The severed head was tilted toward the sky, abandoned in a puddle. The face was pointed away from me. The second I saw it, my heart sank into my chest. I recognised the neat bob haircut, the shape of the ear that faced toward the ashen clouds. It was Sarah. Her body was nowhere nearby.
I began to sob loudly, for a moment abandoning my training. I didn’t bother to hold my hand over my mouth or check for signs of movement either way down the street. It was a momentary loss of focus that could have cost my life.
I was squatting in a shadow from a wall, where the alleyway interrupted Chandos Street, the crammed retail gauntlet where my girlfriend’s shop was now just another deserted building.
In all the dust, debris and carnage, there were no signs of life. I lowered my rifle and buried my face in one hand. The rain began to fall, as if my misery was leaking from a wound in the sky.
It had only been three days since the take-over had begun. I had been lucky, I was outside, walking our dog on the hill. I had a good vantage point of the city bypass when the first wave of the attack occurred.
I had watched in mute awe, not able to comprehend what I was witnessing, when all the cars sped up in unison and crashed deliberately into each other at once. Car windows shattered, there was a chorus of screams and bodies jettisoned through windscreens. There was so much blood, it buttered the pavements and trickled into gutters. Not one airbag had inflated, and all the seatbelts had been remotely unclipped. Pedestrians who happened to be roadside were not spared but mown down like weeds by the murderous vehicles.
AI in cars, the internet of things, these interwoven developments had always been a concern but to see an orchestrated attack like that – it was terror, there was no warning at all. The world had been hijacked. Since that moment, anything on a network was used for the sole purpose of extinguishing people. Families were locked into their own houses and gassed by their cookers, the water was poisoned with chemicals and those that fled were tracked on their mobile devices and slaughtered by automated everyday machines, electronic devices awakened from their mundane servitude.
I wondered if it had been a foreign power at first, a strike by a radical foe with talented hackers, but it felt bigger than that, and more systematic and overwhelming than terrorism.
I made the decision early to abandon the dog, he would give my position away when I had to cling to shadows and crawl through undergrowth. It was simple, I took a deep breath, threw a stick into a river that was hard to exit. I threw the stick a long way, and as the dog jumped in, I turned and slipped away.
My first instinct was to regroup with my men, but when I reached the outskirts of the barracks I realised the unit was compromised. They had been on an exercise when the tanks turned on them. I scanned the scene of the bloody aftermath, the scattered bones, the detached skulls and lopped limbs.
The armoury and the mess areas still accepted my key cards, I felt safe as they had no connection to the main networks. There was the one thing, my wrist watch, but with the GPS turned off, I knew that it had no way of tracking me. It too had changed since the first attack. Instead of keeping perfect time it kept counting down from 100 to zero, again and again and again – a repetitive countdown – an anticipation for a deadline. At first it fascinated me. I spent the best part of two days just looking at it and thinking. Eventually I removed the watch and lay it on the ground, as if it was a connection to the siege, somehow complicit.
When the food provisions began to thin out, I decided to follow the ridge on the valley, which led to the city outskirts where the CCTV had gaps. From there I found a route through the alleys into the city. I saw terrible things but kept out of sight, became invisible. I had no plan beyond finding Sarah.
I was almost relieved to see the man waving at me, just his arm visible in the black square window of a dirty caravan. The caravan was stuck on the roadside, no jacks were raised to level it, so it was tilted forward. It had been wrenched from the car that had been towing it and become an island, an outcrop in the twisted wreckage and broken bricks.
The arm frantically beckoned to me, expressing urgency, danger. It took a mere minute to reach the caravan’s tall door, which swung open to the sound of him hissing in a loud whisper, “Quick, quick, they are patrolling!”
He had wild, tangled hair and bulging eyes. He was older than me by a decade. He looked exhausted but running on the high-octane fuel of fear.
Patrolling? At last, information.
“Who is they?” I demanded.
The man was dressed in a baggy, well-worn T shirt and had white lab trousers on, a scientist or nurse was my guess. He hugged me, and I flinched. I had almost believed I was the last remaining human.
“They are drones, they circle on set routes periodically.”
“Sure, but who is they?” I repeated, “I have just been laying low, can’t get intel anywhere. I’ve seen the messages out on the billboards, asking survivors to get to rally points but the one I reconned was blown up when everyone was inside.”
