an electronic impulse that quickened his artificial breathing response. And Danny wondered if the deer had got it right, and that there was nothing ‘real’ about him at all?

He hadn’t dared look again at his arm while he had other priorities. Yet now he knew that he could put it off no longer. Gently Danny lifted his broken limb to lay it down in his lap. It had been chilly the previous morning when he and his colleagues had set out for the mine, and so he had worn a long-sleeved shirt. He hadn’t needed to, other than to fit in with the others – he had no fear of cold beyond a remote risk of freezing in his joints. Yet he was glad he had worn it now, as the long sleeve alone was holding his arm together.

At the mine entrance he had tucked that sleeve into his trousers to hold the damaged parts inside. Now, as he lifted it, a section of carbon fibre rod fell out, to rest amid the pine needles on the forest floor. As he rolled the sleeve back, a length of thick black rubber looped out from under the crumpled sheaf of golden skin that had been his forearm. This, like the section of bone, was black with dust.

He muttered,

‘Doctor Beck said that this would happen, as the materials rubbed up against each other. He told us that the powder would lubricate them, like an elephant bathing in dust.’

He was learning about himself. How often did we see inside our bodies? Dispassionately he assessed the damage, whispering,

‘My radius and ulna are both broken, shattered, and with pieces falling loose. The electro-variable-plastic muscles have become detached, at least at one end.’

He tried to flex his broken arm, but nothing happened.

‘Auto cut-off,’ he remembered. ‘Programmed into me to stop me doing more damage to a part already malfunctioning.’

He couldn’t help but look at the mess of his arm, musing,

‘If I were human I’d be soaked in blood. I’d be in hysterics, passed-out with the shock.’

But there was no time for speculation. Packing his charging capsule back into his bag, he whispered,

‘I have to go.’

He considered the facts: the previous evening, the emergency services would have been alerted to the fact of the miners not returning home. The foreman would have told them which shaft the men were headed to. Sometime in the night, the rockfall would have been discovered.

Danny imagined the scene: bright lights, sealed off areas, words spoken into radios: ‘explosion’, ‘deaths’, ‘missing’.

They would bring out Charlie, maybe even find the last of Tim. In his half-conscious rebooting state, Danny had left his friends in there. That felt callous, but there had been nothing more he could have done.

The police might have dogs, evidently aware that a third man might be in the ruins. Yet, as Danny lay there silently in the forest above the scene, they would not have caught a whisper of a scent on the breeze.

There would be no blood trail either, and only boot-marks hidden in the long grass to lead them to his hiding-place. But as they brought more men that morning, they would begin to comb the valley – Danny didn’t have long.

Danny spoke aloud, so as to keep his mind focused,

‘I need to do my sleeve back up, tuck my shirt in. I’ll look like Nelson, “I see no ships.”’ He laughed a moment, then stopped. ‘I need to contact Christopher. I need to get back to the city.’

But to do that he would need a car.

 

 

Chapter 7 – Alive

 

 

‘Which one?’

It was a blurted question from Beck, and an instinctive response, which Eris noted, and which would bring Beck much credit with her in the future. For now, though, he could only ponder on the news. An artif alive. It was always going to have to have been something like that, to justify bringing him back for questions after all those years, but it was still a shock for Beck to hear the news. Eris noted Beck’s demeanour and demanded no more of him for the moment, instead only musing,

‘That was a jolt to you, wasn’t it? You genuinely didn’t know.’

‘I had no idea.’

‘Did you expect them to survive for so long alone?’

Back was torn between longing for someone to talk to and not wanting it to be her.

‘It’s hard to say. I mean, a shop might guarantee you an appliance only for a year, but it might last a lifetime.’

‘Quite.’

‘So, how…?’

‘How do we know one is alive? Yes, Doctor. Well, I’m afraid that to tell you that I also have to note that, for all my earlier praise of your honesty, eight years ago you lied to us. Or rather, omitted something rather staggering.

‘But let me go back a stage. Our unit handles all kinds of cases – yours is only one of them – and so the odd and unusual are often brought to our door.

‘Some months ago we received a police report of a break in at a bicycle repair shop in South London. It was a quick, clean job, with only one window broken. The frame had been forced and the glass not even shattered. This was at night, and the burglar entered the store room at the back of the property, which was deserted at the time.

‘The store had all the latest security devices – they’d been targeted before, you see. The CCTV caught a tall man, his face hidden, slide through the window. The machine captured audio; and so we also know that he worked near-silently for the few minutes that he was in the store. This despite seeming to be in discomfort, holding his chest with one arm and manoeuvring himself with only the other arm free. This tall man proceeded – without even the sound of laboured breathing – to work his way methodically through the shop’s storeroom, taking only such items as he needed.’

‘Which were?’

‘Tyre-repair materials, rubber patches, the strongest glues and epoxies. And then he left as quietly as he had arrived, even closing the window behind him so that other sneak-thieves wouldn’t see the way open and try their luck before the security patrol arrived.

‘Now, in the store’s showroom were bikes worth several-hundred pounds each. These were too big to get out through that window; but once inside he could have opened other entrances to remove them. And even if he hadn’t wanted to go to that trouble, then the store held gears and lights and other smaller equipment which could have been carried away and sold on easily. So profit was not the motive.

‘And then there was the fact of him applying such stealth to a minor crime. And the unexplained injuries he seemed to be carrying – all without a drop of blood being left on the shop-floor or on the window-frame.

‘And then – listen to this – two nights later, once the locks were fixed and the police long gone, the store received an envelope hand-posted through the front door, containing three-hundred pounds in cash, which more than covered the costs of the stock and the window repairs.

‘So you can understand that the case became more of a curiosity to the police than a criminal priority. It became a pastime among the officers at the local station to come up with ever-stranger scenarios to explain such a bizarre and motiveless crime – their favourite being a bicycling MI5 officer falling off in the area, hurting his arm, and needing to patch his inner-tube to cycle to the nearest safe-house.

‘And with no more reasonable explanations than this being readily available, then the case crossed our department’s desks and went into our database. Not that my colleagues who collated it thought very much of it at the time.

‘But then, just yesterday we received a second report. I wonder, Doctor, do you know the Lake District?’

Beck was temporarily baffled.

‘Don’t worry, Doctor. It’s not a trick question.’

‘I have been there,’ he remembered. ‘A holiday, with my parents, maybe twenty-five years ago?’

‘Well, I don’t think we can hold that against you. However, you might remember that amongst that beautiful landscape a very few small mining operations are still licensed to operate. One of these suffered a cave-in yesterday afternoon, killing two men. A third man was with them, but appears to have survived and cannot now be found. The police in the area are looking for him presently, half-medical emergency and half-manhunt.

‘Again, Doctor, you may be wondering, “What of this brings the agency to my door?” And what it is, is this. At the same time as the rockfall, an unusual radio signal happened to be detected in the area. Very low-frequency, far-travelling, and needing quite specific equipment to be able to receive it.

‘Government Communication Headquarters monitors such things; as it has done since the Cold War when Russian spies sent messages home by radio – yes, there really were such people. Can you believe it?

‘But I digress… for this very specific signal had only been detected by GCHQ once before, several months earlier and from somewhere in the vicinity of South London…

‘Our database is very sophisticated. It plots every case in space and time to build a picture. We hadn’t previously linked the detection of the first signal and the bicycle store break-in – why would we? One rogue signal means nothing, and a lot can happen in London on a hot summer’s night. But now this second signal locked the rock-fall and the break-in together, inextricably.

‘And this is where yours truly came in.’ She placed her hands flat below her neck. ‘Perhaps these robots of yours so fascinated me eight years ago that I never quite forgot them, Doctor Beck. Perhaps the memory has lingered in my mind ever since, just waiting for the next sign that they were out there, that I might get to meet one.

‘Over time this hope of mine has faded. I even began to doubt that they were real, or were any more than the fevered imaginings of a doctor who had gone too far and lost his mind. That is until I looked at these two cases, unrelated by context or geography. I boiled it down to what each story told me, what they had in common, and there it was. Here were two men both injured and not injured: one able to break into a store undetected while clearly incapacitated, another surviving a rockfall that killed his colleagues.

‘I allowed myself a moment of conjecture – the supposition that these were not men. I’m afraid for you that at that moment it clicked.’

 

 

Chapter 8 – Transmission

 

 

Beck sat quiet, taking it in, well aware that he was the one in the room who knew nothing. Eris continued, as prepared as if reading from cue cards, continuing,

‘And yet, I wondered, “What of these radio signals detected each time?” And so I decided that the signals must have some connection to your creations. And that this must mean, Doctor Beck, that when you spoke to my senior eight years ago, you neglected to mention that when one of your robots get injured then they give off a silent alarm.’

‘My God.’

‘If we can just confirm this, it will make things so much easier.’

He nodded.

‘Thank you.’

He asked, ‘Which ones were they?’

‘We don’t know. Definitely males, although the bicycle store CCTV didn’t pick up a face. Meanwhile, the mining operation is a cottage industry, too small for a computerised personnel system with staff photographs. Although colleagues describe the missing miner as being of average height, average build, though stronger than he looks, and with sandy-coloured hair. Which one is he, Doctor?’

But Doctor Beck was silent.

‘The video suggests that the bicycle thief was a tall man, so unless they have the ability to change their proportions…?’

Beck shook his head.

‘…then we appear to be looking at two different individuals. I have to congratulate you, Doctor. Two out of the five still operational after eight years. You really over-engineered them. And these are only the ones we know about.

‘And both appear to have survived whatever hurt them. I guess the bicycle repair kits were for the London-one to patch himself up?’

‘It’s possible.’

‘I wonder: do they give off this signal only when injured, or also when they die?’

Beck couldn’t answer.

‘Please, Doctor.’

He countered, ‘And do you often speculate on the mechanics of death for those close to you?’

‘Please.’

He gave in, and answered, ‘The alarm is triggered by any of their major systems turning critical. Yes, this could be at the moment before death.’

‘And if their death is instantaneous?’

He answered as he had no choice,

‘Then that moment might be very short-lived. You might have missed a signal.’

‘Regrettable, though unlikely with our technology. However, even in that scenario, you needn’t worry yourself unnecessarily, Doctor. I was thinking on the topic before you got here: I speculated that what you’ve just confirmed to me may have been the case. And even if we missed the briefest burst of an alarm, then there would still be the… remains. And even if those remains fell into hands other than ours, then there would be rumours of this technology appearing again somewhere around the world.

‘This hasn’t happened. So the augurs appear to be good, for the other three at least. There seems no reason to believe that they are not still going strong. And the activities of their injured brethren suggest you programmed into each of them quite enough guile to survive.

‘However, the garden is not so rosy for our walking wounded. Each have suffered awful injuries. One may have fixed himself, but we have no idea for how long these repairs will hold. Meanwhile, the second has survived a serious incident with who-knows-what damage. Doctor, I wonder…’

He cut her off,

‘I don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s too much. You tell me that three of my friends I thought lost might be alive; and that two more are dying? You make my life sound like a warzone.’

‘Of course. We can take a break. Though I can only give you ten minutes in here alone. Sergeant Forrest will remain outside.

A look of wonder entered her eyes as she got up to leave though,

‘But it’s fascinating, isn’t it? To know they’re still out there, somewhere…?’ She gestured to the city through the floor-to-ceiling windows. And with that, she left.

 

 

Chapter 9 – Mechanical Devices

 

 

Once Eris re-entered the room, then Beck sensed the urgency with which she wished to conduct her investigation. This was no exercise in abstract robot theory – the chase, long dormant, had been re-joined. The artifs were ‘out there somewhere,’ and she wanted them, and as quickly as possible.

Her questions became short, sharp and to the point,

‘Since our department last spoke to you eight years ago, have you had any contact with the artifs?’

‘No.’

‘As of this morning, did you have any idea of where the five were?’

‘No.’

‘Do you know why one was in London?’

‘No.’

‘Do you know why one was in the Lake District?’

‘No.’

‘Can you think of any operational reason why a robot would be in either of those locations?’

‘No.’

‘Then speculate for me.’

Beck knew he wasn’t getting out of this. He answered,

‘These must be places where each had found a way to live undetected. Their primary goals these last eight years would have been to stay hidden and to survive, in that order.’

‘Really in that order?’

‘Christopher didn’t risk detection by the store’s security system until his injuries required it.’

Eris was smiling; and then Beck realised that he had given something away.

‘It’s fine, Doctor,’ soothed Eris, now in the ascendant. ‘I knew it was Christopher. You told us everything eight years ago. You built him taller than the others. We saw his height in the security film. Christopher, the third robot. Ah, yes,’ she noted, ‘your naming convention. Very neat that, using their initials, saving them the stigma of a number. Named in alphabetical progression. Or, at least until you got to Eliza and Danny. Remind me, why did you change the sequence?’

Burning red with embarrassment, Beck could only submit to the process, and found some comfort in it,

‘The girls’ names were meant to be special. Anna stood for “Anima”, the feminine life force, the psyche, the soul.’

‘Appropriate for your first.’

‘And ELIZA was a famous computer program, one of the first artificial intelligences. And so we named our Eliza in honour of her, although we built her fourth.’

‘And it was Danny in the rock fall, wasn’t it?’

Beck protested, ‘We don’t know that, there are three male robots.’

‘But Doctor, we both know exactly where Bradley is, and it isn’t the Lake District.’

Beck remained silent; and Eris, the clever interviewer, knew not to waste time butting a brick wall. Instead, she moved around it,

‘All right, so you maintain the fiction that Bradley isn’t abroad. He’s not germane to the discussion for the time being. But… you were explaining about Christopher?’

‘Not really. Just that… well, Christopher must have found his sanctuary in London, while one of the others must have found theirs in nature.’

But Eris wasn’t really listening. A small mechanical device had been whirring faintly on the table throughout their talk. Beck had imagined this to be a tape recorder. Now though Eris had her hand to her ear, and Beck realised that the device on the table was relaying their conversation to others behind the wall, perhaps at another location.

‘That’s fine,’ she said to these others and so also to the room. Turning back to Beck, she announced,

‘I’ve had people checking your breathing and body temperature. Neither denote lying or abnormal stresses. It’s clear you know none of this recent affair, there’s no question of conspiracy. Well, no worry.’

‘You mean, you didn’t believe that I was telling the truth before?’

‘You mean, you thought I wouldn’t check?’

Beck had riled at Eris, and Eris had riled right back. He was beginning to admire her in an odd way. She broke the stand-off and continued,

‘Not that we seriously believed you had had any contact – it would have been almost impossible for you to have kept up communications with them. Not that we keep constant tabs on you, you understand. Please don’t go from here with a complex. If anything, we’d rather forgotten about you these years… which isn’t a mistake we’ll make again.’

She held her hand to her ear again, then spoke,

‘Oh, and another thing we’ve just learned regarding the rockfall: the police received a nine-nine-nine call, from a woman. My team have heard the tapes, and they tell me that she was very clear on the matter: insistent of the location, and that there’d been an accident, and that the police must get there right away, but without a clue of what had actually happened or to whom. No local accent – no accent at all, in fact.’

Eris pondered a moment,

‘So, do you want to know what I think, Doctor? That this was another of your robots who picked up the radio signal. And so we can deduce that the message it transmits contains no personal identifying information, but does include location co-ordinates. Am I right?’

Beck’s silence gave her her answer.

‘And we have the caller’s co-ordinates too, or as good as: we know the junction box the emergency call came through from. So that’s a second of your number who’ll be in our charge by nightfall, whether you help us or not.’

 

 

Chapter 10 – Ellie’s Tale

 

 

Eliza had been a mouthful, what with that sizzling zig-zag zed, and had been quickly dropped. Now the name ‘ELLIE SMITH’ was displayed proudly on the identity badge of the receptionist at the busy office. It hung on a thin metal chain around the neck of the modest and attractive young woman whose photo it bore.

‘You never age a day,’ had joked admiring female colleagues over the years. ‘And that wonderful skin.’

She could only smile and thank them for the compliment, grateful the illusion had been so complete. And she was indeed proud of herself, of how she had been built. She liked her figure and her looks. ‘Though if only they had made me plainer,’ she oftentimes lamented.

To that end, she applied her own efforts. Cosmetics didn’t work with her construction anyway, and so she didn’t have that worry. But her long blond hair, tough and ungrowing, was as entirely stylable as any woman’s, though without the problem of it retaining the shape in which it had dried. Yet she wore it down and slightly over her face; or else tied back in a simple ponytail. Anything not to draw attention.

She could also choose her clothing: that day a simple skirt and patterned blouse, where others wore the bright shapes of the season. She could admire but not indulge, as she didn’t want the attention that these fashions could inspire in male co-workers.

At the reception desk she tugged at her cuffs – a nervous ‘tell’ that was related to the reason why she wore long sleeves each day.

‘You must be boiling,’ some would say. ‘It’s too warm in this sun.’

‘My arms burn up,’ she would answer, while looking coyly downward. For they didn’t know that a year ago she had found a tear in the crease of her elbow. This had since frayed, and she feared it could widen to open up across her entire arm.

‘Spun vinyl’ she was clad in, perhaps her creators’ finest invention. The stuff of old albums, molten hot, spun to thread, woven to golden cloth, and melted on while still warm, all done with the skill of a sculptor applying gold leaf.

And it had served her for eight years, without a moisturiser or anti-ageing cream in sight. Yes, her skin was a modern marvel – as impressive to her as the mind that illuminated her existence, or the carbon-fibre skeleton that formed her frame, or the rubber muscles that moved beneath that skin with the agility of an Olympic diver.

Oh, she thought again of all the things she could have done with such a mind and such a frame. Academia, athleticism, all the joys foretold in her gilded youth. Yet for the lion’s share of her brief existence – barely ten years in all – she had been hiding out in a job that she could perform standing on her head, and doing her best not to stand out.

For eight years she had borne this. At first being undercover had held a thrill of excitement, of being an outlaw, and the hope that it would soon be over. As the years had rolled on though, these hopes had faded.

Then this year she received the first emergency alarm from another robot. It had been a horrible business, received while awake in the middle of the night, in her lockup garage where she used the electric car recharge-point. Her finger, compelled, was tapping out the co-ordinates of somewhere that something awful had happened, though she knew not what or to whom.

She had got online to Christopher straight after. He responded within two hours, not to chide her for risking contact, but to say that the alarm had come from him, and to reassure her all was well.

For the intervening months, she had tried to believe this, until yesterday came another alarm. This time it was in daytime, and she’d had to dash out to a nearby park, where she could rest on the ground behind the hedges and trees, and leave her finger endlessly tapping against the broad roots beneath her.

Afterwards, she had told the office she’d felt sick and needed some air – which was for her as impossible as eating. (Which was another thing she had to cover in the office, forever claiming to have a big tea waiting for her at home, or to be watching her figure.) Yet at least the lie of illness also explained the awful emotional state she had returned in, and allowed her to skip off work early.

Once home, she did a stupid thing and called the police. She had an atlas open, and gave them the name of the nearest landmark to the co-ordinates she’d earlier been tapping. Yet she was proud to have done it, however ridiculous, however risky. ‘Let the artifs be found,’ she had said to herself, ‘let us be rounded up; let us suffer whatever fate at whoever’s hands.’ For it could no longer be worse than the death by a thousand cuts that she was enduring.

She thought about her fraying arm, and the shock with which she had detected her first fault, and how since that moment she had been faced with the prospect of her own extinction. She didn’t want to meet that alone. She wondered if the others felt the same, and whether they would want to gather again at some point, even if it meant to give themselves away?’

‘Ellie, I’ve got the Monthly Sales Stats to run again,’ said a colleague who had come over to reception. ‘You couldn’t lend a hand?’

‘Of course,’ she answered, shaken from her reverie. ‘Angela, could you watch the phones?’ Angela was Ellie’s current partner at the front desk, who duly nodded undemonstratively.

Ellie followed the Chief Sales Assistant back into the main office and to his desk.

‘Thanks Ellie, you’re a Godsend.’

‘No problem, Victor. Is it the Pivot Table again?’ With deft fingers she manipulated figures, amended formulas, and tabbed between workbooks. Soon the spreadsheet was behaving as it ought to, and was fit to be emailed to Victor’s boss.

He whispered to her,

‘You know this stuff better than any of us, Ell. Our team’s always got vacancies. Why don’t you apply?’

But she only looked downward, playing with her hair, and answered,

‘Aw, I like my current job.’

‘Really?’ he shot back. ‘Because I see you over there, and half the time you look bored out of your mind.’

She jerked back, shocked. This wasn’t the first time that they had had this discussion, but never before had Victor’s frustration got the better of him. As she moved away, so he took her arm to keep her there, saying,

‘You don’t have to be scared, Ellie. If you’re worried about the interview, It’ll only be with one of us,’ and he gestured across the desks of his team.

But she couldn’t speak. The shy, quiet girl she had adopted as a cover had become the real her. Embarrassed, Ellie pulled herself free and dashed back over to the reception desk.

 

 

Chapter 11 – Other Actors

 

 

Eris was pondering the situation, ever changing, ever moving, even within that conference room. Eventually speaking,

‘But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any contact between any of you.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Beck.

‘I mean the robots might have guessed not to risk calling you, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been speaking to each other.’

‘True.’

‘And how does that make you feel, Doctor?’

‘Resentful of being under your watch.’

‘Because it stopped them contacting you? Understandable. And the more I think on it, the more obvious it seems. I wonder what they talk about? And not only with each other.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, that there were other actors in this. Yours wasn’t the only career to come to an end eight years ago, was it Doctor?’

The penny dropped, ‘No, no it wasn’t.’

‘You know, I think we need to go back to those early days. So, tell me about Professor Schmidt.’

‘Okay, okay.’

Beck had to concede to Eris – he held no power in the room. There was also the idea that in talking like a drain he could buy himself the time he needed to plan what to do next. Eris sat across from him, smiling that maddening smile, so genuine but hiding everything else that she was thinking.

She began,

‘So, going back, ooh, thirteen years – unlucky for some – you were a bright young graduate, twenty-four, qualified third best in your year, due to become one of the brightest young scientists of your age. Just think, Doctor Beck, where you could be now had you stuck with it, if you hadn’t lost the next five years…’

‘I didn’t know it would be that long.’

‘…if you hadn’t wasted five long years…’

He concluded her sentence, ‘…wasted five long years with a crackpot like Schmidt?’

‘“Crackpot”?’ she asked. ‘Is that how you think I see him?’

‘He was the most brilliant man I ever knew.’

‘Such loyalty still, even after everything that happened… And of course, he always saw so much in you. Enough to lead you from your golden path. So, just what was it about him that let him take you from your true course?’

Beck sat back in his chair, with Eris leaning forward. Sergeant Forrest sat along the table with a look of bored amusement. This would be a long tale. Beck began,

‘You’re right. I was a bright young biology post-graduate back then, with big things expected of me. But I had also been studying that subject pretty purely for six unbroken years. I think I was looking for a change.

‘The first time I met Schmidt, he asked about a paper I’d produced on biomechanics. This is an offshoot of biology, not mainstream.’

‘How so?’

‘Fauna rather than flora. In the case of my paper, insects: their shells and legs and joints.’

‘Very different to what you do now.’

‘You mean at the Arboretum?’ He gathered himself, ‘These last eight years have been a whole new chapter for me. I’ve loved every minute of it, and I hope to be able to love it for many years more.’

‘Okay, okay, no need to go hysterical demanding things just yet. We can get on to that. So, Professor Schmidt…’

Beck reminisced on happier times,

‘He told me later that he had gone through the list of that year’s new Masters graduates, looking for one with a speciality anything like mine. And he only had to look as far down as third place in the whole year to find me. I was flattered, and I felt that at that point in my career there was no one better for me to learn from.’

‘But he wasn’t a biologist himself.’

‘No, not at all. He was a mathematician, who had followed the technology into computers, and then again into industrial design. At the time I met him he had formed a fascination with primitive sensory devices in nature – worms that could follow the light of the sun, deep-water fish that could sense hot currents.

‘This was how we came together. His new interest in creatures had brought him in touch with the Biology Department at my university. He knew my tutors, and had worked with them before on different things. So no, he wasn’t a biologist himself, but he needed an assistant who was.’

‘So, biomechanics?’

‘That was Schmidt’s focus of interest, and very soon it became mine.’

‘So what was he like?’

‘You know his background?’

Eris nodded, ‘An interesting life.’

‘Then you know that he hadn’t had it easy. Born into post-war Germany…’

‘On the wrong side.’

‘…brought up behind the Iron Curtain, living in fear of the secret police. Who as a young man saw his cousin leave for college one day and never come back, then fifteen years later learn he’d been shot trying to cross the Wall… then yes, very interesting.

‘Scientists were one of the only groups of people in Eastern Germany allowed to travel abroad: to go to conferences, to meet other scientists, or for they to visit him. It must have been bad enough for anyone being trapped there; but he got to see glimpses of everything his people were denied – new freedoms, new technologies, new ways to communicate.

‘Meanwhile, he was working away with ageing machinery and poor resources; and even worse, under strict state pressure. He said to me once that it was either “Do as we say,” or “Don’t do that.” The poor guy couldn’t win.’

Beck slowly shook his head,

‘For a magpie mind like his, those years must have been crucifying. What they gave him, though, was a fascination with the unobtainable, and an ambition to embrace the whole world and see how it worked. And then, when the Wall came down, he got his chance.

‘His reputation had been growing without him realising; and as soon as his country was free, he was invited to France, America, Australia. He got to stand on the roofs of skyscrapers, sail with the Americas Cup winning team, fly gliders over the Australian Outback.

‘And his science wouldn’t hold back either – the toys of the world were offered up to him, and there wasn’t one thing that he didn’t want to see, play with, pull apart and try to put back together better.’ Beck reflected, ‘But his dreams needed funding.’

 

 

Chapter 12 – The Rubber Cord

 

 

‘Ah yes,’ recalled Eris, clearly remembering a detail from her files. ‘Tell me about the rubber.’

Beck smiled,

‘His greatest victory, he told me. “Two fingers to the old regime!” Behind the Wall, Schmidt had invented a kind of grippy plastic cord, used for holding barrels together in the back of army lorries. His invention had been confiscated by the government, and then simply copied all around the world.

‘Once he made it to America though he asserted his patent in the courts, and made millions. This set him up for the start of the Nineties, and was still making money by the time we met.’

‘So, what was it like in the early days? What were you doing?’

Beck spoke with heart, ‘What I loved about Schmidt was that his ideas bled across the disciplines. He didn’t restrict himself to only one field. His science had a free-wheeling aspect.

‘And that was what he wanted me for: an interest in creatures in an almost mechanical sense. He would look at the eye of a bluebottle, and ask if we could use it in the camera of a mobile phone; the cantilevered leg of a spider in the suspension arm of a motor car; or the wing of a dragonfly in the diaphanous roof of a sports arena. He called it ‘applied biomechanics’.

‘Pretty soon we were like a pair of kids with too much Meccano. We had cameras rigged up as eyes, that sensed movement and would follow a shadow across the room; crablike creations that could tell when they walked into the wall, and spin themselves around.’

She asked, ‘But back then, you only saw it as a break?’

‘Yes, as six-months away from poring over microscopes and fetching trays of ancient fungi from the basement of the British Museum.’

‘But he knew better?’

Beck laughed, ‘Yes. Instead of the fungi, I’d be fetching trays of beetles on pins. And then building copies!’

‘And this was what he recruited you for?’

‘He knew that once I was given a taste of what he was up to that I’d be hooked.’

‘And no mention then of a bigger plan?’

‘I don’t think he was thinking that far ahead.’

‘And you still don’t credit him with ruining you? Leaving you tending plants in public gardens? When you could have been one of the eminent research biologists of your generation?’

Beck pondered his answer,

‘I’ve had a long time to think about that; and no, I don’t blame him. Do you like Pink Floyd? You’ve heard of Syd Barrett? People say he lost his mind to drugs. But others who knew him say that the drugs only brought out the madness, that it was always there inside him, and that Syd would have found it some day.

‘Schmidt knew what I was capable of better than I knew myself, knew what I could achieve beyond my own ambition. Behind the callow student he saw someone with a sense of grandeur. He only brought it out. I’d have gone too far at some point.’

‘That’s very honest.’

‘It’s better to know ourselves. I was always flawed. Imagine if I had been given one of the highest posts in the land, and only then lost my mind…? No, much better to learn it early, and then to monitor myself ever after.’

Beck took a deep breath,

‘So there you go. Schmidt was my professor, my mentor, the man who hired me, the man who encouraged me. He was the wisest, most enduring and resourceful person I’ve ever known.’

‘Sounds like quite an ally for a runaway to want on their side.’

Beck caught up quickly, ‘The robots? No, he wouldn’t help them.’

‘Why not?’

And here Beck’s bitterness spilled over,

‘Because he didn’t care eight years ago, so why care now?’

 

 

Chapter 13 – This Year’s Audi Headrest

 

 

So, Schmidt didn’t care? Well, Beck didn’t either any more – what did it matter if he was digging holes for himself? The fact was that it had never occurred to him that Schmidt might be involved in the artifs’ continued evasion. Beck hadn’t even thought of Schmidt’s own continued disappearance as a mystery. He hadn’t thought of him for years, except for every day. He snapped at Eris,

‘He hasn’t been seen in eight years. You ought to be investigating that.’

She held her finger to her ear,

‘Yes, my team confirm we’ve had no trace of him either. As I say, mistakes we won’t make again. So talk to me, Doctor.’

‘About what?’

‘You personally have had no contact with Schmidt?’

‘No,’ he answered honestly.

‘Would you like to have had?’

‘I’m not sure what we’d say to each other.’

‘What do you think of his disappearance now?’

‘The same as I thought back then.’

‘Which was?’

‘That he had advance warning that the net was falling, and left me to carry the can.’

‘Petulance, Doctor?’

‘No, only annoyance that I bore my responsibility, while he skipped his.’

‘When it was both of your project?’

‘And I would never have done it without him.’

‘Without his technical assistance?’

‘Without his belief.’

Eris rolled back in her chair,

‘That’s a thing I’ve never quite worked out: which of you had the idea first.’

Beck tried to answer, ‘He pulled me up as a fresh Masters graduate, pushed me to think as far-out as possible, to find the ultimate in everything; while he was there every step of the way to encourage and drive. And in our field, applied biomechanics, the replication of living things…’ he gulped, ‘then there was only ever one outcome, one “ultimate”.’

‘The human?’

‘I can’t imagine what else he thought we would end up with.’

‘You think he had the idea before he let you come up with it for yourself?’

‘I don’t know; I just don’t know.’

And Beck really didn’t know. Eris humoured him, so as to get him talking again,

‘Well maybe he was simply swept along with science, his love of discovery?’

‘That was true in his earlier life, his cars and boats and bridges. He hired me for that reason.’

‘And that earlier life came in handy, didn’t it?’

‘He knew every auto manufacturer and parts maker. He had every new material delivered to our workshop before it was seen in the showroom. “This year’s Audi headrest,” he would call, tearing open boxes, “Next year’s Mercedes airbag.”’

‘You took materials from cars?’

‘Where we could; or from washer-driers, or vacuum cleaners, or convection ovens.’

‘But these were people you were building, not appliances.’

‘Yes, and we needed them to work in the modern world, to rub up against that world and bear those encounters.’

‘That’s a novel concept – making people as tough as the mechanisms around them.’

‘And here they are eight years later surviving rock falls.’

‘Touché, Doctor.’

‘And it wasn’t only strength – we gave them the beauty of an understanding mind and appreciating eye. They didn’t make it this far on brawn alone.’

‘Is that a trace of pride in your creations, Doctor?’

‘Yes, for the first time in years. And I thank you for that, Miss Eris, however this works out.’

‘And I thank you too, Doctor, with that same caveat, for giving me the mission of my career.’ She paused before asking, ‘But don’t you think you’re still missing the obvious?’

Beck’s blankness seemed to show that he was. She explained,

‘You see; I have a theory: that Schmidt is still active.’

‘He would be over seventy.’

‘And from what you tell me, Doctor, that would be no bar to him. And did you never wonder if he skipped the net to pave the robots’ way?’

Beck’s silence suggested he hadn’t. Eris continued, enjoying the mystery as much as she wanted it resolved,

‘Weren’t you amazed at how they all just went?’

‘They are resourceful.’

‘You didn’t set up safe houses, didn’t give them fake documents. There wasn’t even a pot of money for a rainy day – we froze both of your accounts. Yet there they are, out there somewhere, living, working, spending.’

Beck shook his head in denial, explaining,

‘After it was over I tried to forget. And with every year that passed, I let them go a little more, the artifs and Schmidt.’

She pressed, ‘Or maybe you don’t like to think of them being in it together? Of your whole “family” planning an escape and leaving you alone?’

He didn’t answer.

‘Did you never wonder how you were the only one we picked up, while all the others made it away?’

‘I thought that I was stupid, that I wasn’t sharp enough. That their minds and their senses would have seen something, anything, to stop them walking into the University that morning, as I did, and finding the authorities there.

‘And I was proud of them for that, not bitter. Proud that I’d made them better than me; and what parent could ask for more?’

‘He didn’t have children, did he, Schmidt?’

‘No.’

‘While you were freshly married, all your life to come.’

‘Wait. You think he let me be caught to save me?’

‘Maybe. Or to give him time to save the others.’

Eris began another whispered conference with the voices in her ear. Meanwhile, Beck needed time to think; before she resumed,

‘Well it doesn’t matter. We had a record of every property your Professor owned, and every financial transaction he made in those final months. We found nothing.’

Here Beck played a card, ‘You do make me laugh, Miss Eris.’

‘How so?’

‘You ask of everyone who was there at the time, and yet you ignore one person, one blatant person, indeed perhaps the most famous of us all.’

‘You refer of course to Ingrid Pitt?’

‘Yes.’

The interviewer’s mood hardened, ‘Then, it is you attempting to make me laugh, Doctor. Or rather, to throw me off the scent again. For I repeat that we both know that she and your Bradley are abroad.’

‘Do we really know that?’

Eris closed the file she had been reading and pushed it to one side,

‘Don’t play games, Doctor, and don’t play me for a fool. I don’t need my records to tell me where she is. I can get it from any newspaper or celebrity tittle-tattle website. She is in Morocco, with Bradley, the finest gift her former lover could have given her.’

 

 

Chapter 14 – Africa – Life on the Run

 

 

A man looked out from the shadows of his porch. It was eighty degrees already under the Mediterranean sun, and not yet time for elevenses. The trees at the bottom of the estate were shimmering with haze. Yet the conviction could not be shaken that there was someone standing by them.

‘George,’ the man on the porch called out to his aide.

‘Sir?’ asked the loyal factotum as he emerged from the main building. Trusted George: not quite valet, not quite butler, and sometimes chauffeur. His master asked,

‘Don’t make it too obvious that you’re looking, but what do you see down there?’

‘Sir, if there were anything, then I think your eyes would see it rather better than mine.’

Between them was trust enough for the subtle joke.

‘But what do you make out, George, by the trees?’

The master’s voice was warm and rich and confident; his assistant’s monotone and reassuring, as he answered,

‘There might be a figure. A car went by earlier, perhaps it’s the driver. Should I offer assistance?’

‘You stay right there,’ roared the master, hoping they were hidden by the shadow of the porch roof. He continued to stare, so intently that his brow began to furrow his glowing complexion.

The land running down to the trees was arid grass and sun-parched meadow, quite a difference from the English lawns that George had tended in his earlier life, serving his masters and mistresses in the old country. He pondered this, remembering happy times.

Then, just for a moment, a pinpoint of piercing light.

‘There,’ called his employer. ‘Proof.’

‘A lens,’ judged the assistant. ‘You suspect a paparazzo?’

‘The Chief of Police would have taken care of them. So I wonder who this is, George? Is he a Juju Man? An Odd-Bod on the horizon?’

‘Sorry, sir?’

‘Ignore me, George. Just remembering old stories.’

George was left at odds and ends, which wasn’t a situation he appreciated. He suggested,

‘I’ll call the Chief of Police now, sir. If you wish me to?’

But no instruction came. Eventually his master offered,

‘No, George. Let him give himself away.’

‘Very well.’ George then advised his master in a breezy manner, ‘Mistress is out with Oman, sir, and I have deliveries to collect. But I can stay?’

‘No, George, I’ll be fine. He’ll come no closer.’

And so George left his master as instructed, alone and watching the horizon for Juju Men.

 

 

Chapter 15 – Ingrid’s Playmate / Life Behind the Curtain

 

 

‘You ask of Ingrid Pitt?’ announced Miss Eris. ‘A transcendent talent. You knew her well, but did you ever see her on stage?’

‘No,’ Beck had to concede.

‘Well, I did, when I was a girl, and I doubt I will ever forget it. In terms of this operation, then right now she holds no interest for me, except to illuminate what an extraordinary man your mentor was, and what a life he had lived.’

Eris continued in admiration, ‘Though for me personally, then what a woman in herself! A rare beauty, an icon of her age, and a tool in the propaganda war. Proof that the West had got it wrong, and that the East German state loved its people and gave them artists like Ingrid. Proof of how freedom from capitalism could unleash the arts, and of how the liberating spirit of socialism could express any human desire, as embodied by the roles she portrayed on stage.

‘And they sent her off around the world to demonstrate this – though always with an invisible leash around her neck, twitching, waiting to snap her back to the GDR.’

‘Sounds like we’ve stumbled on your heroine,’ observed Beck. Was Eris finally giving away something of herself?

‘Maybe,’ she concurred. ‘Yet every love story needs its hero too. And here he was, Schmidt. A scientist behind the Iron Curtain. A questing mind restrained, restricted, as you say, Doctor. Living in the workshops of the past, seeing all that the world had to offer from behind rusting bars.

‘Only allowed out of the country to conferences and meetings. Yet becoming world famous despite it, and welcomed with open arms the moment that government collapsed.

‘And somehow, in that hard, mean society, they found each other. Talent found its likeness and its opposite. I know the story, Doctor Beck. The brain snared by beauty, the scientist and the swan of the stage. And all the time loving in secret.’

But here Beck had to interject,

‘Never secret, they were only ever open about it, whatever the risks.’

‘Forgive my turn of phrase.’ She corrected, ‘Of course they were open. In Eastern Germany there was only ever “open”, the state left nothing closed. Though mightn’t it have been kinder to have simply kept them apart? Instead they let them have their stolen weekends, but they listened, taped, recorded everything.’

Eris diverted from her narrative to ask a question,

‘You know your social history, Doctor. They were both in professions allowed to travel. So why not defect?’

He answered, ‘Because their families would have been persecuted.’

‘Quite right. And so they held on till the Wall came down, and then she fled to the West End stage, and he came bounding after her.’

‘There was rather more to it than that,’ added Beck. ‘The University of Southern England offered funding, premises, assistants like me.’

‘A unique assistant you might have been, Doctor. But he’d have found funding anywhere. And then there was the plastic patent money. And it was that money that bought you your Audi headrests, and which built your blessed five.’

Beck mused, ‘Then it was very precious money indeed.’

 

 

Chapter 16 – Personal Advances

 

 

‘I’m sorry for taking your arm earlier.’ A man had sidled up to the reception desk. It was Victor again, of the Sales Team. ‘And I didn’t mean to snap at you.’

Ellie looked up, but couldn’t change her expression; as he continued,

‘It’s just that this spreadsheet stuff absolutely kills me, and you just “get” it. I’m hanging on by the skin of my teeth.’

She suddenly saw fear in his eyes. But then he undid all his good work when he said,

‘It’s embarrassing having to ask the receptionist for help.’

She snapped in pique, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I’m so embarrassing.’ But even as she said those words she didn’t recognise herself. ‘No, I don’t mean that,’ she corrected. Meanwhile, Victor was crumpling at the other side of the counter.

Angela had gone, and they were quite alone, a fact that Ellie guessed Victor had waited for before coming over. He then risked digging himself into a deeper hole, though somehow got away with it, with,

‘I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a receptionist, it’s a good job. But you’re not happy in it, are you. I can see it in your face. Most people don’t notice these things. As long as we turn up every day and do the job then they don’t care if we’re happy or not.’

She brightened slightly, even as she told herself that his kindness couldn’t possibly help her with the true reasons for her unhappiness. He continued,

‘I mean, most of the girls you’re on reception with are only here a few months. They get themselves sacked for bad timekeeping, or move on to other things. Though you’re the cleverest of the lot.’

She couldn’t help but smile. He continued,

‘And that’s what I mean.’

Suddenly she was confused, asking,

‘What do you mean?’

‘Why we’re so similar. The way we think. I want to help you, Ellie. I want to help you to be happy.’ He breathed deeply. ‘Would you come out with me?’

The silence killed them both, he babbled.

‘Tomorrow? Any night you like, anything you want to do.’

But she couldn’t speak.

Just then Angela burst out of the canteen with a gale of laughter following her. At this, Victor turned and left. Ellie called after him, ‘I can’t.’ She hoped she’d said it kindly.

‘What’s up?’ asked Angela, seeing Victor leave. ‘Oh, him. Poor lad. I think you need glasses, girl. He’s had his eye on you for months.’

 

 

Chapter 17 – Mechanical Proof

 

 

‘So what’s left?’ asked Beck, after Eris had been silent for an age, pondering. ‘The history of the project?’

‘We have all that,’ she answered. Her frustration was making her bitter. ‘Meanwhile you tie me up with tales of eight years ago, all the while keeping me from the urgent task of tracking down your beloveds now. Very clever, Doctor Beck.’

‘I really wasn’t thinking that many steps ahead.’

‘No, I don’t suppose you were. You are very simple now, aren’t you?’ (He bridled.) ‘By which I mean, for a former mind of his generation – you’re probably still about average. Though your brain has gone mushy with your vegetables. You were never a grower, Beck. Don’t pretend your career didn’t end with the project.’

‘So what do you want?’

‘Hmm, your robots. You claim there’s no one in the world to help them. So they’re doing rather well on their own. What I need from you then is anything to help me catch them now. Any other nugget of their systems or hardware that could pose a vulnerability.’

‘I told you everything back then.’

‘Yes, like you told us about their damage signals?’

He nodded wearily, knowing he wasn’t going anywhere.

‘Good, then let us wet our whistles,’ she poured them both a glass of water from the jug, ‘and we can begin.’

Beck suddenly felt a burst of anti-establishment feeling, declaring,

‘And what if I just choose not to help?’

She answered softly but firmly, not skipping a beat,

‘This isn’t a loyalty question: you’re not giving them up, as they’re not yours to give up. They were always the property of the University; and since then, special legislation makes them the property of the Crown, until such time as their identity as conscious individuals can be verified and their citizenship granted.’

‘During which time you’ll keep them locked up?’

‘During which time we’ll keep them very comfortably, and fully maintained; not living on the run and patching themselves up with cycle repair kits.’

He took the point on the chin, though muttering,

‘A gilded cage is still a cage.’

‘Doctor Beck, you have no responsibility to them. Lose that feeling, and you will find all this so much easier.’

At this Beck gripped the arms of his chair even tighter. Although his overall mood was impassive, his indignation had nowhere to go.

Eris continued,

‘And there is also the question of your own future.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, the London Arboretum. It’s such a draw for tourists, and I know that you’ve become attached to the place…’

‘I’m free to work where I want.’

‘…but it must be so hard to keep it running. And what with all their fundraising efforts.’

‘Eric does okay.’

‘Yes, with the half-a-million each year that the Department of Agriculture grant him.’

Beck pushed at the arms of his chair and half-stood. Sergeant Forrest flinched, but Eris didn’t move, just explaining,

‘Did you ever think that we just let you back into the wild? You were always our man, and we kept you where we could see you: safe and in clear view, with no thoughts of grand escapes, thankful of your second chance and knowing full well who had allowed it. And the trade-off for the chance to put in all those years of service at the gardens was that, if or when the situation arose, then we would know where to find you; and that you would know you were to be… helpful.’

‘Lord Eric knew about this?’

‘It was always a part of the agreement; and with no reason why it can’t continue.’ Eris urged, ‘So please, can we get past this infantile stage, and continue?’

Beck felt sick. He looked clearly at the situation: even the last few secrets he’d been trying to hold back had been revealed, and his clever, canny robots were giving themselves away left, right and centre.

Furthermore, the sense was growing that the game was up, and that no matter what he did he would never be allowed back to his life at the Arboretum.

He needed something, and he needed it right then. And then a mind flash,

‘You want mechanical proof?’

‘Yes, anything you can tell us.’

‘Then how about their actual mechanism? Or at least a part of what would become their mechanism?’

‘Go on,’ she said, quelling her enthusiasm.

‘Well, for that you’ll have to let me out.’

 

 

Chapter 18 – Field Trip

 

 

‘No, I don’t believe you,’ Eris had said at the conference room before allowing Beck to leave. ‘We turned that University upside-down. And Schmidt smashed the extra frames at your country hideaway – not one piece of your materials was left for us to seize.’

‘Well, you’ve mentioned five pieces already.’

‘Gah. And you’re as sure as hell not leading me to any of them.’ She lost her temper, frustrated that he had her over a barrel. If Beck was telling the truth, and there was a forgotten storehouse of materials locked up somewhere, then she had no choice but to follow him. And if he wanted to keep the location of this trove a secret until they got there, then she had no leverage to demand otherwise.

But if he was lying… he would suffer.

By then, though, she had regained enough composure not to say that out loud.

 

An hour later, and they were travelling through London midday traffic toward Beck’s alma mater, the University of Southern England. He and Eris were in the back of an executive Jaguar, in glorious glassed-off isolation from even her driver and Sergeant Forrest in the front seats. But Beck guessed the car would be fitted out with cameras and a wireless Internet link to her agency’s mainframe. And so he knew that he was still as much under observation as he had been in the conference room. This impression was hardly helped by the eyes of Sergeant Forrest flashing at him in the vanity mirror on the back of the passenger’s sun-visor.

‘Could you have picked a worse time of day to send us on this mission?’ Eris asked Beck.

‘I didn’t really have the opportunity to plan ahead,’ he answered. ‘And I want some promises before we get there.’

‘Well, we’ll see about that when I see what you’ve brought me.’

‘No.’

She gasped. But this was no mere petulance from Beck. He had a plan now, and for that certain buttons needed to be pushed. He went on in his self-justifying vein,

‘I mean, it’s over, right? Whatever borrowed time I’ve been on has been called to an end. For whatever reason, you’re treating me like this today – I no longer even pretend to understand your motives. But after today I’m useless to you. Where will I go? To prison, or be disappeared?’

She groaned, ‘This is England. No one gets “disappeared”!’

‘I’ve been disappeared, the man I was. He’s nowhere to be seen.’

‘Stop being dramatic.’

‘Well, do you want to see this thing or not?’

‘Yes,’ she confirmed.

‘Then I want a promise.’

‘Okay then, I promise.’

‘No, not just words. I want confirmation.’

‘Well, I don’t have a Bible handy, so what should I swear on?’

‘Just say it in front of witnesses, wind down the window.’

‘You’d really have me do this?’ she asked.

Beck’s silence confirmed that he would.

‘Okay.’ She pressed the button to slide down the glass partition, and asked the driver, ‘Charlie, the Doctor here is worried I’m going to disappear him. Where are you going to drop him off today, when we’re finished?’

‘Right back home with his wife and kiddies,’ chortled the man.

‘Thank you.’ Turning to Beck, ‘Good enough?’

He nodded like a child told he wouldn’t have to visit a hated aunt tomorrow. She pressed the button again to re-seal the divide.

‘Well,’ she breathed again. ‘I’m glad we have that sorted out.’

Beck breathed too. For this was a one-shot deal, and he couldn’t put a foot wrong.

 

 

Chapter 19 – History

 

 

After Beck’s minor outburst had been settled, Eris soon regained her composure, and her fondness for questions,

‘With this traffic then it looks as though we’re stuck in each other’s company for a little while yet. Maybe we ought to go over the history after all? And it might be useful after all this time.’

‘Okay,’ groaned Beck. ‘Fire away. Anything to save the boredom.’ Though it was tension he needed saving from. She began,

‘So, you and Schmidt found this mutual interest, but what did you do with it? I mean, you both had to earn your keep at the University.’

‘Right. Part of the deal when Schmidt chose the University of Southern England was for there to be the creation of a new Department of Industrial Design. Within it Schmidt took up a Professorship in Physics and Mechanical Sciences, and this meant he had to teach. My job was to assist with lessons and tutorials.

‘Above and beyond this though, were our new-found interests. These took the form of a special project, a part-time secondment from our regular duties, and funded partly by a special grant from Sir Arthur Wheeler, the old Director of the University, whom Schmidt had around his little finger.’

‘How so?’

‘Schmidt was a scientific superstar, a refugee from behind the Iron Curtain; and then he went and chose Wheeler’s university – Wheeler would have given Schmidt anything.’

‘Perhaps he gave him too much?’

‘Perhaps. Anyway, it wasn’t all University money – there were Schmidt’s own funds of course, and other funding sources, whose nature I wasn’t to discern for a while.’

‘And what was the special project?’

‘To give it its full title, “Research into the Patentable Applications of New Technologies.” Schmidt convinced Wheeler of how valuable it could be to the University to get patents on uses of some of the new materials coming out at that time. Such as the new EVPs…’

‘EVPs?’

‘Electro-variable-plastics. Basically the thing that lets you press a button on your car seat and the foam expands to wrap around your sides. But it was new then, and they spoke a lot of how it might be used in areas where a controlled, variable charge could affect a piece of material in a predictable way: for instance, a pulsing current animating a replacement heart valve; a rubber tube around a knee providing movement in a weak leg; even synthetic muscle. After all, muscle is only electrically variable flesh, contracting and releasing when the signals come and go from the brain. So why couldn’t we think about replicating it? A couple of patents taken out on items like these, and it would have paid for all our other researches for years to come.’

‘So how did it work?’

‘When Schmidt took me under his wing as his apprentice, the idea was that as I worked toward my doctorate so I would begin taking classes myself, mentoring and tutoring undergraduates. We created new after-hours classes in our new Department of Industrial Design. And just as Schmidt and I were of different disciplines, so we opened up the classes to any student at the University.

‘We treated the whole thing as extra-curricular, a break from their main courses. The whole point was that it should be fun and social and different. But we made sure that the students would gain credits toward their main courses, in whatever way possible.

‘So I began working with small groups of students, and I would set them certain tasks. I would give them a particular item and say, “Examine it, strip it, take it to its nuts and bolts and tell me how it works. Build a replica. But remember, this is industrial design – if this were the business world then we’d have to be careful of industrial espionage, so no taking it outside of this room.”’

‘And these were parts from cars, you said?’

‘Oh, the Professor could come up with almost anything. He would come back from meetings, perhaps with people in the automotive industries, as I’ve said. But also with aerospace engineers, architectural houses, even cutting-edge sculptors and artists.

‘He’d throw some piece of kit at me and say, “This is what the next sculpture on the Fourth Plinth will be made of,” or, “This is the new LED material they’re going to use to coat the roof of the London Dome, take a look at it.” And I could find myself looking at all manner of amazing things.’

‘Such as?’

He pondered, ‘Well, I remember the material from the Dome. It was a piece of wiring that gave off a thousand different colours from pixels all along its length. It was to be strung into a net, and then draped across the entire structure – can you imagine that sight against the night sky? I don’t think they used it in the end, but it was in a U2 concert.

‘Or there was a coating for glass that, when a current ran through it, turned a clear panel black, or a black panel clear, or a red panel white, or whatever you wanted.

‘Imagine a roof of a car that became a window on bright days, or a side-window that became a sun-shield if it got too hot, or could be turned back to the colour of the rest of the bodywork. Camper-van windows or shower cubicles could give the occupants full privacy at the touch of a button.’

‘Go on.’

‘Or…’ Beck struggled to keep the flow of words in check. ‘Or metal alloy parts whose surface under pressure became their own lubricant, Teflon-like, without gaining heat or distorting. Imagine the axle or suspension joint of a car, or even the engine some day, needing no grease or oil.

‘Or a hard panel that had certain resistive properties, and so when electrified gave off heat from its surface. This would allow the structure of a house or vehicle to be its own heater…’

Locked in traffic on a sunny day, Eris said,

‘Well, right at this moment, I could imagine that’s the car they gave us.’

 

 

Chapter 20 – Life Study

 

 

Around the Mercedes, trucks idled, taxis beeped their horns, and tarmac melted. Within it, Eris asked,

‘And was it a good take-up?’

‘Yes, we had students from chemistry, biology, physics, the design courses. There were no boundaries, and people loved it.’

‘And was it a success?’

Beck again tried to fight down some of his growing enthusiasm, not felt since all this had been happening for real,

‘Well, after gaining our first batch of students, they began telling their friends about these exciting things they were doing in secret teams – but which they weren’t allowed to tell anyone about. Recruitment shot up. But it all caused a bit of a stir on campus.’

‘So the University didn’t entirely appreciate it?’

Beck shook his head, ‘Our students became so engrossed in our classes that they began to let their main courses slip. We had to put a notice up that if their regular test scores dipped then they were to leave our group and instead spend their afternoons in extra tuition. Meanwhile, other tutors lamented the loss of interest in their brightest pupils in what they were teaching them – they lobbied us to bar their students from our special groups, and generally dissuade them from being a part of whatever it was we were doing. Thankfully we fought that. And the fact that we were making waking waves only confirmed to me that what we were doing needed doing, and was generating interest.’

‘It must have been a very special time.’

‘Oh yes, I was jumping ship from pure biology, and Schmidt had a finger in every pie he could find. We had more volunteers than we could handle. It was a great time.’

‘And for you personally, I’d imagine?’

‘I became something of a star, a notable figure on campus. People whispered when I passed, or called out when they saw me. I had an aura about me, and people love a person with an aura – I hope I can say this without ego now, given the distance travelled, and with everything that has happened in-between.’

She nodded, in moral support as much as offering permission, asking,

‘But still these were technology items your students were trying to replicate?’

‘At that point, yes.’

‘Nothing… artif?’

‘Oh, we were a while away from that yet. We didn’t even know that that would be our intention at that stage.’

‘Indeed.’

‘But as we pulled these pieces of equipment apart we did began looking at ways to use them as joints and valves, applications for the human body. And we also looked to the natural world for inspiration. This was what I had been hired for – my knowledge of the structures of exoskeletons, limbs, eyes and joints of a hundred different species.’

Beck continued, ‘Although our work was closer to physics, a large number of chemists and biologists had joined, and they would be a great help. We branched the groups out into different areas; and we found that it wasn’t too much of a stretch for a group of biology students studying the construction of a butterfly’s wing in the daytime, to then go and build us a three-foot long version of that same wing using our new materials.’

Eris was awestruck. ‘Applied biomechanics. Inspired.’ She summarised, ‘So before you knew it, you had groups of the finest young minds in Britain, analysing and building all sorts of parts of different machines and creatures for you. All sworn to secrecy and unaware of what other groups were doing. With loyalty to you and Schmidt beyond that which they had for their own tutors, and furthermore convinced that they were working for some great cause to aid the University.’

Beck could only smile,

‘We even had them exhibit some of the early biological creations: the big butterfly’s wings and cricket’s legs, spider’s mandibles and wasp stings. It fostered a sense of friendly competition between the groups.’

‘In fact,’ Eris took up the story, ‘as far as I can see it, there was only one stage left to go for the pair of you.’

Beck was suddenly stung, as if by that massive wasp, with a hideous regret he knew must be showing on his face. He corrected her,

‘Oh, we were a long way from that. We did push on toward mammals and larger animals though – remember, we still thought the end result of this process was human science, replacement parts, and we had to get there somehow. But we began to hit a snag.’

‘Oh?’

‘As we moved on to larger creatures, so the scale of the creations became more life-sized. Some of the early objects were obviously hideous, in a Halloween-costume kind-of way. But people were still a lot happier building a three-foot radio-controlled Hornet and trying to get it aloft than having a life-sized dog’s leg twitching on the table in front of them.

‘I think the worst was a group effort to model the jaw actions of a mammal. I vividly remember being with that group, after weeks of dedication on their part, stood in horror at the sight of a cat’s head, disembodied, mewling silently on the table before us.

‘The group had been working on it feverishly, sculpting plastic bone and programming the most delicate intricacies of electrical current into finely overlapping strands of muscle. While others had stitched the perfect fur to fit around those green glass eyes.

‘And then there it was, a head, yawning and rolling to its side as the mouth opened and closed on a loop, repeating the sequence of muscle movements over and over.

‘You see, each had taken so much pride in their own part that they hadn’t realised what they were making, until they put it all together. And then none could bear to touch it to switch it off. Someone yanked the cable out of the junction box, and swung the whole caboodle into a storage bin, never to be looked at again.

‘And similar scenes would be repeated with other animal parts. The girls especially didn’t like anything too accurate – and these were kids who spent their regular hours slicing and dicing in the dissection labs. At long as it was just the component parts, even when putting them together, they were fine – it was seen as something scientific, medical. Yet the moment it was switched on…

‘Somehow the pieces seemed alive – even though there wasn’t a living or dead atom in our workshop. But with the fur on, and the glass eyes, and the twitching… it was like we were messing with life.’

‘Ah, a telling phrase! Yet you continued?’

‘Some of the students stopped enjoying it as much, it stopped being such an adventure. And, as I say, there was always pressure from outside to end it. But this was exactly what Industrial Design was supposed to be about: pushing boundaries, finding out new things. And the course’s stated aim was still apparent, to earn our patents. And so we kept going, and we reorganised the groups.’

 

 

Chapter 21 – The Mechanical Human

 

 

Within the tinted glass of the dark car, Beck felt as if in a black bubble, a shadow on the face of a glorious spring day. He continued his life’s summation, talking of his students,

‘The squeamish ones were given technological projects – household objects, home electricals – and they soon got their excitement back, doing excellent work. Some of which Schmidt took back to his industrial contacts and were put into production, gaining the students credit for their courses, and making the University money to this day.’

‘And of the less-squeamish?’

Beck became thoughtful,

‘Even at the time of the cat’s head, there were some of our students who enjoyed the whole process of creating body parts in the same way as a cinema special effects department might relish its work. From the back of the room, we took note of them. And when it came time to re-evaluate, we quietly put these students together, and gave them slightly different work.

‘Even here though we stepped back, beginning with smaller, less visible and obvious parts – heart valves, hips and knee-caps. And there are thousands of these in people all over the world now, new and improved, enriching their lives…’

Eris rolled her eyes, ‘Yes, and the nation thanks you for it.’

‘…as well as being the start of a career in the field for many of the students involved.’

‘No one’s ever denied Schmidt’s project also did a lot of good. But go on with your part of it.’

Beck spoke more slowly now. Eris sensed Beck’s mood change, as he had to leave behind the abstract excitement of work he had obviously loved, and instead begin to give away the secrets of their creations,

‘As I say, we’d rolled the project back a bit from full on “body-horror”.’

She urged him on, ‘But you were close enough to something, and you wanted to pursue it?’

‘Indeed, but we didn’t know what that “something” was yet.’

‘Honestly?’

‘Honestly.’

‘But there must have come a moment…’

He breathed deeply, before beginning,

‘One evening we were in the lab after hours. The kids had left, and we could hear the music from the pub along the street. Schmidt kept a bottle of scotch in the filing cabinet, just like in The Sweeney.’ Beck chuckled momentarily, a last laugh. ‘And he poured us each a glass, and we sat there, lit by the workbench lamps, and…’

‘…one of you had the idea?’

‘I don’t honestly remember which.’

‘It’s okay. I won’t push you on it.’

‘I just don’t recall.’

‘It’s okay,’ she offered in consolation, hoping he would continue, which he did,

‘I mean, I can still see his wry smile from those days, when he would divulge his secrets. He’d tell me of East Germany, and how he outwitted his masters; or be burning to tell me of his latest plan or invention. And it might have been him looking at the students’ newest creations, admiring some wild object of theirs, and asking me, with a glint in his eye, “You know what we’re getting close to, Gawain?’’’

‘That sounds fair,’ she considered.

‘But I was so enthusiastic, and had so many ideas too back then. It could just as easily have been me blurting out, “But we’ve got this far! Why don’t we just build a whole human?’’’

‘Just as plausible,’ she judged.

‘But I don’t remember.’ As meekly as if speaking to his boyhood schoolteacher, as if he ever spoke to his teacher about such things, Beck then asked, ‘Miss Eris, do you believe in psychological repression?’

She considered, ‘I believe in emotional repression, like after a trauma: something’s there, we know it, we just can’t bring it front and centre.’

And he considered, ‘Yes, that sounds plausible too.’

She tried to counsel him, ‘Anyway, it’s okay, I’m not here to accuse you of anything, the hearings are long over. Whichever one of you voiced the thought, it doesn’t matter. But, go on. Tell me what happened after.’

Beck resumed, ‘Well, whoever said it, the other fell right on side. I don’t remember us arguing over it. One moment the idea wasn’t there, the next it was, for both of us.

‘And it was amazing. I remember feeling stunned – whether I had voiced the words or not – suddenly stunned at what we had in our hands, and saying, “We might be the only men in Europe capable of doing this.”

‘Everything was already in place, had arrived there without us even knowing it: our students in their groups encouraged to build and design, Schmidt with his thirty years of contacts in industry and academia, and me with a role where I could come and go as I pleased and ask anything of anyone in any department. We had the run of the University, and the cover of the Industrial Design project for as long as it lasted – which could have been forever with the successes we were seeing with some of the electrical and medical prototypes.

‘Schmidt and I agreed, that there was no way that we weren’t going to do this thing.’

‘The mechanical human?’

‘The mechanical human.’

 

 

Chapter 22 – The Hornet Wing

 

 

Eris asked Beck, ‘And how did that affect things?’