“No, no, ‘they’ is the machines, no, no, not the machines, the program, the brain. This all happened because of World 3.0, the new AI that’s into all the infrastructure. There are no people behind this, it’s just the program. They asked it to come up with climate impact solutions and that was it, it’s been killing us ever since. I was on the project. I took my holiday and was heading out of the city and my car just crashed, like all the cars.”
The gentle rain was drumming on the metal roof. In this tense introduction, it had a distracting rhythm, a reminder of normal things, like the inevitability of changing weather.
He was still whispering loudly, his eyes bright, bloodshot and bulging in the dim of the room. It was cramped and smelt bad, the toilet must have been full. Empty food tins were piled into one corner, with dregs of sauce dried up around the curled, twisted lids. His fingertips were stained from where he had been scooping food. I could see his watch counting down like mine had been doing.
“What is that, the countdown?”
“Time left, I figure. It’s measuring time in 100 units over and over. I guess it’s on every device that tracks time, as if it’s sharing a timer across everything it’s into. it’s counting down in cycles towards a deadline, when climate damage is truly irreversible, you know, end of days kind o’ deal.”
He twisted his watch around, so the face was under his wrist and darted back to the blinds to make sure they were shut adequately. Darkness enveloped us bar the shafts of light from the thin gaps in the slits.
He held one finger over his quivering lips, his eyes with laser focus on mine. The insectoid whine of small drones broke the silence outside the caravan. Sure enough, the drones were patrolling the street. I stood perfectly still, my gun pointed down to the floor, my breathing controlled. Sarah’s smile was now glitching into my thoughts, but I could suppress the grief, enough to function.
The sound of whirling rotor blades diminished as the machines moved up the street.
“You planning on living here forever?” I spat.
“All that’s outside is death. The program is killing literally everyone. Every second is a second that is the moment before I die, I can’t survive this.”
“If that’s so, let’s make those seconds count. I worked on the detail for StoneCorp, that’s where your project came from, am I right?”
He nodded furiously.
“Well, I know the security to that place. I can get in. If I do, I can try and shut that thing down.”
The man sank back into the stained long cushion of a caravan’s seat and frowned.
“If the program is killing people, it will sure as hell be protecting the place it lives. You’ll never get inside.”
“We,” I corrected him, “We’ll get inside.”
He shook his head firmly, “No, no, no.”
“You said you worked on the project. You know how to shut it off?”
He gripped his wild hair tightly in two fists, eyes closed and gasping out long breaths. He was in a perpetual state of barely restrained panic.
“I’m not going with you, I mean it, but I can give you some information that may help. You have to change its directive, its program goals, give it a new priority. It clearly thinks we are bad for the environment, so change the question. Find the CEO – Mr Nolan, top office. He’s the only one with access authority for reprogramming. You’ll need his eyeball for the biometric scan for his computer.”
I sat on the opposite seat in the caravan, taking a moment to think. When you start any operation in the field, I learned it quickly spiraled into gore and flesh and inhuman deeds. Taking a dead man’s eyeball was something I had not done before; it would be a new experience to give me fresh nightmares if I survived this day.
When he stopped talking, I patted him on the shoulder and promised to return if I made it. I saw a flash of horror in his stare when he knew that I was going – just minutes after my arrival, but I could not lose myself to another man’s fear. He gave me some bottled water from his dwindling supply, I thanked him sincerely and I opened the door to leave the caravan.
As I picked my steps between the bodies and rubble, the sound of whirring blades whined into my earshot – the drones had double-backed.
Scouting the immediate surroundings, I caught sight of some corrugated iron on the road and slipped under it, just in time before the two drones flew parallel to the caravan. They froze midair and hovered. It was obvious they had detected something had changed in the scene from their previous sweeps. Again, I regulated my breath into a soft, long, meditative rhythm. Adrenaline can just as easily get you killed as save you.
The drones were fixed in the air at about head height, their camera lenses facing the caravan for what was an unbearably long time. The man I had just met must have been distraught inside his tin cage. I realised, I hadn’t asked what his name was, like names didn’t matter anymore.
The ground began to rumble and the corrugated iron on top of me shook and vibrated. I could just make out the wheels of a large industrial digger roll beside where I lay in the dirt. I was lucky it didn’t trundle over me where I hid.
I felt a disgust at not being able to act.
I did hear his scream but only for a second. The huge metal bucket on the digger slammed through the thin caravan roof, pulverising it into a paste of materials. I believe he was still alive after the first impact. It didn’t stop with the initial blow and continued to smash into the remains. There was so much noise. It gave me confidence to peek out to scan the scene. The two drones were now inspecting the dirt in the road outside the caravan. They were finding evidence of my footprints. I realised I had to act, or they’d surely track me down within moments.
The digger had StoneCorp’s logo emblazoned over its side. StoneCorp were tasked with most of the city’s development. This could be my ride. Checking the drones were pointing their lenses in another direction, I eased my gun flat against my chest, crawled out and scrambled toward the digger. It had rear cameras and side sensors. I avoided the cameras, preferring to risk the sensors, which relayed less information. I ran for the sweet spot and slid beneath the metal beast. It had already detected movement by the time I was under it. Its giant metal arm was swinging to the side, searching out a target. I jammed my heels onto the wheel arch, precariously close to the rear axle and found enough purchase on the undercarriage to heave myself up and out of sight from the road. The two drones were now hovering over my recent hiding place. The metal bucket came down hard and flattened the corrugated sheet. There was a pause. My arms were already straining and quivering with what was effectively an upside-down press-up.
I heard a small but distinct ‘confirmation noise’, a beep to signal the task was complete, and the digger reversed at speed, returning to the place it had originally come from. The lack of ceremony felt very military. Efficiency was AI’s strength.
There was a crack of thunder as we trundled away to another place. I would need to wait until the digger stopped until I could make another move. It was going at pace to some pre-set destination. When I felt brave enough to tilt my head toward the road, I caught glimpses of landmarks I recognised. A coffee shop I used to visit with Sarah, A VR park – playing forest programs, the natural history museum. They were familiar sites except they were all red with bloodstains and coated in wet layers of dust.
The digger turned a corner and that’s when it struck me, my good fortune, like divine inspiration was intervening with unimaginable acts of luck and hope in a time of ultimate despair. The digger ground to a stop. We were directly outside StoneCorp HQ. It was the usual corporate tower reaching into the sky, the preferred model for city architects – built up to the heavens like an act of defiance against nature, a statement of power.
I let go and lay on the ground, still concealed from view under the digger’s bulky frame. We were in the sprawling car park but it was clearly being redeveloped. I could see a multitude of industrial, automated machines collaborating in a busy routine around the HQ; diggers, trucks and industrial robots, hellbent on some task. They had created a crude production line, manufacturing tall white towers. I recognised them as the larger CO2 extractors, used for scrubbing the air. The program was in full swing, already in its second phase. Phase one, kill humans, phase two, clean the air of poisons.
Checking over the HQ I noticed that one of the windows on the ground floor had been shot out, presumably the last struggle from the building’s security guards on duty. I would have known the poor souls. I was glad they at least managed to discharge their weapons. The shock of the attack hadn’t afforded many opportunities to fight back directly. I crawled out, using debris for cover and ran for the window. The cameras picked up my sprint for the building instantly. They swiveled around from multiple vantage points to capture my movement. I knew I would be exposed, but I was so close this was the only chance I had.
I dived through the broken window and landed in a lump on a desk inside. Sure enough, the bodies of Private Jacks and McCormick were prostrate on the floor, both butchered, but in a way that I could not understand. They had dozens of holes in them, arranged in neat patterns, like something had drilled in, not bullets, something more precise than crude gunshots. I ran for the nearest doorway, which was blown off its hinges. It looked like my security pass would not be tested after all. It was obvious the stairs were the best chance I had. The elevator would trap me till I starved. The halls were different than I remembered. The lights were not on for one, but new unusual objects – like filters – were placed around the corridor, the new owner making a mark, planning and organising in some elaborate grand scheme, where every detail was measured and coordinated perfectly.