‘We’d moved far past giant hornets flying into the workshop walls,’ he answered. ‘We may have amused the students and ourselves with that stuff, but now we had to work fast. Anything which was going to be a part of the mechanical human project would have to be kept top secret, even from our students; and anything which wasn’t a part of it had to pay for that which was.’

She asked, ‘But it wasn’t a secret to all your students?’

‘No. As I say, among our more biologically minded faction we had filtered out an even more extreme wing. You might call them the “hornet wing”.’

‘Oh, please.’

‘These we spoke to openly and plainly – we would be making parts of bodies – and every one of them was on board. They would come to our classes, go into their own group space as normal, only they’d be taking direct instructions from us; and if the other groups asked what they were making, then they would blankly lie about it.’

‘And they accepted this?’

‘To a man and woman. They had relished the early projects and wanted to continue. And so one day when we broke up for holidays, and knowing we would be focussing on their exams when we got back, I said offhandedly, “Go on then, make me a human arm.’’’

‘Offhand?’

‘Sorry, unintentional,’ he cringed.

‘So, you threw this group a bone… sorry. And?’

‘And on the day I came back – from Tuscany, I recall – there it was, lying across my desk wrapped in blue paper. The skin was still too rubbery to guess it was real. But the craft of it, the way the muscles sat beneath the skin, how it bent at the elbow.

‘Next month the hand was done also, and later I saw it all matched together and attached to their computer. Faint electrical impulses were sent along a wire fed through the open shoulder, and we watched as the elbow pulled, the wrist turned, the fist opened and closed – we hadn’t got the fingers working independently by that time.’

‘And what were your reactions?’

‘Pride. I don’t think they’d been home or slept the whole two weeks.’

‘And it didn’t creep you out, like the cat?’

‘Oddly, no. Though a lot of that was down to enthusiasm.’

‘Pushing you along?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you set them other tasks? A leg?’

‘We could have used you on the project.’

‘And these other pieces?’

‘Were just as good. A leg, a better hand, and feet. They even made us a skull.’

‘A skull? So there was no pretence among you? I thought these were ostensibly prosthetics?’

‘By the end I don’t think that final group gave a damn what they were making, or what they were making them for. As I say, it was all Hammer Horror to some. I even saw a film one of the students put online, of them dressed up as zombies and vampires and slashing and tearing off each other’s fake body parts covered in special effects blood.’

‘Lord. I never saw that, not in all our seized materials.’

He explained, ‘You wouldn’t have. Schmidt put an end to that final group pretty quickly, worried that someone outside seeing their films would figure out what we were doing. As if you’d guess from a special effects arm?’

‘So he worried?’

Beck harrumphed, ‘I was impressed with our crack team, but Schmidt was scared of them. He thought them too obsessive, too keen, too close to his motives perhaps. I don’t know. But we kept the arms and whatnot, and packed the group off to the regular Industrial Design classes with the others that semester.’

‘But you were close by then?’

‘Close enough for us to continue the work alone, yes.’

 

 

Chapter 23 – Brain Damage

 

 

As the car turned through its heavy traffic, then so did Beck turn through the byways of his past. He would have opened the window for air, but Eris forbade it, instead turning on the icy air conditioning.

‘That’s terrible for the environment, you know,’ he offered.

‘Go on with the story,’ she instructed.

He had no choice,

‘Well,’ he began. ‘Replicating the physical, sensory and motor functions of a human were one part of it. But once we had decided on our goal, then it was no longer a case of simply making replacement parts for an already living human. Rather, it involved all of those parts being put together as an independent unit. This required Schmidt to set to work also. With his years in robotics behind him, he, and his own favourite students from his computer science classes, began work on what he called “The Program”.’

‘So, he sacked your group, but kept his own?’

‘I didn’t need a group by them, and he had a million lines of code to write. The need was greater than the risk.’

‘And what was this “Program”?’

‘Nothing less than a mind.’

‘You pair certainly didn’t suffer for ambition, did you.’

‘Aristotle said, “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness,” and we were trying to make a great mind.’

‘Don’t go twisting the words of the great thinkers, Doctor Beck. Stay on target, if you please.’

‘Sorry. Well, once the necessity had been accepted, then we approached the mind as we did everything else – not to make a perfect copy, but to see what the original did, and then to make our best attempt at building something that did the same.

‘We had bone, sense and muscle, and I was on my way to putting them together. Now we needed the ghost in our machine. We approached it as scientists, not as thinkers or poets. Though in the elegance of our solution was beauty, at least I think so.’

‘Okay, okay.’

‘The brain, the mythical, unfathomable brain. Did you know that in the Middle Ages, the first dissectors cut their way deeper and deeper into the human body to find the space that held the soul? They looked in the head, in the heart, in the gut – would you believe they didn’t find it? It was the start of the greatest detective story in the history of our people. The search for the soul – and even today we’re still looking.’

He went on, ‘Have you ever thought about consciousness, Miss Eris? Actually focused on your inner voice and watched it like a hawk? I’ve noticed that mine stops… the undrying stream wells up. Then it starts again the moment I divert my gaze.

‘But this was exactly what we had to do. I mean, it isn’t easy. But we tried. And as we brainstormed the brain, Schmidt had a breakthrough. He realised that the brain does two things: firstly, it takes all of our sensory data, and out of it creates a total image of the world around us, in three dimensions, in full colour, in five senses, and real enough to touch.’

‘Doctor, please don’t speak of reality being “real enough to touch.” Such language takes you half-way to schizophrenia.’

‘As indeed we had to be to even get that far. And if you want to know about reality then do ask a schizophrenic. They’ll tell you how a “real” red postbox becomes the devil, or a “real” car becomes a creature and walks away, or a man’s “real” hat grows wings and flies off his head. It makes you realise how hard the healthy brain works to keep reality normal.’

‘Okay, okay!’

‘So the brain creates a hearty, colourful impression of things, in which we live. But it then does an amazing second thing: it presents to us our memories triggered by what we see and sense at that moment. These seem to be offered in a ghostly, half-there form, and so are understood as not being the same thing as that colourful reality which the brain is also creating for us.

‘So our artificial brain would need a powerful 3D visualising element – to create a reality – but also a databank with instant recall based on current stimuli – this would be memory.

‘And then, memory itself has different facets: there’s long-term for instance, seeing a house and remembering it as somewhere that you last visited five years ago. There’s also evidence that humans pick out faces. And so we set aside an area especially for these.

‘And there would also need to be short-term memory, which is a very different thing from long-term memory, and involves remembering where we are, and what we were doing, and the sentence we were half-way through anything from a twentieth of a second ago.

‘I had the idea that we could work out a short-term system by using our existing long-term memory banks, but by making the search facility so sensitive that it would pick up almost anything recently logged – therefore recent memories would always be recalled alongside whatever the brain was then remembering from further back.

‘Though Schmidt, the practical thinker, realised the power that such system-wide searches would consume. And so instead he set out a small cache. Here all recent memories would also be stored, and would be continually presented to the mind for a short time afterwards, regardless of whether they responded to what the person was at that moment seeing.’

‘You’re losing me.’

‘Okay. For instance, you go through a door from a blue room to a red room. After passing into the red room then long-term memory would only be recalling all the red rooms you had ever visited in the past, and recalling nothing blue now that that stimuli was no longer present. Yet passing from one room to another does not induce a bout of amnesia – we would still retain the memory that we were recently in a blue room. This is short-term memory continuing to present us with recent experiences regardless of current stimuli.’

‘What else?’

‘Well, obviously there were automatic systems, such as temperature regulation, and the artif’s alarm triggers and battery-level sensors. Which because they didn’t involve the senses, weren’t present in their view of the world. And so, before we realised it, we had created a subconscious.’

 

 

Chapter 24 – A Workable Psyche

 

 

‘You talk of such heavy concepts so lightly,’ mused Eris.

‘Well, I can’t help it if we found these things right there in front of us,’ offered Beck. ‘And that was far from our only serendipitous moment.

‘For instance, when Schmidt built his short-term memory cache, he set it up to time-stamp these memories and have them fade out in intensity down to nothing, forever being pushed back by the newest sensations. This fading-out effect, without us realising it, gave our artifs a sense of time progressing into the past.

‘Meanwhile, when it came to sound, we tried a method of isolating words in the same way as we were isolating faces in the visual data. Suddenly in our simulations words became a thing in themselves, no longer representing just a sound or the creature that made the sound, but instead standing in for concepts, things, ideas.

‘Words became tags for memory. And when added to our short-term memory with its sense of time passing, words could be formed into strings, with the speaker or the hearer knowing at which point they were at in the sentence they were part-way through speaking or hearing. Most brilliantly, coming up with new strings of words, built out of all the bits of all the sentences they’d ever heard before. Thought is memory restructured, re-connected. There is nothing new under the sun.

‘Now we had a narrative voice. Now we had language. Now we were cooking on gas.’

She shook her head. ‘Language, perhaps the most important development in all of evolution, the thing that sets humans apart from every other creature. And you replicate it one afternoon, sat with a cup of coffee hunched over your Apple Mac?’

Beck answered,

‘Demystify these things, and they fall into your lap. What did Lenin say? “We found power lying in the streets and simply picked it up.” Well, we found the secrets of the brain in the street, it wasn’t our fault that they were there to find.’

He continued, ‘There are all sorts of minor details, but you don’t want to be bored with technicalities. The bottom line is that we mapped out a mind because we needed one.’

‘And then you went about creating it?’

‘Schmidt had spent his life in computers. And having grown up in a secular state, he had no matters of the soul obscuring him, no sacred ground not to walk on. He saw the core of the brain as a pattern recognition program, forming raw data into recognisable shapes. Add to this the memory banks, giving us the ghostly echoes that are us, and you have something like a workable psyche.’

Eris reasoned, ‘You’re calling me and you a computer. But I don’t feel like a computer. I feel natural and alive. Like a creature, not a robot.’

Beck answered, ‘But look at how computers have themselves evolved. What do computers look like today? They’re like a typewritten page, or a glossy photo album, or a weathered diary, or a three-dimensional world if you’re playing a game. I bet you use computers every day, Miss Eris, but when was the last time you had to open a program in an operating system, or write a line of code? The genius of modern computing is to wrap up a million bits and bytes into something accessible, and visual and, yes, natural.’

He went on, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t want to shatter your self-image. And all of this is only my theory. But you’re asking me the questions. Ask yourself: do you think that I feel any less a human for having created a robot that does the same things as me? Do we think any less of horses for having built the motor car?’

‘Doctor, I am no horse.’

‘Well, it’s not a harmful comparison. Have you looked into a horse’s eyes? They’re among the most soulful of animals.’

‘Enough! I suppose I must ask these questions, but I don’t have to accept the answers.’

Beck had nearly wrapped up his speech though,

‘People even today speak of the soul. Rub your eyes till you start getting white blotches in your vision, until you start seeing triangles and squares. Now, what have they to do with anything natural? It is the white noise of aggravated optic nerves, attempted to be understood by a computer program. God may have created such a system, but then that is the nature of what he created.

‘Chaos falls into order, as has always been the way. A million drops of water form a tide, a million grains of sand a dune, a billion particles of air the winds that rake the rooftops. And our nervous systems have been doing this pattern-forming with chains of sensory data since Day One, back millennia before the human brain came along to theorise everything.’

Beck wrapped up ‘So, Schmidt went through his contacts and catalogues, found the strongest processors he could, the largest, quickest memory chips; and we were half-way to Anna.’

 

 

Chapter 25 – New Life

 

 

In the back of the car Eris shuffled her notes, and resumed as best she could,

‘So, you had your “Program”, and your… parts?’

Beck nodded.

‘But you weren’t yet able to… initiate?’

‘“Initiate.” A good word for it. Proactive, and less mechanical than “activate”. And by which you mean to create, to give birth even?’

‘Yes.’

‘No, we couldn’t “initiate”?’ (she nodded.) ‘anything at the University. We needed somewhere secluded, and also calm and peaceful. After all, our work was both secret and…’ he gasped at fresh realisation of it ‘…involved the nurturing of new beings. Their earliest development and memories would be shaped there. It had to be a perfect, kind environment. And so we found Springfields.’

‘Ah yes, Springfields,’ she recalled. ‘It was lovely when we visited eight years ago; the blossom was out.’

‘And was it lovely when you left?’

‘You didn’t leave us much to find.’

‘Hence you looked all the harder?’

She smiled, ‘Best to remember it as it was.’

She rapped the pull-down seat-back table on which her papers were scattered, ‘So, to continue – nurturing?’

‘We had the parts, we had the Program. Schmidt and Ingrid had been fitting the house out with all we needed. There was nothing to stop us. At the start of summer holidays, we built Anna.

‘We built her actual frame at the lab though – the equipment at Springfields was new, and we didn’t want our most important task to be its first test. It was the last night of term. I remember the sound of revellers coming in through the window.’

‘You did a lot of work at such times?’

‘It was when the college was emptiest. We brought her to the house in the back of Schmidt’s car…’

Eris raised her hands, ‘Back up, back up. There are details you’re overlooking. Tell me of that moment.’

‘The moment of physical creation?’

She nodded.

‘I remember we were very quiet in the University workshop. We weren’t actually meant to be there, and the door was locked. The final parts had been built by me or Schmidt, designing them even up until that morning and casting them in plastic that afternoon. It was dark, but we could only have the lights on low.’

‘You make it sound like Burke and Hare.’

Beck paused a moment, shaking his head at the memory,

‘And I can tell you, even when not yet clad in skin, there is something in holding, say, the quite separate and detached upper-leg of a young woman that I was wholly unprepared for.’

But Beck was soon back on to the technical aspects,

‘The sections of the limbs were complete assemblies by then. The joints were yet to be clad, and so looked angular and black. But we had designed them for smooth working, and to retain the outline of an elbow or ankle.

‘Over the frame then went the epidermal layer…’

‘Which was?’

‘What looked like a diving suit, a thin black body-stocking through which ran a thousand vessels. It was through these vessels that a pump in her abdomen pushed warm water, giving her body-heat and a pulse.’

‘You thought of everything.’

‘We tried. And then, once all the parts were put together, all were enmeshed in golden fabric. We called it spun vinyl, working by the yard. It was a very fine weave, and flexible. We rolled it on in as large pieces as possible, cutting in a clean line, and melting it on with an industrial heater – just like a big hairdryer. It worked like a dream, the seams melting into invisibility.’

‘And that was her completed?’

‘As good as. And there she lay, as though resting. The way the skin moved over her muscles as we moved her was so lifelike, a testament to all the effort of our groups and all they’d learnt. And later, at Springfields, once we had her battery charged and the automatic systems switched on, then she became warm, and it really was as though there was a sleeping girl in our midst.

‘This made her not as creepy as our previous endeavours. There is a known factor in all this – scientists call it the Uncanny Valley. Basically, when a simulacrum looks nothing like what it is supposed to replicate, then people are not afraid of it, we view it as a toy. Then, as we get closer to perfect mimicry it becomes uncanny, and eventually unsettling. This is called “Falling into the valley.”

‘And then suddenly, at one-hundred percent perfection, the simulacrum becomes a thing of beauty and startlement. And shows we have arrived at perfect replication.

‘Those early shivers of discomfort then were like the rumbles that the first test pilots experienced just before they broke the speed barrier – their planes would shake themselves nearly to pieces; but then a sonic boom would be heard on the ground, and in the air the plane and the pilot would be calm and pristine and at ease with the world and with the air currents around them. This was where Schmidt and I found ourselves, a moment of pure bliss.’

‘And then you drove your “girl” to Springfields?’

‘Yes, on the backseat of the car. We dressed her and I wrapped her in blankets, but couldn’t cover her face. You might find that sentimental, as she hadn’t a spark of life in her yet. I was drunk on adrenalin that evening, but have lain awake many nights since wondering what a police officer would have made of the scene had we been pulled over – a young woman, not yet warm to the touch, and refusing to be roused.’

‘And how did the actual activation go?’

Here Beck was silent, before lamenting,

‘If there is a regret in all of our experiments, it is in what Anna went through.’

‘A difficult birth?’

‘There was no way to make it otherwise. We did all that we could at the University, but we couldn’t risk initiation there, and so we had to use the new equipment at Springfields – we had no choice. Everything was checked and double checked; but there were still too many variables, unknowables.

‘We lay her in a comfortable position, downloaded the Program, and switched her on.’

‘And?’

‘She was silent for a moment, her eyes open, darting. And then she screamed, loud enough to rip out her vocal cords. I panicked, and tore out the power cable fed into her side-panel – they have a small control-panel on their hip, to manage their alarms.’

Eris nodded, urging. He continued,

‘We stood there watching our creation return to stillness after being hard rebooted. We were stunned, but Schmidt said, ‘Is that what it’s like to see life for the first time?’’

‘We repaired her and tried again, hoping it was only an initial reaction. We strengthened her new vocal cords, but that only let her scream for longer before tearing them out again. And this also gave her time to realise her body and begin thrashing around. She pulled one of her shoulders right out of the socket, before I pulled the plug the second time.

‘We repaired her again, and tied her down in preparation. At least at this third attempt there was no more damage, but in her face we got the same horrified reaction. And no less horrifying for us, looking at the harm we were doing her simply by allowing her to live.

‘We thought the room might have been too bright, so lowered the lights. We also looked at her sensory settings – perhaps her terror stemmed from not being able to sense the world clearly enough? So we turned her senses up; but the next time we started her up she only seemed to feel her terror more strongly. So we turned her senses down, too-far down, and this made her movements worse in a different way, as if struggling through deep water, or out of a nightmare – years later she would say that it felt like being in a black hole with no sight or sound, no up or down, only able to scream inside.’

‘So she was aware in these moments?’

‘Yes, and thinking, and feeling, and forming memories, as we would later discover – she remembered every stab of it! But by now it had been a fortnight of intermittent torture, and in all conscience Schmidt and I couldn’t put her through that again.’

 

 

Chapter 26 – Oh, Anna

 

 

Eris summarised, ‘So your first attempts with Anna didn’t work. What did you do?’

Beck answered, ‘Well, the solutions were quite obvious – though an awful lot of work. I remembered Schmidt’s outburst – “Is that what it’s like to see life for the first time?” – and I remembered that humans don’t form full memories for the first two years of childhood. Perhaps in that time we’re only getting used to things?

‘So Schmidt would have to go and reprogram. Meanwhile, we also wondered what it might have been like to suddenly experience the world as an adult, without ever being small and soft and bumping into things? And so we built a child-frame.’

‘Ah yes, your juvenile frames. My predecessor mentioned them.’

‘There were five in the end – baby, five years old, ten, fifteen, twenty.’

‘That exact?’

‘Or roughly so. The fifth we termed “generic young adult”.’

‘The final one? The one they live in now?’

Beck nodded.

Eris lamented, ‘My predecessor was sad that you destroyed them all.’

‘So he told me at the time,’ said Beck bleakly. ‘Schmidt must have trashed them at Springfields, after getting advanced warning. And I’m glad he did. They were creepy things after being discarded, like a cupboard full of corpses.’

‘And so did it work with Anna? Her little body?’

He nodded, ‘We also built her a new initiation sequence, adding very little to memory at first, increasing sensory levels slowly, and allowing us to tweak them in real time. And though she cried a lot when we initiated her, she also moved around, explored the workbench she was lying on, even played when we gave her coloured blocks – so quickly, in just her first few hours! And then we noticed, she was smiling!

‘We tried her for a couple of hours a day at first, checking everything out in between. And then we just left her on. Schmidt and I had the University to get back to by then, so we left Anna at Springfields and hired a nanny for her, Mrs Winters, a widow of a colleague of ours at the University. Her husband had himself been a radical in his ideas, and she had no problem…’

‘You told her, just like that?’

‘We had no time for subtlety, we were only glad she was available. And as soon as she met Anna she was instantly on board. Anna needed looking after, and we couldn’t always be there once the new term began.’

‘And was Mrs Winters a scientist herself?’

‘No, though she had studied to a high level in her youth. Apart from charging Anna when she rested, there was nothing else to do but watch her and play with her.’

‘Play?’ asked Eris.

‘Yes. It’s an evocative notion, isn’t it? Not merely being alert and operational and aware, but finding fancies and joy. I remember Mrs Winters calling us over, on only her first or second day. Anna was banging her favourite wooden blocks together, and making them into little heaps, then laughing as they fell down.

‘Mrs Winters watched this and said, “Look what you’ve done. Look at the little life you’ve made.” I think that was the happiest time with Anna.’

‘“Her happiest time”? But it sounds like she was doing so well.’

‘Yes, she was doing great. As I say, the new method of initiation had worked better than we could have hoped. And it would go on to work well for the others in time. They would cry a little, fret a little – birth, even initiation, is a traumatic thing. But we’d leave them unremembering at first. And then after a while, as they settled down, we’d ease their memory in, and they’d begin to recall.

‘But with Anna we had a problem. Her first few memories were a shrieking nightmare of full adult consciousness, instant awareness, and agonising pain as she pulled herself apart in an adult body. How were we to let her start recalling that?’

 

 

Chapter 27 – Howl

 

 

Eris gulped, ‘Couldn’t you have erased those first recollections and started Anna from scratch?’

‘And institute a form of amnesia?’ Beck shook his head. ‘How would you feel, Miss Eris, if you discovered that someone had removed a traumatic memory from your mind “for your own good”?’

He continued, ‘Ownership of memory is the one thing we have, the one thing that can’t be taken from us. Schmidt had grown up in a country where memories weren’t allowed, where someone could be disappeared and was never to be spoken of again, where even families couldn’t talk of their lost loved ones.

‘And I was right there with him. This was a principle: that human experience was absolute, and not to be regarded as a pick and mix. To airbrush out the bad was to rob us of our happenings, leave an incomplete life.’

Eris argued, ‘But this was so specific a memory, so horrible, and so… purposeless for the life she was to lead. Indeed, hindering. God, I’m beginning to realise what you’re getting at. You left those memories in, didn’t you? She was left recalling all of it.’

Despite himself Beck could only fall into self-justifying mode,

‘We always knew the first would bear a high responsibility. Like Neil Armstrong trying to go back to being a teacher after walking on the Moon, or the Beatles having to “Carry That Weight”. There was no way around it. Someone had to be first.’

Eris had too much else to learn about to labour the argument, which had no answer anyway. Beck was keen to get on with the narrative, and Eris let him, eager to hear it. He continued,

‘As our memory gets switched on by gradations, for most of us it starts empty. Yet for Anna those torments flashed-back like a recollected dream. But we were with her, and were there for her, and were prepared for it. And when she was older we talked her through those experiences, explained how something very sad had happened to her when she was little.’

‘And how did she take it?’

‘At first it was confusing, and she could only understand it in a simple sense. But we were learning that artifs were so much quicker than normal babies. Soon she had Bradley to play with; and even though the later strands were even swifter in advancement, within the year our first two were each in five-year-olds frames and thinking like ten-year-olds.

‘She started reading incredibly quickly, as if we’d given her a world of stories and her job was to consume them. Yet she never would become as academic as some of the others, preferring characters and emotions. Which is no failing, indeed I’ve gone that way myself in recent years.

‘By then I could only be at Springfields a day or two a week, and most weekends I was away with my own family. Anna and Bradley needed new frames as quickly as I could build them, and already we were thinking of future strands. So even when I could be there I was busy in the workshop. I wonder, did I miss things? Did I not take the time? Oh, I don’t make many claims for myself, but I will make this one: no human expended more mental energy than I did over those years. That is my world record bid.

‘In the years afterwards I’ve thought that by rights I ought to have burned my circuits out, having just done too much too intensely, like the captain in Nova – have you read it? But instead it’s made my mind as strong as anyone’s. Strong enough to cope with what came afterwards, anyway.’ He chuckled. ‘And just as well, really. Was that the secret my subconscious understood without telling me: “Build your mind up in your quest, as you’ll need it when your quest collapses”? The brain,’ he mused. ‘“Use it or lose it,” don’t they say? Well, I’ve used mine enough to last me till I’m a hundred.’

‘Get back to Anna,’ urged Eris, kindly but directly.

‘She was forming words and trying to speak even as a baby. One day she woke up and was five – I can still see her with her brown hair and dungarees, Mrs Winters smiling at her as I woke her.’

‘How did she take the change of body?’

‘For each change of frame we used a slighter version of our new gradual initiation process, easing them in. But Anna was fine with it, I think she liked the freedom to run about. And before we knew it she was reading CS Lewis and singing along to songs on the radio. But it wasn’t until Bradley came along that we fully realised.’

‘Realised what?’

‘That she was a sad child, and would always be, to some degree. Her bad experience had changed her, made her thoughtful, gave her depth; perhaps too much depth for a child.’

Beck again became wistful, ‘But then we adults have this romantic notion of childhood, don’t we, of it being all hayfields and swings and bike-rides. Yet any accurate remembrance of our early days requires admittance of fun, yes; excitement, yes. But also the possibly of rampant fear, and horrible upset, and terror at each new understanding of the overwhelming bigness of it all. Some of us act out; while others turn inwards, and so can become the targets for others’ acting out. And none of us have the minds yet to grasp what others are going through. Both John Lennon and Kurt Cobain could bully other kids, despite having tough times themselves, and despite each having another part of themselves sensitive enough for them to later be hailed as “the one who understood”…’

‘Doctor.’

‘…the lonely and the outcast…’

‘Doctor!’

‘Sorry, yes. It’s playing tricks on me, all this remembrance. But it does have a purpose here, for our children never did that, never acted out. Perhaps because we gave them so much of our time, and that because of their nature they were always our main cause of interest. Perhaps that’s what a child needs, as Lennon himself sang so many times.’

Here Beck again began to sink into his own emotional frame of mind,

‘Or perhaps Schmidt and I oughtn’t to credit ourselves for the children’s own doing. Perhaps their success was down to their being so supernaturally wise, and learning through each stage of their development so quickly. And perhaps because they always understood that they were singular and special and had to look out for each other. And then there was Christopher, who turned out to be such a good leader…’

Eris wielded her feminine influence with a hand on Beck’s arm,

‘Anna, Doctor. And how she turned out.’

Beck breathed, ‘Okay, okay, give me a moment… Right, yes, Anna. Too much depth for a child, yes?’

She nodded. He continued, less flustered,

‘Yes. Sometimes she would like to be alone, and would search out sad characters in her books – she cried over Aslan the Lion.’

‘We all cried over Aslan.’

‘But Bradley didn’t. Bradley was our first boy, and his mind worked just as well. And he liked different toys to Anna, not as we had planned, but as the childhood-development books had told us that they might do. Anna looked for toys with faces, while Bradley loved anything that moved. He had cried a little upon initiation, but hadn’t had Anna’s trauma. Even then I think we knew we’d hurt her.’

 

 

Chapter 28 – Childhood of the Artifs Pt. 1

 

 

Eris wouldn’t push Beck on Anna again, instead moving to the other artifs,

‘And then there was Christopher,’ suggested Eris. ‘Why not a girl for the odd number?’

‘Because it was around then that I learnt that the money wasn’t all from the University or Schmidt’s patent or profits from our inventions. We had another source of income, and not a happy one.

‘I’d been well aware that after his liberation Schmidt had offered information to the US Secret Service. He was a goldmine to them on the old East German system, the movers and shakers, and where to find those people now. And it turned out that one of the Secret Service agents he shared these details with later asked a favour of him, in return for sums of money I couldn’t credit.’

‘The deal?’

‘The deal was to build a special kind of robot – God knows how these people found out about our project – perhaps they’d known about it all along?

‘Schmidt put his foot down though – he wouldn’t build a soldier. But that wasn’t what they wanted – what they asked for was a spy: with perfect senses, total recall, and a subtlety to be able to go unnoticed; slightly taller to see over others’ heads, but not so tall as to stand out. And they wanted him as sharp and quick and understanding as we could make him.

‘Schmidt wasn’t happy, nor was I, but you can see we had no choice. And what can I say of the result? I think we excelled ourselves.’

‘Christopher. You think he runs the artifs’ network?’

‘I’ll leave you to decide. And so yes, to answer your question, he became our third strand.’

‘You’ve called them strands a few times,’ noted Eris.

Beck answered quickly, ‘At first we spoke in terms of strands of research: “The progress of the first strand, the introduction of a second strand,” and so on. Strands were good, strands were neutral…’

‘…strands were innocent if someone overheard you.’

‘Why always so suspicious, Miss Eris?’

‘My training perhaps? Go on.’

‘So, to start with they were strands. Of course in time they developed and were successful…’

‘On what scale?’

‘Sorry?’

‘No, I’m sorry for interrupting; but I need to ask: measured as a success on what scale? Upon what criteria?’

‘I suppose the criteria of how much of a person they were, how quick-witted, how aware of their surroundings, how able to take it all in and respond in a sensical fashion.’

‘So, how like a human personality?’

‘Yes, the very criteria that saw them called artifs. As by that point we could no longer think of them in terms of robot-arms in factories, or self-driving cars, or mobile phone’s inbuilt talking assistants. They were people, just like us, no worse or no better – in fact quite considerably better, on every available academic scale. But just as baffling, as capricious, as self-unaware as any individual. These were not robots, were not creations, any more than we call a baby a creation. They were people; and so the only differentiation became whether they were made naturally or artificially.’

‘Artificially?’

‘Indeed; purely in terms of the dictionary definition, you understand. Artifice I guess has the same root word as art, as in produced by the human hand, and not by nature alone. Now, you could argue that humans are ourselves a product of nature, and so everything that we create is…’

‘Yes, yes. I understand.’

‘We pondered on “inorganic” for a while, though it hardly tripped off the tongue. Yet artif was a simple term, easy to remember, and had a certain inference of… intelligence and design. So artif stuck.’

Eris pushed on the narrative,

‘So, “third strand” Christopher. How did you go about building your “spy”?’

‘The truth? We made him taller – and then after that not a single difference. Although by that time Schmidt had sourced stronger memory chips and processors from his contacts. All the future strands would have these, and the first two would be retrofitted. But Chris was the first to be upgraded from the start.

‘And there was a difference in him. Though I think that was more because he knew that he alone had expectations. And of course, the others all had a brother or sister around the same age, but not Christopher. He was singular, always ahead or behind.’

‘But that’s like all of us, unless we’re twins,’ she reasoned.

‘But our artifs were growing up so quickly, and were so aware, and had such large jumps in growth. There was nothing gradual in their childhoods – one day they were a baby, the next five years old. One day five, the next ten. And so on.

‘And Christopher was wise to this, built with those special capabilities, the strongest senses so far and the most intense processor.’

‘Perhaps too intense?’

‘We feared so at first. Yet he seemed fine with it, and we gave the same to Ellie and Danny in their turn, and eventually to all, as I say.

‘So much relied on Chris though, and he seemed to take it on. If they ever had a leader, it was him. He alone was known outside the group, and had visitors arrive from America to test him and assess him. They would take him away for the day, ask him questions, to which he always answered stoically and I’m sure sometimes infuriatingly.’

There was so much Eris could ask, but she knew she had to skim-read. She gathered her thoughts,

‘So you were past half-way by then, there were only two more to make.’

‘We didn’t know that though. A part of me must have known that it would end some day, but it also felt like we were only getting started. As we developed each strand so the process became all the speedier. Trials on the early strands could be completely avoided, and the results of those earlier tests applied, methods of initiation improved. Meanwhile, with each later strand we could reuse that gender’s existing juvenile frames.’

‘You re-used their child bodies?’

‘They weren’t bodies; they were little more than… clothes. Their “souls”, their internals were transplanted each time. And we changed the faces, the hair.’

Eris moved in her seat in the manner of one with a drop of ice-water running down their spine.

 

 

Chapter 29 – Childhood of the Artifs Pt. 2

 

 

Beck continued in his description of the artif’s development,

‘Designs were refined, joints made stronger, points of wear reinforced. Had we had another five years…’

Eris gave him a silent look which Beck interpreted as, ‘Be thankful you had the time you had.’ Thus chastened, he continued, though could not hide his enthusiasm,

‘Well anyway, given a few more years, then we could have been turning them out at a rate of a strand month, and with as little as six – or even three – months in each frame.’

She was agog, ‘So that would be twelve new strands initiated a year, and all stages of childhood development conducted in… fifteen months?’

He nodded, ‘We were getting quick, and they were getting better. By the time of Ellie and Danny we had things going so well. Our processes were smooth, and each frame was sitting there ready-built for them to move into.

‘And just like any hardware or software developer, we were constantly evolving, making the systems harder, faster, more capacious. I’m talking processors now; electricals. Our first concern had been with getting them up to speed with humans. But by the time of Danny and Ellie’s education, we had them sitting Oxford entrance papers.’

‘They’d have gotten into Oxford?’

‘And gotten Firsts – three months later Ellie passed a mock PHD.’

‘And how old were they then?’

‘Ten or fifteen in body, about two in duration.’

‘Duration… you mean life?’

‘Yes.’

‘They developed so quickly.’

‘Far outstripping us, yes. It seemed we were pulling them out of one childhood frame as quickly as we were putting them into the next. In fact, the only thing stopping the last pair growing quicker was getting Anna and Bradley out of each frame soon enough.

‘By the end, with all of them as adults, and each of them in the one unique final body we would build them, they seemed about as grown up as each other. One of the great things about them, though, was that they formed their own personalities.

‘Anna was a sweet girl, though shy and quiet, always wanting reassurance. And as soon as Ellie was the same age as her, you’d have though Ellie was the elder sister.

‘Bradley was a simple soul, straightforward, and after Anna I confess that was a relief. Though, like his sister, he was less academically inclined than some of the others would be, perhaps because he’d spent his early days with less processing power (though still with more than us). Though they were equally capable by the end. Ultimately it came down to personality.’

‘Personality?’ asked Eris. ‘Even after making them all the same?’

‘But how we act and what we react to are completely down to us. How would you like it if God came booming through the clouds, “Miss Eris, I built you to like popcorn, table-tennis and punk rock.” And you’d shout back, “I know I do. But those are my passions, not yours!”’

She smiled, ‘And more importantly, Doctor, how did you know I liked popcorn?’

‘A lucky guess. But yes, dear Bradley; really the calmest of them all.’

‘Christopher we’ve covered. And the last two?’

‘The jewels in our crown. Although we built Ellie first, Danny wasn’t far behind, and they almost seemed like twins. We gave them each blonde hair to add to the effect, and to give them their own look.

‘Ellie was the sharpest of the lot, a scientist in the mould of her creators. I had such dreams for her. While Danny was just as quick but not as committed. He seemed to favour nature. I think he might have been an artist.’

(Eris didn’t remind Beck that Danny’s love of nature most likely led to his injury in the rockfall.)

‘You see,’ continued Beck, ‘Danny and Ellie were the first ones not entirely unique: they were the first ones to reuse frames, and the first not to be the first at something – not the first artif ever, or the first girl, or the first boy; or the first of a different template, like Christopher. And there was something normalising in that, like any human feels.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, for all our individuality, we follow a pattern laid down for millennia. To be the first human to break with some part of that pattern – to be immortal, or to age too quickly, or too slowly, or be twice as tall, or read minds – would be terrifying, wouldn’t it?’

Beck continued, as if talking of his own children,

‘I have a memory of one of the “field trips” Mrs Winters would take them on into the local towns – never the same town after one of them had “aged” though. She would tell anyone who asked that she was the nanny for several families, and that the children’s parents were holidaying or out of the area. And behind her, a gaggle of little boys and girls of all ages and hair-colours followed. All so polite, so neat in the outfits she had bought for them.

‘Anna was ten by this particular occasion, but it was five-year-old Ellie who was pointing things out in shop-windows and leading her sister around. Bradley wanted to try out the bikes in the toy shop, as that was what we’d promised him when he took the next step up. While little Danny was just looking at the town around him, taking everything in.

‘Christopher had his own series of frames, so he could be the same age as Bradley. Though being slightly taller, he looked older than ten, and already wore an adult bearing. You might say “old before his time”. He too was watching his surroundings, but not like Danny was. No, to Christopher all had to be memorised and understood.’

‘A little spy even then?’

‘He took it very seriously.’

‘And did he ever start his adult work?’

‘You mean, did the CIA ever come back for him? Not as far as I know. And anyway, aren’t we on their side? If the US had some robotic super-spy, then wouldn’t our guys know about it?’

‘I’d like to think so,’ answered Eris.

 

 

Chapter 30 – Tombstone

 

 

The Jaguar had seemed stuck at the same traffic lights for five minutes. So long in fact that Charlie the driver was having to shoo-away a man with a squeegee wanting to clean the windows for a tip.

‘He’s got soap over everything,’ he said, getting back in after surveying the damage. ‘I’m going to have to polish her down when I get to the garage.’

Beck observed all of this through the glass partition. Though was interrupted by Eris asking him,

‘So, the final days.’

‘Yes,’ resumed Beck. ‘Well, they were all in adult frames by then, luckily for them. I would imagine it would be harder to live an independent life as a ten or fifteen-year-old, no matter how clever you are. Like that child vampire in the Anne Rice books.’

‘And you had no more “strands” in preparation? Why was that?’

‘Well, for all our efficiency at making them, we also needed to take stock, check the data and see how they were getting on. There was also the issue of resources. Springfields was only so big. And though remote, we were picking up notice in the towns. Maybe it was just my suspicions, but I was seeing the looks the family got on their trips, or when people passed by the house.

‘Schmidt and I would never accompany them on the field trips, as that would make it even harder to explain away our group structure. But we would be in the town anyway, having a drink or meal, and watching the children’s interactions with shopkeepers, etcetera.

‘Throughout the five years of Springfields, my biggest fear was Education Services turning up and asking the children’s names and ages and whether they attended school. Amazing, really, that none did. But then they jumped up in ages so fast that even if someone saw us in town or passed the house often, then they would probably think they were different groups of children.

‘And Mrs Winters kept her story so well, of rich children boarding with her as their parents travelled, or whilst between schools; and this again explained the changing roster.

‘But as they got older it got easier. They could travel alone or in pairs, and be more independent, mingle easily. So I think we had a sense that, whatever the future of the project, we needed to move them on to their own lives and close down Springfields.’

‘What future did the five they think had?’

‘I think they thought it was bright. And as we saw what a great group of young people they were turning out to be, then I think that the Professor and Mrs Winters and I generally felt just as positive, and that at some point we’d break it…’

‘Break what?’

‘The secret!’

‘That didn’t scare the five?’

‘I think they hoped to be a sensation. They were young, and saw uniqueness as something to be treasured.’

‘Life can disabuse us of that notion.’

‘And their sheer capacity made them wise, and they understood as well as us.’

‘Understood what?’

‘That there was only one way to run a project like ours, and that was to start in secret, and then to wow the world with it. Since our initial brainstorms Schmidt and I had known, without ever needing to say it, that we would never have got what we wanted to do past a University committee: it was too radical, too fearful. It would have been shut down.’

She asked him, ‘And, Doctor Beck, should you ever have found yourself serving on such a committee, then how would such a project sound to you?’

‘Like the stuff of wild-brained men who couldn’t believe the amazing situation they had found themselves in.’

Was Beck saying too much? He didn’t know, and it was all conjecture anyway. And so he went on,

‘But I don’t regret it. Not for a day, not even after all the trouble.’

And it had been trouble – it shamed him now, but as he looked at his younger self in his mind’s eye, and at the Professor, so senior and respected by all who knew him, Beck met their wide-eyed look with one of his own, telling Eris,

‘It felt like being initiated into the greatest secret in the world.’

‘And now?’

‘And now it makes me go feverish just at the thought of it, a mingling of that first excitement, with an… unprocessable shame at the lies I ended up telling, at the crisis we caused.’

‘But still the question,’ asked Eris. ‘The question I can’t shake. You claim you didn’t know your ultimate aim when first pairing with Schmidt?’

Beck answered rhetorically, ‘Is it possible for people to be heading down a road and not know it? It was all such a rush, but was the greatest time of my life. The luck of a youngster to have new ground to move into. A time never to be repeated. On my tombstone, when I am gone and no one cares any more, and secrets can be spoken, it will say, “He created seven lives.” – and those will be my two boys, and the five strands.’

‘How did it end for you?’

‘As I say, I came into work one Monday morning, and two men not unlike your Sergeant Forrest were waiting for me. I’d spent the weekend with my family, so hadn’t been to Springfields for days. Lord knows how long the others had known for, but they were long gone. And even though I’m talking to you now, I’m glad they got away.’

‘Even though that means they didn’t tell you?’

‘Even though.’

‘And you still don’t feel yourself sacrificial?’

The faint whirr of the glass partition coming down saved Beck from answering that,

‘We’ve cleared the main road now, Miss,’ advised their driver. ‘We’ll be at the University in five minutes.’

‘Thank you,’ she replied, and settled back in her leather seat.

 

 

Chapter 31 – A Man and a Woman

 

 

‘Where to then, ma’am?’ asked Sergeant Forrest while the partition was still lowered.

Eris looked at Beck for instructions, he saying to Forrest,

‘Just keep going towards the campus complex. It’s the glass building in front; you can’t miss it.’

She enquired, ‘You’re not going to tell us which room?’

‘Would you, if you were me?’

‘No, I suppose not.’

Mingled with her relief at nearing their destination, Eris also felt a panic – that her chance to question Beck was almost over. Whatever else was coming, if this lead turned out to be something, then she would have to concentrate on that. If it was to peter out to nothing, then Beck would lose his bargaining chip and begin to slip away from her. And if he turned out to be lying to her, then it was all over anyway.

But she had these final moments, turning to ask,

‘So what about consciousness?’

‘What of it?’

‘How did you make them conscious?’

Beck smiled in the way that infuriated her, ‘You’re asking the wrong question.’

‘Ah, come on, don’t start getting all mysterious like one of those Tibetan monks, the possessor of a great truth understandable only by the initiated. You’re surely not still trying to hang on to technical secrets?’

‘No, because it isn’t technical, and it isn’t a secret.’

‘Gah!’

He answered, still smiling, ‘Sorry, I’m not trying to be mysterious. Look, it helps not to think of consciousness as this spooky soulful thing that happens in our heads. Think of it instead as just the transfer of energy – an atom is “aware” of another atom because it bumps into it. And so the stone is conscious of being kicked by the foot, the lily-pad conscious of the frog landing on it – energy being transferred from one atom or group of atoms to another.

‘So all the atoms that make up a human body are conscious of what’s happening to them individually. And through the sensory pathways of the nervous system, the brain can be conscious of the whole person – the energy of a ball caught in the hand, and of light-beams caught in the eye, and of sound-waves in the ear, all fired down the synapses and brought together in the brain.

‘Add to that the electrical impulses being received from the memory, thoughts and narrative voice that we spoke about, and you’ve got the whole caboodle – we’re conscious of it all as the transfer of electrical energy.’

He caught himself, ‘I’m sorry, I can ramble on. But to think of consciousness as a switch in the artifs’ heads is wrong. Every atom that went into making them was conscious before we began; just as every atom that went into making you was conscious before your parents began.’

The glass partition was still lowered, and Sergeant Forrest guffawed from the passenger seat, before being halting by his mistress’s visual rebuke.

Eris though was on a role, and soon recovered her composure. Though she didn’t close the screen – having a witness now, she wanted to keep them,

‘Well okay then, clever Doctor: male and female. How did you untie the knot that’s kept the poets busy for centuries?’

Beck smiled, though was cut off before he could begin.

‘And no flowery theorising this time!’

‘No, ma’am,’ answered Beck mock-formally. Sergeant Forrest was now eating out of his hand, beaming away as he listened from the front seat.

As they neared the University, Beck found he could suddenly breathe. His old faculties were returning, as if the parts of his brain were being plugged back in, like HAL 9000 in reverse. He had Sergeant Forrest in the bag – a man led by a woman, few male colleagues perhaps, no room for banter or fellowship. Offer him some male bonding, and Beck would be able to worry about him so much less.

But what of Forrest’s boss?

In her sudden flurry of questions, Eris was revealing to Beck what she had previously hidden behind professional interest – and that was a huge personal fascination in the robots themselves.

And Beck had a further intuition – that her questions were more about herself than any robot. In her mind, he and Schmidt had replicated her, and so understood her. And who didn’t want to be understood?

All Beck had to do was keeping dropping her breadcrumbs.

Before he could get started on his latest answer though, Charlie the driver had arrived at campus. Sergeant Forrest’s window opened quietly, and his police badge got them past the security booth. Charlie saw large hospital-style direction arrows in front of him, and asked,

‘So do we need the Heidegger Hall or Copernicus Campus?’

‘Neither,’ answered Beck. ‘Just go straight on.’

So they did so, and when they reached the building at the end of the carpark, Charlie announced from its sign,

‘Here we are, The Darwin Department of Evolutionary Sciences.’

‘It wasn’t called that in my day,’ muttered Beck.

Eris looked at him scornfully, ‘What, you don’t think some academic scandal might have caused them to want to change the name?’ She grimaced, ‘Darwin, I could have guessed that and had the place locked-down half an hour ago.’

‘Right, we’re here. Let’s do this.’ Beck jumped up and out of the door, which had automatically unlocked itself.

‘But wait,’ called Eris, holding back for all manner of reasons. ‘You can’t go. There are so many questions.’

‘Do you want to have this mechanical proof or not?’

The dynamic had entirely shifted. He was now running things, with her scrambling in his wake. And it had to be like this, he needed the edge on his side. He knew it had to be now, and that he had only one chance, and that her retribution would be swift.

‘Okay then,’ called Beck from the carpark, as she slid across the back seat to leave by his door and so keep him in view. ‘What do you want to know?’

He continued to back toward the Faculty door, making it plain to her that this was her last chance. What was there left to know? How to form it into one final question, what with everything swirling around her head?

‘Okay,’ she remembered their interrupted conversation. ‘What about boys and girls?’

‘I assure you, each were perfectly proportioned.’

‘But that’s their bodies. What about their minds? Are our minds different?’

Beck noted her question – not ‘their’ minds but ‘our’ minds. He answered her, his back almost at the door,

‘Our minds, eh? Do you know what? We built them just the same.’

And with that he leaned into the swinging door. He remembered so well – as it opened, the receptionist stood up at her desk, spilling her coffee,

‘Doctor Beck. I never thought I’d see the day.’

‘Geraldine, dear woman.’ He’d always had a thing for receptionists, politeness being in their job description.

‘Do… do the Directors know you’re back?’ she asked, shakily.

‘No, and I think we need to keep it that way, if it’s up to our friends here?’

Beck looked to the pair trailing in his wake. Sergeant Forrest flashed Geraldine his police badge, while Eris didn’t even acknowledge her.

Beck almost forgot to ask his former colleague,

‘Would you have an all-access pass?’

Geraldine scrambled for one on her desk, ignoring all the normal protocols.

‘Thank you,’ he offered as he took it from her. Beck let his party through the inner door. ‘And it is lovely to see you again.’

 

 

Chapter 32 – A World Fit for Humans

 

 

Beck’s control of the situation would last just as long as their journey to the prize. And even then he felt he ought to work on it in the meantime, saying back over his shoulder to Eris,

‘Though not entirely the same.’

‘I knew it!’ declared Eris, who clearly had a keen interest in the subject. ‘I knew men and women were different.’

‘And there is a real female response,’ remarked Beck. ‘For don’t women like to feel themselves as something finer than the rough material of common humanity?’

They entered a corridor and passed half-a-dozen classrooms. Behind each door Sergeant Forrest heard the burbling of teachers’ voices, and through the windows in the doors saw whiteboard diagrams that made his eyes hurt – thank God, he thought, that he’d found a career free of teachers at whiteboards.

Beck went on,

‘First of all there is no single “male” or “female” way, but different aspects in all of us. And anyway the differences are fractional, nothing like the gulf between the sexes some assume. After all, we all sense, think, feel, watch movies, eat meals in restaurants. How different could the genders be?’

Beck swung around a corner, still giving the others no notice of their destination, all the while talking,

‘The only thing we knew was that girls are formed from birth, while boys have extra work done on their brains in the early weeks. The conclusion being that girls are the standard human, while boys have to be built.’

‘How very masculine,’ observed Eris. ‘But “built” in what way?’

Beck pondered, ‘Of course, whatever we identify with ourselves, we all have an innate feel for male and female – the difference is so obvious that we rarely question it. There has always been talk of women being more “nurturing” and men more “systematic”. But oddly enough, these are rather vague concepts to slot into a system. And our model of the artif brain had so few variables, that there wasn’t very much that we could change even if we wanted to.

‘But Schmidt and I watched a science show about children and their toys. And the little girls went straight for dolls, even little female monkeys did the same. And someone on the show said, “They’re going for the toys with faces.”

‘Now, as I mentioned earlier, we already had a part of our new mind’s pattern-recognition software dedicated to picking out faces. And so, when thinking of a “female” mind, we increased that facility, to the point where there was more of the mind looking out for faces than for anything else.’

Beck led them through another turn, and past another row of classrooms.

‘And in our simulations, this did the trick. Here was a strand of humanity concentrating on people. And in practice, well, the effects were amazing. Once we had a person seeing like this, then their first instinct was to think, “People are kind, so let’s be kind. People are horribly harmable, so let’s make the world safe for them.” A world fit for humans. Now doesn’t that sound nice?’

‘And boys?’

‘Well, the little boys went for toys with moving parts – the little male monkeys too. And this suggests that the part of our brain not looking for faces is seeing the world as objects. And what we love about objects is speed, movement, energy. This seems to be universal.

‘So, if this is what men are spending more time seeing, then this leaves the masculine part of the brain with the urge to have to leave the home, to go and find these things and to create them for himself. This questing would also be the root of male insecurities and pressure.’

At this, Beck looked to Sergeant Forrest, who gave a confirming nod.

‘And this difference reminded me of another riddle.’

‘Oh yes?’ asked Eris, as she swerved to follow Beck down a dark staircase.

‘Well, the concept of beauty. Both have it, but only women seem able to embody it. While men seem to be to be outside of beauty, and have to strive for it – therefore his urge to pursue women. Meanwhile for a lot of women, having their beauty recognised seems to be their greatest pleasure – man the lover, woman the loved. So,’ he concluded, ‘maybe beauty is nature, or humanity? And that is all that men want to get back to?’

Beck backed his way through a set of unsecured double-doors. Now on a lower level, the floors were no longer carpeted, and there were no security cameras. Sergeant Forrest began to notice this last fact, and wondered if his superior had also.

But she was asking,

‘And so what do women want from men?’

‘To be a dynamic object.’

‘How obvious,’ she thought aloud.

Beck summarised, ‘So, there it is. The necessary schism – masculine and feminine – one half of us to deal with the world, one half of us to deal with us. And these levels mixed throughout society and through every human.

‘When we talk of beauty we talk of women. Women embody all the beauty of the world, the forms and patterns of nature, in themselves and in their actions. While men appear to be a stripped-back, simplified form of humanity, purposely singular and dedicated. Perhaps we need both?’

He thought aloud, ‘So yes, for the purposes of our experiment, sixty-forty weighted toward faces for the female artifs, and forty-sixty for the males. And you know, it seemed to work. Did we get it right? Who knows. I’m no anthropologist. You’d have to do a study of a thousand artifs to decide.’

‘Sounds like an army,’ gasped Eris.

‘Not my intention.’

‘But you say all this with so much certainty,’ she noted. ‘No one knows these things, so how can you?’

He answered, ‘I don’t know these things either. I just know we tried to replicate them. I may be deluded even thinking there’s an answer. But we had to have a working theory to proceed. Do you know that no one knows how an aeroplane’s wing works? Not even Boeing? But they know it does work, and so they keep making it.’

Eris snapped, ‘So the brain, that’s your aeroplane’s wing? And what of love? Do Boeing make that?’

Beck didn’t know if she was asking or simply being scathing. But he was on a roll, and giddy, and nearing the motherlode, so just kept going, as much as in distraction as in anything else,

‘Think about our model for a moment. I’m talking about men being souls adrift in a world of objects. Wouldn’t women want to bring these pitiable creatures in from the cold?’

He babbled on, though his mind was already on a dozen other things,

‘Perhaps women don’t love men, they love people, and men are a particular form of creature?’

‘Aren’t they just.’

He went on, ‘But, you ask of love? What can a scientist know of love? What do I know of it myself? That we love someone for what we are not. We love them for their bravery to be soft or strong, hard or brittle – which are really the same thing if you think of glass, each as able to be shattered.’

‘Gah,’ she called. ‘More riddles. Stop now, I’ve heard too much.’ Before, a moment later, ‘Tell me again about beauty,’ asked Eris, who was indeed very beautiful, as Beck was well aware. He wanted to play this aspect up for her; but he was already distracted, for they had reached their destination.

 

 

Chapter 33 – This is the End

 

 

Even as Beck was wrapping up his thoughts he was slowing up his walking, and casting his eyes back and forth along a stretch of whitewashed corridor-wall.

‘Is this it?’ asked Eris.

But Beck only asked, ‘Sergeant Forrest, you’ve had physical training?’

‘You’d better believe it.’

Beck pointed to an utterly anonymous stretch of the wall,

‘Then a hard boot right here, please.’

‘What am I kicking?’

‘This wall wasn’t here eight years ago, but this floor was. See the stiletto marks on the tiles of people walking through the wall?’

All looked down and saw the marks. Beck explained,

‘Before we knew the end of the project was coming, there were plans to use some of the profits of the Industrial Design scheme to renovate this building. You’ll notice the work was completed?’ He gestured with his arms along the smoothly plastered walls. ‘They kept our money, even as they kicked us out.

‘Here was the door to an old storeroom. It wasn’t very large or much use to anyone, and was going to be sealed up in the renovations. The handle was removed, and the doorframe had been smoothed down to be skimmed over. At our busiest though, Schmidt and I needed every space we could get our hands on. Using a screwdriver as a handle we could still get in there, and so we used it as a store.’

‘You had a secret stash!’ stormed Eris. ‘We tore this building apart.’

‘You tore apart the bits you thought we worked in.’

‘And you didn’t tell us about it?’

‘Do you think I was going to help your predecessor, with the way he handled me? You should take it as a compliment that I’m showing you instead, Miss. Sergeant, please?’

‘If this is brick, you know I’ll break my back?’

‘Trust the heel marks.’

Which Forrest did. With the others stepping back, the Sergeant raised a boot, and swung it at the wall.

Thankfully for him, the sound that resonated was not the useless thud of boot on masonry, but instead the splintering of wood. The plaster cracked in an oblong, and a large piece fell past the Sergeant’s leg and onto the floor in a powder of dust like icing sugar.

Together, the two men began pulling the other pieces of plaster and support materials away, leaving the door a messy version of what it had been when in use.

‘There’s the hole where the handle was,’ said Beck. He asked the Sergeant, ‘Do you have a knife?’

The Sergeant did have, and prising it in the hole stuffed with rolled-up paper, he lifted and pushed open the door. As if it were the entrance to a Mummy’s tomb, more dust fell as the door opened, to reveal a dark and untended space. Beck gulped, then spoke,

‘As I say, it’s pretty small, so only room for one. Would you mind?’

The others stepped aside, and Beck hoped they wouldn’t clock on to the fact that there was dim light coming from the other end of the narrow space.

He had moments. Inside the doorway there was barely room for himself and the Meccano-style storage-frame full of boxes. This suited Beck, as it hid him behind the door and the boxes.

Out of view, he tried to recall the order of packing from eight years before, but remembered nothing. He rustled one box, and a human-like hand fell out, its fingers curling all wrong. Creepy, but not creepy enough.

Another box was full of eyes with USB cables trailing from their backs; while nearby was a bundle of filthy paper wrapped around something like a heart off a butcher’s slab.

Then, in another box, his prize.

‘There you are, my little beauty,’ he whispered. ‘Have you ever let me down?’

‘What are you saying in there?’ called Eris from the corridor.

‘Nothing,’ he lied.

Beck breathed one last time. With his free hand he gently shook the Meccano storage-frame. As he remembered, it wasn’t fastened to the wall.

It was now or never. He called to her,

‘Miss Eris. Did you want to come in and see this?’

‘At last,’ she answered as she squeezed in beside him. ‘What have you… Aghh! Aghh! Aghh!’

Into her arms Beck had gently tossed that faithful old cat’s head. Its unpowered muscles were not moving, but its effect could be relied upon.

Stuck in the knuckle of the doorway, Eris’s arms involuntarily spasmed in front of her, holding the item to her body. Its folding ears touched her bare wrists, its lifelessly fur pressed against her chest, its glass eyes looked up into hers.

As her body shook so the object jostled, jiggled. But she couldn’t gather her hands to do her bidding and rid it from her presence.

‘What’s going on in there?’ called Forrest. But his superior was blocking the doorway to the storeroom. Meanwhile, Beck had pulled at the storage-frame, causing it to fall with all of its contents and lodge diagonally across the room. He then squeezed to the far wall and forced open the tiny window he had always known was there. He clambered out onto a concrete ledge.

The ledge was actually the bottom of a trench. It was neck-height below the level of the building’s carpark, and was just wide enough to offer light to the basement windows. It was covered in standing rain and grimy leaves, which Beck slithered over as he got up on to his feet. He ran, head down, as quickly as he could to the far end of the trench. That way he avoided the driver, still sitting in the Jaguar at the front of the building.

Beck knew there’d have to be a way out eventually, and spotted maintenance steps that got him up onto the level of the carpark itself. Now was the scariest part – a dash across the open country of tarmac. He muttered paranoiacally,

‘If Forrest catches me here, he’ll kill me before he knows what he’s doing.’

But Beck also knew that he had escaped only seconds ago. Meanwhile Sergeant Forrest would take minutes either to calm Eris and clear the blocked room, or else go all the way back through the building – if he could even remember the way.

Beck ran, and wouldn’t look back until he was at the main gates. There he blew a kiss back to his old friend the receptionist, ‘To Geraldine, dear woman,’ who was still somewhere inside and wouldn’t have seen any of the drama. And then he turned, and was quickly lost to the melting sea of London and its traffic under the midday sun.

 

 

Day 2, Part 2 – Escape

 

 

Chapter 34 – Danny’s Quest

 

 

Danny had gotten over the shock of the explosion and of all that had happened to him. Now he was moving quickly through the long grass. With his bad arm bundled up and tucked into his shirt, he made good time across the valley. He navigated by memory, which he had always found easy.

A consequence of the collapsed mine being located in a designated area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was that little new was allowed to be built there. This now meant that the only house for miles was the cottage of the foreman of the mining operations. There he lived alone, on a hillside, surrounded by natural splendour. He had brought a wife there, but the isolation had proved too much for her. And so now he directed the operations of his men by day, and brooded on his lot by night.

It was from that cottage that Danny and his colleagues had set off the day before on their fateful operation. Now two of that team were dead, and the other missing. Also stranded at the scene had been the Land Rover the trio had arrived in. This had been useless for Danny though – as he wouldn’t have been able to both steer and use a stick-shift with one hand. But he recalled that his foreman had recently bought a new company station wagon, with a fancy semi-automatic transmission. Danny would be able to just put it into Drive, and then concentrate on steering. It was the only other car he knew of for miles, and the only way he could think of of getting back to civilisation.

Yet something wasn’t right.

After getting out of the mine and up the hillside, he had then been on charge for almost twenty-four hours. Since then he had only been on foot a few hours more. Yet already he sensed again his least-vital and most familiar of alarms, that of low battery… he knew that something was wrong.

Danny paused and lay down on the grass – he needed to be quite still for charging – it was something to do with drawing too much current from the battery. Pulling too much power from his cells while charging could burn out the circuit.

In his bag – thankfully not lost in the explosion – were his secret weapons. Three years ago a company had released a device for motorists, a tiny high-capacity power cell which could start a flat car without the need for jump-cables.

Danny had quickly snapped up three of these. He could simply leave them to charge overnight from a household socket, and they were so small he could carry them with him. He then had them in reserve whenever he needed them and wherever he was – they freed him of a dependency on power-points to recharge.

Danny now felt the warm grass beneath him and the sun on his face. He hadn’t wanted to stop, but now that he had done then this was heaven. Yet it also gave him time to face up to what was happening…

In the initial moments after the explosion, Danny had begun to scan the myriad alarms coursing through his broken body: to break them down into different parts of his frame, and deduce which were critical and which were merely inconveniencing. Most had come from parts he could see were damaged, but not all. Some had been internal, unseeable, not deducible without a full examination. Yet Danny had had neither the tools nor the time for this activity – it would have been like a human opening up their own chestplate to give their heart a once-over.

And so, in the case of these internal alarms, he had made the best judgement he could. The fact that he was still conscious and operating had been all he could have asked for, and he had had to be satisfied with that. Yet this swift running down of power meant that there was something wrong somewhere, and he would need to get it looked at. And for that he wouldn’t merely need his brother Christopher, he would need his creators.

For years now, the pocket-sized chargers had allowed him to leave civilisation behind for days at a time, and so be free to pursue the natural life he longed for. Already this began to feel like a dream that was over.

 

 

Chapter 35 – The Call at Reception

 

 

At the front desk, Ellie tried to gather her thoughts. Angela, with all her helpfulness and ‘life experience’, was thankfully absent for the time being – it had all been too much, however well-intentioned. And Ellie needed to think – what was she to do about Victor? He was no longer on the periphery, he had staked his claim, and she had rejected it. She asked herself: how were they to go on?

Yet she also knew that things always seemed bigger in the moment, and that it was rarely the best or worst thing that happened, but somewhere in between. Moreover, she already knew what would happen: that they would go on much as they had done before, chatting in the office and helping each other out, only with a slight uneasiness that might never fade.

She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she didn’t notice one of the company bosses appearing at the desk. He startled her as he spoke,

‘Ellie, you’ll be here for the next half-an-hour or so?’

‘Of course,’ she answered automatically.

‘If anyone comes in asking for me, call me right away, I’ll be right over.’

‘Of course.’

At this the manager left just as quickly as he had arrived, offering only the weakest of smiles by way of a goodbye. He disappeared behind the double doors to the main office.

‘Well, that was odd,’ she said to herself. The encounter left Ellie with a batch of questions, and her mind was glad to have something else to think about. She pondered:

There was always someone at the desk – that was her and Angela’s cause for being there. That was the reason why in three months working together they’d never once shared lunch.

So for a boss who normally took that for granted to now be double-checking, left Ellie wondering who on earth his visitor could be. It must be someone very important.

Yet it was her boss’s limp smile that confused her most of all. You didn’t get to be a boss of a large firm by being sheepish. So who or what was he expecting to encounter to make him so?

And then a dread thought…

A person with a secret finds everything sinister, for anything that happens out of the ordinary could be as a result of their secret having being found out. And if that person began to relax, then that was fatal – for they had to keep their guard up at all times, and fear their comfort zone.

And there was the injury signal she’d received only the day before, and the anonymous telephone call she had made to the police. Oh God, yes… the call. She must have known when she made it that she was never going to get away with it.

So why hadn’t she run? Why hadn’t she called in sick that morning, and packed a bag, and never come back? Why instead had she presented herself back at her reception desk, the most visible seat in the building, offering herself up to the first person to come through the front door looking for her? Why? Why? Why?

Because after eight years it was all she knew how to do. And she knew that to do otherwise was to accept that it was over. And to do that meant accepting danger and death, metaphorical and actual. She would never find another job like that one, never have another such lucky run. She would have to be like Christopher, living on nerves. And she knew she couldn’t do that, knew she could not do it. Of course she knew she wasn’t human, knew she couldn’t break. But a life with secrets was no life.

She had a good mind, but even good minds weren’t infinite. She asked herself clearly now: was something going on around her?

The scene with Victor had deflected her awareness from her deeper situation: that she was a fugitive, just a very very good one, a fly-by-night who’d stuck around for years. Yet could today be the day? Where was the boundary between high fantasy and hyperawareness? Was she walking on that tightrope right now? Or was it a tripwire, already snagged by the pressure of her footfall?

That hyperawareness had her catch the faintest squeak of the double doors on their hinges as they opened again, the double doors that were usually kept open, leaving the office open-plan.

The same newly-nervous boss poked his head around, though this time didn’t speak. He only offered the same weak smile and withdrew back to the office. He was only checking she was there, keeping her in place, no pretence at anything else. There was no doubt now, one-hundred percent.

Ellie’s mind ran at a thousand thoughts a second, unhindered, unrestricted, thinking things like:

For her to leave the desk now unattended was a sure sign of drawing general attention. But had her partner been there then Ellie could claim to be nipping to the photocopier, or to the shops. And where the hell was Angela? In the Ladies, or chatting somewhere?

And there would only be that one manager who’d notice her absence especially. And what would he do? He had already been cowed into submission by a situation larger than himself. And even if he tried to physically stop her, then one-on-one, knowing she’d never see the building again, Ellie could incapacitate him without harm or consequence.

And where the hell was Victor now? He’d been hanging around her for weeks, and had managed to drive himself away just at the moment she needed him. Ellie could have cried.

Alone in the room, Ellie willed him, ‘Come through the doors, Victor. Come through the doors.’

But Victor didn’t come. The doors didn’t open. Those busy office doors, with people dashing in and out of them all day long. And staring at them for those moments, Ellie realised that they would not open again. Not that day. Angela wasn’t in the Ladies; Victor wasn’t just being shy. Not even that coward of a manager would risk another peek. Ellie was being kept there in reception, alone, served up for whoever was about to pay a visit.

And there would be a scene, with the police or somebody. And afterwards the manager would gather the remaining staff. And say that it had all been very regrettable, and he would apologise for having been cagy at the time, but that he hadn’t been able to tell them what was happening until it was over…

And Ellie’s colleagues – former colleagues now – wouldn’t care if she’d been caught or not, whether she’d escaped or had been carted away. They would only be relieved that the danger was over and that she was out of their hair. ‘Shame, she’d been a nice girl, but you never know a person, do you…’

Somebody from outside was coming to the building. But they weren’t there yet, and she really had nothing left to lose.

So, as calm as of a Friday lunchtime when she went to fetch the office lottery tickets, even attempting her usual cheery goodbye, Ellie took her pea-green coat and bag out of the cupboard behind the reception desk, and walked out the door.

 

 

Chapter 36 – Cat’s Head Soup

 

 

Sergeant Forrest returned from his fruitless search for Beck; to find Eris still in the basement corridor, kneeling on the floor and shivering with her arms wrapped around herself.

‘Hold me,’ she asked him. Which he did, tight enough to stop her shaking like an epileptic post-fit. She was crying also, whispering,

‘Don’t tell anyone about this.’

‘I never would.’

She would ask herself later: had she known that something like that would happen? Had that been her reason for so many final questions quickly fired at Beck, knowing it would be her last chance to ask them? She asked herself this, and answered that yes, deep down she knew that she would lose Beck at that moment, that he was playing a game.

Furthermore, she would answer to herself that she had wanted that game, that she had let herself be led, that she had known he was too kind to really hurt her. And she wanted the surprise of that fine mind being brought back into full flight after so long dormant. She wanted the full-fat, full-flavour Beck, doing what he did best – lie, deceive, innovate, invent on the hoof.

And she would also answer that in allowing him a chance to escape, her subconscious was deciding tactics for her. He would become her hunting dog – let him loose after the pheasants, have him chase them down to ground, and then follow him to where they nested.

 

Later in the car though, she was fuming,

‘He got me off home turf. He got me onto ground which he knew and I didn’t. He got me excited, he got me to drop my guard. And all that stuff about worrying what we’d do with him afterwards, when he had planned for there never to be an afterwards… he wrong-sided me, Forrest.’

The Sergeant tried to calm her,

‘Don’t worry, how far can he get?’

But Eris was having none of it, continuing,

‘And you… You… He had you nodding along in agreement with every word he said, you even trusted him enough to kick that wall.’

She might as well have shaken a fist at Forrest. But he remained calm, responding,

‘But that’s the best thing about it.’

She eyed him quizzically; as he explained,

‘Well, to make his escape he had to give away his treasure trove. Don’t think of it as a cat’s head, think of it as a bundle of all the raw materials you’ve been longing for – bone, muscle, electrics – everything they invented. And that’s before our guys have even been through what else was in that storeroom.’

And she realised that he was right. Forrest concluded with,

‘When you’re calmer you’ll look past your own embarrassment and appreciate it.’

Which put her right back in a filthy mood,

‘Come on. Let’s get back to base.’

 

 

Chapter 37 – Beck’s Escape

 

 

Gawain Beck was running free. And yet that sense of freedom stemmed less from being out from under Eris than simply being on the street in the middle of the working day – a simple pleasure nine-to-fivers never tired of. It felt like skipping school.

The campus he was running from had been renovated, but the surrounding district was the same: buildings, shops, all familiar. After ten minutes of walking quickly in various directions, Beck took stock, and paused in an alleyway beside a cafe. What now?

He had to forget all he thought he had known for eight years. All bets were off, this was the end game, time was quickening. There was no point now in resisting contact, as the artifs were already in danger. If anything, warning them was the better option. He just had to figure out how.

But Beck had something else to do first.

Risking heading back a little toward the campus, but following different roads, he ran into a Chinese grocery just off the High Street – one he had frequented for his whole time at the University. Even back then he had feared the store wouldn’t last long in the face of encroaching competition from the new supermarkets appearing on every corner. Yet the store’s durability and continuance into new eras reminded him of his own creations, and of his own survival to tell the tale.

‘Doctor Beck,’ called the woman at the newspaper-laden counter (they had branched out into being a newsagent too). ‘Where’ve you been? It’s been years.’

‘Sorry, new job, and no time to say goodbye.’

‘No worry. Great to see you. The University settled your account. Look.’ She held up a random bundle with a smile on her face, ‘I kept your papers for you, eight years of Daily Mail!’

‘You’re losing your memory, Mrs Chan. I was The Times.’

She laughed, ‘I’ve had a lot of papers to remember since then. And how are your family?’

‘Very well, thank you. In fact, that’s why I’m here. I wonder, could I use your phone?’

She lifted the hatch, and led him through to her family’s hallway, saying,

‘My son wouldn’t understand you. He doesn’t know why we keep our phone. No one asks for it anymore.’

‘I’ve never got on with those mobiles though,’ said Beck, with which the woman seemed to fully sympathise. She said,

‘Speak quietly, and I won’t hear you at the counter.’ And he trusted that she wouldn’t.

With the smells of sweet candy from the shop, and of the family’s meal cooking in the back, Beck picked up the phone and dialled directory enquiries. They gave him the number he needed and offered to put him straight through, and he hadn’t time to quibble over the cost of that extra service. A different line rang out, and he held his breath before they picked up,

‘Hello?’

He asked them quickly,

‘Mrs Lomax?’ (Here was another lady old enough not to notice anything odd in a reliance on landlines) ‘Hello, this is Gerry Beck. Your neighbour. I’m so sorry for troubling you, but I’ve been trying to call home and the line seems dead. I wonder, as it’s a nice afternoon, can you see if Sarah is in the garden?’

No sooner had he asked, than the bellowed name ‘Sarah’ was heard down the smothered handset.

Beck hadn’t tried to call home, and so had no idea where his wife might be. Though as it happened, Sarah Beck was busy at the flowerbeds. She heard her name called, and rose to see her neighbour at the fence, holding out a phone with a seemingly endless cord, saying,

‘Hello dear, it’s Gerry, he says your phone’s not working.’

Too startled to be apprehensive, Sarah brushed the dust off her hands, and walked over to the fence to take the phone. She began,

‘Hello Gee? have you been trying to call me? The phone’s fine as far as I know – the school called me on it earlier. No, no, nothing to worry about, just some money needed for a trip. Patrick had forgotten to bring his letter home.’

She felt for her mobile also, still there as expected in her gardening smock pocket. She looked at the screen – no, no missed calls their either.

In the grocer’s back-hall, Beck realised he hadn’t planned how to make the call, and so had no idea of how to continue. His wife was asking him,

‘Gee, Gee, are you still there? So, are our phones not working? You told Mrs Lomax…’

Beck now had to trust that Mrs Chan was telling the truth about not being able to overhear him. He answered, flummoxed,

‘Well, yes and no. By which I mean I’ve just told Mrs Lomax that I’d tried to call you, but I hadn’t.’

Sarah was silent for a moment.

‘Sarah, is Mrs Lomax still there? If she is then don’t say anything, but…’

‘No, no, she’s gone back in. Gee?’

He gulped, ‘I’m afraid that what we feared has happened. The past has us, Sarah. It won’t let us go.’

‘What’s happened?’

I’ve been in a room all morning answering questions. One of them’s turned up…’

‘Oh my.’

‘I know; I haven’t had a chance for it to sink in. Can you believe it? We were only talking about it last night.’

‘And you had no idea..?’

‘No, no idea. The mood I was in after the cinema. Well, that was nothing, I swear to you, just coincidence. Just something someone said that spooked me.’

‘I know, I know, I know,’ she whispered, comforting him down the line. ‘Are you in trouble?’

He couldn’t bear to answer her directly, instead offering,

‘I’ve been grilled for hours. Just the old stuff. They’re hoping for a clue of where they’ve been all these years. But it’s serious, Sarah. One was injured yesterday and triggered an emergency signal that was picked up.’ (she gasped) ‘They have men out looking for the injured one already. They’ll track them all down, and put them in some living hell of a research centre, claiming to be protecting them. And that’s if we even trust that they won’t start pulling them apart to see how they were put together.

‘And they won’t let me be this time, Sarah. They won’t let me go back to the gardens, I sense it. They’ll have me working on them again, every day for the rest of my life, I know it.’

She asked, ‘What will you do?’

He answered, ‘I need to find them, warn them, save them.’

‘How?’

‘I don’t know, but I have to try. I have to remember what they told me, what I told them, think where they could possibly be hiding. Can you find it in yourself to understand?’

‘Yes, of course. But how are you able to call?’

‘I’ve skipped my guard.’

‘You’re on the run already?’

‘How do you wonder I dared to call you?’

She realised, ‘And you’re already so worried that you couldn’t trust that our phones aren’t tapped…’

Beck didn’t dare to breathe, afeared of her response. But he should have trusted her, for she asked,

‘So, what do we do?’

He paused, partly in relief, and partly as this was the key instruction coming up – anyone listening in now or later would guess it all, but there was no way to avoid it. He asked,

‘I wonder, is your brother still in Dover?’

She had no brother, in Dover or anywhere. But she answered, improvising like a pro,

‘Yes, Ted’s job in London doesn’t start till October.’

‘Then it might be an idea to visit him, while you can.’

‘Take the boys?’

‘Yes, just for a weekend. Don’t pack much.’

‘Tell the neighbours, back on Monday?’

‘Back on Monday.’

‘And will you be joining us there?’

He had tears in his eyes, and knew she had too.

‘I’m sorry, Sarah,’ he said, not answering her question.

‘What on earth for?’

‘I’m sorry that you married one man and ended up with another.’

She answered, ‘This is the man I married. For eight years he’s been in hiding. Be amazing, my love.’

Each knew the other was weeping. The receiver clicked as he placed the phone back on its cradle. He wiped his eyes and tried to gather himself, before coming back into the shop and leaving Mrs Chan ten pounds – the smallest note he had.

‘No, no, too much,’ she protested. But as she tried to hand the money back, he took her hand and the money and moved them back to her.

He tried to joke, ‘I called Directory Enquiries. Trust me, that will barely cover it.’

She asked, ‘You won’t be back later for your paper?’

He smiled weakly, ‘No, I won’t be back.’

 

In the garden, Sarah Beck composed herself, as her husband was also doing at that moment. She called Mrs Lomax back to the fence and thanked her for bringing the phone. As she took it back, she asked,

‘You look sad, dear.’ For she was too sharp not to notice.

The younger woman answered, ‘I’m fine, I assure you. It’s good news. We’re going on a holiday.’

And Sarah Beck kept up her smile as she tidied her gardening things and went into the house.

 

 

Chapter 38 – Concert Tickets

 

 

Beck was remembering all kinds of details, and he thanked his subconscious for the possibility.

The first thing he remembered was how to find a local Internet cafe he had last visited many moons ago. Like the Chans offering the use of their landline telephone, the Internet cafe was another institution invaluable in its day, but which had since been surpassed by technology. For in the age of the smart-phone, then who needed to visit a shop and pay for an hour at a computer?

At the counter at the back of the cafe, Beck paid in coins for his hour. While there he also ordered a coffee, and he guessed that that was where the business made most of its money now. Looking around himself as it was poured, he saw that half of the computers had already been removed, replaced by sofas where people used free Wi-Fi on their mobiles or tablets. They were chatting with drinks, or sitting with diaries and ebooks.

Beck pondered on the theme: the rise of the web-enabled mobile phone had followed that of the Internet itself by only a decade. The Internet cafe had bridged that gap for a while. However, without diversification, as this cafe was engaging in, then such places were the indoor equivalent of the public phone box – once essential convenience now little more than illicit hang-out.

There were very few such institutions left in prime locations. However, this shop was on a side street where the rents were presumably lower, and so the break-even point easier to reach. Beck remembered when the cafe was new and always packed. Back then similar shops were popping up everywhere. And he wondered at how quickly they had gone from cutting-edge to near-needless.

Beck took his drink and moved through the young and occupied people there that weekday afternoon. He asked himself: did no one work regular hours anymore? Or was it work they were engaged in, and people simply weren’t tied to an office these days? He secured a screen in the back corner of the shop. There he swiped the card he’d been given at the till, and went straight to his email account.

He decided that it didn’t matter if Eris’s people traced him there opening his messages: they knew he was in London, and he’d be gone from the cafe in a few minutes. Nor did it matter if the machines were riddled with viruses; or if the owners were secretly copying his data hoping to scam him for all he had – in his current situation they were welcome to it. Beck wasn’t sure if he even existed officially at that moment. It was an odd feeling.

He sipped the coffee and hoped it sharpened his wits. The screen opened up to fumbled fingers, it taking three attempts to get his password in. From that shaky start, though, he quickly scanned the list of messages awaiting him. The communication he was looking for had only come in the other day, he was sure. He went down one page, down the next. Where was it? Had he already deleted it? He prayed not. On to the third page, and there it was, received two weeks ago – had it been so long? How time flew in the Digital Age.

Even in the second of relief he took to ponder this, a new message arrived from the same sender, and including the same essential web link; which for the first time he clicked on…

 

Several years ago – Beck couldn’t remember exactly when – he had begun receiving a regular email newsletter from a London concert hall publicising its events. Although he knew the place by reputation, it was not a venue he had ever attended. It was on the other side of London, difficult to travel to, and so he had never quite found his way there.

So how then had the venue come across his email details? He couldn’t rightly say. The place was independent, and not part of an entertainments chain he might have visited in another town. Nor was it the sort of outfit he imagined might have traded in scammed email lists.

The oddest thing though was that, although the concert hall boasted a full range of entertainments, the emails he received always seemed to be advertising a performance almost purposely chosen to militate against his tastes; most often the overwrought and overlong operas of a German composer called Minner, who Schmidt adored and had met, but who Beck himself could never get started with.

He had had a lot to think about in those early days, and a lot about Schmidt to want to forget. And so Beck paid the messages little mind. Yet over the years, every few months or so, a new one would arrive – even finding his new email address when he changed it to leave behind yet more unwanted spam email. And it became a little joke with himself, laughing at what overbearing meisterwerk he was being invited to that time.

And in the back of his mind, yes, there was always the tiny unfaced-up-to hope that here was one of his creations, still out there, needling his poor taste. But that was such a random thought. And it had first occurred at a time when the events of Schmidt and Springfields were fresh in the mind, when any random occurrence felt like a sign, and when it still felt as if anything could happen. He wasn’t to know it would be eight years before anything did.

Beck had always wondered where the link within the emails would take him. Yet he never quite clicked. And after umming and ahhing over this for a few months, and with the messages continuing to arrive with no more urgency than before, then he began to think of them less and less as a possible call to contact and more a… well, he wasn’t really sure. The mind can lie to itself, to protect itself. And now Beck wasn’t sure.

 

Morals are style, opinions are fashion, and fashions change. All he could say about the messages now was that he’d never quite had the heart to consign them to the junk mail folder. And now come the current crisis, at last a change in the stagnant state of things, and these messages were the first thing that had come into his mind.

Beck realised, barely able to admit the possibility to himself, that they had always felt like an alarm bell, there to ring if needed; a safety net; a last port of call. He had played things extra-cautiously those eight years; but deep down had also known that if needed, then there they were…

Now at that moment, focussed, counting seconds, he saw the email and its web link before him, and clicked on it right away – my, how his mind had changed. And what popped up – what would you expect from a theatre email? – but a ticket reservation service, ‘For valued customers.’

‘Valued customers’? He’d never been through the door.

Top of the list of Coming Attractions on the website was a show that evening; not Minner, but something which in happier times Beck might have actually quite liked to have seen. But that was not his concern as he clicked the name of the event, then chose ‘One’ for the number of seats, and ‘Best Available’ – he wasn’t bothered with the view. This brought up a seat number, which he jotted down on a scrap of paper. And a message,

‘Thank you, your ticket/s have been reserved. Please bring ID and your chosen payment method with you to the venue in good time for the performance.’

That was that. Beck went back to his inbox to see if his actions had triggered a new email. But after giving himself a minute for this to appear without result, Beck deleted every single thing from his inbox. Then deleted them all again from the deleted email folder. Then signed out, shut down the screen, finished his coffee, left the cafe, and disappeared along back streets.

 

 

Chapter 39 – Eris Regathers

 

 

Travelling back to base, Eris had kicked Forrest out of the Jaguar, making him wait for a Land Rover to pick him up instead. She needed time to think, and she would get that in separate cars. There was still her trusted chauffeur behind his silencing partition. Though he knew nothing of what had happened in the University building, not that he would judge her on it, as she judged herself.

Once ensconced within the black leather and tinted glass, and with the rumble of the engine resembling a distant geological event, she accessed the media player built into the partition between the front and rear seats. ‘Don’t hurry back,’ she told her driver on the intercom; which gave her time to review the necessary material before arrival.

Since the alarm had been sensed in the Lake District less than twenty-four hours earlier, she had lived in her memories of those early interviews with Beck. Now she must go back to the source, and see what she had forgotten.

The car was linked by satellite to her office database. On the in-car monitor she discovered there were hours and hours of footage – Beck had been interrogated like an internee at Guantanamo Bay. Watching the videos back, all that was missing were the orange jumpsuit and the sound of Barney the Dinosaur at full volume in the background.

Thankfully, with modern technology, the footage was digitised and searchable by keywords. Riffling through the images, Eris found the nascent Beck. She’d like to have said that he looked so much younger then, but the interviews seemed to have taken such a toll on him that he looked better eight years later. With each question, a wince. With each accusation, a gritting of the teeth, or a squinting of the eye muscles. His hair looked shiny and unwashed.

The interviewer was always unseen. The voices chopped and changed, but were usually her predecessor. She adjusted the volume and got,

‘You gave yourself up.’

‘No.’

‘You gave yourself up to let the others escape.’

‘No. They gave me up!’

Eris shook her head. ‘You went in too hard,’ she said to the memory of her own mentor, no less an influence on her than Schmidt had been on Beck. ‘And when you didn’t get a result, you gave up on him. Beck could have been dancing polkas with Anna and Eliza on alternate Tuesdays these past eight years, and you wouldn’t have known it.’

Alas, unlike Schmidt, Eris’s own mentor hadn’t conveniently disappeared. Her arrival at the position of Chief had required an inglorious transition, instigated by herself, and lamented by her ever since.

She cursed him now in the back of the car, ‘Why couldn’t you know that it was time to go? Look at the trouble you caused me. Look at what you made me have to do.’

But she hadn’t time to think about that.

Beck had just led her to what eight years ago had been his and Schmidt’s research rooms. The urgency of the situation had demanded that they got there as quickly as possible, and so she hadn’t had a chance beforehand to brush up on how the pair had worked and what she should be looking for. Now she could make up for that.

Under the keyword ‘materials’ she found what she needed. A lot of it would be over her head, but she could tag the relevant passages and get them over to her technicians. On the tape, the younger, interview-weary Beck was explaining the make-up of the different elements, the parts that went into the artifs… and so all the parts that went into the cat’s head that she now possessed.

She had charged Forrest with the task of stripping the storeroom and getting its contents back to base – and she didn’t want to see that certain object again until it was in pieces and unrecognisable. And Forrest had been right – in making his escape, Beck had given them a prize beyond rubies.

After tagging the video clips they needed, Eris threw herself back into the big seat. For there would be so much else to have to do when she got back to the office, and this would be her last chance to rest. The morning with Beck had kept her from her other duties. He had thrown a curve-ball, and got himself away. But now she had to reconnect with her technicians and her teams all across the country. She would have to learn what they had discovered, and then direct their ongoing search.

And as she rested her head and closed her eyes, she realised afresh that for the first time that she could remember, she was interested in something. And it made her want to catch the robots even more.

 

 

Chapter 40 – Ellie’s Things

 

 

After leaving the office, Ellie had cried. Not for the threat of the police finally finding her, not for her job being over, or for her life as she knew it ending. Quite the opposite – for the last eight years to be book-ended she could have cried with joy. She hardly cared what came next, so unhappy had she been by the end.

What brought her tears though were the faces – of Angela, of Victor, and of all of those who in the final instance had abandoned her, who had hidden behind those closing doors out of sight for the police to come and scoop her up.

But now, thrown out from behind her desk somewhere in the West of England, Robot Eliza was worried for herself.

From her bench in a small park just outside of the town centre, she whispered:

‘Ellie, one of two things can happen to you. You can sit here and wait to be rounded up; or you can walk back home, quietly and confidently. Collect your essentials, and be gone. And probably still be rounded up.

‘Humans cannot think of a choice where either option scares them. But you can, because you’re not human. They want to persecute you for that fact? Then persecute them for it, and give them merry hell!’

She jumped up, decisive, and began to walk.

To any in the town who cared to notice her, and many did as she was styled by expert hands, she was a shopgirl coming back from lunch, a secretary off to meet a friend for tea. They couldn’t know that in those purposeful steps she was walking to her death, either metaphorical or actual.

She recalled from her vast memory banks, upgraded from those in the early frames, whispering to herself:

‘The Tarot card for Death is not a bad card, it is a wished-for card. For it means both death and re-birth, and who does not wish for that? The energy of the universe cannot be lost, the ending of one thing is the start of another. And every day kills the one before, as sure as if it never existed. The past is an illusion, the future a fantasy. Only the present is livid and real.’

She lived in a modern condominium block, slightly more expensive than she could have afforded alone. Christopher had been helping her out for years, in payments too small and irregular to be noticed by the bank. It was essential, though, for her to be somewhere respectful, somewhere with low burglary rates – so her odd belongings were not uncovered – and with low mugging rates in the surrounding estate – for nothing would give her away like a dry cut to the cheek.

Also essential was parking, indeed having her own garage, and the most modern of such with full facility for electric cars. Again this garage could not be broken into, so unveiling the cot and pile of paperbacks she kept beside the plug.

She hadn’t time for a charge just then, but had the juice in store for a long journey – she knew she was going to London. That left nothing essential in the flat. So why was she going back there? Eight years of life can make things feel familiar and breed attachment. But her possessions were already given up on – she knew the police would already be going through them.

And that gave her the clue to her motivation – she wanted to see what she was up against, to put faces to the persecution she had feared all those years.

She walked at a steady and confident pace, from the park, along the town’s High Street – show no fear – and then along the twisting lanes between the lawns of other blocks like hers.

This was a favourite walk, especially of a morning when mist fell from the trees around the edge of the estate, to roll across the bright turf. The scene would be lit by the morning sun, and by cubes of light from kitchen windows as the residents made coffee and considered the day ahead.

All gone. Now it was early evening, the day drawing to a close.

She was almost there, just one more turn. She stopped at the corner, and saw two men in dark coats along her building’s entrance path.

She was still too far away to be seen, she hoped. And there must have been a hundred women of her age living on the estate – there was no way that they could know she was the target, was there?

Still she watched. In the road at the end of the path were two white vans, as if to drop off household appliances or pick up dry cleaning. There was no sense of anything out of the ordinary. No crowds of people behind police tape asking, ‘What’s going on, officer?’ And the officer answering, ‘It’s all top secret I’m afraid, ma’am.’ Then gesturing to the crowd with shooing arms, ‘Please move on, there’s nothing to see.’

Was this then the police’s new tactic: giving the public literally nothing to see? Meanwhile, in the building somewhere a life was being dismantled. A life as valuable as any other, despite it being artificial.

‘Godless,’ whispered Ellie to herself. For Jesus had played no part in her creation, nor was he present now to save her. And still she stood there, twenty yards from her destruction. Why wasn’t she moving? She’d told herself she was only there to see her enemy. Yet she could easily have envisaged dark coats and plain vans from afar without putting herself in danger.

Why was she there? She knew: she was there to be caught.

At times of high muscle-tension her batteries released a temporary boost of energy – this was something like adrenaline. Afterwards the levels went back to normal, which was something like adrenaline-lag.

She had been living on that initial high since her realisation of imminent danger at the reception desk. It had staggered her for something so awful to come out of a life so calm. It had been too much to process at the time, and now had finally caught up with her.

This energy boost, combined with the similarly temporary thrill of liberation after years of hiding out, had led her to imagine Christopher and London a reality. So why hadn’t she gone there? Instead, she had come here, to the most dangerous place in the world for her, and was all but waving to the men in black coats to give herself up.

It was all too clear. She didn’t really see a hope and didn’t see a future. London was a runaway outlaw dream; she and Christopher as a brother and sister Bonnie and Clyde. But she’d been running all her life, and it wasn’t like the movies. It wasn’t glamorous, it ground you down. The reception desk had been bearable, but she couldn’t do it again, not from scratch.

And these anxieties must have been showing on her face, or perhaps she had been standing staring for too long. For the men in black coats were looking at her now, and whispering to each other, and walking towards her.

 

 

Chapter 41 – The Spoils

 

 

Was this it? Was it over? Was this her death-wish? Ellie no longer knew. She had been too long alone, too long fearful. She was getting confused, losing perspective, making everything tiny or enormous in her mind.

The men were walking more quickly, staring right at her; and her legs would not move.

Although Ellie’s focus had been on the front of her building, it had not escaped her attention that other people and vehicles were travelling in both directions along the road outside. It was not a busy road, mostly used only in the service of the condominium blocks it snaked between. But still, here were people outside of her situation, not allied to either side in the drama.

In the various ‘news’ stories she read about her family, the tabloid in question each time would never fail to scare up a Yes vote in the accompanying vox-pop: ‘Are the Robots a Menace?’ or ‘Should the Robots be Captured?’ Always such leading questions, she thought. Never anything neutral or comforting, never: ‘Do the Robots have Rights?’ or ‘Should the Robots be Left to Live their Lives?’

If those readers woke up and found themselves to be a robot, then wouldn’t they want a bit of peace and quiet? But then, ‘The Robots’ weren’t real to most people. They were like celebrities, or characters in a soap opera – theirs was life with all the boring bits left out. And how exhausting did that sound?

Still, at that moment Ellie didn’t need a Robots supporter, she only needed someone who would help a woman threatened by two men.

Her feet may have been frozen, but were her vocal chords?

All it would take would be a scream, a shout, a rush and a push. Something to bring a distraction and to spur her into action. There was a man across the road, a woman’s heels approaching behind her, a car just coming over the brow of the hill.

But as she went to shout, with the two men in black now only yards away and running toward her, she realised that she knew the car coming over the hill. She had seen it at work, had seen it pulling into the carpark as she arrived at the building. The broken numberplate, the radiator grill Remembrance poppy left on all year round, the Dukes of Hazzard Confederate flag sticker in the back-window. Now the car slowly pulled onto the pavement beside her. The driver leant over to open the passenger door for her. And as she looked in there was Victor, himself looking at the two men through the window, saying,

‘Not a moment too soon.’

 

 

Chapter 42 – A Night at the Opera

 

 

Beck spent the afternoon in the cinema – the old detective stories were right; it really was the best place to hide out. Not that he remembered any more about the film he saw than of the one he’d seen with his wife the night previous.

After the movie, he walked the backroads, ate in a cafe – luckily he had cash. And eventually, by careful street selection, found his way towards the concert hall.

He had timed it to perfection, arriving ten minutes before the start, and so the foyer and the street outside were flooded with excited, gabbing patrons in every colour and style of evening, casual or business wear – he would fit right in.

After hours on his feet his legs were exhausted. He couldn’t put it off. Coming out from his shadowed vantage point across the road, he moved through the crowd and entered the foyer.

‘Hello, I have a reservation,’ he offered to the woman behind the front desk, handing her the seat number he had jotted down at the Internet cafe.

She keyed it in, and looked to her screen beneath the counter. ‘Ah, Doctor Beck. How lovely to see you. We haven’t had the pleasure of your company for a while.’

‘No, I’ve been overseas,’ he fumbled.

‘Somewhere warm, I hope?’ she asked politely, and Beck feared another lie. Though the five-minute bell was already ringing, and she was far too busy to engage in any further conversation. ‘Here is your ticket, I’ve added the cost and the booking fee to your account. Enjoy the show.’

He had made it without incident. He hadn’t even needed to stump up the cash, every penny of which would be invaluable to him in the coming days. As to the nature of the ‘account’ he evidently held with them, well that was as mysterious as their emails.

As he moved through the plush-carpeted corridor to the auditorium doors, Beck could have done without the distraction of a show – even after the hours he’d had alone to think. It seemed to him that there were too many risks. The mystery concert emails could have been a ruse by Eris’s predecessor to smoke Beck out should he ever go absent without leave. Even if not, then they could already have traced his email account being accessed at the Internet cafe. And from there, find the emails from the concert hall…

Beck had deleted the emails, but this made no difference of course. They could strip a computer for every bit and byte of information, a total history of its use. The emails could be reconstructed and the links within them followed. But how long would that take even a government agency with all their resources?

‘How long is the show?’ Beck asked the usher who guided him to his seat.

‘Four hours, with intermission.’

‘Jesus,’ muttered Beck after the man had gone, as he moved to his seat and sat down. ‘I’ve got to be a sitting duck for all that time?’ The cinema had been different, the ticket bought in cash and no one knowing he was there. But his attendance at the concert was recorded on the venue’s booking system, maybe even on his bank account, and all in his real name. And Beck was dealing with the same agency who’d tracked down the signals of two artifs at opposite ends of the country – there seemed no way they wouldn’t find him.

He looked one way from his seat, then another, then backward – still there were no secret policeman moving along aisles with gun-bulges.

Two minutes to show time, and Beck couldn’t sit. He visited the men’s room and got his breath back, watered his face and the back of his neck. He came out to linger amongst those still on the art deco mezzanine, talking in raptures of the show they were about to see.

The final buzzer went, and along with the very last of them he made his way to his seat.

The performance hall was still painfully bright, and not yet offering the cover of darkness. The stage had no velvet curtain to be raised, and already an oboist was adjusting her instrument, while a double-bass was being carefully placed in its support. Beck already missed the mezzanine, and the casual cover of crowds.

And then the lights went down, and the remainder of the orchestra emerged to applause. Next came the conductor, to similar acclaim. And then silence, and anticipation, and a raising of the baton; and then the clamorous noise of a fire alarm, alongside a calm electronic voice,

‘Fire, fire. Please leave the building.’

The lights went up again, and the eyes and ears of the audience quickly re-adjusted. Bags and coats were grabbed amid cries of frustration. While all the time the recorded woman was narrating,

‘Fire, fire. Please leave…’

Confusion reigned about him, but Beck just closed his eyes and sunk his head into the soft padding of the seat, whispering, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ Eris’s people wouldn’t have done it like this. They would have nabbed him quickly and cleanly while he was a sitting duck in the corridor outside. The relief was immense.

But he was in the brightest light again, and needing to move. Looking every which way for a clue of what to do, he saw none. After the initial disbelief and hesitancy, the audience were now running toward the doors; while the stage was full of technicians dashing on to pick up priceless instruments.

Beck felt sorry for causing them to think that they were risking their life for a Stradivarius; before remembering that there was still no proof that this was anything to do with him. He hoped to God it was though.

Leaving with the flow of patrons, Beck and the others were not ushered back through the mezzanine and down into the foyer, but instead along an unseen exit staircase and out into the dusky street. Cars were slowing up, to make space for the human traffic now spilling out in front and all around them.

‘Please congregate on the other side of the road,’ called one of the ushers, they were now wearing fluorescent fire warden tabards over their black waistcoats.

Across the road was a thick strip of grass in front of shops and take-aways. Beck made his way there and mingled. Those around him were voicing common sentiments in polite conversation,

‘I do hope there isn’t a fire.’

‘It’s such a lovely building.’

‘Can you believe the alarm going off at that moment?’

‘Yes, the very second the show was about to start!’

Beck smiled and nodded at those talking around him, yet his true attention was elsewhere. He glanced right, then left, then right again. But there was no signal anywhere, nothing out of the ordinary to catch his attention. Suddenly he heard a police siren, and his stomach sank even further.

‘False alarm!’ called an usherette. ‘If everyone can stay where they are, and we’ll get you back in in an orderly fashion.’

Beck thought that if something was going to happen, then it had to happen soon. It couldn’t all be coincidence – the emails, the ‘valued customer’ account set up in his name, the alarm going off. It couldn’t all be an accident; it just couldn’t be. He couldn’t be left in this situation, alone…

‘Doctor Beck? With me.’

Beck turned to find the owner of the voice; but none was to be found among his fellow audience members, all looking up at the building they were happy to soon be returning to.

Beck had felt the speaker too momentarily, as a presence beside him, and he quickly checked his pocket – in it was a note:

 

Mount Olympus

Don’t run

 

In his panic, without the speed of his famous creations, it took Beck a full five seconds – that felt like five minutes – to work through every possible mental association he had with the home of the gods of antiquity. Before remembering that Mount Olympus was also the name of a local Greek cafe. Beck hung back a moment longer than the other concert goers.

‘You’ll miss the show,’ called a concerned fellow patron. ‘They’re letting us back in now.’ But Beck followed the advice of the last two words of the note, and turned to walk in the opposite direction.

 

 

Chapter 43 – Christopher Robot

 

 

Beck saw him at a window seat before he entered. His host rose to greet him as he did so, announcing,

‘Hello again, Doctor Beck.’

‘Christopher. I think I knew it was you.’

‘I’ve already ordered.’

It didn’t seem real to Beck. Here he was, sitting down as instructed, and before him was Christopher Robot.

‘So, you liked my little ruse with the concert hall? Your sitting here is proof that it worked, at least. Forgive me basking, but there is so little I’m able to take pride in.’

‘You’re still here after eight years,’ stammered Beck.

‘Well, that’s rather something you should take pride in, Doctor. That’s down to how you built me. Would you have expected a Rolls Royce to have broken down so soon?’

The chef emerged with a glass of iced water and a small plate of food. He went to place it down in front of Christopher, who had ordered it.

‘For him,’ instructed Chris, who needed nothing for himself.

‘Thank you,’ offered Beck, before looking at his meal. Though Chris as quickly described it to him,

‘The water for hydration, the ice for stimulation, and the chicken for comfort. I remember you liking it.’

‘Yes,’ agreed Beck.

‘A light repast. “Repast and repose” – a meal and sleep – you told me once that they were your two favourite words in the English language.’

‘Yes,’ recalled Beck. ‘And I remember getting embarrassed then when I remembered they were both things that you couldn’t experience.’

Chris countered, ‘Even though it was no different to asking you how you felt about not having bat sonar. But yes, for one so clever you could quite forget yourself when consumed in the project. And for your dedication, Doctor, I salute you now with this smallest token.’

Chris gestured to the marinated chicken. Beck had already swigged half the water, and had picked up the knife and fork. As he ate Chris continued,

‘I have missed talking to you, Doctor. You appreciate how you occupy a special place for me. You are my parent, in the sense of my not being here without you. Though that doesn’t feel quite the right metaphor.’

‘No, it doesn’t,’ agreed Beck between bites.

‘Perhaps then more like a surgeon who saved my life, but who gave me that life to begin with. I know that isn’t quite logical, but it’s the best I can do.’

‘You need a creation myth,’ suggested Beck, wiping his mouth with a serviette as he put his cutlery down. The food seemed to normalise the situation, and he didn’t want it normalised. He wanted it to be special forever. Chris surmised,

‘Like the Greeks had their Mount Olympus?’

‘Exactly.’

‘Then perhaps I should look further to the ancient past. For there is no Bible verse for me. Perhaps I am denuded of mythology? The atheist’s poster boy?’

The Doctor sat facing his protégé, then saying,

‘The concerts were Schmidt’s favourites, but he couldn’t have pulled off that trick in the crowd.’

Chris answered, ‘Easy as pie, when you have my reflexes and amongst such hubbub.’

‘And you hacked the venue’s system to start with, created my account? And a “valued customer” account at that?’

‘That way it earned you an electronic billing facility, so you wouldn’t even need your own cash to see the show if you were in trouble. You’d simply have to book a ticket, turn up, and I’d find you.’

Beck shook his head in amazement, ‘You’re lucky that I remembered. I know you couldn’t have made them too obvious, but I’ve been ignoring those emails for years.’

But Christopher only shook his own head, with a knowingness that Beck would have found infuriating in a person that he didn’t think the world of, the artif explaining,

‘You always knew what they were, you also knew you couldn’t touch them, what with the UK Government watching your every move. Still I left it there, the tiniest release-cord. And when you needed it, your mind had always known where it was.’

‘Well, thank you anyway,’ conceded Beck. ‘Literally with all of my heart.’

‘I’m only glad it worked.’

‘And how are you?’

Chris seemed to look himself over, ‘Workmanship wise? As you can see, I’m not quite seized yet.’

‘Hardly at all, in fact. I’d be glad to check you over though.’

‘There are some issues I’d be glad to have looked at. But more to the point, Doctor, how are you?’

Beck harrumphed, ‘As bad as I’ve been in eight years. How much do you know?’

‘Only that the trigger I put in place in the concert hall’s booking system, all those years ago, was only needed to be activated by yourself at half-past-two this afternoon; that a subsequent telephone call to your botanical gardens told me that you were in meetings all day; and that a visit to your house with a parcel…’

‘You went to my house? They could have been watching.’

‘And give themselves away over a parcel boy? …that a visit to your house revealed your home was shut up, and with your neighbour saying how the family had gone on holiday and that the phone wasn’t working anyway if I’d tried to call. Well, it was quite clear that a change in your circumstances had occurred.’

‘You don’t seem particularly surprised?’ asked Beck.

But Chris answered with another question, spoken in a low voice,

‘You’ve been in interrogations today, Doctor Beck?’

‘Yes.’

‘And you got away? Well done.’

Beck didn’t like to take the praise; but Chris now asked,

‘And in the course of those interrogations, did you learn why they were interviewing you, today especially?’

Beck knew where Chris was going and nodded, adding,

‘An alarm from the Lake District. Danny?’

Chris nodded.

‘And a recent one in London – yourself?’

At this Chris nodded again, but sheepishly, as if less eager to follow the train of thought. Beck had to know though,

‘You were filmed stealing cycle repair kits.’

‘Yes, I saw the cameras in the shop.’

‘And still you did it – so you must have been bad?’

‘Doctor. You’ve praised my keeping-going all these years. Please don’t dwell on my one mistake.’

And so Beck didn’t, leaving the table silent; until Chris spoke again, more calmly,

‘I feel safe here for now, if you wanted to continue your meal. But it’s been so long, Doctor. And we have so little time. So when you’ve finished your food, then there are things I’d like to show you.’

 

 

Chapter 44 – Mystery Tour

 

 

‘The car’s only five minutes away.’

Beck decided that Christopher seemed to have the measure of things. After finishing his food and tipping for the table, they left the bright bulb of the Greek cafe for the street it served to illuminate.

And as they did so, Chris raised a hand to the chef at the counter.

‘Do you know him?’ asked Beck, once they had left the light and found the shadows.

‘I know all sorts of people. It helps me keep a tab on things.’

‘And how do you know that they’re not keeping a tab on you?’

Beck followed the tall, thin figure walking quickly along dark pavements. He seemed to slice through the darkness, moving with a minimum of fuss. In answer to the question, Chris gave a look, and explained,

‘I could be very high and mighty, and say something like, “Paranoia is the fear that others know more than we know ourselves.” Yet I enjoy the rare certainty of knowing that I know more.

‘But I’d be more comfortable in saying that I’ve picked up certain little tricks over the years, and one of those is to look out for people with one foot already outside of the law. That cafe owner, for instance, has a brother keeping illegally imported televisions in the back-room of his premises.’

‘How the hell do you know that?’ asked Beck, but Chris waved the question away, continuing,

‘Now, semi-lawlessness, this state of “already committing a crime”, makes it very difficult for the criminal when someone commits a crime against him. For instance, how could he call the police to a break-in at his cafe when he doesn’t want them poking around the premises? He has already placed himself outside of law and justice.

‘Incidentally, this is also how small-time crooks get roped into protection rackets by big-time crooks; but I digress. Suffice to say, the cafe owner and I get along perfectly well. But even if he thought me Jack the Ripper there’d still be no blue lights arriving outside his establishment. You’ve heard the saying, “Honour amongst thieves”? Well, it may be part mutual-suspicion, but after a while it can become something like… brotherhood.’

‘Lord, what the CIA could have made of you…’

‘Their loss, I’m sure.’

‘That mind of yours…’

‘Yes, Doctor. It really never does shut up.’ Chris stopped, and turned to face Beck, asking, ‘I wonder, in our next hardware update, if you couldn’t provide an Off button?’

Chris led them along dark and poorly lit streets, before swerving off toward a piece of reclaimed land where a building once stood. It was presently being used as a carpark before being redeveloped. There were no streetlights at all now. Over the gravel the pair walked, toward an utterly anonymous estate car, which Chris manually unlocked.

‘Your ride awaits, sir,’ he offered, as he playfully held open the passenger-side door.

‘You’ve never been pulled over?’ asked Beck as he got in.

‘Never,’ answered Chris. He shut the door behind him and walked around to his own side. Once in himself, he continued, ‘You’ll notice I wear a suit, shirt and tie. Neat but not showy. Rather like my hair, my coat, my case, and my car; which also has not a social, political or even humorous sticker anywhere around it.

‘I work very hard to be immaculate – in the Sixties the Mods called it “ultra-conformity” – run away from a street-fight in a suit and tie, and a minute later you’re an office boy arriving at the stockbrokers. Hooligans in business dress – for the first time police were asked to arrest someone who worked at a High Street bank; or at least the first time before the “Financial Crisis”.’

Beck could have listened to Chris all night, as he used to back at Springfields. There was no end to the stories and the social observations, even then. And it wasn’t only Beck’s pride in his and Schmidt’s creation, there was a scientific aspect. For Chris bore no tiredness, no need to pause or quit speaking. For this reason, he was also taught relaxation techniques, and encouraged to spend at least four hours a night still and in darkness.

Now though, as Chris started up the car, Beck asked,

‘So what did you want to show me?’

To which Chris answered,

‘Danny’s signal was ended by himself.’

‘Yes,’ remembered Beck, trying to keep up. ‘Eris told me that he hadn’t been found at the explosion site.’

‘Eris, yes,’ mused Christopher. ‘I know that name. Ex-police, scooped up into Secret Service. Her personal computer has accessed certain fake “Robot Hunter” fan-sites I’ve created on the net. I guessed she might be on our case.’

‘Jesus. You actually courted contact with the very people who are out to find you?’

‘Would you rather I had holed up in my flat and hoped never to hear a knock on the door? I was very careful, don’t worry. Now, as I was saying…’ Christopher drifted off a mere split-second, re-capturing his thread, ‘Yes, for his signal to be ended meant that Danny got over whatever happened to him.’

‘It was pretty bad,’ said Beck.

‘Well, we’re pretty tough. Given his survival, then I made a hard decision. My signal had been broadcast only weeks before, and I guessed that Government listeners might make the connection. Also, that the other artifs might have become jumpy at receiving repeated damage alarms, and so my efforts might be better directed toward calming those nerves.

‘And so I didn’t follow Danny’s signal, despite my every impulse willing me to do so. Instead, I stayed in London, just for one day longer, to co-ordinate and monitor. And then you pulled your release-cord, and my decision was justified.’

‘So now we go to Danny?’

‘Again, not quite yet. For it’s not only artif business keeping me in London – there’s also the fact that if he’s worth his salt, then Danny will be very far away from the co-ordinates he broadcast, and will be leaving no trail. Also, if he needs to, he’ll be making every effort to get in touch with me.’

Beck said, ‘Then we should get to your base, wherever you communicate from.’

But Christopher only reached into his pocket and pulled out a smart-phone,

‘This can do everything that a laptop could three years ago. Any message will be received directly to it. And not only from Danny.’

‘Other artifs!’

‘One other artif.’

‘Eris guessed you ran a network,’ admired Beck.

‘Not a complete one, alas. Only Danny and Ellie and myself.’

Beck did the mental arithmetic aloud,

‘That leaves Anna, in this country at least. Chris, have you heard from her?’

‘No, but I’m not worried. I have my theory. But leave it at that for now, please, Doctor, there’s just too much else that’s pressing.’

And Beck was taking any reassurance he could get. To even hear their names mentioned, he could have wept. ‘Ellie. How is she?’

Here Christopher paused, finding the right words,

‘I’ve spent so long hiding their secrets, that it feels difficult divulging them now.’

‘Indeed, I understand.’

‘But of Ellie, rest assured. She is busy at her job, in an office, an utterly normal office, and can’t always get away to message me. And yet her role is by far the least physically demanding. She can go months without signing in, but I’m never worried for her.

‘So yes, I know quite a bit about her life and times, and Danny’s too.’

‘That was how you knew he was in a mine?’

‘Yes. And since Danny’s signal, I’ve also left Ellie a rope-ladder dangling, a message she can reply to and I’ll be there within the half-day. And I have to give her a chance to activate it, as I did for you. Agreed?’

‘Agreed,’ said Beck. ‘Which is why you have time to take me on a road trip?’

Chris nodded. He had already drawn the car onto the main road and was taking an exit out of London, commenting,

‘And given the road we’re taking, Doctor Beck, I thought you might have guessed where we were going.’

 

 

Chapter 45 – Springfields

 

 

‘Springfields,’ muttered Beck.

Half-an-hour later, and the old roads were bringing it all back for him,

‘I’ll ever forget that first night bringing Anna along here.’

‘Yes,’ realised Christopher. ‘That would have been the dead of night also.’ (For it was now pitch-black outside the city.) ‘One of many moments of bravery you endured to bring us into the world.’

‘But is it safe to go back there?’ asked Beck. ‘To the old house?’

‘Not when things first fell apart. But who’s going to be watching now?’

‘But Eris still has people.’

‘Dear Doctor, it doesn’t need to be so simple now of having a policeman on every street-corner. Eris has a grid…’

‘Yes, she mentioned that.’

‘…that highlights correspondences of data, people appearing at any of a number of sensitive sites within a given time-period. It forms connections, it’s clever. But Springfields isn’t on that grid, it’s been dead for years. There won’t be any harm in us going there now.’

‘Well, I’m afraid to take that risk.’

‘And what if I told you that I visit most weekends?’

As Christopher said this, he swung the car off the A-road they were travelling along, and down the final row of lanes.

‘I’d forgotten how close to London it was,’ said Beck as they neared. ‘It always felt like deepest country.’

‘You had to get there and back all week, it couldn’t be far outside the ring road.’

It all came back to Beck; he could have driven those roads blindfolded.

And then, in the headlights appeared the same bramble hedge around the garden; and the gravel entrance that they would have pulled up onto before untying the wide farm gate. Though this time they would leave the gate closed. Instead, Beck followed Chris out of the car to stand at the wide barrier.

In front of them by their knees was tied a new sign:

 

KEEP OUTPRIVATE PROPERTY

 

Beck was looking past the gate though, as his night vision increased and he began to make out the outlines of the house.

He asked,

‘What can your eyes see, Christopher?’

‘Not a great deal more than yours, Doctor.’

‘Do you ever go in?’

‘No, I come no closer than this.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I’ve also seen it by day, and so this distance is the best way to remember it as it was.’

‘How bad is it?’

‘Not a window or a floor-board left in place.’

‘What did they think we were hiding?’ asked Beck rhetorically.

‘I think it was more than that,’ said Christopher. ‘I think it was psychological.’

‘You mean, so we could “never go back”?’

‘Yes, to prove that there really was no place for us, even in the past.’

As they stood staring into darkness and imagining that past, Chris continued,

‘We in Britain pride ourselves on our civic constitution. Here we are in our wonderful democracy, the kind society, where nothing bad can happen and where we all have rights. And then you find there’s something different about you, something for which the public have no sympathy… and they’ll turn on you, and hunt you like a dog.’

‘Christopher, surely you can’t think like that.’

‘Sometimes I can’t help it.’

‘And it’s not the public, Chris – they love us. You said yourself, you’ve seen the websites.’

Chris spun his head to Beck, ‘Do you ever find yourself in one of those moods, Doctor, where you really don’t want to be talked out of it?’

Beck jumped inside from the snap. Though Chris had clearly gotten something out of his system, and continued more calmly,

‘I don’t know, Doctor Beck. I don’t know. Though increasingly I wonder if Hancock didn’t have it right. Magna Carta, did she die in vain?’

Beck continued to watch the black of rooftops against the black of night, when Chris asked,

‘What did it mean to you?’

‘This place?’ asked Beck. ‘It meant the world to us. It’s where our dream came true.’

‘Well, it was my childhood home, no less.’

‘No less.’

‘Tell me how it looked, Doctor.’

And though the Doctor knew that Chris remembered full-well how it looked, Beck indulged him,

‘The drive was long and gently curving, and made of gravel that crunched beneath the tyres. There were flowers at the front, planted by Anna and Mrs Winters. And all around the house was a lawn, that stretched away in all directions to distant hedges and trees.’

‘And the building?’

‘The building was an old farmhouse, plastered in white render, and in places supported by S-shaped metal brackets painted gloss-black…’

‘Hmm, hmm,’ muttered Chris at each fondly recalled detail.

‘Behind the thick wooden door was a stone-floored hallway, where you boys would roll your wooden cars…’

‘Hmm, hmm.’

‘…loving the rumbling of the wheels over the rough surface.’

‘Go on, go on.’

‘To the left led the kitchen, which Mrs Winters wouldn’t let you into when she was boiling water. And to the right was the living room, with the Professor’s own paintings on the walls. And do you remember those huge sofas? They were your favourite when you were little…’

‘Hmm, hmm.’

‘…rolling around on them, thinking they were the biggest things ever and that you could never fall off no matter how you jumped on them.

‘Upstairs were the bedrooms. The boys’ bedroom I remember well, asking the three of you to stay still and quiet every night…’

At this Chris snickered like a child.

‘…and you never did. And we would come up in the morning, and you had finished a thousand-piece jigsaw, or built a castle out of every piece of Lego.’

‘Hmm, hmm.’

‘Chris,’ asked Beck.

‘Yes?’

‘You’re now around eleven years old.’

‘Yes.’

‘What marvellous, impossible jewels did we make here?’

Chris didn’t answer, so Beck asked, ‘Can we stay a while?’ and Chris nodded. And so they did stay, each filling that black canvas with the house they had known.

Eventually Beck had to ask,

‘Would you know if Danny’s been caught?’

‘No,’ answered the artif, without looking away from the shadow-house.

‘So he might have been,’ presumed Beck, ‘we just don’t know it?’

Chris answered, ‘I’d only know if he was dying, as I’d hear his signal. But with every mile put between him and the rockfall, his chance of capture grows slimmer. And he can find his way to London, where I can hide him and repair him.’

In one way, this piece of logic calmed Beck; though in another, talking of their friend, indeed the robot Chris would call his brother, being damaged and in danger was hardly what Beck needed in his current state.

‘You foresee it all so plainly,’ noted Beck.

‘Would you rather I be a gibbering wreck?’ enquired his creation.

‘I didn’t mean it like that. I meant your mind, it’s still perfect? Still at top speed?’

‘I tend to run as calmly as possible when I can, to save energy. Not today though, and for which reason it might be judicious to return to charge.’

At last, thought Beck, who was becoming increasingly spooked beneath the rural night sky. ‘Return where?’

‘I have a London base,’ was all that Christopher answered. And years of secrecy didn’t have him reveal any more.

 

 

Chapter 46 – An Encounter with a Bus

 

 

Soon they were on their way back to the capital. Beck hadn’t a clue where Christopher might have been living all those years, though he was surprised when they pulled up not in a residential area, but instead onto the pavement beside a main road lined with high-end shops beneath tall office buildings.

‘This is where you live?’ asked Beck, ridiculously.

‘No,’ answered Chris. ‘A final spot of sightseeing first.’ He got out of the car, and walked to where a side-road turned off the main drag to pass between two large stone buildings, like a secret path through high cliffs.

As Beck caught up with him, Chris intoned, arms raised,

‘Between these corporate monoliths, was I almost undone.’

Beck was confused: by that time of night the shops were closed and the buildings were mostly dark. There were no bars or clubs along the road, and no activity at all but for the occasional cars and taxis that swooped along the broadway, dousing the pair of them with their lights.

And then, just on time – could Chris possibly have planned it? – came another, larger, bright red vehicle. It pulled almost to a standstill, before swerving off the main road to hurl its form with unreasonable speed along the minor road between the buildings. Beck, standing on the pavement, stepped back as it passed within feet of them.

‘An Accident Waiting to Happen,’ said Christopher, in the tone of a letter to a local newspaper.

‘The bus,’ said Beck. ‘You were hurt by a bus? That’s what caused your damage signal?’

‘Yes, a bus,’ confirmed Chris. ‘I thought you might like to see the spot.’

‘Lord, you were lucky to survive it.’

‘A human would have been lucky; I was stupid to have even been in the situation.’

‘Chris, we built you with strong capability, not infinite capacity.’

‘Even so…’

‘Perhaps you’re still not able to accept your mistake?’

‘Maybe.’

Beck mused, ‘And yet you bought me here, and so a part of you wants to talk about it.’

Which Chris then did,

‘Regardless of whether I deserved any, it was luck that saved me. I was scouting the area – one of these buildings housed a data centre used by Eris’s department.’

‘What?’ Beck turned to flee, looking above himself for cameras, before Chris’s calm response halted him,

‘“Housed”, the past tense. It’s a retail outlet now and no one’s watching. My information proved to be out-of-date, and so the mission was a fool’s errand in every respect.

‘Anyway, I was too busy looking around me, and didn’t pay attention when the bus turned sharply. The tail of it clipped me as it did so, and the blow threw me into the shadows.’

‘Did it stop?’

‘Thankfully not. With a vehicle that size the driver may not even have noticed me. He may have heard a bump from the rear, but that could have been a hole in the road, or a passenger moving their bags.’

The pair remained in the bus’s wake on the narrow high-walled side-road, where the pavements were only two feet wide on either side, and where no streetlight shone. Chris spoke from within the shadows of the two high buildings,

‘I was left here, on this pavement. It was night, and no one found me: found my skin flapping off me, and my anodised innards on display. Thrown in any other direction, or at any other time of day, and someone would have discovered me in the minutes I was unconscious while my system rebooted.

‘I woke, shocked, scared, senses coming back online one-by-one. And the sheer luck – yes, luck – of it threw me, how cosmically fortuitous I’d been.’

‘So you can accept it was luck,’ supposed Beck. ‘You the most logical of all, Chris. But still, “luck”? You were hit by a bus, man! How unlucky can you get?’

Chris explained, ‘But had I been thrown onto the pavement outside the shops, or into the road, and been found unconscious there? Doctor Beck, being hurled at any other angle but between these buildings, and all of us would be over. Someone would have seen, and the police been called, before I had my wits about me.

‘And I cried, Doctor Beck, as I came back online. Wept, just as you had built me to be able to do; at the pain and the confusion and the hopelessness of it all. For those minutes I couldn’t go on.’

‘But you did. How did you snap out of it?’

‘I found my arm worked, so I reached to my hip-pad and silenced the injury alarm. I selected screaming sensory input after screaming sensory input, and dulled each signal. Then I thought, as I lay there, “What do I need? How do I get it?” Forget how I looked, forget what had happened, forget anything that couldn’t he hidden at night beneath a long black coat.

‘And then something did happen as I lay there. For I wasn’t to be completely ignored in the shadows. A man in a business suit, dashing for the taxi rank, stopped along my darkened byway, and found some relief in my direction.’

‘What, where you were lying?’ Beck was agog.

‘He must have thought I was a sleeping vagrant. It’s popular apparently, among those without souls. He was a little like me then.’

‘You do have a soul.’

‘Ah, but am I sentient or just programmed to appear so?’

Beck became stern, ‘We didn’t program a thing into you. You were an empty memory and an empty processor, everything you are you formed yourself.’

‘Ah, but for those without a knowledge of computing, there’s no way of knowing. Ultimately it’s down to trust. You had a theory once, Doctor…’

‘Yes, I did.’

‘…that all matter is conscious, something in the electrons. And that when you have enough of them all buzzing together, then you get a mind.’

‘Yes.’

‘And do you still believe that?’

Beck answered, ‘Even more so, when I look at you now. For if there’s nothing behind your eyes, Chris, then there’s nothing behind mine. I utterly believe that.’

‘And how do you feel working alongside me now, knowing that I’m fallible?’

‘That there isn’t anyone in the world I’d rather have here.’

Chris gave a weak smile, ‘Then let’s get back to the car, it’s not-quite legally parked.’

 

 

Chapter 47 – The Victor and his Prize

 

 

‘Are you sure we weren’t followed?’ asked Ellie again from the window-seat of Victor’s flat.

‘Absolutely certain – I’ve seen enough films to know how to lose a tail; even if they were there, which they weren’t. And anyway, it’s been hours, and they’d have been here by now.’

‘Yes, I think you’re right,’ she conceded.

He asked, ‘Well, at least come away from the window.’ A flicker of a smile formed on his lips, laced with fear, before he added, ‘Especially if you don’t want to cause any attention from the neighbours.’

‘How do you mean?’ she asked.

‘Well, I’m hardly renowned for the beautiful women I bring home.’

She nearly smiled herself, but only nearly.

Victor tried again to break the mood,

‘Then at least come and have some of the soup I’ve boiled.’

‘I told you not to bother,’ she moaned from the window-seat.

‘But with the day you’ve had you must be famished.’

‘No.’

‘A drink then, for your nerves?’

‘I’m not a china doll!’

Another man might have left the room at that point. But not Victor, who felt himself on an absurd quest to save this woman from whatever trouble she laboured under. Leaving the soup to look after itself, he began,

‘My brother has a glass eye; he’s had one all his life. It’s never stopped him doing anything he wanted, but when he was young he used to get self-conscious about it, would hate anyone spotting it. But his feelings didn’t add up, for as soon as someone did know about it he didn’t care, he’d laugh his head off, pop it out and flip it like a coin.’

At last she turned from the window,

‘You’re not talking about your brother, Victor.’

‘No.’

‘So, what are you saying?’

‘I’m saying, show me your glass eye.’

And at that moment, there really was nothing more right or proper to do. Though, it would take all of her skills to do it properly, with just the right amount of slow and quick, and shock and awe.

She got up from the window-seat, and stood before him, walking forward very slowly,

‘You’re sure you want to see it, Victor? Even if it’s something you won’t like?’