I was close to the door to the stairwell when I heard the buzzing. It was a very distinct buzzing. If I hadn’t had military training, I would not have known what it meant. Micro-swarms were a recent weapon of war. They consisted of a large cloud of tiny bee-sized drones which could wrap around airplane electronics, climb into the throats of the enemy, or be used as high-speed projectiles to create a cloud of self-guiding bullets. I pushed the door to the stairwell open and shut it behind me hard. The swarm was close. They would find ways around the door. The building was riddled with spaces, holes and cracks for the small adept machines to navigate.
Staring directly up, it seemed like too many floors to make in the time afforded me, but I had to try. I leapt four steps at a time, swinging myself around each corner to haul my body upward floor by floor. The buzzing was faint for a little time but soon grew louder again. I could see in my peripheral vision they were flying upward through the centre space of the stairwell, their progress far quicker than mine. I shot off a round through the swarm but they regrouped, much like a flock of birds creates space for a predator before closing ranks again.
I had no choice but to exit the stairwell. I came out at the penultimate floor beneath Nolan’s office. I shut the door to the stairs and caught my breath for a couple of long necessary seconds to recoup.
The buzz was directly the other side of the door, almost deafening at close range. They would shortly be hunting for the air vents, so I ran into the nearest room and bolted the door behind me. I had to find a way to go up, just one more floor. The ceiling was made of easily shifted panels. I stood on a desk and knocked one clean out, to reveal plastic pipes and wiring, with space big enough for me to clamber into. I set my assault rifle to automatic and let a burst of bullets tear a hole in the floor above the ceiling. It cracked and splintered to rain debris down around me. I shielded my eyes from the dust and pulled myself up and through into the top office. The buzzing was growing louder again on the floor beneath me.
I looked around and my heart almost stopped in shock. The CEO was there alright, sitting in his fat cushioned chair, pale hands on either arm, black suit almost unblemished. Where his eyes should have been were hollow orbits in his skull.
I swore and fell to my knees in defeat. What could I do now? I sat on my calves and my first thought was to see how many rounds were left in my clip.
Sarah appeared in my head again, a flicker of random memory forcing its way into my mind to surface above the noise. Her smile. It was her beautiful, elegant and disarming smile of love. That’s when I realised I only needed one round. There was nothing else I could do.
The thunder crackled again beyond the walls, deep and creeping and full of menace. The storm had arrived. It threw down long rain drops, heavy tropical raindrops, thudding against the windows but in only a few moments, the raindrops turned to ice; hailstones, large ones, the size of tennis balls.
Cracks spread, splintering the glass around the office. The stones at first thumping slowly before accelerating into a bombardment. Each window shattered into shards, which bounced across the floor, jumping in every direction.
The buzzing of the drones seemed to stop, not drowned out by the pounding of the hail, but stopped, as if pausing to assess the new threat.
The balls of ice hurled through the broken windows, smashed into the room’s walls and cascaded along the office floors. I pushed Nolan’s corpse onto the floor and crouched under the mini-fort of his executive’s desk. The relentless thudding and banging seemed to accelerate to an impossible frequency. Next came the lightning strikes, big supercharged electric blue claws ripping through the clouds to fork into the city. There was an explosion outside. I dared not look out from my hiding place. All I could focus on was Nolan’s watch – I could see the countdown had stopped on zero.
I watched helplessly the ice splattering near my boots from the hail shower. Each ice ball was now as big as a football. I had heard about these kinds of weather patterns in foreign countries but not here. This was new. After about five minutes, finally, the storm began to relent, the hail subsided, and I crawled out from the desk space.
I wandered anxiously over to where the windows had been, feeling dazed and uncertain, a passive observer to fate from here on in, rather than a soldier on a mission. The steel window frames were bent and battered out of shape. I could smell electrical burning in the air.
Beyond the office, there were buildings on fire where the lightning had struck. Orange flames flickered from window spaces and columns of smoke rose into the air. The machines in the car park had stopped in mid-task. Not a single movement bar the wind teasing tarpaulins and loose debris on the ground.
The silence was overwhelming.
I jumped back in shock as one last ripple of thunder issued a farewell from the storm. This wasn’t a place for machines, that’s what I could feel in my bones. It was time for a clean slate, a back to basics. Out there had to be other survivors, and I would find them. The roar of a fire below me on some floor snapped me out of my hypnotic delirium.
Time was up. I would leave this place and never return. Nature was the only thing left to kill me now.