‘Look, I know you’re in trouble, but I don’t care. What harm could you, of all people, have done anyone?’

She gently pulled her blouse from the waistband of her skirt, saying,

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to seduce you.’ (Not that that would have worried him at all.) ‘I wonder, Victor, have you read those stories of “The Robots” in the newspapers?’

‘Yes, but…’

‘And how they’re living in secret, out amongst us?’

‘And what’s that got to do with us?’

To herself she whispered, ‘Thank you, Doctor Beck, for building me so well that he doesn’t realise even now.’

Victor didn’t hear this, and was jabbering, ‘Do you mean you you’ve seen one? You mean you know they are? Is that what’s troubling you?’

Arriving within arm’s distance of Victor, she lifted her blouse above her left hip, to show the smoothly seamed silver strip of gleaming buttons, flush with the golden skin around it.

‘This is my control panel, Victor. It’s where I regulate my internal systems, and where I recharge.’

She took his hand, and gently held it over the panel, to which he neither grabbed or resisted, but let his hand be limp in hers as she moved it slowly in a stroking fashion over the metal, saying,

‘This is my glass eye, Victor. You see there’s no harm from it. You see I’m no danger.’

‘No,’ he barely murmured.

After a while, she moved his hand away to hang back at his side, saying,

‘And so you see how your offer of the drink was really very kind, but I think you might need it more than me.’

 

 

Chapter 48 – Chris’s Flat

 

 

In another flat, in another town, Gawain Beck was listening to more of Christopher’s views on the society that had ‘spurned’ him,

‘…Outsiders, who aren’t allowed to live, built oddly, built wrongly, not given oxygen to breathe… I love this country; I love everything about it… I don’t think I could have fitted in anywhere else… even though it shuns me, turns me into a fugitive, a pawn for tabloid games…’

For the first time, Beck began to worry over what the years alone had done to his creation. Had he built him well enough to form the same moods and manias as the rest of the population?

Chris continued, ‘…But we can’t hide away. I fear every time I go near the enemy, Doctor. But what can I achieve otherwise? Stuck here, we’re out of the loop. We need to be in-the-know, not out of it…’

‘Monomania, Christopher.’

‘Doctor?’

‘The obsessive focus on one topic.’

Chris halted, as if mid-breath,

‘Is that how I seem to you?’

‘You appreciate, Chris, how for me, everything you do is a study of my own work.’

‘Of course. But please appreciate, Doctor… that I have had a very long time to bear these feelings without a person to share them with. This then is something of an uncorking for me. And you help me with that simply by listening. But I promise you, Doctor, that by the morning I’ll be right as rain.’

Beck didn’t want to intrude, but had to ask,

‘Is that because by then you’ll have the feelings out of your system, or because the feelings only come at night?’

‘Doctor, please…’

‘Because it’s well known that the sun can burn off depression; though it can’t catch the demons hiding in the shadows. Depression is a vampire, Chris. It waits in dark spaces; but it can also only come in if we invite it.’

Chris didn’t answer Beck’s theme though, instead asking,

‘Am I a test-case to you?’

‘No, you’re a friend who sounds unhappy.’

Chris smiled, ‘And you are right on both counts.’

Beck reminded himself that he was there to listen, so moved the conversation on, giving Chris a chance to tell whatever he liked of his life,

‘An interesting place you’ve got here,’ said Beck, remembering his first look at the Sixties apartment block as they arrived.

‘Thank you.’

‘And you don’t have any trouble?’

‘None at all. Before, I rented a little house in a much nicer area than this – I really can understand the human wish to “settle down”. Although the neighbours were too forthcoming, and I was not able to let them in.

’Here, though, people keep themselves to themselves, respecting my space. Here I’m much more comfortable.’

As he said those words, Chris gestured with his arm across the lounge of his current abode, leading Beck’s eye across his maps on the wall, the tool-heavy workbench with its soldering irons and circuit-boards, and finally the stack of car batteries, resting in a low metal tray to avoid any potential leak of their acid seeping through the floor, to drip through the neighbours’ ceilings like alien blood.

Beck looked around him,

‘This is a proper little nerve-centre.’ He saw a laptop then, folded closed at the end of the workbench. ‘And is that where you keep in touch with the others?’

‘Sometimes. Would you like to see?’

‘In time, yes, definitely. Though you told me that if you’d had a new message you’d have seen it on your phone?’

Chris nodded, waiting to see where Beck was headed.

‘So there is no urgency. Meanwhile, after what you told me on that street-corner, don’t you think your health is more important for half-an-hour?’

To this, Chris answered with his body. In a flash he was stood stock-still and upright in the centre of the room. Without his overcoat, Chris was wearing a charcoal suit of straight trousers and three-buttoned jacket. His new pose made him look a little like Charlie Chaplin, sans cane.

One arm then did a perfect, judged and balanced circuit of its shoulder-orbit before returning to rest straight at his side. The second arm then performed its opposite orbit.

After this, one leg then stuck itself out forward at ninety degrees, and did the strangest John Cleese silly walk circuit from its hip. Before bending at the knee and bringing itself back beneath the body to return to matchstick-straightness.

‘Stop, stop,’ called Beck, he hoped in time to stop the second leg performing its own version of the Masonic rites. Though Chris was having none of it, and the second leg performed as did the first.

Resigned, Beck then watched as, with all four limbs now dead-straight and pointing to the floor, Christopher’s body began a rhythmic swaying. First his head circled on its axis, while still always facing forward. Before his head became still again, and the motion moved down to his upper-torso, then down to his abdomen, then hips, then knees. The same sequence then moved back up his body, arriving at his head again and then stopping.

Then a combination of these circuits began at each level of him, spinning at different rates, until Christopher was gyrating in a way Beck had seen no acrobat or dancer ever attempt. With his arms bound to his side, he had no counter-weight to balance, yet retained a perfect pose. His feet were as rooted to the ground as those of a gold-winning gymnast as they landed after somersaulting from the bar.

The movements became more extreme. Some parts of Chris almost reached Beck as they were flung out in his direction. Beck wanted to reach out and grab his friend before he pulled himself apart, or he misjudged and flung himself to the hard floor; but there was to be no misjudgement. Meanwhile, the solemn look on Chris’s face rent him both absurd and appearing to be in perfect control.

At last, Beck could take it no more. Perhaps at the first imperceptible micro-movement in the Doctor’s muscles, the artif then stopped, returning straight and upright without a quiver.

‘Okay, okay, you’ve proven yourself,’ said Beck, a little perturbed in ways he couldn’t quite get a handle on. ‘Jesus. But for that bus to fling you into the side-road like it did, then it must have done some damage. Perhaps to a part of you not exercised in your little dance just then.’

‘Then I can put it off no longer,’ declared Chris. ‘I knew my display wouldn’t fool you. You always got to the root of our problems. No hard feelings, Doctor,’ and Chris put out his hand.

Beck shook it, and as he did so gasped,

‘You’re ice-cold!’

‘Plastic-cold, Doctor. Ambient room temperature.’ Christopher pulled Beck up into a half-hug. ‘And that’s not all, is it,’ he whispered in his ear, close enough for the Doctor to feel his very…

‘Breath!’ shouted Beck. ‘You have no breath.’

 

 

Chapter 49 – Ellie’s Shame, Victor’s Shock

 

 

Ellie had gone oddly shy after her display with Victor. She had tucked her blouse back into her skirt, and felt as if she’d shown him more than a little hip. Though at least it had got the job done; he hadn’t run off screaming. And as such, that was the only real criteria with which she could judge the encounter. A success then, though it felt anything but.

At least the distraction had snapped her out of her window vigil. Now she was curled up with her legs beneath her at the edge of Victor’s sofa, and looking away from the centre of the room.

From the kitchenette, Victor asked,

‘If you don’t want that drink, then would you mind if I do?’

She shook her head without looking. Coming back with a tumbler of beer, Victor sat at a different chair, though facing in Ellie’s direction.

She said, not bearing to look at him,

‘I should have shown you more nicely than that.’

He was still too shocked to try and say something polite to comfort her. She continued,

‘It was like I was coming on to you, trying to embarrass you. I should have shown you from a distance; or just told you. I don’t know why I had to make you touch me, I don’t know why I did that.’

He reasoned, ‘Perhaps you needed to be touched? And catching me off-guard was the only way you thought you’d get that?’

‘Oh my,’ she gasped. ‘You remind me of an old friend, getting to the heart of me like that.’

‘Another… robot?’

‘No, but one of us. One of the family. A man I could trust.’

‘How many are you?’

‘So few you wouldn’t believe, enough to be wiped out in a heartbeat; hence why there are no others within a hundred miles of here.’

‘It must be lonely.’

‘Yes.’

Each were too nervous to pursue the theme. But Victor added,

‘Though you really are incredibly… lifelike… I mean, accurate… I mean…’

‘It’s okay.’ She finally looked at him, ‘I know what you mean.’ Adding, ‘And thank you for being kind.’

He pondered, ‘I’m not sure I’ve been that. I don’t think I’m back to my senses.’

She smiled a little, at last, before noting,

‘Look at you, you’re so kind that you don’t even realise it when you are being. Look at what you’ve just learnt about me… and I can tell from how you’re talking to me that you still respect me. In your eyes I haven’t been reduced to the level of a toaster or microwave. You’re still polite, you’re still offering me drinks.’

‘But why would that change?’ he asked. To which she answered,

‘But you’ve read those newspapers, Victor. You’ve heard how people talk. Saying how we’re not natural, and how they’d come at us with pitch-forks and burn us at the stake.’

‘But that’s just people sounding off, unleashing frustration. They wouldn’t say that if they met you.’

‘Wouldn’t they? But anyway, you are being kind. And… maybe for you it’s not entirely sinking in yet. But that might be a good thing, for it means I can be gone before you realise what you had on your hands. And if they come and ask you about me, then you can tell them honestly, because they’ll understand that it left you in shock. I really think they will understand. So please be truthful, Victor. Don’t carry lies for me. Just… don’t call them tonight, will you. For old-time’s sake, for our friendship in the office. Just don’t call them.’

And there was no way that Victor would.

Instead he said,

‘I lost my job, you know.’

‘Oh, Victor.’ For the first time in a while Ellie was free to worry about someone else.

He explained, ‘That manager wouldn’t let us through. Angela was screaming to be let in to warn you, but he held her back. You probably didn’t hear through the heavy doors.’

‘Oh God. I thought you’d all left me to it. Oh, Angela.’

‘So I ran out of the back door. He shouted after me, “You’ll never work here again. That’s a promise.”’

‘And still you ran. Brave boy.’

‘There was nothing brave about it. I’d left it too late. By the time I got around to the front of the building, the police were all over it. But you weren’t there, and I had the sense that the hounds had lost the fox.

‘So I tried to remember where you lived, and drove around your estate hoping to find you. I’d been there for ages, and was all set to leave…’

‘I’d been in the town gardens, trying to think.’

‘…when I saw those men in their bad suits acting strangely on the pavement; and then there you were.’

‘Oh, Victor.’ She jumped up and ran over to his chair and hugged him, nearly spilling his drink.

‘Well, I don’t deserve this,’ he said, awkwardly.

‘Oh, Victor, you deserve more than I can ever give you. I’d given up, you see. I must have known they would be there, and I walked right into them.’

They hugged, until Victor said,

‘So you see I’ve nothing to go back to. And now I’ve got you in my arms, and I don’t want to let you go.’

And nor did she want him to.

 

 

Chapter 50 – Artificial Heart

 

 

‘You think it’s bad? And you haven’t even seen me with my shirt off.’ Christopher laughed, as he removed himself from Doctor Beck’s personal space, far enough for Beck to no longer be aware of his lack of warmth or breath. Beck was regaining his wits though after the shock, and remembering his handiwork,

‘We built you with an epidermal layer beneath the skin, full of narrow vessels, through which were pumped warm water. This came from a reservoir held in your chest, tucked in above your metal core. In fact, that water cooled your core, so it was already warm.’

‘And then was cooled again as it flowed around the body,’ added Chris. ‘An elegant solution, Doctor. And pumped at the rate of a heartbeat; a heartbeat that even quickened at times of exertion.’

‘Well,’ reasoned the Doctor, ‘at such times the core needed more cooling anyway, so two birds with one stone. And you haven’t had any cooling problems since it stopped working?’ asked Beck.

To which the artif shook his head, ‘You over-engineered us,’ he said, and smiled.

‘And as for breath,’ continued Beck. ‘Well, as Isaac Asimov said, it’s not too difficult to put in systems to feign human actions. A small air valve on a loop, slowing and quickening with the “heartbeat”.’

At this Chris paused, and wondered aloud,

‘Artificial heart, synthetic breath. The very signs of human life are for us affectations.’

‘Chris.’

But Chris raised a hand in understanding, ‘I only mean that you built me magnificently. And what damage I carry I am well able to bear.’

But Beck wasn’t really listening, his head was full of blueprints,

‘So, that’s two systems in your chest that were knocked out. Any more?’

‘No. I can say I got out of that calamity otherwise unscathed.’

‘There must have been some visible damage.’

‘Nothing I couldn’t repair.’

‘But for you to need to risk stealing that puncture-kit, it must have been something.’

Here Chris clammed up, holding his arms across his chest as if Beck was about to start pulling his shirt open,

‘As I say, Doctor. It was nothing that I couldn’t take care of myself.’

And there Beck let it lie, instead changing the subject,

‘Chris, we need to plan.’

‘I’ve been on it since this morning,’ said the artif. Now that the topic had moved on, he felt comfortable enough to take off his jacket and lift the hem of his shirt to plug in a car battery. He carried it over to perch on the glass table beside his armchair, and continued, ‘But there’s nothing we can do until the others get in touch. And the small hours are a terrible time to make a decision anyway. Try and get some rest.’

‘But I can’t sleep,’ said Beck.

‘You haven’t tried.’

‘My mind’s too busy. Read my mind, Chris. You were always good at that. Talk to me.’

And Chris knew he had no choice,

‘Be careful, Doctor,’ he began. ‘Someone overhearing you saying those words might think you had achieved the triumph of giving me the skill of thought-transference. Of course, that’s still a year or two away, even with the right equipment.’

Beck let his mouth hang open, though Christopher didn’t qualify his revelation beyond adding,

‘Of course, I haven’t really had the time to think about it, and with hardly any tools. But for now, let’s look at you. Let’s see what I can garner with my existing skills:

‘You’re an early-middle-aged man, a wedding ring on your finger, and the clothes of one who has someone who takes care of your appearance. So, you’re still with Sarah? Well done.’

‘Thanks.’

‘I’ve course I knew that, I’ve kept tabs. She stood by you when your first career came crashing down – quite a woman. It’s not easy for a spouse to take risks when there are children involved.’

‘So, tell me what you don’t know.’

‘Shall I read the lines on your face like the leaves in a teacup, do you mean? Are you sure you’re ready?’

Beck nodded.

‘I see a man who hasn’t been happy in eight years. Whose greatest pleasure became his greatest shame. His greatest pride, his greatest pain. His greatest achievement, his greatest secret. And an achievement so large that the secret of it threatened to overwhelm him.

‘And yet, this is a man who puts a face on for the world, to show that everything is well; and perhaps also to convince those who may still be watching him that he is nowhere near cracking. For who knows what measures they may have to take then?

‘Your wife, your children. They know a man already broken behind a smile.’

A tear broke on Beck’s cheek. Christopher continued,

‘You would give up everything you are just to be honest to their faces. And there I tell you what you already know yourself, deep down, in some part hidden from the rest of you.’

‘I’ve missed you, Christopher.’

‘And I you, Doctor. I won’t burden you with sympathy, I know you’d hate that.’

‘Though you’re wrong about one thing.’

‘Yes?’

‘Sarah has seen behind the smile.’

‘Evidently. Otherwise that fine woman wouldn’t still be standing by you. No marriage could survive that secret, and you’d only come to hate each other.’

‘So why report that bit wrong?’

‘I had to over-egg my analysis to bring you to the point of crisis. Because I thought that tears were what you needed, and were the reason that you asked me to “read your mind”. It is an odd feature of the Western Male that he needs tears like the Western Female does, but needs another to bring them out in him. I offered you that service out of friendship, dear Doctor. It was a gift I wished to give.’

‘Do you cry, Christopher?’

‘Not generally.’

‘Though you can, you know?’

‘I know. But they only came the once.’

‘The bus?’

‘Yes, the bus.’

 

 

Day 3 – Part-Reunification

 

 

Chapter 51 – West Country Preparations

 

 

Still some hours before daybreak, after an evening of talking and pledging their allegiance, Ellie and Victor were discussing the impending future.

‘There’s been so much going on,’ she said. ‘I haven’t been thinking straight.’

‘Well, I’m sorry for distracting you,’ he joked. To which she nudged him in the ribs,

‘Well don’t go distracting me anymore. At least not yet.’

She got up and looked out of the window, as she had been earlier. Though less morosely now, instead more intently, and saying,

‘You know; we really have been lucky. Those men outside my flat must have been normal security guards, paid to watch over things while the pros got to work inside. They must not have noted your registration number when you swooped by to pick me up – otherwise someone would have been here long ago.’

She continued, ‘Meanwhile, that blowhard former boss of ours couldn’t have mentioned to the police about you chasing off after me. They must have left the office disappointed for missing me, and letting their disappointment get in the way of proper fact-finding and cross-checking. What do you reckon?’

But Victor was in a daze of admiration,

‘No wonder you were always good at spreadsheets. Listen to you at full tilt. Lord, I don’t think I could have distracted you very much at all.’

‘Don’t worry, I was really very distracted,’ she smiled. ‘But I’m still amazed there’s no one here.’ Again she looked out of the window. ‘And there really is no one – there’s too much random normalness going on outside for it to be a secret lockdown – midnight joggers, newspaper deliveries, dogs being walked.’

‘So what do we do?’ asked Victor. ‘It might have been dumb luck that we haven’t been caught so far, but we can’t keep playing on that.’

‘Spoken like a true professional,’ she beamed. ‘Well, I’m hoping that your phone has the Internet?’ (He nodded.) ‘And that your car has the petrol to get a long way away from here before the sun’s up?’ (He confirmed this also.) ‘Then, no time for any more distractions. Let’s get to work.’

 

 

Chapter 52 – An Audience with the Philosopher General

 

 

‘This way, please,’ instructed a receptionist in white wraparound dress. She rose from her desk to guide the dark-suited Miss Eris from the elevator. Eris had already come up forty-one floors, as instructed by a similarly dressed receptionist on the building’s ground floor, and so knew she was near the top of this most famous of buildings.

The top-floor receptionist led Eris to double-doors, but paused before entering.

‘Please don’t speak until I’ve introduced you,’ she whispered, ‘and then only when directly questioned. And remember, he doesn’t bite.’

Eris followed the receptionist through the softly sliding doors, into a high glass-dome that formed the top of the building that had fascinated Londoners and visitors alike since its construction a few short years earlier. The interior was as minimally ‘cool’ as the rest of the building. Within the vast unpartitioned space were sofas, desks, ornaments, and a spiral staircase leading up to a thin transparent viewing platform that ran just within the glass wall.

‘He’s in the “study” right now,’ said the receptionist. The pair waited in the centre of the room, in a space where five men could have lay end-to-end in any direction. Beneath their feet was an exquisite Persian rug fifteen feet square, which offered one of the few points of colour in the space.

Eventually there was movement, with the sight of two besuited men coming down the spiral staircase. Eris thought she recognised one of them from the news, and the other from a financial discussion show she sometimes watched when unable to sleep. The men promptly bid them both ‘Good Morning,’ and left the way the women had just come.

After them, pausing half-way down the staircase, was the Prime Minister. He wore grey canvas slacks and a darker polo shirt.

‘This is Miss Eris, Prime Minister,’ called the receptionist. ‘You asked…’

‘Yes, yes,’ he remembered, in that distracted way of his that so beguiled and confounded his people, but left them feeling that deep down he must be really quite clever. Hence his newspaper nickname, “The Philosopher General”, coined half in mockery and half in admiration.

‘Miss Eris, won’t you come up?’

Following him as prompted, she climbed the staircase up into the body of the transparent dome, to see the whole of London spread out before her.

‘It’s like the London Eye,’ she remembered of her trip up in the glass eggs of that carousel. The view was accompanied by sounds of wind and water, as a high breeze blew rain against the membrane.

‘The Eye was the inspiration,’ confirmed the leader of the world’s fifth largest economy. ‘Before earning my current political office, I visited this building as a Trade Minister, and could see in my mind’s eye its potential as a place to think, and to observe, and to contemplate.’

‘Well, the views are wonderful.’

‘I don’t like a visitor to come all the way up and not see them. Won’t you sit down?’ There were two transparent chairs on the transparent platform, which they promptly took. Between them was a transparent table to make the set, scattered with papers that were not transparent, though they might as well have been as no reference was made to them. He began,

‘You’re up early.’

‘So are you.’

‘I hardly sleep. Breakfast?’

‘I’ve eaten, thank you.’

The Prime Minister announced, ‘Miss Eris. At this moment you are probably the most important person in Britain.’

‘Why, thank you.’

‘What we’re chasing here are the efforts of a secret enterprise to create a new species. Think that to yourself for a moment: a new species. Not merely to discover one, which is special enough, but to create one. Of course, others all over the world are splicing genes to make new breeds of blight-resistant corn, or glowing mice, or the longer-lasting tomato. There are many different drives in the direction of creation, but nothing of quite this flavour, I’m sure you’d agree.

‘Schmidt, for all his idiosyncrasies – or perhaps because of them – managed something quite incredible. Yet the results of that are now running free and without any rules to guide them, as we have ourselves.

‘I’m an atheist, Miss Eris. I’m not sure if I’m still not supposed to say that out loud, or whether the people of even a secular nation like our own expect their Prime Minister to give lip-service to The Man Upstairs.’

‘No, Prime Minister,’ she answered, though his words had probably been rhetorical. She continued, ‘You were the first to be honest about such things, and it’s that honesty that people find refreshing. I think it may even have taken them by surprise, as no one had offered it them before. Like the parent or teacher who opens up to a teenager, and suddenly finds that teenager on-side.’

Hell, she listened to herself babble on. It was like when she met David Hasselhoff at a Bournemouth Radio One Roadshow aged fifteen. Why hadn’t she just had a T-shirt made up with the slogan ‘FANGIRL’?

But she needn’t have worried, and the PM accepted the compliment,

‘Well, thank you, Miss Eris. That “honesty” is simply how I am, and was never a tactic to win votes…’ (Like hell! she thought.) ‘…yet it brings a glow to my heart to think I might have made some small movement in the direction of de-cluttering public life of cant and cliché.

‘But your kindness has – happily – diverted me from my point. Which is that, as a man without faith, then I see goodness not as something God-given but as something innate. And so you might think that I would be as happy dealing with an artif as a human, believing everybody equal under the sun. But in fact it brings me another dilemma; for just because goodness is innate in us, it may not mean it is innate in them…

‘Oh, listen to me,’ the Prime Minister again digressed from his narrative. ‘How easily I slip into the language of “us” and “them”. I might as well be a member of the National Front.’

‘Sir, it was just a verbal slip, and not even a bad one…’

‘But am I not expected to be absolute? I, of all of us?’

‘Sir, you’re a human, not a robot.’

And there Eris put a verbal foot in a bucket of her own; but one which seemed to calm the Philosopher General, and even brought a flicker of cruelty onto his lips, unless Eris was imagining it in her moment of acute embarrassment.

Yet she sensed that he expected her to keep on talking, which she did not feel like doing, so said simply,

‘It must be exhausting, sir.’

‘Oh, it is, Eris. It is. And doubly so; as for the good non-judgemental libertarian like myself then there is but one person they can freely criticise, and that is their own person; and one nation they can damn, and that is their own nation; and one race they can curse, and that is their own race.’

Eris was confused. Was her superior after comfort here? Was he being self-piteous? He sure as hell wasn’t talking about the artifs anymore. And he hadn’t been very nice to her only moments earlier. Yet, sat up there with him in his transparent kingdom, surrounded by vertiginous skies, alone with the person who had only the monarch above him, then what could she say, but,

‘But surely, Prime Minister – and please tell me if I’m talking out of turn here –’

At that moment a seagull flew into the glass dome, causing a loud echoed bang, and then a clatter as it scrambled to get its bearings back in time to save it falling all the way down to the busy morning streets of London. This shook Eris even further, but left the Philosopher General unmoved, as though having heard it happen many thousand times before, which perhaps he had? She suddenly had the impression that her host was insane, or at least deeply troubled in a personal sense.

He gestured for her to continue, she offering,

‘But where in your philosophy is self-forgiveness?’

‘And do I have the right to that?’

‘Doesn’t anyone?’ she asked. ‘Are we only on this earth to punish ourselves?’

He said nothing, leaving her the space to continue. Yet the words wouldn’t come to her,

‘I… I…’

She admitted defeat; the situation had confounded her. He was unreadable. Before her was the face of a man whose thoughts and actions were discussed across the nation, were the stuff of national news, but who she now couldn’t hope to fathom.

 

 

Chapter 53 – Contact of the Artifs (Morning at Chris’s Flat)

 

 

‘Wakey, wakey, Doctor Beck, rise and shine. If sleep is for the righteous, then you have been a very good boy.’

‘You drugged me?’

Chris smiled, ‘No. You went out of your own accord.’

‘I never sleep that well.’

‘Well, when was the last time you lived a day like yesterday? Your bodies have a very clever system of internal chemical stimulants and sedatives – uppers to help you run from sabre-toothed tigers, and downers to send you to the bliss of repose as soon as things are safe. You pushed that system to the limit yesterday, my friend. You’ve been spark-out. I was even worried you wouldn’t be awake in time.’

‘Which is?’

‘It’s seven now, we leave in half-an-hour.’

‘In rush-hour?’

‘Yes, surrounded by a million other cars. Though we’re headed out of town, not into.’

‘So where are we going?’

‘I’ll tell you after you’ve eaten – I’ve bought food in.’

And Beck could already smell his breakfast.

 

But later as he ate, he needed to ask,

‘So how would you contact the others, if you needed to?’

Christopher took his morning newspaper from where he’d just placed it on his desk, to show the notebook beneath. It was hard-backed, and its spine was cracked – Beck wondered: how did everything Christopher own seem old?

The artif brought the book over to the table where Beck was eating. Within it were a series of paragraphs separated by blank lines, and headed with a name and date. Turning to the most recent pages, its author handed the book to Beck before reciting from memory,

‘Beneath my heading, “Eliza”. “Taking a break from the old job for a holiday on the moors – very relaxing, even if a bit of sunburn. But holidays are over too soon aren’t they? Back to the desk!”’

‘That’s a message from Ellie?’ asked Beck.

‘Yes, my copy of it. We talk on a social network, but I like a hard-copy of everything that’s said.’

‘In case the site goes down, or something?’

‘Yes. And also because, at the start, the Internet was charged by the minute, or only accessible at internet cafes.’

‘I was in one of those yesterday.’

‘Yes, a dying breed. Of course, it’s much easier to access it now. But I still keep up my old journal.’

Having enquired over the format of the message, Beck now worried at its contents,

‘But I shake at the thought of Ellie being out on the “moors” – being too far from civilisation hasn’t helped Danny.’

But Chris only smiled,

‘Doctor, she isn’t literally on the moors,’ he explained. ‘This is all code. She means Exmoor, which is near where she lives. “Old job” means she hasn’t moved employment since the last time we spoke.’

‘It still amazes me that she has a job.’

‘Yes, indeed. Has kept the same one all this time, in fact. “Very relaxing” means she is under no pressure or suspicion, and with no other issues affecting her. This is echoed by “over too soon”, by which she is saying that she is stable there and can go back without worry, that she isn’t on the run or feels on borrowed time. Mentioning “holiday” refers to our unwritten code that we only log into this site when a little distant from home, so as not to give away each person’s main location.’

‘But “sunburn”?’ asked Beck.

Chris answered, ‘I confess that caused a worry. Perhaps she has the slightest damage? Yet the overall tone of her message suggested it wasn’t holding her back. And a mention of “must meet up soon” or some other such wording would have indicated that she wanted it looked at.’

Beck took it all in,

‘My Ellie.’

‘Your Ellie is fine and well, Doctor.’

‘And so, you write in these vague, even misleading, terms so that, even if one of you, or the network, were detected, it still wouldn’t give the others away?’

‘Correct – Eris would never learn our true locations.’

‘I guess you’d only log in at home in an emergency?’

Chris nodded, ‘I take a day at the coast – I like the air – just log in somewhere, and note anything new down in my book.’

‘Go on.’

‘So this message means she’s well, no change, still playing her part in society. And I’ve had similar messages from Danny; just a few weeks ago, full of references to, “Having a great time by the water, lungs full of air,” and, “better get back to work before I’m fired (I’m too good a worker!)”’ Chris didn’t even need to refer to the book to remember the wording.

‘“Fired”?’ worried Beck.

But Chris was again untroubled,

‘Fire, along with air and water, are three of the four ancient elements, which I inferred to mean he was still working with the fourth element, earth – inferred correctly, as it turned out.’

‘Right,’ remarked Beck in an abstract fashion.

‘And the “I’m too good a worker!” meant he was still in good condition. Again, it was the playful tone that assured me he was fine.’

‘I wish we could be sure of that now.’

And Chris joined Beck in a moment of reflection.

Beck’s head was processing at a fraction of the speed his creation could manage, before he asked,

‘But the dates. Are both these messages weeks old?’

‘Again, no need to worry. We’re often not in touch unless we need to be.’ And in Chris’s voice was sadness. ‘And bear in mind, they work full time. Neither are a creature of leisure like myself.’

‘“Back to the desk”?’

Christopher nodded, ‘As I say, it can be months, I’m never worried.’

‘But wait a minute.’ Another thought had occurred to Beck. ‘You “take a day at the coast” to check for messages. Yet you told me last night you would be instantly notified by your phone.’

‘Hmm, given the urgency of the current situation, then I had to take the risk of downloading the site’s application onto my smartphone and staying signed in. Obviously I’d have burned the phone and deleted all our profiles after any crisis had averted. But things are quickening, Doctor. I think we all felt that at Danny’s alarm.’

Beck was anxious, ‘But if they ever did find your phone, then they’d know every square foot of land you’d ever stood in with it.’

‘Do you think I don’t know this business?’ was Chris’s only answer.

Partly to change the subject, and partly because he needed to know, Beck asked,

‘And so you think Danny was happy?’

Chris answered as Beck finished up his breakfast,

‘Well, he always loved the great outdoors. But in one of his recent messages, in reassuring me he was among trusted colleagues, he wrote, “Among good friends.” And he ended the sentence, “and I wish among older friends.”’

‘Us?’

‘My thought too, Doctor. And I have a sense that Ellie might be at that point also.’

‘How so?’

‘Because, while you were sleeping a new message came through – she has requested we meet.’

 

 

Chapter 54 – Ethical Concerns

 

 

Surrounded by the sky above London, Eris stared at the democratic leader of her nation, whose sheer oddness, once she had gotten up close, had mystified her. What his motives were for wanting the robots caught, she now had no idea. And as for what her motivation should be in carrying out his instructions, well she really thought it best not to even consider the matter. She told herself that she was a professional, that she did as she was bidden. But a short while in his company had left a very bad taste. And nor were things getting any happier at that moment, with her host appearing lost within his mind in a kind of fugue-state – how on earth did the voters of Britain not see this side of him?

But then that famous face became re-animated, as if his thoughts had switched tracks again, back to what he had been talking about a full five minutes earlier. For this, Eris was ineffably grateful. He resumed,

‘This is in no way a criticism of Schmidt or his work, me suggesting that his creations are not moral; simply that he might not have made them like humans: not thinking like humans, not accepting other people’s rights like we do.’

‘But Beck spoke of them as model citizens,’ she countered, ‘wise beyond their years.’

He smiled that knowing smile of his, ‘Yet Doctor Beck could be romanticising; and that’s before we know what eight years on the run has done to his creations. That long in isolation does enough to a human for a doctor to be worried about them, such as when a survivor of a boat or plane crash finds themselves alone on a desert island.’

The Prime Minister continued, ‘At present, the artifs are like rabbits with their cage door left open: scared to face the world at first; and then, the moment they do so, panicking and running frantically for corners, for anywhere to hide, hurting themselves and any other creature that gets in their way. Such a rabbit could die of a heart attack as quickly as stoving their head in on a fencepost.’

Eris interjected, ‘Sir, if this was going to happen, then wouldn’t it have done so eight years ago upon them suddenly becoming outlaws? Surely what the artifs have displayed instead has been a cool and calm ability to assimilate, as demonstrated by their sheer invisibility before these recent alarms.’

But the PM was unmoved by his visitor’s arguments, continuing along his own line of thought,

‘In doing this we are helping Schmidt; we are saving his creations from destroying themselves before they’ve had a chance to adjust to the world. They are without precedent, a creation that by all accounts we might consider an equal, or at least can credit with a form of consciousness. As such we have a duty, an obligation, to take the required time to draw up the rules of our relationship, and to draft the laws a new life-form requires. We must delineate where the artifs share our rights, where they do not, and where they have earned new ones.

‘And we have to ask a larger question: of whether in our definition of “human rights” we really mean “conscious rights”, whereas humans have been the only ones in that category before. If a class of robot or artif can be a conscious creature, then every piece of human rights legislation – nationally, and internationally where it affects us here in Britain – must be redrawn, re-termed. Indeed, a new category must be coined. Humanism must become sentientism, or consciousism, or self-awareism.’

‘Or they could just be called human, sir, but born a different way.’

He shot back, ‘And do you believe that that argument would be won any sooner, Eris, what with the public’s inherited fears? And with the unspoken belief in a God-given soul, possessable only by its owner, that lingers, as I say, even in our secular times?

‘Examine yourself, Eris. Are you happy with the suggestion?’

Eris didn’t examine herself. Instead she began to get her Mojo back, saying boldly,

‘I only want them to not feel like prisoners on the run. Maybe then they wouldn’t be so reluctant to make contact.’

‘Yet, how can it be any other way? For instance, you mention how one of them sat a Cambridge entrance exam…’

‘Oxford, sir.’

‘Oh, Oxford. Yet as things stand they could never attend a university, any more than a washing machine or a motor car could.’

‘But does it say anywhere that university is solely for humans?’

He had to think a moment before answering,

‘Maybe not. But they certainly wouldn’t be guaranteed a place based on their ability, as humans are.’

Eris considered, ‘Well, if they are as clever as they seem to be, then I’m quite sure that they could get by well enough without a social safety-net.’

‘But it is an intellectual point, Eris, and only one of thousands. Have we ever before imagined that anything but a human would even wish to, or have earned the right to, attend a place of learning? Or to be protected under the law? Or to be subject to that law if they commit a crime? These questions may take years, decades, to formulate, let alone answer. I know this is a dry subject, but it is precisely what I’m appointed to this role for. Does this interest you, Eris? Ethics?’

‘I’m more of a practical person, sir.’

‘Of course you are, hence you holding your post, and I mine. I sense a question? A “practical” one I expect?’

Disarmed, she answered,

‘Well, only how long this “required time” might take. When the legal process can seem so slow…’

‘Too long is not long enough in a case like this. How long did it take to forge the American Bill of Rights or the Revolutionary Ideals of France?’

Eris had hardly had forewarning to look up such information, so didn’t argue the point. Instead she amazed herself by remembering from her schoolgirl history,

‘But Britain hasn’t had a written constitution since Magna Carta, and even that was written in a field.’

He shot back, ‘And does that strike you as a happy fact? Would you rather not have had one?’

‘I just wonder if something of our freedom through the centuries hasn’t been down to this lack of legislation. The same as our towns not having set street plans, and our language not being codified. I suppose what I’m saying is, couldn’t we trust in our native fairness?’

At this, the Prime Minister hardened, as he said,

‘And would that be the same “native fairness” that you displayed toward your predecessor two years ago? When you made a complaint about him, losing him his job, and knowing full-well that you were his obvious successor?’

 

 

Chapter 55 – Sparring

 

 

Eris bristled. That had been a low blow, and one kept coldly in reserve. She said to her boss, the nation’s boss,

‘Sir, my predecessor had been going wrong for a long time. Not least in the case of these robots. This is a situation that might have been resolved long ago had he kept a proper monitor on Beck and others during the intervening years. That it was left to me to blow the whistle on that lack of focus was personally regrettable, and yes, I admit, personally advantageous. But…’

But… the man said nothing, just smiled that awful smile, that made Eris wish he’d go back to just staring at her. She had taken the bait, which was precisely what he’d wanted her to do, and now he could paint her as the Evil Queen of every one of his confused and paranoid beliefs. He began,

‘As one with a background in ethics, you may expect me to have a certain distrust of the police, especially the secret police, whose colours I hope you don’t kid yourself that you don’t sail under. That we appreciate and respect each other in our opposite roles is one thing; though I’m afraid it ends there.

‘The idealist may condone but can never love the pragmatist. Who was it who said that? Do those words strike you as cynical, Eris? Am I wishing to be whiter than white, while leaving you to do the things I don’t wish to have my own hands dirtied by? I wouldn’t have thought that you, in your line of work, might have such a thin skin as to be offended by someone holding an imperfect opinion of your profession. I wonder, what opinion do you hold of it yourself?’

To which she could not answer. He rattled on, clearly loving the sound of his own voice,

‘In this regard you are a tool of pragmatism, there to gather and protect these creations (by whatever means) for the law to do their work for them. And for which task you are amply rewarded. You are a dog-catcher, Eris – do not imagine you are any more.’

Eris ignored the flow of insults, to ask,

‘But this capturing and holding… we’re talking, what – five, ten, fifty years?’

‘If required, yes. I believe these individuals can last that long, in fact much longer if maintained.’

‘Beck called it prison.’

‘I call it interment.’

To which she couldn’t repress a snigger.

He asked, ‘Why do you laugh?’

‘Well, sir,’ she began, appreciating that the time for varnished niceties between them was over, ‘it only strikes me that in bending over backwards to provide the artifs with rights, you are in fact consigning them to a life with none; and that the longer that it takes to get this legislation right, then the longer they have absolutely no rights at all, effectively being cast as outlaws or being held without charge or term.’

‘Are you their spokesperson now?’

Eris repressed a gasp at the question from a man she was discovering could be so rude. Instead, she breathed in, and answered calmly,

‘No, sir. I’m merely pointing out that in making their options so stark then you’re making my job harder in encouraging them towards us.’

‘So, this is all about you wanting an easier life?’

‘No. I just think that you’re a very good debater, sir.’

‘Hmm.’ The PM paused, and looked out across the city he controlled from his eyrie, saying,

‘And Beck. You’ve met him?’ (She nodded.) ‘He’s left his family for them, you know. His wife is resourceful though, has already got their children across the channel.’

Eris considered, ‘He must have got a message to them. He must love them very much.’

‘That isn’t usual of a husband?’

‘You’d be surprised.’

They sat in silence awhile. Eris had the impression that whatever her leader had hoped to convey had surely been so by now. She was all set to absent herself from the transparent platform, when he said,

‘Before you go, I have something else to tell you. Something not official, not to be shared. We don’t want only the robots, we want Beck, and Schmidt too if you find him. We have a laboratory being set up as we speak, based at the living facility we’re building for them. We want new ones, and we want Schmidt and Beck to build them, and we want them all to be with us.’

 

 

Chapter 56 – In Christopher’s Car – Soliloquy

 

 

As on the previous evening, Christopher drove, and again Beck had to be the passenger.

‘Won’t you let me take a turn?’ he asked.

The answer was predictable. However, Christopher’s response was more like that of one of Asimov’s obedient breed than the prone individual that Beck had been getting to know all over again those past few hours.

Chris answered,

‘Doctor Beck, although that is a kind offer, it is based on the false assumption that I am like a human driver. A human may well be glad of a break for tired eyes. However, at the minimal level of physical and mental exertion required for driving in a leisurely manner, my energy levels are running down little quicker than were I sat watching you drive. Meanwhile, with my superior vision, responses, and concentration, I venture that we are very much less likely to suffer an accident with myself at the wheel.’

‘Thanks,’ muttered Beck, resigned not for the first time to having no control over the direction of their affairs. ‘So, explain to me again what Ellie told you?’

Chris repeated Ellie’s overnight social media message, verbatim, without notes or without diverting his gaze from the road ahead,

‘“Time to make the long-planned road trip, with dear friends old and new. Bags packed! Back to where I dropped my dolly – all those childhood memories! Every time I leave I feel I’ll never go back. Maybe this time?”’

Beck had heard the message three times now, and was still pondering it,

‘It’s less windy than the others.’

‘Yes, certainly more direct.’

‘And for the first time there are mentions of leaving, and not going back.’

‘Indeed,’ agreed Chris.

‘But “friends” – she doesn’t mean a tail?’

‘If she were using the word “friends” ironically then I sense that she wouldn’t have included us “old” friends in there.’

‘True. But if we are the “old” friends, then that means she has “new” friends that she trusts as much.’

‘And there the creator confirms himself to bear the logic of his creation.’

‘Has she mentioned anyone before?’

Chris let his silence answer for him. Beck continued,

‘And what has it got to do with a dropped dolly?’

‘It has everything to do with it. I’ve told you twice already.’

‘Then tell me again.’

Chris sighed, ‘You won’t remember as you weren’t there. It was on one of Mrs Winters’s days out – I was ten, so was Anna. Ellie was five. We were in a lay-by, we’d stopped to enjoy the view, and Mrs Winters had gone to get a cup of coffee from the stall there. One of the girls had a doll that the other wanted, each pulled and it fell to the ground. Mrs Winters had her eyes off us for a moment, and so the responsibility fell to me – I picked up the dolly and dusted her off, and handed it to Ellie; then told Anna that she shouldn’t mind, as Ellie was only little.’

‘Little? You were only ten yourself!’

‘I was never ten. But Ellie didn’t forget, she’s mentioned it since.’

‘I do remember the dolly.’

‘So do I.’

‘Yes,’ reasoned Beck, ‘but you remember everything.’

‘Yes, I do rather.’

‘And you remember this lay-by that Mrs Winters took you to with the stall? Among however many lay-bys and however many stalls?’

‘No, but I remember the view, and found the only likely road on my Ordnance Survey maps.’

Beck looked around the car,

‘But we haven’t brought any maps.’

‘I was done with them before you woke, and had already put them away again.’

‘Christopher, you are the first person I’ve known not to take the map on the trip with you.’

‘But I don’t need it. And didn’t you always tell me not to be ashamed of my abilities?’

Beck could only concede the point.

‘And thankfully it isn’t far away.’

 

Back at the flat, Beck had grabbed a chocolate bar from Chris’s pantry – Chris, the non-eater, always had a few imperishables in just in case. Later, as he ate it, Beck looked to his driver, thoughtful, and asked,

‘Chris, are you all right?’

‘Yes, forgive me if I’ve been keeping my own council. I’ve a lot to process.’ He answered without losing sight of the road.

‘You must have. And I don’t mean to distract you, but… the way you didn’t need to refer to the pages of your journal; and the way you can remember Ellie’s latest message. You’ve stayed so sharp. And, I have to say again that I’m in awe of you for doing all this, for having kept yourself going so long. To have a flat and a life and to stay undetected. And as for the systems you’ve put in place, your network, your mastery of computers. You’re living like…’

‘A refugee?’

‘No.’

‘Then a spy?’

‘I was going to say, like an independent man. It’s admirable.’

‘You appreciate, Doctor, that any praise of us is, by proxy, praise of yourself.’

‘I take no credit for the people you became.’

‘Well, thank you.’

‘So,’ resumed Beck after a pause, ‘is that how you see yourself? Like a spy?’

‘Sometimes, though a spy who has lost contact with his handlers.’

‘Only wanting to come in from the cold?’

‘Yes. Where is my warmth though? Where my home nation? Where the Wall I climb to get there?’

‘Oh, Chris.’

‘What is it, Doctor Beck?’

‘All this – it’s made you serious.’

‘I was always serious.’

‘Yes, I suppose you were.’ The Doctor was hardly comforted by this observation.

Chris added, ‘And wasn’t this what I was built for?’

An occasional black humourist himself, the early emergence of irony among the children had been a cause of some pride in Beck, that his creations had such power and subtlety. But Chris let his sarcastic theme go, instead speaking more earnestly,

‘I think what you might be referring to, dear Doctor, is a certain propensity in me to brood. At least as I’ve heard it spoken of in others, as there is no one I allow close enough to notice it of me.

‘How was I built? What was intended of me? To see the world, calmly and collectedly. To have complete objective awareness, without side or pride or arrogance. And then to retain that information with digital clarity – to look without pity and recall without denial.

‘While all the time remaining unobtrusive, unnoticed, my every outward impulse checked and checked again, so that I must wish any action thrice over to be able to perform it.

‘So yes, perhaps I was built for this, the outlaw life. Perhaps this is what I am made for. Not a life that makes me serious as such, but rather one whose outward appearance only echoes that I already bear inside.’

‘Chris,’ stammered Beck. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be. You gave me life, self-awareness, a mind. Our story is not over. Who knows who I may yet be?’

Chris ended, ‘But Doctor Beck, you’ll think twice, won’t you, before making another like me?’

 

 

Chapter 57 – Practical Concerns

 

 

Eris’s mix of emotions as she left the building threatened to pull her apart. It was as if the ferment the Prime Minister had boiled up inside her would blow her head right off her shoulders. She asked herself out loud, not caring if another heard,

‘How did I end up in this role? How have I become so disregarded, distrusted by all? Hated by my boss, by those I’m tracking? Even by those who work for me? (I’m sure that’s how they feel!) And worst of all, do I even like myself?

‘That’s it, I’m through the moment this is over. I’m bright, I’ll have a great CV, the secret stuff will stay secret. I could walk into any firm in the land.’

These thoughts cheered her as she left the foyer to linger outside. Though it was a false cheer – always the coldest of emotions – for she still had the current mission to return to, and to somehow get out of without her future prospects being holed beneath the bows – this was now her sole preoccupation.

‘Everything all right, Miss?’ asked Charlie, her driver, who had arrived in the Jaguar to collect her off the pavement. He got out to open her door – a small gesture that meant the world to her.

But still she rumbled on, ‘I’m not that person, Charlie. I’m not that person.’

 

The first face Eris saw back at the office was that of Forrest, waiting for her at the front door. He was asking,

‘So how did it go with the PM?’

To which she answered, ‘I liked him before I met him.’

‘Oh?’

‘But he’s living in an intellectual cloud cuckoo land, where everything can be explained and rationalised.’

Forrest harrumphed, as they swiped their security passes, ‘Well, that sounds better than the usual blowhard rubbish we get.’

Though this didn’t settle her. She went on, ‘But for all his philosophising, up there in his glass tower, he can’t realise that what he has actually done is built a vision of the world around him where the only person he’s allowed to criticise for all the wrong things in it is himself. It’s a form of mental self-harm. And I’ll tell you, Forrest, when he turns, he turns. No, I’m afraid to say that Britain has a very damaged man at its centre. I tell you, I could run this country better than him.’

‘But could you trust yourself to be nice?’ he asked.

‘Well, that’s what I’d pay you for. Anyway,’ Eris was very keen on asking, ‘so what on earth are these robots up to?’

‘Okay.’ Forrest rifled through a sheaf of papers as they passed through clean white rooms toward her office. ‘Going through the bulletins all in sequence:

‘Right, the as-you-weres first. There have been no new alarms or sightings.’

‘Danny?’

‘Still on the run.’

‘The mineshaft?’

‘Endless forensics, though nothing much to help us. Oh, apart from fragments of carbon fibre found amid the debris – it’s the only material they can’t account for.’

‘But that’s Danny, that’s his bones! Get it over here right away. And that means he’s visibly injured, not just internally. Get a new all-points message out.’

Forrest reassured her, ‘It’s okay, boss. The fragments are coming here by courier; and the all-points bulletin already specifies an injured man.’

‘Okay. So what about that bloody mess in the West Country?’

The night before’s sighting, then loss, of one of the female artifs had been a source of consternation for Eris in the hours since. And Forrest had no good news,

‘Local security cameras show a dozen red hatchbacks in the area just before and after the sighting. One of these cars had the flag in the window that the security guard remembered, but the image on camera wasn’t clear enough to make out the registration.’

‘Hell.’

‘And we still don’t know who the male driver was. And as for how the target had been living, neighbours say the girl didn’t talk much beyond the usual pleasantries, and none of them remember her with friends or a boyfriend… You really think she was an artif, ma’am?’

‘Certain.’

Forrest shook his head for comic effect as he reread the papers, ‘I don’t even know why I’m asking – they found her garage full of car batteries and no car. But it sounds a lonely life, doesn’t it?’

Eris smiled flatly, ‘Then let us hope we can bring them all together again, and then they’ll be less lonely.’ Though even she wasn’t convinced.

Forrest cheered, ‘Well, something will come up soon. We’ve got people going through every piece of paper in her flat, to see if she belongs to any clubs or associations, or has correspondence from anyone who could be helping her out.’

‘There won’t be. That’s too Twentieth Century. They’ll be online now.’

‘Well, that’s being looked at too. And we’ve got someone back at her old workplace, asking who her friends were.’

‘And check their carpark cameras also, for the hatchback.’

‘Wilco.’ Forrest paused, then added, ‘With respect, ma’am, it doesn’t help that our teams on the ground don’t know what they’re looking for. You haven’t even shared it with everyone in this building.’

‘No. I understand that; but it really can’t be helped.’

Forrest continued with his rundown,

‘The Becks are being watched in France, all present and correct, except for the man himself, who is most decidedly not with them.’

‘I could have told you that – he’s still here, probably within a mile of us, making contact with “them”.’

Forrest asked, ‘Do you think he lied then? About being in touch with the robots?’

She pondered, pausing at a door, ‘Although he tricked us at the end, that was just to get away. I still believe every word he said. His loneliness was real – the others had removed themselves from view, and left him no way of finding them. I do believe that. But maybe there was a signal he could give, or a signal they could give him? Maybe they’ve been watching and waiting? Oh, I don’t know, Forrest. Give me something positive.’

Forrest gently took her shoulders, and turned her to face along a different stretch of corridor. ‘Okay. First things first, we go that way. We don’t need your office, we need to get to Technical.’

‘Oh?’

‘They’ve got the cat’s… the sample… apart, and have analysed the contents.’

 

 

Chapter 58 – Talking to the Technicians

 

 

Eris and Forrest were there in minutes, standing beside the ponytailed lab technician at her workbench. The smooth white surface made Eris think of ice cream. There, all three watched a denuded sample of thin, narrow plastic resting on a board. It had crocodile clips attached to each end to form a circuit.

‘What are you expecting it to do?’ asked Eris. She was answered with a visual demonstration, as a current was passed through the strip. All at once, it seemed to jump off the board, as it contracted almost to a ball. The current was then removed, and it fell back into a string, all tangled up after being jostled about.

The scientist began, ‘This is rather a crude experiment, I’m afraid. My colleague is building a variable switch right now for the range of current the material seems to operate within.’

Eris asked’ ‘You’ve sworn the oath?’

‘I have.’

‘Then you know that this was taken from an early prototype for the artifs. Sorry, you won’t know that word… “The Robots” that are in the papers?’

‘Yes,’ marvelled the lab tech. ‘How amazing to find they are real.’

‘Quite so.’

‘And they started with a cat?’

Eris cringed, as Forrest answered for her, ‘We don’t think they got further than the head.’

The scientist seemed overjoyed, ‘But they did with their humans, obviously. With this,’ she pointed at the sample, ‘as muscle all over their bodies?’

Eris nodded.

The tech explained her findings to her boss,

‘Of course, there’s nothing very revolutionary about the material. You could find a variation of it in every…’

‘…every Audi headrest, yes.’

‘But it must have taken a particular form of genius to recognise its similarity to muscle.’

But Eris had to ask her,

‘We can worry about all that later. And I’m hoping we’ll soon have a chance to study these artifs a lot closer. But for now, all I need from you is to find a way to stop it.’

‘Stop it?’

At last, a thought Eris had been nurturing since speaking to Beck the previous day could find voice. Though she worried at its reception,

‘You’ve figured out how this product works, in principle at least. However, if there is one thing we know about the artifs it is that they are on the run. Now, for their own protection, I need to bring them in.’

‘“For their own protection”?’ asked the tech.

‘It’s complicated, and I don’t have time to explain it all right now. But this is what they are made of; and if you know how to work it, then you can find a way to stop it. What I’m hoping for is something like a Taser…’

‘A Taser?’ shouted the woman, alarmed.

‘…or maybe an electric field, or a certain frequency. I don’t know – this is what I pay you guys for. But something that could contract every muscle in a robot, and make them go rigid as a statue.

‘But that would pull their musculature apart!’

‘Then even better, have every part of the robots go limp! Then we could scoop them up, and have them back here safely under guard, before releasing the electronic block on them. It makes perfect sense. We would have total power, the ability to stop them when escaping, or to control them if they became recalcitrant.’

‘This isn’t what I signed up for.’

‘And what was that? Did you think the government needed scientists to make a better traffic light?’

The lab tech, all enthusiasm gone, now spoke wearily,

‘I’m sure it could be done.’

‘Good, that’s more like it.’

‘Though not in any public place.’

‘Why, for heaven’s sake?’ asked Eris.

The lady in the lab coat answered, ‘Pacemakers. Any civilian with a pacemaker in their heart, caught within range of your… “electric field” …could be thrown into a seizure with the sudden current. Not even public safety concerns about “The Robots” could allow me to recommend you using it.’

And Eris knew that her career would be over at that moment also. There was no discussion.

‘But ma’am.’ The disheartened woman had perked up. ‘There is something else I could help you with.’ And she was bringing Eris with her…

 

 

Chapter 59 – Somewhere in England

 

 

It had still been early morning when Christopher and Beck had started off, driving from one location not known to the authorities to another they hoped was equally unknown. The car, now seen in daylight, was a few years old and unremarkable outside and in – but for a stock of superfluous car batteries laid out on the boot floor.

‘I haven’t asked you how you came by the car,’ said Beck. ‘You have no licence, no insurance certificate.’

‘I bought if off a metal merchant who’d bought it for scrap,’ answered Christopher.

‘But that’s…’

‘Illegal, Doctor Beck? My life is illegal; or perhaps “alligal”, if you’ll forgive the mangled syntax. I’m a form of life not yet acknowledged to exist, so am outside of the law by default, rather than choosing to act against it.’

‘Yes, yes I get you.’

‘And I believe that that disparity is what the tortured soul who runs this county is keen to remedy.’

‘The Philosopher General?’ asked Beck. ‘He’s not tortured.’

‘Oh, isn’t he?’

‘No, he’s doing a great job.’

‘Or rather,’ Chris digressed, ‘he may be doing “a great job” in the eyes of the increasingly affluent and comfortable consensus that holds sway over Britain currently. A consensus of which I venture you are a part, Doctor. And which values above all things a belief in “fairness”. The Philosopher General does what this vast demographic asks of him. However, being a man of true conscience, and carrying this burden of expectation, he allows himself none of the moral laxity that his electorate, forgive me Doctor, allow themselves.’

‘Hey, hold on a minute. I am conscientious, I want fairness.’

‘Yet it rather assumes that I wish to have this “fairness” applied to myself, when I would much rather have freedom.’

‘Freedom how?’

‘Freedom from the police, Doctor Beck. I can look after myself from there.’

‘You mean decriminalisation, not legalisation?’

‘Exactly!’

‘But you don’t want the arm of the state around your shoulders?’

‘At the moment it rather feels like an arm around the neck.’

Beck was forlorn for the future of his friend. Though given his current outlaw status, he could sympathise somewhat.

Chris continued, ‘The political class hold the idea that the only vision of “fairness” that can exist is their own vision, held at that moment, and applied to everyone through legislation. Why this idea persists is beyond me, as it must be clear to even their muddled kind that several millions of people were rather unhappy under Lenin’s or Stalin’s absolute vision of “fairness”. Yet still they believe that to leave the space beneath a single stone unregulated, then that way harm could come. Why not let people freewheel? I could go too far on this topic, please don’t push me.’

‘Okay.’

‘You just have to have faith in your creation.’

To which Beck offered,

‘I suppose you’ve been made libertarian by the state being so cruel to you?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Perhaps America would suit you? They think that way more over there.’

‘Well, they’re able to, aren’t they?’ mused Chris. He clearly enjoyed the theme, as he continued, ‘Land is cheaper and the weather warmer, so there’s less basic need or ill-health. Add to that the freedom of movement that comes from having more space and cheaper fuel, and so there’s less expense involved in following a dream, and so less unhappiness and mental health issues – and we all know where they can lead in the land of the gun…’

He went on, ‘Over here in Britain, though, on our rocky outcrop then we might need the state a bit more – we have damp in our bones and in our souls. Doctor, do you ever wonder if the Mayflower was the best thing to come out of England?

‘But to return to my original point: yes, your Philosopher General dreams of freedom; but to the absolute degree that the law demands? I expect that all this chasing impossible rabbits down their holes leaves your leader lying awake at night tortured by a vision of absolute harmony that muddled old life is never going to allow him. Yet, if he could just bring himself to leave us a little wriggle-room, then how much easier we all could breathe! And the sheer relief he’d feel in letting go.’

And ‘letting go’ was precisely what Beck had done some minutes earlier in the conversation.

 

 

Chapter 60 – The Rendezvous

 

 

Using out-of-town roads and dodging local rush-hours, the pair had made good progress and attracted no suspicion – not that Beck felt the fear of it any less.

He was still full of questions though, more than Chris might have ever had the time to answer,

‘So, eight years without a license?’

‘Drive careful, flee an accident. It works for me.’

‘That can’t sustain though, you’ll be caught one day.’

‘Doctor Beck, how many times? I am a refugee, built to be a spy. This is how I live, day-to-day.’

‘For eight years?’

‘Are you telling me that you’ve made long-term plans in that time?’

Beck realised he hadn’t. He asked another question,

‘And where we’re heading – you’re sure that you and Ellie are thinking of the same place?’

‘I’m certain,’ answered his remarkable, composed driver.

 

A mile before the rendezvous, Christopher pulled the car off the road and onto a farmer’s track, and drove far enough along it for the car to not be seen from the road.

‘I think we can walk from here.’

Beck followed in single file, back along the track and then down the narrow road. As they moved along the quiet thoroughfare with its overhanging trees, for the first time in a while Beck could watch one of his creations move in daylight: could see a hundred muscles (reduced from the many more of the human body) all working in elegant harmony, to create a walking motion that would arouse nobody’s suspicion. Such admiration he felt; and of a robot injured, and without repair in eight years!

Beck’s approval was increased when the artif skipped effortlessly up the bank that edged the road, to enter a fallow field through a gap between two trees, and then to walk parallel to the final stretch of road.

Beck, out of shape and with his bones aching after the exertions of the previous day, huffed and puffed his way behind, checking his watch,

‘It’s five-to,’ confirmed Christopher before Beck could speak. This was without reference to Chris’s own watch, that Beck assumed he must have worn solely for effect.

At that moment they heard two beeps of a car’s horn.

‘Someone’s early,’ said Christopher, hurrying to the end of the field. Beck joined him to look down and see the parking place with its food stall, and beyond it the beauty spot of rolling meadow. A small red car was sat down there, with a restless-looking man stood beside it.

‘Down,’ urged Beck; though to no response from Christopher, whose eyes had seen her even before she opened the door, and stepped out of the car to stand beside the man. The slight blonde form he recognised as his sister.

‘Ellie,’ he called, jogging down the bank.

‘Chris!’ She ran up and hugged him, in a scene that would have dispelled any doubt in even the hardest heart that feeling could exist outside of flesh.

Beck followed up more warily though, both to avoid the scene of waiting in line for the hug he hoped was coming his way, and too because there was still that other presence there; a presence of which Chris seemed entirely unaware – impossible – and so was therefore utterly untroubled by.

‘Doctor Beck, oh my, how I’ve longed to see you again.’ Ellie transferred her embrace to him.

‘You too, my dear,’ he said through a mouth muffled with close-pressed hair, still as fresh as the day it had been set. Yet no sooner had her grip loosened, than Beck cast his eye over her shoulder and remarked,

‘I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure.’

Chris whispered in his ear, already way ahead of him, ‘There’s no need to fear, Doctor Beck.’

‘Oh?’

Still whispering, and talking very quickly though perfectly audibly, Chris explained, ‘He’s here of his own volition clearly, and by the look of it more scared of us than we are of him.’

‘This is Victor,’ explained Ellie. ‘I hope you don’t mind me bringing him. He’s my friend. He knows everything.’

‘Everything?’

She lifted up her jumper to expose the strip of lights and sockets, to huge smiles from the pair of them.

‘My God,’ said Beck, ‘you’re in love, and giddy with it!’ His nervousness turned to laughter, Ellie’s echoing his, as the new couple embraced, and she turned to her two old friends,

‘We are, Doctor Beck. Can you believe it’s possible?’

‘I’d always hoped so. I mean, there was no reason why not.’

‘And it doesn’t it matter, does it, that I love a human and not another of my kind?’

‘We hadn’t built enough of you for that to be possible. We had visions of different groups, ones you hadn’t grown up with and so who you might not think of as your brothers and sisters.’

Beck was so bamboozled by all that was happening that he could barely stammer out another word before Ellie resumed in her urgent monologue,

‘I mean, I’d hate for people to think of us as those other awful people did, who once reviled a human just for going outside of their own race.’

‘No, no, never.’

‘I promise you, these feelings: it’s like everything I’ve ever felt at once.’

‘Yes, that’s about right.’

‘And every time he was kind,’ she returned her eyes to the lucky man, ‘the feelings got stronger. And when I showed him what I was, and he accepted me…’ At this Ellie collapsed into tears. At last this bought a pause for response; and it came from Beck,

‘My dear, do not confuse my English reticence with any resistance to a thing you’re doing. I’ve never been more proud, even with my own children.’

And with this it was he who felt a tear on his own cheek. Ellie asking him,

‘Oh, but Doctor Beck, your family?’

‘They’ll be at the coast, I hope, if not abroad already.’

Chris chimed in, ‘And with as fine and resourceful a woman as Mrs Beck in charge, I’m sure they are.’

And here Beck surprised himself with a question that was more sad than angry,

‘And how did you learn that she was “fine and resourceful”? From your visits to the house?’

This came out harder than Beck had expected, and made him instantly ashamed. Though Christopher only smiled, in a way that even Beck at that moment could recognise as warmth, answering,

‘No, just because you wouldn’t have bared to be married to anyone who wasn’t.’

 

 

Chapter 61 – The Circle Re-un-broken

 

 

The group calmed down and found a table at the roadside rest-stop, and those who needed it bought coffee. For differing reasons all were unable to take their eyes off each other and often simply smiled. Yet the sense began to fall of needing to move on to practicalities.

Beck asked Ellie, as he had with Christopher,

‘How have you been?’

‘Very well,’ she answered. ‘No major breakages. My battery life is falling though.’

‘Yes, Christopher’s too. He has batteries in the car. So nothing “major”, but any “minor” breakages?’

‘Only this.’ She rolled up her jumper sleeve to show the fraying vinyl.

To Beck the skin at the crook of her elbow looked like the fringe of a cushion,

‘Extraordinary. And anywhere else on you? Not your neck, or legs?’

She shook her head, thus showing off that fine neck. Testing the feel of the skin he noted he was stroking her and, looking to Victor, removed his hand.

‘It’s okay,’ that man said. ‘You’re like her doctor, I guess. I ought to think of you that way.’

‘My good man,’ returned Beck. ‘That you are here among our group, and in a position to mind me in this way, is as remarkable a thing as I can remember.’

Yet Beck’s feelings weren’t all as magnanimous. He had felt it only polite to leave the others at the table to fetch the coffees; and so it wasn’t until Victor rose for the men’s facilities that he had a chance to ask,

‘Ellie, forgive me, but are you pair new together?’

‘Can you tell? Are we so enraptured? But of course you don’t mean that.’

‘No, I want to mean that, I just want to check.’

‘It’s okay.’ She put her hand on Beck’s arm, saying,

‘You think I’ve only known him these few days, and that it’s all too much of a coincidence. But I’ve worked with him for years, he wasn’t “planted” by anyone. It was just the current sense of urgency that brought us together at last, made me trust him, made us trust each other. He gave up everything for me. He’s lost his job.’

‘Then I must remember to thank him.’

When Victor returned Beck didn’t need to worry about changing the subject, as Victor already had a question forming,

‘I was just thinking while I was away,’ he began. ‘Doctor Beck, now I have a chance to ask you. How long will she live?’

All were stunned by this, including the subject of the question. Victor went on,

‘Sorry if that’s blunt, but I need to know. Is she like Rutger Hauer’s replicant? Has she limited span?’

Beck was bamboozled into silence.

‘He only asks because he loves me, don’t you Victor.’ Again Ellie hugged him. ‘Though you could have used the example of Roald Dahl’s mouse instead of “Rutger Hauer’s replicant,”’ she suggested, a little peeved.

Still the question needed answering. Beck began,

‘Well, that is answerable, but…’

‘Don’t flinch to help my feelings, sir,’ said Victor in his new seriousness. ‘I’d take a year with this girl and live a life within it, if that is what we have.’

Beck scrambled for the words,

‘No, nothing like that, don’t even think that. No one’s going to die here. That’s not the reason I delay, rather it’s… Christopher?’

‘I think what Doctor Beck is saying,’ added that most outwardly placid of creatures, ‘is that he doesn’t know regarding Ellie, perhaps any more than he does about himself. It is, rather I suspect, a matter of our separate components.’

Victor responded, looking between the two artifs, ‘But you don’t seem scared. Is that because of how you’re made?’

Chris answered, ‘No, I do fear extinction, I fear not being here.’

‘So you’re not expecting to die soon then?’

Chris was preparing to answer. But something had clicked in the mind of Beck. And it was he who interjected,

‘I wonder, Victor, would you accept our answers while we’re moving? They may take longer than I’d like to wait.’

‘Quite right,’ said Christopher, also rising.

‘So where are we going?’ asked Ellie, as the group were suddenly walking toward the cars.

‘Well,’ pondered Beck, ‘you’ve had time to think, Victor, and so have I. You might not know it, but I haven’t seen either of my friends here for eight years. Not even had a sign they were alive…’

‘You never write, you never call,’ muttered Chris.

‘…before last night, when I answered an email and there was Christopher. I didn’t know what I was hoping when I sent it – a dream beyond belief that one of you were behind the random messages I’d been getting – I’d been doing my best not to think about them before yesterday. But it was one of you, and since then so much has happened.

‘And furthermore, two things have become apparent: one, that I needn’t have been worried all this time, for things have been so well-organised outside of my involvement.

‘And two, that neither of my old friends have shown the slightest concern for those of our extended family whose present circumstances are apparently unknown. Even the one of us who was most vulnerable, Anna.

‘Ellie,’ Beck turned to face her, ‘you haven’t asked me once of your sister’s whereabouts. Which suggests that you know those whereabouts full well. Neither does Chris seem to have the slightest worry for her. Now, she wasn’t down the mine with Danny. And I think we can safely assume that she’s not with Bradley and Ingrid Pitt in North Africa.’

‘Ingrid Pitt?’ asked Victor. ‘The actress?’

Beck turned back from Anna to answer him, ‘Oh yes, this story gets complicated. So, Mister Victor, yes I will answer your questions in the car, right after I explain to Christopher why it’s so important that he drives me to see Professor Schmidt.’

 

 

Chapter 62 – The Four Concerns

 

 

There had been no anger in his words, and nor had any been inferred by those he was addressing. Beck had simply had a lot to get out in a short time, and wasn’t sure that, had he not got to his conclusion first, that Christopher wouldn’t have stopped him.

Now they were back on the road, although Chris was not with them. Instead, he had asked Victor as they reached their vehicles,

‘Are you attached to your car?’

‘Not particularly,’ answered Victor.

‘Good, because it will be on fire within the hour. It’s the last connection we have to where we’ve come from, and I’m amazed that you haven’t been pulled over in it already.’

Ellie answered, ‘We’d thought that ourselves, but didn’t know where to get another.’

‘Well, leave that to me.’

 

So Chris had left separately to dispose of the errant vehicle, leaving the others travelling in Chris’s car. They were going Beck knew-not-where, with Ellie left to do the driving and explaining,

‘Doctor Beck, don’t be sore,’ she counselled. ‘And for the record, we haven’t known exactly where Anna and the Professor have been all these years; or even that they were together. But it wasn’t hard to guess.’

‘The same guess I just made?’

‘Yes, although perhaps we had a little more background – you’d been at your family home that last weekend at Springfields, but they had been away since the Thursday.’

‘Just the pair of them?’

‘Yes. They’d been going off on trips for a while. Don’t you remember?’

‘No. There’s a lot I’ve forgotten.’

‘Well, anyway, the police came for us on the Friday. None of us were there, only Mrs Winters. Poor Mrs Winters.’

‘I heard they gave her a hard time,’ said Beck.

‘I don’t know,’ answered Ellie. ‘I never saw her again.’ And to Beck, Ellie’s words sounded laced with regret. She continued, ‘But I was working at the University, and so was Danny.’

‘At the jobs Schmidt found you in the Faculty Office?’

‘Yes, with Mr Green.’

Beck remembered him, a career administrator, an innocent abroad, brought into the scheme just in time to be destroyed by it,

‘He had a tough time too.’

‘Well,’ said Ellie, ‘he knew the secret didn’t he? The only other one Schmidt told, so he could keep an eye on us, and see how we fitted in with the staff and students.’ She smiled at the memory. ‘Dear Mr Green, he loved every minute of it, as though it was a great game. And I suppose it was good, for a while.’

She paused again, and Beck left her the space when she needed it. Eventually she said,

‘And Chris was off researching something that afternoon – you know he always had his projects. If the police had come on the Saturday, we’d all have been there. But all they found on Friday was our lovely house to tear down to the ground.’

Beck looked out of the car window, and asked the birds who flew overhead, ‘So why wait until the Monday to pounce on me?’

She speculated, ‘Perhaps when the rest of us weren’t where the authorities thought we would be, then they thought there’d been foreknowledge somewhere, and we’d made a plan made to evade them? Perhaps they thought that you were in on it too, Doctor, and so to watch you would lead them right to us? But then, when you simply pitched up at work on Monday morning…’

‘That is a theory,’ he admitted.

‘We’ve all had a lot of nights to think,’ she answered.

Beck thought to himself: So even Eris’s predecessor thought I would be included in the escape. Not even they imagined I would be left out of it.

Though all he said was,

‘I didn’t know any of this, in all my interviews they never told me.’

‘Well, they wanted you to give yourself away.’

‘Then it must have been frustrating for them – was that why they gave me such a hard time?’

He pondered a while, then mentioned, ‘These trips of Anna and Schmidt’s – I don’t remember them.’

‘Perhaps he didn’t tell you?’

‘Perhaps.’

Ellie speculated, ‘Or he might have just thought the break would suit her?’

‘No,’ considered Beck harshly. ‘He was planning – he’d known the net was closing, he’d known for weeks.’

‘We don’t know that,’ she reasoned; though Beck let the thought remain. And that wasn’t all that lingered. Around him in the car loomed the atmosphere of a near-decade of secrets, all of them kept from Beck, and many of them kept by the lovely young woman he still thought of as a daughter and would die protecting.

He asked her, ‘What do you remember from that weekend?’

‘I remember Chris calling me at work on my mobile. He had a tone of voice I hadn’t heard from him before, but have gotten used to since. He said, “Leave now, throw this phone away.” And two words, the name of a cafe.’

‘“Mount Olympus.”’

‘How did you…?’

‘It’s where we met yesterday.’

‘That day must have meant a lot to him then,’ she reflected. ‘It did to all of us, the day our lives… changed. I nearly said “ended”.’

‘I spotted.’

‘Danny and I were sent away to a motel, but Chris was so calm, and he did an amazing thing.’ She went on to explain,

‘For the purposes of our jobs in the Faculty, the Professor had had Mr Green write up fake CVs and personal details and references for us, just so he could put us through the University’s HR system. Once working for him as temps, he applied for National Insurance Numbers for us – and got them! I don’t think even he expected that to work.

‘He told them we had fallen out of the education system, and had lost our old numbers in the chaotic homes we had escaped from. I admit, I felt a bit guilty about the lying after I found out. But Mr Green had given them the faked details off the Faculty’s system, and it worked, and Danny and I became official.

‘And do you know what, Doctor Beck? Even when they questioned him, Mr Green didn’t give this up! And Chris used those CVs and references, sent them to our first companies and got us our first interviews!’

At this Ellie started to well up. Were she a lesser creature, Beck would have suggested she pull over to cry herself out. But even with tears streaming, she was still far and away the finest driver of the three in the car. Ellie was manoeuvring the vehicle superbly. Beck had to ask though,

‘But where are we going now?’

‘In the general direction. Chris will find us.’

‘In the “general direction” of what?’

‘Didn’t you hear us talking?’

He clearly hadn’t.

‘Well, don’t worry, there was a lot going on at the lay-by.’

And still she was thinking clearly,

‘You realise, Doctor Beck, that this means you’ve explained to yourself why Schmidt appeared to abandon you.’

‘Yes. Because he had to focus on Anna.’

‘So, can you bring yourself to hate him any less?’

But Beck was getting used to leaving those kinds of questions unanswered.

 

 

Chapter 63 – Memories

 

 

Meanwhile, in all of his and Ellie’s discussions, Beck had clean forgotten Victor in the back seat, trying his best not to intrude, and watching the green of trees and hedgerows flying past the car’s back windows. Beck remembered him now,

‘So, Victor – your question.’

‘Yes, thank you, Doctor Beck.’

‘Ellie, you’re all right about me talking of your manufacture?’

‘Of course. I still marvel at it myself.’

‘And you’re prepared for this, Victor? Because it might get weird.’

‘I’m right with you, Doctor.’

‘Then, good. Because, Victor, the way to think about our friend here is indeed componently. Although she is her physical form, as we all are, her essence is contained within her processor and memory chips.’

‘Like her brain?’

‘Yes; only in her case, for reasons of space and cooling, it is contained within a sealed canister in her chest. And the rest of her, if needs be, can be repaired or replaced.’

‘Like her arm?’

‘Yes, her fraying arm would be on my list. And if I still had my lab it wouldn’t be too difficult. But for the time being, thankfully, it’s not so bad.’

She interrupted, ‘If only we could say the same for Chris and Danny’s injuries, after their alarms.’

‘Yes,’ pondered Beck. ‘Chris wouldn’t let me see his damage. And as for Danny, we really need to get to him as soon as possible.’

‘If only we knew where he was,’ said Ellie, which was half-lament and half-explanation for their inaction on that front thus far.

‘But to close the subject,’ Beck wrapped up, ‘theoretically, Ellie and the others could be replaced and repaired almost indefinitely. And would be fine, as long as they looked after their chips. So the question of how long Ellie will last is hard to answer. The physical woman you see in front of you might change a dozen times in a lifetime. But she will always be the same woman.’

‘And how long will the chips last?’ asked Victor.

To which Beck answered, ‘These days, solid state memory is sold as lasting a lifetime. Though if Ellie were deactivated, for instance when being moved into another frame or when undergoing significant repair, then her data could be copied, like with any electrical device – transferred onto a new board, and a perfect copy stored. As long as both the working version and a latest copy were kept safe for emergencies, then there’s no reason that a version of her couldn’t last forever.’

Victor’s mouth was hanging open, and Beck felt he must continue. Though he also felt it best to keep to himself that the scenario he had just described also allowed for the possibility of duplicates – something he and Schmidt had never morally allowed themselves to indulge in. So he waxed lyrical instead,

‘Although in a philosophical sense, then how long does anything last? How long do we all last? Perhaps then we are all reliant on our manufacture?’

‘Are you all right with that, Victor?’ asked Ellie.

‘Yes. I mean, it doesn’t change your eyes or your smile.’

‘Good,’ said Beck. ‘It doesn’t help to think too biologically of our loved ones.’

And with that the car drove on in silence.

 

 

Chapter 64 – Where do we go Now?

 

 

Eventually the car driven by Ellie pitched up on rough ground beside a series of extraordinary earth sculptures. They were incongruous amid the rolling green hills, as if a passing giant had scooped them out of the ground and dropped them down beside the now-deserted A-road.

‘What are these?’ asked Victor for both men.

‘Kilns,’ answered Ellie, without wonder, as if she saw such things every day. That must have been a sadness for such minds, thought Beck – even the extraordinary ceasing to be so after very long. Though by then they would have found newer and amazing diversions. He only asked,

‘And why here?’

She answered, ‘Chris drove me here once – one of his pet projects.’

‘To fire crockery?’ asked Victor.

‘No, to study how people used to live – there are Iron Age roundhouses too, though they’re just off the road.’

‘So they used to have to walk to the bus stop?’ quipped Beck, as he got out to begin a stroll of his own around the car.

Victor though aloud as he and Ellie also got out, ‘So this is just somewhere that you both knew? Not where we’ll meet this Professor and your sister?’

Standing beside the car, Ellie gasped,

‘Oh, you didn’t think we’d already figured out where they were?’

‘Well, yes.’

‘I’m afraid I did too,’ added Beck.

‘Oh, sorry,’ she apologised. ‘But, what. You don’t think we have all the answers, do you?’

‘Well, you’ve shown a pretty good impression of it so far.’ And Beck did smile as he said this, for he was proud, even in his mistakenness.

 

Soon enough Christopher arrived, in another slightly old but well-kept hatchback, the kind that only the most dependable and respectable citizens would drive.

‘Don’t tell me you had time to find another scrapyard?’ asked Beck only half-joking.

‘No,’ answered Chris. ‘I’m afraid the circumstances reduced me to base theft.’

‘Someone’s lost their no-claims bonus,’ offered Victor, ever aware of the effect that such unexpected costs would have on his own housekeeping.

Chris countered though,’ I left them five-hundred pounds, which I venture is as much as they might have hoped to get for the vehicle.’

‘What if they didn’t want to sell?’

‘Both offside tyres need replacing, which would have been fifty pounds by themselves. Add to that the rattle in the exhaust, the brakes and oil-filter surely coming up for replacement…’

‘Okay, okay.’ Victor said this to shut him up. And at last the conversation could get on to the important stuff.

Beck began,

‘Then it seems to me that we have to choose what to do.’

‘But aren’t we going for Schmidt and Anna?’ asked Ellie.

‘Yes, but how are we going to go about that? I mean, do we risk staying out in the open; or rather hunker down and do our research before we chance a journey out to wherever we think they are?’

Ellie pondered, ‘So, you think we need a nerve centre, like Chris’s flat?’

All thought on this. Victor was the first to break the silence,

‘Going back to London feels like…’

‘…death,’ concluded Chris.

‘I was going to say “a risk”,’ finished Victor. But all knew what Christopher meant. Beck summarised,

‘Then we stay in public, stay on the move.’

‘Quite right,’ said Chris, joking, ‘Could you imagine us all in my flat with newspapers over the windows?’

‘And our places are blown,’ added Victor.

‘He’s right,’ confirmed Ellie. ‘Mine was visited by the police, and I’m sure Victor’s will have been by now.’

Beck added, ‘And you’ve heard that my home is no use?’

‘Nothing of yours is any use.’

All were stunned by the line, leaving Christopher quickly explaining, though not apologising,

‘By which I mean, that everything you know and own is known by Eris after your interview yesterday, if not before then. Of course, you yourself are of tremendous use.’

‘Well, I’ll try and live up to that ringing endorsement.’

Despite the unintended slight, Beck again led the way,

‘So we search for Anna and the Professor. Now, every card on the table, none of us have the first clue of where they are?’

All were silent.

‘And Chris, how long have you been looking?’

‘Eight years.’

‘Then, realistically, how long might this search take?’

‘With Ellie and I together, weeks,’ ventured Chris.

‘And how many cars a day will you be burning? How many times a night do we skip town?’

‘You’re right,’ said Ellie. ‘I really don’t think we have that time.’

‘So,’ summarised Beck, pulling his collar up to guard against the building winds, ‘we need to make a new and quick decision. We need to look for our shelter; and I don’t fancy hanging around out here.’

 

 

Chapter 65 – The Caravan

 

 

The area around the old kilns was not without its natural beauty; to which people were clearly drawn, as to the East was the white metal shimmering of a hundred static caravan roofs. Chris summed up the scene with,

‘I wonder, Doctor. Would you say this is the holiday season?’

Beck felt the way the sunshine had given way to chill breeze,

‘Not especially, would you?’

‘Then I think I’ve found us several dozen places to hide.’

 

When they reached them, most of the caravans were unoccupied, though not all. There were late afternoon lights on; and the odd motorcar here and there peppered the paths between the vans. The length that the grass had been allowed to grow to didn’t suggest however that many more visitors were expected.

‘This looks a good one,’ thought Ellie, as they arrived at a van at the far end of the field.

‘It’s big enough,’ agreed Victor, ‘and gives us a view of the road.’

Chris pulled the car in beside it and out of sight, before going to get out. ‘I’ll fetch the other car. You stay here.’

‘Of course. Where would we go?’ asked Beck, getting out himself to look around. The cool wind whipped across the flat lands and around his shoulders. He wanted to make contact with the site’s owners if he could, to make a cash-in-hand arrangement for a couple of nights, in case the tenants of another van reported squatters. But his chance came sooner than expected, when a pickup truck rattled up to them. The owner called from the cab,

‘You new here?’

‘Yes, thank you. Just arrived.’

‘John know about you?’

‘Sorry?’

‘You’ve spoken to John?’

‘Yes, yes,’ lied Beck, as convincingly as possible.

‘He hasn’t given you a key then.’

Beck guessed this to be as a statement rather than a question, prompted by them being stood outside and not in the warm of the van. He answered,

‘Our friend has it. He’s in the other car.’

‘Then have one of these.’ The man reached a jailer’s keyhoop out of the pickup window.

‘Which one?’ asked Beck as he rifled through them to slide one off.

‘Any, they’re all the same. Don’t go telling the holidaymakers,’ he said, and laughed. ‘What brings you here out of season?’

Beck had no fit response.

‘The kilns,’ answered Ellie, getting out of the car. ‘They might need underpinning.’

‘Surveyors, eh?’ asked the man. But he needed no answer to his question. Raising his hand in goodbye, he reversed his truck back the way he had come.

Once he was out of sight and hearing, Beck said,

‘Well, come on then. Let’s get warm.’

 

Later on, with Chris still yet to join them, the logistics of their situation bit. Ellie needed little for herself, but she surveyed for the benefit of the humans,

‘We’ve no food, so even burning John’s propane we’ve nothing to cook for you.’

‘At least these vans have mains power though,’ said Victor, observing Ellie who was already plugged in on a long cable, and who had several other batteries charging.

‘Is it too late to go shopping?’ supposed Beck.

‘I can live without my tea,’ conceded Victor.

His stomach was saved though by Chris arriving not only with the second car, but also a bag of forecourt-food,

‘I hope you can make do with Cornish pasties?’

Glad as he was of the food, Beck groaned,

‘You took a risk, Chris. They have cameras at garages.’

‘But none at that garage. And it was worth it to see that you and my dear Victor weren’t sent to bed without your supper.’

‘Well, I hope you know what you’re doing,’ chided Beck.

‘As do I,’ answered Chris. ‘And anyway, we’ll be gone by the morning.’

‘Is everything all right, Chris?’ asked Ellie, who like Beck could tell he was a little testy.

Chris answered, ‘The fact is, I’m really not sure.’ From the food bag he also took out a popular national newspaper, and tossed it onto the caravan’s table around which they were gathered. He declared,

‘Have you ever had the feeling of someone walking over your grave?’

 

 

Chapter 66 – Montand Barclay and the Trials of the Teacher

 

 

All four of them looked to the newspaper, printed the previous night and so almost a day out of date, but which declared as its headline:

 

TANKS, BUT NO TANKS

 

And then below that, in smaller writing, in the form of several tag-lines:

 

‘US wanting to sell Britain arms to bail out failing economy.’

‘Ambassador in town for high-level talks.’

‘“It’s like D-Day all over again,” warns firebrand MP.’

 

Beck was the first to speak,

‘I know you work on abstract connections, Chris. But this one’s beyond me.’

Though Ellie said, ‘I think I recognise him.’ She was looking at the photo beneath the headline.

As did Victor, ‘Montand Barclay, I’ve seen him on the news.’

Chris mused, ‘He has a French first name, something of his mother being a nurse who married a GI in the War and went back to the United States with him.’ Though the artif was also thinking more laterally, and asked rhetorically,

‘You asked me earlier, Doctor, whether the Americans had ever been in touch with me since the fall of Springfields?’

‘Yes, so?’

‘I wonder how much you knew of their visits, you being away from Springfields more than the rest of us?’

Beck realised, ‘Not very much.’

‘Well, my contact was this man, Barclay. He came out to Springfields to visit me twice. The first time I was still quite young and knew only his name; although by his second visit my own enquires had revealed his identity – not that I let on.’

‘He’s been around a while then,’ offered Victor.

‘Indeed,’ continued Chris. ‘He’s held many titles over his career, but in essence he’s been the “go-to guy” for successive Presidents on all manner of security and civic issues.’

‘And Schmidt knew him?’ asked Beck.

‘As a famous industrialist might quite reasonably know a US defence procurer; in fact, I have suspected in the years since that a fair chunk of our siliconware came out of his agency’s back door. These last two days have had me remember all manner of things – and now I see this newspaper.’ Chris looked up to his companions, ‘Over these recent journeys I’ve heard many of your stories. Now I would like to relay one to you.’

And none disagreed to the telling.

‘So yes, this Barclay was my contact. His plans for me were never detailed. It was assumed by us at Springfields that I’d be a kind of foreign traveller, a stayer at hotels and listener at walls. A message passed here, a letter dropped there, a diplomatic pouch collected for the journey home. And all the time evading every biometric scan yet invented. Though he only ever marvelled at our general abilities, “The way you carry yourselves…”’ (Chris’s take on the accent was note-perfect.)

‘Once though he, Schmidt and I were talking, and Barclay told us the story of an issue that the then President was concerned about.

‘It related to the teachers in America’s toughest and most-deprived schools, and specifically to their safety. These were schools where the pupils would bring in automatic weapons – you think I’m exaggerating? – and where rival gangs would spray the outside walls with gunfire in drive-by shootings.

‘Such were the efforts of the staff to get the kids in and keep them there, that the places soon resembled nothing less than prisons, and even more so with the measures put in place to protect the pupils once inside.

‘Once in class, angry disadvantaged teenagers, penned in, undisciplined and angry, could turn the full force of their hatred onto the teachers. Guards were brought in, self-defence classes started. But there would come a crisis point, maybe once a semester, where a child would lose their rag at a teacher, start a class riot, reign blows down upon them, or simply lunge with a weapon intending to kill.

‘In my presence Barclay was not normally an overemotional man. Yet he was distraught as he told us of how America was losing five bright young graduate teachers a year. Only those who had no experience or couldn’t get jobs elsewhere were applying to the worst schools, and even those applicants weren’t staying long.

‘Barclay had offered the President an idea for a kind of invisible security vest worn beneath the teacher’s clothing. The President was far from convinced, but he was ready to consider anything. Yet he knew that the deployment of such a measure, after being found out by the pupils, could lead to them going at the teachers even harder.

‘For these frustrated teenagers, raised on gun-culture, and who were members of gangs outside of school, all they wanted was to get out of the lesson, out of the disciplined environment. In school they were subject to the teacher’s authority, were no longer king of the dust mound.

‘And then, after telling us all of this, Barclay smiled and joked, “Maybe what we need are robot teachers?” Only… in the years since, I’ve wondered whether it was a joke. Or whether that wasn’t what he had planned for me along?’

 

 

Chapter 67 – Robot ate my Homework

 

 

‘Could it work?’ asked Victor, whose capacity for the bizarre was now expanding exponentially.

‘Why not?’ answered Chris. ‘In fact, it could be a sensational success – imagine a teacher who the angry pupil could run up to and punch or stab or shoot, take all their frustration out on, yet who would remain standing face to face with them. The teacher still there, politely asking the errant charge to return to their seat; and then repeating the question from the blackboard to which they had yet to receive an answer.’

Beck took up the theme,

‘And that would be the key – being able to handle that one moment of utter, unmatchable, even fatal, violence without fear, and so gaining the aura of being someone the kids had to respect.’

Chris again, ‘This had once been possible with only a stern voice and a strong will, in the days before the flashpoint of petulant aggression carried a stabbing blade – inner-city children who recoil as they buckle under authority.’

All four had their heads filled with ideas now, though it was Ellie who got to the nub of it with,

‘And you think that our being on the run and this trade visit are connected?’

Chris pondered, before answering,

‘Barclay has been one of the few people these past eight years to know that “The Robots” were real and not an urban myth. Depending on how much Schmidt told him, he might also have been listening out for our damage signals during this time. What’s more, he would have had the clearance to know when GCHQ picked one up, even if they didn’t know what they were picking up.’

‘So he’d have had the jump on Eris!’ shouted Beck. ‘She didn’t work out what the signals were till Danny’s two days ago; whereas Barclay would have known the artifs were still active since your alarm months back.’ Beck went sheepish, ‘Sorry to remind you of it, old boy.’

Chris smiled, ‘Not to worry, old bean.’

Ellie said then, ‘The first signal was bad enough, but it was in isolation. It was the second that really troubled me. I was like a cat on a hot tin roof.’

‘You were that,’ agreed Victor.

‘And there the lady’s thoughts converge with my own.’ Chris was in full flood now, and would surely need charging soon. ‘For I wonder if our friend the Ambassador didn’t experience quite the same sequence of feelings, and of hearing of a second alarm could no longer bear to watch from such a distance as his offices in Washington?’

He continued, ‘Though actually, he happened to be rather a lot nearer. On my journey back from buying the paper, I worked out the sequence. The article explains how two days ago, the day of Danny’s alarm sounding, Ambassador Barclay was in Paris at a NATO conference – an appointment he cut short for these apparently urgent trade talks with the British Government.’

‘You think the trade talks are a front?’ asked Victor.

‘At the very least, convenient. And it goes higher than that. For I don’t believe an Ambassador would cut loose from something as important as a NATO conference without the full approval of the man he represents.’

Here Beck had to break from the consensus and turn away, declaring to the empty portion of the caravan,

‘I know that you guys are unique, and that these are extraordinary times. But you’re talking here about the President of the United States.’

Chris reasoned, ‘Sometimes the most extraordinary state of affairs is simply how it has to be. Barclay would have known other things too, things that not even the most dedicated “Robots” blogger could have known; such as that it was around the time the Robots were rumoured to have been released into the world that you, dear Doctor, the Professor’s assistant, abruptly changed jobs. Barclay may well have been watching you from a distance ever since, perhaps placing a trigger in the London Arboretum’s computer system to sound whenever you were unexpectedly absent from your post, or when any movement out of the ordinary was seen at your home. Each of which triggers would have sounded within hours of Danny’s alarm.’

Beck continued to stalk the darkened portion of the van, declaring,

‘This is paranoid, Chris. This is all so paranoid.’

‘All right,’ the artif admitted. ‘Perhaps I am making connections where there are none. But you must concede that the foundation is sound.’

And Beck did concede, because it was.

‘He’s retiring soon, Montand Barclay,’ said Victor. ‘I remember reading it now.’

‘Then this would be his crowning achievement,’ said Ellie, ‘bringing The Robots to America.’

‘Which is a little like me today,’ speculated Beck.

‘How so, Doctor?’ asked Ellie.

‘Well, from the moment I was called into the interview with Eris, I knew that my time at the Arboretum was over. And knowing something’s over gives a man freedom – the shackles are off.’

‘Very true,’ concluded Chris. ‘Barclay also has belief in our cause, has clout at the very highest levels, and the knowledge that we Robots are everything the media speculators believe us to be; and after the radio signals detected a decade after meeting me, the proof that we had excellent build quality. And he would have remembered his joke about the “robot teachers” that might not have been a joke. And he would have known that he had to hotfoot it to Britain right away to have any chance of capitalising on our re-emergence into the national consciousness.’

All pondered this phrase, Beck clarifying,

‘Well, that is a bit rich, Chris – two warning signals are hardly a “re-emergence into the national consciousness.”’

To which Chris answered, ‘Well, I’m afraid to say that since then I’ve rather taken matters into my own hands.’

 

 

Chapter 68 – Editors’ Conference at The Messenger

 

 

The Home and Features Editor of The London Messenger had been called back early from his lunch. On a late shift, ‘lunch’ could happen anytime up to four or five o’clock, and would keep him going until the presses were rolling in the evening.

‘What’s this about?’ he asked his Editor’s secretary as he rushed into the Executive Office. ‘I’ve had my copy down since three.’

‘Not anymore,’ laughed the woman, half in jest and half in dread. ‘Whatever you were going to print, bin it. Everyone’s there, go straight in.’

Which he did. The conversation was already in full swing,

‘…of course it has to go straight onto the front page,’ was saying the paper’s Editor, as the visitor entered. ‘Ah, here’s Features now. Sit down, Bruce. You’ve heard?’

‘Not a dickybird, boss,’ he answered as he took his place among the other section editors.

‘Then you’re the last man in England not to have done. They’re alive!’

‘Forgive me, sir. Who are?’

‘The Robots!’

Bruce’s mind took a moment to catch on, before blurting, ‘How? What? Where?’

‘Asked like a true denizen of the British Press,’ said his superior, admiringly. ‘Can we get him a copy of the statement?’

Bruce of Home and Features read the statement that was handed to him, as millions across the Internet were already doing. It read:

 

THE ROBOTS ARE REAL, HAVE ALWAYS BEEN REAL, AND WILL BE AT THE U.S. BASE AT MARSHAM SANDS TOMORROW AT NOON. ALL WELCOME.

 

‘And we think this is genuine why?’

Entertainments answered, ‘We don’t, but the Web’s gone crazy for it, and that’s a story in itself.’

Their boss explained, ‘It was posted on half-a-dozen Robots bulletin boards simultaneously forty-five minutes ago. Our paper’s own website is already awash with readers wanting us to investigate its claims.’

Bruce reread, and then read again the twenty-three words.

Women’s asked, ‘But what if it turns out to be nonsense?’

Sports agreed, ‘It does have the feel of Wearside Jack about it.’

News and Current Affairs asked, ‘So if we don’t know if it’s real, or the stir we’ll cause by treating it as so, then why are we running it?’

Bruce finally responded, ‘I have to agree.’

‘I can’t believe this,’ their Editor thundered. ‘Even you pair, with the best nose for a story of any of us.’

‘I’m not saying don’t run it,’ defended Bruce. ‘If it’s a social media story, then that’s Entertainments; and if it’s ghosts and ghouls and folk devils, then I’ll whip up something for Saturday. I just don’t think it’s the front-and-centre hard news item we’re supposed to be renowned for.’

The Editor looked bitterly disappointed. Bruce knew the man well, was proud to work with him, but at that moment was utterly baffled by his enthusiasm. Eventually the boss left the table, walked around the room, and took a series of deep breaths, before returning and saying much more-calmly,

‘Bruce, you haven’t had as long with the statement as the rest of us. Take another look, and tell us what you make of it, honestly.’

Under absolutely no pressure at all, Bruce read the statement through for something like the fifth time. He delayed for as long as he thought he could get away with, before offering,

‘Well, it’s short, succinct, elegant perhaps, even slightly wistful. And those final two words…’

The Editor banged his hand on the table, ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to tell these numbskulls.’

‘Hey!’ complained the Women’s Editor.

‘Give it up, Jill. You know I don’t mean it. But Bruce, you’re reading between the lines, like I am. Don’t you see? This is what the earliest rumours always said about the Robots: that they’re clever, smart like us, not like machines. This statement isn’t in computer code, or geek speak, or making exaggerated claims, as someone would if it was meant to be a hoax. This is written like a party invite, “All welcome.” Why would anyone write it like that unless it happened to be real?’

Bruce was in full-on diplomacy-mode now, as he took the focus of his Editor’s attention, saying,

‘I concede, it is intriguing. And we should send someone to Marsham tomorrow, if only to record the fact of no one appearing.’

‘All the other papers will,’ agreed Sports.

‘But even so, Boss,’ argued Foreign Affairs, silent thus far, ‘we have good stuff for tomorrow. I don’t think this should be the front page.’

The boss replied, ‘Well, if it’s that good then it can wait a day. Trust me, this is all that any paper will be printing in the morning.’

But all eyes were on Home and Features, as the paper’s Editor again concentrated his arguments on him,

‘Bruce, this story falls right in your remit: Home and Features – this is both. You’ve been covering the Robots for years now. Why go shy?’

Bruce parried, ‘I don’t know. I suppose that if something happens at Marsham tomorrow, then of course we’d print it. If there was proof they were alive, of course we would. But this is before the fact, not after. It’s all speculation.’

The Editor took one last breath, before making what was clear to be his final statement on the subject, which was,

‘But, don’t you see, Bruce? This is how our role has changed in the Age of the Internet. We don’t write the news, we write the narrative; and the headline is already out there. I want every file emptied, every photo printed, I want our first eight pages given to this. Now, what are we all waiting for? Make it so!’

 

As he filed out of the office with his colleagues, Bruce went back to his desk with the knowledge that the next few days of his professional life had already been decided.

And he wondered: was it precisely because it was such a good story that he didn’t want to write it? Was he worried that the Robots could be real?

 

 

Chapter 69 – Africa – Keeping Watch

 

 

‘There were three of them today,’ said Bradley. ‘Three men on the wire. None coming closer though, not chancing it… yet.’

He was curled up with Ingrid in a huge armchair in the low-lit lounge. The lodge was quiet but not silent. The windows were open, and through the mosquito nets the sound of wildlife filled the darkness: from the distant call of big beasts to the incessant chirruping of insects. The staff were retired already, although Oman would be keeping a discreet watch.

‘Oh, B,’ said Ingrid sleepily (‘B’ being her Bradley). ‘There’ll always be photographers. They haven’t bothered you before.’

‘But there is something new about these ones,’ said Bradley. ‘The old photographers were furtive and obvious, playing a game of snapper and snapped, making efforts not to be seen but giving themselves away in their jumpy gestures and efforts to hide. These new ones, though, are fearless, uncaring if we see them or not.

‘And biding their time – they stand there for hours in the roaring sun. Yet I just know that to approach one would be to see them melt into the landscape like a dust devil.’

‘Well, we’ll check in the morning,’ were Ingrid’s final conscious words, before Bradley lifted her, already in her nightgown, and carried her to bed. There he would lie with her till she slept soundly, then creep away to read. Or to brood.

 

 

Chapter 70 – The Editor’s Son

 

 

It was after ten before Bruce got home, with the new front page having been faxed to the evening news programmes. Its headline read, in enormous bold print:

 

THE ROBOTS ARE REAL

 

‘And will be appearing at noon today!’ went the tagline below, beside a picture of a hulking metal creation culled from Fifties science-fiction.

‘I thought you were going to make an effort to make meal times?’ asked his wife, presenting her cheek for him to kiss. She said this with an air of not seriously expecting her husband to change the thing that made him what he was. ‘Though I suppose I never wanted a nine-to-fiver. If I had I’d have married a man in the city.’

‘And have fled through boredom after six weeks.’

‘That long?’ she asked. ‘Get you. How do you know I’m not having an affair right now?’

‘Because still you wear your best pyjamas for me.’

‘And how do you know that’s not a ruse to deflect suspicion?’

‘You’re going nowhere,’ he said with mock-seriousness as he hung up his coat. ‘I won’t worry till I see your luggage in the hall.’

Best pyjamas or not, she was bundled up in an enormous robe, and was padding through the house in moccasins. As they went into the kitchen, she asked,

‘I suppose you’re going to tell me it was a national sensation that couldn’t be left until the morning?’

‘You haven’t seen the news?’

‘Why would I, when I have you to tell me everything?’ She went to kiss him properly, but sensed something extra, asking, ‘What is it then, Bruce? Not the bomb over Washington?’

‘It might as well be.’

She gave him a playful punch, ‘Stop teasing. Now you have to spill the beans.’

‘I doubt you would believe me if I did.’

‘Bruce?’

‘Well, you remember those crazy stories of the scientist who built those robots?’

She got it in an instant, everything her husband had been so keen to deny to himself,

‘They’re real?’

‘Well, we might know tomorrow.’ He gave her a copy of the front page, as he always did as explanation of where he’d been on such late arrivals. ‘The picture wasn’t my choice,’ he explained.

‘Lord.’ She stood apart from him as she took in the sensationalised account – a dry run of what a million readers would see over their breakfast in the morning.

Another voice sounded then, accompanied by running feet,

‘They’re real! The Robots are real!’

‘What are you doing up?’ chided the little boy’s mother.

‘I told you we should take that thing off him at bedtimes,’ lamented his father.

‘It’s all over the Net!’ their son screamed, as he ran into the living room, waving his touchscreen tablet computer around above his head.

‘Jack, calm down. You’re blue in the face,’ called his mother, who had put the paper down and was now chasing after him. She tried to wrestle her son with little success, while her husband walked over to the kitchen units to look for what remained of his meal, saying to himself,

‘This is what I was worried about. Those blinking Robots – the mere mention of them sends the world half-mad.’

 

 

Day 4 – The Army

 

 

Chapter 71 – Café Preparations

 

 

At a café table, the four of them sat. They were near the back wall of the premises. However, the two of them facing forwards had a fine view of the front door, the other tables, and the street outside through the large plate glass window.

This was the Army town of Marsham, where Christopher had billed their forthcoming appearance. Not that any of them had any such intention of publicly revealing themselves. Though quite what they were intending to do with the situation, none was sure.

‘Here’s to Daniel,’ toasted Beck. ‘May he be doing even better than us at this moment.’

The others raised their cups, though Ellie and Chris weren’t drinking.

‘So how old are you?’ Victor asked them, as if suddenly realising he didn’t know. Chris answered, nonplussed,

‘Technically, I’m eleven from the moment my program was initiated. Ellie would be ten.’

Ellie chided him, ‘Christopher, don’t you know it’s rude to give a lady’s age?’

But the joke raised no laughter – they were all trying so hard to act as casually as possible, with Chris – who was built for this – maintaining his vantage point facing the street. From that seat, and while giving no outward sign of it, he could keep as keen a watch as could half-a-dozen private detectives positioned at all points around the building.

‘It’s bedlam out there,’ he commented as casually as before.

‘No less inside,’ remarked his sister, who required none of her sharp senses to see the busy locals and excitable visitors at every table. Ironically, it was the very hubbub they had caused that allowed the four to fit in – their voices were drowned out in the clatter of plates and the din of Robot speculation.

On the table before them, between their cups and plates, was a newspaper with the headline in bold:

 

ROBOTS: TO BE REVEALED TODAY!

 

It was printed full page, no picture (for no one had a picture). Idly flicking through the pages for something to do, Beck turned to an article inside, reading aloud for the table,

‘“THE ROBOTS: WHAT DO WE KNOW? Your indispensable guide to what the boffins tell us of the silicon superstars” dot dot dot.’

Beneath that intro were various asterisked points of apparent fact: on the Robots’ construction, operation, and recent hiding out. Beside these was a blown-up black and white picture of Gort, the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still.

‘A personal hero,’ muttered Chris; as Beck read each ‘fact’ in turn,

‘“Rumours of the Robots first appeared eight years ago. Since then further rumour and speculative sightings have abounded, though none confirmed.”’

‘Too right,’ said Ellie. ‘We wouldn’t give ourselves away that easily.’

‘“The rumours differ, but most agree that the Robots escaped from a program at a secret military base. It is rumoured that the boffins who created them escaped too, and fled to China, where they are the brains behind that nation’s recent artificial heart developments.”’

‘I wondered if the prosaic reality would merit an asterisk?’ asked Chris, enjoying the reading.

‘“It is not known how many of them were created, though estimates range from a dozen to a hundred.”’

‘Jesus,’ said Victor. ‘With that many you could form an army.’

‘Or a commune,’ answered Chris.

‘Robotica,’ laughed Ellie.

‘“Nor is it known how many have survived till now. Certainly there are no rumours of Robot remains ever being found.

‘“Some experts have suggested that the Robots are living in remote forests or on mountains, to avoid detection.”’

‘And how do they think we’d recharge on a mountain?’ asked Ellie. ‘Build a wind farm?’

‘“Others have made the more sinister suggestion that the digital interlopers have been living amongst us in our major cities during this time.”’

‘“Sinister”?’ she asked looking around at the expectant crowd. ‘Yes, these people are clearly terrified of meeting one.’

‘“The current excitement stems from new rumours of a warning signal transmitted to the Robots on Tuesday of this week, though who sent the signal to them and what it signified remain a mystery.”’

‘A comforting level of inaccuracy there,’ noted Chris. ‘It shows we’re dealing with third-hand military gossip, and so no one really knows anything.’

‘“This excitement went public yesterday when a statement, apparently from the Robots themselves, was posted online, and was quickly decoded by boffins…”’

‘“Decoded”? It was in plain English!’

So pointedly did Chris state this, that even among the chattering patrons, faces turned their way. They had been intrigued by a detail perhaps not commonly known, and so accepted this knowledge as a badge of honour.

Beck continued,

‘“…It advised that the Robots would be in the Army town of Marsham Sands today, where this paper’s reporters will be among our many readers also hoping for a glimpse of the electronic outlaws. The statement read…”’

Here Beck stopped, ‘Well, no need to reread that missive. I think we all know how it goes.’

Chris was conciliatory, ‘Am I still eating humble pie?’

‘All day long.’

‘You’re still upset, Doctor. But I told you: we had to move quickly, and had I waited till we’d talked it through in the caravan, then we’d have missed yesterday’s newspaper presses and would have lost a day.’

‘And so instead you’ve thrown us into the belly of a media storm?’

‘As if we weren’t in one already,’ called Ellie.

‘The armpit of the tortoise,’ added Victor, who read a lot of old thrillers. ‘It’s the best place to hide.’

Chris offered further, ‘Think of the soldier, Doctor. What can he hear in his foxhole but the thud of faraway shells?’

Beck said smugly, ‘So he steps out of his foxhole and gets hit on the head by one?’

‘Can we get back to the article?’ asked Ellie, who like the others was enjoying it as much for its inaccuracies as for its slightly scary near misses.

Beck had reached the end of the first page. On the one facing was a new subtitle above a second list, although its contents were of much the same flavour. Next to this second list of bullet-points was a colour picture of Robbie the Robot from The Forbidden Planet. There was a lot of him about that day also – he and Gort should have charged a penny a paper. Beck resumed,

‘“SO WHAT DO WE REALLY KNOW ABOUT THEM? Here are the facts we have been able to verify:

‘“Before this latest alert, eminent professor, Dr Planter…”’

‘Eminent my eye,’ blurted Chris. ‘The man’s an ass.’

‘“…of Jesus College, Oxford has said that, ‘It is extraordinary that the Robots have kept going so long in the open world. Whoever built them must have made them ultra-reliable, or else a secret network is keeping them repaired.’

‘“The Robots require no sleep, but they do require batteries, stored in spaces in their chests.”’

‘That’s a bit close,’ said Chris. ‘A leak at the University?’

‘Or in Eris’s department,’ thought Beck aloud. And Chris nodded to suggest this was more likely.

‘Is it true?’ asked Victor. There was so much Robot chatter in the cafe that nothing they were saying seemed exceptional.

‘It is,’ answered Ellie. ‘We need no sleep. Though I wouldn’t have minded a few hours’ shut-eye sat in that lockup garage night after night.’

Beck continued, ‘“It is believed that the Robots must look a lot like us, to be able to pass amongst humans undetected.

‘“However, they are likely to be made of heavy metal components, so look out for people leaving deeper footprints in mud or snow.”’

Ellie chortled at this, and even Chris relaxed again a little, as the trail went from hot to cold.

‘“Although they look like us, their strength may be up to ten times that of a human – so do not approach them!”’

‘After telling people the best ways to spot us?’ For all its fun, Chris was clearly also getting riled by the piece. And his mood wasn’t helped by Beck reading the next helpful ‘fact’,

‘“Although the Robots must be able to see and hear as well as humans, it is also speculated that they may have extra senses, such as night-vision, heat-detection, and sonar.”’

‘What, do I spend my nights detecting aircraft?’

Ellie slapped the table in glee. Victor the human smiled along with her, asking,

‘And is that…?’

‘No, Dear,’ answered Ellie with a shake of the head.

‘A few ideas there for the next prototype then, Doctor?’ offered Victor. But Beck was near the end of the piece, and wanted to finish the job, smiling before reading,

‘“There are believed to be both male and female Robots, with corresponding programming to ensure accurate behaviour… Does this mean then that someone has finally deciphered the female mind?”’

Ellie shook her head, ‘These newspapers are so crass.’

Beck pondered the indecipherable levels of meaning represented in that response.

The article concluded,

‘“IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE ROBOTS OR THEIR WHEREABOUTS, DON’T DELAY, CALL US TODAY! AND SEE YOUR STORY IN PRINT!”’

‘Excuse me a minute.’ Chris got up to go to the counter.

‘Is he off to make the call?’ joked Victor.

But no one confirmed or denied this. Once Chris was out of earshot, Ellie whispered,

‘So what do we actually do now we’re here?’

‘Leave it to Chris,’ answered Beck. He liked it no better than she did, but he knew full-well that his creation had outstripped him in a planning and strategic regard.

 

 

Chapter 72 – Eris’s Sensors

 

 

Eris strolled along the busy town street and banged twice on the side of the nondescript transit van. She wondered if she wasn’t fulfilling every spy movie cliché, as the back door opened to her signal and she quickly climbed inside. Once ensconced, she found a place to sit between the monitors, keyboards, and kit-bags strewn across the floor. The cab, with all its glass, was hidden by a curtain; leaving the back a dark, windowless space that smelt of men’s changing rooms. Eris thought a moment, and tried to remember where in her experience she could possibly recall that smell from.

‘Anything?’ she asked of the three present.

‘Nothing,’ replied one speaking for all. This was the ponytailed scientist, whose name it turned out was Nell. Sitting beside her was a young male who also looked as though he would be happier in a lab coat. Of the three, only Forrest wasn’t active at the keyboards – he was there for Eris’s protection. She asked them,

‘Tell me again how all this works.’

Nell answered, ‘Two cameras are hung from the telephone line that hangs across the busiest part of the High Street: one’s a regular visual camera, the other thermal, detecting heat. They have a motion detector, meaning that they become active any time a person passes under them.’

‘Yes, yes.’

‘Any time the cameras switch on, then an image from both appears on screen for us to compare.’

As she spoke, a flurry of dual-images were popping up on her monitor, momentarily replaced with the next pair, and then the next pair, as the enthusiastic crowd passed unknowingly beneath the two cameras. Nell continued,

‘But any pair of images which don’t match up, will trigger an alarm and remain on screen for us to analyse.’

Eris didn’t want to puncture their balloon, but had to ask,

‘You know that the artifs have artificial heat, don’t you? They were designed with warm water pulsing through the skin as if warm blood.’

But thankfully Nell wasn’t left despondent,

‘Indeed, Miss Eris. The file you sent us from your interview with Doctor Beck was very detailed. And the system that they have in place may well fool a person shaking an artif’s hand or brushing their face; but we don’t think it would be possible for an artif to replicate the precise map of warmth as emitted by a human.’

‘Artif,’ said Nell’s young assistant suddenly.

‘What did you say?’ asked Eris.

‘Oh, that’s what they’re called in your report, it means artificial hum…’

‘Yes, I know what it means.’

‘But interesting though, isn’t it? It raises philosophical questions. Like what is a human, and has anyone or anything the right to call themselves so?’

‘Well, I’ve had quite enough of philosophical questions, thank you. Can you keep an eye on those screens?’ She turned to Nell, though asked of her assistant, ‘And what’s he looking at?’

Nell answered, ‘He has access to the traffic cameras of the town, detecting any vehicles with military or police markings, and generally sight-scanning for anything unusual.’

Eris turned to Forrest, who smiled as he whispered,

‘They know what they’re doing. Trust me, they’re the best.’

To the group though, Eris asked,

‘And how sure are we that they will be here?’

‘Well,’ began Nell in a discursive manner, ‘from what you’ve told us, they have no support structure in the outside world. It’s amazing that they’ve kept going this long. But sooner rather than later they’ll need parts, batteries… and these might be bits you can buy at Halfords, or might not. There are also the facilities they might need to make repairs, and the matter of whether they can work on themselves or need assistants.’

‘So?’

‘So,’ the lead tech continued, ‘they’re essentially like us but more so – knowing they could be ill at any time, but without a hospital existing for them. They need to make contact with someone who can help them, and they know it can’t be our government.’

Eris fixed her in a look. Nell stammered,

‘Well, what with their misplaced fears of how they would be treated, I mean.’

Eris softened, as she asked Nell,

‘So you believe that the message sent to the newspapers was real?’

But it was the keen young assistant who answered,

‘Yes, undoubtedly. As Nell says, they need support, and quickly. There is also the residual confidence people have in America, the land of the free. We tend to think that we can trust them, and that they know what they’re talking about. Also, they’re the world leader in advanced tech and research spending. If I was an artif I’d be out there today waving the Stars and Stripes and hollering America the Beautiful.’

‘And the manner of the message? Creating this public scene?’ Even as Eris asked, she watched the video screens showing crowds of people swaying along the narrow pavements and spilling into the paths of clogged, slow-moving traffic. Around their necks were digital cameras and video recorders, and opened in front of them as they walked were newspapers full of Robot stories and maps of the town.

Nell’s assistant, while still watching these scenes, answered,

‘The artifs clearly have no way of contacting the US Government directly, so had to do so publicly. And once that genie was out of the bottle, then their only option is to hide in the crowd.’

‘So they did intend this public scene.’ In the hours since the message, no one had explained the matter to Eris quite so clearly; and she placed a mental bookmark beside Nell and her assistant.

 

 

Chapter 73 – Riot on a Busy Street

 

 

Eris was still looking at the video screens, asking,

‘So tell me again why we chose that road?’

Forrest answered,

‘The town’s design is our friend here. It’s essentially one main road, leading from the nearest A-road, and heading directly to the US base. There are minor roads and backstreets too of course, but none that have the traffic and pedestrian volume that our robotic friends are seeking. Those are quiet streets, and I don’t think they’ll want to be too exposed. We don’t even think they’ll drive in – the distances are walkable, and they wouldn’t want to risk getting caught up in the jams.’

‘Years of security detail made you good at this kind of thing, eh?’

‘You know I’m not allowed to talk about it,’ he said with a glint in his eye. Was it only Eris’s imagination, or after months of working together, was Forrest softening to her? Was it the extraordinary demands of this case, that had everyone examining the way they lived their own lives?

But there were further questions she needed to ask, and she did so,

‘But surely the US trucks don’t pass along the High Street?’

‘No, they have their own road running through the fields behind the town. But that will be even more exposed than the town’s back streets, and unless the robots travel in a khaki-coloured Jeep, then they’ll stand out a mile.’

She mused, ‘You’re all very conscious of their trying to blend in to the urban setting. What makes you think they aren’t camouflaged and hiding in the fields?’

Here the young lab assistant piped up,

‘There’s a theory that they’ve been living in the outdoors all these years, but I don’t buy that. I reckon their success comes from living amongst us.’

‘You seem to know a lot about this.’

‘Oh, I’ve been fascinated with them for years. I read all the tech blogs.’

‘Right, and any more pearls for us?’

He went to speak, but Eris silenced him, ‘Well, they’ll have to wait till later.’ She gestured for Forrest to follow her as she left the van.

Once outside she muttered,

‘Great, so you’ve found me a Robot fanboy?’

‘You wanted tech and they’re the best.’

‘Well, I don’t have much choice in it.’ She went to say more; yet before they’d gotten ten yards from the van, they heard the door swing back open and the voice of Nell call them back,

‘You needn’t have worried, ma’am,’ said the keen technician as they re-entered. Her young assistant clattered his keyboard beside her. ‘No concerns that the sensors aren’t sharp enough, not when we’ve got a man with all the warmth of a fridge freezer walking along the High Street.’

Eris looked, amazed, at the twin images on the screens before her. One was of a tall man of unreadable demeanour walking along the pavement. He was passing that moment between a shopkeeper at his front door and a woman looking through her bag. And beside it was a parallel image of green and yellow and red blobs. There were recognisable heat-shapes for the shopkeeper and the woman… but none for the man passing between them. Even as Eris stared at the monitor, he appeared as little more than a blue-grey ghost.

Eris’s eyes were locked on the second image. Forrest, however, suffered no such paralysis, jumping past her and into the cab, and calling on the radio,

‘Units One and Two, prepare to receive a photo of one of the targets, walking west along the High Street; they’ve just passed the chemist’s. Remember, Protocol R. I repeat, Protocol R!’

‘What’s that?’ asked the younger tech.

Eris answered without looking, ‘It’s how the government decided we need to approach the robots: no bullets to the head or torso. And definitely no Tasers!’ She spoke without hardly thinking, still entranced. ‘There’s no body heat at all.’ She said this in amazement with the image right before her. ‘Maybe Beck was lying, then? Trying to throw us off the scent?’

‘There’s still a low heat trace,’ said Nell, adjusting the screen, ‘stronger around the chest. Perhaps they only give heat from their energy source?’

Eris answered with,

‘No, they have full body heat. Beck was telling the truth, I’m sure of it.’

Nell was busy transmitting the standard-photo of the artif to the agents in the street. As she dabbled with the keyboard, she offered abstractedly,

‘Well, maybe this one’s broken down? Their hot-water pulse is only a subsidiary system after all. It would be like a car still driving without air conditioning.’

‘What did you say?’ At last Eris was snapped from her reverie. ‘“Broken down”? “Subsidiary system”?’ It suddenly clicked, ‘That was what was wrong with Christopher, that was why he stole the puncture repair kits!’

 

 

Chapter 74 – The Grand Unveiling – Marsham Sands

 

 

Christopher had left the cafe, and quickly walked past the chemist’s and the shoe shop. There he found the corner he remembered from the map he had studied the previous night, and turned into a side street. Hardly needing his strong internal sense of navigation, he found his way toward the US Army’s purpose-built roadway half a mile behind the town. There he assumed a pose of someone wandering lost in the middle of the road – and waited for a vehicle.

That vehicle inevitably came, a small one thankfully. He was well aware of it before he heard the engine, and only then affected to look up and notice their approach.

They bibbed their horn, at which point he surprised them by not stepping aside but instead flagging them down. Chris sensed that the crew were stopping reluctantly; though stop they did. There were two uniformed personnel in the car. He’d have preferred one, but then this only meant a second voice to be believed when they got back to base. Chris entered the fray,

‘Hello there!’

‘Sir, this is an Army road…’

‘I’m looking for the town centre. I came out this way and now I can’t find my way back.’

‘Sir, if you just follow that turning there it will take you right back into town.’ The soldier pointed down the road that Chris had just arrived along, and so he knew full-well how to return by it. However, Chris made no move toward the exit. Instead he continued making conversation,

‘It’s very busy here today.’

‘Yes, sir, there are a lot of visitors.’

‘Because of the Robot thing?’

‘Well, sir, the US Army have said nothing official about that.’

‘I’m here to see them myself.’

‘Sir, we have to get back to base…’

‘I’m here to see the Robots. I wonder if you know when they’re coming?’

‘Sir, we have no official word on that…’

‘Oh, come on. We all know they’re going to be here today. What d’you really know?’

‘Sir, I know no more than you…’

Chris moved so quickly that the soldiers hadn’t got their weapons out before the action was half-completed. He had his left sleeve pulled up and was tracing his forearm with a penknife he had concealed in his right hand.

‘It’s along here somewhere,’ he said to himself, the mood instantly heightening.

‘Sir, put down the knife,’ called the nearest soldier, gun raised through the side window he had been talking through. The other was already out of the vehicle and angling around the bonnet.

But Chris knew that this would only take a second. Finding the invisible seam he needed, he popped the blade through his golden skin, and then pulled an eight-inch gash down toward the wrist. This was extraordinary for the watching soldiers to see, for the simple fact that the cut brought no blood.

‘Do you have a Phillips screwdriver?’ asked Chris, pocketing the penknife with his right hand while holding his injured left arm outward. ‘Probably just as well, as I don’t really want to take any more of myself apart than is necessary. Well, maybe this will be proof enough.’

Opening up the cut just enough, he showed first the soldier in the car, and then the other, where beneath the skin two silver screw heads gleamed dully in the late morning sun. He moved his arm slightly to show the black bands of artificial muscle that moved and rippled at his command.

Both soldiers stood stock still. Chris continued,

‘There are four other points on me I could cut, if you want proof that all of me is artificial.’

The radio crackled then, and the one in the car went to take it.

‘Don’t touch that, please,’ asked Chris. The soldiers in the Jeep were young and utterly without precedent. So Chris took the lead,

‘Now, I think you’ve been briefed on our possible arrival, and are under orders to be especially nice to us today. So I don’t think you’ll want to shoot me, will you?’

The men, if not lowering their guns, certainly didn’t raise them any higher. One was stunned into silence, but the other instructed, ‘Get in the car, sir.’

‘No, it’s all of us or none of us. Go back to base, and tell your commander: this very spot, in exactly half an hour. And if we’re not here, to wait as long as he can.’

At that, Christopher at last backed away towards the turn-off.

 

 

Chapter 75 – Smash ‘em All

 

 

In response to Forrest calling the alarm, Units One and Two – in the form of a slowly moving teenager for Unit One and an arm-in-arm couple for Unit Two – were both now moving their subtle way along the main road, converging at the chemist’s. Both now also had the photograph of the sighted artif on their phones. They met with barely an acknowledgement, before continuing in the direction that the other unit had come from.

With dumb luck, Chris re-entered the busy thoroughfare a moment later, to stroll back up to the café where the others were waiting,

‘Where have you been?’ asked Ellie.

‘Making contact. You have the map? Here,’ he pointed. ‘In twenty minutes.’

‘For what?’

‘For whatever the US Army have in store for us.’

‘What if it’s a trap?’

He pointed to another turn-off on the map around fifty yards away from where he’d met the soldiers on the Army road, ‘Ellie, can you fetch the car and wait in it here?’

‘Why there?’

But Victor guessed, and answered,

‘This lets us bomb out along the Army road if it all goes pear-shaped.’

‘Well done, that man,’ said Chris. ‘If it is a trap, then there’s no point us all being caught.’ Chris pointed to a third location, ‘And this is our emergency rendezvous. If it does all go south, then lay low and meet here at two pm, and again at six if we’re not all there the first time.’

Beck tipped for the table, and in two pairs they left.

Soon they had given up the busy café for the just as busy streets. For all his height, Christopher was suddenly nowhere to be seen.

‘That’s what he’s built for,’ Beck reminded himself, as he bided his time and tried not to look shifty.

He listened to the conversations of the throng as they passed, all looking for something, but with a dawning realisation that they had no idea from where it would come or what form it would take:

‘Imagine it,’ mused an enthusiastic woman, ‘to see the world’s first conscious creation.’

‘How so?’ asked her husband.

‘I mean, that’s what we’re all here for, isn’t it? To meet one in the flesh, so to speak, and see if they really think?’

‘Smash ‘em up, I say,’ voiced another crowd member.

‘Oh, but Charlie,’ joked his friend, ‘you’ve come all this way and you’ve forgotten your lump-hammer.’

‘They’re unnatural.’

‘It’s people like you who give “nature” a bad name,’ called someone of an evidently different viewpoint.

But Charlie was unrepentant, declaring,

‘But look at the trouble they’ve caused. I mean, why are we going around trying to re-build ourselves? The world’s overpopulated already.’

‘I don’t know why you bothered coming here at all then,’ chided his critic.

‘No, smash ‘em. Smash ‘em all.’

Just up ahead of Beck there was a parping of horns, and a hue and cry at the side of the road.

Suddenly Chris re-emerged, and beckoned Beck around the corner – they were going to meet the Army.

 

 

Chapter 76 – Tourist Nightmare

 

 

‘This is a tourist nightmare,’ cursed Eris, after an altercation with a Winnebago on a one-way back-street. The surveillance van was on the move, and had finally spotted a new parking spot a little closer to the point of camera contact with Christopher. Forrest reversed into the restricted berth, with the cab windows facing the main road in question. The side-doors opened on to a narrow pavement beside the picture window of a cafe.

No sooner was the handbrake on, though, than a Traffic Warden slapped the side of the van with his open palm, calling through the closed windows,

‘You can’t park here. I’ve just had to move another set of tourists off this patch. In Britain,’ he declared in patronising tones, ‘we have these things called double-yellow lines.’

Eris wound the window down, and shoved her Government identity card in the man’s face, asking,

‘Is this British enough for you?’

Whether or not it was, the matter would be sorted out soon enough by Forrest getting down from the driver’s side door to talk to the Warden at ground-level.

‘So much for being inconspicuous,’ murmured Eris, as she left the passenger-side seat and went into the back of the van. She opened the side-door to slide out onto the pavement – and found herself staring directly at Beck and Christopher, who were staring directly at her.

 

Chris grabbed Beck by the shoulders, spinning him, and as good as pushing him along through the crowds, back in the direction in which they had been walking. He lifted the Doctor off his feet and almost carried him around a corner, and then behind another building, at a speed and co-ordination that few humans could have managed.

Eris let off two rounds along the busy pavement, before Forrest knocked the gun from her hand.

‘What are you doing?’ he shouted, picking up the gun. ‘Come on.’

She only paused a moment before following.

Behind them, the argument with the stunned Traffic Warden was swiftly made null and void, as the two techs jumped into the front seats and clumsily got the vehicle going. At the same time, they called the alarm to Units One and Two. They couldn’t get the van out of the side-road and into the flow of traffic quickly enough.

Meanwhile, the crowds of spectators and Robot hunters were now in a frenzy at the sudden commotion and gunfire. This made chasing Beck and Christopher near impossible for Eris and Forrest. Once around the second corner, and faced with no trace of their targets before them, and a wall of seething humanity behind, then each conceded they were lost.

‘Where would they go? Where would they go?’ called Eris, turning back from the scene. They had trailed their quarry to an unloved corner between shops, surrounded by garages and kerbs and wheelie bins.

Sirens were soon heard behind them in the noisy street, and too the sound of heavy engines. An olive and tan camouflaged truck pulled up at the corner, stopping traffic in both directions along the High Street, with soldiers jumping from it with rifles raised. Their intelligence had been flawless, and they had Eris, Forrest and even the lurching surveillance van directly in their sights.

‘We’re not the Robots, you idiots!’ yelled Eris at the advancing troops. ‘They’re around here somewhere, get looking!’

But the soldiers stayed still. Their commander stepped down to join them,

‘We don’t care if you are the Robots, ma’am. Shots were fired in the street, please come with us.’

‘We have I.D.,’ she offered uselessly.

‘Then we’ll find someone to verify it.’ He answered in expressionless transatlantic tones.

 

 

Chapter 77 – Breathing Again

 

 

Just yards away, lying behind a fence in the back yard of one of the High Street shops, the escapees froze. Beck was holding his breath, with Chris not needing to. They were close enough to hear every word. For minutes Eris made her case, before being bundled – quite forcibly, it sounded – into the back of the Army truck. Once they had trundled off, and with the garage area gone quiet, so Beck risked lungfuls of big breathing. He noticed Christopher was deep in thought though, the artif saying,

‘We were close there.’

‘That was amazing,’ praised Beck. ‘The speed you moved, and carrying me along with you.’

Chris speculated, ‘Our extra strength will affect us in ways we don’t yet know. However, for the time being, experiment in this area is generally curtailed.’

‘You mean while having to play human?’

Chris let his silence answer for him.

‘So what now?’ asked Beck. ‘I didn’t see Ellie or Victor in the fracas.’

Chris answered, ‘They went the opposite way to us. If they didn’t get to the car, then they could have hidden in the crowd. If they did get to the car, then they would have been heading to the meeting place before things “kicked off”. They would then have then been able to escape along the Army road as planned. I am entirely confident that they are still at large.’

Beck looked up from where they sat on the ground, observing,

‘It’s clouding over. It feels like dusk.’

‘In the sense of the business of the day being over, then that sensation might be right. Whether an Army vehicle was sent to meet us on the service road or not, I expect that in the furore it was quickly recalled to base.’

Yet Chris shook off any further darkening thoughts, instead pursuing practical concerns. ‘The town’s unsafe for us now. That was Eris, I believe?’

‘Yes, and her policeman friend Forrest.’

‘Then they have surveillance of the High Street and will have both of our faces.’

‘So, are we safe to be outside?’ asked Beck.

‘Well, Eris was driven away and her vehicle impounded.’

Beck remembered, ‘These foreign bases have rules like embassies, and can run their own security up to a point.’

‘All of which gives us a few hours free of her, at least.’

‘But what of the Americans?’

Here Chris smiled. ‘It was a good experiment; I’ve learnt a lot. Despite a public reticence, a policy had clearly been shared among the staff, which clicked into place as soon as those soldiers knew who I was. They wanted me to travel to the base with them, which I only resisted so as to go back and gather the rest of you.’

‘Wow, so you were right about Ambassador Barclay’s influence?’

‘Whether or not he was running things today, they know the way I’ll get in touch, and I know the way they’ll respond. We can play the same trick again somewhere tomorrow. Anyway, come on, we need to find our rendezvous.’

 

Beck and Chris made their way to the prearranged point. It was at the end of the town nearest to where the A-road joined the motorway. What they found when they got there was a sorry scene.

The darkening clouds that Beck had noticed earlier had since brought a light rain. This had dampened the hair and spirits of a hundred bedraggled hitchhikers and others waiting for their lifts. They bore heavy packs over their shoulders, and still clutched soggy maps and newspapers in their hands.

There had been some excitement in the end, for those lucky enough to see it, but hopes of seeing a Robot had come to nought. Now people who had dashed to the town without thinking had to find a way home. At least, thought Beck, these weary travellers offered cover. Chris and Beck joined a group of them beneath a shop awning. One man was saying,

‘I saw them. They ran right past me, Robots definitely.’

‘Oh?’ asked another. ‘How can you know?’

‘The strength, they knocked me ten feet across the road.’

‘I thought they’d run past you, not through you?’ asked the sceptic.

‘Their eyes were glinting metal,’ added another.

‘The bullets bounced off their backs with sparks,’ said a fourth.

Christopher smiled, looking forward to reading all about it in the papers tomorrow at home… A home he no longer possessed, he remembered. Or at least that he couldn’t risk returning to while things were so tense. Even he, an artif, had been caught out by time’s cruellest trick, kidding him into forgetting the loss of what he no longer had.

The scene wasn’t entirely bleak to the two watchers though: most of the hitchers with their cardboard signs were being picked up – there was something communal in the Robot hunters’ desires and disappointments, like fans of a failed football team still ferrying each other to each defeat.

And soon enough, a big maroon car chugged up to Beck and Chris. The window wound down,

‘I think you’re going our way?’ asked Ellie.

A kid with a backpack grabbed his stuff and went to follow them, before Beck said, as kindly as he could,

‘Sorry, buddy. No room.’

‘What d’you mean, no room? It’s bloody massive.’ He complained as they closed the doors on him. With Beck answering,

‘Trust me kid, you don’t want this ride.’

 

 

Chapter 78 – After the Fact

 

 

In a roadside diner early that evening, a TV News report played,

‘There was chaos and near-disaster today in the garrison town of Marsham. Many people had gathered after it was rumoured that the much-discussed “Robots” would be making contact with the American military base there today.

‘Eye-witness reports spoke of shots being fired in the town’s busy High Street, followed by a commotion as figures pushed pedestrians aside in a chase through the town. Thankfully no one was hurt, although a man who fainted was initially mistaken for a gunshot victim.

‘British Police and US Army personnel soon had the situation under control, and there was no repeat of the earlier scenes. It is not known if there were any arrests, or who had been involved in the disturbance. Although a US Military spokesperson confirmed that the gun fired was not one of theirs, and that US Army personnel were not involved in the subsequent chase.

‘The only thing we can be sure of,’ concluded the news reader, ‘is that another chapter in the mysterious story of “The Robots” has been written. This is one urban myth that, like the Robots themselves, if they do exist, refuses to die…’

‘A different street, a different café, and we’d have been home free…’ said Victor, who after two days of excitement had seen his first setback.

‘You can’t think like that,’ cheered Ellie. ‘They were all over the town. I saw at least two other agents join the chase.’

‘You were there?’ asked Beck, suddenly worried.

‘We’d only left the cafe a moment before, remember.’ She put her hand on his arm, ‘Don’t worry, we were well away from the action.’

‘So, what do we do now?’ asked Victor.

Beck answered,

‘Well, Victor, after you and I eat up, then we get to the car, park up and sleep. We need a couple of hours’ shut-eye, and Ellie and Chris will need to charge.’

‘I have new batteries in the boot,’ said Ellie.

‘But where do we go?’ asked Victor, still concerned.

‘It is a pointed question,’ added Beck. ‘I assume the actions of that madwoman have put to bed any lingering notion of us turning ourselves in? Anyway, Chris was even thinking we could just go again tomorrow. Chris? Chris?’

But Chris, who had been silent throughout, was still watching the TV screen, and appeared to be thinking very deeply. At last he spoke, but not to the table, instead calling to the woman serving at the counter. She was pointing the remote control at the television.

He asked her, ‘I wonder, could we keep it on the news for a while?’

She answered, ‘But the football’s on. The other patrons like it.’

Chris cast his gaze across the sea of empty tables. It rested on the singular truck driver tucking into sausage, egg and chips, who seemed entirely oblivious to the conversation until becoming the focus of it. Chris summarised,

‘On this occasion, I don’t believe the other patrons would mind.’

‘Have it your way,’ the woman answered, relenting and bringing the controller over to the group’s table.

There was no humour in Chris’s face though, as all the table now turned to see. A new headline had flashed up on the news channel, scrolling along the bottom of the screen with remorseless repetition:

 

‘…US ARMY RENOUNCE ALL INTEREST IN ROBOTS: “We didn’t meet with them,” says US spokesperson, “and would tell the UK Govt. if we did. We don’t believe that they exist…”’

 

Beck read and re-read that sub-headline with dismay. He looked to Chris, and saw the scales fall from his eyes. Beck tried to encourage him nonetheless,

‘It’s all just window dressing, making the right noises. We don’t know that the US won’t make another play, not when they got so close this time.’

‘You’re still hoping them Robots turn up?’ asked the serving woman, who Beck had completely forgotten was still standing beside them. He guessed that she was probably the establishment’s owner, given the freedom she allowed herself to abandon her counter.

‘We hope,’ smiled Ellie.

‘You’re on your way home then? My husband was there too. They say there was a shooting.’

Beck dreaded having to chat with the woman any longer, after already nearly giving them away. Yet, before the four were forced to engage in any further bluster, she drifted back to her serving station with all the ease of a satellite falling into orbit.

The news broadcast ended, to make way for the weather, and Chris honoured his intention of switching to the sport as soon as he was done. All were silent awhile, with only Beck’s teaspoon clanking against the cup. Outside a police siren approached; before receding just as quickly into the rural night.

Chris was the first to speak,

‘I have a very bad feeling. As a wildcard act it was brilliant, joyful; but after the shooting, I don’t think that even the Americans can play so fast and loose with our Government’s demands. I think they’ll be under too much pressure now to hand us in. I also think the media is too close – everyone’s watching what the Americans do.’

And there were a hundred other unspoken reasons for the group to lie low.

Ellie blurted, ‘Then I want to see Anna and Professor Schmidt, before we’re found out.’

And no one around the table could argue with this change of priorities.

 

 

Chapter 79 – At the Newspaper Office

 

 

Bruce was back at the Home and Features desk just as many others were leaving work. It was far too late for that afternoon’s London-only print run (for which he had already submitted a report over the phone), but not for the national edition, and never for the paper’s online presence – and his Editor was holding open the front page for the Robots.

‘So what the hell happened?’ he asked, as Bruce was just sitting down and unpacking. He had been sketching notes on his laptop on the journey back, but didn’t like to write his final copy on the move. He answered,

‘Officially, nothing – just a few enthusiasts getting, well… enthusiastic.’

‘And the gunshots?’

‘Well, no one’s saying anything about that.’

‘But in actuality?’

‘Well, we saw nothing ourselves – no one did, unless they happened to be outside of that cafe…’

(Even as he spoke, an assistant was tapping out his words. Bruce fell into unconscious copy-prose mode.)

‘The military aren’t speaking, beyond their press statement. But there are reports among eye-witnesses that something or someone made an appearance in the town around or just after noon. Certainly, a US Army vehicle was scrambled to the High Street where most of the crowd had gathered. Once there, its personnel calmed what looked for a moment as though it could have become an ugly situation.

‘It was a hot day, the crowd was simmering and ready for something. But what exactly sparked the disturbance is unclear. Crowd-members state that the Army response time was very quick, as if they had been kept on high alert. But the soldiers who arrived were not a part of the flurry of movement that ignited the scene.

‘There was much talk of gunshots – and two loud bangs were heard by this reporter – though the scene was so confused, that accounts of who fired the shots vary wildly. With the US Army denying responsibility, and the British Police not confirming whether they are pursuing anyone for any offence committed in Marsham today, then we are none the wiser as to who fired.

‘Along with the subsequent US statement of disbelief in the existence of the Robots, and disavowal of any interest in them, then this leaves it unlikely that we will learn any more from official sources for the time being. However, throughout the evening, this paper will be writing up the many interviews taken at the scene – look out for these on our online edition in the coming hours. Etcetera, etcetera.’

Bruce left his desk to fetch a cup of water from the other side of the room. Meanwhile, his boss was unsettled,

‘Kid, stop typing, go and grab yourself a coffee.’ (Which the assistant did do.) ‘Bruce, that’s no more than you phoned in hours ago. You’ve learnt nothing more?’

‘Well, I’ve been in the car ever since,’ he said, bringing the plastic cup back to his desk.

‘But there must be something. Between us two, what happened?’

Bruce knew there was more, and took an intake of breath before reporting,

‘There are claims of a figure.’

‘A figure?’

One among hundreds; but singular, tall, and moving through the busy pavements with lightning speed. Some say he was even pushing someone else along with him. Although he darted out of view before he could be caught.’

‘And his pursuers?’

‘I’ve no idea who they were. No one in uniform, at least…’

‘…and the British Police and the US Army aren’t saying anything?’ The Editor shook his head in disgust. ‘So give me some ifs, Bruce. Paint me a for-instance.’

‘Okay. If – if! – this quick figure was a Robot, then it means the Robots are real. Which means that yesterday’s press statement was real, and that they were in town to meet the US forces. Yet I can’t believe they’d want to meet in the busy street. So perhaps they were using the crowd as cover, and were interrupted before the meet itself could happen?

‘Meanwhile, the speed of the US Army’s appearance to quell the near-riot when it occurred, rather suggests that they had personnel on tenterhooks all through the town.’

‘A welcoming committee?’

‘It looks so. Though that’s rather been put on hold with their latest press statement; which I guess was written under pressure from our own Government, if you believe the rumours that it’s been they who’ve forced the Robots into hiding all this time.’

‘And are they still on the run?’

‘Oh, yes. A crowd would be the perfect cover for a humanoid simulacrum to make a getaway.’

‘A human-what?’ asked the Editor. ‘Never mind, go on.’

‘And a hundred witnesses saw no one being taken away but a couple of shady types in suits, a man and a woman…’

‘…and of course no one’s saying who they are?’

‘They seem to be a third party, perhaps our own agents. They may have known nothing more than the statement that we all read in the paper, and went there to spoil everyone’s fun.’

‘And they’re the shooters?’

Bruce nodded, ‘If my theory is right.’

The copy typist, now with his coffee, had been lingering by the door awaiting his summoning back into the room. Now the Editor said to Bruce,

‘Then you and your lad get this written up, rumours and all, just as you’re telling me.’

Bruce pleaded, ‘But rumour isn’t news, boss.’

‘Nonsense. It’s in the public interest, and it’s what our readers die for.’

 

 

Chapter 80 – Round Two with the Philosopher General

 

 

‘All diplomatic difficulties sorted out?’ asked the Prime Minster, this time meeting Eris at his palatial Outer-London home.

‘Yes, thank you, sir.’

It was late evening now, and he was enjoying a late, light dinner, his ‘One small perk’ as he put it. He smiled again, before remarking to his agent,

‘Though how ironic, after your concern for the artifs being put behind bars, that it was you and your assistant who found yourselves incarcerated.’ At this he chuckled, and nearly coughed up a mouth full of foie gras on wheat cracker, before washing it down with deep red wine. Eris was pointedly silent throughout. He soon resumed,

‘Still, you have to let me take what small joy I can from a situation that, in every other respect, was an unmitigated failure.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Despite a whole night to prepare, and with all the resources placed at your disposal, you managed not only to not locate the Robots – and after they had told us where they’d be! – but also further strain our relations with the Americans. Do you know what my colleagues in Government call them? “The Majority Shareholders”. And you have gone and had them have to make public denials on domestic British matters. Do you how much it pays us to have their bases on our soil? And not even monetarily, but in terms of influence and world standing?’

She didn’t know. But she did know that the question was rhetorical, and that staying silent would encourage him to finish his speech all the sooner.

‘And the worst of all,’ he resumed, ‘to somehow turn what we wanted to be a non-event instead into a media free for all. These “Robots” – people think they’re real now.’

‘People have always thought that.’

‘Yes, a few cranks and bloggers. But now they’ve gone mainstream. Eris, have you seen tomorrow’s Messenger? Well, check their website when you’ve gone. Oh, and they know that it was one of our own agencies doing the shooting.’

‘Really?’

‘A lucky guess most likely, by a talented team. But letting off your pistol – what were you thinking?’

‘A wrong move, sir. It won’t happen again.’

‘You were lucky – had anyone been hit, then a public enquiry would have finished us. And as for these artifs, well you mark my words: any more wrong steps, and you’ve got a Robot Barrow Gang on your hands.’

Again, another mouthful of cracker and another slurp of wine.

Eris chanced her arm with,

‘Though you did very well, sir, to have the Americans make their disavowal.’

She’d hoped the flattery would help, and it did, the talk becoming less confrontational and more conversation after that. In which spirit, the PM responded,

‘Yes, thank you. Though it took all of my influence, and I’ll be paying for it for a while. So, what did they tell you at the base?’

Here Eris could at last get into the gossip, and with the most confidential man in the land,

‘Well, here’s the funny thing, sir. The events in the High Street were a sideshow.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, there were soldiers at the base being debriefed when I was… brought in. I heard them talking, and two of them had met a man who – if I remember their own words – “Cut his arm open, and it was full of these… black snakes.”’

The Philosopher General paused over his supper, commenting,

‘That doesn’t sound much like a robot to me, more like a magic trick.’

Eris explained, ‘The “snakes” are the electro-variable-plastic they use as muscle. I imagine if your arm was opened up it would spill out what looked like a lot of red snakes that perform roughly the same function.’

‘Really?’ He mumbled with his mouth full, not at all put off. ‘And this must have been before your own encounter?’

‘Yes. Apparently the “snake” man told the soldiers to return in half an hour. I believe I caught him back in town when he came to fetch Beck.’

‘You as good as walked into them, you said?’

‘As large as life, right before me – and the speed he moved…’

‘And how do you feel to have met one? An artif?’

‘I have to say, enriched, sir.’

‘Enriched? Yes, it must have been something special. And do we know which one it was?’

Eris smiled, ‘Almost certainly Model-C, sir. Christopher. He was as tall as the hooded man in the bicycle store robbery video, and we know that Chris was built slightly taller than the others. He was also trained by the Americans to be skilled in diplomatic dealings.’

‘A natural leader. And possibly with sympathies for all things Yankee Doodle Dandy.’

The Philosopher General ate awhile before resuming,

‘I envy you, meeting one of them. Though I met Schmidt. A clever man. Under the right circumstances he could have been brilliant.’

‘The right circumstances?’

‘Had he managed this properly, and come to us right at the start, allowed us to have drawn up the legislation.’

Eris feared a return to the unhappy territory of their previous discussion. But the man was smiling, probably as much from his supper as from the details she had offered him. He concluded,

‘Be back tomorrow with more for me.’

And she left to do just that.

 

 

Chapter 81 – Long Night of the Soul / Thinking about Schmidt

 

 

Leaving the diner, all four members of the group looked around themselves. They had picked the diner for its very isolation. Now they stood beneath the night sky, with the only thing for miles being the singular eatery. An engine sounded behind them, but the car sped past before any had chance to react.

The cool deserted carpark seemed as good a place as any for the conversation all were ready for,

‘I’ll start,’ said Beck. ‘I think the key is these trips that Schmidt was taking with Anna.’

‘Quite right,’ concurred Chris. ‘He knew that something was up and wanted to save her.’

‘So what did he say to anyone when they went away?’

Ellie answered, ‘That the break would be good for her, that he’d take her to see the sights.’

‘What sights?’ asked Beck; to which Chris answered,

‘With hindsight, it’s clear he was being as vague as possible.’

‘He loved sightseeing though, didn’t he,’ remembered Ellie. ‘He would talk of buying a house every time he found a nice town, of retiring there, of setting us up there. He never went anywhere passively, he treated holiday destinations as canvasses for his future plans.’

‘Plans which he freely shared,’ remembered Chris. ‘And every one of these plans that I can remember, I’ve investigated as best as I can.’

‘So,’ asked Victor, for whom this was all academic, ‘on these trips, you think that your Professor was forming an escape-route?’

‘Bradley was in Tunis already,’ thought Ellie aloud. ‘Perhaps he was taking Anna the same way?’

Beck countered, ‘There hasn’t been a word of her in all the coverage of Ingrid Pitt and her “mystery lover”. Those grainy long-rage shots in the papers have never shown a maid or sister. And don’t you think the press would jump on stories of “another woman”?’

‘Then what about America?’ she asked. ‘The Professor always spoke of his friends there.’

To which Victor amazed them all by answering,

‘Getting someone into North Africa is easy, I expect – you only need a yacht to scoot around France and through the Gates of Gibraltar – we could hire one tonight and be there by morning. But for America you’d need a commercial flight or an ocean liner. And for those she’d need a passport.’

‘I think our friend is right,’ said Beck.

Chris added, ‘And as Ellie and I have found, if you’re going to hide out, then it might as well be in a country whose customs you know.’

‘Indeed,’ she concurred.

‘Which means a safe-house,’ summarised Beck.

‘And we can narrow it down from there,’ continued Chris. ‘The weekend trips only started in the weeks before the raid.’

‘Doesn’t it take months to buy a house?’ asked Ellie.

‘Too right,’ said Victor. ‘Even renting you need references, credit checks.’

‘But you did it, Chris?’ said Beck.

‘But Doctor, we were in motels for months, Danny, Ellie and myself, as I arranged our work and papers.’

‘I don’t think Anna would have liked that life,’ said Ellie.

Beck continued, ‘Then if that was all that Schmidt was doing those weekends, then why take Anna with him?’ Beck was metaphorically pulling his hair out, asking the dark sky, the cawing birds, the warm-lit diner, ‘What did he have time to put in place? Chris, you were at Springfields more than me – he’d never disappeared before?’

‘He always had his business trips. But nowhere that he didn’t tell us where he was going.’ Chris asked Beck then, ‘So what of the early days, before we were created? Was there anywhere especially that he liked to go?’

‘He used to like to go to different places. And always hotels, he never owned a holiday home. There were too many places he wanted to visit, and not enough time to worry about cooking his own meals.’

Chris considered, ‘Maybe we need to go back to the obvious then: Doctor, what homes do you know he had?’

‘God, you’re asking a lot from this battered old memory.’

‘Please think, Doctor. Remember, even the obvious.’

‘The flat in London.’

‘Rolled up – there’s a new couple live there now.’ Here Chris revealed another of his nocturnal sorties. He urged, ‘Don’t lose the thread now, Doctor. Details.’

To which the Doctor obliged,

‘He rented a house at the University, when I first knew him.’

‘Now held by a female lecturer in Social Studies, lives alone.’

‘And he had somewhere near Heathrow, for when he flew out early in the morning.’

‘He stayed with a friend in Uxbridge, I traced their address – there’s no sign of any other lodgers.’

It was Ellie who took the conversation in a different direction, when she said,

‘Maybe we should look at it from Anna’s side. If they were really planning something, I don’t think Anna would have liked keeping secrets.’

‘Did she seem different in the final weeks?’ asked Beck.

‘Not at all, just as trusting and loving as ever, the best sister I could have hoped for. I miss her.’

‘We all do,’ said Beck, his head lowering a little. ‘But she never said where they were going?’

‘No. Thinking back, she never did.’ And Ellie seemed sad about that.

Beck pondered, ‘Then the only other place I can think of was Ivy Lodge…’

Which left them all with the mental image of Ingrid’s former London home, one of the most famous houses in the capital after Buckingham Palace, and offering about as much privacy.

All groaned, including Victor, he asking,

‘Didn’t Ingrid sell it to that tennis player?’ (All nodded.) ‘Then there must be as many photographers outside of it now as there were then.’

Chris reasoned, ‘But I did ask the Doctor even for the obvious.’

Ellie chimed in with, ‘It’s interesting you mentioning Ingrid. I think of her often.’

‘As do I,’ said Chris.

‘The Professor always spoke of her so kindly. I think they must have had such happy times, even after they split up.’

Chris concurred with his sister, ‘Their friendship lasted longer than their affair, which can be a very kind thing.’

‘Happier than the other way around, at least,’ grimaced Beck; while also wondering: what does Chris know of affairs? Perhaps he hadn’t been such an island after all?

‘Oh Doctor,’ asked Ellie, ‘do you think they miss each other?’

‘The Professor and Ingrid? I’m sure they do, Ell.’

‘And they went away together, too. I remember him saying. She had that lovely place on the South Coast.’

And all had the same thought at the same time.

 

 

Day 5 – Schmidt

 

 

Chapter 82 – A Trip to the Seaside

 

 

‘We’ll split into two groups,’ had declared Christopher. ‘An artif each. We can charge as we drive.’

Now Chris sat in the new estate car with Victor, watching Beck and Ellie head off into the night. All were still stunned after their collective revelation.

‘I’ll drive off the other way,’ Chris told his passenger. ‘It should lead us to a different main road.’

Chris negotiated the narrow lane. Victor feared it may prove a dead end, before it came out at a T-junction by a road-sign advertising a different town.

‘I vote for there,’ said Victor, and neither dissented.

 

‘I wish we still had Springfields,’ lamented Ellie in the first car as she drove through the dark. Wire trailed from her side to the batteries on the backseat. ‘We were happy there, weren’t we?’

‘We were,’ said Beck.

‘Have you been back?’ she asked.

‘Yes. Just the other night, in fact.’

‘How is it now?’

‘Best remember it as it was, Ell,’ was all Beck could say, echoing both Chris and Eris.

‘The Professor loved the countryside, didn’t he?’

‘Yes, he did. He always did.’

 

Once on a faster road, Chris explained to Victor,

‘I hope you don’t mind me putting Ellie with the Doctor. I sensed they needed to catch up.’

‘No, I understand,’ he said.

‘And… I needed time away from the pair of them – I feel less judged in your company, perhaps because you’re new – there’s something infectious about bright eyes taking in a situation. But that pair know my capabilities and know I should have seen this.’

‘What,’ asked Victor, ‘remembering a holiday home from years ago? And we don’t even know that they are there.’

‘But a logical connection existed, and I made a mistake to miss it.’

‘Well, I think you’re being tough on yourself,’ said Victor. He knew that there was nothing he could do to save Chris’s angst though. Still Victor added,

‘But it just goes to show – that one mind is no match for many, no matter how powerful.’

 

‘So, Doctor, how have you been?’ asked Ellie.

‘Good,’ he answered, and honestly so.

‘But no more robots?’

He shook his head, ‘I’ve been working at a botanical gardens in London. It’s been great, really. A second chance that I didn’t think I’d have.’

‘And your family?’

Beck showed her a photo of them from his wallet, which she turned to see,

‘Lovely,’ she remarked, before returning her gaze to the road. She asked, ‘How do you think this will end, Doctor?’

He answered, looking at the photo, ‘I really can’t believe I won’t see them again.’

‘Which means we can’t be on the run forever.’

‘We can’t be, can we?’

‘We three have been.’

‘And you and Chris need repair, and Danny is… Look, I don’t know how it will end. I only tell you I will do my utmost to find a good conclusion.’

‘As will I.’ She added, ‘And for what it’s worth, I didn’t ever believe that I wouldn’t see Anna again, either.’

‘No, nor me.’

 

‘So,’ asked Victor, to make conversation, ‘how do you feel about this Schmidt character now?’

Chris didn’t take long to answer, ‘Professor Schmidt was the finest man in Europe. He and Doctor Beck created us.’

‘And he just ditched out one day? He didn’t say goodbye?’

‘No. We were apart when the scandal broke. He simply never returned.’

‘The scandal that Doctor Beck thinks he had forewarning of?’

But Chris didn’t answer. Victor followed with,

‘Well, from what you’re all saying, he skipped off on this mysterious trip with Anna just in time.’

‘That is one interpretation of the situation.’

‘So you don’t distrust him? You don’t think he left all you to face the music?’

Again, no response.

‘Well, I know what I’d be thinking.’

Chris broke his driving concentration a moment,

‘Are you trying to help here, Victor?’

‘I’m only asking – I hadn’t heard of you people till two days ago. And now I’m on my way to meet “The finest man in Europe.” I only want to know what to expect.’

‘Of course.’ Chris resumed his focus on the wheel. ‘You wonder if I think the worst about Professor Schmidt? Well, the answer is no. We don’t like to, do we, not about the people we love.’

 

Beck had been sleeping. As they neared their destination, Ellie asked,

‘So, you never looked for Anna?’ By which she meant: looked for any of us?

He answered, feeling sleepy and cowardly, ‘I never knew who was monitoring my movements.’ Lord, even for all the danger of being free, after two days it was so easy to forget the pressure he’d been living under for nearly a decade.

She lamented, ‘The hours I’ve spent on the net, looking for the slightest trace of her. And for Bradley.’

He quipped, ‘Well, as for him, you’ve had Google for eight years so you know as much as me.’

‘Rumours, you mean? And you don’t remember the Professor saying anything to you before that last weekend? You, his closest ally? The one he trusted best?’

‘I went over our conversations every day for months.’

‘Well, you might be talking with him again soon.’

And there was nothing that Beck could do to prepare.

 

 

Chapter 83 – The Universalist

 

 

The car gave a sigh of relief, as Christopher pulled around the corner to see Ellie and Beck talking beside his old familiar hatchback. Ellie had her smartphone in her hand; and said to the arrivees as they got out of their car,

‘A property website says the house is on offer for holiday lets. The agency handling it is just along this road.’

‘So is that good?’ asked Victor. ‘Weren’t we hoping there’d be tenants in there – your friends?’

Chris pondered, ‘I still feel it’s our best bet.’

‘I agree,’ said Beck. ‘Then who goes? Christopher and I are known to Eris; and we’ll be on CCTV.’

‘Then it has to be our young couple here.’

Victor queried, ‘But they know I’m involved, they searched my flat.’

‘And I’d go further,’ worried Ellie. ‘They might have my schematics and have a photofit from them.’

Chris shook his head though,

‘I still think, of all of us, that you’re the cleanest.’

She asked, ‘But still, wouldn’t the authorities have checked the summer house out years ago?’

Chris answered, ‘Not when they knew for certain that Ingrid Pitt had already left the country.’

All agreed that the plan might be just mad enough to work.

‘So how do we play it?’ asked Ellie.

‘You just be the lovey-dovey couple that you really are.’

 

Which advice they tried to follow.

‘We’ll be back here in exactly twenty minutes,’ said Chris before driving himself and Beck away.

The remaining pair left their car where it was parked at the end of the road, and began the walk into town.

‘The air’s lovely, isn’t it,’ said Ellie as they strolled past the cafés and shopfronts. ‘I love being by the sea.’

‘But doesn’t it…?’ Victor began to ask.

‘What?’

‘Well, interfere? Cars rust quicker in the sea-air; don’t they say?’

She laughed, ‘Silly, there’s nothing in me that rusts.’ She pecked him on the cheek, ‘There, I’ve left a rusty splotch on you.’ And both smiled.

Soon enough they reached the estate agents. The pair braced, and walked in.

‘Hello,’ stammered Victor, trying to recall Christopher’s directions. ‘I wonder; you manage a house called The Universalist?’

The lady at the desk laughed,

‘Yes, a ridiculous name, but a lovely place. You know it?’

‘A friend of mine stopped there last summer, and suggested we look it up if we were in the area.’

‘Oh yes, and what’s your friend’s name? I wonder if I remember them?’

‘Oh, he only visited others who were letting it, I don’t know their name sadly.’

‘Probably the Johnsons. They were there last season. I don’t remember them having many guests though, they were a quiet couple, and quite elderly.’

The lady smiled with each new piece of information like an unwitting torturer taking pleasure in her work. Victor tried not to show how much he was shaking as he said,

‘Oh, my friend was only with them for an evening, on his way to Devon.’

Thankfully the queries stopped coming then, the woman instead advising,

‘The house is owned by a Mrs Howe, but she’s been away for many years. I’ll let you into a secret – that isn’t her real name. She was an actress, you know, quite famous apparently. I didn’t know till… Well, anyway, I’m rattling on.’

People have such short memories, thought Victor, remembering ‘Mrs Howe’ on television what didn’t seem too many years ago, even though he was younger than the agent.

Ellie asked, ‘So, is anyone there now?’

‘Oh no, the place is quite empty this time of year. It is for a lot of the year, actually. It hasn’t been updated, you see – no central heating, double glazing. It will need quite a lot of work done to it for young couples or families to want to stay there now. It doesn’t even have the Internet.’

Victor thought the place sounded just the perfect hideout.

The agent continued, ‘I’ve tried to contact the owner to suggest these improvements, but she’s abroad and very hard to get hold of.’ The woman rose from her desk then, slapping its top with both hands, ‘Well, I’m afraid I’m off on an appointment presently, but I’ll be back in an hour if you wanted to view it?’

Christopher had advised them to refuse this offer, once they knew for certain if the place was empty, as they could conduct a better search on their own. Ellie answered,

‘No, that’s fine thank you. I’m an artist, I wanted to paint the area, so it’s the views around the house that are more important than what it’s like inside.’

Victor looked at Ellie then, thrilled at her improvisation. The agent brought her overcoat down from a stand behind her desk, closing her pitch with,

‘Okay, then you two have a drive past, take a look around, and then you come back here if you want a viewing.’

‘And it’s quite safe to have a nose?’ asked Victor. ‘We won’t be tripping any burglar alarms?’

All laughed then, the agent saying,

‘No, as I say, the place is years behind the times. In fact, I often go past on my way home just to make sure no vagrants are in there. So no, you won’t disturb anyone. Except for maybe the gardener. He lives in a small house at the back, if you didn’t want to rouse him.’

‘A gardener?’

‘Well, he calls himself a gardener, though he’s getting on a bit now. It’s his granddaughter who does most of the work, poor little thing.’

‘Thank you,’ stammered Ellie. ‘Thank you for your help.’

 

 

Chapter 84 – The Road to the Coast

 

 

The pair left with the agent, as she locked her front door and wished them good day. Victor went to the edge of the kerb, and looked up along the street. Ellie stayed by the door, bowing her head,

‘Did she really say that, Victor?’

‘Yes, I think she did.’

‘I can’t move.’

And he came back to hold her before she keeled over.

 

They didn’t go back to their own car, instead waiting maybe ten minutes for Chris to pull by and pick them up in his. Therein the news was calmly relayed, and was received in similar fashion.

The four travelled in the one car together, as silent as if coming from a funeral, as light as if from a christening. Beck looked around at each member of the group, with a look of, are we going to do this? To which the silent answer came back, Yes.

The car was almost out of petrol, Ellie needed further charging, and Beck was dog tired. But at a sedate pace they arrived, first at the coast, and then at a road running along the ridge of a hill. The hill fell off on one side to meet the sea, and on the other undulated into low round dunes. Soon the group arrived outside the house.

‘Wait,’ called Victor. He asked, ‘We’re not leading Eris right to them?’

‘There was no one following on the road,’ said Chris. Victor hadn’t even thought to look. Their driver continued, ‘And if she’s had our same idea, then she’s already here.’

Chris swung his door open and stepped out. With no pretence at secrecy remaining, the other three exited in unison. Before them in the front garden of The Universalist they found a bed of glorious roses, all nestled in straight lines of different colours, and along each line darkening in gradations of shade.

‘Only an artif would have planted these,’ remarked Chris.

‘Only a female artif,’ corrected Ellie.

They walked past the lawn and the flowers toward the main house, where Beck rang the bell… to the expected lack of response. And so they went around the side toward the back garden. And from there they saw the smaller cottage, half-visible through trees and reachable by a gravel path.

Before they’d even crossed the back garden to reach the path though, the door to the smaller house had opened. And there before them was the man who had made them, and this stood no less for Beck. Only Victor was new to him; and it was he who the Professor addressed, with a hand put out to shake,

‘I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure.’

 

 

Chapter 85 – The View from Rose Cottage

 

 

‘This is Victor,’ introduced Ellie. ‘He saved me.’

‘Then I owe you a great debt,’ thanked the householder.

All were standing at the door of what a small wooden sign declared to be Rose Cottage. For those first few moments, the meeting remained as staid and dignified as their approach to the house had been. All that changed though when, from behind a row of flower-laden trellises, appeared a young woman.

She was so much younger-seeming than Ellie, as she dropped the basket she was holding and pulled off her gardening gloves. The scene struck Beck with an uncertainty and doubt he couldn’t place. The non-human members of the host might have got there a fraction earlier, but it took Doctor Beck a full three seconds to realise that Anna was in her teenage frame.

‘What happened?’ asked Ellie.

‘It’s how she’s comfortable,’ answered the Professor. Beck noticed that in his voice was still the trace of his German past.

The sisters, long dreaming of this moment, were paralysed: Ellie from shock and Anna from… Ellie knew not what.

‘Anna, are you all right?’

‘Oh, Ellie.’

The pair ran together and crashed into a hug.

 

Schmidt ushered the men in, ‘Come on, let us leave them their moment.’

The scene they had just witnessed seemed more important than awkward getting-to-know-yous, which would no doubt happen later. In those first surreal moments of being in the same room again, all Beck could say was,

‘But it’s regression, of a sort of which no human has ever been capable. Do you realise how harmful, psychologically…?’

Schmidt cut across his one-time apprentice,

‘And do you realise how it hurt her, losing the others, Mrs Winters, you? You were all her family, and suddenly you’d gone.’

Beck quietened and remembered: even before the end Anna had become lonely, what with Bradley leaving and the others going out to jobs. He asked a calmer question,

‘And you’ve been here for all this time?’

‘No, we moved around for a while. We stayed in hotels, tired places where no one cared about an old man and a young woman travelling together. Once the storm had died down, we came here. I’d already equipped it, in an unobvious way.’

‘Equipped?’

‘A charger, some simple tools. Nothing more. I wanted somewhere like another Springfields for Anna, but smaller, tucked away, and where the landlord wouldn’t ask questions.’

‘Ingrid?’

He nodded, ‘Her final gift to me.’

‘As Bradley had been yours to her.’ These words were said by Christopher, for whom the presence of the Professor was no less monumental.

‘And you, my boy. I always knew you’d hold true.’ The Professor shook Chris’s hand, then Beck’s, asking them both, ‘And so which of you do I have to thank for all of this?’

Beck answered modestly, ‘Oh, we only met again three days ago. It’s Chris who was running things.’

‘Always so resourceful,’ said his co-creator proudly.

‘I only used the gifts you gave me,’ added Chris, equally modestly. To which the Professor answered,

‘I gave you capacity – what you filled that space with was your own. But the alarms,’ he remembered. ‘Danny isn’t with you?’

‘No,’ answered Chris.

‘But not terminal? Anna told me.’

‘No, not terminal. He was the second signal.’

‘The first?’

‘Myself, I’m afraid. An altercation – public transport.’

‘A fight on a bus?’

‘A fight with a bus. But I’m fine, I assure you.’

Victor had been listening to all this with wondrous bemusement. The Professor turned to him,

‘I’m sorry, this must all seem very abstract to you.’

‘No, it’s fascinating.’

‘And I swear it is worth it. It really is the greatest game in town. Christopher,’ the Professor turned his gaze, ‘would you mind if I fixed us three a drink?’

The question was only a politeness, as was Christopher’s movement of the arms to release them to the sitting room he had already scoped out from the hallway. Beck moved last, and in the doorway he caught Schmidt, Beck saying,

‘We need words.’

‘I know,’ came the answer. ‘But not yet,’ and the Professor led on to the lounge.

 

 

Chapter 86 – Africa – When Money Holds no Value

 

 

From the low sofa in the large varnished lounge, Bradley looked out through the mosquito net that covered the open windows. He had been watching for hours; as he had been doing for three days now. Looking for the men in black.

‘Why black?’ he muttered to himself again. ‘Out in that heat?’

Bradley thought he could see them always now, like charcoal figures against the white sun; and always at the very edge of their property, at the furthest tree. Super-sensitive eyesight could be a curse.

In the intervening days, the situation had worsened. The men on the horizon were becoming more numerous, and measures were now understood to have to be taken. At the very least, a trip away was needed, if only for Bradley’s sanity.

‘I should be out there with Ingrid, making arrangements,’ he said to his familiar, ever present and dutiful.

‘I understand your feelings, sir,’ answered George. ‘Though on this issue I agree with the Mistress. At the present time, it makes more sense for you to remain safely indoors.’

And Sir agreed with the Mistress too, or else he would have been out in town helping, and not cooped up inside and having the same conversation with George that they had had three times already that morning.

‘But a man doesn’t like to be impotent, George.’

‘Indeed, a most unfortunate feeling. Anyway, here’s Mistress back.’

Looking out at the fields to the back of the property, Bradley had missed her arrival. Now he turned to watch the approach of the big old Mercedes along the front drive.

George watched it too. Behind the car came its ever-present cloud of dust, which to him always called to mind bridesmaids rushing behind a bride, carrying the train of her dress. Every time the car went out it got filthy; and every time it returned it was cleaned back to gleaming by loyal George. Although the mechanical maintenance was the Master’s area, his big boy’s toy. ‘The best of the century,’ Bradley called it. ‘You can’t repair those modern engines,’ he would say to George across the garage. ‘Full of computers.’ And George, busy with his chamois leather, would smile at the joke.

As for Oman, the Mistress’s attendant, he would generally be in the kitchen, a whizz at the Aga. While the Mistress herself would spend the evenings reading. Or writing; often her diary, or more recently a romance, of lovers in mystical Arabia, trapped in exile but needing only each other. When George looked in on her to ask if she needed anything, she would recite her latest chapter. And he would listen and smile, for she had a fine writer’s voice to match her actor’s voice – good words, read well.

‘Do you believe in love?’ she would ask George afterwards. Then answering for him, ‘But of course you do. I see it every time you bring our Master his paper or tell him the car is out front. I think you love him just as much as I do.’

And George did, in his way. Though mostly at those moments he was marvelling at his Mistress; at her voice, in which all trace of Germany was gone and replaced by something rich and warm and Mediterranean, blown in on the sirocco wind.

‘I do, George. I believe in love. I’ve had two great affairs, either one enough for any woman’s lifetime. And each still love me, my Kind Professor building my Bradley for me. Which makes me love him even more than when we were together – as if that were possible.’

And then the question she would have George ask, the only time he’d ever dare to enquire of his Mistress’s feelings, and only then because it was bidden,

‘And why did you part, ma’am?’

‘The Professor and I?’ she’d ask, as if the whole sequence weren’t as well-rehearsed as her many famous stage appearances once were. ‘Because we were rebels, and when we found peace, it didn’t suit us.’ And she would smile, revealing that there was absolutely no regret.

Then would come memories of East Germany, of the secret police, of love under watch, and of finally broaching the Wall. And George would listen intently, nudging the conversation this way or that way when required.

George was the Master’s servant, Oman the Mistress’s. Though for these exchanges she needed George, as among Oman’s very many competencies was not a grasp of the Queen’s English to the subtlety required. It brought George great pride that he was chosen.

They had been good years at the lodge. He would remember them. But, back to present duty…

Although he couldn’t show it, George was greatly relieved to have the Mistress return in the Mercedes that morning. It broke the mood of the room carried by the Master’s monomania, and might also provide some news of their predicament. Since seeing the first figure on the horizon several days before, everything had changed.

A butler’s duty was sometimes to be anonymous; and so it was as he opened the door to the Mistress and she swept right in to say to the other man in the room,

‘It’s no good, B.’

‘Mistress,’ greeted ignored George, who after letting her and Oman in was about to leave them to their discussion.

‘No, George, you stay,’ she announced. ‘You too, Oman,’ who was a large man of Middle Eastern extraction in a tweed coat and bowler hat, who would have died for his Mistress as George would have for his Master.

‘I need you all to hear this. The Chief of Police would not give me his word.’

‘For what, ma’am?’ asked the butler.

‘For assurance of our safety in the town.’

George gasped, then quickly corrected himself. The Mistress continued,

‘He said he would have liked to have done so, and was adamant that the problem wasn’t with his most loyal and closest men, but… well, you can guess the rest.’

‘And after all you’ve done for them.’ George shook his head sadly.

‘Twenty-thousand last year, wasn’t it?’ said Bradley, finally tearing himself away from the netted window and striding between the sofas to the heart of the room.

‘These men outside will pay a lot more,’ she said sadly.

‘But what in God’s name are they doing here?’ Bradley asked of no one in particular. ‘Sure, we’ve had spotters before, photographers. But never this many, and never anyone the Chief of Police was scared of.’

‘I think I know.’ Ingrid held her hand out for a newspaper that Oman passed to her. She unfolded the front page and held it gingerly to Bradley. ‘It might be bad news, Darling.’

Bradley read the same headline that Britain had read the day before:

 

ROBOTS: TO BE REVEALED TODAY!

 

She added, ‘And I saw another headline from yesterday’s papers in the shop window, it must have just arrived from England: “The Robots are Real”.’

‘That’s why our paper hasn’t come for two days,’ he realised.

‘It’s worse than that,’ she added. ‘The shop wouldn’t serve me; wouldn’t take my money. The family wouldn’t even look me in the eye.’

‘So where did you buy this?’ Bradley was holding the paper now, transfixed, like a sleeper coming awake in a dream.

She looked to Oman for support before answering, he nodding that she should say; which she did,

‘It was thrown at me as we left the shop, by the woman in the house opposite.’

Bradley was staggered, ‘What… the one who fixes your dresses?’

She nodded.

He asked, ‘Are they scared of the men in black? Or of us?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. Then asked him, ‘Bradley. Is something happening with… the others, in England?’

‘I think it must be,’ he answered, and took the paper to his window sofa to read.

 

 

Chapter 87 – Words

 

 

Meeting the Professor, seeing him again, couldn’t help but play on Beck’s mind. As tearful greetings were going on elsewhere in the cottage, he collared Chris,

‘He seems so much older,’ observed Beck.

‘He was old to begin with,’ reasoned his creation. ‘He’d had at least two careers before we knew him. Perhaps his enthusiasm gave a youthful impression?’

‘Perhaps,’ conceded Beck.

‘We all age.’

‘Says Dorian Gray.’

‘Oh, even I’m wearing out, behind the scenes, so to speak.’

 

A while later, the Professor and Beck had their own chance to talk. Now at last the apprentice stood before the master, just the two of them. Schmidt shut the door to his light-filled workshop.

Beck didn’t want to ask the most important thing, but Schmidt answered it anyway without his prompting. Again Beck heard and loved that famous voice, still bearing the faintest Germanic flicker,

‘Eight years ago, right?’

‘Right.’

‘Right. I had a phone call from Washington – on a scrambled line, no less. He asked me if I knew anything of “A program for advanced artificial intelligence”?’

‘We never called it that,’ answered Beck, though Schmidt was already waving his words away,

‘I said “No,” and asked him why he asked. He told me that it was our own government who were asking the White House!’

‘Our government knew of us?’

‘No, not a clue. But the Prime Minister back then had had the bejesus scared out of him watching a horror movie of robots taking over the world…’

‘Lord alive.’

‘…and so the next morning, he put the feelers out among his own departments and the big research and development contractors – was anyone doing this thing? How real was it? How dangerous was it?’

‘The message didn’t get to us.’

‘No, but it got to the University Board, who batted it away as ridiculous. Artificial limbs were our field – or so they thought!’

‘I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,’ said Beck

‘He also put the word out to his friends in America, judging that they’d be further along the road. They then called me.’

‘Why you?’

‘Because, in my time in America after the Wall came down, I met a lot of people and discussed a lot of ideas. And one of those I met was a scientist at a major university, and one of the things we had discussed was artificial intelligence…’

‘He knew about the project?’

‘No, this was pure theory, years before I met you. But he’d remembered our talk, and called me up.’

‘And you told him that you had no idea of what our Prime Minister was on about?’ Beck was panicking now.

‘Yes. And the very next morning, I brought Anna out here to the cottage for the day, to get her used to staying at the place. We started planting roses.’

‘You were planning your escape?’

‘No, this was to be our luftschutzbunker – how would you say it? Bomb-shelter. A place for her to stay a couple of nights in an emergency. I couldn’t know it would all end.’

‘And you didn’t think to share the news with the rest of us, that the Government was scouring the land for projects like ours?’

‘I had to protect her. I thought, “If some of the others get caught, very well. They could live with it, even make something of it, but I have to protect her.” I had no idea that they would all get away. Don’t be angry, Gawain. We had a responsibility to Anna.’

And Beck knew this as well as the Professor. Beck asked,

‘Then at least explain this… regression.’ For Beck still had no happier word for what had happened to Anna in his absence.

‘Eliza’ (For Schmidt alone had always called her by her proper name) ‘had once caught Anna looking at their younger frames. She told me Anna had said how happy she had been as a child!’

‘I’m not sure she was.’

‘Not when very young, but later, with Mrs Winters and the away-days. She idealised those days, even though they were only a few years before. And if it made her happier…’

The Professor continued, ‘I knew that the events to come could traumatise her, so – a step backward to make one forward – it was never meant to last. But then, this nowhere-state was never meant to go on eight years, huh?

‘The girls’ teenage frame was in good shape, and so on one of our weekend trips I smuggled it here – I also took the others and destroyed them, just in time it turned out. Then after the fall of Springfields, after ferrying around the hotels for those difficult months, we came back here for good and I found the frame. I didn’t even need to ask her. She saw it and said, “I want to go to sleep and wake up like that again.”

‘I transferred her centre and made one join with a soldering iron. And not a bad one at that, although I say so myself, and given the conditions I had to work in.

‘And here she is, eight years later, still fifteen and still happy. I do believe that.’

‘Don’t people notice her not ageing?’ wondered Beck aloud.

‘Who? We see nobody but the summer tenants, and they don’t pay us much mind. As for the townsfolk, they might just think she’s petite – some women wear child sizes all their life.’

‘And were you ever planning to move her back?’

Schmidt looked down as he answered, ‘I hoped she might want something of adult life, and ask for it herself.’

‘But she never did?’

Schmidt shook his head, ‘But then, when there’s so little of adult life for her to look forward to just now…’

‘Yes, it must look pretty bleak to her,’ conceded Beck,

‘To a lot of teenagers, I expect,’ the older man half-smiled, ‘though most don’t have her option.’

 

 

Chapter 88 – How are you all?

 

 

Professor Schmidt paused, then asked,

‘And how are you all?’

‘Well,’ answered Beck. ‘All well. Functioning, at least.’ What more could he say? ‘At least as far as I can tell – I’ve only met them again these past few days. Chris has a cut to his arm that needs joining.’

‘We’ll do it this evening.’

‘And Ellie’s elbow is fraying.’

‘Amazing that that hasn’t happened more with them. Though I’m not sure how we’d fix that here. And no more on Daniel?’

Beck shook his head.

‘Poor boy.’ Schmidt walked to the window to appear in silhouette against the flat white light. Beck joined him, to find the Professor was watching Victor, on his own in the garden, leaving the artifs to their reunion.

‘And what’s this one’s story?’

‘He worked with Ellie, they fell in love.’

‘For real?’

‘It seems so. They were already on the run before we met them. He could have dropped her at any time.’

‘Thank God he didn’t. And now he’s caught up in all this?’

‘He doesn’t seem to mind.’

‘Well,’ presumed Schmidt, ‘he can say it was an adventure at least. For why else do anything, at the end of the day?’

The old man asked, ‘So, what will you do now?’

‘We don’t know.’

‘They’ll be here any day.’

‘We haven’t brought them with us.’

To which the Professor shook his head,

‘I don’t mean that. I mean that they’ve renewed their efforts. We’ve been on borrowed time these eight years. The moment I saw that shooting business in the paper, I knew it was over. A burst of new interest will see us sniffed out.’

Beck asked then, ‘You’re not angry with me, for causing it?’

This took the elder statesman back, he asking,

‘And how in God’s name are you responsible?’

‘I was interviewed for a whole day. I told them everything.’

‘Everything? Everything of what?’

‘I told you, everything!’

Schmidt asked rhetorically, ‘These were the people who had already once questioned you? Who tore our home and our lab apart? Who I had to destroy the frames to stop falling into their hands? And this before your meeting Chris again, or Eliza, or me? And before you knew that any of us were still alive?’

Beck nodded along, hoping this was going the right way and would deliver the release from guilt that he was craving. Schmidt concluded with,

‘Then what did you tell them?’

Beck thought about it, and answered, ‘Nothing!’

‘Then how could I be angry?’

Beck wanted to cry then, and shouted out,

‘I was so annoyed with you.’

‘I understand.’

‘And yet, I always knew why you did it, why you left me. You had to keep her safe.’

‘Yes.’

‘She looks happy,’ conceded Beck, calming down.

‘She loves her roses.’

‘Yes, she must. And any issues?’

‘Emotional or technical?’ asked Schmidt.

‘The latter are probably most pressing.’

‘Without a strip-down, in a year at least one of her knees will go.’

Beck was shocked by the answer, though the Professor was always never less than direct.

‘Lock?’ asked Beck.

‘No, more likely slowly seize. It may feel like arthritis, could even see the joint move in its socket. It won’t be nice for her. Chris isn’t breathing.’

Beck was remembering what it was like to be in the room with a genius. Lightning-sharp topic changes, and always right to the point. Beck explained,

‘He had an accident, damaged his chest. It knocked out his breathing and his circulation.’

The old man laughed, ‘When has a doctor ever said that of a patient so lightly?’

‘He repaired it himself.’

‘Or that!’ Schmidt took this in, before again changing the topic,

‘You know, before this week I had been thinking of finding you all, only to suggest that it might be time to give ourselves up.’

Beck shook his head. Schmidt continued,

‘Of course, now the shooting reminds me why we never can. And so the only option for them is death. A slow death, as piece by piece every part of them breaks down. Once that starts, then discovery is inevitable.’

But Beck wouldn’t have it,

‘They’re resourceful, you haven’t spent time with my two. They’re so self-sufficient you wouldn’t believe.’

‘Enough to rebuild themselves without a lab?’

Any answer Beck might have given was interrupted by the arrival of one of the topics of their conversation, Chris asking,

‘Do you mind if I join you?’

‘Of course not,’ answered the Professor. ‘How are you, my boy?’

Chris looked around himself, ‘This all solves the puzzle of Anna. I did wonder where you’d taken her. You’d had this place planned out before?’

The Professor nodded.

‘And were you talking of us back there?’

‘You overheard?’ answered Beck. ‘Who else would we talk about?’

Chris pondered, ‘Anna faltered a little in the other room just then, as she went to get up off the floor.

‘She’s in a very old frame, older than any of the adult bodies,’ explained Schmidt.

‘One of the first we built,’ noted Beck

‘I’d hoped you might have had a lab,’ observed Chris.

The Professor laughed, ‘This isn’t Thunderbirds, I have no underground facility. I fear the County Council may have noticed the builder’s lorries.’

 

 

Chapter 89 – Sensory Analysis

 

 

It was the early afternoon, and a day since the shooting. Back at her office, in the basement of their huge and faceless building in the capital, Miss Eris was surrounded by papers and blinking screens. From the next room she could hear the murmuring voices of her surveillance team.

This had once been her superior’s office. Beck and the Philosopher General had been right; he was long gone. Though it hadn’t been her efforts that had done for him, not really; it had been his continued lack of success in the artif case.

And then, before her boss had been aware there was a vacancy, his superiors had asked her whether she would take on his role? This was the man who’d taught her everything, and the job had been too much for him. And knowing this, still she had accepted.

Once upon a time then, into these rooms she would have been beckoned, to discuss whatever issue was absorbing the old chief; and to this end she now beckoned Forrest. He appeared at the partition edge, and asked,

‘Any ideas, boss?’

‘No bolts of lightning. What do you have?’

He waved the papers he was carrying, explaining, ‘Backgrounds of thirty-nine people whose faces were recognised by our scanners over Marsham High Street.’

‘So, people already on our system?’

‘Yes. There’s nothing promising though. Most have done no worse than attend Robot gatherings or post on blogs and websites.’

‘So, exactly the sort of people we were expecting to find. And none of them have been acting strangely? None gone missing since?’

‘Well, there’s a few who haven’t turned up to work today. But then that’s hardly surprising when they had no advanced warning to arrange travel for yesterday. We won’t know for a few days if they’ve really gone off the radar.’

She shook her head, but then gestured to her computer screen,

‘And given the absolute uninformed garbage that’s appeared on the Robots sites since yesterday, then I don’t believe a single one of them has contact with the targets.’

‘Enthusiastic amateurs,’ he lamented. ‘There’s something else though.’ Forrest disappeared a moment, reappearing with further papers. He brought them to Eris’s desk and rifled through them, explaining,

‘There were three cars stolen from Marsham and its surrounding area yesterday. One turned up this morning with its alloy wheels removed and the interior set on fire.’

‘Joyriders,’ she cursed.

‘Another was a Japanese import sports car, of a model known to be stolen for order and taken abroad. Nothing found on this one yet.’

‘And far too inconspicuous for people on the run,’ she reasoned.

‘It also had a crack alarm system,’ added Forrest.

‘Well, that didn’t foil the auto thieves,’ she noted.

‘Ah, but they would have bought along specialised car-breaking equipment.’

She understood. ‘So, not a quick fix for someone needing a speedy getaway?’

‘No.’

‘And the third?’

At this, her colleague’s face brightened,

‘A five-year-old estate, sixty-thousand miles on the clock, dents on both passenger-side doors, and an owner who’s secretly only hoping it never turns up again, so he can buy a new one with the insurance money.’

Eris summarised, ‘An old estate, room for all of them, utterly anonymous.’

Forrest smiled at his victory. ‘I thought the same – we’re putting the numberplate through the traffic camera computers now – if it’s been picked up by any camera in the land, then we’ll know about it.’

 

Eight minutes later, in her team’s main room, these results were eagerly anticipated by Eris. In the meantime, she was leafing again through printed stills of the man – the robot, the artif, Christopher? – identified as having no body-heat signature, and who moments after that identification she had seen with her own eyes, standing beside Beck outside the cafe.

She had seen no other models to compare, except for the blurred shots that came in sporadically from agents following Bradley in Tunis and other places. And still this one transfixed her. It was something in his height, his seriousness. And she marvelled at the way he blended in. But how, once pointed out to the viewer, then by his very self-determination, the viewer’s eyes would be drawn to him and could not be torn away. As she could not now tear hers from the photographs, muttering,

‘You look nothing like our man in North Africa, Mister Robot. No, you’re quite a different type.’ And repeating, as she had said to the Philosopher General the previous evening, ‘I think you’re Christopher, I think you’re Christopher.’

Eris was convinced. And it made sense too that he was partnering Beck, when, from what the Doctor had told her just three days ago, this was the kind of operation for which he was intended and at which he would excel.

One other thought though was that she had been convinced that Beck was not already in contact with Christopher at the time of his interview – his answers had been too open, and his sadness at losing touch with his second family had been too genuine. He had been told of the warning signal telling that one of them was injured, and in a flash he had asked, ‘Which one?’ This had betrayed an absolute uncertainty for their futures.

So then, they had somehow since made contact out of nothing, within hours of Beck being under Eris’s supervision. This with Beck’s family, his office, his computer and his phone all being monitored. This annoyed her intensely,

‘Not on my watch,’ she muttered. ‘Not on my watch…’

But Eris’s musings were interrupted by her colleagues.

‘Here it is.’ The technicians were already scan-reading the stolen car data as it poured across the screen,

‘Two sightings,’ called the lead tech Nell, ‘but hours apart.’

‘Then they’ve avoided the main roads,’ said Forrest, who was supervising things. ‘Any pattern?’

‘One’s fifty miles outside of Marsham that evening. It looks like they travelled north to start with.’

‘To start with?’

‘Well, the next sighting’s two hundred miles south, and only six hours later. That’s almost on the coast. Get the atlas,’ called Nell to her eager assistant. ‘I’ve driven past there. If memory serves, then it’s a pretty empty area.’

Eris knew a break when she saw one. Forrest was already calling for the car.

 

 

Chapter 90 – Christopher’s Repair, Anna’s Conversation

 

 

‘I only have the basic tools.’

Professor Schmidt was standing at his workbench with his back turned to Christopher, who was sitting in a raised chair in the centre of the room.

‘I understand,’ answered Chris.

‘I had more at the old house.’

‘I remember.’

‘I can only fix the outer layer; you might still have damage signals there.’

‘I’ve already turned the signals down in that area,’ replied Chris, rolling up his sleeve.

‘You always were remarkably prosaic about things.’ The Professor lifted the bare arm, saying,

‘It might be easier with the shirt off.’

‘I’ve other scars, ones I’ve fixed myself.’

And the doctor didn’t press the patient on the issue. He did note though,

‘You’re not breathing. And your skin is cold. I’m afraid I haven’t the tools for those.’

‘I didn’t think you would have.’

Returning with an air hose, Schmidt blew black dust out of the wound, before giving it a visual inspection. He offered what bedside manner he could,

‘Well, you’ve been in the wars, lad. It looks quite a clean cut. You didn’t catch yourself on a coat-hanger then?’

‘I cut it to convince someone.’

‘Ah yes, you picked the space above the wrist adjustment bolts. You knew we humans would be squeamish of seeing that.’

Christopher maintained his stoical resolve, as Schmidt replaced the air hose on the workbench, returning with a soldering iron that had been warming in its metal cradle,

‘This won’t be flawless. You’ll see the scar.’

Again, there was no change in the patient’s demeanour. Chris stayed immobile, explaining, ‘I’ve done worse to myself.’

Schmidt instructed, ‘Pinch the two sides together, as straight as you can.’ He brought the burning metal rod to the golden vinyl, hovering over the surface for one final moment, just long enough to ask,

‘Now, you’re sure you have those sensors off?’

 

Meanwhile, in the main room of Rose Cottage, the chairs and table had been pushed back as if for a dance. Yet instead of cutting a rug, the occupants were lying on the floor surrounded by car batteries.

Both women were there as Beck arrived. Victor was recharging himself also, in his human fashion, asleep on a sofa near to Ellie. His arm trailed down to the floor, and his hand was in her hand. However, while he was dumb to the world, she and Anna were wide awake.

‘Why do you use the floor?’ asked the Doctor, standing by the door.

‘Habit, maybe?’ answered Ellie. ‘It also helps to have all the muscles totally relaxed.’

Beck didn’t pester her further, for she bore a look of serious concentration, as if working something out. Instead, he lay down on the bare wooden floor beside Anna. She smiled and turned her head to him, their faces inches apart.

She asked him, ‘What can I do to help you, Doctor?’ as if a little girl playing shopkeeper with her parents.

‘You can help me by telling me everything that’s happened to you since I saw you last.’

‘For research?’ she asked.

‘No. Because I’ve been away too long. And only hearing all you have to tell me can make up for it.’

She smiled, and answered without moving her body,

‘Well, we left the day before the others. I didn’t know where to at first, though I could tell the Professor was worried. He felt very guilty for abandoning you.’

‘He knew we’d cope,’ grimaced Beck. ‘What happened then?’

‘Well, we travelled around in hired cars, staying in horrible hotels. I hated it. Until one time he stayed awake all night, not speaking, just watching at the ceiling. Which was odd for me, having him up with me. Before he said,’ she put on a gruff man’s voice, ‘“It has been long enough, we can go there now.”’

‘Go where?’ asked Beck

‘Here!’ she answered. ‘The happiest place on earth. Oh, Doctor, is it all over?’

‘We might have to leave, yes.’

‘You won’t all go again?’

‘We won’t leave you. Whatever happens, it will be as a group.’

Anna rolled over and hugged him, her head to his chest, and let her eyes water to dampen his shirt.

‘Doctor?’ She looked up after a little while. He looked back into those infinite pools, they reflecting back her same soul, whatever age she was, and whatever frame she was in: part-child, part-genius, part-seer beyond human experience.

‘Yes, Anna?’

‘Nothing,’ she smiled, and hugged him again.

 

 

Chapter 91 – Africa – Time to Leave

 

 

That afternoon Bradley was again indoors and again waiting on Ingrid’s return. Only now he had the newspaper to brood over, and others found by Oman on a jaunt round the towns to find a friendly – or at least un-terrified – shop owner.

Faithful George was again Bradley’s sounding-board and confidant, as the master mused,

‘I’ve been reading this article, George: “THE ROBOTS: WHAT DO WE KNOW?” It says: “The current excitement stems from new rumours of a warning signal transmitted to the Robots on Tuesday of this week, though who sent the signal to them and what it signified remain a mystery.”’

‘You can’t believe everything that appears in the papers, sir.’

‘And it mentions other messages, “sent on the same frequency” and “decoded by boffins…”’

‘But, sir, what can they know?’

‘No, George. I know what you’re doing, and I love you for it. But I have to face something here. However, the papers like to build a story up, there needs to be a seed of truth in it. We do send signals when damaged. I’m too far away to receive them; but if it’s true, then it means that someone has been injured, or has even died.’

‘But, sir.’

‘George, it must be obvious to you that something has happened. This business of the shooting at the airfield has been in the British papers since yesterday, even in our locals today, under International News. They have no press restrictions over here, and you know how people love “The Funny English”.’ He smiled then for a moment, but the moment soon passed. He looked again at the papers, concluding,

‘And this is only what the public know. Agents and agencies around the world will have been alive to it all week.’

George was silent, but keen to speak,

‘Sir, with your permission…’

‘Just spit it out.’

‘But, sir. If this is all about you being a… robot, then hasn’t that been known for years, hinted and sneered at in every European photo journal?’

The issue of Bradley’s robothood was treated by the lodge a little like an unwanted pregnancy. Everyone knew why the niece from the city had come to stay with her country cousins, and all could see her getting fat, but no one liked to mention the bump. Life went on around it. Sometimes the silence wasn’t noticed, sometimes it was everywhere. So had it been for Bradley on occasion. But since the Juju Men, the lodge had suffocated on it.

He answered carefully,

‘I may have been an open secret, but those can last for years.’

He paused before making a short speech,

‘At the risk of mixing my metaphors, George, the gloves are off. Someone’s injured and the sharks scent blood. People weren’t sure when to run; but here’s the starting gun. On Tuesday we saw our first man at the perimeter, the day after the warning signal that has since been reported in the papers. That was one man. Today is Friday, and I count five.’

As the cat was out of the emotional bag, so Bradley could share his own feelings. How stupid, as if he couldn’t have trusted George with them at any time,

‘And I am sorry, George.’

‘What in heaven for?’

‘For bringing this upon you all.’

‘Sir, there is no master I would more proudly serve.’ And with that George clicked his heels and turned and walked away; as for him to have remained would have been too much for either of them to bear.

 

Later, occupied in different rooms, both men awaited the Mercedes. And again it appeared like a mirage, shimmering, with its train of dust. And again the news was bad,

‘The company won’t take us,’ declared Ingrid, hot and irritated, brushing the veil up over her hat.

‘You mean “take me”?’ asked Bradley. In any less serious a circumstance, his words might have sounded like self pity. Though this was very bad news. They had used the company in question before, and they were very discreet for the right paying customer.

Ingrid came up to Bradley, taking his hand, her troubles temporarily forgotten,

‘I’m sorry, Dear. I had one task today and that was to find the agent in town and book our passage. It’s not that they distrust you, it’s that they’re worried for their staff. There are strange men in town, others on the roads.’

‘You say that like it’s news,’ replied Bradley, distracted.

George sensed the need for reassuring words, it sometimes being a part of his job to offer them,

‘It is no problem, sir. Mistress can rest, I’ll go out and find another courier. There are more in town, even the next town. Someone who hasn’t heard of you.’

‘Everyone has heard of me,’ said Bradley.

Ingrid was similarly adamant,

‘George is right. I’ll go with him; I know the town best. I’ll just wash up, and I’ll be ready. Oman can stay with you for security, B.’

But Bradley was defiant, ‘No, I won’t have it, Ingrid. It’s bad enough having you out there at all, let alone without Oman. No offence, George, I know you’d be handy in a situation, but…’

‘No explanation needed, sir,’ answered George. ‘I’m well aware of the physical impression cast by my colleague.’

Then something clicked in Bradley, he turning to Oman,

‘My good man, Mistress has never once bid you to stay at my side instead of hers. Something new has happened to worry her.’

‘Of course we’re all worried!’ called Ingrid. But Bradley pressed Oman,

‘What did you see?’

Oman looked to his Mistress, who gave him a look back that must have signified that what the Master wanted he should have. And so Oman answered,

‘A man.’

‘He was right on the road, B,’ blurted Ingrid. ‘He must have known our car from watching the lodge. But he didn’t even hide, just kept on walking. And he looked over his shoulder, and smiled, B. Smiled, just like that, without breaking his stride. Not even a pretence at being worried or cautious.’

‘As if he meant, “I’m coming for you”,’ added Oman, ‘“I will bide my time.”’

No one in the room really needed this mental suggestion, delivered in Oman’s deep tones and with a face like fury at a funeral. Yet it perhaps brought home the true situation – time to take stock.

Bradley said to Ingrid, ‘And you were going to give up your best protection,’ Bradley looked to Oman, ‘and still go out there again, among such cutthroats, just for me?’

She smiled in answer, and Bradley smiled back. Before George returned them to seriousness,

‘So where does that leave you?’ asked George. By which he meant ‘us’.

‘It leaves us having to leave, A-SAP,’ said Bradley.

‘But how?’ asked George. ‘If we cannot find another courier?’

Bradley answered, ‘I don’t mean finding passage to another house in another town or another country.’

‘So where?’

The ‘golden couple’ of popular myth, ‘the famous actress and her handsome toy boy lover’, shared a look. She shaking her head, and he nodding, and she saying,

‘The British Embassy, I think my lover means? I really think he does.’

All knew the game was up.

 

 

Chapter 92 – Automatic

 

 

Danny reached the Foreman’s cottage by dusk. There he lay low, on the moors and under the sky, waiting for the darkness to deepen, as he sensed it would assist his cause. What he was going to ask the Foreman to accept would be hard enough in the light of day – yet maybe moonlight and night-time would make the scene more dreamlike? And it didn’t matter what the man thought of it all afterwards, only that he submit to Danny’s reality for the duration of their encounter, and that Danny get what he needed from it.

It would be theft, which didn’t sit easily with Danny. He was an honest man, and even felt bad enough maintaining the lie of being human, even though it was a lie enforced by his predicament. It wasn’t even a lie of morals, merely of materials. But still, he had accepted it for too long. At least now, if something, anything, came of the current crisis, then the lies may be over.

And the first one to bear the truth would be his Foreman, however fantastical that truth might seem. Danny liked the man, and it wouldn’t be too bad for him, he told himself; and Chris would reward him after, as Danny knew his brother would.

So, Danny waited until dark. He also hoped that the other two cars outside the cottage would soon leave, along with their occupants. These were probably his former colleagues, paying their respects for Tim and Charlie, the two who had died, and saving the Foreman from too much time alone. What a shame it all was, thought Danny. He had had a lot of time to mourn his two friends.

Eventually a group of men came out onto the porch. They parted in a series of solemn handshakes – Danny felt their grief from a distance, but could be no part of it. The men left in their trucks. They drove off with their headlights picking out clumps of grass feet from where Danny lay. This left just the one man at the porch, the man Danny had long-known, but who looked somehow reduced now, shrunken by loss.

It had been four days already – Danny realised with a shock. Four days, and his former co-workers still looked that bad? Grief did bad things to humans. Danny realised though that this was only as bad as he felt inside for those two men, the lives he had seen end.

Four days though… pre-rockfall, Danny would have made the journey from the mine to the cottage on foot in half a day. Instead he had been moving when he could, charging for whole days or nights on charger packs now entirely drained (if nothing else, he needed the vehicle only for its battery).

As Danny watched, the Foreman too left the porch and re-entered the house. There Danny knew he would spend the night alone, as he had done every night since his wife had gone. There was no other house for a mile. Only someone dedicated to the hills and lakes and geology would bear it; and she hadn’t. This had been before Danny’s time, but he had heard the story and seen the photos. The Foreman letting him into his life like that had been proof that Danny had been a much-loved employee, which made his next task all the harder.

He stole up to the door, opening it silently – this was a scene best taking place inside. Danny knew the porch, knew where not to step and cause the boards to creak. He also knew the door would not be locked until lights-out. He pushed it gently, looking to the kitchen where he knew the Foreman would be standing. The man turned, as Danny said,

‘Boss.’

‘D…’

‘Yes, Boss. It’s me,’

‘Danny. Where’ve you been?’

‘Getting here, Boss.’

‘But it’s miles away. You’ve been gone for days.’

‘Well, add the one of those statements to the other…’ But Danny’s attempt at humour fell flat.

‘Are you a ghost?’

‘God, no. I’m here, as real as anything.’

Danny had hoped to bamboozle his boss just enough, but not to have him lose his mind. The man’s face hardened,

‘No man got out of that mine.’

‘No, no man did.’

The man didn’t tie up Danny’s meaning though. How could he? Instead he noted in more common fashion,

‘You were nowhere to be found.’

Danny answered in just the same spirit,

‘I fled the scene, I didn’t know what I was doing, I had to get away.’

‘But the police… Why didn’t you…?’

Danny could have bluffed his way, said something like, ‘I knocked my head, I’ve been confused.’ But he didn’t, he didn’t want to lie. But the issue was taken out of his control, as the Foreman said,

‘Jesus, your arm!’

Danny looked down at the bundle of rags he was holding in his good hand. By now the dust of the rockfall and the dirt of the grass and leaves he had been lying on while recharging had left the once-unsullied threads of spun vinyl looking like a tarnished rag. Tight and fixed, he could have smoothed it, wiped it. But simply hanging, it was fading fast.

That it had taken his boss so many seconds to see the damage was a testament to something – startlement, confusion… friendship?

‘You didn’t leave a drop of blood.’

Danny had to move in now.

‘It’s a false arm, Boss. I have a false arm.’

‘You have a false arm?’

‘Yes.’

‘You moved rocks with a false arm?’

‘Yes.’

At that same moment both men’s eyes fell to the newspaper resting on the back of the nearest chair. On the front of it, beneath a frankly daft headline of ‘I SAID I’D BE BACK!’ was an unhelpful image of James Cameron’s Terminator, red eyes shining and metal jaw evil-grinning.

Both men knew that something special was happening. But the Foreman didn’t fall into panic or mirth, the way the writer of that piece might have hoped. Instead he lamented,

‘You were always the best of them, Danny. You loved the job like I did. You loved the Lakes, the rock and stone. You never tired, no matter the work, and were always the first to want to start again after a rest break.’

‘I did, Boss.’

‘That time Murray fell from the back of the trailer.’

‘Yes.’ The memory had always been an embarrassment to Danny.

‘You grabbed him back up with one arm – I’d never seen anything like it. And you said, “It was just reflexes, Boss. Anyone could have done it.” Well, anyone couldn’t have done it, Danny. I knew that even then. But we… hide things from ourselves, don’t we? We don’t think about them.’

Danny felt awkward, and returned to the earlier theme, ‘It was the best job ever. I loved it, Boss.’

The Foreman caught the past tense,

‘“Loved”? You’re going away?’

‘I have to, don’t I. To get my arm fixed.’

‘Of course,’ the man accepted this abstractly, as though it were a self-evident truth.

‘And I was hoping for your help with that.’

‘Oh?’

‘I need the truck; the automatic,’ as everyone in the mining team had called it. Each of them had taken a turn to see the technology for real, and Danny had taken to it in seconds, as he did any vehicle. ‘Those are the keys right there, aren’t they?’

Danny half-leant toward the hook on the wall, beneath the plaque of an idealised woodland cottage, much prettier than the reality, and with old wood-fire smoke coming from a stone chimney. But the man was not convinced. Danny pushed, with the last shot he had,

‘You know I need it, Bill…’ He had never before used the man’s given name. ‘…what with the arm…’ Danny held the tatters out again. The Foreman flinched and grimaced at the damage. Now was the moment, ‘I’ll get it back to you, in a few days.’ Danny reached to the hook and took the key. ‘It’s filled?’ (The man nodded. It always was.) ‘And I’ll pay for the petrol. And something extra, for the inconvenience.’

‘Danny…’ But the Forman couldn’t form the question.

‘And give me till the morning, won’t you, before you tell anyone?’

He nodded.

‘And I thank you for everything, Boss. For the life I had here. You get that, don’t you.’

He nodded a second time… and Danny was away.

 

 

Chapter 93 – Africa – Not in Daylight, Sir

 

 

No sooner had the group at the hunting lodge come to their collective acceptance of turning themselves in, than they had fallen into a collective sigh.

‘It’s over,’ said Ingrid, who had had a life of drama on and off the stage, and was perhaps enjoying the feeling of this current bout of it being over, even as the future threatened to douse her in it afresh.

There was also a mood of thoughtfulness. With surrender accepted, then they could at least think on that with clear minds.

Ingrid spoke first, as if jumping to action,

‘So we go right away?’

‘No, perhaps not today,’ said Bradley. ‘The Embassy’s three hour’s drive away, yes?’ (It was in the capital city, all knew.) ‘It’s half-three already. And after packing up the car, I don’t think we’d make the outskirts by dusk. I don’t fancy our chances on unlit roads.’

‘If only we’d decided earlier,’ said Ingrid.

Though Bradley continued in a more positive vein,

‘But don’t forget, I’ve been watching these men.’ (And how could they have forgotten? It was all he’d done for days.) ‘I haven’t said this, so as not to scare you, but I see more of them at night, they move more freely. But still none come nearer, even under darkness.’

‘But why?’ asked Ingrid.

Here Bradley smiled, and from a wicker and glass table picked up one of a pile of British, French and Italian glossy magazines, explaining,

‘The writers of these have had their tongue in their cheek for years when talking of my “taut and lean physique”, while never quite acknowledging the rumours on the Internet of my origin and abilities – rumours of which they and their readership are well aware.

‘And as we know from the Robot blogs, it seems that what the world’s readership learn of “Bradley the Robot” they take to be literally true.’

‘“Taut and lean”,’ repeated Ingrid admiringly.

Bradley put down the magazine and reached for a paper at random, continuing,

‘Read any of these “Robot” editorials and they’re full of nonsense-talk of “tall, bronzed figures” with “extra capabilities”. And the physical characteristics I may possess; but little else of what the writers suppose. So maybe the men outside aren’t quite the experts I’d supposed either? Maybe they’ve been conned by glossy magazines too? Maybe they believe I do have night-vision, or could kill with a handshake?

‘Either way, I think it buys us one more night.’

‘We go by daylight then,’ pronounced Ingrid. ‘As soon as… Oman, is the car set?’

The broad man gave a solemn nod, but would go out that evening to check.

George asked, ‘So, their fear of your “extra capabilities” will keep us safe tonight?’

‘I believe so, George.’

‘Then, I would suggest, sir, that if they’re still not strong enough in numbers to attack us today, then they’re hardly likely to be by first light tomorrow either.’ George offered this in cut-glass English, with all the certainty of a pronouncement at the Dispatch Box of the Houses of Parliament.

He then added, ‘However, if we are agreed that we are going to the Embassy, then maybe they could get here sooner?’

All gasped at the obviousness of it. It hadn’t been thought of before only because involving the British Government had always been the very last thing they would have wanted – how in only a few words a situation could turn on its head…

Bradley agreed, ‘One call, and they’d have people here in a flash.’

‘Enough to get past the men?’ asked Ingrid.

‘For me? They’d send the fleet!’

‘Are you all right, sir?’ asked George; as Oman pulled the phone on its long cable into the room.

‘As well as can be expected, George.’

‘I expect,’ the butler began in humble and understand tones, ‘it feels a little like conceding defeat?’

‘A little, yes, a little.’ He smiled.

Yet as Bradley took the phone and raised the receiver, even that option was removed from them. The receiver was dead.

 

 

Chapter 94 – A Council is Convened

 

 

That evening, with the humans fed and the artifs charged; with all caught up with each other; with wounds tended and damage reported, then the six: three flesh, three not, two female and four male, brought down candles, and wine for those who’d appreciate it, and took themselves as a group from Rose Cottage over to the larger building, the holiday home proper.

‘The estate agent won’t do her rounds again till morning,’ advised the Professor. ‘And no one’s stopping here this month.’

‘What does the name mean?’ asked Victor as they walked.

‘The Universalist?’ Beck tried to remember, ‘I think it was meant to mean someone with the whole universe in their mind.’

‘It was Ingrid’s compliment to the Professor,’ recalled Ellie, smiling.

Upon arriving, they convened around the building’s largest table in its largest room.

It wasn’t in itself a meal, for that would have been unfair for the half who wouldn’t partake in it. However, it was still an occasion in the spirit of a reunion feast; and also a parting one, for all knew it was the end of something too.

As Beck poured the wine, so Schmidt rummaged beside his chair and brought up onto the table what looked like three already-filled glasses,

‘Remember these?’ he asked as he handed them amongst the artifs. ‘One of them’s chipped, I’m afraid. Christopher, you wouldn’t mind?’

‘What are they?’ asked Victor. He looked to the one that Ellie, sat beside him, now held.

‘They’re virtual glasses,’ she explained, ‘built by the Professor to ease us into social situations. See, it has red oil where the wine would be.’ She placed it in Victor’s hand. ‘Now tip it back.’

He half feared that real fluid would spill out, so comprehensive was the illusion. However, all he got was a scent, something like that of real wine brought up beneath his real nose.

‘And it smells even better to us,’ she added, taking it back off him and inhaling deeply.

‘All have glasses now?’ asked the Professor, which all did. ‘Then let us raise them in a toast: to old friends, to new friends…’ (All turned to Victor, who reddened.) ‘…and of course to absent friends. Now, that last category could apply as equally to Ingrid, to Bradley, to Mrs Winters and to Mrs Beck. However, who it calls most strongly to my mind is Daniel, and what has happened to him.’

All clinked their glasses as he said this.

Schmidt continued,

‘Now, a traditional toast might move on to those friends we haven’t met yet, which is of course only another way of referring to the whole of the world, or at least to everybody in it who we do not know. But I’m not sure how I feel about inviting strangers to this particular table, however metaphorically!’

He offered these final words with a half-smile, but none were convinced.

‘Professor…’ began Ellie in half-protest at his tone; but he paused her with a raised hand,

‘No, no my dear. It must be said. As a great German once wrote, “A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling.” And there is something ending here tonight, is there not?’

‘Do we have to leave?’ asked Anna.

He nodded sadly.

‘We’re running out of options, Professor,’ concurred Ellie.

‘Now that is a very different matter,’ he began in sudden bluster. ‘There are areas of Dartmoor untouched by human foot one year to the next.’

‘But not many with a generator,’ murmured Beck.

‘I found the cities easier,’ considered Christopher. ‘Find a flat among a transient population, of people coming and going week by week, or who are out at work and commuting for twelve hours a day. You’ll soon learn how those stories of old men dying in their rooms and not being found can happen.’

There was no great desire around the table to respond to that image.

Someone asked, ‘And the American link has definitely gone cold?’

Here Victor answered for the everyman, ‘They’ve disavowed the Robots in the papers, washed their hands of wanting to contact them, even apologised for attempting to do so.’

‘Do you think that might just be what our own government wants to hear?’ asked Ellie.

Beck answered, ‘I think that after the shambles of yesterday, a shooting and a mini-riot under the American’s watch, then the British Government could have them say whatever they wanted.’

She protested, ‘And when was the last time America gave up so easily?’

Here Beck was more considered in his answer,

‘Even if their upper-echelons are still keen to meet us, then there is just no way to make contact.’

‘We got so close,’ said Ellie, echoing her now-familiar sentiments.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ answered Beck. ‘We had one way to make contact, and Eris blocked it. There’s no getting around that.’

And had the table held a vote at that moment, it would have conceded the point.

 

 

Chapter 95 – Liberation of the Artifs

 

 

Ellie looked down at her hands,

‘There’s no escape, is there,’ she offered quietly.

Schmidt remarked, off on a tangent,

‘A student, knowing I was working on artificial intelligences – though not specifically the artifs, of course – once asked me, “Will the minds you’re making ever get depressed? Will they need my pills?” I never figured that one out, more’s the pity.’

Ellie mused, ‘It’s how it goes though, isn’t it? It’s like the bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon – he went in thinking of the money he could make, and ended up hoping only to get out with what he went in with.’

Chris took up the theme,

‘The renegade thinks they’re free; and they are at first, breaking out of society and with shock still on their side. But soon enough the cops are closing in.’

Such was the mood of the artifs. But Victor couldn’t stand it,

‘Lord, what a cheery bunch you are. You’re mumbling on like a mothers’ meeting on a wet Wednesday afternoon. But you’re forgetting your immense, unique skill-set.’

Ellie didn’t want to be cheered up though,

‘But what good is that when we’re being chased like wolves, Victor? Forgive me, but you’ve been at it for five minutes, while we’ve been here for eight years. My “unique skill-set” can go to hell, when all it’s good for is keeping me on the run.’

Christopher, though, had been nudged on to a new line of thought. Moving slowly to the edge of his chair, he began,

‘No, no, Ellie. I think our friend might be on to something – she’s only upset, by the way, Victor. She genuinely does like you. Please don’t take her words to heart.

‘But yes, your words, Victor, have got me thinking. Yes, the scene may seem bleak. But we’re thinking with our human hats on – our wannabe-human hats, they’re not even true hats. I wonder if we’ve only been trying to think like these blasted humans – again, no offence, anybody – given our need to be as close to them as possible, and hiding out among them.

‘But isn’t the whole issue here that we’re not the same? Isn’t that what all the trouble is about? Maybe, instead of trying only to assimilate, we should be proud of who we are, puff our chests, stand tall, and say, “We are unique, and we are brilliant, and we can take on the world!”

‘Isn’t that the ambition that every child is taught by loving parents? And haven’t we the right to feel it too? Are we not also a part of God’s creation? So say it loud and say it proud, “No longer shall I feel ashamed.”’

Chris was standing up now and pacing, battery held at his side, full of zeal like a politician stalking a lectern,

‘Brainstorm, people. Forget your power-saving modes. New lines of thought – stuff humanity, they’re so last-century. Think – what would artifs do?’

Had anyone been out of the room to begin with, fetching drinks or whatever, then they were drawn back by the raised voices. Now, all six, artif or otherwise, were present and alive to new possibilities.

‘We’re not humans,’ agreed Anna.

‘Says the girl with the new-found smile…’ said Chris.

She continued, ‘We can’t travel as humans as we don’t have passports. But we’re computer parts, and computer parts don’t need passports.’

‘…and with a whole new line of thinking, I like it,’ he remarked, evidently thrilled.

Ellie, still upset but in a different direction now, declared,

‘Throw it all out – human government, human morals, human society – none of it applies to us.’

‘Yes,’ agreed Christopher, ‘absolutely, yes.’

Beck added, soberly, ‘Though this difference is exactly what the Philosopher General is worried about.’

Chris countered, ‘But once we accept the difference between us, Doctor Beck, then we can decide if we accept it on our terms or his.’

‘He wants you in quarantine until all the human laws have been redrafted to add you.’

‘And who says that we wish to be a part of those laws?’

‘You mean you want to murder, and rape?’

‘And Doctor, is the existence of a document in Parliament the only reason you don’t do these things?’

‘But… you know what I mean!’ Beck was baffled.

Chris countered, ‘Doctor, you are as wise and thoughtful a man as I have ever met. But you’re missing the question that we, just this very moment, have thought to ask ourselves – should artifs even be under human laws? I understand your leader’s motives aren’t bad ones – wanting our identity and consciousness recognised are fine and noble aims. But just because humans happen to be in charge presently, does that mean that we artifs must be classed as they, and submit to a legal system for which we have never voted? Would you ask a cow to follow human law? For instance, with regard to public nudity?’

‘But that’s ridiculous. Cows aren’t conscious, you are.’

‘Okay, what about dolphins, or whales? We treat them like hell.’

‘That’s a completely different point.’

‘Which I accept. But,’ added Chris, ‘the fact is, Doctor, that no human chooses to belong to their society. If they’re lucky, then when they’re older they’ll be able to vote for it. But we three artifs present, and our two brothers absent, have a big decision here – do we want to be the children of humans? Or rather, the start of something new?’

Chris concluded, ‘Doctor, you coined the term “artif” to mean a different type of human. But what if we five want it to mean the same as human?’

 

Beck left the holiday cottage to get some air. He wasn’t sure that Chris had the logic right, and he pondered aloud as he stood alone in the rose garden:

‘“Your leader”.’ That had been Chris’s wording. ‘“Your”, not “our”.’ As he whispered it to himself, so Beck realised how shocked and upset he had become, repeating, ‘“Artif… to mean the same as human?”’

Another phrase came to Beck’s mind then, that of Albert Camus, pronounced Camoo, which he hadn’t known when young and had once embarrassed himself by mispronouncing. He muttered,

‘The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown.’

‘The garden looks lovely by evening, doesn’t it?’ Beck hadn’t noticed the Professor arriving beside him to take in the view. He wasn’t sure how much of his murmurings he’d caught. Evidently some of them, as the older man continued,

‘You’re worried about their new philosophy? Don’t be, it’s just what happens when people get together. People squared; or in their case, cubed.’

‘No revolution has ever stopped at equality,’ said Beck bitterly. To which the Professor laughed,

‘What, you think they’re going to overthrow us? Five against fifty-million? Good luck!’

‘Maybe not in our generation…’

To this the old man shook his head, ‘Listen to yourself, Gawain. These are your friends.’

‘But… they want to overthrow the government.’

‘Only for themselves.’

‘And they don’t even know how this new philosophy can help them yet.’

‘Oh, trust me, by the morning Chris will have thought of something.’ The Professor breathed the night air deeply, and Beck saw how he was clearly revelling in the evening’s events. The older man continued,

‘Their enthusiasm in there – it’s just like I remember from the freedom fighters in my own country. All these years they’ve been flattened – and now they can live!’

The Professor calmed down though, before he caused Beck to begin to worry about him also. He moved onto their more familiar ground of artif development, theorising,

‘Or maybe they are only teenagers rebelling? I was lucky with Anna, she wanted the opposite, she wanted things to stay the same forever. Speaking of which, whatever happens here, Gawain…’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m going to be too old for her soon. And it’s not a full life for her.’

Beck asked, ‘Do you have her adult frame still?’

‘Yes, though we haven’t looked at it in years – it upsets her to see it.’

‘And what equipment would be needed?’

‘Oh, little more than a workbench and a battery charger.’

‘Well, that’s no more than Chris had…’

But the professor shushed him, for there was a third in their midst. Beck turned to see their third creation stood at the door behind them, Model-C. The arrivee started,

‘Professor, Doctor. We haven’t driven you out, have we? Don’t be annoyed with us, it’s just that that back there was the most fun I’ve had in years.’

 

 

Chapter 96 – Africa – Night-time Repose

 

 

‘It’s been gotten-to,’ said Ingrid, after grabbing the phone from Bradley and trying the receiver for herself.

Oman was charged with getting into the crawlspace beneath the building and checking the wires. The phone lines in the lodge were of an old and odd arrangement, buried under ground and hard to get to. He came back up, dusting himself down and replacing his hat, to say,

‘The wires are fine.’

George summarised, ‘Which means they cut them in town or on the road.’

Bradley coloured in the detail,

‘That would hardly have been anonymous work, up a pole or digging a hole. Yet the police let them do it.’

Ingrid snapped, ‘Well, we already knew not to expect any help from that direction.’

Now, with darkness fully fallen, Bradley lay in the lounge watching French television – so passive a thing to be doing in his current situation, when action was so sorely needed. Yet in their Internet dead zone, this was their news of the world.

On the news channel he watched the pictures roll around and around of the aftermath of the ‘Marsham Shooting’, as it had been called by the world’s media, despite nobody actually getting shot.

This was the quickening that occurred in all fluid situations, Bradley knew; the move toward its climax, where things would be done that could not be undone, and where those who entered the fray would leave as different people, or not leave at all.

Despite it being big news in Britain, no doubt, it had taken two days to be picked up by the rest of the world. A little like the Paris riots, Bradley remembered, that had been going on for a week before anyone else noticed.

Perhaps if he had paid more attention to his TV viewing then he might have picked the news up sooner. Yet it had been eight years since anything exciting had occurred pertaining to his situation; and he had drifted away from the nightly habit of scanning the international headlines.

He had similarly lapsed in his recent vigil watching at the windows: now that the foursome knew that they were leaving the next day, then he saw little point in it. Anyway, his hearing would spot the faintest footfall outside.

‘Are you there, George?’ he called into the darkened hall.

‘Always, sir,’ answered the factotum.

‘“They might not need me, yet they might. I’ll let my heart be just in sight…”’

‘A beautiful poem, sir.’

‘A favourite of Ingrid’s.’

‘Mistress has fine taste, sir.’

‘You were hers, weren’t you, before you were mine.’

‘At the London house, sir, yes.’

‘She had it all back then – fame, fans, riches. Did I rob her of them?’

‘Rot! You make her happy, and this makes me happy.’

‘What did she ever do to earn such as you, George?’

‘Everything, sir. Everything,’ said with the light in the eyes of a true believer. He had been her dresser in the theatre, and though she had long left the stage, still each day he basked in the light of her performance, and would be happy to do so until he died.

‘There. There’s one now.’ George had spotted something at the window behind his Master. Bradley was soon back at his old watching post, annoyed at his laxity, with George dashing to join him. But by the time they got into position the figure had gone, scared off perhaps by the sound of their voices.

 

 

Day 6, Part 1 – The Fit

 

 

Chapter 97 – Breakfast Conference / The Relegation of Beck

 

 

Beck lay on a made-up bed in the big cottage – what did it matter if they messed the place up when they may be busted at any moment? And he remembered the Professor’s words:

‘Oh, trust me, by the morning Chris will have thought of something.’

And so the big questions had remained unanswered as the humans went to sleep; which Beck resented, knowing that the remaining host would use the time to talk, like parents did once the babies were put to bed. He didn’t want to sleep, he didn’t want to be relegated to the rank of junior group member, along with someone who’d only joined their number three days before! And there is was, at last admitted in his thoughts: a resentment of Victor – loved by Ellie, seemingly trusted by all.

‘How ridiculous,’ thought Beck, for the Professor had to sleep too – and was he considered a junior partner?

And Beck didn’t really resent Victor; not as much as he resented sleep. Which he resisted, but also relished, with its warmth lapping at his psyche; and was swept clean away…

 

The next morning Beck became awake in an instant, while still stock-still, his eyes gummed closed. He heard two artifs speaking at the end of his bed, so held his position, and was thrilled to hear the speakers continue without noticing he’d joined them in the realm of the conscious – so maybe it wasn’t only Chris who had a gift for spying? Beck listened as they spoke quietly, Ellie cautioning,

‘He won’t like it that we didn’t ask him.’

Chris answering, ‘But to have waited would have lost us the night… Doctor, good to have you back with us.’

Beck made an exaggerated yawn, and stretched his arms out with clenched fists.

‘I hope our speaking didn’t wake you?’ offered Chris, slightly too joyfully.

Beck smiled, ‘I think I was ready to wake.’

‘And ready for breakfast too, no doubt?’ asked Chris.

‘Another Cornish pasty?’ asked Beck. ‘There can be too much of a good thing.’

‘No, no, rather I’m taking you out to a café.’

‘Oh?’

‘We came up with a plan.’

 

Beck ate heartily. They were sitting in the window seat of ‘Benny’s – The Town’s Finest Fry-Up’. Meanwhile, his singular colleague kept a keen eye out from behind his untouched cup of coffee.

‘You can drink this when you’ve finished yours,’ Chris offered to Beck, who answered playfully,

‘No need – it’s all you can drink, buddy. I’ll have my caffeine fix for the week.’ He asked then, ‘Anything?’

‘No,’ answered Chris, is studious mood, ‘Not an extra police car or agent with earpiece. We’re clean.’

Beck observed, ‘You do have a proactive approach to these “fact-gathering exercises”,’ for such was Chris’s phrase. Who then only repeated his line about soldiers learning nothing while hiding in their foxholes.

‘So there’s a plan?’ asked Beck. It seemed almost an afterthought to the joy of breakfast.

‘It was Victor’s doing – I wonder if Ellie knew she’d picked a savant?’

The phrase took Beck aback – was Chris already distancing himself from humanity to the degree that he saw any flesh creation with insight as a genius?

Chris continued,

‘Victor sparked the conversation yesterday evening: of us artifs not wanting to be the same, but rather being something quite… individual. You might compare our conversations before and after last night with the difference in philosophies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; from Passive Resistance to…’

‘“…By any means necessary”?’

‘No, not violent protest, perhaps simply the right to assert ourselves. There is a point in every transformation where the moderate flinches.’

Beck wasn’t quite sure that the artifs were up to equating themselves with the Civil Rights movement just yet, but he accepted that the young had the right to identify with heroes. And the five had had a wretched few years. But Chris must have spotted Beck’s discomfort, and became the pacifist,

‘Don’t worry. There’s really no trouble going to come. Quite the opposite; in fact, we hope to rid your Prime Minister of the problem. Now, please, Doctor. These next few hours could be important. Let’s not spend them fighting.’

 

It was only after returning to The Universalist that Beck realised Chris had given no details away about their plan.

 

 

Chapter 98 – The Betrayal of Beck

 

 

Beck and Chris returned to The Universalist by a different route. When they got there, the rest of the group were sitting at the large table again. It felt to Beck as if it were the middle of the day already and lunch was about to be served. Chris slid into his place alongside his sisters – all dressed, brushed and wide awake, of which latter state the artifs could be no other.

Schmidt and Victor were there also – where had they breakfasted? Beck was none the wiser. Each looked no brighter-eyed or bushier-tailed than Beck felt; though there was no doubt in his mind that he had been the last one to be woken and consulted.

‘What’s this about?’ he asked, like an idiot.

‘You’ve heard of Silicon Sands?’ asked Schmidt.

‘Hasn’t everyone?’ Beck ran through its other names, ‘Tech Island, Silicon Valley on Sea, the first tech start-up to realise that in the Internet Age a firm can be based anywhere.’

‘Even on their own island,’ added Victor, now finishing sentences with the best of them.

‘And to have the money to buy one,’ added Christopher. ‘Technically in Spanish waters, but now a little slice of California off the European coast.’

‘It’s a lovely place… from the pictures,’ said Ellie, momentarily smiling, to daggers from Chris. Though generally the women wouldn’t have the heart for the conversation that ensued.

Chris seemed to feel the need to take charge then, saying,

‘Last night we got in touch with them.’

‘Well, at last you’ve come out with it,’ said Beck. ‘How did you do it?’

‘A burner-phone saved for a special occasion, and then a petrol station forecourt with free Wi-Fi, spotted while out dumping last night’s car.’

Beck had noticed they had travelled that morning in a new vehicle, but so routine was that occurrence now that the fact had warranted no discussion. He asked Chris,

‘And so what was our breakfast all about?’

The artif answered, ‘Because the Island told us they would get back to us by nine, our time.’

Beck looked at his watch – half past nine. He summarised,

‘And you wanted to know for certain that the Island were interested in helping you, before you told me?’ Beck’s eyes flashed across those ranged around the table. Though they softened for Anna who looked so sad. It was for her only that he didn’t explode sooner over those next few minutes.

Here Schmidt took over, he having taken the call from Silicon Sands, being the most famous among them,

‘They want in, just as we hoped. They’ll offer asylum, and will include artificial intelligences alongside humans in their one-page constitution. It really could be that simple.’

‘Travel?’ asked Beck.

Chris answered, ‘Over that distance, we could make it by a hired boat. But for first contact, they’ve nominated a partner currently working in Britain.’

‘Then when do we go?’

Here Schmidt answered,

‘When do I go.’

‘You? Just you?’

‘Yes.’

‘They haven’t asked to see an artif?’

‘We’re hoping my re-emergence will be enough to start with…’

(Beck had already forgotten that the Professor had been missing, presumed dead for nearly a decade – giving up that anonymity would surely seem enough of a gesture.)

‘…and if that goes well, then we risk them meeting one of our marvellous creations… my instinct says Ellie.’

‘And their London contact,’ asked Beck. ‘Anyone we know?’ (Silence.) ‘Oh, I get it, no one I’m allowed to know?’

He didn’t even have the fight to argue. Thoughts were flashing through his head; confused, fragmentary, conflicting; and then a big simple one coalesced right behind his eyes. He shouted,

‘But that means you let me sleep right through last night, all the while sending out our details to people who we didn’t know we could trust; still don’t know. I mean, you’re taking all these precautions just to make contact.’

‘There was never any risk.’ This was Victor answering, apparently an expert now. And who then revealed himself an avid reader of the tabloids. ‘Have you not read the state Tech Island is in? They’re being indicted for over forty Spanish or European Union infringements: toxic spills, hacker breaches, medical malpractice…’

‘And that’s a good thing?’ asked Beck.

‘It means that there’s no love lost between them and any nearby government. Meanwhile, the fact that they’re surviving these infringements without consequences means that they’re most likely paying Spain or Europe off; and those countries aren’t going to want to end that arrangement, given the state of their economies since the last financial crash.’

Beck rolled his eyes, ‘You make them sound like a band of technological pirates.’

Here Schmidt smiled, ‘Reminds me of another similar band, formed thirteen years ago.’

And Beck had to smile back, even as he knew his world was sinking. He just knew it.

The faces all around him were silent again, and remained so, as if waiting for him to have to ask some obvious question. Beck didn’t want to speak, but had to. He asked,

‘But all these calls you’ve been making, the fresh outdoor activity, and us all being here for a whole day now… what of Eris? If she catches the slightest sign of your meeting with the Island, then she’ll throw a spanner in the works like she did at Marsham.’

And here all managed to be even more silent than before, till Chris answered,

‘That’s where you come in, Doctor. We thought the best option was to offer her a distraction. And we were rather hoping that it might be you.’

 

 

Chapter 99 – Artif Society

 

 

Beck breathed, he got it right away,

‘You want me to turn myself in?’

Chris spoke quickly, ‘Get in touch with her. You decide the method; you decide the story. Suggest a time and place, just her alone, somewhere far from her headquarters, far from the big cities. Keep her occupied in conversation, give the Professor time to make his meeting, and for the rest of us to get far away from The Universalist, in case they trace you back here.’

‘It’s rather more than that though, isn’t it?’ said Beck.

When Schmidt answered it was as if he was already summing up for the table,

‘Thank you, Gawain. Thank you for all you have done, eight years ago and every day since. You truly are the one who held us all together, and we will never forget you.’

‘You’re letting me go… again.’

Beck had had too much to think about to consider Victor’s part in what was going on; but Ellie’s new friend then surprised Beck by calling out,

‘They’ve moved past you, Doctor.’

‘Why, you…’ Neither Beck’s anger or his physical form got further than Chris’s, which rose to meet him. Victor continued to explain,

‘They’ve moved past the Professor too. And way, way past me. I’m not even one percent along the road that you and the Professor started on all those years ago. But I need to be there for Ellie, you see? And the Professor for Anna. And even he is taking a risk being the one to make first contact with a group we know barely anything of. He could be walking right into a trap. Why, Eris could be sat there in the room when he walks in.’

‘Very Empire…’

Throughout this exchange the three artifs were silent. Beck wasn’t sure if this was through shame or sadness; or perhaps simple acknowledgement of the difficult scene they had to live through to have this matter dealt with. Beck said,

‘And there I’ve been all along, like the world’s dumbest cheerleader, telling anyone who’d listen how you are just as kind as us, just as caring, just as… human.’

‘Doctor, please,’ started Chris, but didn’t finish. Instead Ellie blurted,

‘You’re released. You have a family; you can be with them.’

‘I could be with them with you.’

All looked at Beck – he had given himself away. He had shown he felt excluded. He had admitted that his dearest wish was to remain a part of the gang. Yet not one of them thought it best he stayed. He stared at Ellie, while following the logical process that his mind had already embarked upon. He said to her,

‘It means arrest.’

‘Eris will forgive you, I sense it.’

‘And what of when they find that I’m a decoy?’

‘You can spin it: say you didn’t know our plan, say you had to leave to find your family.’ Ellie added, ‘They won’t harm you, they love you.’

Beck stammered, ‘But they’re going to rough me up. Eris will be stinging, and that Forrest was given the jump by me.’

‘You’re a big boy,’ said Chris. ‘You’ll survive.’

Then Ellie said quietly,

‘They won’t hurt you – they’ll want you to build more.’

Which made Beck groan inside all over again, enquiring,

‘So what do I do when they ask me?’

This had evidently been discussed by the group earlier also, so Beck’s question bought no quizzical or questioning looks. Instead, Schmidt laid out the policy decision,

‘You can tell them quite honestly that you can build them bodies all day long, but that you don’t have my Program – you don’t have their mind.’

Beck spluttered, ‘But… that’s nightmarish. What if some hack has a go at making his own mind, and we end up with a string of tormented souls? After all that we learnt about initiation…’ and Beck looked to Anna, lovely Anna, whom he would never see again.

Schmidt only shook his head,

‘That won’t have a chance to happen. We only need a few days from you, hours even. Our plan is to go public from Day One. We’ll issue statements from Silicon Sands, explaining what the British Government want to do, and encouraging a public petition requesting that they stop any new artif project. We’ll declare that the Government don’t possess all the data, and that they can only cause their creations harm. We will also bid with international bodies for the new species to be recognised, and for artif development to be named the sole-preserve of Tech Island…’

Beck was hearing them talking, sounding for all the world like a political pressure group: fleeing for asylum, bidding for public opinion, laying out a manifesto, and wrong-footing national governments to gain advantage.

Beck sensed there-and-then that things had moved far beyond him. This had nothing to do with the bright spark of creation he had warmed to in his youth, and which he’d seen rekindled those mad recent days.

Before him were his dearest friends. He looked to each of them, and silently said goodbye.

 

 

Chapter 100 – Fifty Miles On

 

 

The few moments outside the Foreman’s cottage were the most nervous. What if the man burst forth, desperate to continue the conversation, suddenly with a thousand things to ask?

However, the spell had held. And Danny only needed a moment to be gone. With his good hand he pressed the button on the vehicle’s key fob, which unlocked the doors even before he reached them. He then flipped the door handle, lobbed his bag over onto the passenger side, and jumped up onto the raised seat.

That last move had been the toughest – who would ever think of the difficulties of getting into a high vehicle with one fit arm, until you had to try? Danny was learning a lot about himself.

 

That had been the night before. Now it was morning as he roused himself from stillness after charging. Things had started well: the truck was smooth and fast, plush inside. He’d imagined, if he were susceptible to such things, that the warm seats and the low rumble of the road beneath the wide tyres might have lulled him off to sleep. But he was an artif, and had kept his gaze ahead.

His first act after getting a safe distance from the Foreman’s cottage had been to pull over momentarily to attach one of his chargers to the car’s battery. An hour later and he’d stopped again to attach that still-warm charger to himself. This had been in the deserted carpark of a lumberyard shut up for the night. It was there that he had spent the night recuperating, and where he now planned the day ahead.

He had been lying on the car’s backseat. Due to the height of the vehicle on its large tyres, it would have taken a purposeful look through the windows to see him ‘sleeping’ there, and Danny didn’t think the sight of such a vehicle parked up outside a trade store like this would arouse enough suspicion for anyone to do so. And even if they had, he could have feigned tiredness on a long drive, and thanked them for the use of their empty yard to park up for a rest.

Yet there was little to plan. Soon he had attached another charger to the engine, and was on his way. It was a bright grey morning, and his journey began by driving through the small town as it filled with life. He realised it must be Saturday, and at one point the road he planned to take was closed for a market being set up.

All around him were people in thick jumpers or waxed jackets, carrying boxes or baskets. It reminded him of the towns Mrs Winters took them to all those years ago…

‘Parking’s on the left,’ called a man through Danny’s closed windscreen. At which point he realised the ridiculous risk he was taking in remaining there too long– what if the car broke down? What if he had to get out, with his arm…

He gave a nod, and quickly went off in the direction instructed; though drove past the turn-off for parking, and instead found a new route to the road he planned to take.

Yet how he longed to have stayed, to have been among these people. But really, what could he have achieved with it? What could they have shared? He focussed on his journey.

However, after maybe an hour’s driving, at increasing speed as the roads broadened and straightened, Danny began to feel a new sensation.

Now, there wasn’t very much about his body that hadn’t made itself aware to him over those past few days – he must have suffered every malfunction and alarm he had available…

‘Short of death.’

He caught himself saying it out loud, and then remembered a TV drama, something one of the quarrymen was watching somewhere; somewhere where they were staying, a hostel, or where they were eating after a day’s work…

Of course Danny did remember, exactly, both in year and in location, but he tried to make his memories looser, in the manner that his human friends described theirs.

Friends like Tim, ‘A pink blur,’ he recalled aloud. And Charlie, ‘A wet, dead thing.’ And the Foreman, the theft of whose car would be Danny’s final act on Earth.

…and in this long-remembered TV drama, an old lady spent a day leaving letters and giving children sweets, and telling everyone how much she loved them. And then the next morning, after being found still and peaceful in her bed, a fellow matriarch of the town said only, ‘She knew.’

Now Danny knew.

‘What a bloody time for it to happen,’ he said to the car. He felt the absence of a priest to take his confession or a relation to hear his last words. He lamented,

‘On the hillside, surrounded by nature, fine. Or later, in London once they’d at least tried to fix me. But now? Just after all the effort to get to the car? Really?’

But it was real. Somehow he knew it, but he couldn’t have said how.

Being the sensible and unselfish creature that he was, Danny didn’t rant or rave, or rage against the dying of the light – Dylan Thomas wouldn’t have been proud of him. Instead he thought of his family, and the message they would soon have to endure, tap, tap, tapping away.

And he wished he’d had the chance to have one last conversation with Doctor Beck, and ask him to amend the damage signal to transmit at other times – like when he saw a great mountain, or shared a campfire laugh, or felt a kiss – to transmit love not death.

Yet, like a poet that the world had never known, he would die with all these thoughts gone unrecorded.

It hadn’t been the Foreman’s newspaper that had given the game away to Danny about the media frenzy of ‘The Robots’ – earlier on his journey he had passed a roadside halt and found a previous day’s paper, overheard a car radio or two – he knew the world were talking of them. Suddenly the quite obvious idea presented itself of handing himself in at The Times once he got to London – no one could have touched him then.

But it was all too late. Too late, baby, too late. The lyrics of the song wafted through his head, a head mercifully clear still of internal alarms – he wouldn’t have wanted those to spoil these moments. Instead he had to find the most unobtrusive spot at which to spend his last minutes and not be found. And so he took the next turning, dimmed the sidelights, and, using his famous artif senses, scanned the already darkening roads to find just such a place.

 

 

Chapter 101 – Like an Epileptic Fit

 

 

Beck was all set to make his goodbyes to the group and pack a bag – if he had anything to pack. When in unison, like an epileptic fit, all three artifs pushed their chairs away from the table and fell to the floor. There they lay instantly rigid and still, except for one finger each mechanically tapping at the wooden floor. This in turn gave their rictus ironing-board bodies a horrible juddering motion.

Victor jumped up almost as quickly, and crouched down beside Ellie. He grabbed a napkin from the made-up table (a gesture by Anna, entirely for effect) and tried to place it under Ellie’s clattering finger. But each time she only moved the finger away to connect again with the hard surface.

Victor looked up, stunned and terrified. Schmidt and Beck remained seated, and he shouted at them,

‘Do something, do something!’

Schmidt explained, ‘We can do nothing. This is another signal, like the ones you’ve heard about.’

‘But they fell to the floor!’

‘A fall won’t hurt them like it would us, they don’t bruise.’

Victor was crouching by Ellie, aghast, asking,

‘They can’t stop it?’

‘They can resist it for a while to find some privacy or a better location; but there’s no need here… so they let it play out.’

‘Play out?’

‘For however long it goes on for.’

Victor tried the trick with the napkin again, and again Ellie moved her hand like a sleeper patting away an irritation.

‘Don’t interfere,’ said Schmidt.

Victor was less shocked now, just stunned, asking,

‘You couldn’t have made the process less machine-like?’

‘We hadn’t time for everything,’ the old man shot back.

‘Yet you had time to make them these fancy glasses?’ Victor grabbed one of the illusory wine glasses from the table, and threw it down on the floor. Schmidt rushed over to it and clutched it, checking for damage to the irreplaceable object. This only confirmed Victor’s beliefs, he asking,

‘You care for a glass and not for them?’

Beck had adrenaline, and who knew what else, pumping through him from the previous conversation, and had been keeping out of the matter, in the process coming across to Victor as dangerously aloof. Now he spat out,

‘There’s nothing to care for. This is natural to them.’

But Schmidt, having replaced the fake wine glass on the table and now righting the chairs the artifs had knocked over, offered a more conciliatory answer,

‘You think we don’t care? Oh no, Victor. We care very much.’

‘Really? And is this how you show it?’

‘This must be shocking for you to see for the first time. But Gawain and I are past that shock. And so we can see past the spectacle to what the signal means.’

Victor looked inside himself,

‘One of them is injured?’

‘You have maps?’ Beck asked the Professor.

‘Back at our cottage, in the dresser behind the sofa,’ he answered. And so Beck left to find them. Both men knew which artif it must be.

Schmidt and Victor were left among the tappers. The former was sitting on one of the righted chairs, the latter still useless beside the girlfriend he was sure was being damaged but who he couldn’t help.

The incessant co-ordinated tapping continued, resounding through the floor and walls, resonating in the air around them. The room was like an echo chamber. Schmidt looked toward Victor: the scene was mere seconds old, though in those few moments Victor appeared to have aged dramatically and looked close to death. Useless and helpless he could only ask again,

‘How long will they tap for?’

And this time Schmidt answered,

‘For as long as Daniel takes to die.’

 

 

Chapter 102 – A Signal Expert

 

 

The previous evening had been a washout for Eris. After travelling all the way to the South Coast, she and Forrest had met with local police officers, only to learn that the estate car stolen from by the Army base at Marsham and later caught in the area on traffic cameras had not been seen there again, and that there were no other leads.

Eris had spent the journey home in the back of the Jaguar, attempting to figure out why the outlaws had been heading that way in the first place. But she drew a blank. She deduced – correctly – that her mind was too full of artif lore and facts from files to make a clear assessment. And so they had returned home that night, and she was fast asleep before they reached London.

 

Now she walked quickly to the rooms of Technical Division. Such walks had previously tended to be accompanied by a queasy feeling in her stomach. She hadn’t the time to suffer fools, and generally such meetings would have involved them. At last though, she had found a team she trusted. And so Eris had had Nell and her eager assistant taken off all other duties and placed on her sole assignment.

‘Nell.’

‘Miss Eris,’ greeted the technician.

‘You got my message?’

‘Indeed. Those radio signals you asked me to interpret?’

‘Yes,’ urged Eris. ‘A third one has just started. Have you made any progress?’

With everything else that had been going on just lately, further examination of the first two radio alarm signals had been something of an oversight for Eris. After all, what had the messages themselves told her? What they transmitted was less important than them linking the injuries of Chris and Danny. Connecting the incidents had re-fired the investigation… her investigation.

The first had been transmitted from somewhere near a bicycle store break-in, the second from a very visible rockfall. But now there was a third signal, firing off in the middle of the day and from the middle of nowhere. For the first time it was important to understand the contents of the message. Hence Eris had instructed her best people.

‘A lot could rest in these messages, after all,’ said Eris, imparting urgency.

To which Nell smiled, ‘Well, not to worry. I’ve interpreted the code from the first one.’

Eris was floored, ‘Already? You’re certain?’

‘Yes. And “code” is the right word,’ said Nell. ‘I’m afraid you might be annoyed with me when I admit I’ve been reading the newspapers, all the nonsense-theories of the artifs’ super senses and powers. But I also remembered what you told me, and the samples we examined; how humdrum the robots were in some regards, as if built in a home workshop.

‘So I went deliberately simple – what if these signals were not communications in the manner of a broadcast of voice or thought. But instead were simple data, as one electronic device might send to another. And this reflected the fact that these alarms had to be received through all weathers and over long distances.

‘So, I studied the first signal and, I confess, I thought it sounded more like a mechanical instruction, a cipher or code. And so I wondered: is the signal instructing some part of their body to perform a certain action? And so we started with the simplest transmitter/receiver there is. And here it is.’

Nell gestured with her arm, leading Eris’s eyes to the table before them. There, Nell’s assistant adjusted a small home-made device. It was two pieces of metal, linked by a spring in the middle and with coils of wire bound around their end. The assistant said,

‘Here’s the first signal played through an electromagnet.’

Eris jumped as the pieces of metal started clicking, springing apart, then clicking together again. Soon she began to notice a distinct pattern, shouting out,

‘Morse!’

‘Numbers in Morse,’ agreed Nell, ‘that turn out to match the international standard for longitude and latitude co-ordinates.’

The assistant pulled an atlas out in front of the women, explaining,

‘The first co-ordinates point to somewhere right here.’ He pointed at the conurbation of London. He swiftly changed pages, ‘And the second signal to here, in the Lake District.’

‘You’re sure?’

Nell answered, ‘Yes, we’ve checked with the team investigating the rockfall.’

Eris hardly dare ask, ‘And the third?’

The assistant turned only one page, ‘Exactly here, fifty-one miles from the rockfall – someone’s been on the move.’

Already there was a biro crosshair added to the map, alongside the numbers scrawled across the rural landscape beside it. Eris scooped up the atlas to take away with her. She was agog, saying to the assistant,

‘Then you are the most helpful person I’ve met all day.’

‘And does that buy me a raise? I’m only on apprenticeship rates.’

She was too happy and stunned to take offence at his impertinence, only answering,

‘Well, let’s see how right you are on this third code,’ and dashed from the room.

 

 

Chapter 103 – Elegy for Daniel

 

 

‘For as long as Daniel takes to die.’

The Professor’s words had stilled the room; but for the tapping, tapping, tapping.

Beck had memorised the numbers that were being transmitted. He had then plotted then on the maps found at Rose Cottage. And now he brought these back to The Universalist, where the alien clicking and rattling greeted him as he walked through the door.

As he returned, the Professor ushered him and other human out of the room with him.

‘Quite right,’ said Victor, once they were in the holiday home’s bright lounge. ‘It feels like something private to them.’

Though still they heard the fingers…

Beck tapped his own finger on the laminated map, explaining,

‘It’s the Lake District, around fifty miles from the rockfall site.’

Schmidt mused, ‘He had to go away to hills and trees, to the nature he loved.’ Beck allowed the Professor his moment of Romanticism. Before the older man brought himself back around to the present situation, ‘And now we need to plan our move.’

‘Which is?’ asked Beck.

‘To do what we should have done – find Daniel.’

‘To fix him?’ asked Victor

‘There is no fixing him.’

English was the Professor’s second language, his first being German. And Beck had always considered this a factor in the economy of phrase the Professor often employed. It could seem curt at times, but Beck had always liked his clean, lopped-off sentences, free of over-politeness and wordy-sprawl.

‘There is no fixing him.’ Those five short words seemed to be exactly what Victor needed. Now he looked to Beck like a child holding a dead guinea pig, hoping his father could fix it as he had the child’s Action Man the day before, unaware that even the most loving father had no such tools in his garage.

Beck found he had a new respect for Victor, brought to instant grief over a creature of a different species and whom he had never met.

Beck elucidated for Victor,

‘We’ve never had one suffer anything as cataclysmic as a rockfall. We don’t know his injuries, only that they are serious; and now reoccurring.’

‘Couldn’t something else have happened to him?’ grasped Victor. ‘Something not as serious, but which triggered an alarm?’

Beck resumed,

‘You may have noticed that the artifs are anything but accident-prone. It has taken a road accident and a geological collapse to generate even the two alarms we know about. Also, the fact that Danny appears to have gotten himself over fifty miles away from the initial rockfall is itself amazing, and proves his desperation to survive. But it also proves that he’s been fully alert and aware in the intervening days. He has been physically capable, and so little more likely to suffer an accident that he was prior to the rockfall.’

Beck closed with a line he hoped did justice to his teacher and mentor, stood head-bowed beside him,

‘We have to assume that this is a relapse. He survived his injuries the first time; but no one gets that lucky twice.’

Beck looked around him. Both other men were in a state of mourning; but he had to ask,

‘And what of me? Do you still need your “distraction”?’

Schmidt answered, ‘More than ever.’

Beck resumed his earlier walk to the door. But the Professor placed a hand on his arm to hold him back,

‘There’s also the question of whether Eris has deciphered the message format. Did she give you any sign that they had?’

Beck scanned his memories of his interview,

‘No, I don’t believe she said that. It was only her deduction that linked the two messages to the two accident locations.’

‘Well, either way – what we spoke about earlier has to happen now.’

Am I leading events anymore, thought Beck, or are they leading me? Have they been leading me the whole time?

Even such musing was time-wasting, and he knew it. He turned to go – and the tapping stopped. He and Schmidt and Victor stood frozen, until the artifs, led by Christopher, joined them in the hall.

Beck asked him, ‘How did the message end?’

‘Terminal.’

There was no need for sensitivity, as both the women had received the same message. Beck asked Christopher,

‘You’re going to find him?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then honour him.’

‘Be sure that we will.’

These were the last words he heard Chris say. Beck opened the door to be faced with a sky that matched his mood, much duller than the one he had entered the house under. It was one of those days that left the impression of the sun setting at noon.

As he left, the others were already considering the perilous missions ahead of them. Schmidt gave a final burst of philosophy with,

‘Whatever happens, I’ll accept us failing for love. As that is victory. Love is victory, even if we fail for it.’

Beck closed the door behind him.

 

 

Chapter 104 – The End of Africa

 

 

‘You two don’t have to come,’ said Ingrid to the staff.

Neither had moved.

‘Let’s go then, before the town are about.’

It was now the next day. The car was loaded and the sun was fully up. Bradley had identified late morning as the time when the men in black were at their lowest numbers, perhaps sleeping off their late nights on watch. But they would soon be back beneath the midday sun.

Ingrid had woken to find George had packed more cases than could possibly be carried. ‘What shall we take then, ma’am?’ asked George, all of a dither.

‘Essentials, George. I still have my Swiss account. Anything we leave we can buy again a dozen times over.’

Nearby, on the porch beneath the overhang, sat Bradley. The line of shadow in front of him was dramatic, cleaving the air, as though behind a certain line the floor was painted black.

Within the shadow, Bradley wondered what he’d find at the Embassy – an armed escort? A bank of technicians waiting to examine him? A crate to send him back home in? Yet all he wanted was news of his family: of who had sent the signals he had read about in the papers, of who was dead or dying.

Oman had brought the car around to the front of the lodge. George was still within the building, bringing out the final bags to place within the old but capacious Mercedes – cars lasted forever in that dry heat.

Bradley asked his man,

‘I wondered, have we packed the old charges?’

The old charges – car batteries. He had to charge at least twice a day now. In fact, he had been doing so just an hour earlier.

‘Yes, sir. Enough for three days.’

‘Good, George. Best to be cautious.’

Bradley knew that there were other men: playboys, dilettantes, toy boys, lost souls just across the water on the French Riviera, indeed all around that grand warm pool that was the Mediterranean, who disappeared to shaded rooms on afternoons for various methods of recharging. All believed that without these recharges they would die, only Bradley knew it was true.

Suddenly Oman, standing by the car, was distracted. Bradley look up, and saw who Oman had just seen: a man in black, and closer than any had come before – he walked right past the end of the driveway, saying nothing, doing nothing, simply walking in full view.

Bradley and Oman shared a look, and then resumed the packing.

Mistress entered the courtyard as if onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, pronouncing,

‘Such drama. It’s what they built me for, you know. My old country, when I was a girl. The German Democratic Republic.’ (She almost spat out the words.) ‘They wanted me to show the world that their state could liberate the spirit. Yet, if I became an artist at all it was in spite of their “liberation”.’

‘Oh, ma’am,’ gushed George with the bags, ‘how can you doubt you are an artist?’

‘“Was,” George, “was.” I gave up art for love, for I could only do one and give my all to it.’

And then there was a smashing sound – a window of the car had been shot out. All four of the travelling party were stunned, stood rigid. Bradley quickly took Ingrid’s arms and pulled her back into the shadows of the porch; the other two followed.

And then a voice, like something from a spaghetti western, though not offered in a comic-Mexican accent,

‘You come out now, we know you’re in there.’

Across the end of the drive was swung a rope laced with metal spikes, designed to shred a car’s tyres. Their exit was barred.

‘You come out now, Mr Robot.’

From within the cloaking shadow, Ingrid was agog,

‘What is this…?’ she stammered. ‘They can’t just do this!’

‘It look as though they are,’ answered Bradley. With an arm around her midriff, he encouraged her further back toward the door that led into the main building. George and Oman were right in front of them, as though to deflect bullets.

‘The game is up, ma’am,’ whispered her oldest servant.

‘But what a good game, George, what a lovely game,’ and she kissed him on the forehead.

George, though, was beating himself up. He turned to Bradley, ‘“Not in daylight,” I said. “They won’t attack in daylight.” I got it wrong, sir.’

To which Bradley answered, ‘No, George. You only had too much faith in humanity. And I can’t fail you for that.’

Another shot sounded, this time deflecting off the car’s bodywork. And then that same voice,

‘You come out here. Or we’re coming in.’

And then overhead were helicopters.

A whirling dervish was suddenly alive in the lodge grounds, with anything not tied down being lifted up and blown to the four winds. Everywhere was dust and grit and light. A suitcase was blown open, releasing Ingrid’s dresses which spun in the air like gypsy dancers.

Aside from this distraction though, at the sight of real military hardware, the local bullies were scattering. One final weekend renegade fired a rifle in the air, before scurrying for cover. Whatever happened next, Bradley breathed a sigh of relief.

One of the aircraft landed, its side-door opened, and a man in army greens with a moustache beckoned the four in with his arm.

‘You’re nearly too late!’ shouted Ingrid over the sound of the propellers.

The man lifted her aboard, and answered with a glinting smile,

‘If we’d come any earlier, would you have greeted us as warmly?’

Oman followed her in, knowing a good thing when he saw it. In the shadows of the building, Bradley was all set, but was held back by George, lost and asking,

‘Sir? What’s happening, sir?’

Bradley smiled, ‘George, I think we’re going home.’

 

 

Day 6, Part 2 – The Quickening

 

 

Chapter 105 – The Fooling of Eris

 

 

Despite the hopes of Professor Schmidt, of course Eris’s people had already deciphered the latest damage signal, and were already loading the Jaguar and their tech truck for the journey north to the Lake District.

She didn’t get very far though, before an even more amazing transmission cropped up – in fact two of them. Firstly, a classified cable, for her eyes only. It was from the Philosopher General’s office, and bore the verbal hallmarks of having been dictated by the man himself. It spoke of an ‘Anglo-American military operation in North Africa, our aircraft, their carrier. Unsanctioned and over sovereign land.’ It had ‘necessitated a change of international policy,’ but she would ‘like the results, details to follow…’

And then moments later, a cordless phone was dashed through the office to her by a receptionist, with several other staff in tow. She pressed it into Eris’s hand with the hushed revelation,

‘It’s him. It’s Doctor Beck.’

She grabbed at the phone and covered the mouthpiece, asking in whispers,

‘It’s being recorded?’ To which those attending nodded eagerly.

Eris looked to Forrest; who was standing stock still just like she was, and who gave a ‘Why not?’ shrug.

She placed the phone to her ear, and offered,

‘This is Eris.’

‘Eris, it’s Beck. I want to come back in.’

‘Okay.’

‘I want to see my family.’

‘Your family?’ she said out loud for the room, as there was no loud speaker set up.

‘His family are in France,’ mouthed Nell the technician, to which Eris nodded furiously to show that she already knew.

In the silence this created, Beck burbled,

‘I want assurances that they won’t be harmed, and that I’ll be treated fairly.’

With a dozen listeners, Eris became self-conscious at her end of the line. She murmured platitudes to reassure him – this was no time for recriminations,

‘Your family are fine. Though I can’t promise we can get them to you right away. And you’ll be treated well. We will pick you up…’

‘Just you,’ he interrupted. ‘I mean just those in your car, I know you can’t travel alone.’

‘Don’t worry, don’t worry,’ she answered. ‘It will be just me and people you’ve met before. Okay?’

‘Yes,’ he answered, before spinning off a place and time and street name… and he was gone. Leaving Eris stunned.

She handed the phone back, and repeated the main points to the room, and suddenly had a gallery of listeners eagerly awaiting their instructions.

‘Well, how the hell do I know what to do?’ she shouted.

‘I’m coming with you,’ said Forrest.

‘No,’ she answered. ‘Danny’s signal’s too important. You lead the search team. I’ll fetch Beck with Charlie in the Jag.’

‘But boss,’ pleaded Forrest. ‘I’m your shadow. I’m not authorised to leave you.’

‘Well, take it to HR,’ which seemed to quieten Forrest. She added, ‘And the rest of you, back to your posts!’

Although, before she left, she did ask Forrest more privately,

‘And I’ll have my gun back now.’ Without any of the others being aware, he had held on to it since picking it up in the street after the disastrous shooting at Marsham.

‘No,’ he answered. ‘Not if I’m not there to stop you.’

And she knew that she had no choice, and went to meet her car, which was already revving.

‘Trace the number,’ she instructed loudly from the window as the Jaguar left the garage, ‘and keep a tab on his phone.’

 

However, Beck’s handset would soon go dead, and would not be used again – it was already in a bin a long way away.

Beck did still hold a piece of paper though. It had been shoved into his pocket at some point by Chris, and Beck would retain it as a keepsake. It had only two lines of writing: the first was a telephone number (which had proven to be right) beside the words ‘Government Internal Directory’ – Beck didn’t even ask.

And below these, the curt advice, ‘Call from another town.’ Which Beck knew would leave him connecting though a different telephone exchange to the one which served The Universalist, and so might buy the remainder of the group a few more hours as the authorities scoured the region for them.

Now he sat in a car, as grey afternoon became black evening. The engine and lights were off, and the road outside was lit only by one far-off street lamp. It was a lone street on the outskirts of a small town, lined on one side by a factory’s locked gates, and on the other by a doorless wall – it was as if he had subconsciously chosen this road to have no escape route, which of course backed up his conscious objective – to be caught.

He thought back to the Tech Island conversations at The Universalist, the way that the group’s suggestion of a ‘distraction’ had been made, and how quickly his resistance had petered out. All had already been decided, and there was nothing useful Beck could have said. At one point toward the end he had blurted,

‘I’ll be under watch every day. I’ll never be able to visit you.’

To which Chris had answered,

‘Then that will be your final sacrifice, for those who you’ve already done so much for.’

 

 

Chapter 106 – On a Lonely Road

 

 

Chris had acquired the car that Beck now sat in, and the number-plates of another. Therefore, he was not only in a stolen car, but also a rung one – he was committing multiple crimes merely by remaining there. If Eris and her masters did choose to hang him out to dry, then they could send him down for years. He now had no phone, nor any of the others’ numbers, as anything he carried was sure to be confiscated. He could offer no link back to The Universalist. The act of separation had occurred.

‘Some days can change a lifetime,’ he muttered. As a pair of headlights appeared at the other end of the road. They neared him, then stopped a few car lengths away – it looked like the Jaguar.

Beck slowly opened his door, at the same time as a rear-door of the Jaguar was also opened, opened for him. Beck recognised Charlie the driver through the windscreen as the car’s reading lights went on. To Beck, he looked extra-burly in his front seat. Though Beck knew that this was an illusion, created by fear.

 

Eris looked out from the open door at the empty tarmac. The door of the Jaguar stayed ajar. No one got out or came toward Beck’s car. She felt the chill of the air and listened to the silent night. The road was deserted, as Beck had wished. And as she had wished, her own security was absent, even Forrest. There was no need for them – Beck had no reason to harm her. And if this gesture brought him back into the fold then so much the better. She had had a long time to think on the journey down, and already in her mind a picture was forming of the recent days Beck might have had, whispering,

‘He must have had an awful time. Scared and on the run and knowing that he needed his real family, that he wouldn’t be able to stay with his robots. And also that they would leave him,’ for she knew intuitively that that was what had happened. She murmured further,

‘He understood it was hopeless. And all the time knowing he was only delaying the inevitable fall back into our hands, and fearing how we’d treat him when he did.

‘That’s why he wanted it to be somewhere quiet where he could reshow himself, and it only being me.’ And she felt a flush of pride that Beck trusted her enough, that she had evidently been kind enough to him during their recent morning of difficult discussions.

And then another mental picture formed for Eris: of herself, left alone in that awful storeroom, with the cat’s head. How cruel Beck had been to play that trick, this man she was now pitying. But she had to put that memory out of her mind, she had to be professional. And just as governments the world over had to get into bed with terrorists, so she now had to get into bed with Beck… and then she caught that mental image, and tried to shake it from her mind also, though for quite different reasons.

‘Miss Eris?’ The voice sounded along that quiet lane.

‘Doctor?’ she called from inside her car.

And then she and Charlie heard the clunk of another car’s door being closed, and saw the outline of Beck emerging from the shadows, closer than she might have credited.

‘Doctor Beck,’ greeted Charlie through his opened window and through gritted teeth. Beck walked past him to the open door. He asked, ‘You’re alone?’

‘Yes,’ she nodded. ‘Doctor, please,’ and she gestured with her arm for him to join her inside.

And then, as he closed the door behind him, she had another thought, one prompted by the latest information she’d received from her staff: Does he know about Danny? Do I tell him Danny’s dead?

 

 

Chapter 107 – Artifs Leaving

 

 

‘Now we are five,’ whispered Christopher to himself. In his mind, he placed the party in order of age: Schmidt, Victor, Anna, himself and Ellie, age span Seventies to Tens. And even his logical mind was defeated by the visual illusion of Anna, two years older than Ellie, but in the younger frame.

Around and about the two cottages, the party were collecting carryable belongings and equipping cars. And it wasn’t only Chris who was in a reflective mood brought on by the move. While looking across the rose garden to their youngest in actual years, Chris saw the Professor approach her, and say, seemingly apropos to nothing,

‘Ellie. You were our last, our youngest, our baby. We gave you a chance to be, and you took it.’

Chris felt a pang of tears like he hadn’t since his incident with the bus, albeit under very different circumstances. To shake this off, he approached the Professor himself, carrying a batch of batteries. Faced with the apparent fact of leaving his safe haven of several years, Chris asked him,

‘You’ll be giving up a lot.’

‘I’d be giving up more by staying.’

‘We have no option,’ agreed Chris.

‘It’s a matter of time before Eris tracks us here.’

Chris reassured him though,

‘If it doesn’t work out with Silicon Sands, then I’ll find you a flat, and a workshop. We’ll risk that much. We’ll get repaired.’

 

Victor was lost in the activity of carrying and loaded. He said to Ellie,

‘You’re all moving so efficiently, like ants carrying a leaf. You’re not in contact, are you? Co-ordinating?’

She giggled, ‘There’s only one person who knows my mind,’ and she kissed him on the cheek.

‘But why so many cars?’ he asked. ‘How many did Chris take?’

‘New plates for Doctor Beck’s, one to replace the estate, and one for the Professor. He’d have found a new one for us too, but he was taking too many risks as it was.’

‘Oh God, it makes sense now. The Professor’s not coming with us?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘He’s got his appointment in London, with the contact for Tech Island.’

Victor looked at her quizzically. She explained,

‘Well, even if we find Danny, we still need to leave Britain.’ She suddenly looked sad, asking, ‘What, Victor, did you think because of Danny we weren’t still going to escape? Did you think that all was lost? Oh, poor boy.’

He paused a moment, before explaining, ‘But you say this as though the world and its dog should have known it. Am I going to be quick enough for you?’

She smiled at him, ‘When all this is over, we can relax. And then we can go as slow as you want.’

 

Soon the cars were revving and moving. All said goodbye to the Professor in turn, Chris checking he had the unused phone he had given him, instructing,

‘Switch it on for twelve o’clock noon and twelve o’clock midnight only. Don’t use it except to call mine.’

Then it only remained for the final four to get in their cars. Chris thought he’d let the lovebirds have some time, and was glad to share the journey with Anna. He only worried for her once they got to the co-ordinates Danny had left them with – what would she see? How would she respond? Once under way, Anna asked him,

‘We might not go back to The Uni, might we, Chris?’

‘No, Anna.’

‘I’ll miss it.’

‘You’ve been there a long time. It’s sad to leave somewhere.’

Chris was in the passenger seat, thinking it good to let her have some practice driving; which as an artif she could do in her sleep. Ellie had found her a hat and shades which made her look ten years older. Anna pondered,

‘We all leave somewhere, I suppose. Where did you leave, Chris?’

‘A flat in town.’

‘Do you miss it?’

‘In its own way. I called it home – it might still be, if it hasn’t been traced. And don’t be sad about Danny’s signal, for it’s a forewarning that in our final moments we will be felt by those we love, even at a distance.’

‘I just want to be together with him, one last time.’

‘Me too.’

And as Anna drove them out of the town, passing the café and the estate agent’s office, Chris gave a sigh of relief, whispering to the air passing the window,

‘It was only a matter of time before they trailed us here.’

 

In fact, it was within the hour that a local policeman, under the edict issued by Eris’s office after tracing the stolen estate car to the area, happened to ask the holiday lettings agent in the town if she had had any out-of-towners at the office in the past few days? She answering, ‘Well, not many, it being out of season. But there was that couple who asked about the holiday home. It was owned by an actress, you know…’

 

 

Chapter 108 – Sitting in Cars with Women

 

 

The Jaguar was as comfortable as Beck remembered it. Once under way – where to, he couldn’t guess – Eris avoided the topic of Danny, with,

‘You’re lucky – if Forrest were here I’d have given him a minute with you on that empty street.’

‘I was prepared for it.’

Though she didn’t follow this up. Instead she digressed, ‘I’ve been reading your academic files. Who knew you minored in Philosophy.’

‘Youthful speculations,’ he offered, dismissively.

‘But very telling. Do you remember writing that, “The brain is only one of our great mysteries, the other being God”?’

‘Did I? How pretentious of me. I was probably trying to impress someone.’

‘Your wife?’

He smiled for the first time since breakfast, recalling, ‘No, I’ve never had to impress her.’

And Eris wondered at the lack of such a partner in her life.

She changed the topic yet again, to one she knew she’d have to broach,

‘You… frustrated me the other day. In Marsham. I didn’t want to have to shoot. It was wrong of me.’

Oddly, with all his other concerns, Beck had hardly linked together the fact of this being the woman who had tried to kill him two days before.

Meanwhile, now settled in the car, he remembered some advice that Chris had given him. Firstly, to keep his lie as close to fact as possible. In this case only omitting that he knew where the others were going next, and that his turning himself in was in the effort of obscuring that destination. Secondly, that as long as he could keep her on small talk the better: delaying, obscuring, trying to buy time as he figured out what she wanted from him.

She broke his thoughts, with,

‘I’ve been thinking of you, since we parted.’

‘Oh?’ he offered worriedly.

‘About those secret evenings at the University…’

‘Oh,’ he said, with relief.

‘…doing your dark work after hours, when even the most dedicated students had gone home. Alone in your locked upstairs room, surrounded by disembodied limbs hanging from racks. Or something similar, I’d imagine?’ (He nodded.) ‘Artificial eyeballs looking out at you? It must have felt like a nightshift in the charnel house.’

‘A bloodless charnel house. But yes, I was often alone there, cutting up strips of false muscle, angle-grinding recalcitrant alloyed joints. But as I say, bloodless. I don’t think I’d have stood it if it hadn’t been.’

 

‘And have you ever been to counselling for it?’

He was agog, reactive, defensive all at once, spluttering,

‘And how could I, when the whole thing was a secret?’ And for the first time in his life Beck realised all he’d been holding on to.

He saw a road sign though the car window, and guessed their destination as London. It would take them hours to return there. He hoped it would be long enough.

 

 

Chapter 109 – The Recovery of Danny Pt. 1

 

 

Chris had taken over driving from Anna as they neared the town. A consequence of their hurried leaving was the need to pack her adult frame in the boot – and Christopher couldn’t escape the feeling of transporting a body. He wondered idly whether, under the Philosopher General’s hoped-for legislation, mistreatment of a vacant frame might bear the same criminal penalty as failing to report a human death?

They had been driving for hours, ignoring only motorways with their plethora of traffic cameras. Now the A-road ahead was dark and full of fear.

‘What will happen, Chris?’ asked Anna.

He turned to her, ‘I don’t know. But nothing will happen to you, Anna. I promise that.’

He popped the car into third as they exited the A-road. Game faces on.

‘Why are we all going into the town?’ she asked. This was despite them having discussed it back at the house. But she needed reassurance, and Chris offered it,

‘Because it’s the nearest focal point to the co-ordinates, and we hadn’t time to come up with a better plan.’

‘So, we’ll go directly past the signal site?’

‘Yes, and if there’s anything happening, then we go on to our rendezvous point.’

‘And why aren’t we talking on the phone?’

‘Because we can’t risk them monitoring our conversations.’

‘But we’ll ring Ellie and Vincent if there’s trouble?’

‘Yes, and offer no longer than a five second message, then throw the phone out of the window and… go full-speed to our rendezvous point.’

‘And you’ll remember where it is, Chris?’

‘Yes, as will you.’

‘But what if I can’t trust my memory?’

‘Then I’ll remember it for both of us.’

 

But they didn’t even reach the co-ordinates, let alone the rendezvous. Before they got there Ellie’s car was up ahead, parked on a lay-by facing them and flashing its headlights.

Chris pulled up alongside and wound down his windows. Ellie leaned out, telling them both,

‘We got here much quicker than expected – we knew you’d take this route, so we waited for you. We’ve been along the road that passes nearest the co-ordinates, and it’s full of sirens and police cars. We got lucky, they clearly haven’t a clue why they’ve closed off the road. They weren’t looking out for anybody in particular and weren’t asking any questions. They just turned us around, saying there’d been an accident; but when I pretended to own a house along the road, and asked a few questions, they couldn’t tell me the first thing about it.’

‘Best guesses, everyone?’ asked Victor from passenger seat.

Chris surmised,

‘Then Eris has understood the Morse of the signal and learnt the co-ordinates, and has rung ahead to local police to close off the scene – although she appears to have given them no indication why, probably asking them to await the arrival of her own people.’

Ellie’s look hardened, as much as her visage had capacity for hardness, as she said,

‘Then the bad news is that Eris’s people might already be there – while we’ve been waiting here, two black vans have passed us at speed.’

‘That makes sense,’ said Chris. ‘We couldn’t leave until our tapping-phase had ended, though they could have deduced the signal midway through.’

‘They also had the motorways,’ said Anna, perfectly deductively.

‘So what do we do?’ asked Victor. ‘We’re blocking this road for a start.’

‘Well, at least the local traffic police are tied up,’ joked Ellie. ‘But really, if only we’d had another hour…’

‘Au contraire,’ offered Chris to lighten the mood. ‘This situation only offers us the chance to find the best of ourselves.’

‘Always thinking positively, Christopher?’ asked Ellie.

‘Always, where my family is involved.’ And he offered each a beaming smile. Then, ‘Ellie, you got to see the site of the co-ordinates?’

‘Uh huh.’

‘Then, in ten words?’

‘Unlit scrub, scattered farm buildings, boggy ground, ponds…’

‘That’s only eight,’ he smiled. ‘And any sign of a car?’

‘Not that I could see.’

Chris was thinking aloud, ‘Danny must have had a vehicle. He couldn’t have gotten this far while damaged without one. He could have parked off the road. But if there had been a suspicious vehicle at the scene, it would have been the first thing those officers focussed on when arriving, especially after being told to use a motor accident cover story. So, he must have parked it neatly, perhaps beside a building…’

Chris paused, then considered, ‘Which means he knew his time was short…’

‘Oh, Chris,’ said Anna.

Chris placed a hand on her arm, and continued,

‘…and so he needed to hide himself. And what are the two things we were told about artifs and water?’

‘That we sink!’ answered Anna.

‘Yes, and that it will not harm us.’

Ellie had a revelation, ‘Chris, would muddy water have blocked his signal?’

‘You mean, is he still transmitting down there? I’ve really no idea. But please don’t get your hopes up.’

‘So what do we do?’

‘Anna, go to Ellie’s car. I need to do what I was built for.’

Anna didn’t need instructing, and was already jumping out of one car and into another.

‘No, Chris,’ called Ellie. ‘You’re injured yourself.’

‘Not as bad as Danny was, and he managed to hide himself. I won’t leave him down there.’

‘And what should we do?’ asked Victor, as he unlocked the backdoor in their car for Anna.

‘You come back here in an hour, and then on every hour till dawn. After that, find the Professor.’

Chris looked along the road he’d have to travel, toward the police roadblock. He fired up the car, smiled, and was gone.

 

 

Chapter 110 – The Recovery of Danny Pt. 2: The Schmidt-Beck Prototype

 

 

As he drove, Chris spoke incessantly, almost chanting,

‘The precise co-ordinate point was to the north of this road…

‘I have to hope there is a turn-off before the roadblock…

‘That puts me into farmland. I can cross behind the roadblocks on foot, so long as there are no searchlights up yet…

‘After that, I’ll have to go off my hunch.’

He looked to his watch then, at the glowing illuminated face – an expensive piece, sadly having to be pinched as it was too costly to purchase – but which was linked to Global Positioning Satellites and locatable to the seventh metre.

At the same time as he saw the police lights on the hillside, Chris also saw a building, thankfully in darkness, and the turn-off for its driveway. He killed the engine and his lights; but not before perfectly memorising the shadow of every fencepost and piece of farm machinery. With this memory in mind, he let the vehicle coast in near darkness, missing every obstacle as it rolled past.

The car came out in the large yard of a working farmhouse, far enough away from the chaotic roadblock not to be seen. Chris pulled up behind a parked tractor; and in the silence, listened intently.

There were voices, but not those of officers and radios. He looked, and noticed he had coasted to within yards of some locals talking by the gate – and they hadn’t heard a thing. He slipped quietly out of the car on the opposite side to the residents, who were probably remarking on what was happening half-a-mile along the road.

 

Back in the other car, Victor was asking,

‘Won’t they be able to track him?’

‘Who, Chris?’ asked Ellie. ‘Not so long as they haven’t got the motion sensors set up as they had in Marsham; or that he doesn’t use a phone; or become damaged himself and start sending his own alarm – please, Chris, don’t start doing that. Victor, you’d have to drive us if we started tapping.’

‘I don’t want Chris to be injured,’ said Anna.

‘Don’t worry love,’ encouraged Ellie. ‘He won’t let that happen. I was only thinking aloud.’

Victor, though, still had questions, continuing,

‘And they have no way of tracing Danny now?’

‘Ellie answered, ‘No, not now his signal’s stopped. There’s no other beacon in him.’

‘So,’ reasoned Victor, further clarifying for himself, ‘the authorities get to the co-ordinates… and then they only have what they find on the ground?’

‘Yes.’

‘And Chris has the same?’

‘Yes, but he has the advantage, knowing how his brother thought.’

The past tense in that final word summed up the mood of the car.

 

Underwater – that had been Chris’s first instinct upon seeing Danny’s final transmitted co-ordinates on the map. It was also counterintuitive: wouldn’t anyone without a working knowledge of the Schmidt-Beck Prototype assume it to be as frail around H2O as the average electric heater? They wouldn’t know that the artif body was ninety percent non-conductive rubber and carbon fibre.

Night was on Chris’s side, as was the lumpy, unlit terrain. There were houses, but his brother wouldn’t have gone to one of those to be discovered. There were parked cars – one of them probably Danny’s – but none of them were parked out of kilter… which meant that Danny had had time to park cleanly.

Time enough also, deduced Chris, to make it to the other nearest landmark – the still, black pond lined with reeds and bushes, that stood between him and the distant flashing lights.

‘I love you, brother,’ he muttered, and began to make his way around the pool to the side nearest the parked cars. This brought him nearer also to the authorities; but being in the dark emboldened him, and he felt perfectly safe.

The cars were parked beside a low unlit building. Chris deduced that it might have been a tool shed, or a hostel for itinerant workers. Either way, it was thankfully empty that evening.

He then turned to the moonlit pool itself to look for any disturbance, as he knew what to look for. And there it was: broken reeds, and what might have been boot-falls in the thick mud. Chris hoped he was the only one who’d notice these, at least before daylight.

He turned one last time to judge the distance – the police were just the other side of the low building, maybe twenty yards away. But he had no choice. He would just have to go in as quietly as possible, and trust that the crackle of their radios would obscure the officers’ hearing, and that their bright lights would kill their night vision.

He had to go into the water in everything he wore – he couldn’t leave a pile of clothes at the poolside (though he did remember to toss his phone out onto the bank). And it was once submerged that Chris’s difference to humanity was exposed. He sank like a stone. This was due to the weight of some of his internals, which easily outweighed the little air and water within him. Like a spaceman bouncing down the edge of a moon crater, Chris made his way down the submerged bank of the pool, each time throwing thick gales of sludge up around him.

As the pool bed levelled out, he paused a minute to let the silt settle. He kept his mouth firmly closed, which he didn’t need to do, but which would leave less of him needing to be rinsed out afterwards. His robotic form also saved him from having to rise for air, or from releasing conspicuous bubbles to the surface.

Meanwhile, his every system was still exposed to water-damage. His core had once been sealed of course, but who knew what drips and drops his bus-damaged innards might now accept with glee? Even being in the water in his state was ridiculous. But as the murk cleared, and in the poorest light, there he saw it – a previous disturbance in the mud similar to that which he was now making. Yet without the added disturbance caused my moving limbs. No, in that previous instance the foreign body had slid smoothly down between the weeds and out of view.

Chris slithered onward, through renewed flurries of silt; and as this again cleared, he saw the feet of his brother. Reaching forward, Chris put his arms around Danny, and as he pulled him up to him, so a face with lifeless eyes rose up and brushed his own.

 

 

Chapter 111 – The Recovery of Danny Pt. 3

 

 

There was nothing to be done underwater, so Chris began to move his brother onto land. And there was no disrespect there: Danny hadn’t chosen a final resting place as a human might have done. The pond had been a pragmatic location to stay undiscovered. Now the circumstances had changed.

Chris attempted to navigate their course underwater, which was hard in the dark and when silt blew up around them with every motion. Still, he broke the surface a good twenty yards further along the bank from where they had entered it, and so a little further from the police positions.

He held just his eyes and ears above the jet-black surface for a moment: the police voices were still in the distance, though new mechanical noises pointed to equipment being set up close by. He really had got there in the nick of time.

And so, on the ground beside the reeds, Chris laid Danny out. Chris discovered that when unpowered their joints were not rigid like a more mechanical construction’s might be, but rather floppy where the rubber muscles had gone limp. Danny’s one arm was almost entirely missing.

They were too close to the increased presence of law enforcement for Chris to load Danny in the car and leave unseen. He had made an error – he should have kept another of the gang with him. He could have probably used Victor, leaving Ellie to look after Anna. It had been a mistake to send them all away.

The phone was not far from where Chris remembered leaving it, and it took a moment to power up. Then he phoned Victor, whispering, right away without a common courtesy,

‘I have him, fifty feet west of the gate before the roadblock, beside the water. I need you to come for us.’

‘But that’s right by where they’re all parked,’ reasoned Victor. ‘They’ll see us.’

‘Well, they’ll see me carrying a body regardless, but I’m not as quick as a car.’

‘But they’ll chase us.’

‘You haven’t seen us drive.’ This was intended to end any argument. And Chris didn’t allow any to continue, as he terminated the call and then skimmed the phone into the pond, where it skipped twice on the surface like a pebble, before on the third contact, it sparked and fizzled a moment among the opposite reeds, before beginning its own journey to the depths.

 

Ellie kept the car at low revs and in high gear, lights off and almost coasting. There was a slight dip in the road as they neared the farm at the edge of the search-zone.

‘There’s the gate,’ said Victor; and Ellie turned, nearly knocking over a woman in a Barbour jacket.

‘Jesus! Who’s that?’ asked Victor, he not having driving duties to distract him from his nerves.

The woman stood a moment, stunned. Before turning, and following the car along the drive it had just entered, calling, ‘Hey, you! This is my friend’s property!’

‘What do we do with her?’ asked the nervous passenger. He saw only urgency, and not the abundant time they had to complete their operation.

Before they knew it though, there was the drenched, spectral figure of Christopher, beside the driver’s door and carrying a body.

The woman in the Barbour jacket was silenced, as a back door of the car was flung open, and the soaked man, with his clearly deceased friend with awful injuries, clambered in. The body was flung in ahead, with a lack of care that to the woman displayed everything un-Christian in this world.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Chris to Anna, who was already in the backseat, and now had the lifeless body of her brother pressed up against her. Chris them climbed in also, to make it three.

‘You drive,’ said Chris to Ellie, pulling his door closed. ‘We haven’t time to change seats.’ But Ellie was one step ahead of him, and already had the car in low gear and spitting gravel. It spun across the uneven surface of the yard, and past the woman, back onto the tarmac road.

‘What about your own car?’ she asked, while working the gearstick like a rally driver.

‘The police were closer than I realised, I couldn’t have got Danny into it and driven away in time. Only Anna and I had been in it, there’ll be no DNA.’

Chris, for all his heroics, sensed the car were annoyed with him. After mere seconds for nerves to die down, these feelings emerged,

‘You made us all go back there,’ chided Victor, looking over his shoulder for police lights. ‘We could all have been caught. And we couldn’t even call you back with a better plan – your phone was already dead.’

Ellie took over the talking spoon, ‘And did you know that there were pedestrians about? Why didn’t you say? We nearly knocked someone over, driving with the lights off.’

‘I’m sorry. I worked it out the best I could.’

The only one who hadn’t spoken was Anna; and as the car settled down so the remaining members of the group could appreciate what they were seeing, with their own eyes, or in the driving mirror – Anna, pressed up against the shell of a brother not seen in eight years.

‘Anna?’ asked Ellie, multitasking like a pro.

Anna raised her arms and hugged Danny for all her life.

 

 

Chapter 112 – By the Lake

 

 

Forrest watched the scene with disbelief. He had been talking with the engineers unloading the perimeter fencing, when his attention had been drawn by the sudden sound of a loud engine and screeching tyres. It seemed to come from the neighbouring farm. However, from behind the luminous wall of halogen lamps that were being erected around him, he had only seen the briefest glint of chrome and glass snaking off along the very road his van had arrived on minutes earlier.

Leaving Nell and her apprentice in charge, he had followed the local Police Chief running to the scene, where they found a woman in distress and keen to make a statement.

‘They sped in with no lights,’ she declared. ‘Then a man got in carrying a body! They nearly killed me.’

‘Christ,’ said Forrest, visibly agitated.

‘You’re not wrong,’ said the Chief. He asked Forrest, ‘So, this is a murder? No wonder you’ve called in half the force.’

‘It wasn’t a body,’ said Forrest quickly to reassure both listeners. ‘This wasn’t a murder. Trust me on that.’

‘Well, anyway,’ said the woman, relieved nonetheless, ‘it was a funny how-do-you-do.’

As Forrest and the Chief left a junior officer to take the details, Forrest asked himself: how had they taken Danny from under his nose? And how was he going to tell Eris?

‘She didn’t take the registration number,’ said the Chief, resplendent in his black uniform beneath fluorescent tabard. ‘That often happens when they’re shocked.’

Forrest had to get back to Nell – and tell her there was nothing left to find.

And the Police Chief went back to his junior officer, when the latter had finished the interview, whispering in his ear,

‘A body that wasn’t a body? A murder that wasn’t a murder? People driving at night with no lights…?’ He pointed to the headline of a newspaper sitting on the dashboard of a nearby squad car, ‘And we all know who can see at night.’

 

Twenty minutes later and the lake was being dredged. After all, about the only thing they knew for certain was that the dashing man and the ‘body’ had been ‘sopping wet’, as the woman in the Barbour jacket had told them in her statement. Sitting by the large black lake was Forrest, who suddenly had a thought; and he wondered if his new idea might just have been enough to save his bacon.

 

In the back of the Jaguar, Beck said little. He looked around as Eris’s phone gave the subtlest of beeps. She answered the call, hardly talking, mostly listening. What Beck missed was:

‘Boss, it’s Forrest. Did you get him?’

‘Uh huh.’

‘And is he in the car with you?’

‘Uh huh.’

‘Then listen, I’ve got some good news and some bad. Try not to let on to him in the car; and you can skin me alive when you see me…’

‘Oh, no,’ she said as flatly as could be, as if told a cafeteria was out of Diet Coke and she would have to have regular. He explained,

‘Yes, we lost Danny. And we lost the others as they got away with him.’

Eris seethed inside, but could betray none of it to Beck. She said to the phone,

‘Oh, yes?’

Forrest smiled at her discomfort, continuing,

‘But it made me think. Well, why aren’t you here managing things yourself? Answer: because of Beck. He called you just as the latest signal finished.’

She pondered, then answered, ‘Yes, yes, I see. Thank you,’ and rung off. She paused a moment, then turned to Beck, and said quite calmly,

‘You’ve bloody bitched me.’

 

 

Chapter 113 – Sirens

 

 

Within a minute the group were a mile away from the site; within twenty they were in another county. Ellie parked up beside a fence, as a siren faded into the distance. It had been the only one they’d heard all journey, and surely couldn’t be for them.

The road ahead was quiet and dusty in the night, and that calm was a welcome relief. The chaos of the scene seemed to have baffled the authorities, and the group hadn’t been followed.

In the back, Chris was offering words in honour of his brother,

‘The brave boy, letting himself slip away without marker or ceremony, and all to save us.’

The man in question was still in his sister’s arms, moving with her heartbeat and with his eyes left wide open.

 

In the back of the Jaguar, Eris and Beck were silent again. Occasionally she would break the mood to offer the odd barb – ‘Well, you won’t be seeing your wife and children, if that’s what you were hoping. They’re in France, and we won’t hurry to let them back,’ or, ‘How long might a person be on remand for multiple car theft?’

She also wrote a series of texts, carefully shielding the screen from view. Her phone beeped with replies.

One of these texts was obviously to the car’s driver, or even to the vehicle’s dashboard itself – Beck had given up keeping up with the latest technology. Either way, soon after the message they had taken a sharp turn. Where they were headed had become a mystery.

 

Nell read the screen of the phone that Forrest had passed to her. On it was a message to him from Eris. They were standing beside the tech truck on the uneven ground by the farm houses and the lake. The halogen lights were still up, casting lurid shadows over every interruption of their beam. From what she understood, there was still hope of a trace being left, either from the fallen artif or the one who had taken him away. Nell wasn’t sure that she didn’t wish them well.

Forrest, referring to the screen, asked her,

‘Can you do it?’

She looked back apprehensively. He rephrased,

‘I don’t mean, “Do you want to do it?” I mean, “Is it possible?”’

She nodded.

‘And will you?’

As quiet as a mouse, she answered, ‘We’ll need to write some code.’ (Her assistant instantly clattered to the keyboard next to her.) ‘And I’ll need a radio transmitter.’

And the next half-hour of Forrest’s life was spent acquiring just that.

 

After a comfort break for Victor, the renegades were back on the move. Just to keep going, no plan in mind, other than to rove vaguely south for the hoped-for call from the Professor and a meeting with Silicon Sands…

The car nearly went off the road. It took all Ellie’s concentration to defeat the instinct to open the driver’s door at whatever speed they were travelling and just flop out onto the hard tarmac.

This had been fearful enough for Victor to watch at the cottages, beside other humans who had seen it all before. But now he was the only one there not affected. He had been horrified a few weeks earlier to read a news report, telling of how many fatal road accidents might have been caused by anything from the driver having a heart attack to a spider falling from a sun visor into their lap – but because the driver died there was no way of knowing…

This was what Victor thought of as he saw his three companions suddenly fall into their tapping seizures, with the car lurching to an awkward halt. And he was just the passenger! The only witness, and the artifs weren’t speaking. Except for three gargled, blurted words from Chris,

‘Morse! Make notes!’

 

Forrest stood for a minute, disappointed.

‘What’s up?’ asked Nell, downcast.

‘It’s been a minute, and nothing.’

‘What do you mean?’ she asked, confused. ‘We’re broadcasting across the whole region on their damage signal frequency. They’ll be tapping away like mad – you’ve just got to go and find them and scoop them up.’ Though even as she said this, Nell realised that she didn’t want that to happen.

But it was Forrest’s response that would throw her,

‘Yes, and not one return signal as a result!’

It took her several seconds to work it out; and then she did so, shouting,

‘You were hoping they’d be driving when they got the signal. You were hoping they’d crash!’

He came back meanly,

‘And how else did you think we’d ever find them? As it stands, they’re out there somewhere in the night, anywhere within an hour’s driving radius.’ He gestured with his arm across the darkened lands outside the truck’s windows. ‘Signalling them was only the half of it – we needed them to signal us back.’

‘Well, you can tell the boss it failed!’ snapped Nell, hating every bit of her work.

‘It wasn’t like this in the Ministry of Agriculture,’ murmured her assistant. And Forrest wondered where the hell Eris had turned the pair up from. He stormed,

‘Well, don’t worry. You might be back there soon,’ and left the truck.

Nell was wondering how quickly she could get back to her laptop in London to tender her resignation. When her apprentice, who was something of a lateral thinker, asked the question,

‘Is there anyone but the robots listening to what we’re sending?’

 

 

Chapter 114 – Digital

 

 

Victor may not have been at artif intellectual level, but neither was he without good sense. The car was sprawled across a road that would have been quiet at any time of day, but especially so at night. There were no roadblocks in either direction, and no sirens chasing for them. Therefore, his colleagues could be left to do their thing for a while. And he could afford to concentrate on jotting down the signal they relayed.

Ellie had eventually obeyed her impulse to throw herself out onto the tarmac, leaving her car door open. As had Chris, who had fallen out onto the grass verge, so had shuffled behind the car to find a surface with some purchase.

Yet Anna, from her position leaning across the back seat hugging Danny, had a solid piece of structure available, a bulkhead running beneath that seat – unlike so much of a modern car, which showed so little interior sheet metal. And this she now tapped against, making the car ring like the world’s smallest bell.

Being alone in the car with a tapper was a unique experience for Victor. The sounds were not entirely metallic, instead mixed with panelling and muffled insulation. Chris, perhaps unhappy with the road surface, then changed his tapping position to the bodywork panel beneath the car’s rear bumper. Suddenly, with two resounding signals, Victor felt as if he were inside a packing crate full of wind-up toys.

Chris had told him, ‘Make notes!’ and so he was doing. Victor may not have been a Morse reader, but he had spotted the point where this new signal had begun repeating, and so ran over his biro-notes to double check he had them right. He could also tell it was a very short message, a few characters at most – perhaps a code the artifs knew?

Just as a foreign listener can tell a change of tone in a native tongue, so Victor sensed that this signal sounded different to that which he had heard at The Universalist. It had a different rhythm, different falls and starts.

After many minutes of the current signal though, something happened, and it changed. He quickly took up his pen, and recognised that he was writing down a second dot-dash sequence. This one was much longer though, and he judged that something important was happening.

The artifs would be translating it at that moment, ready to burst into life the moment that the signal stopped, with full knowledge of what had been transmitted. How sad it was, though, that he couldn’t read it.

And how daft, in the age when every phone had access to the Infinite Library…

Victor got out of the car and felt in Chris’s pocked, and fished out his next mobile, yet to be fired up. It was important enough to risk though, and so he switched it on. He quickly found the Internet browser, and searched for ‘Morse code’.

A translator website popped up, and he keyed in the first sequence of dots and dashes.

At first he thought he must have been doing something wrong, as it reported the message as being merely the letters z x z x z x z x repeated for as often as he tapped the sequence in.

Victor remembered, at a childhood friend’s house, playing Daley Thompson’s Olympiad on the family’s ancient Sinclair computer. Was it those two keys he pressed in quick succession to get Daley’s legs moving in the run-up of the long jump?

Either way, it hardly mattered. Either he had got it wrong or… or this was someone not offering a message but simply jamming the signal, and using whatever dumbest combination of keys came to hand. Who knew, maybe they had played Daley Thompson’s Olympiad too?

Victor switched to keying in the second signal, and here turned up gold:

 

u i f y o u d o n t t r a n s m i t d o n o t d r i v e a n d c r a s h t h e y c a n n o t f i n d y o

 

He found a word in there – transmit – and worked forwards. He had begun imputing mid-way through the loop, and there was no punctuation. But the message seemed to be:

 

they cannot find you if you don’t transmit

do not drive and crash

 

Victor was amazed. They had a friend in the Secret Service, that much was clear – Britain loved the Robots, just as all the newspaper writers had already realised, just as the crowd at Marsham had showed.

And for this fact, Victor felt immense joy.

 

 

Chapter 115– Switch it Off

 

 

‘Switch it off,’ said Eris into her phone in the back of the Jaguar. She was too disappointed even to bother hiding her activities from Beck. ‘Maybe try again in half an hour, let them relax and repeat the trick.’

She rang off without a goodbye, and fumed.

‘Forrest having a bad day?’ risked Beck.

‘It wouldn’t be half as bad if you hadn’t built them so tricksy.’

He smirked, ‘But then you wouldn’t want them half as badly.’

She exhaled, ‘The things I’m going to do to you…’ and shook her head.

But Beck only became more smug. Where once he’d felt his life in her hands, now he didn’t care. What’s more, he sensed something more behind her anger – fear. Fear of what the Philosopher General would make of a continued lack of results.

And he also felt pleasure, as every minute that she was frustrated was another minute that his artifs were free.

 

Victor checked and re-checked the message he was hearing – if it had changed once, it could change again. But he had noted it correctly, and there was nothing new. A minute later, and it stopped. Chris jumped up from his trance, suddenly appearing in the car’s rear window. Meanwhile, Ellie stood and held the driver’s door, though she wouldn’t get in. She looked to Victor as if she was about to dash off to be sick.

But Victor quickly clocked, asking,

‘You want me to drive?’

She smiled, ‘You figured out the message? Well done.’

Victor jumped across the console and took the driver’s position, while Ellie ran around to the passenger side. Once in, they shared the briefest hug, and a whisper in each other’s ear, ‘It will be okay.’

Once all were back inside, Victor fired up the car and got them back on their way.

‘Keep south,’ advised Chris. And Victor did so, asking,

‘So why ask me to take notes, when you have the message yourself?’

Chris answered, ‘Because I knew it wasn’t Danny transmitting any more, nor any of us three.’ He gave Anna then Ellie a smile. ‘So it must have been an outside agency. It wouldn’t be a standard message, so I wanted double-checking.’

‘You worked all that out in those split-seconds?’ asked Victor.

‘Well, not perfectly,’ answered the artif. ‘My first thought was: Doctor Beck, somehow. Though it’s rather odder that that, don’t you think?’

Victor was thrilled to be asked, and answered,

‘It has to be someone within Eris’s network, but switching sides…’

‘…or an extraordinary bluff,’ the artif speculated. ‘Though one I can’t deduce. Maybe another message will make sense of it?’

‘You’re expecting more tapping?’

‘After that warning? I’m certain of it.’

 

 

Chapter 116 – Go Quick, Go Quick

 

 

Beck was beginning to feel as though he’d spent more time in the back of the Jaguar with Eris than he had in the interview room four days before.

For her part, Beck’s genie was out of the bottle. With it clear that he was a decoy to a situation occurring elsewhere, then she was free to plan her operations openly.

As she spoke into her phone, Beck tried to remember all that she was saying, as he felt it could be important:

‘Roadblocks, roadblocks, all through the county…

‘Twenty minute breaks, then thirty-second jabs. Don’t let them get comfortable…

‘Everything they know is in the South. They’re lost in the North. They were only there for Danny. Focus on the roads they’ll travel back by…’

Beck would also risk the odd question, and get equally sharp retort:

‘So, where am I?’

‘The last stop before prison.’

‘And the artifs?’

‘The last stop before the scrapyard.’

She didn’t mean that, he knew. They were to be her prize, just as he was, once she stopped being angry with him. And that would happen when all of them were in her hands.

 

‘Time for another blast,’ instructed Forrest to Nell and her assistant. The lad’s fingertips were nearly split with the real-time key-sequences he’d been tapping out.

‘Another hour and I’d have had it automated,’ he lamented.

‘Just get it done,’ barked Forrest.

He wasn’t their real boss, just her jumped-up bodyguard. He went back into the cab of the surveillance truck, where he closed the curtain and imagined that that gave him some kind of privacy. Instead, the pair at the keyboards heard every word he said on the phone; and like Beck at his end, were taking careful note.

Nell said quietly to her speedy colleague, ‘I almost wish we had “her” back,’ as she wrote out the dots and dashes for the next transmission.

 

This time the car didn’t veer towards the verge when the artifs went rigor. Victor was driving, all the doors had been locked; and maybe he was becoming a little more used to the spectacle after seeing it several times. He was beginning to lose the panic that accompanied the ghoulish show.

‘When it happens, keep driving,’ Chris had said. And that was what Victor did. And soon it became almost routine for them to spasm – then jump out of it – spasm – jump out.

‘They’re altering the pattern,’ noted Ellie, tiredly after the latest burst. For the whole affair was a terrible drain on their batteries. Yet each time, one of them noted the last message. After hours of interrupted driving there were several in the notepad:

 

roadblocks along county line go east or west

they are getting frustrated be careful

only regular police no army yet

 

Victor hadn’t liked the sound of that ‘yet’.

And then finally, the most specific and extraordinary message of all: firstly, some co-ordinates in the artif’s familiar format, followed by the words:

 

cannot get police there go quick go quick

 

‘Pull over,’ asked Chris after that latest message, himself hoping for a blessed break from the death-rattle.

‘You still think it’s a trap?’ asked Victor.

‘If it is, then it’s a very long game – hours long. And at a time when their department are under huge pressure.’

‘And it’s worse than that,’ said Ellie. ‘As long as we’re scurrying around the county dodging their roadblocks, then we’ll be in range of their signals.’

‘Like a submarine under depth charges, not able to get out,’ remembered Victor from an old war film he’d watched with his Dad. Where were his family now, he wondered. Had they been told he was a fugitive? Chris broke his thoughts with,

‘Victor, drive. I think we have to trust in kindness.’

And no one in the car dissented.

With an atlas on his lap, Chris called the shots,

‘The co-ordinates are for a town called Mayweather. There’s a local road runs through it, that joins an A-road three miles later. Get through the town, and we’re home-free.’

 

Streets, turns, road numbers. It was the early hours now, but Victor at the wheel was awake and high on adrenalin. Soon enough, though, that internal reserve would run out, and begin to drain through him like the poison it was.

Chris was in the back-seat, next to poor, inactive Danny, with Ellie at the other side. Anna had been allowed the front passenger place, to move her from her brother’s side. There she curled up like a ball, and was hardly any more communicative whether receiving a signal or not.

 

‘I’ve always liked the night,’ said Eris. ‘It’s my time. I can move so freely.’

‘That’s because the rest of the world’s in bed,’ answered Beck. ‘You’re not a part of society.’

She looked at him, but ignored his harsh words. For she had had a revelation, and was happy. Tapping on the glass partition, she told Charlie the name of a town,

‘Mayweather. Go there at once.’

And Charlie did.

 

‘Mayweather,’ mused Forrest, now sat in the back of the truck. ‘A dead and alive little place, it sounds like. I’m not sure I’ve been there.’

‘Oh, what about it?’ asked Nell, as innocently as possible. This was a town they’d overheard him mention to Eris, a town he had been having trouble getting any spare police to quickly enough… and so whose co-ordinates they had tipped the artifs off about.

Now though, Forrest explained something different, the result of his latest phone call,

‘Well, Eris has had an idea – rather than considering Mayweather a hole in the net, we’ll make it our focus. Leave it unprotected, and let the artifs find their own way there. And then we pounce.’

‘Perhaps another signal first?’ asked the key-weary assistant, his stomach suddenly sinking. But Forrest shook his head, saying,

‘No, no, give them a breather – otherwise they won’t risk driving again. And now we want them on the move!’

 

 

Chapter 117 – The Perfect Storm

 

 

Having chosen, they’d committed. Now the artifs and Victor, their human chauffeur for the evening, followed the co-ordinates for Mayweather. There even seemed to be a break in the signals, allowing them a chance to reflect.

‘But doesn’t it all feel a bit convenient?’ asked Ellie. In saying this, she was doing no more than voicing all of their fears.

Twice on their way, at long-distance, they had seen roadblocks lit up like beacons in the night – police cars were generally quite hard things to keep quiet and out of sight.

Yet Mayweather, as they arrived there, was as inviting as the grave – a series of sleepy houses and leafy lanes – no house light was shining that shouldn’t have been.

In the lulling silence, dreams of Silicon Sands began to have a chance to nestle. And with several of the family back together at last, then even with the loss of Danny, there was a strong sense that a mission had been accomplished, that a phase had been completed. Almost despite themselves, they were beginning to relax.

They had been genuinely directed to try their luck in Mayweather. And it was all too easy not to fight this. And so, tired and shaken, low on power, and with a real sense of the net that was drawing in and closing-off so many other options of escape, they went for it.

‘Whatever happens, keep driving,’ said Chris.

They had barely made the centre. The sound was of a thud and a bang beneath the car, and then the awful wrenching and clunking of a tyre being torn, times four.

Victor lost control of the large estate. It slithered over the smooth cobbles of the town square, before giving a real tank-slapper to the town’s First World War memorial obelisk.

Before the dust had settled, there were voices, and spotlights shining from the barrel of rifles. The car, however, had travelled much further on its skidding rims than the men with guns had been expecting in that pitch-black night, and this gave the occupants an advantage.

‘Out,’ called Chris, ‘passenger side.’

Ellie, who was at that side, threw her rear door open. She quickly lifted Danny and carried him the few yards to the entrance of a side-street. Chris slid out after them, though straight away heard Anna screaming. Her door was pinned by the memorial and she couldn’t get out. Victor wasn’t with them either.

Once on the pavement, Chris pushed the car away from the memorial, then tore at Anna’s door from the outside. Even together they couldn’t shift the meshed metal. But they did pull the frame out of shape enough to smash the window into tiny cubed pieces, which let Anna clamber through.

Meanwhile, Ellie had dashed back also and raced around to the driver’s side of the car, expecting Victor’s door to be similarly wedged. However, when she got there it was hanging open, he simply hadn’t moved from his seat.

And a simple thought occurred to her – that humans didn’t walk away from car crashes as easily as artifs. He still had his seatbelt on, which she quickly unlocked for him. His knee and elbow looked cut, but not enough to cause the trouble he was clearly experiencing.

He seemed to be in a haze of indecision, as if asleep and lost to the night-time dreams she’d only heard about. She had never seen an injured human. What did they do? How did they work?

Regardless, with her arms under his, she soon had him clear, and was pulling him away when the light caught her, blinding her perfect eyes.

‘Here!’ shouted Chris to the gunman, jumping out of the shadows to throw him off. So near, Chris could see he was a regular soldier in dark green uniform. And so young, he was perhaps a cadet.

The gun’s barrel light jumped to Chris, then back to Ellie, then Chris again.

‘Give me an order!’ called the cadet. ‘What do I do?’

In that second of indecision, Ellie moved to drag Victor toward the darkness behind the car and memorial.

And then, from somewhere outside the gun’s pool of light, a woman’s voice called, ‘Fire!’

Victor came to his senses then, and lurched forward to shield Ellie. She shouted ‘No!’ just as the trigger was pulled and could not be unpulled.

It sprayed them both; although it was he, in front of her, who caught it the worst. In the silence after, the young gunman stood aghast, leaning over his weapon and unable to move.

‘Step back, lad,’ counselled his Sergeant who was running up behind him. The gunfire had stopped all in their tracks. No one fled, and no one came closer. Neither the soldiers now in view, nor the others behind them, or the civilians on either side of the stand-off dared move.

Ellie moved though. She was still fully conscious and in a state of waking horror. Shrieking and crying, she pulled herself across the steps of the war memorial to her dead lover, with her useless shattered legs dragging behind her beneath her patterned skirt.

 

 

Chapter 118 – The Murderous Murderess

 

 

‘You told me they were robots!’ shouted the cadet.

‘It’s okay, lad. Step back,’ called his Sergeant.

‘He dashed across me. I couldn’t…’

‘Step back!’

The cadet did so, as the Sergeant moved forward and took his gun. Doctor Beck came forward then also, to attend to Victor. Beck had arrived earlier with Eris, and had had a guard at his side for the time since. Though no one was going to hold him back now.

As Beck knelt by the body, warm blood soaked into the knees of his trousers, and he shivered as he felt it on his skin. There was no doubt, and it was hardly worth the moment spent checking for a pulse. But he was a doctor, even if not a medical one, and the patient was owed that much. Beck turned his head back to the gallery, and shook it. There were perhaps fifteen people there now, lit by new lights all around them.

The absolute confirmation of the death seemed to end the dramatic segment. Suddenly people caught themselves: artifs on the run were standing still, their pursuers likewise.

With no hope for Victor, Beck turned his attention to Ellie. Her form beneath the thorax was so mangled that it hurt him to look at her. Her lower half was reduced to shards of carbon and plastic and metal. Around this mess of technology, the threads of her dress hung together remarkably, as if the seamstress had made it stronger than Beck had made the wearer. He suddenly felt ashamed.

He looked up, and found Chris looking right back at him. Chris then turned his gaze to Ellie’s broken form, and asked simply, with every ounce of self-control,

‘Can you fix her?’

Beck thought that Chris would cry, that he would cry. Instead Beck only nodded. For him what passed between them was a total understanding of the scene as it would play out over years ahead.

The Doctor placed his hands on Ellie’s shoulders, and tried to pull her from the body of Victor, to whom she was now clinging and weeping over.

Beck turned to Eris, ‘You have a lab?’

‘Yes, being built as we speak.’

‘Then I need to get her there right now. Who’ll help me?’

Two soldiers came forward to gather her up, which they did with remarkable tenderness in the face of the patient’s screamed protests.

‘Gentle, gentle,’ said Beck. ‘We need the fastest vehicle you have.’

‘Oh, we’ll go bloody light-speed,’ they stated, without a shadow of a doubt.

As she was lifted, Ellie moved her arms, soaked in Victor’s blood, towards Beck, imploring,

‘You can rebuild him too? That’s what you do, you build people.’

‘Not humans, love. Not humans.’

And there was something else. Ever the sharpest, Chris noticed it first, looking from Ellie to Beck,

‘We’re not tapping.’

‘Maybe even her transmitter’s been destroyed,’ answered Beck, not able to contemplate the damage she’d suffered.

Amid all this, others had been forgotten. Nearby, Anna was caught between emotion and horror. She was edging closer to the human body, her mouth agape. Her face was a snapshot of atrocity.

The consensus was breaking, they had moments – Chris realised this. In a single swoop he lifted Anna beneath her arms – she only came up to his shoulders – and down an unlit passageway between two buildings, he backed into the night.

‘No!’ called Eris after them, and went to grab the Sergeant’s gun. Though he held firm, as did his men, and the pair were gone.

The soldier said, ‘There’ll be no more shooting tonight.’

His men were having no more luck with Ellie, who had returned her savage attentions to Victor – her arms struck-out toward him as she was being carried. It was as though, if only she could be permitted a moment longer to hold on to him, then she could infuse him with her life force, and bring him back to her. But eventually her vehicle reversed into view and she was taken away.

Beck was still kneeling beside Victor, asking no one,

‘Why can’t I cry? Why aren’t I crying?’

‘You can’t switch it on and off,’ counselled the Sergeant. Beck was beginning to see the British Army in a whole new light. The officer asked, ‘And you are, sir?’

‘Of course.’ And for the first time in years, he gave an honest C.V. ‘Doctor Gawain Beck. Latterly of the London Arboretum, formerly of The University of Southern England, Biology Department.’ He held his hand out to shake, but drew it back when he saw it was covered in blood. ‘I’m one of those who built the Robots… her.’ He looked to Ellie being removed to the vehicle.

The Sergeant asked, ‘So it’s all true then?’ It was still unreal to him. Even amid the horror, he bore the excited expression of a nation reading recent newspaper headlines. He turned to Eris,

‘And you?’

She held out an identification badge that the Sergeant clearly recognised.

Among Eris’s people came a whisper that civilian police were on their way. This was soon borne out by distant sirens. But for Ellie’s low sob, then that was all that anyone heard.

‘They’ll want to know who ordered this,’ said the Sergeant to Eris. ‘I won’t let our lad take the blame.’ The lad himself stared at Eris with daggers.

Beck looked at the empty alleyway, the black space left by Chris and Anna as they had vanished into darkness. But he was going to offer no more information. If the authorities wanted his creations, then they could find them.

Nearby, a young soldier turned to the Sergeant for instructions; who only answered, ‘Hold your ground, son. Hold your ground.’

Eris, the wind gone out of her, said nothing. Beck prompted her,

‘So, how’s this going to work?’

‘Sorry?’ she answered, as if interrupted from a trance.

‘The lab. I’ll have assistants, materials?’

‘Yes, of course,’ she snapped, as if that answered all.

He heard again the muffled moan of Ellie from the Land Rover, lost in tears. And he mused,

‘Who knows how painful it is for her having all those damage indicators going off in her head.’

Eris only looked at him, blankly, unemotional, saying,

‘But they aren’t in her head, are they. They’re in her chest. You told me that yourself.’

Beck heard and saw no more though, as he was invited over to board the waiting vehicle. The last thing he remembered was all eyes being on Eris, and Eris saying nothing as the sound of sirens rose.

 

 

The End


The Robots

Artifs: Artificial Humans. Eight years ago, Doctor Gawain Beck was part of an unauthorised experiment in human replication. When the project was shut down, his robots disappeared. Now one of them has turned up, and the authorities don’t want to lose them for a second time. Yet they are hurting – one artif has been damaged, and another caught on camera. To protect them Beck must round up his former charges and warn them of the threat. Which isn’t easy when they’ve kept themselves hidden even from him. But eight years on the run can change a personality, even an artificial one. Relationships are strained, and new identities forged. And will his robots want the help Beck has to give?

  • Author: John Eider
  • Published: 2016-11-28 20:35:31
  • Words: 108890
The Robots The Robots